Hugh Pope

Writer of books on Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia. Currently Director of Communications & Outreach for International Crisis Group.
Hugh Pope has written 29 posts for From the archive

In Muslim Turkey, A Minister’s Quest: Starting a Church

In Muslim Turkey, A Minister’s Quest: Starting a Church

Religious Restrictions Begin To Ease as Nation Seeks Entry in European Union

 By Hugh Pope


Nov. 26, 2004

ANTALYA, Turkey — Strolling through the jasmine-scented alleys of this Mediterranean port city in 1997, Rev. James Bultema stumbled on an abandoned stone chapel. Instantly, he envisioned it restored and reconsecrated. Here was the home he was seeking for his budding congregation.

“I walked in, stood there and imagined how beautiful it could be,” says the Presbyterian pastor from Muskegon, Mich.

Little did the 42-year-old minister realize that trying to turn the dilapidated chapel into one of Turkey’s first new Christian churches in eight decades would entail years of effort and become a touchstone in the nation’s bid to join the European Union. Rev. Bultema’s continuing struggle illustrates the uneasiness in both Turkey and Europe over the prospect of the country entering the EU. Next month, EU leaders will decide whether to begin negotiations with Turkey on its application to join.

Some European leaders point to demographic trends and worry that Turkey, which has 70 million people, will outnumber the population of Germany within a decade or two. If Turkey gains EU membership, that could make the most-populous member of the EU a predominately Muslim state.

As Turkey seeks to join the EU, it has loosened strict restrictions that have been in place since the 1920s when it set itself up as a secular state. Until this year, no new non-Muslim group has been able to own a religious building or construct a new one. Christian and Jewish congregations that existed before 1920 were allowed to continue, but still need permission even to add a coat of paint to their places of worship. Muslim congregations also have been tightly regulated and the state still owns all mosques.

Fewer than 100,000 Christians now live in Turkey. But many places in Turkey played pivotal roles in the history of Christianity. St. Paul and St. Barnabas passed through the old port of Antalya — called Attalia in the Bible — as apostles who first spread Christianity here. Istanbul, Turkey’s business center, was the capital of the Christian world when the city was known as Constantinople.

Even after the capture of Constantinople by Ottoman Turkish Muslims in 1453, Christian communities prospered for centuries. But relations deteriorated sharply before and during World War I, as Western powers collaborated with Christian and other minorities to bring down the Ottoman empire.

An international 1923 treaty called for an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey — sending 1.5 million ethnic Greek Christians out of Turkey to Greece. One million Turkish Muslims were deported in the other direction.

The same treaty founded the republic of Turkey. But the Turks remained suspicious of non-Muslim minorities, levying high taxes unfairly on them in the 1940s, and forcing some to leave the country with discriminatory passport laws in the 1960s.

In Antalya, the abandoned chapel was nationalized in 1949. Two years later, the Turkish government sold it to a local man, whose family used the chapel as a depot for cotton, sesame and pistachios.

Turkey opened its economy to the world in the 1980s, bringing big changes. It applied to join the EU in 1987. Seizing on the new spirit, Mustafa Erbas, grandson of the original Turkish owner of the chapel, thought about turning it into a tavern for tourists. But he couldn’t get necessary approvals, he says.

So Mr. Erbas, a Muslim, was delighted when Rev. Bultema showed up offering to buy the empty chapel and turn it back into a church. The two became friends as they teamed up to try to overcome obstacles to the sale. “If we’re really going into Europe, they should have fixed this business by now,” says the 73-year-old Mr. Erbas.

Rev. Bultema, whose grandfather founded a church in Michigan, moved with his wife to Istanbul in 1990. Turkey attracted him, he says, because he was fascinated by the life of St. Paul, who was born there.

Upon arrival, Rev. Bultema started studying Turkish, while continuing church studies. In 1993, he became a fully ordained minister of the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA). He took a post as part-time pastor for a Presbyterian congregation in Istanbul — which had long met beyond the reach of Turkish law, on the grounds of the consulate-general of the Netherlands.

In 1996, he moved to Antalya, answering an ad for a full-time pastor from an expatriate group. “One day, I decided I wanted to go to church,” recalls Carolyn Bulca, a former U.S. military contract worker and member of the group. “I asked my Turkish friends where there was one, but they could only point to ruins. I said ‘Hey, if you can have mosques in Europe, how come there’s no church here?’ ”

Rev. Bultema started out with an Easter service in a hotel. His congregation grew into the dozens, including everyone from Russian prostitutes to African migrants, he says. Soon, he says he noticed plainclothes Turkish police sitting in on his services — and later asking him to find somewhere else to hold them. A police spokesman says he doesn’t recall any complaints being filed. “We’re civilized here,” he says. Rev. Bultema says the governor of Antalya province requested photocopies of the passports of his congregation. The governor declined to comment.

When Rev. Bultema went to the mayor’s planning office to ask about building his own church, “they just laughed,” he says. “They said a church would never happen.” The mayor at the time, Hasan Subasi, says national laws made it difficult for his office to do much for Rev. Bultema’s group, although “we wanted to help them.”

Islamist groups, Turkish right-wingers and secular leftist nationalists have all pressured the Turkish government for rules limiting proselytizing and on land purchases by foreigners. Americans are particularly suspect these days, some say.

“It’s a defensive reflex,” said Nizamettin Sagir, chief of the National Action Party in Antalya, which often takes anti-foreigner stands. “Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think America is being run by a Christian sect that has cast a hungry eye on our region. It’s like a new crusade.”

Stymied, Rev. Bultema took the advice of a sympathetic municipal official and set up a tourism company as a legal framework for his ministry. Having a business helped him skirt restrictions on establishing new religious associations.

The pastor bought a house next to the old chapel, and opened it in 1999 as a coffeehouse and prayer hall called the St. Paul Center. Antalya’s mayor and other officials attended the opening, eager to promote the city’s image as friendly to tourists. Rev. Bultema used income from the coffeehouse to support his church, while a group of American Presbyterian churches began to pay his salary.

The next year, officials invited Rev. Bultema to say a prayer at the opening of the “faith tourism” season. That business takes Christians to sites such as an amphitheater where St. Paul preached and a church once headed by St. Nicholas, the Greek Orthodox bishop who inspired the legend of Santa Claus.

Rev. Bultema’s accountant, Faik Gokpinar — a member of the ruling AK Party, largely made up of conservative Muslims — says he was won over by Rev. Bultema’s fluent Turkish and modest manner. “I explain to my friends that this is not a group of dangerous missionaries,” Mr. Gokpinar said, driving through a city packed with hotels, restaurants and foreign tourists brought in by 250 flights a day in peak season. “I point out that we cannot live in isolation — if we did, we’d have to stop tourism, stop smoking Marlboro cigarettes and so on.”

In 2000, Rev. Bultema and Mr. Erbas agreed on a price of $70,000. Rev. Bultema set about raising the funds, mostly from Americans. But in 2001, minutes before Mr. Erbas and Rev. Bultema were to sign the sales contract, the chief of the title deeds office came before them and uttered a single word: “Problem.”

The Ministry of Commerce ruled that a tourism business, such as the one Rev. Bultema set up, couldn’t buy a church.

In 2002, Rev. Bultema says Antalya dignitaries declined his offer to again help kick off faith-tourism season. A local paper published a story falsely saying he had been expelled from the country for proselytizing. At times, he felt fate itself was against him. During a rainstorm, a half-ton stone cornice on top of the chapel fell off and crushed his car.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s bid to join the EU was shifting into higher gear. In November 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party came to power. Although an Islamist in his youth, Mr. Erdogan was determined to push for European prosperity and more religious freedoms in Turkey’s rigidly secular state. He gave a pro-European faction of Turkish bureaucrats a free hand to liberalize the system.

Sjoerd Gosses, the Dutch ambassador to Turkey and an outspoken proponent of efforts to improve Turkey’s human-rights record, found out about Rev. Bultema’s quest, after visiting the St. Paul Center in 2002. He knew Turkey’s bid to join Europe was sensitive in his own country. The Netherlands has wrestled with a wave of immigration, much of it from Muslim countries. Many Dutch worry Turkey’s entrance into Europe could unleash even more immigration.

“If there is discrimination, Turkey can’t get into Europe,” says Mr. Gosses. “We have allowed 300 mosques to be built in Holland in the past 20 years. I want to see one church built” in Turkey.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, visiting Turkey in 2003, asked Turkey’s Prime Minister Mr. Erdogan about religious freedom. Mr. Erdogan bristled, according to participants in the meeting. But he knew the Netherlands would hold the EU presidency in the second half of 2004, the lead up to the EU decision on Turkey. “You shall have your church!” he told the Dutch Prime Minister, according to people at the meeting.

Mr. Erdogan says he delivered on his promise a month later with a project to build a church, synagogue and mosque, about an hour’s drive from Antalya. Their concrete shells now stand half-finished in a clump of fir trees near some beach hotels. The architect says the buildings will be completed once more money is raised.

“Soon we will open all three of them together,” says Mr. Erdogan, in an interview. “Let everyone come and pray; the Muslim, the Christian, the Jew.”

Mr. Erdogan’s government has made changes in an effort to encourage more religious freedoms. Last year, for example, the government substituted the words “place of worship” for “mosque” in the nation’s building law. This change allows all religious denominations to build places to hold services. In the past, new mosques could be built, but ownership had to be turned over to the Turkish treasury.

“It was like installing a Microsoft patch,” said Murat Sungar, a jazz-playing diplomat who heads efforts to harmonize Turkish laws with the EU.

In Antalya, two other Christian groups have sprung up, offering services in different languages. A group of German-speaking retirees formed their own association, and rented a house to hold services. “In theory, we are content. Let’s see what happens in practice,” says Father Rainer Korten, a Catholic who heads the German-speaking group.

Another congregation, of Turkish-speaking converts, uses the prayer hall at the St. Paul Center.

Rev. Bultema’s English-speaking congregation, of about 80, continues to hold out for the right to buy the chapel. In August, Rev. Bultema and his lawyer drove to the whitewashed offices of the new registry of associations in Antalya. They came to establish the St. Paul’s Church Association, the group that would purchase the chapel.

Several new officials welcomed them. They sat in the same office where government censors in the late 1990s went through Rev. Bultema’s shipments of religious literature. “I used to be so intimidated by all this. But I think it’s getting fairer,” he whispered. In minutes, the St. Paul’s Church Association was approved, with a flourish of signing, stamping and sealing.

A month later, Rev. Bultema was back in the same office — to learn that a Turkish association couldn’t accept donations from abroad. That meant he couldn’t receive the money he had raised from abroad to buy the church. “It’s pretty confusing,” says Rev. Bultema, who is continuing his effort. “Sometimes I just shake my head.”



