by Amie Williams
GAZIANTEP, Turkey, November 2015 — The day after the Turkish national elections restored the ruling party, AKP, to its former dominance, I traveled from Istanbul to Gaziantep by bus. It’s a crazy, 18-hour journey that traverses most of the country, from the northwest tip to the southeast. The buses were like small airplanes, sleek, white, equipped with small TV screens on the backs of seats, and serving tea and coffee every few hours. My traveling companion and translator, Gulnaz Can, was a young Turkish journalist from London. She didn’t tell her employer, an international aid organization, that she was traveling to southeast Turkey. She told me her bosses would never clear her to travel to this region, so close to the Syrian border and Islamic State-controlled territory.
While most of my fellow passengers slept, I stared out the window, unable to sleep. I had come here to research a screenplay I am writing on the route a young Tunisian woman took, one year earlier, to try to find her sister, who had married a jihadi husband, joined Islamic State (what Tunisians call ISIS) and is now living in Raqqa, Syria. But deep inside, what I really wanted to understand was how the recent military actions by Russia and the coalition forces in Syria were redefining and redrawing already complicated borders and allegiances.
I wanted to see for myself how life near the Syrian border was really lived, given all the uncertainty. Little did I know that less than a week later, Paris would be locked down due to terrorist attacks, Turkey would blow a Russian jet out of the sky, and this part of the world would erupt into an international war zone, the intensity of which has not been seen since the Iraq War. Gaziantep, where we were headed, is the closest big city to Raqqa, being less than 120 miles northwest of the de facto capital of Islamic State’s dreaded, self-declared caliphate.
Gaziantep is a bustling town of more than 2 million, awash in colorful contrasts. It’s famous for its sweet baklava, made with the slender pistachios grown in massive groves on the outskirts. The region is also host to the largest organized industrial zone in Turkey, with a huge textile industry that employs thousands, many of them refugees. Gaziantep is also the current command post for many of the Syrian opposition groups vying for their piece of an increasingly complex sliver of pie that is roughly the 100-kilometer (62-mile) contested border area between Syria and Turkey.
Like an alphabet soup, the dizzying array of acronyms and abbreviations for the Kurdish militia, terrorist and Islamist militant groups headquartered here is difficult to keep straight, let alone understand. A Gaziantep journalist drew a map for me in my journal, outlining the following: YPG-YPJ, Al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS, Cey? El Siwar, OSO and PKK. He works for a local Kurdish publication and has been across the border more times than he can remember. He asked me not to use his name since the Turkish authorities have detained him before. His fully bearded face and midnight-black mustache seemed incongruous with his habit of bursting into laughter. His sparkling, playful eyes kept looking at me with pity, as if I would never understand what he was trying to explain. Certainly this region of Turkey, steeped in a historical narrative of struggle, tragedy and loss, may be just that—an ongoing, obdurate enigma.
At a local cafe in the historic Jewish-Armenian part of town, a warren of narrow cobblestone streets and quaint courtyard cafes, we listen to a young woman playing the baglama and singing a sad Kurdish love song, a paperback biography of Che Guevara by her side. Someone had scrawled on the wall: “He asked me, why do you fight when you know you can’t win, and because I did not want to upset him, I did not respond by saying, why do you live, when you know you will die?” Elsewhere hung portraits of Kurdish poets and rebels, and the place was packed with cigarette-smoking students from Gaziantep University, one of the top engineering schools in Turkey. One of them is our guide, Memed Akif. “People are politicized very early here,” he explains.
Raised on a diet of Kurdish-identity consciousness and an impatience with the slow pace of promised democratic reforms, most young Turks I speak with here reject the outcome of the elections as yet another indication of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s iron grip on the throat of their nation. But even Akif, a tall, muscular Ph.D. candidate in economics, has a sweetness and quietude that immediately puts me at ease. I asked him what his dreams are for the future. He doesn’t get me at first. “For my country or for me?” he gently asks. It’s as if he doesn’t know how to think about himself.
