Spatial Manifestation of

Kurdish Identity in A Nationless- State


Definition of Kurdish Identity is more than a description of a certain ethnic group. It goes beyond the colonial borders that divided Middle Eastern and North African people identities created by colonial Western forces. It goes beyond flags and anthems. It means resistance and self-defense spread across several borders. It is an indigenous struggle that goes back until 11th Century, it is an Anti-Imperialist struggle that started in late 18th century and still displays itself as a cultural, social and an economic struggle within contemporary urban life within the diaspora. But if the Kurdish Identity is centuries old and has a strong rebellious movement rooted in it’s culture, what are the implications of this struggle in the physical world? How come Kurds existed and carried their culture for centuries without being institutionalized?

This article seeks to scrutinize how Kemalism and Turkification policies homogenized Kurdish identity and turned it into subjects of a Hyper-Nationalist Turkish Identity, the effects of colonialism on the definition of citizenship and the spatial reflections of the assimilation processes in Diyarbakır and Dersim. The article also altercates how the new Kurdish nationalism is flourishing not as a traditional nation-state model, but as a result of protagonist-autonomist methods of urbanism during the peace treaty period.

‘’ Our duty is to transform every person living in the Turkish lands into a Turk. We will prune every element that opposes Turkishness and Turkism. The primary qualities we seek in someone to serve the motherland is that he be a Turk and a Turkist. ‘’

(Prime Minister Ismet İnönü about Kurdish Riots, 1925) 1

Part I- History of Kurdish Identity and Dersim Massacre

In this chapter, I will try to give a brief insight on Kurdish Identity as a subject of Turkish Nationalism by using Dersim as a precedence with the aim of creating a base about Kurdish and Turkish conflict for the reader.

Early records show that Diyarbakır’s settlement goes back until 3500 BCE. The fertile soil around Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, attracted many ancient civilizations such as Assyrians, Urartians, Hititians which led Empires like Roman, Byzantian and Ottoman to continue the invest in this geo-politically important land. During the World War I, Kurdish territories were crucially important for Mustafa Kemal (also known as Atatürk) who is the founder of modern Turkish Republic, since there were many other minority groups were co-habiting the area such as Assyrians, Armenians, Jews, Suryanis and Greeks. The rebel groups within these communities were provoked and used by Western Imperialist, by offering them permission to create their own country if they help to defeat Ottoman Empire.

Location of Diyarbakır or Amed with the Kurdish name. (Wikimedia, Commons)

Shortly after World War I, riots like Dersim which were supported by British forces to provoke Kurds in order to regenerate the unstable political situation in the location turned into massacres.2 Even though there were no spatial or academic archives from a Kurdish perspective about these massacres, Kurds shaped their culture into an archival for the next generations. From stronghold-like vernacular architecture of Kurdish villages to ağıts (traditional folk songs when family members sing for the dead in funerals instead of crying) Kurdish culture carried these memories until today. In fact, most of the ideologies of contemporary pro-Kurdish organizations are influenced by famous figures like Seyid Rıza.

Seyid Riza, who was born in Dersim, in 1862, was the son of Seyid Ibrahim from the Hesenan tribe. He was/is an influential figure in Alevi-Kurdish culture. He was one of the first people who used the term ‘’Free Kurdistan’’ and he even fight against other Kurdish tribes that were in alliance with Ottoman Empire against Western forces. Seyid Riza and other tribal leaders, refused to lose their authority and refused to pay taxes.3 In response, Turkish State created a three-phased attack. In the 1937 operations, Seyid Riza and his 16 years old son were captured in the province of Elazığ, where they went to have a peace talk with Atatürk and got arrested. Officials hang Seyid Riza and his son publically.

