Sunday, November 4, 2012

Prisoners on Hunger Strike for Kurdish Education

Nov. 4, 2012
by Amy L. Beam

As 683 prisoners begin the 54th day of their hunger strike in 66 prisons across Turkey, panic grows over the looming possibility of their deaths.  I implore Turkish leaders to immediately open the way for peace.  In partnership with local Kurdish guides, I operate Mount Ararat Trek, sending climbers to the summit of Agri Dagi (Mount Ararat), near Dogubeyazit in eastern Turkey on the border with Iran and Armenia.

Computers in Every Classroom in Kackar Mountains 

 In 2011, I visited the Kackar Mountains to expand our tour programs.  From Yusufeli, the narrow, rough road winds up, up, up through a steep river canyon bordered by sheer rock cliffs.  The road ends in a sidewalk wide enough for one vehicle to drive to Yaylalar, a village of two pensions at 1900 meters. 

Though only 60 kilometers from Yusufeli, the treacherous drive to Ogunlar takes three hours.  I remarked to my Kurdish business partner at the amazing feat of running electric and phone lines up the mountain road.  “When you have your own country, you can do anything.  You can take electricity to the top of a mountain like this,” he answered.  They even have cable TV and internet connection at the top.
Electric and phone lines run all the way to the top at Ogunlar, Kackar Mountains

Village below Yaylalar in Kackar Mountains 
Back home in Dogubeyazit, Murat Camping Hotel and Restaurant, which is located only 6 km above Dogubeyazit, continues to request a mobile phone tower to be put on the hill for guests to have internet access.  For two years it has been promised “next week.”   Like a hundred empty promises to Kurds, it remains unfulfilled.

In Ogunlar we chatted with the pension owner’s son, a university graduate with a degree in computer science. He teaches computer science in a local public school in the Kackar Mountains.  I expressed surprise, “You mean you drive all the way down to Yusufeli every day to teach!  How is that possible? The drive takes three hours each way.”

“Oh, no,” he explained. “I teach in a primary school just down the hill from here.  The school has one computer in each classroom plus a computer lab. I am their full-time computer science teacher.”

On our return to Yusufeli, I was on the lookout for a village school large enough to merit a dedicated computer science teacher.  There was none I could see.   But I did look over the cliff edge of the road and was baffled to see a stunning new soccer field with neat white lines and new green sod.  It was grand enough for a World Cup playoff.  I could not spot a town, let alone a school.

Atatürk and Broken Toilets for Eastern Turkey

By sharp comparison, we often take our Mount Ararat climbing tours on cultural tours of the area surrounding Dogubeyazit.  A stop in a local primary school is a highlight for both the visitors and students who gather around to practice their English and have their photo taken.  In May 2011, Murat Şahin and I took our American visitors to visit Kazan Elementary School where Murat’s father attended school.  The children, eager to love and be loved, ran to the fields to pick wild flowers to present to us. 
Kazan Primary School in eastern Turkey, near Dogubeyazit
Kazan students give wild flowers to Amy Beam
Our visitors from Montana, Olivia Ximenes and Patrick Harrington, were so distressed to see the condition of the one-room school house that they donated a huge box of school supplies.

Kazan school inside
American visitors standing under Atatürk portrait inspect  Kazan one-room school 

Outdoor toilets at Kazan school, Agri                    

The teacher had a tiny table for her desk.  The toilets were outside in total dilapidation with no running water.  On the school room wall was a display of student reports on Kemal Atatürk.  The various photos of Atatürk were larger than the written reports.  Atatürk’s picture was plastered everywhere.

Atatürk nationalistic lessons in Kazan primary school
Kazan school had perfect attendance of its 16 students.  One reason why more parents do not send their children to school is because parents feel the Turkish-centered education is undermining their Kurdish culture.  Also, their children literally do not understand the Turkish language.  Kurdish is the predominant language spoken in this region. Many adults in rural areas do not know Turkish.

How Many Cobras to Build a School?

We returned to Dogubeyazit and met with an Agri government official who promised to repair the toilets and paint the school.  This was completed in September 2011 with government funds matched by donations from Murat Camping in Dogubeyazit.   But toilets do not make a school.

eager students at Kazan primary school near Dogubeyazit, Agri, eastern Turkey
Don’t the children of eastern Turkey villages deserve to have a computer lab and dedicated computer science teacher, just as much as the children in the remote Kackar Mountain villages?  The future of Turkey depends upon the education of all of its children.  Why is bilingual education so hard to accept?

How many schools could have been built for the price of the three AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters and Hellfire missiles that Turkey bought in September 2012 from the United States to annihilate the PKK?

In a visit to the small village of Gungore near Little Ararat, I spoke with two teenage girls attending school in Dogubeyazit.  They could count to ten and manage a simple conversation in English with me.  I encouraged them to keep studying English because it is their pathway to opportunity.  They giggled at my suggestion and corrected me, “No, we do not have time to study English. It is hard enough for us to learn Turkish so we can understand our teachers!” 

Unrelenting Vitriolic Hatred

One must understand the Kurds are not making up their demand for education in the Kurdish language just to be contrary.  It is truly difficult to learn when the teacher is speaking a language you do not understand.

The teachers in the schools of eastern Turkey are predominately from the west of Turkey.  If I may dare to distinguish them, they are mostly Turkish, not Kurdish.  Though this is a distinction that is banned under a strict government policy of assimilation, it is, nonetheless, how Turkish citizens voluntarily categorize themselves in Turkey.  Turkish teachers are required to teach in the east for two years.  I met one group of such teachers in Dogubeyazit who asked of me, “We know why we are here.  We have to be.  We cannot wait to leave.  But we cannot understand why you are here by choice when you don’t have to be.  You do not even represent an NGO.”

