A na­tion that doesn’t ex­ist

Sunday Trust - - SUNDAY MAGAZINE - By Rhi­an­non J Davies

Alow, throaty voice worked its way through the city of Di­yarbakır, reach­ing fur­ther than it had any right to. Even without un­der­stand­ing a word of Kur­dish, I had no doubt about the sor­row it ex­pressed through its mourn­ful tones.

Re­garded as the cap­i­tal of Turk­ish Kur­dis­tan, Di­yarbakır (Amed in Kur­dish) is perched on a bluff over­look­ing the tur­bu­lent Ti­gris River in south-east­ern Turkey. I vis­ited in sum­mer when the heat was sti­fling, the sur­round­ing coun­try­side scorched yel­low. The sun fell heavy on the city’s fore­bod­ing black basalt walls, which ab­sorbed its warmth and ra­di­ated it back out again.

That lone sor­row­ful voice cut through it all, telling a story of love and loss, hope and de­spair

The city felt empty dur­ing the mid­day heat, but as evening shad­ows fell, a group of school kids tum­bled down its wind­ing streets kick­ing a flat­tened foot­ball. Head­scarved women shuf­fled home, pulling shop­ping carts over­flow­ing with a rain­bow of fresh mar­ket pro­duce, the range of goods be­fit­ting Di­yarbakır’s lo­ca­tion in the Fer­tile Cres­cent.

Fol­low­ing the sound I’d heard, I walked through the maze of Di­yarbakır’s nar­row, wind­ing streets. I spied glimpses of life through arch­ways that pen­e­trated the black brick build­ings and opened out onto court­yards. Fig and mul­berry trees pro­vided dap­pled shade. Cries of hawk­ers, barks of stray dogs and the beeps of car horns all bub­bled up into the sound­scape of the sun-baked city. Yet that lone sor­row­ful voice cut through it all, telling a story of love and loss, hope and de­spair.

Fi­nally, I en­tered through an open arch­way into the Mala Deng­bê­jan (House of Deng­bêj). Here, the smart, flag­stone court­yard of a beau­ti­fully re­stored, cen­tury-old house was the stage, stalls and gallery of an open-air theatre.

The sad­ness in this voice that em­anated from here is echoed in the city’s un­easy past. The area once known as Kur­dis­tan was di­vided between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran in a se­cret agree­ment between the British and French in 1916. In this state­less na­tion of between 25-35 mil­lion peo­ple, it is the strength of their tra­di­tions, lan­guage, cul­ture and shared his­tory that bind them to­gether.

Ever since the es­tab­lish­ment of the Repub­lic of Turkey in 1923, Kur­dish lan­guage and cul­ture have had to fight to sur­vive op­pres­sion and poli­cies of as­sim­i­la­tion as the cap­i­tal Ankara tried to unify the newly formed coun­try, while Kurds fought for their own state.

The scars of its most re­cent trou­bles - the 2016 clashes between the Turk­ish state and Kur­dish mil­i­tants - are still fresh. Much of the old part of Di­yarbakır was de­stroyed, con­struc­tion works cover its gap­ing wounds and large swathes of the city re­main fenced off as it is be­ing slowly re­built.

In the court­yard of the Mala Deng­bê­jan, mis­matched chairs were avail­able for vis­i­tors. In the back of the court­yard a dozen men sat in a loose cir­cle, their on­ce­black hair mostly whitened by age, creases dili­gently ironed into their short-sleeved, light-coloured shirts.

A stout man in a striped shirt and flat cap with a thick mous­tache was nar­rat­ing his story; a half­spo­ken, half-sung acapella epic. He leant for­ward in his seat mov­ing from left to right, look­ing around in a prac­ticed man­ner to en­sure his story was heard by all.

He raised his left hand to em­pha­sise points, while a string of prayer beads fell from his right, his fingers turn­ing the beads au­to­mat­i­cally. He per­formed for sev­eral hours, without once check­ing any notes.

His voice filled the space, more a sung poem than a song. The dis­tinct phrases were punc­tu­ated by pauses, with some notes held, other words re­peated. He was truly a mas­ter of his voice, vary­ing its pitch for dra­matic ef­fect. The au­di­ence lis­tened in­tently, some rais­ing their hands in ap­pre­ci­a­tion or ges­tic­u­lat­ing to em­pha­sise the points along with him.

