Sezen Aksu: the Queen/Diva of Turkish Pop

Sezen Aksu (July 13, 1954 -) is the quintessential diva extraordinaire, of Turkish pop.  She is the indisputable queen diva of the Turkish pop music scene.  ‘Pop’ music, now worldwide, through the effects of American colonization, always mixes with its locales to create interesting hybrid music that also carries certain themes that repeats throughout the world.  Songs of falling in love, songs of loving what or who we cannot have, separation and longing, devastation and pride, sorrow and joy.  Also, to dance our butts off.  Sezen Aksu’s unique, rough voice carries emotions that many in the Mediterranean are attracted to.  She has influenced pop music in the mediterranean nations, the Balkans and changed the annual Eurovision Music Context with her protege, Ertab Serener.  From the 1970s through today, and continues to break barriers.

She is particularly attractive to me in other ways, making me like her music more.  Her life has not been comfortable, although her fame and fortune has helped her.  She has married and divorced several times, something Turkish society does not like and in some cultures within the Turkish nation, divorcing is a taboo that the woman pays for the rest of her life (although this is not unique just to Turkish sub-cultures).  She has also married an Armenian, works tirelessly and speaks out vigorously for women’s rights and gay rights, and for the rights of the Kurds.  She has been allowed to stay out of jail, even though she has sung songs in the ‘illegal’ language of the Kurdish people, Zaza cultures, and Armenian people  in Turkey, and has co-sung with some of these groups’ popular singers, raising the eyebrows and bringing much-needed discussions at Turkish dinner tables.  She dares the powers that be, to let democracy work, and to love who we love, and for singers and all artists, to express and to live.

I present a nice classical-tinged with a bit of Astor Piazzolla-esque ballad, and a rocking dance song by her.  The remixes of her dance music have been done by hundreds of different musicians.  The dance song ‘Rakkas’ has become a perennial classic in Turkish pop culture and also internationally it is one of the most ‘mixed’ songs in dance clubs by DJs from Spain, Greece, the UK, India, Germany, Hungary to Japan.

Sezen Aksu: wikipedia

Sezen Aksu official site

Kıran kırana


Mikail Aslan & Ahmet Aslan: Singer/storytellers of Dersim

Mikail Aslan (on the left of the photo) and Ahmet Aslan (on the right of the photo), although unrelated to each other by family heritage, are among the elites and considered amongst the most precious modern artists who work to tell, preserve and empower the people of the Dersim region of what is considered ‘Tunceli’ in eastern Turkey today. Through their songs, both modern and ancient, traditional and roots-fusion, the historical/cultural memory of spiritual traditions, loss, genocide, mourning, isolation, stigmatization, marginalization and state destruction, are woven into the hearts and minds of whoever will listen.

Their music is usually accompanied with the stories of the elders who’ve experienced the 1937-38 events that should be considered an aspect of the continual genocidal actions against the culture and people of the region. Or they would be songs of the displaced who fled the government forest and village burnings and purges during the 1990s, and the continual repression of its people and the collectively grieving population of Dersim, the music also tells their stories. Many of their songs are traditional songs, slightly modernized to adapt to the modern times, while other songs are left as they were sung centuries ago. Many of their songs are songs of mourning that would be sung by everyday people on the streets and roads of the villages while their relations were disappeared, imprisoned, and/or killed by government forces.

The Dersim region in Eastern Turkey, was told to the public to be the land of terrorism and propaganda had been created to present the region as dangerous and of outlaws. Certainly those who practiced non-Muslim worldviews such as Alevism and Christianity, often fled to the Dersim region, where the rugged mountainous territory was easy to protect from encroaching forces. The Ottoman governments, before the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, tried for centuries to subjugate the Dersim region. The people of the region refused to live via modernizing state laws and the Islamicization of their worldviews, They refused to pay taxes and send their sons into the Ottoman military forces because they felt the the government wanted to control them through these means. The Dersim region was very poor and because they were isolated, their subsistence also included banditry, while others we wealthier–benefiting from working the the Turkish state.

