Distortions and Divisions

“Each plant is huge,” writes Yashar Kemal in They Burn the Thistles. “It is twice, three times, five times larger than in other soils. Even the colours of the flowers, of the brilliant green grasses, of the trees are different. The greens are crystal-clear, the yellows pure yellow like amber. The reds blaze like flickering flames, and the blues are a thousand times bluer than elsewhere.” 

mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Diyarbakir was also once a tourist destination—visitors could scale the ancient walls, tour churches and mosques, and stroll along the Tigris—but these days, the city’s violent reputation precedes it. On the website TripAdvisor, two discussion threads are “Is Diyarbakir safe at this moment?” and “PKK frees kidnapped Briton.” 

In Istanbul, a guide will point out the vast dome of the Hagia Sophia, the spindly minarets of the Blue Mosque, or lead you across the red-lit walkways of a dank underground cistern. In modern Diyarbakir, the itinerary takes a tactical path. While driving from the airport, a friend might wave at a pair of traffic lights, saying, “That’s where the Turkish policemen were shot.” The traffic lights are the second site on a tour that explores Diyarbakir’s bad reputation—the first is the airport itself, where bombers used to roar off toward the Qandil Mountains to fight the PKK.

Ask a local to identify the military barracks: many are indistinguishable from other buildings save for barbed wire. Some barracks (there are many) are more easily noticed, set off from the main roads by high, guarded gates and ornamented with statues of larger-than-life soldiers. Don’t miss the park where a bomb once tore through a crowd; today, locals sip pistachio coffee—a regional treat—beside a monument to those killed. Nearby, a car bomb aimed at a military vehicle was detonated; the blast was so loud, some say, that it could be heard for miles. At another wide square, hundreds gathered angrily when prison officials made Ocalan cut his hair—an act seen as unnecessary humiliation. Take a walk through Baglar, the poorest neighborhood in the city, where the walls are a riot of PKK graffiti.  

Here is where four Kurdish rebels were hanged, and there is Dicle University, where students are always on strike. The BDP headquarters fly a black flag in memory of the Kurds languishing in prison. That’s where protesters clashed with police while demonstrating for an end to last year’s hunger strike. There are the mass graves you may have read about in the newspaper. And that’s the Diyarbakir soccer stadium, a run-down concrete structure painted a shade of green not to be found in They Burn the Thistles. It is widely believed by local fans that the team was demoted out of the big leagues because it seemed to bring trouble; at away games, your guide will inform you, rival fans would shout “Terrorist!” and throw plastic chairs onto the pitch, even though some of the players weren’t from the city and others weren’t even Kurdish. It’s a demotion the guide has little desire to investigate. What other reason besides being wrongly maligned for being Kurdish would cause the team to lose?

In the center of town, surrounded by tea houses and apartment buildings, is Diyarbakir prison. In the 1980s, the wails of tortured inmates echoed from the prison through the city streets. Even those Diyarbakir residents too young to remember the state’s military incursions against the Kurds say that they remember the wailing. Today systematic torture is illegal, but Diyarbakir prison remains full. Turkey has severe anti-terror laws, which prosecute members of a terrorist organization as well as those found to be “spreading propaganda,” evidence for which has been known to consist of a single recorded conversation, or the use of Kurdish in a political speech, or the byline of an article about the PKK. These laws weigh on every citizen in Diyarbakir. Since 2009, several thousand Kurdish politicians, journalists, activists, and other Kurdish or pro-Kurdish workers have been arrested under an umbrella court case against the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which the government considers the “urban arm” of the PKK. Until 2010, minors charged with terrorism could be tried as adults, and the trauma of prison time haunts the young generation. Turkey has learned the hard way that when you put a child in prison for terrorism, he could leave it a terrorist. The cells are full at Diyarbakir prison, and if, when standing outside it, you can see a pair of brown shoes airing on a windowsill, as I did one afternoon, imagine what the inmate sees when he looks out the same window. That, your guide will remind you, is the point of having a prison in the center of a city.

Leyla Neyzi is a 52-year-old Turkish anthropology professor at Istanbul’s Sabanci University. Beginning in 2011, she spent two years in Diyarbakir and Mugla—a small tourist town in southwestern Turkey near the Aegean Sea—interviewing residents between the ages of 15 and 35. Neyzi is kind and speaks rapidly; it’s easy to see how she would be able to lead the team of young students who assisted her and coax confessions from strangers. She represents a resurgence of interest in the so-called “Kurdish question” among Turkish liberal activists and academics—just budding after the military’s scorched-earth policy—who are driven by intellectual curiosity and guilt. She tells me a story about a damaged young Kurd who spent their interview session sipping vodka from a water bottle. “Where were you in the 1990s?” he asked pointedly.

