Sunday, October 19, 2014

Turkey’s Syria Border city Antakya ; Its mixed population of Alawites, Alevis, Turks, Kurds and others

Turkey's Syria Border city Antakya and Its mixed population of Alawites, Alevis, Turks, Kurds and others 


Part I


Nostalgia; My visits to Antakya.


Personal note; I have great feelings of nostalgia about Turkey and its beautiful touristic sights and places ,old ancient and unbelievable heritage and its very simple, warm, proud and hospitable people, especially those away from big cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, etc . I have seen changes, which however necessary, logical and inevitable, but looking nostalgically I can say I love my Turkey and its people from the days of late 1960s and early 70s than of 20 years later .I will be most uncomfortable in Erdogan's Turkey of today enmeshed in self brought in strains and stresses ready to explode . I had travelled equally extensively from 1992 to end 1998. I have left behind many of my travel books on Turkey at my flat in Bucharest, but what I miss most is a travel guide, published by Turkey's chain of state operated petrol company ; Petrol Ofisi Stations all over Turkey on which I had to rely for travel and touristic guidance during my first tenure in Turkey.


As most people known to me and wishing to travel to Turkey come to me for information, I had lent them all my travel maps, booklets, etc. I requested a couple of times those working at the embassy here and other related organisations for travel literature. Unfortunately, no one responded to my requests. It is clear that in the official Turkey, barring a few friends here, I am almost a persona non grata , because of my honest views on Turkey and its future, which is not acceptable, which is understandable, but unfortunate. I have equally honest views about USA and even Indian governments.


It was in the later half of 1969, that my family, including my daughter and son travelled to South Western Turkey, via Adana, famous for its hot kebabs called Adana kebabs. I had read about the famous museum of Antakya and was very keen to see its mosaics and murals. Antakya, ancient city established by Siliceous Nikator , one of Alexander's generals ,is an old and ancient capital city .It is located on the banks of river Orantes valley and one can see mountains around it .Apart from its great museum ,its other ancient monuments  had not been fully restored or even discovered. We missed out on rock carved St Peter's Church , where he preached his first sermon .It was also the first city where followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians .It has been occupied by many emperors and Kings throughout the turbulent history of the region and as a gateway to Syria from Anatolia. Alexander the Macedonian went this way too halting here .


Fom my notes on travel in Turkey via Antakya


 After passing by the modern port of Mersin, come to Tarsus, birth place of St Paul, where Cleopatra seduced Mark Antony. Up north in the mountains are Cilician gates, from where Alexander ( & other conquerors going east or west) passed through to the Cukurova plains, littered with Crusader castles; Issus, where Alexander defeated Darius III in 333 BC. After crossing the Syrian gates and passing by Ottoman mosques and medresses, come to Antakya (ancient Antioch) on river Orantes founded by Sileucus Nikator (who knew well Chandra Gupta Maurya), with its most magnificent collection of mosaics. Here followers of Jesus were called Christians for the first time, St Peter and St Paul first preached here. It changed hands between Persians, Arabs, Byzantines and others. Down south Cleopatra married Mark Antony and there is a village where Moses came to meet prophet Hizir.


In 1969 there were  no  motorable roads down south to very old other ancient biblical and Roman and other historical places on the Eastern Mediterranean coast like Saman Dag  and its Titus/Vespasianus Tunnel-Samandagı and the antique city of Seleukeia Pierria , just north to the border with Syria. The old ancient river Orantes was still there, but like many historic rivers had lost its splendour ,cleanliness and image. I was equally disappointed when posted at Amman in Jordan in early 1990s , I drove over to the eastern bank of River Jordan, just before highly mineral laid laden almost a rivulet joins the Dead Sea. It reminded me of the gandalala a sewage full channel of New Delhi's Defence Colony (now covered mercifully).


