Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Yiannis KANAKIS


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Speak low, sing loud.
Spoken and sung “discourses of Kurdishness” in Hakkari.

By Yiannis KANAKIS (*)

This is a picture of Hakkari. It is a city of about 80 thousand people. Practically all of them are Kurdish. This number does not include the very numerous police and military personnel stationed in the area. It does not also include the administrative and teaching personnel coming from other parts of Turkey.

This is Bulvar Caddesi, the main road of Hakkari, taken from the balcony of the apartment I used to rent. This part of the road corresponds to more or less 300 metres. It is the heart of the town. Here you have all the central shops, the town hall, some political parties offices etc. The end of it is marked by Atatürk’s statue.

I visited Hakkari some times in 2003 and 2004, and I finally decided to spend a longer period there to do research on local music. I lived in Hakkari from November 2004 to April 2005. I was supposed to leave at the end of September 2005, but I had various problems with the police, and I was finally arrested and escorted out of the Turkish territory in April 2005.

Hakkari is a place where the general atmosphere is extremely heavy –and, as I hear, it’s getting worse since I left. By heavy I mean that there is widespread fear among the population. 24 hours a day, Bulvar Caddesi is patrolled by police and army sections, and there are even small (and sometimes bigger) police tanks regularly going up and down the road. These tanks sometimes make stops of around 15 to 20 minutes each, at selected places, and aim at shops and houses with the big machine gun on their tower –they have aimed at my own windows on several occasions.

In just these 300 metres, there are very numerous policemen, holding huge machine guns as if they were ready to shoot. There are also secret policemen, some of them locals, following and reporting on everyone who looks suspicious (such as me, for example), and there are even video cameras at the top of tall buildings videotaping the surrounding roads and larger area day and night. All long-distance calls, from home or mobile phones, are of course recorded.

I mention all this not to take any position on the political situation in Turkey. This is really NOT my intention. I just want to show that, indeed, one of the prevailing sentiments in all social contacts is fear. Most people walk discreetly, talk discreetly, they always look around them to see who is watching… They avoid speaking about politics in the street or in other public places, such as cafés etc –and, if they do, they must be very careful.

This heavy atmosphere is reinforced by the area’s isolation. Let me give you a small detail to show how cut off the region is from the rest of the world: when the Pope died, last year, many people asked me if he was a Moslem. Every time I said “no”, they were surprised and asked: “but how is this possible, the TV said he was a religious leader”! It was hard, and often impossible for me to explain that there can be a religious leader who is not a Moslem. Most people’s world of references is highly localized, and I believe that this even concerns a very large percentage of local high school graduates.

It is not only the fact that the state borders established after the 1st World War cut off Hakkari from its geographic and partly cultural mainland, which is the areas to its south, belonging to Iraq. It is also the fact that it is one of the geographically remotest areas from Turkey’s main economic and cultural centres. Moreover, the political and military situation during and after the guerilla conflict has evidently reinforced this isolation.

Bulvar Caddesi’s two ends, to the east and to the west, turn southward and meet each other, not far from the centre of the city. They produce a single road getting out of the city, and this is the only road connecting Hakkari to the rest of the world. It slopes down towards River Zap valley and, 7 km later, it meets the police checkpoint which controls everything and everyone getting in and out of the city 24h/day. Until about three years ago, this police checkpoint was the limit within which people had a relative right to circulate after 5 o’clock in the afternoon.

It goes without saying that many local people didn’t trust me, could not understand why I was there, and had many problems with the police whenever they spoke to me or invited me to their houses –there have been numerous police interrogations and even a 48-hour detention of a local because of having spoken to me. But, by little, I was able to build a network of relationships with many locals, who took me to their friends and the network was gradually expanding.

Still, fear and avoidance were the primary reflexive reaction of many people who met me for the first time –actually, in some cases this attitude never changed. Many people told me: Hakkari loves you very much, but we are afraid.

