As it happens every time I travel to the southeast corner of Turkey, this time too I had the feeling that I wasn’t only in another land but in another planet. The heaviest snowfall of last 20 years had covered the entire region with purest white, filling one with incredibly enchanting and mystical sensations.
This is what happens every time I travel to Hakkari. Hakkari is the only Turkish province that has common borders both with Iran and Iraq. It wouldn’t be out of place to call this province, “the hotbed of Kurdish insurgency.” The first bullet of the PKK’s armed struggle that began in 1984 was fired in this province’s town of Semdinli that abuts both Iran and Iraq. Even today, the province the most troubled corner of Turkey.
What makes Hakkari so special, more than its geopolitics and historical background, is its topography. Some 88% of its area comprises mountains. Flat plains are but 2%. The remaining 10% consists of high plateaus. When you say mountains, we are speaking of those above 3,000 meters, some even 4,000 meters.
The nearest airport to Hakkari is 200 km away at Van. It takes about four hours of driving to get to Hakkari. The topography of Van and its environs are similar to that of Hakkari. Your first sensation that you are in the different land and even in a different planet overcomes you after about an hour and a half of driving from Van, once you drive through the Guzeldere Pass at 2,740-meter altitude.
The other day when passing through Guzeldere [which means Beautiful Creek] I realized that there was no creek to see and that the name was affixed to as a matter of routine without any creativity whatever it as it was done with many Kurdish location names. I said to my Kurdish friends from Hakkari who were with me that Guzeldere Pass must have had a Kurdish name. It did. It was called Gedika Chux. Chux was the name of a village a bit below the pass. Nobody in the region ever calls it the Guzeldere Pass.
Anyone who lives in Hakkari city calls it Colemerg. The most populated town of the province and perhaps the zenith of Kurdish militancy in Turkey we call Yuksekova, but the Kurds call it Gever. For them Cukurca and Semdinli, the two towns known for frequent attacks on border outposts, are known as Cele and Semdinan, respectively.
After you drive through the pass, the horizon is a series of mountains lined up like a wall. Beyond them is Iran. Once you take the Iran border to your left and drive toward Hakkari city, you are engulfed by one of the most spectacular sceneries of the world. The Zap River that enters Iraq at Cukurca and links up with River Tigris near Mosul meanders through wadis and canyons overlooked by majestic mountains.
The region’s distinctive ethnic and geographical identity that sets it apart from other regions of Turkey continues unchanged in Iran in the East and Iraq in the South. That is the heartland of the region called Kurdistan. Hakkari’s topography is similar to Iran and Iraq. Their common feature is being the land of Kurdistan. On these lands live the Kurds with their tribal ties and kinships.
The people of the region have never acknowledged the borders imposed on them. You can’t have natural borders on such high mountains. There are also no ethnic boundaries. Borders are easily traversed by the Kurds who don’t use passports. Kurdish armed movements in all three countries have routinely used the land of each other as hinterland of their area of operations.
Those who live inside the borders of Turkey refer to neighboring countries without using their official designations. For them Iran is Rojhilat and Iraq is Bashur, that is East and South respectively in Kurdish language, just as they are now referring to Kurdish areas adjacent to Turkish border in Syria as Rojava, that is, the West.
These identifications are based on their perception of Kurdistan. With feel they live in Kurdistan. For them the part of their geographical and ethnic entity that on paper remains in Iran is the East, those parts in Iraq is the South and the parts in Syria is the West, hence the labels East Kurdistan, South Kurdistan et al. Bakur, that is North, is where they live, hence North Kurdistan.
We reached he city of Hakkari, that is Colemerg, talking about all these with Kurdish academics of the Hakkari University.
A surprise was waiting for me in Hakkari that evening.It was an article by Mustafa Akyol in Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse titled, ‘’Is There a Turkish Kurdistan?’’
The introductory paragraph of the article was especially stunning: “If you follow the Turkish media, and especially focus on news related to Turkey’s southeastern neighbors, you will notice an interesting nuance: The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of is almost never referred to with its official name. Most Turks rather simply call it ‘Northern Iraq’ with clear intention to avoid the K word. Others who try to be more realistic speak of ‘the Kurdish Regional Government.’ They, in other words, prefer the word ‘Kurdish’ to ‘Kurdistan,’ because the latter is quite toxic for most Turkish ears.”
Allergy of Turks to the word “Kurdistan” is at times unnerving and at times amusing. While I was reading these lines I remembered an incident with an Iraqi young girl who entered Turkey from the border of Kurdistan in Iraq. In 1991 after Saddam Hussein lost his sovereignty beyond the 36th parallel, marking the actual emergence of a Kurdistan region, many babies were named Kurdistan and that was how they were recorded in population registers. This young girl, almost a teenager when the Americans invaded in 2003, entered Turkey through the Habur border crossing in the southeast. The official studying her passport gave her a long look and asked: “What is your name?” After hesitating a bit, she answered: “Northern Iraq.”
Akyol’s points were on the mark, provided if you read this part of it from the end: “The reason for this widespread Turkish sensitivity is not hard to see: The geographic area that historically has been called ‘Kurdistan’ is divided since World War I between four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, the last of them having the largest share. Moreover, groups among Turkey’s Kurds have launched almost two dozen rebellions against Ankara in the past 90 years. This had led successive Turkish governments –and especially the bureaucratic establishment, which was politely called ‘the regime’ – to try to ‘Turkify’ the region.”
What I mean by reading from the end is this: “Because successive Turkish governments — and especially the bureaucratic establishment, which was politely called ‘the regime,’ tried to ‘Turkify’ the region, that led groups among Turkey’s Kurds to launch almost two dozen rebellions against Ankara in the past 90 years.”
And I can add the following “As long as the identity of Turkey’s Kurds are denied including the avoidance of the K word, Kurds will never feel reconciled.” Because the Turkish allergy to the word Kurdistan brings with it the fear of division of Turkey. For Kurds, this means rejections of their quest and demands for equality.
The problem with the word ‘’Kurdistan’’ is not solvable by citing claims that the borders are not precisely defined, therefore it has the potential of causing problems in the Turkish administrative structure. While there is Kurdistan in Iraq, a province with that name in Iran was allowed to keep it both under monarchy and then the Islamic Republic, there is now the possibility of another one emerging in Syria, to think that there has never been an area called Kurdistan in Turkey only attributes sacrosanctity to the superficial, illogical and abnormal borders drawn after World War I to define Turkey’s southern frontier.
This can no more be possible in the second decade of the 21st century.
Akyol’s remark that “if there is a Kurdistan in Turkey, it is the whole country and its capital is Istanbul” sounds pleasing to the ears. His intention with that description is subtly pleasant but not in full harmony with historical and physical facts and the direction developments are heading toward nowadays. Akyol’s words, “Kurds should be made more at home in every inch of Turkey,” are entirely justified.
But this will be impossible, if the name of their homeland is denied or considered as dangerous for the unity of the people and country or as ‘sinful’.
The proper response to the question “Is there a Turkish Kurdistan?” that will also satisfy the concerned parties could well be: ”Part of Turkish territory is Kurdistan.”
Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. He contributed to two Century Foundation publications: Turkey's Transformation and American Policy and Allies in Need: Turkey and the U.S. He is currently senior columnist of Radikal in Istanbul. Çandar was a special foreign policy advisor to Turkish President Turgut Özal from 1991 to 1993.