Published January 25, 2012
By bus and without traffic, it takes a little over an hour to get from Istanbul's Taksim Square to the western neighborhoods of Karayollari and Gazi. Once on the far outskirts of the city, the areas are now prime real estate. Large highways slice through them, and their buildings tell the story of the modern development of Istanbul: hills full of informal settlements called gecekondus can be found next to new residential skyscrapers and the unfinished red-brick buildings that fill in the timeline between the two.
Along the wide roads, posters and graffiti spell out the neighborhood's politics. One sign urges people to remember the Armenian genocide, and another shows a woman waving the Kurdish flag. Above a folding table stacked with books for sale on similarly controversial subjects, a sign reads: "Legal Warning! Reading Books Kills!" Because of frequent protests, new city buses do not run to these neighborhoods, only the small, slower minibuses. The new housing complexes are gated; security guards watch the periphery. Up a long road, police wait to respond to protests; in the other direction, the rest of Istanbul grinds oblivious.
Kurdish resistance and PKK violence are largely associated with Turkey's southeast; there is an invisible but formidable barrier around the region. But Turkey's largest Kurdish population is not in Diyarbakir—it is in Istanbul. In areas like Karayollari and Gazi, a substantial Kurdish population, most of them displaced from the southeast, lives and works and protests.
In early December I visited the area with Piotr Zalewski, a reporter covering the area's unrest for Time magazine, and our friend and interpreter, Sultan Coban. On an overpass over the noisy highways, a 23-year-old Kurdish man named Sercan, dressed in a Fight Club t-shirt with a wiry goatee and tattooed knuckles, greeted us. In the sitting room of his family's apartment, we gathered on couches surrounding the burning-hot wood stove.
Sercan's parents moved with their seven children to Istanbul 12 years ago from Diyarbakir, and though he's visited routinely since leaving and used to feel a connection to it, he doesn't now. But he still responds when things happen there. Tensions in his neighborhood mirror those escalating in his hometown—as Zalewski writes in Time, Karayollari and Gazi are sort of satellite areas to the southeast where most of their Kurdish residents come from originally. Earlier that day, Sercan said, a man in Diyarbakir had been killed by the police and protests were expected that night or the next in solidarity.
Ongoing gentrification and development—the tall, new buildings inhabited by residents who hang Turkish flags from their windows in what is interpreted by Kurdish neighbors as a provocation—provide new, homegrown reasons to be angry. Still, Sercan says, "There is more opportunity in Istanbul.” He, like most of the men in his family, works as a freelancer for the private construction industry.
Sercan led us through a large green park, its sloping hills showing off a view of city rooftops. Guests in formal wear milled around the closed door of the park's wedding hall, waiting for an earlier reception to end. Residents pressed their faces against a fence, watching a soccer game in progress. But the park, which once represented hope of neighborhood beautification, is now seen as a stamp of sale to developers. Next to its fields, the nearby gecekondus—some of them 50 years old and home to generations—are made to look like tent cities.
Along with the sweeping gentrification come the multitudinous excuses: collection of back taxes, earthquake safety regulations, elimination of blight. At the office of a small construction company, a worker lamented the process, while admitting that his role—outfitting projects with various building materials—is lucrative. In spite of his misgivings over the razing of the neighborhood, he is ambitious. Here, the profitable Turkish construction industry both increases social tension, and, in the case of those for whom it provides jobs, dilutes it.
The isolation of Diyarbakir and other cities in the southeast can be paralyzing and dangerous, but it allows a sort of comfort. There is shared grievance and, from that, unity. Some young Kurds I've spoken to who moved to Istanbul, usually for work, relate different but just as isolating experiences. Whatever hardships they encounter trying to find work or become comfortable in the new city are exacerbated by news of escalating violence back home. Their anxiety absorbs their new surroundings and, like a tar roof under sunlight, that anxiety boils into anger.
Across town, Istanbul's Istiklal Street, a wealthy area full of shops and restaurants, sits just across a busy street from Tarlabashi, a neighborhood home to many of the city's Kurds and which is undergoing its own cycle of forced eviction and renewal. Buildings decay around the most stalwart owners; most of the inhabitants have been moved to low income housing outside of the city. I met with two young Kurds at a teahouse to discuss their experience as new residents of Turkey's most vibrant city.
One was a shepherd from a small village in the southeast. He moved to Istanbul for work and found a job cleaning fish on a small boat. The other moved from Diyarbakir in search of a better education, getting a degree in philosophy from Istanbul University. Their unlikely bond was political, which for the shepherd was something new. Life in Istanbul provided a greenhouse in which their Kurdish nationalism grew. Both young Kurds attended protests, were arrested, and remained resistant to friendship with non-Kurdish neighbors and suspicious of their bosses and colleagues. "Kurdish people are second-class citizens," the former shepherd told me. "Everyone knows it." The teahouse television broadcast scenes of protest from Diyarbakir. "Terror, terror, terror," the philosopher translated for me.
Unlike Tarlabasi, which has been surrounded by wealth for some years, until recently Karayollari and Gazi offered some of the same opportunities for solidarity as Kurds might find in the southeast. Protests were predictable, and monitored by the police. Now, an added police presence guards the luxury buildings while their very existence agitates the neighbors. Recent and ongoing arrests in connection to a highly politicized mass trial of activists and others accused of having ties to the PKK have tempered protests a bit, according to some residents. People are nervous.
A smoke-filled teahouse in Karayollari caters almost entirely to the area's Kurds—mostly older men playing chess or backgammon, chain-smoking, and watching Kurdish television. Rumors about the neighborhood being entirely razed to make room for high-rise apartment buildings fill the room. The streets outside, people tell us, are often full of protesters. But tonight, people are socializing. A young Kurdish man has come to tell us about the protests and brings his friend, a Turk with a reddish crew cut.
"We protest because of inequality, and because of injustice," the Kurdish man says.
"In the 90s, it was Turk versus Kurd," the Turk said. "But now we are friends!" They both laugh.
Still laughing, the Kurd says, "They had prejudices against the Kurds. We couldn't even say we were Kurds!"
He goes on. "The Kurds who live here have witnessed war. They have seen the pain. They can't do nothing. We get upset when things happen in the southeast. When there is something going on in Diyarbakir, it comes here. I can't speak my mind."
"I don't agree with you," said the Turk. "You can meet on the street, you can protest. You have all the same rights as I have in this country."
"But it is not ours."
"What do you mean, yours?"
"I will give you an example. Six months ago I was at work selling fruit. A rich woman, the wife of the police inspector, came in and I said something to her in Kurdish. She said that she didn't want to buy fruit from a Kurd. I didn't show her I was angry. I just asked her, ‘Why should I change my identity just to sell things to you?’"
The argument won over the police inspector's wife, and she bought the fruit she had come in for. "I am a very good merchant," the Kurd concluded.