The Middle East’s travelling storytellers

The Middle East’s travelling storytellers

A low, throaty voice worked its way through the city of Diyarbakır, reaching further than it had any right to. Even without understanding a word of Kurdish, I had no doubt about the sorrow it expressed through its mournful tones.

Regarded as the capital of Turkish Kurdistan, Diyarbakır (Amed in Kurdish) is perched on a bluff overlooking the turbulent Tigris River in south-eastern Turkey. I visited in summer when the heat was stifling, the surrounding countryside scorched yellow. The sun fell heavy on the city’s foreboding black basalt walls, which absorbed its warmth and radiated it back out again.

That lone sorrowful voice cut through it all, telling a story of love and loss, hope and despair

The city felt empty during the midday heat, but as evening shadows fell, a group of school kids tumbled down its winding streets kicking a flattened football. Head-scarved women shuffled home, pulling shopping carts overflowing with a rainbow of fresh market produce, the range of goods befitting Diyarbakır’s location in the Fertile Crescent.

Following the sound I’d heard, I walked through the maze of Diyarbakır’s narrow, winding streets. I spied glimpses of life through archways that penetrated the black brick buildings and opened out onto courtyards. Fig and mulberry trees provided dappled shade. Cries of hawkers, barks of stray dogs and the beeps of car horns all bubbled up into the soundscape of the sun-baked city. Yet that lone sorrowful voice cut through it all, telling a story of love and loss, hope and despair.


The Middle East’s travelling storytellers
View image of At Mala Dengbêjan in Diyarbakır, dengbêj singers keep Kurdish history and legends alive (Credit: Credit: umut kacar/Alamy)

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Finally, I entered through an open archway into the Mala Dengbêjan (House of Dengbêj). Here, the smart, flagstone courtyard of a beautifully restored, century-old house was the stage, stalls and gallery of an open-air theatre.

The sadness in this voice that emanated from here is echoed in the city’s uneasy past. The area once known as Kurdistan was divided between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran in a secret agreement between the British and French in 1916. In this stateless nation of between 25-35 million people, it is the strength of their traditions, language, culture and shared history that bind them together.

Ever since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Kurdish language and culture have had to fight to survive oppression and policies of assimilation as the capital Ankara tried to unify the newly formed country, while Kurds fought for their own state.

The scars of its most recent troubles – the 2016 clashes between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants – are still fresh. Much of the old part of Diyarbakır was destroyed, construction works cover its gaping wounds and large swathes of the city remain fenced off as it is being slowly rebuilt.


The Middle East’s travelling storytellers
View image of Members of Diyarbakır’s Kurdish community gather at Mala Dengbêjan to listen to the dengbêj singers’ kilams, or songs (Credit: Credit: Terry Richardson)

In the courtyard of the Mala Dengbêjan, mismatched chairs were available for visitors. In the back of the courtyard a dozen men sat in a loose circle, their once-black hair mostly whitened by age, creases diligently ironed into their short-sleeved, light-coloured shirts.

A stout man in a striped shirt and flat cap with a thick moustache was narrating his story; a half-spoken, half-sung acapella epic. He leant forward in his seat moving from left to right, looking around in a practiced manner to ensure his story was heard by all.


(Credit: BBC News Türkçe)

He raised his left hand to emphasise points, while a string of prayer beads fell from his right, his fingers turning the beads automatically. He performed for several hours, without once checking any notes.

His voice filled the space, more a sung poem than a song. The distinct phrases were punctuated by pauses, with some notes held, other words repeated. He was truly a master of his voice, varying its pitch for dramatic effect. The audience listened intently, some raising their hands in appreciation or gesticulating to emphasise the points along with him.


The Middle East’s travelling storytellers
View image of The Kurdish language and culture were threatened by policies of assimilation (Credit: Credit: Terry Richardson)

The term dengbêj (pronounced deng-bay) is a Kurdish term that can be translated as ‘master of the voice’ made from the words deng (voice) and bêj (from the verb, ‘to say’) and refers to both to the performers and to the art itself. The perpetuators traditionally are travelling storytellers that keep Kurdish history and legends alive.

In Kurdish towns and villages throughout history, people have gathered in houses to hear these epic stories. The majority of singers are men, although there have been some celebrated female singers, too. They may not always be literate, but they store great libraries in their heads, gathering tales as they travel and carrying them on to reach new ears.

