The Kurds: coping with cultural identity suppression

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Most Americans have never heard of the city of Diyarbakir. To most Turks, it’s a city in the country’s volatile southeast region, closely associated with the Kurdish resistance movement. To the Kurds who live there, however, it is not only a home but much more: It is a hub of Kurdish language and culture caught between the forces that define daily life and those that threaten it.

Here, the hum of Turkish fighter jets is part of the soundtrack of daily life. Flying overhead nearly everyday, these planes are headed two hours southeast of Diyarbakir to Turkey’s volatile border where Turkish armed forces are engaged in a prolonged struggle with the members of the PKK (the Kurdistan Worker’s Party). The struggle reached new heights this summer when, after a 14-month cease-fire, the PKK stepped up attacks on the Turkish military (as GlobalPost reported).

Life in Diyarbakir, however, exists beyond the border battles, beyond the headlines, beyond the often tense Kurdish-Turkish relations. The population of Diyarbakir has soared in recent years, with displaced families streaming in to escape border violence. Many of these families boast eight, nine, 10 children.

Thus Diyarbakir has ballooned from a mid-sized, vaguely metropolitan city to one bursting at the seams with one-and-a-half million residents. There are children everywhere. There are many unemployed who try to make a living as lone entrepreneurs selling Marlboro cigarettes or wind-up stuffed animals. There are boys in small clusters soliciting passersby to weigh themselves on rickety scales for small change.

Though characterized as one of the most conservative regions in Turkey, southeast Turkey contains a prism of attitudes and styles. Some women are fully covered, not a strand of hair or square inch of skin exposed. They wear black burqas that drag to the floor and have sparse, sequined details. On the same street, there are young women in tight jeans and rhinestone-studded tops, hair pulled back with bobby pins, eyes done with dramatic black lines and blue shadows.

Diyarbakir exists just off the tourist’s radar. The city’s most striking “attraction” lies in the ancient basalt city wall that surrounds the inner, old city. Largely unknown outside of Turkey, the wall is the second largest in the world after to the Great Wall of China.

Just a few minutes outside of the walls, the pounding noise of the city vanishes. The transition is sudden, from crowded urban roads and haggling vendors to dusty streets, small square houses, and sprawling cucumber and watermelon patches. Here, on the fringes of Diyarbakir, many individuals choose to speak their native Kurdish over Turkish.

In the central city, this does not happen. While Diyarbakir is an overwhelmingly Kurdish city, Kurdish culture is largely invisible. There are no Kurdish flags in public. The Kurdish language is spoken only behind closed doors, within families and far from official contexts. To speak Kurdish to a police officer or low-level government official is considered an affront to established order, and one cannot discuss Kurdish issues openly in public without a quick look over one’s shoulder.

Southeast Turkey stands in stark contrast to its surrounding regions. In northern Iraq, for instance, the word “Kurdistan” is spoken without a second thought in public, the Kurdish provincial government is semi-autonomous, and everything from road signs to news outlets assert proud Kurdish ownership over the land.

But progress is coming, if slowly. In July, Turkey softened a 2006 anti-terrorism law that had equated protest activities with being a member of a terrorist group and effectively made the PKK’s most peripheral supporters terrorists. Under this law, 174 minors under 18 were convicted of terrorist activity for actions such as being present at a rally, singing a pro-PKK chant, or throwing stones, as the New York Times reported. But since the government’s hard-line stance changed, minors charged for such activity are now taken to juvenile courts, not courts for serious security crimes.

This summer in Diyarbakir, I taught multimedia journalism to a class of teenagers, some Turkish, most Kurdish. Careful not to get anywhere close to politics in my instruction, I focused on tackling social issues through the lens of the individual. By telling the story of a successful paraplegic musician, for instance, readers can learn about local medical services. By doing a profile on a 10-year-old child trying to supplement his family’s income through odd jobs, you can learn about slack child labor laws. Never in the class could we openly discuss Kurdish issues, Kurdish-Turkish relations or protest activities — the very issues that spill out of Diyarbakir and make headlines — without risking a knock on the door.

Once, while surfing the internet with one of my Turkish students, we stumbled upon an article about Kurds in southeast Turkey. “Do you know about … the Kurds?” she asked, pronouncing “Kurds” slowly as if it was a dirty word she had just learned on the school bus. “They want this to be their own country. I don’t like it.” She crinkled her nose.

That crinkled nose was a lesson: While official policies beget change in small, incremental steps, attitudes are a much more powerful, resistant force in places like Diyarbakir. Passed on from person to person, parent to child and friend to friend, attitudes are cemented and reinforced over time. That crinkled nose reflected reality, and was a painful gauge of progress still to be made.