Story by Alexandra Legend Siegel // Photos by Ryan Tyler Payne
ISTANBUL, Turkey – Yilmaz Dulkadir leans against the glass shop window near a concrete archway marking one of the entrances of the Grand Bazaar, the oldest covered marketplace in the world. Inside his shop, colorful scarves are stacked neatly on the shelves next to small sultan figurines and metallic tea sets. Dulkadi, who has worked in this shop for nine years, is one of many both living and working in Istanbul who identifies himself as Kurdish.
“I am Kurdish, I speak Kurdish language and I listen to Kurdish music,” Dulkadir said with a grin on his face. Even a few years ago, he might not have been able to say this with as much enthusiasm and pride. But recently, Kurdish people in Turkey have started to make progress in what has been a difficult and enduring battle against institutional discrimination.
Tensions between Kurds and Turks date back to the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The founders wanted to build the country on a shared identity and ethnicity that was strictly Turkish. As a result the Kurds were not allowed to differentiate themselves as a separate ethnic group and their culture was suppressed. Since then there have been failed Kurdish rebellions and in the 1970s the Kudistan Workers’ Party (PKK), widely considered a Kurdish terrorist group, was formed, demanding a separate Kurdish nation.
“The government has a policy of repressing Kurdish people, hoping they will stop their demands. But if you take away the political sphere then they can only rely on terrorism because there is no other way to make people listen,” said Ilke Civelekoglu, a political science professor at Dogus University, a new institution on the Asia side of Istanbul.
However many Kurdish people are against the PKK’s violence because it creates a negative view of Kurds and promotes discrimination.
“When terrorists do bad things and kill people, people think all Kurdish people are terrorists,” said Dulkadir. “We Kurdish people don’t want terror, we want a peaceful life and for our Kurdish people to get better.”
Since the capture of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1998, and Turkey’s move for a more democratic government in order to appeal to European expectations, Kurdish people have gained more freedom and respect. This is largely due to the removal of restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of expression, according to Orzlem Terzi, an international relations professor at Istanbul University. Now the demands of the majority of Kurdish people are less radical.
“The Kurdish issue has become an issue of human rights rather than secession,” said Terzi. “It’s a political issue now instead of terrorism but for the Turkish government it was easier to fight militarily than in the political sphere.”
There are at least 12 million Kurds living in Turkey – a country of 75 million. Terzi believes that the results of the June 12 election will prove beneficial to the Kurdish community, even though their political party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), is not a supermajority. She said even though the Justice and Development Party (AKP) remains in power, the Kurds will still make significant strides in government.
Most notably, there are now 36 Kurdish-backed politicians in the 550-seat assembly, up from 22 in the previous parliament – a development that is bound to push the Kurds’ agenda up on the prime minister’s list of priorities.
As the Kurds are making themselves heard in the political arena, they are also embracing and sharing their culture. Terzi said Kurdish musicians and artists are returning to Turkey from Europe to perform and display their artwork. Also, schools teaching the Kurdish language, once forbidden, have sprung up across the country.
“I think Turkey is becoming more acquainted with the Kurdish culture,” Terzi said.
Bomozan Gelik and Murat Geng, two Kurdish men who are waiters at Chang Cheng, a Chinese restaurant in Istanbul, both agreed that they are relieved and happy that they can now speak their language freely.
“Kurdish was my first language, before Turkish,” Gelik said. “I will never forget our language, I will teach it to my children.”
Geng also spoke of being proud of his language and he said he has seen the improvements in the lives of Kurdish people and is confident that they will continue despite AKP’s lack of support.
“Five to 10 years ago it was so bad. Kurdish people were not free in Turkey, but now everyone likes Kurdish people. [Our language] was forbidden, now I can speak it,” Geng said. “[The AKP] cannot forbid our language and culture again.”
Soli Ozel, a journalist for the Turkish newspaper Haber Turk, said that the swell in confidence of the Kurds and recent unearthing of Kurdish culture is due to the increasingly educated middle class.
“Now more Kurds are educated. There is an educated middle class and they discovered their Kurdish heritage. They want to speak their Kurdish language,” Ozel said.
This education, pride and persistence is what Terzi said makes the Kurds so difficult to suppress when violence is not involved. As the Kurds have moved away from violence and embraced their culture, they have begun to be accepted by the people in Turkey. But there is still a long way to go. Although Kurds have made strides in the political sphere, there are still prejudices that hold them back.
“[In government] if you don’t publicize your Kurdish political identity, it’s OK, but if you express that you want rights you are seen as a threat and a separatist. There is a paranoia every time Turkey is criticized,” Civelekoglu said. “If you’re Kurdish you look like an internal threat.”
But Dulkadir has faith that in the upcoming years the minds of the Turkish people will change even more and that people will see Kurds as something other than terrorists.
“People think we are bad because of the terrorism but that’s only some people. Kurdish people are very friendly and have good hearts,” Dulkadir said. “I hope Kurdish people will be more free and open soon.”