Scene 1: Day, inside
After walking in the spring rain through the narrow streets of Pera, we finally reach Kiraathane – the Literature House in Istanbul. We sit around the big table in a rather cramped room, a room literally full of writers. The dark clouds of the sky reflect the conversation: faces are drawn, deep breaths are taken between the sentences, sighs mingle with each other as Sami writers explain what has been damaged: the language, the heritage, the drums, the dignity, the forests, the land! When one question is repeated, curiously and insistently: “But why? Why cannot you advocate your cause, solve the issue by relying on the well-functioning democratic framework that you are lucky enough to live in?”, the writers simply look at each other, tears in their eyes. What can be heard in that silence is the hurtful truth: Because even the most democratic people may choose to be ignorant, to violate and stay silent.
Scene 2: Night, inside
The same evening, people are mingling with wine glasses in their hands, trying to sneak a peek through the kitchen door where waiters appear with delicious and exquisite finger food on silver trays. The ballroom of the Swedish Consulate General in Istanbul is filled with people from the literary scene of Turkey, Sami writers are dressed in bright colours, answering people’s questions with warm smiles. I find myself interpreting for a Sami writer and a Kurdish publisher. He asks her what she knows about Kurdish people. She says, I know about the Halabca Massacre, feeling terrified when I heard about it. And I know that your situation here is much more brutal than ours. He sighs, says “I don’t know whether it is worse now than before. We keep tasting new versions of brutality, it’s hard to compare. I was imprisoned for seven years because I published a Kurdish novel back in the 1990s. Now I can publish, but the situation is still not better. I ask you, my fellow writer, howcome years do not change anything, how can this be possible?” She listens while I interpret with trembling words, just barely holding back the tears. We stop talking for a few seconds before we smile at each other again.
Belongings as a project
Belongings is a bilateral exchange project for Sami and Kurdish writers, a collaboration between two Literature Houses: Tjállegoahte in Jokkmokk, Sweden, and Wêjegeh Amed in Diyarbakir, Turkey. The project is funded by the Consulate General of Sweden in Istanbul, Kulturrådet, Region Norrbotten and the Sami Parliament. As the project coordinator, I find my role very inspiring, mediating between these two amazing literary ecosystems. At the centre of the project are ten writers – five Sami and five Kurdish – who were found through an open call in 2021. Four pages from their works were made available in translation and they all met at six online workshops, where the writers could get to know each other in Sami-Kurdish pairs based on their profile. The kick-off workshop was hosted by the Swedish Research Institute, where Ingela Nilsson (Uppsala University), Tolga Cora (Boğaziçi University), Onur Günay (Princeton University), and Olle Kejonen (Uppsala University) gave talks about translation and storytelling in minority contexts. This year, 2022, the Sami writers travel to Diyarbakir and the Kurdish writers to Jokkmokk. All writers attend all events and keep field journals. The project’s end product is a collectively written book, based on these field notes and published in three languages: Kurdish, Sami and English.
In April 2022, after spending two days in Istanbul, we finally went to Diyarbakir to meet up with our fellow Kurdish writers. The Project’s interpreter, Salih – who had acted as simultaneous interpreter throughout the online workshops – was not in Wejegeh Amed when we arrived late in the evening. Accordingly, we had a shy start where no one knew how to communicate, who to interpret, or even what to talk about! After a roundtable introduction, some refreshments helped us to loosen up a bit: writers started to find their ‘other half’ from the workshops, phones got pulled out, Google translate joined us at the table and opened for friendly smiles and chats. Anyone who could took on the role of interpreter–enabler, without realizing that we were actually embarking on quite a demanding journey for the next couple of days.
The morning after we were in Wejegeh Amed for the panel sessions which were given by two of the Kurdish writers: on the city and its history and the city as a cultural scene. It was interesting to simply look at the room full of writers who had first gotten to know each other as squares on the Zoom screen, now being in the same room, being in Diyarbakir – cultural capital of Kurdish scene in Turkey! Sami writers were taking notes with such enthusiasm, reminding me of the energy of students in the first day of school. From the empires and kingdoms that had governed the city in the past, to more recent and democratic governments of the last one hundred years, they had all made such an impact on the liberties and restrictions of language and expression. After all this listening, it was then time to see the city with our own eyes through a guided tour.
On the edge of a wall
Walking as a large group with our guide, on the ancient city walls of Diyarbakir…
Dilawer is approaching me in a whispering tone: “He tells the dry version of history, but our Sami colleagues need insights! I want to tell them about the old prison complex here for instance, could you interpret to Anne Marja?” I say yes and start facilitating this guerrilla city tour movement of Dilawer, which would in fact continue throughout the entire trip with several Sami recruits. When we reach the old cathedral of the city, Anne Marja says: “I will stick with you, Dilawer. No wonder you have written a book about the cultural roots of Kurdish idioms!” We walk and talk, through different streets, in different combinations of people.
One moment I listen to an interpreted conversation about the Kurdish spoken in the streets, mixed with Turkish, the other I hear how Samis are against building this kind of magnificent buildings. How, on the contrary, houses are burned after people died and only ash remains, in the middle of the woods. How some elderly people even start burning down the barn when they feel their time is coming! We ask and reply, talk and walk, show and point, explain and ensure… After four hours of this, we find ourselves exhausted, sitting in the courtyard of an old Diyarbakir stone house. Laughing our eyes out when we hear two people talking about the different methods of construction in these old houses – a “cultural exchange overdose”.
