A MUST READ BOOK ! : Kurdish Life in Contemporary Turkey: Migration, Gender & Ethnic Identity

ANNA GRABOLLE – CELIKER : Kurdish Life in Contemporary Turkey: Migration, Gender and Ethnic Identity:  London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013. xx + 299 pages. $99.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter

            This book is an important, up-to-date ethnographic study of “the lives of Kurds originally from the eastern province of Van in Turkey, many of whom have migrated, either from villages to the province capital or from the province to the larger cities further west” (p. 1). Given this migratory process, “there are estimates that half to two-thirds of the Kurdish population of Turkey today live in the west of the country, three million of them in Greater Istanbul” (p. 15).

Thus, despite many grievances suffered as ethnic Kurds, many of them are partially assimilated or as the author put it, “not so concerned with an exact historical narrative of independence struggles” (p. 101). No wonder Cemil Bayik, a longtime leader of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and recently elected co-chair of the umbrella Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which includes the PKK, then called on the Kurdish population in Turkish metropolitan cities and Europe to return to their villages. Bayik declared that this return would be the greatest step for the achievement of [Kurdish] democratic nation-building. Thus, the present study proves a necessary balance to much of the recent pro-Kurdish nationalist literature on the Kurdish problem in Turkey.

Specifically, this book traces Sunni ethnic Kurdish migration from Gundeme [our village], a “pseudonym . . . to convey a sense of an archetypical [Kurdish] village” (p. 26) in the northeastern Turkish province of Van to the city of the same name and then in many cases on to an area of Istanbul termed Tepelik [hilly] where a cluster of former Gundi [villagers] and Vanli now live. The author, Dr. Anna Grabolle-Celiker, a German-British anthropologist married to an ethnic Kurd from Turkey, has worked in Turkey since 1997 as a language teacher, translator, and then university lecturer. Her obvious writing and excellent editing skills make her revised Ph.D dissertation from Tubinger University in Germany interesting and refreshingly easy to read. To broaden her findings, the author also heuristically cites and compares her data with those of other ethnographic studies from around the world.

After a wide-ranging introductory chapter, the author divides her work into nine more chapters, the first of which analyzes the village of Gundeme, concluding that “remembering the village can entail denigration or nostalgia” (p. 27). “Istanbul’s toxic smell of burning coal in the winter and the sickly-sweet smell of uncollected rubbish in the summer . . . was contrasted with the fresh rural mountain air” (p. 46). The author also found that “it is typical of the area that villages . . . have no feudal landlords . . . who feature in mainstream clichés about Kurds” (p. 40).

The following chapter describes why Gundi [villagers] have left their village and analyzes their dispersal and increasing social differentiation. Financial consequences, better education for their children, and getting away from natural disasters such as earthquakes have proven to be the main reasons for the migration from Gundeme. Further to the south, however, armed conflict between the government and the PKK has also contributed heavily to this migratory process. “Prior to the ‘retribalisation’ of Kurds in urban settings as a means of acquiring political and economic influence [patronage] . . . tribal entities throughout rural Kurdish regions had become ever smaller [and]  confederations have long been dissolved” (p. 76).

The next chapter discusses unilineal migration away from the village and contains an excellent analysis of linguistic assimilation that demonstrates how “migration has brought a drastic change in linguistic behaviour” (p. 91). For many migrants the Kurdish language is being lost or as many Kurds put it, “their tongue does not turn” (p. 92). “Lacking the determination or education to raise their children bilingually, many parents I spoke to have regretfully accepted that their children will not speak the language anymore” (p. 94). “More and more young women are going to school for longer, which leads to an accelerated Turkification of Kurds” (p. 95  “It remains to be seen what effect the Turkish state TRT 6 channel, which has been broadcasting in Kurdish since January 2009, will have on Kurdish language attrition or acquisition” (p. 94).

Additional chapters deal with networks of transaction between sending and receiving communities, marriage patterns, gender relations, and growing religious consciousness in the city, especially among women. Regarding marriages, “it seems that most families today are more concerned about their children’s, particularly their daughter’s, preferences than in the past” (p. 175). In addition, “there is . . . marked contrast in the way women with different education levels are treated” (p. 217). ). However, there is virtually no mention about female genital mutilation or honor killing. The conclusion finds that “as ethnic differentiation decreased due to exposure to the Turkish education system and the decline of Kurdish language use, people were often categorized more according to socio-economic status than ethnicity” (pp. 252-253).

This excellent book also includes notes on names, spellings, and pronunciation; a rather large glossary of Turkish and Kurdish terms; a glossary of abbreviations and acronyms, an appendix with the questionnaire used by the author to gather data, modest endnotes and a limited index, and larger bibliography.

Michael M. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and most recently the author of second editions of The Kurds Ascending, 2011; and Historical Dictionary of the Kurds, 2011.  He is currently writing a new book on the Kurds in Syria.