I had already seen him at the symposium, sitting in the conference hall with a large framed image next to him. I didn’t ask him what it was, I thought that he must be one of the speakers and we would find out eventually. And yes, we did find out eventually. Right after the closing words of the symposium were spoken, he rushed to the front of the hall and exploded in anger, his framed image in his hands: ‘Look, these are my ancestors!’, pointing at the framed image which turned out to be, or so he claimed, his family tree. ‘The Abbasid dynasty ruled here for centuries, so why are they not even mentioned once in a three day symposium on Hakkari history?’
He then turned rude and abusive, asking for example why ‘kafirs’ were speaking at the symposium, thus losing his right to speak up for diversity, so naturally people stopped listening.
But the guy had a point.
The symposium on the history of Hakkari was organized by Hakkari University in cooperation with the Hakkari governorship. The governorship is, by the way, building a ridiculously huge new government building for itself in the centre of Hakkari, sort of a small skale Aksaray. I shook my head at it when I first saw the construction site, but then again, maybe when autonomy is arranged, the Kurds can make use of it somehow. But sorry, that’s a sideline.
The ever-vigilant gaze of Atatürk
Before travelling to Hakkari, I asked if there would be translations available. Apparently I misunderstood (which still often happens in phone conversations in Turkish…) that there would be simultaneous translations, because when I arrived, no translation whatsoever had been arranged. The organizers told me there was not enough funding for that. I can imagine, because there were speakers in the Kurdish languages Kurmanji and Sorani, there were speakers giving their lecture in Turkish and one in English, so to make everybody understand each other, translators would have been needed in four languages for three days. An expensive undertaking.
The intriguing result was, however, that the organizers at the university asked people to speak in Kurdish if they could, because that was the language most speakers and participants shared. So there it was, a symposium almost entirely in Kurdish, mostly financed with the regional government’s money, under the ever-vigilant gaze of Atatürk, his huge portrait on the wall. I didn’t, subsequently, understand many of the presentations. But that was okay, I mean, how could I object to Kurds speaking their mother tongue?
I may not have understood the Kurdish lectures, nor every detail of the ones in Turkish, but one message was very clear: this was mainly a symposium about the Kurdish history of Hakkari, not about ‘the’ history of Hakkari. As the aggressive man with his family tree in his hands said: the Abbasid dynasty (which lasted from 750 till 1258) has ruled over Hakkari (and the rest of present-day Southeast Turkey) and must have left some influence.
Once called Assyria
And how about the Assyrians? They were not a ‘Christian minority’, as people often think, just as the Kurds are not a minority in Turkey nowadays. They were, like the Kurds are now, the native people of what once was called Assyria, and they were large in numbers. According to the English speaker, Nicholas Al-Jeloo, an Assyrian himself, before 1915 some 50 to 60% of Hakkari’s population was Assyrian. Which was also a matter of debate later over lunch, since those numbers were based on official statistics, in which many Kurds were not counted, since many tribes were nomadic. So the percentage of Assyrians may be up to let’s say 20% less. But who has investigated this exactly, the number of nomadic Kurds at the time? Nobody, it seems.
Every people that lives or used to live in Hakkari, and in the rest of what is now southeast Turkey, investigates and writes his own history about it. The Kurds because they were and are still oppressed and feel a need to document that. The Assyrians because they were swept away from their homeland a century ago and want their cultural and religious heritage to be preserved. Both legitimate, but the danger is that the history of one group becomes ‘the’ history of the region. A striking example is that two of the speakers from Iraqi Kurdistan claimed, totally incorrectly, that the Assyrians were actually Kurds. I’m sure (or I hope) it was not their intention to Kurdify the Assyrians, but it’s just as wrong as saying Kurds are actually Turks.
Another example happened a few days later, on Facebook, when some symposium participants, including me, were sharing some pictures of a trip we made into the Hakkari mountains one afternoon. There was a funny picture of Nicholas and me, both taking a picture of something the picture didn’t reveal. I figured out what we were photographing, and it turned out to be a dilapidated village. I posted that picture too, saying we were taking pictures of a village which had been destroyed by the army in the 1990’s. Nicholas reacted, saying to him it looked more like an old Assyrian village, dating back to before 1915. Then another participant reacted and said: ‘It’s probably both’.
No country lasts forever
Now that’s the kind of broader thinking that is needed to write an inclusive history of Hakkari, and of the rest of the region that is now officially the southeast of Turkey. I deliberately don’t say ‘Kurdistan’, because when you look at the region more inclusively, that can never be the name. It is Kurdistan in the Kurds’ hearts and that is perfectly fine, but that the Kurds are the majority now should not mean we wipe out other people’s history.
Van was an Armenian city till a hundred years ago. Diyarbakir was so diverse that we can’t ethnically label it at all. Hakkari may have been defined more by its Assyrian inhabitants than its Kurdish population. And besides the majority groups, there were or are Arabs, Turks, Jews, Yezidis, and other groups. Will we see their heritage on the program of the next symposium on Hakkari’s history?
Meanwhile, I’d like to make a suggestion. Shall we use ‘Kurdistan’ less often? And Turkey, for that matter, since that may be the country drawn on the map of the region now, but no country lasts forever, just like the Abbasid Caliphate didn’t last. I choose ‘Mesopotamia’. It’s a beautiful historical name, resonating ancient heritage and a beautiful fertile land fed by majestic rivers, it’s name is known around the world, and doesn’t exclude anybody.