Such are the disappointments of having been gripped by writings and expectations raised about ancient history and its marvels. Not all of them are disappointment, but some of them are. Like Hawa Mahal a.k.a. airy Palace in Jaipur, the Bridge on the River Thames in London or for that matter, the British ruler's residence aka Buckingham Palace. I saw it first in 1974 when I went over to London, while posted at Paris, with its beautiful well organised symmetrical architecture, with its major arteries like Champs Elysees, and the whole area around Concord and the drive along river Seine. It was Haussmaan who created aesthetic architecture, really beautiful and reordered and relaid major boulevards, avenues, and streets, basically for political purposes. London itself was a great a disappointment and come down. It is roads and streets were helter-skelter, with most of the houses nothing but boxes and boxes. So I remarked to my friend's son who was driving me around the city," what a good-looking building, thank God .There is one decent building." He laughed loudly almost crashing into another car and said,"Uncle. This is the Buckingham Palace. The anglophiles or those who had studied there go gaga over London.


Reverting back to Antakya, there were really not much worthwhile. After going around the excellent museum and its unsurpassable collection of Mosaics and a few other places of historical interest, we returned to our so-called Hotel in which we had been booked into. It was nothing but a combination of rectangle godown (large storage) rooms... So after checking out and having a non-descript lunch, we felt so let down that we left Antakya for our next stop Gaziantep.


The town is now very much in the news like Antakya, and was known as Antep. But the city put up a brave defence against the French forces from down south, now Syria after World War I, that Turkey's all-time greatest leader Kemal Ataturk added the word Ghazi, the victorious, and hence it became Gaziantep. We were delighted that the hotel had even a suite, which we never encountered in our travels and, not even Adana, or elsewhere , I went around , not even in Diyarbakir , our next stop after going around Mardin .It was so even along  the Black Sea in Samsun and Trabzon, also known as Trebizond, where the Greek levies had , after they had gone to Babylon on efforts to return back were hounded and chased by Kurdish tribes , still doing the same now to the Turks and managed to reach the Black Sea .When they sighted the Black Sea from the hills of Trabzon, they cried and shouted in triumph, Ocean ,.Ocean, if not Eureka ,Eureka.


Below is an article on the current city of Antakya with its very mixed population, simmering with tensions, with controlled emotions, which could explode nay time, thanks to the incomprehensible policies of Neo Ottoman pretender Recep Erdogan and his Sancho Panza, now Prime minister, who had propounded a policy of no frictions with neighbors, when in the region no leaf stirred without Ankara's permission.  But the description below paints a very scary picture.


K. Gajendra Singh ,19 October, 2014.Delhi

Syrian war changes Turkish border towns


ANTAKYA, Turkey — For the past month, the news media have monitored the battle for Kobani — the Syrian town with a majority Kurdish population — from the southeastern border town of Suruc. From there, the media have also covered the Kurdish protests in Turkey that have left 40 dead. Yet, in the Turkish province of Hatay, about a 4-hour drive from Suruc, residents kept silent on both matters.


 In Turkey's Hatay province, Islamic State militants have come to impact the daily lives of Turkish residents.


Author Tulin DalogluPosted October 17, 2014

This province, which received the first batch of Syrian refugees, is unique for its diverse social fabric that includes Arab Alawites, Sunnis, Christians and Jews. Here, the groups live harmoniously and respect each other's customs and traditions. This multicultural society has high rates of literacy and an overwhelming number of doctors and lawyers...


"This silence here is, indeed, a mirror of Syrian sectarianism and proof that it found reception on this end, too," Huseyin told Al-Monitor. "Just as our proverb says, 'Let sleeping dogs lie,' people here wonder why Kurds did not equally care about what happened inKassab. Why haven't they been more vocal for all that has been going on in Syria for about four years now? The Turkish government was wrong then, too."


He said: "Kurds were wrong to keep silent then, and people here are wrong today to be cold toward Kobani. More and more people focus exclusively on their core community's interests, turning their backs on others. The Alawites marked the 'peace day' [Sept. 21] here this year by carrying [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad's picture. To them, he fell victim to an international conspiracy and is fighting for his country."


