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




Sokakta hayat var: streetlife in İstanbul

THE GRAFFITI on the wall in Kadıköy said, ‘Sokakta hayat var’: life is on the street.

In Gedik Paşa, down the hill from the Grand Bazaar, the cobblestones run rough. A Georgian woman serves me breakfast. Churches domes – Armenian, Greek – emerge above the roof lines, looming over shops, workshops, teahouses and streetfronts. Set back. Hunkered down.

In the shop, buying fruit. The shopkeeper is unusually frank, not mincing words about Turkish history, the untoward things that have gone on; of course, he’s Kurdish. Locals come and go; he speaks openly, not holding back. Then I realise, it’s a Kurdish neighbourhood.

Near Süleymaniye Mosque. Cats under the trees in the graveyard, and rooks hovering. Gypsy children. Girls in headscarves and mantö, presumably devout, arm-in-arm with their boyfriends.

pomegranate-stallBetween the bazaar and Eminönü, the man selling pomegranate juice. From Mardin. Untalkative. The Türkmen women, with their elaborate head dresses, as if they are concealing beehive hairdos under floral patterns. Serene countenances with an Asiatic cast. They hover over the flagstones, gliding like swans.

Lights blazing at night; traffic continues, shadows, fumes, beams of light. People in the street, children, old men; cries and exclamations. The world afoot, each individual on their own vitally important errands; independent yet synchronised. Islam is the religion of trade – every one buying, selling, lugging shopping, offloading something, haggling, bargaining, reaching a deal. Pushing carts laden with fruit, socks, stationery, nail clippers, sunflower seeds in brown-paper bags. The bearded hoca sitting opposite the church, with his wares laid out beside him on the footpath. The small boy manning the till at his father’s corner shop.

The next morning, the call to prayer. Seagulls hover and squawk. A view of the Blue Mosque from an attic window.

On the hill between Kadıköy and Üsküdar, the cemetery with its cypress trees and family plots. The scent of lopped fig trees. On Nuh Kuyusu, the stonemasons tapping away at marble headstones. The barber in his basement-level shop, looking wistfully at the street.

mihrimar-sultan-2In Üsküdar, by night. Mopeds going the wrong way, on the footpath, through red lights. The blind men, one in dark glasses, sitting outside the mosque, smiling benevolently, their canes folded neatly on the bench beside them. The wind through the plane trees.

Turkish women, with their dark eyes, their chatter and inflected vowels, aswirl around me, like shades. The Mihriman Sultan Mosque, a drab tortoise in the daylight, now illuminated in pastel shades, peach, saffron.

So many shops, so many specialising in one thing: çiğ köfte, chicken kebabs, börek, baklava. The street pedlars with mussels or simit. The büfes, with their wet hamburgers and cheesy toasts and sosislis. But nowhere to get a drink.

The Syrian refugee family, sitting, cross-legged, on cardboard boxes on the grass, presumably where they will sleep for the night. The little girl, perhaps eight years old, sitting so upright, so proudly. So heartbreakingly proudly. As the commuting masses rush past her unheeding. Night descending. The ferries moving across the dark waters. The lights on the Bosphorus Bridge flickering.

Next day. Karaköy. Scents of the sea, of the fish in the bazaar, of diesel fumes. The cries of the fishmongers. And the growl of the ferries.

Meeting my new Kurdish friend. Sitting on the little stools. Talking so intently that we keep ordering more tea, glass by glass.

st-anthony-churchIn St Anthony’s. Muslim pilgrims in a Catholic church. The headscarved girls taking selfies with the altar as a backdrop. Lighting candles that flicker in the water trays. The attendant telling people not to take photos and pointing at the pictures of forbidden activities, proceeding to answer his phone when it rings.

On İstiklal, the folksingers. He with red hair, playing a güsle; his rich baritone perfectly in harmony with her soprano. Gypsy junkies nodding amid the assembled crowd, jerking awake to clap politely after each song. The 3/4 (or perhaps 7/8) rhythms and tapping feet. Of course, the singers are Laz – his red hair.

The blind man busking with his recorder, his wife, with eyes unseeing, clutching his arm and talking on her phone. Heading down toward the Galata Tower. Nargile smoke. Wisps of coconut and cherry bomb.

singers-istiklalLeaving Karaköy again on the ferry. The silhouettes, the cardboard cut-out canopies, the domes, the minarets, like silverware: candlesticks, salt and pepper pots. The sun emerging from behind the clouds to set the Bosphorus ablaze, a flickering sheet of beaten gold.

On the Asian side again. The fire truck, siren blaring, stuck in gridlock.

After dark, the flagstones slick with rain. No moon in the sky.

Life is on the street.

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.

