Turkey’s Laz minority face cultural exclusion

Reads an AFP report that seems to have been picked up exclusively by the Kurdish Media website:

A musician from Turkey’s Laz minority group said the country’s public television refused to allow him to perform his songs, claiming that new laws adopting democratic European standards exclude the Laz language.

The Laz musician, Birol Topaloglu, said he had been invited to participate in a musical special on March 18 in Ankara on the national television station TRT-INT. He has been involved since 1997 in trying to preserve the culture of the Laz community of about 250,000 people in northeast Turkey.

“But when I arrived at the studio with my pipes and violin, I was told that my songs would not be part of the program,” Topaloglu said.

The artist protested the decision, pointing out that his compositions in the Laz language had already been broadcast on two occasions in the past on the public channel.

Topaloglu said the television network refused him access because of reforms required by the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join in the future.

The reforms authorize the broadcasting of programs in five minority languages — the two Kurdish dialects of zaza and kurmanci, Arabic, Bosnian and Circassian — but no mention of Laz, he said.

TRT television declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

The Turkish Parliament approved the broadcasting of programs in minority languages in 2002, which was seen as a symbolic gesture toward the EU which has been engaged in opening negotiations about Turkey’s possible accession to the bloc.

TRT began in June 2004 to broadcast daily programs in five languages entitled “Our cultural richness.”

The Laz, who live near Turkey’s border with Georgia at the eastern end of the Black Sea, are a Caucasian people who are said to be the descendants of the ancient kingdom of Colchis, immortalized in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. They are today mostly Muslim, although some pockets of Christian Laz survive as well. Their rich musical tradition is closely akin to that of the Pontic Greeks, their neighbors. (ScimitarMusic.com) However, their language, Lazuri, is akin to neither Greek nor Turkish, but is a part of the small Kartvelian (or South Caucasian) language group, which also includes Georgian, Svan and Mingrelian. (Ethnologue; Silvia Kutscher, University of Cologne)

For more on cultural repression of minority groups in eastern Turkey, see our recent blog post on the Ezidis. What is going on in this country, where it seems a growing climate of intolerance and cultural nationalism coincides with a turn towards (ostensible) official policies of tolerance and pluralism aimed at gaining EU entry? Is there some paradoxical unity at play in this apparent contradiction?

For more unsettling news from Turkey, see our recent blog post from a correspondent in Istanbul.


  1. Assyrians doing better in Turkey

    The phenomenon of minority suppression does not seem to be universal.

    Turkey Allows a First New Year for a Tiny Minority

    By KATHERINE ZOEPF NYT Published: April 4, 2005

    MIDYAT, Turkey, April 1 – A windswept hilltop here in southeastern Anatolia has become the site for a reunion that once would have been unthinkable, as thousands of Assyrians from across the region have converged to openly celebrate their New Year in Turkey for the first time.

    Like many other expressions of minority ethnic identity, the Assyrian New Year, or Akito, had been seen by Turkey as a threat. But this year, the government, with an eye toward helping its bid to join the European Union, has officially allowed the celebration by the Assyrians, members of a Christian ethnic group that traces its roots back to ancient Mesopotamia.

    Yusuf Begtas, one of the celebration’s organizers, said that because most of Turkey’s tiny Assyrian population – about 6,000 people in all – lives in a heavily Kurdish region that has seen frequent clashes between the Turkish government and Kurdish militias, strong assertions of Assyrian ethnicity have long been politically impossible. But Turkey’s political culture has been changing rapidly.

    "Turkey is showing itself to the E.U.," Mr. Begtas said. "When we asked the authorities for permission to celebrate this year, we knew it wouldn’t be possible for them to deny us now. Turkey has to show the E.U. that it is making democratic changes."

    The festivities here on Friday were the culmination of a celebration that started on March 21, the first day of the Assyrian New Year. Behind Mr. Begtas, on a raised stage near the wall of the Mar Aphrem monastery, a balding baritone sang in Syriac, the Assyrians’ language, a Semitic tongue similar to Aramaic.

    He was followed by a group of girls wearing mauve satin folk costumes, dancing in lines with their arms linked. They were cheered on by an audience of about 5,000, including large groups of visiting ethnic Assyrians from Europe, Syria and Iraq.

    Iraq, where Akito is celebrated openly, has the world’s largest population of Assyrians, about a million. Most of Turkey’s Assyrians were killed or driven away during the Armenian massacres early in the last century, and the bullet scars on some of Midyat’s almost medieval-looking sandstone buildings still bear witness to those times.

    In recent years, Assyrians have suffered quieter forms of persecution and discrimination. Since the 1980’s, under those pressures, thousands of Assyrians have emigrated abroad. Kurds, with whom Assyrians have long had a tense relationship, are now a majority in Midyat, which until just a generation ago was 75 percent Assyrian.

