On borders, or the crossing thereof


Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]


Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]


Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]


[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1




Remembering İsmail Gaspirali: Tatar man of letters

IT HAS BEEN a big year for anniversaries. It’s a hundred years since the outbreak of WWI, of course, and recently we saw the 13th anniversary of September 11, a date which must be nigh-on globally recognised. That particular day this year also marked a centenary, one that received little attention. On September 11, 1914, İsmail Gaspirali (Gasprinski) passed away after a lifetime as an intellectual, educator and politician.

A great man of letters and polymath, Gaspirali was a Crimean Tatar. The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim Eurasian people living, as their name would suggest, in the Crimean Peninsula. Another of those fabled/clichéd crossroads, Crimea through its history has seen Greek and Genoese colonists, Armenians, Bulgarians and nomadic peoples including Scythians, Cumans, Kipchaks, Khazars and the descendants of Genghis Khan, the Golden Horde, all of whom to different degrees have contributed to the Tatar gene pool. They are counted as a Turkic people, speaking a language that is related to Turkish.

Gasprinskiy-headshotWith all those comings and goings, the Tatars have had a complicated and torrid history. They established themselves in the Crimea and the northern littoral of the Black Sea in the 13th century, before creating a khanate in the 1440s then becoming vassals of the Ottoman Turks in 1475. Under the Ottomans, the Crimean khans enjoyed a degree of autonomy, with their capital at Bakhchisaray (from the Turkic bahçe saray, literally ‘garden palace’). The Russians, under Catherine the Great, then annexed their territory in 1783, sending thousands of Tatar refugees to Ottoman Turkey, where they were largely assimilated into the Turkish nation.

Born near Bakhchisaray in 1851, Ismail Gaspirali pursued a modernising mission for his people and fellow Muslims of the Russian empire. He was inspired by the vision of the Islamic Modernists a movement that sought the betterment of Muslim societies through the employment of science, technology and education in a delicate coupling with and accommodation and reinterpretation of Islamic rulings and cultural norms.

Gaspirali became an eloquent and effective proponent – and exponent – of the Modernist vision. He saw education and the emancipation of women as the most important and immediate paths to progress. He also saw that it was necessary to educate and publish for people in their mother tongues rather than the Russian spoken by the educated elites across the Caucasus and Central Asia. Gaspirali is also credited as the founder of the Jadid movement (from usul-i jadid, meaning ‘new method’), which established new schooling models for Muslim populations across Central Asia.

The then-new technology of mass printing, in particular newspapers, was central to Gaspirali’s modernisation project. In 1883 – another centenary, this one marking the Russian annexation of Crimea – he established his periodical Tercüman (from the Turkish/Turkic for ‘interpreter’), publishing it in Russian and a modified Turkic. In many respects the underlying philosophy and intellectual bases for Tercüman served as a model for Molla Nasreddin, the celebrated Azeri satirical periodical established in Baku in the early 20th century, which adopted a much more scathing tone but which covered similar intellectual territory including advocating for women’s rights, curtailing the influence of conservatives clerics and championing reason over retrograde custom.

tercuman-imageThe vision of the Islamic Modernists appears entirely reasonable, laudable and practicable even today, all the more so in comparison to the nihilistic apparitions that so many modern-day jihadis espouse. But the Islamic Modernists of imperial Russia’s domain were smothered by the flow tides of history, not least among them the Bolsheviks. Tercüman ceased publication in 1918, four years after Gaspirali’s death. The Jadidists were largely purged and their innovations brought to an abrupt close. So began all manner of horrors.

As for the Crimean Tatars, the travails that began under Catherine the Great did not cease under the Soviets. This year marks the 70th anniversary of their enforced exile from their homeland by Josef Stalin on the pretext that they were Nazi collaborators. A quarter of a million Tatars (as well as other Crimean minorities including Armenians, Greeks and Bulgarians) were deported en masse to Uzbekistan, with thousands dying in transit or, later, in squalor and penury abandoned to the extremes of the Central Asian climate. Stalin’s allegations were entirely false something that the Soviets recognised in 1967. From the mid-1980s Tatars began returning to their homeland, with numbers accelerating after the collapse of the USSR. Still, as of earlier this decade, the Tatars constituted less than one-fifth of the population of the Crimean Peninsula.

The palace at Bakhchisaray

The palace at Bakhchisaray

With events earlier this year as Russia once again annexed the Crimea the Tatars are once again in a precarious position. It is generally understood that the Tatars supported the Euromaidan protests that shook Kiev, that they continue to see Kiev, rather than Moscow, as the capital city they should rightfully owe allegiance to, that Ukraine’s drawing closer to Western Europe would be in their best interests. Since the annexation Russian officials demanded that Tatars cede their land to Russians.  Many Tatars feared that a new round of ethnic cleansing may be in the offing and others are taking it upon themselves to leave before they are forced to do so, fleeing to the safety of Lviv, near the Polish border.