Even though Seyid Riza’s grandchildren insisted that the tribal leader was not able to speak Turkish, the government find him guilty over the accusations of the letter below that he wrote to the British Officials:

‘’ The government has tried to assimilate the Kurdish people for years, oppressing them, banning publications in Kurdish, persecuting those who speak Kurdish, forcibly deporting people from fertile parts of Kurdistan for uncultivated areas of Anatolia where many have perished. The prisons are full of non-combatants, intellectuals are shot, hanged or exiled to remote places. Three million Kurds, demand to live in freedom and peace in their own country.’’ 4

(Seyid Riza, 1936)

The execution of Seyid Riza and his son was a clear message for those who rejected the new identity that has been born in the geography. Following year, a team of fighter jets in lead of Atatürk’s step-daughter Sabiha Gökçen, as one of the first female pilot in the world, flew to Dersim and flattened the city with bombs. Sabiha Gökçen’s ‘’success’’ became the face of the modern Turkish women. Sabiha Gökçen became a heroine for new Turkey because of her military success. Nonetheless, this improvement in new Turkey also brought question of gender to the new definition of Turkish Identity. Because another heroine who lived and fought in the same period of time, an Honor Medal owner and distinguished militia leader, Fatma Seher Erden or known as Kara Fatma, was a Kurdish woman from Elazig province and even though she fought for Ottoman Army against the Western forces, she died poor and old in a protection house run by Istanbul Municipality.

According to national records, approximately 70,000 Kurdish people were murdered in Dersim Massacre. In 1990, pictures of Turkish Soldiers in Dersim, mutilating bodies of Kurds and posing with them, raping women and children were leaked, yet there was no official recognition of massacre. In 2011, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, apologized ‘’on behalf of the state’’ for the killing of 13,000 people during the Dersim rebellion.

( Above: Kurdish woman and children in Dersim, 1937. They were executed shortly after this photograph was taken.)

After the ethnocide, Dersim had to adapt the modernization that was happening in 1940’s and 1950’s in Turkey. The trauma of the massacre was still around to observe. On the peak period of its Turkificiation policies in 1950’s, Turkish State build parks, squares and new infrastructures that did not existed in Dersim before. The growth of urbanism in Dersim, was about to create a space for the allowed citizenship through state-defined identity. Street names, parks, squares were the names of the generals who organized the attacks and even the name of the city was renamed to Tunceli.

For many years, people voted for the same political party that ordered the massacre because citizens of Dersim knew that CHP (Atatürk’s party) was the most left-liberal party in the parlament. In 2008, with the push of European Union, Republic of Turkey started a peace process with the Kurds. This processes of peace, made pro-Kurdish parties like BDP and HDP to talk about Kurdish identity in the parliament. In addition to this, with the June Movements in 2013, also known as Gezi Park Movements created a ground for Kurds in the east to re-imagine their identity in Turkey. 
 In 2014, Dersim’s municipal elections were a surprise to everyone. First time in Turkish Republic’s history, a communist party (Turkish Communist Party) won the municipal elections. Fatih Mehmet Maçoğlu, became the mayor of Dersim-Ovacik. Ovacik’s street names renamed with a participatory process, monuments of Dersim Massacre were built in public parks, negotiations with non-profits and foundations increased for a Dersim Massacre Museum.

The rise in the Kurdish-Alevi identity in Ovacik also effected the sense of ownership in the city. For instance, the annual income (2,892,507 TL) of the municipality has passed the expenses (2,752,900 TL) of Ovacik.5 Another project that Ovacik’s municipality funded was the organic agriculture lands. Approximately 1079 square foot of land was reutilized for agricultural purposes. The farmers are mostly volunteers who are working in their free times and the profit that comes from the organic products, is being used as scholarships for students who are in need.6

Part 2: Diyarbakır and Spatio-Temporal Colonization by Turkish State

Following on Henry Lefevbre’s (1991) insight to the relationship between representation and spatial practice, I will try to use Kurdish Identity as an example to represent how the city can be conceptualized as one of the constitutive elements of collective representations of identity and nation by highlighting. 7

Diyarbakır, became a part of the modern Turkish Republic in the early 20th century and due to its diverse demographics, it turned into a test ground for the new ‘’Turkish’’ identity. Temporal urbanization in pre-republic Diyarbakır was already existing since the main income for the citizens was farming and husbandry. Therefore, the population was shifting in between the rural and the old city center. In addition to the existing temporality, Diyarbakır’s spatio-temporal colonization via rebuilding the city and the urban life is not specific to Turkish State, although Turkey’s economic turn to the neoliberal economic models in the 1980s has significantly fastened and shaped the urban transformation methods.

