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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Who Are the Zaza People (Zazalar Kimdir?)

The Zazas or Dimilis are an ethnic Iranian people whose native language is Zazaki spoken in eastern Anatolia. They primarily live in the eastern Anatolian provinces, such as Adıyaman,AksarayBatmanBingölDiyarbakırElazığErzurumErzincan (Erzıngan), GumushaneKars,MalatyaMusSanliurfaSivas, and Tunceli provinces. Although Zaza-speakers are sometimes classified as a separate ethnic group, few communities of speakers of the Zaza language actually consider themselves Kurds.

Total population
6 - 8 million
Regions with significant populations
Primarily in Turkey, and some in Georgia,GermanyKazakhstanThe Netherlands
Islam (Alevi and Sunni)
Related ethnic groups
other Iranian people, particularly GilakisKurds,Mazandaranis, and Persians

There are many Zazas living in major Turkish cities such as IstanbulAnkara, andİzmir. Moreover, the Zaza diaspora is spread across Europe (mainly in Germany) and beyond (U.S.Canada, etc.) According to estimated figures, the Zaza population should be somewhere between 1 to 2 million.

inguistic studies shows that the Zazas may have immigrated to their modern-day homeland from the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. Some Zazas use the word Dimli (Daylami) to describe their ethnic identity. The word Dimli (Daylami) also describes a region of Gilan Province in today’s Iran. Some linguists connect the word Dimli with the Daylamites in the Alborz Mountains near the shores of Caspian Sea in Iran and believe that the Zaza have migrated from Daylam towards the west. Today, Iranian languages are still spoken in southern regions of Caspian Sea (also called the Caspian languages), including Sangsarī, Māzandarānī, Tātī (Herzendī), Semnānī, Tāleshī, and they are grammatically and lexically very close to Zazaki; this supports the argument that Zazas immigrated to eastern Anatolia from southern regions of Caspian Sea. Zazas also live in a region close to the Kurds, who are also another Iranic ethnic group. But, historic sources such as the Zoroastrian holy book, Bundahishn, places the Dilaman (Dimila/Zaza) homeland in the headwaters of the Tigris, as it is today. This points to that the Dimila/Zaza migrated to the Caspian sea and not the other way around.


Zazaki is a West Iranian language spoken in Southeast Anatolia, northwest to the Kordi (Kurdish) speaking regions, by approx. 2 Mio. Since the beginning of the 20th century Zazaki has been accepted as a language of its own among linguists[1], and not any longer merely as a Kordi dialect. Nevertheless until recently the Zaza people were generally held to be Kurds speaking a special dialect of Kordi. Due to the oppressive minority and language policy of the Republic of Turkey, until 15 years ago there existed practically no indigenous Zazaki written literature, and so no means by which the Zaza people could find out anything about their own language and cultural identity[2].
Only after the military coup d‘ état of 1980 and the following emigration of Turkish leftists, many of them Kurds, to countries of Western Europe the publication in Zazaki started in the exile - then still under the label "Kordi dialect“. In 1984 AYRE („mill“), the first exclusive Zazaki journal, was published by the pioneer of Zaza nationalism Ebubekir Pamukçu (d. 1993). Considered an outsider among the Zaza, or even a „Turkish agent“ trying to split off the Zaza from their Kordi sister people, Pamukçu finally saw some fruits of his labour when in the early 90ies a stronger awareness of an own cultural identity started gaining a foothold among the speakers of Zazaki. At present the further development of Zazaki language and culture is endangered by the Turkish policy of „purifying“ Eastern Anatolia of its indigenous Kordi and Zaza population, as well as by the long-standing process of forced and unforced assimilation (to Turkish and Kordi). As moreover there is even religious and political discord among the Zaza, it is far from certain whether the „making of the Zaza nation“ will reach a successful conclusion.
Although the history of Zazaki studies is already 140 years old, we still lack a comprehensive grammar of even one of its dialects, and a reliable survey of its dialectology[3]. During the last four years I have, preparing my PhD thesis, which is intended to supply this want. In what follows, I will first give an outline of the historical phonology of Zazaki, and then sketch a couple of its morphological features –whith the aim, in both cases to determine more precisely than has been done hitherto the position of Zazaki among West Iranian languages and dialects. First attempts at achieving this aim have been made by Vahman and Asatrian recently[4].
The West Iranian languages and dialects are generally divided into a Southern and a Northern group. Already in the Old Iranian period the sound system of Old Persian (OP), the language of the Royal Achaemenian Court centered in Southern Iran, showed specific historical changes opposing it to the more conservative Avestan language (Av.) spoken at about the same time. In the Middle Iranian period this division became more distinct as Middle Persian (MP), the successor to Old Persian spoken in southern Iran, showed further sound changes not shared by the still more conservative northern Parthian (Pth.). Most of the dialectal distinctions attested in Old and Middle West Iranian, and some more in addition, are found in modern West Iranian languages and dialects as well. Although there are a couple of well-defined phonetic laws seperating the southwest from the northwest, it must be said that there is, in all historical stages, a varying amount of interdialectal borrowing whichs blurs the picture; furthermore, due to migrations in all periods, the SW/NW-distinction does not for all languages coincide with the geographical reality of today[5]. One major aim of this paper is to show that the NW/SW-distinction is not a clear-cut, but should rather be explained in terms of graduation, with each language attributed its position on a scale ranging from the „most north-western“ to the „most southwestern“. To facilitate comprehemsion of this study, a simplified list of the most important West Iranian languages and dialect groups is given below, together with the sketch of a map indicating their geographical location 


