A reference in a recent post on ethnic politics in eastern Anatolia to “the two Kurdish dialects of zaza and kurmanci” prompted the following letter from a reader, which we produce verbatim:
Zaza(Sassaniden)’s are not Kurds and not Turks
We fight for our liberty !
We fight against Turkish and Kurdish Fascism !
We fight against Turkish and Kurdish SS !
thes artickle is not correckt: /node/352
The note was followed by a series of links “for more info,” which open a window on yet another submerged nationality struggling for survival and autonomy against more powerful peoples who would deny their existence.
According to the world language map at Ethnologue, Zaza is indeed a distinct language from what they render as “Kirmanjki” (Kurmanci), or Kurdish (also known as Sorani in parts of northern Iraq). Zaza is closer to Iranian (Persian or Parsi), from which Kurdish differentiated centuries ago. A State Department “Background Note” lists Zaza as one of the languages of Turkey, along with Kurdish, Armenian, Arabic and Turkish (official).
Arsivi.com provides a comparison of cognate words in Zaza, Kurdish, Iranian, Indian (Hindi) and English—as well as samples of Zaza music. It notes that Zaza is also known as Dimili and Gorani, and that the Zaza are sometimes (inaccurately) called the “Alevi Kurds,” because of their embrace of the Alevi sufi order: “Dimili is an Iranian language, part of the Indo-Iranian subgroup of Indo-European. It is spoken in central eastern Turkey by perhaps as many as one million people. The Turks and Kirmanji Kurdish speakers around them call the language Zaza which has pejorative connotations.” The distinction between these regional tongues is poorly understood partially because of “the ban on debating Kurdish issues especially in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. When Kurdish intellectuals gradually learned about the identification of ‘Gorani’ as a non-Kurdish speech, the response was, generally, resentment and resistance.” So both Kurdish and Turkish ethno-nationalists have sought to deny the existence of Zaza: “Naive attempts to prove that Kurdish and Zaza are essentially Turkish languages have not been given up, and have after 1980 [with the emergence of the PKK insurgency] even received a new impetus. Kurds, on the other hand, have emphasized the Iranian element in the religion of the Alevis and suggested that even the Turkish Alevis must originally have received their religion from the Kurds.” (The Alevi order is rooted in Shi’ite Islam, as we have noted.) Arsivi.com also makes reference to Zaza tribal rebellions which sparked “Turkish military operations in Tunceli and western Bingöl [provinces] in the autumn of 1994, which were continued through 1995.”
The AtlasGeo site quotes the work of Martin van Bruinessen, of the Turkish and Kurdish Studies Department, Utrecht University, The Netherlands. He finds that even as the Kurdish and Zaza languages were being repressed in Turkey in the 1980s, a Zaza cultural identity was being reborn in the freer atmosphere of the exile community:
“Meanwhile in Europe Zaza-speaking Kurds – some of them Sunnis, other Alevis – were bringing about a minor revival of Zaza literature, in the margin of the remarkable resurgence of Kurmanci literary activities. A minority among them began perceiving the Zaza as a distinct ethnic group that had to liberate itself from cultural domination by Kurds as well as the Turkish state. This Zaza ‘nationalism’ still is largely a matter of exile politics, and it may still appear as a marginal phenomenon, but gradually it is also influencing the debate among Dersimis [residents of Dersim region] inside Turkey.”
“This debate on the development of, or ban on, written Zaza made a strong impact in the small circle of Zaza intellectuals in exile, causing a parting of the minds among them. In the late 1980s, the first Zaza journal was published, and it was emphatically non-Kurdish. It carried articles in Zaza, Turkish and English but not in Kurdish, it spoke of the Zazas as a separate people, whose identity had too long been denied not only by the Turkish state but by the Kurds as well, and it coined the new name of Zazaistan for the ancient homeland of these Zazas, indicating its rejection of the term Kurdistan as a geographical name. The journal at first had only a very small circle of readers, but the many angry Kurdish reactions suggested that the journal did have a point after all, and gradually growing numbers of Zazas were won over to its views. There appears not to be an organized Zaza nationalist movement yet, but the publishing activities go on increasing, with two new journals appearing in Europe and recently a series of booklets in Turkey, all of them proclaiming the Zazas to be different from the Kurds.”