How Gaspirali would weep at the predicament that his people have found themselves in, how circumstances could have gone so spectacularly awry, so far from the optimistic, progressive, enlightened ambition that he had, where he saw the benefits of ‘modernity’ being shared and enjoyed across ethnic and religious and cultural divides by all the peoples of Eurasia… Still, Gaspirali stands as a beacon, proof positive that people of passion, of commitment to the betterment of humankind, of heart, of vision, of compassion are not restricted to any one faith or ethnicity or ‘civilisation’ but might emerge anywhere.

Would that there were more of them, and fewer shitty, malevolent idiosyncrasies in the unfurling of uncaring history and heartless fate…

The Circassian Olympics: dark history on the Black Sea

IT IS SOMETHING of a sport amongst journalists to write of problems and controversies in the lead up to any Olympic Games. The shortcomings – and down-to-the-wire preparation dramas – of said games are usually manifestly apparent, so journalists don’t have to dig too deep to unearth them.

This is no less the case as we approach the Winter Olympics set to begin in Sochi, Russia, later this week. Sochi 2014 has been bedevilled by complaints of environmental destruction and exploitation of workers in the scramble to prepare. Writer Arnold van Bruggen, who has been visiting Sochi for years, highlights in The Sochi Project the remarkable disparity between the purported glamour of the event and the plight of the region surrounding the new Olympic venues.

Beyond that, the contentious human rights situation in Putin’s Russia has prompted many to wonder why the International Olympic Committee, an organisation whose charter speaks loftily of ‘the harmonious development of man’, promoting ‘a peaceful society’ and ‘the preservation of human dignity’, should have awarded them to Russia in the first place.

Most remarkable is the crassness of the IOC in choosing to overlook the symbolism of the timing of the games. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Russia’s smothering of the Circassians, the indigenous people of Sochi and the north-eastern Black Sea littoral. Circassians claim that the military onslaught visited on their people by Imperial Russia constitutes a genocide. Journalist Oliver Bullough details the background and mournful details of this ‘squalid campaign of attrition and slaughter’ in his terrific Let Our Fame Be Great. (See a brief review I wrote of the book here). Circassian activists continue to rally for the recognition by Russia of the reality of those events and decry the celebration of the games in that particular location at this particular time, marking May 21 in particular as a memorial day.

Pyotr_Nikolayevich_Gruzinsky_-_The_mountaineers_leave_the_aul-1872Circassian comes to us from the Turkish Çerkez (pron: Cher-kez), but they refer to themselves as Adyghe, a name which in their own language is said to denote them as a people who dwelt between the mountains and the sea, making them coastal Caucasian highlanders(!). It is thanks to the reputed beauty of Circassian women that ethnographer Johann Blumenbach classified Indo-European peoples as ‘Caucasian’ in his now discredited hierarchy of races.

Like many indigenous peoples of the north Caucasus, the Circassians are adherents of Sunni Islam, which was introduced to them by the Crimean Tatars and the Ottomans, who were nominal rulers over the Circassian realm from the mid-16th century until the 1820s. Prior to conversion to Islam they had their own ethnic religion, Habze, which was a monotheistic world view shot through with elements of Greek mythology and which has undergone something of a resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The final stanza of Russia’s monstering of the Circassians was the exodus across the Black Sea of large numbers of refugees who fetched up in Ottoman territory. Today there are sizeable Circassian communities in Turkey (anywhere between 2 and 5 million, depending on how you do the counting) as well as in Israel, Jordan and Syria. The descendants of the Circassian refugees are well integrated into Turkish society and are highly regarded for their martial virtues, having a long tradition of serving in the Turkish military.

My first encounter with Circassians was when hearing of them from my students in İzmir in the mid-90s. They spoke of the reputation for beauty of Çerkez women, their propensity to keep scrupulously clean homes and a dish called Çerkez chicken (poached with a ground-walnut sauce). I was intrigued that at a time when ethnicity was such a hot topic (this was the peak of the PKK campaign against the Turkish army) that the Circassians’ cultural distinctiveness was so openly discussed. But then, the Circassians, like many other peoples who arrived in Turkey from the Balkans and the Caucasus at the encroachment of European powers in the late 19th and early 20th century, willingly assumed a Turkish national identity, something many Kurds refused to do. (A great irony here is that the Circassian language is all but lost in Turkey, the country that gave them safe harbour, but in Russia, where they were monstered, it is still spoken.) For all the sympathy in Turkey for the Circassian cause, the Turkish government, for fear of upsetting Russia, a major power supplier, has been unwilling to heed calls to boycott the games.

Sobranie_cherkesskikh_knyazey-gregoire-gagarinRussia is certainly touchy about the Circassian issue being pushed into the spotlight and anxious to forestall any Circassian agitation during the games. Several Circassian activists were rounded up late last year, presumably to scare them into silence, while a Turkish journalist who specialises in Caucasian issues, Fehim Taştekin, has fallen foul of authorities and has been banned from entering Russia for five years. Still, anyone with a particular axe to grind about Caucasus affairs shouldn’t feel singled out: it appears Russia doesn’t want any disturbance in any form during the games.

