Kurdish HDP supporters at a rally, moments before bombs exploded. Image: Sean Hawkey
“See over there,” said Ahmet, our cab driver, barrelling along the road beside Diyarbakir’s city wall, pointing to a street near our hotel. “That’s where the vegetable seller was shot last night, for being a state informant.” This was all being translated, so there was a lag between word and gesture. He stuck a finger in his mouth, pointing through the back of his head. “Like that.” He grew downcast for a moment, or so it seemed. “He’s in the hospital.” Then he brightened. “But he’s not expected to live.” It was hard to tell which emotion was attaching to which statement.
Days two and three of Turkey’s surprise election upheaval, and things were getting tense in the dry, dusty capital of Turkish Kurdistan. The dark stone wall, metres thick, which runs down one side of the city, is a testament to the provisional nature of current arrangements. Roman then Arab then Kurd, before being taken over by the Turks in the 1200s, the place had been celebrating for 48 hours before the mysterious killing of a senior figure in an Islamist Kurdish group, and the revenge killing of three activists from the Kurdish/left HDP hours later. “Activists” is putting it strongly. “They were volunteers, really. He was a shopkeeper, just known to be an HDP supporter,” one HDP official told us, upset.
Rumours are running wild through the city. “There were three killings last night by the YDG-H [the youth wing of the PKK],” the driver said. “I don’t believe that,” said the translator to me, in English. “Discipline would have held.” He said the same thing back, in Turkish. Ahmed just shrugged and laughed, took a drag on his cigarette and passed a petrol tanker on the wrong side, through the tangled street. Though much of the fabric of the old town has gone, the layout of Diyarbarkir survives — alley leading into alley, courtyards and small squares, hundreds of tea gardens, cooled by overhanging vines, and water sprayed into the air. Unemployment is high here, and there’s not much to do for some but sit over a glass of tea all day and watch the satellite TV, with multiple Kurdish channels, blaring away, covering the post-election negotiations.
Lots of rumours. No one knew anything about the vegetable seller. But … but … but the night before, around 2am, after writing some bollocks about eating watermelon, I’d been drifting off to sleep and heard five loud bangs, like a metal panel being hit. Coming downstairs, through the vast and silent foyer of the local Grand Budapest — vast toffee-wood armchairs, a row of clocks above the panelled reception (New York-London-Paris-Istanbul-Moscow-Peking) — there was only silence without and within. It might have been someone kicking a metal shutter. But … but … but …
Tension is running high in Diyarbakir because the election result has created, out of the blue, a legitimacy crisis in the Turkish state. No party has a majority, all have set themselves against each other to a degree, none of it will be easily done — and yet both the future of the Turkish economy and the Middle East depends on some sort of resolution.
Stories were coming out about the extreme lengths the AKP had gone to to try to minimise the HDP vote in the south-east. “They were giving out white goods,” the HDP campaign manager said, laughing. “Not just small cash, washing machines, fridges.” That was the funny side of it. Less amusing was the systematic intimidation, the threat of violence that had descended on the city. “The most interesting thing about all this is that Efkan Ala turned up here yesterday,” said Kenem Celik, the press officer of the TDK, one of the numerous interlocking civil-society organisations the Kurds established in the 2000s as a counterpart to the guerrilla struggle. “Everyone noticed that.” Ala is a notorious AKP fixer, a former interior minister with knack for appearing wherever serious mayhem is about to start. The AKP have lost their majority, but they aren’t going without a fight.
Indeed, there is little indication that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accepted defeat. He stayed in power because he had delivered a boom, but it’s been the same as booms everywhere — high on consumption, low on productivity gains. Now it’s starting to slow. It’s also a nightmare for Erdogan’s foreign policy, creating a policy vacuum at a time when the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq and Syria is triumphing against Arabs in Iraq, but being beaten back by the Kurds on the other side of the Turkish border.
Image: Sean Hawkey
Indeed, Erdogan’s fury against the Kurds is growing, if that were possible, as they have come to be the thin red, green, and yellow line against the brutality and reactionary nature of IS (also called ISIS). He returned to live television today — he had been on 54 days in a row before the election, and then went into a 48-hour sulk that had people on Twitter calling for someone to send out a search party — to denounce Western support for Kurdish “terrorists” in Syria.
