Friends beyond the mountains

Mutlu Civiroglu

Evîndarê Zimanê Kurdî*

[2/10 2004] — I first heard of Michael Chyet while listening to the weekly Kurdish broadcast on Voice of America. I still remember the initial shock I felt after hearing a Western person speaking impeccable Kurdish. I remember very well how excitedly I waited until the next Saturday for his weekly programme “Zimanê Me”. The next week, the programme started with the unforgettable music of Yilmaz Guney’s “Yol” film, then Michael began his programme at which point I made sure that his name was really Michael and that he was an American. I was astonished and extremely proud that a non-Kurdish person could speak such beautiful Kurdish while many Kurds preferred to speak in any other language but their mother tongue. I wanted to know who Michael Chyet was and how it came to be that he learned Kurdish so flawlessly.

Michael L. Chyet was born in 1957 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of a Jewish American family. His father, Stanley Chyet, was a poet, historian and rabbi. After Michael finished high school, he continued his education in Los Angeles. He got his BA in Arabic in University of California, LA in 1980. In 1991 Chyet earned a PhD in “Middle Eastern Languages and Folklore” from the University of California at Berkeley. His father and a professor encouraged him to pursue his interest in the Kurdish language. He studied Turkish at the University of the Bosporus in Istanbul and spent the 1987-88 academic year at Ataturk University in Erzurum focusing on Turkish dialects and styles. It was during his stay in Turkey that Chyet experienced firsthand the linguistic repression. Resisting the pressures, he chose to write his dissertation on 18 versions of the Kurdish epic Mem û Zin, a beautiful but sad love story resembling Romeo and Juliet. He titled his dissertation, “And a Thorn Bush Sprang Between Them.” The thorn bush personifies the inability of the Kurds to unite, he explained. The most modern version was available on cassette, which Chyet had to smuggle out of Turkey. Between 1991-1995, he worked in the University of Berkeley.

In 1995 his career in Kurdish language came to an interesting point. When he was in California the Kurdish Service of the Voice of America (VOA) offered him to work for the radio. Michael Chyet recounts, “They contacted me when I was in California. So I went to Washington and gave them an evaluation on the topic. After seeing things with my own eyes, I was very pleased at the chance to work with them. Because everyone was speaking Kurdish and this affected me greatly. It literally brought tears to my eyes. So then I began to work at the radio as an editor.” Michael Chyet worked as the senior editor of the Kurdish Service until 2001. He prepared the language program Zimanê Me (Our Language), on Saturdays, in which he openly presented many linguistic issues to the radio’s Kurdish listening audience, and encouraged them to share their views with the radio staff.

I was just one of the Kurds who became deeply affected by program and its host. What a wonderful feeling it was to see somebody else speaking in Kurdish — a language always banned and looked down upon and its speakers continually oppressed and humiliated. I began to tell all my friends about Michael and tried to encourage them to speak Kurdish instead of Turkish. If an American is speaking Kurdish so flawlessly, I told my friends, there must be something beautiful about our language and I asked my friends why we weren’t learning to speak it. What a pity that most of the Kurds from Turkey have internalized the negativities which the Turkish state has imposed upon them and have distanced themselves from their mother language and thus their Kurdishness. Speaking Kurdish was akin to admitting that one was illiterate and uneducated, and so Kurds tried their best to learn Turkish and to speak Turkish in public to show that they are well- educated.

The situation is far from being solved even today. The Kurds of Turkey, especially, still use Turkish as their daily language. Even when they are out of the oppression inside Kurdistan and Turkey, in Europe, North America and in Australia they have continued to speak Turkish and to teach this language to their children instead of passing on their mother tongue. Although many Western countries provide enormous possibilities where the Kurdish language and culture can be taught and made to flourish, unfortunately, most Kurds still ignore Kurdish.

Here in Canada, for instance, there are more than thirty thousand Kurds and especially in province of Ontario, a large portion of them are northern Kurds, yet there isn’t any institution to promote the study of Kurdish. Canada is a very multi-cultural country and the government supports communities and their cultures. Unlike Kurdistan and the surrounding countries, there isn’t any oppression against the Kurdish community and their language and culture, on the contrary, the government creates funds for communities to teach their respective languages and culture. For example Canadian government allocates funds for community centers, schools and even TV and radio channels. Yet, none of these services are utilized by our people. If the Kurdish people have not deepened their knowledge of Kurdish nor promoted its use among their families, only they are to blame.

