Turkey’s rulers say the world does not understand how much the attempted coup in mid-July traumatized the country. To judge by three weeks in the rural backwoods of the southern province of Antalya, they are not far wrong. But the distress is not just because of the shocking acts of the night of July 15, but also the aftermath.
At first glance, much looked normal around my part-time village home in the pine- and cedar-clad mountains of the Mediterranean coast. Roadbuilding continues. Provincial markets bustle with people and overflow with fresh produce. The country’s politicians are even making a show of overcoming their partisan divides.
But daily life is moving visibly more slowly. And underneath it all, most ordinary people in this country of 79 million are in a deeply apprehensive funk.
Unless uttered among trusted friends, once free-flowing diatribes about politicians dry up or turn into worried whispers. Weeks after the coup was crushed, national television stations still broadcast feverish programming in the name of national unity. Business people say they feel paralyzed. Tourism had already been hit by an eight-month long travel ban imposed by Russia after Turkey shot down a warplane on the Syrian border in November, and the bombing of Istanbul airport in March. Nobody in the sector has a clue what to plan for next.
Keeping up appearances is a well-established art in a country that has long suffered rollercoaster swings of sentiment and boom-and-bust economic cycles. But Turks fear that many real, broad achievements of the past two decades are unraveling. While everything may turn out alright in the end, as everyone says they hope, the frightening forces now at work mean nobody knows how bad it will get before it gets better.
A long-running Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency is back with a vengeance. It is not just crippling the southeast of the country. Since the conflict span out of control again a year ago it has killed more than 1,900 people, including 650 members of the security forces from all over the country.
A typical funeral in August near Antalya for a commando killed by a landmine showed how each new casualty adds layers of trauma with female relatives weeping and kissing photos of the “immortal martyr,” officers wiping sweat from the brows of the honor guard in the sweltering heat, a huge Turkish flag leading a procession of thousands to the dead soldier’s family house, and a huddle of politicians in attendance, including the provincial governor, the mayor and several members of parliament.
The spillover of Syria’s war is no longer just the burden of 2.7 million refugees, a surprising number of whom are making new lives working in Antalya’s greenhouses, garages and workshops. Over the southeastern frontier with Syria, Turkish troops have in the past month been openly sucked into cross-border ground operations. And over the past year, the suicide bombers of Islamic State have kept relentlessly and skillfully probing Turkey’s ethnic, economic and religious fault lines.
And now there is the phenomenon of what the government and the newspapers call FETO/PDY, an obscure formulation meaning something like “Fethullah Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure.” This refers to a Sunni Muslim movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a former cleric now in exile in Pennsylvania. For years, Gulenists were opportunistic allies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But a struggle between the two broke into the open three years ago. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plausibly blames the coup attempt on Gulenists who had infiltrated the military.
The problem is that Fethullah Gulen’s multitude of adherents have been working assiduously for four decades to be appointed to key posts in Turkish institutions. To outsiders, they talked little of their religious bonds. Those close to the network could often be worldly, moderate and progressive, part of an international network of hundreds of schools and civil society charities that supported each other in business and more recently in sponsoring political figures.
However, as early as the 1990s, Turkish military officers shared video evidence with reporters that appeared to show their leader’s explicit intent to win power. Now they are seen to have been behind the coup, and the government is acting to uproot what it regards as a mortal threat. Prosecutors say that Gulenists had risen to high levels in all provinces, except perhaps for Tunceli, known as Dersim in Kurdish, with its strong Alevi, or non-Sunni community. That means that national politics is no longer something remote that happens in Istanbul or Ankara, each a long day’s drive away from Antayla. Deep in the coastal mountains of a province like Antalya, it is has all become suddenly and scarily local.
Every day, local newspapers have pictures of glum lines of policemen being led away for questioning by other policemen. Teachers are being removed from their jobs, and a university in a neighboring province is one of 15 across the country that has been summarily shut down. Headshots show several local kayimakams (district prefects), normally the state’s first line of provincial authority, who have lost their jobs or worse. Even Antalya’s deputy governor has been removed from his post.
“It’s not like before. There are judges, prosecutors, even businessmen being taken away for no reason anyone can understand. It feels like anybody can denounce anyone. Our institutions may not have been great, but we knew what to expect. Now if you have a problem, you don’t know who to turn to any more,” one hardware store owner told me — once he’d stepped out of his shop.
These are not the only certainties under attack. The once all-powerful Turkish armed forces, which have seen their mighty prerogatives cut hugely over the past decade, are now suffering the indignity of seeing civilians take aim at their large urban property holdings. In Antalya’s city center, a demolition excavator made the front pages as it smashed down a gendarmerie-owned building as a symbolic first step.
But as the AKP leaders voice multiple and doubtless sincere apologies for having been “cheated” by their former Gulenist allies in power, there is a puzzle. The newspapers cheered as former football star and Gulen associate Hakan Sukur — a member of parliament for AKP before falling out with the ruling party — was stripped of scores of assets including a building in Antalya. But AKP’s loyalist former speaker of parliament Cemil Cicek begged for understanding for his past relationship with the Gulenists, and seemed to be getting away with it.
“Maybe I got the plague 90% … but Turkey is really the country of people who’ve been fooled, politically, religiously and commercially. And the easiest cheating is with religion,” Cicek told the newspaper Hurriyet. “[The Gulenists] are being cleaned out of the state now. If everything was transparent, this wouldn’t happen. What’s important is who will take their place. Otherwise it’ll all just happen again.”
The erosion of transparency and the rule of law is indeed what is possibly most disturbing thing for most ordinary people.
The move to start legal procedures against 80,000 suspects nationwide — in Antalya province alone, 257 people had been arrested, 345 detained and 149 were on the run by Aug. 13 — has had consequences beyond fears that people will try to settle local scores through random denunciations. Ugly messaging lurks behind the bruised faces of some of the suspects taken in, or the indubitable truth of the news story about a family retrieving the body of a diabetic FETO/PDY “suspect” who mysteriously died in custody. State institutions refused to offer his family its right to a normal burial.
As the uncertainty spreads, nobody can miss the economic downturn. One of my village neighbors normally manages big busy hotels, but cannot find work. Those of his peers who do find jobs have to accept nominal wages or even just room and board. The lack of visitors means that one of Antalya’s two airport terminals has closed, marooning a newly opened tramway station. The tramway extension was built for Antalya’s Expo 2016, an international horticultural and youth celebration running until end-October, but now struggling to make an impact after years of preparation. The British singer Sting canceled a planned concert at the opening because of the situation.
Some people in Turkey appear to think it is still business as usual. When she returned from a five-day trip to Europe, columnist Gulse Birsel wrote in the Sunday supplement of Hurriyet newspaper that “if Turkey is a holiday village with all-in entertainment, Europe is like an old age pensioners’ camp!” She added: “Turks who keep shouting ‘let’s get out of here’ should know that after getting used to this level of adrenaline, you’ll miss Turkey a lot…”
Would Turks really miss today’s febrile uncertainty? I reread the column and discovered I could not be sure whether the writer was being satirical. Many newspapers now appear to be communicating in code, but it is not clear what the key is. As my hardware store friend put it, “The biggest problem is, we simply have no idea what to believe any more.”
