Why the authorities banned a Kurdish-language play

The district governor ban's on a theater play in Kurdish-language should be interpreted as a punishment against the Kurds for having voted for the opposition in Istanbul’s mayoral elections. Yet it is not only a punishment, for when the government throws a stone, it wants to hit more than one bird.

It has been many years since I last attended a play in the theaters of Istanbul. Yesterday, I hit the road to see a play that was to be performed in Kurdish. Not that the Italian playwright Dario Fo – whose play was to be performed - really suits my literary tastes, but as a Kurd who has been living in Istanbul for 45 years, I was looking forward to attending a play in Kurdish for the first time in my life. 

As I made my way to the play, I found myself smiling whilst passing by the Musahipzade Celal Theater, one of the main streets of Üsküdar, on Istanbul’s Asian side. I had attended countless plays there throughout my high school days. I’d never thought that one day, a Kurdish play would be staged in one of the city’s theaters. It seemed largely impossible to me. That was one of the reasons why I wished to see that play. The institution would have never considered staging a Kurdish-language play for much of its 106-year long history. So how could it have made this decision today?

‘If Kurdish is necessary, the state will provide it for you’ 

What is more, this decision to stage a Kurdish-language play was made at a time when the city was ruled by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the founding party of the Republic of Turkey, the one that had once banned my mother tongue, Kurdish. The journey from Istanbul’s Asian side, from the historic district of Üsküdar, to the developing working-class district on the European side of Istanbul, Gaziosmanpaşa, where the play was to be staged, did not seem long at all. 

I was halfway through my journey when colleagues from Gazete Duvar called me inform me that the police were present at the theater building. There were discussions and quarrels. “The play shall not be staged” they insisted. We did not immediately report on it first before understanding what was really going on as well as to await a possible reconciliation. But very soon, the district governor banned the play. 

While I did not expect it would be easy to attend a Kurdish play in Istanbul – something that had been unthinkable for 45 years – times had changed. Public television now features a Kurdish-language channel broadcasting 24/7. Kurdish plays had been staged several times already. The president, when he was still prime minister, uttered a sentence in Kurdish.

The state has boasted about printing a book in Kurdish. After all this happened, what was this ban about? Whoever governs Turkey, the administration becomes exactly like the singe-party era of the early decades of the republic. I remember that legendary sentence that was uttered by the Governor of Ankara in the 1930s when he scolded young leftists that had been caught by the police: “If communism is necessary in this country, the state will bring it. Who are you?” This principle remains valid for the use of the Kurdish language. But why would the state take offense when the Istanbul City Theater stages a play in Kurdish? 

An imminent danger: Kurdish   

I read the district governor’s decision in the hopes of finding an answer to that question. It refers to Article 17 of the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations, which is the following: “The regional governor, provincial governor or the district governor may adjourn or prohibit a certain meeting on the grounds of national security, public order, prevention of crime, to protect general health and general morality, or to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The postponement may not exceed one month. The event or the meeting may be banned if there is an open and imminent danger existing that a crime will be committed.”

What has a theater play got to do with this article? If “national security” and the Kurdish language have any affiliation, what is TRT Kurdi? Is it the state channel that encourages the Kurds to commit crimes or it is a crime in itself? Does general health dictate that if the play is in Kurdish, then the coronavirus becomes a danger but if it is in another language, then the risk is lower? As for morality, does a Kurdish play cause moral corruption? Or does it decode the immoralities? And what about the rights and freedoms of others? Is this about the right and freedom to crack down on Kurds and the Kurdish language? Since it is not a delay but a ban, then what is the direct and imminent threat? 

A topsy-turvy legal environment 

The other article it refers to is article 32 of Law for Provincial Administrations. The district governor would of course take precautions on those cases listed in this article but what do they have to do with Kurdish and Kurdish theater? 

There is nothing in both articles that would enable any ban for any theater performance; nothing is stated about language anyhow. Besides, there is no reference to Kurdish in the decision. There is no reference to anything aside from the name of the theater group. In fact, even the name of the theater group was misspelled. 

In a country where the Heavy Criminal Court openly ignores the decisions of the Constitutional Court, it is futile to expect any sensible legal justification in a text written by the police chief and endorsed by the district governor.

A secret constitution 

The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB) City Theaters decided to stage a play in Kurdish. The same municipality had also launched Kurdish language courses though they fell victim of the pandemic. The reason for that is that Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu was elected partly thanks to the vote of the Kurds. Moreover, wherever there are Kurds, there is Kurdish. Istanbul hosts millions of Kurds. Kurdish is the second most spoken language in the city. But that isn’t official, it is not in the public sphere. Everyone pretends as if it doesn’t exist. By launching Kurdish language courses and allowing for Kurdish plays, the Municipality of Istanbul has invited Kurdish into the official and public spheres. But when it comes to allowing Kurdish into those spheres, the state’s unwritten constitution steps in. 

In fact, this ban should be interpreted as a punishment against the Kurds for having voted for the opposition in Istanbul’s mayoral elections. Yet it is not only a punishment, for when the government throws a stone, it wants to hit more than one bird. The ban also stems from the nationalist and conservative grassroots of the Erdoğan-Bahçeli coalition. Moreover, it compels the CHP-led administration to make a critical decision, to either stand against the ban, thereby shunning the party’s anti-Kurdish current and causing internal party problems, or accepting it, losing the respect of its Kurdish electorate. 

Anyhow, the end result is always the same: Kurdish is banned. Some Kurdish work can be conducted in some places, at TRT Kurdi for instance, where the state selects the people it wants. The Tandoğan principle applies here: “If Kurdish is needed, the state will speak it for you.”

Dario Fo sleeps but the ministry does not 

Then, the Ministry of Interior spoke. Deputy Minister İsmail Çataklı shared this on social media: “Another lie and provocation. Kurdish theater is of course allowed. However, a play involving the propaganda of the terrorist organization PKK will not be allowed no matter whether it is in Turkish, Kurdish or Arabic. Those who allowed it will be prosecuted.” 

The text of the decision stated the ban had been enacted due to “information gathered from open sources” I wonder which open source said Dario Fo was making PKK propaganda? Is Dario Fo from Derik, a district of the southeastern province of Mardin, that you are so irritated? Have you read the play before it was staged? This statement indicates CHP and the Municipality of Istanbul will be accused of spreading PKK propaganda. 

Half a citizen

On my way back home, I again passed by the Musahipzade Celal Theater in Üsküdar. I wasn’t able to smile that time. I am loyal resident of Istanbul. I know every nook and cranny of the city. I get angry when its sky is scraped and when its seas are cemented. But this decision has told me I’m not considered from Istanbul. It threw me out of the city. It told me, “You live in Istanbul only, but you aren’t one of us.”  

This decision has repeatedly told all Kurds that they are not one of them. If we were considered a fellow townsman, in city that hosts millions of Kurds, there would have been a sign written in Kurdish. In those announcements made frequently in two or three languages, we should also able to hear a Kurdish version. In those city guides prepared in dozens of languages, Kurdish would have been included. But that wasn’t the case, as we aren’t fellow townspeople as “Kurds.” If we accept being Turks, everything will be ok. But until them, we are only “hemşo,” like only half townspeople, half citizens, something short of a full fellowship. 

March 24, 2021 A Turkey without Kurds