During the height of the Armenian pogroms and genocide, many Dersim Kurds helped thousands of Armenians by taking them into their homes, as they lived amongst them for centuries, in harmony. During the 1915 intensification of Armenian genocide, many Kurds assisted the American Protestant missionaries form an underground railroad to help Armenians escape out of Turkey into Russia.  Other more fundamentalist groups in Dersim took advantage of the pogroms and participated in assisting the Turkish state in the Armenian cleansings.  Today, some Turkish officials used Dersim’s Armenian connection as some sort of ‘negative’ trait, which shows the long history of animosity against the Armenian Christians who were a threat to mainstream Islamic officials.  For the most part, in Dersim, the Armenians and the Dersim Kurds lived side-by-side without issue.

The Dersimian languages were mainly Zazaki and Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish dialect) and they practiced a form of Alevi worldview and ritual that was distinct from the Bektashi Alevism that is being mainstreamed in Turkey today. Many Dersim Alevi religious terms have Armenian words and forms of worship, as well as pre-Christian, pre-Islamic forms, including Zorastrianism and Shi’a Islamic forms as well. The Dersim region was distinct in its cultural forms, held together by strong bands of men who knew the mountains well and were ruthless in defense of the region. However, they believed in diplomacy and negotiation and proper mediation in conflict. These were all betrayed by the early Turkish state. As early as 1925, plans to transform eastern Turkey and to split families and destroy the region, was planned. In the rest of Turkey, people learned of a ‘rebellion’ in Dersim and the need for the subjugation of the region. There was really never a ‘rebellion’ in the traditional sense of a wholescale anti-government movement. The early Turkish government used such terms to give it the go-ahead in a genocidal campaign that would destroy its leadership and split the villages and families apart and to assimilate the young into a particular brand of state Turkishness that even for many Turkish-identified people, has outgrown in its ‘cover’ and its place in modern Turkey.

Through their fine music and personalities, Mikail Aslan and Ahmet Aslan bring us the realities of grief, joy, mourning, memory, the strength, and the courage of the Dersim people and their efforts toward cultural survival.

For more information in English on Dersim, I have included a website that is Armenian. I include this because most of the information written about Dersim in the English language, begin with official state claims and versions, such as a ‘suppression of a rebellion’ which was a state propaganda version and pretext for ethnic/cultural cleansing for state-building. Please be careful when reading any historical texts, of cultures that we are not familiar with, as even well-meaning people may tow the state version of events and lives.

Truth of Dersim ’38 (from Armenian Weekly):

Dersim’s Lost Girls film:

Mikail :

Ahmet :

Above Photo of a Dersim villager hunted and captured by the Turkish army during the 1937-38 genocidal campaign.

Lêa Qeraji (in Zazaki language)  by Mikail Aslan

Dilo Dilo (in Zazaki language)  by Mikail Aslan

Susarak Özlüyorum ( (in Turkish language)  by Ahmet Aslan

Veyve Milaketu (Dance of the Angels) (in Zazaki language)  by Ahmet Aslan

Bill Miller: Native Americans, Aborigines, Dersim Kurds in song

Bill Miller is of the Mohican peoples, one of many who are the first peoples of the North American continent in the modern lexicon, before the arrival and subsequent destruction of their communities through modernization/colonization. He has composed and sung music, created visual art, and speaks to the history of the Native peoples of North America in the present. His music and words resonate with many peoples around the globe whom have spiritual traditions inclusive of nature and its movements, relations and community, and values which are made increasingly irrelevant to the modern world unless they can be co-opted.

Although, as usual in European and US American mentalities, the Native peoples’ culture can be romanticized and listened to for feeling personally sad or guilty, Bill Miller sings to invite advocacy and memory, in memorium to things and people and ways that are largely disappearing, and asks us not to forget.

