Court case on use of Kurdish in politics draws varied reactions

Analysts see ruling as a positive symbolic step, but its practical impact is unclear. The Constitutional Court decision easing restrictions on use of Kurdish in political activities has received mixed interpretations, with observers offering cautious praise amid lingering uncertainty over the ruling’s legal ramifications.

The decision, which went into effect last week after being issued in July 2012, overturned article 117 of the political parties law, which outlined legal sanctions for violating the ban on using languages other than Turkish in political activities. However, article 81 of the law, which sets the specific restrictions, remains in force. The result is bans on use of Kurdish in political activities are still on the books, but no longer punishable by law.

Ramazan Demir, a lawyer who works for Kurds being prosecuted for political offences, outlined the ruling’s technical details. “Article 81 of the law on political parties says the use of any language other than Turkish [in political activities] is an act that must be punished, while article 117 arranges the punishments. The Constitutional Court ruling said that article 117 is against the constitution,” he told SES Türkiye.

Demir added that the ruling declared the two provisions unlawful under article 38 of the Turkish constitution, which states that only individuals can be held liable for criminal offences. “Article 81 holds the political party responsible for violations, so the Constitutional Court considers it against the constitution to punish a person for something he or she according to law can’t be held responsible for.”

Further reforms will be needed to clarify the uncertain status of article 81 of the political parties law in the aftermath of the court ruling. “The court gave the government the opportunity the repair the law, but the government hasn’t taken any action yet,” Demir told SES Türkiye.

Article 81 could be amended to allow courts to hold people responsible for the language they use during political activities. This seems unlikely, however, as restrictions on Kurdish have been liberalised in recent years. In 2010, for example, AKP-backed legislation amended the election law to allow use of Kurdish during political campaigns.

Hugh Pope, International Crisis Group Turkey director, said further changes to the political parties law would be central to a lasting solution to the Kurdish issue. “For a long-term, comprehensible solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey and the end of PKK violence, the law on political parties has to be changed,” he told SES Türkiye.

Pope sees use of Kurdish as a way to protect cultural diversity, dismissing the idea that it will threaten Turkey’s unity. “Is Kurdish a threat or is Kurdish under threat? I think the latter, just as, for example, Arabic is [endangered] in Hatay province, where many Arabs live. Turkish is taking over,” he said.
He added that reforms facilitating use of Kurdish would carry mostly “symbolic” importance for daily political activities, since most Kurds understand Turkish.

“I think you can compare it to the Kurdish demand of having education in mother tongue. You can wonder how many people would actually really want it, but that is not the point,” he said. “The point is that it has to be made sure that there is no discrimination.”

Kurdish politicians often say that they need to speak Kurdish at political rallies because some in the audience don’t understand Turkish. Meanwhile, there are many Kurds who don’t know their mother tongue very well either, and wouldn’t understand speeches if they were made in Kurdish.

Ertugrul Kurkcu, an ethnically Turkish BDP-affiliated parliamentarian representing Mersin, agreed that the court ruling will have little impact on the party’s daily political operations. “We never waited for such a legal change, we already use Kurdish during meetings and rallies,” he toldSES Türkiye. “The laws concerning the use of other languages than Turkish in political propaganda should be liberated, just as using mother tongue in court was recently allowed by law.”

Commenting on Mersin, Kurcku added: “It’s a Turkish city with a heavy Kurdish population. If the BDP has a rally there, the Kurdish speakers usually prefer to speak in Kurdish. I speak in Turkish, and some others do, too. Our rallies are bilingual.”

On its website, the AKP said it has created “revolutionary openings and practices on the Kurdish issue,” adding that “the use of mother languages, local languages in political propaganda is no longer a crime”, which is in fact incorrect. The new ruling will lead to the acquittal of individuals facing prosecution or punishment for violating article 81 of the political parties law, according to Demir.

“A hearing is needed in which the judge decides to acquit the defendant. Judges have to follow rulings of the Constitutional Court, so in the coming months these people’s cases will come to an end one by one,” he said.

Look, there is a Turkish version of this article too!

Hamlet advances Kurdish language revival

A tour of the Kurdish production of a classic play opens a new frontier for the language.

Eager spectators squeezed into whatever standing or sitting room they could find — aisles, stairs — because the theater’s 1,500 seats were all taken. Thunderous applause marked the end of the show as some viewers succumbed to tears.

Theater producer Celil Toksoz still gets goosebumps when he thinks back to the first Kurdish-language performance of “Hamlet” in his native Diyarbakir. He attributed the emotional outpouring to the historic revival the Kurdish language has undergone in recent years as restrictions on its use have been rolled back.

