Victimhood and suffering are relative. India’s Muslim population has been dealt severe blows in recent months. Now they have to reckon with coronavirus as it encroaches upon Indian soil, and a nationwide lockdown.
In December 2019, Modi’s government introduced an amendment to the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Whereas the standard Indian Citizenship law requires a person to have lived in India for 11 years before they are able to apply for citizenship, the amended bill grants exceptions to migrants fleeing Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The catch? It only applies to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians. Notice the yawning absence of Muslims from the list.
Widely criticised as flagrantly anti-Muslim, the change has offended Indians of all faiths. They say faith cannot be made a condition of citizenship, and that the bill violates the secular principles enshrined in the Indian constitution. Quoted by the BBC, historian Mukul Kesavan argues the bill’s “main purpose is the delegitimisation of Muslims’ citizenship” – link.
Many see the controversial bill as part of a larger plan by Modi’s right-wing nationalist government to marginalise India’s 200 million Muslims. Senior leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Ram Madhav, has called critics ‘bleeding hearts’.
Why is this relevant during coronavirus?
Widespread mob violence and sectarian carnage have forced Muslims from their homes and communities – in droves. Riots fuelled with iron rods, Molotov cocktails and homemade guns have killed dozens and injured hundreds. Mosques have been raided and torched. Thousands of Muslims have found themselves living in makeshift camps.
Add a global coronavirus outbreak into the mix, and the next few months look very rocky for many Muslims – and their supporters – living in India’s cities. The ferocious violence that has engulfed parts of Delhi has left families with nothing but the clothes in which they fled their burning homes.
Now, having introduced unprecedented lockdown measures, Modi’s government has outlawed gatherings of more than 30 people. This obviously threatens the existence of the camps which house hundreds and thousands of India’s Muslims.
“If coronavirus doesn’t kill me, hunger will”
In short, India’s shutdown is catastrophic for its displaced Muslims, who are already marginalised, living day-to-day, and often homeless.
Drivers, maids, auto-rickshaw drivers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, artisans and street vendors buy lentils or vegetables to feed their families from the day’s earnings. There are no reserves, well-stocked freezers, or anything saved for a rainy day. As one daily wage labourer said: “If the coronavirus doesn’t kill me, hunger will.”
For those uprooted by the rioting, this applies, but worse. Many families are grieving for loved ones who have been beaten to death. Now, they must fend for their own lives in lockdown. How do you ‘stay at home’ when your home has been torched? Families have no choice but to divide themselves among the homes of relatives, and to stretch their measly ration money beyond all reasonable expectation.
It is easy to feel like a victim of coronavirus. Easier still, to think of one’s grandparents, whose nursing homes are without sufficient medical supplies. But think for a minute of those whose homes are non-existent, whose need for medical attention is dwarfed by hunger and fear, and whose plight is not plastered on the front pages of daily newspapers.
Coronavirus has struck at an interesting time. These are turbulent days. Commentators speak in seismic proportions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ replacing such indulgencies as past and future. We are living in the midst of an Event, or a The Event, like the event which occurred on the 11th of September, 2001. It is an event that shapes modern history, after which one does not look back in quite the same way. Maybe such an event is inevitable. Maybe coronavirus is necessary for us to change direction.
It is bad
Chilling stories are emerging which recommend the most drastic measures for 12–18 months. If not, 2.2 million will die. If we are clever and disciplined and follow orders, only 1.1 million will die. If we alter our lifestyles dramatically, only 20,000 will die.
The only reliable metric we have is death count. Different countries test and report differently. Widespread testing has not yet been rolled out, and the 14-day incubation period means that even if draconian measures are put in place now, we could still see sharp rises in case numbers during the two weeks that follow.
But it has always been bad
It is interesting that, following such cataclysmic climate catastrophes as the Australian bushfires, it is only now that such measures look likely. In 2018, as many as 29 million people were adversely affected by climate disasters. Wildfires ravaged California, hurricanes battered other parts of the US, and 5 million were displaced by flooding in India.
If you look at the numbers, they are staggering in ways the coronavirus isn’t — yet. We live in a time of unprecedented times. We read about giant events resetting the lives of other people all the time. But these are localised, generally speaking, or at least easy to think of as such.
