Published June 26, 2012
By mid-June it is so hot in southeastern Turkey that the air in the border town Silopi smells like a kiln cooking the dust that floats inside of it. A burnt-black road that runs through town sears the rubber sandals of those crossing it and everywhere yellow vegetation seems to wither where it is planted. It is the kind of heat that normally forces people inside, but tonight the people of Silopi are camping outside or sleeping in their cars; there had been a moderate earthquake the night before and no one wants to be trapped, even with air-conditioning. Families and friends sit around tables or pitch tents on the lawn of a popular, open-air restaurant, playing the tile game okey and discussing what, even with the heat and looming earthquake, is foremost on their minds: Iraqi Kurdistan.
Silopi is nine miles from the Habur gate, Turkey's largest border crossing with Iraq. That hot road, four cracked black lanes whose edges ruffle into the surrounding rocky land, is the town's lifeblood. It carries trucks and cars loaded with cargo—concrete, flour, metal pipes manufactured in Western Turkey—across the border. Smaller cars, parked in Silopi's center, charge 20TL (about $12) to ferry individuals to Iraq, and return with cigarettes, sugar, and tea, sometimes a little more than the legal limit squirreled away in the battered interiors, to sell at a markup from the low Iraqi prices. All vehicles return with tanks brimming with cheap Iraqi gas. What they don't use, they'll siphon and sell to illegal shops. Some large trucks find a way to smuggle in blue plastic jugs full of the gas which used to be, they love to say, "cheaper than water." Now a tank-full is about the price of a few bottles of mineral water. In Turkey, gas is $9 or more a gallon.
In Silopi, jobs are scarce. There is no manufacturing, and so Silopi relies on the border with Iraq for its existence. It is because of this that beside the road, in the middle of the dreary city center, sits the four star Grand Hotel Silopi; and it is because of this that the price for 1,000 square meters of land, according to one landlord, has gone from $5,500 to $140,000 in just four years. Silopi's houses, shops, and restaurants are all built alongside that road. The lucrative geography has even attracted some new Turks to the Kurdish town.
Huseyin, a muscular Kurdish man with graying hair, owns the Silopi restaurant where people wait out the earthquake. Huseyin also co-owns two gas stations in Iraqi Kurdistan, and coordinates the exporting of concrete from Turkey. He's talkative, animated, and full of expert opinions. Like most of the people living in Silopi, he reveres the border that allows him his livelihood, but the reliance also makes him nervous. Smuggling, he says, ruins things for legitimate businessmen. "I have a problem with the 'ants,'" he says, using the condescending name given to the drivers who buy and resell small items like sugar, tea, and cigarettes. "They don't just bring passengers. Some of them bring guns, and it makes both sides of the border feel uneasy."
Huseyin, a Silopi native, is quick to insist that those smuggling weapons are from other towns, like Mardin, and that they only bring in one or two weapons a month, and only pistols. But, he says, "The color of the business is changing. Now when we cross the border we don't have any advantage because we are from Silopi." Huseyin also complains about the limits on his profit. As an exporter, he gets only a 1 or 2 percent commission on sales, he says, and lately the price of crossing the border has increased. The Iraqi Kurds make the most money, he says, and, of course, so do the Turks.
No matter the disparity in income, like many of the Turkish Kurds I met along the border, Huseyin considers himself elite compared to Iraqi Kurds. "As a civilization," he says, "we are further along than that place. They don't have a democracy. It's not a constitutional country." The landlord, though, cares little for politics. His focus is on profit. "Kurdistan is for whoever has the money and wants the investment," he says. "The future of the Iraqi Kurdish region is so bright."
Silopi glows a little from its proximity to Iraqi Kurdistan, at least when compared to other border towns in Turkey. Shopkeepers in Cizre, for example, complain passionately about the slight profit margin on small items from Iraq—sugar, tea, cigarettes, and soda—versus the high risk to obtain them. Twenty-year-old Aziza has just finished praying at Noah's tomb, Cizre's prime attraction.
"It's good that we are close to the border," she says. "Some of my relatives get things we need there." The lower half of her face is covered with a gauzy white shawl, typical of the women in Cizre, and her mouth moving behind it has the appearance of a person talking through the mesh barrier of a confessional. Every day, she says, she goes to Noah's tomb. "I come here to ask for marriage."
Smuggling across the Turkey-Iraq border, long an activity to which authorities on both sides turned a blind eye, has been indelibly cursed by the incident at Uludere, where 34 Kurdish smugglers were killed by the Turkish Army which mistook them for PKK guerillas. Smuggling, never safe, is now linked to what, for Turkey's Kurds, is the most recent atrocity against them. Still, people in Cizre find little option but to cross the border wherever possible. "It might be dangerous," Aziza said. "They might be scared."
"Our life here is not good," a shopkeeper tells me. "There is no factory. Our young people are all unemployed." His small grocery store is stacked with goods up to the high ceiling, and the air is stifling, hot and engorged with dust from the old goods. While he talks he picks up Iraqi goods and explains the pitiful profit made on them—half a Turkish lira (about 25 cents) on a pack of cigarettes, one Turkish lira on two pounds of tea.
