One unpleasant reality about Turkey is that despite the passage of time, many of its problems are fundamentally unchanged. I first saw this years ago at the library when I was poring over old newspaper headlines. Later, in some old political magazines I found in second-hand bookstores, I noticed that while the names and histories may have changed, they weren’t much different from contemporary magazines.
In Turkey and in some other countries, the leaders may change but everything else stays the same—price increases, unemployment, inflation, and terror. Of course that word I used, “terror,” has reared its head in Turkey in a lot of different ways over the years—sometimes it’s clashes between the Left and Right, sometimes it’s massacres of Alevis, and then there’s what has been going on in the Southeast for the last 40 years.
In the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) first term, when it seemed like perhaps change was coming, my late grandfather said, “Turkey is like a rubber band—it stretches when you pull on it, but when you leave it alone, it goes back to the way it was,” showing that old problems were still reappearing. Unemployment, price hikes, and the Southeast were still in the news then.
In recent days, Turkey is getting a lot of different reactions from around the world after announcing its plan carry out operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to secure its territory east of the Euphrates. First, NATO allies were concerned that the operation would draw the People’s Protection Units (YPG) away from their critical role in the war against ISIS to fight the Turkish forces on the border instead. Allies claimed the operation interfered with fighting ISIS.
Some factions claimed that if the Turkish army started operations in this region, it would increase the possibility of ISIS regaining power. After the “Joint Operations Centre” was established with the US in Şanlıurfa in Turkey’s Southeast, it looked as though the plan for East of the Euphrates was moving forward.
In any case, while all of this was going on, I couldn’t help but think of Zerocalcare, the pen name of Italian cartoonist Michael Rech, author of Kobane Calling. Kobane Calling is Zerocalcare’s first graphic novel to be translated into English, written after his visit to the Turkey–Syria border.
Kobane Calling was first published in 2016 in Internazionale and was later made into a book. Along with being an excellent piece of work, Kobane Calling gives an important view, through the eyes of a Westerner, of what’s happening on the border. While observing the war between the Kurds and ISIS, Zerocalcare included in his graphic novel some claims that most people were hearing for the first time.
For example, at the beginning of the book, he explains how people in the Suruç village of Mehser (near Kobane) knew which direction the bullets were coming from. Zerocalcare also includes the claim that the Turkish army was cutting the electricity so ISIS volunteers could cross the border.
Another interesting claim in the book is that no one is truly fighting ISIS and that the war is being deliberately dragged out even though ISIS could be quickly eliminated if that were the goal. This claim was confirmed in August in journalist Fehim Taştekin’s interview with İlyas Aydın, a jailed member of ISIS known as “Ebu Ubeyde.”
Aydın said of ISIS, “There are parties who cannot fight a war themselves, so they stick us in there as proxies. Because they see our war as good for business, they’re willing to overlook it. This isn’t just Turkey—America, Russia, all of them are in on it.”
In Kobane Calling, through Zerocalcare’s Western perspective, he believes that an organisation like ISIS can’t have just suddenly appeared in the heart of the Middle East unless there was someone with something to gain who was condoning them.
From Turkey’s point of view, one important thing is how differently Kurds are viewed in Western media and in Turkey. One example of this contrast is the images in Western media that show pretty young Kurdish women fighting in Kobane while in Turkey, Kurds are portrayed as bearded, hairy old men.
The women’s arm of the YPG, the YPJ, captured the media’s attention in the West for a long time. However, the book explains how Kurds don’t just value women for participating in the YPJ. In one chapter, the Rojava Model, Newroz Kobane is a young girl who is the leader of a camp; she explains how women have other important positions. The refugee camp is run by a woman. The former co-mayor of Suruç, Nazlı Binici, is a woman (in the last election, Hatice Çevik was elected mayor, meaning that Suruç is still run by a woman). The chief of Mehser is also a woman.
Aside from all of this, Newroz Kobane said something that undermined the AKP’s claims about how much money they’ve given to the refugee camps. When talking to Zerocalcare, she explained that the Turkish government has not paid a penny for the camps, which are in fact supported by volunteers and Kurdish cities.
When looking at Turkey from the inside, there are a lot of things people don’t see, especially if they find out what happened from mainstream media instead of from alternative channels. But in other countries, when looking at non-Turkish-language broadcasts, we see a completely different picture.
In fact, it’s very difficult to say which side is showing the whole truth, but the true picture of Turkey exists somewhere. However, while these inconceivable events are more visible now than they were in the past, the things foreign media are reporting are still closer to the truth.
It’s almost impossible that Kobane Calling, told through the eyes of an Italian illustrator, will be translated into Turkish anytime soon. Although most of the book is about the Kurds’ struggle against ISIS, there are some claims in the book that a prosecutor could charge as “terror.” Still, for the sake of looking at these events from a Western perspective and to learn what’s happening to the Kurds, this is a very important graphic novel.