    Haluk Akinci, the regional governor of Nusaybin, a district next to Midyat, suggested that the Turkish government might see allowing the New Year celebration as a partial atonement for past persecutions.

    "In the past, freedoms for minorities were not as great as they are now," he said, though he noted that in years past, private Assyrian New Year celebrations had generally been ignored by the authorities. "The Turkish government now repents that they let so many of these people leave the country."

    After years of intense political and population pressure, the Turkish Assyrians say, public celebrations like Akito have huge emotional significance, and the participation of Assyrians from abroad has become particularly meaningful.

    Terros Lazar Owrah, 60, an Assyrian shopkeeper from Dohor, in northern Iraq, said he had driven 14 hours for the opportunity to attend the celebration. "So many of us are leaving the region," he said. "It’s very important for Assyrians from everywhere to get together in one place."

    Thanks in large part to greater political freedoms granted recently in Iraq and Turkey, the Assyrians say, a sense of pan-regional Assyrian identity seems to be gathering strength. And though Turkey does not have any legal Assyrian political parties, there are those who would like to turn this rapidly developing sense of solidarity into a political voice, even into a discussion of nationhood.

    Representatives from several overseas Assyrian political parties were present at the celebration.

    Emanuel Khoshaba, an Iraqi Assyrian who represents the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Damascus, pointed out that Midyat lies between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Mesopotamia that the Assyrians believe to be their rightful homeland.

    "Protecting our national days is as important to us as preserving the soil of our nation," Mr. Khoshaba said. "Whether they live in Iraq or Syria or Turkey, our goal is to bring Assyrians together as a nation."

    That is unlikely to happen. With countries in the region increasingly wary of the flowering of Kurdish nationalism in northern Iraq, smaller nationalist movements seem to have even less of a chance of finding political support in the region.

    Still, the relaxation of Turkish antagonism toward the New Year’s celebration was a significant enough start for many who attended.

    "It’s about coming together in spite of our rulers," said Fahmi Soumi, an Assyrian businessman who had traveled from Damascus to attend the Akito festivities. "When we unite like this, there is no Turkey, no Syria and no Iran. We are one people."

    1. Read the small print, dude…

      Actually, the story notes that even as official persectuion has lightened up in recent years there has been a massive exodus of Assyrians from their traditional villages. Again, perhaps a paradoxical unity in the seeming contradiction–the official "tolerance" only sparking an "unofficial" reaction?

      Anyway, I can read the New York Times here in New York. You’re the one who’s in Turkish Kurdistan. How about a first-hand report? Can’t you at least tell us how the baklava is?

  2. Have patience, it’s coming
    The pressures referred to are probably Turkish Hezbollah, which persecuted Christians in the 80’s and 90’s, plus GAP, the damming & irrigation project. The article does not claim this is still happening. Kurds, for example, are 90% in favor of EU ascension because it will guarantee their minority rights, especially language. There is an element of reaction and reluctance in giving up sovereignity that is causing resurgent nationalism currently in Turkey. The Turks are used to a powerful, omniscient centralized ethno-nationalist state, and EU ascension threatens that. The subservience to a state and nostalgia for a powerful fascistic leader may explain the popularity of Mein Kampf in Turkey better than resurgent anti-Semitism.

    The nationalism manifested itself recently when two Kurdish boys burned a Turkish flag, and it sparked a frenzy of flag waving. A state prosecuter ruled that a ceremonial cake could not be cut because it had the Turkish flag on it.

    EU ascension is also forcing the Turks to confront the Armenian genocide, referred to as the "alleged genocide" in all media in Turkey. Noted Turkish auteur Orhan Pamuk recently referred to "the Armenian genocide" in an interview with a Swiss paper, and was roundly condemned for it. The administrative head of one Turkish district ordered that all Pamuk’s books in the public libraries be destroyed, but then it turned out that district had no Pamuk books. A student there was followed because she was believed to be reading a Pamuk book, but a search of her bag showed it not to be true.

    And yes, the baklava rules, as does the burek.

    1. When am I ever not patient?
      I’m not sure I would consider Ataturk exactly "fascistic," if that’s who you think they are nostalgic for.

      Tell us more about the GAP–what does it stand for? What rivers are impacted?

      And definitely tell us more about burek.

        1. You are more enlightening on burek than the Ataturk Dam

          That page you link to is pure boosterism! How about some information on how the local indigenous population is being impacted by the GAP? I know Iraq has long been unhappy with it, because much of the water that would naturally flow into their country is siphoned off for irrigation in Turkey—just like the Colorado River is a mere trickle by the time it reaches Mexico, thanks to the massive hydraulic works of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. But how are local Assyrians, Kurds and Turkish peasants being hurt? Priced off their lands by big state-connected ag-biz interests that get the irrigation contracts? Details, details!

          And am I correct in assuming that GAP is a Turkish acronym for Southeast Anatolia Project?