A Grand Day Out - an attempted visit to Kobane

Kobane border - Paul Bowman“Ed, that’s soldier’s headed our way, we’re gonna have to move”. Sure enough the soldier is trudging down the road towards us, unshouldering his rifle and looking, even from this distance, distinctly narked. Ed doesn’t directly acknowledge my warning, except with a barely discernible movement of the head, focussed as he is on his camera shot. He knows I know that he’s heard me and he knows that as I haven’t yet added the “...now!” intensifier, that he has a few more precious seconds to finish the shot, as the camera pans over the ruins of Eastern Kobane against the backdrop of Mishtenur Hill. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon of Thursday 19 March on the Turkish side of the border with Syria and Kobane. 

And the soldier is getting closer. Ed finishes the shot, and without looking back, we begin to walk back along the road to the train station and border crossing.

Our journey had begun the day before when we had boarded the flight from Istanbul to Diyarbakır the morning after the Paddy’s Day gig which was the hook around which the musical leg of our trip had hung. Now, shorn of musicians and instruments, we set off for the unofficial capital of Kurdistan in Turkey. Along with our official cover for the trip, to do the tourist visit to the big Newroz festival on the Saturday, we had a less publicised mission, a trip to Kobane or “as near as we can get” as Ed’s email had put it to me a couple of months previously.

Arriving in Diyarbakır, we dump bags at our respective hotels and discuss the practicalities of our trip to the border. It’s a fair old way from Diyarbakıır (or Amed, as it is called in Kurdish languages) and we have to allow for the possibility we get stuck somewhere for a night. Given we want to be back for the big Newroz bash on the Saturday, setting out on Thursday is the only opportunity that allows some time contingency. Ed reflects that from a practical perspective the trip would appear pointless as we’ll be almost certainly unable to cross the border and we’ll be exposing ourselves to expense, exhaustion and risk (this last is unspoken) for no visible gain. We both agree. But naturally there’s no question that we’re going anyway. That out of the way, we arrange to start early at 8am the next day and make our way to the bus station to get the coach to Şanlıurfa.

Next morning I meet Ed in the café of his hotel. We grab a breakfast of the local naan-type bread, cheese, olives, tomato and cucumber washed down with dark sugary tea. We make our way to the nearest main square to locate the dolmuş to the bus station. Our progress is somewhat trickier for the fact that neither of us speak a word of either Turkish or Kumanji (the main local Kurdish language). Ed at least has some Arabic, but my collection of latinate and germanic languages is entirely useless here. Nonetheless we manage to find the dolmuş for the bus station and clamber on board the already crowded minibus. 

The bus station is a ways outside of town, surrounded by vast fields of new tower blocks. There’s a construction boom in Amed it seems, most of the blocks look brand new, rising more or less straight out of unlandscaped waste ground, with no sign of shops, facilities or anything other than more tower blocks. There’s clearly a story behind this construction boom, but that’s just one more question to be added to an ever-lengthening list as we wander and wonder.

The inter-city coach sector in Turkey appears to be heavily neoliberalised. Instead of one ticket office, you have half a dozen different companies running their own buses to the same destinations. The kiosks are all next to each other in the station, each with garish advertising and flashing LED lights promoting their wares. We purchase returns to Şanlıurfa (or just ‘Urfa) and duly mount the gleaming new coach on the forecourt. The coach has those little screens on the back of the head-rests you used to only get on long-distance flights, but are increasingly omnipresent. As ever the coach wifi is inadequate to all the demands being made of it by all the passengers smartphones. 

As we leave the plain of Diyarbakır, we climb the slopes of Karacadag, the great ancient shield volcano that lies on the border of Diyarbakır and Şanlıurfa provinces and on whose slopes recent genetic research has revealed, originated the ancestor of all domesticated wheat. This whole region is ground zero of the neolithic revolution. Just a few klicks north-east of Şanlıurfa, where we’re heading lies the mysterious and awesome site of Göbekli Tepe. A pre-neolithic site that is currently in the process of turning our ideas about early human history and the idea of agriculture as presupposition for civilisation on its head. Sadly we will not have time to visit this trip. Our concerns this time are more pressingly contemporary.

