Lo şivano, “kîne em?”—Hey Şivan, Who Are We?
Şivan Perwer came to prominence in the 1980s—at a time when Saddam in Iraq and the September 12 military junta in Turkey pursued a policy of wholesale elimination of the Kurds—by asking a question: “Kîne em?” (Who are we?)
By singing a 1973 poem of the same name by the Marxist Kurdish poet Cegerxwin, not as a political leader but as an ordinary şivan (shepherd), Şivan Perwer began to draw the attention of Kurds from every segment of society.
His voice was so captivating that it transfixed the Kurds, much like the effect of the perfume sprayed on the crowd by Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the hero of Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, as he is going to the gallows.
Whether truth or fiction, the story of a peshmerge wounded in battle with Saddam’s forces sums up this “transfixing” effect very well.
This peshmerge, who needs to have a bullet removed from his body, has neither doctor nor morphine to come to his aid. Moaning in pain, the wounded man asks his comrades to play Şivan. The tape player, always at the ready, is brought out, and as the cassette begins to play, the peshmerge becomes transfixed and the bullet in his body is removed…
For the Kurds, who have been denied their very existence, language, and culture, it is particularly significant that they began to quickly unite around the question of “who are we?”
The state discourse that “Kurds are actually Turks” had manifested its tyrannical face in the daily lives of the Kurds to the point that it even fragmented and divided family members from one another. In order for them to become united and begin to resist, someone had to ask them this question with a powerful enough voice that they would pay attention.
Thus, in the 1980s, when the “shepherd” emerged with his captivating voice and stage performance, Kurds began to answer his question of “who are we,” first timidly, then loudly: “Emin em Kurdin!” (We are us, we are the Kurds!)
And so when Cegerxwîn’s poem “Kîne em?” which describes the Kurds and their history as an extraordinary saga, met with Şivan’s similarly extraordinary voice, the Kurds in Turkey began flocking in crowds to be part of a new resistance movement.
In the same poem, Cegerxwîn answers the question of “Kîne em?” as follows: “Cotkar û karker / Gundî û rênçber / hemû proleter / Gelê Kurdistan.” (“Farmer and worker / villager and laborer / all of them proletariat / the people of Kurdistan.”)
By the middle of the 1980s, the reputation of the PKK’s militia had seen a notable increase among the Kurdish population—“all of them proletariat”—because Şivan Perwer’s voice had long since arrived in the villages and the question of “who are we” had inevitably been answered.
Or rather, it would not be incorrect to claim that it was those young men and women who joined the PKK that had been able to answer this question. In this respect, Şivan’s music had a highly functional role for the PKK’s organization and explanation of itself to the masses.
In fact, over the course of the 1990s, Şivan’s fans frequently argued that the liberation of Kurdistan would be very easy if only Şivan were a member of the PKK. The PKK militants frequently came from poor Kurdish families, and villagers would use the word “karker” (worker) to describe them.
Şivan’s music always proclaimed this karker’s pain, shouts, and injuries. And yet Şivan never got on the same side as the worker on whose behalf he so stubbornly cried out.
A Song, a Bullet
During his time in Rome in 1999, Abdullah Öcalan wanted to spend his New Year’s Eve with Şivan Perwer and the Kurdish writer Mahmut Baksi.
When Baksi asked Öcalan the reason for this during their meeting, he received the following response:
I embarked on this road with songs….My wish is for artistic skill. In my opinion one person who sings well is more important than a hundred commanders. One word poured into art is like a bullet finding its target with one hundred percent precision. Şivan was with us in Ankara, with his voice as well as his labor. We were inseparable. But “Beko” separated us from one another. Of course some foolish Kurds have played a role too; we had our flaws….When I learned that Şivan had come, I said “this is great.” We’ve finally created a spiritual unity. Without spiritual unity the war won’t go on.
The “Beko” who “separated us from one another,” as Öcalan described, represents for the Kurds an evil character that turns friend into foe. In the Kurdish legend Mem û Zîn, the term “Beko,” a character who prevented the two lovers from being together, became for many years the primary way of describing people who were the cause of political fragmentation.
It’s not really possible to guess the identity of this “Beko” who came between Öcalan and Şivan. Nor does Öcalan indicate any name or group on the matter.
Nonetheless, the PKK and the Kurds who constituted its base were never able to stomach the fact that Şivan preferred to locate himself as a personality “above politics” in an era when the Kurdish movement really needed his voice.
However, at the root of the “flaws” of the movement that Öcalan describes was a deep admiration and love for Şivan, who had provided the most assertive reply to the question of “Kîne em?” one that served as the foundation upon which the PKK was constructed.
