It was barely light in Istanbul as I stumbled into a taxi and headed for the airport to board a flight for Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in eastern Turkey, not far from the Iraqi border. The plane was full, thanks to a large party of what looked like chattering students with closely shaved heads, whose nervous excitement seemed to indicate they’d never left home before. One of them took the window seat next to my interpreter. It turned out he wasn’t a student but a newly conscripted soldier, heading east for more training and his first prolonged experience of barrack-room life, perhaps even of conflict. He couldn’t have been more than 18; this was his first time on a plane. As we took off he clutched the seat in front of him and looked fearfully out of the window. During the flight he calmed down and marvelled at the views of the mountains and lakes below, but as the plane began its descent he grabbed the seat again. Our safe landing was greeted with laughter by many of the shaven-headed platoon.
Only a few weeks previously, some young soldiers had been killed in clashes with guerrillas belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It used to be the case that when Turkish soldiers died in the conflict, their mothers were wheeled on to state television to tell the world how proud they were of the sacrifice. They had more sons at home, they would say, ready and waiting to defend the Fatherland. This time the mothers publicly blamed the government for the deaths of their sons.
Diyarbakir is the de facto capital of the Turkish part of Kurdistan, itself a notional state that extends for some six hundred miles through the mountainous regions of south-eastern Turkey, northern Syria, Iraq and Iran. Turkish Kurdistan is home to more than 14 million Kurds, who make up the vast majority of the region’s population; there are another four million Kurds in northern Iraq, some five million in Iran and a million in Syria. The Turkish sector is the largest and strategically the most important: it would be central to a Kurdish state. Hence the paranoia exhibited by the Turkish government and its ill-treatment of the Kurdish population, whose living conditions are much worse than those of the Kurds in Iraq or Iran.
Kurdish language and culture were banned at the foundation of the unitary Turkish Republic in 1923. The repression intensified during the 1970s, and martial law was imposed on the region in 1978, followed by two decades of mass arrests, torture, killings, forced deportations and the destruction of Kurdish villages. The PKK, founded by the student leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1978, began a guerrilla war in 1984, claiming the Kurds’ right to self-determination within (this was always stressed) the framework of a democratised and demilitarised Turkish state. By ‘democratisation’ Kurds mean the repeal of laws used to harass minorities or to deny them basic political rights. The constitution, for example, established in 1982, requires a party to get 10 per cent of the vote nationally before it can win parliamentary representation – the highest such threshold in the world. Kurdish nationalists consistently receive a majority of the votes in parts of eastern Turkey but have no members of parliament. When, in 1994, centre-left Kurdish deputies formed a new party to get over the 10 per cent barrier, they were arrested on charges of aiding the PKK and sentenced to 15 years in jail.
An estimated 200,000 Turkish troops have been permanently deployed in Kurdistan since the early 1990s, and in 1996 and 1998 fierce battles resulted in thousands of Kurdish casualties. By February 1999, when the fugitive Öcalan was captured in Kenya – possibly by the CIA – and handed over to Turkey, more than 30,000 Kurds had been killed and some 3000 villages burned or destroyed, which resulted in a new exodus to Diyarbakir; the city now has a population of more than a million. At the end of 1999, after heavy American lobbying, the EU extended candidate status to Turkey, with further negotiations conditional on some amelioration, at least, of the Kurdish situation. The pace of reforms accelerated after the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in November 2002. In 2004, the Kurdish deputies who had been arrested ten years earlier were finally released, and a Kurdish-language programme was broadcast for the first time on state television. In line with EU cultural heritage provisions, restoration work began on the old palace in Diyarbakir – even while Kurdish prisoners were still being tortured in its cellars.
My host, Melike Coskun, the director of the Anadolu Cultural Centre, suggested a tour of the walls and the turbot-shaped old town. We picked up Seymus Diken, cultural adviser to the recently elected young pro-PKK mayor. He took us to a mosque that was once a cathedral and before that a pagan temple where sun-worshippers sacrificed virgins on large stone slabs in the courtyard. It was a Friday during Ramadan and the mosque was filling up. The majority belonging to the dominant Sunni Hanafi school occupied the main room while the Shafii prayed in a smaller one.