Yavuz Akkuzu (left) plays Hamlet; Rojda Senses (middle) plays Gertrude and Gulseven Medar plays Ophelia. Pic by me, click to enlarge.

“It’s such an important historical play, performed in a language that was fully banned in Turkey for such a long time, and finally this is possible,” Toksoz told SES Türkiye. “It makes people feel like they’re being recognised as Kurds.”

Toksoz and his Amsterdam-based RAST Theatre company, in co-operation with the Diyarbakir city theatre, are behind the ongoing international tour of a Kurdish production of Shakespeare’s classic play. After an autumn stint in the Netherlands, the production made its Turkey premier in Diyarbakir last month. Toksoz’s crew will perform in cities across Turkey before heading for northern Iraq and Germany around February.

For the director, the tour is about more than theatre: it’s a way to develop his mother tongue, which was suppressed in Turkey for decades. Indeed, Toksoz said he got the idea when many years ago he heard a politician said Kurdish “isn’t a real language you could perform ‘Hamlet’ in.”

“It became a dream to produce a Kurdish ‘Hamlet’,” Toksoz told SES Türkiye.

Language of civilization

A more permissive attitude towards Kurdish has prevailed in recent years. The most restrictive bans were lifted in 1991, and as part of Turkey’s EU membership bid, private Kurdish courses opened in the early years of the the AKP’s tenure.

Elective language classes in secondary schools introduced by the government earlier this year allow students to study Kurdish for two hours a week. A state Kurdish-language TV channel has aired since 2009.

But because the language was stifled for much of Turkey’s history and Turkish is still the medium of instruction in public schools, some Kurds still struggle with the language.

In a television interview earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Aric said the government was opposed to full education in Kurdish.

“Even if there was no constitutional obstruction, do you think education in Kurdish would be of good quality? Is Kurdish language of civilisation?” Arinc said. “We’re not thinking of any mother tongue education like that. Turkish as the language of instruction secures unity, and Turkish is also a language of civilisation.”

Some linguistic trouble

Translator Kawa Nemir told SES Türkiye the “Hamlet” production team had some linguistic trouble.

“Kurds are not educated in Kurdish, so there is a lack of understanding of their own language,” Nemir said, adding that some actors didn’t understand some words in the script.

“That’s a sign that it is probably more difficult for the audience, so I adjusted the language by using more commonly used words,” Nemir added.

Firat, 21, said he struggled at some points of the Diyarbakir performance, but that didn’t take away from his experience.

“I didn’t know all the words, but I didn’t mind; the feeling came across 100 percent,” said the university student who attended the Diyarbakir performance. “In daily life, Kurdish is not as advanced as in this play.”

In light of these difficulties, Toksoz and other Kurds have taken the initiative to revive and enrich their language. An increasing number of projects, like his, aim to develop the language in areas outside of daily life, such as theater and science.

“The people, the history, the language, a people that still wonders who they are, if they can be or not be who they are. My home city, that’s what I have been working for,” the artist, who grew up in Turkey but spent most of his adult life in the Netherlands, told SES Türkiye.

A fiery speech on Kurdish rights

The play has been warmly received elsewhere in Turkey, including an Ankara performance attended by Minister of Culture Ertugrul Gunay, CHP Vice Chairman Sezgin Tanrikulu, and BDP co-chair Gultan Kisanak.

“That’s recognition too, that representatives from all these parties were there,” Toksoz said. “I talked to the minister of culture. He said the play as we performed it suited ‘Hamlet’ and the Kurdish people very well.”

The tour hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has become entangled with politics at certain points. Two people unveiled pro-Kurdish banners on the stage in Diyarbakir as the audience delivered a standing ovation; the applause grew louder.

Diyarbakir Metropolitan Mayor Osman Baydemir thanked the actors for their performance before launching into a fiery speech on Kurdish rights.

Toksoz dismissed the controversy.

“I was asked several times why there is politics around the play. It wasn’t my intention, but it’s just what happens,” he told SES Türkiye.

“It’s unavoidable, since the Kurdish issue is part of people’s daily lives,” Toksoz added. “The play gives people an opportunity to express themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Parliamentary immunity crisis seen as setback

A move to lift BDP deputies’ immunity hurts prospects for a negotiated settlement of the Kurdish conflict, observers say.

A government proposal to strip immunity from several deputies with ties to the BDP opposition party could force the Kurdish representatives from Turkey’s political process, observers said.

The prime minister office’s recently submitted to parliament of a motion seeking to strip the immunity of 10 deputies tied to the BDP. Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, said that the proposal would be “disastrous” for Turkish democracy and paves the way for the government to give courts authority to prosecute the parliamentarians for “links with a terrorist organisation.”

“If their immunity is lifted, the government is basically telling them to go to the mountains,” he told SES Türkiye.

