Cartoons in Kurdish help keep language alive with children

Zarok TV channel resists is Amed despite Turkey’s adverse political context· “As Kurdish is not taught in schools, we feel we have a duty beyond being a TV entertainment,” says station’s producer

A child watches a Zarok TV program.
A child watches a Zarok TV program. Author: Zarok TV
Roja te xweş derbas be”, “have a nice day!”, says one of the Smurfs on Zarok TV, a children’s channel broadcasting in all dialects of Kurdish from the city of Amed (Diyarbakir in Turkish) in south-eastern Turkey. Zarok, which means “child” in Kurdish, plays a public role despite being a private initiative: the youngest children can watch the same cartoons as in neighbouring countries, but in their mother tongue.

In front of the screen, children sing the songs they cannot in the schoolyard. In some cases, adults also follow the cartoons to improve a language they have not been able to learn in class. This is the case for 28-year-old Eylo, who watches Zarok TV during the week while having breakfast: “I like to watch it to refresh my Kurmanji [main western variant of Kurdish] because we hardly speak it in the street. Sometimes I watch it with my mother, so we both learn and talk. Our favourite programme is one on traditional songs,” he explains. “I would have liked to have a channel like this when I was a child because I only learned to speak Kurdish when I was 17, with a private teacher,” he adds.

Turkey has a population of 85 million, of which some 15 million are of Kurdish origin. Of the total Kurdish population, only 44 per cent can speak the language, while those who can read and write Kurdish stand at 18 per cent, according to the latest survey by the Rawest think tank (2019). Five early childhood education teachers working in the cities of Amed, Êlih (Batman), and Mêrdîn (Mardin) warn that less and less Kurdish is heard in the streets and fewer children speak it, especially in cities. They believe this is due to the lack of educational and cultural options in the language, but also to the fear of speaking it in the street over concerns of attacks by Turkish nationalist individuals or groups.

Kurdish language rights have been a constant demand of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey because many people do not have access to learning it. Even some members of pro-Kurdish political parties do not master it either. Eylo’s case is a portrait of his environment. He grew up in Amed: like his parents and grandparents, he could not study in Kurdish. Only his 6-year-old younger brother had the opportunity to learn in Kurmanji, although the project lasted just over two years.

From ‘golden age’ to ban

During the failed peace talks between Ankara and the Kurdish PKK guerrilla in 2013, the Turkish government granted concessions to the Kurdish language and culture in order to appeal electorally to this part of the population. The opening of media outlets and centres promoting the language was allowed, as was raised the possibility of introducing Kurdish in public schools. “It was a period we call the ‘golden age’ for Kurdish media. In the midst of the peace process, thematic channels were born, including Zarok TV,” explains Emin Timur, the station’s producer. “Children were amazed that the Smurfs spoke Kurdish, just like them. Adults told us that they wished they had had such a channel when they were children. For the first time they had access to this kind of content: funny, educational, and in their own language,” he says.

The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which promoted many of these projects from the municipalities, set up kindergartens in Kurmanji, known as zarokistans, with more than 10,000 pupils. “On the first day we opened the registration period for the Kurmanji kindergarten we received more than a thousand applications. Even today, people still write to us to find out if a similar project is going to be set up,” explains a teacher who worked in one of these schools. The government, for its part, introduced Kurdish as an optional subject in high schools, but the initiative did not materialise, officially due to a lack of students. However, several Kurdish organisations criticise the fact that the authorities did not make public the applications for Kurdish-language optional subjects, and therefore it is not known how many students really applied. The organisations believe that the courses were not opened due to political reasons.

The failure of the peace process interrupted the development of these teaching activities, which were censored and persecuted in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. Under the state of emergency imposed by the Turkish government after the coup, a hundred associations related to Kurdish culture were closed by decree, citing alleged links with the PKK, regarded as a terrorist organisation by Ankara. 59 of the 65 municipalities governed by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), linked to the BDP, were taken over by the government. Their mayors were arrested and replaced by trustees linked to the ruling Islamist AKP party.

The Turkish authorities’ intervention of the municipalities came together with the closure of zarokistans and the arrest of their teachers, who were expelled from the public education system and, for the time being, are still unable to work in public schools. They were investigated for terrorist links, and the stigma of having appeared in one of the state decrees haunts them. Many of them have been unable to find work in public schools and have been forced to change employment sectors.

Censorship against Kurmanji went as far as tearing down a library and changing road signs and street names. The closures also hit Zarok TV. “They shut down our channel in 2017 over alleged terrorist links. We could not broadcast for months. Luckily, the investigation against us did not go any further because, after all, we are a children’s channel,” Timur explains. “Many opposition or Kurdish-language channels have been persecuted, but we make content for children. It is very difficult to keep putting pressure on us,” he adds.

Serko Kaniwar, a musician and presenter on one of the channel’s programmes, explains that Zarok TV workers continued their work despite the broadcast ban. “Many parents supported us. We continued to give music lessons in many children’s homes instead of going to the TV set. This process went on for four months,” he describes.

Serko Kaniwar. / Photo: Lara Villalón

The Turkish authorities allowed the channel to broadcast again after having investigated the alleged PKK links. However, Zarok TV resumed broadcasting in a completely different cultural and educational landscape —with no children’s schools, cultural centres, or other Kurdish-language television offerings.

It was then that the station’s staff decided to expand their contents in order to be able to do more educational work. Today, in addition to animated series, they have created their own cartoon fiction, and have expanded their music programming. They combine Kurmanji with two other Kurdish varieties, Sorani and Zazaki, distributing productions organically, depending on the availability of workers who can provide the voice, subtitles or present educational content in one dialect or another. In specific programmes, viewers can even change the subtitles’ dialect. This is how cartoons in Kurdish reach regions in Syria and Iraq, but also the Kurdish diaspora in European countries. “We are aware of the current situation of the language and we try to introduce new words in our programmes, but we are not a school either: we don’t have enough means. We cannot change the current situation, but we help maintain Kurdish among the youngest children,” Timur explains. “Language is the main problem in our region, but we have to diversify our content because Kurds from other regions and other countries also watch us,” he adds.

The station broadcasts from Amed, where about 30 people work. Zarok broadcasts 24 hours a day. Workers point out that the channel is more watched in other regions than in Turkey, especially in Iraq’s Kurdistan and Europe. They believe that the difference in the percentage of viewers is due to institutional restrictions on language. Although they do not believe they will be banned again, the Turkish government broadcasting agency RTÜK has fined them twice for “serving the cause of terrorist organisations” for having used the word “Kurdistan”.

The fines affected about 10% of Zarok’s advertising revenue. The channel needed to launch solidarity campaigns to cope with RTÜK’s financial constraints: “We don’t have enough means, but we do what we can. Since Kurdish is not taught in schools, we feel we have a duty beyond being a television entertainment,” Timur remarks. With the help of a music school in Amed, Zarok TV has taken other initiatives such as organising charity concerts to reach more children. “After the government intervened in the municipalities, preparing any activity in the public space is very complicated: it’s a hassle,” explains Kaniwar. “In the end, we look for alternatives, such as holding concerts in wedding halls, because then we don’t need permission from the authorities,” he explains. “But it’s a constant battle: maintaining a language is a daily struggle.”