Although nightly news reports focus on the steady stream of Syrian refugees to Europe, there are more than 1.8 million refugees in Turkey. An unofficial 500,000 of these are in Gaziantep, according to our Kurdish journalist, most of them recent arrivals from Aleppo. Exploring the back streets, I see a Syrian girl, no more than 6 years old, playing “teacher” to her three younger brothers in a make-believe school. They sit attentively on concrete blocks, eagerly raising their hands as she reads from a torn notebook. Many Syrian refugee children here, due to language barriers and bureaucracy, do not have the luxury of attending school.
In another alley, we meet a large family from Aleppo, who told us they have been basically homeless for two years. Three generations of women squat against a crumbling stone wall, while the brothers break up scraps of particle wood for fire and the father tries to connect loose wires in a vain attempt at pirating electricity.
Back at the cafe, I take a short video of the girl singing, the haunting lyrics a perfect soundtrack for musings on my script—a true story of two sisters torn apart by Islamic State. I will call them Leila and Essma for reasons of anonymity. Both spent time in this town, on their way crossing borders, changing lives. Walking through the narrow, cream-brick alleyways where the Armenians used to live, I feel the ghosts of this town, continually retracing its trope as tragic backdrop to larger international struggles. We stumble on a small film crew that morning, filming a local soap opera. Gulnaz tells me that another popular Turkish TV show, “Yabanc? Damat” (literally “The Foreign Groom”), was shot here. It’s a love story of a Turkish man and a Greek woman, and is also known in Greece as “The Borders of Love.”
I have been struggling to understand why Leila, the younger of the two Tunisian sisters, left the relative safety and comfort of her middle-class home in Tunis, crossing through Turkey to Syria to join her husband. She was a typical teenager in many ways, into sports and even hip-hop. Her older sister Essma tells me she was in love, only 19 and very naive. She was also pregnant. In Tunisian society, having sex before marriage is still a huge taboo, so it’s not a big stretch to sympathize with this girl’s reasoning and limited choices. The resounding stereotype of a young woman traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State has been that of a docile girl being lured through social media by a seductive male. But through my research, I am finding the motivations of many of these women to be varied and far more complex.
Earlier this year in London, I met with Erin Saltman, a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and contributor to “Becoming Mulan?: Female Western Migrants to ISIS.” She and her fellow researchers combed through the social media accounts of women who lived in Islamic State-controlled territory, finding that it was often women who attracted and recruited other young women. One particularly compelling Tumblr page I read before it disappeared, “Diary of a Muhajirah” (muhajirah means “one who leaves something”), speaks of joining a utopian sisterhood, far from the cruel, cliquish realities so many teenage girls must survive in Western schools and society.
Saltman’s study also revealed how these women feel a deep compassion for Syria’s war victims, citing the oppression of Muslims worldwide. They are attracted by the idea of building a new life, contributing to a grand cause. The online messages also warn them to come prepared: “To live a completely different kind of life means completely changing your outlook on life and researching as much as you want until you feel content with what you are about to do and know it is right,” one muhajirah wrote in her blog.
Essma did make it across the border to Raqqa to find Leila and try to convince her to return home. She told me about the locked-down life she witnessed there, with her sister reduced to raising her child and cooking most of the day because there was nothing else to do. Women were rarely let out of their homes or seen on the streets, she told me. Leila busied herself with domestic chores and child rearing, venturing out to meet with other young Islamic State brides only occasionally, to share cake recipes and sip tea at the town’s madhafa, or females’ hostel.
I asked Essma how she managed to leave Raqqa and return to Tunis, given the tight grip Islamic State commanders had on the town. She shrugged, “It was easy, normal.” There were many informal transports for Syrian refugees and a steady stream of underground trade in such items as petrol, cigarettes and drugs. She kept repeating that word over and over, “normal.” What I sensed she was doing was internalizing, like her sister, a deeper discomfort at not being able to speak about the unspeakable, or to admit a major mistake had been made. It’s not unlike the post-traumatic stress disorder I witnessed in American female combat soldiers who fought in the Iraq War, and who masked their deep disillusionment with joining a cause they largely miscalculated. It’s also a sentiment I hear echoed in so many women I’ve interviewed over the years who have been raped, battered or abused.
