Lezgîn Kitêbçiyan talks Kurdish issues in Turkey
Istanbul,  Turkey

What’s it like being Kurdish in Turkey?

Istanbul view of Galata Tower
Lezgîn Kitêbçiyan explains what it's like to be Kurdish in Turkey
Büryan Kurdish Food

The Place: Istanbul, Turkey (2/2)

“I was starting to learn more about Turkish society; its quirks, its nuances, and its fractures… the warmth exuded by locals to foreigners masked some of the divisions that separated them from each other… Erdoğan supporters, Kemalists, Gülenists, Kurds; different factions clashed with one another over everything from politics to religion to ethnicity. Rather than fight the biases, I resolved to embrace the diversity of opinion, and take everything that I was told during my time in Turkey with a pinch of salt.”

Read More About Istanbul

Two weeks into my “four day” stop to Istanbul, and I was still trying to wrap my head around the scope of the city. It was an urban jungle, its canopy formed of red and white political flags dangling from strings criss-crossing rooftops. Alleyways beneath them drew me in with their hypnotic allure, through twists and turns until I lost all sense of direction. As I wandered, the narrow passages became more and more crowded as people funnelled through them, and before long they seemed to take up every inch of space, flowing like a river. I didn’t so much feel as though I was strolling through a city, as I was being pulled through it.

Ahead, an archway. Rather than one of the hundreds of mysterious yet inconspicuous alleys and doors I’d passed before, this one was there with a purpose. Despite belonging to a building shorter than it’s neighbours, it dominated the street, as if everything I had passed had been built to to lead people towards it. Packed shoulder-to-shoulder and hemmed in on all sides, I could do nothing but drift with the current, as the entrance to whatever it was engulfed me.  The splashes of sunlight, the noise of cars and mopeds, and the squawk of gulls evaporated as the words “Spice Bazaar” loomed overhead and disappeared behind me. As the sounds of the city outside retreated, all that remained were the throngs of people, their voices and laughs echoing through a long arched hallway. It was like stepping behind an invisible, aromatic curtain. The scent of countless, unidentifiable herbs and spices toyed with my senses, swirling their way through the crowd. Either side of me, mounds of vibrant powders, seeds, and grains turned store fronts into rainbows of colour, and salesmen beckoned me over with promises of free samples of Turkish delight.

When I finally emerged, I barely noticed evening fall. Meandering back in the rough direction of my hosts’ flat, I had to carefully time my movements as I forced my way through a torrent of steaming people where my path intersected with another.  I emerged on the banks of the Bosporus before passing the tips of countless fishing rods that gently rose and fell from Galata Bridge, lines disappearing into the choppy waters below as dozens of fishermen lined up against the railings and waited patiently for Bluefish and Atlantic Bonito to bite. The warmth of the day remained for a while, and the energy in the streets never once faltered. That was a constant throughout my stay in Istanbul; I would spend nights in cafés drinking tea and playing backgammon until 1.30am, yet still the city remained abuzz.


Fishing Rods on Galata Bridge
Turkish man fishing from Galata Bridge in Istanbul

 – (Top) Fishing rods balanced on Galata bridge, the most popular fishing spot in Istanbul. (Bottom) A man poses while fishing for Atlantic Bonito before offering me some Turkish delight –


But beyond marvelling at an exceptional city in an exceptional country, I was starting to learn more about Turkish society; its quirks, its nuances, and its fractures. There was far more than met the eye, and the warmth exuded by locals to foreigners masked some of the divisions that separated them from each other.  I noticed that it was difficult to get a consistent answer to any question on politics, culture, or economics. Each one  was different depending on who I asked, a theme that extended to my research on the internet: Erdoğan is a dictator! Actually, no, he’s a little authoritarian but he gets things done. Kurds are treated well! Wait, but they’re arrested for singing their national anthem. Gülenists staged a coup in 2016! In fact, it was staged by the president so that he could declare a state of emergency and seize absolute control. The news? State-run and heavily biased. Freedom for other news outlets to criticise the government? Extremely limited. Even wikipedia, the most trusted and infallible of all online news sources, was blocked. Erdoğan supporters, Kemalists, Gülenists, Kurds; different factions clashed with one another over everything from politics to religion to ethnicity. Rather than fight the biases, I resolved to embrace the diversity of opinion, and take everything that I was told during my time in Turkey with a pinch of salt.

