“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.