Mountains, snow and sheep: Kurds, Nature and History in Colonial Representations

Hakkâri’de Bir Mevsim (A Season in Hakkâri) is a novel by Ferit Edgu, who did his military service as a teacher in the Pirkani village of Hakkâri. The author was in Hakkari in 1964, but it was published in 1977. In addition to Hakkâri’de Bir Mevsim Edgu has also written works about the ‘East’ such as Kimse (No One), Doğu Öyküleri (Eastern Stories), and YaralıZamanlar (Wounded Times). Edgu’s works on the ‘East’ are still highly regarded in Turkish literary circles and are recognised as ‘courageously articulating the problems of the East and its people’. Only a few Kurdish critics have pointed out the colonialist representations in these texts. [So why have these texts not been read and analysed as texts with colonialist representations until the last few years? When I was working on this article, a friend of mine, with whom I was discussing the issue, said the following: “We were so ignored that we were happy when someone talked about us, so we never questioned how they talked about us”. 

Literary critics such as Ferit Edgu and Gürsel Aytaç [2] describe Hakkâri and the ‘East’ as a place where the writer feels his loneliness, where he struggles against difficulties and conditions that mature him and lead to an inner realisation at the end of his journey.  Kurdish villages and towns, with their backward, ignorant, naive and wild people, serve as a kind of colonial laboratory. They come here, complete their journey and education and never return.

As Kurds, we must make the colonial representations of Turkish literary texts, especially Hakkâri’de Bir Mevsim (A Season in Hakkâri), a laboratory for our own work in order to expose the representations of these texts about Kurds and their land. This article can be seen as a step on that long road. In this article, I will undertake both a close reading of the works in question and a discursive analysis of Edgu’s writings and interviews on the subject. The way he defines geography and people and his strategies of silencing history will be the focus of my article.

The people of the city of ‘Hek’ and the village of ‘Pir’. What kind of places are they, what kind of people are they? The codes of representation at the beginning of the novel help to answer these questions. 

When Edgu sits down fifteen years later, he writes his memories as follows 

Damned. My city…

Ten thousand inhabitants.

Half of them soldiers…

After I left you

I’ve been to real cities

Not like you.

The great cities of civilisation.

I’ve spoken to people in those cities.

It is strange, but it is the language I know.

(How strange, you belong to me, I belong to you, but for hundreds of years we have never learned each other’s language). [3]

Hek. is not a ‘real’ and ‘civilised’ city. It does not resemble such cities. But why is it not a civilised city and not like those real cities? What has happened to this city? Are there historical reasons for its lack of civilisation? Why does the author not name the town and village directly? 

Hek. Hakkâri and Pir is Pirkanis. The author begins by describing what is lacking in these places and among these people: “There are no roads, no water, no doctors”. But what is there? He lists them one by one: “There are teachers, soldiers, governors, district governors and mukhtars. But he does not ask if there is a relationship between this dance of absence and presence.

Everything about the town of Hek. and the village of Pir is magical; everything is under the snow and outside history. The people of Hek. are “they” and the language they speak is “their language”. They have adult names like Halit, Zazi, but the children have no names. They stand naked in the midst of nature as people, children, women and men. Why does Edgu not call these people and their language by their names?

Louis Athusser mentions the importance of naming in his work Ideology and Ideological Devices of the State. He says: “Power does not recognise you as a subject unless it calls you by your name. Whatever name the power calls you, it constructs you as a subject with that name and you appear on the stage of existence with that name. In the novel, Edgu speaks of Turks, Ecems and Assyrians and calls them by their names. When he talks about the language of the Assyrians, he says Syriac. But he never says Kurdish or Kurd.

The source of knowledge and ignorance has never been questioned. Neither then nor now. The author says: “Why don’t I know the language of these children, why hasn’t the state sent a teacher who knows their language, if I don’t know their language? Why can’t these children be taught in their own language?” he never asked himself. These questions were also never asked in the interviews that Ferit Edgu gave in the following periods. No one ever asked him why the children in Hakkâri could not be taught in their own language [5].  Why was the lack of roads and doctors seen as a problem, but not the lack of Kurdish teachers and education? What does this question tell us about the limits of the humanism and internationalism of Turkish writers?

What bothers and pains Edgu most in Hekari and in the village of Pirkanis? Both his novels and his interviews show that it is the harsh conditions of nature that cause him the most pain and helplessness. It is nature that causes human helplessness. Infant mortality due to lack of doctors is also caused by unforgiving natural conditions. On the top of a 2000 metremountain, under the snow, he feels helpless and lonely. In one of his interviews he said: “The lyrics are mine, but they take their meaning from the nature of the ‘East'” [6].

