I am between light and darkness. The train when it sinks deep into tunnels that drill the rocks, when it goes out to be pushed back to the next tunnel. Rocky mountains and sky with gray clouds. I'm on the last route of the Eastern Express, from Erzurum to Kars. In the plain, after the tunnels, the town of Sarikamis stretches shyly in front of us. The one hundred and seventy-kilometer railway connection between Sarikamis and Erzurum was completed in 1918. The train stops at the station for a short time. Drizzle.
Sarikamis has been written in Turkish history in black letters, although official historiography has made it a hero. In the winter of 1914-1915, about sixty to eighty thousand Ottoman soldiers from an army of ninety thousand died, most of them from the cold, in one of the most hastily organized military operations in history. The nationalist and arrogant Enver Pasha, one of the three in the triumph of the Union and Progress Commission that then ruled the Ottoman Empire, had chosen to strike the tsarist army en masse in the region. He was in need of internal legitimacy at the time, was under unbearable pressure and insisted on leading the operation, defiantly defying the stern warning of German General Lehmann von Saunders, who was Germany's main military adviser and general in the Ottoman Empire, within the framework of the alliance with the Kaiser. The Allahuember Mountains, where the deadly campaign took place, became the frozen tomb of thousands of Ottoman soldiers due to the incompetence of Enver Pasha, who immediately blamed the Armenian population for his doom. Thus giving one of the main reasons for the Armenian genocide of 1915. The train starts for Kars without rushing. Vast plains, green and without a trace of human life. The construction of the sixty-kilometer railway connection from Sarikamis to Kars was started in 1910 by the Russian railways and was completed in 1913. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, Kars and its region will pass into Tsarist Russia, to be called a province. oblest, of Kars and will remain under Russian rule until 1920 when it will be taken over again by the Turks, after a short period in 1919 when Kars was included in the then Republic of Armenia. The Treaty of Kars in 1921 would give Kars to Turkey, but Stalin would later try to challenge it, without success.
I arrive in the city center at night. Smell of wood burning in wood stoves and fireplaces, it's cold, I put on my jacket. The asphalt on the roads is worn, full of cracks. The houses are low, a lot of people on the wide sidewalks and shops open. But a different atmosphere than in the previous cities of my trip. Less lights, people more simply dressed, many shops look a bit old-fashioned to me. I leave my backpack at the hotel and go out on the streets again. In one of the main streets of the city, between old tiny cafes and kebab shops, for small sellers and farmers who come every day to Kars to sell their crops, cheeses and meats, I discover a cafe-restaurant that could comfortably to be fashionable and as it should be a neighborhood of Istanbul, Brussels or London. With a modern and tasteful design, with young people of all styles and with a central specialty cocktails based on milk, without alcohol. With the local university students approaching the local population, which is about eighty thousand, I will discover in the coming days that there are several such places.
The old tradition of cosmopolitanism
I'm returning to the hotel. It 's past ten at night and I'm tired.
Before going up to my room we meet a young resident of the city, who is deeply religious, in sweet ways and belongs to a very important Muslim brotherhood. We talk until long after midnight about the tradition of Islamic mysticism, Sufism, the Koran, the Prophet and how, as he tells me, Turkey must become a more Islamic country and lead the Islamic world. I wake up very early in the morning from a heavy Turkish folk song pouring into the diapason from a neighborhood house. I go out on the streets again.
Clouds but also a cowardly sun. The jacket is still needed. The city is at an altitude of one thousand eight hundred meters and in winter the temperatures drop to -30. Among the world that is constantly circulating and the newest buildings and houses without character, the old buildings that were built by the Russians during their almost forty years of rule in Kars are springing up here and there.
Impressive thanks to their aesthetics, built according to the simple and elegant rules of the so-called Baltic architecture, most house government services and some elegant cafes-restaurants.
Thanks to tradition
“Kars is the only city in Anatolia that was built with a strict road plan and urban policy,” a friend of mine in Kars tells me, who is very proud of the “old tradition of cosmopolitanism and coexistence of different ethnicities in his city.” And he explains to me that the mayor comes from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) even though the majority of the population is Kurdish and that the newly elected president of the Chamber of Commerce is a Kurd, who got the most votes from Turks and Azeris.
The polarization in Kars is not as great as elsewhere, not only because of this tradition of coexistence, but also because there are kinship, friendship and trade relations that govern ethnicities and political parties.
Miniature of Turkey?
