by Gordon Taylor | 3/23/2008 04:39:00 AM

The photo fairly cries out for a violent metaphor. And yet, far from being a Biblical plague, the color is good news. Rain has been falling in northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and the farmers are smiling. Streams and torrents have tumbled from the mountains, swelling the Tigris. Lowland wadis have sprung to life, while snow has stuck to the high peaks. All these have churned the river's sediments near Cizre (pron. jeez-ray) into a display of red.

But there's also red in the cities of Turkey's southeast: red with yellow and green, to be exact. These are Kurdish political colors, associated as they are with the Democratic Society Party (DTP), a pro-Kurdish parliamentary group, as well as the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), its men's and women's guerrilla forces (HPG and YJA), and its affiliated political organizations. All this has come together in the great New Year/Equinox festival known as Newroz among the Kurds, Nevruz to the Turkish government (which bans the letter w, but decided that Nevruz was of "Turkish" origin), and Nowruz to the Iranians.

The symbolic event of Newroz is the bonfire. These have been set alight all over the southeast, as well as in the rest of Turkey, and over them the young men leap to celebrate the New Year and their own bravery. With this Newroz, there have been the usual pro-PKK demonstrations and the inevitable assaults by police. No one notices it, of course, in the western media. Millions of people have gathered across the southeast, and a staunchly pro-tourist paper like the Turkish Daily News has scarcely taken notice. But the "pro-Kurdish" papers are bringing in stories from everywhere. The holiday has come close on the heels of the Turks' 21 February cross-border invasion, which many, if not most, now consider to have been a significant victory for the PKK over the Turkish Army. "Are they settling accounts?" asked one headline at the radical-left paper Ozgur Politika, referring to the police assaults. Violence has broken out in Van, with one woman run over by a police panzer, and many more there have been injured. Unrest has spread to Syria as well: in Qamichli, a town as close to Turkey as Tijuana is to the U.S., three Kurdish youths have been shot and killed by Syrian police after Newroz-related demonstrations. Everywhere the Kurds are feeling their power, and every time another demonstrator is shot or clubbed, they have more reason to riot. "Peace, Democracy, and Freedom" read one large banner in Diyarbakir. "It is enough," read many others. In the mountains of Iraq, the leaders of the PKK guerrillas have called for dialogue with the Turkish government, the third time they have done so (by my count) since the end of the latest invasion on March 1. No reply has been vouchsafed by the gods of Ankara.

In the Tigris itself, the red color indicates another kind of bleeding. The suspended sediments mean erosion, and the erosion continues because this is a wounded land, whose mountains long ago were stripped bare by centuries of sheep- and goat-breeding, human habitation, and neglect. Goats, after all, will eat anything. In the Seattle area, they are hired to get rid of the Himalaya blackberry, a vine as thorny as anything in Creation. Trucked to a site and contained by a portable electric fence, in mere hours these beady-eyed ruminants can pick a briar patch clean. Multiply them into the millions, spread them out over a country the size of France, give them a millenium to work, and you have a landscape like Turkey's, nibbled to the point of extinction. Attacked by such beasts, as well as by their ravenous accomplice, Mankind, with his hunger for construction timber, firewood, and charcoal for metallurgy, the forests of Asia Minor and Kurdistan didn't have a chance. To these plagues have now been added the Turkish Armed Forces, who have burned forests in the southeast in order to deny cover to PKK guerrillas. All this happens despite the efforts of Turkey's Forestry Ministry and private foundations, who have, in some places, created near-miracles of reforestation. But reforestation doesn't happen overnight in a country the size of Turkey. With little to hold the soil in place, and with all that red liquid draining from the land, the violent metaphor becomes too obvious to repeat, too manifest to ignore.

Such a life-symbol as this river, however, means more than temporal politics. The name Tigris comes to us via the Greeks and is unknown to the people who live along its banks. [Note: The Turks also have their own name for Greece, which they call Yunanistan. A special gold star will be awarded to the first person in class to post a comment and tell us why.] The Turks and Kurds call the Tigris Dicle (deej-lay), their form of the Arab Dijla, and the Old Testament Hidekel (Genesis 2:14), one of the rivers of Eden, and the "great river, which is Hiddekel" (Daniel 10:4) by whose banks Daniel received a prophetic vision of the Messiah. Of the two great Mesopotamian rivers, the Euphrates (Firat) is the longer, but the Tigris carries more water and was historically of greater importance as an avenue of commerce. It is along the Tigris that the cities gathered: Diyarbakir (Amida, or Amed), Mosul, Nineveh, Ctesiphon, Seleucia, Tikrit, Samarra, Baghdad. Trade goods floated downstream on rafts known as kelek, craft that were made to order and varied in size according to the weight of their cargo. Here I may as well quote myself, [with asides] from Fever and Thirst:

