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  • Kurdish Life in Contemporary Turkey: Migration, Gender and Ethnic Identity by Anna Grabolle-Çeliker
  • Michael M. Gunter (bio)
Kurdish Life in Contemporary Turkey: Migration, Gender and Ethnic Identity, by Anna Grabolle-Çeliker. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013. 299 pages. $99.

This book is an important, up-to-date ethnographic study of “the lives of Kurds originally from the eastern province of Van in Turkey, many of whom have migrated, either from villages to the province capital or from the province to the larger cities further west” (p. 1). Given this migratory process, “there are estimates that half to two-thirds of the Kurdish population of Turkey today live in the west of the country, three million of them in Greater Istanbul” (p. 15).

Thus, despite many grievances suffered as ethnic Kurds, many of them are partially assimilated or as the author put it, “not so concerned with an exact historical narrative of independence struggles” (p. 101). No wonder that Cemil Bayık, a longtime leader of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and recently elected cochair of the umbrella Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which includes the PKK, called on the Kurdish population in Turkish metropolitan cities and Europe to return to their villages. Bayık declared that this return would be the greatest step for the achievement of [Kurdish] democratic nation-building. Thus, the present study proves a necessary balance to much of the recent pro-Kurdish nationalist literature on the Kurdish problem in Turkey.

Specifically, this book traces Sunni ethnic Kurdish migration from Gundeme (Kurdish, “our village”), a “pseudonym … to convey a sense of an archetypical [Kurdish] village” (p. 26) in the northeastern Turkish province of Van to the city of the same name and then in many cases on to an area of Istanbul termed Tepelik (Turkish, “hilly”) where a cluster of former Gundi (Kurdish, “villagers”) and Vanlı now live. The author, Dr. Anna Grabolle-Çeliker, a German-British anthropologist married to an ethnic Kurd from Turkey, has worked in Turkey since 1997 as a language teacher, translator, and then university lecturer. Her obvious writing and excellent editing skills make her revised PhD dissertation from Tübingen University in Germany interesting and refreshingly easy to read. To broaden her findings, the author also heuristically cites and compares her data with those of other ethnographic studies from around the world.

After a wide-ranging introductory chapter, the author divides her work into nine more chapters, the first of which analyzes the village of Gundeme, concluding that “remembering the village can entail denigration or nostalgia” (p. 27). “Istanbul’s toxic smell of burning coal in the winter and the sickly-sweet smell of uncollected rubbish in the summer … was contrasted with the fresh rural mountain air” (p. 46). The author also found that “it is typical of the area that villages … have no feudal landlords … who feature in mainstream clichés about Kurds” (p. 40).

The following chapter describes why Gundi have left their village and analyzes their dispersal and increasing social differentiation. Financial consequences, better education for their children, and getting away from natural disasters such as earthquakes have proven to be the main reasons for the migration from Gundeme. Further to the south, however, armed conflict between the [End Page 655] government and the PKK has also contributed heavily to this migratory process. “Prior to the ‘retribalisation’ of Kurds in urban settings as a means of acquiring political and economic influence [patronage] … tribal entities throughout rural Kurdish regions had become ever smaller [and] confederations have long been dissolved” (p. 76).

The next chapter discusses unilineal migration away from the village and contains an excellent analysis of linguistic assimilation that demonstrates how “migration has brought a drastic change in linguistic behaviour” (p. 91). For many migrants the Kurdish language is being lost or, as many Kurds put it, “their tongue does not turn” (p. 92). “Lacking the determination or education to raise their children bilingually, many parents I spoke to have regretfully accepted that their children will not speak the language anymore” (p. 94). “More and more young women are going to school for longer, which leads to an accelerated Turkification of Kurds” (p...


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pp. 655-656
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