As you may or may not know, when Christopher Columbus arrived accidentally onto the North American continent, the Natives were there for centuries in various communities with various different cultures. From this period to WWI, the United States proceeded to think of the continent as belonging to the European settlers and governing forces of France and Britain, Spain and others. As the United States began taking form through their own wars, the extermination of the Native population was a purposeful act. Of course, as is today, propaganda was necessary. Precursor to this is the thinking that ‘might (domination) is right.’ The Europeans thought they they ‘deserved’ the land and others needed to be vanquished. Some Native tribes, surrendered, while others wanted to fight for their own lives. The fighters and the those that surrendered, were all less-than-deserving to the emerging ‘United States’ visionaries. Here is a small portion of Thomas Jefferson‘s letter to Alexander von Humboldt in 1913:

We have cut off all possibility of intercourse and of mutual aid, and may pursue at our leisure whatever plan we find necessary to secure ourselves against the future effects of their savage and ruthless warfare. The confirmed brutalization, if not the extermination of this race in our America, is therefore to form an additional chapter in the English history of the same colored man in Asia, and of the brethren of their own color in Ireland, and wherever else Anglo-mercantile cupidity can find a two-penny interest in deluging the earth with human blood.

(from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition (Lipscomb and Bergh, editors), 20 Vols., Washington, D.C., 1903-04.)

So as Bill Miller sings, the memory of being with Grandfather and of loss and sbjugation, is alive. Of course in assimilation, of every country nearly, it is hoped that this is forgotten and we just ‘blend in’ with the rest of those who have forgotten. In addition, the consciousness and therefore values and views of the dominant, who has forgotten, is viewed as more ‘normal’ and more sensible. Such is the dynamics of the present-day struggle of memory and ancestral heritage. I think that if this forgotten past and the elders were not feared, there could be tremendous healing and incredible amounts of energy–no longer suppressed and ignored, that can help our future.

Those Natives that surrendered–those that were not killed off by new European diseases or direct tactics, were put into small communities on government-built groups of housing, usually in the middle of barren lands. These housing areas–or basically concentration-type camps, became residents to most Native-Americans to this present day. These are called ‘reservations.’ Add to this the introduction of alcohol and other means of destroying the community and we have the picture of the intent. Natives that assisted the US government were paid and were ‘more free’ to move and run the schools, which were controlled by the US government. Thorough assimilation and subjugation. This same system was a model used in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, etc. The Dersim people in eastern Turkey, has also had this system used. In the 1920s, Sıdıka Avar, a woman was sent to Michigan by the Turkish government to study the Native American schools, to learn assimilation and national citizenship education. Upon returning, she was in charge of the girls’ boarding schools in the mountainous Dersim region of Turkey, where there were many orphans from the devastating genocides there, as well as mixing them with Turkish girls from more wealthy areas. For girls, this was their only way into being considered ‘human’ by the modernizing middle-class Turkish society and to be educated. So as with the Native Americans, the Dersim girls, and others such as the aboriginal tribes in Australia and others, were systematically made citizens and also divided amongst themselves as a result. How much of this results in self-hatred? (see Unfolding Republican Patriarchy: The Case of Young Kurdish Women at the Girls’ Vocational Boarding School in Elazig – Master of Science Thesis of Sevim Yesil, Middle East Technical University 2003).

I, having Cherokee ancestors on my father’s branch of my heritage, had clan members on ‘The Trail of Tears,’ one of many ‘events’ in the genocidal necessities in building ‘The New World.’ ( I refuse to forget. Not to be sad, although mourning is necessary, but to think of what is going on and how we can create new worlds without killing and prioritizing ethnic cleansing as a way to freedom. Afrter all, that is what the newly arriving Europeans thought. Kill to build freedom.

The first song is “The Promise,” which he sings about the peoples’ relationship with the ecology that is threatened presently.

For the second video, “Reservation Road,” I have included the lyrics. Ancestors are with us. Forgetting must be fought. From remembering, we learn.

If you enjoy and/or want more information, visit the website:

Bill Miller Arts

Reservation Road

I was holding on to my grandad’s hand
He was pointing to the promised land
That lay beyond the reservation road
He said don’t make promises that you won’t keep
Don’t betray the earth beneath your feet
As we walked on the reservation road

And just for that one moment we were racing with the wind
And sound of horses thundering they echoed once again
Back to a place where our hearts and souls belong
A thousand dreams away from that reservation road
A thousand dreams away from that reservation road

Then his spirit soared into the sky
Beyond the place where eagle fly
And my tears fell on the reservation road

Now a hundred moons have come and gone
And I’m holding on to my newborn son
One day he’ll walk on the reservation road

