Sunday, June 15, 2008

Kurds Don't Have Tails: Why I Went to Diyarbakır

Before beginning, I must say that I am still very much processing all that I experienced and observed during my trip to Diyarbakır more than two weeks ago and hence the delay in writing about it. Thinking back on my mindset as I boarded my flight from Atatürk, I had little idea what to expect and the actual experience has proved quite overwhelming.

Upon arriving, I was warmly greeted by my taxi driver and given the low-down on the city: a tranquil place where people want peace and are most certainly not terrorists, as most Turks think. I assured him that most of the Turks I have met do not think of Kurds as terrorists, but I could not help thinking of the some of the stories I have heard. Most of these related to the PKK and involve such gory details as fighters cutting open the insides of dying pregnant women so as to kill their unborn children before their very eyes. Others, less graphic, are more generally disparaging of Kurdish people on the whole: they have far too many children, are a dirty and lazy people, and like to make trouble. While I do not think that a majority of Turks hold such views, they are common enough and range in degree from general stereotypes to outright racism and prejudice. Upon my return, I have been asked about my trip repeatedly: Why did you go to Diyarbakır? Was it dangerous? What were you doing? Who were you with? Who did you meet and what did you see? Has your opinion of Turkish people changed? No doubt adding to my sense of being overwhelmed, I think the wisest thing to do is to simply encourage people to visit the city, an experience few Turks have had. I would be terrified of Diyarbakır, too, if all I have ever heard from the region involved trouble of some kind, and usually violent trouble at that. However, herein lies the problem. Most Turkish citizens have little idea as to what the southeast is actually like and have even less of an idea as to the complex politics of the region. In fact, few people are PKK-fanatics, just as few Turks are hell-bent to prevent Kurds from exercising the cultural rights for which they so yearn.

I arrived in Diyarbakır the night before Erdoğan was scheduled to present what AKP had primed as a landmark speech marking cooperation between AKP and the Kurdish people for the benefit of Turks and Kurds alike. I have written a fair amount on AKP's attempts to co-opt demands for Kurdish cultural rights by focusing on the economic side of the Kurds' plight (for example, see March 13 post). Erdoğan's speech was to focus on GAP (Southeast Anatolian Project), the much touted development project that is the cornerstone of AKP's plans to "develop" the region. However, AKP's plans for development seem to preclude the cultural rights the Kurds have long demanded: the right to publish books and newspapers in their own language free from government intervention; the right to Kurdish in public settings, unencumbered by prosecutors who claim that the very use of Kurdish promotes separatism; the right to educate their children in Kurdish, a right that is—in spite of reform allowing for the formation of private educational institutions—effectively denied to the vast majority of Kurds because schools are expensive, few, and far beyond their reach; the right to peacefully assemble sans the glaring eyes of security forces, and the fear that the riot police might be called upon at any moment. In addition to these cultural rights, the Kurds long for security, best understood as freedom from the violence of security forces and the government economic policies that have long kept the region underdeveloped. While AKP is more or less keen to address the last two concerns, it has made little effort to seriously prosecute police who use excessive force and torture against those deemed "separatists" and "terrorists," and seems to exact a price for the southeast to be included in the prosperity that the rest of the country has experienced in recent years—namely, that Kurds be content with the promise of economic betterment and stray from any brand of politics that could be deemed separatist.

Unsurprisingly, Erdoğan's speech was not well-received by the majority of the Kurds with whom I spoke. Although AKP received 53 percent of the vote in July's elections, much has happened since. First, and most pressing, is inflation. Many Kurds with whom I spoke cited AKP's free market economic policies as reason for their current plight. I was told that the cost of basic food staples has almost doubled and that while a group of Kurds have begun to make their way into the middle class and are even making money, the overwhelming number remain destitute and very much affected by creeping inflation that is now in the double-digits. With little to no social welfare network, this leaves the poorest of the poor to beg for money. There was nowhere I went where someone did not ask me for a few coins, their poverty marked by ragged clothes and old shoes, the souls of which had been worn out long ago. I am often told that the southeast of Turkey is another world, and the destitution of the region surely reinforces this idea.