We then visited three empty Christian churches. The first was Chaldean, built in 300 ad, and its brick dome was exquisitely held in place by intertwined wooden arches. The second, which was Assyrian, was square, and even older, with Aramaic carvings on the wood and stones. The caretaker lives in rooms attached to the church and grows vegetables in what was once the garden of the bishop’s palace. Hens roamed about, occasionally laying eggs beneath the altar. The Armenian church was more recent – 16th century – but without a roof. It was a more familiar shape, like a Roman Catholic church, and the priest confirmed that the Armenians who had once worshipped here were Catholics. Seymus began to whisper something to him. I became curious. ‘It’s nothing,’ Seymus said. ‘Since my triple bypass the only drink I’m allowed is red wine and there is a tiny vineyard attached to a monastery in the countryside. I pick up a few bottles from this church. It’s good wine.’ This was strangely reassuring.
We walked over to the old city walls, first built with black stone more than 2000 years ago, with layers added by each new conqueror. The crenellated parapets and arched galleries are crumbling; many stones have been looted to repair local houses. From an outpost on the wall, the Tigris is visible as it makes its way south. Seymus told me that he had been imprisoned in the palace cells by the Turkish authorities. ‘The next time you come,’ he promised, ‘this building will be totally restored and we will sip our drinks and watch the Tigris flow.’ In a large enclosed space below the wall there was an exhibition of photographs of Diyarbakir in 1911. The images, of a virtually intact medieval city, seemed to have little interest in the people who lived there but concentrated on the buildings. The photographer was Gertrude Bell, who later boasted that she had created modern Iraq on behalf of the British Empire by ‘drawing lines in the sand’. These lines, of course, also divided the territory of the Kurdish tribes, which claim an unbroken history in this area, stretching back well before the Christian era.
The first written records come after the Arab Muslim conquest. In the tenth century, the Arab historian Masudi listed the Kurdish mountain tribes in his nine-volume history, Meadows of Gold. Like most of the inhabitants of the region they converted to Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, and were recruited to the Muslim armies. They were rebellious, however, and took part in such uprisings as the Kharijite upheavals of the ninth century. (The Kharijites denounced the hereditary tradition as alien to Islam and demanded an elected caliph. They were crushed.) The Kurds settled around Mosul and took part in the epic slave revolt of the Zanj in southern Mesopotamia in 875. This, too, was defeated. Subsequently Kurdish bands wandered the region as mercenaries. Saladin’s family belonged to one such group, whose military skills soon propelled its leaders to power. During the 16th-century conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and the Safavids who ruled Iran, Kurdish tribes fought on both sides. Inter-tribal conflicts made Kurdish unity almost impossible.
When Gertrude Bell visited Diyarbakir in 1911, Muslims (mostly Kurds) constituted 40 per cent of the population. Armenians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, groups that had settled in what is now eastern Turkey well over a thousand years before the Christian era, remained the dominant presence. Istanbul was becoming increasingly unhappy with the idea of such a mixed population, and even before the Young Turks seized power from the sultan in 1909, a defensive nationalist wave had led to clashes between Turks and Armenian groups and small-scale massacres in the east. The Armenians began to be seen as the agents of foreign countries whose aim was to dismember the Ottoman Empire. It’s true that various wealthy Armenian (and Greek) factions were only too happy to cosy up to the West during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, but much of the Armenian population continued to live peacefully with their Muslim neighbours in eastern Anatolia. They spoke Turkish as well as their own language, just as the Kurds did. But Armenian nationalist revolutionaries were beginning to talk of an Armenian state and the communities increasingly divided along political lines. A Kurdish militia was set up by the sultan to cow the Armenians, and then Mehmed Talat, the minister for the interior (who would be assassinated by an Armenian nationalist), decided to get rid of them altogether. The Kurdish irregulars carried out the forced expulsions and massacres of 1915 in which up to a million Armenians died.
Melike told me that her grandmother was Armenian, and that Kurdish families had saved many lives and given refuge to Armenian women and children who had converted to Islam in order to survive. Two years ago Fethiye Çetin, a lawyer and a historian, published a book about her grandmother, who in old age had confessed to Çetin that she wasn’t a Muslim, but an Armenian Christian. The book was launched at the cultural centre Melike runs. ‘The hall was packed with women who had never been near our centre before,’ Melike said. ‘After Fethiye had finished so many women wanted to speak and discuss their Armenian roots. It was amazing.’ Çetin writes that her grandmother was a ‘sword leftover’ child, which is how people whose lives had been spared were described: ‘I felt my blood freeze. I had heard of this expression before. It hurt to find it being used to describe people like my grandmother. My optimism, which was formed with memories of tea breads, turned to pessimism.’