The attitude is shared by many AKP supporters and not a few others as well, especially as the YPG — the Syrian Kurdish armed units — are fighting to remove the last remnants of IS still in control of the border area to the east of Kobane. This would leave the entire border region of Turkey and Rojava — “south Kurdistan” — under YPG control, creating a de facto Kurdish continuum across the border. “Erdogan proposed a buffer zone in Syria as part of the ‘peace process’ but he only did that because the YPG was winning,” said Celik. “For us, the AKP is ISIS, there’s no difference between them.”
With Erdogan technically unable to say much while negotiations on government continue, HDP has taken the running, claiming that the PKK is now ready to disarm (in Turkey anyway) and became part of a wider peace process. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas also surprised some of his own supporters by saying that the HDP would be willing to consider a three-party coalition. But that is not everyone’s view. “There’s no chance of us being in government with the AKP. I want to see an AKP-MHP government,” Ziyar Pir, a newly elected HDP politician, tells us, in a garden cafe strung between tower blocks on the outskirts of town. “Because that will extend the process to the [right-wing] MHP, draw them in.”
“But won’t the MHP put a brake on the peace process?” Pir laughs. “They won’t be able to. This victory has extended the process to the whole political spectrum.” Pir is a new MP, but his opinion carries some weight, for heritage reasons, as the nephew of Kemal Pir, one of the three founders of the PKK, who died in a hunger strike in the early 1980s. Pir, a Turk (as was his uncle), grew up in Germany, going from a mountain village near the Black Sea — “I was an adult at age nine, a shepherd, with junior shepherds age six and seven, and then I was in Germany and I was a child again. When my father first showed me TV, I hid from the man behind the screen looking at me. It wasn’t easy” — and made a life for himself as an economic consultant there.
He has the look of the new global progressive, charcoal suit and open-necked shirt, smartphone at hand, Tsipras-style. It took a lot of convincing to get him on the list, culminating in a “six-hour discussion in which they said ‘look for your uncle, for what he did — we were at war now we’re at peace — this is a continuation of the struggle.’ So I did.”
What does he most want from this new period? “A new constitution — one that recognises human dignity, human rights, a human constitution.” I.e. one of universal citizenship in Turkey, not of Turkishness.
Pir’s optimism that an AKP-MHP coalition would extend the peace process is not shared by everyone. Older observers are more cautious, want an AKP-CHP grand coalition, which would make the HDP the official opposition. “We’re not strong enough yet for government,” says writer Seyhmus Diken, sipping at that beloved eastern drink, Nescafe with milk, on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Mountain Gate and the blueish mountains beyond.
An essayist, poet and sociologist, Diken has just completed a 900-page survey of Kurdish civil society and politics right across the whole region, outlining the way in which first the armed struggle and then the peace process has transformed a very conservative tribal people into a force of humanism, with female soldiers, a 50/50 female list, a multi-ethnic/social movement party, and a leading role in holding the line against IS. (“Yes, umm,” he said when I put it like that — “you have summarised the introduction to the book”). ‘The PKK made it possible to have a Kurdish civil society, because the state couldn’t just close down any organisation that started up, whenever they wanted. But civil society also put the PKK in a new context.” Satellite TV helped as it spread in the ’90s, but the internet and social media all the more: “when you had to have a satellite dish the army could see who was watching Kurdish channels. With Facebook and social media, no one could tell.”
A whole city, a warren of streets and courtyards, alive with such conversations. The HDP vote here would have touched 90% (80% for the whole province). Everyone has an opinion. Shopkeepers and businesspeople seem to want an AKP-HDP coalition — “yes! Take it, take it!” — says a souvenir shop owner standing before a wall of the turquoise “evil eye” good-luck talismans. But there is almost no one within the party who thinks such a move would be possible or wise.
Wily as ever, Erdogan, officially outside of all government negotiations, had a meeting with CHP party elder Deniz Baykal — just a couple of old “friends” talking — and called for fresh elections as soon as possible. Heh. That was a big hit in the cafes, a power bid so blatant that it demanded a sort of perverse respect. Yet there was also an awareness that things might be on knife edge. Late afternoon, at the HDP offices, a set of interlinked apartments at the bottom of a tower block, incongruously stuffed with discount store mirrors and charity shop furniture, was chaos, with people running back and forth to hospital, trays of tea being offered, and no one saying anything. Having been told the press officer wasn’t in — he drifted past the door — a no-nonsense woman parried every question about shootings with boilerplate: “the HDP has called for calm and for discipline in response to the provocations, and that discipline has been maintained.” The city was either calm or in uproar.
