Sunday, January 18, 2009

All the Instruments Agree

Hrant Dink, d. 19 January 2007

But in the importance and noise of tomorrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom;
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

--W.H.A., "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" (d. January 1939)

The Second Anniversary of Disgust

Note to readers: This piece was originally published a year ago at Today is not only Martin Luther King Day, and the day before Barack Obama's inauguration. It is also the second anniversary of another murder. Read on.

As I write this, the good and decent people of Istanbul (NOT the people in the photo) are marking the first anniversary of Disgust. This is not the ordinary disgust felt when people perceive the thousand injustices of daily life; it was the emotion they felt when, on 19 January 2007, the Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink was gunned down in front of his newspaper's office in central Istanbul. This was no ordinary crime. It was predictable and preventable. The killer was easily found. The police, who could have forestalled it, did not. Instead, some of them gathered around the crime's teen-aged perpetrator after his capture and congratulated him. (Two of the officers got in trouble for this--not for having congratulated the murderer, but for having leaked the images to the media.) The Istanbul police were warned of the killer's departure from Trabzon, his hometown on the Black Sea, and they were told of his mission. Yet they did nothing. Several officers have been charged, but serious consequences seem unlikely. In the aftermath, banner-waving football fans in central Turkey expressed solidarity with Hrant Dink's killer, and a nationalist singer wrote a song commemorating the deed.

It's all in a day's work for Turkey's nationalist thugs, its police, and the good people who are forced to live with them. Anyone looking at today's Turkey has to think wistfully of Al Gore and the Nobel Prize. Certainly I respect the man and his global warming campaign. But the more I look at the Turkish political scene, and the more I dig into websites and read news items, the more it seems to me that I could find a hundred better candidates for the Nobel just by flying to Turkey and taking a week to meet people. I've said before that in Turkey "the average liberal has more courage than a thousand Americans," and if anything this seems an understatement. Real courage has to be measured against the degree of danger it faces, and nowhere is that danger more extreme than in the Republic of Turkey.

People of the American "left" (for so it must be punctuated--there is no real Left in this country) are fond of pinning the "fascist" label on people like George Bush and his crowd, while the right (not in quotes) has come up with Islamofascists as their catch-word. In fact, neither side has a clue. If you want to meet real fascists, go East, young man. There, in any Turkish town you care to name, you can find the genuine article in half an hour.

Turkish nationalism must be experienced to be believed. Americans, always in search of a new catch phrase, may talk about someone's "take no prisoners" attitude, but they never stop to think what the phrase really means. It's a military order: it says, "Attack and kill. Even if someone tries to surrender, kill him anyway." In Turkey the soldiers of the Right, whether they call themselves Grey Wolves, Idealists, or Commandos, truly take no prisoners. Trained in camps, closely allied with the police and the army, they confront a hostile world with guns at the ready, their minds alert to the slightest hint of disrespect, their eyes always on the lookout for liberal traitors. Hrant Dink was only the latest in their string of hits.

To the Turkish ultra-nationalist, enemies lurk everywhere. He knows this because he learns it in school. Were there Kurdish revolts? No, there were only religious outbreaks fomented by the British. That's what it says in Turkish history books. Do the Greeks plan to re-invade Turkey? Of course. Everyone wants to attack Turkey: they're just waiting for the chance. The Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol recounts the plays he and his schoolmates performed. Rather than Outlaws or Indians, their bad guys were always the English, the French, or the Greeks. I remember one fanatic, a shop-owner whom I met in Amasya, an historic town in Anatolia. When he perceived that I was a foreigner, I replied that, yes, I was an American. "There are lots of Armenians in America," he muttered. "Not that many," I replied, looking around for the exit. On the shop walls were posters of mounted, mustachioed warriors wading exultantly into battle. He thought about my reply for a moment. "In America you have Jews," he said with contempt. "In Turkey, we have Armenians." With a shiver I scurried out.

