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    Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    Three Turkeys

    By bus from Diyarbakir to Gaziantep, Turkey — Monday, Oct. 27

    Sebnem Duyar, 30-something Istanbul native, manager of the four-star Class Hotel in Diyarbakir

    Sebnem Duyar would probably stand out anywhere. With her giant mane of frizzy auburn hair, her easy, crooked smile and forearms coloured by Asian tattoos, she's never been one to blend easily into crowds.

    But of late, the attention she gets on the streets has made her increasingly uncomfortable.

    "My grandparents used to say that Diyarbakir is the Paris of Turkey," she said of the ancient walled city to that she has been relentlessly fighting to see added to the country's flourishing tourist trail. "But unfortunately, the situation is getting worse here in the southeast of Turkey."

    Especially for liberal, working women like her. While the city is very safe, the growth of political Islam in the country has increased the pressure on women like Sebnem to conform to conservative social norms. Staunchly secular, she won't wear the Islamic headscarf. Which means she either braves the stares or go straight from the hotel to home. Saturday night, she sat alone in the lobby bar of her own hotel, chatting with staff and guests long after it was necessary for her to be there.

    "I can go anywhere in Istanbul, not here. Most women in Diyarbakir are housewives, so people here look at me like I'm an alien. If I want to go some place with (male) friends who are not my boyfriend, that's not a very good idea."

    Like many secular Turks in this deeply divided state, she lays the blame on the ruling Justice and Development, or AK, party. "They will never represent me," she said.

    Abdullah Demirbas, 41, Kurdish leader and ousted mayor of the old city of Diyarbakir

    In another country, it would have been an innocent enough gesture. But Abdullah Demirbas knew he was courting trouble when he sent New Year's greeting cards to his constituents that were written in Turkish, English and Kurdish.

    The Kurdish language is banned from official use in Turkey, and Demirbas was unsurprised when he ended up before a judge to defend his actions. He says he has 20 outstanding cases against him - most of them for linguistic offenses he incurred by trying to offer services in Kurdish while he was mayor - that could put him behind bars for as long as 60 years.

    Demirbas says that when he appeared in court, the judge focused on his illicit use of the letter 'w' in the Kurdish new year's greeting of "sersala we piroz be." Turkish is the only official state language, Demirbas was sternly reminded, and there is no 'w' in the Turkish alphabet.

    Absurdly, it didn't seem to bother the court that there was also a 'w' in "Happy New Year" - the English greeting that was printed on the same cards.

    "The judge said we could use it in English, but we could not use a Kurdish 'w'," the ex-schoolteacher told me with a rueful smile when I visited him at the office of his Democratic Society Party (known by it Turkish acronym, DTP) in the old city of Diyarbakir. The DTP is the political wing of the outlawed PKK militia that has fought the Turkish army for 24 years, demanding independence for the country's estimated 12 million Kurds.

    Six months after he sent the trilingual New Year's greetings - and after further offending the higher authorities by polling Diyarbakir residents on which language they'd prefer to be served in (72 per cent said Kurdish) - Demirbas was removed from office.

    The fight for Kurdish rights in Turkey, however, is far from over. Nearly every day in the past week has seen fresh demonstrations in Diyarbakir and other cities, organized by the DTP to protest the alleged mistreatment of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

    Demirbas, who is investigating the legalities of running again in municipal elections next year, says Turkey's heavy handed attempts to suppress Kurdish nationalism will never succeed.

    "Turkish public policy, since 1923, is one people, one society, one language, one flag and one religion," he told me as a heavy rain pounded the stone roof of his office. "This policy is not suitable to the realities of the Turkish republic."

    Bayran, 42, part-time labourer and resident of the guest house attached to the Halilur Rahman mosque in Sanliurfa

    Bayran doesn't have a very sophisticated understanding of why the Turkish economy is in crisis these days. What he does know is some rich people in Istanbul and Ankara made mistakes, and now the amount of work available for an occasional labourer like him has dried up to perhaps one job a week.

    Bayran lives in the deeply conservative city of Sanliurfa, near the Syrian border. Most nights he sleeps in the spartan guesthouse attached to the giant mosque that marks the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham.

    (Abraham's stay here was apparently eventful. The story goes that a nefarious King Nimrod tried to have our Abraham immolated on a funeral pyre, but God cleverly intervened, turning the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. A thick school of bread crumb-craving fish inhabits the Lake of Abraham in Sanliurfa today.)

    Bayran wears tattered clothes, but a wide smile, as he leads a foreign visitor through the mosque complex. He empties his pocket to show he has only three Turkish lira - the cost of a bed for the nigh at the mosque guesthouse - but steadfastly refuses offered money at the end of his guided tour.

    This is his Turkey: poor, devout and conservative. The political concerns of Sebnem Duyar and Abdullah Demirbas have no connection to his reality.

    He's a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Tayyep Recep Erdogan and the AK Party. "Not just because they are religious, but because they are honest," he tells me earnestly. "They are on the path of righteousness."

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