The new boroughs in Yenişehir and around, implanted a new urban planning formats clearly presents the Turkish nation-building project: modernization and rationalization through Turkification.

Dagkapi Square and the Old City Walls, IMC News.

As it can be seen in the picture, the eclectic attempt of combining both what’s considered modern and degenerated, finds body in Dagkapi Square. Old Assyrian hieroglyphs carved on walls next to a statue of Atatürk, a square with an intention of manifesting the new state, mixed with commercial use of the boulevards that has been carved into the old city in 1940’s. In addition to the eclectic and baroquesk approach of representation of the state in city planning, the temporal situation of existing population, migration, war and disenfranchised systems of infrastructure can be seen by the daily life and the urban texture.

For instance, the commercial use of street level has been adapted to the old city since the city is the place where capital flows. However, the upper floors in the buildings are half-finished or not rendered with cast, points out the reality of temporality in Diyarbakır. In other words, people are aware of the political tension in the city, therefore foreign or local investment can’t create a solid basis to provide a place for capital to find it roots in the city.

The separation of the new and the old, or with other words, what is accepted by the Turkish State as appropriate and what came with centuries old culture can be seen from the comparison between what’s ‘made’ to be public and what was already existed over centuries.

In the case of Surici, old streets or also known as ‘one shoulder, one donkeys’ because of the width of the streets are not made for creating a physical boundary between the public and the private life. Children are playing on the street, women are talking on the staircase, carpets are being washed while someone is cooking for the whole apartment, joint weddings are celebrated in streets.

Kemalist rationalization, made the places of interaction in Diyarbakır, more visible if not illegal. By reshaping the existing places of interaction in the city, people who were left out from those borders became visible in places like Dagkapi Square and vulnerable in the eyes of the modern Turkish citizens.

The more pockets of Kurdish Culture in the Diyarbakır were destroyed and replaced with the new city model or left out without any infrastructural support from the state, the more disagreements occurred between the Turkish State and the Kurds. The ownership of national resources such as water and soil, eventually led discussions and radicalization of the indigenous Kurdish people.

Part 3: 1968–2000

In 1968 and 1971, political uprising in Turkey effected the Kurdish movement very deeply. Anti-Imperialist ideologies was born because of the American Army Base in South East of Turkey and soon enough the same questions were being asked for Turkish Imperialism over Kurdish people. Suddenly, the names of Kurdish activists, Kurdish towns were in the discussions of major cities like Istanbul and Ankara. In fact in 1971, Diyarbakır held the ‘East Meetings’, which were series of meetings, held in the courtyard of Ulu Camii Mosque, to discuss how Marxist-Leninist ideologies could help to stand against the upcoming neoliberal economic models.

In the following years, Diyarbakır was brutally destroyed by terror attacks and military attacks. According to the Kurdish Institute Diyarbakır, more than 4500 villages were displaced and burned down only in 1994.8 Thousands of people fled to different countries in Europe as well as major Turkish cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Following the displacement, Turkification processes fastened their pace.

Murals of Atatürk were replaced on politically important places in city center, quotes like ‘’ What a Joy it is to say I am a Turk ‘’ engraved into classrooms, municipal buildings, parks, street names were changed into ‘’Republic Street ‘’ or ‘’Atatürk Square’’ . Franchised chains like Burger King, McDonald’s, Starbucks replaced local market and Diyarbakır city center depoliticized until 2000’s.

Part 4: Flourishing Culture During the Peace Process and Kurdishness in Urban Life

In early 2000’s, with the increased hopes of joining European Union, Turkey decreased the military operations in the East of the country in order to avoid the human rights violation cases.

Lifting the ban in 1998, speaking Kurdish and being able to publish in Kurdish effected the cultural boom for Kurds.

