In late October, Istanbul University’s Faculty of Economics and Türkiye’s Red Crescent alongside its civil society allies organised a critical workshop to develop an economic plan for the border district.
CIZRE, Türkiye — According to a Quranic legend, the final resting place of Noah’s Ark is on Mount Judi in the border district of Cizre, which lies in the trijunction of Türkiye, Syria and Iraq.
Millennia after the cataclysmic event that is believed to have reset the world order, Cizre is seeking to ride out a flood of events that had once pulverised the region – to seek a new and vibrant economic order.
Setting the progress in motion was a recent workshop which brought experts to the Türkiye-Iraq border gate at Habur, Türkiye’s busiest crossing point for its truck shipping industry. When we reached Habur for the Cizre workshop, which aims to diagnose the district’s critical problems, we saw a long line of trucks in front of the border gate as definite evidence of bustling economic activities.
“More than 2,000 trucks and 300 oil tankers pass through our border gate every day,” says Gokhan Samsunlu, a customs official, who is as brief as possible in his speech, giving an impression that he does not want to waste his time. “In addition to trucks and tankers, approximately 800 cars and 30 buses cross the border gate.”
Last year, 28 percent of all Turkish trucks went out through the border gate while 70 percent of all oil tankers entered Türkiye through it, from the Habur, showing the importance of the crossing for Ankara. In 2021, 10 percent of Türkiye’s trade with Iraq happened across the Sirnak province where Cizre is located. Cizre is 45 kilometres away from the Habur border gate.
Cizre, a predominantly Kurdish-populated district along the Tigris river that passes from Türkiye to Iraq before emptying into the sea in the Gulf, is a strategic border town whose residents have long been skilled merchants, benefiting from border trade. Iraq has long been one of the top five trading partners of Türkiye.
Some small-time traders want to chat with one of the experts, Dilek Demirbas, a professor of economics at Istanbul University which is one of the co-organisers of the workshop along with the Turkish Red Crescent, Cizre’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Protectorate Foundation.
Demirbas carefully listens to them and tells them that she will take their suggestions into consideration during the two-day event on October 22-23.
Omer Faruk Yildirim, a native of Cizre and a leading businessman who is also the chairman of the district’s chamber of commerce and industry, nods to the professor, clearly being happy about the presence of the workshop participants ranging from academics to businessmen.
After two days of intense sessions of the workshop, which were broken down into eight different sub-study groups discussing matters from logistics to finances, urban development, infrastructure, education, tourism and civil society, Yildirim was happier than ever.
“This workshop carries utmost importance to us because it’s something Cizre has not seen for a long time. It’s the first workshop with such a comprehensive and academic intensity. After this workshop, we will have a real academic analysis based on data and research on our problems,” Yildirim tells TRT World.
While the PKK terror group has long tried to turn the town’s original merchant character into a conflict zone, Cizre’s local businessmen like Yildirim have sought a way out of this dilemma. And now the workshop provides them with a perfect opportunity to develop an economic development plan, bringing more investments into the district.
Yildirim is keenly aware of that opportunity, believing that top officials in Ankara will also be reported on the results of the workshop, which will eventually lay out a roadmap for Cizre’s economic development. “There will be a follow-up conference on the results of the workshop,” he says.
The workshop idea has been developed by Sayim Yorgun, the dean of Istanbul University’s Faculty of Economics after an outdoor Ramadan iftar with local people several months ago in the courtyard of Cizre's Noah Mosque. “One of the attendants told me that our presence is good enough for them, inspiring me to organise a workshop,” Yorgun tells TRT World.
“We felt a responsibility to do something about Cizre and decided to organise this workshop with the help of our colleagues and other stakeholders from Red Crescent, business and civil society groups,” says Yorgun.
The dean is also happy about how the workshop has gone. “When I checked study groups at the end of the first day’s last session, I did not see anyone who appeared to have lost focus in their respective subject,” he says.
Demirbas, who has pursued a significant part of her academic career in the UK, also feels better after the workshop, but she still remembers small-time traders at the Habur border gate. “I promised one of the young small-time traders to help him pursue his academic ambitions,” she tells TRT World.
“If I were not here, I would not have known the problems in a real sense,” she adds.
The second coming of Cizre
Barbaros Ceylan, a prominent Turkish businessman and one of the key organisers of the workshop, has been long inspired by Cizre’s Noah story. Ceylan’s Protectorate Foundation, which partnered with Red Crescent, has committed to making lives better in Cizre since 2016 when the PKK’s deadly terror campaign ravaged the district.
“When I think about Cizre, I am overcome by a multitude of emotions, feeling the rebirth of humanity, its resurgence and shine. When I am here, I feel a sense of enthusiasm,” Ceylan tells TRT World.
But at the same time, Cizre also brings his mind into Ismail al-Jazari, a native of Cizre who is universally known for his inventions in the area of mechanical engineering. Ceylan is also from a similar background to Jazari, originally being an industrial engineer.
Like Noah’s Ark coming to rest on Mount Judi, he feels that Cizre could herald a new beginning of Türkiye’s southeastern region, which has long suffered from PKK violence.
In this sense, the workshop, which has brought a new sophisticated dimension to Ceylan’s ongoing aid efforts, is crucial to paving the way for a new beginning of Cizre. “I think the workshop’s final report will be instrumental in pulling investment into Cizre from Türkiye’s west,” he says.
“In the past, Cizre was a trade hub due to its strategic location. As a result, it has a great potential to rise again,” says Gokhan Ovenc, an academic in the faculty of economics at Istanbul University, who was the event planner of the workshop.
Ovenc is currently leading his department’s preparations for the workshop report. “There will potentially be three main proposals: building a logistics centre, opening a high school for agriculture and a museum on the district’s cultural heritage including the Noah legacy,” Ovenc tells TRT World. Cizre has large agricultural lands located in the middle of Mesopotamia's fertile plains.
Yorgun, Ovenc’s boss, is almost sure that they will come up with a good report. “I strongly believe that we will come up with very important concrete projects and suggestions that will make the region a centre of attraction,” he says.