Distortions and Divisions | The Nation


Distortions and Divisions

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A consummate host and showoff, Demirbas gave me a tour of Sur last winter so that I could make a narrated slide show about the old city. We visited Armenian churches (his attention to Diyarbakir’s vanished Armenian population is both another act of defiance against the state and an apology for the Kurdish role in the Armenian genocide) and a large bronze statue saluting women’s rights (gender equality is a major issue of Kurdish activism). We climbed a staircase where, Demirbas boasted, you could see both a church’s cross and a mosque’s crescent. He took me to his favorite parts of the ancient walls—which the municipality is working to make a UNESCO World Heritage site—where basalt crumbles around shoots of brilliant green. 

Reporting for this piece was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

About the Author

Jenna Krajeski
Jenna Krajeski is a writer based in Istanbul.   

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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.” 

* * *

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.”

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