Watching The Sun Rise In Istanbul
My bus from Bucharest arrives in Istanbul at 4:30am, which sounds inopportune, but isn’t. With the weird jet-lag sensation that follows broken, perambulatory sleep and pre-dawn rises, I blearily heave myself and my cargo into a taxi, chartering it to Aya Sofya. “Otel?” enquires my driven, assuming I’m headed for one of the dozens of guesthouses that swarm around the base of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s historic quarter. “Camii!” (mosque!) say I, referencing the one-time Byzantine cathedral, turned mosque, turned museum (turned, maybe, mosque again) — its hulking, salmon-pink presence an enduring symbol of the city.
The driver shakes his head in consternation (a non-Muslim heading to a non-mosque before the sun rises is perhaps an unusual scenario) then jovially charges me an extortionate rate, which I happily pay as I tumble into the cool half-light and pick my way past sleeping dogs, industrious çay (tea) house owners and gurgling fountains towards Aya Sofya’s looming spires. I linger only briefly to take in the familiar edifice, then loop up and around, threading down a deserted, unevenly cobbled back alley. By the time I reach the Golden Horn, the inlet that divides old Stamboul from Galata (both on the European side of the Bosphorus), the sky is deep blue velvet, slashed at the horizon and leaking blood orange light.
It’s just me and the fishermen, stalwartly standing on Galata Bridge as the sun rises, majestic, over the inky waters of the Bosphorus — the heavily congested waterway that does dual duty, linking the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea and dividing Europe from Asia. I pivot to observe the effects of the dawn brilliance on Yeni Camii (the “New” Mosque) and am almost hit in the face by an orange light bulb — a symbol of the ruling regime, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
This is Istanbul, after all: politics is pervasive. Last time I was in the city, it was summer of 2013 and the Gezi uprising was already underway. The initial occupation of Gezi Park was led by a small group of activists, intent on preventing the central green space’s replacement by a gargantuan mall (ostentatiously housed in a replica Ottoman barracks). The demonstration soon ballooned into a plural, entrenched resistance to what many protesters saw as the AKP’s destructive capitalist impulse, exclusionary discourse, Muslim conservatism and regressive politics. A ramshackle encampment, incorporating libraries, mess-halls, and impromptu concert spaces, grew up in the heart of Istanbul.
The deployment of riot police using hardline, authoritarian tactics (water cannons, tear gas), and the demonizing rhetoric from AKP leaders (including, most notably, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan), only served to strengthen the protesters’ convictions. The Gezi movement’s physical presence had been dispersed by the time I left Istanbul in August, but the demonstrations arguably politicized sectors of Turkish society that had previously been fairly indifferent — aligning the interests of a young, secular, leftist, urban cohort with that of the LGBT community, Kurds, feminists, workers, and other groups sidelined by the AKP and mainstream Turkish politics more generally.
Two years later, you could be mistaken for thinking the political status quo has seemingly survived unshaken; in the interim since my last visit, the AKP has triumphed in both local polls and, via Erdogan, the presidential election (Erdogan, as president, is ostensibly non-partisan. But as anyone who watched his actions during the AKP’s general election campaign can attest, this is not the case in reality). But a new set of party-colors — that of the HDP, the Peoples’ Democratic Party — has joined the ubiquitous political streamers that are strung like outsize prayer flags across all sectors of the city. The new flags bear little resemblance to their forebears — the jarring blue and orange light bulbs of AKP, say, or the staunchly nationalistic red and white crescents of the leading opposition, the kemalist CHP, and the right-wing MHP.
The new flags’ political emblem is far less homogenous and militantly in-you-face: two elegant purple hands reach upwards and outwards, cupping (or generating) a burst of green leaves and multicolor stars. The resulting symbol resembles a tree in spring, emerging from the initials HDP. The flags are a riot of red, white, yellow, purple, green — all in attractive, non-threatening shades. The image is appropriate for a party that has placed environmental issues as a prominent element of their platform, but the HDP is notable for more than their savvy graphic design team and respect for trees.
The HDP essentially represents the struggle for Kurdish rights and representation at a national level. Pro-Kurdish parties have been a feature of the Turkish political landscape before (check out this surprisingly comprehensive chart of Turkey’s crazy political undulations), but have consistently been frustrated by Turkey’s insanely high legal threshold to enter parliament: any party seeking parliamentary seats must win at least 10 percent of the vote. The leftist HDP, however, has broadened the interests of the party to include the rights of many other groups: women, members of the LGBT community, Armenians and other ethnic minorities, environmentalists. Their focus has consistently been on diversity, democracy, social equality and human rights.