In this respect, the context of A Season in Hakkâri is very similar to that of Robinson Crusoe, who builds civilisation through his struggle against nature. However, there is a modern state in Hakkâri and Pirkanis before Edgu’s arrival. Both Edgu and the writers and critics who look at Hakkâri and the East do not see the state. They only see nature and the wild people who have not yet won their struggle against nature, sometimes not even realising that they have to struggle against nature. The teacher will guide them, even if he does not speak “their language”. 

In this representation, it is not the presence of the state that is the problem, but its absence, and it is this absence that causes the deaths. Because the village roads are covered with snow, doctors cannot come, and babies and children die of disease. But Edgu never asks why the state, which sends almost half as many soldiers, governors, district governors and teachers as the urban population, does not send them? Are there villages and towns without governors, soldiers and gendarmes? Nature is the same nature. Why are these officials present and why are they absent?

Edgu sees the lack of doctors and infant mortality as the main problems. He often writes petitions. But someone from the town tells the author: “There is no doctor in the city, how can there be a doctor on this mountainside?”

Edgu puts all his questions to nature. The high mountains and the snow that always covers the mountains are his two main enemies. Surprisingly, for once he does not look to history, as an intellectual he does not put his questions to history. The reasons for the existence of the state and the absence of doctors are not sought in history.   

In an interview in 1997, Feridun Andaç asked Edgu the following question: “What aspect of the ‘East’ has influenced your writing?” Edgu replied as follows:

“The East itself. The time and the people. The high mountains, the harsh natural conditions, the endless whiteness, the blinding whiteness of the snow. The incense and the soot of the oil lamps, the wolves and the dogs. Everything… everything… [7]

Among the ‘everything’ that influences his writing, there are only mountains, snow, nature with its wolves and dogs. Although he mentions people and time among the factors, he does not say which people and which time.  A time outside of time. It is clear from his answer that neither the soldiers, nor the governor, nor the state bureaucrats who banished him were considered part of the ‘East’. 

What is so special about the people of the city of Hek. and the village of Pir that they still live as part of nature at an ‘animal’ or ‘pre-human’ level? There are a few places in A Season in Hakkâri where such descriptions appear. Firstly, they have no written culture or literature. There is only one bookshop in the town, owned by an Assyrian. The youth of the town and some middle-aged men attack the library and burn the books. This is how the Kurds’ relationship with books is portrayed in the novel. The inclusion of the Assyrian character in the novel completes Edgu’s vision of the people of the East. In an interview he gave in 2002, Edgu said the following

I have never seen or recognised an Assyrian bookshop, neither in Hakkari nor in Stockholm. I used it as a symbol to show that Hakkari has a history and culture, that it is not an African city. There is no better symbol than a bookshop, is there? [8]

This is a confession. Edgu is well aware that Hakkari is defined as an African city under the influence of colonialist discourse. When he wanted to give the city a culture and a history, he created an Assyrian sahaf to represent the culture and history of Hakkari. In another interview, he makes a similar statement, saying the following: “When I was there, there was neither a shop nor a bookshop in the city”. But he never worries about the absence of a bookshop and does not ask why. Because he accepts that the local people are naturally ignorant and uneducated, such a question does not occur to him. In another article I wrote about the destruction of Kurdish libraries, the looting of their books and the subsequent creation of the discourse of ignorant and uneducated Kurds.  [9]. Edgu defines the Kurds’ “lack of civilisation” as a natural state of affairs because he does not look at the times of Kurdish power when they built cities and civilisations and the history of the destruction of Kurdish cities and urban life afterwards.

Here, instead of history, he once again looks at the mountains and rocks and says: “I cannot express it exactly, but the smell of tragedy comes from them”. While talking about the conditions of primitive life, he says that he wants to say that this geography also has a “history” (there are quotation marks in the original text) and expresses that he wants to represent this history through an Assyrian sahaf [10]. 

While the nameless and dateless Kurds represent nature, the Assyrian sahaf represents the history and culture of the city, and this form of representation suggests the existence of another strategy. Edgu does not mention the tragedy of the Assyrians and what happened to them. Nor does he say a word about why the Assyrians no longer exist in the region. Since the Assyrians no longer exist, it is no problem to talk about their existence. Of course, by mentioning the history of the Assyrians in Hakkâri, he wants to remind the reader of another history in which “Nestorians were massacred on the orders of Bedirhan Bey”. This strategy of representation shows that Edgu is well aware of history. However, Edgu never looks at the pages of history where Kurdish governments were overthrown by the Ottomans and authority over the Kurds was established without the consent of the Kurds, first in the Ottoman period and then in the Republican period.

