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Southwest Asia

Southwest Asia is geographically widely recognized as the Middle East or Near East by international organizations and public. For the purposes of this project we prefer to name this region Southwest Asia. In this context the countries and cultures within Southwest Asia include Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan in the Caucasus; Turkey, Iran, and Kurds within several countries. Zoroastrians in Iran and Ezidis in Iraq and Turkey as well as various minority cultures such as Baluchis, Kashais, Lori, Azerbaijanis, Turkomans, Bahais, Bahtiyaris, Ismailis commemorate and celebrate the Nowruz in their own way and at specific times and places.

Newroz of the Kurds in Turkey

Newroz1 is the celebration of spring Equinox, March 21, which is considered as the beginning of the New Year. It is known that, this day, which is the symbol of arrival of spring, is a widely celebrated festival in agrarian societies of ancient Mesopotamia, including Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites. Yet, Newroz with its Iranian characteristics is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of Zoroastrian belief system.2 In the age of Sasanis (226-652 A.D.) many elements of antique Iranian culture have gained importance, great effort has been spent for collecting the folk stories, and festivals of antique Iran.3 It is generally accepted that what we have today as Newroz goes back to the Sasanian period.4 After the advent of Islam to Iran, Newroz continued to exist by fusing with Islamic beliefs among the people and in the palace.5

The Kurds were also celebrating Newroz as a traditional New Year festival as we understand from Mem u Zin, the work of Ehmedê Xani.

When the destiny from the blue fortune
Showed Newroz again,
According to this blessed tradition
All city-folk including even the soldiers
Left the city, the castles, and the houses
Like hunters and plunderers
Moved to the hills and the valleys in rank

The virgins and youths, a hundred years old men
and crones who joined to the New Year,
Celebrated the New Year in traditional way6

To this day still, the year starts with the Newroz festival on the 21st March in the Iranian calendar and is divided into months according to the sun calendar.7 Newroz is also the beginning of the year in Afghanistan, Republic of Azerbaijan as well as Central Asian Republics.

What differentiates the today’s Kurdish version of Newroz from others is its recent convergence with the Kawa legend. Kawa legend is in the core of Kurdish Newroz, it represents the common founding myth as regards the entirety of Kurdish movements today. The legend occupies a position among the Kurds invariably fixed to that version of it in which blacksmith Kawa defeats the (Assyrian King) Dahhak with a popular movement and liberates the Medes (the ancestors of the modern Kurds). This victory day mentioned in the legend is celebrated as the Newroz festival. Despite the fact that the Newroz festival was celebrated as a tradition in some Kurdish populated regions of Turkey and the Kawa legend was told both among the people and by dengbejs, both the widespread celebration of Newroz and its convergence with the Kawa legend are modern developments. In this article it is claimed that an antique festival has transformed into a modern and an influential ideological tool through integrating with the impressive story of blacksmith Kawa. With its legend of blacksmith Kawa, Newroz connotes “revolt against tyranny” for the Kurds.

The construction of Newroz myth in this form lasted about a hundred years. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that each specific phase of the construction process coincides with specific moments in the Kurdish nationalist movements both inside and outside of Turkey. Nevertheless, due to the limits of this article, it is focused on the period beginning from 1970s when the recent content and influence of Newroz myth has been appeared.

In the second half of 1970s, the Kurdish movement, which separated itself from the Turkish leftist movement, began to organize around Marxist Kurdish organizations. Following to Turkish left, they tried to reconstruct a Kurdish history and culture on the basis of class antagonism. Parallel to this, during this period, the Kawa legend was treated with a new spirit. The organizations elaborated the legend as a “progressive value” coming from the past. Kawa was not just a national leader; from now on, he was the proletarian pioneer who resisted by raising his smock as a flag for the “oppressed Kurdish people”. For instance, a journal named itself Kawa described blacksmith Kawa as the “Spartacus of Kurdistan”.8 During this period, Newroz became a tool, for creating counter hegemony in the current struggle against the hegemonic culture which was articulated by the Turkish state. Some expressions from the first issue of Rızgari journal provides one of the plainest examples of this attempt:

Revolutionaries are the inheritors of those values with a democratic content possessed by their people. … It is an absolute necessity to attend to the past despite its shortcomings and flaws and to carry it back to the people, having dissolved it within the scientific theoretical determinations of our age…For many reasons, Newroz has provided guidance for the rebellion against barbarism and tyranny. Newroz is a mythological symbol having deep traces in social life. Newroz does not constitute by itself a reason for the pressure and tyranny exerted by the imperialists-colonialists. It is a target to be attacked, a gap to be filled. This is because the Kurds remember in Newroz a cruel despotic ruler. This ruler is Dahak. … There appears a Kawe, Kawe the Smith, destroys the rule of Dahaks. Raising his smock as a flag, he erects that magnificent power of the people on the castle towers.”9 [emphasizes are added] (ibid).

