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Turkish kid basking in the sun
Turkish kid basking in the sun, photographed in a hilltop neighborhood overlooking the Golden Horn in Istanbul, near Pierre Loti's Cafe.
(Aziz Gökdemir, spring 1990.)


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Abdullah Öcalan: The Avenger, Transformed

It's been a bad few weeks for American poodles, and an active period for what's apparently our latest cruel sport: poodle tossing.
spaceFirst we had an officer responding to a 911 call about a dogfight in a DC suburb; the scene was memorably described as one in which a woman was being bit and mauled by a couple dogs, while a pit bull was "tossing" her poodle in the air. The pit bull had to be shot and killed; the poodle survived (so did the woman).
spaceThen came the California incident, with a more tragic outcome. A guy was struck by road rage in the aftermath of a fender-bender and retaliated by tossing the other motorist's poodle onto a busy highway. The pet was rushed to the vet, but didn't make it. Dog-lovers across the nation have managed to raise a $40K bounty for the fugitive.
spaceWhich reminds me of a scene in that awful movie, Speed 2, where a convertible gets creamed by a chunk of metal falling off the sky. Only problem: there's a dog in the back seat.
spaceI remember thinking, You can kill as many people as you want, but you're not going to kill a dog in an American film and risk alienating your audience unless you're trying to provoke rage directed at a villain. Sure enough, after the requisite three-second suspenseful delay, the dog jumps out, miraculously unscathed. Oh yeah, the captain is dead, but the dog is fine, and everything is all right with the world, once again.
spaceBut I digress. I let February go by without realizing it was the first anniversary of Abdullah Öcalan's capture in Kenya. Let's remedy that.
spaceIt's been an amazing year, no question. Kurdish anger exploded across Europe, with some protesters setting themselves on fire, which prompted Turkish columnist Ahmet Altan to write an elegiac essay titled, "They Burn" (you may be able to access the original Turkish article from the February 25, 1999 issue of Aktüel; at some point I'll post a translation.)
spaceState TV had a different take: A news-spot caption read, "The Separatists Have Started Setting Themselves on Fire." Actually I think it was more like, "The Separatists Have Now Turned to Suicide," which jibes nicely with the promotional pamphlets distributed over the years, advising rebels to "give up this hopeless fight."
spaceTensions flared, bombs exploded, but perhaps nothing that came before proved quite as dramatic as when Öcalan took the stand in court for the first time and spoke for two hours in his "Call me Uncle" mode. Stunning prosecutors, the public, his detractors, his supporters, even his lawyers, he pitched himself into a trajectory of transformation.
spaceConfronted with a long list of PKK raids on pro-government villages in which Kurdish civilians and Turkish teachers had been killed, "All true," he said, "and there are others you probably forgot." He was calm throughout, except one time when he demanded fairness: "You too stole lives from me," he said loudly, "25,000 of them."
spaceEvery day he outlined his new vision of political dialogue in place of violence; meanwhile he was shedding weight, and the Stalin mustache would be also gone eventually. Even commentators who don't see much more than a publicity stunt in all this admit that the post-Kenya era is destined to be a different one. The fighting in the mountains has all but died, and rebuilding is the talk of the day, even with recent arrests (and subsequent release) of Kurdish mayors and admonishments from the military to the media for carrying Öcalan's peace calls issued through his lawyers.
spaceThere was no way the process wouldn't have its bizarre moments, and those it certainly has had.
spaceThree earthquakes (two in Turkey, one in Greece) had Öcalan camping out in the prison yard with the elite "let's see how this truncheon will fit" guards, but something a lot more astonishing was going on outside the walls.
spaceThe kindness Greeks and Turks had showered on each other following the quakes seemed to be softening even the hardest faces. The previously "uppity" neighbors were now apparently Turks' best friends.
spaceA borderline fascist Turkish columnist announced that he was retiring his traditional September 9th "Turkish liberation of Greek-held Izmir" column in favor of "a new beginning." Turkish and Greek rescue teams were drinking from the same water bottle, a Greek TV anchor breathlessly announced. (Apparently all involved were unconcerned about infidel/heathen cooties.)
spaceMere months after a Greek concert in support of the Kurdish diaspora, one was staged to raise funds for Turkish quake victims. It wasn't just music; Greeks rushed to give blood, which was initially rejected by Turkey's Health Minister, who refused to resign despite Turkish media headlines such as "Racist! Buzz off!"
spaceIt wasn't immediately known what Turkish hooligans who liked to taunt visiting Greek teams thought of all this, or for that matter, the "ordinary people" that Shakespeare portrayed as easily manipulated plebeians. Sure, intellectuals on both sides had always talked of "commonalities," "the striking resemblance," "the unmistakable warmth with which visitors are greeted," but hadn't Cyprus' Greek prime minister said recently that "we've both hurt each other"? Where had that gone all of a sudden?
spacePerhaps not very far. The doves on both sides always knew that people had to deal with what brought on the pain in the first place, and that that involved grappling with fears and perceptions, not to mention taking on their own hawks, who certainly were not going anywhere. "So what, we're going to set our national interests aside now that we're friends?" wrote a well-known Turkish commentator and political figure, no doubt echoing sentiments held on the other side of the Aegean by people like him.