And the HDP surge gained momentum at a crucial time, a successful bid for parliament entailing massive ramifications for Erdogan and the AKP. Erdogan’s hopes to expand his influence by increasing the power of the president are no secret, and if AKP achieved a super-majority, they would be able to push through constitutional changes to make those hopes a reality. If, however, the HDP gained enough support and passed the threshold, the AKP would be cheated of a super-majority and perhaps even the mandate to govern alone. (The latter possibility is indeed what has occurred.) The HDP pointedly framed their campaign as a direct challenge to Erdogan’s power: any vote for them, they made clear, was a vote against Erdogan.
Having made it past my initial Istanbul sunrise, I immediately fell in with a Kurdish crowd. My friend, host and unpaid translator Sinem has, it turns out, been dating a Kurdish boy (not an activity I’d especially recommend, given that the Kurdish males I know have a propensity to romantic fatalism and a slightly perturbing, extremely close, identification with the suffering of Kurdistan. If lugubrious heroism, dark humor, and rebel-with-an-actual-cause attitude comprise your dream man — or you relish psychoanalytical discussion of childhood trauma — then these are the boys for you. But steel yourself for such sweet delights as, “I love you as much as I love Kurdistan.”). All of her boyfriend’s closest friends are, needless to say, Kurdish. Any discussion with them loops back, inexorably, to Kurdistan (although I make no claim that their views are representative).
It should be noted that outside of the company of Kurds, Kurdistan is not a particularly accepted term in Turkey. The south-east of the country, sections of which I travelled through last time I was here, makes up the a northern reaches of a majority Kurdish territory that stretches across Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. There are approximately 30 million Kurds globally — making them the world’s largest stateless ethnic group — and approximately half of them live in Turkey. Turkey’s Kurds have been historically oppressed, their rights (to language, to political representation) constitutionally denied, and their militant reaction to such violations — the formation of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), deemed a terrorist group by the U.S. and the U.K., in 1978 — consistently battled. The resulting conflict has cost an estimated 45,000 lives.
The PKK’s nominal leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999 and remains incarcerated. Peace talks have been in the works since 2012, with Ocalan declaring a ceasefire in 2013, but their progress has been far from smooth. HDP representatives have recently played a crucial part in the negotiations, and their ascension to parliament will no doubt be a determining factor in the way the peace process plays out.
But the Kurds now have other problems on their hands: ISIS has pushed at the borders of Turkey’s Kurdish region (with the drawn-out siege of Kobane, in Syria) and threatened the lives of countless Kurds in both Syria and Iraq. The PKK has diverted their attention to these regions, fighting ISIS under the banner of the YPG, as the semi-autonomous government of Iraqi Kurdistan keeps a handle on their northeastern nugget of the country, and Syria’s Kurds hastily establish the discontinuous dream-state of Rojava south of the Turkish border.
The Kurds I meet in Istanbul feel this instability keenly, bewailing the fact that “they’re killing us,” and denouncing Islam of all stripes (this is far from the Kurdish norm, and many of Turkey’s Kurds are devout). Interestingly, they note with a trace of bitterness that Iraqi Kurds feel less committed to a unified Kurdistan — their brothers in Iraq have everything they need, they posit, so are less motivated to fight for more. Many of the characteristics that I have come to see as Kurdish quirks (a connoisseurship of karpuz [watermelon], for instance, and a dislike of Turkish tea) are endearing. As is their passionate love for their homeland: even the scorpions of Kurdistan are the subjects of rapturous reminiscences.
Yet Turkey’s Kurds (at least, the ones I’ve met), occasionally lean towards social conservatism — their absolute commitment to the Kurdish cause rendering them tunnel-visioned and bellicose. While the presence of female fighters on Kurdish forces and female involvement in the political project of Rojava has earned the Kurds applause for enlightened inclusivity, I have yet to meet a Kurdish man who treats me as an equal. In fact, the mention of “feminism” had my companions in laughing fits; practically gasping for breath, they kindly explained that feminism is an insane ideology preaching female supremacy and the oppression of man-kind.
