Approximately 1.5 million Zaza live across southeastern Turkey. In general, these Sunni Muslims consider themselves Kurdish, an ethnic group (totaling 35-45 million) spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia who have experienced political and cultural repression for decades.
There are many distinct dialects of Dimli (also known as Zaza) which identify the speaker’s origins. Efforts are underway to “standardize” the language by combining variations of the eastern and southern dialects. The northern and another southern dialect remain distinct. Language, so central to one’s identity, has been a flashpoint for the Kurds. For years, Kurdish dialects were forbidden in public in Turkey. Kurdish books and music were considered contraband. People were even forced to change their ethnic names to local ones for education or employment. Thankfully this has relaxed somewhat in recent years in Turkey and neighboring countries.
Sunni Zaza culture is conservative and patriarchal. Literacy levels are low, as they have a rich oral tradition, including epic poems about adventures in love and conflict.
Because of years of repression and neglect by the Turkish government, areas in Turkey where the Sunni Zaza reside remain under-developed. They live in poverty in rural mountains and valleys as subsistence farmers and nomadic shepherds.
As with many in the region, marriage problems run deep, and family dysfunction permeates daily life. The influence of spiritual leaders in their communities is diminishing, so people often have no one to turn to for help.
There are ongoing tensions and clashes between conservative Sunni Zazas and northern Zazas who are not only Alevis (a Shia sect of Islam), but who are also more secular and radical in their politics. Some Sunni Zazas might not even consider northern Alevis true Muslims. The Turkish government shares a disdain for Alevis, and sometimes even Christians enjoy state benefits before Alevis do.
Pain and suffering often leads people to cry out to God for help – and the Sunni Zaza are no exception! God is at work. In Turkey, there are a few dozen known believers among Dimli-speakers. Though there are no Christian gatherings in the Dimli language, most seem content to worship in Turkish. There are plenty of Christian resources available in Turkish.
The JESUS Film has already been recorded in the northern Dimli dialect, and work is currently underway on the southern dialect. The Gospel of Luke has been completed in the southern dialect, but has not yet been released. The complete New Testament is in process using the developing standardized form of the language. Because the spoken word is much more natural to Zazas than the written word, pray the Holy Spirit gives wisdom to workers to know how to develop fruitful oral resources.