When Erdoğan spoke, his tone was hopeful, imbued with the positive attitude that a full stomach and multiple homes can bring. I did not meet a single Kurd who shared this optimism. There were some who expressed their pleasure with AKP plans to develop the region, but many more Kurds expressed skepticism as to whom the plan will actually benefit. It is unclear how much of the hydroelectric energy generated by the dams to be built will find its way to the southeast. Further, while the dams that have been built have increased crop yields, they have done little to bring jobs to the southeast's bulging cities. The completion of the project is expected to do little more. So, when the prime minister pointed his finger at DTP politicians, who he intimated had kept state monies from reaching the people, claiming their "identity politics" were responsible for the misery of the region, there was little applause outside the stadium in which he spoke. AKP is hoping to repeat electoral victories in the southeast next year, but if my findings in Diyarbakır are any indication, the party is likely to be sorely disappointed. What is more is that the prime minister's accusations actually raised the ire of many Kurds who are becoming more suspicious of what they conceive as AKP's politics of charity. I was constantly told that Erdoğan was up to nothing but getting votes, when in the end, freedom is what people want. Two young men proudly told me that Kurds will never accept anything less than the same freedoms to be Kurds that the Turks have to be Turks. They were particularly upset about the prime ministers' accusations against DTP members, arguing that if DTP practiced a politics of identity, AKP practiced a politics of division. Despite the fact that all of the people with whom I spoke were fairly well-educated, with at least some time in university under their belts, I imagine the same sentiments more or less hold true for many of the city's residents living in slums just outside the city's glorious walls.

A number of DTP politicians, including Diyarbakır mayor Osman Baydemir, pointedly skipped the prime minister's speech and some fifty demonstrators located just outside of the event were taken away and detained by police. However, it is Baydemir and these protesters to which Erdoğan should be paying the most attention if peace is to every fully emerge in the southeast. AKP deserves to be praised for taking a more progressive stance toward the region, but as many Kurds informed me, he is no Turgut Özal. As Ferhad Ibrahim and Gülistan Gürbey write in The Kurdish Conflict: Obstacles and Chances for Peace, Özal advocated that "democracy, integration, dialogue, and unlimited freedom of opinion and speech were the mainstays for the settlement problem . . . . Özal believed that he could go ahead with integration by granting cultural rights." For several of those with whom I talked about Erdoğan's speech, the example of Özal sparks a retort in the form, "I knew Turgut Özal; Turgut Özal was a friend of ours. Prime Minister, you're no Türgut Özal." Just before violence peaked following his death, Özal urged the state to grant an amnesty to the PKK and allow for the open formation of political parties, including the PKK. Özal's solution was comprehensive, and the argument that the PKK should be allowed to participate as a political party aside, it is this sort of sweeping vision and comprehensive reform that is most needed and very much respected by Kurds. No one with whom I spoke was comfortable with PKK violence and some told stories of the organization's violence against Kurdish civilians in the late 1980s. However, all argued that "the organization," as Kurds call it, is an integral part of Kurdish political society and that no final solution can be achieved until it is adequately dealt with. What exactly constitute "dealing" is open to debate, but one suggestion presented to me quite calmly over nargileh one night is to simply look past DTP's entanglements with the PKK and work with people like Baydemir to grant Kurds cultural rights—rights they are afforded under international law. Identity has much to do with the Kurds' situation, and a politics that fails to renounce what has been the Turkish state policy of assimilation and denial is simply not going to work. My interlocutor that night informed me that by disparaging "identity politics," AKP fed directly into the hands of "the organization," who can then go to Kurds and say, "Look at what we've been telling you all along. These people don't care about you as Kurds. They only want your votes, and are trying to buy them from you."

