“It’s not Yours if You Can’t Get There”: Mobility And State-Making In Turkey



In March 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attended a groundbreaking ceremony in the heritage site Sur in Diyarbakır and celebrated the massive redevelopment project undertaken by the Ministry of the Environment and Urban Planning in collaboration with the Public Mass Housing Administration (TOKI). The historic district had been subject to 24-hour curfews and was ultimately razed by the Turkish military’s tanks and troops during its latest phase of urban warfare in Kurdish areas in 2015, paving the way for Sur’s declaration as an “at-risk urban area” available for “urgent expropriation.” The strategy was consistent with TOKI’s projects in Istanbul and other urban centers, where the agency has partnered with private contractors, dispossessing the most vulnerable populations (often in predominantly working class, Kurdish, Alevi, LGBTQ neighborhoods) and turning potentially valuable areas into lucrative sites for speculation and rent extraction. The reconstruction of Sur was thus an opportunity that brought together the commodification of land with the dismantling of Kurdish command over the cityscape, which during the height of the urban conflict had included trenches, barricades, and control over alleyways. During the sod turning ceremony, Erdoğan declared himself the winner of this latest battle over mobility in Kurdish areas, promising the attendees that “these investments open the doors of Diyarbakir. It’s not terrorists, but tourists, our citizens from other cities, who will now visit the city.”

Adalet Funambulist (2)
The “before” and “after” images of Sur as depicted in a promotional video for urban renewal by the Office of the Prime Ministry (2016). / Screenshots by Begüm Adalet.

Erdoğan’s preoccupation with keeping the doors of Kurdish cities open and establishing control over who can reside where and visit which parts of the country is reminiscent of an anecdote which appeared in a booklet commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the General Directorate of Highways (Karayolları Genel Müdürlüğü 25 Yaşında, 1975). Tahsin Önalp, a mechanical engineer, recounted a trip he took to Van and Hakkari in eastern Turkey with Ralph Agnew, a representative of the American Bureau of Public Roads in the early 1950s. When they stopped at a coffeehouse, Önalp recalls, Agnew overheard a conversation and inquired as to its contents: “I did not know how to respond, and blushing, I said: ‘Mr. Agnew, I could only understand what you understood.’ Our citizens in that neighborhood spoke every language but Turkish (Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish) and yet they did not understand Turkish.” Önalp explains that this exchange made him appreciate the meaning of the motto of the Directorate of Highways: “It’s not yours if you can’t get there.” “Years later,” he recounted, “when I visited Hakkari again, I saw that our highway district facilities were the most valuable work of art in that magical and beautiful corner of the nation, and hearing that Turkish was also being spoken in the streets, I was delivered from a great embarrassment.”

As Önalp’s narrative indicates, Turkey’s highway network, which was paved with U.S. aid, equipment, and expertise in the aftermath of World War II, was consistent with the Turkish state’s longstanding spatial approach to the so-called “Kurdish problem,” which has included policies of forced migration and resettlement, railway construction, and territorial colonization. The attempts to produce a “national territory” have rested on a combination of political economic, militaristic, and discursive measures. Transformations of the landscape have entailed interventions in the movement of people, resulting in displacement and dispossession for some, and enrichment and empowerment for others, thus contributing to the persistent unevenness of the geography of the country.

The regulation of movement had earlier been a concern for Ottoman elites, who alternated between encouraging and restricting the mobility of “unruly” populations, depending on their need for labor, settlement, and control over newly acquired territories. By the end of the 19th century, demographic engineering projects entailed policies of deportation, involuntary displacement, and forced migration. As the empire receded and collapsed, population exchanges were accompanied by sedentarization through land grants and tax exemptions, which were imposed on recalcitrant nomadic groups as well. As Muslim and Turkish immigrants and nomadic Kurdish tribes were resettled in different parts of Anatolia, they were granted the expropriated possessions and agricultural lands of Armenians and Greeks who had been deposed or exterminated.

But internal settlement arrangements also rested on the differential dispersion of populations. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, assimilationist settlement laws designated separate zones for immigrants who were deemed to be of “Turkish culture” (Muslim and Turkic arrivals from the Balkans and Caucuses), and who were given incentives to settle in predominantly Kurdish areas, as opposed to those who were forced to “adopt Turkish culture” through relocation, and those who were not allowed to immigrate into the country at all due to lack of “blood ties.” Kurdish populations were relocated internally, away from areas where the residence of “non-Turkish speakers” was forbidden for “sanitary, cultural, military and security reasons.” As one Member of Parliament, Ruseni Barkin from Samsun put it during debates on the 1934 Settlement Law, a nation was like any other “living being with a stomach. A stomach feeds on other living beings. As with individuals, nations too have stomachs, and survive by eating humans and other groups” (İsmail Beşikçi, Kürtlerin ‘Mecburi Iskanı’, 1977).

