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‘You can’t deny the people forever’. Kurdish voices in exile

Over baklava and sweet tea, openDemocracy hears about Turkey’s post-coup crackdown and the dreams of an independent Kurdistan.

The gates of the Kurdish Community Centre in Harringay, emblazoned with a Kurdish flag and the national emblem: a golden sun. The Kurdish Community Centre in Harringay. (Image courtesy of the KCC)Harringay Green Lanes is home to London’s largest Kurdish community. The Victorian Grand Parade advertises this identity, with shops named after Gaziantep and Diyarbakir, the two most populous cities in Turkish Kurdistan. The pavements were recently widened to accommodate the crowds that flock for food at one of the many enticing restaurants, or buy the legendary pastry gözleme, rolled by women sitting at a kiln in the front windows of the cafes, one of which is named after Taksim Square.

(All panel photos by the author, 2016)The Kurdish part of Green Lanes is a hive of political activity. Last June, after the moderate Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) gained over 50 seats in Turkey’s election, weakening the power of President Erdoğan with a hung parliament, the area was filled with celebratory chanting and car honking. (A re-run of the election in November resulted in gains for Erdoğan’s AKP and losses for the HDP). The party spoke strongly in favour of the Gezi Park protests of 2013, when Kurds in the area congregated around Finsbury Park and marched down Harringay with banners. Less mainstream organizations are also represented: in 2012, graffiti appeared on phone boxes and under the railway bridge in support of the youth wing of the MLKP (Marxist-Leninist Communist Party), a small underground Hoxhaist group, some of whose members have travelled to Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan to fight against the Islamic State.

Graffiti in Green Lanes in support of the youth wing of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party. Graffiti in Green Lanes in support of the youth wing of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party. (Photo by the author, 2012)Of the half dozen baklava shops, each advertising stacks of honeyed treats, Niyazi Usta is one of the best. Inside I meet Elif Seren, who parcels out the dessert with delicacy, and who speaks with great passion about the cause of Kurdish independence. “In the weekend after the coup, it was all we talked about. But nobody is surprised by the state of emergency”. Elif is skeptical about the coup (“it was Erdoğan’s game”) and is not a fan of Turkey’s president, or his supporters: “He likes people who are stupid, like Trump – he’s popular with them”. Elif suspects that Erdoğan has not been honest about his relationship with the Islamic State, repeating the rumour that his daughter runs a hospital treating ISIL fighters. She fears the situation will deteriorate in the south-east of the country: “the Kurds will be blamed, as ever – everything is going to get much worse”.

Baklava at the Niyazi Usta pastry shop on Harringay Green Lanes. Baklava at the Niyazi Usta pastry shop on Green Lanes. (Photo by the author, 2016)Like many in Harringay, Elif’s family is from the town of Kahramanmaraş, also known as Maraş, 50 miles from Gaziantep. Despite being a native Turkish speaker, she feels greater affinity with Kurds across the border in Syria, Iraq and Iran, and has a strong sense of Kurdish nationhood. “It would be an honour to fight for my country”, she says, “it would be an honour to join the women in Rojava”. Elif points to the restaurant on the other side of the street, Devran, owned by Turks with an association to the hard-right nationalist MHP, which is strongly anti-Kurdish. (The owner politely declines an interview, saying “the government has caused me enough trouble already”). What Elif doesn’t tell me is that the paramilitary wing of the party, the Grey Wolves, was responsible for the massacre of over a hundred civilians in Maraş in 1978. History, even when it takes place far away, is never really far away.

History, even when it takes place far away, is never really far away.

One of the busiest restaurants on the strip is Gökyüzü, which overflows onto the pavement until midnight in the summer months. Its owner is Veysel Yavuz; his family moved from the same town 26 years ago. Veysel dislikes Erdoğan (“he’s done a lot of bad things”), but opposed the coup: “The current government is corrupt, and it treats all Kurds as enemies. But a coup not a good thing – it takes the country backwards”. Veysel frequently travels back to Turkey, and is worried about the growth in religious education and the de-secularisation of the Turkish state. He has “mixed feelings” about Atatürk, who refused to acknowledge Kurdish identity or autonomy, but whose secularism resonates with the liberal outlook of many Kurds – it is rare to see the hijab or niqab in Harringay.

Gökyüzü’s main competitor is the recently renovated Hala, whose manager is even more anxious about the crackdown. “Erdoğan wants to be a Sultan, a dictator – he wants total control, so he can play his game”. This word – game – I hear again and again (in the barber shop, in the grocery story). According to this theory, Erdoğan’s strategic failures, such as his party’s poor performance in the June 2015 elections, are only public shows of weakness to mask skilful private maneuvering. “The AKP [governing party] has never been beaten, and will not relinquish power”, says the manager, who prefers not to give his name. “They had everything planned – just look at the lists” (of those arrested, sacked and suspended). He’s worried about Turkey’s alliance with Russia, and feels that Kurds are all alone in the region, surrounded by increasingly authoritarian and religious regimes. “It’s going to be a Sharia country”, the manager says, referencing Erdoğan’s educational reforms and investment in mosques. He says the recent terrorist attacks by ISIL and the PKK in Turkey only play into Erdoğan’s hands: “his support goes up after each bombing. He works with them, he knows what’s going on”.

