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Kurds of Istanbul:A Blurred Identity

  Other point of view

Kurds of Istanbul: A Blurred Identity

Jean-François Pérouse


Jean-François Pérouse

Director of IFEA - French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul

In this article, Jean-François Pérouse explains why it is difficult to try and define the identity of Kurds in Istanbul. In his eyes, you can be “Kurdish by birth, by mother-tongue, by political or cultural allegiance and/or by sentiment.” As a result, not only is it hard to produce reliable figures on that population – through lack of elements or field survey – but the difficulty is compounded by fantasies often derived from extreme simplifications and statistical manipulations. The Director of IFEA (French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul) also recalls that there is not a unique Kurdish vote in Istanbul but a gamut of voting patterns according to the status of constituents and their varied networks of allegiance. Likewise, he stresses that there is not only one Kurdish community, but “a host of segments structured by connections ranging from geographical origins, political affiliation, and allegiance to particular congregations and brotherhoods.”

At the beginning of 2015, the Istanbul metropolis was officially peopled with 14 million residents. To that registered population could be added tens of thousand of undeclared, intermittent or temporary residents, including Kurds from Syria fleeing the horrors of war. According to differing viewpoints, you can be Kurdish “by birth”, by mother-tongue, by political or cultural allegiance and/or by sentiment. However, because Turkey has not provided any data on mother-tongues since the 1965 census, nor has there been any wide survey of the Kurdish identity claim and engagement in Istanbul, all we can rely on are figures about birthplace. Although, in the beginning of 2015, two thirds of the registered population in Istanbul were born outside the province, the share of “Kurdish provinces” reached a maximum of 15 percent.

Difficult if not impossible reckoning

That particular count, coming from the official Turkish statistics on the birth areas of Kurds living in Istanbul, raises many questions. Why include the Şanlıurfa and Siirt provinces, with their large Arabic-speaking populations? And why not Sivas (736,542 natives settled in Istanbul in 2009), Erzurum (382,519), Erzincan (302,511), Kars (269,388), Elazig (141,697) or Gaziantep (78,238), which include ethnic Kurds in their populations? Besides, many natives from provinces generally described as “Kurdish” refuse to be considered as such, or at least identify more with the Turkish political community than with the community that the “Kurdish movement” pretends to represent.

Also, that counting method leaves out other provinces than those peopled with a majority of Kurds, such as Konya, which was however already a place of exodus in Ottoman days, or urban areas having registered intense Kurdish immigration for decades, such as Adana or Mersin, as well as those people born in Istanbul who can claim themselves as Kurds. Not to mention the string of provinces along the contact zone with the geographic Turkish Kurdistan – i.e. the Arahan-Erzurum-Erzincan-Sivas-Alazig-Malatya-Kahramanmaras-Gaziantep-Osmaniye diagonal line. Sivas, the first provider of Istanbul non-natives, also has a mixed population, its Eastern districts counting many Kurdish-speaking people.

In other words, Kurds considered geographically and statistically as Kurdish (according to their province of birth) are not all ethnically – and even less so politically – Kurdish. Conversely, ethnic Kurds are not necessarily politically Kurdish, nor are political Kurds necessarily geographically Kurdish (such as second or third generations, born in Istanbul). As long as those modalities of Kurdish identity are confused, we are bound to remain in the realm of approximation, of distortion, of propaganda, of political correctness or wishful thinking – this  applying beyond Istanbul to the whole of Turkey.   

What's more, the presence of Kurds in Istanbul is not limited to those registered as being born in a Kurdish province. It is also made of temporary Kurdish workers attracted by the capital's workplace, as well as by other opportunities still unparalleled in the rest of the country, in particular regarding education and health. Hoping to earn a basic living in Istanbul, these sometimes young Kurds, are employed in the least protected professional fields – in construction, street retailing, handling/carrying of goods or the garment industry. These young Kurds have high social visibility, due to the nature of their jobs, the precariousness of their housing conditions, as well as their more widespread use of the Kurdish language.