Enemy at the Gates: why Syria’s disaster threatens war in Turkey

Screen shot 2014-10-15 at 14.41.18

Turkish tanks at the Syrian border. Sedat Suna/EPA

By Hugh Pope

published in The Guardian Friday 10 October, p. 37

Turkey feels as if it’s reliving an old nightmare. Each morning television presenters and newspaper headlines glumly round up news from the Islamic State (Isis) siege of the Syrian Kurdish town Kobani, and its spillover into Turkey. Riots, tear gas, and live fire this week have killed more than 20 people in cities in Turkey’s Kurdish south-east. There have been multiple arson attacks on cars, buses and trucks, ethnic tensions, street corner nationalist gangs, curfews and armed troop deployments unseen since the miserable years of all-out Turkish Kurd insurgency in the 1990s.

At the same time politicians have begun shrilly pouring doubt on the vital, nine-year-old peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents. This reached an apex of absurd conspiracy when both sides began labelling each other as being “the same” as Isis, a group which is actually their mutual enemy.

A tragedy has indeed engulfed Kobani, but little fundamental has changed just because, unusually, TV cameras lined up on the border are able to record first-hand one scene within the larger epic of the Syrian disaster.

photo (1)The hard truth is that the Syrian Kurds and their main Democratic Union party (PYD) militia were always vulnerable and ultimately unable to defend Kobani alone, puncturing a moment of Kurdish hubris after a summer of impressive progress. Their isolation is partly because PYD and the PKK, with which it is umbilically linked, have insisted on a level of autonomy that is controversial, both in Turkey and with the Syrian mainstream opposition.

Nor is Turkey free to drive its tanks down the hill to save Kobani, as demanded by Turkish Kurd politicians. Breaking international law by crossing a border would weaken Turkey’s international position (as with Russia in Ukraine), set off angry regional reactions from backers of Damascus such as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and could lead to Syria itself firing missiles at Turkish cities. Turkey may be a member of Nato, but the airstrikes are not a Nato operation; Nato is supposed to be a defensive alliance, and is unlikely to back a unilateral Turkish move.

Turkish action around Kobani would also mean armed confrontation between Turkey and Isis. The Turkish armed forces are absolutely unprepared for any long-term foreign operation. With its porous, 570-mile long Syrian border, Turkey has everything to lose in such an open-ended conflict, and Turkish soldiers would certainly die on a mission that most Turks would not understand let alone support. Where would Turkey’s military have to stop in Syria to make its border secure? Do jihadi sleeper cells lurk among its 1.5 million Syrian refugees, ready to target the tourist industry that powers 10% of Turkey’s economy? Would taking sides against Isis – the principal Sunni militia in the Syrian war – risk a reaction from Turkey’s own Sunni heartland, which has already sent hundreds of Turks to fight in Isis ranks?

Turkey cannot order the ethnic, sectarian and political faultlines of the Middle East to stop at the Turkish border. Certainly, Turkey made mistakes: betting too big on the quick ousting of Bashar al-Assad, and opening its border to all who would fight against Damascus – a policy it is only beginning to reverse. But these policies are similar to those of western actors. It is not fair to make Turkey both the viewing platform and the sole scapegoat for the dysfunctional international system that has exacerbated the Syrian war.

The Turkish government and the Kurdish national movement should therefore discuss what they can themselves do, not what they would like others to do. Both sides actually identify Isis as their deadliest enemy, abhor Isis tactics, broadly favour friendship with the west, and adhere to an ideal of secular governance. Both sides’ favoured scenario is a partnership between Turks and Kurds. They share a long common history, a common Sunni religious tradition, and are interconnected in a way that would be hard, if not impossible, to unravel.

The only way to make this partnership happen is to complete the peace process fitfully under way since 2005. All the necessary elements are in place for a breakthrough to end a 30-year conflict that has already killed 30,000 people. A ceasefire has held since March 2013. Strong leaders on both sides could implement a deal. Popular support is significant. Notorious south-eastern jails are now being made into remembrance museums. The Kurdish language, previously prohibited, is spreading in the media and public life. And above all, a decade of normalisation has empowered both Turkish and Kurdish middle classes, laid new roads and brought new prosperity all over Turkey.

It has not been easy to dispel mistrust. From the 1920s to the 1980s, Turkey denied the existence of Kurds, calling them “mountain Turks”. Police torture in the 1980s and death squads in 1990s killed and traumatised Kurdish activists. Even in 2009, nationalists in the Turkish judiciary undermined the government’s efforts by arresting thousands of Kurdish political activists, including elected mayors, on terrorism charges. Subtler discrimination in workplaces, public spaces and house lettings remains rife.

But since direct talks started between the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and the Turkish state in late 2012, there has been improvement. Reform laws have brought legal protection to the peace process. Delegations of Turkish Kurd MPs travel from Ocalan’s prison island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul to the PKK’s mountain headquarters. On 1 October the government announced a proper framework, a cross-ministerial board under the prime minister with 11 sub-commissions.

Still, progress remains much more of an avalanche of initiatives than a structured process. Neither side trusts each other enough yet. Ankara sometimes seems to be regally granting small concessions to the Kurds and resenting legitimate demands. And the PKK finds it very hard to commit publicly, as it must, to eventual disarmament within Turkey; to a wish to join the whole country and act through the political capital, Ankara; or to state clearly whether, as its actions on the ground often suggest, it retains a secret urge to push for an independent state under PKK control – a goal for which there is no economic, geographic, social or consensus among Kurds, let alone the majority Turks.

A Turkish-Kurdish partnership is achievable, and should not be put at risk by political grandstanding over the ruins of Kobani. If its defenders are doomed, the town’s remaining population should be safely evacuated to the Turkish border, like the 150,000 who have already passed through. But whatever happens to Kobani, it is only by sorting Turkish and Kurdish differences inside Turkey that the two sides can begin thinking the unthinkable about facing Isis together. And the time to begin negotiating that compromise is now.

With the Yezidis during the 2003 Iraq war

Extract from my book ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ – see bottom of chapter

Chapter 17


An Alternative Approach to Military Liberation

We rejoiced at the rising Nile, then it drowned us. — EGYPTIAN PROVERB

Hugh Pope and Sagvan Murad in front of Yezidi shrine Sheikh Adi. Lalish, 2003.

Hugh Pope and Sagvan Murad in front of Yezidi shrine Sheikh Adi. Lalish, 2003.

A good introduction is an invaluable asset. My fixer, Sagvan Murad, was a young and active member of an ancient religious community called the Yezidis. They numbered about half a million people in Iraq, the bulk of them living south of the front line and under Saddam Hussein’s government control. Murad told me that community leaders on the side that was free, liberated, and developing since 1991, had organized a plan for a smooth takeover of the Saddam-controlled areas. It was his boss in a Yezidi cultural center, a part-time guerrilla chief, who had invited us to accompany them south when Saddam’s control collapsed. This offer of open access to whatever awaited these Yezidis presented what I thought was my best bet for an original story about the northern front of the Iraq War. Here was something that might go right, as opposed to what I felt to be the great wrong of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Yezidis might seem obscure, but they were as Iraqi as Kurds, Sunnis, Shias, Assyrians, Marsh Arabs, Sabaeans, and all the other subgroups that made up the country’s twenty-five million people. After all, if the war was on behalf of human rights and democratic freedoms, the Yezidis were the kind of issue it should have been all about.

The Yezidis had princes, castles, fortune-tellers, and an unusual religion. A subgroup of the Kurds—in their eyes, they were the original Kurds—their ancient faith was, to say the least, notably different from any of the surrounding patchwork of religious cultures. Indeed, Yezidi priests were so secretive that their exact doc- trines were a mystery even to most of their adherents. Since they were Kurds, not orthodox Muslims—possibly not Muslim at all—they had been subjected to plenty of discrimination, or, as the Yezidis put it, “seventy-two genocides,” which put them high on the scale of oppression, even in the Middle East’s competitive arena. Mus- lims and others even put out the scandalous rumor that Yezidis worshipped the devil, which was entirely untrue.

As he halfheartedly agreed to my war strategy by satellite telephone, the long-suffering [Wall Street Journal editor] Bill Spindle added the warning that my story would have to be very strong to make it to the front page. I knew I faced a great challenge. Like the rest of the Kurds, the Yezidis were part of the solution, not the problem. They were marginal and inherently unnewsworthy. Still, whatever my story about the Yezidi northern front lacked in confrontational punch, I reckoned I would be able to make up in telling details about one alternative, peaceful method of taking over a chunk of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Early on, Murad had introduced me to the leader of the “free” Yezidis, Prince Kamuran, a nephew of the overall prince who lived in the Saddam-controlled areas. Prince Kamuran dressed the part, wearing a splendid baggy costume in fine stripes and a pale red-and-white head scarf. He had invited me to stay at his palace in the village of Baadra, from where, he said, I could see the lights of Mosul at night or, when the war started, the smoke of high explosives from any bombing by day.

While waiting for our part of the front to become active, I took the prince up on his invitation. My first sight of Baadra seemed to justify the whole journey. In a valley I saw the metal tanks and cinder-block huts of one of the principal smuggling routes for petrol between the government areas and free Iraqi Kurdistan—still open for business, despite the war, the Nowruz holiday, and the fact that night was falling. A steady stream of donkeys was arriving from the hill between us and the Saddam-ruled area with hard plastic jerry cans of fuel strapped to their saddles. We pulled up and soon the driver was sucking on hoses and juggling containers to fill our car. I then bought a whole blue barrel of benzene—fifty-five gallons—and sent it down to Dohuk by pickup truck. It cost me just $85, and now I had my own private gas station.

Tanking up in Iraqi Kurdistan, 2003

Tanking up in Iraqi Kurdistan, 2003

“Thanks very much,” I told Rashid, the cheery Yezidi seller, as he pocketed my money in his baggy khaki pants. He soon brought me back to earth.

“What are you Westerners doing here?” he wanted to know. “Why are you messing around with our people, killing again? Why don’t you stay at home?”

I said I agreed with his sentiments entirely, and drove on to the prince’s palace. On a bluff with its back to Baadra, it overlooked the government-held valley that led to Mosul. It was neither particularly grand nor humble, a one-story, thick-walled structure built around a square courtyard with some trees and the obligatory little English lawn. Prince Kamuran was waiting in the corner of his reception room, next to his Thuraya perched precariously on a windowsill. He greeted us with practiced and roguish ease. Iraqi arak appeared for me, as did some whisky for Murad and Turkish beer for the driver. On the wall was an erratic array of pictures: his princely father, a Yezidi holy peacock, and Richard Nabb, the legendary American colonel whose careful pushes forward did so much to make Iraqi Kurdistan a feasible zone in 1991. There was also his father’s ancient-looking sword, its scabbard tied together with a ragged strip of cloth and its handle bound with dirty string. We sat on an assortment of stuffed armchairs and stools lined up around the edge of the room, which was dominated at one end by a grainy television screen.

Servants arrived with fruit, Pringles and, in the end, two plates of mushy, well- seasoned chicken-and-vegetable stew.

“We always used to kill a lamb for visitors, but then we realized you never ate it,” the prince joked, zapping through the channels of his television.

It was true that such Middle Eastern lambs could turn out to be tough, smelly old sheep, but I kept my counsel.

“When I went to Italy, you know, it was the first time I saw men with flat tummies, without big bellies like we have. You Westerners taught us to eat light. No cholesterol molesterol!”