There is considerable concern from many quarters, Russian and others alike, at the prospect of terrorism at the games. The north Caucasus has been a troubled region for decades (if you read Bullough’s Let Our Fame be Great you may see why certain peoples bear such ill will towards Russia) with several unsavoury terrorist groups at large and operational there. But Circassian advocacy groups have denounced the recent terrorist bombings and Volgograd and have repudiated all terror tactics, remarking that they seek to pursue “the unity, preservation and development of the Circassian people” through legitimate means. The No Sochi 2014 campaign highlights that the expulsion of the Circassians from Sochi in the 1860s was an act of violence and terrorism, and perpetrating the same in response cannot redress past wrongs.

One positive that has arisen out of the furore directed at the Sochi games is the reawakening of Circassian political identity in Turkey and elsewhere. As reported on Al Monitor, where once Circassian associations in Turkey were all about ‘folklore’, the thought that Russia should attain the international spotlight hosting a games upon the very ground where the Caucasian highlanders were massacred has catalysed Circassians to demand recognition of the horrors visited upon their ancestors. With mobilisation has come a sense of unity, of identity; perhaps also a chance to acknowledge some of the agonies of the past and, in so doing, salve them.

The ‘colour revolutions’ continue: Tbilisi, Kiev and beyond

IT IS WELL documented that Georgians love a drink, and it appears that they’re pretty keen on a demonstration, too. Georgia saw a peaceful transition of power with the Rose Revolution in 2003, the first civilian uprising that led to the downfall of an authoritarian and undemocratic regime in the 21st century. Here was an example of popular resistance – citizens brandishing roses, no less – to an out-of-touch regime leading to the ouster of said regime and the bloodless shifting of power and a, seemingly, bright new era of democracy, political openness and development.

Sadly, things didn’t quite turn out that way. Putative wunderkind-president Mikheil Saakashvili grew increasingly autocratic during his years in power, spurring Georgians to returned to the streets and squares in 2009, 2011 and 2012 to remonstrate against his despotic ways. Georgia might now get a chance for a fresh start after the electoral victory of new president Georgi Margvelashvili in October this year.

Georgia was the first of the ‘colour’ revolutions to have unfurled over the last 10 years, first starting in the post-Soviet realm, other notable ones being the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) and the Tulip Revolution in Kirghizstan (2005). This penchant for mobilisation amongst diverse and predominantly youthful segments of society was also apparent in the Green Movement that arose in Iran after the disputed presidential election of 2009 and which, to my mind, despite its lack of success in bringing about positive political change, provided template and inspiration for the uprisings across the Middle East since 2011 that have been characterised as the Arab Spring.

tbilisi-squareBut the dream that these revolutions fostered and fed on was greater and brighter and sunnier than the everyday realities that eventuated. Despite successful removal of regimes in Ukraine and Kirghizstan, most of the uprisings haven’t yet amounted to lasting, substantive change. Political change is a gradual process, on a road strewn with pitfalls and unforeseen backtracks, particularly so when institutions are arthritic and when those calling for change come from diverse backgrounds, with often radically different agenda and divergent ideas of how a political future should be constructed, and when new political stakeholders fall into the same traps that befell their predecessors. So it is that Foreign Policy rated the outcomes of the colour revolutions as ‘terribly disappointing’.

The reasons for such ‘terribly disappointing’ results could bear some intense scrutiny and in-depth analysis (looking for a PhD research topic, anyone?) but a quick and dirty analysis might put them down to a lack of robust civil society organs, inability to construct robust democratic institutions, a lack of an educated middle class. Perhaps most telling has been a propensity for the victors to not heed the rule of law, or, alternatively, to appropriate the revolution to their own ends, riding into the presidential palace on a wave of populist enthusiasm which they then ignore or override, pushing through their own agenda once ensconced in the corridors of power. No doubt there is many an Iranian who would describe the events and aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran in just those terms.

Things went awry in a similar way in Ukraine in 2004. The Orange Revolution had a popular momentum. It was seen as evidence of Ukraine’s determination to ‘return’ to the European fold, however this westward lilt was derailed and aspirations to a new, open political arena were never realised. Many Ukrainians have, however, recently decided that they disapprove of the direction that the government of Viktor Yanukovych is taking. Ukrainians have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure. And it seems that a number of Georgians are joining them. Perhaps having recently experienced a peaceful election and a change of government, these Georgians are hankering after a street protest…

All glib remarks aside, it would seem that there are grounds for solidarity between Georgians and Ukrainians, and it is not just a penchant for rabble-rousing that brings people from Tbilisi to join the EuroMaidan protest in Kiev. Both Georgia and Ukraine have been cosseted and smothered by their overbearing neighbour Russia, Georgia depicted by many Russians rather patronisingly as a playground where they may enjoy the beauty of the landscape and tap into a primal spirituality, Ukraine depicted as a bread basket. Georgians bristle as such a characterisation and have shown themselves eager to throw off Russia’s jealous embrace. Georgians are keen to assert their European credentials (a categorisation which in their idiom does not include anything Russian). It would appear that many, if not a majority of, Ukrainians are similarly inclined.

