Language, assimilation, and the Stateless

Citizens of the world are living in states.  States are boundaries that are decided most often through war and struggle.  Usually, states set boundaries and make maps without the consultation or the will to consult with, the people that live where the boundaries fall.  I had the privilege of meeting many such people in Istanbul, Ankara, and the Dersim (Tunceli) in Turkey, as well as in Europe and the United States for my academic research.  I spoke with elders who remembered that overnight they could not visit their relatives to give them food, and had never heard of a passport, and then it was illegal to cross the boundary to get a passport anyway, as a Kurdish person, during those times.  So their families were fragmented overnight.  Most of the rest of us don’t think of that at all, and exist with our personal lives.  We don’t think of how this all developed and how this idea of boundaries through military machinations continues to present oppressions based on the victor’s strategies and/or ignorances.  Even in the US and Europe.  But successful genocides result in the forgetting and those who remember often become downtrodden.

Even today, the Kurdish language is illegal in Turkey.  Although amendments have been passed and the Constitution of Turkey may be changed, it doesn’t change the fact that hundreds of thousands of Kurds were separated and where one relative could not communicate with the other after twenty years of separation and one spoke the Turkish language and the elder spoke Kurdish.  Elder Kurds and children in Eastern Turkey were often jailed for being insubordinate to a police officer or soldier.  But those arrested could not understand what they were being told to do or not do, and those things may not culturally be coherent to the other.  So to prison they go.  I have also seen language oppression, where Kurdish children trying to learn Turkish are harassed for speaking with a Kurdish accent.  It is now intensified with it being called a ‘terrorist’ language.  I have heard of grandmothers or grandfathers being jailed for asking to see a lawyer in their native Kurdish language at the police station or in a courtroom!

There are many kinds of killing.  The killing of bodies can be done slowly over time.  You can take away dignity in so many ways.  You can tire people out and make them sick in so many ways.  Making your native language illegal presents so many opportunities to create a different person that is made to hate or forget their original cultures.  Such is the case with many so-called ‘minorities’ in most countries.  Which African-American remembers their original language?  And should they?  And if not, does it make it easier to ignore the plight of others who are struggling for that right today, right now?

The photo shows a village house in Ovacik district of Dersim (Tunceli) in eastern Turkey.

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