“There are people in the BDP group who are discussing the new constitution that will define how Turks and Kurds will co-exist in this land, and now you take action to exclude them,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag moved to downplay concerns, saying deputies won’t automatically be removed from parliament or prosecuted if their immunity is lifted.

“Deputies whose immunity is stripped will continue their work as parliamentarians, it is just that the ban on prosecuting and investigating them will be removed,” he said in a statement posted on the ruling party’s website.

This most recent dispute over immunity was triggered by the so-called “hugging incident” in August, when BDP deputies were filmed embracing and chatting with PKK members after the militants stopped the parliamentarians’ convoy during an identity check on a road in rural Hakkari.

The reaction from other parties in parliament was fierce. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in September that “the pictures in the media already amount to very serious criminal complaints.”

He added: “I believe the justice system will do what is necessary. And then we will do what is necessary, if the job falls to us,” according to Turkish media reports.

Following the end of Kurdish political prisoners’ hunger strike last month, government officials signaled that negotiations with the Kurdish movement, including the BDP and PKK, could resume, creating hope that there would be positive developments toward a solution.

Journalist Necmiye Alpay of the Peace Assembly, an initiative of intellectuals to reach peace in Turkey through democratic means, viewed the situation as test for democracy in the country.

“The parliamentary way is the only way to solve the Kurdish issue,” she told SES Türkiye. “If their immunity is lifted, it means Turkey is taking another step towards being a dictatorial … country instead of a European one respecting democratic values.”

Referring to the immunity issue, President Abdullah Gul said Turkey should beware of going down a “dead-end street,” according to media reports.

Gul added that “there are also examples from our own recent political history of what we tried in the past.” He was referring to 1994, when four Kurdish deputies from one of the BDP’s forerunner parties were stripped of immunity. They were jailed for supporting the PKK, leading to international criticism of democracy in Turkey.

It is not clear if parliament will actually debate the motion submitted by the prime minister’s office. There are 757 files concerning parliamentary immunity pending discussion, but they have all been postponed.

If there is a vote, the AKP and MHP together hold 377 seats in parliament, 10 more than the two-thirds of members required to lift immunity. MHP members have voiced support for the motion.

Aktar said postponing the debate would be positive for democracy.

“But I don’t know if that’s going to happen. The government is so keen on carrying out its own policies that it doesn’t seem to see the consequences of this,” he told SES Türkiye. “It will be an invitation for the elected officials of the Kurdish political movement to quit the political arena.”

BDP Mersin deputy Ertugrul Kurkcu, whose immunity could be lifted, told SES Türkiye it is not clear what his parliamentary group will do if any of their members are stripped of immunity.

“We have not taken a decision about that yet,” he said when asked if they would consider leaving the assembly.


Death penalty remarks find little support

Observers see statements on restoring capital punishment as a political move by Turkey’s leadership and not a serious effort to impose executions.

When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a public debate on reinstating the death penalty recently, few people took it as a sign he plans to bring the practice back.

But his statements have caused a pitched debate, prompting some commentators to warn that his remarks could harm democracy and efforts to complete EU integration, regardless of his intentions.

“Such remarks are harmful, of course,” veteran journalist and political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand told SES Türkiye. “It is fueling the public opinion about the death penalty. People will say: ‘See, even the prime minister says we should have the death penalty back.’ This is uncalled for, and wrong.”

In a November 12th speech, Erdogan said “in the face of deaths, murders, if necessary the death penalty should be brought back to the table for discussion,” according to media reports.

His remarks came as Turkey’s public debate was focused on the Kurdish prisoners’ hunger strike, which has since stopped. The strikers were demanding an end to the isolation of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and free use of Kurdish in the education and courts systems.

The timing of the comments gave analysts reason to believe they were connected to the hunger strikes and Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence since the death penalty in peacetime was abolished in 2002.

Birand said Erdogan was only “flirting with ultra-nationalists” when he made his remarks.

“He gave them what they wanted to hear, but he knows it’s impossible to bring the death penalty back, so he also didn’t insist,” Birand said. “Of course [Erdogan] was also distracting the attention away from the hunger strike in prisons.”

Birand added that it would be legally impossible to execute Ocalan even if the death penalty were reinstated, and that Turkey abolished the practice out of concern for what would happen if the PKK leader were put to death in the first place.

“The death penalty wasn’t abolished because of the European Union, as people may think. It was out of fear for our security,” Birand said. “The Kurds were going to really shed blood if Ocalan were brought to death. There would be a leadership war within the PKK, which would cause even more blood. It would have led to a catastrophe.”

Amidst the discussion that followed the prime minister’s comments, a spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule indicated that bringing back capital punishment would harm Turkey’s EU prospects.