Some young lads on the coach question us out of curiosity and in a friendly manner. Where are we from, where are we going and so on. Ed explains that we are musicians are we are on a mission. They ask what type of music and Ed explains that we do many types including Irish and Greek, but that he’s also working with some Kurdish musicians back at SOAS to do a collection of Kurdish songs. The boys perk up. Anything on Youtube? As it happens, yes. With a bit of struggling with the buses wifi connection, the lads manage to raise one of the songs recorded by a woman singer from the group, a fairly political Kurdish number[1].

The lads are suitably impressed. An older lad in his 20s, who’s been following the conversation so far, engages. Where exactly is it we were going again? Kobane, Ed replies. The older lad and the two teenagers express surprise. There is war there, why do you want to go there? So Ed pitches them the vision.

I’ve heard the vision before of course, and I’ve seen Ed pitch it to a few people so far. The reaction is always the same. Initial scepticism, even incredulity at the ambition, followed by a growing realisation that he’s serious and then that it’s the kind of mad plan that might even work, if enough people bought into it. Which well they might. Because it’s a cool idea.

The idea is to build a music academy in Kobane. An academy for Kurdish music, but also with room for cultural interchange with other folk music traditions from around the world. Musicians from the informal but far-reaching network of ethno-musicologist practitioners and enthusiasts would come and teach and learn and help rebuild the ruins of Kobane. Outside the reach of forces like the Turkish state that have so far made sure that cultural expressions like Kurdish music have to operate around the margins or from exile. Such an academy would be currently impossible within Turkish state-controlled territory. Most of all, despite its relatively “apolitical” form, such a project would be a gesture of defiance against not only those existing state actors who have officially suppressed Kurdish culture and music, but also against Daesh and other Salafist death-cults who wish to see all music and culture wiped from the face of the earth.

The young lads are left in a half-disbelieving, half-entranced state that is the common outcome of Ed’s vision. As we are coming down from the high lands towards ‘Urfa we find ourselves surrounded by an even bigger sea of even newer tower blocks than the one we left in Amed. The mother of all building booms appears to be happening in ‘Urfa. On a scale that makes Dublin at the height of the building bubble look like a pimple on a property developer’s arse. And these are not municipal flats, these are bling-tastic eulogies to conspicuous consumerism. There are chandelier shops, designer furniture warehouses, luxury car outlets. What the hell is going on here? 

Ed asks the older lad who has decent English. The guy explains that this is an effect of the war. All the Syrians with money have picked up every liquid asset they could carry and decamped across the border to ‘Urfa and are now ploughing their plunder into this new real-estate boom. Worse luck, he explains, it has driven rents in the city up for native workers, like himself. Rent levels are now at $100 a month for a one room apartment (the increasing use of US dollars for rents rather than Turkish Lira, also seems to be accelerated by the war migration - also the exchange rate is steadily moving against Turkish Lira wage earners). Many of his friends are being driven out of the city by this new economic pressure, he’s not sure how long he can resist the tide himself.[2]

We part at the ‘Urfa bus station and, following our interlocutor’s advice, head downstairs to where the dolmuş to Suruç are waiting. We locate the next one and pile on. As we make stops on our way out of the big city, we gradually pick up more passengers until the minibus is standing room only. We finally leave the urban sprawl of ‘Urfa and head out into open country towards Suruç, the last settlement before the border. Gradually we start to pass refugee camps and military checkpoints. The tension levels start to rise. The closer we get to the border, the less we can pass off as regular tourists and the more obvious it becomes that we are on a pilgrimage to a place the Turkish state would preferred to have seen wiped off the map.

Along the way we see frequent signs for “Suruç Beton” the local cement firm. These guys are obviously making out like bandits. Even the tiny villages on the way to Suruç show signs of new construction. Being in the cement business is clearly paying war dividends round these parts.

We finally arrive in Suruç. Now comes the most tricky and potentially expensive part of our trip. We have to find a taxi driver to get us the 10 klicks from Suruç to the border, without getting ripped off or arrested or whatever. Without a word of Turkish or Kurdish between us. However we are spared the full potential of this initiative test. As we debark from the dolmuş, a couple of guys are hanging around. One of them takes one look at us and walks over. “Taxi?” he enquires. We look at each other. What the hell, we have to make this transaction somehow. He is unsurprised about where we want to go. There’s obviously a new micro-industry in taking gawping tourists and freelance journos and whathaveyou down to the border.

