Breaking the Taboo: Turkish Writers Face the Kurdish Past

Istanbul is a booming city these days. Neighborhoods where no one used to venture after dark become “in” areas full of restaurants, cafés, and art  galleries;  old, decrepit buildings are restored and converted into hotels or cultural centers; huge shopping malls pop up at a dizzying pace. The businessmen are optimistic; new projects in arts and culture abound. Similar developments can also be observed in many smaller Turkish cities.

For those who care to look into things a little more carefully, however, a parallel reality exists in which criticism of the government is often silenced regardless of its source. Newspapermen, academics, students, and human rights activists spend years in detention without knowing exactly what they are accused of, on the basis of dubious and  manipulated evidence. Among the detainees are thousands of Kurds, many of them children.

Under those circumstances, the recent appearance of a series of fiction and nonfiction works which in different ways try to confront the real history of the country’s mainly Kurdish southeastern regions has come as a surprise. Barring  few exceptions, the subject was considered taboo or too dangerous to touch until  recently.

Among these works, the one with the biggest impact has been It Is Not as You Know It (Bildigin Gibi Degil, published in 2011 by Metis), a collection of interviews conducted by Rojin Canan Akin and Funda Danisman. The authors spent three and a half years speaking with young Kurds who were children in  southeastern Turkey in 1992 to 1994, when the war between PKK guerrillas and state forces was at its peak, and state repression of civilians had reached a brutality not seen  in recent memory.  Akin is Kurdish and grew up in the region; Danisman is from a town in Eastern Turkey where, in her words, “one never heard stories of the Southeast.”  In an interview broadcast on Istanbul’s Açik Radyo, the two explained that when they started the project, they were aware that “horrible things” had happened, but felt there were gaps in their knowledge: “We did the work in order to have the complete story.” 

The testimonies in It is Not As You Know It range from descriptions of routine humiliation in primary school for not being able to speak Turkish to the gang rape of a ten-year-old girl by security forces in front of her father,  after which the girl  lost the ability to speak. They include assassinations witnessed by the murdered persons’ children, parents or relatives, indiscriminate firing at civilians’ homes, terrorizing raids, and disappearances, most of them  committed by the state paramilitary forces. It is a hard book to read. The contents are at times so overwhelming that I often had to give a day’s break between chapters to muster the strength to continue. In the talk on Açik Radyo, Danisman revealed that when she finished the interviews she had to undergo eight months of psychological treatment.

Although Akin and Danisman do not ask many specific questions, , a few common themes surface. . One is the desire to achieve a just peace without forgetting. Another is the alienation from the Turkish Republic that these youths have experienced as a result of the state’s actions. “We were forced by the state itself to take sides”  keeps coming up. Stories abound of young people, even children, who, faced with an impossible? situation, join the PKK guerrillas in the mountains. Many of the subjects recount how, upon immigrating to other regions of Turkey later in their lives, they felt that they had landed in a foreign country.  Having grown up in Western Turkey I, too, had the impression that I was reading about some foreign country, one that had little in common with the Turkey that I knew. Though an informed minority, in which I can include myself, was vaguely aware at the time that a dirty war went on in the Southeast, nearly everyone in Turkey has been shocked by the full scope of oppression revealed here.

The mere fact that the book has been published and is being freely discussed in the press, however, is a sign that some things are changing for the better. In the past, similar works, by  Ismail Besikci, Nadire Mater, Muge Tuzcuoglu, and others, had been banned  and their authors put on trial.

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Christopher de Bellaigue’s 2008 book Rebel Land (Penguin Press) is probably the best recent English-language account of the subject. Based on his observations during a series of visits to the mostly Kurdish Varto region in Eastern Turkey, Bellaigue methodically unearths  the history of conflict, the suffering, the interests that lie buried in the memories of the inhabitants even during periods of apparent calm.

Between the years 1995 and 2001, de Belaigue lived in Turkey, where he was a foreign correspondent for the Economist and married a Turkish woman. During that time, he achieved near-native fluency in Turkish. and accepted the official version of Turkey’s history with Kurds and Armenians.. Harsh criticism of an article he wrote in the New York Review of Books on the Armenian massacres led him to conduct  extensive research, a process which culminated with the publication of Rebel Land. “I had helped keep Turkey’s past hidden,” he writes, chastened, in the introduction. Rather than relying on books by pro-Turkish writers, he decided to seek out “the forgotten peoples: “From them I would get the story, gritty and unfiltered, of their loves, their losses, and their sins.”  

This he does, working his way patiently, painfully from the first day when he is greeted by a suspicious silence by locals and authorities alike. “We have no minorities in Turkey,” declares the district governor of Varto. But people end up talking. There are always stories to tell, oblique or incomplete as they may be. Slowly, important pieces of the puzzle start to emerge.  Varto is on a fault line, both literally and figuratively: it is a spot where all the sociological tensions inherent in the region converge. Thus, Bellaigue hears direct or indirect testimony of the rivalries between Kurdish tribes, the centuries-old dislike between the Alevis and the Sunnis, the multiple wars between the Kurds and the Turks, the bloody events of the ’70s which set the leftists against the right-wing nationalists, all intertwined. And after all those layers of the onion are peeled, one invariably ends up face to face with the Armenian problem. At the turn of the twentieth century, the  area was home to about two million Armenians, whose ancestors had first settled there circa 500 B.C. Almost none remain now. What happened to them? This is what Delaigue wants to know.