For anyone who has been in an addictive relationship or rationalized being trapped in a violent one, the line between insanity and passion can easily blur. Add religion or the search for spiritual relief to the mix and you stumble into territory that is understandably murky, but unfortunately all too common for women.
Over strong Turkish coffee, Gulnaz tells me, “Turkey is a melancholy country—my Kurdish father used to stare out the window at the mountains and cry.” Unlike her father, she is the perfect, upbeat travel companion. Married to a Briton and living in London for the past year, she’s falling in love with her country all over again. We laugh a lot at the way the mainstream media so often misses the nuances of life lived on the edges of conflict, and how the word “Islam” so often appears in the same sentence as the word “terrorist.”
Even our own friends and families were appalled at our travel plans. The fact is, most of the more than 2 million people living in Gaziantep go about their daily business normally—working, drinking coffee, selling SIM cards and, yes, even falling in love.
We walk through the small bazaar here, combing through piles of kutnu—the shiny, striped fabric that Gaziantep is famous for. The proud shopkeeper tells us the silk has been painstakingly woven by hand on wooden frames here for centuries. He shows us a grainy video on his laptop, perched precariously atop a towering pile of the fabric, in which a Gaziantep designer is being interviewed during Fashion Week in London, showing off miniskirts and dresses made from the cloth.
Somehow, seeing miniskirts on the emaciated bodies of European models—skirts most likely made by the hands of refugee women here—makes me want to scream, a reaction I am sure the earnest shopkeeper would not appreciate.
We spend the afternoon interviewing a young female politician, Berivan Özpolat, who heads up the local chapter of the DBP, the pro-Kurdish feminist party affiliated with the larger Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The entrance is concealed, around the back of a nondescript building. Inside, orange plastic chairs are being set up for a meeting and she is in a hurry. As sun streams into her cramped office she talks of how women in Gaziantep have always been exploited, hired as cheap labor in the textile factories and to crack pistachio shells, sitting for hours in inhuman conditions. She calls it “savage capitalism.”
The huge influx of female Syrian refugees has only guaranteed that this treatment will continue, if not worsen. One alarming local phenomenon is the selling of Syrian brides to Turkish men, apparently a thriving business, even though the men and women don’t have a common language.
Over dinner of delicious lamb kebab and lentil soup (Gaziantep is also known as the kitchen of Turkey), we discuss 2013’s fragile cease-fire in the 20-plus years of Kurdish armed struggle, and how it was recently broken. Many Turks have been trying to come to terms with the terrorist attacks in Suruc and Ankara, which left 130 dead, deeply polarizing an already divided country. With the government pointing the finger at the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), accusing it of collaborating with Islamic State, and pro-Kurdish groups pointing right back, we are faced with yet another impasse of understanding. “How else do you reverse the majority vote in your favor, six months after the people have rejected you?” Gulnaz asks. “You do it by planting fear in their hearts, and suppressing the media.”
An eerie foreshadowing of the Paris massacre and Russian plane tragedy is buried in the subtext of these discussions. Turkey’s complicity by allowing a porous, uncontrolled border, along with the U.S. and French coziness with Erdogan, is alarming to my hosts. They have learned to put their trust in little more than what they see immediately in front of them, which, frankly, is the Kurdish opposition. Together with the YPG (People’s Protection Units) in Syria, and the PKK in Iraq and Turkey, the Kurds are the most credible and effective on-the-ground forces currently posing any resistance to Islamic State.
Our journalist speaks of the PKK’S imminent plans to capture the last border crossing between Syria and Turkey, Jarabulus, which is currently controlled by Islamic State. Kurdish control of the border would certainly spell trouble for Erdogan, who is already frustrated by the West’s softening stance on Syrian President Bashar Assad. While in the past, Turkey has invested heavily in the Syrian opposition, including radical factions, to topple the Assad regime, the latest Islamic State attacks on European soil spell a major wake-up call for Erdogan and his position toward Islamic State and the entire Syrian conflict. One only need look at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights’ exhaustive list of Turkish support for Islamic State to see the kind of bind Erdogan is in now.