Intellectuals as well can be trained to participate in the national paranoia. One incident in particular comes to mind. One summer in the 1960s I and some 200 other college graduates found ourselves at an Ivy League college, training to become Peace Corps English teachers in Turkey. Visiting lecturers instructed us in language, history, and culture. One of the topics, inevitably, was the Cyprus problem. One professor, whose last name was obviously Greek, briefed us on the history of the controversy. The next night we got the "Turkish" side.

The man chosen to deliver this address (I'll call him Turan) was one of the kindest and most delightful of men. A scholar perfectly bilingual in Turkish and English, as well as a polished translator into both languages, Turan moved with aplomb in the worlds of academe, business, and literature. The PCVs, myself included, came to know him well, for he had assisted in our training from the beginning. I was, quite simply, in awe of the man.

On the night appointed for Turan's address I took my place in the lecture hall and waited with great interest, my pencil and notebook at the ready. Turan was introduced. Then, smiling, he strode to the lectern and proceeded to deliver the most appalling speech I have ever heard outside the documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl. When he began, Turan pitched his voice slightly below a scream. There, for the next thirty minutes, it remained. Occasionally it dipped somewhat in pitch; more often it rose into a keening wail. Never did it present the slightest coherent argument for a "Turkish position" on the Cyprus problem. Turkish babies were starving; this was clear. Turkish houses were destroyed. Turkish women were being violated. Turkish men were slaughtered. And, yes, Turkish babies were still starving. As a speech, it was quite effective at one thing: it kept the question-and-answer period to a minimum. No one had the least interest in asking questions of someone who had spent the last half hour shrieking at us. (Imagine a press conference in Nuremberg: "Excuse me, Mr. Hitler: could you explain a bit more your position on the Jews?") Afterward, as we stood in line for coffee and cookies, I spied Turan with several embarrassed-looking Volunteers. He smiled at me and nodded, seemingly eager to talk. Somehow I managed a smile, but I knew that talking was out of the question. With my empty notebook in hand, I found a convenient exit.

Turan, of course, was a gentleman. A tone-deaf and rather obtuse gentleman, perhaps, but there was little chance that he would use a knife in the ribs as a political argument. Turkish fascists aren't like that. Codes of behavior don't count when the very survival of the State is in question. [Note: the leader of their party, the Nationalist Action Party, even has "state" as a first name: Devlet Bahceli.] There is, of course, the murder of Hrant Dink to serve as an example, but this past year has seen a rash of nationalist attacks against Kurds, liberals, and Christians. In Turkey not a day goes by that the State security and judicial apparatus don't make a mockery of common sense. To this is now added the incident of the Blood Flag.

In Kirsehir, which I remember as a rather nondescript town in central Anatolia, twenty-one high school students, boys and girls, met after school in the autumn of 2007. There, using blood from their pricked fingers, they dyed a Turkish flag and sent it as a gift to the commander of the Turkish Armed Forces, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit. In an accompanying letter they declared their willingness to shed their blood, all of it, in the service of the nation. The General was delighted and moved. "Truly," he declared, "we are a great nation."

Others weren't so sure. Mustafa Akyol, writing in the Turkish Daily News, compared this banner to the Blutfahne, or "blood flag", of the Nazis, a relic of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch which was carefully preserved and presented at Nazi Party rallies. And the physicians and public health authorities, always spoilsports in this sort of thing, weighed in with horror at the notion of so much blood being mingled in such unsanitary conditions. All in all, it was the kind of incident that is all too common in a country where police power and nationalism reign supreme.

In my last post, I opined that Turkey, given its present balance of political power, has no chance whatever of joining the EU. Indeed, they can only succeed if the European Union gives in and does away with all its requirements for the respect of human rights, and the necessity for elected officials to exert control over the police and armed forces. If they do that, no problem: the Turks will get in whenever they want. And who knows? It may happen, and I for one hope it will.

It takes an Iraqi Kurd, however--in fact, an Iraqi Kurd transplanted to the United States and anointed with a Ph.D. in English--to expose the full absurdity of this quest. Sabah Salih, a Professor of English at Bloomsburg (State) University in Pennsylvania, delivers the goods in the December 25, 2007 edition of the Kurdistan Observer. He calls it "The World's New-Year Message to Turkey," and those who enjoy invective, served piping hot, are in his debt.

