Diyarbakir: The City of Resistance, the City that Refuses to Die

There is nothing more representative of civilization than cities. Cities have complex lives, and when a city dies, a whole system of spatial aesthetics, an entire social world, and the habitat of infinite interwoven memories whither away. This is the tragic fate facing Diyarbakir, or Amed as the people of the region call it.

Its history goes back to pre-Roman times, and it has been home to Assyrians, Armenians, Kurds, Alevis, Jews, Yezidis and other peoples. For more than 100 years, genocides have left scar after scar on Amed. First, its Armenian and Assyrian inhabitants were mass murdered. Then, its Kurdish dwellers became the target of the same fascism. Now, the old Amed, also known as Sûr, is in the midst of its tragic last days as the Turkish army, NATO’s darling, is destroying it completely.

In the summer of 2015, I visited Amed. The colleague with whom I was traveling invited me to an Iranian-Kurdish artist’s studio that was located in the ruins of an old Armenian house. The remaining corners of the house still spoke of its absent inhabitants. The ornaments on the basalt stones carried traces of authentic lives that had been ruthlessly stopped from beating. It was as if the daydreams of the absent inhabitants were frozen in the air, unable to move with the flow of time but also refusing to leave their space.

Carvings in the black stones of the Armenian house, a crowd of surrealist figures sculpted by an exiled Kurdish artist, and two exceptionally shy cats made the space something of a Foucauldian heterotopia, a space hanging on to a reality that ceased to be real. A broken shell, incapable of hiding any daydreamers, the roofless house exposed a 100-year-old wound beyond all linear spaces and times. As if making a statement against the existence of any universal justice, the roofless house continued to bleed memories of a Bachelardian corner for hiding, of being there, being in a house. Without touching its walls or stepping into its corners, I spent the evening watching the wounded house sink into the silence of night. I wanted to spare the house another invasion by a stranger, and I was afraid that I would scare away an Armenian memory. Walking into a house whose dwellers were murdered is the worst spatial violation I could think of. 

Later, that evening, with two colleagues and the artist I went to a café where dozens of women and men (many with their books on the tables and musical instruments on their laps) were eating, drinking, smoking, chatting, and occasionally laughing under a dim light in a large cool yard surrounded by old stone walls. There were many such cafés packed with artist-looking young people, bohemian-revolutionaries. Each café was different from the next but also connected in the sense that they formed a public space that defied fascism. It was the space I could only theorize until then. I finally found a place I could be from. I decided to be from Amed.  

As if I knew that I would never see Amed again, that night instead of sleeping I wanted to explore all its streets, commit all its scars to memory. Amed for me was a city that embodied the power of free will, but precisely because of that free will, it is now being destroyed so barbarically. It is not considered a holy city in any religion, so its destruction is of little concern to anyone but those whose lives are damaged as a result and those who can relate to them due to similar experiences in other Kurdish cities and villages.  

No, Amed is not a holy city. On the contrary, it symbolizes Kurdish resistance against the rise Islamism. Thus, its destruction brings satisfaction, if anything, to Islamists and their sympathizers. Over the last few years, the Kurdish municipality and local activists even dared to renovate Armenian cultural sites and were struggling to make the city a model for diversity. Amed’s embracing of plurality, peace, direct democracy, and its genuine apology to Armenians was seen as a challenge by Ankara’s Islamist and nationalist elites. The peaceful all-inclusive movement threatened to undermine the officially sanctioned image of Kurds as “terrorists”.

In 2014, Amed’s people and the municipality also challenged Erdogan by standing with Kobane as the latter withstood months of continual attacks by the Islamic State. In the two parliamentary elections that followed in 2015, Amed voted for the progressive Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose victory in the Kurdish region prevented Erdogan’s party from winning a majority. Erdogan’s response was befitting of a fascist dictator.

He appealed to Turkish nationalists to form a front composed of both Islamists and nationalists united in their hatred of Kurds and progressives. Today, Amed is paying the price of not submitting to Erdogan’s politics.  

Amed is also being punished for refusing to renounce its Armenian and Kurdish identities in favour of the one-language, one-flag, one-God of the colonizer. This time, the target of the violence is not only Amed’s inhabitants, who refuse to forget Kurdish language and music, but also the very physical being of the city with its historic black fortresses that seem to lodge a perpetual spirit of resistance. 

Amed will not be the last city to be destroyed by the rising wave of Islamism, nor will it be the last Kurdish city to resist Erdogan’s empire, but its destruction could mark the beginning of a much darker era. Motivated by religious fascism and with the support of millions across Turkey and the Arab world, Erdogan’s crusade against cities will sooner or later betray its barbarian face far beyond Kurdistan. Amed is in the peripheries of geographies of privilege and tourism, but it is the capital of resistance for some of the most oppressed peoples. Its victims do not make it to news reports even as mere numbers, but the oppressed are used to that. It is the oppressed who rebuilt Amed after every invasion, for hundreds of years, long before NATO’s armies and bombs were born, and they will rebuild it again one day despite all the injustices. The roofs and the walls may disappear, but they have fostered a will that can only grow stronger and freer.