The bombs in my new hometown of Brussels didn’t go off close to me. But they did kind of wake me up.
In Brussels airport’s modest departure hall, the explosions were at places I’ve passed through a hundred times over the years. Many of my acquaintances have done so too. The boyfriend of the online editor who works at the desk beside me was on his way to check in, and a colleague was parking her car nearby.
Shortly afterward, a mile away from us, another bomb exploded on a crowded metro train between Schumann and Maalbeek stations, killing 20 people, ripping the carriage into twisted metal and filling the underground with screams and choking smoke. My 12-year-old daughter had taken a nearby metro to school just an hour earlier.
Brussels is not a big town. My former home of Istanbul has as many people as the whole of Belgium, and it probably takes more time to drive across. As my neighbour said as I met her walking her dog that morning, when something bad happens you always know somebody connected to it. I’m new here, so luckily for me, I knew nobody who was hurt. But my daughter’s schoolfriends did.
After 33 years living in the Middle East, I’d have thought I was immune to shock. I’ve seen plenty of bombs. My reporting job took me to warfronts, and once trapped me for ten weeks in a Sudanese town under rebel siege. The 2003 car bomb at Istanbul’s British Consulate-General sent its gatehouse up in smoke before my eyes. In 1983 I even witnessed one of the Middle East’s first suicide car bombs, when, as I describe in my book Dining with al-Qaeda, “a shockwave of explosive force whomped through the office … a column of evil, yellowish smoke and debris was spiraling up into the sky … ” (I’ve reproduced the page below).
But somehow these Brussels bombings shook me up, even though I didn’t go near them.
Perhaps it’s because just three days before, an apparently Islamist suicide bomber attacked the Istanbul street where until recently I had lived for 15 years, the latest of several such attacks in Turkey. We could pass the spot several times a day. At the moment of the blast, our caretaker’s son was taking an exam opposite. He sent pictures of what he saw, gruesome, guts-spilling-over-the-pavement images of the four crumpled dead and the stunned gaze of the injured .
Perhaps it was because I thought that by moving to Europe, I was coming somewhere safe. Perhaps I underestimated the angry sentiments of the pro-Islamic State element in the Brussels inner city districts; a journalist friend told me of residents stoning and harassing him as police arrested the organiser of the Paris attacks in the Moroccan district, telling him: “What are you doing? Belgians shouldn’t come here”.
Perhaps it was because I’ve started to identify with one charming Belgium, and have now learned that there is another, less predictable country inside it.
Perhaps my anxiety was also because of the throw-away comments I’ve been hearing in meetings with Western political leaders, or listening to those who mix with them. They are a steady drumbeat of defeatism: “the situation is catastrophic”, “things are out of control”, “my generation was spoiled, and has failed”, or “the crises are piling on top of each other like we’ve never seen before”. After a meeting with the German chancellor during the euro crisis, one German party leader confided that the worst part of it was a sense that nobody knew what to do.
In Brussels on Tuesday 22 March, though, my unease was definitely because I knew I was watching conflict spread. Pale-faced people around me were going through the painful initiation into what what the denizens of war zones have to get used to: calling family and friends as news of real attacks mix with false rumours; discovering the narrow escapes of partners and colleagues; sharing shaken feelings as old certainties crumble; and staying anxious until you learn that everyone connected to you is safe.
Normally, too, my work has long been to pronounce on what’s best for far-away countries. Even Istanbul often felt like a spaceship hovering alongside the rest of Turkey. But on the day of the Brussels bombs, it was reporters from Africa, China, Lebanon and, yes, Turkey, who called up to seek comment on the twin attacks that had paralysed Brussels for much of the day. Perhaps I was still in partial denial about the meaning of the 9 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., and the ones in London, Paris, and Madrid. Now I live here, I get it. The angry Middle East’s conflicts really have gone global.
It’s not only the new reach of the so-called Islamic State that make Belgium feel inter-connected. The country is a famously close neighbour to France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. On top of that, my new house in Brussels feels as though it is in the midst of a neo-Ottoman empire, within short walking distance of a Bulgarian cafe, a Macedonian Turkish bar, a Moroccan furniture shop, a Greek corner store, and streets of Turkish butchers, tile merchants and grocers. Beyond them is a veritable casbah of Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian and other shops spilling their cheap clothing, bedding and wedding finery onto the street.
The languages spoken around me on Brussels trams make the city feel like every nation within a radius of one thousand miles is represented. Forty nationalities were represented among the bombing casualties. Indeed, the refugee influx of the past year is no great conceptual shock. The city is not just the geographic heart of Europe, but in terms of its population, it has Russia, the Middle East and north Africa coursing through its veins.
For me, in short, Europe and the Middle East overlap in Brussels, and indeed in many other European cities. I like Brussels all the more for that diversity and energy, and feel I should understand both sides. As an adopted Middle Easterner, I know the role the West, actively or negligently, has played over the past century in stoking up the mayhem that is now biting it back. And as a convinced European, I wish more could be done to integrate communities that could contribute much in the long term, and in any event, cannot be wished away.
I hope my new European neighbours can learn to feel that way too, and to tell the truth, many of the ones I know do. But for now, violent conflicts, bombings and wailing sirens in the streets are an increasing part of both sides of the Europe-Middle East equation.
The page in Dining with al-Qaeda describing the first bombing I witnessed, with my then colleague David Zenian, as a news agency reporter in Lebanon in April 1983:
“Just a fug of smug”, said one friend when he heard that I was being dispatched by my organisation to the Davos World Economic Forum in 2015. I guessed he was slightly jealous. From the outside, Davos seemed like an amazing chance to see and perhaps even dine at the top table of global geopolitics, business, arts and glamour.
Things looked different when I actually stepped out of the train onto a midnight station platform high in the Swiss mountains. I hadn’t found a room anywhere near my budget in Davos itself (although I was offered half a villa for 13,500 euros for the week). I only learned later that WEF veterans book months in advance. Here in Klosters, half an hour away from Davos, my bunk bed in a hostel was going to cost $250 a night. I scrambled up an icy road in a freezing gloom and briefly got lost in a moonscape of snow and dark wood-fronted houses. Right then, I’d have been happy with a fug of anything.
The Limits of One Per Cent
I hoped the frozen-out feeling wouldn’t last. I had experienced the all-together-under-one-five-star-hotel-roof embrace of WEF events in Istanbul and Central Asia in the past, in my guise as a discussion-leading expert on Turkey and its hinterland. Back then, I had felt as if I too was included in WEF Founder Klaus Schwab’s hypnotically expansive “we”.
This time I hadn’t been invited. I was a late addition as a folder-carrier for International Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno. For non-paying NGOs like ours, however noble, Davos just gives one entry ticket to the group’s president and partner. Even paying corporations struggle for more than a pair of tickets. That’s the magic of the Davos inner circle: it really is very exclusive.
The next morning, the weather cleared and my spirits revived. For all its complicated bunks and cupboard-sized showers down the hall, my hostel was a cosy gem. My train from Klosters to Davos turned out to be included in the room price. The old line looped between soaring mountains and fir forests weighed down with snow.
