Devoted readers save the burned Kurdish books of Diyarbakir
ISTANBUL, Turkey – In mid June, a group of men gathered outside a warehouse belonging to the Avesta publishing house in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey. They first smashed the windows and then set fire to every pallet of books they could reach.
Contrary to popular belief, books do not burn well. But by the time the men had finished and the fire they started was extinguished, thousands of books had been ruined.
Avesta was the first and is still the largest publisher in Turkey set up explicitly to publish in Kurdish. Unsurprisingly, in a country that has for decades persecuted its Kurdish minority, it has weathered its fair share of insult and vandalism. However, this attack was something new. Avesta's books had previously been censured, even seized, says the publishing house's owner and manager Abdullah Keskin, but never burned.
A month after the 10 June attack, Keskin said that they still did not know who had burned the books. “It's very sad,” he said, sitting next to a pile of modern Kurdish grammar books charred into black ribbons at one end. “I suppose they just torched whatever they saw.”
Avesta publishes everything from the classics of Kurdish literature to modern fiction as well as a good amount of non-fiction, from cartography and cinema to Kurdology, the study of Kurdish culture and history.
The company, which was founded by Keskin in 1995, has a devoted readership, and in response to the attack readers took to social media not only to condemn the assault, but also to start a campaign to buy the burned books as an expression of solidarity.
The readers were even willing to pay above ticket price for burned copies, but Keskin thought that would be an exploitation of the situation. Instead, he set up an email address where readers could request burned books that would then be delivered to their homes at just the price of postage. The response was overwhelming and within days every one of the 2,640 burned and damaged books had been shipped out across Turkey.
The faded building that houses Avesta's Istanbul headquarters is on a side street opposite a cobbler and a cheap bar just off Istanbul's main boulevard, Istiklal street. Keskin's private office is modest and charmingly outmoded to current Turkish tastes. Piles of books lie around the room haphazardly arranged on creaky unvarnished wooden floorboards, a pharonic bust balances on a wooden pedestal in the corner, and the proprietor himself sits behind a large dark wood desk strewn with books.
It might not be much to look at from the outside, but Keskin's office in Istanbul serves as a sort of salon for the Kurdish literary world. If you spend any time there you soon notice the volume of writers and acquaintances that seem to drop by. On any given day, Kadri Yildirim, a member of parliament for the People's Democratic Party (HDP) and expert on the works of the Kurdish poet Ahmed Khani, might appear in the doorway, or the novelist Ciwanmerd Kulek might wander in to discuss a new translation. It is a wonder Keskin can get any work done at all.
Part of Avesta's appeal is implied in the outward poverty of its facade and internal intellectual richness of Keskin's office. It is a combination one more often finds in reverse – all facade and no substance – and feels endangered in the present environment. The Turkish government is currently engaged in a bloody military campaign in the country's Kurdish south-eastern provinces that has brought with it hundreds of civilian deaths, enforced disappearances, the mass arrest of elected local mayors, and accusations of war crimes from the United Nations.
The bloodshed has spread from the south-east to Turkey’s major urban centres, with tourists and civilians targeted by Islamic State-linked militants, and bomb attacks on security forces by Kurdish armed factions.
Living in Turkey, it is difficult not to notice the accompanying turn high politics has taken towards innuendo and chauvinism. If there were ever a time when one might expect attempts to bonfire Kurdish books, this would be it. Avesta is something of an antidote to the prevailing currents and therefore a natural target.
“We don't accept any censorship and we don't make anyone's propaganda, and there are many who cannot accept that,” Keskin said. “We stand in acceptance of all cultures, peoples, ideas, genders, and nationalities. And we don't try to push a particular agenda. There's something for everyone. Even those who don't accept Kurds can take something from our books.”
Keskin comes from a generation of Kurds in Turkey that, without minimising the current troubles, remember when times were harder still. He spent his childhood in Nusaybin, a predominantly Kurdish city that lies right on the border with Syria. Like most of Turkey's Kurdish settlements, Nusaybin in the 1970s was a neglected, impoverished place and books were hard to come by. Large families would nonetheless gather to recite epic poetry and storytellers were, and still are, held in high regard.
“Oral literature was important, but even speaking Kurdish was actually illegal, so there was something illicit and enthralling about it,” Keskin said. “We would listen to poems and stories told by family elders and I was an eager listener.”
The only books that were generally at hand in a family home were copies of the Quran. But Keskin lost his faith young. He had admired how the community revered bound copies of the Quran, but could not believe the content.
The only way to get hold of other books was through Nusaybin's post office and as he grew older, Keskin became one of the few subscribers. When the novels started arriving, Tolstoy soon replaced God.
At that time, thousands of Kurds in south-eastern Turkey could speak no other language but Kurdish, as remains the case today in the villages of the far south-east in Sirnak and Hakkari provinces. Turkish officials used to explain this away by classifying Kurds and their language as that of “Mountain Turks”.
