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.
In 2007, Diyarbakir’s Kurdish-nationalist-oriented city administration opened a house where around 25 dengbêj, many of whom are poor and elderly, can gather and perform. “The aim of our project is to bring the dengbêj together and to record the stories of their lives and their songs,” said Metin Özçelik, an official from the Culture and Tourism Department of the Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality.
In its first year, 10,000 tourists visited the Dengbêj House, which lies in the warren of narrow, black-stone streets in Diyarbakir’s old city center. The dengbêj regularly perform on local television, and last year the municipality published an anthology containing brief biographies of around 120 singers, along with more than 300 of their songs. Since Kurds have only a small canon of written literature, many engaged in this work believe they are making a vital contribution to the preservation of their culture. “Dengbêj is for us like Homer is for the Greeks,” said Özçelik.
The tradition has its roots in pre-Islamic times, when agas, local feudal landowners, kept singers to entertain them with legends and stories, or compose ballads eulogizing their masters’ deeds. Generally unaccompanied, the singing is bound by no fixed rules, with dengbêj developing their own styles or adopting those of others they admire.
They sing of romance, war, blood feuds, and rebellions; a spoken history of the Kurds that runs right up to the still-smoldering conflict between the Turkish state and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas. “Their loves, their hopes, their sorrow, the oppression they suffered; they scream out at us from these songs,” said Weysi Varli, a Kurdish musician and fan of dengbêj.
Between 1975 and 1989, Varli made several albums of traditional Kurdish music, recorded secretly onto cassettes and then distributed around Diyarbakir. He paid for it dearly. The 55-year-old bears scars across his legs, chest and back that he says came from the torture he suffered at the hands of Turkish civilian and military police. “At least 20 times I was tortured,” he told EurasiaNet.org, showing the scars running down his leg. “Once, they broke my thumbs so I couldn’t play the tambur [a traditional stringed instrument].”
The oppression of those years was particularly damaging to dengbêj, according to Varli. Mostly illiterate, the singers relied on constant performances to keep songs in their memories.
One of the first people to recognize that the art form was in danger of fading away was Ahmet Doğru, a cotton farmer and amateur photographer from Diyarbakir. “About 15 years ago, the dengbêj art was almost disappearing, and then I intervened. I took my camera and found them, photographed them and talked to them.”
It was Doğru who first proposed the idea of the Dengbêj House, a place where the singers could gather and share their songs, and also help each other piece back together those they had forgotten. “The dengbêj almost all live in poverty,” he said. “I told them that someday they would have their own house and that people would even pay them to sing. They laughed at me.”
Much has changed since Doğru began his campaign. In 2003, the main Kurdish nationalist party was able to open the Dicle-Firat Cultural Center to promote Kurdish traditional music. And in 2009, as part of an initiative to end the long-running conflict with the PKK, the government set up Turkey’s first Kurdish-language television channel, and allowed universities to begin courses in Kurdish literature and language.
Despite these changes, the dengbêjs’ future remains uncertain. Many of the singers are now elderly and honed their skills within a traditional village cultural framework that has largely disappeared.
In Diyarbakir, few young people are learning the art. “People have become more distant from their original culture,” commented the youngest, 23-year-old Cafer Akarsu, who has been compared to Şakıro, a famous dengbêj who died in 1996. So far, Akarsu has memorized 25 to 30 songs, he said. He grew up listening to them on his father’s cassettes when his family was working as farm laborers in central Turkey’s Afyon province. “I was singing these songs as I was working. They kept me going when I was far away from my [Kurdish] motherland,” Akarsu said.
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.