At the first edition of the Arabofolies festival at the Arab World Institute in Paris, Qwest meets with the Kurdish singer Aynur Doğan for an open conversation about women, the power of language and music.
“What can I say after that?” Says Aynur Doğan, letting loose in her black biker jacket. In the wake of International Women’s Rights Day, she speaks in reference to Sahrawi singer Aziza Brahim, whose concert at the Arab World Institute in Paris was canceled following pressure from Moroccan diplomats and patrons who suspected the artist of having engaged in activism with the Polisario Front.
There is an irony in that this, the first Arabofolies festival, chose the notion of Resistance as its thematic thread. “We must be supportive. Women must unite, trust one another, face each other and prevail on the front line. The world does not belong to men and their wars of egos.” Aynur Doğan has also had her run-ins with censorship: in 2005, the province of Diyarbakır prohibited the playing of Keçe Kurdan (Kurdish Girl), accusing the record and its author of “encouraging women to promote division and to take up the cause of resistance.”
Aynur Doğan’s personal history is intimately linked to the political history of Turkey, beginning in the mountains of Dersim, in a region renamed Tunceli; home to the so-named “Hand of bronze,” military operation that led to the massacre of tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians in 1938. As a daughter of the farmers of Alevi, an outlier and a liberal branch of Islam where faith lives in music and men are considered equal to woman, Aynur Doğan finds her voice in her mother; in the birds; the clear, cascading water and the songs of the dengbêjs – musician-storytellers of Kurdish history. “These songs are like books, they are the guarantors of our culture, of our identity. They are our memory, we must transmit them to future generations,” she explains. She is a singer radiating her sense of truth, composing through her traditions, also embodying – perhaps in spite of herself – the voice of a people muzzled by decades of state racism and persecution.
In 2005, Fatih Akin’s excellent documentary Crossing The Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul revealed, in the cool shadow of an 18th century hammam, a young woman whose intensity contrasted with the tranquility of the decor around her. “I was so young when we arrived in Istanbul. Everything was so big and different: I had the impression of having arrived in the United States!” Because of the violent clashes between the PKK and the powers that set Dersim alight in 1984, the Doğan family preferred exile and the need for camouflage that it brings. “But you end up hating yourself. To integrate you … you try to wash yourself of your identity, your accent, your beliefs … of all that you are. I grew up like that, hiding myself.” Despite everything, Aynur Doğan blossomed alongside her music in the heart of an Istanbul scene – then spirited and fertile – and released her first three records. But singing in Kurdish and in public in a country that forbids minorities to speak their mother tongue is a challenge: she was booed and forced to leave the stage at the Istanbul Jazz Festival in 2011 … Istanblues.
“Prohibiting a language is akin to trying to destroy a culture. It’s a desire to erase, to deny a community,” she says, having since dropped her anchor in Amsterdam, deploying her poignant sound on the international stage. This has enabled many artistic meetings, for instance with the American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and with Kayhan Kalhor, master Iranian kamânche player, on Hawniyaz in 2016.
“I love the pain of Kurmanji, its poetry is very powerful”: in her language, Aynur Doğan sings of her grief and drama in heartbreaking laments, like her famous “Ehmedo” or “Kece Kurdan,” which has become a hymn to Kurdish women performed with the help of a public chorus at each concert. And if the language is a vehicle for Aynur Doğan, it is also her way of resisting, to regenerate in turn a threatened folklore by, for example, including at least one title in zazaki on each of her records. Indeed, the language of the Zaza people has been sadly identified by UNESCO on its Atlas of Endangered World Languages.
Watch a selection of concerts and documentaries of music from all around the world on Qwest TV.
In Le Sillon (Tripod), Valérie Manteau follows in the footsteps of journalist Hrant Dink, who was fatally shot in the back in 2007 by a nationalist, and pays tribute to resistance fighters, from Tahir Elçi to Nuh Koklu. These activists fight for the rights of minorities whose murders in 2015 have not alleviated the mood since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the head of the country.
If the artist diagnoses “a kind of national depression […] since the last elections, or since the sinking of the reformist hope that had embodied Gezi,” Aynur Doğan regrets that she should now “systematically choose a side, opponent or compliant. A very tough nationalist movement is raging in Turkey today.” Aynur Doğan has not sung in Turkey since 2015, but hopes to present her next album there, which will be released in autumn 2019: “Even if conditions are difficult, many listeners are waiting for this moment and I can not ignore that, it’s very important” – she adds this detail with her large chestnut eyes ablaze. “For me, music is a cure for loneliness, a way to bring people together. In short, a healing of the soul.”
Without compromise, Aynur chooses love.