FOR 14-YEAR-OLD KERIM, life is hard. Estranged from his father, whom he blames for his mother’s suicide, Kerim spends his time roaming the streets of Diyarbakır, one of the largest cities in southeastern Turkey. His aunt Sultan, who is raising him, has just opened a restaurant in the same complex as her family’s restaurants. Competition is brutal. Last week, Sultan’s father smashed her restaurant’s windows, furious that Sultan was allowing her friendship with an Istanbulite and her crush on an America-born professor to overshadow family loyalty. Then, there is Kerim’s uncle Şeymus, Sultan’s husband, who has just returned from France with a young son in tow, and a dark secret.
Kerim is lucky: his life is a fiction, literally—it is one of the storylines in Ayrılık Olmasaydı/ ben-u sen (‘I Wish We Were Never Apart, Me and You’), a soap opera from Kanal D television that began airing in Turkey in late March this year. Hüseyin, the boy playing Kerim, is also lucky: Kanal D pays him 650 (Turkish lira; about R18,000) a month. Last year, Hüseyin’s life was not unlike that of his character—fraught, impoverished and quarantined by geography. Diyarbakır is a deeply political city, the heart of the hostility between the Turkish state and the country’s Kurdish minority; it is also the symbolic capital of Kurdistan, a region which encompasses areas in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Kurds comprise 20 percent of Turkey’s population, and have been fighting for constitutional rights—language, identity, and political representation—since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923. The armed resistance of the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) was born in Diyarbakır in 1978. A war between cultures became an all-out war between the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces. Efforts by the two cultures to engage with each other politically have mostly failed; the locally-supported and legal pro-Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) has little authority in Parliament. Frequent protests devolve quickly into clashes between stone-throwing demonstrators and teargas-lobbing police.