Uncertain terrain

As the question of EU membership looms, a land divided by identity and ideas remains at a cultural crossroads.

Thanks to irrigation projects, the outskirts of Sanliurfa, 40 miles north of Syria, have seen a construction boom in the last several years. Balconied apartment towers appear in areas once mostly used for farming.
Thanks to irrigation projects, the outskirts of Sanliurfa, 40 miles north of Syria, have seen a construction boom in the last several years. Balconied apartment towers appear in areas once mostly used for farming. (Essras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / May 13, 2007

SANLIURFA -- A Muslim man motions for me to follow: Weave among the noontime worshipers, find a space, and kneel.

It is only days before spring, and the subject of the imam's speech, dictated to this eastern outpost by government officials in Ankara, the capital, is a battle on March 18, 1915, that laid a foundation for the Turkish republic. Gather around the mosque, then, in the name of the secular state that rose from the ashes of Ottomans. Yet it is ritual prayer, honoring Allah, that moves these men.

Side by side we rise in sun and shadow. My arm presses hard against that of a robed elder. We bow, then kneel again. The silent sound of a thousand bending bodies surrounds me. Hands, then foreheads, press onto carpets. The weave is rough against the skin. My eyes settle inches from ankles. Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic prayers rush around my still mouth.

* * *

For 84 years, military might has guarded Turkish borders that brace land divided by identity and ideas: Secular or religious? Modern or traditional? Military control or democratic freedom?

This month, as a candidate with an Islamist past pursued the presidency, secularists protested in Parliament, in a constitutional court, and on cosmopolitan streets. The European Union, for so long trying to decide whether Turkey's borders should become its own, lobbied for order in Istanbul and Ankara.

Origins of Turkey's struggle emerge at the edge, in the arc of rugged terrain that reaches from Europe deep into the Middle East. There modernity rises above lives long lived close to the land.

* * *

Beyond the Euphrates River, 40 miles north of Syria, sits Sanliurfa, a cultural crossroads since before the days of Abraham.

In the empty gray of a Friday dawn, 200 men crowd a small room near the dank, dark cave where Abraham was born, if fact follows faith about the father of three religions. The men rock and chant: "Allah! Allah! Allah!"

They rise and navigate the old alleys of Sanliurfa's bazaar to the two-story compound of Kasim Hafiz, a man revered, among other reasons, because he has memorized the Koran. They sit on carpets and gulp bowls of shredded beef and bread seasoned with lemon and oil. Then Kasim and 30 followers -- bankers, merchants, government officials, and unemployed workers -- enter a long library and lounge on low couches.

"As the body needs to eat something," Kasim says, "the heart needs Allah."

Turkey's secular government appoints imams and polices citizens who try to raise the role of Islam in society. Women are not allowed, for example, to wear a head scarf in university classrooms. Many secular citizens bristle after years of demands by the EU that, as a condition of membership, Turkey allow more personal freedoms. Not so in Kasim's devout den.

"I want the European Union," Kasim tells me. "There is no democracy in Turkey."

The Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds strong support in Sanliurfa. The party, which has roots in the political Islam movement of recent decades, has advocated EU membership, while also promoting elements of a more traditional Islamic life.

Kasim's stout body is cloaked in a black robe. A stiff cap sits firmly on his head.

"The clothes I'm wearing now," he says, "are illegal under Turkish law."

* * *

King Nimrod, great-grandson of Noah and builder of Babel, is said to have ruled with his pantheon of spirits into these upper reaches of Mesopotamia. Jesus, some centuries later, is thought to have sent a blessing to the region and its early adopters of his faith. Muslims followed Mohammad's call northward from Medina and Mecca. European crusaders claimed it back with a state they called Edessa. Muslims rose again.

Meanwhile, fertile soil wanted only water. Winter rains brought wheat; wells nourished cotton. But earthen mounds atop silent settlements, buried for millennia, still speak of too-frequent thirst.

So it is incredible: A concrete canal near Sanliurfa emerges from mountains to deliver millions of gallons of water from the Euphrates to the Harran Plain. Above-ground branches carry it to fields running toward the machine-gun-guarded border with Syria. Watering the plain is one part of the multibillion-dollar Southeastern Anatolia Project that has put five dams on the Euphrates and three on the Tigris River to the east.

Now growing alongside peppers and peanuts, even on 120-degree days: balconied apartment towers, textile factories, four-star hotels, Harran University, a soccer stadium. In Sanliurfa, a cinema shows "The Lord of the Rings." A 16-year-old farmer, raised in a land-rich family in a village with 100 homes, pockets his cellphone, buys a ticket, and settles into the world of popcorn and icy Coke.

* * *

Only two hours northeast of Sanliurfa, plains have broken into foothills, then mountains: land of Kurds.

Thick rain smears the windshield. Headlights cut dropping darkness just enough to show soldier sleeves motioning to stop. A gun barrel dangles as a Turkish voice asks for passports.

A war between Kurdish rebels and Turkish soldiers claimed tens of thousands of lives in the 1990s. Army animosity, and checkpoints, remain. A soldier bends to the car window with an offer: "Come, have tea."

We splatter around guard bunkers and into the army office. A portrait of Ataturk, the general earlier known as Mustafa Kemal, hangs behind the baby-faced sergeant who struggles to recall high school English. He sets his thick hands on the desk and leans forward.

"What can I do to you?" he asks.

He laughs awkwardly and tries again: "What can I do for you?"

Soon a pleasant boredom descends. The sergeant talks about the next day, when the traditional Kurdish New Year, Newroz, will draw hundreds of thousands of Kurds to the outskirts of Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital.