Our unpromising conversation faltered and crashed as live news streamed onto the screen of the first big U.S. bombing of Baghdad, 240 miles to the south. We all rushed up to the roof, expecting explosions when the U.S. planes and missiles reached the city of Mosul, whose lights glowed silently on the horizon to the south- west. A few antiaircraft shells lofted into the air. We began to get cold in the open. The prince had a better idea.

“This is no good. Let’s go and watch it on TV.”

The bombardment of Baghdad didn’t satisfy my host, however.

“You have to bomb the whole of Iraq to bits before there will be any collapse in the armed forces. Saddam’s terror machine cannot be derailed by anything else!” the prince declared.

Annihilation of the enemy might be the house rule in Mesopotamia, but I couldn’t agree it would do much good. I was sure many innocent people were getting killed and injured in the hail of destruction raining down on the Iraqi capital. In faraway America, a retired U.S. general doing analysis for CNN declared that “it really is a symphony that has to be orchestrated by a conductor.” When Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld appeared to talk about how carefully targets had been chosen, the prince laughed in scornful protest.

“You can’t fight Saddam like that,” he scoffed, and switched to al-Jazeera.

The prince didn’t like al-Jazeera’s anti-U.S. politics, but he did prefer the local perspective. At the height of the bombing, the Qatari satellite channel just let us watch the massive mushroom clouds billowing up into the Baghdad night sky, underlit by new and continuing explosions. I felt sick. It looked like Armageddon.

“Well, here’s the war to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction,” the al- Jazeera correspondent said. Then he added with finely tuned sarcasm, “Clearly, the weapons you are seeing being used tonight are not those of mass destruction.”

I retired to an uneasy sleep under a thick, heavy, cotton-packed duvet. I woke up to take stock of my palace quarters: a thin carpet, a blanket over the unwashed window, a rickety plywood cupboard, hooks to hang clothes on, and, in a nod to the prince’s British tastes, an iron bedstead with sagging springs under the thin mattress. The morning news on television was now nonstop war fever. Back on the roof, I scanned the entirely peaceful front lines below me. The hours ticked by. It was hard to know what to do in this town of about one thousand flat-roofed, mud-brick houses. Apart from watching TV, my only distraction was trying to work out the protocol when the prince’s wife emerged from her private harem in a voluminous purple gown to enjoy a cigarette in the courtyard.

“Baadra is also famous for something else, you know,” Murad suggested. “There’s a fortune-teller here who’s famous throughout Iraqi Kurdistan.”

It was an idea, at least. On the way we toured the old castle of the great Yezidi princes, in ruins and abandoned behind its high walls. Our guide, Saeed, another offspring of the Yezidi princely dynasty, took particular pride in showing the unassuming room where, in 1913, rivals in a struggle for the princedom had smuggled themselves into the citadel dressed as women and had bludgeoned the old prince to death. Despite his tatty leather jacket, Saeed was also a peshmerga officer who in 1991 had engineered the capture of the government’s vast yellow Foreign Legion–style fort overlooking the town. This had brought Baadra into “free” Iraqi Kurdistan. It had been, he boasted, a bloodless advance with ten men, after which the Iraqi soldiers were allowed to walk home with their luggage. Like the primary school next to the prince’s palace, the fort was now overflowing with peshmergas. If the order came to chase a fleeing Iraqi enemy, I supposed they might move forward. Once again, Murad promised that we had been assured of a place in the vanguard.

A short walk away down the ridge, the fortune-teller, Shammu, sat cross-legged on a thin cushion on a worn-out floor covering in his gloomy, flat-roofed house. Thick dark glasses covered his eyes and a colored map of the signs of the zodiac hung above his turbaned head. Large-scale maps of the world torn from newspapers and some sparkly women’s dress material covered parts of the mud wall. The roof was held up by round poplar beams, and I could see stones from the mud roof pushing through the interwoven branches above. A former road-building contractor, Shammu had found his current calling after being exiled for his Communist leanings and sentenced to build highways in Iraq’s western desert. Almost in passing, Murad whispered that his wife had been shot dead by the Baathists in 1981.



Yezidi fortune-teller Shammu of Baadra (right) points up to his star map to read my horoscope before the Iraq War starts. My fixer, Sagvan Murad (left), notes down Shammu’s predictions, inaccurate in my case. He correctly forecast, however, that Saddam Hussein would be successfully ousted, and that this would not solve America’s problems in the Middle East. 2003. (Hugh Pope)

The ex-engineer certainly had a scientiFIc approach. He checked me in as his 10,519th consultation. Many of his star charts had been neatly precalculated in a child’s notebook. He knew how to please by giving me positive prospects for wealth, sexual performance, openness, courage, and prescience. I was beginning to doubt the value of the exercise when my ears pricked up.

“Next year, you will win a prize.”

Such talk gladdens any hardworking journalist’s heart. I slipped him a couple of bars of Turkish chocolate, and soon it became “the big prize.” Months later, I duly applied to a modest competition for foreign correspondents, in which I told myself that I had a chance of recognition for my efforts to warn America of the dangers of the Iraq War. The prize givers didn’t acknowledge the entry. Similarly not as predicted, my child born two months later was a girl, not a boy. I received no great sum of money. I had no “heavy” social life. And instead of being offered a great new job after September, the futility I felt covering the Iraq War made me entirely lose my appetite for writing about the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal. Some eighteen months later I left the paper to build a house on a remote Turkish mountainside.

Clearly I was wrong to hope for much from the little backwater of Baadra. Perhaps the flaws in Shammu’s predictions derived from an alphanumerical calculation based on my name, which has no standard Arabic spelling, and that of my mother, which once again made everyone worry. In any event, he hedged each prediction with an invocation of the divine.

“Your color is red. Your day is Tuesday. Your metal is gold. Your number is nine. And God only knows.”

“How can you be a Communist and say these things?” I asked politely.

“That bit about God is tough for me to say, but if I didn’t, they’d run me out of the village as an unbeliever! It’s the same with my mustache. I want to shave it off, but nobody can accept that. They say it’s a symbol of manhood, of being a Yezidi.”

“As a Marxist, I suppose you don’t accept business from the prince, then.”

“Yes, I am very opposed to him on political grounds. But he pays handsomely for his horoscope. The schoolmaster comes by too. And our local holy man.”

He saved his best line, though, for when I returned later to check something he’d said.

“I knew you’d be back.”

I also did what many of his supplicants had done, it seemed: I asked what the stars had in store for Saddam Hussein. For this he extracted a loose-leaf page closely ␣lled with calculations.

“He will die on April fifteenth, or disappear, believed to have been killed. The West will overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein,” he said. “But, like Osama, his renown will haunt the West for years. Saddamism and bin Ladenism will be strong. From May twentieth, a new Middle East will start being built. There will be two and a half years of chaos in Iraq. Then a new character will arrive who will lead the country into evil. The United States will win a tactical victory but will have many troubles that will lead to the collapse of the American Empire.”

Not much surprising in that—Saddam’s name, perhaps, having the proper Arabic astrological equivalent. What perplexed me, though, was the reaction of colleagues and interviewees over the next few weeks. I had become used to talking little at dinners and get-togethers. I had no daring escapades to boast of from the front lines and my antiwar commentaries were unfashionable. But whenever I let slip that I had the details of Saddam’s horoscope, everyone fell silent, gathered close, and hung on my every word. I was clearly working in the wrong sector of the prediction business.

Perhaps it was partly my status as a Journal correspondent that was dignifying the fortune-teller’s words, even if I was joking. American newspaper readers were also, I felt, beginning to distinguish between the message they received and the messenger. Due to the careful way that mainstream newspapers framed their re- porting about Iraq, paradoxically done partly in order to make readers read the stories, Americans seemed to be losing trust in our traditional, objective prose. Circulation figures were sagging, but the Journal was determined to stay high-minded. Publisher Peter Kann once told me and a group of trainees that, since many subscribers were retired people, we should just imagine we were writing for our parents.

Yet readers still seemed to believe in us reporters on the ground, provided that we were legitimized by representing traditional media institutions. My colleague Farnaz Fassihi experienced this after the war, when she wrote a gloomy assessment of the situation in Baghdad in an e-mail to friends. The substance contained little that she had not written in the pages of the Journal. But precisely because Americans perceived it as the real opinion of a credible correspondent, rather than a newspaper-processed authorized version, the letter whizzed around the Internet and within days became famous as a more real truth.

There was good reason for Americans to believe that Journal reporters knew what they were talking about. I never attempted a major story for the paper before I’d filled a notebook or two with interviews. In the past weeks, I’d made sure I did that for the Yezidis too, especially since it was a good way to keep myself occupied away from the front. On the seventh day of the war, for instance, I tracked down a young Hungarian doctoral student in Dohuk and spent the day discussing her thesis, “Gnostic Elements in Yezidi Mythology.” From the beginning I knew that Eszter Spät and I shared the same mad stamina for digging up the obscure paradoxes that are the warp and weft of the Middle East. The building blocks of early Christian theology, all of which developed in this general area of northern Syria and western Iraq, were as toys in her hands. According to her, Yezidism had incorporated a good deal from these pre-Islamic times. When our discussion turned to whether or not the sum of Yezidism could even be said to be older than today’s Judaism, I invited her to continue our conversation over lunch.

Then Jon Hemmings from Reuters pitched up at the next table and the present imposed itself. He had just come from a hilltop lookout on the front a few miles to the south. He had watched U.S. bombs rip up a village in the plains below, where several rows of Iraqi army barracks stood. He’d filmed this on his digital pocket camera. We played the recording of the rising columns of smoke again and again, somehow disbelieving the reality of the small puffs appearing on the back of his palm-sized machine. At five p.m., al-Jazeera reported an Iraqi claim that fifty local villagers had died in the attack. After the war, Spät visited the bomb craters, saw that they were around military targets, and heard of no civilians killed. In any event, real fighting was clearly imminent on the northern front.

Murad had been phoning our Yezidi guerrilla contacts regularly to make sure they didn’t make their move to take over the Saddam-ruled areas without us. Nevertheless, in the confusion of those days, they did so. Not being with them as they crept or charged through the lines was another strike against the likelihood that my story would make it to the front page. But, as I was now practiced at telling myself, I was no photographer needing to be on the scene. I wouldn’t give up. I could follow in their footsteps and piece the story together.

On the way, Murad and I paid a call on the mecca of the Yezidis, the shrine of Sheikh Adi at Lalish, whose fluted, conical spires are tucked into an idyllic mountain valley near Prince Kamuran’s village of Baadra. I made the halt because Tahsin Beg, Prince of All the Yezidis of the World, had sent word that he would receive us at the shrine. We parked and passed through a low, narrow corridor in a stone wall, headed up some steps, took off our shoes, and found him holding court behind a colonnade. Yezidi men sporting long mustaches with a parting in the middle sat on the thin cushions around the walls. His armed guards milled about the courtyard with all kinds of weaponry strapped to their chests.