We agree a price and fold ourselves into his battered 1980s Peugeot. The drive takes us through Suruç, a dusty, but vibrant one horse town. We career around dolmuş, cement trucks and horses and carts trotting down the cobbled main street. There are no stetsons or saloons with swing doors here, but otherwise Suruç is very much a frontier town, bustling with a confident and defiant energy. The red Turkish flag hangs over the municipal buildings, but everywhere else is the gold, red and green of the Kurds. And everywhere more building. Existing buildings sprout rebar out of the top of their current roof, ready to slap the next layer of pillar and deck on, as and when required. Most side walls are skimmed, but many are still bare breezeblock. 

On the outskirts we swerve around a couple of young blonde dreadlocked crusty types, German autonomen on tour by the looks, and head down the long empty road to the border. We tense up as an army checkpoint looms on the road, but the bored squaddie by the side of the armoured car shows no particular interest and our driver doesn’t even bother to slow down. Past a couple of big army bases and then finally we drop down the hill towards a handful of isolated buildings, including a couple of shops and then a bit of open ground in front of the train station and border crossing. We manage to communicate that we’ll meet the driver again in an hour and disembark.

In front of us is one of those hand-raisable pole barriers with about a dozen or so local Kobane townsfolk hanging around. Beyond which is the clear space to the metal gate to the 10 yard or so chicane to the Syrian side. Above the metal wall on the other side of the interface a shell-marked building rises with the red-starred yellow triangular flag of the YPG fluttering in the wind. To the left of the space between the barrier and the first gate lies the now shut Mürşitpınar train station. The rail station that originally gave Kobane its reason for existence - the name is a Kurdicization of “company”, referring to the German company that was building the famous Berlin to Baghdad railway line[3] and established a way station here. Now there’s a security portakabin and parked armoured car controlling the space between the barrier and the gate. 

Armoured cars and tanks and guns...

Ed advocates the Baldrick-esque cunning plan of sauntering across the space beyond the barrier towards the gate to see what happens. So we stroll past the bemused Kobane-ites whistling a jig and head for the gate. A large man in a black leather coat appears from the portakabin, looking flustered. The language barrier may prevent clear communication, but the gist is pretty clear - “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”. 

Papers please

While Ed deals with the large security feller, I stand off and take photos on my phone. Having checked Ed’s passport and ascertained that he is not an accredited journalist or in possession of a permit to cross the border (these exist, apparently) the big lad seems to calm down, having accepted that we’re not about to make a mad dash for the gate. Two or three rather disgruntled looking squaddies have appeared, presumably turfed out of the portakabin or wherever they were having tea and chilling. They mostly looked bored apart from one of them that’s giving me daggers and shouts “No photographs!”.  I ignore him for now. 

While security man is talking to whoever has authority on his walkie talkie, a small puppy appears from the rear of the portakabin. “Never work with children and small animals” W.C. Fields said. But then he was dealing with Hollywood directors, not irritated men with guns trying to decide whether to categorise you as friend or foe. In that situation, short of instruments and the ability to rustle up an impromptu session, the appearance of animals or small children is a god-send. We set about making a fuss of the puppy, who’s clearly a beloved mascot of the security guys and squaddies. The puppy looks like he will eventually grow up to be a slavering guard dog, but in his present state looks more like an escapee from an Andrex commercial. We take the inevitable photographs of the dog and this time even the resentful squaddie makes no protest.

Ed with vicious guard puppy 

At some point in these proceedings an Ambulance rolls up from the Suruç side. Its papers are duly checked and it is waved through the border crossing. Clearly there is some access to Turkish medical services for residents. At a further point in our brief messing around with the dog and taking photographs of the shrapnel-perforated abandoned railway cars on the line to our right, we notice that there’s currently no security or army personnel behind us. This becomes clear as my attention is drawn to a couple of local men taking the opportunity to leg it through the gate. The big security guy reappears but ignores the disappearing heels of the two men. The presence of the crowd of locals waiting patiently on the other side of the barrier becomes clear. This border is officially closed to anyone without the proper permits by order of the Turkish state. However if any Kobane refugees decide to return, then so long as they’re on foot and not carrying more than a shopping bag, the state is, unofficially, happy enough to see them leave.