Homosexuality makes these middle-class, urban, educated Kurdish men uncomfortable; in any case, they believe the fight for gay rights is of negligible importance when compared to the Kurdish cause. Their flat dismissal of Muslims writ large, as killers just waiting for the opportunity to radicalize, bewildered me in its dogmatism.
All of which makes HDP’s achievements, under the leadership of co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, even more remarkable. On Election Day last week, the HDP sailed past the 10 percent threshold, securing 80 of the 550 seats in parliament and crushing Erdogan’s hopes for an AKP super-majority. To do so, they had to grapple significant support from other parties, while skilfully juggling the interests and anxieties of their diverse constituents. The balance they have struck has been incredibly effective in inspiring a country desperate for change. Whether they can walk this fine line in the coming weeks and months will be interesting.
The Kurdish men I have talked with indicated clearly that the affections and loyalties of Kurdistan lie mostly with the PKK and Ocalan, rather than with Demirtas and his HDP. If the HDP continue to deny their association with the militant wing, or if they make concessions on questions deemed integral to the Kurdish populace, they will lose crucial support from their base, these men say.
Meanwhile, members of the LGBT community also voice concerns over how HDP will act once in parliament. “They’re politicians,” one man in Istanbul tells me — and what politicians say during the campaign is determined by many factors. These men worry that HDP’s interest in the LGBT community is purely a matter of political expediency. They note that HDP rhetoric in the religious east runs to “Allah,” while in Istanbul, secularism is promoted. “I’m not so suspicious,” one man tells me, but there’s a flicker of doubt — quickly snuffed out by hope.
And hope has indeed been triumphant. The gay and Kurdish men I spoke with (obviously representing a tiny smidgeon of HDP’s broad-based support), notwithstanding their slight misgivings, are unanimous on whom they will vote for. If the HDP don’t pass the threshold, one Kurdish man tells me, eyes twinkling, he won’t come back from Mardin (his hometown in the east) after voting. He’ll buy a Kalashnikov, and join the resistance.
Despite the Kurdish propensity for fighting talk, the celebrations in Diyarbakir following the election eloquently illustrated the overwhelming desire for peace. This, despite recurrent attempts to derail the Kurd’s legitimate entry into parliament. Erdogan frequently denounced the HDP as “supported by terrorism” or “run by the terrorist organization.” In election week, an HDP rally was targeted by two explosions, which killed two men. Party officials claimed they had fielded dozens of attacks during the election campaign. Many Turkish voters intensely feared that this unfair opposition would climb its way into the ballot box: a stunning 46 percent of the voting public expected incorrect vote-counting, with that figure reaching 72 percent among opposition voters.
To combat the much-predicted electoral fraud, a small army of volunteers was mobilized to monitor the ballot boxes. I attended a meeting designed to prep volunteers on their duties, and was intrigued by the attendees’ seriousness, and the wide-ranging suspicions they voiced. But most of all I was stunned by how many people had decided this was important enough to them to actually devote an entire day to; the breadth and depth of political engagement bowled me over. And the voter turnout on Election Day bore this initial indication out: 86 percent of Turkish voters cast a ballot. (Compare to the 36.4 percent turnout in US midterms last year, or even the 58 percent for 2012’s presidential election.)
Indeed, reports of fraud did emerge following Sunday’s voting — but the HDP prevailed regardless, winning an astounding 12 percent of the vote. The AKP flailed at the polls: winning only 40.9 percent, they must either form a coalition within a certain time-frame or hold snap elections. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned Tuesday in response to the disappointing result, but Erdogan is resolutely clinging on. Given that no opposition parties have expressed any desire to join the AKP in coalition, early elections are looking increasingly likely.
Meanwhile, as crowds in Diyarbakir and Istanbul celebrated the HDP win (with much typical Kurdish dancing), I made my way east, to the historically Erdogan-AKP stronghold (despite some awkward football-related disagreements between president and polis) of Trabzon. No one here, on the eastern reaches of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, is dancing in the streets. And worrying street violence in the country’s south-east is threatening to cast a shadow on the Kurdish region’s post-election joy.
But like it or not, last week’s elections have utterly transformed Turkey’s political landscape. And even if early elections are held, the HDP’s victory has already had a profound impact. “This result shows that this country has had enough. Enough of Erdoğan and his anger,” Seyran Demir, a 47-year-old Kurdish woman from Diyarbakir, told The Guardian as the results were announced. “I am so full of joy that I can’t speak properly.”