The Republican era absorption of minority communities into the entrails of the nation entailed further interventions in the built environment, which were also legacies of the Ottoman Empire. These included toponymic measures, whereby the names of villages, cities, and provinces were changed from Kurdish, Armenian, Greek and Arabic into “modern Turkish” (Kerem Oktem, “The Nation’s Imprint,” 2008). The project of internal colonization thus brought together the organic imagery of national unification, the spatial redistribution of populations, and the discursive reorganization of the material landscape. Over the years, these efforts also merged with educational projects, such as boarding schools for Kurdish girls, as well as infrastructural plans, such as the construction of railways and roads. The impacts of the state’s spatial interventions, whether in concrete or symbolic terms, were less the “pre-given features” or the technical dimensions of the physical landscape than “politically mediated manipulations” (Neil Brenner & Stuart Elden, “Henri Lefebvre on State, Space, Territory,” 2009).

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, periodic uprisings in Kurdish areas were met with aerial bombing campaigns that also functioned as reconnaissance flights, mapping and exterminating in common sorties, as well as the extension of transportation and communication infrastructures that were central to the militarized components of the Turkification project. The early construction of railroads had coincided with the spatial redistribution of populations, and immigrants who had not been settled on fertile land by the state provided the major source of labor for railroads. In the 1930s, railways were equipped with the task of penetrating the East, creating a national market, and extracting agricultural surplus which was put to use for the state-led industrialization project. Railroads were also important for purposes of guerrilla warfare, “internal pacification,” and moving troops, equipment, and ammunition into the combat zones of Kurdish provinces, such as Dersim, which was the site of revolts and state-organized massacres in 1937-1938 (Zeynep Kezer, Building Modern Turkey, 2015).

Adalet Funambulist (1)
Excavators were among the roadbuilding equipment that arrived in Turkey with U.S. funds (ca. 1950). / Courtesy of the Archives of the General Directorate of Highways in Ankara.

As highways became the latest infrastructural tool of assimilation and coercion, building on the legacies of resettlement policies, toponymic measures, and railway construction, engineers like Önalp explicitly saw their mission as akin to military conquest. A promotional pamphlet for the Directorate of Highways from 1961 boasted of high salaries, social security provisions, and possibilities for rapid advancement for potential recruits, and culminated with the question: “Wouldn’t you also like to be an outstanding commander in this outstanding army?” The motto, “It’s not yours if you can’t get there,” decorated the header of the Highway Bulletin, the official publication of the Directorate for many years. The mountainous and rugged terrain of eastern Anatolia called for militaristic descriptions in the bulletin: “In our national struggle, we were saved from enemy servitude. In this new struggle, the great men of the highways have introduced the automobile from Rize to Ispir and have gained a new victory. In this great war with mountains, we move closer to our target each day, thanks to our compressors which sound like rifles” (December 1953). Engineers also participated in identifying “centuries of difference” between eastern and western provinces, a gap that would be overcome by paving the highways that would merge them into a unified market and national territory (October 1953). Their developmental language and practices built upon earlier discourses of civilizational deficiency and ethnic hierarchies, even as they ostensibly homogenized the space of the nation.

The military use of highways was also important in Turkey’s enthusiastic bid for joining the Western bloc during the Cold War, as can be evinced in its membership in NATO, fighting in the Korean War, and hosting of U.S. military bases and nuclear missiles along its northern and southern coasts. Assistance for the highway program started under the auspices of the Joint American Mission for Military Aid to Turkey [JAMMAT], which founded its own engineering branch in 1949, and continued under the Marshall Plan. The initial road machinery that arrived from the United States was put to use in highway construction between the strategically important city of Erzurum and the commercial and military ports of Iskenderun, which became the first exercise in mechanized roadbuilding in Turkey. Despite the suggestions of Marshall Plan representatives leading to changes in the program, highway building was never completely civilianized, as can be evinced from maps and progress reports chronicling the differences and overlaps between roads with military and economic “values” over the years.