It’s apparent that Yanukovych in his recent (re)turning to the embrace of Russia overstepped the mark, assuming that his own authority allowed him to do what he felt best for the country, despite what the masses wanted. The gatherings in EuroMaidan would suggest an (apparent) majority of the populace would prefer Europe. This was hubris on Yanukovych’s part, a miscalculation as to the weight of his authority. I’m tempted to draw parallels with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan response to the protests in Gezi Park earlier this year. Erdoğan’s hubris, his inflated sense of self-importance, clouded his judgement and fomented a political crisis that might have been avoided if he had paid more attention and given more credence to what punters on the street were saying.

In fact, apart from both being responses to the domineering posturing of Russia, the ‘colour’ revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine shared other parallels. An inspiration for many participants in both uprisings was the OTPOR movement that arose in Serbia in the late 1990s as a civic youth movement that used non-violent means to protest against the regime of Slobodan Milošević and that is credited with playing a pivotal role in his eventual downfall. After their success in Serbia OTPOR members provided inspiration and training in methods of non-violent resistance for like-minded groups in the ‘colour revolutions’ that broke out in the former-Soviet realm. OTPOR also inspired activists in the early 2000s in Albania, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and more recently, having morphed into an organisation called CANVAS. Under the direction of Srdja Popovic who was central to the genesis of OTPOR, the same activists and strategies were involved in protests in countries including Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

twitter-graffitiOf course, it’s a favoured tactic of un-democratic or authoritarian regimes to espy foreign plots in any instance of local resistance or dissent. Lazily dismissing discontent as the work of pernicious outside forces is a convenient way of avoiding the hard work of addressing bothersome social and political issues or admitting shortcomings in one’s own administration; it also has the benefit of rallying loyalists to the cause. Russia saw only foreign hands manipulating the ‘colour revolutions’ in the early 2000s, rather than acknowledging that free-thinking citizens of newly independent nations might actually want to strike out on their own. (Indeed, Russia remains convinced that Western governments continue to meddle in the former-Soviet realm.) And in Turkey earlier this year, Prime Minister Erdoğan pointed the finger at unspecified and ill-defined foreign lobby groups, accusing them of fomenting large demonstrations that went on for several weeks. Whether he believed his own cant or if it was a way of galvanising his supporters is difficult to discern, but during my time in Turkey in June I certainly encountered punters who parroted his lines. (I don’t know that Erdoğan is much of a student of local geopolitics, so I’m not sure he’d be that familiar with the ‘colour revolutions’, but he was certainly aware that, at the time that the Gezi protests were continuing, people power removed his buddy Mohammed Mursi from power in Egypt.)

In fact, seeing civic movements of this nature effectively removing unpopular regimes from power only makes unrepresentative governments more stridently blame external agents and foreign governments for all sorts of problems. Such assertions may grow louder as the political equilibrium is shifted. In the various ‘colour revolutions’ and beyond, it is undeniable that foreign nationals have participated and in some instances actively facilitated and organised popular resistance, but that is not to say that foreign governments have worked to undermine rival or neighbouring states on the geopolitical stage. Rather it appears that common aspirations, shared across borders by citizens of many nations, an empathy with others suffering under heavy-handed regimes, is at work and is prompting common people to action.

Georgia: at the crossroads

HAVING SHRUGGED off the jealous embrace of Russia, and after beginning a stumbling approach towards Europe, Georgia is coming into its own. Georgians like to think of themselves as the original Europeans, yet EU membership remains a much-longed for but unlikely dream, for the time being.

In a recently released movie The Loneliest Planet (what was inspiration for that title!?!), a young couple endure travails and challenges to their relationship while trekking in the Georgian Caucasus. Despite not overly positive reviews of the film, it might go some way to putting the country on the radar of Western travellers.

tbilisi-from-metekhiCertain others, however, have already discovered the delights that Georgia has to offer. Georgia is establishing strong business and tourism links with the Middle East. The largest Georgian airline, Airzena, has recently launched direct flights to Erbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and Kurdish holiday makers are availing themselves of the opportunity to visit the Caucasus and the Black Sea coast, visa-free no less. It appears that few Georgians are returning the compliment, that is taking the return flights, even though the Kurdistan region is the most peaceful and by all accounts beautiful region of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iranians have been for some time making a bee line for Georgia, having similarly launched direct flights and dropped visa requirements in 2010. Economic ties are strong, and there is considerable two-way traffic, with Georgians commonly seen haggling in the bazaars of Iran, and Iranians joining in the clamour of Georgian markets. The two countries have some shared history – if not always entirely happy. In fact it was the threat of ongoing Persian domination that prompted Georgia’s King Erekli II to ask Russia, a fellow Christian nation, for protection in the late 18th century. That ‘protection’ lasted until the 1990s.

In Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s wonderful novel Paper, a tale set, to my mind, somewhere on the cusp of Persian territory and the Caucasus (even though the back cover blurb says it’s in Central Asia) during the Qajar era, a wily  Georgian envoy milled amongst Persian mullahs and other characters, while a tormented scribe hankered after the eponymous paper. (Note to self: must reread this some time.)

