Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
In the last weeks of 2021, an art exhibition in Diyarbakır, the heartland of Turkey’s Kurdish-populated southeastern region, sparked a fierce debate. Named “Memory Chamber,” the exhibition consisted of Ahmet Güneştekin’s installations and objects that aim to grapple with death, destruction, and displacement the Kurds have long endured, and which resurfaced more dramatically during and after the urban warfare of 2015. Unsurprisingly, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government forced the event hosted by the local chamber of commerce to be closed down early. Interestingly, this event divided the local and national political opponents as well as the art community into two camps.
Although Güneştekin and the organizers hoped to bring back the “unspoken” to social memory, the event itself was seen as a spectacle that would undermine the very possibility of memorializing violence. Critics were enraged at the extravagance of the opening show and, more crucially, at the Instagrammable objects that were laid out next to the ruins of Suriçi, the city’s historic center. The ferocity of the debate shows that not only are the wounds of the latest episode of violence still open, but the physical and symbolic destruction of Suriçi also continues to cast its shadow on politics.
The longstanding Kurdish issue has persistently troubled the Turkish state throughout the previous century since the Kurds, the largest non-Turkish ethnic group in Turkey, have been denied their collective political rights. Against this backdrop, the AKP could manage to garner considerable popular support among the Kurds when it first took the seat in 2002, for it adopted a liberal stance regarding the Kurdish issue. In parallel to the agenda of accession to the European Union, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his team took courageous steps such as abolishing the State of Emergency that had been in effect on a regional scale since the 1980s. Following the earlier inconsistent steps of liberalization, the latest series of negotiations between the state and the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) during the years spanning from 2013 to 2015 have ignited an optimistic political atmosphere among the Kurds as well as among the larger national public.
However, mostly due to the AKP’s increased political anxieties and in tandem with the shifting geopolitical balance of power in the Middle East due to the Syrian civil war, negotiations came to a halt, triggering an unprecedented level of violence. Accordingly, since the atrocious barricade clashes between the security forces and the PKK militias that lasted for weeks in the residential areas of some cities and towns in the Kurdish region, Suriçi being the foremost, the state’s campaign of repression has reached a shocking level.
Since 2015, to undermine the political capacity of the Kurdish movement, thousands of its grassroots activists have been imprisoned, civil society organizations closed down, and parliamentarians, mayors, and municipal officials expelled and detained. As of today, the overwhelming majority of the local governments once run by the pro-Kurdish party have been taken over by the Ministry of the Interior, paving way for the wholesome devastation of the counter-institutional field the Kurdish movement has built over the last two decades.
Diyarbakır’s fate began to change at the turn of the millennium. As peace talks superseded armed conflicts and human rights violations of the previous period, the change was not limited to the political atmosphere alone, the city witnessed its physical environment being transformed as well. With an expansion in the field of legal politics, the cityscape itself has become a major playground of political symbolism. Starting with the pro-Kurdish party’s electoral success in April 1999, the Kurdish movement has regarded municipalities as a medium through which broader political and cultural autonomy could be brought into light.
On that score, cultural activities organized by the municipalities in collaboration with local, national, and international NGOs provided the city with more visibility. Public events such as festivals, workshops, conferences, and art exhibitions created a lively popular-intellectual environment in the city. Moreover, interventions to the built environment such as renaming streets, squares, and parks after prominent figures of the Kurdish history served to reclaim urban space in accordance with the broader goal of decolonization. In effect, Diyarbakır has become a point of counter-hegemonic politics embraced during the high time of Kurdish municipal experience between 1999 and 2015.
In tandem with the relative political stability of this conjuncture, Suriçi has increasingly become a center of attraction for many. Once home to those who had to flee their villages and towns in the 1990s due to the state’s policy of enforced displacement, the poverty-stricken historic center of the city has emerged as a venue where myriad interests and expectations of various groups encounter each other. Since Suriçi’s revitalization was seen as the symbol of the post-conflict Diyarbakır, the commercial activity grew noticeably in the area. Residents of the upcoming neighborhoods, for instance, began to visit this decayed area on an everyday basis, viewing Suriçi as the vestige of tenderness the city possessed once upon a time. Mirroring this boosted nostalgic interest; gradually, prominent historic inns and stone mansions were renovated and transformed into cafes and restaurants by local entrepreneurs. Moreover, these sporadic and partial acts of beautification were accompanied by broader initiatives of the central government and municipality to transform shabby housing stock into touristic facilities, or to renovate monumental buildings such as mosques and historic inns.
However, the rising awareness concerning urban heritage went well beyond such top-down initiatives, which have expectedly aggravated social inequalities, spatial segregation, and exclusion the war-displaced residents of Suriçi have long suffered. Various sections of the local civil and political society have also developed a kind of spatial politics that is attuned to matters of urban heritage, albeit in much more bottom-up ways. Anti-gentrification and ecology activists, for instance, managed to initiate a successful campaign against the aforementioned urban renewal projects, even though the pro-Kurdish municipality got involved in them. Despite being part of the Kurdish movement in a larger sense, both sides of the quarrel formulated different understandings of urban preservation. While the municipal authorities conceived Suriçi as a physical entity to be preserved in accordance with the principles of scientific expertise and with the expectations of higher revenues to be gained from tourism activities, the grassroots organizations pointed out everyday experiences of those residents who had preserved Suriçi as a lived place for decades.
Looking through the lens of the present, all these diverse perspectives and inner-circle arguments could be seen as residues of a lost era. For Suriçi has indeed witnessed a genuine “urbicide” as result of the draconian measures taken by the state officials of all sorts during and after the clashes of 2015. Between September 2015 and March 2016, under total military siege, it experienced an absolute ruination. While the entire built environment on the eastern-side of the walled city has been relentlessly damaged, the residents of these neighborhoods have been officially evicted. The property rights of almost all real estate holdings in Suriçi have been transferred to the state, which, since then, has taken further steps to transform larger swaths of the area into high-end residential units, hotels, and other tourism facilities. Yet, in the face of all these devastating events and destruction, the prior, bottom-up forms of sensibility to Diyarbakır’s urban life and heritage have evolved into a stubborn, creative, and spirited consciousness. Today, civil society organizations, experts, and affinity groups who are truly attuned to miniscule and unveiled traces of the past and present dwellers of the city give us hope to reclaim Diyarbakır even under such gloomy circumstances.