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Beliefs Endure as Believers Move On

Turkish Nationalism Reflected in Southern Town's Growing Homogeneity

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A14

MIDYAT, Turkey

On the day the genies show up, seemingly everyone in this historic town in southeastern Turkey heads for the door.

"On Black Wednesdays, you have to go to picnics and stay outdoors," said Summeyye Saltik, 15, on the playground of the local primary school where attendance dipped, as it always does, on the second Wednesday in March. "If you're indoors, genies will visit your house."

Children in Midyat raise hands to indicate if they believe genies visit local houses. The belief is one of the last cultural remnants of the Yazidis, most of whom have left the town.

"Because the houses used to belong to them and they come to claim them," added a classmate, Bushra Gokce.

"They can be anybody," explained a third girl, Serap Ceylan. "They can be Muslims or anybody who lived here before."

That makes the possibilities almost endless in Midyat, which over the centuries has been inhabited or visited by people of a vast assortment of faiths, including the Yazidis, the obscure sect that introduced the town to the springtime escapes of Black Wednesday.

But while the Yazidi wariness of house-haunting genies has spread to many other groups in the area, the number of Yazidis has dwindled considerably. Of about 5,600 Yazidis who lived in the area in the 1980s, only 15 are left.

Midyat, a town that predates Christianity and Islam, once reflected the deep diversity of a region where faiths overlapped and conquering armies advanced and retreated. Scholars say its very name may be a mix of Farsi, Arabic and Assyrian that translates as "mirror."

But what this town of 57,000 reflects these days is a growing sameness. The Armenian Christians who built many of the old city's medieval stone buildings disappeared in the early 20th-century conflict that Armenians and many historians have called genocide. The Assyrian Christians who long accounted for the majority in Midyat have been reduced to just 100 families.

As for the Yazidis: "They were not causing any problems, but it was still better that they left," said Nazete Koksal, an ethnic Kurd seated on a sofa under the arched stone roof of a house her husband, an Arab, bought from a Yazidi family.

"They're dirty," Koksal said. "Their religion is dirty. They pray to the devil. We pray to God."

Still, she expressed some nostalgia for the days before so many groups fled her city. "Before they left, we used to be friends," she said.

In some ways, present-day Midyat reflects the founding principles of modern Turkey. Rising from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic sultanate that tolerated religious minorities as second-class citizens, the Turkish republic was founded on a fierce assertion of national identity. The concept of Turkishness rooted the new nation-state firmly in the hills of the Anatolian peninsula once known as Asia Minor. But it also denied the notion of any other identity existing there.

More than 80 years after the republic was formed, anti-minority feelings can run close to the surface. Last year, an ultranationalist literally tore to pieces a human rights report on minorities before television cameras. In eastern Turkey this month, unemployed youths were hired to portray Armenians in a civic skit depicting a conflict with Turks that was more even-handed than history suggests; municipal workers reportedly had refused to take part.

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