19 June, 2010

Hitching out of Erzurum

The first morning in Erzurum, i awoke feeling dizzy; when i closed my eyes the sensation was like riding a gyroscope. The third night was punctuated by rushes to the bathroom. I wanted to climb one of the peaks towering around town, but between the utter unavailability of map and trail info, and the daily rain, and thinking it wise to recover a bit, i was content to sit in teahouses. Approachability and freedom, the manifold blessings of traveling alone, come with a curse: you are solely responsible for your own motivation.

A great set of Couchsurfing hosts helped make the days comfortable. Mustafa and his flatmates run a revolving door for travelers; this city is still a crossroads long after the silk trade died. This morning while i lay sluggish, a French couple made a pit stop on their way to the peaks and shortly after a Croatian arrived, hoping to secure here visa for Iran at the embassy in town. The sense of community was grand, and the mountains beckoned, but each day i failed to climb them my sense of frustration, stagnation and failure grew larger. I had to get out of Erzurum.

So i do what any person in their right mind would not. Without reservation, bottled water, or a poncho - with only the name of a town and a pansiyon to go on - i set off for Yusufeli. Following Mustafa's suggestion, and with the cardboard sign he graciously gave me, thumbing it.


The mountains here are magnificent. At the edges of a vast flatness north of Erzurum, they are at first smooth and green, and the road climbs gently through. Beginning with Tortum, it's more turtuous. Gardens are tucked against the road, between rows of poplars, making one wonder how they get any sun. The road begins a long descent; the peaks here are sharper, brown, sparsely hued with clump-forming grasses and flowers. Snowpacks recede into the distance as the walls on either side grow narrower, the river swifter. From one town nestled into the ravine, a single minaret peeks up from among the poplars. This is not what one expects Turkiye to look like.

Geologically speaking, the place looks like it's been through a blender. Streaks of limestone appear. The mountains become more jagged and striated, like a giant, dull agate in cross section. Above a hazel-blue lake the road winds precipitously; across the lake the mountains loom nearly vertical, as if sheared off, exposing marbled, swirling strata. Then the striations become vertical. By the time i reach Yusufeli the peaks are a jagged jumble fit only for wild goats, and the road is a single lane.

Hitching in northeast Turkiye turns out to be quite feasible. Three rides suffice to bridge the distance: a tow truck, a trash truck, and an off-duty police officer - who comically informed me near the ride's end that in Turkiye there is in fact a fine for failing to wear one's seatbelt.

18 June, 2010


Above: requires no caption. Below: Youngsters offering shoeshines are a common sight in Diyarbakir, and though less common, also here in Erzurum.  Many thanks to Mustafa Hitit for the loan of his camera!

Elaziğ to Erzurum: iklimler

Leaving the sun-baked agricultural plain of Diyarbakır, the bus headed west towards Elaziğ. From a deeply notched hill country the road rose past lakes to the valley where  Elaziğ lies, surrounded by low mountains and fields of wheat awaiting harvest. I would like to have stayed watching the rosy sunset over those peaks; Elaziğ seemed one of the most beautiful regions i'd passed through to date. Then the bus veered back to the east. A nine hour ride, El-a-zig and zag, to arrive just 240 km northeast of Diyarbakır as the crow flies.

At 2km above sea level, the climate and topography of Erzurum could not be more different; this place reminds me most of Anchorage, Alaska. Summers are short, from June to September. On all sides grass-green mountain peaks rise, and even in mid-June snowpacks linger. The weather today was around 13*C (55*F) and rainy. Dark clouds rolled through, now and then wreathing Palandoken, the highest peak. When they parted, there were patches of clear blue undimmed by haze.

It is hard to describe Erzurum without superlatives. This city, though small, has everything. It's the first place i have seen in Turkiye with a developed outdoor recreation sector. Whether you dig hiking, history, architecture, or shopping, Erzurum is worth a visit. On Eski Bit Pazarı Cad, one sidewalk is lined with jewelers, beautiful window displays of gold punctuated by hunting shops; the other side features draperies and headscarves. I walk through an old Silk Road Karavanseray, now a jewelry mall.

View from the Citadel toward the Double Minaret Medrese and Palandöken ski area. 

Erzurum was a crossing for trade routes in the middle ages, and its strategic position at the convergence of Russian, Iranian, Turkish, and Armenian borders made for repeated changing of hands. It was here in 1919, just days after Mustafa Kemal resigned the army to pursue political leadership, that the conference to cement Turkey's sturggle for nationhood convened.The mosques here are different, reflecting a Seljuk (pre-Ottoman) influence; minarets are shorter and broader. Architecturally speaking, the city reminds me of an Andy Warhol painting, spattered indiscriminately with architectural precession and jumbled historical period. Landmark buildings - stand shoulder-to-shoulder with modern glass facades and Turkish Army barracks in the center of town.

This diversity is replicated on the streets. No longer dominated by Turks or Kurds, Armenian features are also visible, as are people of Cerkez heritage. The human contrast here is stronger than anywhere i have seen. Well-off university students mix with ten-year old shoeshine boys. I see everything from alluring modern ladies with bared heads to schoolgirls in shimmering, jewel-toned headscarves to women in garb that obscures even their eyes - and a surprising number of women on the street compared to most cities i have visited here.

Amidst this vivid stew of sights, the city's architectural highlight - the Cifte Minareli (Double minaret) Medrese - is well worth the trip. Unfinished for the ages, the building's facade shows marked differences in ornament between the right and left sides. Legend has it that a master and apprentice worked together on the stonework until one day, when the master, long surpassed in skill by his apprentice and become a servant instead of a master, jumped from one of the minarets. Seeing what his pride had caused, the apprentice followed, and with no one to guide them, the workmen simply quit.

