Kurds in Turkey: The Big Change

A book fair was underway while I was in Diyarbakir. At the first stand I visited, wedged between Turkish translations of War and Peace and For Whom the Bell Tolls, I found a selection of books with titles like History of Kurdistan and Turkey’s Kurdish Problem. No such books could possibly have been sold here during the 1990s, when the very word “Kurdistan” was taboo and the term “Kurdish problem” was taken to refer to an illegal form of separatism.

Before, we were afraid to speak out,” a Kurdish writer named Lutfi Baski told me at the fair. “The government was insisting that there were no Kurds, that there was no Kurdish language or culture. They arrested us and closed our organizations. Now, so much has changed, especially in the last few months. Our problems haven’t been solved, not at all, but at least we can talk about them honestly. It’s a huge difference.”

Later that day, I walked past city hall and saw a large banner advertising a conference that was being held inside. Its subject was “The European Union Accession Process and the Kurdish Problem.” When I walked into the packed hall, a local politician was delivering a passionate harangue.

For so many years, the Turkish state called us criminals, saying that it was not possible to have dialogue with us and that we had to be crushed,” he told the rapt crowd. “This is the repeated tragedy that created the Kurdish problem. The only reason Kurds were forced to begin armed struggle was the way the Turkish state has treated Kurds at every stage in the history of this country.”

These would have been highly dangerous words a couple of years ago. Even now, police agents monitor and videotape conferences like this one. Their presence, however, did nothing to intimidate the speakers in Diyarbakir. “They watch us just like before, but they can’t do anything to us anymore,” one man told me. “This is a democracy now. We’re becoming European. The state can’t touch us.”

The next morning, I visited the mayor of Diyarbakir, thirty-four-year-old Osman Baydemir, who since his election last year has become a leading spokesman for the rising generation of Kurds in Turkey. He told me that although the emergence of a quasi-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has thrilled most people here, they are not eager to join it. Instead, he said, they want to remain citizens of Turkey—assuming that Turkey changes its attitude toward them.

Nearly all of the Kurds I met told me the same thing. The prospect of remaining part of a large country that is associated with Europe, and has Istanbul among its many attractions, appeals to them more than the abstract satisfaction of living under a Kurdish flag in an isolated, landlocked Mesopotamian “entity.”

Revolutionary steps are now being taken within the framework of democracy,” Mayor Baydemir said. “But in a country where change comes slowly, we need an outside influence …

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