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Neyzi and her team encouraged their subjects to talk about their personal lives and their opinions about Turkey in an effort, she told me, to “rewrite the public history through oral testimony.” Last winter, she installed an exhibition of the testimonies—documented in videos, photos and transcriptions—in Istanbul’s trendy Matzo Factory gallery; during the first week of the show, we met in the small, unheated adjacent library, where she had displayed selected material for background on key issues broached during the interviews. While Neyzi talked, I took notes until my fingers were too stiff from the cold to write. She had come dressed in layers.

In the library, there were newspaper clippings in Turkish and Kurdish about the 1938 Dersim massacre, in which thousands of Kurds were killed or displaced by the Turkish Army, and the 2011 Uludere massacre, when thirty-four young Kurdish smugglers were killed by airstrikes. The novels of Yashar Kemal, with all their pastoral beauty, were laid out for visitors to peruse, attached to the table by thin plastic cords so no one could steal them. Neyzi had also chosen books by Mehmed Uzun, a Kurdish writer who died in 2007, at age 54, and whose works—written in Kurdish at a time when it was still illegal to use the language—are treasured by Kurds.

Young people in Mugla had enviably mundane concerns: getting into college, graduating, finding a job. “They were not sure why they were interesting,” Neyzi told me. Kurds in Diyarbakir, on the other hand, knew why Neyzi was there; they feel they are in the middle of history. For them, “being Kurdish is more of a political [distinction] than an ethnic one,” Neyzi told me. The Kurdish issue is “their preoccupation. Kurdish young people are very old.”

For generations, Kurds were encouraged to assimilate, and those who lived quietly in Istanbul, indistinguishable from their Turkish neighbors, were considered a success. But thirty years of fighting has turned Kurdish identity into a badge of pride. To the young Kurds who talked with Neyzi, assimilation is both a submission and a betrayal. Though the war has made dreams of education and work more remote for Kurdish youth, the PKK guerrilla fighters—perhaps to ennoble their sacrifice—have been molded into legend. “The youth in Diyarbakir accuse their elders of assimilation,” Neyzi said. “Their heroes are the older brothers and sisters who went to the mountains. The guerrillas are their heroes.” It’s clear she finds this heartbreaking.

The focus on the PKK—despised in Mugla—has bred distance and distrust between the two populations. The Turks in Mugla, Neyzi explained, displayed a “very open and clear racism” toward the Kurds in Diyarbakir, whom they see as traitors and a clear threat to the unity of the Turkish nation. “It was very overt…that’s what’s really terrifying,” Neyzi told me. “I had somehow had more hope.” 

“Turks see Kurds like they see their grandparents, as being poor peasants, as backward,” Neyzi said. “Ironically, Diyarbakir is a much bigger and more cosmopolitan city than Mugla, but they think this because of the media and the school system. Kurds know this. They feel that people can look through them, that ‘Kurd’ is a category, a general and a negative category, a threat—Kurds are backstabbing the Turkish nation.”

But through her research, Neyzi thinks she has found an unexpected silver lining: Turkey’s compulsory military service, which is meant to foster nationalism and condition soldiers to have less sympathy for the “terrorists” they fight. Neyzi thinks it has the opposite effect. “They see the reality,” she told me. “They see how difficult life is for Kurds.” She told me the story of one soldier who, after a battle with the PKK, was shocked when he examined the state IDs of the dead. “He realized they all had better educations than he did,” she told me. Those who held on to a well-preserved bigotry—the kind of overt racism that deflated her optimism—were the Turkish youth who had never seen Diyarbakir. 

I asked Neyzi how she’d responded to the young man who accused Turkish academics of ignoring Kurds. “There was nothing I could say,” she admitted. “Kurds experienced terrible violence in the 1990s, and it took twenty years for Turkish social scientists to wake up.”

Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of Diyarbakir’s Sur district, likes to give presents to his visitors. These include a DVD about Diyarbakir called The Mystery of the Stones; tourism pamphlets in seven languages, including Armenian and Greek; children’s books on the city’s history; and a nineteen-page overview of “current issues” in Diyarbakir.

mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>When I next visited him, Demirbas asked to see the slide show. We drank black tea in his office and watched the scrolling pictures. Demirbas grinned at his image atop the staircase and in the dark chamber of the Armenian church. He liked to see these Sur landmarks gleaming on the Internet. But upon seeing the last photo, of the three portraits he keeps on his desk—including one of his teenage son, a PKK guerrilla—the mayor dropped his head and wore an unfamiliar, ponderous frown. Why, it asked, did the last image of Diyarbakir—whose reputation he has worked so hard to restore—always have to be of a city that loses its youth rather than cares for them? I didn’t have to remind him that the photo is prominently displayed, or that I have never met a reporter who has left his office without having been told the story of the three portraits, but I did defensively remind my interpreter of all this later. I felt guilty. Demirbas may use props so his stories will have more impact, but the mayor still lives inside the stories he tells. 

