Friendships in Turkish Kurdistan
Van, Turkey (July 2010) — I was on the first floor of an apartment building with a group of eight Kurdish men. They had tempted me in with an offer of eating kebabs together. Now, as I sat on the carpet in a circle with them, one was closing the blinds of all the windows.
I imagined perhaps they would kidnap me.
Just a few days earlier, a Kurdish man had offered to take me on a tour into northern Iraq. He showed me a binder filled with pictures of satisfied travelers. I couldn’t shake the idea he was a kidnapper.
I’d already violated warnings. The State Department advised against all ground transport between southeastern Turkish cities due to possible roadside bombs. But I’d been taking small vans and buses on the highways for days now.
Ankara spent decades restricting use of the Kurdish language. The Turkish military brutally suppressed a Kurdish rebellion in the 1990’s. In cities I visited like Van, Diyarbakir, Urfa, and Dogubayazit, experts concluded a risk of sudden and violent protest. Kurdish militia were still active along the nearby Iraqi border.
Weeks earlier, I had been eating breakfast in Mostar, Bosnia with another American traveler. He was more experienced than me. He was skeptical of the wisdom of a journey to Turkish Kurdistan. There were other places to visit in Turkey. I could spend more time in Georgia and Armenia, too.
By the time I reached Trabzon, a Black Sea city in northeastern Turkey, I was just an overnight bus away from my dream of visiting the Kurds. Just several months prior, during my senior year at Michigan State, I’d completed a research project on Turkey’s oppression of the Kurdish people.
With the sun setting over the sea, I had dinner with a Turk from Istanbul.
He told me his father had been an officer in the war against the Kurds. Some of his friends’ fathers died fighting Kurdish separatists a couple decades ago.
“But it’s fine there now,” he said. “It’s just a lot more conservative. The women aren’t allowed to wear what they want or even go out much in public.” He then went on a rant about President Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist leader. “That’s what he wants this whole country to become. He wants us to be like Iran.” He explained his fear that Turkey’s traditionally secular state was doomed.
The sun finished setting. We sat together drinking Efes beers, looking out into the seemingly infinite blackness of the sea. “People say,” he said, “that sometimes you can see lights in Ukraine. But I think they’re just ships.”
He told me about his life as a professional dancer in Istanbul.
He talked about his girlfriend. “Of course, I am a Muslim,” he said. “But I’d never date a woman who wore a headscarf. You’ll see even more than that in the southeast than you do here. Women can’t do anything there. Totally oppressed, not free at all.”
The next day we visited a monastery in the mountains together.
A few days later I was in the other northeastern Turkish city of Erzurum. I bought a carpet there for my dad.
“This carpet is not Turkish,” he said. “It is Kurdish.”
As I drank tea in the carpet shop, I asked the owner’s opinion on the matter. He told me to go.
I’m not a brave traveler. I’ve never crossed an ocean on a plane without thinking it might be my last ride. I just suppress my fear and prejudice when I am able to recognize them as irrational.
So I got in a passenger van bound for Dogubayazit, a Kurdish city near the border with Iran. Confident I was going to die.
The only foreigner aboard, I sat squeezed against the door in the middle row. I listened to Death Cab for Cutie on my 2004 iPod.
We arrived at night. I dreamed of nearby skirmishes between Kurdish rebels and Turkish soldiers. Awoken in the night to the sounds of construction work, I perceived automatic fire.
Over breakfast in the morning, I admired the view of nearby Mt. Ararat. Once at the heart of a sprawling Armenian culture, the great mountain was in modern Turkey today. Any Armenians who’d lived near it were either killed or had fled long ago.
Near me in the hotel dining room, European hikers discussed their plans to climb the mountain.
“Kurdish tea,” an employee offered me. I thanked him.
“Not Turkish,” he emphasized. “Kurdish.”
“Very good,” I said.
In every cafe I visited, in every restaurant at which I ate, the owners gave me complimentary baklava and taught me Kurdish words.
Walking around town, several hours passed before I saw a woman who wasn’t a white foreigner. It was just men all over the place, well into the evening. Gathered watching World Cup games in tiny restaurants. Working on construction sites. Selling clothes in stands on the sides of the road.