The goal for many Kurds becomes one of being able to stand up anywhere in Turkey and declare pride in being a Kurd. Yet, the Turkish state retains a historical phobia that prevents it from taking the steps requisite to this happening. Instead of engaging in the bold, unveiled dialogue many respect, AKP insists on a weak and veiled rhetoric of platitudes about cultural diversity, a rhetoric that hints the party is uncomfortable with Kurdish identity. However, the matter is not just rhetorical, but also a matter of policy. Not too long ago, Sur district mayor Abdullah Demirbaş stood accused of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization simply for distributing municipal materials in Kurdish; though acquitted, Demirbaş was removed of his post. There are many other politicians and activists who face similar charges, and as long as the charges are tacitly supported by AKP, it is unlikely that crowds waiting to throw rotten tomatoes at the prime minister will disperse. Despite its many hardliners, DTP politicians have begun to soften their positions, going so far as to call Turkish soldiers who were killed by the PKK "martyrs." All of the party's parliamentary leaders, and not near so moderate as the party's former leader, Ahmet Türk, continue to denounce violence as a legitimate political tool. However, charges of separatism continue to fly unabated, dimming any hope that the state might begin to formulate a workable solution.

On the third night of my visit and after the cameras to broadcast the prime minister's speech had cleared, I witnessed a strong and lively testament as to why economic co-optation will simply not work. As I was walking away from an interview, the streets of Diyarbakır's old district began to swell full of people and an ebullient spirit took the air. It was the night the city marked its municipal festival, its second-largest gathering next to Newroz. Fathers carrying their children far above their heads and women in colorful costume poured onto the main artery dissecting Diyarbakır's old city only to pull to its flanks as a parade began to push its way to the main square just inside the city's three thousand-year old walls. The tenor of children's delightful screams pitched highly through the summer air as men standing on pogo sticks danced gleefully about the crowd. There were plenty of yells for Öcalan and many hands reached high into the air bearing the V-sign, marking support for the PKK. However, absent was any sign of the violence that the PKK has unleashed against Turkish citizens throughout the country. Experiencing the tremendous confusion that can only be brought on by extreme cognitive dissonance, I was left to think how so many people who really do want peace are left with so little hope that such a demonstration makes sense.

The excitement of the night ran high as people began to fill the square that would soon fill with traditional Kurdish music and stirring political speeches. To the joyful faces flooding space that had only a few hours before been home to a few people drinking çay and children playing, there was no such mental confusion; however, there was also no call to violence. Thanks to the information I had gleaned in my short time in the city and before this deluge of humanity had emerged to overwhelm my senses, I began to realize that most of these people had no idea of the fear and anguish with which so many Turks think of the PKK. They thought not of the organization's violence, but only of the victory that they thought it promised. If victory did not bring peace, they were at least glad that such a strong institution declared itself to be on "their side." However, more than anything, the bubbling exuberance shining through on people's faces in reality had little to do with the PKK, but everything to do with being allowed—in these next few hours—the opportunity to be Kurdish, to meet with their fellow Kurdish citizens and be proud of an identity the state has long denied. As things heated up and Öcalan slogans started being yelled with greater frequency, the people who accompanied me asked that we leave. The police were starting to take photographs and one of my new friends worked for the municipality.

What exactly constitutes the denial of Kurdish identity and what are its consequences? I had been told one month prior to arriving in Diyarbakır and by a very nice and well-educated woman that the Kurds were really Turks. Sure, they had their specific traditions and cultures, but ethnically, they are Turks. Their subsequent demands for identity are merely the business of tricky, shallow, and dangerous politics, an opportunity taken by the all-evil PKK to deny the people of the southeast their Turkish heritage and foment trouble within the state. The story she told me went something like this: When the Turks migrated to Anatolia from their homeland in Central Asia, many were tired and hungry, and by the time they came to the Taurus Mountains, several decided not to complete the journey and stayed behind. Those who stayed forgot their native Turkish language and became "mountain Turks." In Diyarbakır, one of my interlocutors informed me that there is actually an etymology applied by some of these pan-Turkists: the word "kurt" (Kurd) is related to the Turkish word kar (snow), and, therefore, the Kurds must be related to Turks, their ancestors once left behind in the snow. Understandably, most Kurds react quite strongly to this thinking and it is difficult to believe that an educated, literate woman can believe so wholeheartedly such a fanciful and obviously propagandist tale. In fact, the Kurdish language is not related to Turkish at all, but is an Indo-European language similar to Farsi. Further, the Kurds have a long history in the region that predates Turkic migration to Anatolia. Other mythologies exist, and some more disturbing. It is an old wives' tale in some Turkish villages that Kurds have tails, suggestive of their sub-human form. One person told me that one of his most disturbing moments in childhood came when another student asked to see his tail. While such fallacies are surely less common now than they once were, they are evidence of the difficult bridge Turks and Kurds have to cross in order to arrive at a point of mutual understanding.

