On the Trails of a Banned Language Kurdish Female Voices; photo credits: Georg Cizek-Graf

On the Trails of a Banned Language

September 23, 2020

Written by:

Sakina Teyna

Edited by:

Adar Erd

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The tradition of oral expression known as a dengbêjî, the job of a dengbêj – a ‘soundteller’– lies at the foundation of traditional Kurdish music and is the only path to survival of a language facing extinction. For Kurds, being deprived of any written sources, this poetic artful style of lyrics and rhythm by the dengbêj was a unique method of preserving their language and culture to this day.

Many melodies sung in this tradition belonged originally to women. Although it was mostly women who have been using these melodies as a vehicle of self-expression, for instance to lament the loss of their sons and husbands in endless wars, it was always men who carried these works over to the dengbêj Divan (assembly). Due to religious and other conservative traditions and beliefs, women could only raise their voice behind closed doors, silently. Music is one of the many fields in which Kurdish women fought countless battles to be a part of, but somehow they have managed to get their voices out from behind closed doors and deaf walls.

This is my journey of discovering a language that was hidden, forbidden, feared and despised. This is the story of my quest for the heritage of hidden female dengbêjs, how I connect with these voices, and what influence did/do they have on my musical journey; the story of dengbêjî and the emerging voice of Kurdish women as well as my personal musical Odyssey.

This isn’t only my story! – “Zonê ma”

Let’s go back to the late 70s, to my childhood. At my family home we speak a language that we call Zonê ma or zimanê me – ‘our language’. Except for teachers, civil servants, the police and the military who come from elsewhere, everyone in the town speaks ‘our language’. We speak a different language at school. Every morning the whole school population shouts out a text called ‘our oath’ before entering classrooms. In every sentence, we repeat what a ‘glorious race’ ‘we’ belong to, through the veins of whom only pure noble blood flows. We speak the language of this noble race and receive education in this language which has surprisingly nothing in common with Zonê ma. They feel like two entirely different worlds.

Here is a child oscillating between these two worlds, asking questions nobody can answer. Both of these worlds are based on a social, educational, socio-political system that forbids asking questions and encourages adherence to its rules and ‘values’ without questioning. “The speakers of ‘our language’” are heavily dominated by a profound fear: a profound and evident fear. They are people who want their children to speak Turkish flawlessly but speak their own language hushedly and somewhat discreetly; only behind locked doors and only with those you know.

In those years, everyone had battery-operated radios at home. In the evening, these radios were turned on, antennas extended in different parts of the house, in an effort to locate the best signal for ‘that radio station’. When that radio station is found, there appears on the faces of adults a visible joy coupled with pain and concern. The sound of the radio is muted whenever children enter the room. What is called ‘our language’ is deemed as perilous, thus confidential. What is spoken on this radio and the songs sung there were in ‘our language’ – zonê ma. A language that bears no resemblance to that spoken on Turkish radios or on the old tube TV that had just arrived in town. A language that is forbidden, hushed and feared. A language that is considered a danger, a threat.

 Sakina Teyna; photo: Derya Schubert Gülcehre
Sakina Teyna; photo: Derya Schubert Gülcehre


Other places where one can hear songs in ‘our language’ are weddings and funerals. Some men and women are invited to funerals as “weepers”. This is still a very vivid tradition. These funeral weepers grieve via songs the loss of the newly deceased or/and that of their own loved ones. The lyrics of these songs, sung in freestyle, feature descriptions of the deceased as well as the special events in their lives. Weddings are different. Electric power supply is very limited in villages. In rainy weather, for their weddings people would gather in a large room in the village which they enlighten with a lamp that is called Lux (oil lamp). When the weather is nice, hundreds of people would get together in the largest village square. Dahol û Zurna (names of the two instruments; dahol being similar to a huge drum and zurna to a woodwind instrument similar to the Armenian duduk) are indispensable for these weddings. After the Dahol û Zurna musicians' lively performance, the stage would be left to those lyrical singers who I later found out to be the dengbêj.

In the govends (Kurdish folk dances) where hundreds of people hold hands and perform intricate dance figures in harmonious rhythms mostly in a circle, a group sings a rhyme of a song first, and then leaves it to another who takes over from the last line and repeats it even more euphorically in the form of a response. This somewhat competitive response style can be found across the wider landscape of Anatolia in the traditional music of folk poets. I vividly remember watching with great admiration people singing songs in absolute harmony, performing unmistakable repetitions.

