Among the Turkish Kurds

We are in Sultanahmet in İstanbul now, at 6:30 pm Salı (Tuesday) and the muezzin is calling out from the Blue and other mosques. Despite this medieval throwback (amplified by 21st century loudspeaker technology), this is one of the most sophisticated, diverse and populated (nearly 14 million people) cities in the world. We landed here yesterday after a 6-day tour of a very different Turkey, as sharp a contrast as one can imagine to İstanbul: southeastern Anatolia, the provinces of Şanlıurfa and Diyarbakır. Kurd country, with pockets of Arab-speakers, mostly poor and rural, but changing rapidly — too rapidly for many nomadic herders and pastoralists to comprehend. The famous old city of Diyarbakır, military stronghold and site of repeated mass violence from the 13th century BC to the massacres of 1925, has burst out from its ancient walls as the swelling population spreads out to the west, and new construction is everywhere, in some places knocking down millenial neighborhoods.
Diyarbakır grew from 30,000 in the 1930s to 65,000 by 1956, to 140,000 by 1970, to 400,000 by 1990, and eventually swelled to about 1.5 million by 1997. Today the intricate warren of alleyways and old-fashioned tenement blocks that makes up the old city within and around the walls contrasts dramatically with the sprawling suburbs of modern apartment blocks and cheaply-built gecekondu* slums to the west. (Wikipedia
*Turkish for "built overnight".
The children now have opportunities that their parents had never imagined — not all of them healthful. The rapid changes here, as they always do, create such disparities in knowledge and wealth that corruption and crime grow along with everything else. Much of the change is spurred by the huge GAP, Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi or "Southeastern Anatolia Project", a huge scheme centered on the building of the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates. Jobs, construction, hydroelectric power and irrigation are among the more positive effects, flooding of ancient sites and rapid influx of population are among the more problematic ones. Places that had water for millenia suddenly went dry as rivers were diverted, other places went under water. The flooded sites are lost forever, but gradually water is coming back, through pipes, to villages that had lost it. Rapid development is always an uneven and unsettling process.

The GAP is not the only thing changing peoples lives. The kids are all (or mostly) in school now, all  learning to speak proper Turkish regardless of what they speak at home. Although it cannot be used as a medium of instruction, as far as we could tell there are no restrictions on using Kurdish outside of government-sponsored institutions. There are now newspapers and radio stations in Kurdish (for a while they were outlawed), and Kurdish is what most people (except those Arabs) speak most of the time, but at least in the bigger towns everyone understands Turkish.

And the Kurds we spoke with consider themselves "Turks", not as an ethnic label but in its relatively new — invented at the time of the founding of the Republic in 1923 — sense of "citizen of Turkey". But clearly our limited experience in the area leaves out a whole lot of the story of tensions between Kurdish-speaking and Turkish-speaking Turks, which a glance at Hürriyet Daily News will show you are still high. Those tensions, and ethnic conflicts generally in what is now Turkey, are not ancient or inherent, but were energetically fostered by foreign powers aiming to split and seize parts of the old Ottoman empire, beginning in the 18th century. But that's a subject for another, longer essay, which will in part be a reflection on Caroline Finkel's massive Osman's Dream, which I just finished reading.

Zeus and friends atop Mt. Nemrut (Virtourist)
We covered some 1,400 kilometers, from Şanlıurfa to Mardin and Diyarbakır, with our very patient and punctual driver Mehmet Tanık. Our starting and end point was the very poor village of Yuvacalı, where Alison Tanık has organized the whole extended family around these tours. We saw some amazing ancient sites, from Göbekli Tepe (thought to be the most ancient temple anywhere) to the relatively recent — a mere 2,000 years old or so, from the time of Julius Caesar — statues atop Mount Nemrut, still more recent (13th-16th century AD) Seljuk and Ottoman structures, and all that 20th and 21st century building and Lake Ataturk.  I'll tell you more about our adventures in future posts. Meanwhile, if you are interested in doing something like this, check out Nomad Tours Turkey.