On football matches: to mark silence or to boo


FOOTBALL IS known as the beautiful game. There are plenty of people who like to see sport as metaphor for life. Like many things, football is really just one of many *parts* of life, so perhaps we should recognise it as such and not read too much into it.

Still, based on several recent incidents, I can’t help but wonder if people’s behaviour at football matches doesn’t offer a perspective on societal dynamics, perhaps on a nation’s psyche or even the deeper workings of the human spirit.

Last Friday, a football match in the Greek city of Larissa was delayed when players, coaches and officials sat down as a protest to urge authorities to work harder to cater to refugees coming to Greece and as a mark of respect for refugees who had lost their lives in recent days attempting to cross the Aegean.

It was the Greeks, after all, who gave us the concept of philanthropy (φιλανθρωπία), which translates literally as “love of humanity”.

Apparently in Greek, there are four different words for love, one of which is agápē (ἀγάπη) from whence we get “agape”, but which translates as a sense of brotherly love and charity. Thomas Aquinas saw agápē as the wishing of good upon another.

I can’t help but compare the actions of the footballers in Larissa with the Turkish football fans in Istanbul who booed and jeered during a pre-game minute of silence for the victims of terrorist attacks in Paris last November, just as fans at a match in Konya had earlier disrupted a minute’s silence for the (mostly Kurdish and leftist) victims of the Ankara bombing in October.

Observing a moment’s silence as a mark of respect is not a commonly recognised practice in Turkey, but the actions of the Turkish crowds raised eyebrows around the world, to say the least.

In considering the Turkish crowds, the uncouth behaviour of a portion of a football crowd should not be taken as a reflection of an entire nation or people. The Greeks and the Turks have much more in common – in cultural, social and culinary terms – than nationalists of either strip would ever admit. But for a fleeting second I wondered if, after years of living, travelling, working and researching in Turkey, perhaps I should have been spending my time on the other side of the Aegean…

Until I stumbled across the reaction of Fatih Terim, the manager of the Turkish national team, who decried the “cruelty” of the booing Konya crowd and said better that Turkey had lost the match (after which it qualified for UEFA 2016) and not one life had been lost.




Hopeful thoughts to end a torrid year


Bosphorus, Istanbul, October 2014

It has been a fallow couple of seasons for this blog. Time commitments and motivation have been against me, so this will be my only post for the year.

The blog is an outlet for abstract and meandering thoughts, for optimism in a grim world. But for a blog that is predicated on highlighting the comingling of peoples, and the beauties that they can create, it has been a depressing year.

We’ve seen the rise of ISIS, the quagmire that is Syria, the deteriorating political circumstances in Turkey (once seeming so promising, but now gone so spectacularly awry), and of course the rise of divisive and hateful voices in Europe and America. (Because – it must be noted – that that shit happens in the so-called “modern” “civilised”, post- Enlightenment world too!)


Diyarbakir, November 2014

An annual post is a token effort, to be sure, but hopefully this one will re-ignite the blog.

For next year, I will take a new approach, aiming to post more regularly, but more succinctly – and hopefully more pithily!! I plan to use, where and when possible, some of the literature I encounter in my work life as platforms for short reflections – vignettes, if you will.

Here’s one to get started. Petr Pithart, former prime minister of Czechoslovakia, wrote in 1994,

‘In the last 55 years the Czechs have lost – as co-tenants of their common house – Germans, Jews, Ruthenians, Hungarians and Slovaks. They are now in effect an ethnically cleansed country, even if not by their own will. It is a great intellectual, cultural and spiritual loss. This is particularly true if we consider central Europe, which is a kind of mosaic. We are still living touristically from the glory of Prague, which was a Czech-German-Jewish city and a light that reached to the stars. But you cannot win elections with that kind of argument.’[1]


Prague, Christmas 2007

At present we see plenty of instances where people are intent on ethnic cleansing by their own will. Demagogues and paranoiacs howl for it in the West. But it seems most intense in the region once known as Mesopotamia, the so-called cradle of civilisations, where pluralism was a reality for millennia, but where, now, various nasties under various banners are seeking to homogenise in Syria, attempting to put to the sword peoples previously little known. And in Turkey, where I have visited repeatedly in recent years, while ethnic cleansing may be a thing of the past, another concerted social engineering project of cultural homogenisation appears to be under way.


Dancing the halay, Istanbul, June 2015

All this “cleansing” stems from fear: fear of the other. But as Pithart notes, when “others” come together the end result so often is something remarkable. He mentions that you may not win elections by highlighting the beauty and richness of cultural diversity and achievements of cultural interplay, but they are real and more dispassionately resilient than often thought.

And it may be noted that attempts to “cleanse” rarely achieve their desired goals, i.e. safe, secure homogeniety. They generally result in a great deal of anguish for all concerned. But after and despite the trauma, humanity, in all its diversity, trundles on and evolves in new directions.

Long may it prosper!



  1. Cited in Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular, (Oxford University Press), 2001, page 117

Reasons to be cheerful

01-diyar-boysANOTHER YEAR ends. Hallelujah to that!

It’s been a torrid year in many regards, but it strikes me that there are always reasons to be cheerful.

02-blue-mosqueSkylines, cityscapes, landscapes, wondering what lies beyond the horizon. Hope.


First love, broken hearts, bad poetry.


Reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption, revenge.


Conviviality, community, living-together-ness.


The changing of the seasons.


The freedom to travel, nostalgia, wanderlust, longing for home.


Dreams, disappointments, glorious failures.


Those places where angels hover, unseen.







Twilight in Diyarbakır

walls-mardin-kapi So they pushed the clocks forward an hour, marking the end of summer, the changing of the season. In Diyarbakır darkness descends early now, and abruptly. We are some 1000km southeast of İstanbul, as the crow flies, but still in the same time zone. By five o’clock the gloaming (such an apt word, promising so much, somewhere between ‘glow’ and ‘looming’) is all but passed and the street lights flicker on.

It strikes me that at twilight you can see cities at their most candid. Not that the cities of southeastern Anatolia maintain any pretensions or artifice. But in the failing light, as people close up shops, or make their way home, or farewell workmates, or make a last dash to pick up necessities for the evening meal, life is revealed in all of its gritty, mundane, workaday magnificence. Shadows loom, cries seem to hover in the air. If you look up at the right time, a swallow zips overhead.

Clockwise as in a Buddhist pilgrimage, I continue a vague circuit within Diyarbakır’s city walls, an on-again off-again ramble, over several days, that has succumbed to diversions, zigzags, backtracks and unplanned stops. These are the second-longest land walls on earth, after the Chinese Wall. Mighty, in ominous black basalt, they bear the imprints and flourishes of dynasties, empires, fly-by-night warlords who have rumbled through this frontier territory where spheres of Persian, Arab and Turkish influence overlap like a Venn diagram. A litany of dynasties to fire the imagination, if you are given to such things: Seljuk, Ayyubid, Safavid, Artuklu, Karakoyunlu, Akkoyunlu. Seems everybody but the Ottomans.

pondering-mesopotamiaClimbing the steps to Keçi Burcu, a robust tower near the southernmost point of the walls. Inevitably, on the parapet, there is an open-air tea salon. Wooden banquettes against stone walls, and tables with knee-high stools. Locals gather for çay, for countless infernal cigarettes, to chatter and take selfies, while ignoring the view as darkness descends. One young guy sits cross-legged on the battlements, as if he is sentinel over all of Mesopotamia. Below, the Tigris snakes southward.

I descend again, passing Mardin Kapısı, the southern-facing of the city’s four main gates. Further on there is a large fissure in the walls. Outside are sprawling suburbs of cheap, concrete apartment blocks and gecekondu houses. Overhead power lines, rubble-strewn, dusty kerbs. Voices carry on the breeze, snatches of song, a radio broadcast, a dog barks. Even these neighbourhoods, under an eye-shadow-blue swirl of sky and cloud, stippled with pools of orange street light, seem somehow homely, welcome, beckoning at this hour. (Perhaps I’ve been away too long.)

As I reach Urfa Kapısı, the western-facing gate, above a roadside watermelon stall a sickle moon rises, the most perfect of clichés, as if someone has sunk a fingernail into the velvet expanse of sky to let in a crescent of yellow light.

Back inside the walls, passing traffic raises dust and puffs of exhaust, and throws beams of light across shopfronts, trees, the city walls, like search lights perennially seeking out some elusive target. At the centre of town where the east-west and north-south routes cross, dolmuşes gather passengers, everyone headed home, burdened with packages, plastic bags, tubs of produce. And as each vehicle roars off I experience that fleeting shudder of exhilaration that I used to feel as a backpacker. An understated euphoria, a butterfly in the stomach, at the beginning of each new journey, at the anticipation, the what-comes-next that each departure promises.

meryemana-syriacAnother evening, at the Meryemana Church, a Syrian Orthodox church that has stood here, in various incarnations, for nigh-on 1800 years. A flight of pigeons swoops above the belfry. (Shouldn’t that be bats?) By chance, I am here in time for evening prayers, Vespers (another redolent word). I am invited to stay. ‘You can sit,’ the priest, a man who somehow embodies resilience, with a black beard and white prayer cap, tells me.

It’s a small congregation, just the priest, his two children, his wife, a single older parishioner. And me, observing. Prayer is informal, slightly chaotic, not unlike Islamic ritual in its casual aspect. The priest’s genuflections and prostrations resemble nothing so much as Islamic salat, but for the fact that he crosses himself as he rises from each prostration. He then pulls back a curtain to reveal the altar, a sumptuous recess of velvet, electric candles, gilt and almost-baroque ornamentation, all topped with muqarna that would not look out of place in the Alhambra in Granada.

The children chant from the Bible (in Aramaic, the ‘language of Jesus’, as I am later told), as the priest struggles to light a taper with an oven lighter, repeatedly firing the trigger until a shot of blue flame emerges. He then lights a censer, which his son takes and approaches the altar, while continuing his chanting, proceeding to swing it and send clouds of fragrant incense heavenward.

Observing all of this, I can see the seductiveness of faith, the comfort and reliability of ritual as a crutch in the every day, although it must be said that the chanting had an air of going-through-the-motions. At prayer’s end the priest teaches me my first word of Aramaic: ‘towdi’. Thankyou. And I depart into the evening.

Later, in a backstreet, in the darkness, a woman in baggy şalvar and headscarf fans a fire in a cobbled alley, placing torn pieces of cardboard on to her fire, over which she is roasting narrow purple aubergines.

The next afternoon, to see Yeni Kapı, the eastern-facing gate, the only one I haven’t visited. This is a poor part of town. I am warned by a local about thieves, as I have been repeatedly all over town. I never encounter anyone who appears even slightly inclined towards theft. Here the stuccoed walls of humble homes are painted burgundy, puce, pastels in unlikely, exuberant combination, in contrast to the dour black granite of the city walls and the grand konaks, stately homes with  alternating black and white striped door and window arches. From Yeni Kapı I look out over the Hevsel gardens, green plots on the flood plain of the Tigris.

mar-petyunIn Mar Petyun, Chaldean Catholic Church of St Anthony. I had visited here in 1992. Then it was sombre and dilapidated. Now the lights are ablaze, all appears refurbished. An air of rejuvenation. A sign says photography is not allowed, but some locals come in and immediately take selfies, so I too pull out my camera, which I hadn’t done at Meryemana.

On my last night in town, a Kurdish wedding. Hearing, rather than finding it. Drum kit, saz and davul. Amps on 11. Feedback roaring. The drumbeat is so loud I can feel it in the pulse in my throat. On a concrete floor, under a tin roof decorated with coloured fairy lights, this isn’t steam punk. Perhaps dust punk.

The saz rages in wiry, sinuous lines and trills, climbing and crescendoing, occasionally plummeting to sound a fat whoomp. The saz, drum kit and davul, move in different rhythms and sequences, but coming together to mark the end of each stanza with a clattering, clamorous full stop. Boom ka-ka ka-boom!

I can detect no sign of a bride or groom. Seated along the walls are older men, sipping tea. On another side, on knee-high stools, women wearing coloured headscarves are massed, watching. Like coloured birds roosting.

wedding4The centre of attention is the young men, dancing, arms linked, in line. Slim youths, sweaty and raucous, in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. A red tinsel tassel is handed around, giving the bearer permission to break from the line and free form. Each takes their turn in a flurry of jaggedy movements, all bending knees and pointy elbows, shoulders swaying and skittish feet stamping.

The scene strikes me as an outpouring of joy. Of communality. Of shared intent. Some sort of release. I can’t say if it’s appropriate or symbolic, or if it’s just plain poetic. But I am ending my time in Diyarbakır in a blaze of music, light, adrenaline.

Ka-ka ka-BOOM.

wedding2 wedding1




God bless the Kurds!

THERE APPEARS, at present, to be little light at the end of the tunnel that is Iraq. The thugs of ISIS are proving to be much nastier than anyone anticipated, and more successful, having pushed further east from the recently conquered city of Mosul. And what had been considered a sure thing, the Kurdish peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government, turned out to be not as effective a fighting force as they have long been held up to be.

The very viability of the Kurdish autonomous region appeared to be called into question, as peshmerga, apparently heavily outgunned, yielded to ISIS gangs who came within cooee of Erbil, the Kurdish capital. This was terrifying enough because until then the peshmerga had been thought of as an effective bulwark against the ISIS fanatics.

More immediately horrific was the prospect of mass slaughter unfolding with the world in attendance – via social media. ISIS rolled Sinjar, a town that has been home to the heterodox Yazidis since time immemorial. In their ignorant and blinkered ideology – which they claim is a version of Islam – the ISIS hoods saw the diverse threads that make up Yazidi belief as reason to put them to the sword. As is well documented now, thousands of Yazidis who fled the ISIS onslaught were stranded without supplies on Mt Sinjar. A place of mystical significance for the Yazidis, Mt Sinjar is also remote and shelterless. Refugees huddled here at the mercy of the elements during the height of an Iraqi summer.


Mt. Sinjar

Fortunately, a public switched on via social media raised an outcry that galvanised action. As beleaguered Kurdish peshmerga sought to beat a path to the stranded Yezidis, Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish President appealed for military support. In the meantime, the US rallied support for a humanitarian mission to deliver supplies to the Yazidis atop Mt Sinjar (see some dramatic footage here of supplies being dropped, and the mad scramble to escape for some of the trapped refugees) and provided air cover for Kurdish forces. After the woes visited on Iraq’s Christians, Türkmens and Shi’ite by ISIS in recent weeks, something had to be done. The Guardian rightly pointed out that it was imperative that the US and UK take decisive action because they “have a humanitarian duty to the endangered minorities, and a debt of honour to the Kurds”.

The plight of the benighted Yazidis on Mt Sinjar touched a nerve. Yazidi communities in Georgia and Armenia raised their voices in support of their stranded brethren and in Israel the Holocaust Museum added its voice condemning the genocidal behaviour of ISIS. Disgust with ISIS is clearly widespread and communities across the region are stepping up to support the victims of its gratuitous evil – Najaf, the city of Shi’ite pilgrimage in southern Iraq, has opened its doors to Christian refugees expelled from Mosul, while Iran has also pledged to help Iraqi Christian refugees.

For an Aussie, with little to be proud of as regards our government’s conduct on the world stage at present, it was pleasing to see that Australian troops were involved in the humanitarian mission carried out on Mt Sinjar. An Iraqi photolibrary Metrography has some startling images of the Yazidis as they left Mt Sinjar and sought shelter in Syria and Kurdish-held areas of Iraq. (It is a measure of the desperation of their plight that they have trekked across an unforgiving desert to find refuge in Syria, of all places.) I’ve ‘borrowed’ one of the images from Metrography, here. Looking at this image I have only one word: respect! To me it exemplifies the strength, the resilience, the love, the humanity of the Yazidis.

Image: Zmnako Ismael,  via Metrography

Image: Zmnako Ismael, via Metrography

Perhaps the most important thing to emerge out of this whole sorry tale is that the Kurds exhibit these very qualities: strength, resilience, love, humanity. Kurdish elements from across borders came together to rescue the Yazidis, to take on the ISIS murderers . A quick glance at the history books indicates that the Kurds have long been divided and have been hung out to dry by outside powers many a time. But here, the Kurds came together to confront an evil challenge.

Of course, the Syrian Kurds have been fighting ISIS for some time, entirely unheralded and unsupported. It is the YPG militia (People’s Defence Units) of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Unity Party) that has fended off ISIS and prevented it extending its reach to the Turkish border. The enclave of Kobanê, one of three that makes up the Rojava autonomous zone, in particular has come under concerted attack, but local Kurds have held their own, and then some. The Rojava Kurds are credited with much of the heavy lifting involved in rescuing the Yazidis.

It seems that it was not just Rojava Kurds involved in the rescue mission, however. In effect, the Kurdish cavalry arrived. German MP Ulla Jelpke was in Rojava to observe goings on and she remarked that (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) PKK fighters – listed as terrorists by Turkey, the US and the EU – also rallied to the cause and effectively amounted to a “guarantee of life” for the Yazidis.

The Kurdish cavalry – in days of yore...

The Kurdish cavalry – in days of yore…

PKK units had also made their way to Kurdish-held Kirkuk, apparently receiving a hero’s welcome as they went. It was also PKK fighters who were instrumental in reclaiming Mahmour, just on the outskirts of the Kurdish capital Erbil, that had earlier fallen to the ISIS thugs. And it seems that the Iranian Kurdish militia of the KDP-I (yes, there are a lot of acronyms in Kurdish affairs!) also joined the fray at the shoulders of their cross-border compatriots.

There is now serious talk that the US State Department and the EU should remove the PKK from their lists of designated terrorists. (A petition to that effect is awaiting signatures.) Whatever outrages the PKK perpetrated in Turkey in decades past – and outrages there certainly were – do not necessarily reflect the ambitions or potentials of the group now, nor do they necessarily impugn fighters who are now rallying to a worthwhile cause and acting not only in the interests of Kurds, but other peoples in Iraq and Syria, and more broadly in the interests of the West. I think it’s time to bring the PKK into the fold.

So while an anti-ISIS front might have been formed by disparate Kurdish groups, there are still petty rivalries at play and proverbial roosters are jousting. But for now, the Kurds continue to be a resilient, resourceful and honourable presence, people of valour, generosity of spirit and immense humanity in the benighted lands of Iraq and Syria. Long may they prosper.

Kurdistan dreaming: a homeland, not just for Kurds?

WITH EVENTS aswirl in Iraq in recent months, there has been much talk of the Kurds and the likelihood of their striking out alone to establish, once and for all, an independent Kurdish state, a so-called Kurdistan. It seems that pundits far and wide have something to say on the topic…

So what is this Kurdistan?

The Greek cartographers of old had called the region where the Kurds lived Media, referring to the ancient kingdom of the Medes; when the Arabs arrived in the seventh century, bringing Islam with them, they called the region Djibal (from the Arabic for ‘mountain’). It was Sanjar, the last sultan of the Great Seljuks, a Turco-Persian dynasty, who, in 1150, first delineated a province as Kurdistan, literally the ‘land of the Kurds’.


It took centuries for a distinctly Kurdish consciousness to begin emerging, however. Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi, poet and emir of Bitlis (in what is now Turkey), wrote his Sharafnama in 1597. This was a history of the Kurds, tracking back through history highlighting and documenting the exploits of Kurdish dynasties. Almost a century later Ahmad Khani wrote the epic love story, Mem û Zîn, the Kurdish equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, a tale of doomed lovers separated by fate and heartless outsiders. Khani called on Kurds to rally; his was the first attempt to galvanise a sense of common identity and common destiny amongst the Kurds.

Kurdistan has always been marginal territory, in the geopolitical sense. It made up the borderland between the (Turkish) Ottoman and (Persian) Safavid empires, seeing mêlées, military campaigns and marauding throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. It was later riven by the borders of modern Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria in the 1920s, relegating its Kurdish residents to minority status in four nation-states.

For all that it enjoys startling richness. The French Kurdologist Thomas Bois in his classic tome, The Kurds, noted it as ‘picturesque’, being ‘as prosperous as it is charming’. He recorded its plenty: ‘apples, pears, peaches and apricots, not to mention the vines.’

But there is not just diversity in its orchards. The Kurdish people themselves display diversity in language, cultural practice, religious adherence and observance. There is no single cultural, linguistic or religious pole to which all Kurds adhere. The great anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen remarks on this diversity in his academic writing to the point that he argues we should not speak of a Kurdish people, but perhaps peoples. What unites them is that they consider themselves to be Kurdish and clearly delineate how they differ from the peoples – Turks, Arabs, Persians et al – living around them.

Image via: jamesdale10
Image via: jamesdale10

Van Bruinessen notes that the Kurds appear to have absorbed heterogeneous ethnic elements, and that they subscribe to a diversity of religious beliefs and traditions, not only Sunni Islam but also Alevism (in Turkey) as well as the Yezidi and Ahl-i Haqq traditions, both of which emerged in Kurdistan. Syncretism appears to be the order of the day, a melding of rituals, practices and doctrines that is only possible where rigid orthodoxy is not imposed.

As well as confessional variety, Van Bruinessen notes an ethnic fluidity amongst the Kurds and the peoples they live amongst. He cites examples of Kurdish tribes who in the 19th century became Turkified; similarly there were nomadic Turkish tribes that became Kurdified. The presence of Armenians and Syriacs who spoke Kurdish as their mother tongue suggests shifts across both ethnic and religious divides were not unheard of, he argues. (Indeed, as detailed in Fethiye Çetin’s wonderful memoir My Grandmother, conversion of Armenians to Kurdishness happened, during the horrors of 1915 and afterwards, to a degree perhaps significantly underestimated.)

There should be no surprises in such a turn of events, really. Much of the Middle East is a region of ethnic and confessional diversity despite it being fun for bigots and others ill-informed to say that Islam is a smothering and homogenising influence. Look at Syria, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Islamic countries all that conform (or have, through history, conformed) to Van Bruinessen’s’ characterisation of the Middle East as ‘an ethnic and religious mosaic, in which nomads, peasants and townspeople, speakers of various languages and numerous dialects, adherents of Islam, Christianity and Judaism and a plethora of syncretistic religious communities lived side by side.’

Kurdistan is squarely a part of this. Within the historical extent of the area defined as Kurdistan still live, aside from Kurds, Shia Turkmen, Syriacs (Catholic and Orthodox), Chaldeans, Yezidis, Ahl-i Haqq, Alevis, Azaris and some remaining Armenians.


There is much discussion of the likelihood of an independent Kurdistan emerging as a free-standing state. Some would argue that at present the circumstances are not ideal for such a turn of events [there is more punditry to this effect!!], but sovereign state or not the Kurdish region of Iraq is proving to be the last redoubt of the ethnic diversity that once characterised Iraq.

The thoroughly reprehensible goons of ISIS in their mediocrity and ignorance have attempted to ‘cleanse’ the territory that they have captured across the Syria-Iraq border, including in Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul. This has involved the trashing of centuries-old shrines and the persecution and ultimately expulsion of a Christian community that has been present for somewhere around 2000 years . Not content with such outrages, ISIS has also gone after the Turkmen of Tel Afar, who in fleeing have received little support from their Turkish kin across the border, as well as the Yezidi Kurds of Sinjar.

Through this mayhem, the Kurdish Autonomous Region, the would-be Kurdistan, emerges as a haven for those displaced by the ISIS thugs. Meanwhile, Kurdish peşmerga (literally, ‘those who face death’) are fending off ISIS advances in Iraq, as well as in the Kurdish territory of Rojava in northern Syria. In fact, Syriac militias are fighting alongside the peşmerga, thus far with some success, sufficient to imagine that greater collaboration is possible.

Broadly speaking, the Kurds appear more willing and able to tolerate and encourage pluralism than the nation-states of the region. Perhaps due to their underdog status during the era of nation-states, a period where they were generally subjected to homogenising projects, they are now better able to empathise with the minorities groups who live alongside and amongst them. Certainly in Turkey it has been Kurdish politicians who have made greatest steps to acknowledge and to redress the injustices inflicted on the Armenians almost a century ago and to rekindle the diversity that gives the country much of its richness.

I recall some years ago hearing a Melbourne Kurd remarking that it would be the Kurds who would bring democracy to the Middle East. At the time I thought it sounded like high-minded waffle, but perhaps he was unduly prescient. The Kurds appear to be living up to such an aspiration and in doing so in some small way protecting the region’s ethnic diversity that has persisted for centuries. More power to them, I say.








Prospects for a Kurdish spring

A while back I wrote something about the Kurdish spring for openDemocracy. Turns out I missed the bus as they published something on the same topic while my piece was being considered. To get at least some mileage out of it, I’ll post it here, even though it’s a bit outdated now. So here goes…

ON MARCH 21, the day celebrated as the Kurdish new year, Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), broadcast a letter in Diyarbakır in south-eastern Turkey calling on PKK operatives to lay down their arms. From their mountain redoubt in northern Iraq, PKK commanders duly called a ceasefire.

The stage is now set for a comprehensive peace to bring an end to the long-running PKK insurgency that has beset the south-east of Turkey for almost 30 years.

The Turkish state’s response to the PKK since its first operations in 1984 was to pursue military action. The PKK’s terror tactics and avowedly separatist agenda meant that the Turkish establishment lumped together all Kurdish demands as threats to citizenry and state. Through the 1980s and ‘90s little heed was given to the Kurdish grievances that gave impetus to the PKK cause, and even less attempt was made to address them. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Kurds had, under a Kemalist-inspired programme of nation building, been denied an identity, subjected to assimilation and had their language, literature and music outlawed. In a political order where military tutelage and illiberal Turkish nationalist discourse set the agenda, Kurdish demands, legitimate or otherwise, were given short shrift.

The last decade, however, has seen something of a recalibration of the societal and political spheres in Turkey. The AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi; Justice and Development Party) government, since coming to power in 2002 has reasserted popular sovereignty at the expense of military hegemony, while also allowing Islam to reappear in the public sphere (something that, like Kurdish identity, is anathema to many supporters of the state’s hegemonic ideology, Kemalism).

van-dolmusWith the military now largely confined to barracks and the general public exhausted with what was clearly an unwinnable war for either Turkish military or PKK, the AKP government has taken a different approach to the Kurdish issue. In 2009, the Kurdish-language state television channel TRT6 was established; more recently Kurdish-language courses have been instituted in universities and high schools and Kurdish has been allowed to be used in courts. Since October last year, the government has also been directly negotiating with Öcalan, a figure revered by many Kurds but widely disliked by Turks who see him as the mastermind behind PKK terror. Nonetheless, negotiations thus far have borne fruit, leading to Öcalan’s letter and the ceasefire that followed it.

Circumstances may now be more conducive than ever before to a resolution to the Kurdish issue but many pitfalls remain. The government must follow a path that allows it to fulfil the hopes of its Kurdish constituents while also addressing misgivings arising within the Turkish majority. Turkish political scientist Ihsan Dağı contends that many Turks view the Kurdish situation as a zero-sum game, believing that any political changes that enhance the circumstances of the Kurds must in turn be to the detriment of the Turks.

Taking account of prevailing sensitivities, the government appears to be proceeding cautiously. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced the formation of a committee of ‘wise men’ that will effectively play a PR role keeping the Turkish public abreast of ongoing developments in negotiations between the government and the PKK. Including journalists, artists, musicians, academics, intellectuals and representatives from NGOs, the 63 members of the ‘wise men’ committee (which includes 12 women) convened for the first time in early April in Istanbul.

This is a pragmatic move on the government’s part, no doubt intended to prevent a repeat of mistakes that led to the failure of earlier peace initiatives. In 2009’s ‘Kurdish opening’ negotiations between the state officials and the PKK were instituted, and as a gesture of goodwill a group of PKK operatives turned themselves in on the Turkey-Iraq border. But rather than submitting to Turkish authorities, the PKK coterie received a hero’s welcome from local Kurds, which outraged the Turkish public, in so doing scuppering the negotiation process. Presumably, this time around the ‘wise men’, in acting as go-betweens linking negotiators and the public, will be able to prevent similar such surprises being sprung on assembled onlookers.

The adversarial attitude towards the Kurds that many Turks harbour stems from the strong nationalist current that has infused state discourse since the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Mustafa Akyol observes that Turkish schoolchildren have long been taught that Turkey is surrounded by seas on three sides and by enemies on four.  For Turkish nationalists, Turkey must stand alone – and unified – to fend off foreign encroachment.


Similarly pluralism has been regarded with suspicion: internal enemies are considered perhaps an even greater threat. After the fragmentation along ethnic lines, of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic was predicated on a unitary foundation where every citizen – in theory – was Turkish. This ‘unity of language, culture and ideal’, as espoused by the founding fathers, was to be the cement that would hold tight the new nation-state, but it also led to the denial of the Kurdish reality from which all aspects of the Kurdish issue have arisen. The separatist manifesto of the PKK only served to underline the imperative of Turkish nationalist’s exhortations to homogeneity, and heightened fear of all demonstrations of Kurdish identity and nationalism.

In response to the government’s negotiations with the PKK, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the hard-line MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, Nationalist Action Party) has cried foul, claiming that talks with Öcalan and the PKK will result in Turkey being dismantled. As negotiations have gathered pace Bahçeli has grown increasingly desperate in his rhetoric, effectively accusing AKP Prime Minister Erdoğan of selling out the Turkish nation-state and acting in the interests of ‘Crusaders’. Paramount in the nationalist imagination is the protection of the Turkishness of the state, something that any accommodation of Kurdish demands or acknowledgement of Kurdish identity will undermine. Such a mindset posits that acknowledging diversity is tantamount to dismembering the Turkish nation-state: during the 1990s when the lifting of a ban on the use of Kurdish was being debated parliamentarian Alparslan Pehlivanlı remarked that granting Kurdish language rights amounted to ‘separatism’.

While Bahçeli’s bizarre accusations of aiding the ‘Crusaders’ might be the ranting of a politician whose nationalist rhetoric is losing its credibility, the hard-line MHP still commands a sizable constituency. As Turkish journalist Semih Idiz reports, in the western city of Bursa several days after Öcalan’s March 21 message, Bahçeli addressed a rally of ultranationalists who pledged their willingness to ‘strike’ against those who they see as betraying the Turkish state. What such threats constitute is difficult to fathom, but it is certainly the case that shady ultranationalist groups have in the past instituted violent campaigns against Kurdish interests, PKK-associated and otherwise, purportedly in the name of ‘defending the state’.

It may be that the greatest risk to the ongoing peace process is not PKK intransigence but the ultranationalists threatening violence. Yet the hard-line nationalist position fails to recognise that the unchecked militaristic approach during the ‘80s and ‘90s did not bring a solution and only exacerbated the Kurdish issue, something that Prime Minister Erdoğan acknowledges. It similarly remains deaf to the fact that, as reported by Turkish research institute SETA in 2009, a majority of Kurds do not subscribe to a separatist mentality but want recognition of their Kurdish identity while remaining citizens of Turkey.

It is to be hoped that government and Kurdish negotiators can hold their course, not allowing threats or diversions – whichever side they may come from – to derail the peace process. There currently exists a great opportunity to address the Kurdish issue, to bring about a so-called Kurdish spring, and in doing so to cast off a millstone that has weighed down the Turkish Republic throughout its history.

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…