Between the Rivers

Between the Rivers



In our country
a look
a wave of the hand
means the world
In our country there are no terraces of paradise
no rewards

from ‘The North Gate’
Bejan Matur

Wikipedia will give you all the background facts: 25 to 30 million Kurds inhabit the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, a region known since antiquity as Mesopotamia; they have never enjoyed self-government but since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire have been the subjects of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Kurds represent at least 20% of the Turkish population, and are the dominant population in the southeast of the country; Kurdish separatists have resisted assimilation into the Turkish state since the nineteen twenties.  From 1925-1965, Anatolia was declared a closed military zone in which Kurds were forbidden to read or write their own language and the very words ‘Kurd’ and ‘Kurdistan’ banished from Turkish dictionaries; from 1984-1999 the region was convulsed by an armed conflict between the Marxist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish government, during which over 3000 villages were erased, hundreds of thousands of villagers displaced, and 37,000 people killed: mostly Kurds, but also the victims of PKK suicide bombers.  Ostensibly, since the capture of the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, the situation has eased considerably: Europe has put pressure on Turkey to permit Kurdish language and culture, and violence now only afflicts the borders with Iraq.  But if my fleeting encounters with Kurds and Turks are any barometer, the region is still tense and the question of Kurdish rights within Turkey still far from resolved.

The first Kurd I met in Turkey was Ahmad, a restaurateur in Istanbul’s sightseeing Mecca, Sultanahmet.  A sophisticated man  – ‘The French don’t speak English’ he wryly mused, to which I gave a Gallic shrug – his face lit up when I said I was flying to Diyarbakir the next day.  I suppose most of the tourists he meets are en route to the coast, not his home town in the steppes.  I’d had no luck finding a Kurdish-English dictionary in Istanbul, so asked him to help me with a few words. Roj bash – which at first I heard as rose bush – he told me, was ‘hello’.  No, he corrected himself – ‘good morning’.  But when I asked for ‘good afternoon’ he grimaced.

He wasn’t allowed to read or write Kurdish as a child, and often finds he has forgotten his own language. Eight thousand Kurdish politicians are in jail right now, he told me.  And does the EU or the UN say anything to Turkey?  Then his mood changed again. ‘You will have a good time,’ he said, calmly. ‘The Kurds are very poor, but they will give you everything they have.’  As I left he called out to the carpet sellers across the street and the trinket men next door:  ‘She is going to Diyarbakir!’ and I said Burra tetay – goodbye – to Sultanahmet-ish Kurdistan.

My first night in Diyarbakir, Celal (Je- LAL), the waiter at my hotel was impressed to see me reading the poetry of Bejan Matur, whom he knew well as a Kurdish political columnist and guest at the hotel.  She comes every summer, he told me proudly, before reinforcing Ahmad’s message: ‘Kurds very poor.  Living ten, eleven in one room.  But,’ – and he gave a Kurdish shrug – ‘police, army – all Turks.’  I had seen the fighter jets at the airport, and I knew that while the PKK still held turbulent demonstrations in the city, its reins were now firmly in the hands of Ankara, the seat of Turkish government.  But while I got a strong sense of Kurdish poverty from my walks, looking down at mud houses from the old city’s massive basalt walls and being followed by untended children, at the same time, other children were playing marbles and skipping rope, and the old city had an industrious vibe: the market streets sold everything from wedding finery and wreaths of dried tomatoes to the latest mobile phones, the museums – mainly examples of old Diyarbakir architecture – were well signposted, and the old kervanserai – their basalt arches built around a square courtyard – had been refurbished: one as my hotel, the other as a thriving market and cafe, with an extensive swish bookshop in the cool, vaulted cellar.

The bookshop didn’t stock Bejan Matur’s political works, though, or a Kurdish-English dictionary.  And at the tourist centre (the courtyard of a historic house) the young architecture students with whom I shared a cup of çay (CHAI) strenuously denied that ‘things were better’ now. Using the universal sign for arrest – crossed wrists – they told me that the imprisonment of the Kurdish politicians is just one indication of Turkey’s grip on the region.  When it came to eco-building, for example, local proposals to create ‘sun-villages’ had been vetoed by Ankara: another example of federal control, and one that reminded me of the intended fate of Hasankeyf, another stop on my itinerary.  Hasankeyf is a village on the Tigris beneath a massive cliff of Neolithic cave dwellings, and home also to an impressive medieval mosque and tower.  It ought to be a world heritage site, but instead is slated to be submerged by a huge dam project, probably in the next couple of years. These were intelligent young men and women, chafing under injustice, but seemingly choosing to combat it by educating themselves and learning English.  ‘I am Kurd, yes: professional Kurd,’ Sabah proclaimed.

