Peace Corps Writers
Turks and Kurds (page 3)
Turks and Kurds
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Knowing agas
Once I was introduced to a Kurdish aga while visiting the provincial Soil Conservation Office in Diyarbakir. He was a strikingly handsome man in his 30s, dressed well in a fitted western suit. He invited me to have lunch. When we left the office we were surrounded by a small posse of village Kurds dressed in chalvars – the loose pants worn throughout the region, wearing bandoliers of ammunition and carrying guns. We marched through the old town, down narrow streets to a small hotel. In the dark lobby the aga sat me in a chair off to his side and had chay served. For the next hour I watched trembling men approach him one by one, kneel to kiss his hand, and address him with some complaint or request. The aga translated for me, explaining that he was the landowner for several villages, the leader of a clan, and that it was his job to allocate resources and adjudicate domestic matters ranging from bride prices to family disputes. A brother or cousin of this aga served in the Turkish Parliament.
     Another Kurdish aga once bragged to me on the beauty of his wife. His father, he confided, owned nine villages, and he was trying to loosen the reins and modernize, but things were going slowly. His wife even remained veiled in deference to the father, but when they went to Europe, he said, “it is right away, miniskirt.” He waited for the time when he took over the holdings, studying ways to modernize and empower villagers.

Turkey in the ’60s
I met no outspoken Kurdish nationalists that I know of, although it is likely that they would have hidden such thoughts from me. I was — after all — a hybrid kind of Turkish government employee, and the entire province had been closed to foreigners until a few years before the arrival of the Peace Corps due to the “Kurdish problem” — Kurds wanting to speak their own language, Kurds interested in joining with countrymen in Iran and Iraq. There had been an easing of the problem with a more general prosperity, and the publicized fear in our time was from leftist students from Ankara who came to the region preaching against the feudal land system. I made passing acquaintance with a few such students, who talked of literacy, encouraging girls go to school, and land reform.
     In my time in Diyarbakir, Kurdish radio was still illegal, but people in the village listened to the Kurdish stations from Syria and Iraq, and I had no trouble finding a couple of contraband 45 records in the market in Diyarbakir to bring back as souvenirs. Most Kurds sent their sons to the required five year elementary school (in our village, the one built by the old Kurdish teacher) and to the army, but rarely sent their daughters to school. The government winked at this. My Peace Corps colleagues who taught English in the high school in Diyarbakir told of losing students to Kurdish clan warfare — a student would suddenly leave class and the country, presumably to be hidden across a border in Syria with clan members until the reasons for the feud were resolved. The Kurds in my village empathized with their countryman who lived under the stiff fist of a bad aga and praised the old teacher for giving them a better life. They spoke to me in Turkish, but my saying a few words in Kurdish always brought smiles, and often a glass of chay or piece of Turkish delight.
     In two years in the village and frequent trips to Diyarbakir and other meanderings around eastern Turkey, I also met Gypsies who spoke Turkish, Kurdish, and Romani; and Shia Kurds, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Chaldean Catholics, and Syrian Orthodox Christians who had worshiped in a Diyarbakir church continuously since the seventh or eighth century. One of our village school teachers was a Turk from the Black Sea; the other a Kurdish Turkophile from a nearby village. Our mayor was a Turk who was originally from a Syrian border town. He had come to Diyarbakir to do his military service, married one of the gucmen women, and stayed on to become a mediator between the gucmen and Kurdish populations and between all villagers and the government bureaucracies in Diyarbakir. Behind his back they sometimes called him “Arab,” but they valued his native Turkishness and his moxy.

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