Migrations and conflicts of generations

The history of Kurdish migrations to Istanbul is ancient. Circulations of community leaders, the religious, soldiers or students are historically recorded from as early as the 15th century. In the contemporary era, the influx may be divided into two waves, distinguishable according to the period when were founded the many organizations of Kurdish fellowmen. The first one goes back to the years 1950-1970s and concerns the provinces in the North and West peripheries of Turkish Kurdistan: Malatya, Sivas, Tunceli, Erzincan, Kars and Erzurum. The second one happened from the end of the 1980s to the 2000s. It is directly or indirectly connected to the violence that broke out and afflicted Turkish Kurdistan  from 1984 – the year when the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) started its military actions – when thousands of villages and hamlets were emptied “for security reasons” by armed forces. That second wave, called “forced migrations” in Turkish, has more to do with the provinces in the heart of the Eastern and South-Eastern periphery of Kurdistan (Sürt, Batman, Simak, Diyarbakir, Mardin, Van and Bingöl), but does not exclude those touched by the previous wave (such as Tunceli). It brought a new Kurdish presence in Istanbul that was at the same time more visible, more unstable, and often more political, given the trauma that had been experienced. As a mostly rural segment of population, that last wave contributed to the emergence in public representations of a trait generally attributed to the Kurdish people – a high birth rate.

Macro-identities, micro-identities and lack of territorial concentration

In the case of recent migrants, they will try to find work and accommodation  most often by resorting to grassroots networks at the level of the village or province they come from rather than through some hypothetical Kurdish generic networks too large and loose to be efficient. The so-called “Kurdish community” in Istanbul is thus tested by the hardship of daily life and by practices of access to segmented resources.

When examining the situation at the level of micro-identities and on the basis of statistics relative to the birthplace – therefore focusing solely on geographic Kurds – it is noticeable that each district of the Istanbul metropolis has a different profile. The foremost Kurdish province of origin in the breakdown of the general population varies accordingly:  it is the Adıyaman province (7,4 % of registered persons in the area who were born outside of Istanbul) in the Sultangazi district; Bingöl (4,1 %) in the Sultanbeyli district; Ardahan (7,4 %) in the Esenyurt district; Muş (5,4 %) in the Arnavutköy district; Mardin (6,5 %) in the Zeytinburnu district; Malatya (6,3 %), Bitlis (5,4 %) and Igdir (5,1 %) in the Basaksehir district.

Therefore, contrary to what adamantly state those who will resort to simplifications and distortions to prove its existence, there is no Kurdish quarter, and even less so “Kurdish district”, in Istanbul. The regrouping strategies play at a finer infra-ethnic level and differences in socioeconomic positions – often connected to the date of arrival in town – seem to be more defining. However, some districts in Istanbul are emblematic of the Kurdish presence, such as Çukur, Bülbül, Şehit Muhtar ou Tarlabasi. It is for instance in the latter, an area of old Beyoğlu, that are concentrated the main cultural and political institutions of the Kurdish movement: the Cultural Center of Mesopotamia and the headquarters of the Democratic People's Party (HDP). Nevertheless, these “Kurdish quarters” tend to be more fabrications out of media polarization than demographic or electoral realities.

The non-existence of a Kurdish vote or policy

There is no “Kurdish vote” as such but differentiated votes according to the statuses of the people concerned and the many networks they belong to. Most “geographic” Kurds support parties other than those derived from the Kurdish movement. And many mayors from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of the 39 districts in Istanbul are geographic and ethnic Kurds.

Aware of how heavily Istanbul weighs in the final national ballot, political organizations focused a large part of their efforts on the metropolis. The HDP's strategy was to address “Kurd sympathizers” who were neither geographic or ethnic Kurds. The results of the presidential election of 10th August 2014 also showed that HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtas scored honorably in constituencies with few Kurdish people, such as Adalar (13,8%). Therefore legal Kurdish parties are torn between their effort to bolster the (imagined)  “Kurdish community” – by encouraging common traits such as language, history, fatherland – and the more recent drive to talk to the larger political community by overriding ethnic-based segmentation and the general trend of all parties in Turkey to make use of province-based solidarity networks.