In the one of biggest universities of the country, the University of Toronto, there is a Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. According to the brochure the department has printed, it identifies itself as “being concerned with the interdisciplinary study of the civilizations and cultures of the Near and Middle East from Neolithic times until the present, including their languages and literatures (Akkadian, Assyro-Babylonian; Arabic; Aramaic, and its closely related dialect Syriac; ancient Egyptian; Hellenistic Greek; biblical, rabbinic, mediaeval and modern Hebrew; Persian and Turkish), archaeology, history, art and architecture”. Among all the peoples of the Middle East – both dead and alive – only the Kurds are absent from this long list. Despite the fact that there is a professor of Kurdish origin who works in the department, there is not even a single course dedicated solely to the study of the Kurdish history, language or culture. Needless to say, there is no Kurdish studies. It is not fair, therefore, to simply blame the University for ignoring one of the largest and most ancient peoples of the Middle East. Unfortunately, it is up to the Kurdish people and scholars to create interest in the Kurdish culture and promote its study academically.

Not only are Kurds not generating interest on Kurdish studies among Canadians, they are hardly passing this interest to their children. Nearly all Kurdish children speak Turkish. Although most parents strongly emphasize their Kurdish identity and defend it passionately, they are still far from the importance of learning and teaching their mother language to their children. Most of the Kurdish businesses have Turkish names in order to make themselves more attractive to the public. Needless to mention, all the Kurdish employees speak Turkish to one another. The only newspaper claimed to be owned by the Kurds is mostly in Turkish, except for a couple pieces of news in Kurdish and English, thrown in it would seem for cosmetic purposes.

It is undeniable that language is one of the most important elements of a culture. When the subject is the Kurds, the mission of the language is more crucial and fundamental. As a nation without state of their own, it is the Kurds’ responsibly to learn Kurdish and to pass it to future generations. Once Kurds loose their language, there will remain very few things for Kurds to defend. Our beloved Kurmanji has been passed on to us for thousands of years by our forefathers; it is the will of Eli Hariri Melayê Cizîrî, Feqîyê Teyran, Pertew Begê Hekkarî, Ehmedê Xanî, Mir Celadet Bedirxan and other Bedirxanis, Erebê Şemo, Casime Celîl, Qanatê Kurdo, Cegerxwîn and many others. It is our main duty to keep it alive and to pass it to our children. The Turkish state has not succeeded in killing Kurdish, it would be a shame if the Kurds themselves did the job of the Turks by perilously ignoring their language. Otherwise, history will curse us for not protecting and loving our language.

Unlike the popular saying, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains” I believe we Kurds have many great friends who have contributed to the Kurdish language and culture, like Maurizio Garzoni, who prepared a Kurdish grammar in 1787; Russian Kurdologists Vladimir Minorsky and Basil Nikitin, who have written many articles and books about the Kurds and their language and culture; Ely Bannister Soane, best remembered for his pioneering books and articles on Kurdish language, poetry and society, most importantly, To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise (1908); Roger Lescot, who founded the Kurdology department in Sorbonne University in 1945 and helped Celadet Bedirxan to write the most influential grammar book of Kurmanji and prepared a book about the well-known Kurdish national epic “Meme Alan” and Ezidi Kurds; Joyce Blau, who taught Kurdish language and civilization at the National Institute of Oriental Language and Civilization at the University of Paris and prepared a Kurdish- English-French dictionary; Martin Van Bruinessen, prominent Dutch Kurdologist and author of several books about the Kurds like “Agha, Sheikh, and State”, “Ehmedî Xanî’s Mem û Zîn and its role in the emergence of Kurdish national awareness” and “Writings on Kurdistan”, Susan Meiselas, author of the famous book “Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History” which brings together historical photographs, maps, memoirs, and government reports to re-create the history Kurdistan; Sheri Laizer, author of prominent books “Martyrs, Traitors and Patriots: Kurdistan After the Gulf War” and “Into Kurdistan Frontiers Under Fire”; David McDowall, “The Kurds: A Nation Denied”, “A Modern History of the Kurds” and lots of articles about the Kurds, Robert Olson; “The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion”, “The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism”, “The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations”, Sandrine Alexie; who translated the great national Kurdish epic “Mem û Zin” into French together with Akif Hasan and is nowadays busy with the translation of the “Sharafnama”, the first-known pan-Kurdish history by Sharafiddin Bitlisi.

