The Kurds - or: what identity lies underneath?
(This story was previously published on Beaconreader.com, 28 October 2014.)
Spring 2012, Van. On the roof of a tea house, under speakers that spread music loud enough to hide our conversation from eavesdroppers, I was interviewing a young Kurdish student. Let’s call him Firat. We talked about his volunteer work in the weeks after the Van earthquake of 2011, about how he was then taken into custody in the KCK case and how he was interrogated. ‘Why did you distribute blankets?’ the police asked.
But soon the conversation took another direction. He told me how at some point during his volunteer work, he was at a family’s home to take a shower, and he saw a PKK funeral on TV: one of his childhood friends was being buried. I was, and still am, intrigued by the question of why some Kurds join the PKK and others don’t. So I asked if he ever considered going to the mountains.
It was a ‘deep hope’ to become a guerrilla, he answered. But was he actually considering it? He said: ‘The circumstances define if you go or not, and my circumstances are not good.’ So, I asked, in what way were his circumstances not good? I had to drag every new sentence out of him. His voice became weaker. ‘I have shortcomings’, he said. What kind of shortcomings?
He answered: ‘My friend had no more question marks. He wanted to give himself totally.’ So which question marks did he have?
I saw tears in his eyes. ‘You know’, he started, ‘it’s not that you are born a guerrilla. You have to give yourself totally, but before you can do that, you have to know yourself very well and thus think about yourself deeply. You have to look yourself in the eyes. And that is my biggest fear. I don’t dare to. I may conclude that I am a guerrilla, and then I go. But it may also be that I conclude that despite everything I find it comfortable to live inside the system I am fighting against.’
A single entity
Today at this conference we have been talking about ‘Kurds’. Kurds from Rojava, from Turkey, Kurds in the diaspora. Big groups, and I understand that sometimes it is inevitable to talk about Kurds as a single entity. I often do the same.
But when I travel in Kurdistan and talk to people I always try to figure out their other identities, besides being Kurdish. A Kurd is somebody who calls himself a Kurd, but what identity lies underneath?
The student in Van was afraid of not being a guerrilla. Afraid to find out his identity was ‘just another citizen of Kurdistan’, dedicated to the struggle but not in the sense that he’d go up to the mountains. And I’ve had so many other interviews with Kurds that taught me so much about identity.
I remember my talks with Pakize, a mother of five young children who lost her husband Osman in the Roboski massacre. I asked her if she had an idea why the massacre happened. It was sort of a routine question that I was tired of asking, to be honest, because most Kurds say the same: ‘Because we are Kurds.’ Pakize however answered: ‘I don’t know and we may never find out. But God knows and that gives me some comfort’.
Pakize, now 30 years old, never went to school and she never learned Turkish. She is modest, not the kind of woman to stand in the front lines while campaigning for justice, however dedicated she may be to getting justice for what happened. With her answer, she showed herself as a devout religious woman not automatically repeating the truths of the Kurdish movement. Maybe this is just because of her lack of knowledge of Turkish, but still, that tells us something about her identity too.
Why do I find this matter so intriguing? On one side, it’s just professional, journalistic curiosity. But it is connected to my identity too, and especially to how my thoughts about that developed since I have been living in Turkey, since 2006, and in Kurdistan since 2012.
Moving from your motherland to another country always sets your identity in motion. Living abroad, I find it harder than before to be myself. The language and culture barrier is huge, nobody in this country knows my country and its culture the way I know it, and nobody here knows anything about my life before I came here. That’s not always easy, and it makes me feel invisible sometimes, or maybe I should say: unseen.
This has given me a new perspective on human rights, and thus on the Kurdish issue. I used to call it a matter of human rights (and not of terrorism, of course), but now I call it a matter of identity.
First and foremost Kurdish
It is because of the suppression by the state and the emergence of the PKK that the Kurdish identity has become so politicized that for many Kurds in Turkey, their identity has become first and foremost Kurdish. That is the main identity defining their lives, their choices, their loyalties. In a way, that is an imbalance, not always doing justice to all the other identities they carry inside themselves. They are, after all, villagers too, or city dwellers, farmers or lawyers, house wives or students, Galatasaray fans, mothers, fathers, Muslims or Zoroastrians. In other words, the state’s policies of denying the Kurdish identity has not only lead to the emergence of the PKK and the politicisation of the Kurds, but also to making the identity of the Kurds more one dimensional.
