Tales from Mesopotamia: Turkey’s wild Southeast Frontier

Uncle sits in the corner and sings
Mesopotamia!

Mesopotamia!

Ruins of Diyabakır- the site of the PKK rebellion

Ruins of Diyabakır- the site of the PKK rebellion

evening chores in Şanlıurfa

evening chores in Şanlıurfa

(note: I wrote this post in 2 sessions so please excuse the present/past tense changing and the poor grammar. I was in the Southeast for about 1.5 weeks)

It’s Ramadan and I am in the conservative Southeast Anatolia region of Turkey, skirting the Syria/Iraq border. Western Turks, Lonely Planet, and some other travelers all told me it would be dangerous here and not to come. Obviously this made me only more curious, especially because I believe many Western Turks are racist against the Eastern Kurdish population…and all the people that told me not to go had never been here themselves. Many of the towns I have been visiting here were sites of major Kurdish rebellions in the ’80’s and ’90’s, and though they do still feel a bit gritty and rough around the edges, the energy is positive in most parts, and Kurds are some of the nicest people I have come across on my trip. At first in Şanlıurfa, when I heard footsteps running up behind me, I was scared it would be a bunch of kids throwing rocks at me, which happened in other parts. When I turned around, however, it was a bunch of young boys rushing to give me fresh pistachios from their pocket instead. The region is defintely male dominated, however, and in hotels and on the street, I am the only female, which is no doubt intimidating. But anytime I feel uncomfortable, I face the man and say ‘Merhaba’ (hello in Turkish) or ‘Salaam’ (peace in Arabic) and he stops staring.

Kids in Şanlıurfa

Kids in Şanlıurfa

Families spend the entire day preparing a feast for sundown. I enjoyed some delicious pide and roasted peppers with this one.

Families spend the entire day preparing a feast for sundown. I enjoyed some delicious pide and roasted peppers with this one.

I have found myself involuntarily fasting and keeping the hours many locals do during Ramadan: Waking at 3:30 am to loud drums echoing from the town hall to tell people it is breakfast time (eating during daylight hours is not allowed), listening to the calls 5 times a day from the mosques to remind people to pray, and fasting until 7 pm whereupon Muslims indulge in a huge delicious meal, and are allowed to smoke, drink water (never alcohol), play games, and dance. It’s amazing watching the transformation of the atmosphere as the day progresses in hardcore religious parts like this. Every night here, I have been invited by some family to enjoy their fast-breaking at 7 with them.

On my bus ride to Diyabakır, the epicenter of the Kurdish rebellion, a young woman stared at me and I smiled back. She eagerly sat down next to me. In the next hour, commicating with wild hand guestures and pointing to words in my Turkish phrasebook, Aynuş somehow communicated to me that she wanted me to stay with her family in Diyabakır. The hour of mis/communication was exhausting and I wasn’t sure how staying with a family that did not speak a word of English would turn out. But, it was a rare chance to see the lifestyle of the Kurdish people- a huge mystery to me- a chance to dive into the action instead of staring at it from the outside. So I accepted the invitation and was grateful, because when I got to Diyabakır, I felt truly nervous and brave for the first time, overwhelmed with this world so far from my own, in this place that I had virtually no idea about, feeling like the only traveler and only female in the entire region.

My Kurdish crew: None of these women knew each other prior to the event of following me around. Aynuş, my host, is in the white trenchcoat

My Kurdish crew: None of these women knew each other prior to the event of following me around. Aynuş, my host, is in the white trenchcoat

Aynuş' family dinner

Aynuş' family dinner

Most of the people didn’t know what to do with me and seemed to wonder what I was doing coming to this part. But I liked it. They didn’t try to sell anything or harass me into a tour anywhere. I was even stopped several times on the street by men smiling, ”Hoş Geldiniz” (Welcome). Aynuş held my hand protectively throughout the streets where some naughty kids threw rocks. Several women came out of their homes and a few even joined us, curious as to who I was and what I was doing off the beaten track. They kept asking “Why are you traveling alone? It is so hard! It is bad!” Traveling alone for them was something they could never understand. Then again, there are many things I will never understand about their minds and culture. The women kept complaining about how hot it was- and it was- but they still had to keep their headscarves, full length pants, and longsleeved trenchcoats on. I wore baggy pants, a t-shirt, and a light headscarf when approprıate.

