Nearly thirteen years ago, I was lucky to meet the late, pioneering Kurdish novelist Mehmed Uzun in Stockholm, Sweden. The story I wrote about him for The Wall Street Journal makes interesting reading today, even ominous. What a chance there was back in 1999/2000 to settle this long-running and much misunderstood conflict — just like today, yet again. It’s as if history is doomed to repeat itself, bloodily. And Uzun’s account of his experiences remind me again why Kurdish speakers in Turkey continue to insist on equal rights and justice – and especially freedom for their mother tongues.
Uzun died in 2006 of cancer, aged 54. He was an intense person to interview. He met me off the plane at Stockholm’s airport and attended to me almost non-stop for the 48 hours I was in Sweden. We dined together in the famed Prinsen restaurant – a haunt of the city’s intellectual elite, where he was treated with respect – he drove me round Stockholm to show me the city, he took me to his modest apartment to meet his family, and he insisted on dropping me off at the airport when I left 48 hours later. He even shyly showed me the Swedish Academy building where the Nobel Prize for Literature ceremony is held each year.
The epic and fable-like tone of his novels made didn’t make them my favourite reads. But I could have gone on listening for ages to his stories of how he and a group of others set about trying to rescue their Kurdish language, and through that, to restore a sense of communal dignity. After meeting someone like Uzun, it is hard to believe that Kurdish languages are a threat to anyone, as too many people in Turkey believe. In fact, Kurdish is in reality so marginalised as to be threatened with oblivion — which is why Uzun acted in the first place.
War and Peace Turn
A Kurdish Novelist
Into a Cause Celebre
Mehmed Uzun Finds Fame —
And a Less Hostile Turkey
By Hugh Pope
STOCKHOLM — Mehmed Uzun’s education in the power of language began the day he watched a man sear his own flesh with a cigarette.
Then an 18-year-old ethnic-Kurd activist, Mr. Uzun had been arrested and taken to Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish city, on charges of supporting independence from Turkey. Held in a cell with two dozen fellow Turkish Kurds, he found himself next to a terrified shopkeeper with an outlawed word tattooed on his hand: “Kurd.” As Mr. Uzun watched, the man burned it out.
“The torturers will have to thank me for helping them,” the merchant said as he was led away for interrogation.
Mr. Uzun later fled to Sweden, where he took up a different brand of subversion, in exile: creating a modern, literary form of Kurdish, a language once banned by the Turks. His quest involved, among other things, entering a Turkish army base in disguise to do research on a medieval Kurdish prince and flying a Kurdish shepherd to Stockholm, to pick up unusual words for entry in a new Kurdish dictionary. Now 47, this bookish ex-radical finds that he and his works have become star players in Ankara’s latest clash with the West.
Last year, Turkey pretty much crushed a 15-year-long Kurdish rebellion. To the surprise of many, it then let a Kurdish Spring ensue. Kurdish culture became fashionable, Kurdish bookshops opened up, and Mr. Uzun’s novels started selling fast. His sudden celebrity helped Ankara’s campaign to join the European Union.
When Foreign Minister Ismail Cem visited Sweden last year to promote Turkey’s application for EU membership, he showed off three of Mr. Uzun’s novels. The EU made Turkey a candidate in December. Then in February, a provincial Turkish court banned seven of Mr. Uzun’s works. Mr. Cem and other Turkish progressives got the order rescinded in May, but not before Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lind had talked of freezing Turkey’s EU bid.
Europeans have mistrusted their Muslim neighbor for centuries, while in recent years, the Kurds — numbering 25 million and spread out among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria — have become a cause celebre in which many European liberal activists see Ankara as the villain. For their part, the Turks have lurched between scrambling to join Europe and striking out at any EU meddling in their Kurdish affairs.
Mr. Uzun’s role in this drama began with his love of an imperiled language. Years ago, when he said he wanted to write in Kurdish, friends begged him not to. Use Turkish or his adopted Swedish, they told him: Turkey virtually outlawed Kurdish between 1920 and 1990, fearing its use would strengthen the separatists.
“There were no publishers, no market, no critics, no schools, no TV, no proper dictionary, no translators and no readers,” he says. “The language was in a tragic state.”