In this relatively SILENT Bulvar Caddesi, which was so frozen of fear and of the extreme Hakkari cold, in this heavy and, let me say secretive atmosphere of generalized suspicion, there is a constant source of NOISE. Just next to the police station, there is a small shop selling music tapes and CDs. From early in the morning till late in the evening, there is very loud Kurdish music coming from a loudspeaker outside the shop. We are talking about all kinds of Kurdish songs, from dengbej-style to Ciwan Haco, Şîvan Perwer, Aynur and Kurdish pop. That’s just one metre away from the policemen on duty outside the police station. In this atmosphere of fear, it is tolerated to sing one’s Kurdishness rather than to speak about it. The policemen often look angrily inside the shop –the volume of the sound is, indeed, very very high and the policemen know that the music is mainly addressed to them. Still, the people working in the shop remain cool about it. Since 2003 they were given the right to play their music, and they have no intention of letting go.

I little by little got to know the people working in the shop –I was a regular client. During a meeting I had with one of the shop assistants at a café, I asked: “Why so loud?” The guy looked around and, when he saw nobody was listening, he answered: “REZISTANS. Resistance. We must show them it is not over. After all, what can they do? It’s only music from cassettes.”

It is such instances of Kurdishness in construction through music that I would like to present to you today. I will avoid the well-known festivals for the Newroz, Women’s day etc, which are, of course, very interesting occasions of negotiating, rethinking and reconstructing Kurdishness through music. I also prefer not to speak about the important part music has in the Kurdish satellite as well as local channels. I would, rather, like to focus on a couple of musical ways in which Hakkari puts into practice the construction of common identities. Or, rather, of common PERCEPTIONS of Kurdishness –through music.

For example, at one of the first Hakkari weddings I attended, in December 2004, I really liked the voice of one of the singers. It was a wedding within the Pinyanişî Aşîret, which is reputed for the particular style of its singers and dancers. I invited the singer to my place, and I asked him to sing something he had already sung in the wedding. He initially suspected I was a music agent working for one of the international music companies, so he was happy to sing for me. After a couple of songs, he asked me if there was anyone else in the house and, when I said “no”, he sang: (SONG # 1)

The song follows a traditional melodic and rhythmic pattern [I say rhythmic although the song is what ethnomusicologists usually call “free-rhythm”, but it actually does have a rhythmic structure]. And textually too, it is based on an old and well-known model, in Hakkari and other areas, on which the singer may improvise.

Most of you understand Kurdish better than me, so let me just say that he more or less said he has become old, he’s lost his teeth, he’s left all alone, and he generally speaks about the hardships of being old. And then, all of a sudden, he addresses himself to the Kurds. He says:

O, Kurds, don’t you see that the Turks wage a war against us?

Don’t you see that the Ecemi and the Arabs are also against us?

How were our dreams and hopes manipulated by Europe?

I asked him: did you, yourself, add the lines about the enemies of the Kurds and about Europe?

He said: No, they are old.

I asked: what does the reference to Europe mean?

He said: Well, it’s about Ocalan’s arrest. Europe played a very bad role in this affair.

I said: if the song speaks about Ocalan’s arrest, it can’t be very old.

He replied: Then, I don’t know.

Introducing a song with phrases about having become old and being left alone and the like, and then suddenly turning to some sort of more general positions on social issues is not uncommon in this kind of singing.

>>BUT, I must add that the singer, who little by little became a good friend, is someone who is particularly afraid to speak politics –much MORE than most other people. His local friends make fun of him because he even refuses to reveal which party he votes for in the Turkish Parliament elections. You see, he is a public servant, he has 7 children and he would for no reason risk his job.

But, as you see, this man, who will absolutely never speak of politics, can actually sing about it and become quite clear about it.

Let me repeat that, whether his own or not, I do suppose he slipped in the last lines of the song to insinuate something. Something he just couldn’t speak about –so he HAD to sing it.

