Cablegate: Rural-to-Urban Migration by Kurds:

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.







E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary: Mehmet Erbas, a junior
faculty member at Mersin University, has
conducted scholarly research about the migration
of Kurds from the countryside to the cities of
Turkey. He believes that "Kurdish identity" will
survive transplantation to the metropolis as long
as Kurdish migrants see a benefit to it. The
Turkish State has no ability to influence this
process. End summary.

2. (SBU) Mehmet Erbas, a young assistant
professor of sociology at Mersin University's
Science and Literature Faculty, has carved out a
niche in the study of a very significant
phenomenon of contemporary Turkey: the massive
migration by rural Kurds to urban areas. This
migration has dramatically changed the
demographics of cities like Mersin, as well as
other cities in the southeast, and indeed
throughout the country. Istanbul, by some
reckonings, is now the largest Kurdish city in
the world.

3. (SBU) Erbas is not Kurdish. He hails from
Ordu, on the Black Sea. He does not speak
Kurdish. Nevertheless, he has undertaken the
study of Kurdish migration because he feels it is
a crucially important topic for understanding
where Turkey is headed.

4. (SBU) In a wide-ranging April 11 discussion
in his office at Mersin University, Erbas offered
some perhaps unconventional thoughts about the
nature, and consequences, of large-scale rural-
to-urban migration by southeastern Kurds.

5. (SBU) First, "it's not about language."
According to Erbas, the ability to speak Kurdish
is not crucial to Kurdish identity in Turkey.
There are politicized Kurds who do not know the
language. He cited the case of the large Kurdish
diaspora from Turkey that now resides in Western
Europe. These Kurds, he said, have made no
attempt to set up Kurdish language schools for
their children. This stands in contrast to
Turkish emigrants in Western Europe, who have
done so. At the same time, he noted, Kurds
living in Western Europe who came from northern
Iraq did work to set up Kurdish-language
education for their children - in effect,
replicating the Kurdish-language educational
system they had back in Iraq.

6. (SBU) Second, "it's not clear how much of
the tenacity of the culture is its Kurdishness
and how much is its ruralness." This observation
would likely be agreed upon by many residents of
Turkey's cities who have been urbanized longer,
and who have noted, often with dismay, the
persistence of rural folkways (in dress, in
ritual, in family stucture) in the city. A
family slaughtering its Kurban Bayram sheep on a
fifteenth-floor balcony of a high-rise in an
apartment complex is as likely to be Turkish as

7. (SBU) Third, there is class-consciousness
among Kurds, but it has a twist. There is a
large number of well-off, even wealthy, Kurds in
a city like Mersin. Those who buy a summer beach
house do not go out of their way to make sure
they will have Kurdish neighbors there. On the
other hand, if one goes to a typical Newroz
(Nevruz, the Persian-Kurdish March 21 celebration
of Spring) celebration in a large Turkish city,
the crowd is likely to be made up of middle and
lower-class Kurds. Wealthy Kurds do not usually
attend. Why? Interestingly, according to Erbas,
it is not out of snobbery. Rather, it is out of
fear that being seen at such events by Turkish
authorities might open them to accusations of
being overly "politicized" in their Kurdishness.
(Note: Some contacts recall for us that in the
1980s and 1990s there were wealthy and powerful
Kurds who disappeared mysteriously. End note.)
A prosperous and successful Kurd in Turkey still
might worry about the risks of "guilt by
association" with more radical elements.

8. (SBU) Fourth, the basic motivation for
maintaining one's Kurdish identity after the move
from the country to the city is, in Erbas' view,
"to get something from it." The "something" he
has in mind is not an ineffable kind of ethnic
pride. Rather, it is something pragmatic in re
housing and jobs. Uniquely among citizens of
Turkey, the Kurds of the southeast over their
history developed an elaborate system of "clan"
or "tribe" ("asiret" in Turkish) affiliation.
This system is part and parcel of the phenomenon
of the "aga" (large feudal landowner) system -
also peculiar to Kurdish lands in southeast
Turkey. The salience of the clan system
persists. Polling done among Kurdish youth in
the southeast, for example, is ambiguous;
depending on how one looks at it, young people's
belief in the value of the clan system is either
(predictably) fading or (remarkably) still alive.
(Note: It was in angry reaction to the
"feudalism" of the clan and "aga" system that a
young Kurd named Abdullah Ocalan first embraced
revolutionary politics as a Marxist at Ankara
University in the 1970s. End note.)

9. (SBU) As it effects rural-to-urban
migration, the relevance of enduring clan values
among southeastern Turkey's Kurds is that a
typical Kurdish rural-to-urban migrant is not,
and cannot be, "an individual actor." While a
random rural Turkish family from, say, Erzurum
might be drawn to a neighborhood in Istanbul or
Ankara that offers hometown contacts, there are
many other neighborhoods to choose from. The
tighter bonds of clan connection in the Kurdish
world dictate differently. Clan is expected to
seek out and be helped by clan. To fly in the
face of that practice, according to Erbas, means
that an incoming migrant simply might not be
cold-shouldered. Concretely, that might mean not
being offered informal assistance with job-
seeking or not being invited to settle in a
neighborhood, particularly a squatter
("gecekondu" in Turkish) neighborhood. Thus,
maintaining one's "Kurdishness" is a practical
necessity for access to housing and employment
and social acceptance.

10. (SBU) Comment: As long as new migrants
remain dependent on personal, family, and clan
networks to survive, Kurdish ethnic identity is
likely to survive in contemporary urban Turkey,
no matter what actions Turkish State authorities
take. End comment.

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