The site notes that the Zaza took up arms against the Turks and briefly declared an independent state in 1917, and were called by the Turks Kizilbach (Red Heads). Presumably, this is the same as the Kizilbashi of Iran who played a key role as mercenaries for the British in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1842). Centuries earlier, the Qizilbash (another variation) had served as an effective fighting force for the Iranian Safavid dynasty (1502-1729) against the Ottoman Turks. (The Persians evidently adopted this pejorative name for the Zaza from their mutual Turkish enemies.) The Zaza/Kizilbashi began their career as a semi-autonomous martial caste for the Persian empire when they revolted against the Ottomans, expelling them from their lands. The Ottoman-Safavid border went back and forth through their territory over the centuries, and some of the Zaza/Kizilbashi seem to have resettled in contemporary Iran when their homeland was re-taken by the Turks. The British apparently inherited this tribal fighting force as Persia fell under their influence in the nineteenth century, and moved them still further east for imperial policing in Afghanistan. The Country Studies website indicates that there are still scattered Kizilbashi communities in Afghanistan, left over from the Anglo-Afghan Wars—and because of their historical association with the British they have faced persecution. Are there still Zaza/Kizilbashi in Iran today, and how are they faring?
Also thought-provoking is our letter-writer’s use of the word “Sassaniden” in parenthesis after “Zaza.” Sassaniden is the German rendering of Sassanid, the last great Zoroastrian dynasty of ancient Persia (c. 100-637 CE), which briefly extended its rule to Jerusalem and Egypt before being overrun by the Arabs under Caliph Umar. (Many of these web sites are maintained from Germany, where the Zaza, like Turks and Kurds, have begun to emigrate for work in recent decades.) The Sassanids are generally held to have been Persian, but the ethno-linguistic differentiation may have been less advanced back then. Is there a cognate relation between Zaza and Sassa-nid? Are the contemporary Zaza the inheritors of the ancient Sassanids?
More Zaza music is online at Radio Zaza, and those who wish to take a stab at learning the tongue can also check out Zazaistan.org, through which one can order books of Zaza poetry and grammar. (Once you build up your proficiency, you can participate in the Zaza Forum.) Zazaki.net is mostly in the Zaza language, but worth checking out for the map, which shows the historic location of “Zazaistan” between Erzurum and Sivas, around the central town of Dersim. Prof. van Bruinessen notes that Dersim was the scene of an Alevi rebellion in 1937, which was put down brutally by the Turkish regime of Kemal Ataturk. Note that Dersim is rendered on most maps by its Turkish name Tunceli, and that no contemporary Turkish province corresponds to the territory claimed as the Zaza homeland. Welcome to Zazaland is also mostly in the Zaza language, but provides some photos of the region’s mountainous and fairly green landscape.
Why should we care about any of this? Because eastern Anatolia is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the world, despite the official fiction that the population is entirely “Turkish.” It borders both the Caucasus and Iraq, as well as Iran, which the US would love to destabilize—and where the CIA may seek to avail itself of local ethnic greivances to make trouble for Tehran. Turkish ethno-nationalist hegemony in eastern Anatolia is building a backlash—just as a backlash against official Sunni Arab ethno-nationalism has now brought Iraq to the brink of civil war (or perhaps over it). The vying claims of eastern Anatolia—Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian, Armenian—could help tilt the balance towards a devastating war that would draw in the neighboring powers and potentially engulf both the Middle East and Caucasus. Or, if the various ethnicities of this region can work out some kind of decentralized pluralistic federalism that respects cultural rights and survival for all, it could provide a model of peaceful co-existence for a dangerously polarizing, highly geo-strategic part of the world.