Kurdish Storytellers Congregate in Southeastern Turkey’s Diyarbakır

In Few Dengbejs Remain to Sing Kurdish Stories, Mat Nashed reports from Turkey’s Diyarbakır on the “House of Dengbej,” established to provide a venue for performances by traditional Kurdish storytellers:

“We sing stories of love and war,” [Mehmet] Ince told Al-Monitor while lighting a cigarette in the house of the dengbej. “We express our history through our tongue.”

Kurds in Turkey have long been denied a history of their own. In 1980, their language was criminalized following a bloody military coup that saw the country fall under martial law, empowering the army to raid, imprison and kill thousands of leftists and Kurdish activists.

Faced with charges of separatism by the state for speaking their mother tongue, dengbejs traveled discreetly between villages to perform for their people. Whenever one would arrive, the town would elect two people to stand the lookout for Turkish soldiers, while the rest of the community would cram into an empty guesthouse to hear him sing.

The Kurdish dengbêj is a ‘reciter of romances and epics’, according to Michael Chyet, an expert in Middle Eastern languages and compiler of a Kurdish-English dictionary. But the traditional dengbêj “must also be defined by his social position: he used to work for and praise a master who took care of him in exchange.” (Dengbêj Project)

According to Kurdish music producer Hilmi Akyol as cited in Daily Sabah, Dengbej House opened its doors under the commission of the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality in 2007 with a group of 28 folk musicians, including one female dengbej. It hosts 70,000 visitors annually.

Read Kurdish Music Tradition Revived with Dengbej Culture or The Invention of a Tradition: Diyarbakır’s Dengbêj Project for more information. The latter is highly detailed and goes into depth on topics such as the stigmatization of this form of folk art and the pioneering role of Kurdish writers, and touches on once-popular dengbêj such as Şakiro, Hûseynê Farê, Ayşe Şan, Meryem Xan and Îsa Perwarî.

See also the Wikipedia entry on Karapetê Xaço, an Armenian  who witnessed the annihilation of his village during the Armenian Holocaust, and later went on to become a renowned singer of dengbêj.

Or, have a brief listen here to the more traditional form that is sung without accompaniment by musical instruments.

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