Journey to the end of an alphabet

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The Independent Online
IT WAS on Thursday that the Kurdish offensive burst over Europe, but above all over Germany. In two dozen German cities, Turkish targets - consulates, shops, restaurants - were attacked with firebombs, guns and iron bars. One Turk was burnt to death; at least 10 were injured.

Not all minorities in Turkey are militant. That same day, in a village high in the Black Forest, I was discussing the problems of another, much smaller and entirely peaceful nationality which lives in the north-east corner of Turkey - the Lazi. The prayer of all who know them is that the Lazi may never be driven to the desperation of the Kurds. But they are already under suspicion. Their first efforts to rediscover their cultural identity have already been classified by Turkish agents in Germany as 'separatism'.

In the village of Schopfloch lives Wolfgang Feurstein, a German intellectual who has devoted his existence to the rescue of the Lazi from 'assimilation'. From this remote village, almost single- handed and quite unrewarded, Feurstein has set about nothing less than the foundation of a national culture. He has given the Lazi an alphabet, and prepared schoolbooks which are now beginning to circulate - clandestinely - in their villages. He and the small group of expatriates who form the 'Katchkar Working Group' (named after a mountain range) are working on the first dictionary and the first volumes of what is to be a source-book and bibliography of Lazi history.

The Lazi are a Caucasus people, who speak a language (Lazuri) related to Georgian. Once they lived on what is now the Georgian coast, probably the ancient inhabitants of Colchis who in Greek myth guarded the Golden Fleece and lost their princess Medea to Jason. The Arab invasions a thousand years ago drove them west into Anatolia. There, some 250,000 Lazi remain, among the steep coastal valleys above the Black Sea. Until Feurstein began his work, they had no written language, no memory that they had been Christian until the 16th century, no idea that their origins were in the Caucasus. Many still believe Turkish propaganda, which tells them that they were once nomads who came with the Turks from Central Asia.

It was in the 1960s that Feurstein first went to the Lazi country, travelling among their villages and learning their language. What happened then to this mild, fair-bearded man was something like a religious revelation. It dawned on him that the Lazi were what Germans call a Volk - an authentic national group with a rich folk-identity, which was about to be lost forever. He resolved to save it.

It was not long before he was in trouble. Framed by the Turkish security police for 'illegally entering a frontier district', he was arrested, beaten up and threatened with murder. Since then, for almost 15 years, he has carried on his life's mission from Germany. He says: 'This is not something invented in a European head] In every village, I saw this lighting-up of faces and eyes when they understood that I valued their culture. Call them a nation, a folk, an ethnicity - I don't care.'

We live in an age of nationalism. But what is so astounding about Wolfgang Feurstein's work for the Lazi is that he is repeating, step by step, the process of creating 'modern nations' out of folk- cultures which began in Central Europe almost 200 years ago.

Johann Herder first proclaimed in 1772 that the basis of a nation was a language with its oral, traditional songs and stories. If there is a language, then it must be written down, given an alphabet and standardised by deliberate selection from all its local variants. A dictionary must be written, and a grammar must be provided for children. A history of the people must be compiled. Folk-tales and poetry must be collected and published to lay the base for a modern culture - or for a 'national intelligentsia' which will go on to compose a new national literature.

To bring an alphabet to a people who have never written down their speech - that is something given to few human beings. In myth, it is gods who bring letters down from heaven. When I held in my hand Feurstein's Lazuri alphabet, done in Turkish Latin script for clarity with Georgian characters opposite, I felt a sense of awe. I was holding something like a seed, but also like a bomb. With an alphabet, a people - even a tiny one - sets out on a journey. These characters were seen last year on student placards in an Istanbul demonstration, which means that the journey has already begun. Ahead are novels and poems, handwritten family and love letters, perhaps one day newspapers and proclamations, perhaps even laws.

Where does this journey end? A hundred years ago European intellectuals had no doubts about where it should end. A 'folk' which became literate and culturally self-aware was headed for 'nationhood' - if possible for statehood. In that spirit, Douglas Hyde founded the Gaelic League in 1893, to 'de-Anglicise' Ireland, and Palacky standardised Czech with his dictionary, and Vuk Karadzic plunged his hands into treasure chests of words to select a single Serbo-Croat language.

They, and many others all over Europe, were the forgers of nations. Using peasant speech and oral tradition as a foundation, they set out to build a quite different, unified, political sort of community fit for the modern world.

When Wolfgang Feurstein says reverently: ''With every poem there come new, unknown Lazuri words]', I hear those ancestral voices. But the world - especially the intellectual world - has changed. Feurstein, knowing the problems of survival in Turkey, is careful to avoid any political dreams: he is concerned only with the culture. But there are other scholars who question the whole project. Why should a spoken language have to 'develop' into a written one? If the Lazi have chosen, with regret, the path of assimilation, into Turkishness, what right have outsiders to persuade them that this is the wrong path? For myself, I support Feurstein. A scientist is not just a camera. A scientist's duty to a vanishing culture is not just to record but to offer wisdom and say: 'This end is not inevitable. There is a way to survive, and I can point you towards it]'

And, anyway, it is too late to stop the journey. The Turkish ban on spoken Lazuri was lifted two years ago. The little books from the Black Forest are passing from family to family. More letters and poems in Lazuri are reaching Schopfloch. Young men working in Germany appear and ask: 'Who are we really? Where did we come from?' All that is certain is that the Lazi have eaten the forbidden fruit of an alphabet, and are beginning to see themselves with new eyes.