This essay was originally published on August 2 2016.
It is June and I’m in Elazığ, a city of just over a quarter of million in eastern Turkey. Streets bustle with families and packs of young men clutching their tespih or prayer beads. It is a modern city, but at its height in the 1930s and 1940s, Elazığ served as an important administrative center for Turkish Republican rule in the east. In the last sixty-five years however, much of the city’s historical role of governance has evaporated. Hardly a single vestige of the city’s Ottoman or Republican past remains. Elazığ, I am told, has suffered much.
I am picked up from the airport by a colleague of mine, Bora, who knows the city well. He’s jovial and Kurdish, originally from a small village in between Mardin and Diyarkbakır, two large cities to the southeast of where we stand. We get in his car and drive into the countryside.
Small, brownish-grey mountains flank Elazığ from its east where a cascading patchwork fields of pale-yellow wheat are met with more modest plots of dark green vineyard. The grapes here are famous, grown both in these fields as well as in the mountains. I ask Bora to stop at a farmstand on the side of the road so we can pick up some dried apricots, but also to take in the nature around us. An eldery local man invites us to pick our own and I ask about the vineyards. He brims with pride and says that the öküzgözü (literally, “ox’s eye”) variety of grape is indigenous to Elazığ and was the first to be fermented and drunk as wine. Do a lot of people drink the wine, I ask? No, is the polite but firm answer. Outside of the city, one can take in the bouquet of wild flowers and trees, yet it abruptly halts as Bora and I approach the city. A few factories and refineries scatter the outskirts.
We pull up across the street from a farm equipment shop. The owner, Bayram Bey, smokes a cigarette at the edge of an open garage door. Behind him several John Deere tractors are parked half-exposed in the open sunlight; particles of dust kick up as cars go by. A short, burly man joins him, motioning for a light. Bayram is a handsome man in his late 40s, tall, swarthy, well-built and dressed in the customary attire for men in provincial Turkey — black suit, white, tieless shirt, and a pair of pointy dress shoes. The lines etched into his weathered face seem to tell a story of hardship. A broad but reserved smile pushes up from under Bayram Bey’s thick mustache as we approach the garage.
I had come to Elazığ specifically to meet Bayram and those like him, whose families had to flee their villages in the surrounding countryside due to the construction of the Keban Dam. As the country’s first megaproject, it was a tremendous source of pride and power for the late Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel during the 1960s and 1970s. It is also a source of painful historical memory for some 25,000 villagers who were forced to relocate to nearby cities and towns as their hometowns were slated for flooding. Bayram’s family was just one of those tens of thousands who left, taking compensation money offered by the state to establish a new life in Elazığ.
Bayram extinguishes his cigarette and we greet him and his worker, Mehmet. Like in many countries in the Mediterranean, most Turks receive each other with quick kisses to both sides of the face. This is something that everyone does in Turkey — save for the very pious Muslim. As Bayram greets Bora, instead of kissing cheeks they lightly bump each other on either temple. This gesture is typical of the ülkücüler or Turkish ultranationalists. Their organization, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), numbers in the millions. I make a mental note of how I might want to ask certain questions, and after a few minutes of chatting Bayram invites us upstairs to a dimly-lit office.
Several men join us as Bayram lights another cigarette and reclines into his seat to start the interview. We talk about an old village, Kadıköy, in which blueberries could be found everywhere. The dam flooded the most fertile areas, the uluova and the altınova, and many, including Bayram, alternate between the pains and joys of remembrance. When I ask about who the villagers were, he says it was a mix of Alevi and Sunni Muslims, but when I venture to ask if any were Kurds, his tone grows serious. He lowers his hands, which had been busy gesticulating, and says that he is Kurdish, which takes me by surprise after thinking he was a nationalist.
“Kurdish? But do you speak it?”
“Not really, I can understand.” He beckons for his son, who seems to know what is expected of him and begins to pour tea for us.
“Look, I am Kurdish. But I am also a [Turkish] nationalist. Kurds have always existed with Turks under the Ottomans in peace, we marry each other, and there wasn’t any problem.”
“And what about those in the southeast?” I ask. The southeast of Turkey has the highest concentration of Kurds in the country. It also has a reputation for being the most historically violent region.
