Ahmet Kaya, Adele and Turkey’s Kurdish Difficulties

Ahmet Adele

A case of theft – or just a coincidence?

I don’t tweet myself, so I can’t speak from first-hand knowledge – but I’m told the twittersphere and other social media in Turkey were buzzing with outrage last week over the sacrilegious desecration of a song by the late Ahmet Kaya, an icon of Turkey’s left wing revolutionaries. It is alleged that a new release by pop diva Adele, ‘Million Years Ago’ is a direct steal from Kaya’s 1985 track, ‘Acılara Tutunmak’.

I’ve listened to both songs a few times, and for sure there are similarities. You can probably sing Kaya’s lyrics to Adele’s music. A careful listener might detect echoes of Kaya’s sadness and disillusionment in Adele’s feelings of loss for a past life. Kaya ‘lived several thousand years, holding on to his pain’; the English songstress misses the days ‘when life was a party to be thrown . . a million years ago’. However, the grounds are probably too flimsy to bring a case of copyright infringement. Could the young lady have heard Kaya’s 30 year-old ballad, sung only in Turkish? It’s a long shot. I heard someone suggest she had a Turk somewhere back in her family tree – but I could find no trace of one in the several biographical sites I checked.

ahmetdkNevertheless, I’m grateful that the controversy has shone a spotlight on the music of Ahmet Kaya, at this time of escalating violence between Kurdish separatists and Turkish security forces. It’s fifteen years since he passed away, at the far-too-young age of 43 – and this seems like a good opportunity to take a look at his life and art.

Kaya was born in the eastern Turkish city of Malatya to a Kurdish father and Turkish mother. I don’t know whether his father would have liked to give his son a Kurdish name – but anyway, in those days it was illegal. That’s probably also why the family’s surname is Turkish.

Despite his Kurdish roots, Kaya sang mostly in Turkish. He released his first album in 1985, and subsequent albums recorded until his death in 2000 sold well. According to his Wikipedia entry, During his career he recorded approximately 20 albums and was known for his protest music and positions on social justice. Recurring themes in his songs are love towards one’s mother, sacrifice, and hope.’

In 1999 Kaya was about to be named Musician of the Year at an awards ceremony televised on Turkey’s Show TV. Apparently he made a speech in which he spoke of his Kurdish background and announced that he was including a song in the Kurdish language on his next album. The Turkish Wikipedia page reports that some members of the audience began to swear at the artist and throw things at him, whereupon he was escorted from the auditorium by officials. The English version claims that subsequently, ‘massive opposition from Turkish people and celebrities’ was led by prominent Turkish singer, Serdar Ortaç, who later apologized for his behaviour. The Turkish site makes no mention of Ortaç’s involvement.

Kaya's grave in Paris

Ahmet Kaya’s grave in a Paris cemetery

Whatever the truth of the matter, the opposition culminated in a criminal prosecution, and Kaya escaped to France. Shortly afterwards he was sentenced, in absentia, to three years and nine months in prison for spreading separatist propaganda. It later emerged that some of the evidence central to his conviction had been forged. Sad to say, however, Kaya died of a heart attack in Paris, in self-imposed exile, and is buried in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. Perhaps his family is deriving some small satisfaction from the fact that Turkish people are now leaping to his defence against foreign superstars pirating his music – if indeed that’s what they are doing.

It does seem, then, that Ahmet Kaya’s reputation has been resuscitated in his homeland in the fifteen years since his death. Going a step further, it also seems to me that this resurrection, or forgiveness, or whatever you like to call it, is indicative of a shift in the majority perception of the twenty per cent of Turkey’s population said to be ethnic Kurds. Under a provision in the constitution written by Turkey’s military government after the 1980 coup, the threshold for representation in parliament was set at ten per cent. Kurdish parties had been unable to pass this barrier, until this year, when, partly as a result of support from non-Kurdish liberal opponents of the AK Party government, the HDP Party finally broke through.

Unfortunately, the shine has gone off the reconciliation process somewhat, with renewed violence in the southeast near the Syrian border, and the refusal of the HDP leadership to condemn PKK aggression.

Pro-Kurdish lawmaker Leyla Zana takes her seat as she arrives at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara

Kurdish representative Leyla Zana taking her seat in the parliament of Turkey

Further underlining the fact that there is still some way to go, an unfortunate incident took place during the swearing-in ceremony for new representatives in Turkey’s parliament (meclis) in November. Kurdish rights activist Leyla Zana became the centre of attention when, in taking the oath of allegiance, she altered the wording slightly from ‘The Turkish Republic’ to ‘The Republic of Turkey’. It may seem like a small quibble, but in the Kurdish consciousness, the latter is acceptable while the former is seen as exclusive and oppressive. Given the sensitive state of Turkish-Kurdish relations at present, it might have been wise for those administering the oath to suffer a hearing lapse – but unfortunately the provisional speaker of the house was Deniz Baykal, former leader of the opposition CHP party, outspoken critics of the government’s attempts to find a solution to the Kurdish issue. Baykal insisted on the correct wording, Zana refused to budge, and what could have been seen as a minor semantic quibble turned into another basis for conflict.

In fact, Ms Zana is an intriguing character. She was one of five siblings, born in 1961 into a very traditional Kurdish family in the east of Turkey. Her father allowed her only a year-and-a-half of schooling, and married her off, at the age of 15, to a cousin twenty years her senior. The couple had two children together, and Mehdi Zana was elected Mayor of Diyarbakır, a majority Kurdish city, in 1976. In the political repression following the 1980 military coup, the mayor was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, leaving his young wife to support herself and the two young children.

Apparently, with her husband’s encouragement, she learned Turkish, studied on her own to gain a high school diploma, and in 1991 became the first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish parliament. During the swearing-in ceremony, she said a few words in Kurdish, causing a great public uproar. Subsequently she was stripped of parliamentary immunity, charged with treason and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. She was released in 2004 after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Turkish courts had violated her right to free expression.

In 2008 and 2009 Leyla Zana received three further prison sentences for allegedly supporting terrorist activities, though all three convictions were overturned on appeal in higher courts. She was re-elected to parliament in 2011, and is clearly a lady with the courage of her convictions. Exactly how the government of Turkey deals with her will give some indication of how the future of Turkish-Kurdish relations will go in the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, the violence in Turkey’s southeast region is leading to a hardening of attitudes on both sides. At the same time, it is a well-documented characteristic of human nature that unjust oppression tends to increase the numbers of activists prepared to die in the cause – and there’s nothing like martyrdom to bring new recruits lining up to join. The United States government still hasn’t figured this out. I sincerely hope the government of Turkey is smarter.

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