I eventually found myself sitting in a haze of smoke in a Kurdish café, in a moment of respite from the buzz outside. No sign hung over the door, it wasn’t on google maps, and I’d walked past it several times without realising it was there, something I figured was intentional. I’d heard so much about the contentious relationship between Kurdish and Turkish populations, and stories of ruthless oppression. Some had gone as far as to tell me that the very idea of Kurdish people, not to mention a Kurdish state, threatens the power and cohesion of Turkey. To some, the two cannot be reconciled and, in extreme cases, that could even lead to the flat out denial by a Turkish nationalist that Kurdish culture even existed in Turkey; weeks later, I’d be scolded by a local in Kayseri for daring to ask if a new friend I’d made at a teahouse was Kurdish.

“No Kurds here”, he snapped. “Turkish, Turkish, Turkish. Everyone here is Turkish”.

My new friend remained quiet, and looked away. It turns out that he was, indeed, Kurdish.

“Be careful with questions like that in front of people,” he warned as we searched for a different café, “especially in conservative regions.”

Talking about Kurdish issues anywhere in public was often done in a hushed and hurried voice, or not at all. So, I set out to find someone who answer one of my most pressing questions from firsthand experience: what’s it like to be Kurdish in Turkey?

Istanbul view of Galata Tower


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Lezgîn Kitêbçiyan, 28, Book-Seller

“I had a hard time because of my Kurdish surname. I use the real surname of someone else. It is Arabic and means “young book seller”. So my surname is Kitêbçiyan, and I decided to have this surname 4 years ago.

See Lezgin's Full Background

The full name that I use here in Istanbul is different from my real name. There was a rule introduced in 1984 that meant that people in Turkey had to have a Turkish second name. They would not allow you to have a Kurdish name. So my parents have Arabic names. Lezgin is a Kurdish name, but on my I.D. they write “Lazgin”, which is not my true name

 

It used to be that it was hard to have a Kurdish first-name, but now you can. But for surnames you don’t have a choice. I also use a different surname as a book-seller. I don’t have a shop, but I sell books online.

 

I had a hard time because of my Kurdish surname. I use the real surname of someone else. It is Arabic and means “young book seller”. So my surname is Kitêbçiyan, and I decided to have this surname 4 years ago.

I grew up in Mardin on the border of Syria, but we don’t actually consider that as a border. That border was created at the end of WWI. We have a lot of relatives on either side. There, in Kurdistan, we have another expression: “no fence, only mountains”. The place where I grew up was in the mountains, and my parents were from there as well; they told me that one day in the 1990s Turkish soldiers came there and told them “you have to leave! Otherwise, if you choose to stay, you will have to be spies for us.” So they moved to the city of Midyat which is a very multicultural city. There are Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Kurdish and Turkish people. But the Turkish are mostly police or officers; they moved there and are not from there. 

I decided to study public relations at university with a scholarship, and then I moved to Istanbul in 2010. Istanbul is also the biggest Kurdish city in the world! There are 5 million Kurdish people who live in Istanbul. 

At the end of 2017 I had the chance to go to Europe. I went to Serbia. There was a project for Erasmus+, which is a youth exchange programme. It was about religious dialogue, immigrants, and so on. It was a really good opportunity. I also went to Albania, Macedonia, Ukraine and Tunisia. I stayed in Tunisia for 2 months for a project on eco-tourism. I didn’t know much about combining tourism with protecting nature, but I learned about it there. All these projects gave me a lot of experience. Now I’m trying to apply to the European Solidarity Course.