spaceAll this Greek-Turkish focus, and even the intense attention directed at what the former "Avenger" was going to do next, has served to obscure the heart of the Kurdish issue: why it came about, which is integral to making sure that the wounds of 1978-1999 (not to mention 1800s-1978) heal properly.
spaceA school of thought that worked hard this past quarter-century to suppress or vilify all others has always held that the problem was one of foreign-backed terrorism, pure and simple. It was very rare that you would get anyone from this group, on- or off-the-record, to admit that harebrained policies of suppression and the blocking of every other avenue of dissent had led to a guerilla rebellion with such Shining Path-like ferocity that even people with no discernible qualms regarding Kurdish nationalism (such as Robert Fisk of the Independent) condemned the movement and its leader at times. More often than not it was impossible to get this school of Turkish and Kurdish policymakers and their toadies to say that there was a Kurdish problem.
spaceIt's an attitude that one recognizes as common among the members of the so-called Phantom Alliance (of Israel, Turkey, and the United States). In its causal analysis it treats terrorism as something that may well have come from outer space. It's never a violent reaction to your domestic or foreign policy, your real and perceived bullying, your shortsightedness, or your pigheadedness in not admitting when you've been wrong. It's something that never would have reared its ugly head were it not for your enemies stirring things up.
spaceEven if foreign meddling is a cause, it never occurs to these geniuses that for someone to stir your pot, you have to have that pot sitting there with your recipe to begin with.
spaceThe shocking killings by Abdullah Öcalan's men and women make it easy to forget (even though the justification for this violence was the exact opposite) the injustice after injustice, insult after injury, inflicted on Kurds.
spaceIn the 1980s alone, the names Southeast and Diyarbakir became synonymous with killing and torture. A village was made to eat human excrement after said substance was found smeared on the obligatory Atatürk statue. Back when the century was young, worse things happened. There are people alive today who remember the burning gasoline barrels dropped into caves sheltering crowds following the slaying of soldiers by rebels.
spaceThroughout, something that admittedly wasn't genocide (based on numbers) but in some ways was much worse was at work: denying a people the right to be themselves, even speak their language in public or publish until recently. And now there is a foreign minister who advocates Kurdish TV (an angered citizen took him to court for separatism; the case was thrown out) and a former ambassador who has written in a mass-circulation daily that "Kurds are a nation among equals, nothing less, nothing more." His Excellency must have been still working through those feelings back when he held court (and his tongue) in New York with the rest of the penguin-emulating crowd.
spaceThese are statements that could land lesser mortals in jail (and they still do), and now they're being tossed about without even a halfhearted apology on the side. It's as if the country lives in a present that never had a past. And without coming to terms with the past, the peace that visits in the present is always fleeting, fragile.
spaceEven as Kurdish writer Mehmed Uzun returns to Diyarbakir for a triumphant book tour, there are pinheads laboring to create tracts as immature as the bulletins from Kurdish Information Centers of the "war era"; their arguments -- dissecting linguistics, feudalism, the democratic tradition (or its lack thereof), among other things -- always insinuate somehow that the Kurdish existence is one of inferiority, even though their line of reasoning, taken to its logical conclusion, could be applied to put down the citizens of dozens of countries (not to mention the Turkish Republic in its earliest years) that these ideologues have no apparent problems with.
spaceMarch. This is when snows melt in the mountains. In the past it marked a return to war between ill-trained conscripts counting down days and the guerillas they dreaded, between a pissed-off rebel commander and a village whose number had come up, between helicopter gunships, mysterious "Special Teams," ruthless "village guards" and whoever happened to rub them the wrong way, combatant or not.
spaceMarch was when the Kurdish New Year turned first into defiance of authority, then into a sullen-faced holiday taken over by the ever-cheery "officials." Last year's was one of quiet shock and desperation, and no one knows what this one will bring.
spaceA hot potato sits in his cell, awaiting an execution that'll never happen as long as people who run the show remember to retrieve their brains from the coat-check.
spaceTwenty-five thousand guerillas and "people who were suspected of terrorist activity"; ten thousand conscripts, officers, NCOs, cops; and four thousand "pro-government, enemy of the people" men, women, and babies are dead -- and four thousand activists have "disappeared." (And that is just the dead; what of the tens of thousands of wounded, maimed, scarred on each "side"? What of the millions of Kurds displaced, dispossessed, scarred, tortured?) All because "mistakes were made."
spaceWell, here's an idea: don't make the same mistakes again.

(Oh, the photo. Reading certain publications I'm often struck by how many times the blondness of Kurds and the tantalizing possibility of European stock come up. Apparently, being screwed by history in every possible way is not enough to elicit sympathy; the writers must feel they have to appeal to the most basic (and basest) dichotomy in the European consciousness -- as Ismail Kadare did when he was trying to draw attention to the plight of Kosovo's Albanians. Given the sympathy accorded Bosnia's "European-looking Muslims" perhaps this is a valid strategy, but since this kind of labeling and subtle demonizing of "the other" contributed significantly to the present mess, it's one that is not beyond the legitimate reach of some oblique criticism.)


March 8, 2000
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