Which is, of course, a great injustice. Being free means that you can fully live all the aspects of your identity in their ever-changing balance, without having to hide any of them. Not always being able to do that myself since I have lived in Turkey, and knowing how bad that can feel, I know now more than before how important this is. I live it every day. Then imagine that I at least chose to put myself in a situation that would disrupt my identity, but that this disruptive situation was forced upon Kurds. Unacceptable for a nation, but no less for an individual. The fight for human rights, the fight for justice, is not only a nation’s struggle, but also a struggle for the freedom of every Kurd’s personal identity.
Women during Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir, 21 March 2013
When I moved to Diyarbakir, I was working on my book about the Roboski massacre. It’s published in Dutch and the Turkish version will be published by Iletisim in December – but that’s a side step, sorry. (The Dutch, Turkish and English versions of my book are now available, click here for more information.) The violence was intense that year; it was for example in the summer of 2012 that the PKK tried to hold ground in and around Semdinli and the violence and tension it brought to Turkey.
Then 2012 came to an end. The government stopped denying they were talking to Öcalan and it became clear that Öcalan would send a message to the people during Newroz. In Turkey the excitement grew, and speculation started about what Öcalan’s announcement would contain.
I got excited too. Not just as an average human being who loves the prospect of peace more than the prospect of violence, but as a journalist too. Big news is good for a freelance journalist, but it was not just that. A serious attempt to end the century-old conflict would bring an old dream of mine closer. I first spoke of that dream with a Dutch journalist friend, years ago, before I came to Turkey. He had asked me if I had any ambitions to become a war correspondent. Without thinking about it, I answered: ‘No. I mean, wouldn’t it be cooler to be a peace correspondent?’
Sense of Turkishness
The brilliant thought never left me. And in the early days of 2013 it surfaced again more strongly than before. What if peace were to break out in Turkey? It raised so many utterly interesting questions. Not only of how the government and the Kurdish movement would pull it off, what the new constitution would look like and if it would earn Turkey an EU membership, but even more interestingly: how would peace and justice transform identities in Turkey?
Of course, I don’t mean just Kurds. Turkey would be a democracy if the Kurdish question were solved, and this would solve the problems of other groups in Turkey as well. What would living in a democracy do for the identity of Armenians in this country, shaped by so many disasters? How would it re-shape the sense of self of Alevis, who currently don’t have the religious rights they deserve? Turkish nationalists would definitely have my interest too, since democracy would inevitably alter their sense of Turkishness as well.
Guerrillas in Qandil mountains, Newroz 2014
But then, Kurdistan. The guerrillas would come down from the mountains and would have to find a place in Turkish society again after sometimes decades – that’s for sure a matter of dealing with a new identity. Would the DBP, or whatever the party is called by the time we reach peace, be able to find an identity that will still be relevant in the autonomous region of Kurdistan once the current goals are reached?
I think of the student in Van again. His fear of discovering he is not a guerrilla may turn into regret that he never made it to the mountains, or into pride in what he did from within the system to make fundamental change possible.
I think of Pakize, who will have found out why her husband was brutally murdered. Her children or grandchildren will go to a public school where education is in Kurdish – they’d be bilingual, a chance she never had. The people of Roboski would be able to travel to their families in south Kurdistan without crossing the border illegally, since travelling between the different parts of Kurdistan would be easier. I hope west Kurdistan is free then too, and coming and going from and to for example Kobani will be just as easy as going from Diyarbakir to Dersim and back.
How will the Kurds shape their autonomous region in a democratic Turkey? Will they live up to the high expectations they create, and manage to put their democratic ideals into practice? I can’t wait to report on how they are going to deal with minorities.
Which brings me to another interview I had, with a young man who became a friend of mine. Let’s call him Serhat – his real identity is strictly confidential. We met by coincidence and because I am Dutch he dared to reveal an important part of his identity to me: Serhat is gay. We had long talks several times. When we met, he was studying at Dicle University and working hard to do the university entrance exam again. His goal was to get into a university in Izmir or Istanbul, because he believed those cities would give him more space to express his sexual identity.
He started laughing hard when he told me about this plan. He said: ‘You know, here in Diyarbakir I am a secret gay. You know what Kurdish families sometimes do to their sons when they find out they are gay, don’t you? So in Izmir or Istanbul I’d be more free. But there, being Kurdish is difficult. Isn’t it hilarious’, he said, ‘that here in Diyarbakir I’m a secret gay, and in Izmir I would have to be a secret Kurd? Isn’t that very tragi-comic?’
Very, I said.
The challenge of the autonomous region of Kurdistan and its inhabitants would be to become a home for everybody who wants it to be. To give everybody the opportunity to live every aspect of his or her identity in freedom. Will I get the chance to be the peace journalist I aspire to complete my own identity with? I deeply hope so. Unfortunately, the optimism of early 2013 is gone. I’d hate it if I found myself to be a war correspondent after all, since that’s not who I am.