 

I really liked books, and I used to read a lot. I started collecting lots of books to read at first. But then I started realising that the number of books I was collecting was more than I could read. So I began to sell them. I wanted to create a library, even if it was just for me and my future kids. First I did it at auctions. It was really fun to do that; it was a hobby, but then I got money from it! But unfortunately the people who live in Turkey don’t have much money. So the business was not so good.

Have you personally experienced any kind of oppression or discrimination due to the fact that you are Kurdish?

“…I knew that if I became a teacher, I would be fired; I would have been teaching kids geography and history, and I wouldn’t have been able to lie. If you don’t say what they write in the Turkish books, someone will tell the principle.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

If people see that I have a Kurdish name, it will affect my business. I never applied for a job with the government or anything, but I have a lot of friends who applied for jobs with names which are obviously Kurdish, and they never get called back. Even in universities where the professors aren’t so open-minded, they will give you trouble.

I was studying to be a teacher, but then I decided to stop because I knew that if I became a teacher, I would be fired; I would have been teaching kids geography and history, and I wouldn’t have been able to lie. If you don’t say what they write in the Turkish books, someone will tell the principle.

It’s not legal to open a Kurdish school. In 2009/10, they had a chance to open Kurdish kindergartens, but now they’ve closed all of them. There’s just a little education you can do in university, but you cannot guarantee that you’ll get a job if you do it. Every year, 200 students graduate with a diploma that says they are a Kurdish teacher, but then they don’t have a job because there are no Kurdish schools. It’s stupid to let them study it if you then won’t let them work.

 

I really feel that they discriminate. I was applying for a Masters in “Istanbul Studies” at Marmara university, which is a really good course. I wanted to do it because I am now kind of an“Istanbulian”; I’ve lived here for 9 years. I had a lot of information about the city; more than some who’ve lived here for 30-40 years. But they were asking some weird questions. They asked where I was from, and I said “Mardin”, and they said “what nationality?” I said “I’m Kurdish”. And that was the end of the questions. Normally they have to ask you what do you want to study, why and so on. Later they put up a list of the people who got on the course, and they didn’t choose me. I think it was about my nationality. I don’t have anything to prove it, but I heard that that happens a lot.

 

Who are the Kurdish people?

“As Kurdish people, we lived in Mesopotamia, which is a Latin word that means “between two rivers”… If Kurdistan became a country now, it would be Southeast Turkey, the North of Iraq, Southwest Iran and the North of Syria. Sultan Salim… gave the Kurds the chance to live in their own state, with their own rules and their own politicians. It was autonomous.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

As Kurdish people, we lived in Mesopotamia, which is a Latin word that means “between two rivers”. This region of the Middle-East was also mentioned a lot in the Jewish religion, because it was the oldest part of the world. Kurdish people lived there for a long time, 3,000-5,000 years ago. Now part of that region is called Kurdistan, but not all of Mesopotamia is inside that. We were living there when Byzantium existed, and it was part of the Roman Empire. When Turkic people came from Mongolia, they became the owners of that land, and they tried to control us.

In the 16th century, less than 100 years after the Turks took Istanbul in 1453, the Sultan Salim negotiated with the Kurds a lot. They made a deal in 1520. There was a border between Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Kurdistan, and the deal was to stand with the Ottomans against Iran, because Iran was Shia and most Kurdish people were Sunni like the Ottomans. In return, they gave the Kurds the chance to live in their own state, with their own rules and their own politicians. It was autonomous.

How did the Armenian genocide and WWI effect Kurdish autonomy?

“The Ottomans thought that if they attacked Russia, Russia would help Armenians fight for independence, seeing as religiously and culturally they are not that different from each other… The Ottomans knew that if the Armenians asked for independence, so would the Kurds and other groups too, and that would mean the end of the empire.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Germans and Ottomans made a deal to attack Russia. But in the East of Turkey there were a lot of Kurdish and Armenian people. The Ottomans thought that if they attacked Russia, Russia would help Armenians fight for independence, seeing as religiously and culturally they are not that different from each other. So before WWI, the Turks made a plan to exile all the Armenians who lived in that area. It was about 1 million Armenians that were exiled. Some Kurdish were exiled too. The Ottomans knew that if the Armenians asked for independence, so would the Kurds and others too, and that would mean the end of the empire. But they ended up killing a lot of Armenians, and also Kurdish and Assyrian people.