So he set out to create a new Kurdish literature, drawing on his childhood in the town of Siverek in southeast Turkey, a region dominated by Kurds. His sheep-merchant father nourished young Mehmed’s love for rural Kurdish life: They would go around to check on flocks, chat with villagers and listen to Kurdish ballads sung by shepherds who accompanied themselves on a kind of wooden flute.
As a teen, he seethed as he watched police beat Kurds in the street merely for speaking Kurdish. Then came arrest and torture in 1971, where he says his jailers beat the soles of his feet with a stick.
During his time in jail, he fell in with a heady mix of Kurdish characters who constituted what Mr. Uzun calls his university. “They lived at peace with themselves,” he says of the inmates. “They taught me to love Kurdish.” Let out under an amnesty, he wrote a plea in Kurdish to save the language in a nationalist magazine in 1976. Within half an hour of publication, police bundled him off to jail again. Released pending trial, he escaped through a border minefield to Syria and eventually to Sweden.
He resumed his linguistic quest in Stockholm, fueled by grants from the Swedish government. To collect vocabulary and lore, he visited an Iraqi Kurdish leader in a rebel-held mountain valley of Iraq, spending evenings in a tent listening by the light of an oil lamp to Kurd poets and storytellers. Mr. Uzun learned Arabic script to read classical Kurdish poems that thrived in a Kurdish princedom in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Later, he hunted down rare copies of a magazine published by Kurdish exiles in the 1920s. The ill-fated adventures of these pioneers form the backbone of two of Mr. Uzun’s novels, which, like all of his fiction, detail the struggles of Kurds through the ages. He also led an editorial board of intellectuals, who would pay for Kurds to fly to Europe to brief them on obscure vocabulary.
From his research, Mr. Uzun published his first attempt at a modern Kurdish novel in 1985, “You.” Next came an anthology he edited of Kurdish literature, the first of its kind. Critical success came with his novel “In the Shadow of a Lost Love.” The story fictionalizes a 1920s Kurdish intellectual’s struggle between love for a woman and duty to go fight the newly formed Turkish republic, and the tragic failure of both quests. Turkish translations followed, usually outselling the Kurdish versions, since only a few thousand people can read or write the Kermanci dialect of Turkey’s Kurds. His novels began to be translated into European languages in the 1990s, although as yet not into English.
Last year brought a truce between Kurdish rebels and Ankara, and suddenly Mr. Uzun was famous. In January, Turkish police allowed him to visit his home region for the first time in 23 years. More than 3,000 people jammed the city hall of Diyarbakir to hear him read from his new book, “Love Like Light, Death Like Darkness.” Crowds of Kurds lined up for hours to get his autograph on copies of this tale of love between a Kurd rebel and a Kurdish girl, set against the military repression of the Kurds. A Turkish translation became a bestseller, as ordinary Turks became more curious and less fearful of their Kurdish cousins after the rebellion was put down.
His success has drawn envy, both from Sweden’s exiled Kurdish intellectuals and back home. “He may have created the modern Kurdish novel, but he didn’t invent the language,” says Edip Polat, a much-jailed author living in Diyarbakir. “What about those of us who stayed and struggled for Kurdish literature here?”
But Mr. Uzun has had brushes with the kind of violence that fills his work. In 1979, gunmen shot dead his elder cousin as he held his newborn daughter in his arms. In 1992, assassins murdered Musa Anter, the revered author of an early Turkish-Kurdish dictionary, who taught Mr. Uzun to write Kurdish in jail. Two younger cousins were killed in action as rebel commanders during the latest Kurdish revolt.
“That’s why I put no humor in my novels,” Mr. Uzun explains, steering his new silver Skoda car through the orderly streets of Stockholm, far from where he spent his youth, the now dank and dilapidated alleyways of Diyarbakir’s old town. “You could say it’s survivor’s guilt.”
24 May 2000
Copyright (c) 2000 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.
I just spent five days on the Turkey’s border with Syria, meeting with some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians forced from their country by the events of the past two years, and hearing about the awful predicament of the millions of Syrians inside the country who now have so little security, food, heating or even water.
