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Reviving Kurdish language in northern Syria

The self-administration in northern Syria is teaching the Kurdish language in a bid to revive it among the local population after decades of marginalization.

AMMAN, Jordan — The Syrian state has exercised “systematic policies at the highest official, political and security levels to annihilate the Kurdish language in Syria,” according to Kurdish writer and poet Omar Rasoul.

Rasoul told Al-Monitor that over the past decades, the Kurdish language was marginalized and banned in Syria. Anyone who had a Kurdish book or who attempted to spread the Kurdish culture by any means was arrested in compliance with a government decree issued in 1989 that banned the official use of the Kurdish language in Syria.

Today, the Kurds in Syria are trying to restore and spread their mother tongue in all spheres of life in order to have it witness an unprecedented renaissance within educational and official institutions.

As the 2011 popular protests in Syria were militarized and aimed at seizing power, the Kurds, led by the Democratic Union Party, formed in November 2013 a “self-administration” authority to govern their regions. They began to open institutions mainly aimed at teaching and adopting the Kurdish language as an official language, along with Arabic and Syriac, as per Article 9 of the Charter of the Social Contract — the self-administration's preliminary constitution.

The Kurds are spread along the northern border of Syria, known as Rojava. Their areas are subject to the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces and enjoy semi-autonomous rule.

It was not easy to adopt an official language such as the Kurdish one, especially when there is an entire generation speaking Arabic with only little knowledge of Kurdish. The self-administration used education, higher education and cultural bodies to teach new and young generations their mother tongue.

Samira Haj Ali, the head of the Education and Higher Education Authority in Al-Jazira province, which is under the self-administration rule, told Al-Monitor that the self-administration authority started its language revival project through the Kurdish Language Foundation, which “teaches Kurdish, organizes courses and trains teachers.”

“Teachers are now studying Kurdish at institutes and universities, and several Kurdish curricula and courses have been developed with the aim of promoting and developing the language. We are now doing some research at the Celadet Bedirxan Academy to learn more about the language content and rules,” Haj Ali added.

She added, “This research is of great help to us because the Kurdish language is used in four countries and there are different dialects. Chief among these are the Sorani and Kurmanji.”

Since its inception, the self-administration authority opened Kurdish universities and institutes for the first time in Syria. There are currently three universities: University of Rojava in Al-Jazira, Kobani University in Ain al-Arab and the University of Afrin in Afrin. In Al-Jazira, there are 17 Arab and Kurdish institutes aimed at rehabilitating teachers and educational staff, including a Syriac institute. The Kurdish-language program takes two years, but many Kurdish students are still going to regime institutions that are located inside the security zone in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakah, as the certificates issued by the self-administration universities are not internationally recognized.

“We will not get any recognition if we do not take the initiative to recruit and prepare teachers,” Haj Ali said. “We currently participate in exchanges with countries such as the Netherlands and France, which is the beginning of recognition. We must emphasize that we are still in the preliminary stages.”

While the self-administration authority is accused by its opponents, mainly the Kurdish National Council, of politicizing the curricula through ideology, making many people reluctant to learn Kurdish, Haj Ali said, “We do not politicize our curricula like the Baath Party does. Our system is based on the principle of a democratic nation.”

She added, “Everyone has the right to learn his mother tongue, culture, heritage and history. If we are accused of politicizing our curricula just because we adopt the thought of leader Abdullah Ocalan, the fact remains that he is a global leader whose ideology serves all components."

Rasoul criticized the self-administration methods as “an attempt on the part of a political party to impose its hegemony on the Kurds in various forms, and its aim is political rather than linguistic or cultural.”

He agreed with many researchers on the need to develop the Kurdish language based on the various dialects. A language, he said, can be primarily developed through constitutional recognition and then by being accepted and supported as an education language, “not to mention its use in different media outlets and in the different kinds of literature.”

In the past, the Kurds have faced harassment and even arrest whenever they used their language and acquired or published Kurdish books that are officially prohibited in Syria. In 2000, Jan Dost, a Kurdish poet and novelist, left his town of Kobani for Germany because of the harassment he suffered.

Dost had secretly published the first Kurdish-language novel in 1986 amid a fear of being arrested. His books were printed in Beirut, sold clandestinely in Syria at double the price and passed around among Kurdish readers.

“My first novel published in Europe was printed in 2004; I had an indescribable feeling of freedom. It is as if a baby was born without any obstacles or fears,” Dost told Al-Monitor. “I received the copies by mail and this was not common in Syria, where the copies were secretly distributed and handed over by hand.”

Dost published seven novels and many poetic works, and his works were translated into Arabic, Italian, Persian, Turkish and Sorani.

He said that Kurdish is indeed politicized and needs rehabilitation so that all the Kurdish dialects are unified and based on a single alphabet. “The duality in persecution and the multiplicity of oppressors forced the Kurds to politically struggle for the sake of their language, not only in terms of the publication of dictionaries or the publication of language books. Politics was mixed up with the struggle for language.”

Azad Shirzad, a library owner in the northernmost city of Derik, said that the Kurdish people were directly affected by the banning of their mother tongue, which led them to resort to other languages and cultures.

Shirzad, who participated in a book fair in Qamishli last July and noted the lack of interest in Kurdish books, said, “There is a cultural alienation. Local readers are more interested in Western and Arab books than in Kurdish ones.”