Climate activists the world over called for policy overhauls, and small victories were won. But nothing fundamentally changed. Someone dies by committing suicide every 40 seconds. There were over 6,500 suicides in the UK in 2018 alone. The Yemeni Civil War has led to as many as 100,000 deaths since 2015. But for some reason, these all get swept under the rug. There are ongoing global tragedies that fail to galvanise us as a human population.
Is coronavirus the silver bullet we need?
In the wake of COVID-19, there have been a smattering of quietly beautiful news reports. Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan are among several Chinese cities to be enjoying uncharacteristically blue skies. Air pollution levels are lower than they have been, in some cases, for decades.
Likewise, in Italy, pollution levels are plummeting. The ban on all but essential travel in swathes of Europe is allowing the continent’s airwaves to breathe, and its waterways to refresh. The canals of Venice are seeing dolphins for the first time in 60 years.
An unexpected side effect of the pandemic: Water’s flowing through the canals of Venice is clear for the first time in forever. The fish are visible, the swans returned
Europe’s most hated airline, along with several other budget carriers, are grounding the vast majority of their flights. While this is an estimable bummer for pilots and crews, the benefits are clear.
The yet-to-be-realised cherry
Social commentators in the UK, US and elsewhere are noticing the resurgence in favour of socialist policies. Educational institutions, both brick-and-mortar and online, are making pay-to-access materials free for a limited time (read: 12 to 18 months) to help those in quarantine. Visited the NYT, The Journal, and QNS for more detail on those. In the UK, the Co-op has joined legions of others in supporting children forced to stay home during these first months of the pandemic.
Healthcare professionals, among other keyworkers keeping our society relatively intact, are self-deploying on the frontline. Volunteers are jumping out of the woodwork. Community groups abound. Town councils are considering buying and cultivating local land. Teachers are offering their services remotely and for free.
We are seeing glimmers of a socialist utopia through the cracks forming in our crumbling, ultra-consumerist paradigm. Universal Basic Income is being floated with renewed buoyancy — people all over country are recognising that the government’s business-first approach has set us up to fail during a time of global health crisis. Our gutted NHS is understaffed, under-resourced and criminally undervalued.
And lead us not into temptation
It has been said that we will see the best and worst of humanity in the coming weeks and months. It is tempting in such situations to simplify the virus. We might see it as a divine clarion call, or method of holy retribution — punishment for sins uncountable — designed to sweep us out of ideology and into something purer. But do not become unstuck.
Anti-misinformation measures from tech companies may help mute these voices, but, as the anti-vaccine movement demonstrates, the task will be Sisyphean unless we understand and address the mechanism by which maladies become mirrors.
Aside from being a killer reference to Sisyphus and delightfully alliterative, this is perceptive. Human populations are weak when shocked. Ideas proliferate, but so do prejudices, misinformation and wanton references to the divine.
Conspirators sit at their computers, or in front of shiny logos, and pontificate about the ever-changing ‘they’ and what ‘they’ stand to gain. Trump calls it a Chinese virus — we are told to ‘wake up and smell the silicon’ — Asian-looking Brits are being beaten in the streets. Heaven only knows what Piers Morgan has to say.
Seek method in madness, and measures of moderation
If you gaze long into the abyss of a disease, your own ideology gazes back at you.
True, and fair enough. The virus is not some pendulous revenge tack swung back at us by Mother Nature herself. We are not living an allegory, lungs besieged by the viral wing of a suffocating Gaia.
Yes, there are somewhat pleasingly poetic connections to be found between our hyper-industrial, anthropocentric activity on this earth, a strangling of the world’s resources, or pummelling of its vital organs, and the ease with which the coronavirus swipes at our respiratory systems — individual and collective.
But the blanket coverage of coronavirus is not a test from a divine power. Nor, probably, was it fabricated with evil intent, or released by Jeff Bezos to increase dependence on Amazon. Disparate micro-patterns emerge but do not necessarily form a larger whole. Those profiting from the virus are simply well placed. Obviously Bezos stands to gain because he is well placed to gain in just about any situation.
If we are going to ride this wave towards a socialist utopia (and please let’s do that), let us do so carefully, with measure, and without crashing.
