FROM THE FALL OF 1965 until the summer of 1967, I lived in a small village about twenty kilometers from Diyarbakir, an ancient walled city in southeastern Turkey that is close by the borders of Syria and Iraq. It is a predominantly Kurdish region of the country. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer doing community development work for the Department of Rural Education. I had a woman partner, and together we worked on clean water, irrigation, health, and village economic development projects.
It was a grand time in my life: the excitement of learning a new language; the chalvars [loose pants], swaddling clothes, scarfed women, huge watermelons, juicy tomatoes, bulgur pilaf, fresh green garlic, water buffalos, asses and oxen; evenings spent watching a starry sky from an outdoor coffee house midst the clatter of backgammon and dominoes; coffee house conversations about local gossip and world history. There were fine days when I learned new words, met new people, heard old stories, and passed a village tel village built on village on village on the way to and from the city. My days would often end with a Turkish textbook straightening out the vocabulary and grammar Id heard earlier, but also included reading Lawrence Durrell, T.E. Lawrence, and other English speakers who had fallen in love with the Middle East. And then I would fall asleep to the sounds of a short wave radio broadcast in English from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I loved that name, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
I later spent two years on Peace Corps staff. I was headquartered in Ankara, but I traveled the country extensively from 1968 until 1970. In that time I had a Turkish roommate, and I gradually shed all of my American clothes, and wore Turkish tailored suits and Turkish made European styled shoes the shoes would always give an American away to plays, parties, movies and events that were mostly Turkish. And then the Peace Corps was phased out of the country, as Turkish opinion joined world opinion in its distaste for American actions in Vietnam. I and many other non-military Americans left Turkey.
Thirty five years and I can still taste the lentil soup in a Diyarbakir restaurant and smell the back streets of the old town hunkered in its mediaeval walls. I can feel the small woven stools that we sat on waiting for the dolmus the non-scheduled minibus that took us to our village, can taste the sweetened chay [tea] we drank from tulip shaped glasses, and hear the clack of the dice on backgammon boards. But more than any of these sharp sensory perceptions, I remember the historical and cultural complexities of that world and ache daily with the simplifications that now drive the world towards war. I want to tell you that Turks and Kurds is much more complicated than what you hear.
The Ottoman Empire and the new Turkey
The center of my village was a cluster of about thirty single storied adobe houses with red tiled roofs set along straight dirt streets. They were mostly government built houses from the late 30s and early 40s, because the people who lived in them were gucmen, Turkish refugees from Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania who had been repatriated and sent to this Kurdish region of the country to Turkify it. When they came, they were shocked not only at having Kurdish neighbors, but also by the hot dry plateau they were given to farm and graze. Some went home, others tried to migrate to more western parts of the new Turkey, and many died.