Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Dam Those Kurds

In Doğubeyazıt I found myself a Kiwi, called Kerry, and together we travelled for a bit in Turkish Kurdistan. (I also made full use of his geology skills, as he is a geological engineer, to ask some silly questions: "is this limestone?") Our first stop was van on the shores of its eponymous lake. The lake is unique; not because it is Turkey's largest, but because of its high altitude (1720m) and carbonated, alkaline water in which only one species of fish can survive. And trust me, after having tasted the water I can understand why. Van used to be the capital of the ancient Urartians (though in those days it was called Tushpa) with its fortress at its core. The fortress is built on an improbable outcrop of rock some 100m high, a mile long and yet no more than 40m at its widest point. Whilst clambering around this old castle Kerry and I were ambushed by a Kurdish theatre group who started chatting to us, adopted us and then started a traditional, Kurdish circle dance (which we had to join), all in the space of 5 minutes. They invited us to their theatre performance that evening, and since there didn't seem to be much else going on in Van (and having no guidebook to tell us otherwise) we turned up with a fair amount of trepidation, not knowing exactly what to expect. It turned out to be an eclectic mix of comedy and allegory, and I was quite surprised that I managed to follow most of it (at least I think I did). Afterwards we were taken to an underground (despite being on the 4th floor) session of traditional Kurdish singing that is still illegal. Another disarming experience in Van occurred when a girl from a carpet shop asked us in so that she could "practice her English", and then proceeded to do exactly that. Carpets, and the selling thereof, weren't even mentioned in the two hours we spent chatting away.

This whole section of southeast Turkey is predominantly Kurdish (about 80% of the population) and they have generally been given a rough deal in modern Turkey, mainly because in Turkey there are no minorities and everyone is Turkish (Kurds are apparently "Mountain Turks"). Minority languages and cultures have traditionally been strongly suppressed and a monolithic image of the country thrust upon the people (it is even a heavily punishable offence to "insult Turkishness", whatever that may be). Enter the PKK and the Kurdish separatist movement that for the past 30-odd years has been fighting for a better status/independent country for Kurds. Things, though, are getting slightly better: there are satellite channels in Kurdish, several newspapers, and it s even possible to teach Kurdish (though only in private schools). But things are a long way from perfect and Turkey has a lot more to do if it wants to seriously consider becoming an EU member, not least because of military interference in politics (and boy, do you see the military in Kurdistan).

Other attractions in Kurdistan included a hike up Nemrut Daği, an extinct volcano with lakes and a forest in the caldera; a huge Seljuk cemetery on the shores of lake Van (more interesting than it sounds); and the improbably named town of Batman (which really is wasting a golden marketing and merchandising opportunity). The town itself is rather dreary and industrial, but the place comes alive in the evening when men crowd the pavements, sitting on low stools, sipping çay and playing backgammon until the wee hours. The must-see site of the region, without a doubt, has to be Hasankeyf. The modern town sits on the bank of the mighty Tigris (Dicle in Turkish), but the historical remains, dating all the way back to the 8th millenniumm B.C. are on, and sometimes in, the sheer cliffs that rise 200m above the river. The spectacular setting and archaeological importance of the site should make this eastern Turkey's prime tourist attraction in anyone's book. The Turkish government, on the other hand, don't seem to have any books and would beg to disagree, and so not only is Hasankeyf barely mentioned in tourist brochures, but in 4 years time it certainly won't be, due to the fact that the entire town will be under water. Yes, the Turkish government has had the phenomenally stupid brainwave that building dams is the answer to all socio-economic problems. This is despite the fact that all the people in the area are dead set against the project; many historical monuments will be lost forever; tens of thousands of people will be displaced from their ancestral homes; and the river will be irreversibly affected downstream, the government is still blithely going on with construction. But the killer argument for me is that, due to silting, the dam will have an effective lifespan of only 50-75 years. When you stack up all the irrevocable damage and destruction against the dubious short-term gains it seems more like a spiteful and vindictive act against the Kurds who almost exclusively inhabit the region to be affected. So, if this pisses you off as much as it does me have a look at the Ilisu Dam Campaign website to see what you can do to stop this monumental act of folly.

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