Shocking statistics abound, yet travel bloggers, tourist boards and travel agencies are ardent in their praise of Sri Lanka’s invariably hospitable locals. We have a duty to inform.
The argument: Basically, it should be possible for a young woman, “modestly” clad or otherwise, to travel independently around a country without exeriencing sexual harassment, be it in the form of physical abuse or verbal assault. In a country known for its pristine beaches, verdant forests and luscious flora–perhaps, above all, its welcoming locals–it is important to note what goes on beneath the surface, and how sexual harassment in Sri Lanka affects all who live there.
Note: Ninety per cent experience sexual harassment in Sri Lanka
It is a shocking statistic, one that many would choose to disbelieve. 90% of Sri Lanka’s women have endured some kind of sexual harassment on public transport, against a global estimate of 1 in 3 women. It is the highest rate in South Asia. Conversely, according to a 2013 UN study just one third of Sri Lankan men admit to having carried out an act of physical or sexual violence against a woman. 3% are arrested.
But statistics often fail where a personal, targeted anecdote will succeed. Statistics are shocking but rarely incite behavioural or ideological changes. The mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang Province is shocking, but persists in part because of deliberate blind-spotting; the number of people reliant on foodbanks in the UK is shocking, but policy changes are not forthcoming.
People become rape apologists when they say things like she should not have worn those clothes, or she was drunk—she was asking for it. These familiar statements are almost never spoken by women, let alone sufferers of abuse. Why? Because shared experience, or, failing that, mutual understanding, leads to solidarity.
A rape apologist changes his tune
We have three levels of kinship: small [intimate—family], medium [associative—community] and large [distant/extensive—race, country, religion]. Statistics appeal to the broadest of social circles, and garner an academic response.
My connection to the UK is vague, so my response to an issue like homelessness in the UK, when presented in terms of statistics, is just so. Narrating isolated incidents is more affective. Localised and personal, a story is more likely to strike an emotional chord; it establishes humanness, but it does not guarantee the element of community. Hearing about the brutal murder of two touring cyclists in Mexico in June last year sent shivers down my spine because I was cycle-touring at the time. If I read about it now, my response would be more distant.
The surest way to generate an emotive reaction is to make something about the inner circle—it is a matter of framing. People care about themselves and their families. Quote stats to Tom, Dick or Harry and you are likely to receive glazed eyes and excuses.
What if was your daughter? Then I’d kill him.
It happens like this. If a family member is on the line, no counter response is too severe.
Taking something personally (offence) depends on ones investment in an idea. Anyone who has received abuse on the basis of something particular (race, gender, sexuality, disability) shows solidarity with the other members of their clan. They are committed to the idea; it is something integral to their identity. Feminists are committed to the ideal of equality of opportunity among all genders—therefore the abuse of women is offensive. It is an effrontery. Islamophobia offends devout Muslims because they are emotionally committed to the idea of Islam: Allah, Mohammed, the Qu’ran—these are sacrosanct. For trans people, being trans is very important. The oppressed defend each other because of their need for mutual solidarity.
Piquing the interest of straight men in what are perceived to be “women’s issues”—sexual harassment, misogyny, domestic abuse—can be bizarrely challenging. “Causes” like feminism, trans rights, or pro-choice campaigns are of no interest, because they seek to increase representation for members of other clans. Sexual violence statistics are shrugged off because they are just that—statistics. However, ask this man how he would react if it was his sister, or his mother or daughter, and a switch will flick.
Assaults on Sri Lankan women, whether by family members or uniformed officers, are widespread, and should offend us all. Yet somehow they slip off the radar. These women live in a culture which grants immunity to many predatory men. While this is certainly the case in much of the world – rape cases are notoriously unreported, and seldom lead to prosecution – the proportions seem magnified in Sri Lanka.
Are we really living in paradise?
Sri Lanka is frequently hailed as a slice of heaven, the ‘Wonder of Asia’. This level of praise is to be expected from those who have a vested interest in increasing tourist traffic, i.e., business owners. But bloggers are at it too, lauding Sri Lanka as the perfect destination for young women (and men) to come and reconnect with nature.
But given the statistics regarding sexual harassment in Sri Lanka, should this not come with a caveat? Leafing through articles dealing specifically with whether or not Sri Lanka is a safe place for solo female travellers, it is deeply surprising to find such consistent disparities between point-blank assertions of paradisal safety and the reality I have come to know.