The Tigris, now well on its way to being choked with hydroelectric dams, was then [1839] navigable from Diyarbakir south to the Persian Gulf using keleks, rafts constructed of fresh-cut poplar logs lashed to inflated goat skins. The rafts were made and operated by the kelekjis, a caste of men who specialized in the trade. The largest, says [American missionary] Thomas Laurie, used some three hundred skins, the smallest thirty-two. Before railroads and motor trucks, these rafts delivered the goods: grain, hides, wool, gall-nuts, dried fruits and nuts. Each was made to order and used one time only. At Baghdad (or Basra) the rafts were dismantled and the timber sold, and the deflated goatskins, heaped on the backs of camels, traveled north to be used again.

Eight years after [Dr. Asahel] Grant’s visit [1839], Austen Henry Layard, the pioneer Assyrian archaeologist, used massive versions of these same rafts to transport his finds, including the giant 20-ton limestone bulls now at the British Museum, to Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf. In Nineveh and its Remains (1849), Layard describes their construction.

The skins of full-grown sheep and goats are used. They are taken off with as few incisions as possible, and then dried and prepared. The air is forced in by the lungs through an aperture which is afterwards tied up with string. A square framework, formed of poplar beams, branches of trees, and reeds, having been constructed of the size of the intended raft, the inflated skins are tied to it by osier and other twigs, the whole being firmly bound together. Care is taken to place the skins with their mouths upwards, that, in case any should burst or require filling, they can be easily opened by the raftmen. Upon the framework of wood are piled bales of goods, and property belonging to merchants and travellers. When any person of rank, or wealth, descends the river in this fashion, small huts are constructed on the raft by covering a common wooden takht, or bedstead of the country, with a hood formed of reeds and lined with felt. In these huts the travellers live and sleep during the journey. The only real danger to be apprehended on the river is from the Arabs; who, when the country is in a disturbed state, invariably attack and pillage the rafts.

Arabs may have been one danger, but there were others as well. Surely the best description in English of a raft voyage down the Tigris is by E.B. Soane, in his 1912 To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise. Deflated goatskins, rapids, and potshots by Kurds along the riverbank all figure into his narrative, and the people of Cizre, he claimed, had "a reputation for roguery, treachery, and lawlessness"--a reputation, I might add, which was conveyed to me personally before I visited the town in 1977. In 1676, Charles Petis de la Croix (fils), an envoy of Louis XIV to the Shah of Persia, took passage on a kelek down the Tigris. South of Cizre, he was especially discomfited by the "roaring of lions," though this did not prevent him from feeling joy at seeing so many of them along the riverbanks. Indeed, Asiatic lions were a regular feature of life along the Tigris until well into the 19th century. Then it became the old depressing story, as high-powered breech-loading Martini and Mauser rifles, with the new smokeless cordite powder and brass cartridges, became ubiquitous among the desert Arabs as well as the mountain Kurds. The corpse of a female lion, the last known in Mesopotamia, was found along the Karun river in the Khuzestan province of Iran, near Basra, in 1944.

The photograph above shows the Tigris near the Turkish town of Cizre, formerly known by its full Arabic name, Jezirah ibn Omar, the "island of the son of Omar." A few miles upstream, opposite Cizre, the Ten Thousand Greeks under Xenophon (400 B.C.) were forced by the terrain (cliffs hemming in the river) to detour east into the mountains, where they had the misfortune to meet the famous Karduchoi, predecessors of the Kurds. Strabo, the 2nd century A.D. Greek geographer, says that "Tigris" derives from a Median word meaning "the arrow" ((Geography 11.14.8). And thereby hangs another tale.

