A Writer Writes

    Turks and Kurds

    by Rich Wandschneider (Turkey 1965–67)

    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.

    Grand memories
    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 I’d 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.
         Step back to the end of the First World War. Turkey — at that time still the Ottoman Empire — had sided with the Germans. On the eve of WW I, the Empire was not strong — it was called the “sick man of Europe” at the time — but its nominal holdings were still great. They included the coasts of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of Europe. In a huge and important battle at Gallipoli, Turks and Germans defended high ground against an English and Australian beach assault. An Englishman named Winston Churchill lost his job over this battle, and a Turkish general named Kemal Pasha distinguished himself. When the Germans and Turks lost the war, the English, French, and lesser allies set out to divide up the old Ottoman Empire — the English and the French “mandates” in the Middle East that are now Iraq and Syria and Israel are a result of that process — and promised pieces of the Anatolian plateau to Greece and others who had claims.
         At that time Kemal Pasha stepped into power over the old Sultanate (the ruling head of the Ottoman Empire), pulled together Turkish troops and people, pushed the Greeks and their allies into the sea at Smyrna (modern Izmir), and claimed a secular nation-state with its capital in the center of Anatolia at Ankara. Kemal Pasha, who would eventually be renamed “Ataturk” — “Father of the Turks” — did not want the old empire, but he wanted Anatolia. He knew that there were Armenians, Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Jews, and others within the new borders, but there would have been within any borders carved from the old Empire. His model was the European nation state, a secular entity with a shared major language and culture. Everyone within the new borders, according to Ataturk, would to be a Turk. And everyone without the borders who was a Turk, whether from Central Asia or the Balkans, was welcome in the new Turkish homeland.
         The Turks in our village were some of those refugees, and they spoke Greek or Bulgarian and, as they had been there since the late 1930s and early 1940s, they spoke a little bit of Kurdish. Some shared memories of another, greener home in the Balkans; all shared the Turkish language and the status of refugee. They all owned land and shared a “commons” pasture and hired shepherds. The Kurds were all Sunni Moslems, so they shared that with their Turkish neighbors, and the Kurdish men and a few of the women spoke Turkish.
         The old religions and cultures and languages in the new Turkish state did not die, of course, but there was a great movement to modernize, and many from minority groups, who had been less than full citizens in the old Empire, rose to Ataturk’s invitation to create a modern state. In my village, there were two Kurdish settlements within a kilometer of the main village. Unlike the gucmen village, the adobe houses in these villages were flat roofed and had grown like Topsy so that the Anatolian wind had to slow down and creep through them. The three sections comprised one village for government purposes, but in fact they were three separate entities.
         In one of the two Kurdish sections, most villagers owned their own land. In the other, they were largely sharecroppers for a wealthy Kurdish land owner, an aga. The reason some Kurdish villagers owned land was because one of them had risen to the rank of sergeant in the Turkish army in the 1930s, and as a reward had been sent to one of Ataturk’s Village Institutes for six months (a radical nation-building idea Ataturk developed with the help of John Dewy), and come home to build a school and teach in it. This Kurdish teacher was devoted to Ataturk and education, and when several agas were sent into exile by Ataturk, he marched villagers into town and helped them get deeds to the land they worked. Many of the exiled agas eventually found their ways back from Syria and took up their feudal roles, but they did not reclaim this village. Some Kurds from other villages told me that Ataturk only “put the agas to sleep” when he should have executed them.
    Knowing agas
    Once I was introduced to a Kurdish aga while visiting the provincial Soil Conservation Office in Diyarbakir. He was a strikingly handsome man in his 30s, dressed well in a fitted western suit. He invited me to have lunch. When we left the office we were surrounded by a small posse of village Kurds dressed in chalvars – the loose pants worn throughout the region, wearing bandoliers of ammunition and carrying guns. We marched through the old town, down narrow streets to a small hotel. In the dark lobby the aga sat me in a chair off to his side and had chay served. For the next hour I watched trembling men approach him one by one, kneel to kiss his hand, and address him with some complaint or request. The aga translated for me, explaining that he was the landowner for several villages, the leader of a clan, and that it was his job to allocate resources and adjudicate domestic matters ranging from bride prices to family disputes. A brother or cousin of this aga served in the Turkish Parliament.
         Another Kurdish aga once bragged to me on the beauty of his wife. His father, he confided, owned nine villages, and he was trying to loosen the reins and modernize, but things were going slowly. His wife even remained veiled in deference to the father, but when they went to Europe, he said, “it is right away, miniskirt.” He waited for the time when he took over the holdings, studying ways to modernize and empower villagers.