"Your nationalism," he begins, "or what’s more grandly referred to in Turkey as state or national ideology, continues to behave as though the world begins and ends with Ankara." He continues:

The problem with this chest-puffing nationalism is not just that it is outdated and autocratic and stuck in the same kind of mindset that gave us two world wars; it is rapidly turning the word Turk into an ugly word.

The high horse of jingoistic self-righteousness that you’ve been riding for all these years is good only at self-deception, but self-deception cannot be a substitute for reality.

To this there is nothing to add. But of course Dr. Salih will also talk about his people, the Kurds:

You’ve got to understand that the Kurd is a Kurd for exactly the same reasons that a Turk is a Turk; Kurds are neither mountain Turks, nor Turks of any kind--they never have been, they never will be. And did I hear you use the term “people of Kurdish origin”? This is definitely not as nasty as the other term, but, as we all know, this term too is designed to misrepresent the Kurdish situation. How could it be otherwise? Your nationalist DNA is all over it. It is yet one more reminder that you still cannot bring yourself to treat the Kurds the way you yourself expect to be treated.

We can draw two conclusions from your treatment of the Kurds: one is that you have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to democracy; and two, it is obvious to us that your nationalism has been the incubator of your Kurdish problem. You have given the Kurds no choice but to fight back--and, unless you start treating them decently, fighting back they will.

Of course, none of this is helped when George Bush, fool that he is, praises Turkey for its "vigorous democracy" and does everything he can to perpetuate the Kurdish war.

Going on a bombing spree against Kurdish villages may satisfy your appetite for bloodletting; unleashing hate on Kurdistan may even make you feel better. But this will only confirm what the Kurds have been saying all along about you: that the solution to the Kurdish problem lies not really with the Kurds but with you; continue with your racist mindset and the problem will become bigger and bigger. It has already engulfed one generation of Kurds and Turks alike. Do you really want another generation of your people to be consumed by this conflict, day in and day out asking what W. H. Auden aptly asked decades ago: “What do you think about . . . this country of ours where nobody is well?”

And at last he strikes at the heart of the matter:

And another thing: You want to join Europe? Beyond the obvious, have you asked yourself what Europe means? Europe is first and foremost a state of mind: the product of two hundred years of fighting against and rejecting and ridiculing the very nationalism that still defines your way of thinking. You ask the Kurds who have taken up arms against you to “repent” and surrender. But isn’t repentance, with its roots in religious orthodoxy and bigotry, the very opposite of what the European consciousness has been all about? For to repent is not just a matter of admitting guilt; it is also committing oneself to a type of thinking that belongs in dictatorships and theocracies, not democracies.

To which I can only say: Happy New Year.

P.S. Mizgin at Rastibini has more, including photographs of the victim, the killers, the survivors.

P.P.S. 1/19/2009. The inquiry into Hrant Dink's murder continues. No one has been tried, no one convicted. Several police officers have been implicated. Hrant Dink's widow, and his many friends, all wait for justice.

"She Committed Suicide"

Guerrilla Girls: Kandil Mountain.

Note: The following is an update to one of my first entries on this blog. When I posted "intihar etti" (Turk. "he/she committed suicide") on 30 April 2008 there were no comments. This disappointed me, because I thought that it was one of the better things I had written. Having read it again, I continue to think so. Now, in an amazing development, things have changed--slightly--for the better in Turkey. Read to the end to find out the latest. --g.t.

Some smiles can kill, some will break your heart; and it's easy to see that the picture above fits into the latter category. In October 2007, when I started posting online at Progressive Historians, I began by writing about a young PKK soldier code-named Devrim Siirt, who died on Cudi (Judi) Mountain, SE Turkey, in 2005. Her photograph aroused the same feelings--delight, sorrow, confusion, anger, more sorrow--that I feel when looking at these girls. Who are they? What path brought them to this snowy place, where life is hard and violent death a real possibility? I asked similar questions about Aynur, the beautiful girl who became "Devrim Siirt." Her ending was sad, I noted, but she probably had attained some glimpse of happiness and freedom. And it could have been so much worse. She could have died alone.

