From Fethiye to Diyarbakir

For the last couple of days I was in Fethiye, Mugla province. I needed to go to the coast to make an item for Dutch radio about the start of Ramadan in a tourist town, and chose Fethiye because a Dutch friend is living there, and it was about time we did some catching up. I feel like I was in another country for a few days. It may surprise you, but I felt less free in Fethiye than I feel in Diyarbakir. Not on a superficial level, of course. In Fethiye, you can dress how you like, drink what you like and where you like, there are hardly any head-scarfed women and the coast and the sun gives it all a feeling of freedom.

But that’s all appearance.

With consent of the municipality the sign of HDP is removed from the HDP building in Fethiye, March 2014
With consent of the municipality the sign of HDP is removed from the HDP building in Fethiye, March 2014

What I mean is the atmosphere. Fethiye is very nationalistic, with a MHP-turned-DP mayor who openly objected to the HDP opening an office in town – remember how the sign with the HDP party name was taken down and people were besieging the HDP office early in the local election campaign? Fethiye was not alone in that, of course,similar things happened in many Turkish towns, but, well, that only makes the point I want to make more valid.

Besides the nationalism, there is the common Turkish polarization. I talked to a middle aged man who was running his own juice bar and who observed the fast. We did an interview, and then I talked to a group of men of the same age who were sitting right next to the juice bar, playing cards, smoking and drinking water. A lively discussion started when I asked them why they didn’t observe the fast.

Communists and dogs

One of them said he hated Erdogan and the religious pressure the prime minister puts on society: ‘I have a problem with my stomach but even if I didn’t, I still wouldn’t fast, as a protest against Erdogan.’ Another said: ‘You know, it’s expensive to observe Ramadan. I eat basic food, but for Ramadan people buy all kinds of expensive stuff’. He was giggling and not totally serious, but the juice man (a Yeni Safak reader) heard him and replied: ‘You can have iftar with melon, cheese and bread!’ to which the men answered: ‘You forget to mention raki!’ The juice man didn’t find that funny, looked really angry and decided the men were ‘communists!’ and ‘dogs!’ The men didn’t react, but only because they restrained themselves: I could see a few of them were very, very annoyed.

Men playing cards in Fethiye.
Men playing cards in Fethiye.

Welcome to Turkey. Pious people versus kemalists, and together most of them are still caught up in the terrorism narrative when it comes to Kurds. As soon as I honestly answered  a man’s question about where I lived with ‘Diyarbakir’, he tried to convince me that there are hardly any Kurds in the southeast and that the ones who do live there are ‘traitors and dogs’. When the card-playing men asked where I lived, I decided to say ‘Üsküdar’ – I’ve had enough discussions about Kurds with kemalists to avoid the subject when possible.

Then I caught a plane back to Diyarbakir, and tweeted that it felt like I had been in another country. Kemalism doesn’t exist in the southeast. And although in general Kurds are very religious, in Diyarbakir and elsewhere I always feel comfortable to say that I am not religious. ‘I believe in humanity’ is usually an acceptable answer here. In my experience, Turks are less flexible, raised as they are with the ‘truth’ that ‘everybody is a Turk and everybody is a Muslim’. When a Turk asks, I usually say: ‘My parents are Catholic’, which is acceptable for a foreigner.

Recipe for trouble

This is all very telling for the difference between Turkish and Kurdish nationalism. Somebody reacted to my tweet, saying it is dangerous to consider the southeast another country, because that was nationalist and nationalism is never good. That’s a very narrow perception.

Taking a breath in Fethiye, in this particular case it's a caretta caretta doing that.
Taking a breath in Fethiye, in this particular case it’s a caretta caretta doing that.

Turkish nationalism is defined by forcefully including non-Turks who are Muslims (like Kurds, but also for example Arabs) and brutally excluding those who are neither Turks nor Muslims (like Greeks and Armenians). That is a recipe for trouble, as was obvious in the last century, ever since Atatürk created Turkish nationalism. Kurds had to be Turks, and Greeks and especially Armenians could by definition never be reliable Turkish citizens. Both the included and excluded groups were killed, marginalized, suppressed and not accepted or respected for who they were.

I don’t see that in Kurdish nationalism. Some say the BDP/HDP and the MHP are different sides of the same coin, but such an opinion is based on a lack of knowledge. Kurdish nationalism doesn’t forcefully include anybody and doesn’t brutally exclude anybody either. Kurdish nationalism in Turkey (as preached by Öcalan and followed by millions) doesn’t even aspire statehood at the moment. A strong Kurdish identity has been built up ever since the armed struggle started thirty years ago, but forcing others to call themselves Kurds has never been part of it.

Intrinsic tensions

On the contrary. Kurdish nationalism is inclusive in a positive way: everybody can be part of a more democratic society, whoever you are. Like it or not, the Kurdish movement, now trying to merge with the Turkish left in the HDP, is the only one in Turkey being inclusive in this way. It is therefore fundamentally different than Turkish nationalism.

Picture my secret gay friend made during gay pride in Istanbul last Sunday.
Picture my secret gay friend from Diyarbakir made during gay pride in Istanbul last Sunday. ‘We all danced together’, he added.

So, yes, from Fethiye to Diyarbakir, to me it feels like going from one world to another. From a society with intrinsic tensions to one that is genuinely trying to create a real democracy. Yes, I do realize Kurdish society has a long way to go, especially when I think of the gay pride march that was held in Istanbul this weekend. A gay friend of mine from Diyarbakir was there to join the march, and he was so nervous because it’s his first time, and in Diyarbakir his identity is strictly secret since he might get killed for it. But did you ever see a Turkish-nationalist party (AKP, CHP, MHP) genuinely stand up for gay rights? Only one party, the HDP, dares to openly and unconditionally supporting sexual diversity – talk about being inclusive.

When I left Fethiye, I said goodbye to a few people I just met. One guy seemed very relaxed and open, so when he asked where I was going, I decided to give it a try and be honest: ‘Diyarbakir’. His answer? ‘Why? Do you want to get killed?’ I should have known better.

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