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Kurdish residents in Syria’s north find linguistic freedom after decades of state suppression

AMMAN: It still feels like a dream for Younis Hami […]

AMMAN: It still feels like a dream for Younis Hami every time he stands before an audience and recites his poetry in his native Kurmanji, a dialect of the Kurdish language.

It is only in the past seven years—during the war—that the Kurdish poet and novelist from Syria’s northeastern Hasakah city has been able to write and perform in the language he thinks and dreams in. “The Kurdish language is the oxygen that fills my lungs,” Hami tells Syria Direct.

Before 2011, the idea of publishing or performing Kurdish-language poetry in a public setting was unimaginable. The Syrian government prohibited the use of Kurdish languages in public festivities, state-run schools and government offices. Kurdish-language publications were illegal.

Government policies marginalized both Kurmanji and Sorani, the two main dialects of Kurdish spoken in Syria. The Kurdish language is a member of the Indo-European linguistic family, typically categorized under the Iranian branch of languages, and shares a strong linguistic resemble with the languages of northwest and southwest Iran.

And so, for years, Hami wrote poetry and fiction in Arabic. It was the only way to get anything published in Syria, he says. But he felt no connection to the Arabic language.

Hami himself served a two-year sentence at Adra prison in the 1990s after the Political Security Directorate, a branch of Syrian state intelligence, arrested him for possessing Kurdish-language newspapers and pamphlets.

A Kurdish language course in Al-Hasakah province on September 28. Photo courtesy of the Education Committee in al-Jazirah Canton.

On October 10, 1992, security forces pulled up in front of Hami’s home in Hasakah and took him to their local branch. From there, he was transferred to Adra prison. “I think they got word from one of their informants,” says Hami, who says he still does not know how security officials found out about his Kurdish-language reading materials.

The suppression of Kurdish language and culture in Syria—through legal codes and clauses of the Syrian constitution—spans back nearly seven decades to the very beginning of the country as a nation state in the mid-20th century.

“Our language, our existence was banned,” says Hami from his residence in the provincial capital of Hasakah city.

That all changed with the eruption of protests in 2011 and the ensuing war in Syria. By 2012, Kurdish militias and political groups seized unprecedented power and autonomy in Syria’s north after the regime largely withdrew its forces from the region. For the first time in decades, Syria’s Kurdish population was able to fully exercise its linguistic and cultural rights in the absence of the Baathist policies that once suppressed them.

Today, Kurdish residents of Rojava—a name referring to de facto autonomous territories in northern Syria—are witnessing a revival of their language and culture. Once banned, Kurmanji and Sorani are now openly used in public life—in schools, cultural events, publications, local governance and daily conversation.

The future status of the Kurdish-majority territories and whether they retain autonomy in the long term remains to be seen, as domestic and international actors look increasingly toward a post-war Syria. But more than half a dozen Kurdish writers, journalists, civil society members and local officials who spoke with Syria Direct this month agreed on one thing: When it comes to Kurdish language and culture, there is no going back to the way things were before.

Today, Younis Hami, middle-aged with broad shoulders, hair peppered with gray and a thick mustache, writes at a narrow wooden desk in his Hasakah city home. A miniature flag of Kurdistan pokes out of a pencil cup at the corner of the desk. Immediately to his right is a large bookshelf with glass paneling that holds stacks of Kurdish-language books.

When Hami walks out into the streets of Hasakah city, he thinks back to how things were before 2011 and how drastically things have changed. He sees Kurdish on street signs and storefronts. He hears his mother tongue spoken openly among residents in local establishments and on street corners.

“The situation has transformed from darkness to light.”  

‘We learned in secret’

As a young man in Baathist-controlled Syria, Ali Abdulrahman and his friends covertly exchanged books written in Sorani—the dialect used by most Kurdish residents in northwestern Syria—in order to learn to read their language. Meeting behind closed doors, they practiced reading and writing together.

“We were constantly afraid that these Kurdish writings or poetry collections would be seen,” Abdulrahman, now an Afrin-based journalist for a local media outlet, tells Syria Direct. He risked being caught with illegal reading, he says, because “the Kurdish language is my identity.”