Along the way, I was struck by how many similarities there were between Syria and the Turkish province of Hatay. For a start, things move r e a l l y slowly in Hatay – getting an appointment can take days of work, just like in Syria (for a fuller account, see book excerpt here). And flocks of pigeons wheel above the roofs of Antakya, the provincial capital, just as they do in the skies above Damascus. Here’s how I saw it in more peaceful times a decade ago, from the pages of the Wall Street Journal‘s Europe edition:
Politics & Policy:
In Troubled Times
Syrians Find Solace
In Feathered Friends
While the Law Looks Down
On the Pigeon Keepers,
Locals Love Those Doves
By Hugh Pope
DAMASCUS, Syria — Whenever Ali Belkis despairs of all the hawkish talk of war in Iraq, he knows his doves can rescue him.
Climbing up to his flat concrete roof, he swings open the rusty metal door of his dovecote and takes solace in one of the oldest recreations of the Middle East: tending to his beloved pigeons.
“It’s hard to be an Arab these days. The Americans are going to attack. The Russians and the rest have abandoned us. And the news on TV gives me a pain in the belly,” says Mr. Belkis, 70 years old, ducking his head down to catch and show his prize Abla-breed pigeon, a sleek blue-gray bird with a pink sheen on its collar. “Only here do I find real peace of mind,” he adds.
Proud Syrians are reacting in many ways to the U.S. military buildup in the region. But most feel impotent resignation. A growing number, like Mr. Belkis, a former trainer of Syria’s pentathlon team, just turn their eyes to the flocks of pigeons turning in the sky over Damascus.
These are not the dirty gray pests that infest public places everywhere, a type that also flutters past the Roman-built collonades by this city’s great Ummayad mosque. Nor are they the tough racing pigeons seen elsewhere in the world.
In Damascus, pigeons — a term interchangeable with the loftier word, dove — are exotically feathered descendants of a millennial tradition on whose wings Arab fancies have long flown far from everyday cares. Damascene aristocrats once built ornate dovecotes to bring good luck to their homes and local poets still pair their doves with their loves. Today more than ever, they offer a haven from the unemployment and anxiety that has gripped the region as the U.S. gears up for war.
Pigeon-keeping had been on the wane in Syria as modern habits, satellite television and the Internet flooded in. But a recent increase in the hobby’s popularity prompted writer Motasem Isa to pen a cover story for the Syrian satirical weekly magazine, The Lamplighter. “It’s as much about poverty and unemployment as getting away from family and political cares,” Mr. Isa reckons.
Nobody knows how many there are, but a flock or two is almost always visible wheeling above any Damascus district.
Damascus has no monopoly on pigeons, of course. Hebrew psalms evoke ‘dove’s eyes’ as a testament of beauty, and the early Christians represented the Holy Ghost as a dove. All Arabs have been partial to the pigeon since the days a white breed was used by Arab rulers as an untouchable messenger of peace. These white doves live on in Arab newspaper cartoons about the conflicted state of their world, mostly represented as battered, broken-winged or bleeding.
“We draw them all the time. I suppose it’s because Arabs are the people most in need of peace in the world,” says Ali Farzat, Syria’s leading caricaturist.
The irony is that for many Damascus pigeon fanciers, pigeons are also a kind of war. They are addicted to the subtle art of using their own birds to tempt away those of other men’s flocks. Appropriately enough, the main pigeon exchange, where birds can sell for anything from $1 to $100, is tagged onto the end of a run-down street called the Thieves’ Market.
A policeman wanders among the traders with a whip coiled behind his back to register the disapproval of the Syrian state. But, apart from tucking their birds into jackets or sacks, nobody takes much notice of him. Pigeon-keeping etiquette allows liberal lying about the origin of a particular bird. As a result, Syrian law says courts can rule out the testimony of anyone known to keep pigeons.
For pigeon lovers, however, telling fanciful tales are all part of their escape from reality. Around the corner from Mr. Belkis’s house, his neighbor Mohammed Youssef al-Shuar, 48, says he is addicted to the sport.
“Once I sold 30 of my birds to a man in Beirut. A month later, they flew [80 kilometers] back to me here, with him chasing them all the way in his car,” Mr. Shuar boasts proudly. “But I didn’t give them back,” he adds.