I have seen time and time again that music can indeed help Kurdish people express such non-spoken (or non-easily-spoken) things. In other words, as Martin Stokes (who has done extensive fieldwork in Turkey) says, the message contained in songs, or transmitted through songs, may be registered at a different level compared to the spoken word. We may consider that song, and music in general, can often use codes which are not the same as in the spoken word.

Even this particularly frightened person perceives singing and his own role as a singer as fulfilling a different function compared to speaking. More things are permitted to the singer than to the teller. Even by the Turkish authorities. When someone sings, he or she can more easily claim that he is performing art, or “folklor”, rather than when he or she makes a political discourse. The liberty of the singer is of course not unlimited –far from that– but there are some instances in which he is expected, and permitted, to state or to insinuate political things. At any rate, the very act of singing in Kurdish is, by itself, often seen as a political statement.

In addition to that, more or less improvised lyrics such as the ones we just heard can sometimes find their way into the dance songs sung in weddings. Apart from the wedding space in front of the girls or the boy’s house, a group of men either climb on the terrace of the house or go to a higher place on the mountain side. Especially in the case of a family which has recently lost a boy or girl in guerilla activities, or a family having one of its members kept in prison, it is possible that the men insert such lyrics in the songs. There is a man leading the song by launching a phrase, and the others repeat it all together. They dance while singing, and there are no musical instruments.

BUT this is a huge subject, which could constitute by itself a separate study. All songs used in weddings or other gatherings, feasts, funerals etc. do perform, evidently, multiple educative and other roles. Singing or dancing enhance the already special emotions of the moment, they make people literally IN-CORPORATE information, and knowledge, by engaging in activities which involve emotion, intellect, AS WELL AS the body. Through the social roles entailed and negotiated, through the image, the sound, the lyrics, the rhythm, the movement patterns and kinetics, etc., such musical instances become a very powerful vehicle of establishing habituses (to use Bourdieu’s term). Such songs can also contain information which is gradually being forgotten ----today, that television rather than story-telling and singing occupy family evenings at home. For instance, in Hakkari, there are still songs about Bedirxan Bey, or the old kaçakcı, and other important figures that the very young are less and less aware of.

BUT, AS I SAID, the subject is huge, and I would like to put it aside for now to go back to Bulvar Caddesi, and to the human geography of the city.

To the north of Bulvar Caddesi, the city slopes up the mountain, and to the south it slopes down towards River Zap valley. More one moves away from Bulvar Caddesi, either upward or downward, more the human environment changes. Most of the old “Hakkarili” live and work at relative proximity from the centre, while the outskirts of the city have been created by newcomers, after the evacuation of the villages. The people who define themselves as “the real” Hakkarili, are those who have been living in the city for AT LEAST one generation –although all of them happily refer to their village past and to their zozan summers. Still, almost all of them call the newcomers “peasants”, “gundi”, and they say they are crude troublemakers, people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized environment.

I will use once more the same term of Bourdieu to say that there is, within the city, a conflict of habituses among Kurdish-speaking groups coming from different places within the larger Hakkari area. These conflicts are being added to the more general conflict of habituses comprising the complex habituses of the military, the police, the administrative authorities, the –usually young– teachers coming from different parts of Turkey etc.

>For the not very young generations, let’s say the married people over 40, both Hakkarili and newcomers, one of the common grounds on which they are building their patterns of coexistence is Islam. Quite a few older people told me that, in the last ten years, there has been a clear rise in religious observance in the city. Many newcomers are much more relaxed with religious matters. They simply follow their village’s religious practices, which might not, for instance, include going to the mosque –as there was sometimes no mosque in the village. These people can behave in ways which are intolerable for the “civilized” Hakkarili –even if their own mothers and fathers behaved in similar ways. For example, breastfeeding babies in public areas, such as out in the street, is extremely common in villages –but simply unthinkable in Hakkari. By-the-book Islam has thus arisen as one of the ways to find common grounds of acceptable behaviour.

