Peace Corps Writers
Turks and Kurds (page 2)
Turks and Kurds
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     Step back to the end of the First World War. Turkey — at that time still the Ottoman Empire — had sided with the Germans. On the eve of WW I, the Empire was not strong — it was called the “sick man of Europe” at the time — but its nominal holdings were still great. They included the coasts of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of Europe. In a huge and important battle at Gallipoli, Turks and Germans defended high ground against an English and Australian beach assault. An Englishman named Winston Churchill lost his job over this battle, and a Turkish general named Kemal Pasha distinguished himself. When the Germans and Turks lost the war, the English, French, and lesser allies set out to divide up the old Ottoman Empire — the English and the French “mandates” in the Middle East that are now Iraq and Syria and Israel are a result of that process — and promised pieces of the Anatolian plateau to Greece and others who had claims.
     At that time Kemal Pasha stepped into power over the old Sultanate (the ruling head of the Ottoman Empire), pulled together Turkish troops and people, pushed the Greeks and their allies into the sea at Smyrna (modern Izmir), and claimed a secular nation-state with its capital in the center of Anatolia at Ankara. Kemal Pasha, who would eventually be renamed “Ataturk” — “Father of the Turks” — did not want the old empire, but he wanted Anatolia. He knew that there were Armenians, Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Jews, and others within the new borders, but there would have been within any borders carved from the old Empire. His model was the European nation state, a secular entity with a shared major language and culture. Everyone within the new borders, according to Ataturk, would to be a Turk. And everyone without the borders who was a Turk, whether from Central Asia or the Balkans, was welcome in the new Turkish homeland.
     The Turks in our village were some of those refugees, and they spoke Greek or Bulgarian and, as they had been there since the late 1930s and early 1940s, they spoke a little bit of Kurdish. Some shared memories of another, greener home in the Balkans; all shared the Turkish language and the status of refugee. They all owned land and shared a “commons” pasture and hired shepherds. The Kurds were all Sunni Moslems, so they shared that with their Turkish neighbors, and the Kurdish men and a few of the women spoke Turkish.
[Uncle Tom's Cabin: Topsy: “I 'spect I jest growed.”]

     The old religions and cultures and languages in the new Turkish state did not die, of course, but there was a great movement to modernize, and many from minority groups, who had been less than full citizens in the old Empire, rose to Ataturk’s invitation to create a modern state. In my village, there were two Kurdish settlements within a kilometer of the main village. Unlike the gucmen village, the adobe houses in these villages were flat roofed and had grown like Topsy so that the Anatolian wind had to slow down and creep through them. The three sections comprised one village for government purposes, but in fact they were three separate entities.
     In one of the two Kurdish sections, most villagers owned their own land. In the other, they were largely sharecroppers for a wealthy Kurdish land owner, an aga. The reason some Kurdish villagers owned land was because one of them had risen to the rank of sergeant in the Turkish army in the 1930s, and as a reward had been sent to one of Ataturk’s Village Institutes for six months (a radical nation-building idea Ataturk developed with the help of John Dewy), and come home to build a school and teach in it. This Kurdish teacher was devoted to Ataturk and education, and when several agas were sent into exile by Ataturk, he marched villagers into town and helped them get deeds to the land they worked. Many of the exiled agas eventually found their ways back from Syria and took up their feudal roles, but they did not reclaim this village. Some Kurds from other villages told me that Ataturk only “put the agas to sleep” when he should have executed them.

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