"It doesn’t matter who you vote for. What matters is who is counting the votes.”
Xaliso Oxirgil, my newfound Kurdish friend, reflects on the recent Turkish elections with signature dry wit. I met Xaliso by chance, over the internet, as I was looking for a fixer to help with my first trip to Turkey, and before too long he had become not only my guide to Istanbul but also to the Kurdish society within contemporary Turkey.
The ethnic group known as the Kurds stem from the Middle East, but islands of the almost 45 million strong Kurdish people inhabit many countries throughout the Western world. In Turkey alone, there are an estimated 20-25 million Kurds and they have long been a persecuted group in Turkish society.
Kurds are usually lumped together as one cohesive people with homogenous wants, ideologies and ideas, but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do Kurds hold disparate religious beliefs and countries of origin, but they also have very different ideas of what is best for the Kurdish people and in what political manner their visions should be executed.
According to Xaliso, most Turkish Kurds are not looking for a state of their own, nor are they envisioning packing up and moving to Kurdistan. Instead they want political representation within the Turkish state, an end to the disenfranchisement they have endured, and for Kurdish culture and language to be acknowledged as equal to Turkish. Even though HDP – the pro-Kurdish and pro-minority party – has now entered parliament, those goals seem far from realistic. Because the Kurds are “majority minority” of sorts, with large numbers but little representation in Turkish society, they represent a very real threat to anyone in power and have therefore been kept in check through imprisonment, harassment and systemic voter suppression.
Jews and Kurds have long shared a special bond, as we both know what it is to long for a state of our own and to be chased from country to country, never truly trusting our alliances. So it is no wonder that I, when I travel, often find myself befriending the Kurds in whatever place I visit, and Turkey was of course no exception. Given this special bond, it’s easy to make the assumption that Jews and Kurds would always see eye to eye or have common political views and goals, but this would be a false assumption. Much like the Jewish people, the Kurdish people range from socialist to conservative, left to right, with wildly diverse worldviews that make a homogenous political front near impossible. This may, at least in part, explain why such a large group as the Turkish Kurds has failed to reach a cohesive opposition to the status quo and why many political attacks on them have used classic but effective divide-and-conquer tactics.
During the past years of Erdogan political strong-arming and extrajudicial crackdowns, many Kurds have found themselves harassed, arrested and ultimately sentenced to jail for alleged “terrorist activities.” Those who can try to flee the country before they are taken into custody. Many do not have the resources or contacts to make that escape, however, and I run into one of the unlucky ones at a café in central Istanbul.
His name is Huseyin Taçilik and he served six years in a Turkish prison after being arrested for advocating for Kurdish rights, although the official charge was terrorist activity.
Not having the ability to leave, as many of his fellow Kurds had before him, he served the full prison term, one that, he tells me, was filled with regular abuse from guards and fellow prisoners. Huseyin wear the badge of political prisoner with pride, he says, and even after having suffered in prison for all those years, he continues to be politically active, although he says that the earth is beginning to burn his feet.
“I want to live in Europe. I wish I could go anywhere, anywhere but here, but I don’t know how.”
The crackdowns have been effective, and Huseyin’s words are proof of that. He is growing tired of the constant fear of arrest and repercussions and wants to leave his beloved country behind, as it is being taken over by the forces he has spent a lifetime fighting.
Even though I am in awe of his fight, Huseyin and I end up arguing over politics before the night is over. He dreams of a socialist Turkey and I argue that this will not end well, for him or any other minority, and soon others chime in with their theories; from President Trump being a “secret Jew” to Israel ruling the world through some sort of Freemasonry cabal.
As frustrating as the debate is to me, it is also an important reminder that there are no perfect allies, and that creating angelic images of minorities in your mind is almost as dangerous as engaging in negative stereotyping. Any support of the Kurds is support for an idea of equality and representation, and not a blanket allegiance to an ideology or political affiliation. It is solidarity for the downtrodden and that is enough; no more and no less.
At the discussion simmers down, I tell Xaliso that, regardless of our political differences, I cannot help but admire the tenacity of the Kurdish people, of the kind I recognize and see mirrored in my own. They are thrown out, expelled and persecuted across the world and yet they keep the dream alive – a dream of something better, for all of them, fighting as of it were jut around the corner.
“This is the Kurdish way, Annika” he says and smiles at me. “What we want is not unreasonable, so we just have to carry on the fight.”
And that is why, everywhere I go, I am somehow drawn toward the Kurds, despite all our differences and ideological idiosyncrasies: because we share a common way – to carry on fighting as if freedom is just around the corner.