Monday, 26 March 2012, 08:14 GMT
The Globe interviews Jaffer Sheyholislami at Diyarbakir Kurdish Language Conference


Jaffer Sheyholislami/ GLOBE PHOTO

The Kurdish Globe

The Internet has allowed new voices to be heard: voices of women,

"The connection between nation and language is not necessarly essential because it doesn't really exist. There are nations that do not have a unique language or even one language."

-What do you think about the conference especially the title of conference, on Kurdish national language? I really wonder about your opinions about identity and national language? What is the relation?

Jaffer Sheyholislami: It is a very good conference. First of all it is very well organized. I personally had a chance to see Amed. Everybody is very well taken care of. Lots of papers were presented, and I have personally gained lots of knowledge about many aspects of the Kurdish language that I really didn't know about before. There were disappointing papers; I mean because the person just downloaded some papers to try to make some sense, but usually they didn't. You can see it in many conferences; even in the West you see some people doing this. But it's okay. For me going to any conference has a very clear objective. The objective is not to make decisions and not to arrive at any consensus about any issue. The idea of objection is to exchange, use ideas get to know you, get to know me. We may exchange our business card or some resources for research that we may share.... For example, many people--especially since my first language is Sorani and I presented in Sorani Kurdish--many Sorani Kurdish speakers from south Kurdistan ask how come they haven't seen me' This is the point of really having conferences, and this issue, going back to the second part of the question, this issue of language and national identity or nation whether we like it or not is very significant. It has existed in the life of every nation; it still exists even say, for example, in nations like Germany after such a long history of establishment. Wasn't it in 2007 that they just reformed spelling' Language is always a major part of a nation's life. For Kurds I am not sure if it should be called a national language. Whatever we call it I don't know if it matters so much; the reason I am saying this is because...Kurdistan is not a nation-state yet. Really unless you are a nation-state it is really difficult to arrive at any consensus; it is really difficult completely, well never I don't want to say standardize a language, but a language is never standardized completely forever--it always changes I am not sure it is possible for Kurds today but it is never too early. I think to talk about these things is good because the danger is maybe if there is such a thing say, for example, even just if south Kurdistan tries to declare independence by itself if there are no preliminary discussion about these things. There might be some sort of chaos and lots of disagreement; it may not be good, so it is good that these discussions exist.

-As you know the motto of the conference is that Kurdish language is the language of a democratic civilization. The conference motto is a reaction against a recent statement by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, who said: "Kurdish is a language without civilization."

Sheyholislami: There was a huge discussion at the conference about that statement. Those who held this conference made fun of him basically. They proved that now Kurdish can be a language of civilization, democratic civilization, because you can do with the language these days anything that you want. An example of this is what is happening in south Kurdistan. It is the language of Parliament, of the state, of the university, and a Ph.D can be earned in the language.

Now there is another discussion of how well they do it? For example, many Kurds, good friends of mine, are very good at Kurdish literature and have been working 30 to 40 years; they aren't happy with the way Sorani Kurdish is managed at all. I think Kurds in south Kurdistan now need the intellectualization of the language, to make the language academic; it is possible.

-There were discussions about the standardization of the dialects. What do you think about that?

Sheyholislami: I have an essay that is published in English. It is good to really have this dialogue. There are several views; interestingly enough the view toward Kurdish language standardization is not solely confined to Kurdish political discourse. They have existed in our history, so for example if you look at Herder and Fichte's view of the connection between language and nation exactly, we have those people who believe in this. They may not know Herder and Fichte but they exactly have the same view--the view that if you want to call yourself a nation you must have a language, and not just any language but a unique language that no other nation has. For example, even today Germans don't think of Austria an authentic nation. It is a fake nation. And we have those people in south Kurdistan. They believe there must be one language and that language is the unified Kurdish; by this they really mean Sorani Kurdish. So that is a tricky business of terminology.

The second view is the French view. Famously, in the historical speech of Ernest Renan, he said language can call us to unite. It can invite us to unite but it cannot make us unite--it is not the determinant factor. The determinant factor is ''the will'' of who may aspire toward the same destiny and for the same objective, such as to have ''a state'' that makes ''a nation.'' Of course there is a trick I didn't talk about. If you look at it, Renan also has the same idea as Fischer but he said it in a clever way; otherwise why they didn't make Basque the language of France. They made the official language French, which was really only the language of 40 percent of the people.

And there is the third view and I believe in this one. I don't think it is essential, the connection between nation and language, because it doesn't exist really. There are nations that do not have a unique language or even one language. They have two or three languages, such as South Africa has 11, India has 19, and you know the story, Belgium 2, Norway 2. Switzerland, the most peaceful one, has 4. However, when it comes to Kurds, for any Kurd I think who feels that he needs to resort to the argument of language and identity, then he should do it. If it works that way then he will do it whether we like it or not. If not, then he shouldn't really bother or listen just because Herder said that must be true. First of all it was 200 years ago. So give it a break. It is a totally different world. Look at Turkey, the Turkey that I came to 25 years ago. It is different. You can see how things could change. Look at south Kurdistan. Thus, you cannot have the same view and the same policy.