 

When they were exiled, if they didn’t leave they were killed. Who could protect the Armenians? No one. Who could protect their language and their culture? No one. So that was the idea behind the exile. You exile them, and then let them lose their identity, and their culture. They were telling the Kurdish and Turkish people who lived in that area, “if you kill 7 Armenians, you will go to heaven.” They tried to turn the Kurds against the Armenians. Satan seems innocent when you compare him to this kind of behaviour.

 

We have an expression “never believe an Ottoman”. It’s like Game of Thrones; they have a lot of tricks. A lot of Kurdish people were killed because they didn’t respect the Ottomans’ rules, and saved some Armenians. But some Kurds who were more religious did kill the Armenians. It’s because they were different religions. This thing about religion is so dangerous; if you believe something, you cannot be convinced by logic. Still now we have people in our land who are like this; they are racist and have phobias of everything.

 

After WWI, Russia and the Ottomans lost. The French and British had land in the Middle East, and they separated it, saying “this is my part and this is your part”. They decided to let the French take the Syrian part, and the British take the Iraqi part. There was a bit of fighting with Turkey, and there were a lot of Kurdish people who helped the Turks get their land. They had been promised that if the Turks got their land, they would give them the same rights as they had. But it was all a lie. I can’t imagine how people believed them at the time.

When Iraqi Kurdistan wanted to become independent, nobody helped them. Even when they had good relations with Iran, Turkey and so on. Because if they took their land, they knew that the Kurdish who live in Syria, Iran or Turkey would have done the same thing. And that story still continues to this day.


Lezgin waves the Kurdish Flag at Newruz

– Lezgin waves the Kurdish flag at a Newroz (Iranian New Year) Celebration in Istanbul, 2015 –


Is the Kurdish language criminalised?

20-30 years ago, they were not even accepting Kurdish as a nationality or a language for a long time. They said it did not exist. Can you imagine how stupid that was? If it doesn’t exist then how can I swear in Kurdish?!

See Lezgin's Full Answer

 After 1974, when my parents told me their story, they were always speaking with me in Kurdish. But I didn’t have any formal education in Kurdish. A lot of friends of mine were in the same situation. We all just learn the language from our parents. If you want to learn, you have to read books and write things yourself. If you have a book written in Kurdish language, it doesn’t matter what topic, you can be arrested. 10 years ago was a time of freedom for everything. You could have books written in Kurdish about anything. You couldn’t imagine banning it or burning it. But now, it’s banned.

 

We have the 10 books of Avesta; this is one of the holy books for us, because Kurdish people were Zoroastrian before Islam. They arrest people for having these. I was investigated for tweeting about Kurdish issues. But today I had good news: they are not going to charge me. But yesterday I was speaking with my friend about trying to escape somewhere, because I didn’t know what would happen. Still this process is continuing so I hope they won’t charge me in the future. So can you see how it is to be Kurdish in Turkey? 20-30 years ago, they were not even accepting Kurdish as a nationality or a language for a long time. They said it did not exist. Can you imagine how stupid that was? If it doesn’t exist then how can I swear in Kurdish?! 

How do you think Erdoğan has increased tensions between Turks and Kurds?

“The Gülenists fought with the Turks, but somehow the Kurdish suffered the consequences… A few years later, they arrested a lot of Kurdish politicians, and in 2016… Erdoğan declared a state of emergency. Then a lot of journalists, politicians and teachers were fired from their jobs.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

In 1999, they arrested a Kurdish leader in the Kurdish part of Turkey. He was a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader. Then, in 2003, the The Justice and Development Party (AKP) got power in government. In the beginning, the AKP leader, Erdoğan, was really nice. But there was fighting with the PKK all the time. Some of the AKP were trying to have a conversation with the Kurds, but it wasn’t helping. So things started changing. In the Middle East, leadership is so important, so if your leader says something, even if it is not true, the public will believe him. Erdoğan started telling people that the Kurdish are the enemy. He was losing his power, and he doesn’t want to lose his power, and so he started to act less democratic.