Copyright (c) 2003 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.
A nice story in the Guardian last month by Constanze Letsch (here) updates readers on a new trend in Turkey for facial hair implants. Long ago I did my own take on the Turkish & Middle Eastern man’s love affair with the moustache, published in the Wall Street Journal in 1997, when the news was that a clean-shaven look had begun to come into fashion (somewhat). In hindsight, that quote on top would probably be better translated as “I’m a Turk, I always do right, and …” Otherwise I wouldn’t twirl a hair of the story differently today. Here it is:
Or the Lack Thereof,
Bristle With Meaning
They Reflect Social Class,
Politics and Religion;
It’s Trendy to Shave Them
By Hugh Pope, Staff Reporter
“I am a Turk, I’m always right and I’ve got a mustache.” — Headline in the Istanbul daily newspaper Hurriyet
ISTANBUL — If there is one thing that symbolizes the manhood of a Turk, it is his mustache. So why has hair-salon owner Orhan Bademli ordered his young barbers to shave theirs off?
“In the West, a mustache is just an accessory. Our mustaches are part of us,” says the 46-year-old Mr. Bademli. “But the mustache is also the symbol of the uncompromising Turkish male, who never admits a mistake, and who spends a lot of time preening in the mirror. In modern offices here, there are hardly any mustaches left.” His barbers say they don’t even want their facial hair anymore.
The grand mustaches of Turkish lore are now a rare sight in the gleaming office blocks, restaurants and shopping malls that are joining Istanbul’s old bazaars. Pollsters chart the trend: A study by Istanbul’s Piar-Gallup Market Research Co. found that while 77% of Turkish men had mustaches in 1993, the figure is now down to 62.8% and falling.
Sociologists and marketers believe the trend is also spreading eastward through Turkey’s towns and villages. But facial hair still fairly bristles with political and social meaning. Mustaches signal the difference between leftist (bushy) and rightist (drooping to the chin), between Sunni Muslim (clipped) and Alevi Muslim (curling into the mouth). Beards are also still in play on 19% of faces, and can be either short and trendy, shaggily Marxist, long and religious, or clipped and politically Islamic.
The issue seemed so important to 62-year-old author Demirtas Ceyhun that he titled his popular book on the Turkish condition, “Oh, We Black-Mustachioed Turks.” It sold 100,000 copies. “We are basically still nomads at heart,” he says. “Before, we only got shaved to get married. Even then, you’d still leave the mustache. Some people may be cutting them off, but Turks will never get rid of them.”
To be cleanshaven has for decades been a political statement of solidarity with the secular, Westernizing elite that founded the republic in 1923. Today, this look is more evident than ever. Turkish army officers rarely request the permission necessary to grow a mustache, feeling duty-bound to drag mostly Muslim Turkey into the beardless Western world. The same goes for the Foreign Ministry. “We’re all cleanshaven here,” says Aydan Karahan, Turkey’s chief of information, who snipped his mustache as a young diplomat in Washington.
Corporate culture in Turkish companies that do business with the U.S. and Europe strongly discourages the mustache look. “There’s no ban on facial hair, but we’re very clean-cut here,” says a spokeswoman for Turkey’s biggest group, Koc Holding. “We’re pretty clean-cut too, and I prefer it that way,” says her counterpart at the headquarters of the No. 2 conglomerate, Sabanci Holding. “But in the factories, plenty of men still have mustaches.”
Sociologist Nukhet Sirmen says it was Turkey’s up-and-coming generation of businessmen who pioneered the cleanshaven trend in the 1980s, as they began traveling to Europe and the U.S. The blades cut deeper in 1993, when Turks celebrated the choice of their first woman prime minister, Tansu Ciller. Now, mustaches are disappearing right and left from middle-class faces.
“What we’re seeing now is the trickle-down effect from the bourgeoisie,” says Ms. Sirmen, searching her memory and failing to come up with anybody among her academic colleagues at Bosphorus University who still wears a mustache. “I can’t think of anyone! It’s probably a sign of the new Turkishness, a symbol of being integrated with the rest of the world.”