This is the subject that people are most reluctant to talk about— “We had no Armenians” is a common reply from the locals—but eventually Delaigue manages to get some stories about the massacres of the beginning of the twentieth century, about those who helped the Armenians and those who took advantage of their situation, about the active participation of some Kurdish tribes in the carnage, about Armenians who remained but had to change their identities in order to survive.

Delaigue complements his own observations by extensive references to many sources, so his book can also serve as an overview of much of twentieth-century Turkish history. Despite the emotional charge of some of the interviews, he maintains an objective perspective. He does denounce, for example, PKK guerrilla leader Apo’s personal cult and the submissive role of women under PKK discipline, and thinks that Kurdistan under Apo’s PKK would be a repressive state.  The PKK is also responsible for crimes against civilians; members’ stories, as well as those of their victims, have yet to be written.

The author was worried about getting into trouble with Turkish state authorities just before publishing Rebel Land in 2007.  When I talked to him recently, he mentioned that there had been no such problem; to the contrary, the book had passed almost unnoticed in Turkey, for better or worse. A Turkish translation is underway and should be out in about a year.

Fiction at its best can be a powerful means of expressing what even intense narratives like the ones mentioned above cannot fully convey. That is what Ferit Edgu achieves in two short books inspired by a year spent as a schoolteacher in a village of Hakkari, the remotest province of Turkey. Eastern Stories (Dogu Oykuleri; Sel,1995) is a collection of short stories which could perhaps be better defined as impressions bordering on poetry. The settings and characters have a timeless, surreal feeling. Like a master painter, in a few quick strokes Edgu depicts the eerie silence which persistently surrounds spaces where there has been a collective attempt to destroy thousands of years of history. It is impossible to completely cover up the past, however: there is always some unwanted remembrance, whether folk tales which refuse to totally vanish from collective memory,  physical ruins, or the last local survivor of a people who were supposed to have never existed. In A Season in Hakkari (Hakkari’de Bir Mevsim; Sel,1977_) Edgu gets closer to the daily lives of the townspeople and gets slapped in the face by all the fundamental problems of the region: the isolation, the lack of social services, the old blood feuds and the “honor killings,” the difficult situation of women, the rugged geography . . . This is accompanied by the strange attraction that he feels for those mountains and for that same silence ,which can also be so disturbing. There are no wars in these pages; no soldiers, no guerrilla fighters, no arms. Still, these two books continue, decades after  publication, to be key to the understanding of the conditions which have caused so much violence in the area.

The movie version of A Season in Hakkari won second prize at the Berlin Film Festival. The book has been translated into French and German but, as far as I know, no English translation exists. It is long overdue.

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Murathan Mungan, who has Kurdish roots, is at present one of the most popular writers in Turkey. He has written novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. In his works, the Kurdish predicament has generally figured as a special case of the individual’s coping with the socioeconomic conditions throughout Turkey, as for example in his Cities of Women (Kadindan Kentler-2008-Metis). He has also written beautiful tales and poems which have their sources in Kurdish oral tradition. In 2011, Mungan joined the effort to shed light on the dark episodes of recent Turkish history by asking twenty-three authors to write short stories on the Dersim massacre of 1938, during which Turkish air and land forces allegedly killed a great number of civilians while quelling a rebellion in that mostly Kurdish city (now called Tunceli). The stories were then edited by Mungan under the title A Dersim Tale (Bir Dersim Hikayesi; Metis, 2012). The anthology contains some powerful passages and is well worth reading because it tackles a subject which had hardly ever been written about before.  However, in some of the stories the line between fiction and true testimony is not very well defined, with possibly invented or exaggerated information presented as factual. This can be somewhat confusing since the facts about the Dersim events of 1938 are only now beginning to be seriously researched and are not yet accessible to the public.  

Finally, it is worth mentioning a novel by Ayhan Gecgin, one of the younger authors included in the above-mentioned anthology: The Last Step (Son Adim; Metis, 2011) tells the story of an alienated, individualistic youth disconnected from his Kurdish origins who, due to circumstances beyond his control, is thrown into the center of his people’s tragedy. Gecgin’s  resourceful use of language and fluid style reinforce the sense of inevitability that accompanies the main character’s journey. It can perhaps be said that some of the vivid, detailed descriptions which constitute one of the book’s strengths start seeming a little too dense toward the end, when the events described are already  overpowering?. But the novel does manage to keep the reader in  suspense until the last line.

In all, these encounters with the past are a positive development in the quest for a peaceful future. Even though a political compromise on the Kurdish problem is still far from being reached, the works mentioned here  have already gone a long way toward breaking many taboos and generating a healthy debate on this issue within Turkey’s political and intellectual circles.

© 2014 by Alber Sabanoglu. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.