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Turkey: Laz Minority Passive In Face Of Assimilation

Camlihemsin, Turkey, 25 June 1998 (RFE/RL) --The fog-covered and rain-drenched Black Sea coast and nearby mountain valleys of northeastern Turkey are home to an ethnic group, which, some say, is facing the danger of extinction through assimilation.

The Laz are estimated to number some 90,000 in Turkey. Of them, some 30,000 speak Laz as their mother tongue. They also inhabit adjacent districts of Georgia.

Physically, they tend to have light complexions, freckles and sandy-colored hair. They are Muslims and speak a Kartvelian language related to Mengrelian and more distantly to Georgian. Until recently, Laz had only an oral tradition. In the 1980s, a German scholar, Wolfgang Feuerstein, developed an orthography for Laz, but it until now has failed to attract a significant following.

The Laz are passive, lacking organization and any formal education in their mother tongue. Few express any concern that their language could vanish within two generations as the massive spread of satellite antennae makes Turkish mass culture accessible to even the most remote mountain hamlets.

Erzurum University professor, Ibrahim Yerebakan, a Laz from Hopa, denies that Laz language is under threat since everyone in the region is bilingual.

"I have never felt that my language, my mother tongue, is under threat because it is not taught at schools since it is a spoken language. It will remain a spoken language. Therefore we don't need to revitalize it as the Welsh people did. There is no suppression of the language whatsoever and throughout the ages it has been used by people living in the Turkish section as well as the Georgian section.

Yerebakan says the Laz have renewed cross-border contacts since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the Turkish mountain town of Camlihemsin, 80 km southeast of the Georgian port of Batumi, Laz residents also say they have no sense of potential threat to their mother tongue.

Metin Satiroglu, a 30-year-old truck driver, says he speaks Laz at home with his family, but with everyone else he speaks Turkish. He says no books are available in the Laz language and Camlihemsin's Laz have not organized themselves in any way. He notes a local private FM radio station and a TV station in Rize on the coast broadcasts folk music of the Laz and neighboring Hemsin minorities but news and other programming is only in Turkish.

Satiroglu notes the Laz continue to build timber homes on stilts in an identical traditional style and that the Laz remain the subject of continuing research by ethnographers and linguists. But Satiroglu says he is convinced the Laz will still be widely spoken in villages 30 years from now.

"In most villages, babies learn Laz on their mothers' knees and only start learning Turkish once they go to school."

Another Laz in Camlihemsin, Ahmet Parlagi (Parlayi), a court clerk, also says that the language is not about to disappear.

"With the exception of having our own language, we do not feel ourselves any different from the Turks" Parlagi notes some local newspapers publish columns in Laz and a Laz-language magazine, Ogni, is published by Laz living in Istanbul. But he says it will be a very long time before the Turkish Education Ministry comes around to the idea of permitting instruction in minority languages such as Laz.

Shopkeeper Adem Kurkut says without Turkish one simply can not get ahead in life. He says some parents no longer speak Laz to their children out of fear that they could have problems when they start going to Turkish schools. Kurkut says he did not speak a word of Turkish when he started going to school, adding it was very difficult for him to understand what was going on until he learned Turkish. In his words, "there is no difference between us Laz and the Turks, the most important thing is to be a human being. To be a Laz today, he says, is to be young in spirit; not to fight but take advantage of one's rights, to look after one's self and not be an obstacle to others."

Kurkut volunteers to sing a Laz cowherder's love song to visitors to his simple cloth and thread shop.