Elsewhere in the narrow cobblestone streets of Sur, in the Dengbej Evi, the conflict between Kurds and the state is translated into song. Dengbej is a style of a cappella singing, and the long songs tell stories of Kurdish history and culture. (Mehmed Uzun writes of hearing dengbej in prison: “I listened to the tragedies, pains, longings, and sufferings.”) When Kurdish was banned, so was dengbej, and many of the traditional songs died along with those who had memorized them. New songs became both a historical record and the code in which to relate that history. Most of the dengbej sung in Diyarbakir today are not about ancient Kurdish history; they are about the PKK. 

Hilmi Akyol, a poet and historian of dengbej, met me in the Dengbej Evi in March, the day before Newruz. Akyol is styled like an old Kurdish rebel, with a few modern touches: his gray hair is tucked into a turban, his beard groomed to a healthy inch. The endlessly roomy fabric of traditional Kurdish pants cinches around his thick waist, and on top he wears a practical blue windbreaker. Outside the Dengbej Evi office, where we talk, men take turns in an unrelenting chorus of dengbej. The words are sung so slowly and forlornly they seem to thicken the courtyard air like flour in soup. The strength of some of their voices causes Akyol to raise his voice. “A son or daughter of a young mother dies. A girl falls in love. A large storm brings many deaths. A shepherd woman sees flowers in the mountains. Kurds battle people who want to conquer Kurdistan. All these events are told in a song,” Akyol shouted. 

In the stone courtyard, we listen to an old man with a voice that sounds, not unpleasantly, like a kazoo. His eyes are closed and his right hand covers his ear. My translator writes down some of the lyrics: “They kill men and the blood is like a river…. I am the man with the most pain in the world…. I wish I would die, but not get old.” Before we leave, Akyol—anxious to prove that Kurds are civilized—offers an observation that he thinks will surely convince me, an American. “Baseball,” he said, “originated in Kurdistan.” 

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In peacetime especially, the cultural rehabilitation of Diyarbakir is not the preoccupation of Abdullah Demirbas alone. The nearly 300 funders of the Mesopotamia Foundation are determined to draw Kurds beyond war. “We were treated as if we weren’t here, as if we were absent,” said Mahmut Togrul, an associate professor of sociology at Dicle University. “We couldn’t start a foundation; we couldn’t be educated.” 

The foundation’s most ambitious project is Mesopotamia University, a multilingual school offering an alternative education that it intends to build from scratch in Diyarbakir. A few days after Newruz, I met with the professor and a few other board members in their offices. We sat on leather sofas so new it was hard not to slide off them onto the gleaming tile floor. The men were friendly and slightly conspiratorial, speaking carefully and eager to reinforce that, at its heart, the project was utopian, not slavishly political. It was still a secret. “In Turkey, universities do not create change,” one of them told me. “After 1980, they put huge controls on what people can learn and teach.” 

The first page of any Turkish textbook features the national anthem. Its grandiose patriotism may be strident—“What man would not die for this heavenly piece of land?”—but it’s not entirely out of place in a national anthem. On the second page, “Atatürk’ün Gençlige Hitabesi” (Ataturk’s Address to the Turkish Youth) amplifies it. “Oh Turkish youth,” Ataturk writes. “Your first duty is to preserve and defend forever Turkish independence and the Turkish Republic.” It warns of enemies attempting to blend in: “Those who hold power within the country may be in error, misguided and may even be traitors.” It ends: “You will find the strength you need in your noble blood.” The same texts hang on the wall of every Turkish classroom, flanking a picture of Ataturk himself. 

Turkey’s education system is often blamed for the divisions between Kurds and Turks, and in the Diyarbakir office of Egitim-Sen—a left-wing education union that has lost many members to the KCK trials—the conversation about schools is usually morose. “Turkey’s policy is not to help students think freely,” the president told me. “In Turkey, the state is not for the people; the people are for the state.”

Two teachers arrived bearing gifts: three well-worn history textbooks. These textbooks are printed in the capital city of Ankara and distributed to schools all over the country. They outline official Turkish history—the history of Ataturk, the secular Turkish state and great military victories, particularly the battle for Turkish independence. The glory is mostly lost on Kurdish students, who wonder about their own role in the country. “According to the history lessons, there are no Kurds,” said Hikmet Korkmaz, a young teacher. “You’re taught in the first grade that the Turkish flag is dyed with the blood of Turkish soldiers. A sixth-grade lesson says that one of the benefits of forests is to camouflage soldiers. Kurds and other ethnic groups have to research their histories informally.” 