Even though people are just holding hands, singing and dancing in a circle, it is common for them to be surrounded by armed police or other military and have machine guns pointed at them. Yes, ‘our language’ is dangerous and feared greatly by some. Not only in wedding parties but in all areas of life, all those in khaki uniforms are a source of fear and horror, no matter what their rank is. There is an evident polarisation. We and them. Who are they? Who are we? Why all this intimidation? Questions, questions…

My mother used to tell people how I–as a child–learnt by heart all the songs I heard on the radio only once. Ever since I've known my own self, music has always been a part of my life. My family adhered to the Alevi faith, of which the most important ritual was music. The Semah (a spiritual dance with music in Alevi rituals) always accompanied by songs called deyish that featured significant depth of philosophical meaning. The instrument called saz/tembur hung on the wall at home throughout my childhood. All eight members of my family would join the evening gatherings where we collectively sang these songs. I mostly performed as the soloist of the huge round guest table which witnessed a feast of food, drinks and music until the late hours of the night.

Insolent act of treachery

Every school week started by hoisting up the Turkish flag up the pole and ended by lowering it with a ceremony everyone attended and the national anthem “of independence” was fervently sung. The military system also sharply influenced the education system. During the few minutes the anthem lasted, even a tree leaf shouldn’t move and pupils who did move would face punishment.

Music, regardless of human language, will find its way into the soul even before you know it and perform its magical touch – sometimes gentle, sometimes stormy – and fill you sometimes with joy, sometimes with sorrow.

The greatest bewilderment I experienced then was why would music – a universal language of all the living – be welcomed in Turkish but met with suspicion and fear when sung in zonê ma – ‘our language’? When I was in secondary school, I remember how a classmate asked our history teacher why songs were sung in all languages on the radio but not in ‘ours’. I cannot forget the anguish, the silent embarrassment on our teacher's face, who in fact was a good person. “Do not ask such questions, my child” said he, quickly changing the topic. As a matter of fact, our classmate was lucky, considering there were many teachers eager to punish such “an insolent act of treachery”. Such was the qualification for any mention of ‘our language’, or ethnicity for that matter.

Then tape-players made their way into our village home but the music heard with great interest in everyone’s home remained exclusively Turkish. Every household had a cache of tapes in ‘our language’ carefully wrapped and hidden in places such as the garden or charcoal-storage. Turkish music tapes were generously and visibly displayed, of course. Every person born in Turkey experienced in those days a military coup once a decade or so, from which I too had my fair share. I remember my father, who was a night guard at the post office, calling my mother at midnight, asking her to alert some neighbour who might have tapes and political books in their homes. Incidentally, these tapes need not necessarily have a political nature. Even a love song was perceived as risky, if sung in ‘our language’.

One day when my brother returned from Istanbul, where he studied at university, he started a heated debate about our taboos, opening my eyes – for the first time in my life — to the fact that what we call ‘our language’ was Kurdish and where we live was actually Kurdistan. The phenomenon of Kurdishness, which I had overheard several times was something despised as an unpleasant taboo that only deserved humiliation. That was what my brother was vehemently arguing about with my mother, revealing why the Kurdish language and identity was being treated as such. He pointed out the elephant in the room. Nevertheless, the debate was dismissed with a very harsh statement by my mother: “We are not Kurds. I don't want to hear this nonsense again!” – followed by a lengthy and stony silence…

The songs sung by my brother, who brought many new tape cassettes in Turkish, were different, addressing various social issues. As the songs I listen to changed, my questions changed, too. Now the questions I bottled up in my subconscious mind were growing impatient to find their answers.

“Mountain Turks" and K...n

The first time I lived outside my home town was for university education. I joined an amateur student group of singers at uni. Owing to the political environment there, I almost immediately found out the undeniable fact that I was indeed Kurdish. I soon added Kurdish songs–for the first time–into my repertoire. I sang in Kurdish in musical events organised by students. Every concert was full of action. I bitterly recall how my friends would be waiting in a vehicle at the back door to rush me into safety right after my performances. I would reappear only after a few days of hiding.

From the early 90s, I found answers to all my questions one by one. The rise of Kurdish Freedom Movement led to a popular awakening and promising developments both in university and political spheres. Despite strict bans, people started singing songs in their own languages, writing articles and standing up for their rights. I pursued the reasons why my language was banned; and I came across a hair-raising history of draconian policies of annihilation and assimilation, brutally implemented on multiple ethnic cultures and languages in the country. I learnt about Mesopotamia, the historical cradle to numerous civilisations and cultures, and about Kurdistan, for the first time outside and beyond the official narratives of history.