The young, on the other hand, of both Hakkarili and newcomers’ families, have additional ways of constructing common ground.

One of their common grounds is, of course, school. Another is MUSIC. This is especially so for the adolescent boys and young men until marriage, which usually takes place between 23 and 28, and can go up to 32 or even 35 for young men who are especially respected for their families or political action, or wealth etc.

Let me first say that there are two music shops where you can buy musical instruments in Hakkari, while one may sometimes find a small number of sazes in one or two central stationeries. In the biggest of the music shops, there is a range of instruments going from sazes to synthesizers, guitars, ouds and blûrs. However, most young people who desire an instrument other than the blûr, usually order them from Van, or even big Turkish cities of the west.

According to a high-school arts teacher who, when I was there, had been living in Hakkari for 5 years, and also according to a local music teacher who has his own music school, young persons of 14 to 20, mostly boys, but also, increasingly, girls, have a steadily growing interest in taking lessons of musical instruments. Furthermore, the boys are more and more interested in participating in music bands, while both boys and girls attend more concerts of music “for the young”. Such concerts usually take place in indoor cafés, situated at the centre of the city, on Bulvar Caddesi, and it is becoming more and more acceptable for Hakkari girls, especially of middle and upper class, to go to such places, if they are accompanied by fiancés, brothers, cousins or friends that the parents trust.

When I lived in the city, there were 3 or 4 bands of young musicians, each containing 5 to 10 members, who describe themselves as “modern” musicians, or “rock” musicians, or “Kurdish rock” musicians. All these terms can be used alternatively. Some of them do sometimes perform in weddings, but they still see their role as amateur or even semi-professional concert players. The ones of them who play in weddings usually make up bands of 3 members: amplified saz, synthesizer and singer –one of the players can substitute the singer or sing together with him or her (actually the very few women singers who sometimes sing in Hakkari weddings usually come from Van). But in the case of café concerts, there are often bigger groups composed of saz, synthesizer, blûr, electric bass, classical or electric guitar, percussions and a singer.

Such café concerts take place quite often in wintertime, maybe once a week. And, as I said before, they are extremely important instances of reshaping and redefining a common sense of Kurdishness for the young of both Hakkarili AND newcomer families –because more and more these young newcomers are interested in participating in such collective activities. Contrarily to their parents, they have little or no memories of village life, and they are increasingly trying to integrate in the patterns of their environment. I have seen that some young newcomers, who go to this kind of concerts or, even more, participate as musicians, are seen by many of their newcomer peers as a kind of opinion-leaders, next to the opinion leaders who owe this role to their political engagements. Music is thus seen as an important means of socialization for some of them. And the underlying, necessary common ground is Kurdishness:

In these places, young people dance. It is, of course, not new to anyone that Kurdish “pop” or “rock” is not danced as in western discos, but rather follows simplified traditional dance patterns. But it is, indeed, new to the Hakkarili and newcomer youth to construct a space which is exclusively theirs, and to do so through “modern” music and “traditional” dance, combined in an exclusively “youth” activity and space.

So, again, if participation in political parties (essentially DTP and AKP) is one of the means offered to young opinion leaders of Hakkarili or newcomer families to make themselves visible and enhance their symbolic or practical role in the public space of Hakkari, MUSIC, produced or consumed in café concerts, is another such means, which is gradually gaining in importance.

This is a point upon which all my young interlocutors have agreed, in the course of a number of interviews I conducted with young musicians and audience. These interviews were held either one-to-one, that is, me and the interviewee or, more often, in small groups. They had the form of casual discussions, and they revealed to me that these music bands are much more than groups of common musical interests. Equally, if not more important is, for them, the perceived social function they perform, and the image they obtain, through it.

All those young people stressed the importance of trust among each other. This is a key-element in a place where trust is so fragile. It was very evident in group discussions, and it was explicitly pronounced in some individual discussions, that the performers systematically exchange ideas about politics and about Kurdishness, the meaning of being Kurdish. Almost all of them, musicians and audience, find that their musical activities constitute an alternative political act.