“Global abolition of the death penalty was one of the main objectives of the EU’s human rights policy,” he told reporters. “Therefore, when the [EU] monitors compliance by candidate and potential candidate countries with the political criteria, it looks at the legal provisions on the death penalty.”

AKP ministers, meanwhile, moved to downplay the controversy.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, for example, was quoted on the party’s website as saying “there’s currently no effort at our ministry to bring back capital punishment.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutloglu also reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment to EU membership.

On separate occasions, Erdogan voiced for support for the country’s death penalty ban, both before and after it was implemented.

Pinar Ilkiz, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International’s branch in Turkey, told SES Türkiye the human rights organisation does not anticipate the government will take steps to reinstate the death penalty.

“Since the government hasn’t prepared anything, we’ll leave it at this,” she said.


Prison hunger strikes end without agreements

At least 1,700 people, including more than 680 prisoners, joined the strike before it ended on Sunday.

The brother of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan told SES Türkiye that a two-month hunger strike by hundreds of Kurdish prisoners ended to save the lives of the weakening prisoners, many who have been ingesting only tea and sugared water.

“To avoid death the strike was ended,” Mehmet Ocalan told SES Türkiye. “That was the message. People’s lives were in danger.”

At least 680 prisoners in 58 prisons joined the strike since it began September 12th, and several hundred supporters across the country joined the protest before it ended on Sunday 18 November.

Most of the prisoners were incarcerated for PKK membership or charges stemming from pro-Kurdish political activities.

The mothers of many imprisoned hunger strikers were hoping for news about their family members after the protests ended.

The hunger strikers demanded that Abdullah Ocalan be allowed to meet with his lawyers, and that obstacles to education and conducting legal defenses in Kurdish during court proceedings be addressed. Ocalan has been held in isolation in an island prison south of Istanbul.

The strike ended without accords on those measures, although the government has asked lawmakers to pass a motion allowing defendants to use Kurdish language in court testimony.

The government welcomed the end of the hunger strike. “I hope we will not face such protests from now on,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told the state-run Anatolian news agency. “Whatever demands the people have, the government and politicians can air them in parliament.”

It remained unclear if the end of the strike would result in a lessening of fighting between the PKK and government forces. The government blames the increased violence on the hostilities in neighbouring Syria.

Outside a hospital in Diyarbakir, about 200 people applauded and shouted support as ambulances carrying hunger strikers from a nearby prison took inmates for examinations before they resumed taking food.

Suret Sengül, whose son, Ercan, was among the first prisoners to begin refusing food in September, said she had little information about his condition. She is worried that the strike will have long-term effects on her son’s health.

“We don’t get any information,” she told SES Türkiye. “I am not even sure if he is already in hospital, or still in prison. Nobody keeps us posted, nobody knows anything.”

Feyziye Kolekan has three sons in prison: Ahmet, Mustafa and Mahsun. She is not totally sure how long they joined the hunger strike, and also has no clue about their whereabouts or their health situation. She said she was happy to hear that the strike is over. “But now,” she said. “I am only worried.”

One woman, who said she has two sons in prison and only gave her last name of Celik, said she still worries about her children.

“We don’t know what is going to happen next,” she said. “We are scared. The hunger strike has ended, but the conflict hasn’t. … Of course, it’s good that everybody made it through the hunger strike alive, but it doesn’t mean their lives are saved.”

Hunger strikes in Turkish prisons reach critical phase

Kurdish prisoners’ hunger strike grips Turkey as their health conditions deteriorate.

Hundreds of mostly Kurdish prisoners are nearing the 50th day of what they call an “indefinite and irreversible hunger strike,” launched to draw attention to political demands.

About 680 prisoners in 58 prisons across the country have joined the strike since it started September 12th, according to media reports. More prisoners appear to be entering the strike every week, but limitations on access to the facilities make it impossible to verify figures.

Most of the hunger strikers are incarcerated for PKK membership or charges stemming from pro-Kurdish political activities. They have focused on two demands: imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan must be allowed to meet with his lawyers, and obstacles to education and conducting legal defenses in Kurdish during court proceedings must be addressed.

Locals show their support for hunger strikers at a sit-in in front of Diyarbakir prison.

In remarks to the press after meeting with hunger strikers at Ankara’s Sincan Prison Wednesday (October 24th), Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said the strikers’ “voice[s] have been heard” and that the government is taking steps to address their demands.”We say intensive efforts are under way [to create] a Turkey where there will be no need for [such actions],” Ergin said. “Our ministry’s work regarding the right of [legal] defenses in native languages is continuing. We’ll conduct the necessary notifications after our work in the other areas matures.”

