Memory Of An Almost Lost Moment: A Post-Election Missive from Montreal to Istanbul

A few week’s ago I received a worried email from my mother. “I am so sorry to hear about the bombings in Ankara this morning. Are your friends okay?” I had been in Los Angeles for a few days. In the midst of meetings with my PhD committee members and catching up with friends I had zoned out of the news cycle. I didn’t know what my mother was talking about. I went to the homepage of a Turkish paper I often read. Photographs of people hugging each other amidst the debris of a disrupted political rally flashed across the screen. Suicide bombers had allegedly attacked a rally organized by left-wing trade unions, the People’s Democracy Party or HDP, and peace activists in protest of the continued fighting between the Turkish state and the PKK. At that moment in time no one was sure yet whom to blame for the bombing, but it was clear, as the worst terrorist attack on Turkish soil, the bombing marked a dramatic shift in the political landscape of the country.

Later that evening I took the Saturday night redeye from Los Angeles back to Montreal. In the early hours of Sunday morning the immigration hall of P.E. Treadeau International Airport was unusually quite. Only four desks were open and there were half a dozen people in line in front of me. At the height of summer a few months earlier it had taken nearly two and a half hours for me to get through the line. As I waited my turn I listened to the conversations between agents and travelers.

“Bonjour/ hi,” said the immigration officer as each passenger approached the desk. The greeting “Bonjour/ hi” has an interesting place in the official bilingual culture of Quebec. It is usually used by people providing service- civil servants, shopkeepers, waitresses- and indicates to the person seeking the service assistance can be provided in either English or French. Some of the passengers continued more easily in English others in French. Listening to people chose the language they wished to interact with the Canadian state in reminded me of a conversation I had a few years earlier with a local shopkeeper when I was living in a largely Kurdish neighborhood in Istanbul.

Tarlabasi is a neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul close to Taksim Square. At the beginning of the twentieth century mostly working class Armenians, Jews, and Greeks lived in the area. As a result of deportations, the Wealth Tax, and anti-Greek pogroms, by the middle of the century it had been largely depopulated. However, by the end of the century in the 1990s, Kurdish refugees fleeing the civil war in Southeastern Turkey started to settle in its abandoned and derelict buildings. Today it is the kind of neighborhood where women sit on their front stoops sipping tea and gossiping as they take a break from housework; children chase cats; colorful washing hangs from laundry lines between buildings, and everyone keeps a close eye on who comes and goes.

On the main street there is a police station, a bakery, and several corner stores or bakkal – places you can find everything from cat food to baby bottles to fresh produce at any hour of day or night. A Kurdish family from Dogubeyazit- an Eastern Anatolian town on the Iranian border- ran the one I frequented. The three sons usually worked long hours stocking shelves, serving customers, as well as delivering gas canisters and large containers of potable water to the neighborhood’s inhabitants. They also kept careful watch over the street. They were respectful and looked out for me. If I ever felt uncomfortable coming home late at night, all I had to do was pop in and one of them would step out onto the street and watch until the light in my apartment was on.

At the start of 2012, I was going to Canada to see my husband over winter vacation. The ruling Justice and Development Party or AKP was just about to begin peace negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK, in order to bring an end to the nearly 30-year-old civil war. This promised to be one of the great achievements of the AKP’s time in power and something no other government in the history of the Republic had managed to do. Many people, both Kurdish and Turkish, believed peace might finally be possible. In concrete ways they were beginning to imagine what a more inclusive Turkey might look like once a peace deal had been reached.

The night before I left I stopped to buy some milk and tell them I would be gone for a few weeks. All three sons were smart, kind people, but that evening the particularly curious son was working. His glasses gave his eyes an almost crystalline quality. Often he read books and newspapers behind the till and the other two frequently teased him that he didn’t pull his weight around the shop. His retort was that he would have become a doctor, if he could have gone to medical school in Kurdish. On one occasion he told me his Turkish wasn’t good enough to pass the high school exam and that was the end of his formal education. Yet he knew a lot about the world beyond Turkey, even though he had never left, and routinely asked me questions about the places I’d lived.

“Tomorrow I am going to Montreal,” I said as I handed him my money.

“That is in Quebec,” he ventured. “They speak English and French there, right?”

“That’s right,” I replied a little taken a back.

He carefully counted the change from my 5-lira note, handed me the coins, and then sat back on his stool. From the look on his face I could tell he was thinking and that our conversation wasn’t over yet. The steam from his freshly poured tea swirled into the cool evening air of the shop. He took a sip and started to ask me questions about how bilingualism actually worked on a daily basis. I began by telling him what it was like to clear customs and immigration at the Montreal airport and how the immigration officers ask you if you want service in English or French.

“Really?” he asked. “That is incredible. I can’t imagine the Turkish police speaking Kurdish. Let alone asking me if I wanted them to!” He chuckled, delighted at the thought, the possibility.

I proceeded to tell him about how my husband’s students at McGill had the right to write their papers and exams in either English or French. I also talked about some of the linguistic divisions in the city and the tensions that exist over speaking the right kind of French. In spite of my qualifications about bilingualism he was still intrigued.

“I’d never thought I’d say this,” he said as a proud smile crept across his face, “but one day soon I bet Turkey will be like Canada. We’ll speak both Turkish and Kurdish.”

Today the political horizon in Turkey looks very different than it did at the start of 2012. The bombing in Ankara was only the latest and most dramatic in a long list of events that have resulted in the deterioration of the political situation. By early summer it was clear that after nearly two years of negotiations both sides had abandoned the peace process. The PKK has killed Turkish police officers and attacked army installations in the Southeast. In retaliation the Turkish military has carried out airstrikes against PKK positions. Curfews were imposed on civilian populations and people in the town of Cizre were forbidden entry or exit while so-called anti-terror operations were carried out. When local parliamentarians from the HDP marched from Ankara to the municipal border and demanded entry with television news crews, they were initially denied access. Horrific stories later emerged. For example, one family had to keep their daughter’s dead body in their freezer for days because the curfew made it impossible to conduct funeral rights. Weeks later an image of a state security vehicle pulling the body of a dead Kurdish man on social media provoked a national outcry and led many to question what other horrors weren’t being seen.

The advance of ISIL and the ongoing civil war in Syria further complicates the situation between the Kurds and Turkey. With the Kurds in Northern Syria and Iraq effectively fighting ISIL and Turkey fighting both the Kurds and ISIL, some Turkish commentators have asked whether the alleged-ISIL attack in Ankara was a sign of the Syrian civil war spreading further into Turkey and whether Turkey’s inability to settle its own Kurdish question is drawing it further into the Syrian conflict.

As I have read the dire headlines about the situation in Syria and the grim outcome of the Turkish election that happened yesterday, I’ve returned repeatedly to this exchange with the shopkeeper. For me, it captures a certain hope that existed for a window of time in 2012. Today that moment couldn’t seem further away, yet I think it is important to remember not so very long ago the horizon of possibility in Turkey was much brighter than it is today and people were imagining what a peaceful, pluralistic future would look like.

Montreal, November 2, 2015