Turkey Book Talk episode #54 – EZGİ BAŞARAN on her book FRONTLINE TURKEY: THE CONFLICT AT THE HEART OF THE MIDDLE EAST (IB Tauris), a 200-page account of the collapse of the Kurdish peace process, the rise and fall of the Gülen movement, and deepening authoritarianism.

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Here’s my review of the book at HDN.

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Frontline Turkey


You’ve only got until the end of 2017 to support Turkey Book Talk by taking advantage of a 33% discount plus free delivery (cheaper than Amazon) on five different titles, courtesy of Hurst Publishers:

  • ‘Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State’ by Olivier Roy
  • ‘The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent’ by Benjamin Fortna
  • ‘The New Turkey and its Discontents’ by Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan
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Kurds of Turkey


You may also be interested in an earlier episode with Mustafa Gurbuz discussing his book “Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey: Transforming Ethnic Conflict” (Amsterdam University Press):

*SPECIAL OFFER* – Turkey Book Talk listeners can get a 33% discount plus free delivery on four titles published by Hurst – “The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent” by Benjamin Fortna, “The New Turkey and its Discontents” by Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan, “The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East” by Roger Hardy, and “Out of Nowhere: The Syrian Kurds in Peace and War” by Michael Gunter. Follow this link to get that discount from Hurst Publishers.

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Many thanks to my current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Celia Jocelyn Kerslake and Aaron Ataman.

Peace talks are still ongoing between the Turkish state, representatives of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. It is likely that for any kind of peace to be secured they will have to go on for quite a while longer. Looking at the attitudes adopted by the Turkish media over the course of the “İmralı process” has been illuminating, particularly the reporting of the Jan. 17 funeral ceremonies in Diyarbakır of the three female Kurdish activists who were recently shot dead in Paris.

The government’s previous “Kurdish Opening” in 2009 came to an abrupt end after the controversy that followed the release of a group of PKK militants at the Habur border crossing and their welcoming back by huge crowds in Diyarbakır. Any comparable scenes carried the danger of enflaming Turkish nationalist sentiments and posed a risk to the latest dialogue process. Thus, in the lead up to the funerals most in the mainstream media were in agreement that they represented a significant test. On the morning of the ceremonies, dailies Vatan, Yeni Şafak, and Yeni Asya all featured front page headlines quoting the words of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying that the day would be a “Samimiyet sınavı,” or “Sincerity test.”

The ongoing process is extremely delicate. It’s easy to forget that although public support for the current PKK talks is significantly higher than it was in 2009, suspicion of the talks is still widespread. It was therefore interesting to observe how none of the major TV stations covered the ceremonies live in any detail on the day, despite the fact that they were attended by tens of thousands of people. As with much coverage of the Kurdish issue, (the Uludere/Roboski massacre in December 2011, for example), it is likely that this low key coverage had been “suggested” to the major media organizations by the government, acutely aware of the need to avoid scenes similar to those in Habur in 2009. Tellingly, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç had the following to say at a media event on Thursday: “The media’s support is so pleasing for us. I know and I see this support. … Eighty percent of media groups are lending their support. They are conducting positive broadcasts and contributing to the process. I hope this continues.” Still, in a column the next day titled “Peace is difficult with this media,” daily Vatan’s Rüşen Çakır had some critical things to say about this mentality:

“Television stations who didn’t show the ceremony yesterday failed the ‘sincerity test.’ In fact, they didn’t even sit the test … In the name of not making mistakes, or avoiding possible crises, or not annoying the government, they chose not to do anything at all … During the latest İmralı process, our media sees only one side as having to take steps – and all of these steps set according to what the government wishes – which itself sabotages the road to peace.”

In the event, Jan. 18’s newspapers exhaled an audible sigh of relief that the day passed without “provocation or sabotage” from either the mourners or the Turkish security forces. In contrast to the relative silence of the TV stations, the majority of the next day’s papers featured the funerals as front page headline stories, showing pictures of the crowds gathered in Diyarbakır and striking a noticeably optimistic tone. Many focused on a makeshift sign that one man was carrying at the ceremonies: “There is no winner from war; there is no loser from peace.

The front page of Milliyet on Jan. 18: ‘Diyarbakır said peace’

The front page of Milliyet on Jan. 18: ‘Diyarbakır said peace’

That the funerals passed peacefully was a relief not only for the government but also for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which shares grassroots with the PKK. At the moment, both the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the BDP have a common interest in continuing the talks. For the process to come to a successful conclusion – still a long way off – this shared interest will need to persist for a while yet.

