Edik Baghdasaryan

We’re all part of one big family and the loss of any one is tragic.

While visiting Istanbul, Gayaneh Chalukian and her husband Jan Gavrilof invited us to the 15th anniversary concert of the “Kardes Turkuler” ensemble. The concert took place in the huge “Arena” open-air theater on the shores of the Bosporus. Leman Sami also sang the Armenian song “Bingyol”. The Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, and Romany, (Gypsy) songs literally rocked the arena to its pillars.  

Aynur Doğan

Q - Where are your roots? Where do you hail from?

A - From the province of Tunceli (it was called Dersim, or “Silver Door, in Kurdish up till 1936). It’s part of the Armenian highlands and there are still Armenian churches to be found.

Q - Do Armenians still live there?

A - Fragments exist in the form of Kurdisized Armenians. During the Genocide, the Kurds of Dersim protected the Armenians, sometimes exacting passage money, and guided them through the mountains to the Russian-controlled area on the other side. After long periods of living side by side most of these remaining Armenians eventually became Kurds as well in all but name. There are still villages that are solely inhabited by Armenians but they would never call themselves Armenian. But the surrounding Turks and Kurds know that they are Armenian. 

Q - And where are your forefathers from?

A - Generally, Kurds belong to tribal clans. Our family didn’t have one so I can’t exactly pinpoint our origins. Who knows, perhaps my forefathers were Armenian too.

Q - When did you begin to sing?

A - I’ve been in Istanbul for fifteen years now. My singing career began here. We Kurds have a tradition of “wailing women” who sing lamentations at funerals, etc. I grew up with that music as a child and it formed the basis for my songs. I used to sing along with those women back in the village. The Alevi religious tradition is formed around song and dance which symbolizes the putting off of one’s self and uniting with God. This is how we were reared. Music is a sacred task for me and as natural as drinking a glass of water.

Q - And men and women pray together during the Alevi religious ceremony?

A - Alevis are not like other Muslims. The woman is the mother, the head of the family and is regarded as equal to the man. We have a custom; when a woman throws her headscarf to the ground that means putting an end to the matter, whether an argument, fight, etc. The woman has the final word.

Q - Given that Kurds still face problems in Turkey how are you able to give concerts?

A - There was a time when the Kurdish language was outlawed. Due to European pressure that prohibition has been lifted by law. The pressures started to lessen four or five years back. At least now we can perform in Kurdish before the public. But the government doesn’t assist us at all. On the contrary, it does whatever it can to hinder us. The Ministry of Culture still finds ways to put obstacles in the way of developing our cultural life. I’ve performed on the stages in various countries but have never given a one-woman concert in Turkey. I haven’t been able to. First off, I have no sponsor and secondly I don’t receive the assistance of the government.

Q - You also sing in Turkish, correct?

A - Yes, I aslo sing a few songs in Turkish. It’s the language I was brougt up on. But my identity, my internal world, is Kurdish.

Q - Who would you say your audience in Turkey is?

A - I sing Kurdish in the villages and small cities. I haven’t been able to give concerts in the larger cities. I am very well known outside Turkey. Here, I haven’t been able to organize concerts in the cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Thus, I couldn’t tell you who my urban audience is in this country.

Q - Can you perform withouit difficulty in the villages?

A - Yes, but sometimes it’s quite a chore. You’d think I’m a terrorist or some such thing, the way I’m treated. I’m about to particiapte in a festival in Moush and the Police want copies of my residency papers, etc. I have to fill out certain forms and explain the reasons for performing before I can actually do so. In other words, the Interior Ministry must first give its OK before I can go and sing there.

Q - Does this mean then that you pose some perceived threat to the government?

A - In Turkey all ethnic groups pose some potential threat to the Turkish majority. Today, the fate of the Armenians and the Alevis is linked. They did it to the Armenians in the past. For the past thirty years they have been oppressing the Alevi community. Our villages have been drenched in blood. They set our villages ablaze and destroyed everything. They are continuing the same policies today. 

Q - Where have you performed outside of Turkey?

A - In Iraq, all over Europe. Even in Rumania, where there’s a sizeable Kurdish community. By the way, this year I”ll be taking part in a music festival organized by Peter Gabriel in the Canary Islands.

Q - The songs in your repetoire, what are they about?

A - The Kurdish song is about war, love and sorrow. Generally speaking, Kurdish music is pretty diverse. Go to Iran and it’s something else entirely. It’s different whether in Iraq, Armenia, the villages in Turkey or Syria. The music has its distinctive character wherever you go. I would feel inhibited to have to add something else to all this. It’s as if everything has already been said. “Love has driven me mad. They call me crazy but it’s love that has driven me crazy. When I recite these sincere words to someone they think I’ve just escaped the insane assylum.” These are words that have been sung hundreds of years ago. There are many enigmatic riddles to our history and only a precious little has reached us through the years. But in the last few years, particularly as Kurds and Armenians have started to make some noise, we’ve seen a rather large cultural explosion. In reality, there will be other explosions if allowed. In addition, this will be good for Turkey, a country with a rich diversity of cultures within its borders. To “make it” in this country you have to be a Sunni, a Kemalist and a Turk. This drive to create a one-dimensional person based on this mold has created a host of problems for Turkey

Q - Have your relatives been victims of the repression?

A - Many have. I have lost many loved ones, especially in Dersim. I’m not just talking about blood relations, but friends and neighbors as well. We’re all part of one big family and the loss of any one is tragic.

Q - Aynur, is it possible to define culture as a means of struggle?

A - Very much so. Culture, song and literature are the strongest of fortresses from which to defend one’s identity. There are no Kurdish-language schools. If a people’s culture isn’t recognized as such under the law, it is proscribed and difficult to preserve. The language at least allows us to preserve our culture.

Q - As a cultural activist, what future do you see for Turkey?

A - Turkey is a country built on lies. It will take a very long time to change certain entrenched things. It is vital that the various communities be able to coexist peacefully. Even if there’s a complete overhaul of the system, it will be difficult to eradicate the preconceived notions and ideas that exist within the masses.

I live in the Kurtulus, a heavily Armenian populated neighborhood of Istanbul. Everyone knows that many Armenians live there. Manifestations of Turkish chauvinism are on the rise there. For instance, men parading around with Turkish flags and even guys throwing stones at houses where Armenians live. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. There isn’t a neighborhood in Istanbul where I’ve seen the water and electricity cut, for the entire day, like happens in Kurtulus. 

Q- Do you ever intend to visit Armenia?

A - Of course, if I ever get an invitation to go. I have already stated that I’d like to go and search out our Kurdish songs in your radio archives. This is the primary reason that I’d visit Armenia, for the songs. Armenia is the only place that our songs have been preserved in such a fashion. Kurdish singers have used many of these songs in their repertoires. If the opportunity were to present itself, I would definitely visit Armenia.