They store great libraries in their heads, gathering tales as they travel and carrying them on to reach new ears

The dengbêj tradition suffered under Turkish oppression. Expressions of Kurdish culture and language were associated with Kurdish separatism, feared by the Turkish state. Between 1983 and 1991, speaking Kurdish in public was officially banned and owning Kurdish literature or a tape of Kurdish music was a criminal offence. However, the tradition of dengbêj never died.

“I think the dengbêj art survived because the majority of Kurds used to live in rural areas,” explained Hanifi Barış, a Kurdish academic from the University of Aberdeen who has carried out research on this subject. “Gatherings at guesthouses, the house of a notable person or the house of the dengbêj was common cultural practice in the long winter nights in Kurdistan. I grew up in such a house.”

These gatherings, called şevbêrk (literally ‘passing time in the evenings’), provided the dengbêj with the security, privacy and audience they needed to perform their art. 


The Middle East’s travelling storytellers
View image of The city of Diyarbakır is regarded as the capital of Turkish Kurdistan (Credit: Credit: B.O'Kane/Alamy)

In the early years of the 21st Century, Kurdish-Turkish relations went through a period of improvement. In 2004, Ankara allowed the limited use of Kurdish language in state broadcasts; in 2009, the state television launched a Kurdish language channel; and in 2012, school were granted permission to teach Kurdish as an elective subject.

The Mala Dengbêjan opened in 2007 as an attempt by the pro-Kurdish municipality to help both revive and recognise dengbêj as a specifically Kurdish tradition. The centre has played a significant part in bringing it back into the public eye.

Open from 09:00 to 18:00, Tuesday to Sunday, the Mala Dengbêjan has no set performance times and serves as much as a meeting place as a cultural centre. As I sat and watched the man sing, glasses of steaming tea clinked in their saucers and conversations were muttered in lowered voices. New people arrived and were greeted by a clasp of the hand and a kiss on both cheeks.


The Middle East’s travelling storytellers
View image of The kilams often focus on love or war, heroes or traitors, and the relationships between different Kurdish factions (Credit: Credit: umut kacar/Alamy)

The recital songs – known as kilams – often focus on love or war, heroes or traitors, and the divisions and relationships between different Kurdish factions. They keep the story of the Kurdish people alive, strengthening Kurdish unity by recognising its struggle through its history and legends. As well as learning the songs from their masters, dengbêjs may compose their own, and are celebrated for their lyrical skills.

“Dengbêj songs can arouse emotions in me that no other music can,” Barış said. “Maybe it is because I listened to my parents singing them with great emotion. Maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to the emotions they trigger in people since a young age. I am not sure why they do so, but they do nevertheless.”

Dengbêj songs can arouse emotions in me that no other music can

In the countryside across the region, dengbêjs still perform to small audiences in people’s homes. Now legal, it faces a new challenge in battling against the lures of the television (although a number of TV programmes give a platform to the art) and the pull to the cities. While there has been mass migration to Turkey’s urban centres, for those that remain in the villages, traditional ways of life prevail.

Baran Çetin grew up in one such village in the mountains of the east of Turkey, not far from the border with Armenia. “It’s a beautiful place, but a hard life,” he told me. Aged 35, he now lives and works in Istanbul. With some three million Kurds resident in the metropolis, the city has the world’s largest Kurdish population.

His uncle, a dengbêj, learned the art from his father, who learned from his father before him. Çetin adores the dengbêj tradition but admits that his voice is not good enough to be considered one; the best keepers of this tradition tend to be much older, having gained both experience and stories.

“When I listen to dengbêjs, I find myself right in the moment that they are singing about. It represents all aspects of life. You can feel hope, joy and melancholy all at once,” he explained, using the Turkish word hüzün for the latter emotion.


View image of Baran Çetin: “You can feel hope, joy and melancholy all at once” (Credit: Credit: Terry Richardson)

The Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk has written about hüzün, describing it as something more than melancholy; a feeling of loss that also provides a poetic licence to feel that way. “It is the absence, not the presence, of hüzün that causes the sufferer distress,” Pamuk wrote in his book Istanbul: Memories and the City. “It is the failure to experience hüzün that leads him to feel it.”

I lost track of time as I sat in the Mala Dengbêjan. Each bard that took the floor led the listeners on a different journey through the chronicles of Kurdish history. Even without comprehending a word, I was swept up in the stories. For the first time, I understood what Pamuk meant by his description of hüzün. Recent years of Kurdish history may be characterised by melancholy, but at the same time, there is hope. By continuing to recount these stories, passed down orally from one master to the next, dengbêjs will keep Kurdish culture alive.

The Customs That Bind Us is a series from BBC Travel that celebrates cultures around the world through the exploration of their distinctive traditions.

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