Kurdish Heritage Reclaimed

After years of conflict, Turkey’s tradition-rich Kurdish minority is experiencing a joyous cultural reawakening

Isolation allowed the Kurds to survive for thousands of years while other cultures faded from history. (Lynsey Addario)
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Kurdish tribes have lived in Anatolia since at least 1,000 B.C., twenty centuries before the first Turks arrived there. Ancient historians described them as a people not to be trifled with. Xenophon, the fourth-century B.C. Greek warrior and chronicler, wrote that they “lived in the mountains and were very warlike.” The peak of Kurdish power came in the 12th century, under their greatest leader, Salah-ad-Din (a.k.a. Saladin). While building a vast empire that included much of present-day Syria, Iraq and Egypt, Saladin recaptured many cities, including Jerusalem, that had been conquered by the crusaders. In Europe, he was held up as a model of chivalry.

But Saladin’s empire declined after his death, giving way to Ottoman and Persian power, which reached new heights in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Kurds rebelled and suffered terribly. Many were slaughtered. More were forcibly moved to outlying regions, including present-day Azerbaijan and Afghanistan, where rulers thought they would be less threatening.

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, Anatolia’s Kurds saw a chance for nationhood. The Treaty of Sèvres, imposed on the defeated Turks in 1920, partitioned the territory of the Ottoman Empire among the victorious allied nations. It also gave Kurds the right to decide whether they wanted their own country. But under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, the Turks tore up the treaty. As Turkey’s first president, Ataturk saw the Kurds as a threat to his secular, modernizing revolution. His government forced thousands of them from their homes, closed Kurdish newspapers, banned Kurdish names and even restricted the use of the Kurdish language.

“The Kurds expected a sort of joint government, with the ability to control their own region, but that didn’t happen at all,” says Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. “The state did everything it could to get rid of the Kurdish nation. By the late 1930s, Kurdish resistance was more or less crushed. But the Kurdish spirit was never wiped out.”

The most recent Kurdish revolt was set off by a group calling itself the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which grew out of Marxist student movements in the early 1970s. The Turkish state responded to PKK attacks in the 1980s with repressive measures that fanned the flames of rebellion. By 1990, southeastern Turkey was ablaze with war. Only after the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999 did the fighting recede. There was no formal peace accord, since the government refuses to deal with the PKK, which both Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist group. But from his prison cell, Ocalan called for a cease-fire. Not all PKK members and supporters have laid down their arms, and there are still occasional bombings and arson attacks. But most PKK militants are encamped across the border in the Qandil mountain region of northern Iraq—where they are protected by their Iraqi cousins, who have established a Kurdish republic in the north that enjoys broad autonomy. Kurds everywhere take pride that there is now a place where the Kurdish flag flies, official business is conducted in Kurdish and Kurdish-speaking professors teach Kurdish history in Kurdish universities. But many Turkish Kurds see the Kurdish regime in northern Iraq as corrupt, feudal and clan-based—not the modern democracy they wish for in Turkey.

“We are Turkish citizens,” Muzafer Usta tells me when I stop for pide—baked flatbread sprinkled with cheese, meat and chopped vegetables—at his café in Van, southeastern Turkey’s second-largest city. “We have no problem living with Turks. But we want to keep our culture. We were born as Kurds, and we also want to die as Kurds.”

During the civil war of the 1990s, the Turkish Army—determined to deny sanctuary to guerrillas in the countryside—forcibly evacuated more than 2,000 villages, pushing up to three million Kurds from their homes. Many landed in large towns and, having little experience with urban life, melted into a new impoverished underclass. “This culture has been damaged very seriously by forced migration,” says Zozan Ozgokce, a 33-year-old financial consultant. “[Before], we never had beggars or street children or drug users.” The strains on families are apparent. In 2004, Ozgokce co-founded the Van Women’s Association, which conducted a survey of 776 Kurdish women in Van—82 percent said they were victims of domestic abuse “often” or “very often.”

“Our society has been seriously injured, no doubt,” says Azize Leygara, 32, who runs Children Under the Same Roof, a nonprofit group that seeks to rescue Kurdish street kids in Diyarbakir, some 230 miles west of Van. “Our challenge is not to go back to life as it was. That’s gone, and it won’t be back. Our challenge now is to create a new social structure.”

The Umut Bookstore (the name means “hope”) in the dusty Turkish town of Semdinli is set amid jagged peaks 40 miles from the Iraqi border. The bookseller, Seferi Yilmaz, 47, became a local hero the hard way—by surviving a 2006 bomb attack on his store. Witnesses chased the assailant and surrounded the car in which his two collaborators were waiting. All three men turned out to be tied to the Turkish security forces; two were noncommissioned gendarmerie officers and the third was a former PKK guerrilla who had become a government informer. They were apparently trying to kill Yilmaz, who had served a prison term after being convicted of PKK membership in the 1980s. The incident set off waves of outrage among Kurds and provoked further demands for reform.

Inside the bookstore, Yilmaz showed me four glass cases holding artifacts from the attack, including bloodstained books and a teapot peppered with shrapnel holes. One man was killed in the bombing and eight others were injured.


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