The increasing role, and importance, of social media reportage
On social media, everyone has a voice. There are democratic platforms where perpetrators of sexual violence can be called out directly by their victims. Solidarity can be established. This is where the truth emerges.
A recent post on the subject, in an expat group on Facebook, has received a lot of attention. Dated 10th June 2019, the original post details a series of incidents of harassment experienced by the poster’s partner, and asks how often the (mostly foreign) female members of the group encounter sexual harassment here in Sri Lanka. Responses almost invariably expressed solidarity. Many were vocal with words of support, or offered their own experiences.
To quote a few:
“I don’t trust men here at all”; “I feel her pain”; “Sri Lanka is the first [on my] list of sexual harassment problems”; “Having travelled extensively and lived in several countries I’ve never experienced this as much as in Sri Lanka. Pls don’t put your head in the sand, it’s a known issue here that needs to be addressed”; “Women should not have to be covered completely to avoid this vulgar stupidity”; “This country is the pits […] So tired”; “Every day. I can’t even walk to the shop 50 meters away without getting some”; “It’s a daily struggle”; “I only go out with my husband”; “All. The. Fucking. Time”; “It’s every time I visit Sri Lanka, the amount of sexual advances men make is numerous”
and so on. Let it be noted that there are severer denigrations of the culture here which I have elected to omit—likewise, there are women who have not experienced problems. The quoted passages are, in truth, the modal average. They are in the majority.
I was there for 3 months and experienced this on a regular basis… the landlord’s relative would sneak into the house in broad daylight just to “talk to me” and would follow me everywhere. At first id be polite but when I raised my voice and told him to F off he tried to block me with his bike. Not to mention the time he broke into the gates of the house I was staying at in the middle of the night and tried to steal my things off my windowsill/watch me sleep […] Verbal harassment daily, I couldn’t go to the beach alone…
Reading these drove the point home to me, personally, in a way that an article on a news website does not. It is something to do with being part of an actual, active community. I do not know these people personally, but feel tied to them, experientially. Similarly, hearing the experiences of friends here actualises the problem in a way a statistic does not.
One comment stuck out to me, and resonated with Laura.
After two years there, [I am] living elsewhere now and realizing how much it made an imprint on me. Half a year later and I’m still walking around in a much safer country with my walls up, dressing more conservatively, carrying anger when I don’t need to point it at anyone.
This is a culture which rubs off on people, creating lasting effects on behaviour, openness and personal security. Besides these, I have heard personal accounts of hit-and-run groping, motorbike drivers who swerve towards and grab at someone’s body before speeding off; hotel owners persistently offering massages or requesting to teach the Kama Sutra to a single woman in her bedroom; a jogger being pursued onto the beach by an unknown man; the list goes on.
Contrary to a position held by many online writers, sexual harassment (from untoward attention to physical assault) is the rule, not the exception. Some argue that ‘dressing modestly helps’, but the evidence also contradicts this. One woman I spoke to has been groped in plain sight, while wearing jeans and a long sleeve top. That modesty helps is a truism, a platitude, and as such is meaningless.
People write with ostensible authority about how safe Sri Lanka is for women after spending a week on the island. It seems pertinent to consider how much one can learn of a country in a week, and how much safety depends on financial insulation. No doubt many of those who can afford to stay in resorts, and pay drivers, have no problems at all. It is those who cannot pay for this treatment who are more vulnerable.
Yes, Sri Lankan bus rides are part of the *authentic experience*, but if that authentic experience involves a man rubbing his groin on your shoulder for two hours, perhaps it is worth foregoing
Reporting sexual harassment
While there are relatively few published accounts, incidents of harassment/abuse concerning foreigners are real, and troubling. What’s more, given their scarcity, it is a duty of those selling the Sri Lankan experience not to gloss over them.
Rarely covered, rarely reported. Why?
Submitting oneself to Sri Lanka’s legal process is an ordeal most tourists and expats (and, I imagine, local women) would rather avoid. The simple act of reporting can be torturous. One woman wrote of her experience reaching out for help from four police officers at the front desk of a police station. They heard her out and laughed, ‘as if I had just told them a joke’. When the tuktuk driver who had attempted to assault her entered the police station demanding she pay him for the journey, the officers told her she would have to ‘stay with them’ if she did not pay her would-be assaulter. ‘This is why the women rarely report incidents to the police.’