It is generally believed that the Zazas immigrated to their modern day homeland from the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. Some Zazas use the word Dimli (Daylami) to describe their ethnic identity. The word Diml (Daylam) also describes a region of Gilan Province in today’s IranZazakilanguage also shows similarities with Gilaki,Mazanderani and others spoken by the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. But some historians claim that Zazas didn't immigrate from lands of Daylem, but are descendants of Persians after being defeated by Alexander the Great. Dimili comes from Dümbüllü, old main Zaza tribe that lived in the region of Diyarbakır.
In the 20th century, there were two major Zaza rebellions against the Turkish Government: theSheikh Said Rebellion in 1925 and the Dersim Rebellion in 1937-1938.

Paul Ludwig’s study

German linguist Paul Ludwig's study on the Zazaki language draws four conclusions about the history and language of the Zazas.[1] According to him:
  1. In ancient times (approximately late 2nd millennium B.C.) there was a continuum of closely related Northwestern Iraniandialects spoken from the northwest to the northeast of present Iran which like Turks, came from middle Asia.
  2. Later, in pre-Achaemenian times, the forefathers of the Kurds and Baluchis of today were the first to split off and move south and southeast, respectively. Possibly Zazaki was still spoken in this period around the ancient region of Daylam, south of the Caspian Sea.
  3. Centuries later, maybe during the rise of theParthians, and the accompanying movement of various tribes from the ancient province of Parthia, the Goran and Zaza tribes made their home in northernMesopotamia, forming the furthermost western link in the chain of NorthwesternIranian people.
  4. Centuries later, maybe during the Sassanidperiod, all Northwestern dialects were influenced and superseded by Middle Persian. In the west, Zazaki was driven more to the north and northwest byKurdish, but still remained in contact with the northern chain of Northwest dialects (AzariTalysiSangiseri, Mazanderani, Gilaki) for some time.

Zazas and Zazaki
Zazaki is a language spoken in eastern Anatolia between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. It belongs to the northwest-Iranian group of the Iranian language branch of the Indo-European language family. The Zaza language is related to Kurdish, Persian and Balōchi. An exact indication of the number of Zaza speakers is unknown. Internal Zaza sources estimate the total number of Zaza speakers at 3 to 6 million.
Zazaki probably originates from northern Iran, from the historical region "Deylamān" at the Caspic sea, in the present province of Gīlān. Today the Iranian languages still spoken there (also called the Caspian dialects) like Sangsarī, Māzandarānī, Tātī (Herzendī), Semnānī, Tāleshī are grammatically closer to Zazaki than Kurdish. Apart from the presently in Balochistan spoken Balochi, only Gōrānī, which is spoken in a few remote areas in Iran and Mesopotamia, have relatively closer linguistic affinity with Zazaki.
Among northwestiranian Languages Zazaki is acording to the scheme of Prof. Dr. Jost Gippert and P. Lecoq(cf. Die iranischen Sprachen) classified as follows:

Hyrkanian Group:Balōčī, Sangesarī; Goranī, Zaza (Dımılki)
Kurdish (Kurmanjī, Soranī, South-Kurdish), Sivandī

