February 16, 2008


Minority Rules (MELINE TOUMANI, 2/17/08, NY Times Magazine)

In Turkish media coverage of P.K.K. attacks, there is little discussion of Kurdish civilians being killed by Turkish soldiers — still less about why a child growing up in the southeast might be driven to sympathize with the P.K.K. The young victim in Demirbas’s picture frame, Kaymaz, played a role in another of the lawsuits against the mayor. Directly across the street from the entrance to the Sur district office building, Demirbas erected a sculpture: an abstract and striking figure made of stone, with its arms curved up into the air. The statue has 13 small, identical round holes carved into it; these represent the 13 bullets with which Ugur Kaymaz was killed. The words on the statue are paragraphs from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in Turkish. For erecting such a memorial Demirbas was accused of “misuse of municipal office and resources” once again.

Children have a special place in Demirbas’s work. He served as the head of the Diyarbakir teachers’ union for 18 years — he was fired for criticizing the nationalist school curriculum — and as mayor championed children’s festivals, libraries, music groups and the free distribution of children’s activity books in Kurdish, Turkish and Assyrian. He was likely to take the opportunity to explain why the Turkish primary-school experience is a particularly sensitive issue for Kurds. Most Kurdish children in poor, rural areas start school without knowing how to speak Turkish. Demirbas told me that on his first day of school, at age 6, his teacher lifted him up by the earlobes because he did not know how to say “my teacher” in Turkish. “I am 41 years old,” Demirbas says. “But I can never forget that teacher and that school.”

Demirbas’s colleague Osman Baydemir is six years younger but has similar stories. A lawyer by profession, Baydemir is mayor of the greater Diyarbakir municipality, which encompasses Sur and 31 other districts. Baydemir faces more than 50 investigations and also risks prison for a long list of cultural offenses. Baydemir, too, started school without a word of Turkish. He recounted to me the informal “web of espionage” that characterized his childhood years: in his Kurdish village near Diyarbakir, a few children kept track of which kids spoke Kurdish in the village and reported the names to their teachers, who levied punishments accordingly. Baydemir, who has published health brochures and a book of baby names in Kurdish, among other materials, said that in meetings with the public in this part of the country, if politicians don’t speak Kurdish most people do not understand them: “If we carry out a public-service campaign in Turkish only, there are limited results.”

But the use of Kurdish is not simply a matter of linguistic comprehension. Sometimes it is a form of diplomacy. One of the most aggressive legal investigations against Baydemir concerned a series of public statements he made in Kurdish in March 2006. In a battle that month between P.K.K. militants and Turkish soldiers, 14 Kurds had been killed. Diyarbakir exploded in mass demonstrations that ultimately became violent. Baydemir begged the crowd — in Turkish — to settle down, to refuse further violence, to go home and rest. The crowd chanted P.K.K. slogans, like “Teeth to teeth, blood to blood, we are with you Ocalan,” referring to Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the P.K.K. whom Baydemir, as a lawyer, had defended after his capture in 1999. Desperate to subdue the crowd, Baydemir switched to Kurdish. “You claimed your identity,” he told them. “With burnt hearts, you claimed your people and your pain. We are also with you. Be sure of this. But for the sake of peace, for the sake of your success, we have to listen to each other under the leadership of the party” — the Democratic Society Party, or D.T.P., Turkey’s only legal “pro-Kurdish” party. “We fear,” he went on, “that this mobilization from now on will harm our nation and our people. From now on, we all will go back to our homes quietly.” Sixteen people were killed in the rioting that subsequently spread across the southeast and into Istanbul. The mandate — the ordeal — of a mayor in a Kurdish town was clear: a kind of internal mediation of the highest order, the challenge of connecting to the hearts of the Kurdish population while governing according to the laws of the state.

Nearly all of the prominent Kurdish politicians accused of language violations are members of the D.T.P. But the latest front in the party’s legal battles is not crimes against the alphabet but the status of the D.T.P. itself. On Nov. 16, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, applied to the Constitutional Court to ban the D.T.P., arguing that it is merely a suit-and-tie-clad front for the P.K.K. “The party in question has become a base for activities which aim at the independence of the state and its indivisible unity,” the prosecutor wrote in his statement.

This move to ban the pro-Kurdish party, likely to last several months in court, is in some ways less surprising than the fact that the D.T.P. made it to Parliament at all. In the past several years, at least four Kurdish parties have been banned or forced to dissolve in Turkey, always under the accusation of supporting the P.K.K. and threatening Turkey’s unity. But the D.T.P. has been different. In last July’s elections, it became the first Kurdish party to have a strong presence in Parliament in more than a decade. It did so by running its candidates as independents in order to get around a 10-percent minimum (of the total vote) that a party would need to achieve in order to actually win seats. Supporters saw its victory as a chance to address Kurdish issues in Turkey through democratic means. D.T.P. members took great pains to assert their desire to work within the law, to give voice to the economic, social and cultural concerns of their constituents and to bridge the deep chasms between their group and Turkey’s old guard, which is represented by the Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Action Party.

But from the new Parliament’s opening session in August, the D.T.P.’s presence set in motion a circus of hostile and even juvenile behavior. At the helm of Parliament, the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party has been the most neutral. But throughout the late summer and fall, Turkish society was captivated by play-by-play scrutiny of who would shake whose hand and who would be invited to whose parties. Some representatives of nationalist and secularist camps took to calling their D.T.P. colleagues “separatists.”

The remnants of empires are always especially inorganic and nationalism drives the constituent pieces apart rather than holding them together. Kurdistan is separate.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 16, 2008 9:27 AM
Comments for this post are closed.