Grandiose actions taken by the Sri Lankan authorities do little to solve the real issues. After Dutch tourists were brutally assaulted on Mirissa beach in 2018, the government responded with a sweeping gesture. Much of the beach infrastructure was bulldozed in a morass of short-sighted problem-solving. 100 police officers, 24 Anti-Riot Squad personnel and a water cannon, as well as several teams of Special Task Force personnel, were deployed to oversee the demolition and prevent any protest.
It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut: the collateral damage was huge, and unnecessary. Innocent people lost businesses and the town suffered because tourists had nothing to stay for. Such token gestures are big on pomp and circumstance, and little on tackling the cause—a lack of sex education and a society which marginalises (devoices) women.
Why does this continue to happen?
It’s the last thing that this island needs right now is bad press and a few dumb idiots chasing away the few tourists we have.
Sri Lanka is still reeling from a spray of coordinated attacks by religious radicals. As tourist numbers begin, at last, to climb, and business owners put out calls to repopulate their hotels and cafes (“for the good of the country”), it is imperative that the sexual predators of this country do not go unnoticed. For this to happen, duties need to be fulfilled.
Bloggers have a duty to inform incoming tourists of the statistics, as giving out rose tinted glasses to young women on journeys of self-discovery can encourage naivety and feed the opportunism of their would-be antagonists. Residents and tourists alike, male and female, foreign and native, have a duty of care to each other. Foreign offices must acknowledge the prevalence of sexual harassment, as should informative sites like Lonely Planet, Wikitravel and Trip Advisor. These are also truths that should be circulated in expat communities, so that incomers understand the environment they are committing to living in.
But the real onus to change lies with the men who perpetuate a culture which freely oppresses women’s freedoms. This includes the police officers who discredit the testimonies of the women who come to them for support; anyone who witnesses anything and fails to call it out; anyone who does not apply pressure to a brother or friend to change their behaviour. Seen from any angle, the verbal and/or physical harassment of people based on their sex is socially backwards. Quashing it requires a push from all sides.
Tackling the symptoms
Sri Lankan women, at least in the provinces, endure silently, while foreigners lack the wherewithal to penetrate a self-protecting system. Fortunately, the ball is rolling on policymaking, and change is on its way, but campaigns like ‘Not On My Bus’ need nationwide (not just metropolitan) publicity, and legitimacy.
Combating sexual harassment requires a two-pronged approach. Not only is it necessary to give voice to victims—all victims—by inviting claimants to come forward and treating claimants with compassion, not disdain. Perpetrators must be brought to account. Police officers who would rather laugh at victims than help them are guilty and should be reported, because they create an environment in which it is impossible to pursue justice. The man on the bus who, while pretending to be asleep, repeatedly touches the thigh of the woman sitting next to him, is guilty, and should change his behaviour. Colombo’s mayor understands that this is a “national issue”—the country needs to understand this too. Zero tolerance. Don’t be a bystander. #CreateAScene.
Addressing the cause
This is how problems are really solved. Sex education here is basic. A 2013 study by the Family Health Bureau found 50% of young people in Sri Lanka had limited knowledge about sexual reproduction and health. Less than half of girls knew that pregnancy can result from the first sexual intercourse; many across the board failed to answer basic questions about reproductive health. It has been called a ‘sexual emergency’.
According to independent sexual health consultant Peter Gordon, sex(uality) education has a number of clear mutually reinforcing objectives:
Increase knowledge and understanding (about sex and the law, the nature of abuse and how to address it);
Explore and clarify feelings, values and attitudes (developing self-esteem, pride in one’s body);
Develop or reinforce skills (saying “no”, resisting pressure);
Promote and sustain risk-reducing behaviour.
Educators are in a position of great power and responsibility when it comes to the development of children’s attitudes to fundamental social issues. Suitably trained, they could make up for lost time, regarding those children who receive no sexual education at home. Furthermore, they can facilitate open and safe discussion spaces, in schools, in which children and young people can come to terms with: a) the attitudes they absorb from the media they subconsciously consume, b) the sexual naivety of their peers, and c) the fact of their own humanness, their history and physiology.