I once encountered a wily Georgian of my own in Tbilisi. On my final day of my visit I marched into a carpet shop that I had been circling for some time and announced that I wanted to buy a Georgian carpet. The carpet seller, a woman with a bad peroxide job partially grown out, produced several options, assuring me that all were authentically Georgian. When I had chosen and gone through the haggling process and all was agreed, the woman let slip that this was a carpet ‘from a Georgian village near Tabriz’. I didn’t remonstrate, figuring that there was at least some Georgian aspect to the item. On a later trip to Tabriz (the Tabriz that’s in Iran!) I saw many a carpet very reminiscent of my ‘Georgian’ purchase, and was roundly told that there was no such thing as a Georgian village anywhere nearby… A dodgy carpet seller: who would’ve thought…

tbilisi-castleGeorgia is also establishing stronger links with its neighbour to the west, Turkey. There is a sizable Turkish community on Aghmashenebelis street in the neighbourhood of Marjanishvili in Tbilisi, and I have encountered Georgians working (usually at menial jobs) in Istanbul. In fact, there was a long history of Georgians playing significant roles in the Ottoman hierarchy. Relations between the two countries are again strengthening, with plans afoot for the construction of a new mosque for the Turkish community in Batumi, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. In return, Turkey has pledged to contribute to the refurbishment of derelict Georgian churches in the valleys in and around Yusufeli in the northeast of Anatolia.

I recall visiting a church near Dörtkilise, in Turkey’s so-called ‘Georgian valleys’, in the mid-1990s. The church, a sturdy structure in golden stone, appeared along a remote track, surrounded by robust greenery but no other constructions, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Inside: whizzing bats, dim  light coming through slim, arched windows. On a bare stone altar, delicate curlicues of Georgian script. And on the back wall, conflicting graffiti scrawled in charcoal in Turkish: ‘one day Islam will rule the world’; and ‘we must protect this church’.  There is hope now that the latter sentiment may be acted upon.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the recent experience of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is not indicative of Georgia’s prospects as it embraces its near neighbours: on a recent trip in Turkey he fell off his bike and broke his arm…

Anatolian spring: season of fresh hopes?

GOOGLING TO FIND proverbs is an activity sometimes necessary in order to come up with pithy hooks for a blog… Searching for aphorisms about spring will turn up a Kurdish proverb that states that when spring arrives grass will grow even under a large stone. It will also lead you to a seemingly more phlegmatic French maxim stating that a late Easter is a harbinger of a long, cold spring.

This year Easter arrives early, so if we invert the rationale of the French proverb this must herald a warm spring. Meanwhile developments in Turkey mean that perhaps at last a spring thaw is occurring as regards Kurdish issue. This may well mean that Kurdish grass – in the form of political and cultural rights – will eventually sprout despite the centuries-old shadow of the heavy stone of Turkish nationalism.

The AKP government’s much-vaunted ‘Kurdish opening’ of 2009 amounted to nothing in the wash up. But recent endeavours appear to be bearing fruit. Direct negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the outlawed PKK, have resulted in the prospect of the PKK laying down their arms once and for all. Long-time parliamentary deputy Ahmet Türk (who, despite his name, is a Kurd) has tipped a PKK ceasefire before Nevruz, the spring equinox and Persian-Kurdish new year on March 21. The government now expects the same.

Image: Benjamin Gimmel

Image: Benjamin Gimmel

Since negotiations began between Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and the jailed PKK leader several months ago, things have moved at speed, with even the opposition CHP voicing its approval of the dialogue.

In late February, a letter penned by Öcalan was delivered to PKK operatives in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq. I can’t help wondering what language Öcalan’s letter was written. My money would be on Turkish. If that’s the case there’s an irony that such a forceful proponent of Kurdish nationalism should rely on Turkish as his first language. I remember seeing a documentary on Öcalan in the mid-90s and he spoke all the while in Turkish… not just rough street Turkish, but *proper* Turkish, using all the -dir and -dır suffixes that bedevil students of the language.

Whatever language of the letter may have been composed in, the spirit of the letter (I’m assuming the message was to adopt a position of conciliation) has been taken on board by PKK members, with the release in recent days of eight hostages, Turkish police officers and soldiers, who had been held by the PKK, some for almost two years. There is cause for optimism now, from both Turkish and Kurdish perspectives. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu concurs, remarking recently that he has ‘seen hope in Diyabakır’.

Indeed, Today’s Zaman reports that such is the optimism of one observer, Professor Mücahit Bilici, a sociologist at the City University of New York, that he presages a ‘Kurdish spring’ in a post-PKK era.

He comments that Turkey, under the AKP, has experienced a revolution, one that relieved the country of the straitjacket of Kemalism. Bilici contends that this was only the first revolution that Turkey requires; two more are necessary, so there would be a trilogy all told. The second of the three should result in the Kurds being given ‘a state that belongs to them’. In Bilici’s estimation that state should be Turkey, a Turkey shorn of pretensions or aspirations to ethnic homogeneity, a Turkey that is not just a homeland for the Turks but for others as well, a state that ‘belongs to all citizens as individuals and as groups’. The third revolution should be the recognition of the past wrongs done to Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities and the restoration of their rights in the present, Bilici argues.

Bilici envisages the PKK being absorbed into the political framework, their monopolisation of Kurdish discourse being dispelled, a transformation that will result in a ‘democratic Kurdish resurgence against which a democratic Turkey will have no defence’. As he foresees it, the continuation –and ultimate resolution – of the Kurdish struggle will be carried out within an Islamic discourse.

