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Archive for the tag “Syrian Kurdistan”

Two Women of Mardin v ISIS

mardin buildings

Mardin, a stone-carved historic hillside city in southeast Turkey whose buildings gaze south towards Syria and the Fertile Crescent, boasts two famous women.

The first is the colourful Shahmeran, half-woman half-snake, a legendary creature from the shared mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. Pictures of her bold green and red image adorn the streets.

sahmeran

The second is a much younger addition to the city’s history, the 26 year-old co-mayor, Februniye Akyol. Shy and self-effacing, dressed simply in a white jacket, she is the first representative of the ever-dwindling Syriac Christian community to govern one of Turkey’s metropolitan municipalities.

She has agreed to a rare interview, and we sit together on the elegant white sofa of her Mardin office.

Mardin mayor April 2015

Earlier I had watched her give a refreshingly brief speech to assembled bigwigs, marking the official rehabilitation of the city’s main street, a 9.2 million euro project funded by the European Union to promote tourism. Mardin, already part of a United Nations-backed scheme for a Silk Road cultural corridor, is nothing if not ambitious. Next it plans to become a “City of Peace”, hoping eventually for UNESCO World Heritage status.

As for Februniye, who had to change her Syriac name of Febronia Benno to a ‘turkified’ version to enter Turkish politics, her success was not so planned. “I never expected this career,” she tells me softly. “In the 1990s growing up as a child in this region, we experienced terrible times, persecution, the rape of women.  Our situation was very bad. My father was arrested. For 16 days we didn’t know where he was. It affected me deeply.”

As the first woman from the local Syriac minority to go into higher education, attending Istanbul’s Marmara University in the Faculty of Insurance, she has now become a role model. Most Syriac graduates use their studies as an escape route for emigration to Europe. Instead, Februniye returned home.

Mardin Artuklu Uni

Then, while she was doing an MA at Mardin’s Artuklu University in Syriac Cultural Studies, unique in Turkey, her political career was suddenly launched  when she was chosen, together with a respected Kurdish veteran, to run for the BBP or Peace and Democracy Party, in last year’s local elections. “It is BBP policy always to have a woman co-mayor in their municipalities,” she explains.

februniye akyol

In an overwhelmingly Muslim region of long-standing enmities between Turks, Kurds and Arabs, now further complicated by the ISIS threat on the doorstep, the task in front of Februniye is a daunting one.

“I had some prejudices against the Kurds,” she says, “but I realised I had to overcome them.” Now she is working alongside her former enemies and persecutors, promoting an ideology diametrically opposed to ISIS with its subjugation of women and violent intolerance of minorities.

“Isn’t this the same system the Syrian Kurds are using,” I ask her, “in their provinces of Kobani, Afrin and Jazira?”

Kobani Map

“Yes,” she replies, “We are from the same families, just separated by the border. We all work together, no matter what race or religion, and have an equal quota for women on all our committees. Like them we want cultural, religious and linguistic freedoms for everyone.”

“Do you have contact with them?” I venture to ask, knowing the Syrian border is within sight of Mardin.

“Of course,” she replies with disarmingly frankness, “They come across for meetings from time to time.”

“But the border is closed. How do you manage that?”

“It can be opened when necessary,” she says simply.

Behind her delicate almost fragile appearance, I sense a steely resolve. She hands me her card and I notice her title is ‘Mrs. ’

“You are married?” I ask.

“Newly married,” she replies fingering her wedding rings as if still getting used to them.

It gives me the excuse to ask the obvious question, in this traditionally male-dominated society, where ISIS is knocking at the door:

“And how do the men feel about women sharing power?”

“They realise it has to be,” she replies, “It was even their idea.”

Strolling later past the renovated shop-fronts of Old Mardin I see the Shahmeran everywhere, in the famous jewellery, on key-rings, cushions and mirrors. I ask the shopkeepers about her meaning.

They explain how their Queen of Serpents is a source of healing and wisdom whose image reminds people to mend their ways, to shun evil and avoid betraying each other.