Last week (June 19) saw the latest clashes between the Turkish security forces and the militants of the outlawed terror organisation the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s southeast. Eight soldiers were killed and 16 wounded in a pre-dawn raid by the PKK on military border posts in the Dağlıca district of Hakkari province, on the border with Iraq. The attack prompted the familiar public outrage, and the military duly responded, launching a massive operation in the mountains of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Over the following days the Turkish media reported with unconcealed satisfaction the rising numbers of PKK members “neutralized” in counter strikes.

The PKK always intensifies its operations during the spring and summer months, so these clashes should not come as a surprise. This time, however, the sense of disappointment among many observers (as opposed to the anger of most) was palpable. Just a week before, efforts toward a diplomatic solution seemed to be gaining genuine momentum, with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) approaching a rare agreement with the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the issue. The agreement was for the formation of an inter-party parliamentary commission to chart the course for a meaningful, long-term, political solution to a conflict that has cost close to 50,000 lives over the past 20 years. Such moves now seem hopelessly out of touch with the overwhelming public mood of anger and bloodlust.

The life and death story of one of the eight killed soldiers received particular attention in a number of Turkish news sources. The June 22 edition of daily Cumhuriyet published a short piece titled, “Martyr İsa’s story is Turkey’s reality,” referring to İsa Sayın, who died in the latest clashes. The article described the life and death story of Sayın as illustrating what it called “all of the contradictions and pain of Turkey’s last thirty years.” Sayın was born in 1991 in Ulukaya village, in the largely Kurdish southeastern province of Muş. During the early 1990s the conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK was at its most fierce, with the former conducting a scorched earth policy across the southeast, emptying and burning down villages suspected of supporting PKK militants. Sayın’s family house was burned down in 1993, and his family was forced to move away and settle in the city of Mersin on the Mediterranean coast. There, his father worked for construction firms in order to look after his six children. Sayın remained illiterate, and he had to do irregular work alongside his father in construction until he was conscripted to do his 15 months’ compulsory military service. It was during his military service that Sayın was posted to Hakkari province, where he was killed in last week’s attacks. In a further twist, it later emerged that the Sayın family is related to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) Muş parliamentary representative, Sırrı Sakik.

With regard to a long term solution to the problem, there can’t be many grounds for optimism. When news filters through of every fallen “martyr” in the Turkish army, the sheer virulence of the nationalist reaction somehow always comes as a surprise. The country becomes increasingly divided; the hand of the doves becoming weaker and weaker against that of the hawks. It’s difficult to see how an inclusive, broader definition of “Turkishness” can gain traction when such a stubborn die has already been cast. Of course, the Kurdish question crosses national boundaries, and its future will likely be most affected by the rapidly changing landscapes in northern Iraq and northern Syria. It seems increasingly naive to tie a comprehensive solution to simply granting Kurds the right to broadcast in their own language on Turkish television, or for Turkish schools to teach Kurdish as a first language where the demand exists. Language is only one symbol of a more fundamental and profound sense among so many, that they are living in a country essentially “not their own.”

Perhaps it’s best to end with a quotation from İsa Sayın’s mother, appreciating just how distant the solution that she demands may well be:

“Weapons, blood, and pain will lead nowhere. Ask mothers about this pain, they know their children’s pain best. The blood has to stop running. We want a solution to the problem. The armed one in the mountains is a Kurd, and my dead son is also a Kurd. Brother is killing brother. We want the state to solve this problem.”

Travel notes – Mardin

January 21, 2012

You can make out Mardin from far away on the long western approach road, perched as it is on top of a mountain overlooking the Mesopotamian plains. As you get closer the box-like homes become clearer, nestled alongside the pencil-like minarets, towers, and domes, all built of the same pale honey-coloured limestone. It’s a striking, eerily timeless-looking place, but look out to your left and the present comes crashing back into view. Carved ominously into the soil of a smaller hill just outside the town are large white capitals, clearly spelt out for all comers to see, “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” (How Happy to Call Yourself a Turk): a warm welcome from the Turkish military. The dolmuş I was travelling in passed countless army barracks and check points, and we were stopped twice by gendarmes asking for identity papers. A castle, originally Roman, sits on top of the mountain above the town, but whilst most Turkish towns make a landmark of their castle – charging a couple of lira for what is invariably the most spectacular view of a place – Mardin’s castle is absolutely closed. The Turkish army are its current occupants, the latest in a long line trying to establish hegemony in this ancient spot.