For 4-5 years until 2008, things were good and people were happy. I remember that time. Then the cooperation between Turks and Kurds broke down. In 2013 there was a fight with another organisation, the Gülenists. The Gülenists fought with the Turks, but somehow the Kurdish suffered the consequences. I will never understand that. A few years later, they arrested a lot of Kurdish politicians, and in 2016 there was an attempted military coup, and Erdoğan declared a state of emergency. Then a lot of journalists, politicians and teachers were fired from their jobs. It was horrible, a lot of them committed suicide because they couldn’t continue with their lives. If you get fired, you then can’t do anything. It’s like you’re in prison while you’re not in prison.

Even now, there was an election 2 weeks ago, and some had candidates win that then weren’t allowed to take their seat, especially in the Kurdish region. The person who came in second place was given the seat. Who was in second place? The AKP, Erdoğan’s party.

Why do you think Turkey is so against granting independence or autonomy to Kurdish people?

“When you ask a Turkish person if they want to keep this land, they will say “yes, I want it.” But if you ask why, they will just say “because this is our land”. Motherf****r, this is not your land!”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

I will never understand why the Turkish people and Turkish state want to keep this land. We don’t have oil, we don’t have anything, why do they need to keep it? When you ask a Turkish person if they want to keep this land, they will say “yes, I want it.” But if you ask why, they will just say “because this is our land”. Motherf****r, this is not your land! They know this is not their land. When you go back in time, there are a few ways you can prove whose land it is.  One is if you check what people are buried in the cemeteries, and what language the cemeteries use. This tells us it is Kurdish. So I will never understand why they want the land. I guess the Kurdish region also provides Turkey with workers that they can pay very little, that’s another thing. 

As a Kurd, do you feel represented in Turkish politics?

“I don’t feel represented in politics here at all. Even in the Kurdish party, I don’t believe they represent me. I don’t agree with them on a lot of things. They want to be a part of Turkey. But we aren’t Turkish!”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

I don’t feel represented in politics here at all. Even in the Kurdish party, I don’t believe they represent me. I don’t agree with them on a lot of things. They want to be a part of Turkey. But we aren’t Turkish! Why do we keep trying to live alongside them? If it’s not working, we should go our separate ways. Let’s try something else! There are some main things like freedom of language, for journalists and education that we need in our lives.

The last local elections were in 2014; we voted for our local candidates, and they won. In 2015, one year after they were elected, the Turkish government changed the rules so that the governors choose those officials, instead of people voting. So it was another cheat. This is happening everywhere in Turkey, not just Kurdistan.

Do most Kurdish people want to see an independent Kurdistan?

“…you are forcing people to not speak their language, to not know their cultures, and then you ask them “do you want independence?” It’s unfair to ask that question directly. We have to explain to people what we are missing.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

If you asked pretty much any Kurdish person, they would want a free Kurdistan. They asked this question in a survey of Kurdish people who live in Iraq, and 93% of them said “yes, we want independence”. But it depends, because now we’re living in a state of emergency, so a lot of people will get scared of saying what they really think. To keep what they have, some of them would lose who they are, their identity, and say they don’t care about Kurdistan. They just want their money. A big part of this stuff is about finance. If you have money, you won’t answer that question because you’re scared of losing it.

But for me, you can have £1 million, but if you don’t have a culture, a language, or you can’t sing your national songs, then that money isn’t important. Now a lot of people have not had all those things for a long time. Can you imagine, you are forcing people to not speak their language, to not know their cultures, and then you ask them “do you want independence?” It’s unfair to ask that question directly. We have to explain to people what we are missing. Some people have forgotten what it means to be Kurdish. Some will say “we like Erdoğan and Turkey.” How can they say that? Just 3 days ago, some Kurdish women went to visit their sons in prison, and they were being pushed by the police. Every day, we have these kind of f*cking problems. How can you think, as a Kurd, you can live peacefully with this guy, Erdoğan, in charge.

