Distortions and Divisions
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.
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.”
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