Close to the Syrian and Iraqi borders, the area has been a complex mixture of Arabs and Kurds for millennia, and during the 1980s and 1990s it was one of the hottest in the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. It is also known as the Tur Abdin (“Servants’ Plateau”) plain, the historic motherland of the Syriac people of south-east Anatolia. Syriac Christians have lived in Tur Abdin for 1600 years, originally retreating there to escape Byzantine persecution. They were thus able to maintain their ancient liturgies, still performed in Aramaic (the language Christ would have spoken), and the nearby 5th century monastery of Deyr ul-Zafaran (“Monastery of Saffron”) remained the spiritual centre and seat of the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church until 1932. The 20th century, however, proved to be the most cataclysmic in their history, when the Syriacs became one of the less remembered casualties of the upheavals that erupted in eastern Anatolia at the end of the Ottoman Empire. From 200,000 Anatolian Syriacs in the 19th century, their numbers fell to around 70,000 by 1920. A significant portion of those remaining left the area during the unrest of the 1980s and 1990s, caught in the crossfire between the Turkish government and the PKK. Today the community numbers no more than a few thousand. The landscape is thus scattered with decaying monasteries and deserted villages, and – like most towns in these parts – Mardin is also still home to the obligatory, rotting, untrumpeted Armenian church.

The municipality’s official tourist leaflet carries the headline: “Mardin: where the call to prayer echoes within the sound of church bells.” It’s a nice line, but the only church bell still ringing in the town is that of the 15th century Kırklar Kilisesi, or “The Church of the 40 Martyrs”, and a rusty old bell it was too. A caretaker called Musa rings it to announce prayers at regular intervals throughout the day, and potters around to keep an eye on things and answer questions whilst it’s open to visitors. Of the eleven churches still standing in Mardin, the Kırklar Kilisesi is the only one still open for services, and Musa told me that church numbers have been steadily dwindling, “definitely down from 10 years ago.” The flock now totals “about 80 families, around 400 people.” During my visit a family of three wandered in to the church. The father told me they lived in northern Syria, and that they were in Mardin as tourists, searching for the old family home that had been deserted a hundred years ago “because there was big problem.” Musa himself was of an extremely morose disposition, hardly able to look such comers and goers in the eye, but occasionally bursting out in fits of uncontrollable hysterics. There is in fact an uneasy coyness about most of the Syriacs I met. Put it down to an over-active imagination, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was the weight of such a tormented history weighing down upon them. Amongst all the dry facts and figures recounting seismic demographic change, it’s perhaps easier to ignore the mental effects wrought on those left behind than the physical.

Even one so well travelled as British historian Arnold Toynbee described Mardin in the 1920s as “the most beautiful town in the world,” Indeed, it has been experiencing something like a touristic renaissance more recently, with the (relatively) improved stability of the area helping to stimulate a renewed interest from visitors, mostly Turkish. A florescence of newly renovated boutique hotels can be found tucked away down the rabbit-warren backstreets that tumble down from the main central street. During my visit I stayed in the splendid “Kasrı Abbas”, converted from a large old mansion on the hillside: rooms with ornate carvings and multi-domed roofs opening onto wide open courtyards, offering panoramic views across Mesopotamia to the Syrian border. The backstreets themselves have similarly benefited from the rejuvenation, impossibly evocative and seemingly untouched for hundreds of years (despite their deliberate tidying up). It all feels slightly uncomfortable though, as if many things remain unsaid, much still remains unconfronted. The number of tourists will doubtless continue to rise, but they will probably be condemned to look at dead relics, unresurrectable remnants. Daily Radikal carried a front page story earlier this month about an apparent “return of the Syriacs”, reporting that a number of the families who migrated from Tur Abdin since the 1980s have returned. But the evidence looks pretty slender to me. It seems more than doubtful that anything like a return to the same number as previously lived in the area could ever be possible. The ties have been irreversibly cut.

Mardin perhaps bears comparison with another ancient and contested site, Jerusalem. But whilst I expect Jerusalem would confound because of the sheer intractability of its present day conflicts, Mardin does so because of precisely the opposite. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Turkey, (and that’s saying something), one gets the crushing, debilitating impression of lost, dead history. But although dead, it’s history that casts a long shadow. Unlike the myriad remnants of ancient civilisations across Anatolia, Mardin’s sense of lost history is of critical importance to the present: it paints the present day into a corner. You feel that the past has been forcibly forgotten, ignored, at most whispered about uncomfortably. It’s as if a door has slammed shut, but is still creaking uneasily. It all leaves quite an impression, but not a particularly pleasant one.

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