The Syrian government first banned Kurdish-language books and publications in the mid-1950s, during the two-year presidency of Adib a-Shashakli. Despite being of Kurdish origins himself, a-Shashakli implemented strict Arab nationalist policies, often at the expense of the rights of Syria’s minority Kurdish, Assyrian and Armenian populations.

The marginalization of Kurdish language and culture only intensified after the Baath Party—ideologically rooted in pan-Arabism—seized control of the Syrian government in a 1963 coup. In 1967, textbooks in government-run schools “dropped all mention of a Kurdish minority in Syria,” according to “Group Denial,” a 2009 Human Rights Watch report on the repression of Kurdish rights in Syria.

Hafez al-Assad, a Baath Party member and general who seized power in a 1970 coup, then enacted numerous policies during his 30-year rule that suppressed displays of Kurdish identity in the country and aimed to “Arabize” regions with substantial Kurdish populations.

Kurdish-language books at a library in Qamishli, January 2017. Delil Souleiman/AFP.

Policies included the “replacement of Kurdish place names with new names in Arabic, the prohibition of businesses that do not have Arabic names, not permitting Kurdish private schools and the prohibition of books and other materials written in Kurdish,” as documented in “The Silenced Kurds,” a Human Rights Watch report published in October 1996.

The Syrian state under Hafez al-Assad targeted Kurdish as a spoken language as well. Two government decrees issued in 1989—1865/S/24 and 1865/S/25—barred all Syrians from using Kurdish in offices, marriage ceremonies and public festivities.

“Against the backdrop of Baathist power, it was difficult for us to learn our mother tongue in any formal capacity—only in private spaces,” Yashar Ali, a Kobani resident and member of a regional political party, tells Syria Direct. “We learned in secret.”

‘Kurdish language can be revived’

When poet and writer Younis Hami first began performing Kurdish-language poetry at cultural events in his province after 2011, he worried that many audience members would not be able to understand him.

Decades of government policies banning Kurdish languages in education and public spaces sequestered Kurmanji and Sorani to the home and stunted linguistic development in each new generation.

For Syrian Kurds, Arabic was the language of education, reading, writing and business. With formal education unavailable, Kurmanji and Sorani exceedingly took on the characteristics of the heritage language.

Families spoke their dialect of Kurdish in hushed tones in the privacy of their home. Children learned to speak and understand, but had no formal opportunities to attain higher level language skills or to learn how to read and write. Words from Arabic, the dominant language of public life, made their way into spoken Kurdish, replacing Kurmanji or Sorani terms which then fell out of common use.

The decline of Kurdish was a result of “systematic policies aimed at eliminating Kurdish language and culture,” Zara Misto, a human rights activist and director of the Kurdish news site Walati in Kobani, tells Syria Direct. But the journalist says that through new educational opportunities and community engagement with culture, “the Kurdish language can be revived.”

Kurdish autonomy in Syria’s north has led to the proliferation of institutes to teach residents Kurmanji and Sorani and events to promote Kurdish language and culture.

Language institutes are “widespread,” says Hami, adding that political parties also offer Kurdish language courses to local residents.

As of 2016, the Kurdish language is a full-fledged component of the primary school curriculum in Syria’s Kurdish-held north.

The Self-Administration, the governing body of Syria’s Kurdish-held north, implemented a trilingual curriculum in schools under their control for the 2016–2017 academic year. In primary schools, instructors teach students Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian.

Before the announcement of the new curriculum, educational officials in the Self-Administration implemented Kurdish language education in stages, Sameera Haj Ali, director of education in the Jazirah canton that encompasses Al-Hasakah province, tells Syria Direct.

In 2014, students received Kurdish language instruction in first grade. The following year, Kurdish instruction expanded to the first three years of school.


“Welcome to the city of Kobani,” reads a sign outside the city. October 3, 2017. Photo courtesy of Kobani Kurd.

But the implementation of the curriculum issued by the Self-Administration—largely dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—in the schools of northern Syria has proved to be a contentious issue.

This past August, students and teachers in the city of Qamishli launched protests after the Self-Administration closed dozens of privately run schools operating outside the Kurdish-language curriculum, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Fatima Mamdouh—a Kurdish teacher, protester and mother of two school-aged children—told Syria Direct at the time that she saw several majors flaws in PYD-issued curriculum. Her main concerns were that most students did not have the higher language skills necessary to benefit from a Kurdish-language curriculum and that the diplomas issued have yet to attain international or regional recognition.