She could, in other words, have committed suicide. "On mourra seul," Pascal wrote: "We Die Alone" it is rendered in the title of David Howarth's classic book of wartime adventure. An alternate translation, "One dies alone," makes it sound aristocratic, part of a code that, like it or not, all of us must follow. But while the act of dying is of necessity something that we go through on our own, few people would deny that the presence of friends makes it seem a little more attractive, a little more human. In fact, the title of Howarth's book, which concerns a man who ultimately survives, tells only half the story. "We die alone," it should say, "but we live on with the help of others."

This is why suicide--and I am not speaking of suicide bombing, a low and repulsive act--is such a crushing event. When the remains have been carried away, and the last tears are fallen, we are left with the image of a human being, desolate and solitary, slouched in some dusty corner where her (or his) final thoughts are too terrible to contemplate.

And yet, it is an image that won't go away, especially to anyone who bothers reading the headlines from Kurdistan. One night recently I was scanning Firat News, the pro-PKK news service, for items of interest, and a story jumped out at me. The dateline was 19 April. A "young girl" had committed suicide (intihar etti, in Turkish) in a village in the southeast of Turkey.

The young lady in question was named Nazli, and she was seventeen. On the previous night, it was reported, she had taken the opportunity when the house was empty to go into a room and, using a rope, had hanged herself from the ceiling. The family found her when they returned.

This, of course, is as sad as death can get. And yet, something about it doesn't sound right. "The inquiry is continuing," said the story. Well, yes. But probably it won't continue very far. What can the police (or in this case, the military gendarmes who keep watch over Kurdish villages) do? They could start by asking the family why they all just happened to be gone at that moment. (This was in a dirt-poor village, in a high-altitude region called Baskale, where the temperature was probably near freezing and there surely wasn't a great tradition of going out on the town at night.) They could ask where Nazli got the rope, and whether or not she had been depressed. They could ask about family conflicts. They could ask if she had "dishonored" the family in some way.

The last question is the most important, for Nazli's death has all the hallmarks of the latest trend: compulsory self-administered honor killings. I refer, of course, to the Kurds' disgrace, a tradition that ranks right up there with genital mutilation, Indian bride-burning, and all the other ways in which women are brutalized, exploited, and murdered in the name of rules that were made up by men. Until a few years ago, "honor killings" in Turkey were not strictly classified as murder. If a girl did something to "disgrace" the family, such as wearing the wrong clothes, seeing the wrong boy, etc., then the family would get together and choose one of the girl's brothers, usually the youngest, to kill her and take the rap. If the boy was young enough, and below the age of majority, he would usually escape with a mild sentence.

Now the game has changed. The Turkish government, in response to demands from the European Union, has considerably stiffened the penalties. (Note that only demands from the EU got them to do it.) Life in prison is now the mandatory sentence. But this hasn't stopped the honor killings. Now the girls are required to kill themselves.

Think of it: "You have dishonored us. Only you can cleanse this stain from our family. Kill yourself." Now try getting it as a text message on your cell phone. That's the opening of a 17 July 2006 story from the New York Times. The girl in the story, Derya, got as many as 15 of these text messages a day from her uncles and brothers. In the end she got lucky and found a women's organization in Batman, her home town (pop. 250,000), that took in girls like her. But that only happened after she had tried without success to drown herself in the Tigris River and hang herself with a rope. (An uncle cut her down after the last attempt: presumably not the same uncle who initially texted her and told her to off herself.)

These stories are only the crocodile's eye peeking up from the river; the rest of the beast will show itself any time you choose. In this case, it's a matter of going to the "Ara" window ("Search" in Turkish) of Firat News and typing the words "intihar etti" in the blank space. A tap on the key and there it is: page after miserable page.