Perhaps the most vehement Kurd I met was Ali, a former BBC cameraman now setting himself up as a tour guide, though his business instincts and twelve years outside Turkey had given him a different perspective on the region. The Kurds’ big problem, he vociferously maintained, was each other – the politicians preferred political in-fighting to listening to the people.  He himself didn’t vote for the PKK – no! – because the party’s demonstrations disrupted trade for the shopkeepers, and when elected they didn’t take care of the city – and yes, I had noticed the rubbish everywhere.  He also thought that the PKK’s demands were unreasonable.  Kurds had gained the freedom to speak and read their own language, and enjoy their traditional customs.  But now, he snorted, they want to fly the Kurdish flag next to Turkey’s?  This, to him, was pushing the envelope.  Ali’s mother still did not speak a word of Turkish, yet he was not a separatist.  Indeed – again according to wiki – most Turkish Kurds are not (though most Turks think they are).

Turks I met in the region seemed proud of their Kurdish compatriots, if wary of nationalist sentiment.  ‘I am Turk,’ a strawberry salesman corrected me when I greeted him with roj bash. ‘Turks, Kurds -’ he placed his two index fingers together in the Turkish hand gesture for similarity – ‘brothers.’  And my Turkish host in Savur, the small town I visited after Diyarbakir, was effusive in his praise for Kurdish music, dance and dress.  But when it came to table talk about Mesopotamia, he interrupted me and his Czech guest:  ‘Excuse me. This not Kurdistan.  This not Mesopotamia.  This Turkey.’  Beside him, the tourist from Istanbul, a young female lawyer, nodded emphatically.  And thinking later of Canada again, I realised I could relate to my host’s patriotism.  For if I am honest, I don’t really support Quebec’s long nurtured nationalist dreams on the simple basis that if they were realised Canada would be partitioned between East and West.

But in the case of Canada, the French claim for independence pales beside that of the aboriginal population, and I would happily sacrifice Canadian contiguity if more of the country could become semi-autonomous First Nations land, like the Inuit territory of Nunavut in the North.  Similarly I support independence for the UK’s Celtic nations – for one thing, such devolution might mean that the English start to develop their own post-empire cultural identity, hopefully embracing the fact that the country that has always been made up of waves of immigrants.  But while I have always been sympathetic to liberation struggles, as the holder of two passports, UK and Canada, both of them colonial powers, my own sense of loyalty to any one nation – and thus to nationalism – has been radically diluted.  One of the reasons I feel so confident in my own work on behalf of the Palestinians, is that the BDS campaign is firmly rooted in human rights, not overtly nationalist demands.

But to return to Mesopotamia – for I cannot relinquish that pan-cultural vision of this ancient land – finally, what of the sisters: Kurdish women?  I have met many, but none have spoken English so I can’t give you their views on the Turkish state.  But they have all fulfilled Ahmad’s prophecy.  On minibuses and doorsteps they have greeted me me warm, gold-toothed smiles, friendly pats on the shoulder, glasses of çay or Nescafe, and curious questions I try to answer using my Turkish-English dictionary.  They have happily posed for photographs, and yes, they have given me all they have to hand – torn hunks of sweet cinnamon bread, and, seemingly from nowhere – roses, shyly pressed into my palm.


But the last word must go to an Iraqi Kurd I met on the mini-bus from Mardin to Savur.  We conversed in German, as he had spent six years working as a mechanic in Leipzig, and I have somehow managed to keep a rusty grip on the language from my university days.  We talked first about water – despite a couple of dry summers, there is plenty here, but who gets it is ‘political’, he told me, then laughed: here, he said, is ‘Africa’ – meaning, I think, the more corrupt and feudal countries of the continent. Then he uttered a sentence so incomprehensible and compelling I asked him to write it down:

             Erstmal menchen Bekomen in mezopotamyen ven Bist End in mezopotamyen.

With its scrambled spelling and conjugations, and possible mix of Turkish (‘ven’?) the statement was no easier to understand in writing. At first I took it to mean the apocalyptic prophesy: ‘The first people came to Mesopotamia and we will end in Mesopotamia’.  Showing it later to Tomáš the Czech tourist, we realised that the sentence had a profoundly gnomic quality.  Perhaps it means ‘People became human in Mesopotamia, and in Mesopotamia is our shared destiny.’  Certainly that would be a powerful epigraph for my novel, and the fact it came from an Iraqi makes it a message from Ur – Inanna’s city in the sands I will not visit on this trip.

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