QAMISHLI and AL-MALIKIYAH, Northern Syria — The students at Rojava University rise to welcome their Kurdish literature professor. The large room is dimly lit by indirect sunlight because the electricity is cut off most hours of the day, and the lecturer, whose students address him as “professor,” has not completed his master’s degree.
Yet despite the immense challenges, the students are making history: They are among the first to ever attend a university in which classes and reading materials are in Kurmanji — the dialect of Kurdish spoken in Syria and Turkey.
Rojava University, opened only three years ago in the autonomous region established by Syria’s Kurds in northeastern Syria, is part of the revival of the long-suppressed Kurdish language. However, this revival is now under threat as the future of the region hangs in the balance following an announcement on the drawdown of the U.S. forces whose presence has protected the Kurds from a regime takeover or Turkish invasion.
Some 10 percent of Syria’s population are Kurds. But under the Ba’ath Party regimes of Syrian presidents Hafez and Bashar Assad, expressions of Kurdish identity have been suppressed and penalized. The Kurds suffered discrimination in public sector employment, while Kurdish-majority areas in Syria’s northeast — bordering the areas inhabited by Kurds in Iraq and Turkey — received disproportionately smaller state budgets, contributing to the region’s impoverishment.
Publications in Kurdish were banned during the reign of Hafez Assad and only slightly relaxed under his son’s rule, starting in the year 2000.
Speaking to Haaretz in his spacious home in central Qamishli, Zara, a famous Kurdish novelist and poet, recounts being interrogated in 1978 for publishing an apolitical Kurdish children’s song in a Kurdish-language newspaper in Turkey. (Most of the Kurds’ names in this article were changed to protect the identity of Syrians speaking to an Israeli reporter.)
Prior to the interrogation, Zara was able to avoid the harassment of authorities for years by publishing using a pen name and traveling to Banyas — a majority-Alawite town with a decreased secret police presence — to mail his poems and novels. Zara’s books could not be published in Syria and either had to be printed outside of Syria and smuggled into the country, or printed in Damascus while falsely claiming the books were printed in Beirut.
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Kurdish language education has been banned under the Arab nationalist regimes that have ruled Syria since independence. Shiyar, a resident of Qamishli in his 30s, recalls being sent to study Kurdish by his father. “He told me not to speak about this. I used to carry the notebook under my clothes. I was constantly afraid. I was a child, but I could feel something was abnormal about this situation,” he tells Haaretz. Later, as an adult, “I realized that I and the teacher could have been arrested, tortured and even killed for doing this.”
Barin, a journalist and activist from Qamishli, describes becoming involved in covert study circles of the Kurdish language in 2009, during her time at Aleppo University.
“We were five people studying with a teacher. The idea was for each of us to learn the language and then teach it to five more people,” she explains. Despite limiting the number of students in an effort to prevent infiltration by the regime, after Barin began teaching the Kurmanji alphabet to five students, someone informed on her. The secret police raided her workplace and her supervisor had to bribe them to leave, following which he fired her. “This was the moment I realized that I am a Kurd; I am not Syrian. I will never forget this terrifying moment,” she says, her eyes glistening.
In 2011, with the outbreak of the civil war, the Assad regime lost its tight grip over large swaths of Syria. Kurdish towns witnessed anti-regime protests that featured Kurdish chants and flags. Syrians across the country rushed to enjoy the newly created space to organize, protest, publish magazines and debate politics for the first time in their lives.
Across Syria’s northeast, Kurds rushed to study their long-banned language. Samira Hajj Ali , co-chair of the educational body of Syria’s northeast region, recalls studying Kurdish for the first time in her life in 2012. “We gathered money and built a two-room school in Qamishli,” she says, adding that despite the lack of electricity that winter and it being so cold in the school that “our pencils would fall out of our hands,” she still remembers that time as “the sweetest days of my life.”
In mid-2012, Syrian opposition factions stormed Aleppo City, forcing the regime to shift forces there to protect Syria’s largest city. Most regime forces withdrew from the country’s northeast, ceding the territory to the militarily most dominant Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which remains the region’s ruling party to this day. (It maintains a “third way” policy of not aligning with the Assad regime but not fighting it either.)
With Kurds in control of their own region for the first time in Syria’s post-independence history, all prohibitions on studying or using the Kurdish language were lifted.
Storefronts, street signs and official documents across the region now feature both Arabic and Kurdish, and at times the Syriac language as well, used by the region’s Assyrian community. Public events and a plethora of local media outlets that sprang up in the area celebrate the region’s ethnic and linguistic diversity. Starting in 2017, the local administration implemented its own curriculum and Kurdish-language education in schools. In Kurdish-majority areas, Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians now study in their own languages in grades 1 through 10. Rojava University currently offers classes mostly in Arabic, with only Kurdish literature being taught in Kurdish. Hajj Ali tells Haaretz that the intention is to begin teaching additional subjects in Kurdish in the coming years.
Not all the region’s residents are rushing to embrace the new curriculum, though. Some oppose it due to educational content that they see as indoctrination by the Democratic Union Party, which sets the curricula. Others are concerned about the long-term viability of the region’s educational system, worried that if the Syrian regime retakes the area, their children will be at a disadvantage because they’ve studied an unrecognized curriculum and would only know Arabic as a second language.
In areas recaptured from the opposition by the Syrian regime, children have had to repeat all classes they’ve studied in opposition-run schools due to the regime’s refusal to recognize the alternative curriculum.
Such fears have increased following President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement last December regarding the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. The decision has since been partially reversed with a residual force of several hundred U.S. personnel set to remain in place. But the autonomy of the region faces threats both from the emboldened Assad regime and neighboring Turkey.
The Assad regime refuses to accept any genuine autonomy inside Syria’s borders, ceding control over certain regions only due to its military weakness. Now that Syria’s opposition and the Islamic State have been largely defeated due to Iranian and Russian support, the regime is determined to extend its control over Syria’s oil-rich northeast.
Another threat is Turkey, which has vehemently opposed the emergence of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria — particularly due to the close organizational and ideological ties between the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group that has waged a guerrilla campaign against Turkey since 1984.
Turkey has made repeated threats and even mobilized forces to invade the region. Locals in northeastern Syria are painfully aware of the reality in Efrin, a region in northwestern Syria previously under the control of the Democratic Union Party, which was captured by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian armed factions in early 2018. Since that takeover, the Kurdish language has again been erased from the region, celebrations of Newroz (the Kurdish New Year) were banned, Kurdish statues destroyed and Turkish is taught as a second language in schools while instruction is done in Arabic.
For Syrian Kurds, schools were a place of oppression and violence where they were forced to attend classes on history and nationalism that erased their identity. Shiyar, who studied Kurdish in secret as a child, describes being beaten by a teacher twice a week in front of his classmates for an entire semester at age 13 for refusing to join the ruling Ba’ath Party. “He would slap my head so hard it would hit the wall,” he recalls.
Shiyar did not tell his parents about the abuse, fearing his father would complain and then be arrested. Today, Shiyar’s children attend Kurdish schools. “I will never let my children study in regime schools again,” he says defiantly. “If Assad comes back, we will have to escape.”
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Research Fellow specializing in Syria and Iraq at the Jerusalem-based Forum for Regional Thinking. You can follow her on Twitter @Elizrael.