Saturday, January 07, 2006

It was Mustafa Kamal the man known as Ataturk and founder of modern Turkey that coined the term “Mountain Turks” in reference to the Kurdish population of the Southeast of the country, and it is his portrait that hangs in the tea shops of Hasankeyf, there are no pictures of Kurdish heroes such as Salahdin Ayyubi whose 14th century dynasty built the citadel that dominates the cliff top above the town, maybe the reason for that can be answered by the plain clothes policeman sitting in his unmarked car parked at the entrance to the town.

The history of Hasankeyf goes back much further though than the Ayyubids, the guide books will tell you of ten thousand years of civilisation, all of which will now come to end as the town will disappear below the flood waters of the Iisu dam.

The dam is one of 22 being built as part of the GAP regeneration project, the Turkish government can give a sound argument for the ambitious plans, but for the people, mostly Kurdish, of Hasankeyf and almost a hundred other towns and villages they are hollow words.

The Kurdish population has long suffered discrimination and persecution at the hands of the Turkish authorities, Turkey’s human rights record has been one of the main issues of its entry to the European Union, concessions have been made, you can now listen to Kurdish music without fear of arrest, the worst of the fighting between the army and Kurdish separatists has past but many still view the dam building as a form of ethnic cleansing, the population has been falling steadily in Hasankeyf to well below 5000 from 10000.

The evidence of Hasankeyf’s antique past is all around, the rock fort from which the town takes its name dominates the cliff top high above the Tigris river, the Ulu Mosque with a stork nesting on top of its slender minaret, the vast cemetery with tomb stones dating back to Byzantium, the rare 15th century mausoleum of Zeynal Bey that sits alone on the East bank of the river, decorated with intricate coloured tiles, the remnants of the Artukid bridge standing forlornly beside the new one, in any other country tourists would flock here, in the summer at weekends the town is busy with day trippers from nearby Batman or Diyarbakir out for a picnic, the occasional tour bus does make it this far South but when the visitors leave the town is empty, old men sitting drinking tea, the barber and shoe shine boys keeping up appearances.

In many ways life hasn’t changed in Hasankeyf, farmers still use horses to plough the fields and boys lay fishing nets in the river but there is precious little else to help make a living, nowadays the young men head off to the resorts of Marmaris and Bodrum in the summer, the money they send home is often the families only income, in the winter they have nothing to do, just sit in the tea shops with the old men, not even a bus after five to the nearest city.

The future is bleak for the Hasankeyf, there is a sense of hopelessness that hangs in the air; one young man told me he didn’t care if they flooded it, at least then he would know where he stands, the government has been talking about a dam here for forty years, no enterprising businessman would invest in such place.

Ataturk would be pleased with the progress his modern republic is making, a Moslem democracy being welcomed into the arms of the Europeans that Salahadin bravely fought.