In January 2008, well known Syrian Kurdish singer, Elî Tico, was arrested by Syrian intelligence services. Tico, 71, is a singer following the traditional ways of dengbêj, or story telling, deeply rooted in Kurdish folkloric tradition. He is one of the last remaining singers of this genre. His most famous ballad is Shêx Seîd, recounting the 1925 Kurdish uprising, the first major rebellion of the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey.
Tico’s arrest followed a gathering of Kurdish singers at his home in Aleppo. He was interrogated in Aleppo for several days before being taken to intelligence headquarters in Damascus. His family has not heard from him since.
Kurds represent 10% of the population in Syria, mainly living in north along the borders with Turkey and Iraq. Many do not have citizenship in Syria due to the Arabisation laws passed there in the 1960s. Kurds are not recognised as a separate ethnicity. Kurdish human rights activists are routinely arrested and persecuted. Kurdish ethnic identity is fiercely suppressed through language bans and prohibition of education in Kurdish.
In this context it is amazing that just a couple days ago another Kurdish singer, Mazkin Tahir al-Naqash, performed in Kurdish at a cultural event in the Syrian capital. While the Syrian government does sometimes grant permission for Kurdish cultural events, it does not offer official recognition. Even al-Naqash’s performance was billed as ‘songs from the north-eastern heritage of Syria’ without mentioning the words Kurd or Kurdish.
Members of the Kurdish minority in Syria are wondering whether this signals an improvement in the way the government regards their community.
Abdo Khalil, a writer in Damascus, believes the authorities may have embarked on ‘a project of reconciliation with the Kurds.’ But he cautioned that a cultural event could not in itself be seen as a step toward ending the problems between Kurds and their government.
His caution is well noted. The relationship between the Syrian government and Kurdish groups is tenuous at best. One cultural event does not magically erase the detention of Kurdish poets, political leaders, artists, and bloggers. And whither Elî Tico?
Kurdish Singer Breaks Sound Barrier, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 07 Nov 08
Kurdish Singer Missing, KurdishMedia, 02 Feb 08