Ergin said the government is working to prevent negative health repercussions from the hunger strike.

“Their health and bodily integrity are the state’s responsibility. All diligence is being shown for them,” he said. “We won’t allow even one person in prison to suffer so much as a bloody nose. We’ve mobilised all our resources to prevent such an outcome.”

It’s unclear how the strikes will develop, considering political conditions in the country and the nature of the strikers’ demands. Violence between the PKK and the army has increased, talks between the state and the PKK have been cut off, and Ocalan has not met with his lawyers since July 2011.

Meanwhile, human rights groups and the strikers’ supporters are warning that the prisoners’ health is deteriorating as tension around the issue rises, with sit-ins, marches and press statements to support the hunger strikers being organised in cities across the country.

At a sit-in protest in front of a Diyarbakir prison to support the hunger strikers, Aysel Tugluk, an independent deputy representing Van, told SES Türkiye the Kurdish political movement expects the prisoners’ demands to be met. “If the government wants peace, these demands can be met within a week,” said Tugluk, who is close to the pro-Kurdish BDP.

“We don’t formulate our demands based on what the government might be ready to give us. We just have our rightful demands [and] they will have to be met,” Tugluk said in response to criticism that the strikers’ demands are unrealistic within the time frame of a hunger strike.

Muhterrem Suren, a lawyer at the Diyarbakir office of the Human Rights Association (IHD), told SES Türkiye his organization supports the strikers’ demands even though they oppose hunger strikes as a tactic. “The demands are just and need to be met to solve the Kurdish issue,” he said.

Suren said IHD will hold the government responsible if any of the strikers die. “It’s [the government’s] task to protect the life of their citizens, including prisoners. Yes, people choose to join the hunger strike, people choose to go to the mountains [to join the PKK], but it is the government that’s not making enough effort to solve this issue,” Suren said.

Musehher Ulker, 45, who participated in the sit-in at Diyarbakir prison, was herself recently imprisoned for five months. “I wish I was still inside so I could join the hunger strike,” she told SES Türkiye. “Why? I can’t explain, you have to be inside there to know what it’s like. I have seen mothers in there, in pain, cut off from their children, even though they did nothing to deserve a prison sentence.”

Sirri Dogan, who heads the Diyarbakir branch of TUHAD-DER, an organisation that supports people with relatives in prison, told SES Türkiye that hunger strikers’ families are getting desperate. “They can’t visit their loved ones in prison, they don’t know about their health situations, they often don’t even know for sure if they’ve joined the hunger strike, and to what extent their lives [may be] in danger,” Dogan said.

Semsettin Yilmaz, whose daughter Pelin joined the hunger strike from an Izmir prison, is among the families of prisoners keeping vigil in a tent behind Van’s city hall. He said he hasn’t seen his daughter, who is serving a six-year term for a “terror-related crime,” in six months.

According to Yilmaz, authorities have denied him the chance to visit Pelin. The hunger strikers also don’t want to receive their lawyers or visitors, as walking to the meeting room from their cell consumes too much of their limited energy. As his daughter’s condition deteriorates, he’s pondering what to do next.

“For now, we’re not joining the hunger strike. But we’re considering it,” Yilmaz said.

Van: One year after massive earthquake

Residents, including local officials, continue to rebuild their lives after the October 23rd 2011 quake that killed hundreds and left an estimated 60,000 people homeless.

One year after the earth shook Van and destroyed their home, Namet Isnas and his family has finished building a new house. The construction worker is now busy with similar projects for others.

One year after the earth shook Van and destroyed their home, Namet Isnas and his family has finished building a new house. The construction worker is now busy with similar projects for others. “We are in more or less the same situation as before the earthquake,” he told SES Türkiye as his children sit and lay on the floor doing their homework.

Before finishing the house two weeks ago, the family lived in a tent and used part of their earthquake-damaged home across the street, having installed large poles to support the weakened roof.

Most people in Van have some sort of housing now, after the massive quake turned much of the area into rubble. About 8,000 homes were rendered unusable by the quake, officials said, leaving about 60,000 people homeless. Authorities said 604 people died in the quake, while another 4,000 were hurt.

In the aftermath, tents were provided by Kizilay, the Turkish Red Crescent, and large numbers of families were relocated to live in containers, sometimes a significant distance from their old homes. The government has been building housing complexes, nicknamed TOKI after the state housing agency, also often away from the residents’ former neighborhoods.

The prospect of relocating led the Isnas family to turn down a container when it was offered. They stayed and focused on collecting materials and saving money to rebuild. Their new home is small, too small in fact to house everyone, and as a result, some family members still sleep in the tent.

Three children of the Isnas family in the tent they still sleep in.