The ban, until it was partially lifted in 1991, effectively condemned entire communities to illiteracy. Some intellectuals had tried to fight this with underground Samizdat grammar books. In 1968, for example, Mehmed Emîn Bozarslan published his Alfabe in Kurdish. It was only a basic introduction to learning to read and write in the language, nothing political, but when it came out he was targeted by the Turkish police and forced to flee to Sweden.
“The first book that I ever saw in Kurdish I actually found in the parliamentary library,” Keskin remembers. He was one of the first in his province to go to university and while in Ankara had persuaded a member of parliament to allow him to visit the congressional library. It was there, tucked in among the walls of Turkish texts, unclassified in the library's catalogue, that he first read any published Kurdish writing: a short story called Meyro written by Mehmed Bozarslan in the Kurmanji script.
When he left university, Keskin worked his way into Turkey's literary world via a friendship with İsmail Beşikçi, the leading Turkish scholar of Kurdish society and history who had spent years in jail for his academic work in Kurdish studies. His first publishing job was at the Turkish publishing house Oteki, where he would eventually become general manager.
After a brief stint as the inaugural editor of Turkey's first Kurdish language newspaper, a weekly named Welat, Keskin worked in Turkey's publishing industry for many years. But he always longed to publish Kurdish literature and in 1995, sitting back at his desk in Oteki, he wondered aloud how much it might cost to independently publish four books in Kurdish. The answer he received from a colleague was less than what he had expected.
With no money to found a limited company, he opened a one room “office” and set up Avesta as a sole trader. He chose the name Avesta, which is also the name of the Zoroastrian religious texts, because he liked the sound of the word and as a nod to the sacredness he had found in books as a child.
The aim was to publish just four books in Kurdish: Şêrko Bêkes's From my Poets, Mehmet Uzun's A Novel, Reşîdê Kurd's I, and Cegerxwîn's Dîwan, a collection of poems. They were contemporary titles from living Kurdish writers, consciously chosen to present Kurdish literature as a living force and not merely a few dusty old classics from a bygone era.
Politically this was still a dangerous proposition. There were only three books about Kurds in print in the whole of Turkey – all three were in Turkish, all three were banned, and not everyone was supportive.
“Frankly I expected to be killed, not just banned,” Keskin said. Asked how he got up the courage to risk it he answered:“We were afraid, of course, but because everything was already so bad at that time, we had little to lose. It was only years later in Berlin that I was able to look back and realise how afraid I had really been.”
In the world of Turkish publishing if you can publish 100 books, you are considered a success. Avesta is now up to 600 titles, which for an explicitly Kurdish publisher is seen as nothing short of a miracle.
The finest work is in the flagship editions of the classic Kurdish epic poets, Feqiyê Teyran, Melayê Cizîrî and Ahmed Khani, who are really the foundation of the culture. Salah Saadalla's English translation of Khani's Mem and Zin is particularly arresting.
“Our retreat is complete
Is it now likely to cease
Or will it go on further
Until we all wither?
Is it possible in the cycle of the orbit
That our star will rise in the planet
That our luck may become loving
That it will wake up once from slumbering
That a world refuge for us emerges
And a king for us appears
The power of our art to be established
The value of our pen to be confirmed.”
Aside from literary classics, modern fiction and works on Kurdish culture, Avesta also publishes new or emerging writers from across the Kurdistan area, such as Mehmet Dicle and Fatma Savci, and Kesin takes pride in this.
“The work of a publisher is like that of an archaeologist. You work to uncover hidden gems – that applies to both new writers and old texts that we've all forgotten about. Young Kurdish writers often start out with Avesta because we spend time searching for them.”
“Oh, and the titles usually have love or death in there somewhere,” he said, “this is part of the psychology of the time.”
Golden age of publishing
War might be good for poets, but peace time is the best time for publishers. When cities are being reduced to rubble, people find it hard to justify spending money on books. However, judged against an admittedly fraught modern history, we are currently in a golden age for Kurdish publishing.
“Between 1921 and 1958 there were zero books published in Kurdish in Turkey and up to 1991 all the books published in Kurdish in Turkey totalled maybe ten titles, now we sometimes publish ten in a week,” Keskin said.
“There were years when we were publishing one or two books a year. Before the conflict restarted last year sometimes there would be years when we could publish up to one hundred.”
Not all of what Avesta publishes is in Kurdish or about Kurds. The company also publishes translations of Kurdish works in Turkish, English, French, and German, as well as translating Turkish and world classics into Kurdish.
Working all hours to keep up an independent publisher is a hard task even when the fruits of your labour are not subject to arson, and Keskin admits that he often feels run down. To explain how he keeps going, he turns to García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“There's this colonel who had 17 sons, and then one night they are all murdered.” Keskin explains. “In grief he retires to his village and spends his time crafting tiny fish out of gold. Whatever he earns from selling the fish he uses to buy more gold so he can craft more fish, and this goes on and on. His mother asks him why he does not use his profits to enjoy life rather than endlessly making fish, but soon she realises the process of making the fish is all that keeps him going.”
“I'm not a soldier and have lost no sons, but my mother often says that all I do is make books then sell them to buy more paper to make more books. She may be right. I can't live without it.”