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Opened with a flourish, Turkey's Kurdish-language schools fold

The EU-prodded reform allowed private classes. But public-school instruction is still banned.

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For years, Kurdish language instructor Aydin Unesi had to teach clandestinely throughout this city in Turkey's southeast region, home to the majority of the country's 14 million Kurds. But on April 1, 2004, he found himself presiding over the much-heralded opening of the first official private Kurdish language school here.

"We felt this was the moment, after 80 years of being prohibited, for this language to be permitted," Mr. Unesi says.

The euphoria did not last long. Although the school had a capacity of 480 students for each of its 10-week sessions, it enrolled only a fraction of that number. In early August, it closed with little fanfare, along with seven other Kurdish courses in Istanbul and southeast Turkey. [Editor's note: The original version misstated when the school closed.]

For the government, which allowed the schools to open as part of a wave of European Union-prodded reforms instituted to strengthen the country's candidacy for membership - under discussion this week in Brussels - the closings are proof that Turkey's Kurds are not really interested in learning their language.

Kurdish language activists counter that the desire to learn Kurdish is there, but it must be taught in public schools - a practice that's still banned.

It's a debate that dramatizes Turkey's struggle to defuse tensions with the Kurdish community.

Beyond the now-closed private courses, there is still precious little space in Turkish public life for Kurdish. There are currently no private television or radio stations that are allowed to broadcast in the language, and Turkey's national television has programming in Kurdish for just 30 minutes each week. The language, meanwhile, is still banned for official uses.

"If you learn a second language, like French, it should lead to some benefit, but there's nothing like that with Kurdish," says Suleyman Yilmaz, director of the language school in Diyarbakir, another city in the southeast, where a four-story building painted pink and beige was rented out and renovated in anticipation of a flood of students that never came.


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