Still, I had only half an eye on Switzerland’s beauties. The carriage felt like the school train to boarding school, with newbies like me warily checking out confident old-timers. They didn’t look out of the picture windows much, swiping through their electronic calendar schedules, doubtless overflowing with Class A meetings.
Before long, the tracks skirted round a half-frozen lake: Davos could be glimpsed beyond the opposite shore. Suddenly, I had an unexpected first decision to take: does the newcomer alight immediately in Davos Dorf, or proceed to Davos Platz?
I chose Davos Platz. Wrong. Hours of false starts later, I found myself back at Davos Dorf station, in an icy car park front of two portacabins overflowing with reporters, support staff, caterers and drivers. Badges, it turned out, are handed out according to a rigid caste system. In addition to the 2,500 full participants, each year the WEF organisers have to cope with more than 5,000 hangers-on like me.
Badges of Rank
Since everyone was muffled up to the gills, it felt like a ski lift queue without the breathing space afforded by skis. Ironically, opposite us was a real Swiss ski lift, nearly free of skiers because the WEF had crowded out normal holiday makers. And WEF attendees had only eyes for each other, not the smooth slopes shimmering against a blue sky high above. After an hour more waiting, phone calls to headquarters, and messages to and fro, I won my badge.
It was a nice, satisfying, high-quality name tag that made me feel I’d been granted entry into a club. Now that it hung from my neck, people started looking at me as if I had potential. Some grandees might look on over my shoulder after they clocked my first-rung-of-the-ladder colour code, but not all of them. Davos honoured its traditional and probably illusionary reputation of grandly egalitarian etiquette surprisingly often. Still, there were many subtle signals of rank, like curious crampons fixed on black city shoes to crunch across the ice: arrival gifts from the WEF, bestowed upon full participants only.
As a non-participant I could not attend any of the main WEF meetings in the main Congress Centre. But I could do what I was expected to do: meet people connected with my non-profit organisation, be they reporters wanting to interview our president, representatives of governments, donors actual and possible, our partners and our well-wishers. Back offices spend weeks lining up meetings for hardened Davos-goers. “It’s like speed dating,” a veteran Europe media commentator told me. “You wouldn’t believe how it opens the door to meetings afterwards when you can tell the secretary: ‘say that we met at Davos’.”
My calendar began to fill up with new encounters. There was one problem, however: I had to find somewhere to meet them. For the good hotel cafes and bars, I had to have another badge to secure me access; one hotel seemed to be auctioning off places on its lobby sofas. Even inside the Congress Centre itself, participants told me that tiny rooms were available just 15 minutes at a time, with much banging on the door if you over-stayed.
A university student’s instinct for gate-crashing parties was clearly an essential survival skill. After getting our president filmed for the social media fad of 2015 – Vine, the six-second soundbite – an old acquaintance took pity on me and gave me a pass to his organisation’s lounge. (Thank you, Bank of America). This meant that I also had somewhere warm and friendly to go in-between meetings, rather than having to trudge among the many surprisingly unappealing concrete buildings in Davos’s freezing cold streets.
Highlighted on my calendar was a sliding scale of parties I might be able to attend outside the Congress Centre, usually given by Crisis Group’s past, current or possible future benefactors. My lowly status either got me denied, accepted, or told that “Susie will let you in at midnight”. Twinkling chat followed bright-eyed encounter, often, I suspected, with people who were just as much at a loose end as me.
I was made welcome at the Kenya night. I was invited to a Mongolian party. I watched as the understated Canadians staged easily the most impressive reception of all. I would have given them first prize in all WEF categories of good governance and economic prospects. Except that, just as Ottawa’s chief dignitary was about to reach the swelling “invest now” climax of his speech, the lady next to him fainted and thumped to the ballroom floor like a felled Douglas fir. The minister just kept on going, sounding more and more wooden by the second. When shaken by a nearby misfortune, even in Davos, one should definitely be empathetically stirred.
To relax, I sipped cosy drinks with a supporter in the bar of the Berghotel Schatzalp. Built in 1900, the former sanatorium inspired Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and could easily have been the model for the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, complete with its plug-and-cable phone exchanges, peeling paint, 19th century washbasins and its own funicular railway. Things began to feel like fun.
I jotted down snippets ofDavosian conversation. Something in the mountain air inspired people to breath-taking metaphors:
“The Internet is like the rain forest. You can’t control it. But you can damage or destroy it”, opined a digital magnate from Brazil.
“I’ve met the worst of humankind. I’m used to shaking hands with thugs,” confided a former UN director.
“Geopolitical ‘black swans’ are inevitable. Surprises have got to happen. They follow the same rules that apply to celebrities in Hollywood”, said a comfortable dignitary.
There was not much time for niceties to make an impression. “My Dad was director of Iranian intelligence”, one woman blurted out to her new counterpart from the chair next to me in the Bank of America lounge. “You know, like the KGB”.
“All governments want a back door [to secret encryption programs] to stop criminals, to pursue investigations. But the path to hell is through back doors”, said one wise expert, who had clearly rarely needed one.
My favourite overheard conversation, though, was an angry alpha male American business tycoon berating his harassed PA: “I don’t want to meet just anyone who has time to meet me! Anyone who says they don’t have time, that’s the one you want”.
A Parallel Universe
Davos’s sense of otherworldliness extended to my own area of expertise, Turkey. Its Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was going to address investors at a hotel outside the hallowed Congress Centre. No badge was needed, so I turned up at the appointed 7am to see how this indefatigable optimist would distract his audience from an increasingly cloudy outlook for his country. Twenty tables for eight were weighed down with Swiss plenty. Two or three were half-filled. I introduced myself at one and sat down.
Soon the nearly empty room and my predictions of stormy weather ahead for Turkey began to disturb the lean fund manager sitting next to me. He had boasted of making big profits in the 2000s with his first Turkey investment fund, and was mid-way through another, clearly less propitious cycle. “You’re talking to the wrong people,” he snorted. “You should change the people you talk to.”
If he’d been eavesdropping on the table next door, like I was, he’d have been even more annoyed. An American was telling off the chief of the Istanbul Stock Exchange about the many things he thought Turkey’s government should be doing better.
Meanwhile, Davutoğlu was getting very late. One of the only potential new investors, a well-padded American at my table, got up and left. And a lady from a giant Zurich reinsurance company. Eventually, so did the fund manager too.
Finally, an hour and a half after the scheduled starting time, Davutoğlu appeared. His entourage was surprisingly small, three ministers and a dozen flunkies; a Turkish friend on the delegation had already told me of the trouble they had getting badges. By that time,the audience of interested outsiders was, as far as I could see, basically just me.
No matter: two huge studio TV cameras were on hand to beam Davutoğlu’s buoyant speech about the limitless possibilities of investment in Turkey, live to television viewers back home. He’d been drinking in plenty of the Davos spirit: he saw “stability and order” in the country’s ever-heavier authoritarianism. He talked of a “dynamic Mediterranean spirit”, a concept that would have astonished my Turkish friends, for whom the word ‘Mediterranean’ conjures up lazy hedonism. In another flourish, he reminded his tiny audience that Napoleon had thought “Istanbul should be the capital of a world state”.
