The recent American betrayal of the Kurds in Northeast Syria brought back into circulation the mantra that has traditionally served as consolation for Kurds in times of crisis: “No friends but the mountains.” Neither the sense of helplessness in the face of greater powers nor the idea of seeking refuge in the melancholy of mountains is new. The Ottomans and Safavids in centuries past and Britain, Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the modern day have all taken multiple turns at not delivering on promises made in times of need, or disrupting Kurdish aspirations for self-determination. Mountains, then, loom large in the Kurdish imagination. Yet, much as they are celebrated, they have been a mixed blessing: while they allowed the Kurds to escape the control of the empires surrounding them, they also made it difficult for Kurds to create a central authority of their own. The geographic character of the lands where they live seems always to have conditioned the politics and prospects of the Kurds.
The political significance of mountains lies far beyond their symbolic appropriation for nationalist purposes. Mountains are always a refuge for persecuted minorities and fugitive ethnicities. Think of Montenegro’s inconquerability in the Ottoman Balkans. It was directly linked to the mountains. The Yezidis’ history and misfortunes are intimately tied to the Sinjar/Shingal Mountains for the same reason. When the Turkish state gassed and bombed its own citizens in Dersim, the Alevi Kurds sought refuge in the mountains. Hussites in the Czech lands and the Navajo people in the United States ran to the mountains in the face of crusade and genocide. For many peoples and groups, mountains have been the ark of Noah in a flood of domination by regular armies. (Perhaps the search for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat is simply missing the point. What if the mountain itself is the ark?)
Dadaloğlu, a nomadic poet and a heterodox Turkmen subject of the late Ottoman era, encapsulates the exceptional place of the mountains in politics in his famous line, “the Sultan has issued a royal decree against us; the decree is the Sultan’s, but the Mountains are ours.” Of course, the linking of mountains with outlaws and terrorists is a common topos of formal governments and central states. In the Turkish imagination, for example, the Qandil Mountains are closely associated with the PKK’s organizational headquarters. More interestingly, however, they are almost detached from any particular place—a nonplace floating in imagination. Few ordinary people could tell you exactly where they are. While officially on both sides of the border between Iraq and Iran, they have mostly remained beyond the reach of those states. And while they are inside the Kurdish Regional Government, they seem to reside above and outside of its jurisdiction.
In some sense mountains constitute exceptions to the leveled surface. They represent nature, wildness, and liberty. By becoming sites of resistance against domestication, mountains constitute, as it were, another layer of creation; they belong to a different political altitude. In certain regions of the world, mountainous landscapes have allowed people to stay beyond the reach of formal states—something detailed and celebrated by James C. Scott in his The Art of Not Being Governed, a study of Zomia, a mountainous region in Southeast Asia stretching across multiple states. The “largest remaining region of the world whose people have not yet been fully incorporated into nation-states,” even the author admits it is not going to remain so for long. “Its days are numbered,” he says, because evading the grasp of nation-states is increasingly difficult. If China’s recent mass detention of Uighur Muslims, who had lived thus far ever-so-slightly beyond the reach of the Chinese state, is a form of cultural genocide, it is also a sign of the political extinction of geography as a refuge for runaway identities and persecuted cultures.
When the first satellite was sent into outer space in 1957, Hannah Arendt considered it a fateful event in human history, “second in importance to no other, not even the splitting of the atom.” She seemed to read too much into it. But it is true that human access to outer space and the advent of automation altered our sense of the world, for it was not so much the conquest of stars and planets, but that of the earth itself that was revolutionary. Our planet became an object to our own gaze.
The distant offspring of that satellite, the drones and “eyes in the sky” deployed by modern nation-states, are also giving closure to a longstanding form of resistance against regular armies: guerilla warfare. The protection afforded by nature is now being undone by the political penetration of the technological state.
Drones and associated technologies of surveillance are flattening the mountains, ushering in a political disenchantment of the remaining hidden pockets of earth. Mountains will no longer remain available escapes from the burden of civility. No longer will Kurds, even the likes of Said Nursi, who sought refuge in the mountains from confrontations in the imperial capital, be able to do so. When threatened by Şefik Paşa, a minister of the Ottoman Sultan, for refusing to mute his criticism in exchange for a royal gift, he said, “I have lived my life freely. I grew up in the mountains of Kurdistan, a place of absolute freedom. You cannot intimidate me.” Today that absolute freedom of the Kurdish mountains is gone.
The recent episode in Northeast Syria is in some sense a Kurdish story minus the mountains. The mountains no longer provide refuge and escape, but in compensation for that loss, one gains civility and recognition. Being in the public sphere creates civic vulnerability, but also responsibility. Kurdish political urbanization is both a result and a recognition of the extinction of the mountains as an excuse. Now the struggle for freedom must take place in the city, in the open. The mountains should always remain our friends, but they cannot be the only ones.