Fasting from 3am and why it puzzles me in Diyarbakir

It’s around 1.30 in the morning, just after I lay down on my balcony bed, when the Ramadan drummer passes down my street. I don’t fast since I am not religious, but I don’t mind the noise, not even when it wakes me up. On the contrary, I would almost say it’s kind of soothing, and the drummer in my Diyarbakir neighbourhood bangs his drum with a solid, good rhythm, so I just listen and then fall asleep again. But I can’t help but wonder: why is Sahur around three, when the sun only rises some two hours later? Just because the state decided it that way? Continue reading “Fasting from 3am and why it puzzles me in Diyarbakir”

Drama queen in Kurdish language class

Firaqşo. I had to walk to the kitchen to check, but yes, dish washing machine is firaqşo in Kurdish. I check that in the kitchen because I put a note saying ‘firaqşo’ on the machine, but obviously, even after seeing it several times a day, I’m not a hundred percent sure I remembered it right. There are notes all over my house. On the door (derî), the cold (sar) and hot (germ) water (av) tap (muslix), on the table (mase) and the chair (kûrsî), on the wall (dîwar) and the washing machine (cilşo – walked to the bathroom to check that one).

Firaqşo
Firaqşo. Click to enlarge.

I started learning Kurdish in 2012, in Istanbul. Teacher Apo had a small class of some six young Kurds who wanted to learn their mother tongue properly, and me. We had fun during class hours, every Saturday afternoon, but I also remember often having tears in my eyes. My class mates were obviously faster than me since they knew some basic Kurdish already and I started from scratch. I felt stupid, I thought I’d never learn. I could have quit, but I really wanted to learn, so I persisted. Not that it lead anywhere at all. In Istanbul I couldn’t practice, although I admit I never tried asking for ‘du kîlo firingî’ (two kilos of tomatoes) at the Üsküdar market. Continue reading “Drama queen in Kurdish language class”

Self censorship is not an option

Türkçe burada okuyabilirsiniz!

A picture I tweeted of a group of Kurdish youths at the Kobani border crossing, holding PKK and Öcalan flags. The front page of my Facebook account. A photo I took of Salih Muslim when I met him last month at a conference in Brussels, where we both spoke. Parts of columns I wrote for Diken.com.tr. Any fifteen-year-old could have compiled the file that the anti-terrorism squad made about me in half an hour: just print out some random stuff I wrote, tweeted and put on FB, staple it together, ready.

temIt was an overwhelming experience to find an anti-terrorism team (TEM) of 8 or 9 people banging on my door, searching my house and detaining me for several hours. I was totally flabbergasted and later very fucked up and angry. The house search and detention are an obvious attack on press freedom, and can’t be condemned too strongly. Continue reading “Self censorship is not an option”

Kurds are savages, aren’t they?

The beards are a good example. The beards that were shaved off by men in Diyarbakir and other south-eastern cities and towns, because they feared that if they did not shave their beards, they would come under attack from pro-PKK Kurds for being ‘Islamists’ or ‘IS supporters’.

scherenMany papers published articles about it, everybody took up the subject, and the juicy story even made it to many foreign media outlets. The stupid thing is, of course, that nobody actually checked it. Well, one journalist did. Pinar Tremblay of Al-Monitor. She quoted Nurcan Baysal, a Diyarbakir-based columnist for the T24 website, as saying: ‘I do not think this news is accurate. Around here, many men wear beards, and neither Kurdish Hezbollah nor IS members are concerned about hiding their identity’. Then Tremblay wrote: ‘None of the members of Huda-Par (a Sunni Islamist party) that Al-Monitor contacted had shaved their beards.’ Continue reading “Kurds are savages, aren’t they?”

Back to the dark days

‘Life in Diyarbakir’, some Turkish media reported, ‘has returned to normal’. The curfew that applied for a few days was lifted. As I drank coffee, I heard the sound of teargas shots outside. Around 7 in the evening (every evening since a few days) a protest started in which people banged pots and pans on their balconies in support of Kobani and against the AKP’s inaction against IS. At least ten Diyarbakir citizens died in clashes over the last three days, and some guerrilla fighters who died were brought to the city for their funerals. F16’s left from the military airport, the army was present on the streets and a helicopter was keeping an eye on the city and its people from the air.

For once, the Turkish media are right: life in Diyarbakir has returned to normal.

Army in the streets of Diyarbakir, 9 October 2014
Army in the streets of Diyarbakir, 9 October 2014

For almost two years, life has been extraordinary in Diyarbakir. There was hope, although not much faith, that the peace process that started early in 2013 would actually lead somewhere. Continue reading “Back to the dark days”

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. Continue reading “From Fethiye to Diyarbakir”

The sounds of Diyarbakır

Somehow I have got used to the sound of shutters being opened in my street, around 7.00 in the morning. It doesn’t wake me up anymore. I still wonder which shop it is that opens at that hour. The pharmacy? The furniture shop? The small bakal maybe, or the tea house?

