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

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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.”