You are half-Norwegian and half-British, and you have chosen to come to Istanbul. That’s great, but you already have your own country, so you don’t need to care so much about your nation or language, because you have it already. You have to have your own country, your own political decisions. Then, if you say “now I want to live in Istanbul”, that’s ok.

I have visited several Kurdish cafés here in Istanbul. Are they, and expressions of Kurdish culture other than language, legally allowed?

“If they find out that something political is happening there, the police will come immediately… If I go to a square and play a Kurdish song, I will be arrested… 2 years ago some student was whistling a Kurdish anthem, and they arrested him.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

They just keep it quiet. You cannot see any signs outside. If they find out that something political is happening here, the police will come immediately. I have heard about this kind of thing happening in Kurdish cafés. They heard Kurdish singing and they came and started asking questions. If I go to a square and play a Kurdish song, I will be arrested. You don’t even need to sing it. 2 years ago some student was whistling a Kurdish anthem, and they arrested him.

 

Can you tell by looking if I am Kurdish or Turkish? It’s hard for you, but a lot of people here will see it. Some people might say I look Arabic, but the police will know that I am Kurdish. They ask for my I.D. all the time. They will ask “did you serve in the army?” I will tell them I didn’t and then they will give me a paper and check my I.D., and then within 15 days I have to take that paper to the army officers. That keeps happening to me, and I keep escaping. I don’t want to go to the army, so I won’t go. Until now, nothing has happened, but maybe at some point they will catch me and arrest me.


Locals play "Okey" in a Kurdish Café

– Locals play “okey” in a Kurdish café in Istanbul, Turkey –


Are there many Kurdish news sources and TV channels?

We are now living in the time where we can find all the information we want. If you have a smartphone, you can find a lot of things about Kurdish people. But if you turn on the TV, you will not find anything. And things like Wikipedia are blocked.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

There are some channels in Kurdish, but all of them are abroad, because here you cannot have that. There are some small bits of media that are allowed to be shown here, because they are not disturbing anyone. They are just about romance or something like that. In Iraqi Kurdistan they are really doing a good job, though. There is channel K24, and a lot of other TV. There were some from abroad that were shown in Turkey, but they were banned with the state of emergency in 2016.

 

We are now living in the time where we can find all the information we want. If you have a smartphone, you can find a lot of things about Kurdish people. But if you turn on the TV, you will not find anything. And things like Wikipedia are blocked. But on twitter you can find a lot of things, and on google there are some websites that aren’t blocked.

You mentioned you were almost charged with a crime after a pro-Kurdish tweet. What was the tweet?

“…the Turkish military destroyed all the cities about 20km from my village… They put their Turkish flag everywhere. It was militarism. They came there, they destroyed it, and put their flag there. I know what that means. So I was tweeting something like ‘you will never have this land, even if you put your flag there!'”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

I was tweeting, because the Turkish military destroyed all the cities about 20km from my village. It was basically war. They put their Turkish flag everywhere. It was militarism. They came there, they destroyed it, and put their flag there. I know what that means, so I was tweeting something like “you will never have this land, even if you put your flag there!” It doesn’t work like that, you cannot take land with fighting any more.

 

There was a lot of fighting there. Now there is not at the moment, but people are still very scared. You have police and military everywhere. When I went to vote in the elections in my city 20 days ago, they actually didn’t stop me, because they don’t care when you go back to your city. But when I left my city to come the other way back to Istanbul, they stopped me 6 times. Each time they asked for my I.D., and the same for all the other 50 people who were on the bus.

What is your main concern or worry about Kurdish people and culture?