As well as the big security guy in the black leather coat, the squaddies have also reappeared, along with a smaller bald guy in civvies who’s having a quiet word with the big lad. The new man is the type of quiet non-descript feller who would fade into the background in most places, but he’s clearly in charge here and my antennae tell me he represents something sinister and dangerous. The aggressive young squaddie, as if on queue, has now finally had enough of us being there and taking photographs, and after a final shouted warning makes the decision to move forward to intervene. I tell Ed we have to leave now, and we make our retreat behind the barrier. The locals waiting patiently for the opportunity to cross, stand politely to the side to allow us past the barrier. Considering our antics are probably delaying their passage, they seem to bear us no ill-will, but with the soldiers and security guys watching, neither do they make any attempt to communicate with us, understandably given the circumstances.

Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer

The problem with the border crossing itself, from a photography and filming point of view, is that you are too close up to the border wall to get a view of what lies beyond. We drop back a bit, looking for a vantage point where we can get some good shots of Kobane itself. There’s a road heading East, alongside the station complex that runs along parallel to the wall before turning back up the hill to Suruç. At the top of the hill there’s an army base and a sentry box on the opposite side of the road with a pair of squaddies on guard duty. At the moment a dolmuş is driving up the road and is in the process of being pulled over by the sentries. Ed looks dubiously at the road. “I’m not sure we can go up there” he muses. I look at the dolmuş and the distance from the sentry box at the top of the hill to the corner where we could get a decent shot over the open fields towards Mishtenur hill. I calculate we can do it. 

We amble along the road which passes by a number of buildings in the station and customs warehouses complex. The last building before the corner is a security post, with a barrier for lorries entering and leaving the complex, as well as a weighbridge. At the time I assumed this was an import/export customs post, later examination of our photos, via google translate, reveals this to be a food supplies administration office, presumably related to grain silos behind it on the complex (Kobane province is/was an important grain producer). We pass that and then we are at the corner with a good view of the ruined city. Ed settles down to take a panoramic video shot of the vista. I watch his back, keeping an eye on the squaddies at the top of the road who are eyeing us up. They send the dolmuş back the way he came. Apparently this road really is closed to civilians. Uh-oh. Now one of the soldiers is heading our way, which is where we came in.

Ed finishes his shot and gets up and we head back the way we came. The soldier is still just far away enough to prevent this being an obvious chase. As we pass the security post, a man in his mid-30s in non-descript official work dress emerges and walks towards Ed. “Hello my friend”, he smiles and extends his hand. Ed turns back and greets the administration man and shakes his hand. After a brief exchange the official invites us into his post for a cup of tea. He dismisses the approaching squaddie with a wave of his hand and the dejected trooper turns and begins the tedious trudge back to his post at the top of the hill. 

I have misgivings about this invitation. Clearly trusted employees of the Turkish state, even if local Kurds, are not going to be exactly onside with lefty Kobane resistance enthusiasts. This could be dodgy to say the least. On the other hand, the man has invited us into his place for tea, and there is a certain etiquette, rules even, that govern hospitality in many places in the Middle East, and here in Kurdistan in particular. I swallow my misgivings and head into the watch house after Ed.

Our host ushers us into the main windowed room which contains worksurfaces around the outer windowed walls, a small table with tea paraphernalia, two chairs and a two-seater mock Louis XIV sofa with cream and cerise striped brocade upholstery. As well as our host, there are another three men present. Another mid-30s guy in some ministry’s police/security  uniform, and younger feller in civvies and an older tall man in suit jacket and slacks with resplendent white mustache, sat in the dominant chair at the head of the sofa. Our host introduces the elder man as his “uncle”. Whether he is his blood uncle or not is immaterial, the man is clearly the resident patriarch of this mini impromptu diwan. The young lad is a cousin and the uniformed guy is a colleague. 

The young lad is shooed into the kitchen to make tea and we are directed to the brocade sofa. Ed sits at the side nearest the head man and the conversation between the two of them begins, via the interpretations of our host, who has functional English. Not for the first time I inwardly curse my inability to distinguish between Turkish and Kurmanji by sound. The uniformed guy asks our host something, I presume about us. I think I catch the word “sosyaliste” in his reply - he has our number methinks. But then you’d have to be dumb and well as blind and deaf not to make that most obvious guess about why we’re here. The main conversation continues between Ed and the older man. My role in these situations is mainly to play Grommit to Ed’s Wallace.

