The letters do not exist in Turkish. They belong to Ozer’s mother tongue, Kurdish, a language spoken by millions in Turkey, but until now outlawed in the classroom.
Ozer is one of two teachers who on Thursday began teaching the first legal Kurdish language courses in Turkey. Not surprisingly, most of his students are adults who never learned to read and write their language, which was forbidden to be even spoken for some years.
The courses – offered at a private language school in this city in the predominantly Kurdish southeast – were made possible by a series of reforms Turkey adopted to strengthen its chances of joining the European Union.
Turkish leaders only reluctantly agreed to allow the courses, along with radio and television broadcasts in Kurdish, fearing the measures could revive a separatist conflict.
Kurdish guerrillas fought Turkish soldiers for 15 years before declaring a unilateral cease-fire in 1999. About 37,000 people were killed.
Turkey, with a population of 70 million, is home to 12 million ethnic Kurds. For many, being able to take courses in their language marks a milestone in their long struggle for greater rights.
“To write the Kurdish alphabet legally on the chalkboard for the first time means that the door to freedom is partially open,” said Ozer, who like the other teacher at the school is a volunteer.
Many Kurd are critical of the
However, he said the reforms were insufficient because they allowed only private, after-hours schools to teach the Kurdish language – not public schools.
Kurdish was banned in 1983, just before the start of the armed separatist uprising, but was legalised in unofficial settings in 1991. Before 1983, Kurdish was tolerated as a spoken language.
Even after Kurdish language instruction became legal, Ozer and other school officials had to wrangle for months with Turkish bureaucrats to start the courses. TV and radio broadcasts have so far been limited to music and music videos.
Ozer’s school and two others in southeastern Turkey got permission to open last month. The other two schools are expected to begin teaching in the coming days, while at least five other schools throughout the country are still waiting for permission.
About 45 students, mostly adults, sat at wooden desks in two classrooms on Thursday evening, to learn the alphabet of the language they grew up speaking, but never studied. Portraits of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, hung above the chalkboards in all the classrooms.
“We are Kurds, but citizens of Turkey. We want to live in Turkey, but watch TV in our language and learn Kurdish. We want it to be taught in public schools”
“It is our mother tongue, but we can not read or write it,” said Naime Celik, who brought her 10-year-old Devran Cenk Celik to the course. “I want him to learn Kurdish, like they teach him Turkish in school.”
Her son, the youngest student in the class, added: “They give us German courses in school, but do not teach us our own language.”
The school waived the 100 million Turkish lira (US$75) fee for many of the students in the impoverished region.
The beginning of the courses comes at an important time for Turkey, which hopes that the 15-nation EU will give it a date to begin accession negotiations by the end of the year.
The EU has praised Turkey’s efforts to broaden cultural rights for Kurds, but has said more had to be be done.
Many Kurds are still deeply distrustful of Turkish authorities and are critical of the strong tactics used by Turkey’s military against the rebels.
Turkish officials worry that Iraqi Kurds, who dominate a region bordering southern Turkey, could serve as an inspiration for Turkish Kurds.
Batman’s mayor, Husayin Kalkan, won last Sunday’s local elections with 73% of the vote. Kalkan’s pro-Kurdish party also won several other cities in the region, including the largest, Diyarbakir.
The governing Justice and Development Party, which swept elections throughout the rest of Turkey, did not even run in the Batman race.
More to be done
The EU has praised Turkey’s
Kalkan said Kurds were pleased about their expanded rights, the decreased military presence in the region and the fact that fighting had diminished.
There have been only sporadic clashes between fighters and the army since the 1999 cease-fire, which came shortly after the capture of Kurdish rebel leader Abd Allah Ocalan.
But Kalkan said much remained to be done.
“Our greatest fear is that there could be a return to the days of fighting,” he said. “We are Kurds, but citizens of Turkey. We want to live in Turkey, but watch TV in our language and learn Kurdish. We want it to be taught in public schools.”
Ozer, the teacher, said he believed learning Kurdish was essential for the region’s development.
“A people that doesn’t know its own culture and language can never get on its feet,” he said.