Then, wearing the same indelible smile that rarely left his lips, he shook some hands and headed off for his next date, pursued by an Indian businessman who was imploring him to accept an invitation to attend his grandchild’s wedding.
I had nowhere to go and stayed for the discussion, in which the panel nearly outnumbered the guest audience, although the TV cameras kept transmitting. Ali Babacan, Turkey’s upright minister of the economy, did a creditable job in talking up Turkey’s place on a global crossroads. Still, I knew that he knew that Istanbul’s role as a regional hub is hardly a novelty: I myself warmed up this old chestnut for the front page of the Wall Street Journal back in 1997, and obviously Napoleon, not to mention the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, had heard about it too.
Then came a real shock: I recognised the American who had criticised Ankara’s rulers at the table next to me on the panel, and he was now blowing big Davos bubbles. “What you are attempting to do,” he said in the midst of a river of glowing endorsements of Turkey’s economic prospects, “is breathtaking”. No wonder Turkey loves Davos, and invests in it to polish its image every year.
It would be unfair, however, to present Davos as an empty echo chamber. During one lonely interlude in the Bank of America lounge, I listened in on a scientist’s exhilarating discussion of her West African field work on Ebola with an apparent funder. The official participants’ agenda in the Congress Hall was full of fascinating and inspiring-looking lectures on new ideas for helping the blind, artificial intelligence or aid to developing countries.
At a time when civil war was tipping the Syrians further into the abyss, an activist team made a cogent and moving plea for attention and support for Syria’s “white helmet” paramedics. But of all the hundreds of official participants, just a sobering handful made it to the “Saving Syria Roundtable” at the Strozzi’s & Spenglers eatery on Davos Platz’s Promenade.
Far more energy was consumed in a frenetic rush to see everyone and be at the most fashionable parties. I marvelled at servings of Krug champagne and slaked my curiosity about $200 bottles of wine, surprised at how much like a good regular bottle they tasted, but enchanted to find that the person chatting to me as he poured another glass had actually produced it. There seemed no limit to the star quality of people who one might bump into, from George Soros rallying his supporters over dinner, to speakers like Kofi Annan, Helen Clark, Katie Couric, Peter Gabriel and Bill Gates.
The convening power of Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum is formidable indeed, even if my high-level Davos networking mostly happened in the back of shared luxury minivans, which ferry WEF denizens from snowbound pavements to snug firesides to concrete conference halls. Everyone who boards these shuttle buses feels morally obliged to chat and exchange cards, including the CEOs of globe-straddling corporations. But chance meetings clearly aren’t everything. Barely five of the one hundred or so people I must have met turned out to need to speak to me again, or I to them.
Finally, after six days of exhausting rush, the carnival-like corporate stands started to pack up their wares. It was Saturday afternoon. I called it a day and asked the way to the Davos ice rink. It is the size of a football pitch and smooth as glass, and it gave me one of my most exhilarating hours in the town, along with the next morning in Klosters, where I managed a couple of hours cross-country skiing past antique wooden farms and horse-drawn sleighs making their way through pristine Swiss mountain countryside.
I doubt I’ll volunteer for Davos any time soon, even if I enjoyed the sheer intensity of it all. I’d love to go again as a participant though, perhaps when I can have a partners’ ticket to all the interesting lectures when my wife achieves her ambition to be a globally famous healer of the spiritual energy of corporations. And, of course, it would be nice to have one more go at tobogganing crazily down the long, unlit, icy mountain road from the extraordinary Berghotel Schatzalp.
To say goodbye to Istanbul after 28 years of living in the city, I take one of my favourite walks, from Pera’s Tünel square, wandering down the hill through Galata and then along the Golden Horn sea inlet. For me, this jumble of shops, alleyways and quaysides best conjures up Istanbul’s heady mix of peoples and history: Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, republican Turkey, and a global megacity on the make.
I head off from my much-loved century-old apartment building, with my wife, my youngest daughter and, passing through like so many others, a childhood friend from South Africa. Some of these travellers are lucky, some not: outside the castellated gateway of my neighbour, Sweden’s two-century old consulate general, Syrians stand in line hoping for visas to Europe.
On the same street, tourists are busily clicking off photos of one of Istanbul’s red and white, Belgian-built electric street tram, restored to service in 1990 and now practically a symbol of the city. We pass by the arches of the Tünel short underground funicular railway, the first metro in continental Europe when it opened in 1875, and still the city’s only real metro in the city until 1999. We continue past the gates of the Galata dervish lodge and its hidden oasis of grand plane trees and mystical whirling.
The main street downhill, named for the 18th century dervish sheikh and poet Galip Dede, is well-cobbled, fitting its new role as a thoroughfare for the more adventurous tourist. The old lamp and car part shops have morphed into outlets for Chinese-made knick-knacks, thin, overpriced hamam bath towels and fresh-pressed pomegranate juice. But many of the old musical instrument shops are still doing well, selling everything from tambourines to white grand pianos and Istanbul’s contribution to the world’s musical vocabulary – the handmade brass cymbal.
Spare parts for almost anything
Half-way down the hill is the noble old stone cylinder of the Galata tower, part of the fortifications that protected late Byzantium’s Genoese colony, topped since the 1960s by a roof in the shape of a pointed cone. Here we part ways with the travellers who are juggling to fit both the tower and their own image into cellphone selfies, and head toward Perşembe Pazarı, a warren of shops that supply Anatolia with spare parts for almost anything.
There are countless places to pause: to trace parts of the pre-1453 Ottoman conquest fortification walls propping up lines of houses; duck into a diminutive early Ottoman courthouse turned aluminium depot; admire the curving street of grand Ottoman banks now becoming boutique hotels, fancy restaurants and cultural centres; and make another attempt to photograph satisfactorily my favourite survivor, a centuries-old stone and brick building colonised by electric motor repair workshops, whose angular first floor rooms jut out into the narrow street.
Toward the bottom of the hill come all manner of premises, from the unexpectedly cavernous to glassed-in cupboards in the wall barely bigger than the men inside them. They display their products proudly: sawblades as big as cartwheels, stacks of metal ingots, rubber seals of all sizes, mammoth industrial fans, and amazing varieties of nuts and bolts. Finally, just before reaching the shore of the Golden Horn sea inlet, a last jumble of ships chandlers sells great chains, yachtsman’s gadgets, and anchors that would take a crane to lift.
I lead our group to a place I’d spotted a few days before. Tables and chairs of a new generation of impromptu and entirely illegal restaurants have for a couple of weeks been spreading rapidly along the Golden Horn’s worn-out parks and quaysides of battered tour boats and fisherman’s skiffs. It looks popular and enchanting, and I want to have my last Istanbul dinner here.
The waterfront is already busy with an organised, illicit chaos. After a few minutes of bobbing and weaving, I see waving arms call us to a miraculous space at the water’s edge. A plaid-shirted maître d’ quickly has us balanced on rickety chairs, sipping Turkey’s aniseed-flavored raki, accompanied by slices of ripe honey melon and a slab of rich white cheese. There is no arguing with this director of operations; from a kitchen that looks better suited to a campsite than a restaurant, we are told that we are going to be served grilled sea bass.
