Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Turkey. In which is given a subjective description of current state of affairs.
Turkey, autumn of 2015
do you still remember this letter I wrote almost a year ago on the – back then not exactly pleasant – situation in Syria and what it meant for us staying not far from there in the very southeast of Turkey, right across the border? Well, almost a year has passed, yet the situation didn’t change for the better. Quite the opposite: things got worse, you surely followed it in the news. Syria still is conflict-torn. Its population – worn down in a civil war – is on a mass exodus through the Levant and Europe. But that is only half of the story as, apparently, even the Republic of Turkey itself seems to struggle more than a bit as of late.
Turkish general elections in June this year brought a significant change in the political landscape there – or at least foreshadowing one in the future to some degree. Actually already before elections, the ruling social conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced the intention to draft a new constitution introducing a presidential system in Turkey, not finding much reception with the opposition. So, in the end, this election somehow also became a ballot for the constitution’s change. And apparently, a lot of people seemed not too attracted by this idea. The AKP, which had governed the country for about 13 years, lost its parliamentary majority, and also the rivalling main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) did fare worse than in the previous election. Benefitting was the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) which saw an increase in votes, but in particular the new People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a left-wing socialist organisation fared much better than expected. Resulting in a ‘hung parliament’, a coalition of sorts would have been the obvious next step in forming a government. Nevertheless, as political agendas were so basically contrary and the political climate apparently tense throughout the preceding weeks of election battle, negotiations didn’t make any progress. Apparently, new elections have now been called for November 1st.
But it got worse. Deadly clashes broke out. Not only after elections, but then in particular and with unrivalled violence, supporters of different political factions attacked each other, opposing party headquarters, newspaper offices and even local businesses only because they were owned by ethnic minorities. You probably can imagine the horror I took this news with, reminding me of the darkest chapters in the history of my own country … A ceasefire which was somehow achieving a balance between Turkish government and various insurgent Kurdish groups (among those the forbidden Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as terrorist organisation by several states) has been dropped. Of course it couldn’t be concealed that these events finally resulted in a renewed eruption of violence. Turkish armed forces were again starting military operations against Kurdish insurgents while these conversely return to a guerilla modus operandi, bomb attacks on police and military targets included – in particular in the country’s Kurdish populated southeast. For some it seemed as if current political unrest is throwing the whole country back into the political instability of the 1990s, others already see a civil war dawning.
And all this while right there not that far beyond the southern border, the grip of a jihadist extremist self-proclaimed caliphate is tightening, spreading terror and despair. Damascus … bombed, Aleppo … burned down, Homs … in ruins. While Kurdish militias were somehow successful to impede a spread of the so-called Islamic State (which in my opinion is neither representing Islam nor is it a ‘state’) further north with the Siege of Kobanî among other operations, Turkish government expectedly had no interest in growing Kurdish military influence right at their border. With also growing threat by jihadist terrorism, as the Suruç bombing in July 2015 demonstrated tragically, Turkey took up a difficult, some might even say dangerous two-front war in the area. Things certainly got worse, wouldn’t you say?
And right into the middle of this I was supposed to return for further fieldwork, continuing archaeological research at this early Neolithic sanctuary not far from the modern urbs of Şanlıurfa – the very neighbourhood which was so topical in the news lately. So, I guess it is somehow comprehensible that family and friends were a bit worried when I told them about this field trip. Worried as much as suggesting to maybe postpone the whole venture, to maybe abandon the idea of this trip at all. Of course, they got me thinking. I mean, you know – it’s family and friends after all and isn’t it true that they and their worries should matter as much as our own’s? Family and friends. While writing this I realized that in all these years I kept returning to the untamed barren mountains and beautiful dusty plains of the Urfa region, I also made quite some friends over here. Our crew of workmen coming from the nearby village for instance. Men who gave me a new name on my first week at the excavations (where I was known as ‘Ilyas’ which they considered much easier to spell and more suitable anyway than my ‘other’ name). Men whose dry (and, admittedly among us, sometimes even puerile) humour I learned to appreciate. And boys I’ve seen growing up over the last ten years I was involved in the excavations over here – up to two months after all, twice a year. Years which taught me some Turkish and introduced me to some amazing people and their even more endearing hospitality. These friends – could I desert them so easily? Abandon them to stay under the cosy blanket of imagined relative security? Of course this was in need of discussion. If there really was something to worry about, the last thing they’ve would have welcomed would be taking care of some naïve greenhorn on a misinterpreted ‘adventure’. Well, to cut it short: I went. Of course I did.