When we reach Wejegeh Amed in the evening for the Sami panel, everyone is tired but still eager to listen, talk, ask, learn! Salih is tired but continues to interpret between Turkish, Kurdish, English and Swedish. Quite a crowd of literature enthusiasts show up to the panel, where we hear about seven Sami languages, the consequences of the colonization of Sami land and resources, assimilation, being split between four countries… Things that the Kurdish audience certainly can relate to even before they finish the sentence. Salih’s tiredness reveals his playful personality more and more when he interprets. When someone in the audience insists, “It must be seven dialects, not languages”, Lea answers the question with the same certainty: “No, we do have seven languages.” Salih reacts to her instead of interpreting directly, “Really? I didn’t know this, what a shame that I had no idea about it!” This makes the audience break out in laughter, his “unprofessional” and sincere approach as an interpreter.
When the panel is over, duties are not. The duty of telling, the duty of interpreting, the duty of reflecting on what has been heard: not only because of the interest, but also as a sign of respect for the interpreters allowing the words to reach us. When I take a short break from another intense conversation as interpreter–enabler, I encounter the people of the Swedish Consulate in a luxurious moment of being able to speak in only one language, if not my mother tongue. We talk and joke about Salih’s funny way of understanding interpretation. The Consul General says, “I think he does really well in this context. He breaks the ice by commenting and showing reactions while interpreting, it works perfectly in this cultural exchange setting! However, I could never work with such an interpreter. I need my words to be interpreted precisely, with the exact amount of elaboration; no more, no less. Because in diplomacy, interpretation can fulfil its purpose only in this way.”
Another day, we are on our way to Mardin. Everyone is taking the chance to watch the landscape, rural areas, villages, animals by the road. When we reach the open air museum of Dara, locals encourage us to start with the Roman cistern, but the group want to wait for the Kurdish writers to arrive. While waiting for them, someone says, “Can we cut the history part a bit short today? This place is historical, no doubt, but we couldn’t care less about Roman history! We are here, in this special place by the Mesopotamian plain, by the Syrian border! We would like to talk about cross-border communication, divided families, forced migration between the borders – you know, it’s our issues too.”
At some point that day, I look around the bus and realize with panic that Kovan and Anne Marja are sitting in the two front seats – how will they manage? It’s too late, the bus is moving.
I hear them talking through Google and just a few minutes later, the loudest laughter. Anna comes up and asks me to interpret a question: “Did you personally suffer negative consequences from writing in Kurdish?” Dilawer replies in a calm manner. When he initiated a short story contest in the memory of a young Kurdish boy who had been killed, yes, there was an investigation. Also, he was arrested once when the police by coincidence found the idiom dictionary he had authored in his car. And yes, he was also fired from his teaching job at the university for signing a peace petition. As I am listening to him, he smiles softly and says, “Tell her I didn’t say these things to make her cry”. I turn and see Anna in tears. This time she apologizes, “Tell him that I wish I wasn’t crying, but I’m a person who cannot hide my feelings”. They both smile at each other. As we are silent for a minute, I suddenly hear the entire bus! People in groups of two or three, talking about politics, history, literature, criticism, identity, assimilation, language, all carried out through interpretation. “The nerdiest bus in the world”, I say to those around me. We laugh.
Stretching the word
Later that day, after the panel, I find a few of them talking about TikTok with dancing gestures. A Sami writer says that language activism is most efficient in the kind of places where you can engage the youth: TikTok, Snapchat, video games… A Kurdish writer talks about a video game project that she is involved in. In the meantime, one of them imitates a “famous” TikTok dance that I had no idea about. I hear joy and laughter, yet I cannot see any interpreter among them. It works anyhow, in a kind of mystical way which I believe lies in the ultimate intention of those writers to understand each other. It works, in a magical way that I never thought it would before the trip.
We spend another busy day sightseeing, visiting civic spaces in Diyarbakir. We visit the musical kindergarten that aims to preserve the mother tongue through Kurdish music, we visit the city theatre, the language preservation institute. We have our closing text development workshop to exchange ideas as inspiration for composing the texts based on the field journals. In the evening we have a poetry evening and listen to Sami and Kurdish poems. Some presented with a sentence of explanation, some with only words and feelings. We listen to Kurdish deingbej and Sami joik on the same stage. The first moment the deingbej starts singing in Kurdish, Lis-Marie looks at me with eyes wide open: “He is joiking!”.
At the last night of the trip, the two tables are competing with each other in a singing contest. One can hear Sami and Kurdish in a random order since the tables are mixed. Then the applause. Then the dancing. Then warm hugs when saying goodbye. Interpreters are in demand at this stage: I hear my name being called randomly and frequently under the dark sky. “Can you tell her/him that this is not the end?” “Can you tell her/him I never thought I would have these amazing Sami/Kurdish friends?” “Can you tell her/him that I will follow up on what we talked about when they come to Sapmi?”
I told it all. From one side to the other. Back with the answer. With careful consideration and in the easiest way possible. I am no interpreter though, just like many others in the group who still functioned as interpreter–enablers during this trip. I was just a person who speaks two languages fluently and happened to find myself among people who want to tell each other many, many stories, regardless of language.
is a research-based writer and cultural consultant from Istanbul who works mostly within the area of diverse communities and identity issues.
She is currently based in Malmö and writes a column (in Turkish - https://otdergi.com) about humourist human situations related to migration.