And just for that one moment we were racing with the wind
And sound of horses thundering they echoed once again
Back to a place where our hearts and souls belong
A thousand dreams away from that reservation road
A thousand dreams away from that reservation road

I was holding on to my grandad’s hand
He was pointing to the promised land
That lay beyond the reservation road
It went way beyond the reservation road

Have you ever walked on the reservation road?
Let me take you down the reservation road
Like to take some Senators down the reservation road
Let me take you down the reservation road
Let me take you down the reservation road

‘Lost Songs of Anatolia’ – Anadolu’nun Kayıp Şarkıları

Anatolia, is an old name for the lands and peoples of the central to eastern region of present-day Turkey and more. From before and during the Roman, Persian, Mongol, Seljuk Turk, Safavid and Ottoman Empire invasions (until 1922), Anatolia has been the stomping ground for several imperial forces of domination. Today it is ruled by the militarized borders of nation-states and cultural boundaries and dominations. In earlier centuries, trade routes between this diverse region and what is now called Europe, Africa, Russian territories and South and Eastern Asia were open and intense. Today, these ‘stompings’ continue with transnational corporations joining in for a globalization of ‘modernization’ to what points to the neo-colonizing present resulting in what Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University in the USA – Partha Chatterjee, calls “the extinction of the peasant” (from his book: The Nation and Its Fragments, 1993, Princeton University Press). In general, however, before the rise of the boundaries of nation-states, this region, like most others around the world, were diverse and the only controls enforced by most of the imperial forces were for taxes and military conscription.

As nation-states began to form and borders slowly became tighter and more controlled, where and how bodies moved and diversity itself, began to dwindle. There was less contact allowed (unless you happened to be in the wealthier classes who could travel) and the nomadic tribes had to find different ways of moving through the increasing encroachment of urban lives and the idea of ’employment.’ Kurdish, Assyrian, Circassian, Uzbek, Armenian, Pontic Greek, Uighur, Laz, and countless other groups found their cultures were endangered and more and more they were forced to retreat into private cultural lives because it was increasingly more difficult to remain communal. This ‘encroachment’ could only happen through systematic massacres, criminalization (e.g. – making their indigenous language and music illegal, for example), burning of the lands through disguised policies such as ‘de-forestation’ and other means of ‘modernization’ as well as the many wars and battles that scorched the lands. As one way to resist, the idea for this film-book-and-multimedia project: Anadolu’nun Kayıp Şarkıları, or ‘Lost Songs of Anatolia,‘ developed from mainstream Turkish and European change-maker/artist-researchers.

This film project is breathtaking and exhilarating, as much as it is mournful. Even in the way it is put into language as ‘exotic’ lands and music, is a problem. Exotic? How and why is this term used? It points more to the globalizing world that is much less diverse and accepts difference only as museum pieces and entertainment and quite frankly, killing wonder, newness, and exhilaration. This film and entire research and project is a labor of love and memory, but of course, these cultures and music are not dead or gone. They are present. They survive. But they survive as entertainment for us. What will it take to work and live in advocacy? First, we need to un-learn and re-learn; understand.

One aspect of this issue is that things, as I have said before in earlier blog postings, are made into museum objects. “Cultures, oh look at these wonderful cultures, look at the way they dress and they eat and they dance and they sing. Listen to the strange sounds that we don’t recognize. Oh wow.” Also, there is the tendency to see and hear songs and dancing and music and theater as entertainment for our own consumption. We recognize them only as somethings and people who are here to give us color and movement and language. I would be so bold as to say that we have internalized the reality of the process of extinction. We have internalized the notion that everything in the past becomes extinct and we will become extinct. But there is a huge difference between that extinction being a natural thing and it being about killing off, driving cultures and people into the shadows, making them go away, making ‘us’ and ‘them’ a ‘minority’ and therefore less important. Oh look, aren’t they the little wonderful things. In short, many things we are not paying attention to, are creating this extinction. Our internalizing of it, also helps in that process. How about a re-thinking of this? One way to resist is to revive and to show. After all, we all come from some form of indigenous ancestry that has been forced into progress, usually unwillingly. Those who go willingly either hated their lives at those moments and needed escape, or were benefiting somehow (financially and otherwise).

