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History By Osmosis

News & Features | September 28, 2015

Less than 24 hours after initiating a long-awaited air campaign against ISIS, the Turkish military began bombing the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that both the US and Turkey have classified as a terrorist organization. The Turkish government had previously spent over three decades at war with the PKK before reaching a ceasefire agreement in 2013. From 2013 until late July 2015, the government was engaged in agonizing yet steady peace talks. When I arrived in Turkey for a year of study abroad, the PKK represented a deep scar in the Turkish political psyche. Military service is mandatory in Turkey, so everybody knew someone who had fought against the PKK, or for them.

As peace began to take root, art exhibitions about the suffering on both sides cropped up in Istanbul, and the violence edged ever so slightly towards the past. Most promisingly, a predominantly Kurdish party was voted into parliament for the first time. There was a sense of incremental progress being made—and then, just as I was preparing to leave, Turkey was back at war.

Between January 24 and 25, the font size on the front pages of Turkish newspapers jumped a good 50 points and a number of headlines turned red. Most newspapers included little maps with arcing arrows indicating explosions in northern Iraq and Syria. American newspapers were a little quieter on the subject, accustomed to covering foreign wars, and headlines about Turkey were a little farther down the page or in the op-ed section. For this reason, most people either know nothing about the situation or have only heard vague mention of it. There are, however, a number of people who have kept more or less abreast of the situation and this category of people tends to broach the subject with a serious air and ask (as if expecting a partly-traumatized response) about my experience in Turkey.

I usually reply that it was pretty hectic, that there were explosions everywhere, that the Theodosian walls had collapsed (again!) and that the runway was disintegrating as my plane took off. Then, if they really want to know, I try to tell the truth.

The truth is a bit messy. By choosing which true stories to tell, alternately romantic and disturbing, I can change most people’s minds about whether or not they should go to Turkey maybe half a dozen times in the course of five minutes. The truth of what I saw and heard leads to a number of contradictions and, in many cases, defies an overarching analysis. At the same time, I am at a certain remove from what I heard and saw, even with my own stories. When my friend asked me to write an article about the situation in Turkey, I immediately thought of an article by basketball player and freelance journalist Coleman Collins about his experience playing basketball in Ukraine during its revolution, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. At one point he writes, “I worry that an experience that was so monumental for millions of people will become another in a string of ‘Well, this one time I…’ stories for me. I’m not sure how to avoid that. For the longest time I wasn’t sure how to write about it—the politics of the situation are incredibly complicated. But I hope there’s value in the simple act of being present in a place, trying to understand it, and telling what you’ve seen.”

In a way I was lucky. I went to eastern Turkey at a time of distinct unrest, but well before any military operations. At the time, the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani was under siege. Kurds across Turkey were furious about government inaction; Turkey was widely perceived as happily sitting by as two of its enemies killed each other off. Protests, followed by riots, erupted in the southeast, where most Kurds in Turkey live. Istanbul also saw its fair share of unrest. I received frequent US State Department advisories and warnings, most of which were overblown. In November I flew east in search of the remnants of the Armenian and Urartian empires with an undeniable hope that I might see something. I had not clearly defined to myself what it was that I hoped to see, but the tension was vaguely alluring.

I still feel a little guilty at how happy I was when I found myself in the midst of a PKK protest. Something about the superficially extreme circumstances—stay tuned—coupled with a knowledge that I was realistically pretty safe made the whole situation kind of fun and a little sickening. I had arrived in Doğubeyazıt on the Iranian border, and everything was closed. I went to my hotel and asked where I could find food. After some confusion, I was informed that due to the PKK, everything, including grocery stores, would be closed for an indefinite period of time. Until they reopened, the hotel owner told me, I could eat with his family; they had an emergency pantry, which contained an extraordinary number of eggs and maybe a dozen tomatoes. For about two days we ate eggs and I wandered about, taking care not to get caught between the gendarmerie and chanting crowds. I remember when it dawned on me—relatively early on—that the city was almost entirely sympathetic with the PKK and that the shops were closed in protest of the government.

I find it difficult to totally condemn people or groups, though I may hate what they do. Violent organizations are, after all, usually expressions of a deep underlying anger, which often has deeper roots. With that in mind, I would like to be clear that although the PKK has every right to be angry—countless Kurdish civilians have been massacred, villages razed, and all in all it might be fair to say that the Turkish military has displayed more cruelty than the organization itself—it is not listed as a terrorist organization for nothing. Innocent people have died at their hands. They have been known for executions, assassinations, extortions, indiscriminate bombings, and any number of cruelties, which, while some accusations are no doubt false, still raise questions about smoke without fire.

I am fairly certain that the family running my hotel was connected to the PKK—a lot of people in the city were. Family members would mysteriously disappear at suspicious times, speaking in hushed and hurried tones about the PKK and the Pesh Merga. They would look up at me, decide that I probably couldn’t understand what they were saying (which was mostly true), and continue. Any questions I asked were met with vague answers, followed by a change of subject. I was clearly the least important person in the city; I was neither a threat nor an asset to anybody involved. And yet there I was, in the midst of it all, “part of it” in the most naive sense of the term. History, or some minute fragment of it, was happening around me and I, a little giddily, hoped to absorb some of the significance by osmosis.

How well can a foreigner hope to understand a situation in all of its complexity? If you have not made a serious effort to understand a culture—gone there, done all the required and recommended reading, asked questions, studied the language, gone to cultural events—then you might not be aware of how impossible of a task it is. One cannot immerse oneself in a monolithic “Turkish society.” One might be able to take a nuanced impression of an upper-middle-class family and miss out on the kids huffing paint thinner out back. Or one might stay with university students and never have a protracted conversation with someone who is devoutly religious. The only consolation for my detached foreigner’s eyes is that, well, Turks don’t really understand their whole culture either, not any more than I “get” American culture. There’s just too much of it for one lifetime—an approximation is as much as I or anyone else can hope for.

We go places to see and do things, but we forget that the act of travel, the state of being foreign, casts everything in a strange light. I did not experience any of the protests or government reaction in the emotionally charged manner that makes them historic. Seeing something on TV is not as realistic as going there—not by a long shot. But for all the layered veils you remove, there will always be something obscured from your view, or some trend that, rightly or wrongly, takes on greater significance for you than for anyone else.

The goal of journalism, as I understand it, is to “make an event real” to the readers. I hope that I have been able to convey one of the truths of the situation, namely that a baseline reality is pretty much impossible to establish. One can provide a constellation of events or one can talk about the shapes that one sees in the constellation. When someone tries to paint a scene they have to reduce it to a few “crucial” details, draw lines and curves and vectors between them, and ultimately the analysis or composition or whatever becomes greater than the facts itself.