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Towards an Uncertain Peace: Turkey and the Kurds

It seems odd to think that the legalization of the letters “W”, “Q” and “X” in Turkey is a sign of democratic reform, and not a subplot to an episode of Sesame Street. But issues of language and culture loom large in Turkish politics, so the newly legal letters represent an important step in the reconciliation process between the Erdogan government and Turkey’s persecuted Kurdish minority.

Not allowed to write or even to speak their own language, the Kurds have a litany of grievances against a Turkish state that has thus far refused to recognize their existence. In this fantastic piece for Foreign Affairs, Piotr Zalewski traces the history of the conflict that has so far taken the lives of 40,000 people, and he addresses the uncertainty of the peace talks currently underway between the Turkish government and the rebels of the PKK, the Kurdish Worker’s Party. Here’s an excerpt:

Fourteen years ago, Ali Akkis’ wife gave birth to a baby boy. To honor his slain brother’s memory, Ali decided to name the newborn Kawa, after Yakup’s nom de guerre. There was only one problem. The letters “W,” “Q,” and “X,” all of which figure in the Kurdish alphabet, had been banned from the Turkish one since the late 1920s. At a local government office, where Ali went to register his son’s name, he hit a brick wall. “You couldn’t find any other name?” the man in charge had barked at him. Ali would not be dissuaded. After more arguing, he and the public official finally found a way to sidestep the ban. To his family, the boy would be Kawa. To the Turkish state, he would be known as Kavva.

Ali showed me the boy’s ID when I visited him at home in the spring. “The double V, it looks just like a W,” he had said, laughing.

The September 30 reforms brought Ali and Kavva some welcome news. As part of Erdogan’s “democracy package,” the longstanding ban on X, Q, and W would finally be scrapped. “It’s not enough, it’s only a small, symbolic step,” Ali said when I called him recently. He had similar things to say about the other reforms. “So what if they allow Kurdish in private schools?” he asked. “People around here, some of them have five, some of them have up to ten children. They can’t afford private schools.” Still, he said, the new laws were “a step in the right direction.”

Zalewski’s article does a great job of identifying the drivers and constraints of an uncertain peace in an uncertain time for Turkey and its relationship with the Kurds. Read the whole thing.

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