Local storyteller records disappearing oral tradition

February 8, 2008
By

DAVID TABER


Courtesy Photo
Jamaica Plain storyteller Diane Edgecomb (right) replays a tape of Kurdish storyteller for her to see.

Produces English language’s first collection of Kurdish folklore

After seven years of periodic story-collecting expeditions to Turkish Kurdistan, critically acclaimed JP-based storyteller Diane Edgecomb last month published “Fire In My Heart: Kurdish Tales,” the first-ever English-language collection of Kurdish folktales.

In a Gazette interview, Edgecomb, who is known around town for her summer and winter solstice storytelling celebrations at the Arnold Arboretum, described the story collecting process as a race against time.

“I went from village to village, from old person to old person, trying to catch them before they forgot,” she said.

According to a brief history of the Kurdish people in Edgecomb’s book, Kurds have never had a unified nation-state. The part of the Middle East they have traditionally inhabited was divided between the Persian and Ottoman empires in the 17th century. At the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, President Woodrow Wilson called for the formation of a Kurdish state, but the region was eventually divided among the new states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

High blood pressure, heart disease and strokes are rampant in Kurdish population in Turkey, Edgecomb said. In part because of the successful repression of the Kurdish language by the Turkish state, the folktales of Turkish Kurdistan are not being passed on.

There are a number of different Kurdish dialects. In her interview and in the book, Edgecomb described the language generically as Kurdish. In the book she writes, “When the Kurdish language is used or referred to in this book, it is almost exclusively the Kurmancî dialect…that is spoken by a majority of the Kurdish people.”

Use of the language was illegal in Turkey between the 1920s and 1991. Today in Turkey, Kurdish is taught only in private institutions, and there are strict time restrictions on the broadcasting of Kurdish language television and radio.

“It makes the language useless,” Edgecomb said, “You can’t use it for commerce, for business. You can’t publish a newspaper with it or write graffiti.”

Social stress and dislocation, including a 15-year war between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish government that ended in 1999, have also significantly hampered the natural flow of the Kurdish oral tradition, Edgecomb said.

Since then, the coming of electricity and with it television to many Kurdish villages, has also put a crimp in the oral tradition, she said.

The only native folklore collectors she encountered during her multiple trips to Kurdistan were young men in prison, she said. Edgecomb showed the Gazette a copy of privately published Kurdish-language book of folklore that she said had been written by a friend of hers when he was in jail. She asked that the author’s name not be revealed for fear of reprisal.

The plight of ethnic Kurds in Turkey has been on Edgecomb’s mind, she said, since the late 1990s.

She is described on her web site as having a lifelong interest in performance, mythology and nature has led her to participate in and create a variety of unusual performance projects. She first learned of the situation facing Turkish Kurds through working on a theatrical production in Italy featuring autobiographical stories by Kurds, she said.

“I heard stories of villages being burned in Turkey, the suffering of people…At the same time I found out the US was selling the planes to Turkey which made it possible for them to get into remote villages and burn them,” she said.

After what she described as a “late political awakening,” Edgecomb got involved in advocacy and lobbying in the United States in support of the Kurdish people. In the course of her contact with Kurdish refugees in the US, she began collecting folktales.

In 2001, she began the Kurdish Story Collection Project. Since then, she has traveled to the Kurdish regions of southwestern Turkey annually on one-and two-month story-collecting jaunts.

“The Kurdish region is mountainous, and there are fresh springs gushing out of the ground everywhere. I felt like I was in some kind of version of ‘Heidi,’” she said.

Of the stories she collected, the origin myths are her favorite, Edgecomb said.

“I really love the how and why legends of nature,” she said, in particular recounting the Kurdish story of the origin of the Moon.

In the story, a daughter, so beautiful and radiant that everyone wanted to stop and talk to her, earns the wrath of her mother for taking too long to fetch water. For her troubles, the daughter gets a face full of dry, sticky bread dough. The daughter prays to be taken away and, still covered in dough, is transformed into the Moon. “That is why there are all those dirty spots on the face of the Moon. That is the dough from her mother’s hands,” the story concludes.

“I love it because that’s exactly what the craters look like…It’s simple and beautiful,” Edgecomb said.

In general, the stories in the collection were “culled carefully because they reflect the culture and the spirit of the people,” she said.

In addition to folktales, “Fire in My Heart” includes a brief history of the Kurdish people, and chapters on Kurdish recipes and games. And many of the tales in the book refer back to these other sections. There is, for example, a recipe for tandoor, the bread the mother was making in the Moon-origin story, in the recipes section.

“It helps teachers, or anyone trying to do something multicultural—have a little context,” Edgecomb said.

While the book is quite explicit about the effects political repression is having on Kurdish culture, it also contains subtler protests that would not necessarily be visible to the untrained eye.

A map of the Kurdish region, for example, includes a 1945 outline of boundaries for a proposed Kurdish state. The outline was included at the insistence of Edgecomb’s Kurdish colleagues, she said, because it gives the Kurds claim to seaports on the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

Edgecomb’s work is not complete with the publication of the book, she said. She is working on archiving the stories she collected that did not make it in to the book. She plans to continue story collecting in Turkish Kurdistan, and hopes one day to be able to visit the Kurdish region of Iran, she said.

She said she would also like to see the book translated into Kurdish. “If it can be translated that would be nice. I have a lot of friends who are Iraqi Kurds. While I have seen Kurdish versions of European folktales, I would love for them to see that theirs is a beautiful culture…I hope they realize they have a treasure right in their own back yard,” she said.

“A Fire in My Heart: Kurdish Tales” is available from Libraries Unlimited, www.lu.com. For more information about Diane Edgecomb, visit www.livingmyth.com.