Another characteristic of the inhabitants of Pir village is that they are weak and lax in intelligence and willpower. They kill each other all the time. This theme is repeated at the beginning of Eastern Stories, published in 1995.

They don’t listen to the radio because they don’t care about the news. They just kill and kill and kill. When I ask them why, I feel like banging my head against a stone. When I ask them why they kill each other, they don’t even understand what I’m talking about [11].

Edgu leaves the reader with the following message: Kurds are as responsible for their own deaths as they are for the murders they commit. In the midst of so much looting and killing, he sees only the murders of Kurds killing each other. How similar to other colonial intellectuals and politicians who, in the shadow of the soldiers and their heavy weapons, only see tribal fighting.

But how does Edgu see himself? He is a man with a mission. Sometimes he sees himself as a prophet. Sometimes he sees himself as Moses writing the ‘Ten Commandments’ for his followers, sometimes he sees himself as Noah, and sometimes he sees himself as Noah and the village of Pir as Noah’s Ark. He asks himself: “I have to save them, but I don’t know their language, what language did Noah use to communicate with his animals?

In an interview with Ayfer Tunçe in 2000, Edgu again mentions the harsh conditions of nature that leave people helpless, and states that the tragic events of the following years were also caused by this helplessness [12]. He follows the same strategy of representation here. He only refers to the wars and conflicts as tragic events without naming them.  But the question is: if despair is only the result of harsh natural conditions, why are the events of the following years described as tragic? Why is the war against nature tragic? Were there no doctors, no schools, no roads? If there were in later years, for what purpose and with what consciousness did these people rebel against whom or what?

When Edgu looks at the people of Hakkari and the mountains and stones of the city, he does not think of the tragedy of the Kurds: No cities destroyed, no villages burned, no people shot, no languages banned. If colonialism is left out of history, the struggle against it is also left out of history. It is clear from what he says that he is disturbed and despairing at the incompleteness of colonial modernisation. Therefore, the existence of the state is not a problem for him. At the beginning of the novel, gendarmes help him on his way from the city to the village. He greets them and says: “Thank you, my brother policemen”. When he arrives in the village, he opens the school and records the first day as “We read our national anthem”and education begins. At the end of the novel, the inspector comes into the classroom and congratulates Edgu, saying: “You have done your duty, the school has stayed open and the students have learnt your language”. Although Edgu says that he has also learnt their language, the inspector attaches no importance to his words. Because by learning “their language” he has not done and will not do anything to ensure that this language has a place in education and develops. The inspector also knows that it is of no importance that he knows it in this way. When the state allows teacher Edgu to leave the city, the students bid him farewell by raising a Turkish flag.

Fifteen years later, writing his memoirs in ‘civilised cities’, Edgu recalls Hakkâri as follows:

Colourful cars on tarmac roads

They were going a hundred and twenty kilometres an hour.

But as I looked, I saw sheep coming down from the mountains to graze.

And the smell that burned my throat

It was not the smell of petrol, it was the smell of sheep [13].

How could someone like Ferit Edgu remember Kurds only in terms of sheep, snow and rain? That Ferit Edgu had been a student in Paris before going to Hakkari, that he had experienced the Algerian war, that he had praised the French intellectuals who supported the Algerian people, that he had been politically active in the TİP between 1968 and 1972 and that the Kurds had organised the Eastern Rallies together with the TİP in those years. How?

Footnotes

[1] Selim Temo, “Bir Roman ve Filmi: Anlatı, Vizyon, Temsil”, he analyses some strategies of representation in the context of Edward Said’s Orientalism. One of these is naming; see,Selim Temo, “Bir Roman ve Filmi: Anlatı, Vizyon, Temsil”, Mukaddime, (4), 2011.

[2] Gürsel Aytaç, ” O. Hakkâride Bir Mevsim “, Çağdaş Türk Romanları Üzerine İncelemeler, 1990, pp. 231-254.

[3] Ferit Edgu, Hakkâri’de Bir Mevsim, pp. 8-9.

[4] Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological Apparatus of the State, Ithaki, 2019, pp. 77-90.

[5] Ferit Edgu, Sözlü/Yazılı- Söyleşi/Deneme, YKY, 2016.

[6] Edgu, p. 67.

[7] Edgu, p. 61.

[8] Edgu, p. 92.

[9] Serdar Şengül, “Kaybolan Zenginliklerimiz “https://botantimes.com/dewlemendien-me-yen-wenda/ 

[10] Edgu, Oral/Written, p. 145.

Read in Kurdish


#YouAreAllWeHave – Support Kurdish Media!