Hope for Hasankeyf

HASANKEYF is a study in contrasts. Here in this remote southeastern corner of Anatolia, the blinding brightness of midday gives way to the pastel shades of evening, hills assume a lavender tint and the horizon fades to smoky indefinition. History is everywhere but it is swamped by the tackiness of modernity: electrical wires cut across a skyline punctuated with minarets; cheap plastic seats and tables are arranged against aged limestone walls; mosque facades are embellished with the most intricate stonework, the tracery of Kufic calligraphy , and in front will be set up a promotional umbrella of a soft drink company or a groaning refrigerated, glass-topped cabinet with ice creams for sale. In these juxtapositions and contradictions it is like so many towns in Turkey’s southeast. Ramshackle, chaotic, these towns are unsightly in parts, but buzzing with an undeniable vitality.

artuklu-gravesHasankeyf’s most significant contradiction is that it boasts a wealth of architectural and archaeological treasures, legacy of a history that dates back millennia, yet it apparently has no place in the Turkish present. On the banks of the Tigris, Hasankeyf may once have been an important regional hub, seat of Byzantine bishops, Ayyubid emirs, Artuklu and Akkoyunlu beys, but it is slated to disappear under the waters of the Ilısu dam project.

The Ilısu is part of a decades-old GAP project aimed at developing the southeast, bringing water and hydroelectric power to these troubled largely Kurdish-populated provinces. The GAP project is well advanced; other treasures have been submerged by other dams in various southeastern provinces. The Ilısu has been held up largely due to controversy over Hasankeyf. In 2009 European creditors withdrew funding due to concerns raised about the impending destruction of the town’s important cultural heritage as well as lack of adequate compensation or planning for the significant numbers of locals who would be forced to move should the dam go ahead. The Turkish government has since secured alternative funding and forged on with Ilısu, and until recently it appeared that Hasankeyf’s days were numbered. Progress on the dam project had gathered such momentum that at the end of last year, a group of international sculptors agreed to create marble sculptures in Hasankeyf that would be inundated as the flood waters rose to claim the town.

cardaks-tigrisHasankeyf squarely qualifies as being within the Mesopotamia of old, that is ‘between the rivers’. To the west is the Euphrates, while the town itself sits on a stretch of the Tigris which trundles eastward for a while then plummets south towards Syria and Iraq. The Tigris in Hasankeyf sluices past in a leisurely fashion. In its shallows, local women wade fully clothed and kids scamper, splash and wrestle. Enterprising locals have set up çardaks on the river’s edge. These are raised platforms, some in elaborate carved wood,  furnished with low cushions and tables and shaded with brushwood greenery, where diners can enjoy kebabs or grilled river fish while dangling their feet in the cool waters and tossing scraps to strutting geese. In my experience, local lads are wont to throw their empty soft drink cans into the river as well.

The town itself is a patchwork of historical treasures (nicely offset by some modern tack… as I mentioned earlier). The ruined arches and columns of a bridge built by the Artuklu Turks (12th century) straddle the river. The minaret of the Rizk mosque punctuates the skyline. This was built by the  Ayyubids, descendants of perhaps the world’s best known Kurd, Saladin. On the left bank of the river is the tomb of Zeynel Bey, son of a Akkoyunlu bey. On the opposite shore, and lording it over the town, is the citadel, doubtless a stronghold for a millennium, and longer.

rizk-minaretAll this is set to be submerged. In the name of development. The lust for economic growth outweighs any shortcomings that the loss of the cultural heritage would involve, even though the benefits of the Ilısu are far from certain, and even though there is considerable local opposition to the project. The implications of the dam extend beyond the immediate region as well: if it goes ahead there will be significant impacts stemming from the loss of water flow downstream in Iraq. From an official viewpoint, development must be allowed to unfurl, growth is the only and eternal panacea, and consequences be dammed… (forgive the appalling pun!)

However, in a recent development, the Turkish State Council ruled in favour of a case brought by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers claiming that the project did not have the requisite environmental clearances. For now, it appears that the Ilısu is stalled, however, bearing in mind similar halts to the project in the past, locals remain relatively unmoved by the ruling and fearful that any immediate celebration may be misplaced.

zeynel-bey-turbesiThe plight of Hasankeyf is all the more puzzling bearing in mind a recent announcement of a project to rebuild the Ottoman-era Manisa Palace. Here, in the Aegean hinterland, is a building of which only a single element, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet tower, remains yet which is seemingly important enough to rebuild from scratch. In the southeastern marches, meanwhile, an array of existing treasures are deemed expendable.

That Hasankeyf could be lost forever is mind boggling to me. To lose it would be an unspeakable tragedy. The wholly admirable website Hasankeyf Matters brings together an array of information about the town, its people, its architectural and cultural riches. The website is also aimed at raising the profile of Hasankeyf and its plight. If you’re Turkish (or Kurdish, or Syriac, or Turkmen, or anything…), if you live in Turkey, have travelled to Turkey, or if you  just would hate to see such an important place lost, then visit Hasankeyf Matters and please, please, please sign the petition at the right-hand margin that is addressed to the UNESCO World Heritage committee.

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…