Bilici’s predictions perhaps seem unduly optimistic. While nationalism, and the military establishment which fans it, is not as pervasive in the Turkey of 2013 it is still not a spent force and there remain elements who would recoil in horror at some of Bilici’s sentiments and predictions.  That said, the political arena is much more receptive to such ideas than it was in earlier decades. This can be attributed to a growing realisation that the military struggle against the PKK was not likely to produce an enduring solution, to the fact that Öcalan was in custody, but also to the AKP’s recasting of the national identity. In this they have emphasised an umbrella of Islamic brotherhood that offers Kurds a way of opting in, rather than the ethno-nationalist framework that is at the core of Kemalism that left Kurds at a loose end.

spring-flowers-shirazIt remains to be seen if Turkey is replacing one straitjacket with another by adopting such an approach, but at least at some level it recognises an element of the ‘unity of culture, language and ideal’ that the Republican founders of the modern state aspired to. Such unity was in the 1930s narrowly defined: the language, culture and ideal were all to be homogenously Turkish.  Some 90 years later, perhaps it has been recognised that homogeneity or culture and language are not imperative, but unity of ideal – an ideal to live together harmoniously – is something that both Turks and Kurds can share. Let’s see what transpires from here.

Casting our gaze beyond the confines of Anatolia reveals harbingers of, or at least aspirations to, further springs. Following an election in Armenia in February, a poll boycotted by three political parties and that the incumbent won by a considerable margin, rumblings of discontent have been heard. Voters during the election expressed their dissatisfaction by casting spurious votes for Kim Kardashian (who is of Armenian descent) or Chuck Norris (where did that one come from?), while others did a ‘Gangnam Style’ dance outside  the Central Election Commission. Subsequent accusations of fraud by electoral officials led the runner-up candidate Raffi Hovannisian to organise well-attended protest rallies around the country and announce a ‘Revolution of Hello’. Whether this actually foreshadows a political spring in Armenia remains to be seen. In neighbouring Azerbaijan hopes for a political awakening appear dim, but over recent months there have been several protests at the restrictive rule of the Aliyev regime.

Meanwhile in Iran, former regime-favourite cum fly in the ointment, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been irritating the mullahs by talking up his own ‘spring’ in Iranian politics. Ahmadinejad was the darling of the regime after winning in 2009 what was alleged to be a rigged election, but he has subsequently fallen from favour, displaying a degree of single-mindedness in not bowing to the dictates of the Supreme Leader and assorted cadres, and pursuing his own frankly idiosyncratic and sometimes erratic agenda. Now despite stern disapproval in the corridors of power, he perhaps believes he can choreograph a victory for one of his own cronies in the presidential election scheduled for June this year, an event that in his estimation would amount to yet another ‘spring’. Either that or he’s just razzing up the mullahs. In a weird way you have to admire his chutzpah!

Christmas in Iran

IT MAY SEEM incongruous, but every December Christmas decorations appear in Tehran. Perhaps it’s not such a weird idea, after all, there was a Persian at the nativity – so the legend goes – but no Westerners as such: Melchior, one of the Three Wise Men, was a Persian scholar.

Received wisdom, meantime, may generally equate the Islamic Republic of Iran with an attitude of extreme intolerance, and a monolithic populace conforming to some (misperceived) Islamic stereotype. In reality, pluralism and diversity are part and parcel of the Iranian social fabric. So, while Khomeini’s stern visage may glower from oversize billboards, in some shops you will find Christmas trees, cards and even nativity scenes.

si-o-se-isfahanIn Tehran, this is likely to be a middle-class phenomena, evidence of the pro-Western stance of significant segments of Iranian society. In Isfahan, in the neighbourhood of New Julfa, south of the Zayandeh River, Christmas is more than an aspirational Western affectation, for this is the Armenian quarter, home to a centuries-old Christian community that has long been embraced as an integral part of the Iranian nation. Here, Armenians celebrate Christmas with gusto on January 6th as is the case with the Eastern churches (for the Western churches, this is Epiphany).

New Julfa is in effect a part of Armenian that has been picked up and placed in the heart of historical Persia. The centrepiece and focal point of the neighbourhood is the imposing Vank Cathedral, dating from the 17th century, but there are a dozen churches, schools and an Armenian cemetery. Far from a cowled, tremulous, oppressed community, Armenian identity here is proudly upheld and displayed. The language that rings through the streets here is Armenian, not Persian.

The exterior of Vank Cathedral, with a central dome reminiscent of a mosque, is bulky and commanding; the interior reveals more lightness of touch, more artistic flourish. The artwork here – allegorical frescoes, tilework – are a hybrid of  Eastern and Western styles: some floral motifs are apparently painted in a Persian miniature style, but to my eye would not be out of place in French baroque cathedrals.

vank-cloistersIn the cloisters, Armenian girls, no less sassy than their Persian counterparts, congregate and chatter. They wear a jeans-sneakers-tunic-headscarf combo to comply with Islamic dress restrictions, but they carry it off with a certain insouciance, headscarfs slipping back from mahogany tresses.