    Turkey in the ’60s
    I met no outspoken Kurdish nationalists that I know of, although it is likely that they would have hidden such thoughts from me. I was — after all — a hybrid kind of Turkish government employee, and the entire province had been closed to foreigners until a few years before the arrival of the Peace Corps due to the “Kurdish problem” — Kurds wanting to speak their own language, Kurds interested in joining with countrymen in Iran and Iraq. There had been an easing of the problem with a more general prosperity, and the publicized fear in our time was from leftist students from Ankara who came to the region preaching against the feudal land system. I made passing acquaintance with a few such students, who talked of literacy, encouraging girls go to school, and land reform.
         In my time in Diyarbakir, Kurdish radio was still illegal, but people in the village listened to the Kurdish stations from Syria and Iraq, and I had no trouble finding a couple of contraband 45 records in the market in Diyarbakir to bring back as souvenirs. Most Kurds sent their sons to the required five year elementary school (in our village, the one built by the old Kurdish teacher) and to the army, but rarely sent their daughters to school. The government winked at this. My Peace Corps colleagues who taught English in the high school in Diyarbakir told of losing students to Kurdish clan warfare — a student would suddenly leave class and the country, presumably to be hidden across a border in Syria with clan members until the reasons for the feud were resolved. The Kurds in my village empathized with their countryman who lived under the stiff fist of a bad aga and praised the old teacher for giving them a better life. They spoke to me in Turkish, but my saying a few words in Kurdish always brought smiles, and often a glass of chay or piece of Turkish delight.
         In two years in the village and frequent trips to Diyarbakir and other meanderings around eastern Turkey, I also met Gypsies who spoke Turkish, Kurdish, and Romani; and Shia Kurds, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Chaldean Catholics, and Syrian Orthodox Christians who had worshiped in a Diyarbakir church continuously since the seventh or eighth century. One of our village school teachers was a Turk from the Black Sea; the other a Kurdish Turkophile from a nearby village. Our mayor was a Turk who was originally from a Syrian border town. He had come to Diyarbakir to do his military service, married one of the gucmen women, and stayed on to become a mediator between the gucmen and Kurdish populations and between all villagers and the government bureaucracies in Diyarbakir. Behind his back they sometimes called him “Arab,” but they valued his native Turkishness and his moxy.
    Language, religion, ethnicity
    Turkey is well over 90 percent Moslem — predominantly Sunni Moslem. But, other than religion, Turks share history and culture with Europe and Central Asia as much or more than they do with the Arab world. The Turks ruled Arabs for centuries, and they had fought against each other as recently as WW I. More primally, the Turkish language is central Asian, a Ural-Altaic language, as compared to the Semitic languages of the Arabs and the Indo-European languages of Persians and Kurds. I understand that modern Kurdish dialects are related to older Persian dialects, maybe even to the languages spoken by the Biblical Medes. Ataturk and the modernizers who followed him, rebuilt the Turkish language, took away its “foreign” Arabic alphabet and replaced it with a modern Latin one that made reading and writing easier. They purged the language of Arabic and Persian words and reached back to old Central Asian Turkic dialects for others.
         They built alliances with Israel, because Israel, like Turkey, was a new nation-state bent on modernizing. And Turks had a history with Jews. At the time of the Inquisition in Europe, many Jews fled to the Ottoman Empire, where they were allowed to live and practice their religion as one of the many millets or “peoples,” of the Empire. In my time in Turkey, Turks who worked in technical fields often went to Israel for training, and sometimes Israeli agriculturalists paid return visits. I have read that the current Turkish government, considered the most religiously oriented since statehood, still has strong ties with Israel.