A year ago, Syrians — and cars with Syrian license plates — were more visible in Antakya's downtown. "The security took all the poor Syrians sleeping in parks, or begging on the streets, to the camps. People really had it with them. There are still instances of robbery and abuse of our women, but it is now better under control, when compared to last year," said Sema, a shopkeeper at the Long Bazaar, or Uzun Carsi.


Minorities in Antakya, such as the Christians and the handful of Jews, especially, share the same concerns on security issues. Speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, many residents said that the last time they were targeted as a result of their identity was in the years prior to the 1980 military coup. "We don't have any problem here with the locals. It is all us," a member of the Jewish community said. "But there are so many Syrians here, and you see them walking around with long coats hiding their weapons. If one psychopath comes and kills us because we are Jews, who could say a thing? No one can give any guarantee here any longer that this is a safe place."


Bedia, from Yayladagi, a village near the Syria border crossing, said the sounds of fighting and bombing have not ceased since the beginning of the war across the border. In her late 60s, she sounds resolved but concerned. "There seems to be no end in sight to this war. I milk my cow; make cheese, butter and all of that. Our chickens make good eggs, too. It is all fine, but they don't like to pay for them. Our order here is gone," she said. Yayladagi is about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Antakya's city center. The other side of the border is controlled by the regime's foot soldiers.

People's sense of security wanes significantly, however, when talking about Reyhanli, which is about 42 kilometers (26 miles) to downtown Antakya, with a population of 91,000.


"I used to live in Reyhanli, but I can no longer let my family sleep there," Dogan told Al-Monitor. "We moved to Antakya and have tried to make a life here. I don't allow my wife and my daughters to go back there to see their friends." Sema, the shopkeeper, echoed a similar sentiment. "My daughter was assigned to a school there, but I told the authorities here that she would either lose a year and not go to school there, or that they should find her a school here in Antakya. It worked, and she is now going to school here."


Reyhanli is an interesting place. While driving into town, I saw a woman in her 30s wearing pink trousers, a black top and black high-heel shoes. After being welcomed to town in such a fashionable way, it was difficult to fathom that Reyhanli was a place where extremists could breathe easily. "All these groups like the Islamic State (IS), Jabhat al-Nusra and what not, come and go through here," a Reyhanli resident told Al-Monitor, asking to remain anonymous. "Take Mustafa Demir. He is from here. But IS has given him an emir position in Raqqa. He just told me the last time he was here that I should join them and that they would make me an emir, too." The same Reyhanli resident added: "He has some presence here. He says that neither he nor anyone else should pray behind an imam being paid by a secular state."


The Reyhanli streets are wide, quiet and clean. The main street is named after the republic's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The local security directorate can be found on this street. "Do you see this barber shop?" a Reyhanli resident asked Al-Monitor. The barber shop is about 300 meters (984 feet) away from the security directorate. "That barber's name is Omer Demir. He is the IS recruitment officer here. If you are going to join them by going through Turkey, here is the first contact you make with IS."


Reyhanli residents talked about an incident that took place about three weeks ago. A mother from a well-known family came to the barber shop and broke all its windows. "Her son joined IS and she took out all her anger on Omer. That was a big event," a Reyhanli resident told Al-Monitor, asking to remain anonymous. "Omer reported the incident to his higher-ups in Syria, and about 30 to 40 IS militants crossed the border to here. They declared the whole family infidels. They were going to kill them all. People in town got scared. A top security official from the Adana counterterrorism department came here with his crew. They talked to the people and brought the situation under control. But then we learned that there are seven sleeper cells here, and that they are all closely monitoring them, as well as Omer's activities."


Al-Monitor asked to interview both the barber and the mother. The barber said he would get back to us — he needed to consult with his superiors in Syria. His answer was negative. IS, unfortunately, also warned the mother not to talk to the media. Al-Monitor did find out that this mother took her son back and does her best to keep him alive. There are other family stories that are near impossible to verify. But it's clear that some people became accustomed to crime, and normalized this cruelty as a part of life.


"Even the imams here follow their orders and make announcements as they wish," a Reyhanli resident told Al-Monitor. "You need to be careful here. No one knows who is who."