Gīlakī, Māzenderānī, Semnāni, Sorcheī; Tāleshī, Āsarī

Persian, Tajikian, Tatī, Dialects of Fārs
The ancestors of the contemporary Zazas (and with them the Zaza-language) supposedly immigrated between the 10th and 11th centuries to their present-day homeland in eastern Anatolia. One interpretation thesis contends that the Zazas are the descendants of the Daylamites.
Linguistically and historically Zazaki differs from the scripturally fixed Middle Iranian languages. A recent thesis on the origin of the Zazas and their language holds that they are the autochtonous inhabitants of their present homeland. It is likely they have spread out into various regions.
The Zaza language is partly spoken in provinces such as Dersim (Dêsım), Erzincan (Erzıngan), Bingol (Çewlıg), west Sivas (Sêvaz/Qoçgiriye), south Erzurum, Varto (Gımgım), Elazığ (Xarpêt), Diyarbakır, Siverek (Sêwregı), Adıyaman (Semsür), as well as in a few villages of Malatya (Pötürge and Arapkir), Mardin, Mutki, Sarız (Kayseri), Aksaray, and in Turkish metropolitan areas such as İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir or Mersin.Diasporic communities exist both in Europe and in other countries (US, Canada, Australia, etc.)An estimated 150,000-200,000 Zazas live in Germany. The Zazas approximately bisect into Alawis and Sunni Muslims. The Alawis live in the northern part of the Zaza region, whereas the Sunni inhabit the southern Zaza region.
Both in the past and in the present the Zazas, particularly those from Dersim, were systematically persecuted because of their Alawitic confession. Until recently, a Zaza-national movement of independence did not exist due to religious tensions between the two religious groups, an obstacle which precluded rapproachment between Zazas. In areas such as Dersim or Varto leftist organizations blossomed. The Zazas have proven to be one of the most rebellious Anatolian peoples ever. Most well-known resistances of the 20th century involved Zazas: both leaders of the 1925 Sheikh Said rebellion (Piran) and the 1937 Seyyid Riza rebellion (Dersim) were Zazas. Both rebellions were religiously motivated. The latter resistance was quelled in 1938 with a genocide and the subsequent deportation of the survivors to western Turkey.
It is hardly amazing that many Zazas live outside their homeland. Apart from widespread suppression and wholesale evacuation of villages, the economically miserable situation of the Zaza areas forces the local population to emigrate into Turkish or European metropoles.
            Zazas are residents of the mountainous area of Anatolia and live on agriculture and pastoralism. The lives of many Zazas, Kurds and Assyrians were strongly damaged in the past two decades because of the guerrilla war between the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish army. Due to the fact that many villages were either thoroughly depopulated or integrally destroyed, many villages now remain eerily empty or are only inhabited by the elderly during the summer months. In the metropoles the refugees struggle in difficult living conditions. Emigration into diaspora accelerated the process of cultural assimilation, i.e. the loss of native languages.
The first written statements in the Zaza language were compiled by the linguist Peter Lerch in 1850. Two other important documents are the religious writings (Mewlıd) of Ehmedê Xasi of 1899, and of Usman Efendiyo Babıc (published in Damascus in 1933); both of these works were written in the Arabic alphabet.
In Latin letters Zazaki only became popular in the diaspora after meager efforts, in Sweden, France and Germany at the beginning of the 1980s. This was followed by the publication of magazines and books in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul. The efforts of Zaza intellectuals to advance the comprehensibility of their native language by alphabetizing were not fruitless: the number of publications in Zaza increased by the multiple. The rediscovery of the native culture by Zaza intellectuals not only caused a renaissance of Zaza language and culture, it also triggered feelings among younger generations of Zazas (who unfortunately, rarely speak Zaza as a mothertongue anymore) in favor of modern western in the Zaza language, and thus their interest in the most important inheritance of their ancestors. In diaspora a limited amount of Zaza-language broadcasts are realized.
Regarding the present situation of the Zaza language it can be safely stated that the hitherto accomplished alphabetizing and publishing still seem like a drop in the ocean.
A cause for these devastating consequences is mainly rooted in the forced assimilation policies of the Turkish state. Until the beginning of the 1990s public use of Zaza was punishable and Turkish-nationalist education policies unfortunately obtained substantial successes. The consequences of this process of turkification were so detrimental that under the Alawi-Zaza population the youngest generations hardly speak the language or teaches it to its children. Cultural assimilation is also becoming a tangible issue among the Sunni-Zazas. Nevertheless, it is pleasant to note that among young Zazas the interest to learn their native language or extend their basic knowledge is gradually growing.
Although at the beginning of this century it was linguistically proven that Zazaki is a language of its own and no Kurdish dialect, it was misrepresented in political circles. The political classification of the Zaza-language as a Kurdish dialect is in line with the frequent misunderstanding that ethnic labeling of populations in Turkey are incorrectly denominated, without any kind of differentiation. For example, all inhabitants of the Black Sea region of northeastern Turkey are identified as Laz, whereas only a small minority in that area is of ethnic Laz origin. The Zazas suffered from the same treatment, were it even solely due to their geographical origin. It was above all the one-sided and nationalist state policy, as well as ignorance that placed the Zaza in this predicament. If you consider the fact that any meaningful ethnic, cultural and/or linguistic research in Turkey was punishable; that until today books and associations are considered to be separatist organizations, and that they are in some cases even prohibited and closed down. Though in Europe objective and scientific research on the Zazas and their language is possible, a climate which does not exist in Turkey, until today there’s unfortunately still lots of ignorance on the Zazas. Although the elderly Zazas do not regard themselves as Kurds and their language as Kurdish, clusters of younger generations were affected by the Kurdish-nationalist liberty war, so that many Zazas, generally the politically engaged, consider themselves to be Kurds, and some as Turks. Before the era of the national consciousness religious affiliations played a key role. Among the Alawitic population it’s presently still usual that the ‘Alawi’ identity is granted priority above other loyalties. For traditional-minded people, Alawitism is endogenous, therefore they prefer marriage among themselves. This feeling of cohesion of the Alawis from different ethnic groups was culturally inspired through the course of history. Intra-Alawi endogamy is also a product of Ottoman religious suppression. The Ottoman rulers defamed all Alawis as ‘Kızılbaş’ (red heads) and accused them of heresy.