Tahsin Beg, Prince of the Yezidis, 2003

Tahsin Beg, Prince of All the Yezidis, 2003. (Hugh Pope)

Tahsin Beg—Beg is a title, the equivalent of Sir in Ottoman times—had inherited his position as a child an extraordinary sixty years before. One result was that he received only a primary school education. Another was that he yearned for freedom, not just from Saddam but from his communal duties. Indeed, while talking to him, I got the impression he had been happiest during a seven-year stint of exile in London’s Kensington High Street, mostly living alone and washing his own dishes. He now sat in state on a green armchair whose sides had split and from which sheets of cardboard were poking out. His dark gray robes were the worse for wear, and his 1970s black Rado watch, with a wide gold rim, was wearing out around the bracelet. His English had become rusty from disuse.

“I am not quite free yet. I can’t be without bodyguards here. I hope when Iraq becomes a democracy that I won’t need them anymore. All our life has been fighting, fighting, fighting. There have been no good times since the revolution against the king in 1958,” he said wistfully. “When my people get freedom, maybe I’ll get freedom too.”

At this moment three of my correspondent colleagues arrived. Luckily they were the three I got on with best, and none worked for American media. But my heart sank at yet another strike against my plan. So much for my hopes of being able to craft an exclusive Yezidi narrative from the northern front.

“Ask me any questions!” commanded Tahsin Beg.

“Some conservative Muslims say you worship the devil,” said the Daily Telegraph’s Damien McElroy. “What do you say to that?”

I was shocked at the bluntness of this question. I knew from Murad and Spät that the Yezidis revere a benign angel they call Azazil, or the Peacock King, and that they get upset that outsiders, notably Muslims, keep identifying him as the devil. As a result, the word for Satan was actually banned by Yezidis. My other Yezidi princely friend, Tahsin Beg’s nephew Kamuran in Baadra, would refer to him only as “so-and-so.” Tahsin Beg, however, was used to dealing with the question.

“He’s not devil, no, sorry, he’s very different from devil. The devil is nothing to do with us,” he said. “We just believe in one God.”

Murad and I then set off to join the newly liberated people of Ain Sifni, a town a few miles to the south. Crossing into no-man’s-land sent a frisson down my spine. From the escarpments above us we were watched by the blank holes of the sand-bagged foxholes in the old Iraqi front line. Then came the old Iraqi checkpoint. Comprehensively rocketed and shot up, there was satisfyingly little left but smashed-up old slogans. The only one still legible was IRAQ IS FOR US ALL, AND LOOKING AFTER IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF US ALL. The front wall of the Baath Party building was already rebranded for the militia that was its new master, the “Party” of Brother Masoud, which ran this part of Iraqi Kurdistan. In the main slogan above the front door, someone had crossed out the “Saddam” part of YES, YES, TO SADDAM and had spray-painted “the Party” in its place. Living in Middle Eastern countries can sometimes be like attending kindergarten for your whole life.

The “Party” and its U.S. backers had taken no chances with their takeover. The streets were still littered with debris from an eight-hour bombardment. Perhaps two dozen Iraqi army defenders died in the surroundings, mostly shot as they fled. But thanks to the preparations by the Yezidis, like establishing secret contacts with major figures in town, there had been minimal fighting. Kurdish guerrillas deterred looting with checkpoints and guarded untouched districts of plush, empty houses once occupied by people close to the regime.

They were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the liberation of the north in 1991, which had been accompanied, as was now happening in the U.S.-controlled south, by widespread stripping of public buildings, reprisals, and disorder. Within four days of the liberation, engineers in hard hats could be seen climbing pylons to fix high-voltage cables snapped by bomb blasts. Elsewhere I met officials who were sorting out the records of telephone line subscriptions. Party officials sifted through documents from government buildings, some of them flattened in the bombing. Sitting cross-legged on thin cushions, making reassuring visits and holding long meetings, they quietly took up the reins of power.

Khatto Baba Sheikh, Ain Sifni, 2003.

With Khatto Baba Sheikh, Ain Sifni, 2003.

We called on Khatto Baba Sheikh, the spiritual leader of the Yezidis. Seated at one end of a long rectangular reception room, he looked impressive: a long, finely combed black-and-gray beard, white robes, and a tightly wound turban. He offered me the seat of honor beside him at the head of the assembly. But he couldn’t speak Arabic very well, and I didn’t get much out of him as everyone bantered about one of the most unusual weeks in the history of the town.

Murad had a question. In proper fashion, he wanted to check with the religious leader whether he had any objection to his smaller community of Yezidis from free Iraqi Kurdistan going forward and proselytizing the much greater number who had been stuck under the regime of Saddam Hussein. One of his hesitations was that the much-oppressed Yezidis are highly reticent when it comes to revealing religious matters.

“As long as everything is done correctly, go ahead!” Baba Sheikh replied, grinning broadly through his great mustache. “We kept things secret because there was no freedom, we were living in a bad atmosphere . . . Now we want everyone to see what’s going on in the world. Let them all buy satellite televisions. I’m going to buy one right now!”

One of those responsible for the previous lack of freedom was sitting uncomfortably on one edge of the majlis gathering in Baba Sheikh’s reception room. Hazem Haydar was one of the 100 to 150 former Baath Party officials in the town and had taken refuge with the religious leader. I asked to see him on his own. In a guest room we sat on parallel iron bedsteads and chatted. His eyes, constantly seeking reassurance, showed that he could hardly believe his luck would last. He had not been killed. When he surrendered his gun, he had been given a receipt. It was in his native Kurdish, which he had never seen written down. Now for the first time in his life he was meeting a foreigner and using the musty English he’d learned at school and kept on life support by buying copies of Saddam’s Iraq Daily. What could be next?

“Did you expect to survive?” I asked.

“Our kinsmen from the north have changed, with the help of Britain and America. We are with the change.” He lowered his voice to complain about how Baathism had also changed under pressure from the West, dropping its secularist beginnings so that Saddam Hussein could claim to be a grand “Islamic” leader. “You know, Saddam closed all the restaurants and bars serving alcoholic drinks. That’s one thing I can’t wait to see open again.”

We drove on through Ain Sifni. Shops were gradually reopening, and a few cars full of visitors or relatives cruised the streets like tourists from the already liberated areas to the north. It was sobering to see how Arabized this Kurdish town looked. There was not a single sign in Kurdish, as had now become the norm in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was uplifting, too, to see how quickly shopkeepers get fresh fruit and vegetables back onto their stalls after a conflict.

We passed by a school where many Iraqi army soldiers had been hiding for the last week before they ran away. Although the American pilots could see them there and circled overhead, they did not bomb them, which would certainly have killed plenty of civilians. Indeed, in the liberated areas that I toured, U.S. warplanes seemed mostly to have hit what they aimed at, flattening barracks and party buildings. The Foreign Legion–style forts were all left looking as though some giant had taken a huge bite out of each one, scattering crumbs of stones everywhere.

The trouble for U.S. policy was that this technical proficiency was not part of any overall plan to sort out the huge psychological and other dysfunctions of Iraqi state and society. Then there was the collateral damage. One fifteen-foot-deep crater in Ain Sifni was dug by a bomb dropped by an American pilot aiming at a Toyota pickup truck with a gun mounted on the back. The Toyota was now a pile of burned and twisted metal, the engine block lying dozens of yards away. The Baathist who had sought asylum in the Yezidi sheikh’s home told me that a local Arab had been using it to shoot at the American planes. When the planes closed in to bomb, this man wisely hid behind a wall to save himself. But the explosion torched at least three cars, wrecked four or five houses, and sprayed shrapnel in a radius of fifty yards or more. It had ripped the living room wall off the nearest house, killing a man and blinding his wife. People milled about, poking and pulling at things.

“First they bomb us, then they come and take photographs of us,” Murad overheard someone saying as we left the site.

Eventually I caught up with the guerrilla leader who had promised and failed to take me along with the first wave of liberators of Ain Sifni, Khayri Namo Sheikhani, a forty-five-year-old Yezidi activist from Dohuk.

“How come the takeover was such a mess elsewhere, and so smooth here?” I asked.

Down the road in Mosul, there was already virtual anarchy despite a far greater U.S. presence.

“When we arrived, we knew who was who, we gathered people together straight-away. We told them to stay in their jobs, that we’d pay officials’ salaries, and that they shouldn’t steal public property,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we’ve already been living liberated lives nearby for twelve years. We can show them how to live this new, democratic life. In southern Iraq, they have no such thing. All they know is Saddam, religion, and now the U.S. military.”

I drove with Sheikhani to the settlement of Babir, north of Mosul, abandoned by Iraqi troops and therefore liberated. Babir was one of Saddam’s notorious “collective towns,” where any Kurds who might support the never-ending Kurdish rebellions were resettled from their ancestral villages in the mountains. In theory, all Saddam’s army had to do to control them was to park a tank at the end of each unpaved street on the grid.

We drove toward Babir in convoy on a smooth dirt track through fields of wheat. I sat cramped in the front cab of a Toyota pickup truck with Sheikhani’s Kalashnikov jammed between my knees. Behind us, a pickup mounted with speakers used for wedding parties pumped out a song by the famous Turkish Kurd musician Sivan Perwer. Children playing outside the town were clearly ready to embrace the new order. As soon as they saw our little convoy they raced toward us, waving little flags on bamboo poles and sticks made of anything they could find in the yellow color of “the Party”—furnishing fabrics, sheets, tablecloths, and clothing. Through the loudspeakers, one of Sheikhani’s men stirred them up with shouts of, “This is the day of freedom! This is the fruit of all the years of fighting!”

When we reached the town, Sheikhani and his lieutenants got out to greet the notables. The houses were all walled-off, one-story miniature compounds built of gray concrete blocks. In no order whatsoever, we advanced on foot, followed by the cars, into the town’s main open space, a kind of dustbowl in the center. A few hundred people clamored around us. All were Yezidis. Sheikhani and Fariq Farouq, an official from “the Party,” climbed onto the back of the truck. They were greeted by chaotic, frenzied shouting.

“Who won? Who won? Barzani is the winner!” the crowd chanted, on cue. “The Party is our leader and Masoud is our president!”

Sheikhani and Farouq looked on indulgently.

Sheikhani then began the first political speech that any of them had ever heard live in Kurdish. He told them that the Baath regime was finished and that Arab rule was history. He talked of the many sacrifices of the struggle.

Farouq from “the Party” took the microphone and thanked God that they were liberated, reminded them they had been persecuted for thirty-five years, pointed out that the Baath had lied to them saying they were Arabs, not Kurds, and told them that Masoud Barzani called the Yezidis the original Kurds. He named a famous Yezidi martyr for the cause. Rounds of hearty clapping greeted these sentiments. Then Farouq moved onto less familiar territory.

“Freedom should not be for some, but for all—Kurds, Arabs, Turcomans, Christians, Muslims. We are all Iraqis. We want to work together for this land. We are asking for democracy, brotherhood. Even the Arab people say, ‘Long Live Barzani!’ ” he said.

The mention of Arabs earned him a sudden drop in applause.

“We will forgive those Baathists who didn’t do evil. We have to respect them. We want the rule of law, human rights, the rights of minorities, which we have established in Kurdistan,” Farouq said.