However, this process of construction was interrupted by the military coup in 1980. So, this version of Newroz did not have enough time to enjoy popular endorsement. In the aftermath of the military coup, the policy of the strict denial of Kurdishness and the intensive violence exerted on the Kurdish nationalists accelerated the process of Kurdish identity construction. Diyarbakir military prison, where the leading members of Kurdish movements were jailed, interpreted by the prisoners as a pilot place of the policy of daunting and intimidating of the Kurds. In the discourse of PKK(Kurdish Worker’s Party), the suicide of PKK captive Mazlum Dogan at 21st of March in 1982, which is Newroz day, became a turning point since it was considered as a spark of resistance. Mazlum Dogan was named as the “Contemporary Kawa” and the PKK proclaimed Newroz as the “symbol of the ideology of resistance”.

The gravity of the mass support for the PKK’s Newroz discourse first appeared during Newroz demonstrations in the 1990. The intensity of clashes between Kurds and security forces during demonstrations caused over a hundred life losses and hundreds of people wounded since 1990. 1992 Cizre demonstrations were labelled as “Civil War” by the newspapers. The demonstration in Adana and Mersin depicted as “Philistine Scenes” by the columnists. At the end, it is estimated that one million people participated into 2011 Newroz in Diyarbakır and 300.000 in Istanbul.

For the official state discourse of Turkish state, that accepts the citizens by definition as Turk, Newroz discourse of the PKK constituted a serious threat as well as the armed power of the party. The protests and demonstrations during Newroz became the indicator of the mobilization of Kurdish movement. Since the PKK and its Newroz discourse were conceived as a threat for the existence and the unity of the state rather than a political problem, the state officials developed the ideological policy of Nevruz (the Turkish version of the word) as a Turkish Ergenekon Festival and Newroz was presented as an element of the category of Turkishness.

Besides, trying to suppress Newroz demonstrations of the Kurds by force, the state applied a very active Nevruz policy. The ideological apparatuses of the state, including the publications and activities of Ministry of Culture, sermons (religious speeches) in mosques, books of primary, elementary and high schools, conferences of universities, training programs at the army, were all used for this discourse to be adopted. Subsequently, the struggle in order to fix the meaning of Newroz appeared as a struggle on the spelling of the name of the festival, Newroz vs. Nevruz. That is to say, since the utilization of Newroz in mobilizing the Kurds resulted in a remarkable success, the state tried to absorb this counter-hegemonic element in its official discourse. This attempt of the Turkish state displays that hegemony is a process and requires continues struggle.

To conclude, it can be argued that almost a century lasted process of constructing Newroz as a myth to be utilized for Kurdish cultural or national unity, with its ruptures, inconsistencies and ambiguities, resulted in a big success. Today, Newroz serves a common field for Kurdish people not only in Turkey, but also in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and even in Europe. In Turkey, Newroz has been continuing to signify a separate Kurdish identity against the official discourse and it is still a battlefield for ideological struggle.

1 There are various spelling of Newroz in texts in English coming from Persian such as, Nov Ruz, Nowruz, No Roz, Norooz, and also New Year’s Day.

2 Price, M. 2005a. “The Iranian New Year Norooz”, accessed 30.11.2005 (The web cite of CAIS- The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies).

3 Yarshater, E. 1959. “Now Ruz: The Iranian New Year accessed 22.07.2005 (Issued by the Iranian Embassy, Washington D.C. - March 1959)

4 Price, M. 2005. “The Iranian New Year Norooz”

5 Muhtar Kazbekov, tells about the ideological struggle at that time: “...Colonialists who failed to remove the folk festival from the memory of the people, this time changed the way of struggle and tried to use Newroz to increase the values of Islam. For that reason, Newroz defined as the festival celebrated for Caliph Ali İmam. Thus, with introduction of some components of Islam into Newroz festival, this tradition became a folk festival” (1993: 6).

6 Quoted from Bozarslan, Mehmet Emin. 1985-7. (Trans.) Jin, Vol. 1, 2, 5. Uppsala

7 http://www.irankulturevi.com/ On the other hand, as the start of calendar, the year 622 (Gregorian calendar), the year that Prophet Mohammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, is accepted.

8 Kawa, Vol. 1, 1976.

9 Rızgari, Vol.1, March 1976

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