There are also many friends like Brendan O’Leary, the co-writer of an upcoming book entitled “The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq”, who with his articles is trying to keep the plight of the Kurds on the agenda. There is also the long-time defender of the Kurdish rights, Peter Galbraith, and those who have shown their friendship to our people with their eloquent and insightful articles like Ralph Peters, Shlomo Avineri, John McGarry, David Ramono, Gerald A. Honigman, Alan Dershowitz, Leszek Dziegiel, Christine Allison, Thomas Sinclair, Philip Kreyenbroek, Mirella Gelletti and many others.

Let’s come back to Michael again. Michael Chyet is one of the greatest friends of our nation. His service to Kurdish language was not limited with his career in Kurdish radio. Alongside his work at the VOA, Michael Chyet also teaches Kurdish at the Washington Kurdish Institute. Mike Amitay, the Executive Director, offers us his own impressions of Michael Chyet: “He has expended a great deal of time and energy to teach Kurmanji and Sorani at WKI and responds thoughtfully and directly to all queries…I am very pleased Michael plans to also develop textbooks with material he has honed through years of classroom experience.”

In 2001, Dr. Chyet taught Kurdish at INALCO of University of Paris and the Kurdish Institute of Paris. During his stay in Paris, he participated in many seminars and conferences. Dr. Chyet continues to teach Kurdish at the Washington Kurdish Institute, a remarkable opportunity for the Kurds in America to either learn or improve their spoken and written Kurdish.

Michael Chyet is on the advisory committees of the Washington Kurdish Institute and Kurdish Library in Sweden. He is also one of the contributors of the impressive linguistic journal of the Paris Kurdish Institute, Kurmanci. Dr. Chyet participated in many linguistic seminars on problems of terminology and standardization of the Kurdish language. Chyet is currently working in the United States, Library of Congress as a Kurdish cataloger.

His colleagues at the VOA Kurdish Service also appreciate his work on behalf of the Kurdish language and literature. While Homer Dizeyee, Chief of VOA Kurdish Service and his former colleague says, “Michael Chyet is worth articles, not just one, to be written on. He has an astonishingly sensitive ear to easily learning languages. He is a philologist, language instructor and folklorist of highest rank. I have worked with Michael for years and we have many linguistic approaches in common”, Fakria Dosky says, “he is a very good linguist, likes to learn languages especially Kurdish. He picks up words fast and by listening to you he can easily tell you what part of Kurdistan you are from”. Birusk Tugan remarks, “I rarely saw his enthusiasm on learning and studying Kurdish in any other Kurdish person.”

Dr. Najmaldin Karim, the president of the Washington Kurdish Institute extols the efforts of Michael Chyet adding, “what he has done for Kurdistan can not be described in words; he has been a great and real friend of our people, I wish we had more people like him”.

Mike Amitay, another friend of the Kurds who has eloquently and forcefully defended the Kurdish cause on the political field while being the Executive Director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, has the following to say:

“Dr. Michael Chyet is a remarkable human being and unsurpassed scholar. A brilliant folklorist and linguist, his grasp of Middle Eastern languages reflects passion for the culture behind the words and grammar. Michael speaks at least 35 languages and has “dabbled” in numerous others. Living and studying in villages in predominantly Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey and Palestine, coupled with his attraction to music, folkloric dance, riddles, proverbs and other cultural expressions bring native fluency to his teachings.