These identity problems have a long history. In the years after the formation of the Republic, Atatürk worked diligently to build a nation premised on Turkish identity. However, the nation allowed no space for Kurdish identity. Treated as "mountain Kurds," the Turkish citizens of the Kurdish southeast were expected to assimilate into a larger Turkish culture. The project, of course, failed, and the state has been forced to deal with numerous Kurdish rebellions since its founding. However, what is as haunting as the violence is the continued denial, ignorance, and astoundingly incompetent treatment of Kurdish identity. One young woman told me the story of her friend who was given an eye exam upon entering primary school. The child had a fair understanding of Turkish, but belonged to a family that spoke Kurdish in the home. Unfortunately, the pictures with which he was presented and had to identify included household objects that he did not know the words for in Turkish. So, too embarrassed to admit that he did not know the words in Turkish, he failed his eye exam.

Apart from childhood embarrassments, the wounds of the war between the state and the PKK are still very fresh for many Kurds. The sheer number of children on the street not only suggest that people have more children than they should, but that a good number are without parents. At the conclusion of the war upon Öcalan's capture, orphanages in the southeast were far above capacity. As with most modern wars, the brunt of the damage was afflicted on the population, and a walk through the old city of now peaceful Diyarbakır left me thinking of the many scars left on the consciences' of the people I saw, whose eyes I met, but could hardly penetrate. One man I met in my fourth day told me the story of how the village in which he grew up is now occupied only by old people, for during the war many had ventured into Diyarbakır in fear that it might be burned only to stay at its conclusion. Indeed, the seeming impenetrability of Diyarbakır's walls, which are so thick and sturdy that they can be seen from space, must have provided some level of psychological comfort when war was raging in the countryside. One night over tea, two men hinted of the destruction in the 1990s, and one mentioned the burning of his village in 1994 because it was thought to be a PKK stronghold. Oftentimes, and in a manner that recalls Viet Nam, villages were considered "PKK villages" because they refused to work with the Turkish state by designating "village guards," village residents charged with the responsibility of collaborating with Turkish authorities to keep out the PKK. Under the "vilage guard" system, the Turkish government asks villages to keep out the PKK and arms a few villages who they charge with the task of keeping out the PKK. The policy was pushed during the military's scorched earth campaign at the height of the war and placed many villages in a difficult position: Was it better to work with the Turkish military and risk being targets of the PKK or vice-versa? In recent years, the"village guard system has caused more problems than it has solved, the armed and untrained men often capable of acts of extraordinary cruelty and intimidation. Indeed, several work the lucrative drug trade in the region, and the paramilitary effect of the system creates instability. Still stubbornly in place despite pressure from the EU, the village guard system continues to plague the southeast. However, the legacy of the village guard system and the military's scorched earth campaign of the 1990s is best seen by taking a walk along the city walls. Gathered against their looming rise are the slums that mark the homes of the wars' many internally-displaced persons. Many of these houses are little more than shoddy constructions, in many instances lacking even a solid roof to keep out rain. Plastic swimming pool tops and other materials were cleverly used in such makeshift designs. With unemployment far above thirty percent, it was not at all a challenge to explain the existence of the many beggars I encountered. However, difficult to fathom was how so many poor people managed to survive, to eke out any sustainable existence, no matter how sub-standard.