“Election beans are more or less counted in Kars,” another friend of mine here tells me. “The Kurds vote more for the pro-Kurdish HDP, which won 34.5% in the last elections, then voted – but not anymore – for the AKP, which won 35.6% in the last elections, after the CHP, which won 15.1%. The Turks vote for the AKP and the MHP, which won 12.5% in the last elections. The Azeris, who are also very organized in the party and the Gray Wolves, vote for MP almost en masse. But no politician here can be extreme. Otherwise he will lose. ” “It must be weird for the Gray Wolves here,” he tells me with a smile. Another interlocutor tells me that “We have never had violence here and the truth is that there are traditional balances between the ethnicities that keep the extremes apart.” “But do not look only at the surface and the myth of cohabitation. There is an underground racism between the various communities. And especially in recent years, a change of mentality, with the culture of lubrication prevailing, which has begun with the AKP and the cult of Tayyip Erdogan carried by the party and its followers. “And there is tension in the run-up to the elections, which will continue to rise.”
After the somewhat more ethnically, religiously and almost ideologically and politically homogenous previous cities of my trip to central and eastern Anatolia, where support for the AKP is well above 50%, in Kars I hear again about the fear caused by thousands of stories. arrests and interrogations, from military and civil servants to teachers and subscribers to the Gulen newspaper “Zaman”, although there is absolutely no sympathy for FETO here. I hear about sentences of many months in prison for criticizing the policies of Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP on electronic social media. For fatigue, for tension, for despair, for thoughts of leaving the country. But also for the hopes of the opposition that the period of Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP will end, along with the fear, as they say, that neither the Turkish President nor his party will easily leave power. I hear in discussions the analysis of the CHP candidate in the presidential election, Muharrem Ince, who many here believe has hope if there is a second round because, as estimated even by the Kurds themselves, he will get Kurdish support against Tayyip Erdogan. “The Kurdish vote will judge a lot, as will Aksener's dynamics,” says one of my interlocutors, who is well aware of the local dynamics in Kars and in Turkey. “It is very difficult for the Kurds to vote for Aksener. Aksener has a dynamic, but it depends much more on the local dynamics and balances between the Good Party and the MHP and the candidates at the local level and less on her personality and her program without a substantially alternative vision. Muharrem Ince may make a difference, but the truth is that the CHP remains intertwined with another tradition and ideology, which does not 'sell' much today to the Turks. However, the dynamics remain for the time being definitely in favor of Tayyip Erdogan “.
At night I am in a cafe with two men who in recent years have left Islam and become deists, they are not atheists, they believe that there is a God or a deity somewhere in the universe but that he does not care about what is happening down here. It is not in their early youth and until they became deists they were both in religious fraternities. “I came to a point where I began to doubt everything they tell us about Islam, about this version they impose on us, so totalitarian, but mainly because I began to see that parties are being built in the name of Islam, of Allah, of religion. , regimes, political figures in order to control the people. “And that Allah does not deal with what is happening to us,” one of them tells me. Lately, deism has become a nightmare for the AKP and its ideologues, according to Turkish analysts and journalists, as evidenced by the reactions of its executives and those of Tayyip Erdogan himself. The new generations of conservatives are losing their faith in Islam, as Islamist intellectuals fearfully confess, and are being led into deism. Removing them, according to critics of Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, is one of the most important “tools” for exercising social and political control in the new generations.
The end of the great journey
At night, in my modest hotel room, I think about everything I saw and heard and observed in the cities of Anatolia. All this dynamic of social change, redefining Islam, conservatism, the state. All these young people, young and old, who live in the heart of Anatolia and who are consciously or unconsciously led to a life, almost like their peers in Istanbul or Nicosia. They wear headscarves, others who flirt and pay attention to their femininity, who travel, who sincerely want peace and tranquility and prosperity, who are afraid and who hope for the future of their country and their own. “The secularization and modernization of Islam and Islamists and conservatives in Anatolia, but more widely throughout Turkey, has to do with economic development and the creation of a new bourgeoisie. Which can only follow the dictates of a modernized way of life, Western-style in essence, remaining conservative and trying to re-appropriate modernization and give it its own cultural tone, as is done in Anatolia for example. And certainly the gradual replacement of Islam by statehood is hopefully dynamic, as at the same time the Islamic background can put some limits on nationalism. Without this automatically meaning a direct path to democratization, in the pluralistic sense of democracy and society. We are still in processes that we do not know where they will end up “, says an academic who specializes in social and political dynamics in Turkey. “However, the populism of Tayyip Erdogan, which is in line with a global trend of populism, as well as its 'sanctification' and its identification with the re-appropriated state, which precisely allows these new middle classes to shape and control the their way of life and their social acquis, are like a grain of sand in the wider social dynamics. As had been done before with Kemal Ataturk, under other conditions and dynamics of course. A grain of sand that together with the collective psychology that the nation-state is constantly under threat from external forces and their internal “accomplices”, paves the way for authoritarianism and can very easily bring unpredictable diversions and crises in society and politics. ». In the morning I go down from my room to the reception to pay and leave. This journey is over. I inadvertently look at myself in the elevator mirror. I look tired. And I think how complicated it remains for me to understand Turkey.