“We are not like those the southeast — they aren’t even Kurds. In fact they are Armenians who became Kurdish.” The other men nod their heads in silent approval. Among ultranationalist groups, the term “Armenian” has taken on a wholly offensive meaning, a synonym for the worst kind of traitor, infidel, or Fifth Columnist.
In a YouTube video from last summer, the sound of gunfire rips through the night alongside what one can only imagine to be the cries of civilians. This is Cizre, a town close to the Syrian border and majority Kurdish. There, as in other cities in the southeast, the government is at war with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. Last summer, a fragile peace process was once again shattered when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its super-majority in parliament to the upstart pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Unable to tolerate such a loss, the AKP sought retribution and restarted a decades-old military campaign to fight Kurdish separatists. Over the clanging of pots and pans, a police officer is heard shouting into a megaphone: “The Armenians are proud of you. You are all Armenians…” To which a woman pleads: “Dear President [Erdoğan] I am calling on you — enough already, Dear President! Enough, enough, enough! For the love of God, enough!”
Bayram becomes more animated. “Did you know that 80% of Elazığ is Kurdish? They are.”
Such a figure would be hard to verify because of existing attitudes in the city. Various waves of immigration into Elazığ stretch far back into the late Ottoman period, and perhaps even earlier. With the rise of the Turkish Republic, many of the surrounding towns and villages began to empty into Elazığ, mostly from classically Kurdish areas like Bingöl as well as Diyarbakır.
Lunch arrives soon thereafter and more mundane topics are taken up. We finish our meal and thank Bayram and his cohort for their time. As we leave, Bora begins to tell me a story. Nobody in Elazığ would admit to what Bayram Bey has relayed. No one likes to think that they have Kurdish ancestry or even relatives who speak Kurdish. But Bora recalls being at several weddings of friends’ in Elazığ where he was introduced to grandparents who spoke Turkish with a very thick accent. They must have been Kurdish, he says, recognizing the same accent in his own bilingual parents.
Elsewhere in the city we meet a young, cosmopolitan student named Kadir who corrobates much of what Bora and Ramazan have told me about Elazığ’s reluctant Kurdishness. “Elazığ is a Kurdish city, but much of this has to do with a town called Tunceli and what happened there in 1938.”
The easiest way to get to Tunceli is to cross the dam’s Keban Reservoir by boat. Several shuttle buses and cars board the ferry, and we walk up to the top deck to take in the vast expanse of water, which is beautiful, if not slightly chilling. I wonder what it would be like to take a submarine to the bottom of the lake, where entire villages are preserved under its cold depths, the minarets of mosques pointing towards the sunlight. A young woman and two men join Bora and I, and around the woman’s neck is a silver zülfikar — the double-bladed sword of the Prophet Ali, revered by the Alevis. The Alevis are a heterodox Muslim minority in Turkey. Their worship is gender-inclusive, with men and women praying side by side and services often accompanied by the playing of bağlama, a lute-like instrument. Their practice of Islam differs significantly from the majority Sunni population. As such, Alevis tend to be targets of harassment and persecution by some orthodox layers of Sunni society, even cast in the same category as Christians as “non-Muslims.” This has had the effect of leading some Alevis to keep their identities to themselves out of safety, while others prefer to express their faith more visibly.
Looking out from the ferry, Elazığ and Tunceli resemble each other, but Tunceli is more mountainous. We disembark, and the long road ahead of us cuts through miles of wheatfields and eventually through a series of small valleys and canyons. Compared to Elazığ, Tunceli is much greener and, much like its people, more lively and engaging. Those who live there do not refer to it as Tunceli, but as Dersim — the original name in the Zazaki dialect of Kurdish. Generally, only Turkish villagers in the area call it Tunceli, as that was what Mustafa Kemal Atatürk changed it to in the wake of the Dersim Operation of 1938, which suppressed a rebellion of Kurdish Alevis. That was arguably the last major revolt by the Kurds.
