I was in a city that Turkey’s government deems a hotbed of terrorism. An Islamist was holding a sharp blade to my throat. “Just relax,” he said.
Surprisingly, I could. There is nothing like an old-fashioned shave to refresh a dusty traveller. A cut-throat razor in the hands of a skillful barber can turn even a rumpled hack with four days’ stubble into something halfway presentable. Also, in a country where information is restricted, barbers are an excellent source of gossip.
My barber, whom I’ll call Azad, lives in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish part of Turkey. It is a beautiful, ancient place, famed for its gold jewellery and ruled at different times by Romans, Persians, Arabs and Ottomans. Its recent history is hard to discuss openly, however. Indeed, when locals look up their city on Wikipedia, they find nothing at all – the website is blocked.
In late 2015 and early 2016 an insurgent group called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) occupied the old centre of Diyarbakir, a district called Sur. They smuggled in weapons, dug trenches, erected barricades and declared an autonomous enclave.
It was a rash move. The Turkish army surrounded Sur and blew part of it to pieces with heavy artillery. The rubble was loaded onto trucks and dumped by the river Tigris, with body parts still buried in it. Human-rights groups estimate that hundreds of people died.
Azad kept his head down during the fighting, and his barber shop survived. But the doomed Kurdish uprising did not end his troubles. In the summer of 2016 part of the Turkish military attempted a coup. Air force planes bombed the parliament, and President Recep Tayyip Erodgan narrowly escaped assassination. The coup was quickly put down; and Erdogan’s revenge has been swift and scattershot. At least 160,000 Turks have been jailed or sacked on suspicion of supporting it. Many are innocent.
Azad whipped the soap into a lather with a soft brush and smoothed the foamy mess over my face. Then, as deftly as a samurai peeling a peach with his katana, he sliced off my stubble. He wiped the foam on an old piece of paper. His hand was steady, but his voice wavered.
After the coup, he confided, his son was arrested. As a teenager, he had attended a school run by the Gulenists, an Islamist movement that the government blames for the attempted putsch. That was the only evidence against him, but it was enough.
Azad’s desperate appeals for information were stonewalled. Eventually, after more than a year behind bars, someone concluded that the young man was harmless. “It’s like a holiday at home now that he has returned,” said Azad.
Practically everyone in Turkey knows someone who has been purged or jailed. A country that only a decade ago looked like a solid democracy – and a plausible candidate for membership of the European Union – is now plunging towards dictatorship. Like so many autocrats President Erdogan needs scapegoats, and this makes Kurds, a long persecuted minority, especially nervous.
The Turkish army has marched into Syria, Turkey’s chaotic neighbour, to crush the local offshoot of the PKK, which has rallied against the depredations of Islamic State, backed by American airpower. Erdogan cannot abide the thought of Kurds carving out a statelet in Syria, lest it inspire their cousins in Turkey to attempt something similar. Every day, Turkish television trumpets the army’s victories against Kurdish “terrorists”.
I asked Azad what he thought of Turkey’s president. He slapped a pungent, stinging lemon cologne on my cheeks, which brought tears to my eyes.
And then he surprised me by saying that he thought Erdogan a great leader, who had saved Turkey from a military takeover.
Far from blaming Erdogan for his son’s mistreatment, he blamed “the state” – the sultan’s wicked courtiers. (He keeps such views to himself, for they are not widely shared in Diyarbakir.) And he applauded Erdogan’s support for open displays of Islamic religiosity, which previous governments had suppressed. “What matters for me is that my daughter can wear the headscarf ,” he said.
Some distance from Azad’s barber shop, I climbed Diyarbakir’s city walls. A police sign warned people not to do this; apparently someone had fallen off while taking a selfie. But streams of Kurds clamber to the top for the view of Sur, where the PKK were besieged. Where an ancient neighbourhood once stood is now a level wasteland. The government is building a concrete housing estate over the ruins.