The Armenians were brought by Shah Abbas to his new capital in the early 17th century, shifted wholesale from Julfa, on the Caucasian fringe. Abbas intended them to act as his agents in political and economic dealings with the West. As detailed in a post on Ajam Media Collective, the Armenians  slotted neatly into the Persian socio-political framework, forming a relatively autonomous merchant oligarchy.  At the time, the Ottoman Turks to the west had made it illegal for their subjects to trade with Shi’ite Persia, so the Armenians stepped into the breach, creating flourishing trade networks across the Ottoman realm and further into western Europe.

The Armenians became an integral part of the upper crust, as it were, in Abbas’ Isfahan – notable Armenian families invited the shah to celebrate Christmas. However, as Monash University scholar James Barry points out, Abbas did not necessarily champion the Armenians’ cause out of the goodness of his heart, or some benevolent notion of multiculturalism. In fact, Abbas was being much more pragmatic. It was political and commercial expediency, pure and simple. Abbas distrusted the Persian (Muslim) commercial classes – and perhaps feared a strong Persian merchant bourgeoisie as an oppositional power – so nurtured and promoted the Armenians in their stead.

There are Armenian communities elsewhere in Iran, including Tabriz, another important trading city. St Mary’s Church, near the Tabriz bazaar, proved inviolate behind firmly closed iron gates when I passed through in 2008, but in The Way of the World, his outstandingly wonderful travel memoir, Nicolas Bouvier relates living in the Armenian community of Tabriz through the winter of 1953. He tells how on his first night there the locals came to see he and his travel companion, “these foreign Christians, escaped from an easier world”.

tabriz-bazaarWith exquisitely dexterous prose Bouvier details the freezing winter and evokes the sense of community, local rivalries, characters and dramas, including the saga of an Armenian girl who took her own life because she’d fallen in love with a local “Muslim”(it is not specified whether he was Persian, Kurdish or Turkish). To the modern reader, Bouvier’s book recounts an altogether less-troubled world. They drive in a Fiat from the Balkans, across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan without any of the attendant issues that would waylay modern travellers. However, the fragmented nature of the world-wide Armenian community is apparent: as Bouvier observes them tuning into the Patriarch of Echmiadzin (at that time within the Soviet Union). “Each Christmas he sent to his brothers in Iran faint but politic encouragement over the air-waves of Radio Baku,” Bouvier tells us.

Meanwhile, communal relations between Persians and Armenians remain strong. Armenians are free to celebrate Christmas in Iran, and increasingly Iranians journey to Armenia for their holidays, including Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Iranians head north into Armenia to enjoy the more liberal atmosphere, to escape the constraints of Iran’s Islamic dress code and to hear Persian music acts that are banned at home. This is all made possible by a simplified visa regime between the two countries that has come alongside strengthening ties between Armenia and Iran and that makes zipping across the border relatively straight forward. Interestingly, however, Armenians appear to enjoy holidaying anywhere other than Armenia, heading in increasing numbers into  Georgia, or even Turkey.

That Armenians would choose to holiday in Turkey strikes me as particularly incongruous given the historical controversies and modern acrimonies that pollute relations between these neighbours. The Turkish-Armenian border remains closed (despite the protestations of many on both sides of the border) and diplomatic relations frosty. The closure of the border, in turn, hobbles the economic development of Armenia, meaning that significant numbers of Armenians, many of them women, head to Turkey (passing by way of Georgia) seeking employment or economic opportunity. It is estimated that up to 20,000 Armenian women are working in Istanbul, centred on the historical Armenian neighbourhood of Kumkapı. As they are without papers, they effectively form an economic underclass, however they perform an important role in certain segments of the economy.

The contrast with the buoyant and assured entrepreneurial class in Abbas’ Iran could not be more stark. In Istanbul are women performing menial roles – often those that Turks won’t do – raising their families alongside them in straitened circumstances and sending money home to relatives in Armenia. This is in contrast, too, to the status of many Armenians in pre-20th century Istanbul, and other cities of the Ottoman realm, where Armenians often played prominent roles in politics, trade, society and literature. (For example see Mavi Boncuk’s post about Armenian lexicographers who played an important role in developing the Turkish language.)

The Armenian presence was all but expunged from Anatolia during the poisonous events of 1915. This was a tragedy for the Armenians, and I would assert that it was a tragedy for Turkey as well, as yet unreconciled. It means that in İstanbul, and elsewhere in Anatolia, where Armenians lived for thousands of years, Christmas may not be (openly) celebrated. Meanwhile, across the border, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the mullahs hold sway, the Armenians are busily exchanging Christmas cards and adorning shops with decorated trees.

Tracking St George

RECENT RESEARCH suggests that Indo-European languages first arose in Anatolia some time around 8000 years ago, then gradually spread out in a ripple effect across Eurasia, through Persia, south to India and northwest into Europe. This doesn’t mean that all European languages are descended from Turkish, or that the European peoples all have Turkish blood coursing through their veins. The (Seljuk) Turks didn’t arrive in Anatolia until the 11th century, fully 7000 years after these languages began to arise.  It does however lend credence to the theory that this corner of the world has long been home to human populations that were, as one blogger nicely puts it, “fluid and frequently stirred”. Anatolia has long been a melting pot; before that, it appears, it was a launching pad.