Herein lies part of the hostility between Kurds and Turks.  When an entire segment of the population is reviled and considered “throw-away,” this creates deep-seated resentment and bitterness.

In day 52 of the hunger strike, I turned to Twitter to read the tweets.  Fuat Kircaali, a Turkish businessman, tweeted:

@FuatKircaali  After more school bombings, Erdoğan to #Kurdishlawmakers: "You decide ! Either "parliament" or "blood" you can't have it both ways !" #PKK

I could not resist replying to his tweet:

@FuatKircaali If #Erdogan would let the #Kurdish parliamentarians out of #prison, maybe they would have a chance to decide. #PKK #kurdistan

Mr. Kircaali got the last word with his tweet:

@amybeam Erdoğan is a gentleman. I wouldn't send a single BDP #PKK lawmaker to prison, I'd execute the m…..f….rs.

I edited his vulgarity for the reader.  The point is that millions of Turkish citizens are in a rage at Turkey’s Kurds.  Kircaali’s tweet typifies the vitriolic hatred to be found everywhere: on the internet, in the newspapers, in buses, trains, restaurants, schools, and overseas.   How would you feel, what would you do if you were a member of a minority group subjected to such day-in and day-out unmasked hatred?   Would you want to be assimilated into the very group that detests you, rejects you, vilifies you, and limits your access to education, to learn in your own language, and to exercise basic rights of free speech?

The Question of Language Instruction in Kurdish

On the subject of language, I admit I am a purist.  I spent six years as an English teacher in the States, and I have always held a firm belief that language unites a people.  When I pass through Immigration at the Miami Airport, I resent having to ask the government employees to speak to me in English, not Spanish.  Guatemala and Nigeria, with over 30 different languages, not dialects, are stark examples of how language holds a country back from unification.   I held dearly to my cherished belief until one day a friend in Tucson, Arizona, who is married to a bilingual Mexican-American man, forced me to re-examine my logic.

A friend of hers complained about the Spanish-speaking population of Arizona, “Why can’t they go back to where they came from?”  My friend’s husband pointed out that they already are where they came from.  His parents, grandparents, great-grandparents were born on the same land as present-day Tuscon.  Arizona used to be Mexico in the 1840s and was conquered by the United States in the Mexican-American War.  In 1848, Mexico ceded to the U.S. the northern 70% of modern-day Arizona.

Like the Mexican-Americans, Kurdish people of eastern Turkey have been living on the same land for hundreds of years.  At the conclusion of World War I, the victorious Allies mapped out Kurdistan in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres.  Kurdistan was to be a self-ruled homeland for 25 million Kurdish people who share one cultural identity and speak one language.

Article 147 of the Treaty of Sèvres dictated that Turkish nationals who belong to racial, religious or linguistic minorities shall enjoy the same treatment and security in law and in fact as other Turkish nationals. In particular they shall have an equal right to establish schools with the right to use their own language.     

The Betrayal of Kurdistan

The treaty was never ratified.   The re-conquest of these areas by the forces of Kemal Atatürk caused the Allies to accept the renegotiated 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which carved up the Ottoman Empire.  The Republic of Turkey was born with Kemal Atatürk as its leader.  Kurdistan was torn into four parts:  eastern Turkey, western Iran, Northern Iraq, and Northern Syria.  The Kurds became minorities in these new countries.  Atatürk immediately outlawed the teaching of Kurdish in schools and the use of the Kurdish language.  Under a policy of assimilation, it was forbidden to mention the existence of Kurds within Turkey.   Kurds were officially labeled mountain Turks and the land of Kurdistan was renamed Eastern Anatolia.

The promise to create a self-governed homeland for Kurds was broken.  Across nearly a century, the longing for Kurdish identity has not been extinguished.   

Kurds are not immigrants to Turkey in the same way that my grandmother emigrated from Italy to America.  The teacher sent my grandmother’s youngest son (my Uncle Ferd) home from school with a note reading, “Keep your child home until he learns to speak English.”  My grandmother diligently learned English and so did her children, including my mother.  In spite of being two generations removed from my Italian roots, when I was growing up in suburbia, USA, we had an American custom of asking one another, “What are you?” to identify our heritage.  I answered “Italian,” though I had never stepped foot in Italy, did not speak Italian, and am not Catholic.  Although I understood I was most assuredly American, I always answered “I am Italian.”  I knew what tribe I was from.

So how does it hurt Turkey for its Turkish citizens to honor their heritage and say, “I am a Kurd?”  Why does this throw Turks into such a blind rage? The Kurds in Turkey are already home.  It is a logical, reasonable demand for Kurds to wish to speak their mother language, express their culture, enjoy equal rights and opportunities, and participate fully in the affairs and politics of their own country: Turkey.   

It is not a forced common language that will heal the wounds of Turkey; it is love and equality.  The continuing atmosphere of vitriolic hatred and a policy of forced assimilation of Kurds and annihilation of the PKK is not the path to peace.  I call upon the leaders of Turkey to recognize the legitimate requests by the hunger strikers and avert the looming tragedy of their deaths.

Amy L. Beam, Ed.D., operates Mount Ararat Trek ( in partnership with Kurdish guides.  She is completing her book Climbing Mount Ararat: Love and Betrayal in Kurdistan, for 2013 publication.  She can be contacted at

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