There is one suggestion that I believe was clever and very brilliant in fact. Someone claimed that, for example, in the Sorani area, you have your Sorani as the main language but kids really don't care about these things. They are exposed to Kurmanji and they don't see it or notice it, they just get it. Look at us. How did we get our first language, in fact, how did we get a second language' We didn't ask. Did you? I mean when I went to school [and was taught] in Persian. Maybe I suffered and I am sure cognitively I must have suffered because science tells us. But I don't remember going home and my mom saying ''why don't you study in Kurdish?" I don't remember. Kids don't care about these things. Kids trust us and trust the teachers. They think and one hopes that is the case; we do what is good for them, so expose them to the language and let them have it a little bit--let them, in fact, have both alphabets. They get it and learn it.

- You mentioned the role of New Media on the Kurdish identity in your presentation. What was the role of New Media considering the development of the Kurdish language and Kurdish national identity?

Sheyholislami: In fact my presentation was really a very extremely shortened version of my book, "Kurdish Identity, Discourse, and New Media." My Ph.D dissertation was about 400 pages. The academic publisher Palgrave Macmillan said that was too much, to be honest, and there were sections that were too theoretical and that was not what we wanted. We want something for the popular readers. So I [cut] 200 pages. And I shortened 200 pages into four for the presentation at the conference. My extremely shortened presentation and my dissertation was about this question of the role of mass media, particularly about the new media such as satellite television and the Internet on the Kurdish identity because my very basic question was Kurds have always complained that the states (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) don't allow to have their identity thus they have no ways of saying who they are and they have no ways of saying what they want. Now they have it. What do they do with this media? How do Kurds talk about themselves? What did they say about their needs, their miseries and their happiness? How do they represent themselves and also represent the other? My findings show that giving everything to contextualize the whole concept and process and the social practices around media, one could say that the Kurds have done a pretty good job given the fact that the Kurds still face political and economic pressure. These are crucial to media, to any kind of activity, in fact especially any communicative event. If you politically cannot be something or you don't have financial means, you don't have the means to do so, then you cannot, and these two factors determine pretty much the content and the form of the media and language use. So giving everything, the Kurds have been able to say who they are and I have talked about these things in length. The basic idea is this: I think the satellite TV, when it was only one MED-TV, did for a short while create a sense of Kurdish unity. Soon other parts of Kurdistan had other satellite televisions and again it became diversified. I am not saying it is a good thing or bad thing. I am just saying what I have observed. Because satellite TV is not print-based, it is based on music and pictures; thus, I think it has managed to cross some literacy, gender, class and physical boundaries--and even though every political party has still its own satellite TV, those satellites contribute to that discourse of collective pan-Kurdish identity. They also contribute to--what is very interesting from a sociolinguistic perspective--mutual intelligibility; for example, if I am careful and a bit slow, I could speak in Sorani and you could speak in Kurmanji and we can understand each other.

The Internet has allowed new voices to be heard: voices of women, voices of smaller linguistic communities such as HawramÓ and ZazakÓ/DimilÓ. People, like any other nations, are no longer just consumers of information but they contribute to publishers. However, Internet also has, in my view, intensified the diversification of Kurdish varieties. Very seldom, for example, have I talked to some Kurmanji speakers who also visit Sorani websites, and I don't believe they can read it and vice versa. It is very different for someone like me andProf. Amir Hassanpour. This is our work. That is why we know Kurmanji and we visit Kurmanji websites, most people don't. Internet is like TV even better in some respect because Internet is still print-based, alphabet-based.. The more it becomes audiovisual it tends to become more like TV. But I think there is still a lot to be done and I hope the Kurdistan Regional Government or even an institution like KurdÓ-Der or Istanbul Kurdish Institute focuses on new media to promote the language and Kurdish identity, but do it through the Internet. I was so excited when I heard friends in Sweden created Kurmanji ABC for iPhone.

-I want to talk about Kurdish politics in social media such as Facebook and Twitter, not in Parliament or on the street. As you know, Prof. Hassanpour wrote an article about the Kurdish satellites and search of sovereignty in the sky. The Kurdish nation could not create Kurdistan, I mean a Kurdish state, in the real area, but they did create it via their TVs and Internet pages like Facebook. However, those states that occupied parts of Kurdistan are aware of and try to prevent this. For example, the Kurdistan map and Kurdistan flag are not permitted to be posted on Facebook because of Turkey's pressures. What do you think about that?

Sheyholislami: I'll tell you a story about the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa. In 2003, a Kurdish student came to me and was very upset. Kurdish students had a very good, vibrant Kurdish Student Association; in fact, they talked both Kurmanji and Sorani. They had a map of Kurdistan in the town of the university. There were lots of bulletins and everybody preached their own association; the Kurds had one and they put up the map of Kurdistan. The Turkish Embassy in Ottawa--imagine this, Ottawa is not their country, they just have a property, that's it--but somebody told them that there was a Kurdish Association in Carleton University that put Kurdistan's map on the bulletin. The dean, Michael E. Brown, told me that the Turkish Embassy wrote to them officially to remove Kurdistan's maps. He said no way. Our students have the freedom to write whatever they want. Here is a free country. You have problems in Turkey, not here. He said cleverly that they wouldn't allow anybody to attack the Turkish embassy, and they were not going to allow Turkey to attack any Canadian citizens even if they are Kurds.

As for Facebook, I am not surprised at the paranoid of the word Kurdistan and its map. For God's sake they live in 21st century. Will it be effective? So I think it's silly. Really it's almost like a joke because they cannot continue to do this. But we have to be careful because Facebook is also for most part print-based. It does not still do what the TV does. TV is incredible for the creation of the collective Kurdish national identity.

Jaffer Sheyholislami is an assistant professor and undergraduate advisor at Carleton University,Ottowa/Canada.