14 June, 2010

Diyarbakır 2: the local boys

Sorry that was a long ramble; it was a long morning. At last the tourist office opened and i could find what i needed most. A map.

While it is no Vieux-Quebec, the walled old city of Diyarbakir supports a busy tourist industry (though by appearances, this small industry is larger than its resource base, creating a mixture of community and fierce competition). Diyarbakir's dark basalt walls are said to be the Greatest wall outside China. At 5.5 kilometers in length and thirteen meters high, walking them midday in June gives the phrase "wuthering heights" a new meaning. Atop these walls the thistles are brown and watermelon rinds people left behind have shriveled to pale husks.

At Iç Kale, also known as the fortress, the buildings were largely in disrepair. Near the St. George church - restored and stunning but currently off-limits, its portals covered in glass - young men were carting wheelbarrows of dirt out of a tower. The sweltering work was an archaeological dig site, a prelude to more restoration.

Atop the walls, the view was sweeping. Beyond the city, the Tigris lay, and on either side a swath of green. Looking inward, one is on roof level with the poorest corner of Diyarbakir. Inside these walls lies a maze of narrow, concrete-walled streets teeming with children. Litter floats down like falling leaves; women and girls wash the cobblestones outside their homes, and sweep them with short handled brooms. Wherever there is graffitiWithin Diyarbakir's walls, much of the area feels like Ankara Citadel, the tourist district and lowest-income residential area one and the same, but nearly six kilometers in circumference.

Flanking the exterior wall is a series of swimming pools, where boys of all ages dived and splashed. As i walked in that direction, a fellow named Yavuz invited me in. Come, come, swim, he said in Turkish, motioning me to follow. And the weather was hot enough to overcome my uncertainty about both leaving my bag among horde of the same little boys who badger tourists for cash, and concerns about pool hygiene (i changed in a corner restroom where runoff from the pool floated into the recessed ala Turka toilet, and evidence of the last user floated in the bowl).

It seems there was nothing to worry about. Boys flocked around me, asking my name. The water was cold and refreshing. Some of them showed their diving prowess by jumping from a nearby roof; i found myself playing water tag with Yavuz. An overgrown boy in his own right, he managed this pool with his uncle and cousins Yusuf, Veysel, and Ibrahim. Yavuz even intimated he could jump off the 13-meter high wall, his secret to avoiding injury a studied and deliberate belly-flop. Ibrahim, high-school aged, challenged me to a face-off at the chin-up bar. His lithe body was capable of far more than chin-ups, feet reaching toward the sky as he gripped the vertical side of the structure.

Throwing around my three or four words of Kurmanji landed me new friends. The oldest users of the pool were Yukup, Serdar, and others whose names i've forgotten; they invited me to play futbol. Leaving my pack in the nearby bakery where Serdar works - up at four AM to move breads in and out of he oven, and done by noon to enjoy the day - three companions turned into five, then nine, then twelve. We played a spirited, argument-riddled game on the cement of a local schoolyard. After that, off to the neighborhood mosque with perhaps fifteen companions in tow. The most religious of them had been talking to me as we played futbol, more concerned about my soul than the goal. Now pleasantly surprised that i wanted to perform abdest before entering the mosque, he showed me the ritual washing movements, and inside, guided me through namas (worship).

I am not sure what their perceptions of my action were. I would like in some way to clarify to them my feelings about rite and religion, a double edged sword. Performed mindfully, any sacred rite can bring one into divine presence - into the forgetting of self, absolution into the spirit of worship and unity. Performed unmindfully, any rite can be an empty and meaningless repetition. I have the utmost respect for my Muslim friends' practices; i do not take them lightly, and the resultant experience is worth the trouble. After all that preparing, leaving your shoes at the door - when you bow and kneel and press your forehead to the floor the feeling is sacred indeed.