DIYARBAKIR — Sunday night in Diyarbakir is actually a lot more entertaining than it sounds. Emre has become our constant companion, translating for us, joking with us, showing us around. And while J. and I wait for our press passes, Emre decided to cheer us up by taking us to a Kurdish bar. Leading us down rickety wooden stairs, as soon as he opened the door, the zinging sounds of the saz and the wailing, eerily beautiful singing style of the musician swirled around us.
Emre and I sat and talked while J. luckily found a friend in a Kurdish engineer. While they happily discussed Diyarbakir’s building codes and earthquake preparedness, Emre told me about the music.
The singer played a saz, a lute-like 7-stringed instrument with a long neck and deep body. With the addition of electronic distortion on the sound, the strumming and picking took on a droning, trance-like sound, almost like a bull-roarer but higher pitched. A backdrop of green and red fairy lights, the Kurds’ national colors, framed him. The bar itself was low, covered in Kurdish weavings, the walls covered by muslin. Above my head hung an ancient rifle.
“As I walk over the snows…” sang the musician, and groups of young men rose to clasp hands, link arms and joined in the traditional circle dance called the halay. They jumped and stomped in complicated unison, as the performer sang of love, fun and freedom.
“This is a song of freedom,” Emre told me. It sounded sad and longing. Only the men danced and sang on this one, and some in the audience even held their lighters aloft. I giddily thought of rock and roll shows in America. On the other songs, women joined in.
Freedom for Kurds seems always to be a dream for this people, and it’s a sad one for seemingly being out of reach. There’s a wistful tone when they speak of northern Iraq, which they never call Iraqi Kurdistan, as if they can’t bring themselves to say the word for fear it will disappear in a cloud again. The Kurds of Iraq have created something wonderful the Kurds in Turkey feel, but it is a fragile thing, protected only by the United States and Britain for as long as it’s useful to them. After Saddam is gone, what then?
Turkey has massed thousands of troops on the border, and every day seems to bring new confusion from Ankara as to whether Turkey will or won’t reinforce its troops in Iraq — said to number between 3,000 and 17,000, although Mehmet, the journalist, told me 13,000.
If the Iraqi Kurds are allowed some measure of autonomy in a post-Saddam Iraq, some Kurds in Turkey worry that the Turks will move in after the Americans leave, to “preserve security” as the government says every day.
And so they sit in a smokey bar in Diyarbakir, drinking chai, surrounded by the smells and sounds of a nation without a country. Their songs of freedom are songs of mourning, both for what never was and likely will never be.