The Gecekondu: A creative Kurdish concept for self-help housing in Turkey

23.6.2013 – Kurdistan Tribune – by Dr. M. Koohzad. – The solution for the housing shortage, at least partially, came from a Third World country, Turkey, and was called ‘Gecekondu’ or ‘Built Overnight’.

It was a little house put up quickly overnight when all building materials were ready and labor hurried to build it. Many social scientists favored the idea as one example of a ‘Self-Help’ approach to the housing shortage in the Third World countries. In Turkey, ‘Built Overnight’ meant the land is yours and you can receive an official title of ownership, if you can finish the roof overnight but before the sunrise!

This idea became very popular in the literature on economic growth and development after a Turkish scholar in the United States by the name of Kemal Karpat wrote an entire book on Gecekondu in 1976. Due to the fact that this ‘combo-word’ is Turkish, many scholars took for granted and mistakenly believed that it was a Turkish approach to Self-Help housing. But, in reality it was the Kurds from Southeasern Turkey who invented and utilized this approach.

In Turkey, there was a law about unclaimed vacant land inside urban areas. If anyone was able to build a structure, even a little one-room dwelling, and roof it between sunset and sunrise, that person legally was allowed to apply for the ownership of the property. An official title then would be issued in the name of the builder. Many displaced Kurds in large Turkish cities took advantage of the law and became the proud owners of their little houses. With the largest population of any city in Turkey, Istanbul provides an excellent example of Gecekondu Self-Help. According to Finkel (2012), “Istanbul is the world’s largest Kurdish city.” To write his book, Dr. Karpat carried out his fieldwork in the city of Istanbul.

Upon arrival in the city, most Kurdish immigrants, who had been forced out of their villages and towns in the east, could find, with the help of friend and relatives, a vacant piece of land in urban areas of the west. Although very poor, these Kurds still had some savings. Many of them had to sell anything of value to purchase building materials. On the fateful late afternoon, they would invite all of the people they knew who were capable of helping, including the elderly, women, and even children. As soon as they had a roof over their head, in the morning, they would go to get a title for their dream house. These crude structures house a few million Kurds in large urban areas of Turkey. In his book, Dr. Karpat, the Turkish professor of history, did not give any credit to the Kurds for the invention of Gecekondu and application of the land law.

Named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the fascist-nationalist founding father of the Republic of Turkey, Dr. Kemal Karpat has written at least eight major books published between 1959 and 2001. Similar to Ataturk, Father of the Turks, Dr. Karpat denied the existence of the Kurds as a separate nation. In an article that was published in the Encyclopedia Britannica, he wrote, “The Kurds are a people whose ethnic origins are uncertain” (p. 41). This short sentence was a devastating piece of misinformation about the Kurds. Unfortunately, many uninformed researchers quoted this loaded sentence. According to Kenyon (1979), “Karpat was considered an expert in Middle Eastern affairs.” Sadly, the less-informed Western researchers believed this biased Turkish scholar who alleged the Kurds did not exist.

Professor Rusen Keles reviewed Karpat’s book on ‘The Gecekondu’, two years after its publication. The book was criticized because of its sample size, exaggerations, contradictions and making the author’s political views palatable to the Western agenda. Dr. Karpat visited only three squatters in Istanbul, barely enough for any scientific generalization. Keles (1978) wrote: “the principal thesis of the book is much in line with the thinking of most of the Western scholars… and also as a major step toward modernization (p. 421).”

Complaining about Turkish state terrorism and genocide of the Kurds, Kotan (1997) reported that even the “parliament, universities and the press have been terrorized. The true nature of the war [on the Kurds] has been concealed from the rest of the world. Villages have been burned and destroyed; 3 million villagers live in the center of big cities under very harsh conditions” (p. 529). For the purpose of putting a roof over their heads, the Kurds invented Gecekondu. It is a creative Kurdish technique for survival of the fittest in the Turkish urban jungles. The Kurds must be given full credit for the invention of Gecekondu in Turkey.


Encyclopedia Britannica. The Kurds. 1992, p. 41 of the printed version.

Finkel, Andrew. The New Crossroads of History: Ten things you didn’t know about Turkey., April 9, 2012.

Karpat, Kemal H. The Gecekondu: Rural Migration and Urbanization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Keles, Rusen. Reviewer. The Gecekondu: Rural Migration and Urbanization by Kemal H. Karpat. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 1978, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 420-422.

Kenyon, Richard L. (3 March 1979). Interpreting The News: Iran’s Turmoil Rooted In Tenets Of Islam. The Milwaukee Journal,Saturday, March 3, 1979, p. 5.

Kotan, Orhan. The Perspectives of the Kurdish Movement in the Light of Oil Strategies of the 21st Century. In Hoiris, Ole. and Yurukel, Sefa Martin. (Editors). Contrasts and Solutions in the Middle East. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1997, pp. 520-531.

Photo – LSE Cities

Dr. Koohzad is a Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern Studies in the United States. 

Also by the author: Koohzad, M. “Kurdistan Ignored Even by American Professional Geography Textbook Writers.” The International Journal of Kurdish Studies, Vol. 22, Nos. 1 & 2, 2008, pp. 173-192.