The Lost Songs of Anatolia is a labor of LOVE. It is memory. It is the present. It is exhilarating and beautiful. It is dizzying in its statements. Let us enjoy the depth, beauty and diversity by connecting to ways to first, make visible and to work with these cultures that are endangered.

The below is an article on this project from March 2010, in Turkey’s Online Journal Today’s Zaman:

‘Lost Songs of Anatolia’ takes audiences on musical journey on big screen

Today’s Zaman

March 12, 2010

An old woman sings a traditional folk song, leaning on the wall behind her, sitting cross-legged on a couch. She sings until she’s finally out of breath and asks: Is it enough? I’m exhausted!

After the release of the album “Anadolu’nun Kayıp Şarkıları” (Lost Songs of Anatolia), as part of a project that includes a film, a book, an exhibition and a concert tour, about a month ago, the film of the same name, directed by Nezih Ünen, premiered on Wednesday in İstanbul ahead of its theatrical release today.

The project is undoubtedly inspiring as well as thrilling. In a period when Turkey has started to recognize its minorities and different cultures, the project takes the audience on a journey deep into Anatolia and gives people the opportunity to listen to the songs and stories of different communities accompanied by beautiful scenes and some moments from the daily lives of these people.

Already too late

Ünen’s must-see film is considered to be a little overdue by the artists at the premiere. “This project was necessary for this country,” said Arif Sağ, a prominent folk musician, during the premiere, pointing to the two brothers singing a traditional Kurdish elegy. “I think it’s a very smart idea. And it should have been made years ago. Those taboos should have been broken long ago.”

“Nezih is one of the musicians who knows Turkish music very well,” Erhan Güleryüz told Today’s Zaman. “This is a very good work about what exists in Anatolia. I believe we will be able to take lessons from this film even years later. I’m sure that there are many undiscovered songs in Anatolia, but thanks to musicians like Nezih, these songs are seeing the light of day.”

Making our voices heard

The two brothers, Selahattin and Fahrettin Güçtekin, from the Çayçatı village of Varto in the eastern province of Muş, who sang the Kurdish elegy in the film, were also in one of the focuses during the premiere. However, despite the intense interest toward the two brothers, what they were trying to illustrate was the talents and voices getting lost in Anatolia. “There are many artists and musicians in my lands,” says Selahattin Güçtekin, “but they are lost, they are not known because they do not have opportunities.”

“There were many more talented people than us, and they are not alive anymore,” says younger brother Fahrettin Güçtekin, “and we are following their lead so that their voices aren’t lost. We always would like to take part in such projects in order to support our culture.”

The film is capable of providing an answer to the critical process which Turkey is going through with the question, “Who are living in these lands and since when?” From Kırşehir to Mardin, from Artvin to Antalya, the film offers a 97-minute journey with Turkish, Kurdish, Alevi, Yezidi, Circassian, Greek, Romani, Armenian, Syrian, Greek, Jewish, and many other communities and peoples of Turkey united under Rumi’s famous words, “Come, whoever you are.” 12.03.2010 Arts & Culture HATİCE AHSEN UTKU

Ah Dersim

Photo:  Ruins of an old handmill within a destroyed village home in the Ovacik district of Dersim (tunceli), Turkey.

Dersim is a fairly unknown word when we speak of the Ottoman Empire, or Anatolia, or the Middle East. Its life in the broader imagination, like most of the world in the present, is buried, ignored, trivilialized and therefore ‘unknown’ to most people, except for those who study the region and histories, or who know people from this region. Dersim is a distinct region in Eastern Turkey.  It is also a distinct culture. For the Dersim people, the Dersimians, it is a struggle for cultural memory and dignity. Political circumstances have forced much of Dersim history to be collapsed within the history of  the Kurdish struggle in Turkey presently, inside the general Kurdish struggle in the entire Middle East and Central Asian areas.  A nation “Turkey” was born after the Allied  treaties created the new maps of the world after World War I.  The boundaries were made and certain elites gained control.  The control of Dersim shifted, in 1923,to be molded through the hands of the state functionaries of the new Turkish nation and their many arms: the education system, the judicial system, the military, the paramilitary groups. the process had started far before 1923, but now it is an official ‘fact.’ For the Europeans and US Americans,  Turkey’s role was to become a buffer state in the war against the rising tide of socialism and communism.  Communism itself arose in response to the growing domination of global capitalism over other life-governing histories and developments.