Despite all of the pain, misery, and scars of the past, what struck me most about my days in Diyarbakır was the underlying sense of optimism. In sharp juxtaposition with troubling memories, most people accentuated the positive, most importantly the position they see the EU as playing in maintaining the peace. Few dwelled on the past and despite my reluctance to ask questions that might conjure up painful memories, the tone of most of my encounters echoed a sentiment that peace had come and the city was rebuilding itself. This optimism most evidenced by a trip I made into what is referred to as new Diyarbakır, just outside the old city walls, I could not help feeling a sense that the past had receded. Walking the fashionable, "modern" streets, the past seemed to lie somewhere in the distance, the city and its people now looking onward. In marked contrast to the old city, new Diyarbakır seemed outside the bounds of history, its main boulevard filled with cafés, bars, and modern trendy restaurants, the likes of which I cannot even find in İzmit. One morning, my professor with whom I had met up, was taken around by local businessmen and investors intent to show her the progress made. Most of these well-dressed men were Turkish, well-dressed and probably well-intentioned men who saw their work as benefitting Turkey and the southeast. Indeed, one cannot help be awestruck by the glistening new buildings and elegantly landscaped sidewalks. Such development is the promise held out by AKP officials, but the thoughts that coursed through my head as I walked the "new city" also included memories of the municipal festival the previous night, of the the many people who had proudly told me, "I am Kurdish." While economic development is most certainly being made in the opening provided by the current peace, I seriously doubt that it can in any way be lasting unless it takes into account the true root of the problem—the failure to recognize Kurdish identity.

Back in the old city later that night, I found myself taking another short walk while attempting to meld together all the things I had been told. Despite the bold promises of economic progress, the current peace, and the sense that the past is somewhere in the distance, I could not help thinking of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, a magnificent figure looking toward the past, wanting to remake it, reorder it in so that it can be more easily understood. However, the angel's attempts are unexpectedly shattered. AKP's attempts to reduce the Kurds' dismal past to a matter of poverty—to look back at their suffering and declare this the reason for Kurdish suffering—are no more aware of the present forces still very much making history than was Benjamin's angel caught by the destructive gales from Paradise. AKP's offer of an economic panacea fails to take account of the chaos that still characterizes the Kurdish experience, a chaos that might very well bring Benjamin's nihlist vision to fruition. There is no use in packaging the Kurds' plight and boiling their suffering down into a rather simple and politically convenient set of explanations, a series of answers that is far to keen to ignore the repressive forces that still eat at their humanity.

At the moment, there is much reason to hope because the problems resulting from the Turkish denial of Kurdish identity has been suspended by the EU process. Further, the hope is justified in that the peace is slowly bringing a new order to society. Civil society groups are beginning to emerge and there is a true possiblity that the EU process will eventually lead Turkey to grant Kurds full cultural rights and ensure that they are effectively realized. In such a scenario, integration is indeed possible and Kurdish politicians will no longer be deemed separatists, but welcomed into mainstream politics. Such a move would disempower the militant politics of the PKK and lead to a real opening by which systemic problems can be consensually solved. However, if the promise of this post-national EU politics fails, the result is likely to be increased confrontation between the state and the PKK. A return to militarism at this stage in the game would surely devastate any progress made and cannot be dismissed. Turkey cannot afford not to carefully examine such a future scenario so as to ward it off.

One civil society activist who I was able to meet put it this way: reform is implemented and society kept in order because the EU is very much in the picture. If there is trouble or discrimination, civil society groups can turn to EU officials to turn up the pressure on troublesome government officials. From his account, such support can occur on a very informal and local level. However, reliance on this support is worrisome insomuch as it is indicative of a reliance on the EU to implement reform (see Feb. 4 post) and raises concerns about what might happen should the EU diplomatic mission come to an end, the conditionality of EU membership removed from the picture. Forced to find ground between the PKK and Turkish security security forces, civil society organizations face difficult, but all-important work, and with continued EU support they will likely continue to make progress. However, most important is the state's recognition that if peace is to be sustainable and an independent, moderate Kurdish politics emerge out of the midst of past violence and polarization, it must adopt a politics of emancipation, a politics that offers a legitimate alternative to the militancy of the PKK and real hope to the Kurdish people.