It is clear that the relationship was strange: on the one hand, this man who tried to make Kurds rise up against the structures that enslaved them stubbornly refused to sit on the thrones they had built for him in their hearts.
On the other hand, much as Lennie Small suffocates his rabbit while caressing it in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the Kurdish movement would from time to time make statements that targeted Şivan or protest his concerts, merely for the sake of receiving some reciprocity for their “love” of Şivan.
Tatlıses-Perwer: Duet or Duel?
From the 1980s until the end of the 1990s, the soldiers who raided the villages would request three things from the villagers whom they gathered in the square: “The location of the fugitives, the weapons, and the cassettes!” While the fugitives, who were avoiding capture for helping the PKK, took the weapons up the mountains, the cassettes of Kurdish artists were hidden under the ground.
When soldiers would “capture” tape players in houses, they would ask: “You have a tape player, so where are the cassettes?” The İbrahim Tatlıses cassettes kept in the house as a precaution would be shown. However, Şivan Perwer’s voice was usually hidden in the Tatlıses cassettes.
Inside of the cassettes with titles like “Aren’t I a Person?” “Oh, I Wish,” “I Want It Too,” “My Luminous Cevriye,” there would be albums by Şivan Perwer like Govenda Azadixwazan [Liberators’ Halay], Hevalê Bar Giranim [My Load Is Heavy, Comrade], Herne Pêş [Move Onwards], Kîne Em, Helepçe [Halabja], and Gelê min Rabe [Rise Up, My People].
If we are going to search for symbolic meaning in the upcoming meeting between Kurdistan Regional Government leader Masoud Barzani and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Diyarbakır, we should look for it in the very fact that Perwer and Tatlıses are coming together (or are being brought together) to join them.
For one, there’s this pressing question: Are these two artists from Urfa, who represent two different approaches, being brought together against Öcalan, who is also from Urfa?
In order to answer this, we must return again to that last meeting between Öcalan and Perwer in 1999. During that meeting, Öcalan explained that Kurds should not get married before they are liberated, and that as long as women and men are not equal, every marriage is a system of enslavement.
The fact that Perwer’s “duet” with Tatlıses will be happening at a wedding ceremony for three hundred people indicates a symbolic objection to this goal of Öcalan’s. This is only one aspect of the event and is a topic for a separate article.
Let’s get to the matter of Perwer’s duet with Tatlıses. On 13 November, on a Twitter account with the handle “İmparatoribo,” Tatlıses posted the following message: “Şivan Perwer is the Kurdish Pavarotti. Doing a duet with him is an honor for me. I just wish the circumstances were more equal.”
Although what Tatlıses meant by these “circumstances” were the bodily disfigurations he sustained as the result of an attack, a look at these two artists’ forty-year histories suggests something else: the resistance created by the PKK movement has caused a loss of respectability for “Turkish artists with Kurdish roots,” represented most notably by Tatlıses, whereas it brought considerable prestige and power to Kurdish artists like Perwer who rebelled with their songs and refused to bow to the state. (If this weren’t Perwer’s source of power in the first place, neither Barzani nor Erdoğan would have intended to make him a tool in their latest political maneuver.)
“Hey Şivan, Who Are We?”
Yes: Tatlıses, who always positioned himself with the state, has ironically been left powerless beside Perwer, who has returned from exile.
Even if Perwer’s “return,” right before the local elections, openly embraces the AKP and seriously shakes his reputation and strength, the fact that Tatlıses has never objected to the oppression of the Kurds is what renders this duet’s “circumstances” unequal.
Furthermore, the sheer fact that under the “more equal” circumstances that Tatlıses obtained by leaning on the state, he Turkified Perwer’s nonpolitical songs without permission necessitates that the encounter between the two will be, at best, a “duel.”
In spite of all of this, it is unclear whether or not Perwer has a couple of words for the “Turk with Kurdish roots” who rose to prominence by taking his place beside the state. But in Diyarbakır, even if he is able to once again give voice to the screams and cries that inscribed him in the hearts of the Kurds—which does not seem very possible—it seems as though he will leave a deep melancholy, brought there as he was under the patronage of the AKP and Barzani.
So even if Şivan’s personal transgressions are not necessarily reflected in his songs, a significant segment of the Kurds, “all of them proletariat,” is no longer going to speak of him with accolades.
Those who want to reminisce over the exciting past he created will take out their cassettes from the 1980s, still smelling of the earth, and taking solace in his “old” revolutionary voice, will turn to him and begin to ask, “Lo şivano, kîne em?”: Hey Şivan, who are we?
 Since the time this article was first published, this meeting has taken place.
[This article was first published on BBC Türkçe on 15 November 2013. The original article can be found here. It was translated from Turkish by Nicholas Glastonbury.]