Turkey’s young generation is hard at work cutting all kinds of new profiles, influenced by dozens of television channels that bring international programming to a country where 84% of homes now have color television. Sitting around their cell phones at a tea-shop table by the Bosphorus strait three interior decorators turn passionate as they discuss what looks best.
“If I had a mustache in my job, people would react differently. They’d think I was a salesman or something,” says Bulent Karabas, 30, cleanshaven but nostalgic about his drooping right-wing mustache of yesteryear. “Mustaches have lost their importance since they brought in the free economy,” agrees Muzaffer Kara, 28, who hasn’t shaved for a couple of days. But Mahmut Cetin, 31, will have none of it. “I’m not shaving, whatever happens,” he says, stroking the short hairs of what Turks call a dirty beard. “This is my soul.”
Fashions change fast in Turkey. But all agree that competing hair styles do represent a deep parting in society. Social Democrat parliamentarian and pollster Bulent Tanla, owner of the Piar-Gallup agency, sees a society galloping in opposite directions.
“There is a search for identity. You can see it in politics, in Islam and also in mustaches,” he says, dabbing an old school mustache that, in honor of the barricades of Paris, he defines as “generation of ’68.” “One part of society is going off to the West, wearing jeans, carrying briefcases and shaving off their mustaches. The other is going to radicalism, be it right wing or Islamic.”
In the anarchy of the 1970s, extremists here killed political rivals whose views were betrayed by the cut of their mustaches. That doesn’t happen these days, but divisions among the most hirsute political elements can still be murderous.
Today’s bushiest left-wing mustache, mimicking Joseph Stalin’s, is on the face of the Stalinist leader of Turkey’s Kurdish rebels, Abdullah Ocalan, who operates out of Syria. Fighting his Kurdish guerrillas in southeastern Turkey are ruthless “special team” police units, whose mustaches trail down the chin in the manner of Mongol horsemen. The look signals political views somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan, a hero of theirs.
Back in Istanbul, Mr. Bademli, the modernizer, hasn’t gone so far as to adopt the new look himself. That’s fine for his barbers, but he hasn’t taken a razor to his own close-clipped mustache.
“My mustache simply won’t let me do it,” he says. “Also, I have a bet with a former minister of education that I won’t be the first to cut it off, and he won’t do it, either. He says that voters in the villages just wouldn’t take him seriously if he did.”
The Wall Street Journal, 20 May 1997
(Copyright (c) 1997, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
I was recently in touch with a legendary editor of the Wall Street Journal, Michael Williams, and he reminded me of one of the favourite stories I wrote for the paper. I dug it up and decided I’d post this and other pieces like it on a blog. William Shakespeare just keeps on giving inspiration. This was how Mike helped the piece end up in the paper back in 1997:
Hazelnuts Find Use
In Shakespeare Plays
And in His Theater
Fortunately, Turkey Has Shells
For Globe Theater Mortar;
Bard Supplies the Metaphor
By Hugh Pope
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
“All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare. And the world itself had to be scoured to finish the reconstruction of the Bard’s own stage, the Globe Theater in London, as meticulous craftsmen searched for a most unlikely 16th-century building material: to wit, hazelnut shells.
The hunt hasn’t been easy for the brittle brown husks, an authentic finishing touch to the theater that opened in June as a facsimile of the circular playhouse where many of Shakespeare’s works were first staged four centuries ago.
The sad fact is that England has neglected what seems to have been an Elizabethan enthusiasm for the hazelnut. Few authors in modern times would go as far as did Shakespeare, who in “The Taming of the Shrew” has a suitor exclaim: “Kate, like the hazel-twig/Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue/As hazel-nuts, and sweeter than the kernels.” Nowadays, the most likely way one would find hazelnuts at a theater in Shakespeare’s native land would be as filberts imported, shelled, bleached and packed in little plastic bags for sale at the intermission bar.
But the Globe’s restorers were determined to find the shells. Their search eventually involved a former dressmaker for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the manufacturer of a key ingredient in candies, Britain’s Royal Air Force and a small port town on Turkey’s Black Sea coast.
This final rush of activity was unwittingly triggered by a guide at the Globe Theater during its opening month last June. The out-of-work actor was explaining to a group of visitors how archaeologists discovered hazelnut shells in the central pit of the circular theater, an area open to the skies where there used to be penny-a-person standing room for a raucous part of the audience known as groundlings.
