12 June, 2010


Lying by the Tigris at the juncture of Turkiye, Syria, and Iraq, Cizre is a small but vibrant city without the border town ethos of Silopi or Zaho. Actually, it's quite beautiful. Low hills rise behind the city, punctuated by the minarets and domes of its plentiful mosques, making it one of the most picturesque places i have visited thus far. A few midday hours is not enough for Cizre, and the city's panorama, best seen from the Tigris' opposite shore, is one of the many images that escaped me.

Last night, Metin introduced me to his friends, and this morning Cihan's brother Roni showed me the significant spots of Cizre. First we went to Birca Belek, once an Ottoman Castle, later a Turkish Army base, now an empty artifact. Roni was unsure if we'd be allowed inside - but playing the American student card, and knowing the local education minister Nuri an American and a Kurd once again made a winning team. A phone call from Nuri, and we (literally) had the keys.

Inside the fence, we made our way to a carpeted, shady shelter near the river where three older men sat drinking tea. Said keys were presented to them, and one fellow gave us a guided tour. The original 15meter-high walls were destroyed during the Ottoman fall, but their remains are still inspiring. Inside Birca Belek also lies a prison chamber where Mem, the a hero of Kurdish literature, was said to be imprisoned. (In the epic love poem of Mem and Zin, lovers from two different clans are separated by the conspiracy of Bakr, member of yet another clan. Read by some to represent the Kurdish people's separation from their land, the poem, written in 1692, has been the basis for two film adaptations.) This largely unknown prison chamber is perhaps the most interesting bit of architecture i have seen. Originally a room of the Ottoman castle, it is a circular chamber with arched ceilings in the outer circle. Four identical arched doors - one on each side - lead to a center, roofed with a domed spiral of bricks.

One of the first major actions of the Turkish Republic was the closing of the Medreses, religious schools which, during the Ottoman period, formed the backbone of the educational system. In Cizre there are two, recently restored. One, the Red Medrese has a stunning entrance and courtyard; the other is home to the tomb of Mem and Zin. The villain Bakr is buried beside them.

My picture of the region grows, a photomosaic with increasing resolution. On Cizre streets i saw a poster: The letters Q, X, and W tangled in a steel chain, the chain carried by an ascending dove. Q, X, and W are found in Kurdish, but not Turkish ("X" has a phlegmy "kh" sound). Outsiders may wonder how the Kurds are oppressed in modern Turkiye. The answer is simply this: Kurds had no say in the boundaries that were drawn at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. After a brief freedom they were subsumed into four nations, the artificial boundaries of all four intersecting between here and Van, at the heart of Kurdish territory. Their language was forbidden between 1980 and 1991 with a similar lack of consultation, and remains forbidden in certain contexts, such as education and government. As a result, numerous democratically elected politicians from eastern Turkiye have been removed or arrested and imprisoned by the state - including the current mayor of Cizre - simply for using their mother tongue in public office. (I was unable to find out whether or not he has been released since his arrest six months ago.) Pro-Kurdish political parties also face dramatic opposition.

Over a hurried lunch of Adana kebab, i learned more about my guide. Roni is the second youngest of twelve siblings. I've gotten used to meeting people from large families - but Roni springs something new on me: his father has two wives, a practice still found in this corner of Turkiye until it too was federally banned.