Istanbul, a Kurdish suburb on edge

In Constantinople a century ago, more Judeo-Spanish was heard than Kurdish. But today’s Istanbul is the largest “Kurdish city” in the world, with three million residents of Kurdish origin. Almost a fifth. And since last month, a bomb, with a Turkish military response in northern Syria, has returned to tense their neighborhoods.

The densest Istanbul districts, such as Bagcilar, are also the ones that host the most immigrants from the Turkish southeast. “Here, one in three of us are Kurdish,” explains Yafes, co-owner of the Mevlana restaurant, as he serves lahmacun.

A similar proportion is registered in Esenyurt, another eccentric district, with a million inhabitants, in which no tourist would set foot. Not so Ahlam Albashir, the Syrian terrorist who killed six people on busy Istiklal Avenue last month, nor her mentor, an alleged member of the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Both had been there since July, in a safe house, with one foot in the true semi-clandestinity of these neighborhoods: the mezzanines converted into a textile workshop for large factories.Textile workshop in the basement of a supermarket in Bagcilar, IstanbulTextile workshop in the basement of a supermarket in Bagcilar, Istanbul

While that is glimpsed, another characteristic is barely smelled: the coal from the stoves of the poor. “Last winter, Erdogan’s party handed it out for free,” says a neighbor. The third surprise is conspicuous by his absence: not a graffiti, not a slogan, not a flag in sight.

Yafes explains the division of the Kurdish vote in his neighbourhood: “Half vote for Erdogan’s AKP, like me. The second party is the HDP (pro-Kurdish). Nobody here supports the CHP (secular Turkish nationalist opposition party)”.TheThe Wednesday “Kurdish Market” in Bagcilar, Istanbul

“Why not?” Muzaffer, his cousin and partner, a little younger, protests mockingly. Muzaffer is one of the thousands of HDP supporters who in recent municipal elections followed instructions to tactically vote for the CHP to tip the balance in favor of Ekrem Imamoğlu. Although he did not win in Bagcilar -yes in Esenyurt-, he managed to oust the Islamists from the mayor’s office after 25 years.

The large number of intermarriages have taken the iron out of the biggest ethnic divide in Turkey

In this neighborhood of European Istanbul, the Kurds set the oriental note, with their bakeries, their customs and their physiognomy. At the Wednesday market, the shopkeepers are Kurdish, as are many of the customers, who are betrayed by the veil.

The HDP, which many of its supporters identify as the PKK’s political front, has garnered up to 18% of the vote in Bagcilar. “Some of their voters justify armed resistance, but others don’t,” says Ömer, a Kurdish journalist. Likewise, for not a few Kurds, religious identity is the most important, and they want nothing “with the atheist Marxists of the HDP.”Kurdish youths who help their father in the Bagcilar market by day and work as security guards at the airport at nightKurdish youths who help their father in the Bagcilar market by day and work as security guards at the airport at night

Ömer, born 25 years ago in Istanbul, is the eldest of five children. This is the usual size of a Kurdish family in the big city, but in the village it is common to have ten children. He speaks Kurdish with his mother, like one of his sisters. “But the minors only understand it.”

Although public schools in the southeast have been offering the optional Kurdish subject where there is demand for a decade, this is not the case in Istanbul.

Also, public television TRT has a channel entirely in Kurdish, but Ömer says that “it is very purist and hard to understand.” Aksoy has not lived through the years when speaking Kurdish was prohibited, but his uncle, who worked in a newspaper that was closed five years ago, reminds him of it, “although it was in Turkish”.

The Kurdish goes by neighborhood, because the province of origin also goes by neighborhood. “We are from Bitlis. But the families that continue to speak Kurdish to their children are usually from Batman, Şirnak and Hattar”, he explains, “as well as politicized people from the city of Diyarbakir”.Making bread in a Kurdish bakery in Bagcilar, IstanbulMaking bread in a Kurdish bakery in Bagcilar, Istanbul

Kurds form a substantial part of the textile and construction workers. But now they face competition from Syrian and Afghan refugees, exploited for even less than the meager minimum wage.

The Kurdish population does not stop increasing, but its geographical dispersion also grows for work reasons

Nobody wants a fourth military operation in Syria, with which President Erdogan threatens. Some have a son or a brother in the military. Others, the least, to a cousin in the Kurdish-Syrian guerrilla YDP. When the latter die, the PKK headquarters notifies the family in Turkey and they pick up the body “without making noise.”

“A country for the Kurds in Iraq or Syria would be nice, but not in Turkey, because we are already very mixed by marriages,” says Yafes. Kurdish women, who leave work in the workshops when they get married, are in great demand “because of their reputation as traditional housewives.” In Turkey, furthermore, Kurds and Turks have the same last name. The ghost of assimilation walks. “If you don’t fight, you disappear,” settles cousin Muzaffer.