Today, Dersim is called, Tunceli in Eastern Turkey. Turkey has long considered this the center of anti-state activity since before the turn into the 19th century.  Because Dersim’s villages and towns were located in the rugged and foreboding mountain terrain, the state could not completely subjugate the Dersim area.  The Ottomans began trying in the 14th century.  Dersimians practiced a religious form that was not the majority Sunni Muslim religion.  The Dersim leaders refused to bow to capitalism and modernization carte blanche, to pay taxes or to send their boys to the state military to help protect the Ottomans from the encroaching military powers of France, Britain, Italy, Greece and the Russians.  But once the Turkish state was formed, Turkey performed a series of horrific tactics intensifying  its propaganda which in turn intensified the Dersimian need to survive.  They did not want to become slaves to the whims and desires of a state that was unconcerned for their well-being. After several betrayals by the state officials, resulting from deals that the Turkish government used to frame the leaders of Dersim, the Dersimians had learned that the state was not trustworthy.  At the same time, as colonization and state-making go, many Dersim leaders began to work for the new state after being offered riches and power.  This, of course, divides communities.

Armenians lived in the Dersim region as well.  When the state began their anti-Armenian pogroms in the 19th century, which were in addition to earlier anti-Christian and anti-Armenian massacres and riots in the Ottoman Empire, the Dersimians who were not involved with the domination of Sunni Islamic principles of governance, protected the Armenians.  There were also rising tides of Armenian militarism to protect themselves from the Turkish state.  The Dersimians were considered ‘friends’ of the Armenians, due to their having lived side-by-side on their lands for centuries. These events intensified the state’s fury against the Dersimians when the Turkish state began their horrific genocidal extinguishing of the Armenian presence in Turkey.  Some of the Dersimians, along with the Christian missionaries from the Protestant schools in the United States who lived in the Dersim area at the time in order to convert, set-up a secret safe passageway to save as many Armenians as they could in the rugged terrain of Dersim through to Russia.

In 1925, already Turkey had set-up laws that would split the eastern Turkish regions, fragmenting families and jailing or assassinating the leadership of Kurdish and Dersimian and other groups who had been there for centuries, even before the arrival of the Seljuk Turkish tribes from the East. Yes, the Kurdish tribes and Dersimians were indigenous to that area, as far as historians at present, could tell.  But this does not matter, of course.  So in 1937, some leaders of Dersim, who always wanted a peaceful co-existence, were framed and publicly hung in the city square and a genocidal program begun.  However, not without stiff resistance for about a full year.  But the modern machinery and strategies co-authored by German officers who had close ties with that particular elite group in the Turkish state at the time, were too much for the poor and tribal armies of Dersim.   The hunt had already began. Women and children were burned out of the caves they were hiding in.  Some were lit afire, others shot.  Some fled being captured and jumped to their deaths into ravines, wanting to die through their own initiative rather than to be captured by the Turkish state.  Village houses burned, along with the possessions.  There were rapes and mutilations. Those caught were rounded up and were taken to different points in Turkey according to the plans drawn up in the 1920s.  When I spoke with an elder who lived during these times as a child, and was visiting Dersim during the summer of 2009 from his new home in Germany, he spoke of their Holy Munzur river flowing red with blood and with floating bodies.

Today, many young Dersimians are just beginning to even know that their families were from Dersim.  Others know, but did not ever know of a genocide.  There was tremendous trauma and silence was the main course.  Turkish state education does not tell of this event in their textbooks.  Any mention of it was illegal.  For most, it was traumatic and they knew that they needed to keep silent in order to survive.  Still, for others who worked for the Turkish state, they may have somehow wanted it as a need for change from some of their own ways. For most Dersim families, however, these stories were passed down to the present day and the young take up the cause, even as they had not experienced that first genocidal event.