An eternal rhythm of the ad hoc
The pop-up restaurant is the embodiment of alla turca, summing up a city that is so many contradictory things at once. Istanbul’s many beauties are often islands in a sea of concrete ugliness. The new can be piled in layers on top of the deeply ancient. A day cannot be planned and is therefore lived ad hoc; nevertheless, days pass in a rhythm that is apparently eternal. It is impossible for anything to be 100 per cent legal – the jumble of laws is too complicated for that – but a paternalistic, interconnected state discipline somehow keeps everything in harness. And personal touches of generous kindness are an essential oil that helps everyone to survive the increasingly tense pressures of a city with teeming millions of people.
This was the spirit that attracted me to the rough-and-ready city I stumbled upon 28 years ago. Thereafter I made many active choices to stay in Turkey. As a base, Istanbul is the heart of a wide and active geography, and as a home, the country offers everything any reasonable working person could want. The only missing part, perhaps, is something I never asked for: a legal sense of rooted, long-term, rightful belonging. I’d just keep extending my annual residence permit, making the most of life as a voluntary pot plant, always grateful for my place as a foreign guest.
Fasting is Cleansing
Sitting at our wobbly table on the bank of the Golden Horn, a bright star snugly fitting into the curve of a perfect Turkish crescent moon above our heads, I contemplate how much Istanbul has changed. In the 1980s the Golden Horn was filthy, devoid of marine life and reeked of sewage. In winter, the city’s mists and lignite coal furnace emissions used to mix and malinger as thick, sulphurous smog that choked me up as practically the sole, lunatic jogger in town.
Now, the Golden Horn is clear and bridges are lined with fisherman pulling up lines of silvery sardines. Natural gas has cleared the city’s lungs, and recreational walking and running are even fashionable. The city is at last planting some trees and grass, and fixing up the public spaces, even if some renovations are stripping the ancient patina from the city’s finest buildings and making them look like newly tiled public conveniences. Over the water, as for every holy Muslim month of Ramadan, bright lights strung out between the minarets of one of the Ottoman imperial mosques enjoin the population to obey the dawn-to-dusk fast. But now the call to the faithful has an almost health-fad ring to it: “Fasting is Cleansing”.
When I arrived in 1987, there were almost no buildings higher than ten stories and just two five-star hotels: a boxy, cookie-cutter 1950s Hilton and an angular, ugly glass-fronted Sheraton. Now the city has countless luxurious lodgings, from Bosporus-side boutique hotels to restored Ottoman mansions. One financial district has created a completely new skyline half-way up the European side of the Bosporus waterway, and a second one is rising on the Asian side of the city.
Three decades ago, there were no supermarkets at all, and restaurants served excellent but almost exclusively Turkish foods. Shopping was an art-form that required an encyclopaedic memory for what I might find where in the city; the guidebook of the day was like an 18th century Larousse, a jumbled, glossy, barely comprehensible volume that fell apart days after you bought it. Now, sleek new shopping malls reach up to the sky, crackling with brand names and glamorous eateries that attract customers from all over the compass, from Senegal and Riyadh and Paris and Omsk.
Turkey’s new manufacturing prowess has moved it away from the two main exports it had when I arrived: hazelnuts and dried figs. There’s no going back to the days when we huddled for an hour a week to see the outside world on the first live link to CNN on television – complete with simultaneous English broadcast via a radio channel. And I doubt I will ever again see the sour face of the lady at the Istanbul post office’s now defunct “small package service” as she dissected a gift of Swiss chocolates in search of contraband. Turkey feels more and more ‘normal’.
A self-conscious separateness
Yet, I cannot believe Turkey will give up on its self-conscious separateness. Even today, with its long Black Sea, Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines, the country can feel like an island, well-deserving its ancient name of Asia Minor. Endowed with water, sun and a vast, fertile hinterland, it has never had urgent needs from the outside world. As with geography, so with politics. Bruised by the imperial carve-up of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s governments and elites still seem to feel safer keeping the world at bay with customs barriers, residence permit requirements and a sometimes prickly, go-it-alone foreign policy.
The Turkey I came to in the 1980s guarded one third of the Cold War iron curtain with the former Soviet Union and its satellites, cutting it off from its natural Balkan, Eurasian and Middle Eastern economic hinterlands. Visitors and tourists mostly seemed to be western Europeans, north Americans and Japanese. International sea traffic on the Bosporus was most often Soviet warships being checked out by the white launch we all called the “CIA boat”.
Now, the Bosporus is filled with oil tankers and freighters servicing the many states of the Black Sea. The tourist crowds have been joined by Russians, Chinese, Balkan peoples, Central Asians and above all Arabs, as befits Istanbul’s historic role as a crossroads of east and west.
The new Istanbul is also huge, perhaps double the size it was in 1987, and an official population of 14 million seems plausible. Hundreds of thousands of people walk each day along Istiklal Street, the boulevard outside my house in the centre of town. If London is the great metropolis at the western end of Europe, Istanbul is the continent’s eastern bookend, making everything in between seem provincial or suburban.
A different set of historical data
The changes are intellectual too. In the early years I learned to bite my tongue on many subjects – whether it was the Kurds (officially “mountain Turks” when I arrived), the role of the military (almost sacred, protected by all manner of laws), Turkishness (ditto), Armenians (victims of a “so-called” genocide), or the Greeks (“spoiled by Europe”). It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to run foul of the law, or offend my Turkish friends. I also came to realise that people educated in Turkey worked from a quite different set of historical data than what I had been taught.
Over the years Turkey found out how others saw it and I learned why Turkey felt as it did about its history and neighbours. Most people stopped viewing me automatically as the agent of a foreign power, and the constant litany of conspiracy theories abated. The Gezi park protests around Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2013 marked the point where for the first time I felt on the same wavelength with politically active Istanbul, perhaps because this time the young middle class raised its voice instead of extremists from left or right. At last, slogans were actually funny rather than reflecting dark layers of despair, victimhood or oppression. The same social courage guards ballot boxes from tampering at election time, empowers independent reporters to defy sometimes massive government pressures and keeps parliamentary debate alive.
This robust spirit gives me confidence that Turkey will ultimately keep moving in a positive direction. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, with its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now president, deserve some credit for that. Erdoğan and AKP won legitimate majority governments in three elections in a row. They improved the health care system, built fine new roads and public transport systems all over the country, ended routine torture and broke many taboos in search of the right settlement of Turkey’s Kurdish problem and interconnected rebel insurgency. Of course, AKP got on a train that was ready to leave the station, thanks to reforms that their opponents, including the military, had already put in place to get Turkey in line with international standards.
In fact, despite setbacks in the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey’s defining events were mostly stepping stones towards a future more deeply anchored in the West and European institutions. As a journalist, I reported on the 1987 application to join the European Union, the 1995 Customs Union with Europe, and the 2005 opening of negotiations for full EU membership. The 1999 acceptance of Turkey as a candidate to join the EU was the happiest national moment I can remember in the country, alongside, perhaps, the day a year later when Istanbul’s Galatasaray club won soccer’s UEFA cup.
