“The meetings that made us sweat”: Anecdotes from the PKK’s early social work

The following text by Cemil Bayık is about two anecdotes from the period of the PKK founding group of students around Abdullah Öcalan in the mid-seventies. After first ideological and political activities in Ankara, the group started to spread out all over Kurdistan to introduce their ideas, engage with society and get to know the reality of the country. Unlike other pro-Kurdish groups at the time, the Kurdistan Revolutionaries were mainly poor students, committed to socialism. At the same time, they challenged the social chauvinism prevalent in the Turkish left. Without many means, the ideas of the movement spread mainly through direct interactions with communities and individuals all over the region.  

Cemil Bayık is co-chairperson of the Executive Council of the Union of Communities of Kurdistan (KCK), the umbrella organization for the building of “Democratic Autonomy”. He is regarded as one of the co-founders of the group that formed around Abdullah Ocalan in the mid-1970s, from which the PKK emerged in 1978.

Kemal Pîr is also one of the first comrades around Abdullah Öcalan, who got to know him and Haki Karer when he was released from prison at the beginning of the 1970s. Both were of Turkish origin. Kemal Pîr was later imprisoned in Amed Prison (Diyarbakir), where he started a hunger strike with his comrades to protest the Turkish state’s policies to torture people to surrender and submission. He died on September 7, 1982, on the 55th day of his hunger strike action.

The text in german you can find here


The meeting that made us sweat

Cemil Bayik

It was the year 1976. The days when nobody knew us, nobody wanted to know us. These were the days when, after our meeting in Ankara, we decided to return to the country, went back there and began the work. During this time, I was leading the work in Dersim together with a friend named Cömert. Nobody knew anything about us, nobody had heard of us, nobody knew us; it was a time when we had no means at all. Even though we had set off with the decision of the armed struggle, even if someone had come to shoot at us, we would not have been able to defend ourselves because of the lack of weapons. We speak of such a time.

Together with our friend Cömert we led the work in the area between Hozat and Pertek. In the region between Hozat and Pertek there was a village called Ballıkaya. One day we decided to go to this village with our friend Cömert. We went there and knocked on the first door. When the door opened, we entered. Inside was an old man. Because I knew neither who nor what he was, I went and sat next to him.

The friend Cömert, however, knew that he was an Alevi “Dede”. Due to the tradition he would never have sat down beside him. But I did not know that of course. But because the friend Cömert came from this area, he knew who was Dede here and how to behave in the presence of a Dede. But because I didn’t know, I sat next to him greeting him. But because my friend Cömert knew that one did not sit next to the Dede, he did not sit next to me. He went to his seat, almost behind the door and sat down.

During this time I smoked a lot and because I had no more cigarettes, I asked the Dede when he took out his tobacco box: “Excuse me, my cigarettes are all out, could I spin one of your tobacco?” And although he looked at me the other way, he stretched out the tobacco box towards me. I noticed that he didn’t give me the tobacco box as if it came from his heart. But I didn’t understand why that was so. And it was time for dinner and we sat down to eat. There were also some young people in this house. We had eaten, but none of the young people stood up. I said to myself: “It goes like this with us, as long as the old people don’t get up, no one else gets up. That’s why I didn’t get up either.

A few minutes later the old man, of whom I did not know that he was a Dede, read a prayer and everyone took two or three spoons of the tray again. I noticed that I was in no normal situation. But I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. Until that moment I didn’t even know what it was to be a Dede or pious. Because I had never experienced or seen it before. The friend Cömert had said also nothing about this topic. We rose from the food. After a while people came into the house. Everyone who came kissed first his hand, then mine and then sat down. I didn’t want people to kiss my hand, because among those who kissed my hand were very old people. One of them was even 80 years old. He wanted to kiss my hand, but I wouldn’t let him. Meanwhile I began to think, “If only I hadn’t gotten into this situation, I was very ashamed”.