In the 1990s, the Turkish government began a village destruction program and deforestation along with it.  Deforestation has long been a tactic of burning people out their homes, disguised either as counter-terrorism, or environmental causes.  For many young Dersimians who, of course, live in Istanbul or Ankara or Berlin or Paris or Belfast, or New Jersey, these memories are fresh and were confirmations of the ongoing state attitudes towards them. Coupled with this however, is that most of the people in the western half of Turkey, who only know of Dersim (Tunceli in their mind and on our maps today) as a dangerous place full of rebels and degenerates.  In addition, right-wing student groups and clubs, as well as the policemen and teachers in schools who ‘protect’ the integrity of the hardline Turkish unification philosophy, would traumatized anyone who spoke out about being from the Tunceli region or for being Kurdish or to even support those ideas.  The language was illegal and many were jailed simply because they spoke it and no other reason.  For those who spoke Turkish fluently, with no accents, they could pass and hide and kept quiet.  Others boldly protested and sometimes were tortured or killed.  At schools, the bullies would get a hold of them.

So Dersim’s memory is now an explosive debate in Turkey.  After  Hrant Dink, a prominent Armenian writer/journalist in Turkey, was assassinated in broad daylight on January 19, 2007 ( )  , many of the Turkish population, regardless of ethnicity or region, became more vocal about their anger about the repetition of violence in the streets and the closed-mindedness of people in Turkey.  Alevi religion, which the people of the Dersim region practices in their own unique forms, was also a way Dersim was marginalized and terms like ‘degenerate’ were used against them.  There had been several anti-Alevi massacres throughout history as well, in the Ottoman Empire and in Turkey.  The Alevi religious leaders became more bold as the Turkish culture began to want peace and democracy more than ever before.  Many in the state official offices wanted the same.  But things are slow to change.

But in 2008, some brave journalists were able to put in the newspapers some articles on Dersim.  Most of the educated people in Turkey had never known of Dersim and what had happened in 1937-38.  Now the pandora’s box was open.  What is most important is the healing, however, of the traumatized population.  Silences and obedience and assimilation were the ways in which they had survived, as much as perishing in prisons or torture chambers or assassinations for speaking out.  They had also been in continuance fight, alongside the Kurdish resistance movements and the leftist movements.  The disappearing of smaller, lesser known communities such as Dersim, are the ones that most of us do not pay attention to.  Everyone knows more about the Armenians or the Kurdish people today.  But there are thousands of smaller communities that have been disappeared for larger causes.

I am very honored to have been able to study with Dersim people about the Dersim history and culture alongside the Kurdish struggle.  The differences between the Kurds and Dersimians are many, but there are many similarities. But in order to survive, military might could not be a tactic the Dersimians could rely on by themselves.  They are too few.

People such as the Dersimians, practiced a culture of community.  Their community practiced differently from the dominant norm.  The way they wanted to handle their problems were to be with each other and discuss and mediate, not go to a court to have a stranger solve them.  But in the modern system, that is how it is done.  This is just one small example of why peoples such as the Dersimians, feel they want self-determination.  For some, this may play out as wanting to a separate state.  For most, it is more about the freedom to practice self-governance which includes their own traditional systems.  At the same time, some of the old ways needed to change.  There needs to be freedom in order to re-think.  The current way forces an assimilation, a dieing.

There are not many books on the Dersim culture and history printed in the English language. There are some that mention its overall history, however.  I recommend two books to start with:  David McDowall’s “The Modern History of the Kurds” ( and Joost Jongerden’s research of Dersim in the 1990s: “The Settlement Issue in Turkey and the Kurds” (

Zirfet – a Kurdish food

Zirfet, is just one of the names for this, one of my favorite favorite favorite of Kurdish foods.

It is basically a bread dish, made in the oven.  First the dough is made and put into a pan, much like a pie crust.  After the bread is baked for a short while,  it is taken out and the middle of the pan is cut out into little pieces and mixed with yogurt and some spices.  It’s heaven!

The people of Anatolian cultures, which for hundreds and hundreds of years, existed and developed in the area that is called Eastern Turkey today, share many things between the distinct cultural heritages of the people in the Middle East and Central Asia today.  One of them is the variations of foods.  Zirfet, which is the Zaza name for this dish, has its names in Kurmanji as well – which is the Kurdish Northern language dialect where most of the Kurds of the region which is Turkey today live.