“Unfortunately, we are living in a time when we are losing our identity every day… In 20, maybe 30 years, nobody will speak Kurdish, write with Kurdish, or love someone with Kurdish. Then, we will lose something within our souls..”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

Unfortunately, we are living in a time when we are losing our identity every day. If there is no school, I can see that the Kurdish people who live in the big cities are losing their culture. Some people say “who cares about language, everyone is speaking English anyway”.  But it’s different. In 20, maybe 30 years, nobody will speak Kurdish, write with Kurdish, or love someone with Kurdish. Then, we will lose something within our souls.

There are two parts of me. One part is Kurdish, and the other is a global person. In my opinion, let’s not forget our language, our culture and our background, but at the same time we can also be open-minded. This is my main idea. I want to open a school for kids, and teach them English, Spanish and German, but first their own language. And I’d teach them a musical instrument and art, to love people and nature. There are two sides to that. Keep what you are, and also open your mind. I want to do a lot for gender equality, because we have a lot of problems with that. If you teach your kids about things like gender equality, that you have a different gender but that does not mean that one is more powerful than the other, then that’s how you change things.

Are you proud of being Kurdish?

No, I am not proud. I simply am Kurdish. I wanted to fight for my rights. I cannot be proud of just a nation.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

No, I am not proud. I simply am Kurdish. I wanted to fight for my rights. I cannot be proud of just a nation. The way I understand it, I don’t need to be proud of that. If you have done something good, then you can be proud of it. But I didn’t do anything to be Kurdish. Maybe I can be proud that I work hard to teach someone their language, or to fight for Kurdish rights.

What are some similarities and differences between Turkish and Kurdish culture?

“…we have lived for 500-600 years together, so of course we have some similarities… Though you cannot say it’s similar like Sweden and Norway. It’s much more different… Kurdish people are a little less conservative than Turkish people.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

We have some similar food and things. Maybe you could say it’s like the difference between Norwegian and German. When you look at languages, you can see it’s an Indo-European language. There are two big language trees. You can see that in the Indian languages, there are Farsi, Persian, Tamil… but there is Kurdish as well. Kurdish and Farsi are in the same language tree. But Turkish is from a different family. It’s from the same one as Chinese and Japanese, because they originally came from Mongolia. So the language is totally different. But we have lived for 500-600 years together, so of course we have some similarities with clothes and food. Though you cannot say it’s similar like Sweden and Norway. It’s much more different.

 

Kurdish people are a little less conservative than Turkish people. 60 years ago, that wasn’t the case, but now when Kurdish people realise that they do have their own identity, they open their eyes a lot more. Now we don’t have to just watch government-controlled media for information. When we have a chance, we travel. A lot of Kurds are on Couchsurfing. I have met maybe 200 foreign people from all around the world through Couchsurfing. Can you imagine years ago meeting such diverse people? No, it was impossible. If the founder of Couchsurfing knew that that is what their website has done for people, they would be very happy. I don’t have enough money or time to go and visit all these people, but I let them visit me. And now a lot of friends of mine tell me I am a kind of representative of Kurdish people!

What is Kurdish food like?

“Each part of Kurdistan has different food. If you go to Iraqi Kurdistan, the food is similar to Arabic food. But it’s all so rich. In the Syrian part there’s a lot of similarity with Arabs too.”

See Lezgin's Full Answer

My city is not that different from Arabic culture, so we also have a lot of similarities with Arabs. We have something that in Kurdish it’s called “kutilk”, which is one of the best Kurdish foods that I could eat every day.  It’s a kind of meatballs. You have onions, meat and some spices, and you boil them, and then you add a sauce. You use very small bulgar wheat, which you boil with all that, and then you can then also fry it.

 

Back in the Ottoman Empire, it wasn’t as mixed. Now it’s more mixed and so each cuisine isn’t as distinct. In 2017, I was in Kadiköy, and there was a Kurdish food festival. But the food that I saw was from different cities in the Kurdish region. Each part of Kurdistan has different food. If you go to Iraqi Kurdistan, the food is similar to Arabic food. But it’s all so rich. In the Syrian part there’s a lot of similarity with Arabs too. Kurdish people use a lot of meat, unfortunately (I’m trying to be vegetarian).