“We have our bread oven here, and the school is here and the container city was too far away,” 19-year-old Serbet Isnas told SES Türkiye. “A container is also not big enough for all of us.” The family has tried to reinforce the tent with blankets, carpets, cardboard, stones and extra piles, but worry about the upcoming winter. Namet Isnas also acknowledged his new home is not earthquake-proof.

“We can really not afford to build a house with a strong ceiling, with columns and concrete walls,” he said. He said he spent about 2500 TL to buy wood for the ceiling, then used beams, bricks and doors recovered from uninhabitable houses. Mud, not cement, was applied to hold it all together. “We didn’t have a strong house before, and we don’t have a strong house now,” Isnas said. “For richer people it’s much harder to adjust.”

For Oktay Güven, an employee of the Van municipality’s social help department, the quake aftermath has been made harder by the lack of resources resulting from the major drop in local tax revenue as well as a cut in funding by the state. Güven’s office is in a container, since his office building was rendered unsafe by the quake, and he has been living with his parents in another container. He said not everyone can cover the expenses to rebuild. “And the municipality cannot always help out,” Güven told SES Türkiye. “Our budget is 50 percent less since the earthquake.”

Residents visit the department to apply for food and help in repairing their houses. Sometimes the office can only provide advice. “It hurts me to hear the family you visited could only afford to build a house that is not earthquake proof,” Güven said. “Not everybody applies for help at the municipality. Many people just go their own way.”

Güven also said his family hopes their use of a newly built TOKI home will be only a step in their recovery. “We hope to have a new house ready at the place where our old house was in about a year,” he said. “Then we will leave TOKI again. We prefer to be on our own grounds.”

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Van to mark the anniversary of the earthquake and hand out keys to TOKI houses to the new inhabitants. Since spring, 15,000 of 17,000 houses have been completed. His visit forced local residents to delay the unveiling of a remembrance statue to November 9th, the day a second major temblor hit Van. The postponement frustrated some local members of the Turkish Engineers and Architects Chambers Association, which is financing the statue project, which is in a new park being built by the municipality.

Artists Sezer Cihaner Keser and Nihat Sabahat said their work represents stones tearing apart and a mother trying to hold onto her child. “We work 10 hours a day on the statue,” Sezer told SES Türkiye. “We see it as a social responsibility. We are not being paid for it.”

Friction between the AKP government and the pro-Kurdish BDP municipality is often apparent and led to some complaints about the flow of aid to Van. The prime minister’s visit has led some to voice complaints.

But controversy doesn’t interest Namet Isnas, who spends his time trying to earn money to improve his new small home. “There is more work in construction than before the quake,” he said. “uaeHopefully I can make enough money to one day build a house that’s strong enough to withstand the next earthquake.”

UN condemns mortar strike on Turkish town

Russia blocked a draft version of the resolution that would have justified greater international involvement by the Security Council in Syria. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned this week’s mortar strike by Syria that killed five civilians in Akcakale.

The statement on Thursday (October 4th) called on Syria to “fully respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours” and said that Wednesday’s strike “highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on the security of its neighbours and on regional peace and stability.”

The statement is notable in that China and Russia, which have supported Syria in the past, voted in favor of the statement to condemn Syria’s actions. The BBC reported that Russia blocked a draft version of the statement that called the attack “a threat to international peace and security,” as that language could be used to justify greater international involvement.

Fighting in Syria has continued for 19 months in an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a vocal critic of Assad, and has called upon him to step down. Meanwhile, more than 90,000 Syrian refugees are living in shelters that Turkey constructed on the border.

In all, more than 300,000 have fled Syria. The UN estimated this week that the number of refugees may top 700,000 by the end of the year.

Turkey’s parliament on Thursday authorised military action in Syria, the first time it has taken that step, after a shell fired amidst the fighting landed in Akcakale. Syria apologised for the incident.

The EU has urged restraint by Turkey while condemning the mortar attack.

While the action by parliament gives Turkey the ability to cross the border into Syria, analyst Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science at Bahcesehir University, does not think it will happen.

“Turkey is warning Syria, but cannot really act. NATO doesn’t give a green light, and Russia is strongly against it,” he told SES Türkiye.

“I think Syria will stop shelling,” Aktar said. “I think the government analyses – and I share the analysis – that the Syrian regime doesn’t want a front with Turkey. They are busy killing their own people. The Syrian regime probably hates this incident and will try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Professor Kamer Kasim, vice director of the International Strategy and Research Organisation, said Turkey’s flat, long border with Syria would make it easy for its military to cross, but he believes that Ankara wishes to avoid that circumstance.

“Turkey always wants to act together with others and always asks its allies for support. They are trying to build that support, so it can be used if the border violations by Syria continue,” Kasim told SES Türkiye.