I checked what the man beside me, Edris, thought. No, he wasn’t interested in cohabiting with Arabs. He saw them solely as oppressors who had robbed him of his land and who had occupied his village. His only priority was to rebuild the village and, if he had a political outlook at all, to live in free Kurdistan. Right now, he never wanted to see an Arab again.

I turned to the people around Edris to ask if a pluralistic future was really so impossible. But I could get no sense out of people who had been under so much stress and who had no educational equipment to articulate their new freedom and excitement. We jostled, we shouted, we joked and laughed about silly things. I asked them about the Yezidi gerîvan, the special white undershirt with a rounded neck cut open by a specially chosen relative, and half the men started unbuttoning their shirts to show me the thin fabric of the garment. I parried invitations for tea, dinner, to stay the night.

“Do you have a picture of Bush? I want to kiss it!” one man begged me.

“Give my love to Mr. Bush and . . . what is his name? What is his name? Mr. Blair!” shouted another into my ear.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” shouted one man as I fought through the crowd to get back into the car.

Back in Dohuk, I watched the big-screen TV in the hotel lobby as it showed the live action from Baghdad’s Paradise Square, right in front of the Palestine Hotel, where I always used to stay. I remembered how exactly a year before I’d seen them put a new statue of Saddam up on the new roundabout reservation, wrapped in sheets as one of his birthday presents. Now a U.S. soldier pulled a noose around the statue’s neck. A U.S. armored vehicle took up the strain. It bent down, fell forward, bounced groggily, and was then dragged to the ground.

We were tuned to Abu Dhabi TV, and the announcer, a good Arab, was in shock at this show of disrespect.

“The body has come down, but the feet are firmly stuck in place. Let’s see whether that is an omen for the future!” he declaimed.

Soon we were watching crazy kids dragging the head around for rides and hitting it with their shoes. The camera panned back to take in the whole square. The TV announcer was right about it not being so easy to extirpate all signs of Saddam. You couldn’t see it on TV, but I knew that each one of those white columns around where the statue stood had the initials S.H. molded into its capital.

Baghdad was now swarming with embedded correspondents from the Wall Street Journal. I could go home. I had one last page to fill in my notebook. Bill Spindle, valiantly struggling to get my alternative narrative of the conquest onto the front page, suggested that the first paragraph would be livelier if the commander had some kind of Yezidi fetish that he took along with him to liberate the Yezidi zone. I had long stopped resenting such requests. They always turned up something new. But it did mean more delays, and I began to suspect the worst for my story.

I caught up with Sheikhani and maneuvered toward the question on my editor’s mind.

“Did you carry any Yezidi objects with you when you were on your way to liberate your compatriots?”

The former dermatologist spoke good English, but it took some time to explain the Western concept of lucky charms.

“No, I don’t have anything like that,” Sheikhani said.

“So you don’t wear the gerîvan?” I asked, the only Yezidi thing I could think of.

“Oh, no, I never wear that.” He laughed at such an absurd, anachronistic idea.

“Didn’t you wish you had one that night when you walked over the mountain? It was pretty cold, wasn’t it?”

“Not at all, it’s spring. It was normal. Remember, I was a peshmerga for years.”

I had another go. “So when you were a peshmerga, you never carried anything special with you at all?”

“I always used to carry a bag of medicines. I was the peshmerga doctor,” he said.

“Did you take any medicines with you on your night march, then?

“Yes, I took a small bag of medicines, for old times’ sake.”

A few days later, the Journal’s front page passed on my report on the peaceful change of power in our corner of Iraq. Spindle explained that editors felt triumphant events elsewhere overshadowed the Yezidi angle. I was beyond arguing and could do nothing about what I suspected was the last flaw in my Yezidi tale: Although the U.S. invasion made the Yezidis’ success possible, and U.S. warplanes were a critical backup for the takeover of Ain Sifni, no Americans were obviously involved in the narrative for readers to identify with. By then I was out of the country, not greatly proud of my achievements but pleased that the foreign pages had published my last report at length and delighted to have survived to see my family and friends again.

A few years later, Murad rose to somewhere miraculously appropriate for his high standard of traditional politeness, becoming acting head of protocol for President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, photographed behind the scenes of world summits with President Bush’s arm draped around his shoulders or being kissed by Iranian President Ahmadinejad. The Yezidis’ fate was less happy. They suffered along with other minorities like the Christians, and lots of ordinary Iraqis, as the United States dumped well-laid American plans for running the country. Sunni Muslim extremists used the chaos to engineer a steady campaign of murders of Yezidis. One of the worst was in April 2007, when, apparently in revenge for the Yezidis’ stoning of a Yezidi girl betrothed to a Muslim boy, Muslim militants stopped a bus, pulled off twenty-two with identity cards identifying them as Yezidi, and shot them dead. Ethnic cleansing forced many Yezidi families to flee their homes. An al-Qaeda– style quadruple truck bombing in August 2007 killed another two hundred Yezidis in villages and small towns in my eccentric friend Hussein Sinjari’s tribal district of Sinjar, a formerly Saddam-ruled area east of Mosul. Tahsin Beg went on to survive at least three attempts on his life.


See on Amazon.com


Excerpted from


By Hugh Pope

Thomas Dunne Books, 2010

pp 272-286.

When U.S. General Petraeus Ruled in Mosul

How Iraqi Professor
Overcame Doubts
To Trust a General

Mr. Jomard, Strong
Opponent of Hussein
And U.S. Policy,
Saw a ‘Fellow Human’


Staff Reporter

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Page A1, 3 November 2003

MOSUL, Iraq — “Don’t expect me to go on television to express gratitude,” declared Iraqi historian Jazeel Abd al-Jabbar al-Jomard.

U.S.-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein, a man Mr. Jomard despised, and helped rebuild the scholar’s looted Mosul University, Iraq’s second-largest. None of that has changed the short, thickset, 51-year-old professor’s vehement opposition to Washington’s policy and actions in the Middle East.

But over the course of six months, a patient American general and his forces in the 101st Airborne who oversee this section of Iraq’s north have slowly managed to win Mr. Jomard’s trust. “I learned to see these people as my friends … once I realized that, as individuals, they had nothing to do with U.S. policy,” he said.

How Mr. Jomard made his decision to work with the occupying forces offers a window on one of the most urgent challenges America faces in Iraq: getting Iraqis to actively cooperate in the face of an increasingly effective resistance movement. The U.S. suffered its deadliest day in Iraq since March 23 Sunday. The toll included 16 soldiers killed when their Chinook helicopter crashed west of Baghdad, apparently shot down. (See related article1.) Last week anti-U.S. forces added car bombs to their attacks on the reformed Iraqi police, the most prominent collaborators with the U.S. occupation and a key to any future U.S. exit strategy from Iraq.

Any form of collaboration carries the danger of being targeted by resistance fighters. Last Thursday, thousands of leaflets were distributed in Baghdad threatening to kill all who “have sold their souls to work with the Americans and the Jews.” They also said, “We know for certain who you are,” and were signed by the Fedayeen, an organization loyal to Mr. Hussein.

Such pressure causes many Iraqis who want to cooperate to waver and crumple in places where the U.S. occupation isn’t as adroit as it has been in Mosul. Iraqi assistants to U.S. Army personnel often wear dark glasses to avoid being recognized. A translator working for U.S. journalists justifies his job to friends by saying he is brainwashing the Americans.

Legacy of Opposition

Opposition to foreign intervention comes naturally to Mr. Jomard, scion of a prominent Mosul family that was a longtime nationalist opponent of Iraq’s old British-backed monarchy. When the king was toppled in a bloody 1958 coup, Mr. Jomard’s father became foreign minister for the first six months of the new republican regime that followed.

An expert in Christian Europe’s medieval crusades against the Islamic east, Mr. Jomard spent several years of doctoral study in Scotland and is familiar with the West. Though unhappy with Mr. Hussein’s regime, he expected no good to come from the U.S. invasion.

He remains offended by what he views as a U.S. failure to prevent Israel from occupying Palestinian territories. He knows that Washington supported Mr. Hussein during his murderous 1980s prime. He deeply resents the way the U.S. left Mr. Hussein in power after devastating Iraq’s infrastructure in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, and then led the effort to impose crippling sanctions on the country.

“I swear that even Iraqi ants were affected by those sanctions,” says Mr. Jomard, who drives a battered 1980 Datsun with a dashboard held together by tape. “Before, they used to stay in the garden of my house. Now they’ve even reached my bedroom, looking for things to eat.”

The university that Mr. Jomard loved, a sprawling campus of stark concrete buildings and dusty hills, was overcome in the chaos that descended on Mosul after the U.S. forced Mr. Hussein’s ouster on April 9. Traffic jams formed at the campus gates as armed looters loaded up everything their cars could carry. They even stole one of the gates.

Mr. Jomard’s initial contacts with the U.S. military didn’t foster trust or cooperation. He had joined up with other leading Mosul figures that day and gone to ask the newly arrived U.S. Marines for protection. He found the officer sent out to talk to the group to be young, arrogant and interested only in the safety of his own troops.

A Sunni Muslim from the majority of Mosul’s 1.7 million people, Mr. Jomard felt the Western reporters attached to the U.S. military were interested only in the local Christian priests in the group.
“I felt like I was being confronted with a relic of the British occupation a century ago,” Mr. Jomard says.

New Attitude

The next day he joined a group of local judges to again visit the base the Marines had established at the airport and appeal for American troops to get a grip on the city. “It wasn’t useful. The Americans seemed irritated by us,” Mr. Jomard says. “I went home and never went back.”

Mosul endured two rough weeks, including a gunfight involving U.S. troops in which a dozen local people were killed. Then the 101st Airborne arrived to relieve the small Marine force.

With the 101st came Gen. David H. Petraeus, the division’s commander and, Mr. Jomard says, a new attitude. Gen. Petraeus, a veteran officer who directed peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and has a doctorate from Princeton University in international relations, is a fervent advocate of nation-building. He rammed through a one-month program to pull Mosul together. His men forced the pace on local elections, some of the first in occupied Iraq. Pinned to the map in his war room was the motto: “We are in a race to win over the people.”

“We try to be an army of liberation, not occupation. It’s very hard to pull off,” the general says. “The only way you can win respect is individually.”

Gen. Petraeus was one of the most intensive users of money seized from the former regime, a program in which his officers paid more than $26 million directly to Iraqis for myriad projects to get the region going. Beneficiaries included not just the university, but hospitals, irrigation systems and even an asphalt factory. “Money is ammunition,” the general says.

Under U.S. supervision, neighborhoods chose a local electoral college of 270 people, which in turn choose a 24-man provincial council in early May. This body soon elected Mr. Jomard to the post of university vice chancellor, even though he hadn’t put himself forward as a candidate and was boycotting the U.S.-backed group.

His colleagues pressed him to accept the post. He remained reluctant. “I told them, it’s very difficult” to work with a foreign occupier, says Mr. Jomard. “But they played with my emotions, my sense of duty. For us, the looting and chaos in Mosul was a tragedy, spiritually and physically.”