"In Northern Iraq life is good," he says. "There is wealth, a good lifestyle. Here we have a burning life." In the beverage fridge one slim red can of Coke—brand name written in Arabic script—has come to symbolize the shopkeeper's failure to capitalize on the boom in Iraqi Kurdistan. "I've had this for months," he says. "No one will buy it. Kurds here don't like the taste of Iraqi soda."
Down the road, at the Ozcan market, Bashir, the shop owner, offers cups of sweet tea in tulip glasses and explains his business. He is one of thousands of similar merchants who have set up shacks along the road, selling siphoned or smuggled gasoline to Turkish drivers. He sells at least 25 gallons a day, making between $12 and $25 profit. It's not enough to support him and his family—he makes a little more selling tea and sugar—but he likes that he works close to home, and he prefers it to driving a truck, which he did for years. The police, Bashir says, know they exist—it’s hard not to, blue plastic jugs outside the shacks are giveaways—but, "They know that we are poor and they leave us alone."
There was in fact an earthquake that night in Silopi, but no one was hurt. The next day, Abdullah Korkmas, the general manager of a local school, sits directly beneath the weak air-conditioner unit in his office, drinking boxed milk leftover from a government program. His office is one of a handful of rooms that make up the tiny school. There are 120 students enrolled there, he says, although the village, a small cluster of low, sand-colored houses between the road and a long yellow field leading up to the mountains, looks far too small to produce that many students. "Less houses, more kids," he says, smiling. "No business, more kids."
Korkmas is concerned with the poverty in the village, and aware of the villager's political focus—a part of Kurdish identity that radiates from Diyarbakir throughout southeastern Turkey. The choice between a meager living and a life as a guerrilla is one that his students face. "Everybody knows what goes on in the mountains, and the kids know even more than their parents," he says. "They talk about it in the hallway. When foreigners pass, they automatically make a peace sign"—a symbol of the PKK. Many of his students will choose instead to cross the border with Iraq to make money—“The border is only political. Culturally, there is no border. Economically, there is almost no border"—and a group of four teenage boys walking on a path near the school confirm this. They all say they would cross the border for work, although they don't know what to expect in Iraqi Kurdistan. "I hear it is beautiful there," one says.
The nicest house in the village, a bright blue one-story building with grapevines in the backyard and a hut full of mooing calves in the front, belongs to Sadih Atilla, a 48-year-old farmer. Atilla agrees that life in Silopi is hard, but he feels lucky when he compares it to life in the 1990s.
"In the village we were always stuck between the PKK and the Turkish state fighting each other," he says. "Today most kids are interested in the PKK, but they don't see the violence, they see it as Kurdish culture."
More than anyone in Silopi, Atilla understands the relationship between a ceasefire and a fruitful border crossing. He once operated three trucks for exports, but had to sell them when the border was closed during the first Gulf War. He's philosophical about his losses—“It’s destiny whether you are rich or not. And, besides, whatever money you have in this world you lose when you die," he says. His perspective about the prosperity just across the border is similarly philosophical, borne out of a resignation to his current life and the necessity to defend the goodness of that life to survive in it. Of the wealthier Iraqi Kurds and their safe lives in an autonomous Kurdistan, where, unlike in Turkey, they can speak Kurdish, fly the Kurdish flag, and elect the leaders of Kurdish revolutions to the presidency, he says, "Here, humanity is more important. We are more hospitable. When they are interested in you, they are also interested in profit." But, he says, pouring more tea, "If the border closed now, life would end."
By 11 a.m. that day in Silopi hundreds of trucks are backed up for miles waiting to enter Iraq. Drivers close to the gate say they have been waiting for two days, but that is nothing compared to past crossings, when they've had to wait a month or more. Some drivers set up picnics in the shade of their trucks, then hastily pack them up when the line moves, a few hundred feet at a time. One driver, carrying an exposed cargo of pipes, tells me he paid $2,800 to rent the truck from Istanbul to Iraq. It costs another $20 or more to cross, though some people can get ahead with bribes. "There is a lot of injustice," he says. He stops and leans out the window to hand a pink slip to Halef, a government employee, which states permission to cross the border. For seven years Halef has been crossing the hot road on foot, collecting slips from truck drivers. He is dressed like an office worker, his pink button-down shirt the same color as the slips handed to him. "It's faster now than it used to be," he says. "I remember once when the truck line stretched all the way from here to Cizre."
I cross the border with an "ant," in a small white SUV whose doors had been gutted and windows blackened to keep out the sun. My driver is a slim, energetic young Kurd who asks me if I need water and tells me, every once in a while, not to worry. He is happy to have a passenger, and an American at that—it is true that Iraqi Kurds are fond of Americans and my presence gives his small trade mission legitimacy. He tosses my passport on the dashboard and drives through the border's many checkpoints. We pass the Turkish police and he hands me my passport—it is almost too hot to touch—turning to me, beaming and announcing, gleefully, "We have left Turkey. We are now in Kurdistan!"