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Kurdish Singer Breaks Sound Barrier

Members of Syria’s Kurdish minority were amazed to hear a singer performing in their language at an event in Damascus last month, are wondering whether this signals an improvement in the way the government regards their community.

Mazkin Tahir al-Naqash sang in Kurdish, her native tongue, at an Arab cultural event in Damascus last month.

Syrian Kurds, of whom there are thought to be between 2.5 and three million, have long sought official recognition of their language and culture, but the law does not recognise them as a separate ethnicity.

Not all Kurds are granted Syrian citizenship, and this restricts their civic rights and ability to travel.

Many Syrian Kurds are bilingual in Arabic and Kurdish, but speak their own language within the community and would like to build cultural centres and native-language private schools.

The relationship between Kurdish groups and the government has deteriorated since a decree was issued in September requiring official approval before property sales could go through in border areas. In a statement last months, Kurdish political parties said the rules would prevent Kurds, who live mainly in north-east Syria, from acquiring new property, and formed part of a broader pattern of discrimination.

Naqash’s performance at an event celebrating Arab culture and held in the capital was notable because the authorities often permit Kurdish cultural activities to go ahead, but do not accord them any formal recognition.

Badrkhan Ali, a university student and Kurdish activist, hailed the event as “an important step that has had a positive impact on Kurds”, adding that some community members believed the government was “using culture to open up to the Kurds”.

Naqash said she was surprised to receive an invitation that, while it did not explicitly use the word “Kurdish”, asked her to “sing songs from the north-eastern heritage of Syria”.

It was, she said, a “wonderful and important” decision.

At the same time, Naqash said she was somewhat disappointed to see that her audience was primarily made up of Kurds, as she wants to sing for “absolutely everyone”.

“I’d like to be heard by Arabs and Assyrians, too,” she said.

Abu Shirin, a Kurd who lives in Aleppo, went to the concert with his family, and said he never expected to hear songs in Kurdish during the event.

“I said to myself that the authorities would not allow her to sing all her songs in her native language, and if they did, it would be just one or two,” he said.

“What I heard will ease things between us [Kurds] and the government.”

Abdo Khalil, a writer in Damascus, believes the authorities may have embarked on “a project of reconciliation with the Kurds”.

But he cautioned that a cultural event could not in itself be seen as a step toward ending the problems between Kurds and their government.

Jakrikhween Ali, a university student, said he thought the reason Naqash was allowed to sing in Kurdish was because she was connected to the cultural establishment in Damascus. Naqash studied in the capital and has performed in Arabic, including at events sponsored by the culture ministry.

While he hoped Naqash might “act as a bridge for reconciliation and open a door for dialogue between the Kurds and the authorities”, he insisted that “serious changes at political level” would be needed for the Kurds to acquire full rights.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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