This article about Kurds in Turkey is part of a series inspired by a cycling trip through Turkey, west to east, from Greece to Georgia (part of a larger trip from France to Azerbaijan). The other pieces can be found here and here.
—Elif, Araban, Southeast Turkey, 2018
Hills and trees and boulders. Half a day’s ride out of Gaziantep I reach Elif. Squat in a small hot valley, Elif is Turkish. That it is Turkish is not a given, but it is important. It was once a Roman settlement, Sugga. Now it is poor, very poor. The word ‘destitute’ keeps springing belligerently to mind but I push it down. This is Turkey, not Mali, not Afghanistan. But it does not align with what I have seen of Turkey. The Turkey I have come to know is plump, eager, communal—it invites and laughs. Here, something has left, something is missing.
There are children in clothes looking with the same curiosity but without excitement, without glint. They collect by the bike for something to do, their eyes need something. What is it? What do they lack? I don’t know how to feel. I want to give them something intangible, immaterial; to show them something, bring a spark to drive them to life. They are not in school but they are also not playing in gardens or tormenting parents or digging holes, they are just standing.
Kurds in Turkey
That this is Turkish and the relevance of this I only learn later, in a town I don’t know the name of, from a Kurdish man, in German. There are a string of Kurdish towns dotting this road out of Gaziantep, following the Euphrates up to the Atatürk Dam (pictured on the 1 lira banknote, 2005-9). Kurdish by majority. 80% of this town, 23,000 in the neighbouring towns and villages. Somewhere between 8 and 20 million native Kurdish speakers live in Turkey, though to honour this man and his kin ‘Turkey’ should be in inverted commas. To them, this is not Turkey and they are not Turkish. It is northern Kurdistan, a land traumatised by history.
A small lesson in history
Since late antiquity, the land called Kurdistan has been a battleground. The Roman, Persian, Safavid and Ottoman empires fought bloody wars on soil occupied by Kurds. Assyrians were driven out by pagans who were replaced, mostly, by Sunni Muslims. After WWI, the Allied Forces contrived the Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1920, which marked the beginning of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.
They, the benevolent We, offered the Kurds a truncated Kurdistan located entirely within modern Turkey – leaving out the Kurds of Iran, Iraq and Syria. This apportionment stoked the flames of Turkish nationalism, which sought to establish an independent Turkish republic out of the ashes of the OE. Ultimately, the death-knell to Kurdish self-governance was rung by Atatürk, a figure much revered by Turkey’s Europe-orientated west, who preserved Turkish sovereignty at the expense of Kurdish independence.
Fast-forward to June, 2018. I am sat with ethnic Kurds who, in the lead-up to the Turkish general election in June, are at once galvanised and resigned. They want to tell me what it is like for them, for Kurds, here in Turkey. Do I know? How much do we really know of Kurdistan in Western Europe, in our bubble of Brexit and Trump? Predominantly, these people oppose Erdoğan’s regime for its continuance of a series of policies which relegate Kurds to second-class citizens, stripping them of language and agency. Orwellian, but for us in the West it has always been a sideline issue.
We hear about military clashes and brand the Kurds terrorists. Indeed, the only Kurdish voice given an international stage during the latter part of the 20th century was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which NATO and the EU both hold to be a terrorist organisation. Theresa May has used the phrase “Kurdish terrorism” and Joe Biden agrees, what they “continue to do is absolutely outrageous.” These are the united voices of the UK and the US. Meanwhile, there are those who argue that Turkey sat on its fists while Kurds fought ISIL militias in Syria, hoping two wrongs would make a right. Let leftists and fascists battle it out until all that’s left is land, and bones.
Is progress being made?
Thankfully, the political injustices inflicted on Kurds by the Turkish government are finally being dismantled. While Kurdish language was forbidden in education and broadcast media until 2002, recent policy changes mean Kurdish is now available as an elective in schools, Kurdish language signs are no longer illegal, and a 24-hour Kurdish television station began airing on 1 January 2009. Still, conservative Turkish areas are suffused with an anti-Kurdish sentiment, and many Kurds feel hostile towards the Turkish government. For decades, they were without language. Next, one hopes, comes political agency.
Ibrahim, also at our table, is pro-Erdoğan—he is the only Kurdish Erdoğan supporter in the town, and proud to be an exception. Collectively, we talk about Election Day, 24 June, which looms. This is the first of many times my opinion is asked. To them, the West I represent is a cooperative amalgam of functioning democracies, operating with a collective goal in mind. Perhaps it is. Regardless of my own view, to them, in a sense, I represent an authority on the matter of successful governance. Asking me is like asking the teacher, except I don’t know how to answer. What do I think will happen? You tell me.
There are many ‘bought citizens’ in Turkey
I put the question to him. Will anything change? He says there are many verkaufte Menschen in Turkey, citizens who have been ‘bought’ by the government—votes traded for securities and wealth in a bid to secure Erdoğan’s victory. What do I think of all this? I think Britain’s squabbles are petty. I think of privilege, politics and perspective. I feel hollow as to what to do, personally.
I wonder if there is anything I can do—or they can do. Are we all powerless? Es ist kein Democracy, he says, but I don’t know. He is full of life and heart and that must mean something—to me, to the world. His energy, vitality and anger must have a knock-on effect somewhere down the line. No? He has purpose. I suppose that’s where I come in. I am a messenger, an outsider who can take word back and effect change, external to the soft war between Kurd and Turk and therefore, perhaps, a bearer of responsibility.
What I do know is that I am glad to have met him. I am grateful to him for the effect he has had on me, and that we could converse in a mutual tongue. Plied with kahve and cigarettes and lime soda, I move on. As I leave I think back to Elif, the Turkish town. I think about why I was struck by it. It occurs to me, given all we’ve talked about, that it isn’t so much about money as about something deeper.
It is not so black and white as oppressor and oppressed; these people are not the policies which govern them. But it is true that oppressed people join together. They join together in Kosovo. They join together in (and out of) Armenia. And in Kurdistan, community is their fallback. They come together to talk, because they must. They are bound by urgency and interdependence. They have been failed by the politicians. Now it falls to them to take action, and to look out for each other.