F16 skimming over the city. The red roofs are the Diyarbakir prison. Pic by me, click to enlarge.
F16 skimming over the city. The red roofs are the Diyarbakir prison. Pic by me, click to enlarge.

Across the street the owners of a car cleaning business have been pimping up their place. It was always open on the front, but now it’s almost totally closed. I heard them doing their construction work. Let’s see if from now on I don’t hear anymore the high pressure hose that they use to clean all kinds of vehicles. Continue reading “The sounds of Diyarbakır”

Kurds ain’t sexy

A colleague told me that a few months ago. ‘Kurds just ain’t sexy’, she said. As I knew she couldn’t possibly be talking about the attractiveness of Kurds, I figured she must be meaning it in a journalistic sense. Sexy being sellable. That when you propose a story about Kurds to any media, they immediately jump on you. Kurds! Yes, we want a story about Kurds!

I can see where she is coming from. She is talking about five, ten, fifteen years ago. The news about Kurds in Turkey was dominated by the war between the state and the PKK. It was dragging on. Foreign media would only want a story about it if there was something actually changing in the conflict (read an earlier post about that here), if more than maybe twenty people died in one attack, or when it affected tourism.

Headlines when PKK leader Öcalan was arrested. Headlines when violence flared up. Headlines about a bomb on the beach. And occasionally a story about human rights abuses, but since they happen everywhere in the world, they have to be exceptional to get more than a few lines.

Some 40 million world-wide

The same counts for the Kurds in Iraq. They were interesting mostly when related to the Gulf wars and the American presence in Iraq. The Kurds in Iraqi perspective, just as the Kurds in Turkey were mostly written about in a Turkish context. Despite being a people, a nation of some 40 million world-wide, the stories about Kurds were always put in the perspective of the countries the Kurdish lands are divided over.

And those in Iran and Syria? Oh, there are Kurds there too?

I understand my colleague, but I don’t agree with her. The Kurds are becoming more sexy every day. Developments in every country in the region where Kurds live contribute to that, but I prefer to see it from a Kurdish perspective. Don’t see the Kurds only as citizens of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but as a nation in their own right, with their own political, social and economic dynamics. Who are no longer subject to whatever happens in their countries, but increasingly help define the present and future of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, and even the wider region.

Confident

They help define the course Turkey is taking, now that their thirty year old struggle has lead to peace negotiations between their most important leader, Öcalan, and the government. Not that the process is going anywhere, but the Kurdish issue is talked about more openly than ever, the Kurds are confident and really don’t need an armed struggle anymore to demand and take their rights.

The Kurds in Iraq have had autonomy for years now and have managed to keep their lands very peaceful compared to the rest of the country. The economic boom in Iraqi Kurdistan is redefining the Iraqi economy as a whole, and reshaping foreign relations from both the Kurdish capital Hewler and the national capital Baghdad.

The Syrian Kurds have decided not to take sides in the civil war in Syria, but instead carve out autonomy for themselves. With a regional administration, a swearing in ceremony in the three languages that are spoken in Syrian Kurdistan and elections to be planned before the summer, they set a democratic example for the Middle East.

More influential

The developments together are more than just the product of its component parts. They accumulate into a dynamic that will make the Kurds stronger, more influential and confident. Intriguing in itself, and who knows how this will affect the Kurds in Iran, for now the most invisible group?

Can it get any sexier? And lucky me: I am going to report it, now that I have finished my book about the Kurdish issue in Turkey, which I explain by a thorough investigation into the Uludere/Roboski massacre of 28 December 2011. (It will be published in the Netherlands around 20 February, and you can pre order it here. I am working on English and Turkish and possibly Kurdish translations and will keep you posted on that.)

Once a week

As the only foreign correspondent based in the unofficial capital of the Kurds, Diyarbakir, I have started to  interest media worldwide in stories about the Kurds, and convincing them how sexy they are.

First, I got the opportunity to report with my own page on the American journalism site Beaconreader. I will publish a story about Kurds and (the whole of!) Kurdistan at least once a week, and you can subscribe to that for only $5 per month. The first story is an interview with the famous Turkish sociologist and expert on Kurds Ismail Besikci, which I link to the Syria conference that started this week in Geneva, to which the Kurds were not invited.

Currently I am working on my first story about the Kurdish issue in Turkey for an English language paper – I will publish it on this site too, stay tuned. I have plans to write for more international media, and am expanding my network to that end now. It looks promising! And starting next week, I will publish a weekly column on the new Turkish website Diken (Thorn), and also report for them from the Kurdish regions of Turkey.

The Kurds ain’t sexy? We’ll see about that!