I’ll never forget my first impression of Michael, whom I encountered on the lawn of the US Capitol during an extended protest by Kurdish activists from Turkey in 1993, shortly after he arrived in Washington to become the Editor of the Voice of America’s Kurdish Program. He was in the midst of animated discussion, in Kurdish, with a number of people and I was struck at how attentive, familiar and respectful people seemed with him. I assumed he was a revered political activist helping spread the gospel according to Apo and was bowled over to learn he was a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, whose father was a renowned progressive Rabbi.

Over the years, my respect and awe of Michael have only grown. While shunning politics, as practiced by Kurdish parties and diaspora organizations, his tireless promotion of cultural preservation and fierce support for growth and development of Kurdish language teaching and cultural expression make him something of a pure Kurdish nationalist…”

Below is a compilation of several interviews with Michael Chyet. After reading the interviews, I hope that as Kurds we can better understand the contribution that Michael Chyet has made and continues to make to Kurdish literature. His latest and most labour-intensive work, Kurdish-English Dictionary, is the most extensive Kurmanji dictionary ever published and took him nearly 18 years to complete. The dictionary is immensely helpful not only because it is the largest dictionary of its kind but also because it gives the words in both Latin and Arabic scripts, the region in which they are used, as well as providing a contextual sentence from Kurdish literature where the words are used. The dictionary is indispensable to every household and to every Kurdish individual who would like to bring the Kurdish language back into their life with all of its richness and beauty. On behalf of Kurds, I thank Dr. Michael Chyet, for his friendship of a forgotten nation, for his role as a bridge between two oppressed peoples — the Jewish people and the Kurdish people. Again, I thank him, for his inestimable endeavours on behalf of the Kurdish language and literature, and for his showing the world that the Kurds have friends beyond the mountains.

Pir sipas, Michaelê heja. Mala te ava!

Interview with Michael L. Chyet

QUESTION: Michael can you tell us when you first realized that you had a talent and a love for languages.

Well, the story goes when I was in first grade I was bored at elementary school, and so my neurotic Jewish parents took me to a sociologist-psychologist I guess, and he had me draw pictures and stuff, and basically he told them that I was bored and to put me into a private school. So next thing I knew I was in a Hebrew day school—half day English, half day Hebrew—and I stayed there from first grade through sixth grade. And then in seventh grade, I went to the college preparatory high school, and there you had to study Latin. And I discovered in seventh grade that it came very easily to me. And that same year, I discovered in our attic books of my father’s and of my mother’s for learning German and Yiddish and Spanish and French. Soon after that I added Russian to it. So basically it started that way and like a snowball, it began to grow bigger and bigger. After a couple of years—well, I’m also a folk dancer and a folklorist, and I love— if I love a people’s music and dance, I just eventually end up learning the language. So I love the languages of the Balkans and the music of the Balkans. That would be like Bulgarian and Macedonian and Serbo-Croatian and Romanian and Albanian and Greek.

And once when I had mono, I studied Hungarian as a way of keeping myself entertained while I was recuperating. But anyway, the seeds of becoming a specialist in the Middle East were planted when I was in the eighth grade in Israel with first Hebrew, then Arabic, and then eventually I studied Persian and then Turkish. And after I had all of those under my belt, so to speak, then I started studying Kurdish. And again it was the music and the dance that first hooked me in.

There were these dances from Turkey that I just loved, and I remember when I was 18 reading a description of a folk dance, and it said this is a dance of the Kurdish minority of eastern Turkey. And I was flabbergasted, basically. I thought to myself, “You mean there’s someone in Turkey besides the Turks?”

QUESTION: How many languages would you say you speak?

Well let’s distinguish between speaking and studying. I have studied around 35 languages. That does not mean that I speak 35 languages. It takes years to actually develop fluency in a language and also the passive ability to understand when other people speak. That takes years. I have that for Hebrew, for Arabic—many dialects of Arabic—for Turkish, for Kurdish, French, because I lived in France recently.

QUESTION: How many different places have you lived?

Outside of the United States, I’ve lived in Israel several times, and that includes the Arab sector of Israel, two years in that Arab village. I’ve lived in Turkey; I’ve lived in France for a year. And I’ve traveled. Some people think it’s a lot, but I’m painfully aware of how little I’ve traveled actually.

QUESTION: What do you think about Turkey’s lifting the ban about Kurdish?