The political logic of ultra-nationalism proved deadly for both victim and perpetrator. The aim of the Young Turks had been to expel the non-Muslim minorities with a view to laying the foundations of a new and solid unitary state. The exchange of populations with Greece was part of this plan. In 1922 Atatürk came to power and made the plan a reality under the slogan ‘one state, one citizen and one language’. The language was Latinised, with many words of Arab and Persian origin cast aside very much like the unwanted citizens. Given that virtually the entire population was now Muslim, the secular foundations of the new state were extremely weak, with the military as the only enforcer of the new order. The first blowback came with the 1925 Kurdish uprising. Then, as now, religion could not dissolve other differences. The rebellion lasted several months, and when it was finally put down all hopes for Kurdish autonomy disappeared. The Kurds’ culture and language were suppressed. Many migrated to Istanbul and Izmir and other towns, but the Kurdish question would never go away.
I had been invited to give a lecture in Diyarbakir on the Kurdish question and the war in Iraq. Four years ago, while the war was still being plotted in Washington, Noam Chomsky and I were invited to address a public sector trade-union congress in Istanbul. Many of those present were of Kurdish origin. I said then that there would be a war and that the Iraqi Kurds would whole-heartedly collaborate with the US, as they had been doing since the Gulf War, and expressed the hope that Turkish Kurds would resist the temptation to do the same. Afterwards I was confronted by some angry Kurds. How dare I mention them in the same breath as their Iraqi cousins? Was I not aware that the PKK had referred to the tribal chiefs in Iraqi Kurdistan as ‘primitive nationalists’? In fact, one of them shouted, Barzani and Talabani (currently the president of Iraq) were little better than ‘mercenaries and prostitutes’. They had sold themselves successively to the shah of Iran, Israel, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini and now the Americans. How could I even compare them to the PKK? In 2002 I was only too happy to apologise. I now wish I hadn’t.
The PKK didn’t share the antiwar sentiment that had engulfed the country in 2003 and pushed the newly elected parliament into forbidding the US from entering Iraq from Turkey. But while Kurdish support for the war was sheepish and shame-faced in Istanbul, no such inhibitions were on display in Diyarbakir. Virtually every question after my talk took Kurdish nationalism as its starting point. That was the only way they could see the war. Developments in northern Iraq, or southern Kurdistan, as they call it in Diyarbakir, have created a half-hope, half-belief, that the Americans might undo what Gertrude Bell and the British did and give the Kurds their own state. I pointed out that America’s principal ally in Turkey was the army, not the PKK. ‘What some of my people don’t understand is that you can be an independent state and still not free, especially now,’ one veteran muttered in agreement. But most of the people there were happy with the idea of Iraqi Kurdistan becoming an American-Israeli protectorate. ‘Give me a reason, other than imperial conspiracy, why Kurds should defend the borders which have been their prisons,’ someone said. The reason seemed clear to me: whatever happened they had to go on living there. If they started killing their neighbours, the neighbours would want revenge. By collaborating with the US, the Iraqi Kurdish leaders in the north are putting the lives of fellow Kurds in Baghdad at risk. It’s the same in Turkey. There are nearly two million Kurds in Istanbul, including many rich businessmen integrated in the economy. They can’t be ignored.
As I was flying back to Istanbul the PKK announced a unilateral ceasefire. Turkey’s moderate Islamist government must be secretly relieved. The PKK decision offers the possibility of genuine reforms and autonomy, but this will happen only if the Turkish army agrees to retire to its barracks. Economic conditions in the Kurdish areas are now desperate: the flow of refugees has not stopped and increasing class polarisation is reflected in the growth of political Islam. A Kurdish Hizbullah was formed some years ago (with, so it’s said, the help of Turkish military intelligence, which hoped it might weaken the PKK), and the conditions are ripe for its growth. Its first big outing in Diyarbakir was a 10,000-strong demonstration against the Danish cartoons. If things don’t change, the movement is bound to grow.