    Commenting on current events
    I know that my knowledge is more than thirty years old, that the Gulf War brought thousands of Iraqi Kurdish refugees across the border into Diyarbakir, and a Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey was harshly suppressed by the Turkish government in the ’90s. But I also know that my old knowledge of Turks and Kurds is relevant in a place where history is measured in decades and dynasties as easily and often as it is measured in years.
         I believe that the Turks have many legitimate reasons for skepticism of this war on Iraq. The first Gulf War cost Turkey a large trading partner with oil money to pay for its agricultural and manufacturing products. And it stirred the Kurdish pot that boiled into Turkey and a nationalist uprising. Those who would say that a new stirring might lead to a real Kurdish state should know how diverse, how tribal, and how woven into the Turkish power fabric some of the Kurdish population is. They should also know that there are major divisions in the Iraqi Kurdish community as well; a problem that by news reports has been eased with the gradual withdrawal of Iraqi control of the area but that might be exacerbated by a border free-for-all. There are large Kurdish populations in Iran and Syria as well, so that a regional conflict might spread, with haves and have nots, clans and nascent political parties, religious sub groups, and nervous governments joining the fray or trying to stem it. Turkey is understandably nervous, and wants its own troops along the border. The Iraqi Kurds are nervous, because they have gained a great deal of autonomy and they don’t want to lose it to a Turkish invasion.
         If Turks are proud of anything, it is their military heritage. They came out of Central Asia as warriors. At one time their Empire stretched from the coasts of North Africa across the Arabian deserts and into the European heartland to the gates of Vienna. They defeated the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, and ruled their vast Empire from the city of Constantinople, later Istanbul, which sits astride Asia and Europe. In modern times, Turks are proud of their service in Korea, where they fought alongside Americans. I heard the same Korean War stories — with a great deal of respect — from American veterans when I got back to the States. To ask the Turks to compromise their own military, to tell them that there should be 60,000 American troops on their borders should elicit a strong reaction. I liken it to the Mexicans putting troops on our northern border to deal with a problem that they have with the Canadian government.
         If that is not enough, the Turkish population is opposed to the war. The populations of most European countries are opposed, but other countries are not on the border with Iraq, so the demands on Turkey from the Untied States are more strident, more specific, and primary to the execution of the impending war. The irony is that Turkey is a secular democracy (one we are proud to point to as an example to other Middle Eastern countries), and we are asking its government to disregard the opinions of 95 percent of its population.
        What is there for Turkey and Turks to gain? Continued friendship with the United States? Cash? A hunk of Iraq. A piece of the oil action after the war? The latter might be the big stick that is prompting the new Turkish government to consider a new vote on allowing American troops to deploy. But the gains seem so far outweighed by the potential losses: loss of faith with voters; further loss of trade; strife in southern cities where diverse populations might get caught in some kind of Balkanized uprisings; Kurdish chaos in two, three, or even four sovereign states; and a reinforcement of European fears of warrior Turks, Moslem Turks, alien Turks — there is no way that involvement in an Iraqi war will further Turkey’s aspirations for entrance in the European Union.

    The Kurds
    Other than a resurgent awareness that this ancient people still exists, I see no good in this war for the Kurds either. They are a tribal people with extensive populations in four different nation states: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They have been suppressed by the Turkish government in its move towards a modern Turkish state, crushed in Iran at Mahabad in the 1940s when some of their tribes declared an independent Kurdish state, used by both sides in ongoing feuds between Iraqi Arabs and the Iranian state, and trampled and gassed by Saddam Hussein in Northern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds have a measure of autonomy now, and have made attempts at modern political parties. A war in Iraq might give Kurds greater power there, but it might also bring a wary Turkish government into the country. Any large Kurdish nationalist movement that crosses other state lines, say into Syria or Iran, will surely bring reactions from those states.
         Even if it became possible to create a new Kurdistan that would take in some of the areas from some of the four states now in play, there is no assurance that the people who would share the Kurdish language within its borders would share enough else to make a state. There are major differences in religion, education, and culture among the Kurds. And then the new state would have to deal with the Turkish, Arab, Armenian, Persian, Christian, Zoroastrian and Sunni and Shia Moslem minorities in its midst.

    A central question
    This gets to the crux of the problem across the Middle East. How do countries which exist on a twenty first century map due to the caprice of English and French diplomats, a persecuted people’s quest for a homeland, shrunken empires, and a Turkish war hero’s vision remain viable themselves and get along with each other — and with the rest of the world — when their citizenry flows over borders and weaves into villages, cities, and countryside along pathways of language, religion, and tribe that are as old as Western Civilization? The Kurdish cause, it seems to me, will be better served by the quiet workings of diplomacy and the furthering of education within and without the current geographic range of Kurdish peoples than it will by war. And the Turkish cause, and those of the Iraqi Arab and Persian Shiites, the Ba’hais, Zoroastrians, Palestinian Moslems, Arab Christians, Armenians, Druze, and the European and Sephardic Jews. War is easy; peace, civility, civilization are the difficult things. Especially now, in this part of the world that gave us much of what we now ironically call Western Civilization.

    Rich Wandschneider was a Rural Development Volunteer in Turkey and then a Peace Corps Fellow in Washington before returning to Turkey in 1968 as an Associate Peace Corps Director. After the Peace Corps he moved in 1971 to Wallowa County, Oregon to work with Oregon State U Extension Service in rural community development.
         His plans were to spend a year or two before moving on. He has now lived in Oregon for 23 years. In 1976, he opened a book store and owned it until 1988, and then became the founding director of Fishtrap, a writing center that produces workshops, conferences, writer’s residencies, etc. He writes a weekly column for the local paper and has been published, among other places, in
    Northern Lights, High Country News, The Oregonian, and Adoptive Families. Rich Wandschneider can be reached at rich@fishtrap.org