“Turkey didn’t get support for a security zone across the border. If it had, something like what happened [Wednesday] wouldn’t have happened. And it can happen again. So Turkey has to issue a strong warning now, to make sure Syria is more cautious. For now, there is no other way.”


Shakespeare in Kurdish: to exist or not to exist

Rehearsals are under way for the world premiere of the Kurdish version of Hamlet, which will be performed in eight cities across Turkey at the end of the year to celebrate Kurdish language and promote a message of peace.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet has become more than a classic play to a group of busy artists, giving them a unique way to celebrate Kurdish language and culture and offer gesture for peace. “It is a dream come true to direct a Kurdish Hamlet,” director Celil Toksöz told SES Türkiye.

He recalled a Turkish politician who was quoted years ago saying Kurdish was not a real language and actors couldn’t be used to perform Hamlet. “I never forgot that,” he said. “Of course, you can perform Hamlet in Kurdish. It’s a very rich language and Kurdish is a very rich culture.” The upcoming performances are proof that the so-called “mountain language” is relevant, he said “This play is my way of singing my language out loud,” Toksöz said.

The official poster of the Kurdish Hamlet. Click to enlarge.

The rehearsals for the first ever Hamlet in Kurmanci, the Kurdish language spoken by most Kurds in Turkey, are in full swing at the Cegerxwin Cultural Centre in Diyarbakir. Hamlet and Laertes practice their fencing match, Ophelia’s funeral is done once again and Hamlet rejects Ophelia.

But this will not be a classical performance. The play has been modified and music plays a much bigger role than in the classical version. Parts of Shakespeare’s original text have been adapted into songs in the Kurdish musical tradition accompanied by traditional instruments, such as the daf and davul (percussion), the zurna (a woodwind instrument), saz and banjo.

Toksöz also included dengbej singers. In Kurdish tradition, dengbej is a melodious way of telling stories. Once on the verge of disappearing, the practice is being revived. The dengbej singers will guide the audience through the performance. They connect the scenes with introductions and commentary.

Toksöz said Hamlet is the right play at the right moment as its themes are current in Kurdish society. “One of the main emotions of Hamlet is doubt, and in extension to that revenge, love, betrayal, murder. Universal themes, but they fit the situation of Kurds very well,” he said. “Kurds are in doubt about their identity, about how Turkish they may have become, and about how to react to suppression. Should revenge be taken, should we accept the situation as it is, should we beg for our rights or take other action, and are we prepared to sacrifice lives for it?”

Yavuz Akkuzu plays the title role in Hamlet. Click to enlarge.

For Kurds, Toksöz said, it all comes down to the key sentence in Hamlet. “In Europe, where I live, the matter of ‘to be or not to be’ is something individual,” he said. “But for Kurds it’s about a whole nation. Do we choose to be or not to be? Do we choose to exist, or not to exist? And with which sacrifices?”

Toksöz, 52, came to the Netherlands in 1986, after growing up in the predominantly Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir and Elazig. He is now the artistic leader of Rast Theater in Amsterdam, and cooperates with the Diyarbakir City Theater to produce the Kurdish Hamlet. One of their actors, Yavuz Akkuzu, plays the title role.

Because songs are so important in this version, Toksöz decided to work with three professional singers for other key roles: Gülseven Medan plays Ophelia, Ali Tekbas (who also wrote all the music) plays Horatio and famous Kurdish performer Rojda is Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. The play is scheduled to premiere October 17th in Amsterdam, then the troupe will tour in the Netherlands. A tour in Turkey will follow in early November, with performances slated for Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Diyarbakir, Van, Batman, Sanliurfa and Mardin.

In Turkey, the text will have subtitles for the audience. Toksöz said both Kurds and Turks will come see the play. “Besides celebrating Kurdish language and culture, I want to make a peace gesture with this play,” he said.

from left to right: Yavuz Akkuzu (Hamlet), Rojda (Getrude), Gülseven Medan (Ophelia). Click to enlarge.

Rojda told SES Türkiye she does not fear negative reactions in the wake of PKK violence. “People will come to the theater because they love plays, because they like Shakespeare, because they are curious about what it looks and sounds like in Kurdish,” she said. Rojda said she believes especially now, after this violent summer, that art is important. “Art can open doors to more understanding,” she said. “We keep hoping for peace and hope this Kurdish Hamlet can contribute to it somehow.”

