The assimilation policies of the Turkish state have existed since the early years of the Republic and have targeted all non-Turkish populations living in Turkey. The Kurds, who constitute approximately 15 to 20 percent of the total population, have been subjected to harsh restrictions and prohibitions for almost 80 years. The use of the Kurdish language in the public sphere and in publications was de facto banned until the 1980 military coup, after which the prohibition gained de jure form as well. Although the law officially banning the Kurdish language was repealed in January 1991, restrictions continued in the civil war environment, under martial law. Since the Kurdish language had always been associated with the outlawed Kurdish movement, no serious changes took place until the beginning of Turkey’s candidacy for European Union membership in 2004. In the following years, the Turkish state began to take a more moderate stance towards the use and teaching of the Kurdish language; it initiated a TV channel in Kurdish in 2009, and Kurdish began to be offered as an elective courses in elementary schools in 2013. These new developments have had a positive impact on the Kurdish language, which had been crippled by restrictions and decades-old prohibitions. The literary works of Mehmed Uzun, a well-known Kurdish novelist, emerged in an environment in which the Kurdish language was prohibited, and thus Uzun’s works played a crucial role in enabling the Kurdish language to survive. They functioned as a means of resistance to assimilation for his readers. Uzun himself encountered serious challenges in his lifetime, as an exiled writer of 13 books. He was the editor of a pro-Kurdish political journal, Rizgari, which began publication on March 21, 1976; the first issue was confiscated by the state the next day. An investigation was immediately initiated and Uzun’s trial before the state security court began the same year, because the articles in the journal referred to the Kurds as a distinct ethno-national group, claimed they were subjected to oppression, and suggested that Kemalism was a racist ideology. After a short period of imprisonment, and while still subject to legal proceedings, Uzun fled to Sweden in 1977. In 1981, his Turkish citizenship was revoked and he could not return to Turkey until 1992. Uzun wrote in Kurdish, Turkish and Swedish, and his literary works were translated into more than 20 languages. He spent a considerable period of his life in exile due to the repression of Kurdish intellectuals in Turkey. Uzun died of cancer in October 2007.
2008 — 2013
Scope and Purpose
The symbolic value of Mehmed Uzun for the Kurds in Turkey is related to his struggle to maintain Kurdish culture through literature. In his novels, he created a substantial genre focusing on the unwritten political, social and cultural history of the Kurds. Uzun’s works gave his readers the ability to resist decades of oppression and restrictive policies on the Kurdish language; as a result, there are many memorialization projects commemorating him. The first memorial was Mehmed Uzun Park, built in 2008 in the Batman city center by the municipality and financially supported by individual funders. The second project was Mehmet Uzun City Library, opened in 2009 in Diyarbakır. In addition to Uzun’s personal library, it contains libraries donated by intellectuals such as Vedat Türkali and Kaya Müştekhan. The Diyarbakır Art Center also enriched the content of the library with various sources in both Turkish and English. An electronic catalogue system was set up to allow easy access to sources. A third memorial effort, in 2011, was the municipality’s renaming of the street next to his house in Siverek (Urfa) Mehmed Uzun Street. The fourth effort, still in progress, is a large park with a monument of Mehmed Uzun in the Diyarbakır city center, sponsored by Yenişehir Municipality. The project is expected to be completed in 2013. Moreover, Mehmed Uzun is commemorated annually on the date of his death at his graveside, with the participation of family members, friends, politicians and the public.
The main impact of this series of memorialization projects dedicated to Mehmed Uzun has been to keep his memory and his contributions to Kurdish literature alive. The city library dedicated to him functions in two ways. First, it provides students a place to study. Since there is a dearth of public study areas in Diyarbakır, the contribution of this space to the lives of young generations has been significant. Second, opportunities to obtain books and other materials necessary for learning Kurdish is still a troublesome issue for most people. The problem of access to materials on Kurdish history, language and literature was largely resolved once the library was established. Aside from the city library project, it would be misleading to claim that the remaining projects have had an impact beyond dignifying the person of Mehmed Uzun. But these memorials have had a positive emotional impact on Uzun’s surviving relatives. Zozan Uzun, the wife of Mehmed Uzun, has said that she was extremely excited when she first visited the library and felt as if the spirit of Mehmed Uzun was among the books.
The memorialization projects mentioned above have not faced any serious legal challenges. Nevertheless, Mehmed Uzun’s novels were the subject of investigations as recently as 2002. Because it was written in Kurdish, one of these novels, “As Luminous. As Love, As Dark As Death” (Ronî Mîna Evîne – Tarî Mîna Mirinê), was taken to the state security court in 2001, though no charges were brought. Also, as another challenge to memorialization attempts, although architectural plans for constructing a mausoleum for Mehmed Uzun were completed in 2008, the project was unable to progress in subsequent years for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, although a Mehmed Uzun Foundation was established in Sweden and continues its activities abroad, plans to open a branch of the foundation in Diyarbakır, which were made in 2011, have not yet been realized.