What motivated Michael Chyet, the son of a rabbi, to study, chronicle, preserve and teach the Kurdish language? It was a folk dance at university, he explains to Ori Golan.
As a young student, Michael Chyet was a keen folk dancer. One day, aged 18, he was introduced at a University folk dance to a dance routine described as ‘a dance of the Kurdish minority of Eastern Turkey’. It was, he was to learn, a dance with fate.
"Until then I did not know there were other peoples in Turkey beside the Turks. It opened my eyes," recalls Chyet, 46. "I headed for the library where I found a reference grammar for Kurdish which I photocopied and carried around with me for many years. Then I started making lists of words in Kurdish."
What began with a dance, and continued with a folded photocopied piece of paper, has recently culminated in the most comprehensive Kurdish-English dictionary to date.
The son of an ordained reform rabbi, Chyet grew up in Cincinnati Ohio. At 6 he was sent to Hebrew day school and was speaking Hebrew. "I have always been in touch with my roots thanks to my parents" he says.
It was at preparatory school, when he was introduced to Latin, that he discovered his prowess for languages. "It came very easily to me," he explains in an understated manner. Aged 12, he rummaged in the family attic where he found a stack of dusty books in Yiddish, German, French and Russian. He immediately set about studying them and soon was able to read in these languages. A prodigious polyglot, Chyet has since mastered other languages, notably Arabic, neo-Aramaic, Turkish, Spanish, Persian and Serbo-Croatian. All told, he can ‘handle’ around 35 languages to varying degrees of fluency.
When he was 13, the family moved to Jerusalem where his father spent a sabbatical year translating Hebrew poetry. "I was sent to the Anglican Church school in Jerusalem", he recalls. "At the time, most of the foreign embassies were based in Jerusalem so it was largely attended by children of diplomats. They came from Malta, Russia, Venezuela, and France…everywhere really, and there were Israeli Armenians and Arabs. So I was exposed to a range of different languages, which I loved."
This love for languages earned him a bachelor’s degree in Arabic from UCLA in 1980. Kurdish, however, is the language which grabbed him. You can sense his passion for the language as he expounds on its grammar, its history and politics, as well as its complexities.
An Indo-European language, Kurdish is related to Persian, but remains distinct in grammar, syntax and vocabulary. There are an estimated 30 million native Kurdish speakers in the world, concentrated in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and parts of the former Soviet Union. This geographical diversity, conjugated with a history of dispersion and repression, has resulted in a proliferation of dialects and sub-dialects of Kurdish as well as alternative writing systems: it can be written using Roman, Arabic, and Cyrillic alphabets. The two major dialects of Kurdish – Kurmanji and Sorani – have been the centre of debate whether they are in fact the same language. According to Chyet, the dialects are mutually intelligible but only in places where the two linguistic communities come in contact.
In Iraq, Kurdish has official regional status. It is the language of instruction in schools and is used in regional television and radio broadcasts, as well as printed material. Across the border, in Turkey, where the largest Kurdish community lives, almost 15 million people – 22 percent of the country’s population – the situation is strikingly different.
Until a change in legislation in 1991, anyone using Kurdish in public places was committing a crime against the 'territorial integrity of the state’ and was liable to a fine.
In November 2001, when university students circulated petitions demanding optional courses on the Kurdish language, more than 1,300 students were detained by police and the Turkish State Board for Higher Education imposed disciplinary sanctions against the applicants, expelling them from the universities.
Turkey has since been at pains to improve its image, not least because it is applying to join the European Union. Chyet, however, remains unimpressed. "The Turks are consummate diplomats and they want you to think that everything is fine, when in fact that’s not the case. They say they are going to start broadcasting in Kurdish, but how can you broadcast in Kurdish unless you have an education system in the language, to begin with? If they don’t allow the education of the language, then who exactly are they going to be broadcasting to?"
Chyet himself experienced the linguistic repression in Turkey, in the 1980s, when he studied Turkish at the University of Bosporus and later at Ataturk University, where he did his research for a masters degree in Near Eastern Studies and Folklore. "I had to pretend not to understand Kurdish. It is a police state."
Resisting pressure, he chose to write his dissertation on 18 versions of a tragic Kurdish folktale, similar in theme to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the earliest of which dates back to 1865. The most modern version of this Kurdish legend was available on cassette, which Chyet had to smuggle out of Turkey because "if you’re found with something like that you could get into serious trouble".
At the end of his studies, Chyet’s professors at the University of California, Berkley, urged him to pioneer and preserve the Kurdish language. He took up the challenge.
Chyet was professor of Kurdish at the University of Paris for a number of years; then the senior editor at the Voice of America's Kurdish radio service; he writes linguistic papers on the Kurdish language and contributes to numerous Kurdish newsletters around the world. Currently, he is teaching Kurmanji and Sorani at the Washington Kurdish Institute.
But is his enthusiasm an expression of his political beliefs?
"My work has nothing to do with politics or governments" he replies automatically. Then he continues, qualifying this declaration. "When I was younger I defined myself as a Kurdish nationalist, I empathised with the Kurdish cause for independence. Now I no longer think that an independent Kurdistan would be a bastion of democracy. They are so divided; there would be all sorts of human rights abuses."
However, the Kurds, he stresses, have a clear record of tolerance for other religions. In Kurdistan of Iran there is still a small Jewish community although most of the Jews have emigrated to Israel.
In 1980, Chyet took part in the Nitzanei Shalom project in Israel, which aimed to bring Arabs and Jews together. During this visit, he befriended members of the Kurdish community in Israel who, he says, reminisced about their childhood in Kurdistan. Interestingly, he notes, few of them speak Kurdish; most speak leshan deni, or neo-Aramaic, a language which is even more likely to disappear.
Much like ancient Hebrew, says Chyet, Kurdish is now in need of modernisation and standardisation, but, unlike Hebrew, it appears to inspire less enthusiasm by its speakers. "I rarely see Kurds who love the language for its own sake the way I have seen people love Hebrew. Many of them don’t pass it on to their own children and a language which is not spoken by children has no future." Kurdish, he warns, may well be on the road to perdition.
"Some cocksure Kurds say ‘there are millions of us, it will never happen’. But in ten years a language can go from having a few millions of speakers to only several thousands and then only a few hundreds… before long you hear ‘the last speaker of this language died last week’. This is happening with native American languages.
To compound matters, of the estimated 30 million Kurdish speakers, only a few thousands are literate in this language and there is penury of Kurdish speakers who are able to teach the language. In fact the situation is so urgent that, recently, a Turkish institute seeking recruit a lecturer to run a course in Kurdish, could only find a suitable candidate at a Swedish university.
Which is why Chyet’s newly published Kurdish - English dictionary (based on the Kurmanji dialect) is especially welcome. Written in both Roman and Arabic alphabets, it is encyclopaedic in scope, offering sample sentences, variant forms, inflections and etymology of the lexical items.
Who will benefit from the dictionary?
"It will be a useful tool to Kurds who were deprived of the opportunity to study Kurdish, as well as spouses of Kurds who want to be able to talk to their mothers in law" explains Chyet, "as well as those who work for the government who consider it important to understand Kurdish. People who are community workers who are dealing with Kurdish communities. It will no doubt be useful to diplomats, businessmen and other workers who intend to go to the Middle East and communicate with Kurdish speakers."
Michael Chyet’s Kurdish-English dictionary is published by Yale University Press