Strabo called it the "the arrow" not because of its straightness (God knows) but because of its fabled power and force, especially with regard to its imagined birthplace, the Lake of Van. Lake Van is not the source of the Tigris, but it's easy to see why Strabo could have imagined that it was. Lake Van sits high in the mountains, at an altitude of 5400 feet, rimmed by peaks that are higher still. It is (according to the Blue Guide to Turkey) the world's largest soda lake, some 70 miles across at its widest point and 1500 feet down at its deepest. Though undrinkable, the water does support a variety of carp, which is harvested by the locals. Van has no outlet. Strabo, however, thought otherwise. He identified it by the name "Arsene," or "Thopitis," and he noted correctly that "It contains soda, and it cleanses and restores clothes." South of this lake was a wild range of mountains known to the ancients as the Niphates. This range figures in Milton's Paradise Lost; it is upon their peaks that Satan alights when he returns to earth to have his vengeance on mankind. Strabo writes:

The Tigris flows through this lake after issuing from the mountainous country near the Niphates; and because of its swiftness it keeps its current unmixed with the lake; whence the name Tigris, since the Median word for arrow is "tigris." And while the river has fish of many kinds, the fish in the lake are of one kind only. Near the recess of the lake the river falls into a pit, and after flowing underground for a considerable distance rises near Chalonitis [a place now unknown--g.t.].

In fact, the waters of Lake Van can go nowhere. There they sit, blue, promising, but ultimately unusable, contained sometime during the Pleistocene Era (10,000 to 2 million years ago) by a massive outpouring of lava from a volcano at the west end of the lake. And here, at last, is a metaphor that I can flaunt with pleasure. For though it is easy to see the Kurds of Turkey's southeast in the turbid, crimson, and vital currents of the River Tigris, I myself see them more as the waters of Van: hidden, remote, penned in behind their mountains by solid rock, straining with the potential to break out and down.

In April 1975 a friend and I took the ferry from Van, on the east end of the lake, to Tatvan, on the west. From there a bus carried us over the short mountain barrier to Bitlis, a few miles southeast. It was in Bitlis, on a gray day in April, with snow lying about in patches, that I could feel the real power of Van, a power that lay as much in its invisibility as in anything else. Bitlis lies in its mountain setting astride a series of ravines, each of which pulses with water. It's a city with history behind it. A great chronicle of Kurdish history, the Sharafname, was written by a man of Bitlis. On a far sadder note, the family of William Saroyan came from Bitlis too. From there the road followed the Bitlis water downhill through a great gash in the earth, but it followed by a path scratched from the mountainsides: a rolling, front-row balcony seat above a theatre of desolation. Of course there should have been forests, but forests are too soft for this country. Instead we had massing clouds above and yawning emptiness below, and ahead the dappled badlands of what would become the Tigris valley.

The climax of this trip came not in Diyarbakir ("Black Amid"), our destination, and not in the town of Silvan, where a watch repairman took me aside and instructed me in the facts of Kurdish nationalism. It came half an hour out of Bitlis, where we could still feel the waters of that immense lake jostling at the hills behind. There at a bend of the road a truck had gone over. It had not fallen far, and no one was injured, but the results were spectacular. The load: vegetable oil, a hundred fat square tins of the stuff, scattered across the slope, glistening with a dull silver against the sky. All it required was a figure cloaked in black, carrying a scythe in his bony hand, to complete the picture of yet another minute human gesture brought to ruin. The truck no doubt was eventually righted, and the tins of vegetable oil found their way to kitchens across the province. But at the time it felt like a curse, and it still gives me a shudder today. That huge lake behind me and the long road down to the Tigris: just one more item in a long list of metaphors.

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Anonymous Anonymous on 3/24/2008 7:40 AM:

Don't forget PKK's alliance with Syria. Ocalan loved Assad. And this is PKK's democracy:

"Remember that fact if any European tourists get blown up this summer and don't expect any sympathy here.


Blogger Gordon Taylor on 3/25/2008 12:01 AM:

Hello Mr. Ahmadzadeh:

I'm not sure of your point. I do not consider myself an advocate for the PKK. I simply try to tell what the situation is. The Newroz photographs from 2008 tell the story: Kurdish nationalist colors everywhere, images of Ocalan, etc. This is not news: Turkey's Kurds have been demonstrating with pro-PKK banners for years. The latest photos show the bodies of PKK fighters that have been returned to their parents. The streets are crowded with people carrying the coffins. As I've said before, a decent, rational government could bring this war to an end within weeks.

As for the quote, it is one of Mizgin's angrier outbursts at Rasti. I have nothing to do with it. If you have a problem, please take it up with her.

Note to my readers, all 3 or 4 of you: the post contains a challenge, with a gold star yet to be awarded. Yes, it will be a "virtual" online gold star, but hey, don't be picky.


Anonymous Anonymous on 4/25/2008 3:27 PM:

Dear Gordon,
I'd like to win the gold star.

"Yunanistan" means "Ionian-istan",
Ionians where Greeks of Anatolia.

Elîshêr, waiting for his reward