14 June, 2010

Diyarbakır: para ver

A slim woman in a white print skirt, orange socks, and orange top that says "[something]…on the dance floor". She carries a paring knife and moves with a swaying lilt in sharp contrast to the subdued manner typical of local women. She owns every wrinkle on her face with a smile that creases them all.

A girl of about six carries (for her) a heavy bag. The contents appear to be cold and dripping. She sets it down to rest in front of my sidewalk perch and asks my name in clear English. Hers is Elif. (This i already knew because she exchanged words with the guy sitting a few meters away; he seems to know everyone on this corner in front of the drugstore.) A few minutes later Elif returns, kuruş jingling in her cupped hand.

If Mardin's motif was religious coexistence (and kites), Diyarbakır's is children looking for money. Two girls - four and six, perhaps - carry a bag full of tissues. Despite my polite refusals, they proffer a packet until the nearby man tells them off. Still they linger, challenging my resolve not to make eye contact a second time.

None of these children are outright beggars: they all offer something in trade. A boy of about fourteen stands on the sidewalk with a bathroom scale. That wasn't the last bathroom scale i saw. I see several boys carrying a bag or bucket and a pair of plastic sandals, wandering the park in search of shoes to shine. I wonder when they'll take their place on Diyarbakır's shoeshine row, where you can find a quick polish, laces for sale, and sidewalk cobbler services. As i sat on the corner, a boy passed pulling a kid sized version of the wheeled canvas bags men sort trash and carry away recyclables in. He didn't try to be cute, just asked for money. I gave it to him. Partly because i've been respecting these recyclers - glorified trash-pickers - since i arrived in Turkiye, wondering how much they earn, where they sleep, how they came to pull a giant canvas sack overflowing with cardboard around the city.

Diyarbakır is a troubling place for me, a dilemma. Beyond the Kurdish conflict, beyond the armored police vehicle that rolled tank-like down a street on the outskirts last night, Diyarbakir poses questions. It is capitalism gone awry; it is the tourist city that could have been. In the old city's hotel district taxi men stand idle, and carpet-shop touts prowl the sidewalk, hiding a desperate agenda.

As i mentioned, i'd been sitting on the corner watching life unfold around me and for the most part dodging the glances of begging children. The man nearby turned out to be a taxi driver. For a moment i entered the community of people on his corner in front of the drugstore, and understanding i was in no need of his services he was still glad to share his corner and talk - to wonder about life in America, and like many i have met here, if he could find more work there. A çay seller passed, and he offered me tea. I haven't the heart to accept gifts from people looking for work, so i lie: çay sevmiyor. He buys a çay and we continue to talk. Suddenly, he sees a customer across the rotary. He sets down his çay and dashes off.

While i'm waiting to finish the conversation, a man named Orhan introduces himself. His English is excellent - he worked at the NATO base near town until it closed. Then went into the carpet business. He invites me back to the shop to talk, and though i feel guilty leaving my taxi driver friend, Orhan is damned persuasive. Once there, it's a few minutes of casual talk, and then they're showing me carpets. Just sixty lira. This one's forty. These bags are only twenty. A gift for your mother.

I should have known better. Of course English is useful for Orhan and his Turkish-speaking business partner; with this shop buried deep in the bazaar, they send an emissary out in search of anyone who looks like a tourist. Paint a target on me and call me screwed. I hate feeling like i disappointed someone, turning people away, rejecting them. What i hate even more is when people sense this empathy and try to exploit it.

Self-extricated and wiser now, i meet another carpet shop tout on my way to find the taxi driver. Again, great English. At least he's up front: i work for a carpet shop. No small talk. I tell him carpets are just not my style. Another English speaker catches my arm; this one is a separatist. He wants to make sure i visit the Kurdish culture center. Back at the corner, the taxi driver's gone, and now i am not only frustrated, pissed, and feeling harried, i'm sad. He was at least a nice, genuine guy.

I find i defensible spot in a park with my back to the city's famous basalt wall. Head down, writing in my notebook. A man in his late twenties pulls up on the grass next to me. Uh-oh, he knows English. Small talk… yes. This one's a guide. When i tell him i'm waiting for a friend to call, that i know people at Dicle University (finally, i don't have to lie) he says, "i wish Saddam would come back and bomb Dicle University. Everybody has a friend there."

It's hard to explain to such people how my ideal of travel is a relational and phenomenological immersion experience, not eating, shopping, and ogling. My shoes have holes in them, sir; i am here to talk, to play futbol, to wear my shoes out completely.

By evening i have learned two important lessons: what you pay for, buying a restaurant meal, even at a sidewalk table, is territorial defense against the begging children. (After discussing the environmental psychology of privacy, territoriality, and personal space, this city is a mind trip.) The other lesson is that body language works wonders. Here, you have to be firm; no - in Turkish and Kurdish culture, a quick upward movement of the head often with a tongue-click for emphasis - is a simple and final refusal.