Despite Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s protestations to the U.N. that describe Western allegations against Turkey as media smear campaigns, there is growing evidence of Turkish aid to Islamic State, including transcripts of Turkish truck drivers ferrying weapons to Islamic State and reports of Turkish border guards being bribed by hopeful jihadists, who call the border the “Gateway to Jihad.”
Our stay in Gaziantep ends with a flourish: We’re invited to a Kurdish wedding. I watch as the young couple, no older that 22, enter a packed wedding hall and take their place center stage, dancing shyly, as a Kurdish band blares through damaged loudspeakers. Guests, mostly men, approach the stage with wads of American bills and throw them at the couple, a signal of hoped-for prosperity. We drink Orange Crush from plastic cups (this is a Muslim wedding, after all) and watch the dollars flutter like snowflakes around the newlyweds and settle to the floor, only to be swept up by a young boy and recycled for another well-wisher to toss at the couple.
Then all the young men are called to the stage and they line up, locking pinkie fingers to begin the slow, deliberate Kurdish men’s wedding dance, their grim faces broken only by a few halfhearted grins. The entire time I’ve been in Turkey, now about nine days, I have been trying to figure out why so few people smile here. Watching the dance as it slowly gathers momentum and the drummer picks up the pace, I can’t help thinking of the Kurdish insurgency and the thousands of young men and women still fighting, the millions of displaced Syrians and the precariousness of borders, drawn by proxy wars, brutal extremists, corrupt leaders and careless foreign policy.
Less than a week later, I am back in my guest house in Tunis, watching with horror as a television reporter on France 24 reports a shooting at a popular restaurant in Paris, then starts fielding reports of a bomb at a soccer stadium and hundreds taken hostage at a rock concert. I stay up through the night, glued to the TV and, like so many others, madly typing on Facebook and Twitter to see if my friends in France are safe. Then, a week later, as I am attending the Carthage Film Festival in downtown Tunis, a bomb explodes less than three blocks from where we are, in the host hotel, packed with festivalgoers.
I get the distinct sense that I am living in a horror film, and that my own screenplay has suddenly turned real. I feel dizzy, disoriented. Where am I? Whose story really is this? I call Essma and she tells me she has not heard from her sister in Raqqa for two weeks. She may never know if Leila perishes in the unrelenting carpet bombing that has started there.
As the aftermath of these attacks starts to settle into our collective conscience and these same social media channels are flooded with the posting and reposting of attempts to process our frustration and pain, I keep thinking of that little Syrian girl in Turkey, clutching her torn spiral notebook. She had a red pencil in her hand and a sweet smile on her face. I watch and listen as our somber world leaders, mostly men, address bodies of even more somber, mostly male politicians, amplified by the media, wielding a language of unremitting revenge, annihilation and war.
How I wish they could sit for just one minute on those concrete blocks in that back alley in Gaziantep in front of this little girl. Perhaps she could teach them how to pause and listen, perhaps she could tear a sheet from that tattered spiral notebook of hers and help them learn her own language in order to write an entirely different story.
For now, I live under a 9 o’clock curfew in Tunis, trying to finish my own narrative. Do I want it to be uplifting, defiant, a story of hope? There’s a saying in Tunisian, “Elli yestena, khir melli yetmana”—waiting is better than hoping. So for now, I wait.
This post originally appeared at Truthdig.com
Amie Williams is an award-winning producer/director specializing in documentary film for broadcast, nongovernmental organizations and political campaigns. Her work has appeared on PBS, Al-Jazeera English, the BBC, Current TV and CBC Canada. Her feature documentaries include “Uncommon Ground,” “Stripped and Teased: Tales From Las Vegas Women,” “No Sweat,” “Amasan: Women of the Sea” and most recently “We Are Wisconsin.” The nonprofit she founded, GlobalGirl Media, trains young women from marginalized communities around the world in citizen journalism.