I spent my childhood and youth under ethnic oppression and a state policy that dictated that there is no Kurdish ethnicity nor a language with that name, neither a country called Kurdistan. They preached that Kurds were mountain Turks, and what they spoke was mountain Turkish.

But now I am fully aware that about the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne divided Kurdistan into four parts, which are located namely in current-day Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq; Kurmancî, Soranî, Kirmanckî and Goranî dialects spoken in Kurdistan, and that Kirmanckî is what my childhood knew as ‘our language’.

In the 90s, it was forbidden to write the word 'Kurdistan' in newspapers. Instead 'K…n' was allowed. A capital 'K', a lowercase 'n' and three dots in between. Apparently that didn't feel so threatening to the authorities as the fully spelt K-u-r-d-i-s-t-a-n. Whoever opted for the latter spelling would be treated as criminals and face severe punishment.

Such was the case with Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman MP elected in 1991, who decided to confront the authorities. When taking the oath for parliament, Ms Zana spoke in Kurdish, partly translating the oath, and wore the three Kurdish ethnic colours (green, red and yellow). Her language and clothing provoked outrage among the Turkish MPs. Her Kurdish presence caused strong denouncements. She was labelled a separatist and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison (of which she served ten), despite her parliamentary immunity.

Turkification of traditional folk songs

Back in those days, it was forbidden not only to speak, to sing, to do politics in Kurdish but also even to whistle the melody of a Kurdish song. It may sound absurd, ridiculous and even incredible but the famous Kurdish sage Musa Anter, later murdered (aged 72) by a state intelligence agency, was once brought before a court on the grounds that he whistled in Kurdish, which led to a sentence. He later wrote that notorious quote by police officers who told him: "you surely have a radio and tape player. Well, then, you son of a dog, why would one whistle in Kurdish while there are so many beautiful Turkish records (songs)?" (probably referring to 'whistling a Kurdish tune’).

The most well-known Kurdish singers had to flee their own country and homes so they could perform their art in different parts of the world, in exile.

Even though this article is about the Kurdish Music, before going further it is important to say that every fellow country(wo)man who was not Turkish-Muslim-Sunni has a story of persecution to tell, which unfolds on two levels: language and culture. In the new Turkish-Sunni-Muslim world, otherness had bitter consequences. Following the proclamation of the modern Turkish Republic, traditional songs belonging to indigenous peoples of Anatolia and Mesopotamia were systematically made Turkish by the state and marketed as such. To perform this task (of turkification or turkicisation), special commissions were established. These would detect the entire country at regular intervals to determine songs to be turkified. This cultural genocide was called "compilation of ‘our’ folkloric works."

The official result is now that 40 different ethnic groups created only Turkish music, even the Kurdish communities who spoke no Turkish at all. It is particularly tragic, and somewhat ironic, that after this practice some of the turkified musical works (translated into Turkish) are performed by Kurdish singers and enjoy exclusive success in the popular "Turkish cultural arena". When the original versions of these works were unearthed years later, it brought, on the one hand, consolatory joy of taking back what was stolen from you; and unveiled, on the other, the true dimensions of cultural genocide and assimilation, that is, great sorrow.

Sakina & Friends; photo: Georg Cizek-Graf
Sakina & Friends; photo: Georg Cizek-Graf

Women’s Voice – Testimony of Songs

Another historical wound with many secret documents in dusty archives is related to the Dersim massacre (1937-1938). The way the military operation and subsequent assimilation of Alevi Kurds in Dersim was carried out is worth examining. The Dersim massacre, which still has many living witnesses, is still a taboo. The exact number of victims and those exiled to non-Kurdish western provinces is still unknown. Even leaked official figures – which certainly don't reflect the full scale – are horrific enough. According to public historical records, tens of thousands were killed by chemical weapons, and thousands of remaining women and children sent into exile. A recent documentary film narrates the story of girls whose relatives were massacred and who were sent as servants to military officers' families and raised as Sunni-Muslim Turks, making sure they forget their past.