The term deng­bêj (pro­nounced deng-bay) is a Kur­dish term that can be trans­lated as ‘mas­ter of the voice’ made from the words deng

The sad­ness in this voice that em­anated from here is echoed in the city’s un­easy past. The area once known as Kur­dis­tan was di­vided between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran in a se­cret agree­ment between the British and French in 1916.

(voice) and bêj (from the verb, ‘to say’) and refers to both the per­form­ers and to the art it­self. The per­pet­u­a­tors tra­di­tion­ally are trav­el­ling sto­ry­tellers that keep Kur­dish his­tory and leg­ends alive.

In Kur­dish towns and vil­lages through­out his­tory, peo­ple have gath­ered in houses to hear th­ese epic sto­ries. The ma­jor­ity of singers are men, although there have been some cel­e­brated fe­male singers, too. They may not al­ways be lit­er­ate, but they store great li­braries in their heads, gath­er­ing tales as they travel and car­ry­ing them on to reach new ears.

The deng­bêj tra­di­tion suf­fered un­der Turk­ish op­pres­sion. Ex­pres­sions of Kur­dish cul­ture and lan­guage were as­so­ci­ated with Kur­dish sep­a­ratism, feared by the Turk­ish state. Between 1983 and 1991, speak­ing Kur­dish in pub­lic was of­fi­cially banned and own­ing Kur­dish lit­er­a­ture or a tape of Kur­dish mu­sic was a crim­i­nal of­fence. How­ever, the tra­di­tion of deng­bêj never died.

“I think the deng­bêj art sur­vived be­cause the ma­jor­ity of

Kurds used to live in ru­ral ar­eas,” ex­plained Han­ifi Barış, a Kur­dish aca­demic from the Univer­sity of Aberdeen who has car­ried out re­search on this sub­ject. “Gath­er­ings at guest­houses, the house of a no­table per­son or the house of the deng­bêj was com­mon cul­tural prac­tice in the long win­ter nights in Kur­dis­tan. I grew up in such a house.”

Th­ese gath­er­ings, called şevbêrk (lit­er­ally ‘pass­ing time in the evenings’), pro­vided the deng­bêj with the se­cu­rity, pri­vacy and au­di­ence they needed to per­form their art.

In the early years of the 21st Cen­tury, Kur­dish-Turk­ish re­la­tions went through a pe­riod of im­prove­ment. In 2004, Ankara al­lowed the lim­ited use of Kur­dish lan­guage in state broad­casts; in 2009, the state tele­vi­sion launched a Kur­dish lan­guage chan­nel; and in 2012, school were granted per­mis­sion to teach Kur­dish as an elec­tive sub­ject.

The Mala Deng­bê­jan opened in 2007 as an at­tempt by the proKur­dish mu­nic­i­pal­ity to help both re­vive and recog­nise deng­bêj as a specif­i­cally Kur­dish tra­di­tion. The cen­tre has played a sig­nif­i­cant part in bring­ing it back into the pub­lic eye.

Open from 09:00 to 18:00, Tues­day to Sun­day, the Mala The Mala Deng­bê­jan opened in 2007 as an at­tempt by the pro- Kur­dish mu­nic­i­pal­ity to help both re­vive and recog­nise deng­bêj as a specif­i­cally Kur­dish tra­di­tion. The cen­tre has played a sig­nif­i­cant part in bring­ing it back into the pub­lic eye. Deng­bê­jan has no set per­for­mance times and serves as much as a meet­ing place as a cul­tural cen­tre. As I sat and watched the man sing, glasses of steam­ing tea clinked in their saucers and con­ver­sa­tions were mut­tered in low­ered voices. New peo­ple ar­rived and were greeted by a clasp of the hand and a kiss on both cheeks.

The recital songs - known as kil­ams - of­ten fo­cus on love or war, he­roes or traitors, and the di­vi­sions and re­la­tion­ships between dif­fer­ent Kur­dish fac­tions. They keep the story of the Kur­dish peo­ple alive, strength­en­ing Kur­dish unity by recog­nis­ing its strug­gle through its his­tory and leg­ends. As well as learn­ing the songs from their masters, deng­bêjs may com­pose their own, and are cel­e­brated for their lyri­cal skills.