When I finally did see a woman out in public, I only knew she was female because of her clothes. Which is to say, I only knew she was a woman because I couldn’t see her.
I hadn’t encountered this scale of conservatism anywhere else in Turkey so far. But it is a country deeply divided by debates on the role of religion in government and society.
I took a short trip just outside of Dogubayazit to Ishak Pasha Palace. It is a remnant of the Ottoman Empire that thrived here up to just a century prior to my arrival. It offers picturesque views of the valley housing Dogubayazit, of Mt. Ararat rising into the sky.
From Dogubayazit it was off to Van, a city beside a lake named the same.
Few traces remained of the Armenians who had lived in Van before the genocide against them in the early 20th century. It was just the Kurds here now. And they’d spent decades banned by Turkish nationalists from speaking their language. This, after some of them helped Ottoman officials annihilate the Armenians. A winding history of shifting alliances and betrayals.
Yet Van is also home to a fortress from the 8th century BCE. Since then, its ownership has shifted between Seljuks, Medes, Achaemenids, Armenians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans — at least to name a few.
The ruins showcase ancient cuneform writing. A message from the Persian King Xerxes, dating to the 6th century BCE.
This is a place that gives one a sense of the dizzying entanglement of languages, empires, and religions that has characterized the Anatolian peninsula for millennia.
I sat in a garden drinking tea after a day of touring the fortress. Several Kurdish men sat around me. Not one of them could speak English.
But communicate we did. We used maps of Turkey in my Lonely Planet guidebook. We did charades in the garden square surrounded by the benches on which we were sitting. One of them had a Turkish-English pocket dictionary that we consulted. I had a notebook in which we made drawings.
Given how conservative the area was, I lied and told them I was a Christian when they asked. It was the answer they wanted to hear. To be an atheist was far too extreme for this setting.
They told me they wanted to visit America one day.
The call to prayer sounded. They took me to the mosque. I waited outside in the empty square while they and hundreds of others prayed. After the prayer ended, they took my hand and led me into the mosque.
We took off our shoes. We walked on the carpet to the imam. He didn’t speak any more English than they did.
In Kurdish, they explained to him who I was. An American traveler, a Christian. He smiled kindly at me and guided me around, trying his best to teach me about the place.
When we left the mosque, my hosts made a gesture with their fingers indicating a desire to eat. I nodded and we proceeded to a kebab stand. They ordered kebabs and Coca-Colas, all of which we took back in bags to an apartment building. I tried to pay, but it was sternly forbidden.
We got to the apartment building. They closed the blinds to the windows. I can’t guess why. But it was then that my fear and prejudice kicked in. It was then that I imagined this as the beginning of my demise.
We ate the kebabs over newspaper sheets spread out on the carpet. Sitting cross-legged in a circle. Drinking Coca-Cola out of small glasses. They got out more Turkish-English dictionaries. We wrote words down on pieces of paper and looked up the meanings. On a map, they showed me the towns in which they’d grown up.
Being so religious, they didn’t drink. Instead, they taught me games that we played together for hours.
I was there until well after midnight.
They invited me to have a picnic on the island of Akdamar in Lake Van the next day. It was at least a 30-minute drive along the shore of the lake. But it was on my way to Diyarbakir, another Kurdish city. So I agreed.
I communicated to them that I needed a way to get from Akdamar — which is in the relative middle of nowhere — to Diyarbakir. They took me to the bus company. They arranged for the bus to Diyarbakir to stop for me on the shore near the island.
At around 6 the next morning, they picked me up in a car at my hotel. We stopped at a grocery store and bought fruits, vegetables, and snacks for the picnic. We set off along the side of the lake, blasting Kurdish music with the windows down.
We took a small ferry from the shore to the island. We ate our picnic in the grass, with a view of the ruined Armenian church there against a backdrop of water and mountains.
Walking around inside the church, they wanted me to explain the religious significance of certain structures. I tried to make them understand that I’d come from a different branch of Christianity.
After several hours on the island, we headed back to the shore. We stood together awaiting my bus to Diyarbakir. When we saw it approaching in the distance, each of them took turns hugging me tightly. They implored me to come back one day.
In the dirt on the car window, they traced with their fingers a heart beside the name Andrew.