The narration of the Dersim massacre to future generations, too, was only possible through the tradition of verbal expression. Every line in elegies for Dersim is a testimony. The historical narrative researcher Yektan Türkyılmaz (Lecturer at University of Cyprus – Department of Turkey and the Middle East Studies) underlines the elegy Derê Laçi (sung by Weliyê Wuşenê Yimamî – orig. Laç Deresi Ağıdı) as an expressive masterpiece of historical narrative of carnage and trauma, rather than just a musical performance. He emphasises how striking it summarises in twenty lines the entire century's social networks, conflicts, tensions and the genocide in great detail, qualifying it as a remarkable testimony. So much so that the official narrative which the century-old modern Turkish Republic has built up and taught many generations is shattered to pieces in a few lines of a single lament.

This revelation led me to embark on a new journey to find answers to questions about discrimination due not only to my ethnic but also my gender identity. At every stop, every roundabout, I find some answers and ask new questions. Every new melody I learn, every new story I listen to sheds more light, opens new horizons.

A major destination on my itinerary was to learn my mother tongue and make it the language of my songs. I continued to explore the tradition of Dengbêjî in all its forms all over Kurdistan, especially common in Serhat, Botan and Behdinan provinces. This tradition is not only a musical performance, but also a mighty narrative that acts as the social-national memory of the Kurds, rather than the conventional history narrative that focuses only on documents and archives.

These storytellers, the dengbêj, are men. In the long cold nights of forgotten Kurdish towns behind the snowy mountains these musical stories served virtually as unique entertainment. A prominent aspect of this art is the bare voice technique. No instrument is used. Astonishingly, each region features a distinct vocal structure or ‘voice colour’. The phonetics of utterances varies, depending on whether the region is mountainous or lowland, e.g. gentler in the plains and harsher in the mountainous areas.

Voices behind locked doors

After I started perceiving these nuances, I realised most of these storytellers are actually women who, for instance, sang for an anti-state rebel who took to the mountains; a brother or father lost in a tribal conflict or sometimes as a protest against traditional customs that victimised women who preferred suicide to forced marriage. These were the voices of women behind closed doors, invisible due to harsh repressive customs. Women were not allowed to appear in Dengbêj Divan (assembly) due to restrictions on religious and traditional grounds, which meant that their songs could only be performed by men. Their laments and love songs, aspirations and frustrations were confined between the walls they were locked in. They were only tolerated as mothers who sang lullabies to babies and lamented for their loved ones but not to perform publicly.

There were, however, revolutionary exceptions who deserve every admiration. Meryem Xan (1904-1949), for instance, who – at a young age – set out on a perilous journey across the River Tigris, becoming one of the first recorded voices and leaving a legendary musical legacy of hundreds of extraordinary songs in her very short life. Another inspirational figure was Ayşe Şan (1938-1996) who faced unimaginable persecution including from her own brothers who banned her from returning home, denying the visit to her dying mother. Even her dead body wasn’t allowed home, where she had asked to be buried– the price of choosing art as a woman, back in those days. Her voice has inspired many men and women alike who performed in Kurdish.

It is undeniable that today’s world is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. However, from the 90s onwards, Kurdish women’s struggle in multiple domains – including the political stage – started paying off and female Dengbêjs took their well-deserved place in the Divans (Assembly of Dengbêjs). And I humbly claim to follow their example, pursue their ideal and make their journey mine.

Trio Mara; photo: Matthias Drobeck
Trio Mara; photo: Matthias Drobeck

Dear reader,

I had a rough time writing this article, I must admit. I am aware of the occasional pedantic detail and certain issues hard to perceive for an "outsider". While giving my own short account, I also told the story of a country, a people, a language. Mine is perhaps the least significant, considering the story of my people: an ethnic population of over forty million men-women-children without any status and recognition. I hope you, dear reader, will not take this merely as a personal account, but rather as a cross-section of my people's tragic history as that is what it is: a predicament awaiting remedy, a history in the making. My journey of tracing my hidden language will continue. I will not cease to be the narrator of zonê ma that is no longer hidden with the songs I sing and the records I make. And with the belief that more and more people will open their hearts and listen to this story, I will not give up my dream of freedom. Hopefully I have managed to raise a few questions in your mind.

Translated from Turkish by Adar Erd

*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN
About the Author

Sakina Teyna

Sakina Teyna is a singer and songwriter of Kurdish music. Born into a Kurdish Alevite family in Muş Province, Turkey, she is now based in Vienna. She is part of the all-female TRIO MARA and has established the Vienna-based ensemble “Sakina & Friends”.

@sakinateyna sakinateyna.com
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