Self-Administration education official Sameera Haj Ali tells Syria Direct that the first priority is to develop Kurdish language education to serve the local community because “a society needs to learn its language.”

“We opened academies, institutes and universities,” she says. “The international recognition will come.”

The ideological underpinnings of the PYD curriculum have also become a point of contention in Syria’s Kurdish-held north.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) espouses the political philosophy of democratic confederalism proposed by Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) currently imprisoned in Turkey.

The PYD faces a current of opposition to its ideology in the form of activists, civil society members and rival political parties, namely the Kurdish National Council. The school curriculum debate remains an ongoing battleground for this political struggle.

After the Self-Administration expanded their primary school curriculum in 2015, local residents and activists in Syria’s north described the curriculum as overly ideological.  The new curriculum, they told Syria Direct at the time, merely replaced Baathism with Abdullah Ocalan’s democratic confederalism.

“There is, of course, no problem with the spread of Kurdish-language instruction,” Ahmad al-Kurdi, a pseudonym for the director of the Turkey-based human rights monitor and advocacy group Syrians for Truth and Justice, tells Syria Direct.

But Kurdish language instruction in northern Syria is problematically tied to “ideologization of the curriculum,” says Al-Kurdi. “A state must be neutral towards all of component groups, not biased towards one.”

‘Equal under the law’

The regime’s Syrian Arab Army and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) currently share more than 400km of frontlines in northern and northeastern Syria. Over the course of the war, the two sides—backed by Russia and the US respectively—have confronted one another sporadically. For the time being, they have a common enemy: the Islamic State.

Political and military leaders in Syria’s northern Kurdish-led government as well as Syrian regime officials have both expressed an openness to some sort of reconciliation in recent months.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said in September that the prospect of Kurdish autonomy in the country’s north is “open to negotiation and discussion,” once the Islamic State is defeated.

On Sunday, Rezan Gilo, the joint chief of defense in Rojava said that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a multiethnic coalition composed primarily of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—would be open to joining the Syrian Arab Army if the Kurdish people were allowed a federal state.

“Our forces have no problem joining the Syrian army if a new Syrian constitution is drafted on a federal basis and the rights of all the Syrian components are protected,” Gilo told the media outlet Kurdistan24.

But all the Kurdish residents who Syria Direct spoke with for the purposes of this report said that regardless of any military or political settlements, freedom of language and cultural expression is non-negotiable.

“The next constitution of Syria needs to accept the reality that the Kurdish and other [minority] languages need to be official languages alongside Arabic,” Zara Misto, the Turkey-based journalist and human rights activist, tells Syria Direct.

Kobani resident Yashar Ali echoes Misto’s sentiments, saying the Syrian state “cannot return” to the policies of the past aimed at homogenizing the Syrian population.

A Russian-proposed draft for a revised Syrian constitution purportedly included Kurdish as an official language, Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported in January.

A full draft of a new Syrian constitution has yet to be revealed. It was a major talking point for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the National Dialogue Congress in Sochi earlier this month, Russian state news agency TASS reported. The Syrian constitution is also on the agenda for the latest round of UN-brokered talks in Geneva that began on Tuesday.

Regardless of any debate surrounding Kurdish calls for autonomy in a federalist system, al-Kurdi of Syrians for Truth and Justice says, any form of governance in Syria must ensure that “any citizen—Arab, Kurd, Circassion, Turkman—must be equal under the law” and guaranteed social, linguistic and cultural rights.

For Zuhair Hassan, a Kurdish resident of Hasakah city, the newfound freedom of language and expression in Syria’s north means an end to what he calls the double life he lived prior to 2011.

During the day, Hassan would speak Arabic at the government office where he worked in Hasakah city. At home in the evenings, he spoke Kurdish with his parents and grandparents, who still used the then-banned Kurdish names for the villages and streets in and around the provincial capital.

Hassan tells Syria Direct that at his place of employment and in his daily life, he was “terrified that my mind would betray me—that Kurdish would come out of my mouth before my brain could stop it.”

Now, “I can speak and express myself at the same time,” says Hassan.

“It is an indescribable feeling.”

With reporting by Shivan Hussein.

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