In the shadow of the largest Kurdish community in the nation, MTSU will become one of a mere handful of American universities offering Kurdish language courses in the fall 2010 semester.
"The reason we think we can do it here when other places can't is because we have the support of the Kurdish community," said Dr. Kari Neely, assistant professor of foreign languages and a member of the working group that helped devise the classes.
Estimates of the number of Kurds living in Nashville range from 11,000 to 14,000 people. Kovan Murat, senior political science major and co-founder of the Kurdish Students Association (KSA), said they arrived in three waves—in the 1960s, in 1992 after the infamous poison gas attacks staged by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, and from 1995-1998 with the help of nongovernmental organizations.
Murat said the language is endangered because Saddam's operatives forced Kurds to learn how to read and write Arabic. He said those who dared to teach Kurdish would be putting their lives and the lives of everyone in their village at risk.
"Even right now, when I go home, I'm not allowed to speak another language besides Kurdish," said Murat. "That's my father's goal of preserving Kurdish because he was a rebel fighter against Saddam Hussein."
"In a diaspora situation, which is what this is, by the third generation, there's language assimilation if they're not very diligent about language preservation," said Neely.
Dr. Allen Hibbard, English professor and director of the Middle East Center; Dr. William Canak, sociology professor and advisor to the KSA; Dr. Clare Bratten, an electronic media communication professor who has produced documentaries on the Kurdish people, and Neely formed a working group to explore the possibilities.
Neely led efforts to develop Kurdish language proposals and apply for a Tennessee Board of Regents Diversity Grant to provide support for an instructor. To respond quickly to student interest before the Kurdish classes could be offered, the group devised a spring 2010 special topics course titled "Introduction to Kurdish History and Culture" as a part of the Middle East Studies minor.
"We launched our Middle East Studies minor four years ago with new courses in Arabic and Hebrew," said Hibbard. "These Kurdish language courses will greatly enrich our offerings. These exciting and unexpected developments would likely not have happened without the presence of the Middle East Center on campus. There is a lot of potential here."
The instructor will be Deniz Ekici of the Center for Kurdish Studies at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Ekici, a native of Turkey who is working on his doctorate, earned his bachelor's degree from Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in Istanbul and his master's degree from City University of New York.
Ekici's professional experience is in educational and learning technologies. He has developed and taught Kurmanji-Kurdish courses at the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. He collaborated with educators at the University of Arizona to develop the first interactive Kurdish DVD. His Kurmanji-Kurdish Reader, a multilevel reference tool with an extensive grammar section, was published by Dunwoody Press in 2007.
"Considering the fact that Kurdish language and culture have been oppressed for so many decades and remains understudied, these classes are crucial," said Ekici via e-mail from Exeter. "They will make a great contribution to Kurdish studies, and I hope they set an example for other academic institutions across the country."
Ekici will teach Kurmanji, which is the most prevalent dialect in Kurdish and the one spoken by most Kurds in the Nashville community. Kurmanji employs the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic alphabet, which Neely said should make it more accessible to non-Kurds who want to take the class.
"There are a lot of service sector jobs that come in contact with the Kurdish community in Nashville on a fairly regular basis," said Neely. "So people who are going into education, social work, law enforcement, medicine--any of these areas could benefit by having some kind of Kurdish background."
In addition, Neely said, the Middle East Center is working with the Department of Military Science because of a need for Kurdish and Arabic language specialists and sensitivity training for their troops.
"These classes will add to students' cross-cultural understanding as far as the non-Kurdish students are concerned because only through learning the language can one be exposed to a certain ethnic group's network of cultural values that are otherwise inaccessible," said Ekici.