Turkish, Kurdish, Syriac, Arab: Mardin — Model For Turkey?

While most political pundits were readying themselves for what is expected to be a landmark congress of the country’s governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) kicking off tomorrow, Sept.30, in the Turkish capital of Ankara, last…
While most political pundits were readying themselves for what is expected to be a landmark congress of the country’s governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) kicking off tomorrow, Sept. 30, in the Turkish capital of Ankara, last Wednesday I had an opportunity to participate in a meeting held in Mardin.

It was part of a parliamentary Exchange and Dialogue project initiated by Parliament that is jointly managed by the European Union and the Republic of Turkey.

Today my focus is not the conference output as such but on a Turkish region that has to live with innumerable prejudices and has to accept being sidelined and mostly only making headlines when something deplorable occurs.

Having left the airport behind us driving towards Mardin (140,000 people live in the “merkez,” another 620,000 citizens reside in the surrounding area) and besides the natural beauty of the region what meets the eye first are newly constructed houses everywhere. Modern apartment blocks not unlike those we are used to in much bigger metropolises such as Ankara and Izmir. A state-of-the-art shopping mall complete with Aqua Park. Hotels as posh (but much less pretentious) as can be found along Istanbul’s Bosporus shores. Internet cafés and wireless access all over the place. Schools, hospitals. Roadwork with asphalt being laid where it had not been before. The entire inner center getting a makeover, and there is a history museum doubling as a venue for modern art sponsored by the Sabanci group of companies. What’s more, and as a colleague wrote a few days ago in this newspaper, Mardin has its very own biennial. And then there is history, an incredible amount of history. Let me give you an example of how the city’s administrators deal with it. Kasimiye Madrasa (or seminary), which is located a short drive from the center, was totally renovated a few years ago. It has become a masterpiece of how historic buildings can be “face-lifted” without losing their original appeal or charm. There are no stalls selling tacky souvenirs. Instead you can buy a few carefully selected items.

The roof terrace allows for great views over the Mesopotamian plain.

Besides, and as a member of Parliament from Mardin told us, four peoples live side by side: Turkish, Kurdish, Syriac (Aramean) and Arab. Their languages are heard in the streets, too.

Is all this too good to be true? Not really. Actually, one could argue that visitors coming only to tour would perhaps have reacted adversely when they see a city experiencing a construction boom with dust and “pavement-free” roads. But there are of course downsides. Away from the center in smaller villages most likely not all young girls attend school. There are underage marriages. A mayor in a town not too far away previously told me on the record that he greatly wished that honor killings would become a thing of the past but fully acknowledged that they, albeit infrequently, continue to happen. And then there is terror. A day before arriving in Mardin an attack in Tunceli once more led to the loss of innocent citizens’ lives. And this brings me to the gist of this piece. I was told that some expected participants at our meeting had refused to travel to the region because they were afraid, afraid of journeying too far from supposedly trouble-free, sunshine belt towns or perceived-as-safe metropolises where these meetings are usually held. One can only understand the urgency of stopping domestic terror when speaking with people who on a daily basis have to live with it. One can only realize how grave past and present atrocities have cut into the social fabric of this entire region. Mardin — model for a peaceful Turkish civil society? In theory, yes.

But a single town, city or region cannot successfully deal with domestic terror alone. It needs help from everyone in the country, from all political parties and most probably from international allies, too. One way to create awareness about the issues at stake (how tolerance works, why terror must end) amongst our European colleagues is to bring them here. Dare I say some of our Turkish colleagues and decision makers need a dose of reality by talking to people on the ground, too? More such meetings in Mardin, please! (Klaus Jurgens/Today’s Zaman)