"Tomorrow," the sergeant says, "is funny."

* * *

Noon the next day, at the foot of a bonfire burning high, the crowd spins. Men and women dressed in T-shirts and jeans, and others in the flowing fabrics of traditional Kurdish dress, cross pinkies and step to electric rhythms of the saz, a bulbous lute, and the zurna, a wooden reed instrument, broadcast at ear-crushing volume from a distant stage. The tire-fueled bonfire, a symbol of Kurdish resistance and the renewal that comes with spring, splits soft sky with a relentless ribbon of black. Locked lines of dancers create a centrifuge of joy.

Danger stands at the edge: On the roof of a warehouse, a pack of 20 masked revelers waves banners emblazoned with the image of Abdullah Ocalan, instigator of armed rebellion until his capture in 1999. Police perched on the fire escape of a nearby apartment building train binoculars on the crowd that, by some estimates, has swelled to several hundred thousand.

Simple public gatherings, let alone such an expression of cultural identity as Newroz, were long prohibited. Those involved even in civil struggle must be wary of a law against insulting "Turkishness." As Newroz newcomers pass a brigade of police armed in riot gear, some 40 Kurdish politicians sit in a political prison a few miles south of the fairgrounds. European observers have come to the festival to witness how the Kurds are treated.

Leyla Zana, 46, a Kurdish former member of Parliament who was imprisoned nearly a decade for, among other things, speaking Kurdish in Parliament, takes the stage between bands.

"Turkey should decide if it wants to live by itself," Zana says, "or with us, but with equal rights."

In the crowd: Canip Yildirim , 83, a lawyer and a former political prisoner himself, beams. He mentions one benefit of the armed struggle, in which female rebels fought in the mountains alongside men. Around Yildirim, men and women walk and laugh together; that was not so common, he says, even 30 years ago. Songul Can, 35, a social worker dressed with a bohemian flair, talks about 3,500 children who have no homes amid the shanties and apartment blocks that sprang up in Diyarbakir, a city with stone walls built by Byzantines, as Kurd villages were cleared amid the fighting. It would be nice, she says, if Kurdish children could study their native language in Turkey's schools. Garip Kan, 22, a furniture maker who plays soccer on weekends and only the day before proposed to his girlfriend, quietly navigates from kebab stands toward the stage and back. He does not dance, but considers his former life in a village near the headwaters of the Tigris, an hour north. Near that village, the stone foundation of an Armenian church stands as a reminder of an ethnic community violently driven from the region nearly a century ago as Ottomans sought to keep their diminishing power. In 1995, Kan, then 11, watched as Turkish soldiers came to the valley and set his village ablaze.

I buy a fresh cucumber, split and salted down the center. Behind food stands, picnicking families rest on blankets spread over slick mud.

* * *

On a burnt-brown hillside two hours southeast of Diyarbakir, and only 10 miles from Syria, a stone room is lighted at the eastern end by a tall, narrow window. It was built some 3,000 years ago by sun worshipers. On top of that room, a neatly restored stone monastery, home for centuries to Syrian Orthodox patriarchs, still shelters monks and students.

Nearby, set high on a slope and intended more for Kurds than Christians, are words of Ataturk: "How good it is to be Turk."

Yet several hundred Christians still living in Mardin, and in Midyat, farther east, receive other signs. A bomb tossed in a church official's walled garden in March leaves many feeling the "deep state," the most entrenched of Turkey's establishment, does not want Christians to be too comfortable.

Hills stand. Plains sprawl. Power shifts, one century to the next, across religion and race, culture and custom. Why do we seek similarity and defend against difference?

I sit with the Rev. Gabriel Akkurt, a white-bearded priest at the Saffron Monastery, who does not seem to want to talk. He knows English. Yet for more than an hour, a translator turns Akkurt's Turkish words into English. Most often, Akkurt gives short answers to questions that try to tap into centuries.

Finally, as we say a friendly goodbye, I joke that I will learn Aramaic, thought to have been the language of Jesus and still spoken by Akkurt and other Christians in Mardin and Midyat.

"You should," Akkurt says, smiling. "It is your native language."

* * *

Tarp-topped tractor trailers whine and grind. Then, just beyond the town of Silopi, engines idle, and silence. Drivers wait in makeshift staging lots that hold 2,000 trucks and more for hours, then weeks, before motoring through the border checkpoint and into Iraq. Truck beds are stacked with shoes and wheat, cement and iron bars to rebuild things and lives knocked down.

If Turkey joins the EU, this crossroads will be one outpost of the broadened political boundary. To the east, steep canyons cut toward Iran. Just south, snow shields Iraqi mountains rising sharply. The Tigris, tracing toward Silopi for so long, has slipped away.

A Turkish policeman, his face defined by wider, flatter features common among more eastern Turkic people, stands outside a small shop and registers truck drivers waiting to cross. His efforts are part of a new system he says will shorten their wait.

"It will be similar to the European borders," he says.

Beside the road, a shepherd, seemingly lost but surely not, tends his flock. A swallow darts above green grass grown from cold rain.

EU membership for Turkey will not come for years, if at all. Now, though, Iraqi Kurds, friends of the Turkish army during the Kurdish rebellion in Turkey, talk of controlling oil in Kirkuk, and of having a state of their own. So Turkish army helicopters rise from a nearby base and buzz low. It is the ultimate point of power: For how long can force from above prevent change from below?

A stiff breeze blows, and the shepherd and his sheep move on. The swallow rises and falls, its angled wings beating against unseen currents.

Tom Haines can be reached at

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