A bonfire is burning in Istanbul’s working class district of Zeytinburnu, it’s been raining in the city for most of the last week, and black smoke is rising into a cloudy sky. From through the flames a silhouette emerges, getting closer and gaining detail, until a young man in jeans and a black jacket has passed through the flames to land, a large scarf in the Kurdish colours of red, green and yellow around his neck. As he does so, the position of the sun is moving north over the line of the equator, marking the spring equinox as the earth tilts. Every year this happens, between the 18thand 24th of March, and each time it brings with it the most important day in the Kurdish calendar; Newroz. Even the spelling of the name is charged with the history of Turkey’s Kurdish conflict, the Turkish alphabet, switched from Arabic during the 1920s, does not contain the letter W. The W in Newroz, just as the traditional names Kurds were once banned from giving their children, was always seen as an affront against the founding ideas of the Turkish state. Though pronounced much the same, authorities still write this celebration Nevruz.
As with most political conflict, the tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be this way, Newroz will this week be celebrated all over the Caucasus and Middle East. A Persian festival with pagan beginnings, it is contradictory that Turkey’s Muslim Kurds have taken to it with such gusto, and it is unfortunate that what was a tradition of springtime has been all but lost to the political symbolism of the occasion. Turks are no less culpable than Kurds, for decades the festival was strictly prohibited, and even in today’s more moderate climate, still the state maintains a fearful compulsion towards control. Last year in Diyarbakır, the second-largest city of Kurdish Turkey, authorities tried to suppress turnout by only legislating for the festivities on a weekday. When Kurds defied these instructions, turning out by the hundred thousand for their chosen day of Sunday, a heavy-handed police response prompted rioting; cars were burnt, tear gas and rubber bullets fired, and lives were lost on both sides. In a country enthral to Internet and social media, the violence soon spread across eastern Turkey. That the nation’s reaction to as much was so muted is a sign only of how Turks and Kurds have grown accustomed to such a long and brutal source of bloodshed.
The twin themes of this year’s festival-cum-protest are freedom for Ocalan – the imprisoned leader of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – and status for Kurds. There is an annual tendency to claim that every Newroz is significant, some sort of last chance for Turkey and its Kurds, recent years have come with a growing awareness that Kurds who remember a pre-conflict life are dying out, to be replaced by younger generations who have known only warfare with the Turks. In spite of having heard as much before, this year the statement seems notably harder to resist. The Kurdish diaspora have paid for adverts in UK newspapers, bearing Öcalan’s photo and an appeal to the need for such a figurehead in any prospective peace process. The adverts are unreserved in their likening Öcalan to Martin McGuiness or Nelson Mandela. On London streets, similar posters have appeared, and at a recent meeting in Westminster Palace, where Turkish Leader of the Opposition, Kemal Kılıçdaoğlu, had been invited by the Labour Party, protesters in the audience rose when he appeared, removing jackets to reveal “Free Öcalan” messages on their T-Shirts as they walked from the room. Six hundred Kurdish activists, imprisoned on the flimsiest grounds, recently ended a hunger strike at Öcalan’s say-so. Himself born of a Turkish mother, that Öcalan is the leader of Turkey’s Kurds is beyond dispute, the peace road map that he is said to have devised in jail is central to the expectations that are developing in Turkey.
Now beginning the fifteenth year of his incarceration, demands for Öcalan's release, though still far-fetched, are more plausible than at any previous time. Öcalan is locked away on the small island of Imrali, some fifty miles offshore of Istanbul, way out in the Sea of Marmara, where his confinement is interrupted only by visits from a lawyer and a brother, still a farmer in their home village. Whatever the ineffectual relationship between Turkey and the European Union, that Öcalan is even alive is thanks largely to Turkey’s bid for membership, and a 2002 law that banned capital punishment in accordance with EU entry criteria. Having long since renounced violence in the Kurdish cause, and urging a peaceful resolution to the crisis, Öcalan is the best hope the Turkish government has in its quest to have the PKK disarm. As such, the tone has changed of late, and Öcalan, still seen as a murderer, and known occasionally as The terrorist, has been humanised through data releases on his detainment. The public has learned of the 2300 books he has read since his 1999 capture in Nairobi, we have heard he sometimes plays basketball, and that like many middle-aged men, the monster, unremarkably enough, has actually developed a prostate condition. An unprecedented dialogue has opened, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation has been sent to meet with Öcalan on Imralı, and so too members of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the political wing of the PKK. After over a decade in which Öcalan was only a prisoner and figure of hate, very quickly the Turkish state seem to have realised and accepted that his participation is unavoidable.
Reconciliatory noises are coming on both sides, and following a particularly bloody eighteen months, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s unashamedly populist Prime Minister, is also in the mood for peace this Newroz. The leader of Turkey’s governing AKP, Erdoğan has stated that his goal is to “halt the mothers’ tears”, and though the Prime Minister is generally a leader in the Putin-mould of governance, securing lasting peace for Turkey is the sort of task that might just satisfy an egotist in his need for legacy. What form the prospective peace will take is another question altogether. Perhaps more than anything, Turkey’s Kurds now expect a new constitution, one which makes reference to “citizens of Turkey”, rather than the current emphasis on “Turks”, an ethnicity to which Kurds could never belong without abandoning their own heritage. The idea of a free Kurdish state, promoted by domestic extremists and many flippant international commentators, will almost certainly not come to pass, a prospect by which most Kurds are untroubled. Research by a Diyarbakır think-tank found 59 per cent of Kurds to oppose the idea of statehood, whereas 71 per cent of Turks believe Kurds want exactly that; as always, misrepresentation has been key to such an intensely hostile impasse.
Returning home through Istanbul’s rundown Tarlabașı district, where the houses of local Kurds and Turks are being demolished to make way for luxury flats, I speak to a young man named Firat, standing beside glowing refrigerators, bunches of spinach and crates of fruit. Firat tells me he’s Kurdish, but seems uncertain in speaking to a stranger who asks such direct questions on a day such as Newroz. He shakes his head when I ask what he thinks of the PKK and Öcalan. He points to the shop that we’re standing outside of, “this is mine,” he tells me proudly, and with a smile he says, “I don’t want anything but peace.”
An equinox passes, and across the middle east and beyond, spring starts anew. With drums, car horns and firecrackers heard through the streets of Istanbul until late in the evening, often it seems Newroz has become steeped in the bravado of separatism. Where once young men jumped over bonfires in pagan ritual, the act has since taken on the machismo of a conflict. Newroz was never meant to be Kurdish so much as Persian, just as the tradition has roots that are pagan rather than militant. After thirty years of warfare, there are good signs that perhaps the spring equinox will one day be celebrated for its original meaning again, rather than as part of a nationalist feud. If this can be brought about, then both Kurds and Turks will find themselves all the better for it, and Anatolia can start to remember how it felt to be at peace.