Mardin’s two famous women – one ancient, one young – will need to conjure all such powers here, if they are to survive the ISIS onslaught and defeat it.

sahmeran redMardin mayor 2

#Syria’s Kurds declare ‘Rojavo’, autonomous western Kurdistan

Mor Augen Monastery near Nusaybin, Turkey, now overlooking the new Syrian 'Rojavo' [DD]

Mor Augen Monastery near Nusaybin, Turkey, now overlooking the new Syrian Kurdish ‘Rojavo’ [DD]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no man's land between Turkey's Nusaybin and Syria's  Qamishli, the new capital of Rojavo [DD]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no man’s land between Turkey’s Nusaybin and Syria’s Qamishli, the new capital of Rojavo [DD]

The Kurds have been the big unknown in Syria’s revolution/civil war. The Kurdish street slogan has been: ‘Democracy for Syria. Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan.’ The Kurds have seen in the Syrian revolution a major opportunity to further their aspirations for their own homeland, or autonomy at the very least. For years they have been talking about eastern Syria as western Kurdistan – ‘Rojavo’ is their word for it.

‘We were promised our homeland in 1920 but then betrayed, you remember?’ my Syrian Kurdish lawyer had said to me, back  in 2011 in Damascus, when the revolution first broke out. I knew that under the Assad regime many of them had been stateless and dispossessed, with no ID cards. He explained: ‘This means they cannot vote, own property, get a government job, or go to secondary school or university, but they are still forced to do military service. And people forget,’ he had added, ‘that the PKK [Kurdish separatist group fighting against the Turkish state for an autonomous Kurdistan] troubles already killed 45,000 people back in the 1980s and 1990s.’

No informed observer doubted that the Kurds needed to be courted, by both the Syrian and the Turkish governments. Bashar finally gave them citizenship in 2012 after 50 years of state deprivation, in an attempt to deter them from joining the revolution, but by then it was not enough. They were already fighting, sometimes against the regime, sometimes against the rebels, not only in the northeast Hassakeh and Qamishli areas, but also in Aleppo and north of it, in the Kurdish villages like A’zaaz. When Syrian regime forces withdrew from the Kurdish border areas in summer 2012, the PKK took control. Many speculated it was even a tacit agreement between the PKK and Bashar – there is a strange link, as the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan is from the rarefied minority of Alawi Kurds. It should have been a dream come true for the Kurds, but it quickly became worse than under Assad, with local Kurds complaining the PKK were mercenaries and criminals.

Although most are nominally Sunni Muslim, the Kurdish identity is based not on religion, but on ethnicity and cultural tradition. In Iraqi Kurdistan schools do not impose Islam but teach all world religions equally. The last thing Kurds want is to be ruled by an Islamic state. This explains the fighting that broke out around Ar-Raqqa in summer 2013 between Syria’s Kurds and the extremist Islamist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS who are seeking to establish precisely such an old-style caliphate. These were the very groups the Italian Jesuit Father Paolo sought to mediate between when he entered the lion’s den and was kidnapped by ISIS for his pains.  This Kurdish versus Islamist in-fighting is an unwelcome distraction, but for Syria’s Kurds these extremist Islamists represent the greatest menace of all, and they would still choose the hated PKK over the Islamists. The leader of the Kurdish Saladin brigade declared his position: ‘We want a civil democratic government that treats everyone equally.’

He may have got his wish, for on the eve of the January 2014 Geneva II talks where Syria’s Kurds were denied a seat of their own, the establishment of Rojavo as a semi-autonomous region was declared, with 22 cabinet ministers based in Qamishli. True to their ideology, the new government is a Christian/Muslim/Kurdish mix.

The international community would not care greatly what the Kurds got up to, except that Iraqi Kurdistan is oil rich, Syria’s oilfields lie mainly in its northeast and Turkey’s oilfields are in its southeast provinces. A future independent Kurdistan has the potential to control a massive chunk of the Middle East’s oil reserves – to say nothing of its water or even its wheat reserves.

The new Rojavo region now has the 100,000 barrel-a-day Suwayda oilfield which accounts for more than 60 per cent of the country’s oil production; the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Khabour rivers; and one of Syria’s richest wheat-producing agricultural sectors. What a prize – well worth the wait.

Related links:

* http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/64e97c3e-8465-11e3-9710-00144feab7de.html#axzz2s4UVAt2o

* http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/82550c80-4c7e-11e3-958f-00144feabdc0.html#slide0

* http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5984016e-f08d-11e2-b28d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2s5M0GLwP

* http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f3e76df2-b8bd-11e2-a6ae-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2s4UVAt2o

* http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23614968

* http://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/news/2014/january/a-door-to-damascus

* http://www.hauspublishing.com/product/445

Old border gate between Nusaybin and Qamishli, new capital of Rojavo [DD]

Old border gate between Nusaybin and Qamishli, new capital of Rojavo [DD]

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