Even today, despite the love-hate nature of Turkey’s ties with Europe, this relationship remains by far the strongest it has, powered by five million Turks in Europe (compared with just a few hundred thousand expatriates elsewhere), and the fact that European countries are responsible for half of Turkey’s foreign trade and three quarters of Turkey’s inward investment.
A lost sense of direction
For now, though, both Turkey and its European partners have lost their sense of direction. Nobody on either side expects Turkey to join the EU any more. Turkey is abandoning some of the building blocks it fashioned in the hope of a more prosperous, European future: freedom of expression is under attack again, the judiciary is under assault by the government, respect for contracts and the rule of law is slipping, educational achievement remains shockingly low, the 31-year-old insurgency in the Kurdish east is heating up again, and President Erdoğan is wrapping himself in an ever-more authoritarian cloak.
Nevertheless, anyone can still drink rakı on the banks of the Golden Horn. Surrounded by hundreds of others who are enjoying the balmy evening we toast Turkey as the waiter puts a big tray of exquisitely grilled fish on the table. He turns out to be a migrant newly arrived from the southeastern Syrian border city of Mardin and is very happy to have found this job. It won’t be for long, however, he predicts with a certain gloom.
A perpetual roller-coaster of change
Two mornings later I walk down the hill one last time. From a distance I already see the little wooden fishing boats and metal passenger ferries bobbing up and down by the quayside. To my shock, however, the sea front is covered in splintered tables and chairs, bulldozer-churned earth and piles of broken plates. All the restaurants, impromptu kitchens and subdivisions have been smashed. A nearby line of fish merchants, who for as long as I can remember have been selling fresh fish to Istanbullus catching the ferry to the Asian side, have also been levelled. Scruffy kids already are scavenging for anything of value that is left.
“What happened?” I ask one of the plain-clothes young men, apparently from the municipality, who are putting up a fence around the devastated scene.
“We’re cleaning it up, making it better, proper,” he replies.
Another tells the man not to bother with me. “He’s some dirty foreign agent.”
My cheeks and ears burn at the old insult and I stalk off towards the Galata bridge and its warren of shops. I’m also filled with indignation over the random way that the lightning bolt of state-sanctioned destruction has hit a part of town that has given me so much pleasure to live in.
“What on earth happened to the fish market and the restaurants?” I ask the owner of a shop selling batteries, radios and highly realistic air pistols.
“Thank God they took care of those fly-by-night places at last!” he replies. “Those eastern mafia guys were taking over. It was putting tax-payers like us out of business. The state should show who’s in charge.”
Even if I’m pretty sure that in this case the “state” is just the municipality seizing control of a lucrative piece of territory that will be handed out to its own partisan supporters, any anger I have soon seems pointless. A few more exchanges with phlegmatic shopkeepers along the way persuade me to view the debris as typical of a city that is constantly breaking and reinventing itself.
This perpetual roller-coaster of change is part of what makes life in Turkey both exhausting and addictive. By the time I’m back up the hill and home, I am reconciled that there will always be another new pop-up restaurant to try out on some unmarked Istanbul quayside. The trick is only to be able to find it in time.
Note: An earlier version of this article said that Galatasaray won the European Championship in 2000. In fact it won the UEFA Cup. This is the secondary cup competition in Europe behind the Champions League, and used to be called the European Champion Clubs’ Cup or European Cup. Many thanks to Alexis Rowell!
“The Turk Does Not Exist” – for sure, I was set a provocative assertion to address in my speech at Amsterdam’s De Balie cultural centre. But in fact there are lots of ways to answer that question, given the dozens of layers of Turkic cultures, 1,500 years of history, and an ethno-linguistic geography that literally girdles the globe. Here are the answers, maps and slides I brought to my 3 June talk, which was part of the 2015 Holland Festival.
Sometimes a novel can get across what others’ life is like more indelibly than the best-written news story. That’s certainly the case for the Turkish-Dutch marriage at the heart of Jessica JJ Lutz’s new novel De Nederlandse Bruid (De Geus, 2014). Like good non-fiction, this confident handling of a far-away culture has clearly been years in the making, and the well-told tale transports the reader to the heart of a normally inaccessible group of characters. And at a time when Europe is struggling with questions of Muslim, Turkish and other integration, it neatly flips the debate on its head by following a European migrant into Muslim lands.
The story of ‘The Bride from Holland’ is that of a young Dutchwoman, Emma, an under-employed recent university graduate who decides to follow love and the star of her fate. When her fellow-student boyfriend suddenly has to wrap up his studies in Holland and take over his dying father’s business, she leaves her homeland behind and travels east to stand at his side in his new job: clan lord of a remote Euphrates mountain valley in Turkey’s Kurdish borderlands.
Despite her privileges, Emma soon finds she has exchanged the middle-class comforts of north Europe for hard work, chronic feuding, codes of family honour, everyday deaths, loves, jealousies, suffocating traditions and lies that live for generations — the kind of all-or-nothing society that Shakespeare had to go to mediaeval Italy to find. For days after finishing the story, I couldn’t shake this completely convincing world out of my head, and wished that I could have stayed a part of it for longer.
The tightly woven plot is seamlessly sustained – a wedding, a murder, a suicide, adultery, treachery, ancient gold, a road, a mountain insurgents’ war and more – without losing any of Turkey’s intimate, audio-visual reality. People live vividly in the present tense, but are unable to cut themselves off from their past. And along the way, a first disoriented Emma is forced to grow up, find herself, and discover that even today, eastern marcher lords and their ladies, like everyone else, have many a dragon to slay before they can hope to secure their realm or riches.
A rural community in Turkey is no easy place to discover on one’s own. Much is left unsaid to outsiders, and more drama unfolds inside it than is apparent on the surface of poor concrete houses and chaotic family smallholdings. Jessica Lutz draws characters as they are, without a wasted word or a hint of condescension. The polished plot sweeps smoothly from the Rhine estuary commuter town of Ijsselstein to the ancient hill country of Gerger, which overlooks what is now the huge lake of Euphrates river water backed up behind the Ataturk Dam. The narrative is propelled forward by sharp, gripping dialogue that crackles with humour and cunning.
There’s one such comic moment a series of misunderstandings at the wedding – including a bottle of goat’s blood – when the bridegroom has to exclaim to his headstrong new wife: “Listen, here we don’t get married for pleasure”. Later, hearing tales of past battles when touring their new hardscrabble domains, Emma asks why the village clansmen no longer spend their winters pursuing heavily-armed blood feuds. She is told simply: “There’s television now”. Above all, what comes through is a Turkish Kurd community that is obviously very different in its concerns about religion and honour from Dutch society, but also principally motivated by much the same things as Europeans: power, love, land, jobs, money — and quick illicit profit if it might be got away with.
