Author Mat Nashed Posted August 14, 2015
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Rotating his prayer beads in his hand, Mehmet Ince sings songs of struggle and grief in a small courtyard. A 62-year-old man of tall stature and a short grey beard, he learned the art of storytelling through song from his father 46 years ago. Known as a “dengbej,” he is one of dozens of Kurdish storytellers preserving a fading tradition: performing their songs to recollect the history of their people.
“We sing stories of love and war,” Ince told Al-Monitor while lighting a cigarette in the house of the dengbej. “We express our history through our tongue.”
Kurds in Turkey have long been denied a history of their own. In 1980, their language was criminalized following a bloody military coupthat saw the country fall under martial law, empowering the army to raid, imprison and kill thousands of leftists and Kurdish activists.
Faced with charges of separatism by the state for speaking their mother tongue, dengbejs traveled discreetly between villages to perform for their people. Whenever one would arrive, the town would elect two people to stand the lookout for Turkish soldiers, while the rest of the community would cram into an empty guesthouse to hear him sing.
Since the 1984 birth of the war in between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), dengbejs have produced an alternative narrative from that of the state, a history of their people’s suffering.
“We used to listen to their cassettes secretly in our village,” said Mehmet Cinar, a resident of Diyarbakir and a frequent visitor to the house.
Although the use of Kurdish was legalized in publishing and recording in 1991, interest in the dengbej was sometimes discouraged by PKK members in their community.
The PKK objects to what it sees as fuedalist practices in Kurdish culture as part of the group’s armed struggle against the state. As a socialist group, it did not approve of the dengbejs‘ part in the Kurds’ feudal past.
But the more dengbejs told stories that defied government repression, the more their relationship with the PKK improved.
During the fall 2014 battle for Kobani, where hundreds of Kurds from eastern Turkey helped the PKK defend the persecuted Kurdish community in Syria from the Islamic State, families of Kurdish militants flocked to the dengbej house. Hundreds of new songs were recorded, bringing about a new chapter in Kurdish history.
Tahsin Turk, a 64-year-old dengbej with a thick gray mustache and stained yellow teeth, said that the IS threat has motivated him to produce music in the memory of those who lost their lives in the fighting.
“I have family fighting against IS,” Turk said as he stood up. “We need to produce an honest history for our children.”