The Bridge Builder: Seeing Things Differently

By William Ury

In the spring of 1996, I facilitated a private dialogue at a chateau outside of Paris between five Turkish and five Kurdish civic leaders whose peoples were trapped in a civil war that had taken twenty-five thousand lives and destroyed three thousand villages. The dialogue was confidential; people had been killed by their own side for talking to the other. Many of the participants had spent time in jail. One Turkish nationalist, Tarik, had been described to me by his friends as someone who would “just as soon shoot a Kurd as talk to one.” The tensions were so high the first day that, when one Kurdish nationalist, Ali, talked about “self-determination,” Tarik and a colleague rose to their feet, about to walk out. For them, the use of that phrase was treason because it implied the creation of a separate Kurdish state.

I stepped in to explain that this work of dialogue was the most difficult psychological work one could do: “It requires listening to points of view that you absolutely don’t want to hear and that make you angry.” Tarik and his colleague nodded in silent assent and sat down again. “Ali,” I continued, “is talking about the wounds of the past, the suffering of his people, and their frustrated need for respect and autonomy.”

“Yes,” Ali responded, “Kurds do have the right to self-determination, but I believe that they should exercise this right by choosing to remain as equals in Turkey. In fact, I personally would defend Turkey against external threat with my blood.”

The atmosphere in the room changed perceptibly.

At our next meeting, Tarik asked to speak, “If someone had told me a few months ago,” he declared, “that I would be sitting here with a group of Kurds using words like ‘Kurdistan,’ I would have thought I was living in my worst nightmare. Now” – Tarik paused and looked around the room – “I think I’m living in a dream.” And he went on to thank Ali for helping him understand the situation from a new perspective. While he remained a strong defender of Turkish national interests, Tarik acknowledged the Kurds’ right to express their identity as they liked.

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