Not everything can be said solely through verbal communication. This lesson has been learnt by the children starring the documentary ´On the way to school´. Özgür Dogan and Orhan Eskiköy captured the complexity of cultural identity in Turkey, where Kurds compose between 15-20% of the population. Entry-level Turkish teachers needing to gain experience are sent to regions (often remote) with a larger proportion of Kurdish population. Their mission is to ensure children are able to communicate in Turkish and memorize the national student oath praising the benefits of being part of the Turkish community.
In the small rural school located in the region of Anatolia portrayed in the movie, the young professor struggles to ensure kids do not communicate in Kurdish as it is the only language they are able to speak while it is completely unknown for him. School attendance is always at stake in this rural area as kids have a wider range of responsibilities that go beyond solely learning at school. All age ranges were represented in this single-classroom school, yet reading and writing were still major obstacles for the vast majority of kids.
With a permanent feeling of being out of place and lonely in this remote rural area, the energetic teacher managed to connect with the students despite not being able to properly communicate verbally. Little by little the children started to understand Turkish and were able to give simple answers to the desperate professor. However, when they spoke or wrote Kurdish, they were punished and had to stand on one leg in front of the classroom.
His presence also had an influence at the community level, as he had regular contact with the parents and tried to raise awareness about the importance of education for any child, regardless of his age or gender. After the academic year was over, all kids got their final grades and a personal assessment regarding their development. Minutes after saying goodbye to the professor at the school gate and wishing him a safe journey back to the big city, children ran to the nearest puddle and swam naked while laughing out of joy. A nice metaphor explaining that they were finally able to communicate and play again in Kurdish, getting rid of the imposed language and culture they learned from this unusual professor that came from a far land named Turkey.
After the movie was screened a passionate Q&A session was moderated by Tayfun Balcik and Bedel Baayrak (The Hague Peace Projects). The audience was extremely engaged in the discussion, expressing their points of view and challenging each other. Overall there was a consensus regarding the unacceptable situation of the Kurdish culture, which has been systematically jeopardized and downgraded by the Turkish political system. A more inclusive regional economic development and educational system should be a priority in Erdogan’s agenda, yet this might be unlikely to become effective. Kurdish identity could be reaffirmed if the population go through a self-determination process. Many challenges arise in terms of enabling Kurdish population residing in Turkey to have a say at a national level, yet international awareness regarding their culture and identity is picking up due to the recent independence referendum held by the Kurds residing in Iraq. A window of opportunity might open for the Kurds living in Turkey, which could steer the national political agenda in their own benefit.
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