Newroz, the Kurdish variant of the spring festival commonly known as Nowruz and associated with Iran, is a quintessential example of a subversive holiday. As a festival that celebrates Kurdish identity, Newroz has long been at odds with the Turkish state that, until recently, banned it due to its perceived challenge to Turkey’s monoethnic ideology.
March 21st is the one day of the year when normally taboo activities such as the wearing of Kurdish colors, waving flags with Abdullah Öcalan’s grimacing face, or chanting Kurdish language slogans happens en-mass. This privilege is not granted by the state, but rather earned due to the critical mass that Kurds achieve with each Newroz.
In Diyarbakır, the largest Kurdish majority city in Turkey, roughly one million Kurds participate in the yearly celebrations. In Istanbul, the largest Kurdish city by population in the world, an assertive spectacle of Kurdish identity is performed to the Turkish majority as public transportation is filled to the brim with Kurds making their way to Kazlıçeşme Square.
March 21, 2018, marked a difficult Newroz for the Kurdish community. The recent loss of Afrin, Syria, to Turkish forces and their FSA (Free Syrian Army) allies has been an extremely bitter development, and in conjuncture with the humiliating loss of Kirkuk, Iraq, in the previous year, Kurds cannot help but feel that both the international community and their own fortune has abandoned them.
In the Iraqi city of Süleymaniye, local authorities canceled Newroz activities in order to lament the loss of Afrin. Meanwhile in Turkey, festivities went ahead. While the Kurds of Turkey are particularly mournful and humiliated by the fall of Afrin, the angry atmosphere has been united with the need to celebrate Newroz after a two-year ban on celebrations imposed by the Turkish state, giving way to an exceptionally fervent and tense festival.
The right to celebrate Newroz is a right that Turkish Kurds have fiercely defended. While both Turks and Kurds celebrated Newroz during Ottoman times, the festival was banned in the aftermath of the founding of the Turkish Republic, whose intellectuals deemed the holiday as un-Turkish. The prohibition of Newroz was part of a larger wave of cultural engineering that saw the imposition of Turkish customs and language upon Kurdish citizens.
As the 20th century progressed, Kurdish nationalism within Turkey began to crystalize. Kurdish intellectuals emphasized the mythological Iranian heritage of their people, which stood in stark contrast to Turkish identity. Newroz was branded as a distinctly ancient Iranian celebration, and one that the Kurds could track their own participation in all the way back to their alleged Meden ancestors of antiquity.
Kurdish nationalism also facilitated the creation of the PKK in the 1970s, setting the stage for the ongoing conflict between it and the Turkish state, which resulted in even further restrictions on Kurdish cultural expression. Bolstered by the Kurdish desire to assert their culture, Newroz celebrations took on a subversive and extremely politicized nature.
This open display of dissent came at a high cost. The Turkish state was all too eager to display its intolerance towards spectacles of Kurdish identity, and each March 21st of the year came with news reports of Kurdish deaths and arrests, as well as untold property damage. The infamous Newroz of 1992 was particularly violent, with an estimated 100+ casualties and a still unknown number of forced disappearances. For Kurds, Newroz was a reminder that the state hated them, and for Turks, Newroz was viewed as proof of the insubordinate and violent nature of the Kurds.
In the 1990s, the Turkish state, growing increasingly frustrated by the situation, sought to appropriate Newroz. Taking notice that Azeris and Iraqi Turkmen (fellow Turkic people closely related to Turks) celebrated Newroz, Turkey legalized Newroz celebrations but named the holiday Nevruz and claimed it to be a Turkic holiday all along. Kurds were both unimpressed and insulted.
Furthermore, celebrations spelled as Newroz were still banned. Since 2000, there have been two March 21st festivals in Turkey; there’s Nevruz, with its Turkish nationalist family oriented overtones in addition to state sanctioning and funding, and Kurdish Newroz, with its leftist and subversive atmosphere and significantly larger turnout. The Turkish state has since then clung to the hope that Kurds will eventually abandon their version of the holiday in favor of the state-sanctioned one.
A more effective effort by the Turkish state to improve the situation was the legalization of the Kurdish version of Newroz itself in 2005. While the legalization has not totally ended the annual violence and arrests, it has done much to pacify the celebrations. Since 2005, each Newroz has taken on an increasingly carnivalesque atmosphere, especially in the aftermath of the March 21st 2013 ceasefire announcement between the PKK and the state (which was addressed from Abdullah Öcalan to the Newroz crowd of Diyarbakır via a letter read out loud).
The legalization of Newroz has also given space for non-Kurdish topics to be discussed, as issues such LGBTQ and women’s rights have taken a central stage in the holiday’s identity. Turkish Leftists, Alevis, Shia, Armenians, and Assyrians have also found space in recent Newroz celebrations, in part due to the HDP’s (People’s Democratic Party) efforts to build a coalition between the minorities of Turkey.
Unfortunately, this new phase of Newroz celebrations is now in a threatened position. On several occasions the government has arbitrarily banned Newroz celebrations, forcing Kurds to participate in the manner they did before 2005 and receiving the same violent clampdown from the state in return.
In both 2016 and 2017, Newroz was banned in the aftermath of the reignition of the Turkish-PKK conflict. Diyarbakır’s 2017 celebration was particularly violent, resulting in mass arrests and the extrajudicial killing of Kurdish violinist Kemal Korkut. While Newroz celebrations were permitted this year, there is no telling if this will be the exception or the norm for future March 21sts.
This Newroz was marked with a tense atmosphere, as much of the energy was channeled as anger towards the Turkish state and its fresh conquest of Afrin. More than 100 arrests were made of suspected PKK members, and more were detained for chanting pro-PKK slogans.
Having long suppressed Newroz celebrations, the Turkish state missed out on the opportunity to craft the holiday’s character, allowing the Kurdish community to give it its current shape and subversive nature. The lack of enthusiasm for the state-sanctioned Nevruz shows that their efforts to appropriate the holiday have come too little, too late. Should Kurdish identity ever become fully normalized and legalized within Turkey, then perhaps Newroz will take on a more conventional and non-Kurdish character.
However, with President Erdoğan’s recent embrace of Turkish nationalist sentiment and his abandonment of any pretense of tolerance towards Kurds, this change is not likely to come during his rule. As long as the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state persists, Newroz will be mired in violence, regardless of its now-legalized status.
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