The first was led by the Sunni cleric, Shaikh Sayid, in 1925 in the southeast in Diyarbakır. A story is told in Dersim describing the one encounter between the Dersim Kurds and those of the southeast. Shaikh Sayid had visited the small city to ask them to join in his struggle. A feast was held, and the Dersim Kurds began to butcher animals in preparation. During the meal, Seyid Riza, a leader of one of the Dersim tribes, noticed that the Sheikh’s party did not partake in the meal. When Riza confronted them about it, Sheikh Sayid’s camp responded that it would be a sin to eat an animal sacrificed by an Alevi. Thus were the seeds of mistrust sown between the Dersim Kurds and the Kurdish tribes of the southeast.
We pass a gendarmerie checkpoint, where, from a small vehicle, guns are trained on the cars, minibuses, and trucks, which duly stop for inspection. Bora opens the trunk of his car and we hand over our papers to a soldier. After about a minute we are waved on. “The state needs to show face,” Bora says, unfazed, as we continue our journey. And indeed, the more locals I speak with, the more admit that the only side of the Turkish government they ever see are the gendarmerie and police.
Significantly lower levels of investment in the underdeveloped east and an above-average military presence have left many with a bitter taste for the state in their mouths. Many people have had their fair share of relatives arrested, abused, harassed and even killed by security forces. The AKP is reviled by both ultranationalists such Bayram and left-wing Kurds alike.
A small section of Kurdish youth appear to want full independence, but a bigger minority wants semi-autonomy — a platform which the beleaguered, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) are currently fighting for in parliament. This would mean more control over local affairs while remaining connected to the more prosperous western markets of Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. Yet for Bayram and his business-owning ilk, even this arrangement is undesirable, as the economy would contract under the threat of capital flight from more nationalistic firms. “I do business everywhere in the east, even in Tunceli” he had told me proudly as he gestured towards a map of Turkey. Since parts for Bayram’s tractors are manufactured in the western industrial city of Bursa, he is wary of any political rearrangement that may negatively impact prices or prevent him from accessing those parts at all.
It is early evening as we return back to Elazığ. We board at the port of Pertek on the north bank of the reservoir, recognizing a few of the same people we had seen earlier in the day. The air is still and only the small chatter from the passengers breaks up the revelative serenity. Just over two hours by car to the south, in Diyarbakır, and still further in Nusaybin, carnage reigns supreme. Images circulating on social media show entire neighborhoods in Nusaybin reduced to rubble, yet hardly any are shown on the news. Bayram and his friends feel that the situation is unfortunate, but lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of the PKK.
“They are even spilling the blood of the prophets [i.e. the faithful] in Syria, they are shameful!” I recall his booming voice. When he speaks about the PKK, religious references and metaphors begin to surface. According to Bayram, the PKK is not just a cabal of traitors to the Turkish Republic, but also blasphemous associates of much darker forces at work in the Middle East. In Syria, the sister organization of the PKK is the YPG or People’s Protection Units, a militant outfit which are fending off the Islamic State as they attempt to carve out a non-sectarian, non-religious statelet in the northeast of the country, directly underneath Turkey. For Bayram, this is too much to bear.
Part of me wonders just how many Kurds there are like Bayram who revile the PKK and any notion of semi-autonomy in Turkey. Their loyalty to the state appears unbreakable, but to what extent is such iron-fisted resolve just fear calcified?
A young woman who is among those we recognize from our first crossing notices us and comes over. I eventually learn her name, Selin. She too is coming back from her hometown of Dersim. We talk for some time and I bring up my encounter with Bayram, his Kurdish background and what I understand to be his paradoxical hatred of Kurdish politics. She rolls her eyes. I ask her what she thinks about the HDP and regional autonomy.
“I think they have good ideas, but I am worried. I am Alevi, and I just don’t trust the Sunni [Kurds] who talk about breaking away from Turkey.” I mention the story of Seyid Riza, and she says “Exactly.”
The loading dock eventually comes into sight and we return to our cars. Driving back through the winding roads, my head brims with the day’s conversations. I grant myself a few moments of respite and gaze at the neatly-planted rows of grapevines I saw when I first landed. In spite of the sheer volume of öküzgözü grown in Elazığ, there are no wineries which tourists or sommeliers can visit. Grapes scatter the land, and yet barely a wine culture exists. I try to take a few pictures of the vineyards, while I think to myself about the region’s contradictions. What kind of place is this where wine is made and yet nobody drinks it?
Joseph Lombardo is Senior Analyst at TDI Compliance. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Politics and Global Studies from The New School.