Public Radio of Yerevan, known as Radyoya Erîvané or Erivan Radyosu* beyond the Armenian-Turkish border, has left a mark in the memories of Kurdish poet and guerilla Hüseyin Kaytan and thousands of Kurds across the Middle East, Europe and the former Soviet republics. Throughout the years when the Kurdish language and culture were banned in Turkey, Radio Yerevan served as a bridge between the Kurdish people and their culture. People who were deprived of the right to study their native language got an opportunity to hear it on the radio as well as explore the many layers of Kurdish culture, especially music. According to Artur Ispiryan, the head of the archival department, there are over 10,000 recordings of Kurdish folk songs and theatrical plays in the archives of Public Radio.
The first broadcasts of Kurdish programs on Radio Yerevan began in the 1930s but were shut down in 1937 as a result of the Great Purge under Stalin’s rule. However, the Khruschev era marked the reopening of Kurdish programs when in 1955, Casim Celil, the broadcast director, took on the responsibility of producing the programs. The programs were broadcast on the radio three times a week for 15 minutes per day.
Director Hamo Beknazaryan’s film “Zarê” is considered the first film about the Kurds. Shot in 1926, the film portrayed the daily life of Kurds living in the villages of Armenia. “Zarê” was originally a silent film, however in the 1970s sound was added. Casimê Celîl and his daughter, musician Cemîla Celîl, contributed to the creation of the film’s new version, adding songs recorded for the Kurdish programs of Public Radio.
Although the Department of Kurdish Programs at Yerevan Radio didn’t face any technical difficulties or challenges during the Soviet years, the topics covered by the programs were directly regulated by the Communist Party and Moscow. It was prohibited to talk about nationalism, politics and Kurdish unity. Instead, the programs focused on culture, broadcasting songs and radio plays. However, there were some restrictions with music as well.
Things began to gradually change when on April 1, 1961, Radio Yerevan started to broadcast Kurdish programs daily, for 1.5 hours at a time. That’s when the broadcasts crossed Armenia’s borders reaching Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran as well as several countries within the Soviet Union.
When Halil Muradov took over the position of broadcast director, he was in constant touch with Kurdish communities and received letters and phone calls from Kurds in the Soviet Union as well as the Middle East. As the number of listeners around the world grew, Muradov announced a competition of radio hosts for the new programs. Out of 26 applicants, they selected two male and two female hosts: Sewaza Abdo, Eznifi Resid, Keremi Seyyad and Sidar Emin.
In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia faced social and economic challenges that directly affected the broadcasts of the Kurdish programs as the government wasn’t able to finance the radio. With increasing unemployment in the country, almost the entire staff of the Kurdish department, 13 people, left the country. The only one who stayed was Keremi Seyyad, who worked for the radio for 55 years. “There was no electricity, no transportation and it was terribly cold in the winter. But my father would walk 8 km from our home to Public Radio with the hope that things would get better,” Seyyad’s son explains. “He knew that if the Kurdish department was shut down, it would never open again.” Keremi Seyyad’s son, Tital Seyyad Choloyan, is currently the head of the Kurdish department of Public Radio.
The 1990s brought financial problems, but the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that there would no longer be restrictions on the content of the programs. In the late 1990s, Keremi Seyyad planned a new series of radio programs that included news, political commentary, Kurdish language and culture. On Mondays, they broadcast a program called “Cultural Diary.” People could call and request songs as well as listen to radio plays. Tuesdays and Wednesdays focused on Kurdish language, literature and history through “Your Native Language” and “The History of Kurds and Kurdistan” programs. Through his “Looking for Relatives” program, Seyyad helped to bring together many Kurdish families from Turkey and Armenia who had been separated in the 1920s and 1930s.
By building a bridge between people and their culture, the Public Radio of Armenia also contributed toward establishing better relations between the Armenian and Kurdish people. “A few years ago, when Osman Baydemir, the former mayor of Diyarbakır was in Yerevan, he visited Public Radio. At his meeting with the staff of Kurdish programs, he noted that he had two mothers; one was his biological mother, and the second was Radio Yerevan, as that’s where he learned his language and got to hear Kurdish songs when it was prohibited in Turkey,” said Tital Choloyan.
Memories about Radio Yerevan
Ahmet Kaya, 50, from Erzurum Province, Turkey, grew up facing much social and economic hardship. As a young boy, Kaya was deprived of the right to get an education in his native Kurdish. However, he remembers his childhood and adolescent years with nostalgia. With no textbooks in his native language and no electricity in the village, the only exposure to Kurdish, and one of his greatest joys was the radio. Radio Yerevan served as a medium through which Kaya explored Kurdish culture, especially music.