“Deng­bêj songs can arouse emo­tions in me that no other mu­sic can,” Barış said. “Maybe it is be­cause I lis­tened to my par­ents singing them with great emo­tion. Maybe it’s be­cause I’ve been ex­posed to the emo­tions they trig­ger in peo­ple since a young age. I am not sure why they do so, but they do nev­er­the­less.”

Deng­bêj songs can arouse emo­tions in me that no other mu­sic can.

In the coun­try­side across the re­gion, deng­bêjs still per­form to small au­di­ences in peo­ple’s homes. Now le­gal, it faces a new chal­lenge in bat­tling against the lures of the tele­vi­sion (although a num­ber of TV pro­grammes give a plat­form to the art) and the pull to the cities. While there has been mass mi­gra­tion to Turkey’s ur­ban cen­tres, for those that re­main in the vil­lages, tra­di­tional ways of life pre­vail.

Baran Çetin grew up in one such vil­lage in the moun­tains of the east of Turkey, not far from the bor­der with Ar­me­nia. “It’s a beau­ti­ful place, but a hard life,” he told me. Aged 35, he now lives and works in Is­tan­bul. With some three mil­lion Kurds res­i­dent in the me­trop­o­lis, the city has the world’s largest Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion.

His un­cle, a deng­bêj, learned the art from his fa­ther, who learned from his fa­ther be­fore him. Çetin adores the deng­bêj tra­di­tion but ad­mits that his voice is not good enough to be con­sid­ered one; the best keep­ers of this tra­di­tion tend to be much older, hav­ing gained both ex­pe­ri­ence and sto­ries.

“When I lis­ten to deng­bêjs, I find my­self right in the mo­ment that they are singing about. It rep­re­sents all as­pects of life. You can feel hope, joy and melan­choly all at once,” he ex­plained, us­ing the Turk­ish word hüzün for the lat­ter emo­tion.

The No­bel Prize-win­ning Turk­ish au­thor Orhan Pa­muk has writ­ten about hüzün, de­scrib­ing it as some­thing more than melan­choly; a feel­ing of loss that also pro­vides a poetic li­cence to feel that way. “It is the ab­sence, not the pres­ence, of hüzün that causes the suf­ferer dis­tress,” Pa­muk wrote in his book Is­tan­bul: Mem­o­ries and the City. “It is the fail­ure to ex­pe­ri­ence hüzün that leads him to feel it.”

I lost track of time as I sat in the Mala Deng­bê­jan. Each bard that took the floor led the lis­ten­ers on a dif­fer­ent jour­ney through the chron­i­cles of Kur­dish his­tory. Even without com­pre­hend­ing a word, I was swept up in the sto­ries. For the first time, I un­der­stood what Pa­muk meant by his de­scrip­tion of hüzün. Re­cent years of Kur­dish his­tory may be char­ac­terised by melan­choly, but at the same time, there is hope. By con­tin­u­ing to re­count th­ese sto­ries, passed down orally from one mas­ter to the next, deng­bêjs will keep Kur­dish cul­ture alive.

PHOTO:

Mem­bers of Di­yarbakır’s Kur­dish com­mu­nity gather at Mala Deng­bê­jan to lis­ten to the deng­bêj singers’ kil­ams, or songs Terry Richard­son

PHOTO:

Baran Çetin: “I find my­self right in the mo­ment that they are singing about. You can feel hope, joy and melan­choly all at once” Terry Richard­son

PHOTO:

At Mala Deng­bê­jan in Di­yarbakır, deng­bêj singers keep Kur­dish his­tory and leg­ends alive umut kacar/Alamy

PHOTO:

Af­ter the es­tab­lish­ment of the Repub­lic of Turkey in 1923, Kur­dish lan­guage and cul­ture were threat­ened by poli­cies of as­sim­i­la­tion Terry Richard­son

PHOTO:

The kil­ams of­ten fo­cus on love or war, he­roes or traitors, and the di­vi­sions and re­la­tion­ships between dif­fer­ent Kur­dish fac­tions umut kacar/Alamy)

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