Oh electricity

After a few months in Diyarbakir, I’m flying back to Istanbul later today. I’m not sure for how long, but I hope to be back in my new base camp Diyarbakir very soon. What gives me no choice but to leave now is the totally deplorable electricity situation here, which makes it impossible to write the first chapter of my book. Luckily though, the situation has been rather educational too.

How bad is it? Very bad. The electricity is off several times a day, up to fifteen times, for shorter (2 minutes) or longer (hours) periods of time. I depend on electricity not only for light (and it gets dark at 4pm) and my internet connection, but also for my shower and for heating. I remember a few weeks ago I spent half the day in bed just to stay warm – the electricity was off from when I woke up till about 3pm for two or three consecutive days.

A follower on twitter offered me this drawing of hers to publish in this post. I totally love it, both the drawing and the offer! Copyright: Storiesbyster, find her on twitter as @Yekbuns. Click to enlarge.

I tried to deal with it, for example by working at night because then the situation is usually better, but to no avail. It exhausted me, made me sleep till noon or later and at 4 it turns dark again – very depressing. Besides, the outages are so unpredictable that you can never plan to do anything at all, from having a few straight hours of work to something as simple as taking a shower. More than once I found myself suddenly under a cold shower in the total dark when I had of course just shampooed my hair. Stay warm by the heater? Think again. And don’t laugh!

“What causes these very frequent power cuts?” I asked the public relations office at the local branch of the state electricity company this week, when I went there to pay the bill. They asked me where I live. I named the neighbourhood, and their answer was ready: ‘There are road constructions going on around there as you know, and this causes some trouble now and then. The good news is: this all ends today, so starting tomorrow everything is fine again!’

I didn’t buy that, and of course it wasn’t true. Road constructions don’t cause ten electricity cuts in three hours. I asked: ‘Does it have to do with people stealing energy?’ They said they really couldn’t go into that.

I know it has a lot to do with the people in my neighbourhood stealing electricity. Recently an inspection was made and I heard from my next-door neighbour that a lot of people were fined for illegal electricity use. She said it can cost up to 2000tl (some €900) and if you can’t pay, you can spend a few days in jail instead. Tampering with the electricity meter is usually done by professional electricians, who ask 300 to 400tl to do the job.

My neighbourhood is ‘medium’

I’m not a power station expert so I don’t know exactly how it works, but the distribution stations just cannot cope with all this pilfering and it leads to outages all the time. That this must be part of the problem is also shown by the fact that poorer neighbourhoods, where more stealing is done, have outages more often. Two friends who live in Diclekent, a richer part of the city, hardly ever experience this problem. My neighbourhood is ‘medium’, and in Baglar, the poorest district, the power situation is the poorest too. I can imagine it’s the distribution stations themselves too that are part of the problem: old ones in Baglar that are not fit to serve the growing population, brand new and modern ones in much newer Diclekent.

Turks often get hot headed about the stealing of energy in the South-east of Turkey. Because all this energy has to be paid for and the richer parts of the country end up taking care of the bills. Of course, that’s not nice, and stealing is wrong. And now I’m going to do a ‘but’.

But, face it, people are poor here. The unemployment rate is around 60%, a local AKP politician recently told me. And if you have a job, the payment is often not enough to support a family, especially not in the more expensive winter months. Please also take a look at the background of people in Diyarbakir. How did this city get so big in the first place? Migration from the villages in the region. In the nineteen nineties, when the army burned down hundreds of villages and took people’s homes and lives away, confiscated their lands and animals and forced them to go to the city. In the villages they didn’t have the burden of paying for housing, they were often self-sufficient, life was cheap. By comparison Diyarbakir is incredibly expensive. Of course, part of these migrants did manage to build a life here, but many struggle to stay alive. Stealing energy is a way to make ends meet.

The little money I spend

But one of my friends in Diclekent told me it’s not only poor people who steal energy: ‘Some people can pay the bill, but have their meters tampered with anyway. They are angry at the state and want to get back at it or just be a nuisance to it. I don’t blame them, even though stealing is against Islam. What the state has done to these people is against Islam too, isn’t it?’

Still, the stealing is, as far as I can see, not the only cause. Part of the problem is that Turkey can’t produce enough energy for the whole country. For bigger cities which contribute more to Turkey’s economy, electricity cuts are considered more harmful, so electricity is directed there, instead of to Diyarbakir. Which causes a viscious circle of course: the power outages hamper Diyarbakir’s economic growth. As if the ongoing Kurdish issue isn’t doing enough of that already.*)

I too am now taking the little money I spend to Istanbul. That saddens me – I would have loved to spend it here. Luckily it’s only temporary: in the spring, when electricity usage goes down again, the situation will improve. I’ll be back in less than two months. Just in time for Newroz, the celebration of returning light!

*) Want to read a blog post about the negotiations between the PKK and the state, the topic everybody talks about in Turkey? You can, on my site Kurdish Matters, in English, Kurdish and Turkish!