Of course, matters of adherence to a “youth culture” through music, as described for instance by Andy Bennett and others, are part of the game. As is equally part of the game the fact that, in such concerts, young people have the chance to meet, to flirt, to create a space uniquely for the Kurdish youth of the city, which is independent from family or Aşîret gatherings, school and official institutions. And there are many other considerations that we may have to take into account in order to have a more complete picture of these musical activities. But again, the content of the audience, as well as the kinds of music performed can show that such concerts do play a role in constructing a Kurdishness for the young.

For instance, you will never see, in such concerts, any non-Kurdish performer, listener or dancer. This is not the case in other places where the young gather, such as internet cafés or restaurants. There, the young locals, mainly boys but also girls, sit side-by-side with soldiers, military officers, policemen or young teachers from other cities. Even more: in these same cafés where you will find all these mixed clients, in the daytime as in the evening, the audience becomes strictly Kurdish whenever there is a live performance.

The usual repertoire performed in such concerts is rather predictable: Ciwan Haco, Şîvan Perwer, Kurdish pop and even, sometimes, Nizamettin Ariç. And the bands very often include well-known wedding and other traditional songs which they consider to be local, arranged for “modern” instruments. I asked some musicians why they include such songs in their café concert repertoire, and most of the answers I got can be more or less summarized in what a music teacher who also directs a local band told me. He said that these songs were “otantik”, authentic. “They express our very soul. We must not forget them, and the only way to do so is to make them ‘otantik’ for today”… I believe this new means of establishing, asserting and developing collective activity through music could be described as an emerging RITUAL ---one of the emerging RITUALS of Kurdishness for the young.

You may ask me why I use the word Kurdishness in general, and not a more locally-specific term, for instance, Hakkari Kurdishness or something else.

Well, one of the characteristics of musical consumption, production and reproduction is that the way in which the music and the songs are perceived is changing. For example, all this omnipresent, powerful imagery describing the mountains, the flowers, the zozan, the lakes –all these things, until the recent past, were perceived as descriptions of specific localities. Now, all around the Kurdish areas, through the influence of Kurdish TV channels, radio stations, published works, and also as an effect of the Kurdish struggles and of the new music market conditions, they now tend to be reinterpreted as characteristics of the whole Kurdistan, a unified Kurdish “territory”. A new space is now being constructed through these songs. And it is not only the description of the physical environment. A group of young researchers from Hakkari (actually: the only consistent group of young Hakkari-based researchers doing ethnographic work of quality, with about 15 –informal– members) insisted to me that the 4 “Dimdim” dance-songs still sang and danced in Hakkari weddings are just local instances of the general, centuries-old Kurdish NATIONAL heritage. Such “nationalizing” attitudes characterize the work of an increasing number of Kurdish researchers of very different origins. To many of them, music is a privileged point of departure. In Hakkari, such generalizing views on a national Kurdish culture corresponding to a national territory are new. For instance, young men in Hakkari, especially those who have had some involvement in, or contact with, the Kurdish struggle, in Hadep, Dehap etc, are eager to interpret all songs as parts of the larger Kurdish national culture. This is much less the case –if at all– with married women and older men.

I consider it to be out of the scopes of this presentation to try to draw any definite conclusions on the role of music in reinventing Kurdishness. I would just like to say that, in my opinion, Kurdish music can be an analytical tool of high value, giving access to complex and refined analytical possibilities.

Music is, of course, particularly important in all oral cultures, but the problems and challenges which have become specific to most Kurds, seem to enhance its importance in this period of transition to new ways of perceiving and living one’s Kurdishness. I have heard a thousand times the phrase “Şîvan Perwer has made me what I am”, or “our national music makes us what we are”, in Hakkari as well as in other Kurdish areas. And I believe that such categorical statements linking music to a set of collective identities in transition is, today, quite rare outside the Kurdish world.