Although he took the appointment, he kept his job teaching history, so he could leave the administrative post at any time. He also tried to maintain a psychological distance. “I told myself it would not be dealing with the invader. I would never be a collaborator.”

Reaching an Understanding

But he began to discover a new face to the U.S. occupation. When the officer in charge of his area passed by, Mr. Jomard told him about three gates hanging off their hinges that the university couldn’t fix. Two days later, U.S. Army engineers arrived to repair them.

Mr. Jomard, who had grown up with rhetoric about Arab solidarity, had hoped for aid from the Arab world. But little materialized. Two Persian Gulf states sent gifts, but one included a TV crew who asked him to sing the praises of its generous prince. “When they asked me to sit in front of a banner to do the interview, I had to refuse,” Mr. Jomard says bitterly.

Wealthy local families gave about $50,000 to the university, hoping to get it back on track before exam time so that students wouldn’t have wasted a year’s study. The U.S. officers channeled in nearly $1.4 million, according to Col. Will Harrison, in charge of the 101st’s relationship with the university. Much of this early cash came from Iraqi state funds or assets seized from Mr. Hussein’s regime. In the longer term, U.S. aid coming through American university-run programs is also on its way.

Mr. Jomard was impressed by the military’s efficient generosity. It helped that Col. Harrison accepted the professor’s sometimes prickly behavior, and made no demands for public expressions of gratitude. Both men were comfortable with the sort of back-channeling and lobbying that was sometimes necessary.

The colonel, for instance, furthered the university’s cause behind the scenes by bringing Mosul administrators and Baghdad officials together with the help of the 134 helicopters in his unit, the 159th Aviation Brigade. Such communication was critical to smoothing over post-Hussein staffing and other organizational issues, since laws still on the books keep Iraq a highly centralized state.

The ebullient 44-year-old pilot, who hails from New York, is responsible for all matters concerning higher education in Mosul as well as the brigade’s 2,000 men. He typically spends two hours of his long days on university matters and has assigned captains and lieutenants to pay similar attention to each of the institution’s 19 faculties. They, too, have come to terms with Mr. Jomard’s determination to build an image of independence for his academy.

Mr. Jomard “only lets us on campus because we’re nice,” jokes Maj. Mike Shenk, a U.S. officer from the 101st Airborne and one of Col. Harrison’s deputies in the 159th. He was passing by the university after dropping off yet more cash for items such as office furniture, telephone exchanges, computers, air conditioners, refrigerators and ceiling fans. Returning Maj. Shenk’s warm smile, Mr. Jomard acknowledged a fondness for the American.

That didn’t stop him from pulling Maj. Shenk aside that day to ask the 101st to remove two U.S. Army lookouts posted on the engineering faculty roof. Mr. Jomard says he understood their need to watch a road in front of the university, where attackers had twice hit U.S. patrols. But the dean of engineering was furious and the soldiers’ presence on campus could trigger student protests. Two days later, they were gone.

Mr. Jomard remains suspicious of the Americans. He admits he even got caught up in popular outrage that swept through Mosul after a baseless rumor suggested that Israel was taking advantage of the U.S. presence to buy local land. “What causes fear is the size of America. … We might just be a little part of a much bigger policy,” he says. “I have no desire to find myself at my age like the Palestinians, suitcases in my hand and my family on the road.”

Trust Builds Dividends

Rising local anger forced a United Nations agency and some foreign nongovernmental organizations to leave town. The antiforeigner attitudes put constant pressure on Mr. Jomard.

“One or two professors said that Jazeel, who we thought was working for the interests of the people, is now shaking hands with the enemy,” Mr. Jomard says. “I feel that I am shaking hands as a fellow human.”

Worse was to come. Mr. Jomard was indirectly told by the anti-U.S. forces to stop cooperating with the Americans. He dismissed the threat, hoping he would be protected by his reputation as an observant Muslim known for popular public lectures on Saladin — the Kurdish prince from Iraq who drove the crusaders out of Jerusalem.

“I, too, believe the American occupation should end, but if they leave now, everyone will be killed on the streets, there’ll be civil war,” Mr. Jomard says.

His own behind-the-scenes lobbying with occupation forces has paid dividends. When the Baghdad Coalition Provisional Authority, the central U.S. occupation power, ordered the sacking of all senior members of the former Baath Party, it would have crippled some of the university’s departments. Mr. Jomard and the chancellor pressed for the best of the 130 to be kept on. The 101st Airborne fought his case in Baghdad and won a reprieve that kept the teachers in class.

One day during the summer, Col. Harrison stumbled into a confrontation with some angry graduates demanding jobs that had been promised by the former regime. He found Mr. Jomard at his side, “picking them out by name, and telling them, ‘I didn’t educate you to talk like this,’ ” Col. Harrison remembers. Mr. Jomard, in turn, recalls with amazement Col. Harrison’s calm handling of provocative, anti-American questions.

Trust grew to the point that when a much-delayed graduation day came around in October, the university faculty did the once unthinkable: They invited a uniformed Col. Harrison and a U.S. civilian administrator into the semicircle of dignitaries that bestowed the top degrees. “It was wonderful,” Col. Harrison says.

The moral juggling act thrust upon Mr. Jomard by the occupation has led him to rethink his former view of history as black and white, cause and effect. “Sometimes a man can be caught up in events that are more powerful than himself,” he says.


Fighting for Mecca’s architectural soul

Iconic Clash:
Saudi Fights to End
Demolition Driven
By Islamic Dictate

Architect Sees a
Terror Link In
Razing of Monuments;
Princes Don’t Muzzle Him

A Mall Goes Up in Mecca
By Hugh Pope

The Wall Street Journal 8 August 2004

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — In a private lecture he gives to small groups in his
home here, Sami Angawi sometimes ends with projections of three images in
succession. The first shows the 2002 dynamiting of a minaret by a shrine in the
holy city of Medina. The second depicts a colossal ancient Buddha in Bamyan,
Afghanistan, being blown to bits in 2001 by the former Taliban regime. The third
is the World Trade Center engulfed in flames.

Mr. Angawi, a 51-year-old architect, is waging an unusual campaign against a
feature of Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Islam that rarely comes up for public
discussion inside the country: the alteration or destruction of holy sites. The
desert kingdom’s dominant clerics believe any reverence for buildings or saints
distracts from their doctrine of worship of God alone and constitutes
polytheism, regarded by them as the gravest sin in Islam.

In a provocative critique, Mr. Angawi directly links the religious zeal that
destroys shrines to the intolerance that breeds Islamic terrorism. “Should we
have destroyed all our heritage of diversity?” he asks. “Shouldn’t we be
learning to think before blowing everything up? It’s due to a monopoly of
religious opinion, and that has to end.”

As Mr. Angawi’s unusual polemic gains a wider audience within Saudi Arabia, he
offers a hint of a significant shift by the country’s embattled leaders. Since
the attacks of Sept. 11, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, the royal
family has faced mounting criticism based on links between its favored form of
Islam, the fundamentalist strain called Wahhabism, and global terror. In its
modest way, Mr. Angawi’s architecture lecture suggests Saudi Arabia is
increasingly tolerant of public criticism.

In one sign that some government leaders want his views heard, he recently
participated in a series of national discussions about reforming Saudi society.
The unprecedented exchanges, sponsored by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz,
effectively the country’s leader, were a tentative step toward encouraging
economic and political change.

Mr. Angawi started giving slide shows about preserving architecture in the
1970s, but since Sept. 11, 2001, he has been more outspoken. He estimates
several thousand people have heard his lecture about the damage to Saudi
Arabia’s architectural history. People gather at his or other private homes,
drawn mostly by word of mouth. Audiences have included Saudi academics and
oil-company executives.

That Mr. Angawi can do this without harassment suggests he has the tacit
support of at least some members of the large royal clan. He hasn’t stopped any
bulldozers, but he is one of a small band of activists beginning to challenge
from within the Islamic fundamentalism that is Saudi Arabia’s official ideology.
“The government has unlocked the door to change. Some are pushing to get in.
Others are pushing to keep the door closed,” Mr. Angawi says.

Saudi journalists are growing braver in challenging the religious
establishment, although the editor of a Meccan newspaper lost his job after
putting an encounter between liberal and religious dissidents on his front page
in May. A group from Medina is forming an association to protect the remaining
shrines and monuments there. In June, the Cabinet decreed that women could own
businesses in their own name. Ground-breaking municipal elections are set for
November, beginning to challenge princes’ and clerics’ monopoly on power.

Over the years, the Saudi government has let fundamentalist clergy and
developers destroy the famed old mosque of Abu Bakr and tombs of close relatives
of Muhammad in Medina. It has turned the sites of Muhammad’s great battles of
Uhud and Badr into a parking lot and an area of empty tarmac. In 1990, a site
where some believe Muhammad lived with his first wife, Khadija, was paved over
when developers extended prayer areas around Mecca’s Great Mosque.

The government has also pulled down a stone house with a colonnaded courtyard
in Medina known as the Egyptian Monastery, once favored by pilgrims from that
country. Saudi lawyers say Wahhabi religious authorities have issued many edicts
over the centuries endorsing the destruction of historical places to discourage
polytheism. “It is not permitted to glorify buildings,” said one such ruling in

Mr. Angawi does glorify buildings — openly. “Mecca used to be the link that
brings Muslims together, the heart of the Islamic world,” he says. “Something
has gone wrong with the heart, and we need to restore the balance.”

Spokesmen for the Saudi kingdom say old sites that get paved over are simply
the unfortunate victims of modernization, which is in some cases aimed at making
it easier for pilgrims to get around Mecca and Medina.

As for Mr. Angawi’s analysis linking fundamentalism, the destruction of holy
sites and terrorism, the government dismisses this as far-fetched. Nail
al-Jubeir, a spokesman, says Mr. Angawi’s suggestion of such a connection is “by
far the most extreme extrapolation I have ever heard.” The Saudi government has
condemned terrorism, including the Sept. 11 attacks. It also stresses that it is
currently battling a wave of domestic fundamentalist terrorism.

Today’s Saudi ideology has its roots in the 1700s, when a desert preacher,
Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahhab, began to condemn the Islam then practiced in central
Arabia as decadent and dominated by superstitious veneration of shrines, dubious
holy men and even trees. He inspired a movement dedicated to reviving his
understanding of the original Islam, founded in the seventh century by Muhammad.

The puritanical preacher’s followers, allied with the powerful Saud family,
then destroyed many shrines in Mecca and Medina, including some over the
supposed graves of companions of Muhammad. Outrage over these acts in the wider
Muslim world contributed to a military defeat of the initial alliance between
the Saudis and the sheik in 1818 by Egyptian and Turkish forces. Pious and
wealthy families rebuilt many shrines.

But in the 1920s, when a renewed Saudi-Wahhabi coalition surged back into
power in what became the current Saudi Arabia, the shrines started coming back

Saudi Wahhabis sought strict implementation of Islamic Sharia law. That
continues today. At least 50 Saudi men and one woman were publicly beheaded last
year for crimes ranging from murder to homosexuality. Less commonly,
executioners cut the hands and even legs off thieves. Saudi critics say the
clergy is sometimes mixing up Islamic law with old tribal codes, especially when
it comes to restricting women’s freedom. No other Muslim country, for instance,
holds that Islamic law bars women from driving.

