Long marginal­ized, Syria’s Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion sees greater au­ton­omy and a cul­tural re­nais­sance


Driv­ing through parts of north­east­ern Syria, Vian Khouzy points proudly to dozens of new road signs printed in Kur­dish. “It’s a dream come true,” he says.

The 33-year old works as a taxi driver in ar­eas con­trolled by the au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish ad­min­is­tra­tion in north­ern and north­east­ern Syria.

Be­fore the be­gin­ning of Syria’s war in 2011, “just be­ing Kur­dish was enough for the regime to ar­rest you and put you in prison,” Khouzy says.

Now he drives by posters of Ab­dul­lah Ocalan, the Kur­dish leader jailed in Tur­key. It was “im­pos­si­ble to see any Kur­dish sym­bols” in the past, he says.

Kurds make up more than 10 per­cent of Syria’s pop­u­la­tion, con­cen­trated in the north­east­ern re­gion of Hasakeh and parts of Aleppo and Raqa prov­inces.

For decades, Syr­ian Kurds were se­verely marginal­ized. Many were not given Syr­ian na­tion­al­ity and they were banned from speak­ing their lan­guage or cel­e­brat­ing Kur­dish tra­di­tions, like Nowruz, the new year’s fes­ti­val marked ev­ery spring.

In 2004, anti-regime demon­stra­tions in the Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity city of Qamishli in north­east­ern Syria were bru­tally re­pressed.

But it all be­gan to change in July 2012, when regime troops strained by the coun­try’s civil war with­drew from Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity ar­eas in the north­east.

A year later the Demo­cratic Union Party (PYD), the most prom­i­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Syria’s Kurds, an­nounced an au­ton­o­mous ad­min­is­tra­tive sys­tem in three “can­tons,” spark­ing a Kur­dish re­nais­sance.

The PYD’s armed wing, the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG), pro­tects Kur­dish ar­eas and has been a lead­ing force in the fight against the ji­hadist Is­lamic State group.

Now, at the en­trance to Qamishli, a large road sign wel­comes visi­tors in both Ara­bic and Kur­dish — some­thing unimag­in­able to its res­i­dents just four years ago.

A ‘child­hood dream’

“Ev­ery­one can speak Kur­dish, but a very small mi­nor­ity can read and write, since we were banned from learn­ing the lan­guage,” says Khouzy — who can barely read a few words.

In a lan­guage cen­ter in the town of Amuda, roughly 30 kilo­me­ters west of Qamishli, Mazhar Sheikho is beam­ing.

Notebook and pen in hand, he says he’s re­al­iz­ing his “child­hood dream.”

“I am proud to learn my mother tongue at an aca­demic level,” says the 45-year old, step­ping out of a gram­mar exam at the cen­ter.

The de­mand for Kur­dish lan­guage classes was so high that the cen­ter was forced to split stu­dents into morn­ing and evening ses­sions.

“We opened the cen­ter in 2011. It was very dan­ger­ous be­cause at that time this area wasn’t con­trolled by Kur­dish forces,” says Sar­dar, an em­ployee at the cen­ter.

“We didn’t have much, but we wanted to open it at all costs.”

Since then some 50 sim­i­lar lan­guage cen­ters have opened in the “Jazire” can­ton in Hasakeh province.

“We used to learn Kur­dish gram­mar in se­cret,” says Delsha, a woman in her 50s car­ry­ing a black brief­case.

“I’m here to­day to learn it se­ri­ously, and to teach it to my chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.”

Syria’s Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion has strived to re­main neu­tral to­wards the em­bat­tled regime of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, which is fight­ing a multi-front war against dif­fer­ent rebel groups.

To win their fa­vor, As­sad granted tens of thou­sands of Kurds na­tion­al­ity in the early days of the anti-regime re­volt.

The Univer­sity of Damascus also added Kur­dish to its lan­guage depart­ment last year.

The Kur­dish Voice Broad­casted

In the pop­u­lar mar­ket in Amuda, con­sid­ered the po­lit­i­cal hub of the Kur­dish au­ton­o­mous ad­min­is­tra­tion, store­fronts are packed with tra­di­tional Kur­dish cos­tumes and flags.

“In the past, selling a Kur­dish flag was more dif­fi­cult than selling drugs,” says shop owner Ah­mad Bozo.

“We no­ticed a huge de­mand for tra­di­tional Kur­dish clothes since 2012, af­ter the grad­ual with­drawal of the regime from the city,” he says.

“To­day, we can sell with­out re­stric­tions.”

Syr­ian Kurds are also ex­press­ing their new­found cul­tural free­doms on the air­waves.

Ron­ahi TV was founded at the end of 2012 in Amuda and is the only Syr­ian satel­lite chan­nel that broad­casts in Kur­dish.

“We have 50 em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing Arabs. Over 24 hours we present more than 25 po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural, and so­cial pro­grams in Kur­dish and Ara­bic,” says Zalal Bin­isi, the chan­nel’s di­rec­tor.

“We try to broad­cast the Kur­dish voice to the world.”

In one of the sta­tion’s three stu­dios, jour­nal­ist Rudi Mo­ham­mad Amin pre­pares for his weekly dis­cus­sion on so­cial prob­lems in the au­ton­o­mous ar­eas, don­ning tra­di­tional Kur­dish wear of large, loose black pants and a blue shirt cov­ered with a vest.

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