Ed explains that we are musicians. Despite having no proper instruments between us, Ed has taken the precaution of sticking a pair of “bones” in his jacket pocket, and gives an impromptu demonstration of the rhythm section. The tension eases slightly. Our host then interjects with a direct question as to why we are here, what do we think of Kobane, because many people have bad ideas… Ed sees the danger and executes a skillful do-si-do around the elephant in the room. He pitches the music academy vision again, in suitably de-politicised “for the love of music” form. Our audience are skeptical but amused. Plus they are taken with Ed’s demonstration, with hand gestures that politics is “here” (parallel hands mark out a static location in the air) and music is like this (hands show flowing motion around the previous spot). 

The patriarch is satisfied that this is an acceptable position that is face-saving for all sides and allows them to accept us as being something other than another set of Western PKK-groupies. The atmosphere relaxes we drink our tea, exchange pleasantries and tales of our musical adventures in Istanbul and elsewhere. Finally we make our excuses as we must meet our taxi driver to return to Suruç. As we exit the security building expressing our thanks for the hospitality, the sky feels good above my head and I breath more easily. We trudge back to the crossing, noting that the crowd of people waiting to cross has disappeared, presumably let through once we were out of the way.

We locate our driver who is chatting to one of the shopkeepers and embark for the return to Suruç. As we drive up the road past the army bases, we reach a good vantage point to take more footage and Ed asks the driver to pull over for a minute while he gets more material for the film short he’s intending to make. As he sits by the road filming, of all things a convoy of trucks appeared. With a Turkish army armoured car and UN 4WD in the lead, about a dozen trucks, piled high with supplies rumble towards the border. Humanitarian supplies no doubt. But interesting that this is happening considering there has been a lot of agitation around this question of opening a humanitarian corridor to Kobane. I pop out the car to tell Ed, lost in his shot, that he’s missing the story behind him. That done we load back in the car and get back to the relative safety of Suruç, paying off our driver and then head for a spot of late lunch.

We find a shawarma place on the main market square and settle down to tea, bread, meat and a bit of salad - the basic eating out options in this part of the world. Kurdistan is definitely not vegetarian friendly, compared to Istanbul or even most places in the Middle East. I haven’t seen a falafel or hummus in days. We talk over the results of our trip. We’re happy enough that it was worth coming, despite the fact that lack of time and proper preparation meant that actually crossing over into Kobane was not a possibility this time around. That it is possible to cross, we know from friends and comrades we will be meeting back in Amed later, who have already done this multiple times. Still we wanted to see the approach and the lie of the land. Although things have clearly calmed down from a few months ago when people where getting beaten, gassed and shot at the protests by the border, the challenge of getting a group of musicians, with instruments, across the border is still pretty high at this stage. Our provisional timetable for doing so by next year’s Paddy’s Day/Newroz is still very dependent on the inordinate number of factors that can change. The progress of the war against Daesh in Syria and the securing of Rojavan territory itself. The development of internal AKP tensions between Erdogan and the government over the peace process, the internal politics and struggles within Turkey, the regional Saudi-Iranian struggle and international great powers interventions. So many uncontrollable factors that may snuff out the possibilities like a candle in a gale. We will just have to see what the future brings, but today was a good day.

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Notes

[1] “Li Bagoke” sung by Suna Alan, part of the Kurdish Songbook project @ SOAS. A Kurdish liberation song about a battle at Bagoke mountain. In which the singer’s Aunt was involved.  https://youtu.be/w0jhSI78_FY

[2] See this from last year, for e.g. Hurriyet, 05/03/2014, Syrian refugee inflow doubles house prices in Turkish border cities

[3] This is far from being the first war the Baghdad-Berlin railway line has been involved with. In fact some historians even implicate the attempt to build this line as a factor in the origin of world war I. Lawrence of Arabia and just about everybody else and his dog has attacked, fought over or around this line at one time or another. There’s a great historical novel yet to be written telling the history of the region from the perspective of the railway line. The line is still shut today, as it has been for most of its century-long existence. The day when we can get on a train in Istanbul and get of it in Baghdad without being stopped, checked, held, arrested, kidnapped, blown up or shot, will be a historic day. But it will be a while coming yet.

 

Related article: "Dance for Kobane", Ed Emery, Le Monde Diplomatique English Edition, April 2015.

 

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Words: Paul Bowman

Photographs: Paul Bowman and Ed Emery. Nearly all photographs Creative Commons, Attribution, Noncommercial. Except photograph of Ed with dog, all copyright rights reserved.

  


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