The Wahhabis — part of the Sunni branch of Islam — also wanted to clamp down
on Shiites, who ascribe greater importance to the family of Muhammad, and on
Sufis, who follow a more mystical path and often attach themselves to sheiks who
they believe have supernatural powers. Both Shiites and Sufis pray at the tombs
of those they revere.

Some 26 years ago, Saudi Arabia ratified a United Nations convention
committing itself to safeguarding properties of outstanding cultural value. But
so far, the Saudis haven’t nominated anything in the kingdom to join the 611
cultural-heritage sites in the world that are registered with the U.N.

There is no indication of broad popular support for Mr. Angawi’s cause. In
2002, Saudi authorities removed the 18th-century Ottoman fortress of al-Ajyad in
Mecca to make way for a five-tower project rising 31 stories. The development
includes a hotel, shopping mall and apartments. They overlook the Kaaba, the
cube-shaped stone building swathed in black silk that is the focal point of all
Muslims’ daily prayers and the annual Hajj pilgrimage. (One of the lead
contractors for the $1.6 billion project is the Saudi Binladen Group, owned by
Osama bin Laden’s relatives.)

Many Saudis see nothing wrong with the way the great mosques of Mecca and
Medina are now surrounded by high-rise developments touted as investment
opportunities. “If I can afford it, why shouldn’t I have a hotel suite
overlooking the holy shrine,” says Khaled al-Kordi, a Riyadh financial
consultant and member of the country’s Supreme Economic Council.

Mr. Angawi cuts an unorthodox figure in Saudi Arabia. He says foes denounce
him as a “crazy Sufi” because he follows that dissident mystical approach to
Islam. He dresses in a light-spun woolen cloak and a turban and carries an
elegant walking stick — all of which violate the Saudi dress code of white robe
and head-cloth. He lives in a palatial residence of his own design in Jidda. Mr.
Angawi studied architecture at the University of Texas and received a doctorate
from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, doing his thesis on the
historical diversity of Meccan architecture.

Hussein Shobokshi, scion of a Jidda merchant family and one who has seen Mr.
Angawi’s presentation, says the architect is “seen as eccentric, but he’s got
respect” among the nation’s small group of moderate and liberal intellectuals.

Mr. Angawi’s family traces its roots to Muhammad, but it is a more commercial
distinction that allows him to devote his energy to research. His family is one
of 3,200 that have inherited the lucrative position of “mutawwaf,” or those
licensed to organize the groups of pilgrims who come by the millions each year.

In 1975, Mr. Angawi set up the Pilgrimage Research Center to study ways to
modernize Mecca with as little harm as possible to its historic and holy sites.
One of his techniques was to use time-lapse photography to analyze pilgrims’
movement, plan mass-transport systems and keep private vehicles away from the
city core. He says his center received state funding, and some members of the
royal family expressed interest in his ideas. The royal family numbers about
5,000 princes, whose opinions vary but who are generally more educated and
modern than the religious conservatism that dominates Saudi society. In 1988,
Mr. Angawi was invited to give a presentation to senior princes at court.

But he also made enemies among religious authorities and some contractors who
do modernization work. He lost control of the Pilgrimage Research Center and
resigned his position in 1988.

His commitment didn’t wane. “Every time a building goes, it’s like watching a
relative being slaughtered in front of me,” Mr. Angawi says.

In 1990, sympathizers tipped him off that the site thought to contain the
foundations of the Meccan house of Muhammad and Khadija was to be paved over. He
rushed to the site, even threatening to put his young son in the bulldozer’s
path. He used his contacts to win permission for a last-minute archaeological
dig. It lasted 40 days, and he says his team of volunteers uncovered stone
foundations that appeared to be those of the Prophet’s abode. But in the end,
the site was buried in concrete and covered in unmarked marble. A public toilet
now stands nearby, according to Meccans.

“We’ve done more damage to Mecca and Medina in the past 50 years than in the
past 1,500. Of 300 holy sites, perhaps only 10 remain,” Mr. Angawi said recently
in his book-lined study, the air heavy with incense.

He isn’t alone in his concern. In July, the Islamic Supreme Council of
America, a Sufi group, called on the U.N. “to stop the wanton destruction of
venerated Muslim relics in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The council, led by
Sheik Hisham Kabbani, who is based in Michigan, said, “The Wahhabist rulers of
that nation are undertaking a new ideological jihad to destroy major relics and

Saudi government spokesmen dismiss Mr. Angawi’s objections as nostalgia for
the old Mecca. “He doesn’t like change because it changes the city that he
knew,” says Mr. Jubeir, the government spokesman. “We want to expand the
pilgrimage, and we want to make it safe, comfortable and spiritually rewarding.
If we have to remove homes, unfortunately something has to give.”

Mr. Angawi says the assault on America in 2001 shocked him into action. He
wanted to galvanize Saudi Arabia’s small, diffuse band of liberal intellectuals.
“We’ve had many wake-up calls,” he says, “but we’ve been like children covering
our eyes.”

He uses a slick computer presentation for his lectures, which he says he
sometimes delivers to top government officials who quietly invite him to their
homes. He also organizes a weekly discussion group for young Saudis on subjects
such as the mercy of God, individual freedom and national heritage.

Crown Prince Abdullah invited Mr. Angawi to be one of 60 delegates to a
December session in Mecca of the National Dialogue. It included historic
discussions about the role of women in Saudi Arabia, with women participating,
and the role of minority groups such as Shiite Muslims.

While Mr. Angawi didn’t show his slide presentation in the public forum — the
message is still too controversial for that — he did invite participants to see
it in private. Twenty came, he says.

Participants in the dialogue recommended that the kingdom tolerate minority
sects, strengthen the role of women and separate the government’s executive,
judicial and administrative branches. No method for implementing any of this
emerged, though. And there was no mention of the architecture of Mecca or


Copyright (c) 2004 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.
8/18/2004 8:22 AM

Uygurs in China III

Hugh Pope

Sons cover thumbnail The third section from my book on the Turks and the Turkic world that relates my experiences with and conditinos of the Uygurs in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19, 41-171 (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005)



An elephant can crush an ant with one footstep. But an

ant inside an elephant’s trunk can madden it to death.

—Uygur proverb


streaming through the pointed archways of a bare room on the roof of

the Emin mosque. The young Uygur lovingly watched the knife turn in

his hand, and conversation came to a halt. Distant donkeys brayed as

they pulled carts back from the vineyards that carpeted the ancient oasis

town of Turfan with a luxuriant green…

View original post 5,329 more words

Uygurs in China II

Hugh Pope

51Q02AWQ0EL._SS128_SH35_ Second posting of Uygur-related extracts from

Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19, 41-171 (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005)



I was never carried away by the valuable Chinese gifts of gold,

silver, silk and sweet words. I did not forget how many Turks

who had been deceived by such things had died, how many

had been forced under the Chinese yoke.

—Stone inscription by Bilge Kagan, an 8th century AD

Turkic ruler in what is now Mongolia


Istanbul, Isa Alptekin, the late leader of the Uygur Turks of China, never

imagined that he could free his people by force. The grand old man of

this large but little-known Turkic minority always spoke the language of

passive resistance, as did his much better-known comrade in…

View original post 5,053 more words

Uygurs in China I

Hugh Pope

Sons cover thumbnail The first of four Uygur-related extracts from my book on the Turks and the Turkic world.

Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19


God Most High caused the Sun of Fortune to rise in the

Zodiac of the Turks; he called them ‘Turk’ and made them

Kings of the Age. Every man of reason must attach himself to

them, or else expose himself to their falling arrows.

—MAHMUT OF KASHGAR, author of the

first Turkish encyclopedia, 11th century


surprises, my teleprinter shuddered into action at the Istanbul bureau of

Reuters news agency. A colleague in Beijing was sending a message:

members of an ethnic group called the Uygurs, of whom I had never

heard, were demonstrating in the streets of Urumqi, capital of the

northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang…

View original post 2,259 more words

Echoes of the past in Istanbul’s mayorial race

The pre-election narrative all sounds so familiar: corruption allegations, massive building projects, destruction of historic districts, new hotels, environmentalist protests, a sea of concrete suffocating the city, and evergreen hopes of one day hosting the Olympics – some elements of this article I wrote in 1989 to raise the curtain on municipal elections in Istanbul 25 years ago seem strangely familiar to the discussions ahead of Turkey’s mayorial races on March 30. 

The city is aflutter with election flags again and there are other, more political, similarities. Bedrettin Dalan, standing for re-election in 1989, was part and parcel of the regime of the late Turkish leader Turgut Özal, who after six years in power was stumbling with accusations of corruption and authoritarian tendencies. The current Turkish leader, Tayyip Erdogan, 11 years in power, is fighting back against the same kind of accusations, even though the scale of everything involved seems to have multiplied many times.

Kadir Topbaş, the faithful old pro-Islamic party member to whom Erdogan has entrusted the city since 2009, is lower-profile than Dalan. His ruling AKP expects to win, even if they do not share the cast-iron confidence displayed by the Motherland Party that 70 per cent of the vote was in their pocket. Back in 1989, Dalan was so sure he’d win that he filled the municipality entrance hall with tables groaning under a slap-up celebratory feast. When I passed by on election night, nobody had come to the party.

The end of the story has not been happy for the ex-mayor. Since 2008, Dalan has bounced about in exile between Russia, Holland, Belarus and the U.S., running from a charge sheet of “terrorist” activities filled out against him at home. He tells newspapers that he longs to return to his home city.

Istanbul – Hustling Capital of Ozal’s Turkey

By Hugh Pope

Istanbul, Reuters_Few people boast about what they have destroyed, but Istanbul Mayor Bedrettin Dalan says it with pride: 10,000 buildings in just five years.

“We virtually had to recreate the city,” Said Dalan, Mayor since 1984. “Over 620 factories and 400,000 people were also moved. I think it is unique in world urban history.”

A new Istanbul born under Dalan symbolises the kind of energy released in Turkey since Prime Minister Turgut Ozal’s centre-right Motherland party came to power in 1983.

One million new homes are under construction with state aid, dozens of arterial roads have been opened and enough pipes to supply a town of 50,000 with water are laid each month.

Alongside Dalan’s efforts, non-municipal facilities have changed out of recognition: telephones, hopeless five years ago, now work well and power cuts are the exception, not the rule.

The price has been high. The once-green hills beside the Bosphorus waterway are now a sea of concrete, traffic clogs city streets and the fabled skyline of minarets and mosques is frequently blotted out by sulphurous smog.

“The only planning has been Dalan’s imagination,” said Celik Gulersoy, head of the semi-official Turing Club, which has lovingly restored at least 20 of the most striking relics of the former capital of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires.

“This is a 3,000-year-old city, not an American desert,” he said, adding that recent road projects were like “running a motorway down the Grand Canal in Venice.”