At dinner time, Aynuş’ sister prepared a feast. I was getting better at Turkish but found it hard to communicate answers to questions like “Why do you have no religion? Why are you not Muslim?” Eventually I just said, “Mother-not Muslim. Father- not Muslim.” They seemed to be moderately satisfied. Sometimes I felt they were imposing their faith upon me, and though I voluntarily joined them for prayer 5 times a day, I did not appreciate the preaching that Allah was the only God and Mohammed was their prophet. Aynuş scolded me gently when I told her I drank alcohol and told me I had sinned. She asked if I also ate pork, and learning my lesson, I told a white lie. Don’t get me wrong, the entire family was beyond generous and welcoming and I couldn’t be more grateful for everything they did for me, I guess I just felt frustrated from time to time with the cultural differences that we could not communicate. In the end, they only allowed me to repay them with a box of baklava and giving the 10-yr-old son my Obama t-shirt. And now we are facebook friends.

The next village I stopped in was Hasankeyf, in the heart of Mesopotamia on the Tigris river. It was a beautiful ancient setting but I could feel the male-dominance here more than anywhere else and it made me uncomfortable. I stayed at a dingy motel and didn’t sleep a wink, as being the only hotel guest, everyone in the village knew where I was and I was terrified something bad might happen. This put me in a bad mood for Van, where I only stopped for a night. I started to see signs for Iraq and Iran and suddenly the part of the world I had ventured in became more clear. In Van, some guys yelled “Japan! Korea!” and tired of playing deaf, I once yelled back, “America!” and a bystander leapt out of nowhere saying “America!? I am from Afghanistan!” I didn’t know if he was being friendly or wanted to start an argument, so I held out my hand and he shook it. I walked away and ate some baklava.

Looking out into the Syrian plains of Mesopotamia

Looking out into the Syrian plains of Mesopotamia

Diyabakır streets

Diyabakır streets

The Tigris River

The Tigris River

After Van, I traveled to Doğubeyazit, a small town by the Iranian border. Every journey between towns was complete with numerous police checkpoints, where upon all passengers in the Dolmuş (large vans that function as busses) would get out and show their Iranian or Turkish passport. My heart pounded each time but I kept a calm facade and they always let me through with my American passport.

I had been especially warned about Doğubeyazit; there were bad kids and no females, etc. etc. but I found the town quıet, quaint, and quite interesting. Full of armed, scowling soldiers trolling the dusty roads, interspersed with traders from Iran and Armenia, the town felt oddly peaceful and for some reason I didn’t notice being the only female. Everyone seemed to be too involved with their own business to pay any attention to me. I also noticed a lot of BMWs and Mercedes’, and wondered what that was all about.

Doğubeyazit ended up being fantastic, actually. I became acquainted with a gregarious Kurdish family (all male- I didn’t ask where their wives/sisters were) that owned a kilim (Turkish carpet) shop. They were a lot less strict than Aynuş’ family and snuck cups of çay (tea) throughout the day. “We are good Muslims!” They joked. I also caught the patriarch sneaking contraband Armenian liquor into his çay glass at dinner. After dinner, an uncle came by and sang traditional Kurdish songs, a form of storytelling, for us. Although I understood less Kurdish than Turkish (and now was confusing the two languages with each other), I gathered that he was singing about me. Then we got in a circle and started doing Kurdish folk dance in the carpet shop. Why go to nightclubs when you can go to a carpet shop? I have a video of the dance but I cannot seem to upload it here.

Uncle entertains us with Kurdish music over baklava

Uncle entertains us with Kurdish music over baklava

It was an amazing night to say the least and my experience was so exciting and fresh. I thoroughly enjoyed these men and did not feel isolated here at all. Their family, Aynuş’ family, and every other Kurdish family that had taken me in for dinner throughout my trip in the Southeast was so generous to invite me to be a part of their lives and celebrations. My spirits felt completely renewed- it gave me one of those “If I can do this I can do anything” feelings and I got excited for West Africa. So things are more or less great. It is nice to feel lucky.

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~ by ceciliabien on September 9, 2009.

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