Besides, geographic and ethnic Kurds keep on playing a key part in non state-governed religious expression. During the October 2014 demonstrations against the Turkish government policy regarding the Syrian city of Kobane – who at the time refused to intervene against Daesh forces – as well as during gatherings against the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, Islamist groups led mostly by Kurds (in the geographic and linguistic sense) were seen prominently fighting against Kurds of the political movement or symbols of that movement. Kurdistan is known to have been a sanctuary for fellow Muslims during the decades of anti-religious policy of the early Turkish Republic founded in 1923. This Kurdish loyalty to the religious is strongly felt in Istanbul and feeds some speeches challenging secular communities. In other words, the worst enemies of the Kurdish movement in Istanbul as in the rest of Turkey are the geographic and ethnic Kurds.

The end of stigmatization and changes in identity affirmation

Called “Orientals” or “Darkies”, Kurds have long been viewed solely as migrants by those who consider themselves old Istambulites and have felt threatened in their status by inner immigration and anyone claiming diverse Turkish identities. Thus, against the most recently arrived geographic Kurds, who are the most fragile in terms of work, housing and revenues, forms of stigmatization and discrimination are still visible – although it should in no way be viewed as racism, as most of the Turkish population is of mixed origins and increasingly aware of it. However, the influx of Syrian refugees in Istanbul since 2011 has had the effect of altering the perception that “non-Kurds” previously had of Turkish Kurds. The sense of distance has changed focus. The sense of distance is now felt more in relation to Syrian migrants, Kurdish inner migrants appearing relatively closer in that respect.

Besides, along the years, thanks to integration and assimilation mechanisms as well as the politics of overture carried out since the end of the 1980s, the first waves of immigration have now merged into the Istanbulite melting-pot. Social promotion through education, integration into the urban economy and the political parties – primarily the AKP since 2002 – have helped rid geographic and ethnic Kurds of the peculiarities previously attached to them. That tagged-on peculiarity was replaced by an acknowledged and vindicated singularity. In many ways, Istanbul has been an important laboratory in the process of positive identity affirmation of Kurds in Turkey. From the early 1990s, often in connection with immigrant Kurdish communities residing in Western countries, Istanbul has become a center for an identity renaissance, in the arts as well as in politics. Associations, foundations and institutes have supported that process of identity reclaiming and helped with the rediscovery and proud recapturing of the Kurdish heritage.

In addition to revival movements in favor of the Kurdish language and cultural expressions came efforts to write a diverse Kurdish local and transnational history, which had long been stifled by the sole Turkish national story. Publishing houses have bloomed, as well as reviews and venues for artistic expression. Then, at the turn of 2000, it seemed that Istanbul gradually lost its exceptional position as main place of the Kurdish cultural revival. The manifold identity awakening disseminated throughout the country and, in a way, turned mainstream. Kurds now enjoy community rituals and a special holiday calendar which climaxes at Newroz, the New Year, marking the arrival of spring on 21st March. Festivities in Istanbul include the main celebration of the Kurdish movement which gathers hundreds of thousands of people, those organized by many - often rival - Kurdish institutions, and spontaneous street parties which are generally repressed by police in the areas marked by the second wave of migration.

Between identity distinctiveness and metropolitan ordinariness

As we showed, there is no such thing as a Kurdish community in Istanbul but an array of community segments structured according to connections linked to geographical origins, political affiliation, and allegiance to particular congregations or brotherhoods, all of which  may only momentarily converge on rare occasions or around very few rallying cries.

In many respects, Istanbul seems like the finest illustration of the integration of Kurds into the Turkish system. As Turkish citizens, they take part fully in the political, cultural and economic life of the metropolis, indistinctly from fellow Istanbulites. Nonetheless, Istanbul played a role of laboratory in the preservation or revival of Kurdish identities, which are now promoted on the political, cultural and economic markets. As it is, the two dynamics are not incompatible.

In conclusion, the study of “Istanbul Kurds” must take as much into account the community-forming dynamics as all the dynamics of differentiation and distinction at work among the people concerned. The “Kurdish community” exists only at the cost of extreme simplifications and statistical manipulations – well or not so well-meaning – or as a by-product of unification dreams constantly crushed by the reality principle of daily metropolitan life.




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