Istanbul: A city that's accessible in 20 languages except Kurdish

Home to hundreds of thousands of Kurds and a destination for Kurdish-speaking tourists, Istanbul fails to offer services in Kurdish despite making available information in nearly 20 other tongues.

Ferhat Yaşar / DUVAR

The largest city in Turkey, home to 16 million people and a top destination for international tourists, Istanbul is accessible to visitors and residents in 20 different languages except Kurdish, the mother tongue of millions in the country.

Informational brochures, restaurant menus, healthcare centers and transportation in Istanbul are offered in up to 20 languages with English and Arabic being the most widely available.

Russian, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Greek and Portuguese are among languages offered in Istanbul, although Kurdish tourists, let alone residents, make up a significant portion of the city's visitors. 

Istanbul welcomed 545,905 tourists from Iraq in 2019, around 200,000 of which are thought to have come from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, neighborhoods of up to 3,000 residents in Istanbul are made up of Kurdish residents, with no Kurdish services offered in the areas. 

"Kurdish is spoken by almost six million people, but this fact is unfortunately ignored by municipalities and political offices. It's an unacceptable attitude for the municipality," said  Istanbul Kurdish Research Association co-chair Eyüp Subaşı.

The expert noted that Istanbul has historically been a multilingual and multicultural city since its foundation, that main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu had given promises of including Kurdish in the city's infrastructure but that he failed to follow through.

"If he really wants to serve 16 million people, he needs to acknowledge the fact [of Kurdish-speaking residents]. This is an opportunity for İmamoğlu and the CHP, they will suffer the consequences if they don't seize it," Subaşı said. 

The Istanbul Kurdish Research Association has been requesting meetings with Istanbul Municipality, the co-chair said.

Municipality fails to respond

The Istanbul Municipality failed to respond to inquiries from Duvar about the lack of Kurdish services, although the questions were sent to an address where the paper usually got replies from within a few hours. 

Municipality officials said that the matter was political and failed to reply for over a week to the following questions: Are there any plans to include Kurdish announcements on public transportation? Will there be Kurdish information available in museums owned by the municipality? Will Kurdish menus be created at municipal restaurants and cafes?

The Istanbul Culture and Tourism Directorate also failed to respond to inquiries from Duvar, as well as the Turkey Touristic Promotion and Development Agency. 

Meanwhile, the Istanbul Provincial Health Directorate redirected questions to the Health Ministry.