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Ozan Beran Akturan on what it means to be a Kurd

I am a Turk. I am righteous.
My principle is protecting the younger, respecting the elder.
And loving my state and its nation more than my own essence.
My ideal is to rise, to progress.
My existence shall be dedicated to the Turkish existence.

These are the words I repeated every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday throughout my years of primary schooling. Not only could reciting the Turkish student oath with my most disciplined ten-year-old voice convince the teachers in my overcrowded public school to pay me the attention I deserved, it could also win me a ticket to the podium where select students got to lead the Oath.

I still remember the first oath I delivered from that podium. At the end, I was left confused. “I am also a Kurd,” I told my father that day. “Why do they only allow me to say that I am a Turk”?

Identity is a muddy subject in assimilated Kurdish families in Ankara, my hometown. Only now do I understand what a task it was for my father to handle my questions. At the time, the public was fretful about Leyla Zana’s receipt of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and her subsequent nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Zana was Turkey’s first female Kurdish MP. After her election in 1991, she gave her parliamentary oath in Kurdish and said that she took the oath in the name of the brotherhood between the Kurdish and Turkish people.

For this, she was stripped of her parliamentary immunity and jailed for 10 years.

Perhaps my father thought that if Zana’s courage could not make the case to the public that Kurdish people and their language could have a place in the Turkish parliament, our family had no hope of challenging the nationalist narrative expressed by the student oath.

The answer he eventually arrived at was that I was a “Turkish Kurd.” “Half and half,” my mother added.

I mulled over this answer but it did not satisfy me. Growing up in Turkey, I often witnessed how the country’s public drive to Westernize was used to obscure its silent nationalist dogmas. The idea of “halves” is dangerous because it assumes perfect complementarity. And that the ultimate, resultant whole was Turkishness.

In other words: yes, there are Kurds, but they are just Mountain Turks. Or: the Kurdish language is a derivative of the Turkish language. One half dominated, and the remaining half was defined by negation. The question was not whether the Kurds were Kurdish in essence, but how non-Turkish they were.

Why not simply acknowledge and cherish a plurality of identities? Why could our nation not bear the idea of double, triple, or quadruple identities?

It was not until high school that I really began to ask these questions. And while these years are what really led me to discover my identity as a Kurd, this discovery brought me very little hope or optimism due to what had prompted it: the Cizre Massacre.

The siege of the southeastern Kurdish town of Cizre in Turkey in 2015 became the Guernica of the Kurds. At the beginning of September, the Turkish army encircled Cizre and sealed the town off. Citizens were left with limited access to food and water and medical treatment. The official rationale behind the siege was to crack down on members of the guerilla group Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. But the Turkish army showed no scruples in executing their maneuvers: inhumane city curfews, arbitrary detentions, commonplace torture, and the use of artillery against civilians. The siege of Cizre was more or less ignored by the E.U. community. Occupied as it was with orchestrating a refugee deal with Turkey, the E.U. kept silent about this other humanitarian crisis it had been (effectively) blackmailed to ignore.

The E.U. — and the U.S. — were not the only entities who, despite nominal commitments to humanitarian ideas, said and did nothing about Cizre. A majority of the secular Turkish left, the independent media, and even my friends deliberately looked away from what was happening in. Yet again, the silence of their friends hurt the Kurds more than the screams of their enemies. It hurt me too. I was forced to hide my empathy for the wronged and bury core parts of my identity in anguish and grief.

On the ladder of ethnic meritocracy, upward movement comes from progressive denials. By denying Kurds the right to realize their own Kurdish identity, Turkish secular nationalism defines its main objectives. The situation is similar in the other three countries of the Kurdish diaspora: Iran, Iraq, and Syria, which all display their own peculiar identity crises over the Kurdish question. These four countries have been very careful not to tear apart what their authoritarian nation-states have patched together and so the Kurdish question is never really asked, let alone answered.

Amidst the gloom of the Cizre Massacre, I got an undergraduate scholarship from the University of Chicago — an option inaccessible to the vast majority of Turkey’s Kurds. Before I left Turkey in September 2016 to begin my degree, history was already repeating itself. Headlines from Cizre were replaced by similar headlines from Kobane. From Rojava. From Afrin. Turkey continued its repression, met largely by international silence. Once again, Kurds had no friends but the mountains.

In retrospect, my departure for college was timely. In 2015, my father survived the deadliest bomb attack in modern Turkish history at an election rally organized by the pro-Kurdish HDP party. My mother dodged retaliatory attacks on a bus station near a military base in central Ankara.

Only two months before my scheduled departure, an abortive coup attempt took place when our national parliament was bombed. Even though I witnessed the horror from a mile away, the familiar sense of belonging I had to my hometown was shattered by a simmering sense of insecurity.

My sense of solidarity with all the Kurdish civilians in the east was viscerally consolidated when Kurdish teachers were laid off and detained because of ethnic profiling during the post-coup crackdown.

With these experiences engraved in me, I felt empowered heading off to UChicago. Now I could be as much a part of Kurdish culture as I wanted to be. Without fear. One of the first places I went in Chicago was a Kurdish restaurant on the North Side. There, for the first time in my life, I saw a Kurdish flag hanging in public. No police would break into the restaurant to take it down, I knew, yet I felt a little uneasy finishing my dinner under that flag all the same. Something deeply internalized was not letting me just be.

I was quick to ask my American and European friends out to eat Kurdish dinners with me. Many of them asked me who the Kurds were. Some volunteered remarks along the lines of, “Oh, I love the Kurds. They fought ISIS.”

It was as if the Kurds’ long struggles did not get them anywhere but to figure as enigmatic forces fighting a barbaric enemy. And while this anti-ISIS narrative is important, it is reductive and ultimately divorced from the core demands of modern Kurds.

ISIS, after all, was not what woke the Kurdish resistance up. It was only one of the many oppressive forces Kurds faced and fought against to defend their homeland.

This past year, I was invited to become a student ambassador for Justice for Kurds, an organization founded by Thomas Kaplan and Bernard-Henri Lévy. The group works to raise awareness of the Kurdish cause in the United States and around the globe. I signed on because I wanted to see my friends conjure up more than faceless images of anti-ISIS militia when they think about the Kurds. I wanted people to think about Leyla Zana, about the Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, about Dilshad Zaid.

I became an ambassador because it is a decisive moment to identify with the Kurds before circumstances may force them to slowly give up on their democratic principles.

This year, when the first-ever Kurdish Student Association at UChicago (which I founded with my friends) celebrated the Newroz in March, Kurdish students and allies made their appeal in the name of all Kurds forbidden to celebrate their new year due to political oppression. I am calling now for an honest reckoning by the West of what its non-negotiable values are — and a reckoning of which allies can be trusted to secure them. This is a difficult task, but justice demands it.

The trans-Atlantic conversation, such as it is, about Kurds needs to be depoliticized: the argument must take place outside of considerations keyed to the Middle East strategies of the U.S. and E.U. Kurdish culture and history have suffered for far too long under those considerations, which extend undue latitude to the four states within which the Kurds live. That kind of depoliticized support is essential to protect the Kurds from the governments of these four states. And — especially in Syria and Iraq — the contours of the Kurdish struggle have demonstrated our deep compatibility with democratic Western values.

So the E.U. and the U.S. need to stop vacillating about whether the Kurds are their friends. Once given the moral and practical support required, the Kurds will be able to act as pioneers, so to speak, of the values the West would like to see flourish in the Middle East. Calling for this recognition until the global establishment listens is my most crucial task as a student ambassador for JfK. And the JfK family is what keeps me hopeful against all hope that justice will prevail.