Lucky Dutch readers, who are already able to devour this novel. Buy it now! And producers of Turkish sitcoms, you need look no further for your next dramatic story. As for those other worried Europeans who struggle to make sense of how their societies are becoming ever-further intertwined with those of their Muslim countries to the east, I hope you will get the chance to read ‘The Bride from Holland’. Europeans are right to be worried by the problems of slow development in their eastern neighbourhood. But there’s a lot Europeans may not know, and above all, do not feel about their neighbours. When they finish a rare book like this, truly and elegantly able to reflect the inner dynamics of Anatolian society, they’ll find that they are a lot less scared.
(This is a version of an article published in Turkey’s Today’s Zaman. For the record: I am married to Jessica JJ Lutz.)
De Nederlandse Bruid, 234 pp, was published by De Geus in Breda, Holland in November 2014. Dutch paperback and ebook versions can be bought from the publisher here.
Endorsements and Reviews
“With some thirty years’ experience in Turkey, Jessica Lutz is the Netherlands’ best-informed connoisseur of this region. After her very successful book, ‘The Golden Apple: Turkey between East and West’, she has now turned to fiction. ‘The Bride from Holland’ is not just an exciting book. It lives and breathes Lutz’s deep bond with this land”. – Bram Vermeulen, Netherlands’ 2008 Journalist of the Year and a Dutch TV correspondent in Africa and Turkey.
“‘The Dutch Bride’ grabs you from the first pages, drags you into the claustrophobic isolation of a Kurdish village. Does love really conquer all? You will discover the limits of idealism, good intentions, and your belief that you can do things differently.” – Joris Luyendijk, Dutch anthropologist and best-selling author on the Middle East.
“An extraordinarily stirring and atmospheric book, which intensely brings to life the fragrance and hues of one of the most beautiful places on earth.” – Stine Jensen, Netherlands’ leading television philosopher.
“A thrilling cultural novel, in which the reader cannot escape from their own prejudices. Hooray, that a book this classy can still be written and published! Absolutely worth it: I read it at a gallop from beginning to end”. – Ebru Umar, Dutch-Turkish author, columnist and women’s magazine editor.
“A must-read in which the characters are tangibly real and the raw east of Turkey comes to life. I could almost see the morning light and smell the scent of wild flowers. Jessica describes the traditions, customs and life so vividly that I became homesick for my beautiful, complicated country”. – Fidan Ekiz, Dutch-Turkish television personality.
“Very successful, counter-intuitive and enriching … the cultural-historical background is woven into the personalities, dialogues and plot. In one great, flowing movement you are taken on a journey to an out-of-the-ordinary-world place where, amazingly easily, you can recognise your fellow man”. – Maryse Vincken, De Scriptor, 30 Nov 2014.
“An excellent, realistic, and most of all intriguing story. It’s a contemporary novel full of idealism and dreams, which find traditions and hard life standing in the way, without being unbelievable for a moment. The flowing writing style and the fine exploration of emotions, doubts and threatening situations complete the whole. I enjoyed it and while reading I felt that I was right there in Anatolia … five stars!” – Patrice, Leesclub van lettervreters De Perfecte Buren, 16 December 2014.
“A fascinating book with many unexpected twists and a surprising end … I really recommend it, especially for those who want insights into Turkey behind the scenes, and beyond inter-cultural frictions”. Nikolaos van Dam, former Dutch ambassador to Turkey, Middle East specialist and author.
Again it has taken a tragedy – this time, the jihadi massacres of Yezidi Kurds on the slopes of northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar – to focus international attention on the Kurds and on how precarious their lives can be. Yet beyond such drama, recent trips among Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have made me conscious of a new surge of self-assurance and intertwining in this once-marginalised and disparate group of peoples, who number perhaps 25-30 million people between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
On a July trip through northern Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds’ Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) looked more prosperous and autonomous than ever, part of a two-decade-long trend of development that has persuaded the U.S. President to tell the New York Times it is “functional the way we would like to see”. And despite the KRG’s real shortcomings – contested territorial ambitions, poor governance and a tendency for its fabled peshmerga fighters to run away to fight another day – the Iraqi Kurds’ relative success is also part of broader new Kurdish ambitions and recognition.
In Syria, whose Kurdish minority was almost invisible to outsiders until a year or two ago, the main Kurdish militia has carved out three relatively autonomous cantons. It has so far held its ground against the jihadists of the Islamic State with little outside aid and – despite some early rivalry with the KRG – helped the Iraqi Kurd peshmerga defend the Yazidis and hit back against the jihadis inside Iraq. In a rarely seen moment of Kurdish solidarity, Turkish Kurd fighters have now also joined the front lines of both Iraqi Kurd peshmerga and Syrian Kurd militia.
More than half of the world’s Kurds live in Turkey, and they are tasting new success there too. After 30 years of fighting the main insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), top Turkish and PKK officials now say they think it unlikely they can defeat each other militarily, and peace talks are making progress. Even non-PKK Kurds in Diyarbakir now speak glowingly of trying to win the kind of autonomy that the Iraqi Kurds enjoy. And on August 10, an unabashed Turkish Kurd national movement leader won nearly 10 per cent of the overall vote as a presidential candidate in Turkey – sweeping in first in 11 provinces in southeastern Turkey.
There are deep cracks in the foundations of this Kurdish progress: clashes of interest with neighbouring Turkish, Iranian and Arab states, the Kurds’ disconnected mountain geography, their divided tribal societies, and their four main dialects, which are mutually hard to understand. Iraqi Kurds have yet to prove they can prosper without their share of oil income from Baghdad, have occupied territory well beyond what their Arab and other neighbours consider to be fair and have kept a tight rein on KRG media. A foreign security expert resident in the KRG told me there were increasing fears of a domestic backlash against the alleged corruption and concentration of wealth in the ruling elite – epitomised by the ownership of some of Erbil’s grandest building projects. The wounds of internecine strife in the 1990s are still unhealed: inside the KRG’s own territory, I still passed through checkpoints that divide the region up between at least three armed factions.
In Syria, the main Kurdish organisation faces long term liabilities, with threats from jihadists on one side, and continued links with the Syrian regime on the other (for instance, see Crisis Group’s May 2014 report Flight of Icarus: The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria). Turkey’s main Kurdish movement is beholden to armed insurgents, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which itself is burdened with a designation as an international terrorist group (more here). And, beyond news of occasional executions, Iran lets slip little information about the situation of its Kurds, two of whose most important leaders were murdered in exile by gunmen linked to Tehran in 1989 and 1992 (a book with rare and compelling reporting on one of these killings can be found here).
Nevertheless, many changes seem almost miraculous. When I first met KRG President Masoud Barzani during the Iran-Iraq war in 1985 – he was then a young guerrilla chief fighting on the Iranian side, and the Iranian army helicoptered us in for a surprise visit to his Loulan camp in a remote mountain corner of northern Iraq – nobody in my group of a dozen journalists had much idea who he or the Kurds really were. When I started visiting Turkey in 1980, few non-Kurds seemed to care that the government was still ordering its officials to deny that the country’s Kurds existed and to call them “Mountain Turks”. In the 1990s, when I tried to pitch a story on the region’s Kurds to the Los Angeles Times, a kindly editor wrote back to advise me “don’t put the word ‘Kurd’ in [your proposal] … To us, it guarantees that we won’t understand the story”.