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This they do. Mesopotamia University will be a research university, with a focus on filling the gaps and correcting the errors in the Kurdish history taught in Turkey. Those involved in the school so distrust the state education system that committees of professionals and academics are beginning to write new textbooks exclusively for Mesopotamia University. At these early stages, the most important task is weaving Kurds back into the history of Turkey. They also hope to create a generation of professionals—doctors, lawyers and teachers—fluent in Kurdish who can serve the Kurdish community. “We want to break the assimilation,” one of the board members told me. “Our dream is very big.” 

In Istanbul, a journal of Kurdish history, Kürt Tarihi, is also trying to set the record straight. The slim journal would be barely more sensational than its academic counterparts were it not for the subject matter—Kurds—and the fact that it is displayed on newsstands among the very newspapers that deride them. “We want to make people remember their own history,” Mesut Yegen, a co-founder and editor told me when we met at the university where he teaches. “We want to make them acknowledge that they have their own history.” 

Yegen was born near Diyarbakir in 1964 but grew up in Ankara, and he is only now beginning to learn Kurdish; when we met, his office wall was papered with Kurdish vocabulary words. Yegen is hardworking and, aside from a head of rumpled, wavy hair, tidy; his approach to learning Kurdish is systematic, not romantic. He is sheepish about not being able to speak it but had little choice growing up. “When I was 9 or 10, I was proud of being a Turk. I knew that we were Kurds, but I thought Kurdishness was something close to being peasants,” he told me. “It’s not that I learned that I was Kurdish—I learned that our ethnic identity was something respectable.” Like his conversation, Yegen’s journal is direct and rigorous. He sees the irony in the fact that Kürt Tarihi is published in Turkish, not Kurdish, but he is practical: there simply aren’t enough people who can write scholarly Kurdish, and even if there were, there are few who could read it. This is one problem that Mesopotamia University—which Yegen is also involved with—hopes to solve by teaching Kurdish at the university level.

A recent issue, the sixth, reprints a telegram sent from the Greek embassy in Ankara to Athens detailing the post–World War I plans—later scrapped—to establish an autonomous Kurdish administration in Turkey. Previous articles have addressed the Kurdish role in Syria’s civil war, and the latest issue includes a dossier on Iranian Kurdistan. “In Turkey, everyone has a double life: official and unofficial,” Yegen said. “We know that our history is different from official Turkish history.” 

With a circulation of about 3,000, Kürt Tarihi has had some success. But, Yegen admitted, they’ve had a hard time convincing shop owners in the Black Sea region and Ankara to carry the journal. “They dislike the idea of selling a so-called ‘separatist and terrorist journal,’ line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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The flight from Diyarbakir to Istanbul lasts only two hours, but many Kurds heading west for work make the journey by train, so I did too. It takes around thirty-five hours, often more, and snakes through the middle of the country. A friend remembered her childhood spent riding the train with her family from Diyarbakir to the Black Sea, where they picked tea. “I grew up on the train,” she told me, tottering on her heels with her arms out to her sides, pretending to lose her balance.

On the platform in Diyarbakir, families waited surrounded by a life’s worth of parcels: portable gas burners, black bags leaking socks, sack after sack of groceries. They sat together, three generations leaning against their belongings. When the train came, it was packed quickly.

It clattered through the center of Diyarbakir, past shallow concrete ravines barely damp with water and low structures made out of broken, discarded train tracks. Craggy slate overhangs gave way to hills stained a shadowy green. The landscape is breathtaking: in so much of it there is so little human settlement, except for a few scattered villages, some farmland and an occasional grain silo. Ankara and Malatya, the two big cities along the way, seemed ugly, contrived. We were stopped once by armed gendarmes, who walked through the cars, checking IDs and opening bags so that German shepherds could dig their noses inside.

For most of the trip, the train is alone and the sound of its engine is the only sound. I wondered to myself if the most recent visitors on foot were those who laid the tracks.

It got dark. Small orange fires flared on the hills. In They Burn the Thistles, Kemal writes of a scene like this: “As the sun sinks into the west…an orange butterfly, delicately patterned, and as big as a bird, remains motionless on a branch, its wings folded, stroking its head and eyes with its legs; its body quivers gently, steeped in the radiance of the setting sun.” I surmised, less romantically, that the hill fires were burning garbage.

The train was six hours late arriving at Haydarpasa Terminal—once a stop on the Orient Express—but I could hardly complain. I had wanted to try to gauge the distance between Diyarbakir and Istanbul beyond a blink-of-the-eye flight on Turkish Air, and at 2