Throughout the 1950s, U.S. advice and assistance on highway construction enabled the Turkish state to provide the infrastructure needed for capital accumulation by the private sector. U.S. aid also focused on increasing the capabilities of Turkey’s armed forces, rehabilitating existing runways in Diyarbakir and building a new airbase in Incirlik, which included a hospital, a recreational hall, roads, and housing to support a future contingent of 1,365 airmen: “The large open space of the Ceyhan Palace Hotel’s ballroom became the engineering-drafting room. Personnel from Tuseg’s [the US Engineer Group] engineering-construction division supervised the design work of the contractor, interpreting the air force’s criteria, suggesting preliminary layout, and checking all drawings and specifications. Incorporating the facilities that the reconnaissance party identified, the contractor drafted plans for the rehabilitation or conversion of runways, taxiways, and facilities to be used by the us air force” (Robert Grathwol & Donita Moorhus, Bricks, Sand, and Marble, 2009). As the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Engineer Group continued their operations in the country, the list of strategic roads planned and built by American engineers grew, even long after the Marshall Plan was discontinued.

During the height of its military alliance with the United States, Turkey was also transitioning to multiparty politics, leading to a decade of government by the Demokrat Parti (DP) under Adnan Menderes between 1950 and 1960. Although the Democrats tried to differentiate themselves from Ataturk’s Republican Party’s paternalism with its boarding schools and language reform, Menderes started his own campaign of uplift in Kurdish areas, with a 1951-1954 cabinet program that identified rural roads and schools in Eastern Turkey, as the government’s “locus of action,” in order to “[mobilize] our youth around the ideal of the ‘Nation’” (Faik Kırbaşlı, 1920-1972 Döneminde Kalkınma, 1973). During these years, the government committed to spending more than 55 million liras in three highway administrative units and in 2,451 kilometers of roads in the region. While the length of all-weather roads across the country increased from 9,264 kilometers to 22,000 kilometers between 1948 and 1958, only ten out of 253 villages had roads in the eastern city of Bitlis, and only a total of 39 kilometers had been paved in the city. In other words, while highways were to ensure further penetration into eastern provinces, they were not to allow for encounters among Kurdish populations dispersed in these areas.

DP’s reign ended in 1960 with a coup that deposed and hanged its leadership. The military government that came to power arrested 485 prominent Kurds and detained them without trial for nine months in a concentration camp in central Turkey. A Forced Settlement Law came into force the next year, deporting the most influential of the detainees to Western Turkey. Populist democrats, republican elites, and the military continued to intervene in the movement of what they perceived to be unruly populations throughout the next decades. Their efforts intensified under a regional state of emergency, which was first declared in 1987 and renewed 46 times until 2002. During this period, thousands lost their lives or were “disappeared,” and up to a million people were displaced with the evacuation of villages and the destruction of settlements through collaborations between special forces and paramilitary groups. The Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), a massive program of dams, hydroelectric plants and irrigation systems, further resulted in the dislocation of Kurdish populations. While GAP came to include “social development” initiatives following an administrative restructuring in 1989, these projects did not substitute for, but rather supplemented military violence in the region (Nilay Özok-Gündoğan, “‘Social development’ as a governmental strategy,” 2005). Particularly controversial has been the Ilısu Dam, which is slated to destroy the cultural heritage site of Hasankeyf and to assist the securitization of canyons that served as alternative transportation routes for guerrillas for decades. Thus, the damming of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers were again utilized in intervening in the movement of Kurdish communities and in the attempts to render them legible, locatable, and easier to monitor.

Still, resilient peoples refused to be digested by a state that attempted to dictate which of its subjects could move, when and where. Tactics of resistance continue to be spatial in character, whether in urban settings where teenagers have been digging ditches in defiance of police violence (Haydar Darıcı, “Of Kurdish Youth and Ditches,” 2016) or in the strategies of the PKK (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan—Kurdistan Workers Party) that have entailed both the sabotage of transport infrastructures and the crystallization of territorial imaginations that go beyond the state form, traversing the boundaries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In a telling example of the unexpected consequences of the attempts to control mobility, it was Kurdish migration to western cities, which were enabled by the highway network, that presented an opportunity for “interaction with fellow Kurds and different social groups in an urban context, sharing and reproducing common memories about state practices in the Kurdish regions” (Azat Zana Gündoğan, “Space-state making and contentious Kurdish politics,” 2011). These encounters paved the way for the Eastern meetings of 1967, as Gündoğan argues, where thousands of Kurds participated in rallies across major eastern cities. These meetings would mark the beginning of a radical new phase in Kurdish political mobilization, whose struggle with a ferocious infrastructural state that tries to “get there” while insisting that its targets stay put or be forcefully moved to areas where they can easily be located continues to this day.