In 1991, as a reporter I witnessed the stumbling dawn of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Back then, travel between major cities took hours on dizzying, broken-down mountain roads. Vehicles were falling apart and smuggled fuel was (and often still is) sold in barrels and plastic jerry cans. All around us villages had been flattened into non-existence, often with not a stone left standing on another, sad evidence of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal scorched-earth policies.
Two decades later, a Kurdistan has emerged, even if its legal status remains something of an elastic envelope. Iraqi Kurds seem to be able to use their growing international recognition and support to keep on pushing out, waiting, and pushing out again. Entering the KRG no longer needs a ride on a tin-tub speedboat across the Tigris River or shadowy permits from Syrian intelligence: there are now direct international flights to Erbil airport and its sleek tubular arches, and KRG border police stamp a welcome into many country’s passports without demanding a visa. To go on to Baghdad, however, a proper Iraqi visa is needed.
Not surprisingly for a people for whom smuggling between neighbouring states has long been a way of life, the American dollar is as good a currency as the Iraqi dinar. The newest computers, top-of-the-line cameras and surveillance equipment are carted off to the rest of Iraq, Iran and Turkey from Erbil’s bustling electronics district, which charges lower prices than New York, partly because nothing seems to be taxed. Things don’t always work out. Because Baghdad insists all Iraqi oil must be marketed through the central government [corrected: see below], two tankers full of the Iraqi Kurds’ first oil shipments that used an Iraqi pipeline through Turkey were kept floating off the U.S. coast for weeks in a legal limbo this summer. But some Kurdish oil is finding buyers.
Growing assertiveness is showing in Kurdish languages and cultures. When I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s and early 2000s, outsiders mostly used Iraq’s national language of Arabic for work. When the Kurdish zone expanded anew during the 2003 war, I moved with Kurdish fighters into territory formerly held by the deposed Saddam Hussein regime — once again into Kurdish towns with shop signs only in Arabic. Domestically, a main concern for Masoud Barzani’s region-wide television station has been to coin a new kind of high Kurdish as a language that would be understood through the whole territory. This is still a work in progress: a refugee Syrian Kurdish schoolteacher in Erbil told me in July that after nearly a year here he still couldn’t fully understand the Iraqi Kurds’ main east-central Sorani dialect. Arabic, however, was much less known to those educated after 1991. “Learn Kurdish!” the two young men who drove me across the country ended up yelling in frustration as our conversation reached another dead end. It was true: anybody seeking to operate effectively outside the English-speakers in Iraqi Kurdistan’s elite now needs to do just that.
The city of Erbil, now the KRG capital, is still dominated by its ‘castle’, an oval of fortifications and brick mansions on the site of an ancient settlement or ‘tel’ that through history has risen 50 meters over the plains around. The castle is being restored and the city is in the throes of a rapid transformation. Concentric ring roads are expanding like ripples in what has become a concrete sea. Wide highways are well-paved and busy with new-looking, sometimes expensive cars. One of the biggest buildings in the city used to be the Saddam-era regional parliament building; now it’s hard to spot. At the same time, large parks have been laid out that attract crowds after the heat of the day.
In old parts of Erbil a few old low-rise brick houses (above left) can still be found. But they are giving way to 20-story luxury mall-and-residence complexes. New-build housing estates now extend far into the surrounding plains (above right) and hills to the north.
Several new glittering malls (like the Royal Mall, above left) compete for attention from the elites. Construction is under way to rebuild the more popular Kayseri Market in the city center (above right), where straw-coloured brick vaults now frame bazaar shops that sell everything from Kurdish cradles and carpets to dried vegetables, gold and mountain honey. Soon there will be nothing left of the old corrugated iron roofs riddled with holes, a continued legacy of the malevolent neglect of Saddam Hussein’s rule.
A new sense of Kurdish pride can be felt, too, from the first ‘Welcome to Kurdistan’ sign in the airport bank ads to the vast flag that now flies over the Erbil castle (above left). After years of Iraqi oppression of Kurdishness, one petrol station (above right) seemed to feel the need to plaster the word ‘Kurd’ everywhere. Back in 1991, just after renewed Western protection gave the Iraqi Kurds their road to more autonomy, if people wanted to fly the sunburst flag of Kurdistan, they had to draw it by hand on pieces of paper.
Between long stretches of empty mountains, there are still storks on the electricity pylons and great herds of sheep and goats. But the places where the roads now turn into the jarring old bone-shakers mostly seem to be where a dam or bridge is being built nearby. The countryside is busy too: towns given over to the production of concrete breeze-blocks, or valleys in which the newly rich find hills and outcrops on which to build their own private villa-castles as summer weekend retreats.
In a sign that KRG President Barzani also remembers the precariousness of the past, however, he prudently keeps his main residence and workplace on a hard-to-attack ridge in the first line of mountain foothills north of Erbil. For sure, the Kurds have a long way to go, and any independent state, for instance, would prove much harder than it looks. Weeks after my visit to Erbil, judged safe for travellers in recent years, the city came under threat of direct attack by the jihadists from the new Islamic State. But, with help from Syrian and Turkish Kurds, its defenses have not crumbled.
Such cooperation, until recently unthinkable, are part of the recent intertwining of the fates of the Iraqi Kurds’ KRG, Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds. This could be seen not just in the operations to save the Yezidis and others but also somewhere as remote as the PKK headquarters, at times attacked and often only grudgingly tolerated by the KRG in the remote Qandil Valley. The KRG authorities have now extended a new line of electricity poles, cellphone service and a good main road to the small Iraqi Kurdish villages there. Villagers live in apparent harmony with PKK checkpoints and the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of Turkish Kurd insurgents camped out in the mountains above. Another powerfully revived link is between Syrian and Turkish Kurds, with perhaps 250,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing to Kurdish areas of Turkey in the past year (described in my Crisis Group blog here) and Turkish Kurds giving military and humanitarian aid to their cousins in Syria.
Alongside Qandil’s well-built Iraqi Kurdish village houses, squabbling ducks in the water canals and peach orchards heavy with fruit, a number of buildings lie flattened after attacks on the PKK by the Turkish Air Force in recent years. But even here, there is hope of change and peace after 30 years of a war that has killed at least 30,000 people on both sides. The PKK is becoming more open too, and won some of its first positive press in the West for their role in defending the Yezidi Kurds in Sinjar from jihadi attack (for instance, in Prospect Magazine and the Daily Beast).
Long journeys from little-known places by determined, well-organized people can sometimes reach their goal: Qandil is not far as the crow flies from Loulan, where I first met Barzani earlier in his Kurdish struggle 30 years ago. Passing the last PKK checkpoint on my way home, I asked one of the Turkish Kurd insurgents about what lay behind his dedication to a cause and an organisation that required him to live indefinitely without pay, without holidays, without families, and without a love life. He laughed wryly and took the long view of a true believer.
“I guess you could say we’re like a dervish lodge”, said the man in his 30s. “And we’ll keep at it until we win the rights we want for the Kurds.”
All photographs copyright by Hugh Pope
This version of the article article has removed an incorrect reference to sales of Iraqi Kurdish oil having to be directed through Baghdad according to U.S. and international law.