Kurdish publishing house struggles with bans as state repression escalates

With the return of repression, fear was back as well. Keskin said readers often ask whether the purchase or the ownership of certain titles might spell legal trouble.
Saturday 28/09/2019
Books to resist. Osman Baydemir, spokesman of the Pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party, reads a book in Diyarbakir.(Reuters)
Books to resist. Osman Baydemir, spokesman of the Pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party, reads a book in Diyarbakir.(Reuters)

AMSTERDAM - A week before the Diyarbakir Book Fair, Abdullah Keskin received an unpleasant phone call. The head of the prominent Kurdish publishing house Avesta was told that another of its books had been banned by a Turkish court, raising the number of titles banned in the last 18 months to 14.

Keskin founded Avesta Publishing in 1995, at a time of brutal state repression against Kurds in Turkey.

“I think the authorities expected that our publishing house would go under after a few years and a few publications,” he said. “Kurdish literature was ignored because the state did not want to legitimise it by taking Kurdish books to court.”

Since then his publishing house has produced more than 600 titles, half of them in Kurdish.

Though they were never explicitly banned, Kurdish languages were criminalised as separatist since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Legal reforms in 1992 created tentative freedom. Ten years later, the publication of Kurdish texts was legalised and a small literature scene started to develop. Publishing houses in Istanbul and the predominantly Kurdish metropolis Diyarbakir produced hundreds of novels, essays, translations of foreign literature, non-fiction and children’s books.

As part of their research of Kurdish as a first language, Diyarbakir-based research institute Rawest published findings on the effect of cultural publications on Kurdish youth. The report stated that no other Kurdish publishing house is as popular with young readers and seen as important for the promotion of Kurdish culture as Avesta.

“Avesta has always been independent and let nobody use it for political propaganda,” said Reha Ruhavioglu, human rights activist and founding member of Rawest. This, he argued, is the reason the publishing house survived through more than 20 years of censorship, violent conflict and the vicious fight over cultural hegemony in Turkey.

The Kurdish literature scene is expanding because of a growing number of writers, readers and publishers. For centuries the rich oeuvre of Kurdish culture was passed down orally from generation to generation. Until a few years ago, high schools did not offer Kurdish language electives and private Kurdish classes did not exist. Not many Kurds in Turkey, even if they do speak Kurdish, know how to read and write in their mother tongue — but their number is fast increasing.

After the start of the peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2012, public interest in Kurdish language, literature and folklore grew. When police officers visited book fairs, they went to buy, not confiscate, Kurdish books. For the first time in the history of Avesta, the Turkish Ministry of Culture ordered four titles be sent to public libraries all over the country.

No longer. After the breakdown of peace negotiations in the summer of 2015, Turkish state hostility against all things Kurdish returned. Bookshops removed Kurdish-language titles and those that treated Kurdish-themed topics from their shelves. Online bookstores deleted them from their websites.

“A more aggressive state policy against Kurds always also means a more aggressive attitude towards Kurdish culture in Turkey,” said Keskin.

After the failed coup of July 2016 and during the subsequent 2-year state of emergency, publishing houses were shut down and books were banned. Theatres and private language schools in the country’s predominantly Kurdish south-east were closed by decree.

With the return of repression, fear was back as well. Keskin said readers often ask whether the purchase or the ownership of certain titles might spell legal trouble.

Writers, too, are wary of possible book bans. Murat Bayram, who published “Belki isev binive” (“Maybe Tonight She Will Sleep”) in 2018, a book of stories collected during the violent time of curfews in Kurdish towns in 2015-16, said he delayed the Turkish translation for now. “It would likely draw the attention of a prosecutor and face a ban,” he said.

Meanwhile, the publication of his book in Italian, English, German and Farsi is under way.

“In Turkey, Kurds have become a sensitive subject again,” Bayram said. “Anything with the word ‘Kurdistan’ on it is threatened by a ban, regardless of the actual content of the publication.”

This is something Keskin knows only too well: In June, an investigation for “terrorist propaganda” was opened against him because he used words like “Kurdistan,” “Kurdish” and “Kurd” on social media.

“Now we almost miss the state censorship of before,” he said, referring to the repressive policies of the 1990s. He is only half-joking. “Today book bans are completely arbitrary.  Nobody knows what is illegal and why. The Turkish justice system does not even follow its own laws anymore,” Keskin said.

On August 26, a Turkish court banned the Turkish edition of Andrew Collins’ “From the Ashes of Angels,” published by Avesta in 2002. The book, out of print for almost four years, was “seized” by prison guards in Kars, where an inmate had requested it by post. A court ruled that Collins’s research of mythology and the history of religion was “PKK propaganda.”

“This time the police in charge of publications let us know via phone call that the book was banned,” Keskin explained. “Normally they should come and hand us the court decision in person. Maybe there are so many of these cases now that they, too, have had enough.”

The publishing house is not permitted to sell any of the 14 titles banned in the past 18 months. Another 40 Avesta titles are under criminal investigation.

Repression and the economic crisis in Turkey have left the publishing house in a tight spot. For the first time in more than 20 years, Avesta will not be able to participate in the all-important Istanbul Book Fair in November.

“It’s too expensive. Sales have dropped. Paper is still very expensive. Costs keep rising,” Keskin said. “We’ve had to reduce the number of titles published in a year.”

Giving up is not an option, he added: “We still have many plans. We will continue.”