Who is going to broadcast if there are not educated persons in Turkey? Kurds who can read and write are mostly in exile. Literate Kurds should be created and Turkey should change.

QUESTION: From Turkish state point of view, why is Kurdish banned?

They think people to think that turkey is changing. It is the same in that entire region: 1 people, 1 language and 1 religion. When the US government calls Turkey a democracy, it is not helping the situation of Kurds and to force Turkey to democratize. For many decades the word “Kurd” was banned instead they use “xayin- traitor”. I am very sceptical about the developments in Turkey to legalizing the Kurdish language. Does this mean we can call the eastern parts of Turkey “Kurdistan” without being thrown to jail? A term which was used by Seljuk Turks and appears in 13, 14 century Ottoman maps.

Any time, any body trying to do something about the Kurdish language, literature and culture are branded with PKK or terrorists. There are many parties and organizations, some of them are not even speaking with the terms of PKK. In fact PKK itself doesn’t use Kurdish near enough to make me satisfies. Actually most of the PKK people I met in Europe speak Turkish with each other. They are, in my opinion, not doing anything near enough to re flourish and develop the Kurdish language. I think it is a political game of PKK to play the Kurdish language card to get the goals of Turkey.

If we look at what Jews did from the beginning of the 20th century till 1948, to really make Hebrew (which had been a dead language for over 2000 years a spoken language) regenerated language and make children to speak that language, we will see a strong determination. Unfortunately, it is not happening among the Kurds, they are not doing the same thing Jews did. Great majority of the Kurds do not teach Kurdish to their children who are not able to read and write Kurdish and see Kurdish only as a political tool. My fear is that, the Kurdish language in turkey is going to die in 20 years like many native languages died in America in lat 200 years.

If you kick Kurdish people from their villages and they are forced to go to large Turkish cities, the younger generation is being assimilated and within 10 years you can see millions of speakers to thousands and tens and then to one speaker. That happened in Caucasus languages also in American languages. I am very much afraid that is going to happen in Kurdish language in Turkey and in Diaspora. Because parents do not pass Kurdish to their children. It is very disappointed to see that Kurds have internalized the negative messages given to them by the Turkish state.

QUESTION: If this is the situation about the Kurds and Kurdish language, then why isn’t the Turkish state opening the doors to Kurdish language and education?

I am not sure that they (Turkish State) really know that. I know because I know Kurds very well. I go their homes and talk to them and travel around with them. If you really do not know them, you can not actually be aware of that. The Turks go by their impressions and they are ruled by their fears.

Every time I try to find somebody who really speaks Kurdish to improve my speaking ability, when it comes to Kurd of Turkey, almost all, it turns out that they moved to a large Turkish cities like Istanbul when they were kids and they grew up speaking Turkish and they only know a little bit Kurdish.

I am very disappointed in Kurds; particularly Kurds from Turkey for not doing more regenerate the Kurdish language

QUESTION: Can you open the attitude of the Kurds toward their language please?

Although Kurdish remains a living language, the education of Kurdish children continues to be in a foreign tongue. This bitter reality poses a threat to the future of the Kurdish language. Why shouldn’t Kurdish be used in schools and at universities, so that Kurdish children and students can learn in their mother tongue? Such an inspiration is not a mere dream: it has been applied in some areas of Iraqi Kurdistan and in Armenia. In both Sulaymania and Yerevan, there are Kurds who have learnt to read and write their language in school.

The number of Kurds is estimated to be between thirty and thirty-five million. Yet of those 30-35,000,000 Kurds, only a few thousand are literate in this language. But there is still much to be done in order to reach such a goal. We must train and educate a new generation of teachers, and we need to rid ourselves of certain perceptions. Why aren’t the Kurds who live in Europe and America reading in their language? What are their excuses? Do they think that Turkish secret police will raid their homes in Germany and arrest them for the possession of Kurdish books, periodicals, and newspapers? Why don’t they proudly speak Kurdish and teach their children how to read and write it? Is it because some Kurds have internalized ideas preached by their enemies about the futility of the Kurdish cause?

QUESTION: How many Kurds would you guess literate in Kurdish in Turkey?

