The following article was sent to Kurdistan Commentary by a reader who frequently travels to Turkey and is interested in the question of language and identity. Thank you, Annaliesa, for your contribution!
Geoaktif Kültür ve Aktivizm Merkezi
The territories that nowadays comprise the Republic of Turkey have always been a mosaic of languages and a crossroad of cultures, but it is only recently that the diversity within its boundaries is flourishing again in the form of music, books – from learning materials to dictionaries-, ethnic dances and other cultural expressions that formerly where frowned upon or simply not very well-known outside their natural regions.
One of the many faces of this revived interest for local cultures is the Geoaktif Kültür ve Aktivizm Merkezi, located near Istanbul’s popular Taksim square. This cultural centre promotes and encourages not only language learning and traditional dances, but also a new look at the world through different thought-provoking speeches and activities.
Its founder, Cemal Atila, a publisher, translator, dancer and teacher all in one, is definitely the kind of person who could make such a ground-breaking cultural centre like this come into being, an institution which combines not only his passion for dance and languages, but also his own living experiences. He was born in 1968 in the village of Qeracêre (Seki in Turkish), and he moved to Istanbul, then to Fethiye to work in the tourism industry, only to come back to Istanbul, where he now resides, later in life. His mother tongue is Zaza, but soon learnt Kurmanji informally, and Turkish at school. He dearly remembers the two hour-long broadcasts in Kurdish from Radio Yerevan, and how important it was for them at a time in which Kurdish could not be used in public broadcasts in Turkey.
Passionate about languages and already fluent in the three aforementioned ones, he learnt English after taking a course in Istanbul and working on yachts in Southern Turkey, where he had all kind of jobs during the Özal years. During this period, the country lived a tourism boom and worked in the industry as tour-guide. Soon afterwards, he would become a professional translator, translating 20 books from English into Turkish, publisher and amateur dancer.
Precisely from his passion for ethnic dances and the cultures around them would blossom the idea of this particular multicultural centre. Its purpose is not only to be a place of learning, but also to be a meeting point for people of different backgrounds, as Atila puts it: ‘When the topic of Turkey’s ethnic questions is brought up, the “We have been living side by side for thousands of years” cliché always comes up. Yes, it’s true, but we live together not knowing anything about each other. We have lived in these lands “side by side for thousands of years” but if we do not know even two words of Laz, Kurmanji, Zaza or Armenian it means that “we live together but alone”. We invite everybody, but specially Turks, to learn the languages and cultures of their Kurdish, Armenian, Laz and Zaza brothers with whom have always lived together’.
Recently opened, it already offers courses of several minority languages spoken inside – some of them also outside – Turkey, like Kurmanji, Zaza, Armenian, and Laz. Learning Persian, a language which contributed greatly to the totality of the Middle East, and Greek, the language of the “Rum” (or Greek Orthodox Christians living in Istanbul), is also possible, and classes of Azerbaijani are scheduled to start very soon. And although Atila’s invitation is directed mainly to Turks, the public of the centre is very diverse, there are Turks, but also people who want to learn more about the culture and languages of their forefathers.
The project has stirred an unusual amount of attention from the Turkish media and there have been several articles published about it in many important newspapers and websites, including Hürriyet and Taraf. Since then, Atila has given a number of interviews and has seen a reaction from the public, for instance, in an interview he said that he received a message from an Assyrian asking him why Aramaic was not included among the offered courses, to which Atila replied that if they find a professor for it, definitely it will be offered.
Hopefully, the centre will continue evolving and including more languages, dances and activities as time passes by and will continue working as meeting point of cultures and celebrating the diversity of Anatolia. Geoaktif Kültür Merkezi constitutes the living proof of the change the Turkish society is currently undergoing and a new outlook at the situation in which languages are not imposed on each other but coexist peacefully as means of understanding and learning and a motive of celebration.
In case anybody is interest in joining the courses, the centre’s contact information can be found below:
Geoaktif Kültür ve Aktivizm Merkezi
Atif Yilmaz Caddesi No: 16 Kat (floor): 4-5
Taksim – Istanbul
telephone: 0212-244 84 63