The stories don't all concern young girls, though they are a big part of it. Worldwide the majority of suicides are males. Though not the majority in Kurdistan, male suicides are plentiful enough. A disturbing number of them are young Kurds who have been drafted into the Turkish Army. These young men are especially vulnerable, subjected as they are to endless harangues about Ataturk, the Fatherland, and the superiority of the Turkish race, and this after having witnessed police brutality as a regular part of growing up. On April 3, for example, a young man in Istanbul set himself on fire rather than go into the Army, while only the day before a Kurdish soldier in Edirne (Adrianople), near the Greek-Bulgarian border, ended his life with a bullet. On April 1 Firat News summarized five suspicious Army deaths in the previous two months, and the headlines go on from there: a gendarme shoots himself near Baskale, a sergeant does it with a hand grenade, another soldier shoots himself in Diyarbakir, another in Silopi, on the Iraqi border. All this leads Firat News to dub the Turkish Armed Forces "the world's most suicidal army."

In Kurdistan, however, it is still the women and girls who commit the majority of suicides. In Diyarbakir, for example, from 1996 to 2001 fully 58% of suicides were women and girls, and similar rates hold true for other provinces in the region. Again, this goes directly against patterns documented throughout the world. In 2006 the U.N. sent a Turkish woman, Prof. Yakin Erturk, a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, to the southeast of Turkey to investigate the rash of female suicides. "The majority of women in the provinces visited live lives that are not their own," she reported: "Diverse forms of violence are deliberately used against women who are seen to transgress [the conservative patriarchal] order. Suicides of women in the region occur within such a context."

No surprise in any of this. Prof. Erturk goes on at length in the language of a sociologist, and she is unable to point to an exact link between the suicides and honor killings. But the message is clear: to be a woman in Turkey is bad enough; to be a woman in the Southeast is to court death. The bright spots are few. Women are organizing, often at great risk; NGO's are popping up, providing shelter and counseling to girls in danger. A nationwide organization, "The Purple Roof," based in Istanbul, works to provide resources. But still, the suicides go on.

All of which brings us back to the guerrilla girls and their smiling faces. Obviously they have put themselves in grave danger. If life is hard in places like Diyarbakir and Batman, it is twice as hard in the caves and rocks of the Zagros range. But these young women made a choice. They used their free will, such as it was, and went to the mountains.

And they are not the only ones who are striking out. Tuesday's (4/29/08) Kurdish papers carried a story about another woman, a traditional Kurdish woman who should have been passive but was not: a woman almost Sophoclean in the grandeur of her response. The place: Cizre, formerly Jezirah ibn Omar, a city on the Tigris near the Iraqi border. A totally Kurdish town, except for the Turkish troops that occupy it. The red banners with white lettering are stretched across the streets like a taunt: "How happy is he who calls himself Turk." This is as pro-PKK a place as you will find in the Southeast. In the '90s the two sides fought gun battles in the streets. On Monday an Army delegation arrived, carrying the body of Pvt. Mesut Sanir, killed in action among mountains near the town of Bingol. The private, the army messenger told his mother, had "fallen a martyr" in the battle.

But Kumru Sanir, the boy's mother, was having none of it. "My son has not fallen a martyr!" she told the spokesman. "You send brother to fight against brother and kill each other, and then you come to tell us he is a martyr. My son is not a martyr!" The soldiers, looking embarrassed, said nothing. The boy's older sister was equally bitter, noting that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, sends his children to school in America, "while he sends ours to fight in the mountains." The older sister says nothing about her plans for the future, but we can be sure that she is weighing her options.

With regard to honor killings, a Turkish court has actually done something right. This astounding development can be read about here. Briefly, the facts are these. In Diyarbakir, SE Turkey, a girl was raped and impregnated, and she was given shelter in a local hospital. After her baby's birth, she was forced to return home. A younger brother, under orders from the family, shot and killed her. A Turkish court, in an absolute first, has sentenced the entire family to life in prison for her murder. It may not be much, but it's a start. (See the same story at Rasti.)