Within a very short time the room filled up. While one of the women who had come from outside said “Dede tell us something”, I understood that he was a Dede. After I understood that the old man was a Dede, I thought that I had done something wrong and began to wait with concern for what he might say about my mistakes. Everyone asked the Dede questions and he answered them one by one.

During this time I didn’t know very much Kurdish. So I said, “Excuse me Dede, I don’t know much Kurdish, but I’d like to ask a question as well.” “Please, I’m listening to you,” he said. “While you were playing Saz, you were talking about Dersim and Kurdistan. It would be nice if you could tell a little more about it. Because on your Saz is written a poem from the book of Baytar Nuri about Dersim” I said. Besides, when the friend Aydın Gül had fallen, we had taken a four-part photo of this poem and hung it up everywhere. While looking at me he said: “We here say Kurdistan to this area here”. Nothing more.

I had not achieved my desired result and because I had not got the desired answer I asked again: “Dede excuse me, I would also like to say one or two things”. I continued: “I have read a few books, there Kurdistan was described only as an area bordering on yours”. While I was saying this, the “Dede” turned around again and looked at me, but this time differently.

After looking at me like that, his eyes stayed on the ground for a few minutes and he remained silent. Everyone waited, listened very attentively to my dialogue with the Dede and then observed the changed air. After a few minutes of silence the Dede began to tell the story of Kurdistan. As the Dede spoke, one of the women, referring to me, said to herself, “Who is this? She thought during our dialogue, which lasted into the night, that I was the Dede’s assistant. They had kissed my hand because of this anyway. When they understood that I was not the Dede’s assistant, a discussion began in the room: “Who is that and why is he sitting here? After the Dede had finished, I thanked him. “If you don’t mind, I would also like to say a few things,” I said. He said, “Here you go, you have the word, you can talk.” I also spoke about the Kurds and the history of Kurdistan.

This time the Dede began to observe me more closely. One after the other, everyone in the room began to realize that the situation they were experiencing was not a normal one. With short conversations and discussions, again questions and answers, the night continued to evolve. When the night was finally quite advanced, we ended the conversations and discussions. Gradually everyone scattered to go home. After everyone left, only the two of us were left behind. After we were alone, and with the intention of making up for my mistakes made that evening, I said to the Dede: “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that you were a Dede. Therefore, if I have behaved inadequately, you should know that it was not intentional. If I have made any mistake to you, I want you to know that it happened unknowingly and ask you for your forgiveness.”

The Dede said to me: “I suspected you to be someone from the Turkish left”. He added that although the Turkish left is doing silly things in the name of socialism, he is not against socialism. “I am not against them either. I even have authority, if I wanted, none of them could come to this village,” he said. “Out of respect for socialism, I say nothing to them. But they have nothing to do with socialism,” he continued. I agreed with him, but I also told him that we were such a movement. At this point the Dede asked me who we were. I said that we were a new movement. After I had said that, the Dede said: “Even if I should die, I will rest in peace. The founding of such a party for the Kurds makes one happy.”

That the Dede had said something like that made me very happy. Continuing, the Dede said that he had been waiting exactly for the foundation of such a movement. “I have articles in Ottoman about Kurds and Kurdistan. Now that you have appeared as such a movement, I will give you these books. He even pulled out all the money he had with him and gave it to us as support. And he said: “If you want to do even better work and achieve even better results, I can introduce you to all the villages here”. We said: “That would be very good”.

After developing a real relationship with the Dede in this way, we did the work in the villages he introduced us to. It was important that we developed our friendship in this way. Until then, the Turkish left had worked there. In their works they took action against the Dede and religion in the name of socialism. With this approach they actually showed that they did not have any works. At that time, according to hearing and legend, all these villages were in the hands of the “Ulusal Kurtuluşcu’lar”[National Liberators].

According to what was being told and heard, the villages between Pertek and Mazgirt were under the control of TIKKO. We visited a few villages and although we did not go to all the villages, all the villages there were bound to us. They all came to our side. In the villages we went to, the speeches we made there were also forwarded to the other villages, in a way they were also reflected there. Of course, the Dede also started propaganda for us during this time. If you want to lead work among the people, then you should do this according to its tradition, custom and values, in a suitable way.