The crowd scatters as people injured by the blasts are carried to ambulances. Image: Sean Hawkey
By evening, uproar looked like it might win out. By late afternoon, shops were shutting early, including the old caravanserai, a vast courtyard of bubbling fountains and cool colonnades, and more importantly one of the few places you could get a drink. This was now serious shit. The only other places where booze was to be had were a couple of joints half-hidden on the top floor of four-star hotels, with a dance floor, and a line of women in the fashions of the ’40s, waiting to tango with you for the price of a 50 lira (A$25) ticket. Back at the caravanserai, we banged on the shutters — well, I did — but there was no answer. “No way I was opening yesterday,” said the young proprietor, the day after. “Not a place that sold alcohol.” He then broke off to go and have a word to someone who was firing off an AK-47 out in the street — upwards, always upwards — and scaring off his customers.
Defeated in the search for booze, we called Ahmet (aka Curveball) to pick us up. “You missed all the fun!” he said. “The Islamists had a demonstration and shot up your hotel!” Mid-afternoon, out in the main square near the city wall’s “Mountain Gate”, Huda Par and other groups had staged a demonstration against the lethal attack on their members. Someone had flashed a V-sign from one of the windows — it would later transpire he was a tourist, who had believed it to be an HDP rally. The Islamists, for their part, weren’t aware of the “victory” connotations of the V-sign, but were well aware of others. Reports said they aimed upwards, always upwards, and took out the front windows with stones — actually of the hotel two doors down — but that was small consolation. That Walkley for Missing the Story appeared to be pretty much in the bag now. They’d taken the trouble to stop by my hotel and fire on it, and I wasn’t in.
No word on the killings, or whether they had occurred at all. Or what the next days might bring. On the flat-screen in the Grand Budapest, its one concession to modernity, the funerals of the three party workers featured, surging columns of people behind red-wrapped coffins in dusty graveyards. Dead yesterday, in the ground today “There are bodies coming every day from Kobane,” we were told. And with them last week came the body of Keith Broomfield, the American who had spent months fighting with the YPG on the front line, coming back to Turkey, to be met by his grieving parents at the border. For the moment, the Kurds represent the universal and the human, against the partial and mystical. That is a danger for Erdogan and the AKP, but in being so, it may not be without hazard for the HDP as well.
The caravanserai was open the next night, selling Syrian red wine. Smooth wine, cool breezes, the bubbling fountains, thus from the Old Iranian, root language of Kurdish, paradaesa, paradise, the “walled garden”. Thus it must have been, across the desert, the parched rocky lands, to this, built around natural springs, the tempting thought of what it would be like to stay here for ever. There was a bridal party rocking it up in the centre of the courtyard — the celebration of the day before the wedding, bride-to-be in a scarlet, sequined red dress, her dad in a sort of mirrored smock, everyone dancing to a pumping beat freely accompanied by a Tanbur, Kurdish bouzouki, the player going hell-for-leather.
I thought about paradise, and about dying in a hunger strike in a Turkish prison, the strength it would take, the inevitable moments of doubt, the point where of nothingness, where you must wonder if it is all not a waste, the things you won’t see, the weddings you won’t be at. And what follows it — a man leaving a comfortable life in Germany to become an MP for this wild part of the world. But each inheres in the other, the great sacrifice can only be completed by the lesser one. And then, and I doubt anyone will believe me, but so it happened, as the bridesmaids lit candles in baskets and hollowed out loaves, and surrounded the bride with them, the lights went out, bang, and everyone’s stomach jumped a little, the taped music stopped, and the reserve generator did not kick in, and we were left in the darkness in a sea of flickering flame, shining off the fountain waters, and it was as it might have been a thousand, two thousand years ago, arriving from the long trek across the desert and the untold pleasures therein, before the long journey to come.
*With thanks to Andy Penny, translator and fixer, long-suffering.