In the spring of 1991, Turgut Özal, Turkey’s then-president, took the Turkish public by surprise when he officially confirmed that Kurdish leader Celal Talabani had secretly visited Turkey. I was in my last year of university and also interning at daily Milliyet.
I have to confess; I was totally ignorant of the Kurdish issue, be it with its internal or regional dimension. As an intern I was asked to follow Talabani whenever he came to Turkey. As an ambitious and aspiring journalist
I tried to follow him to the best of my abilities wherever he went. He even once jokingly told me, “you little devil, I see you everywhere I go.” I did not take this as an offense, but rather as an appreciation of my persistence since in our country, sometimes (believe it or not) words you might usually use for an insult are also uttered in a sign of appreciation.
As a result of my persistence I got an interview with him. The car of the secret police, which was waiting in front of his hotel started to follow the car of the company which was taking me to the office. I recall shivering and asking myself whether it was illegal to have an interview with a Kurdish leader. Don’t blame me for my ignorance. These were the days when Kurds did not officially exist in Turkey, but were instead “Turks living in the mountains.”
Throughout the 1990’s and the 2000’s, Turkey’s relations with Talabani as well as Massoud Barzani had its ups and downs. While Barzani was more distant, Talabani gave an impression of being down to earth. Yet for many Turkish officials Barzani got credit for being a straightforward man, someone with consistency, a man of his word. Talabani on the other hand, gave the impression that he was a man who would say one thing one day and the complete opposite thing the next day.
His ability to sort of dance with Iranians, Americans, Saudis, Turks and different factions in Iraq is now being recalled as a positive attribute; as if there is no other way of acting were you to find yourself in his position. He is given credit for his ability to find a consensus among numerous conflicting sides.
While he was instrumental in establishing an indirect dialogue between Ankara
and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK), his close relationship to Iran
has always raised eyebrows in Turkey.
When Turkey failed to prevent a second term in the Iraqi Prime Ministry for Nouri al – Maliki following the 2010 elections, the government then tried to unseat Talabani from the presidency. Over the course of time Talabani managed to put this episode behind him, proving his ability to adapt to conditions.
At the end of the day Talabani will be remembered as someone who contributed to the improvement of relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds.
And for those who once met and now think about Talabani, who is currently trying to recover from a stroke, past memories will go beyond personal recollections to possibly include amazing lessons and analyses about one of the most intriguing corners in this earth.