Addressing domestic abuse and sexual violence in a curricular context brings these issues to the surface, and assures would-be victims of the prevalence of the issue—it establishes a nationwide support network. It also informs the would-be perpetrators of the traumas these practices can induce. There is a future in which no part of society is oppressed because of their sex, sexuality or sexual decisions. Informing the national dialogue on these subjects may well be the key to unlocking that future.
Breaking point has been reached: the Israel-Palestine conflict has spilled over into the domain of mass entertainment.
Displaying the Palestinian flag during the recap of the acts, Iceland’s Hatari ruffled more than a few feathers. Indeed, it prompted swathes of online commentators to demand that Eurovision remain apolitical. Should that be so—is it best—is it even possible not to politicise eurovision?
[C]onsider this: many normal values we cherish in Western society today – like same-sex marriage, right to due process, freedom of religion – people at one time had to fight for, through being indefatigable in protesting the establishment and demanding change.
“Don’t politicise Eurovision”? It already has been, it already is
There are those who insist that Eurovision remain simply about entertainment—that it remain apolitical. This position has as its foundation the notion that it is not yet political, that it has been, was—up until the point at which Iceland’s maverick quartet Hatari displayed the Palestinian flag to an audience of 180 million Europop lovers (or, at least, abiders)—not political.
But there is evidence to the contrary, decades of it. Luxembourg’s 1961 entry, about lovers facing prejudice, was about persecution on a personal level; Israel’s trans singer Dana International, who won in 1998, contributed to the discourse surrounding gender identity. Identity is political, whether you are oppressor or oppressed—whether you want it to be or not. In 2014, Conchita Wurst became a gay icon and, following this, Ireland’s 2018 performance featured two male dancers acting out a same-sex love story. This year, France’s trans performer sang about marginalisation. For years, Eurovision has served as a platform for highlighting social and political issues.
More overtly political acts have also featured prominently at Eurovision. In 2016, Ukrainian singer Jamala won with a song about the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union in WWII. The following year, Ukraine banned Russia from competing at all—politics, fairly deployed. (Russia’s way of undermining the political act was to dress it up as an amoral one: they sent a woman in a wheelchair to represent them, and spun the story so that Ukraine appeared as the tyrant, refusing access to the disabled) It might be easy to admonish Ukraine on grounds of not trying hard enough to rise above, but if the playground big-kid annexes your peninsula, what are you going to do? Politics is inevitable.
Australia’s induction in 2015 signified “a world where issues and beliefs, rather than borders, are important”—if beliefs and principles are to be the fundaments upon which a Eurovision family is born, is it not important to reaffirm and reform that ethical code? Such were the motives of Dana, Wurst, Jamala and Jean-Claude Pascal. Breaches of the code must be questioned.
The often cited purpose of Eurovision is to connect, transcend borders, subvert the myth that difference = conflict, that adjacent = opposit[e/ng]. It “gives visibility to identities and ways of being that you never see” (Dr Ruddock ,quoted above) – its aim, to harmonise, is a noble one, which it achieves through disruption of the status quo, challenging patchy ethical positions and unifying people by establishing a progressive ethos. It provides a platform for progressive notions and catalyses social change through exposure, focusing the world’s attention on social issues that need progress—LGBT perception and prejudice, body positivity (France 2019), the notion that milkmaids are chaste and prudish (Poland 2014), and so on.
It is my belief that a platform whereon countries, who would otherwise be in conflict with each other (or indeed currently are: Azerbaijan-Armenia, Turkey-Armenia, Georgia-Russia, Ukraine-Russia, etc.), can compete on a level playing field, is inherently political—if only because of the decision to give the combatants a chance to participate. When German and British soldiers played football in no-man’s-land during the World War, that was political. There are some things it is impossible not to politicise. Giving Saudi Arabia a slot on a show defined by its unifying moral codes would be incredibly political. It would be equivalent to saying ‘we, as a community, respect the way you conduct yourselves enough to join our contest’.
The rest of this article can be found on Medium, along with several others. Read about my experience of being held in Israeli immigration for five hours here.
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.
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.