An ancient Kurdish love song came alive by way of a beautiful movie in New York City last month. A Kurdish grandmother sang it for her American grandson on a hospital bed in Manhattan.
The remarkable film Zer which rivals Shakespeare’s tragic Romeo and Juliet with its heart-rending after-effects of true love sacrificed upon the altar of parental coercion.
To fully appreciate the tragic song, we travel through the corridors of time landing in the Kurdish province of Dersim in Turkey.
There, in the shade of a towering walnut tree, a handsome shepherd spots a beautiful young girl named Zer. It is love at first sight: when their eyes meet, both their hearts skip a beat.
As the Psalmist David might have put it, had he witnessed their chance encounter: “The mountains leaped like rams, the hills like lambs.”
Their love knows no bounds and keeps growing like the luxuriant green entwining the breathtaking Kurdish mountain meadows. They want to marry, but dogmatic social tradition is against them.
Zer’s wealthy father, proud of his exalted social standing, cannot stand the thought of his daughter marrying a penniless vagabond. He indignantly arranges for Zer to marry a man of his choice.
But his choice is not Zer’s, and on the wedding night, she and her beloved decide to elope.
As Zer rushes to the rendezvous point, she is engulfed by a blinding snowstorm and freezes to death.
When the storm subsides at daybreak and the shepherd learns of Zer’s death, he is irrevocably crushed. In his heart-slashing grief, he composes a love song, called “Zer,” which has passed down to us as part of Kurdish cultural heritage.
In 1930 another girl is born in the vicinity of the same village in Dersim. Her name is Zarife and she learns of the song and sings it on occasions.
When she is eight, Ataturk decides to “reform” the Kurds—his polite word for mass murder—to make them “Turkish,” in his words.
Her parents killed, the young Zarife seeks refuge in a nearby forest. She is discovered and awarded to a Turkish colonel as war booty. She comes of age in the colonel’s household, and later marries another Turkish colonel whose last name is Happyturk.
Although officially a Happyturk, the traumatized Kurdish bride is anything but happy. She outwardly speaks Turkish, but inwardly sings the nostalgic Kurdish song to hold on to her receding Kurdish past.
In her golden years, she lets go of her inhibitions and sings it aloud to her daughter, but not to her son.
He becomes a New York banker and when he has a son, he asks Zarife to name him. She chose Jan, which in her forbidden Kurdish dialect means “pain.”
Jan grows up oblivious to his Kurdish roots—until Grandmother Zarife is struck with cancer in her eighties and comes to Manhattan for chemotherapy.
Their encounter in New York is where the film Zer starts and ends in the love song’s birthplace, in the mountains of Dersim.
Jan is a child of liberty. Zarife is a survivor of “ethnocide” according to Dutch anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen or “genocide” according to Turkish sociologist Ismail Besikci. They make a charming couple in spite of the vast differences in their experiences.
One day in the hospital, Zarife asks Jan, an aspiring musician, to sing her a song. He does, and then asks his grandmother to reciprocate. She sings the song of Zer. Although Jan doesn’t understand a word of the strange language, he comes under its spell, impelling him to discover that his grandmother, supposedly Turkish, is actually Kurdish.
After Zarife dies, Jan discovers among her belongings an old handbag containing two walnuts. They mean nothing to him. But they have a secret of their own.
As Jan’s dad gets ready to take Zarife’s corpse to Turkey, Jan decides to go along. In Afyon, Turkey, Zarife is buried next to her deceased Turkish husband with the old handbag, but its two walnuts are given to Jan as keepsakes.
After the funeral, Jan asks his aunt if she knows anything about grandmother Zarife’s Kurdish song, Zer. The aunt says nothing, but his father heatedly shouts: “Shut up!”
He then yells, “Our mother didn’t know any Kurdish songs. She fooled you thinking that she does.”
Jan, untainted by his father’s Kurdish phobia, blurts out, “I know the difference between Kurdish and Turkish.”
With that Jan’s father explodes, slapping him in the face and snarling, “Don’t bother yourself with out of date matters!”
They are the code words for the enduring Kurdish question in Turkey. They sum up the predominant Turkish perception of Kurds as an “out of date people.”
If you are a Kurd in Turkey, you have two choices: you either accept the prejudices of Turks as fact or face corporal punishment, as Jan does, for seeking truth.
A slap doesn’t stop Jan. He pursues the truth, finding out more about his grandmother, and how she survived the horrific Turkish ethnocide/genocide against the Kurds.
He decides to visit the birthplace of the song, Zer, and takes with him the two walnuts. His train journey to Dersim in Kurdistan dramatically contrasts with that of his grandmother’s trip to Turkey in 1938.
In one of the most moving scenes, Jan imagines his grandmother, as a frightened eight-year-old girl, moving from city to city along the railroad tracks like a lost luggage.
The search vividly exposes the dark, murky underbelly of Turkey’s unbridled savagery against the Kurds. In a hideous crime that has never received international condemnation, or even recognition, Turkish troops slaughtered 40,000 to 70,000 Kurdish civilians in 1937-38 with bullets, bombs and poison gas.
Cruelty swarmed like locusts. Tribesmen were shot dead while trying to surrender. Women and children were herded into hay sheds then heartlessly set afire—ruthlessly depopulating the war-torn province, noted the survivors years later.
Turkey now admits to 13,116 killed amid the spiteful screams of “Allahu Akbar”—the grim death chant of Islamic State cutthroats—and forcing 11,818 into exile on pain of death.
Even Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted in 2011 that this horror was “one of the most tragic events in our near history.”
In the stirring movie, we learn that the Kurdish shepherd had revisited the fountain and its walnut tree where he first met Zer.
“I shed two tears,” he mourns, “and the walnut tree shed two walnuts.” The two walnuts from the old handbag of Jan’s grandmother now glow with added significance.
But the village Jan seeks has vanished—buried under the backwaters of a dam built to provide electricity to Turkey.
There is a similar blackout in the movie, if you see it in Turkey. Four minutes of darkness censures the photographic exhibition of the ethnocide/genocide of Kurds in Dersim, and Jan’s chance encounter with Kurdish freedom fighters in the mountains of Dersim, Kurdistan.
When producer Kazim Oz was asked how he became a filmmaker, he recalled his university years in Istanbul: “I attended a demonstration and was arrested by police and locked up in a movie theater for a day.”
“Since I had grown up in the mountains of Kurdistan,” he went on, “I had never been in an actual movie theater till then. I had a whole day to like what I saw.”
You will not like what happened in Dersim, but will appreciate Mr. Oz’s genius to distill a priceless diamond, a beautiful work of art, out of the ashes of ethnocide/genocide that has been ignored for too long.
Not anymore. This movie remedies that lapse gracefully by way of a long-ago Kurdish love song that I hope will inspire you to look for the film as it inspired Jan to visit Dersim, Kurdistan.