Kurdish Identity, which was associated with backwardness and mountain-like, suddenly flourished. Because until, the lifting of the ban, no Kurdish names, songs and speaking the language was allowed by the state. Following this, re-opening of cultural centers in Diyarbakır created a hope for people in diaspora to be able to go back one day. Re-opening of Dicle-Fırat Cultural Center (1991/2003) with café’s, workshops, a library, folklore dancing and music center was established with donations just like Diyarbakır Arts Center which was opened in 2002, by the donations of famous actors and businessmen who were also a part of diaspora. First time in Diyarbakır’s history, the city had a pro-Kurdish governor whom allowed renaming the parks, building monuments for Kurdish heroes and heroines. These memorials and newly build parks were also located on very strategical places such as city hall, schools, hospitals and basically where there is any form of representation of state, there was a monument or a memory of Kurdish Culture. In fact, the designated protest route was also inserted on to this route which would allow people to interact with the names and statues of the Kurdish martyrs.

Singers like Aynur, Zara, Kardeş Türküler became internationally famous and Kurdish directors like Yeşim Ustaoglu winning awards in international movie festivals.9 Peace treaty between Turkey and Kurds, was giving its flowers.

Part 5: Displacement by Urban Renewal and Warfare in Diyarbakır

Destroyed Sur district, Diyarbakir. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

After Erdogan gaining full power in AKP (Justice and Development Party), the West of the country was becoming more and more aware of what is happening in the East for centuries. Even the years of peace treaty brought many publications, the movies and the songs of Kurds as a result. These different mediums of culture were found their place during Gezi Park Movements in June 2013 as well, because the urban discomfort that the West felt for the first time. The rising awareness of the Turkish left and liberal section of the society, embraced the HDP (People’s Democratic Party) and first time in the history, a party with elected officials of minority groups (first Kurdish and Armenian elected officials) found body in the streets of other cities. The rise of HDP, was a threat for Erdogan’s tyranny so Erdogan and his administration ended the piece treaty as soon as EU Parliament rejected Turkey’s membership until 2020. 
 Today, Diyarbakır lost 500.000 households and constantly being bombed for the last 18 months. Many Kurdish peaece activists like Tahir Elçi, who was a lawyer and a chairman of Diyarbakır Baro Association got murdered by the state.10

Couple of minutes after this picture was taken, Tahir Elçi got shot in his forehead by the Police.

Every member of HDP got arrested without any legitimate accusation and after the bombing in Beşiktaş, Istanbul that killed 44 people, Turkish government started a head-hunt for any Kurdish or Turkish person who publish, write, talk, sing against the government and pro-Kurdish statements. Diyarbakır has been seeking help and recognition many international organizations and communities.

Works Cited :

1. Seufert, Günter. 1997. Between religion and ethnicity: a Kurdish-Alevi tribe in globalizing Istanbul. In Space, Culture and Power: New Identities in Globalizing Cities. A. Öncü and Petra Weyland.

2. Öktem, Kerem. 2004. Incorporating the time and space of the ethnic ‘other’: nationalism and space in Southeast Turkey in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nations and Nationalism 10(4): 559–578.

3. Van Bruinessen, Martin. 1998. Shifting National and Ethnic Identities: The Kurds in Turkey and in the European Diaspora. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 18(1): 39–52.

4. Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Mango, Andrew. 1999. Atatürk and the Kurds. Middle Eastern Studies 35(4): 1–25

5. Parla, Taha. 1995. Turkiye’de Siyasal Kulturun Resmi Kaynaklari Cilt 3: Kemalist Tek-Parti Ideolojisi ve CHP’nin Alti Ok’u. Istanbul: Iletisim Yayinlari.

6. Houston, Christopher. 2001. Profane Institutions: Kurdish Diaspora in the Turkish City. The Australian Journal of Anthropology 12(1): 15–31.

7. Yeğen, Mesut. 2002. Türk Milliyetçiliği ve Kürt Sorunu. Modern Türkiye’de Siyasi Düşünce IV: Milliyetçilik. Tanıl Bora, ed., pp. 880–892. İstanbul: Iletişim Yayınları.

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