We spent all of our lives with the people. Everything that attracted the people attracted us, everything that the people ate we ate. Apart from that, we lived no other life. We got to know the people closely and the people got to know us closely. Unity with the people developed essentially through this. That the people trusted us was also the result. After the first appearance of this movement nobody expected and believed that the movement would make such big steps. Everyone looked at us with condescension. There were even people who made fun of the movement. That’s why no one gave us any serious value. That’s why there were those who called us: “Crazy people with breath stinking from hunger”. These approaches were not criticisms, but accusations. They were pigeonholing us. They also used words against us that would not have occurred to us in our dreams. Some called us communists, some socialists, some madmen; in short, they said what came to their mind. On the other hand, we insisted with confidence that we were doing the right thing. That was important; what developed us, what made us grow, what brought us to where we are today, was that.


After our friend Kemal had escaped from prison, we went together to a village in Pazarcik. It was a village close to us. Because we were working there, we were known there. When we came to the village we saw that there was a wedding taking place. In the wedding celebration numerous people had come together. There it was known that our friend Kemal was in prison. Because there had been nothing written in the newspapers about Kemal escaping from prison, nor was there anything in the news on the radio, the mood at the wedding changed suddenly when the friend Kemal was seen there.

When it was evening, all the men gathered in one place and asked us to speak. We were already getting so close during this time that if we saw many people gathered somewhere, we considered this to be an opportunity to be evaluated. Our friend Kemal had recently escaped from prison and had not had such an opportunity for a long time. So I told my friend Kemal to talk. He spoke into the late hours.

When it was morning, a young man from the village came to us and asked: “Would you like to talk?” We said: “Of course we want to talk and we are ready for it at any time”. After he had received this answer from us, he left.

After a short time the youth returned to the place where we were and said: “I have gathered them all, they are waiting for you to come and talk”. When the youth had brought us to the place where we were waiting for the people, we saw that all the women were gathered there. He had gathered only women, but he had not told us that he had only gathered women. Until that time none of us had organized lectures or assemblies for women. But the people gathered there were not young women. As many older women as there were in the village, he had collected them all and wanted us to have a meeting with them. We had never given a lecture in front of such a mass of people before. This was a premiere for us.

I turned around and said to my friend Kemal: “You talked very well last night, you just got out of prison and you have a lot of energy, you speak in front of the crowd”. The friend Kemal said: “I won’t talk, you talk.” Whatever I tried, my friend Kemal didn’t want to talk. So I got stuck with the lecture. We started the meeting with my friend Kemal next to me. I talked for about 40-45 minutes. But I don’t remember what I said. I was sweaty, wet to the skin. As if I had been thrown into the water and taken out again. As much as I had sweated, my face must have changed from colour to colour. That’s why I was ashamed. In addition the women let sound “zilgit” (ululation) again and again in the breaks. Anyway, I did not know what I had said and moreover, the women’s repeatedly resounding even more confused me.

When I turned to my friend Kemal I asked: “How was my speech? The friend Kemal said: “I don’t know”. When my friend Kemal said so, I thought to myself: “That is, I spoke very badly”. My morale sank. I turned to Kemal and asked: “Did I speak badly? When I took a closer look, I noticed that he was also bathed in sweat. I said: “I was the one who spoke. That’s why I was excited, bathed in sweat and changed colour. People can understand me, but why are you sweaty, you’ve even been sitting”. Friend Kemal said, “Don’t even ask. Sitting opposite such a mass of women is quite exhausting. You first come and ask me that, you talked and didn’t live through that feeling, but I did. That’s why I didn’t listen to your speech.”

When I heard it like that, my morale rose again. As a result of the fact that he had not listened to me, it meant that I had not spoken so badly after all. When we disappeared from there, it was as if we had been reborn. As if the weight of the whole world had been on my shoulders and fallen off when I left, I could breathe again. I even remember giving a relieved “oh” of myself when we had moved away from there.