The first assumption was that the shells were dropped by groundlings for whom filberts were a sort of Elizabethan popcorn. Then the archaeologists realized that the nuts were a component of a poor man’s mortar that remained firm while allowing any rainwater to percolate through, the other ingredients being cinders, ash, sand and silt from the nearby Thames.
The actual shells, the guide explained, were now available only in faraway places like California, or in the country that claims to have been the birthplace of the hazelnut two millennia ago: Turkey.
“That’s when my ears pricked up,” says one of the visiting Shakespeare enthusiasts, 63-year-old Audrey Uzmen. Mrs. Uzmen had once been a dressmaker for Shakespeare plays staged in the author’s sleepy English birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, where she had met a visiting professor of English literature, married him and moved to his native Turkey. “I was determined the shells would come from here,” says Mrs. Uzmen, back home in Ankara.
Still, the Globe needed 7.5 tons of the cracked brown husks, an industrial quantity that in Shakespearean times was supplied by a nearby factory that made soap from hazelnut oil. Hazelnuts are presumed to have been common in England at that time. Now, more than two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from Turkey’s rainy Black Sea coast.
Through her friends in the Turkish theatrical world, Mrs. Uzmen sent a plea for help to the Black Sea port of Giresun, whose mountainous hinterland is famous for the quality of its bushy, man-high hazelnut trees. Of the 500,000 people in Giresun province, 200,000 live directly from the nuts, according to Mayor Mehmet Larcin.
“They grow hazelnuts now in Italy, Spain, even Azerbaijan. But nobody gets the same taste as us. It’s our soil and our climate that does it,” Mr. Larcin says, fresh from a Black Sea lunch of anchovies barbecued over hazelnut husks.
In contrast to the English, the Turks haven’t forgotten the romance of the hazelnut, says Tamer Levent, an actor and president of Turkey’s State Theaters, Opera and Ballet Foundation. A gently flirtatious daughter is dubbed a hazelnut, he says, and even the hazelnut maggot connotes a plump and lively girl. There is also a Turkish proverb that the Globe’s modern-day, $8-a-ticket groundlings should soon have cause to remember: “Don’t run too fast, or you’ll slip on a hazelnut shell.”
Acting on the appeal from Mrs. Uzmen, Mr. Levent sought hazelnut help from Giresun. And the town swiftly offered to aid the thespians, even though it has no theater and is not known to have ever staged a Shakespeare play. A local cooperative takes in the nuts, shells them, roasts them, slices and dices them and also makes hazelnut cooking-oil. Nearly 80% of the processed filberts go to the world’s confectionery and candy-bar industry; hazelnut paste, for instance, is a key ingredient of pralines.
All that remained was the problem of transporting the shells to their new home. Shakespeare made “an empty hazel-nut” fly as a dream fairy carriage in “Romeo and Juliet,” but that wasn’t an option, even for his new Globe Theater. Instead, the 150 sacks of shells got to England aboard a heavy-lift transport plane flying British military jeeps back from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization exercise in Turkey. They are now safely in store and will be made into mortar and laid on the floor in March for the new Globe Theater season starting the second week in May.
As a coda to this tale, half a sack of shells was kept back, placed in one of Her Britannic Majesty’s diplomatic bags and formally handed to British Ambassador David Logan by the Turkish hazelnut farmers’ representative, Kamran Sahin, and the actor Mr. Tamer. As Mr. Tamer made a speech in praise of “Shakespeare’s shells,” the husks spilled and spread and were gradually crunched into the parquet of the British Embassy ballroom floor by the crowd, under the stern gaze of a portrait of King George V.
“I hope this will be good for the hazelnut trade,” Mrs. Sahin said nervously, overwhelmed by the fuss being made over broken husks that are usually sold off cheap for heating fuel at her cooperative’s factory gate. But with Turkey having as much as 500,000 tons of shells to dispose of each year, she was keen to build on this first, if peculiar, sign of foreign interest. “You know, the shells light very quickly and give off lots of heat. And they’re great for barbecues.”
Copyright (c) 1997 Dow Jones and Company, Inc. 11/12/97