My Turkish never having got beyond intermediate, I always have the same conversation with taxi drivers. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘England, actually I’m a Scotsman,’ I say. Cue suppressed giggles about skirts and whisky from the driver, perhaps a mention of Braveheart. I ask: ‘Where are you from?’ Most taxi drivers in Istanbul are from the Black Sea and they repeat the clichés about Black Sea types: ‘Oh everyone likes you, you’re hard-working with sense of humour.’ True, but Trabzon, the main Black Sea port, is now a minor hellhole of hideous concrete, Islamic nationalist triumphalism, and black-clad women trotting behind hubby. And you cannot find a restaurant with a bottle of wine for five miles. ‘Yes,’ say the drivers, ‘but at least we have fewer Kurds.’ I say, ‘Look, you mustn’t talk like that, they are fellow citizens, I know many decent Kurds and so must you.’ The usual reply is, ‘Oh yes, my father-in-law.’
And I do know a lot of decent Kurds. The best is one Ibo — Ibrahim — who comes from a village near Kars, in north-eastern Turkey, which appears above the snow line on 1 June and goes below it again on 1 October. The inhabitants heat themselves underground by burning what are called euphemistically in English ‘straw bricks’, the basis being cow dung, dried in what passes for a summer. Ibo walked to school through the snow until he was 12 and was then apprenticed to an uncle with a restaurant in the Istanbul outskirts. When I met him he was working a 14-hour day, as well as taking English classes. Ibo saw an opportunity in wine, learned about it, and is now sommelier in one of the upmarket places in the city. Italian wines are his speciality. The Italians invited him to Venice, and he has picked up that language as well. I ask Ibo about Kurdish nationalism, and have learned some swear words as a result (siktir is the main one). All the Kurds I know react like this. They regard Kurdish nationalism as a bore and talk Turkish (if they are not worked up) among themselves. Only 18,000 pupils voluntarily study Kurdish, which they can of course do, but the nationalists want the state to make it compulsory. Kurds sometimes ask me about Scottish nationalism, expecting a Braveheart rhapsody, and I say that I’d rather avoid the pestilential subject.
Last month I went to Erbil, the capital for Iraqi Kurds. My university has set up an Anglo-Turkish school there, and our orchestra visits, so I hitched a lift. Unlike the rest of Iraq, Erbil is safe, but there is a surreal quality to it. Erbil was once a dusty, hot town with a few decrepit old monuments. Now, thanks to oil, it has acquired new buildings and foreign colonies. It is, Le Monde’s correspondent said on the way out, like a Gulf state: manual work done by Indians, while the Kurds do politics and the army. Is the region a future Kurdistan? The problem is that Turkish Kurds feel like foreigners there, and anyway do not really speak the language. In Erbil, it is Sorani, written in Arabic, which Turkish Kurds (who have their own languages, Kırmanç and Zazaki, written in Latin) have trouble following. Efforts in France and Sweden have been made to standardise Kurdish, scrapping the Arabic, Persian and Turkish words in favour of Americanisms: a sort of Esperanto which could only be imposed by government fiat. And now, with the attempt to destroy Syria, there is a new Kurdish dimension altogether: Syrian Kurds, with a mainly nomadic background. Bashar al-Assad, getting back at the Turkish government for supporting the rebels, gave recognition to the Syrian Kurds, hitherto second-class citizens. So now in Turkey we have heightened activity from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), a foul organisation that bombs schools in order to stop children from learning Turkish.
The Turks have got themselves locked into the present campaign against Syria and some of them talk about neo-Ottomanism, taking over benighted places and showing them the way forward. This is skewed history. The Ottoman empire was brilliantly successful when it succeeded Byzantium, and it went downhill when it took over the Iraqi territories. The rule for empires is: stop short of Baghdad.
I recognised the leader of the Syrian-Kurdish opposition movement in my Erbil hotel: not difficult to guess what he was talking about. All sorts of international money, some of it no doubt Israeli, is aimed at repeating in Syria what was done in Iraq. This would be a terrible mistake. The Assad government is not collapsing — far from it — and the longer it goes on the worse it will be for Turkey, which is in the front line of this, getting hundreds of thousands of refugees and no end of complications. The relatively secular Alevis (our sort-of equivalent of Syria’s Alawites) make up a good fifth of the population of Turkey and they don’t want the Arab chador world — or, for that matter, the five-mile drive out of Trabzon to find a drink.
If the Alawites lose in Syria, the country disintegrates. What we have here is a Middle Eastern parallel of the post-war settlement of 1919-20 in Central Europe — artificial countries, soon taken over by this or that assertive minority. The unravelling of this, in Central Europe, produced the Yugoslav wars, grossly mismanaged by the West. The unravelling of Iraq, Syria (and Israel?) is a huge problem, and the solutions (Kurdistan? Palestine?) no better. Meanwhile, the best thing for a Turkish Kurd is just to go on as at present, assimilate, move up, and get on. And the best thing for Turkey is for the government to remember what the country’s founder always said: peace abroad, peace at home. Anything else, given the wasps’ nests to east and south, is a trap.
Norman Stone’s latest book, World War Two: a Short History, will be published by Allen Lane next month.