With the people moved myths, legends. An anthology of folk tales from the Caucasus, in the same neck of the woods as Anatolia, has just been published by David Hunt, a Caucasian folk literature specialist. This compilation is yet more evidence of the fluidity and well-stirredness (!) of the region and its impact on Europe more broadly, because amid epic sagas and feats of derring do from peoples you’ve never heard of (Ubykhs, Lezgins, Kabardians, anyone?) are tales that have become familiar tropes of folkloricists, bed-time storytellers and raconteurs across Europe and beyond. This is the region that gave us the Golden Fleece; that particular tale isn’t here but David Hunt’s assortment offers several takes on the legend of Prometheus, fables of the Cyclops (a figure that crops up everywhere from Homer’s Odyssey to Slavic tales and The Book of Dede Korkut, an Oghuz Turkish epic from before the Turks arrived in Anatolia), the voyage of the Ark (which we may rightfully classify as a fable, and which everyone knows lodged on Mt Ararat, on the border between Turkey and Armenia) and St George’s almighty tussle with the dragon.

In the last few days I’ve been learning more about St George as I’ve been writing a review of an edited volume of academic papers that documents and interprets instances of religious syncretism and hybridism. (It’s called Shared Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: sounds fascinating, huh? Well, actually it is. And , especially at this time when hotheads, who claim to be religious, are running around howling for blood, it makes salutary and instructive reading.)

One of the most intriguing chapters, “St George the Anatolian”, by ethnologist Maria Couroucli, details in discrete, concise academic prose an intricate lattice work of connections, echoes and parallels between St George and a host of other notables from an incredibly diverse range of traditions. In my excitement (I looooooooooooove this stuff), the page became a blur of names instantly recognised, links only half grasped; a litany, a roll call, a wave of names and golden threads: St George, St Elias (the prophet), Hidrellez (the Turko-Anatolian  harbinger of spring; his name is a hybrid of the Arabic for greenness – Hdr – and a Turkic corruption  – Ilyas – of Elias), a mythological slayer of dragons who arose in Armenian and Persian canons, Alexander the Great, Digenis Akrites (an Orthodox hero of the Byzantine-Abbasid marches) who is descended from two races (hence: Digenis), a trope that occurs through chronicles of Shiite Persia, Greek folk songs, episodes from The Arabian Nights and legends of Sufi mystics in the Balkans. Here is a flurry of legends so ambiguous, so blurred, so overlapping, so passed-around-and-shared, so dog-eared-from-constant-use that they must belong to everyone.

On a recent trip to İstanbul, with junior Gourlays in tow, I witnessed the Turkish fascination with St George. We caught a ferry to Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands off the coast which have long been a retreat for well-heeled İstanbullus. A festive air reigned as we left Kabataş, a boatload of tourists, day-tripping locals and Iranian visitors, one of whom insisted I partake liberally of his trail mix (in which dried Persian mulberries featured prominently). Büyükada (Prinkipo in the Greek) is home to a monastery dedicated to St George. On April 23, St George’s Day, the island is swamped with Turkish visitors who come to the monastery to light candles and request the mercies of St George. Even in September, when we visited, there was evidence of the festivities: votive rags tied to cypress trees and coloured threads along the steep cobbled paths that lead to the monastery sited at the peak of the island with views across the European and Asian shores of the great metropolis. You can read a piece I wrote for Eureka Street about the monastery here. Most visitors to the monastery who we saw were Turks, but on the ferry back to the city we encountered all manner of Levantine visitors: Syrians and Lebanese. The journey was a gaggle of Arabic and Turkish and the plaintive cries of the seagulls that followed in our wake, diving for scraps of bread.

Also in Sharing Sacred Spaces, Dionigi Albera and Benoit Fliche document some of the intercommunal practices that happen at the church of St Anthony of Padua, just off İstiklal Caddesi in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood of İstanbul. Despite being written in plain academic prose, some of these struck me as quite moving (well, perhaps I’d been reading too long…): shared breaking of offerings of bread, which is then eaten by both Muslims and Christians in a “paraphrase of the Eucharist”, the case of a female visitor berating a male church attendant who extinguished votive candles before what she felt was an appropriate time (the candles had been lit by Muslim visitors; the woman made the attendant relight them). These are unorthodox practices that belong to no particular tradition, but perhaps belong to all.

I have a memory of visiting St Anthony of Padua. It was in the late afternoon of a weekday in the late autum of 1995. I was with a Turkish friend. A biting wind blew along İstiklal Caddesi, the sky was a bruised grey, lights were flickering on. We lit candles in St Anthony and paused for a while. Back on İstiklal we passed a small boy, in his blue school tunic, cross legged on the pavement beside a set of scales. A cardboard box nearby was intended for coins offered by anyone using the scales. The small boy was so intent on writing his homework in his exercise book that he didn’t even look up as I dropped some coins in the box. I weighed 76kg; Aylin was 49. We departed into the twilight of that eternal city.