In the Cegerxwin Cultural Centre, only short breaks are taken during the rehearsals, which started on September 1st and have to be completed October 14th, when the group flies to Amsterdam for the premiere. Akkuzu, the actor, says he is proud about his role, but nervous, too. “My Kurdish is good and I have performed in Kurdish plays before, but the translation was on such a high literary level that I didn’t always understand it,” he said.
He worked with the translator, Kawa Nemir, to use more ordinary Kurdish, which he said was better for him and the audience. The addition of music, especially dengbej, helps the actors convey the play’s meaning and emotions of the characters, he said. “It made my worries disappear,” Akkuzu said. “Now I feel very lucky to be in this play.”

Toksöz, the director, admits the performance is historic. “I don’t think of that too much,” he said. “You know, when you are working hard, you forget everything around you. But yes, when after a day of rehearsals I turn on the TV and see the news which is full of violence, I do realize that gestures of peace are very necessary.”

Gaziantep keeps calm after bomb blast

Nearly two weeks after the car bomb in Gaziantep, locals share mixed views of the “city of peace” and tolerance.

The shattered pavement, local shop owners say, was repaired the day after a car bomb exploded on Koruturk Street in central Gaziantep on August 20th, leaving 10 dead and nearly 70 wounded. But not everything could be fixed so quickly: some windows are still broken and a few buildings are still being restored.

“The bomb,” said Imran Akar, “brought us closer together.” Akar, a Kurd from the southeast province of Siirt, works in a flower shop on Koruturk Street with his colleague Bayran Kanbur, a Turk. As they prepared a yellow flower bouquet, the two said that they feel no animosity toward each other because of the bombing.

“Many different groups live in this city. We go to the same mosques, we live in the same neighbourhoods, we greet each other on the street. We are all religious and religion forbids discrimination,” Akar told SES Türkiye.

Imran Akar (white shirt) and Bayran Kanbur in the flower shop.

“Of course,” added Kanbur, “politicians fight over who is responsible for the bomb and try to gain from it, but we just don’t play along with their games.” Preferring to not talk much more about the bombing, Kanbur said the two colleagues may have different opinions about who did it and why. That could lead to arguments and we don’t want that.”

While Akar and Kanbur refrain from discussing what could tear them apart, in a street located around the corner from the provincial BDP office that was torched after the bombing by a mob of Turkish nationalists, a group of neighbours speak in Kurdish.

Among them is Sabiha, 52, whose brother is in jail. “He was caught with seven explosives in his car,” Sabiha said, refusing to give her last name and preferring to talk inside her home.

“The neighbours shouldn’t hear me. We are all Kurds here, but some of them are assimilated and I’m not sure if I can trust them,” she said inside her home. Her brother was sentenced to a long prison sentence six years ago, she said.

“As far as we know, he acted on his own. He has never talked about what he intended to do.” The only thing she knows is that what her brother did is “günah,” a sin. “Just like the bombing here two weeks ago, Allah doesn’t allow it.”

Gaziantep is referred to as a tolerant city, or even a “city of peace,” because it has never been confronted with terrorist attacks before. But it is not only that explains Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a lawyer and human rights activist.

Kurdish population

“In Gaziantep several groups live together. But there is no serious tension between the groups like you see in other cities where the Kurdish population has grown due to immigration, like in Mersin or Izmir. In those cities, you have not only Kurdish immigrants, but also many nationalist Turks, and it can be explosive if these two come together,” Cengiz told SES Türkiye.

“The people behind the bomb, whoever they were, want direct confrontations between Kurds and Turks. Luckily that didn’t happen in Gaziantep. The city kept its calm,” Cengiz added.

In Gaziantep, the nationalist MHP is not among the biggest parties, neither is the other end of the political spectrum, the pro-Kurdish BDP. Many Kurds vote for the AKP, or CHP if they are Alevi.

But to call Gaziantep a ‘city of peace’ because of that is a step too far, according to Cengiz. “I don’t think there is such a city in all of Turkey. This country had so many conflicts in its history and none of them have been faced. That needs to be done before you can speak of real peace.”

Underneath the surface

Hasan Yilmaz, 32, couldn’t agree more. He works for a bank, but in his free time he writes about the news as a citizen journalist on his own Tumblr-page. He felt a need to write about the city where he was born and raised: “I read in the papers about the tolerance in Gaziantep, but I don’t recognise my city with that description,” he told SES Türkiye

“On the outside,” Yilmaz said, “there is no trouble, but underneath the surface there is. Kurds are being discriminated against. They are underpaid, excluded, and cursed. The biggest complaint is that the Kurdish immigrants ‘ruined the city,’ I know, I am a Turk, I hear it around me all the time.”

Yilmaz also referred to the Armenians and Jews that lived in the city until the 1920’s and 1970s, but who were forced out or left due to rising pressure against minorities in the whole of Turkey. “So if you ask me if Gaziantep, city of peace, will change because of the bomb blast, I say it never was a city of peace to begin with.”