I was introduced to Zirfet twice.  Once in San Francisco by a Kurdish family who was granted asylum in the US from the Elazig area of Dersim. The family speaks Kurmanji and were culturally Sunni Muslim and secular.  I had the privilege of tasting Zirfet that day in their home, coupled with the big-hearted hospitality that Kurds give.  I couldn’t stop eating the Zirfet until they practically had to roll me out of the house.

The second time I had the pleasure of consuming Zirfet was when I visited a group of Dersim people who had been granted asylum in the Netherlands.  I visited the Netherlands and Turkey in 2008, to do research on Dersim cultural survival and had the privilege of meeting these wonderful people.  I won’t say that the Zirfet they made for me made it more awesome than not.  Let’s just say that I loved Zirfet again!

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.

Kurds, Zaza, Dersim and nation-states

For much of my research in cultural anthropology, I have worked with people from Kurdish communities, both the diaspora and primarily in what is now called ‘Turkey’ by most people.  The Kurds are an example of what state-making and nation-building by those who have designed today’s maps, have done to people whose lives were diverse and their lives were not concerned with boundaries and borders for liberal market-capitalism.

The Kurdish people have survived strongly, in the face of tremendous odds.  They have multiplied.  They are a thorn in the side of four governments who want them completely subjugated and assimilated.  The Dersim people, who speak a distinct form of Zaza language, are sometimes considered Kurdish.  The main Kurdish religious and cultural identity in Turkey is Sunni Muslim.  In Iran, Iraq, and Syria, where other Kurds live, some are Shi’a.  Dersim’s Alevi religion has Shi’a elements and is sometimes considered a heretical Shi’a sect, even as its religion is also formed by strong connections to the ecology (the Sun, the moon, water, stones, etc.)  With these differences which were not a huge problem in the 18th centuries or so, the massacres visited on the Alevi people, the Kurdish people, and the Dersim people is horrendous.  Indeed they are part of a long-term genocidal promise of nation-states.  Certainly Africans could not be Africans in the slavery days and either they became African-American, losing their original religions and beliefs and ways of living and their language, slowly becoming African-American.

The music of the Sunni and Shi’a Kurds, the Dersim people, and the Alevi faiths are also just a tiny fraction of the many beliefs these people have practiced and were persecuted for.  Many of the songs I heard were laments.  Some were fast and with dancing, others were mournful.  They are not songs of only ‘personal’ sadness.  It is much more historical, ‘deep’ – if I can use that word for now, and traverses the suffering of centuries and generations of loss, violence, torture, and being killed and killing.

I feel a kinship with the Kurdish, Dersim and Armenian communities simply for that fact.  I can relate to their uncomfortable relations with each other, themselves and with the states that govern them. Stateless peoples have survived but the state idea itself, continues to be something that brings continual un-freedoms and struggles.

They are examples of strength and survival, strategies and a reminder to us all.  The troubles they endure will exist as long as nation-states persist in governing along the same lines. The governing is done not alone.  Turkey, for example, is helped in its subjugation and assimilation of the Kurds through its multi-billion dollar military agreements with the United States and other Western powers.  The human rights violations against the Anatolian people are helped by the US turning blind eyes to their plight in favor of elite state maintenance and agreements.  Let us be mindful of their presence with us, and the difficulties of living with these histories.  And let us remind ourselves that most all of us in the world, came through the same histories in our legacies, but now we are born assimilated into our positions in the world.  If we are privileged, we don’t much recognize the other.  The ‘other’ who has to think about how to live with these forms of government today because they are still not compatible with their own lives. For most of the rest of us, we are born into it and adjust to it and do not see it as something urgently needing change.  For others, such as the Kurds and Dersimians, Armenians, Zaza, the Alevi and others, continue to be strangled by inconsistent and violent laws meant to tame them. How will this be done?  Let  us be advocates for liberation with them.

The picture above shows a standing doorway with lost walls, to a village home in the Ovacik district of Dersim (Tunceli) in the 1990s, one of thousands destroyed by Turkish state forces.  (my picture)