And I am telling you: all is quiet. Nothing seems to have ever changed. Being back in Urfa, being back at the excavation house just feels like belonging there the moment I arrived. As if I never left. Certainly, we did notice that and how close to conflict we were even before (see last year’s letter I mentioned in the beginning). Fighter jets rumbling low through the night, over and over again. Earlier in April, when we were here for the annual spring excavation campaign, we had an encounter somehow revealing how deep and close the conflict really is to the people around here. A student and I were in Urfa’s (actually very picturesque!) old town to run some errands. Nothing special, an average day for both, archaeologists and natives alike. The former typically dressed in dusty khaki and practical earth tones. Well, archaeologists – you know. We were just talking to a shop owner, going through his roadside-shelves full of bowls and brushes when a mobile tea vendor stopped by, asking something I did not quite get. My student companion was hesitating, looking at me for a moment, and then finally shaking her head. Apparently, the man was all too curious about news from the close front, obviously assuming we just came from the trenches (well, the *other* kind of trenches) because of our appearance. Indeed, this seemed to be a topic of constant interest in the streets and alleys of Urfa.
But now, however, where I am actively looking for signs of potential threat and peril, all of this is less obvious than I would have expected. There just is no atmosphere of danger. Not even the fighter jets are rushing towards Syria anymore. All seems quiet. Almost … There are those little signs you have to be able to read, though. That tank on a truck’s bed passing on the main road out-of-town was yet the most obvious of these. A bit more subtle are the enhancements, higher walls and heavier gates, at the official armed forces base we passed on our way to town. Or the fires flickering uneasy at the far distance beyond the southern horizon. Yet most noticeable is the drastic decrease in tourism. In town with its holy Islamic sites and the picture-postcard oriental old alleyways, but at our excavation site as well. Where hundreds and at times even thousands of tourists were treading on their feed at site still last year, now hardly a dozen – if at all – are showing up; western tourists even being the bigger exception. The recently opened visitor centre with cafeteria and souvenir shop at the foot of the prehistoric mound (finally offering the chance to get into those ‘white collar jobs’ for quite some of our former local ‘diggers’), the new museum in Urfa (one of the largest in the country, with a phenomenal collection and exhibition, go figure!) – all not as much of a ‘honey pot’ at the moment as they could (and should) have been.
Yes, it is quiet in the area at the moment. But it is not all peaceful silence, I’m afraid. Somehow it seems as if the whole country is paralyzed, everybody waiting for what the new elections in only a couple of weeks may bring and who (still?) will be in charge then. And so, upon leaving excavation, house and friends these days again, the same questions surface (forgive me if I start to sound a bit pathetic here): Deserting those friends in a situation like this, not knowing what the future will bring? It always seems to be such an easy task to go back home, slipping into some everyday life where your biggest concern is yet the next cancelled commuter train … but they, they got to stay – for this is their home.
And meanwhile, only a few kilometres south, right across the border Syria is falling apart. Torn in a civil war, the grip of a jihadist extremist self-proclaimed caliphate tightening.
Well, my friend – now I actually feel a little bit sorry having bothered you with all these dark thoughts and that I’m struggling to find a lighter ending to this letter. I’ll try to make sure that the next one will reach you in a better mood.