I listened to polyphonic Kurdish music for the first time on this radio. The song “Kerr u Kulik” was played over and over, and I was shocked. I was both proud and shocked. It was a testing, but it affected me a lot. Again, the instruments used in the music of this radio, especially reed flute, stick in all Kurds’ hearts. Now whenever I hear the reed flute of Egidê Cimo**, I attach my own roots to the roots of the tree of life.
Ahmet Kaya and his friends of the same generation share similar memories revolving around Radio Yerevan.
My father was an imam, and he has been related, attached to the Kurdistan case since his childhood and he was aware of world politics. For that reason, we were also aware of the struggle for freedom for Kurdistan. Therefore we, as the whole family, would like to know immediately what is going on about Kurds in whatever place. We used to listen to the Sound of Radio America, Radio Sofia, Radio Baghdad, BBC and especially Radio Yerevan systematically. At that time we saw Radio Yerevan and the radio of the south (Radio Baghdad) as our own. We would listen to the agenda of Kurdistan and the world in Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish but we enshrine Radio Yerevan in our heart because it was broadcasting in our language. We used to listen to Kurdish minstrels, dengbêj*** and Kurdish songs via these radio programs. When we were exiled to the Black Sea in 1984, these radio programs became our relatives, mates and friends. We understood loneliness and statelessness better there. Radios broadcasting in Kurdish smelled like our home. Later on, we grew up and thank goodness many Kurdish radio and television stations were established.
– Süheyla İnal
During the 1960s, there wasn’t anyone in Kurdistan who knew Turkish except for the men who had completed their compulsory military service. And they would speak a very half-baked Turkish. They spoke Turkish only inasmuch as was enough for basic communication. We were far away from the Turkish culture. We couldn't find any pleasure in their songs, instruments or theatre plays. In the evenings, we would gather in the houses of notable people in our villages, sit before the radio and tune in to the Yerevan radio. Just as the English have “tea time,” we had our “Yerevan radio time.” Until the broadcast ended, our elders would scold anyone who made any noise: naughty kids, women who were touched by listening to the songs and moved to tears, and the sick who would cough too much…
Unfortunately, the news stories that were broadcast were too distant to our reality, lives and daily concerns. They would usually be about Armenia and the Soviet Union. If once a year a story about the Northern Kurds was broadcast, it would become the talk of the day among people and would spread. The generations before ours had seen the First World War, the forced migration. Due to the provocations of the Great Powers, a blinding nationalism, and the backwardness and ignorance of Kurds and Armenians, the two had killed a lot from one another. Especially during the forced migration, there was nobody left in the Kurdish villages of the Serhat region other than the old, the sick and the disabled. The killing of people caused the emergence of a great hatred in the hearts of Kurds against Armenians. The Armenians in the Russian army became the stick to beat the Young Turks, and they caused the deaths of many impeccable and innocent Kurds, who were killed with the intent of vengeance and died because of other Kurds that knew nothing of the national struggle.
As far as I am concerned the Yerevan radio made a great contribution to the closure of this wound. Thanks to this radio station, Armenians and Armenia started to appear much more likable to the Kurds than Ankara and [its] arrogant, powerful men. In terms of art, the instruments used in Yerevan radio were adopted in Kurdish music. The Serhat dialect of Kurdish became known, heard and recognized in the South too. To conclude, if today there is affinity among Kurds towards the Armenian people, the Yerevan radio played a great part in it. Other states, which spent billions of dollars for propaganda purposes failed to create the same impact on Kurds as the Yerevan radio.
– Mamoste Marûf
As we knew the air-time of Yerevan radio, everything felt like a burden on our shoulders as the air time approaches, we wanted to finish everything we were occupied with as soon as possible and get ready to listen to the radio. Since not every house had a radio, we either gathered at a house with a radio, or we put the radio on the windowsills so that everyone could hear it clearly. We were not really curious about the news; rather we were waiting for the news to be announced quickly so that we could listen to the songs. We were listening to the theatre plays, tales with great joy and this would be our agenda until next week. I think people who worked on the radio were not even conscious of this effect of the radio over us. – Mehmet Kaya
I'd always cry every time I listened to a song on the radio. I did that as my heart was burning when I'd think of my father's illness. It didn't matter what the song was about. The fact that the song was in our language and mostly about painful events was enough for me to get emotional and start to cry.