Distortions and Divisions
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.
Demirbas is on the front lines of Diyarbakir’s cultural renaissance, and if you let him, he’ll guide you through these “current issues.” He ticks off important statistics: 72 percent of residents use spoken Kurdish in daily life; 66 percent are satisfied with the Sur municipality services. He mentions projects, such as a street devoted to the city’s cultural diversity, and oppressive laws, especially Article 3 of the Turkish Constitution, which identifies Turkish as the sole language of Turkey. It’s Article 3 that got Demirbas into trouble.
Article 3 of the 1982 Constitution—established under military rule—bans all languages but Turkish, and although subsequent administrations have relaxed the ban, Article 3 has not been revoked. Full language rights, even at this peaceful juncture, seem remote, and full language rights are what Kurds demand. Speaking Kurdish in parliament, schools and courts is restricted. Although Kurdish families are now permitted to give their children Kurdish names, those names cannot contain the Kurdish letters not included in the Turkish alphabet, like “x” and “w.” A Kurdish language elective, introduced last year by Erdogan’s government, is seen by most Kurds as a crumb. “It’s insulting,” Demirbas told me, and in Diyarbakir it is common to boycott the course.
In 2007, Demirbas was arrested for publishing the multilingual pamphlets. He lost his job. Page eleven of Demirbas’s nineteen-page overview of “current issues” features a color photo of the mayor, who once was a teacher, under arrest, his hands bound by plastic handcuffs. “See that policeman?” he asks, pointing to the frowning officer behind him. “He was my student.” Demirbas returned in 2009, and when he walks through town he affects a saintly glow, shaking hands across shop thresholds and patting children on the head. A key demand during negotiations between the Erdogan government and the Kurdish opposition is for local Kurdish officials to have more authority. It would be a more reasonable form of autonomy than an independent Kurdistan and would significantly elevate the status and power of politicians like Demirbas.
My favorite Demirbas giveaway is a small book called Diyarbakir Is Waving Its Hands. The book is in English, Turkish and Kurdish, and, like many of his projects, it is a lengthy defense of Diyarbakir. “Sovereign powers,” Demirbas writes in the introduction, “have always thought nothing of my people’s, Kurds’, language and culture…. We declare, ‘No, being the Kurds of Amed, we are the dwellers of a multi-faith, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic city…. We are volunteers to tell of our multi-unit identity to the world and hand over this right to the owners.” Demirbas is adamantly opposed to assimilation, which he calls a “humanitarian crime”—colonialism under the guise of national unity.
Diyarbakir, Demirbas says, “has more intellectual, cultural and social richness than other cities.” Istanbul—the great, wealthy tourist destination to the west—is, in the mayor’s estimation, Diyarbakir’s foil. Istanbul has the Blue Mosque; Diyarbakir has the Great Mosque. Istanbul has ancient walls; Diyarbakir has ancient walls. Istanbul has the Bosphorus; Diyarbakir has the Tigris.
When protests erupted in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in May over government plans to raze a park adjacent to the square to make way for a reconstruction of Ottoman-era military barracks, Kurds watched with some bitterness. The clouds of tear gas and the phalanx of charging police, the censorship of remarks critical of Erdogan and the obstinacy of his government, were all too familiar to them. But unlike protests in Diyarbakir, the tumult in Istanbul was big news. Foreign journalists flooded the city overnight, and international coverage was dominated by pictures of the brutality and articles striking notes of disbelief. The oppression seemed to shock protesters, as well as journalists and their readers—everyone, in fact, but the Kurds.
On June 11, hours before a police crackdown turned Taksim Square into a fog of tear gas, I met a friend from Diyarbakir whom I’ll call Vidan (she did not want her name used), who was there in solidarity. “I came for two reasons,” she told me, resting near a tree amid a pile of goggles and gas masks. “First, to make Turks feel ashamed for what they let happen to Kurds. Second, because I also hate the state.” Then she paused. “Mostly, to make Turks feel ashamed.”
That one city thrives while the other suffers is clearly an unbearable injustice to Demirbas. “To me, in the future, two centers will be very important in Turkey,” he told me. “One is Istanbul, and the other is Diyarbakir.”
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