Gulersoy is Dalan’s chief independent critic, but Istanbul’s marginal Greens Party has also attacked Dalan as a “King who was destroying the city without consulting the people.”

Dalan says dislocation is inevitable in a city whose infrastructure was almost totally neglected as its population grew from about 1.4 million in 1960 to 7.0 million today.

Under Dalan, Istanbul now has new main vegetable markets, a large bus station complex nearly ready and the sewage system, neglected since Byzantium times 500 years ago, is being totally rebuilt and designed with World Bank support.

One monument to Dalan's rule in Istanbul is his replacement of the decayed Ottoman-era Galata Bridge with an unlovely  structure that has now put two great steel blocks in every picture of the Golden Horn skyline.

One monument to Dalan’s rule in Istanbul is his replacement of the decayed Ottoman-era Galata Bridge with an unlovely structure that has now put two great steel blocks in every picture of the Golden Horn skyline.

As part of a controversial program to move colourful, traditional small tradesman out of the historic centre, a huge structure with 5,000 shops is near completion outside town.

Children’s parks have taken the place of many polluting workshops along the banks of the Gold Horn sea inlet and line the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea shores as well.

Much of the changes have been made possible by new laws freeing municipal finances. Dalan, whose taste for foreign projects has made him popular in foreign capitals, has already run up at least 530 million dollars of foreign debt.

Ozal and Dalan are still thinking ahead and have laid down foundations for an Olympic stadium to boost Istanbul’s chances of hosting the Olympic games in the year 2000.

A dream that Istanbul can recapture its former place as a gateway from Europe to the Middle East is also being pursued with a 3/4-billion dollar work trade centre and a third terminal for Istanbul Airport, already Turkey’s busiest.

Part of the first metro to be built in Istanbul since 1869 is about to be opened, despite controversy about the route and expense, and fifteen first-class hotels are under construction in a city that until recently had only five.

“In the summer it’s dust and in the winder it’s mud,” admitted Dalan. Municipality statistics show much remains to be done – half of Istanbul’s streets are still dirt tracks.

Opinion polls say Istanbul appreciates the efforts of Dalan, a 48-year-old engineer-industrialist whose eye for publicity may stem from a past job lighting fashion-show catwalks.

He is likely to win 70 per cent of the vote in next month’s local elections, the polls say, making him Turkey’s most popular politician and likely future candidate for one for the top posts in the political capital, Ankara.

Under Dalan, Istanbul has reasserted its claim to lead commercial life – double the size of Ankara, it produces a quarter of Turkey’s goods, owns a third of the cars, controls two-thirds of foreign trade and is home to most banks.

The yachts of the city’s new rich lie anchored near the few remaining wooden summer houses along the Bosphorus, contrasting with the lot of many forced to work on two jobs to keep pace with the galloping cost of living.

But imbalances of wealth are just one of the many striking contrasts in Istanbul, where 1940s U.S. Limousines work as taxis beside the sleek European luxury cars, and images of the 20th century co-exist with medieval buildings and lifestyles.

In fact, the groundswell of Dalan’s support comes from the mass of poor immigrants from the Turkish hinterland. Dalan first arrived in the city penniless, aged 17, and he represents many of the immigrant’s aspirations

To cement the alliance, Dalan has looked after most vote-rich Gecekondu (built-overnight) squatter settlements, building amenities and handing out 250,000 title deeds to inhabitants.

Critics say the urbanisation should be stemmed – 90 per cent of inhabitants may now be first-generation – but Dalan said: “We are a democratic country, we cannot stop it.”

The wholescale reshaping of Istanbul and accompanying speculative opportunities have brought Dalan many enemies and death threats, but he said he was not afraid to continue.

While the overwhelming complain of the people centres on grim hours spent in polluted traffic jams, Dalan said his main achievement was to show that change was possible.

“When I became Mayor of Istanbul, the problems were thought to be insoluble in the minds of the people,” Dalan said, “Now people think Istanbul can become nicer and easier than before.”

Yigal Schleifer's picture of urban renewal, Istanbul style - click for link to his blog.

Yigal Schleifer’s picture of urban renewal, Istanbul style – click for link to his blog on staying one step ahead of the wrecking ball.


AKP got some things right - the new metro is a huge boon to Istanbul and the new bridge of the Golden Horn with a station in the middle has a certain élan. (AKP isn't responsible for the route of the metro, which arguably should have avoided interfering with the Golden Horn skyline altogether).

AKP got some things right – new metro lines have been a huge boon to Istanbul and the new bridge of the Golden Horn with a station in the middle has a certain élan. (AKP wasn’t responsible for choosing the route of this metro line, which arguably should have avoided the Golden Horn altogether and I think was decided in Dalan’s time too).

When Albania began to peek out of its Cold War bunker


Bunkers (2)

Bunker Mentality:

Albania’s New Uses

For Old Fortifications

Relics of Enver Hoxha’s Reign,

They Become Restaurants,

Toilets, Even Love Motels.

10th May 1999

DURRES, Albania – The line of concrete gun emplacements on the beach here once spat Albania’s defiance at the outside world. Now, one of them has become “Bunker Restaurant 1,” and the only sign of former enemy Italy, just over the Adriatic Sea, is a shiny new Italian expresso machine on the bar.

In his own small way, fisherman-turned-restauranteur Arben “Jimmy” Loku, 30, has turned upside down the xenophobic logic of 500,000 to 700,000 pillboxes, underground tunnels and gun emplacements that lurk like half-buried helmets on every outcrop of mountainous Albania. His schoolteachers taught him to avoid foreign conquerors who wanted to poison him; now he brings real foreign visitors steaming plates of delicious eel, prawns and mullet.

“I privatized this bunker six years ago,” Mr. Loku says, pointing proudly at the domed, 3-foot-thick roof with deep damp stains. “I have money to make it look better, but the foreigners prefer it like this.”

Albania, land of the bunker is starting to emerge from its Communist-era bunker mentality. The country has thrown itself into the arms of the West, giving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization total backing in its war with Yugoslavia on behalf of the ethnic Albanians of neighborhood Kosovo. In a sign of the times, Albanians are struggling to find new uses for the bunkers built by their paranoid late dictator, Enver Hoxha – as restaurants, motels and a source of artistic inspiration.
Kujtim Cashku recently directed “Kolonel Bunker,” a fictionalized account of a military officer who designed the bunkers, was crushed by the depressing experience and went on to commit suicide. For Mr. Cashku, the bunker symbolizes the wasted energy of this Balkan nation of 3.3 million people. Isolation “meant we survived but missed the opportunity for civilization,” says Mr. Cashku. And yet Albania, he adds, is crawling back from the financial scams and violence that followed the collapse of communism here in 1991.

For centuries, Albania’s mountain people were so wary of foreigners that they rarely set up towns on the coast of the Adriatic, which opens up this land to the outside world. Suspicion was nurtured by five centuries of Ottoman rule, followed by a chaotic first half of the 20th century, including wars, invasions and occupation by fascist Italy and Germany. Then came Mr. Hoxha, the world War II partisan leader who, until his death in 1985, sought to seal off his Stalinist fief.

In 1975, he embarked on a massive program of bunker building. An engineer came up with the two most common dome-shaped designs: the one-man pillbox and the bigger gun emplacement. “They tested the first bunker with a goat,” says Mr. Cashku. If the goat survived a good bombardment, “then the engineer had to stand in the bunker himself, and he was pounded with shells to prove it was good.”


The Albanian military continued to build bunkers until 1990 but has now abandoned most to weeds and decay. Raids by Serbian troops on the border with Kosovo in recent weeks have marginally revived Albania’s interest in bunker defenses. TV and radio shows encourage the populace to clean them out, and commanders are sending some part-time soldiers back in.

But the country’s heart isn’t in it. “What we really need is new guns from America,” says 37-year-old Davut Veseli, a private walking back to his base after 24 hours of duty in a border bunker.

Ultimately, the bunkers are unloved, even if lovers still sometimes meet in them, a practice punished by death in Hoxha days. In the border town of Kukes, refugees from Kosovo are using the pillboxes as toilets. Elsewhere, in the absence of playgrounds, Albanian children slide down the pillboxes’ smooth domes tops. In the main valley leading into Albania from Greece, a plain cross now tops a gun-emplacement built on the site of a Greek orthodox church blown up during Mr. Hoxha’s antireligious crusade of the 1960s. Some villagers use bunkers as animal shelters or to store feed.

Why don’t the Albanians just remove their bunkers? Go ahead and try. The concrete is made of hard granite, and the reinforcing rods are high-quality steel. It takes industrial-strength cranes to lear a pillbox, and the only people able to afford these seem to be members of the Albanian under-world. On a beach south of Durres, men sell cars stolen from Europe, and have moved the bunkers off to a large corner of their lot.

Some Albanians pile tires inside the bunkers and set them ablaze; after a couple of days, the first layer of concrete becomes brittle enough to be chipped away, allowing access to the steel, which is worth a few dollars. The irony is that each bunker probably costs as much to build as an apartment in this impoverished country, where a bad housing shortage has been made even worse by the influx of more than 300,000 refugees from Kosovo.

Possibly because of the bunkers’ association with the old regime, few Albanians use them as homes, although the 15-foot-diameter space of a gun-emplacement provides just about enough living space for a family. Then again, there are pioneers in this field, too.

Jonuz and Nadire Kasmi moves into a bunker in the hills east of Durres six years ago, partly because it was near Jonuz’s brother’s house. Living in the bunker, whitewashed and decorated with plastic flowers, feels like living in Mother Bubbard’s fairytale shoe. The entrance is uncomfortably low. To swing the steel-and-concrete doors takes the weight of two people. The bunkers are cool in summer, freezing in winter; drilling through the rock-hard walls for chimneys and water pipes isn’t an option. The Kasmis’ bed is in the bricked-up gun port.

Mr. Kasmi hopes that someday, a passing foreigner will give him enough money to move out of the bunker and into a real house he started building next-door with a donation from a European missionary. Meanwhile, he gets by with earnings from his car-repair workshop, made from the body of an old commercial van.

Enver Hoxha may be turning in his grave at this disrespect, but his widow, Nexhmija, doesn’t seem to mind the changes afoot in Albania “I’m very emotional about Kosovo now,” says Mrs. Hoxha, peeping out at a visitor through a chicken-wire screen on the door of her apartment. “I feel so happy that all these countries came to help us,” she says in excellent French. But she still lives a kind of bunker life, rarely moving from her modest walk-up apartment in a suburb of the capital.

Back at the beech in Durres, Mr. Loku’s neighbor is converting a bunker into a circular love-motel-by-the-sea.

Mr. Loku dreams of building a chain of bunker motel-restaurants. In the meantime, he’s making money in more traditional Albanian ways. Sitting at one of the four small tables in his restaurant, with his sharp blue eyes twinkling from under a cap of knitted black wool, Mr. Loku likes to entertain customers with tales of smuggling speedboat-loads of illegal immigrants and refugees past Italian coast-guard cutters.

“Maybe the Italians should be building the bunkers now,” he says.