Nevruz as a symbol of Kurdish identity in Turkey

Nevruz as a symbol of Kurdish identity in Turkey

Today, on the day of Nevruz, or Newroz as Kurds call it, the attention of millions in Turkey is focused on a message that will be conveyed to hundreds of thousands of people awaiting it in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern city of Diyarbakır.

The message will come from Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), imprisoned since 1999.

A delegation including members of the Turkish parliament from the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who have been mediating for the last three years between the PKK and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), received the message from him during their latest visit to the İmralı Island prison south of Istanbul two days ago.

The government expects Öcalan to make a call for the PKK, the organization that he established in 1978, to come to terms with a “reinforced cease-fire” with the Turkish government in the armed campaign they launched in 1984, which has killed more than 40,000 people. The massive bloodshed has come to a halt since the beginning of the talks, which is the main reason why there is hope for a political solution.

Actually, what President Tayyip Erdoğan - who initiated the talks in 2012 as prime minister, through his National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan - and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu would like to hear more is a total farewell to arms.

But they might be content with Öcalan’s call for the PKK to hold an extraordinary congress, during which it would announced a “reinforced cease-fire” with the perspective of ending the armed struggle. The PKK is looking for autonomy, leaving aside its original goal of an independent Kurdistan carved out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The call would pass another critical threshold following a joint declaration by the government and the HDP on Feb. 28, as a Monitoring Group is being formed for the official negotiations, which has been imposed by Öcalan as a condition.

To make this call on the day of Nevruz has an additional meaning for Kurds.

Another message from Öcalan, heralding talks in pursuit of a political solution, was to read out to people in the central Diyarbakır square on Nevruz in 2013.

Why is Nevruz is so important for Kurds, and what makes it so important for the PKK?

March 21 is the equinox, a celebrated cultural new year when the length of the day becomes equal to the length of the night and people begin to see more sunshine. Winter is over. 

It is the official New Year in Iran, and means the “New Day” in Persian. But from Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia to Bosnia in the Balkans, it is celebrated by the people, not by states.

It is no coincidence that St Patrick’s Day in Christian cultures is only a few days before Nevruz, and Pesah in Judaism starts only a few days after it. Since ancient times, people have celebrated the coming of spring.

Kurds used to celebrate it along with other peoples of the region, in parallel with Persian-Kurdish mythology, where Kawa or Kave rioted against the oppressor Dehak by calling people to the mountains by burning fires on mountaintops.

But it was Öcalan and the PKK who transformed this cultural day into a symbol of national identity building, along with the official use of the Kurdish language, in their struggle against the Turkish state. The use of the letter “w,” which doesn’t exist in the Turkish alphabet, in Nevruz was a smart political innovation on the part of Öcalan and the PKK.

The Turkish state did its worst in the 1980s and 90s, after the military coup in 1980. In this period the existence of Kurds and the Kurdish language was denied, by either claiming that Nevruz originated from Central Asian Turkic folklore or by simply banning the celebrations by Kurds, which played into the PKK’s hands further.

The fact that the Turkish government is letting Öcalan’s message to the PKK and to his sympathizers be heard through official channels is an acknowledgement of the defeat of the Turkish state’s denialist policies.

President Erdoğan’s apparent current tension - claiming that there is no Kurdish problem anymore because of the steps he has taken - could be due to this traumatic fact, along with the upcoming elections on June 7.

But millions of people in Turkey on this day of Nevruz, or Newroz, are paying close attention to the Diyarbakır message, hoping that it will mark the beginning of a political spring too.