What dish should I try to get a “taste” of Kurdistan?

See Lezgin's Full Reccomendation

There is a place Fatih with a lot of Kurdish restaurants. Some are run by Arabs who are  from my city. You should try Büryan. It’s 100% Kurdish. It’s sheep meat that’s cooked a totally different way in the ground. They have a hole in the ground with a fire inside, and that’s where they cook it. It’s from a city that is a little bit North of my hometown near Ararat mountain.

Life According to Locals #Kurdish #Turkey #BeingKurdish #InterviewsWithLocals Click To Tweet

Lezgîn Kitêbçiyan explains what it's like to be Kurdish in Turkey


The Plate: Büryan

“Shapeless, unidentifiable meat displayed proudly on a hook behind a window, and a fly darting restlessly in and out of sight might have turned some prospective customers away, but for me it told me I’d found the right place. An unceremonious mound of bones and crisped fat lay at its base on a steel plate lathered in a thick film of grease.”

Read About More About Büryan

Shapeless, unidentifiable meat displayed proudly on a hook behind a window, and a fly darting restlessly in and out of sight might have turned some prospective customers away, but for me it told me I’d found the right place. An unceremonious mound of bones and crisped fat lay at its base on a steel plate lathered in a thick film of grease. A man in a suit that looked like he’d been plucked from the ’90s singing an indecipherable love song on a fuzzy TV screen with a bellowing voice that mixed clumsily with a hint of static from the speakers whenever he got too loud, and was occasionally interrupted by the shouts and raucous laughter bouncing back and forth between the manager and the kitchen staff hidden behind a cloud of steam erupting from frying pan.

I’d barely stepped inside the envelope of mugginess before I was greeted like a long-lost friend, and within seconds of explaining I was searching for Büryan, the restaurant-owner set to work, scattering the lone fly with a wave of his hand and cutting into the alien meat with such precision and familiarity that I’m sure he could have prepared it blindfolded.


Meat Hanging from hook

– Büryan meat hanging from a hook in a restaurant window in Istanbul’s Fatih district – 


Compared to everything else I’d tried in Turkey, Büryan was a return to basics. It was less polished, as though it had been thrown together for sustenance rather than culinary pleasure, and unwavering in its toughness; after a few minutes of hard work I felt an ache begin to spread across jaw. The only moisture came from the gristle and oil stubbornly latched onto each chunk of what I later learned was lamb, but the strong and plain flavours gave it a certain rustic charm; it wasn’t trying too hard to dazzle me with the overwhelming addition of spices, and instead was unseasoned, unapologetic and upfront. It was a meal of convenience that I could pick up in my hand and eat just as easily while on the move as I could sitting at the table. The intensity of the meat made it almost gamey, and a sauce that I added overzealously at first delivered a burn that breathed fiery life into the mix. Rather than boring me, it’s simplicity highlighted its traditional roots, and took me on a ride to the mountains in the South East, their slopes speckled with wild mountain rhubarb, smoke rising from holes dug deep into the ground where truly authentic Büryan is cooked over coals.

Meat supply exhausted, I soaked the final remains of the bread in the fat and oil that had been left being on my plate, before leaving with another reminder of the tension between Turks and Kurds; an angry online claim I stumbled across on my phone while researching the Kurdish kitchen that stated Büryan was a Turkish recipe, not a Kurdish one; the tension was inescapable.

Büryan Kurdish Food


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


Check out our new interactive map, displaying the locations of each of our interviews!

Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with our blog. If you want to see more of the cycle touring side of our adventure, you can also have a gander at our YouTube channel! If you want to see how we’re doing on our journey, check out our Live Updates page.

Islam, Erdoğan, Turks and Kurds
You may also be interested in:  Islam, Erdoğan, Turks and Kurds

Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

2
Leave a Reply

avatar
2 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
DennisHilda Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Hilda
Guest
Hilda

Wow, what an article. So hard to come to grips with in the 21st Century. Where is man’s humanity towards his fellow man?

Dennis
Guest
Dennis

Grateful to live in the UK…..