On the corner of Barclays Bank, a sticker demands the release of imprisoned Marxist PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Tucked away in the street behind is the Kurdish Community Centre (KCC), fronted by elegant gates emblazoned with the national icon: a golden sun. There I meet Ibrahim Yahli, a psychiatrist from Suruç near Kobane, and a member of the KCC’s management committee. He speaks in impeccable English and with the sophistication of a political refugee (a status he was granted in 2010). “On the night of the coup, we opened the centre and sat here and watched – we wanted to see who grabbed power – we tried to analyse developments through our dynamics”. He says that Erdoğan “has all the values of a potential dictator, and the character. He will even exceed the power of Ataturk”. Ibrahim cites an AKP-supporting friend at university who told him: “democracy is a tool, it is not an aim for us. We need to use every tool to achieve our aim” – an echo of Erdoğan’s own remarks when he was Mayor of Istanbul.

Welcome sign in Kurdish above the door of the KCC Welcome sign above the door of the KCC. (Photo by the author, 2016)As a student, Ibrahim recalls having to hide his Kurdish identity – either as a Kemalist (pretending to sip tea on Ramadan) or as an Islamist (dropping a religious term into conversation). “The Kemalists don’t acknowledge the identity of Kurds, whereas Erdoğan acknowledges them but denies them rights. Kurds no longer feel pressure to choose the lesser of two evils, because we are confident of being in a separate and independent position”. Ibrahim speaks of a shared Kurdish consciousness: “We are very politicized from an early age. If you go to Diyarbakir – we call it Amed – even a boy of 12 or 13 can give you a clear view of politics. Kurds didn’t choose that – they were pushed into this situation. Most of them are from villages that were invaded and burned, and almost every Kurdish family has a martyr or someone who paid a price. Directly or indirectly they are all involved in politics”. By contrast, he says, “the Turks are not politicized but they make political choices”.

A wall advertising the Kobanî cafe at the Kurdish Community Centre. The Kobanî cafe at the Kurdish Community Centre. (Image courtesy of the KCC)For Ibrahim, the KCC is “symbolic of a small Kurdistan”, even if Turkish is frequently spoken and the community newspaper is published in both languages. “The majority of our members are from the border towns – I mean the border between us and the Turks” (he refers to “northern Kurdistan” instead of southern Turkey). “Most speak Kurdish at home but they feel under-confident with their accent and speaking in public – although it’s changing now”. He says the KCC aims to help members of the community develop “a healthy, consistent Kurdish identity – it will help them integrate them into British society more easily, without becoming assimilated or marginalized”. Ibrahim embodies this “acculturation”: he campaigns not only for the Kurds but for his fellow junior doctors in the UK.

Montage of tasty treats on offer at Gozleme House in Harringay. (Photo by the author, 2016) Montage of tasty treats on offer at Gozleme House in Harringay. (Photo by the author, 2016)This dedication to national self-determination is not confined to the Kurdish sphere. During our conversation, a colleague at the KCC brings over a banner that proclaims Basque independence in Euskara. I ask Ibrahim about the affiliation: “we have solidarity with Basque, Catalan – every oppressed people in the world”. Ibrahim's language is peppered with Marxist idioms, and he derides “the imperialists”. Marxism, he says, is “influential on anybody who takes part in any Kurdish movement – even the most conservative groups. Marxism gave Kurds liberty, a sense of belonging, a sense of identity”. Kurdish parties of the Left have names such as the Socialist Party of the Oppressed, the Workers’ Vanguard Party, and notably the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

A sticker demanding the release of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. A sticker demanding the release of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. (Photo by the author, 2016)I ask Ibrahim what he makes of Öcalan’s group. “The PKK gave Kurds courage – that’s the psychological aspect of it. My father was a local governor in one of the border villages, and told me that before the PKK, when a Kurd was killed, his corpse would be taken to the village and nobody – not even his family – could declare a relationship with the body, as they were scared of the military. The PKK were very brave – they didn’t care what happened to them – they made heroic attempts to break the fear, and to gain the confidence and trust of the population. Now Kurds are fearless towards the state”. 

A society based on the power of the army, or the support of just a single region, will be weak.

After Öcalan’s arrest, and with his encouragement, the Kurds embraced a less hierarchical and centralised approach. “They didn’t just want revolution in society, but evolution – to be ahead of their enemies in terms of ideology, mentality, lifestyle”, says Ibrahim. With diverse dialects and distinct social and religious traditions, regional autonomy is practical both for the struggle and for maintaining an equilibrium between Kurds from four countries. “Every part of Kurdistan needs to feel the same – that’s why we encourage localisation and devolution of power, to form democracy in every region”. The Rojava experiment illustrates the importance of this approach: “if you form a society in a healthy way, it will survive. A society based on the power of the army, or the support of just a single region, will be weak”.

Women marching and holding banner in Green Lanes in protest at the brutality of ISIS. Kurds march down Harringay to protest the seige of Kobanî in 2014. (Image: North London Star)Ibrahim asks for solidarity from the Western community, but does not expect much from Western powers. “States work with states – they will not recognise a stateless power”. He points out that the refugee crisis has given Turkey greater leverage, which it is exploiting. “But whatever happened in Turkey [with the coup] has weakened Turkish power – I think that’s an advantage for us”. Asked about the prospects of Kurdish independence, Ibrahim says “I am optimistic it will happen, but I am not optimistic that it will happen in a peaceful way – especially in Turkey. In the short term, the war will become worse and there will be more clashes with Islamic State. We will win, but we will win in a very painful way”. There’s a consensus among the community in Harringay that a peace deal is unlikely, that the struggle will be long, but that Kurds will eventually gain their independence. As Veysel in Gökyüzü says, “you can’t deny the people forever”.

Baklava & künefe at the Niyazi Usta pastry shop on Green Lanes. Baklava & künefe at the Niyazi Usta pastry shop on Green Lanes. (Photo by the author, 2016)

About the author

Benjamin Ramm is editor-at-large of openDemocracy. He writes features for BBC Culture and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4. He tweets at @BenjaminRamm


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