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Elderlies in her community would embolden people to use Azeri Turkish, but when she wanted to write essays in her language at school she faced her teachers’ opposition. Yet, she regularly participated in poetry days which were gutsy statements in themselves.“Just a few people dared to write in our native language and, frankly, we did not know our language well enough,” she recalls.
“We just knew how to speak it, every new word was a discovery, like a new world opening up.”Although the majority of Salmas’ population is Azeri, there were only two bookshops serving the community - one belonged to Mehdili’s teacher Nadali Jalili.
Living mainly in the north-west of the country, in the region known as Southern Azerbaijan (or Iran’s North Azerbaijan), the 30 million-strong community make almost half of the republic’s entire population.
Yet, the ethnic minority feels invisible, limited in its rights to affirm its identity and are pushed into the shadows - schools in Azeri Turkish are banned, so are media.
Since the mid-2000s Azerbaijanis have increasingly asked for more rights, in particular that of education in their native language, as enshrined in the Iranian constitution, which allows “languages of other ethnic groups” alongside the official Farsi. While a reality for other smaller minorities, (including from the Caucasus, like Georgian and Armenian minorities) schooling in Azeri Turkish is effectively prohibited. Children learn their ethnic group’s language - a dialect of Turkish with strong Farsi influences - as the regional Azeri populate has been part of today’s Iran since the early 19th century - only in the private sphere, mainly in the family.
Mehdili, a cultural activist currently living in self-imposed exile in Turkey, was born in 1983 in Salmas, in the north-west of the country - the only girl in a family of four whose parents were teachers.
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“My mother is a strong-willed woman and I was never told I could not do something because I am a woman.
My father used to say “a woman can even lead an army.”Her mission to protect her right to speak her native language alive started in her early school years - back then it did not look like a lifework, rather a powerful desire to explore.
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