In a sunny courtyard in the city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey, an audience listens intently as Mihemede Nenyasi sings of love, war and intrigue.
The 64-year-old Kurdish market trader cannot read or write, but claims to have engraved in his memory several hundred songs which he has been learning since the age of seven. “Some last a minute, some last an hour,” he said. “Each line opens the door for the next, and as I sing them I remember them.”
Nenyasi is a dengbêj, a singer of Kurdish stories and legends passed down as part of an oral tradition stretching back centuries. After decades during which the Turkish state kept a lid on Kurdish culture, the dengbêj were nearly silenced forever. After the 1980 military coup d’état, speaking Kurdish in public was banned, and Kurdish singers and musicians were routinely imprisoned and some tortured.
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Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.