My last day in the southeast took me on a dolmuş ride to Mardin. A rather dusty town built atop a very high plateau looking out on the Syrian and Iraqi plains, the town was striking in its quiscence. The journey from Diyarbakır to Mardin was replete with glorious panoramas of sunbaked scenery and plenty of farm animals on the side of the road, landscape that evoked a feeling of moving back in time. After a cup of tea, my friend and I went out in search of the Ulu Camii, one of the oldest mosques in Turkey and a world heritage site. Walking out of the mosque and resting to take a view of the mosque's impressive minaret, we were greeted by the owner of a nearby çayhane who promised us a glorious view of the countryside should be come inside his restaurant and take çay on his roof. We followed and were met with the most remarkable panorama I have ever seen in my life—a vast plain stretching like the ocean as far as I could see. My breath somewhat tooken away, I adored the scene before my eyes until my visison stretched to the left and I caught sight of a hill perpendicular to the cliff from which we were gazing. Etched on its side were the words, "Ne Mutlu Türkum Diyene!" (How Proud the One Who Says He is a Turk!). Even though I hope that the Kurds can one day come to reconcile both a Kurdish and Turkish identity in the way many Basques have come to forge a Spanish/French and Basque identity, I could not help but be taken aback my the seeming inappropriateness of these words burned into the otherwise uninterrupted scenery, a seeming affront to the otherwise peaceful nature of this small town 20 miles from the Syrian border. I seriously doubt that any peace will ever successfully be concluded until Kurds can take the other hill and etch something of their own making, in much the way that one is met by signs declaring that one has entered Basqueland when travelling from Zaragoza into San Sebastián.

So, why did I venture to Diyarbakır? I went to undertake a journey that far too many Turks miss out on, to experience a land and a people with a unique history, but that is nonetheless firmly bound to Turkey by more than borders. The Kurdish people I met had no desire to secede from the state, but expressed hope only in the chance that one day they might be able to peaceably co-exist as Kurds living in a greater Turkish nation. When I asked a group of seven men if they could consider themselves both Kurdish and Turkish, members of an integrated and freer Turkey, about half said they could imagine such a complex negotiation of identity and this in a time when not even a full ten years have passed since 1999's abrupt turnaround in Turkish-Kurdish relations. My travels led me to a more nuanced understanding of one of the most haunting dilemmas in Turkish politics. Most important of all, I realized that though this dilemma is oft referred to as "the Kurdish problem," a term I myself have used, this language does not do the problem justice. The struggle for recognition of Kurdish identity is not just a Kurdish problem, but a Turkish problem as well. Turks and Kurds are both used as pawns in games played by elite, established organizations that are reluctant to work too fully toward peace and surrender power to an intermediate sphere in which Kurdish and Turkish interests might more easily allay. Turks die by the hundred in a conflict they do not understand, in a region they never visit unless the military provides a ride that is most certainly not voluntary. In the meantime, Kurds are trapped by the authoritarianism of the PKK, in my mind even more ominously referred to as "the Organization." While peace has come to the southeast for the time being, how long it lasts will ultimately depend on the Turkish state. Will it grant, implement, and realize the cultural rights of the Kurdish people, thereby facilitating integration? Or, will the state continue on as it has of old, denying Kurds the right to claim their unique identity and language and/or providing half-measures to mitigate the pain? Throughout history, Turks and Kurds have been revered as greatly skilled in the art of war; perhaps a time will come when they, too, will be considered skilled in the greater art of peace.

The photographs are mine save for the one of the tenements outside Diyarbakır's walls, which is thanks to Carrie Rasmussen.

No comments: