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




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.

Sharing sacred spaces

ohrid-dance-1A new issue of the Levantine Review has just been published, and appropriately enough in the lead up to Christmas it includes my review of Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean, a scholarly volume of papers from European anthropologists and ethnologists detailing shared customs, rituals and devotional practices.

Christmas may not necessarily be a ‘space’ that is shared, but in our globalised world it is observed well beyond the bounds of Christendom. Perhaps this is partly due to pervasive Westernisation, but of course the Christmas story and festival has echoes and parallels in other traditions, and Jesus, at the heart of the celebration, in theory at least, is revered in Islam as well as Christianity.

Christmas is often sold as the season of goodwill to all men (OK, humanity may be more appropriate); Sharing Sacred Spaces records many an instance of goodwill amongst adherents of various faiths. It is an investigation into shared experiences, intermingling, communal living and devotional practices in the Mediterranean littoral, from Morocco to Lebanon, by way of Turkey and the Balkans. I have already referred to this volume in earlier blog posts, including one about St George and one about Sarajevo (a post which, two months old, is still receiving a gazillion hits – anyone got any idea why?).

gazi-husrevThe chapters of the book are ethnographic studies, most of which include the ‘thick description’ that was called for by the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, that is, close observation of cultural and social practices, human activities, everyday rituals; what makes the description truly ‘thick’ is the in-depth analysis of the political, environmental and societal contexts in which these events occur.

Even though the volume may be looking at sharing and intermingling in sacred spaces, it struck me how commonplace so many of these interactions were, not out of the ordinary but part and parcel of daily life as it has been unfurling for, in some cases, centuries, life as it had been before the encroachment of the perils and constraints of modernity. There may also be something of the all-happy-families-are-the-same/every-unhappy-family-is-unhappy-in-its-own-way dictum in the intercommunal and interconfessional interactions recorded in this volume for they are as complicated as they are diverse.

ohrid-taxiAnd while this is a scholarly collection, there is enough observation of ritual, custom and practice to appeal to some general readers with an interest in the cultures of the Mediterranean. Some of the chapters are exercises in immersion, or so they seemed to me as I read. They evoke the feel of olive-wood tesbih/rosary beads, the curls of incense smoke, the excitement of crowds gathered, the whisper of feet on flagstones, light through arched windows, icons, candles. The miscellany of religious practice, the accoutrements that contribute to sanctity, the power of objects invested with spiritual dimensions, the soulfulness of things.

The various authors who contributed to Sharing Sacred Spaces clearly spent a long time in the field: to observe, analyse, and in some way understand the customs, events and ritual related. It was enough to evoke some melancholy on my part at missed opportunities in my own itineraries over the years, places that I have observed but not sought to truly comprehend, places like St Anthony’s in Beyoğlu in İstanbul, the neglected, yet operational, Armenian churches in Diyarbakır in Turkey’s southeast. These are places where tradition persists and modern practice evolves and people come and go despite perceived divisions that may exist between them and despite sometimes hostile political environments. Intercommunal interaction can continue in places such as this, as Galia Valtchinova elegantly put it in her chapter of this volume, as long as there is an ‘equilibrium between earthly powers and divine order’. Long may this equilibrium reign…

Talking a way out of chaos

THE MAIN IDEA of this blog is to highlight the comingling of cultures and peoples across Eurasia, and the creative tumult that said comingling spawns. There is little that could be called creative occurring at the moment, however. The tumult is of a decidedly nasty bent.

The journalist Christopher de Bellaigue described the Ottoman Anatolian heartlands as ‘chaotically cosmopolitan’, but at present a jaded observer may comment that there is not so much cosmopolitanism as unadorned chaos. Cases in point:

*a roadside bombing in Gaziantep kills nine including three children; variously blamed on the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), or the Syrian regime

*a re-energised PKK kidnapping a parliamentary deputy, Hüseyin Aygün, on the back roads around Tunceli, an audacious act, snatching a democratically elected official

*inter-communal violence during Ramazan as Alevis were targeted by the Sunni majority in Malatya

*Iran and Turkey at loggerheads over Syria, with some pundits claiming that the bombing in Gaziantep was a foreseeable consequence of Turkey’s meddling in Syrian affairs, the Assad regime using the PKK to strike back at Ankara.

*clashes between Kurds and police in Diyarbakir in July when a rally organised by the pro-Kurdish BDP was disrupted by police

*after some progress finally being made on the issue of the use of Kurdish names and language, a court in Diyarbakır banning, in July, the naming of a park after a Kurdish poet, as well as 19 other municipal parks with Kurdish names (who would’ve thought that dusty Diyarbakır has so many parks…)

There is a lot to be contested here: political agendas, nationalist agendas, issues of democracy and the rule of law, the clash of distinct chauvinisms, conflicting identities and conceptions of the ‘nation’. No doubt debate will rage now about how best to address a whole mess of interconnected issues that are generally lumped together as ‘the Kurdish issue’. There will certainly be those who beat the drums of war, proposing that a military response is the only way to deal with an emboldened PKK.

It’s pretty likely that in Ankara there are some who are kicking themselves that they didn’t capitalise on earlier opportunities to address Kurdish concerns and demands, when the ‘Kurdish opening’ was implemented and the PKK was less on the front foot. Turkish journalist Semih İdiz comments that had Turkey played its cards better earlier as regards its Kurdish population then recent developments in northern Syria, where Kurdish groups have gained control, would not have complicated matters to the extent that they have today.

But there will be those now who declare that any attempt at dialogue was misguided and doomed to failure – the current violence is proof enough – that making concessions on Kurdish demands for cultural and language rights is giving in to terrorists, that questioning notions of homogenous Turkishness is dishonouring the nation/founding fathers/those killed in the PKK insurgency. Pointing to ongoing clashes between the Turkish army and the PKK in the southeast, they will argue that the only way to defeat the PKK is to *defeat* it. One could counter these hawks by saying that the best way to honour the nation/founding fathers/those killed in the PKK insurgency would be to see that Turkey becomes a peaceful, prosperous nation, not one riven by ethnic tensions, insurgency and counter insurgency, not subject to martial law and military depredations.

Of course, nearly 30 years of military action has not defeated the PKK, nor has it allowed enough oxygen to dialogue or democratic initiatives or the will of the people to ensure that they have much impact, far less flourish. Even in the latest series of conflagrations, however, there is reason for hope. The PKK’s brazen kidnapping of Aygün was initially seen as something of a PR coup and taken as a measure of its authority and clout. But rather than cowing the people, the PKK’s actions – snatching an enormously popular figure in Tunceli – provoked outrage, and rather than enduring a long period of confinement, Aygün was released after only two days.

Did the mouse roar? Perhaps so. The Aygün episode may just be a sub-plot in a major drama, but it may have implications for the broader production. Perhaps this means that rather than just a two-way tussle (military vs. PKK), the contested Kurdish issue is seeing the entry of another player – the people – and perhaps now the people, for whom both military and the PKK have purported to act for three decades, are determined to have their say. If the people speak, a solution can be found, and a way out of chaos.

Perhaps the (figurative) gypsy will play, and the Kurd(s) will dance, yet…