Newroz: Turkish névrose

This year, Newroz and the accompanying neurotic symptoms of the Turkish psyche may pass silently around the country due to the coronavirus emergency. The importance of this day, March 21, however, as all the signs indicate, will never diminish, on the contrary, it will continue to determine the future of the Kurdish and Turkish people in the country and region.

Newroz is a millenniums old near and central Asian holiday which coincides with the March equinox, traditionally celebrated mainly by the Persian and Kurdish people. For the Kurds’ collective identity, Newroz – beyond the beginning of spring – has a mythological, that is, symbolic, cultural and consequently political significance. 

According to mythology, a Kurdish ironmonger named Kawa rose up against the tyrant Dehaq by lighting fires on the mountains at the break of the spring some 2600 years ago. Although Newroz is known to be an ancient tradition and the word “Newroz” appears in Kurdish poetry since the 16th century, the association of this holiday with the myth of Kawa was initiated by the Kurdish poet Taufik Abdullah in the 1930s. Later, Kurdish historians traced the date 21 March back to the demolition of Ninova, the capital of the Assyrian Empire by the Kurdish Med Empire forces in 612 BC, With these mythical and historiographic associations, Newroz became an apparatus of Kurdish cultural revival and a symbol of Kurdish emancipation.

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm asserted that all nations are usually built through the revitalisation of long-forgotten traditions in modern times. Modern elites ‘invented’ or ‘imagined’ nations by discovering long-forgotten practices, which usually had ritualistic and symbolic character. These practices insinuate a natural continuation with a suitable past and aim at the instilling of certain values and behavioural norms through repetition.

Myth and blood

Until the past few decades, the date March 21 did not mean much for most of the people of Turkey. But since the mid 1980s, in parallel to the Kurdish revival, Newroz began to be celebrated en masse by Turkey’s Kurds, who were in the process of discovery of their long-forgotten ‘glorious past’. It looked as if a tradition was discovered and re-invented with new connotations in line with what Hobsbawm observes as the main features of a national revival.

Under this symbolic shelter, an armed conflict was escalating between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) guerrilla units, along with the development of a Kurdish political movement both in the Kurdish provinces of southeast Turkey and in the major cities, a major event of which was annual Newroz celebrations. Many books were published on Kurdish culture and history in which the legend of Newroz played a significant role. A variety of peculiarly Kurdish symbols, including the Kurdish colours (yellow, green and red); songs in Kurdish; Sheikh Said and Seyyid Riza – regional leaders who rose up in revolt against Ankara – as Kurdish martyrs; Abdullah Öcalan as their leader; along with the myth of Kawa, were blossoming around the country. Government viewed this revival from the outset as a matter of counter-insurgency, imposing punitive measures to suppress any cultural or political expression of Kurdish identity. Among these expressions, any attempts to demonstrate on the day of Newroz were quelled with violence. In defiance of the prohibitions, Kurds persistently tried in growing numbers to celebrate Newroz by lighting fires on the hilltops and mass demonstrations in the urban squares.

War and Peace: 1992 and 2013 

On March 21 in 1992, in the wake of the Gulf War, large Newroz demonstrations turned into civil uprising in a number of Kurdish majority towns and cities, which would be violently quelled. Hundreds of civilians were killed during the demonstrations. The PKK called this the beginning of the ‘Kurdish intifada’, marking the moment where the guerrilla warfare found significant traction among the Kurdish people.

Unable to cope with the growing popularity of Newroz protests, authorities revised their approach to the opposite pole, by an instant recollection that their Turkic cousins of Central Asia had a spring holiday called ‘Nevruz’. In March 1995, then Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller suddenly announced that not Newroz but Nevruz was in fact a Turkish holiday and would be officially celebrated in Ankara and the Kurdish provinces. Ceremonies were performed with the representatives of the Central Asian ‘Turkic Republics’ to mark the ‘sublime day of the nation’. The Kurdish national colours – red, yellow and green –the wearing of which is still treated as a political crime, were now declared to be ‘Turkish colours’. Since then, official Nevruz has been observed with military parades, official Nevruz fires and ceremonies emphasising how large and sublime the Turkish nation was. The Ministry of Culture has sponsored volumes of books, in which Nevruz holiday is glorified as a centuries-old Turkish tradition. 

Beyond that, ‘Nevruz’ was not merely a spring holiday but the day when the founding mythological event of the Turkish nation, Ergenekon, had occurred back in history, just like the Kawa myth of the Kurds. According to Turkish mythology, the Turks’ ‘golden age’ in their imaginary abyss, Ergenekon, was ended with famine and draught, which led an ironmonger among them to melt down the mountain in order to open a passage out to search for new lands. Reflecting this legend, in a message to the schoolchildren, the Ministry of Education declared the following on 20th of March 1996: “Nevruz is a Turkish holiday. Its origin is Ergenekon. Our ancestors celebrated this day for many centuries as the day of Ergenekon”.

When the Kurdish identity is denied, but the denial of New(v)ro(u)z becomes impossible to sustain, the only way to come to terms with the reality is introjection. It becomes part of Turkish folklore and a myth of the Turks, since the prohibited and therefore officially non-existent Kurdish identity cannot possibly have a folklore, myth or tradition as such. What is involved here is an aspect of nationalism, which appears very much like a neurotic symptom, that is beyond Hobsbawm’s imagination. It is nevertheless worth to note that Hobsbawm distinguished between the adaptation of existing traditions to new situations and the conscious invention of essentially ‘non-existent’ traditions to meet new needs. This distinction may be explanatory of the difference between the Kurdish Newroz and Turkish Nevruz (or névrose symptomatique).

Looking back over the two and a half decades of this official introjection attempt, the whole thing looks like a farce, with the provincial governor of Diyarbakır and local bureaucrats in suits jumping over a campfire each year to perform a “purely Turkish” ritual. On the other hand, the fire of Newroz has continued to grow each year, with more participation en masse in the Kurdish provincial centres and the squares of the major cities, including Diyarbakır and Istanbul, among others. 

Of the Newroz celebrations since 1992, the Diyarbakır gathering of 2013 is no doubt the most remarkable. On that day, the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan’s letter to people was read both in Turkish and Kurdish from the stage by the pro-Kurdish HDP deputies, declaring a cease-fire that included an end to armed struggle by the PKK. Öcalan’s statement that promised the beginning of peace came after prolonged negotiations between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government on the one side and the HDP deputies on the other, who were also representing both Öcalan and the PKK leadership based in Northern Iraq. The peace deal, however, would not last long, and by 2015, the Kurdish conflict would enter into yet another bloody episode, gaining at the same time an overtly cross-border character, particularly in northern Syria. Over a dozen of Kurdish politicians, consisting of the pro-Kurdish HDP deputies and the municipal leaders of the Kurdish provinces have been the most visible casualties of this regression to violence, including the party’s founding leader Selahattin Demirtaş and the two subsequent elected mayors of Diyarbakır, Gültan Kışanak and Selçuk Mızraklı.

This year, Newroz and the accompanying neurotic symptoms of the Turkish psyche may pass silently around the country due to the coronavirus emergency. The importance of this day, March 21, however, as all the signs indicate, will never diminish, on the contrary, it will continue to determine the future of the Kurdish and Turkish people in the country and region.

Reference: Eric J. Hobsbawm, ‘Introduction: Inventing Traditions', in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (1984).