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.”
Kemal is renowned for his lavish descriptions of the Turkish countryside in the wild south and southeast regions of Anatolia, where he was born in 1922 into a Kurdish family. His characters come into focus against it, trudging over mountains or building fires; tending crops or gossiping with neighbors; plotting against malicious landlords or doing time for their foiled plots. In 1969, when They Burn the Thistles—Kemal’s sixth novel—was published, Kurds in Turkey still lived in great numbers in the southeastern landscapes he described.
Kurds account for about 20 percent of the country’s population, and they have been rebelling against the Turkish Republic since it was founded in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in an effort to build a monolithic nation-state, proclaimed everyone living within the new country’s borders to be a Turk and their language Turkish. Kurds, who have their own language and ethnic identity (there is also religious, linguistic and ethnic diversity within the region’s greater Kurdish population), rejected Ataturk’s vision. Their anger and disappointment was a foreshadowing: failed rebellions against the state trail the Kurds like a heavy robe. Still, nothing compares to the fighting of the last thirty years.
In 1980, the Turkish military launched a coup and, once in power, set about trampling all opposition. It targeted Turkey’s then-robust left wing, as well as a two-year-old Marxist organization called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose members at the time were intertwined with the Turkish left. Although the military was in power for only three years, the mass arrests and systematic torture that were its tools effectively crushed the leftist opposition, which was based in western Turkey. But in the southeast, the assault only hardened the PKK, which grew into an armed rebellion led by one of its founders, Abdullah Ocalan. In 1984, six years after it was first established in Diyarbakir, an ancient city situated on the banks of the Tigris River, the PKK launched an armed rebellion for Kurdish independence. The original PKK is said to have been established in a Diyarbakir tea house; the armed PKK—what would later be designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union—was born in Diyarbakir prison.
Between 1990 and 2000, as the Turkish military destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages in the countryside, the generations who once lived among those crystal-clear greens, amber yellows and bluer blues were pushed into Diyarbakir. Its population tripled, spreading far beyond the dark gray basalt walls surrounding its old city. New homes and boulevards fanned out from the walls, with block upon block of buildings giving shelter to the displaced, whose shared trauma and rural ways gave Diyarbakir the feel of a refugee camp. Kurdish farmers became Kurdish dissidents, and the would-be capital of greater Kurdistan became a recruiting ground for the PKK. Some 40,000 people, mainly PKK guerrillas and Turkish soldiers, have died in the conflict, and it’s rare to find a family in Diyarbakir that hasn’t lost someone “to the mountains”—a euphemism for joining up with the PKK at its sanctuary in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, not far from the Turkish border. The walls of many Diyarbakir living rooms feature portraits of these guerrillas, often beside a photo of Ocalan, who in 1999 was captured in Kenya while seeking asylum. Since then, he has been serving a life sentence for treason on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara. His photograph conspicuously occupies the spot on the living room wall normally devoted to Ataturk’s.
The typical Diyarbakir resident is in constant rebellion against the Turkish state, often unwittingly, conducting illegal Kurdish language classes in their homes, joining and organizing strikes and protests at a moment’s notice, and electing politicians—generally members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP)—who are willing to risk their jobs, and imprisonment, to publish literature in what Kurds lovingly call their “mother tongue.” Last year, when sixty-four Kurdish prisoners commenced a sixty-eight-day hunger strike to protest their imprisonment and Ocalan’s, many did so from the infamous Diyarbakir prison. Hundreds more, among them the city’s mayor, Osman Baydemir, who also began fasting, filled the streets in solidarity with the strikers.
The streets of Diyarbakir were flooded again on March 21—Newruz Day, or Kurdish New Year—when hundreds of thousands of Kurds gathered to celebrate the announcement of a cease-fire between the PKK and the Turkish state. As the crowd spilled onto the surrounding fields, the master of ceremonies shouted, “Mr. Ocalan will put an end to this war. We brought a letter that will bring peace. Today we will share it with Turkey and the entire world.” During the preceding months, BDP officials and Turkish intelligence officers had been visiting Ocalan in prison to discuss a cease-fire. The outcome of these talks was an agreement that the PKK would disarm and withdraw from Turkish territory. Eventually, Kurdish leaders hoped, reforms to the Constitution and the penal code would grant Kurds basic rights. “Freedom for Ocalan, Status for Kurds”—the day’s slogan—was emblazoned on a large banner. The first of those demands, although consuming, seemed like wishful thinking.
Ocalan had written a letter to be read at the Newruz celebrations. Communication from Ocalan has been scarce, and for weeks the anticipation of his speech had injected Diyarbakir with a rare optimism. “We have sacrificed our youth. We have paid heavily,” Ocalan wrote. “But not in vain. Fighting gave Kurdish identity back to the Kurds.” His words were met with deafening cheers in Diyarbakir, and the crowd shouted his nickname, “Apo,” into the clear spring day. Ceremonial bonfires spit high orange flames.
In Diyarbakir, many roads are scarred black from the fires ignited during protests, and the residue of tear gas is a common ambient smell, but on Newruz the city was one big party. Families picnicked, and women ate tart dandelion greens plucked from where they sat on the grass. The city’s hotels and restaurants were packed with Kurds who had traveled from all over the world to hear Apo speak. I was told by a few amused people in the crowd about a group of first-generation Swedes of Kurdish origin who were decked out in PKK khaki, laughing and photographing each other by the food vendors.
Mayor Baydemir, in his early 40s and arguably the most popular Kurdish figure after Ocalan, gave a speech in Kurdish that addressed Diyarbakir by its Kurdish name, Amed—the vocabulary of resistance. “Thanks to the city of Amed,” he said, “it has become a holy city…. Newruz Square is the heart of Amed, and Amed is the capital of freedom.” The Turkish media are notoriously dedicated to portraying Diyarbakir as a war zone, but on Newruz, newspapers and news programs showed the gathering for what it was: peaceful. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s prime minister, complained about the absence of Turkish flags.
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