Not that they are all illiterate, most of them are literate in Turkish. There are no official numbers of Kurds in Turkey so it is hard to estimate but I like to say, when a book is published in Kurdish, 60 copies to be sold considered to be good. We are talking about 12 to 20 million Kurds just in Turkey alone. I am not talking about the Kurds living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and former Soviet countries. If this 60 book, not even 100 or million, considered to be the indicator of literacy in Kurdish in Turkey, we come across a small number.

When you talk about these problems, Kurds tell me “but we don’t know how to write in Kurdish”. There is this mental block for many people and that is the reality somehow to be overcome but I don’t think the Turkish state is interested in doing this. They are afraid if Kurdish language is thought, it will lead the separatism.

QUESTION: What do you think about the private language courses to teach Kurdish? There is a Kurdish Institute in Istanbul, can they teach Kurdish?

My understanding, the laws as written, apparently referring only to small private language schools. In Istanbul, there are such language schools to teach English, French, German and Italian. If such a school offers Kurdish language course, who would be wealthy enough to afford the private Kurdish course and anybody who is wealthy why would he/she want to learn Kurdish in Turkish context. Because the Kurdish language is shown very low. Why would anyone who could afford such a course use this money for Kurdish, an “unprestigious and down language”. It just seems that this law is designed not to attract any students the way it is.

QUESTION: What do you think about Kurdish media? VOA Kurdish Radio, Medya TV (Roj TV), Kurdistan TV, KurdSat TV, and others?

VOA Kurdish broadcasts 4 hours daily in Kurmanji and Sorani. Sorani is spoken in parts of Kurdistan of Iraq and Iran, not at all in Turkey. The main dialect spoken in Turkey is Kurmanji but the Kurmanji used in VOA is the accent of the Iraqi Kurdistan. So, Kurds from Turkey say, “we don’t understand this, it’s for the Kurds of Iraq” so they turn the radio off.

As far as Medya TV, they broadcast in Kurmanji, Turkish, Sorani, Zazaki, Arabic, and Assyrian. I would say Kurmanji and Turkish are the most number of hours per day. That is my impression.

There are also TV stations in Iraqi Kurdistan as well. Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has Kurdistan TV and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has KurdSat TV. The PUK which is centered in Sulaymania is primarily Sorani and the KDP which is centered in Hewler are southern Kurmanji speakers. The KDP officials think that Sorani is more prestigious than their own Kurmanji, so all their press releases and interviews in media are in Sorani. Their own dialect does not seem to consider to be important enough to use for broadcasting purposed which divides the Kurds rather than unifying them.

QUESTION: Does it matter that EU and foreign governments push Turkey to bring freedom to Kurds?

I don’t think I know really but I think not only the Kurds but all citizens; Turks, Greeks, Armenians and everyone else living in Turkey should force Turkish state to be democratic as more as possible and I don’t think it helps the situation when the US Government says turkey is already a democracy. I don’t believe this helps Turkey to deal with the issues to be dealt with.

I believe before everything Kurds themselves must throw out the internalized negativities that I see on them particularly. For example, they should refuse to speak Turkish at home. If Kurdish parents say “from now on we are speaking Kurdish at home and I do not want to hear one word in Turkish” then they can pass their language to future generations. If they do that, it will have some sort of political result as well. But I think the people feel very powerless and they just don’t think that this is anything they can achieve.

QUESTION: You seem to have honed in on Kurdish. You spent 18 years working on your dictionary, your Kurdish-English dictionary. Was there anything other than the music and dance that drew you to that particular language?

It was like terra incognita. Like no one else cared about it or was interested in it. So I sort of created a niche for myself. I mean, within Middle Eastern studies, just look, just about any big university will have a Near Eastern Studies department where they teach Hebrew and Arabic and Turkish and Persian. Well, how about Kurdish? Only now, for, apparently for political reasons, are they starting to become interested in that. I just—when I hear Kurdish being spoken, something inside me just opens up. Something’s very happy. And I have to say that I also feel that way about Dutch and also about Arabic. I mean, there are just certain languages that I just have a special affinity for.

  • He, who loves the Kurdish language.

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