Moreover, the minimal oil deposits that Turkey does have are concentrated in one region: the Kurdish-populated southeast, a zone characterized for the past century by armed conflict, emergency rule and military occupation.
Despite its scarcity, oil has been a constant locus of aspiration since the start of state-led oil exploration in the southeast in the late 1930s. The history of oil in Turkey reveals how absence can generate unexpected political ideas and movements. An investigation into the entanglement of oil and Turkey’s so-called Kurdish Question reveals that oil has served as a medium through which the Turkish state (and pro-state actors) and the Kurdish people composed various—and often contested—political imaginaries ranging from ethnic assimilation (of Kurds into Turkey) to anti-colonial emancipation (of Kurds from Turkey).
Contrary to the hopes of Turkish leaders, oil eventually became a catalyst for many Kurdish people’s articulations of historical and political underdevelopment and critiques of state power instead of an engine of assimilation. Through the promises that oil infrastructures and the social changes oil forged, previously isolated Kurdish peasants formed political vocabularies that they later used to criticize the oil regime that the developmentalist state created. In this way they were able to compose a spatially oriented political-economic analysis of inequality in the Kurdish region.
Prospects of Oil, Modernity and Ethnic Assimilation
The Republic of Turkey emerged as a nation-state in the aftermath of World War I from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. As part of a state-led industrial development program, the founders of Turkey began their first national oil exploration activities with geological surveys in the Kurdish-populated eastern and southeastern parts of the country. In 1926, the first petroleum law was drafted, giving the right to explore and manage all hydrocarbon resources to the Turkish government. Based on the surveys conducted before World War I, the Mineral Research and Exploration Institute set up an exploratory drilling camp on Mount Raman, near an impoverished, 30-household Kurdish (and previously Armenian) village called İluh. Following a series of failed attempts, Turkish geologists finally discovered trace amounts of oil in Mount Raman in 1940. But the hopeful enthusiasm of the geologists and politicians quickly turned to disappointment when the well was deemed economically unviable. The petroleum was very heavy, meaning it had high viscosity and significantly higher density than that of light crude oil. These properties made the flow of oil to production wells difficult and thus made drilling too costly.
By this time, single-party rule by the Republican Peoples’ Party in Turkey had violently suppressed three Kurdish uprisings and earlier, in 1928, had established a type of administrative rule over the Kurdish region called the Inspectorates-General. Given this context, Memduh Şevket Esendal, a nationalist writer and a pro-government bureaucrat, visited the exploratory drilling site at Mount Raman in 1942 with the expectation of going back to the capital city Ankara with hopeful news. His report about the visit, however, was mostly concerned with what he saw as the profound backwardness of the region. Writing about the mud-brick houses and poverty in Kurdish areas, he likened the built landscape to archaeological ruins of a fallen civilization. Yet he believed that these ruins would “come to life” if commercially viable oil were to be discovered there.
For Esendal, the main purpose of oil discovery was to enable the assimilation of the Kurdish-speaking people of the region into Turkish culture and language. He advocated for the forced resettlement and relocation of non-Kurdish populations from the country’s western or northern regions to the east. One proposed solution to what Turkey sees as its “Eastern Question” was assimilation through infrastructure development: Esendal believed that oil could be a catalyst for the building of roads, railroads and other infrastructure that would foster development and mobility to urban areas, which could in turn speed up the assimilation of Kurds into Turkish culture. For Esendal and other bureaucrats of the time, the Eastern Question was a problem of cultural and economic backwardness that oil discovery would remedy.
The anticipation of oil mediated not only political actors’ imaginaries of industrial development, but also their aspirations for the erasure of Kurdishness from Turkey.
Turkish bureaucrats, however, were also suspicious of the possible outcomes of developing certain infrastructure. Six years before Esendal’s visit, First Inspector-General Abidin Özmen’s report on the Kurdish province of Van, another area where prospective drilling was carried out, speculated: “In the future, I think that the provinces of Van will develop and be populated. The natives of Van will disappear. As soon as the train reaches Van, the villagers around it will migrate there. This means that the town will be invaded by Kurds. Just like it has been happening in Diyarbakır.”
Railroads, asphalt roads and other infrastructural developments triggered by the discovery of oil were a double-edged sword for these bureaucrats. They expressed modernist hopes of technological and social development as well as racialized fears of potential Kurdish unrest. Read against their grain, Esendal’s concerns foreshadowed the possibility that the unintended effects of petromodernity—the creative potential, mobilities and socioeconomic transformation enabled by oil-related infrastructure—could exceed the original intentions of their makers. And in the case of oil in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, they in fact did.