17 June, 2010

All you need is a ball

As the bus rolled toward Elaziğ, my seatmates made sporadic conversation, but there was at last time to reflect, to read. Since January, i've toted one of UMaine OIP's study abroad magazines, waiting for the right moment to read it. Fresh from meeting many ESL teachers in Iraqi Kurdistan, it was strangely appropriate to read about teaching English abroad. The rewards and challenges already resonated.

On the bus's two television screens, Switzerland battled it out with Spain in the World Cup preliminaries. Outside, on a small dry grass pitch beside the  Elaziğ wheatfields, schoolboys did the same.

The difference between American sport culture and global sport culture is a frequent topic of casual bus conversation. Why do Americans prefer baseball, basketball, and (American) football, while the rest of the world loves futbol with a passion? The nearest i can tell, there are two answers. One lies in the global influence of British culture -  at the turn of the 20th century when "soccer" spread, felt keenly many places except the U.S.A..

A more important reason, i think, can be found in the infrastructure Americans take for granted. Though our national games can be played without specialized gear, most often they need at least a bit. A basketball net. A bat, gloves, enough space not to break windows. The secret to futbol's global reach is the fact that anywhere - on a beach, in a dirt lot, a shorn wheatfield, a cement schoolyard, even in the middle of Istanbul side streets, or in the most bare-bones poverty - all you need is a ball.  All you need is a ball, and you can dream of being the next Alex, the next Cristiano Ronaldo, the next Beckham.

16 June, 2010

Diyarbakır 5: seni özleceğim

In two days i had made an awful lot of new acquaintances. So, after stopping at the police station to report the stolen camera, i set off to say goodbye.

First stop was the corner between bakery and schoolyard where the futbol fellows loitered. It took a bit of mapwork in that maze of concrete alleys, but at the second school i tried i found them. Oktay (and the four fellows who'd taken me to the stable) shook my hand like an old friend, perhaps surprised i had returned. Curiously, before i could tell him to say "selam" to Yakup, Serdar, and the others, he had to excuse himself for a moment to answer some questions for a police officer. (Hmm. I had been mildly suspicious of these new friends before, as we sat drinking coca-cola by the walls and they told me how cheap the local marijuana was. Now, just twenty minutes after i filed my report - and didn't implicate or describe them except to say i had met some local boys, played futbol, and been let into the old stables by someone they knew - there was a policeman asking questions. Coincidence?)

From there i hunted down Ercan, the quiet, serious, generous teen who helped me search for the missing camera. At last i found him near the fortress, walking with his best friend Ahmet. They asked if i was hungry - and next thing i knew i was inside one of those humble old-city abodes. Inside the courtyard we passed women and girls hidden by their scarves. Up a set of stairs and through the small home, we emerged into a garden. Atop the utility room roof, irises, hollyhocks, roses, and mulberry trees lent some shade and greenery. Soon joined by his little brother and several curious friends, Ahmet and i ate cacik and bulgur, and the younger boys brought tea. One of them gave me his necklace, and Ahmet offered me a Koran written in Turkish.

Ercan, mindful of the bus departure time, hurried us along, and set off walking with me. He bought ice cream bars; asked local men about where to catch my bus, and with little time to make the New Terminal on the northwestern outskirts of town, he rode there with me. As we parted, i knew among the host of facebook contacts in this city i had made one genuine friend. Seni özleceğim - I'm going to miss you, i told him, and as the bus pulled away he waited and waved until i could see him no more.

Diyarbakır: motif #4

My trust is injured. the world hardens into companions and competitors, friends and thieves. Sometimes the lines are hard to draw.

Day 3. Two days of wandering, being hounded, and i was ready to leave Diyarbakır behind. Having secured a bus ticket onward, i left my things in care of the hotel and set out to see more of Diyarbakır than just the bubble of tourism and hard sell in the old city. Speciically, i wanted to see the broad expanse of green labeled "Hevsel Bahçeleri" (market gardens) on the map, spreading from Mardin Gate towards the Tigris. I passed the row of street cobblers on Gazi Caddesi; passed şerbetçı jingling their cups, children with three-wheeled barrows. By Mardin gate i saw a tangle of parked tractors; once i passed outside and turned left towards the green space, the city's turmoil vanished.

While the new city marches away far to the north and northwest in ranks of modern high-rises, the southeast corner abruptly stops outside the ancient walls. First come the orchards - apple, peach, plum, you name it, interspersed with few mixed-vegetable plots Americans would more typically think of as market gardens - then, within the river's floodplain, poplar plantations. The road quickly turns to dirt, fields on either side and a trickling stream for company. The same general assemblage of agricultural weeds grew in the ditch, a familiar and comforting element in a foreign place. In the midday heat, the gardens were deserted; even the apples have already been harvested. In over an hour of walking, i saw only six people, coming and going from their work.

Over a mile out, to look back at the city walls is an inspiring sight. They lie low, at the brow of a hill, and in today's age of airborne weaponry they seem ineffectual. Yet picture them looming in the eyes of a Seljuk invader and you will have a sense of their power. These walls are one of three motifs of Diyarbakır. The black-and-white band of alternating stones can be seen in handcrafted, hand dyed carpets (but i advise you beware the carpet shop folks, who are especially persuasive here). Even in the new city, meter-high walls complete with miniature towers stretch alongside Koşu Yolu Park.

Since this was at one time a Christian city, the second motif is churches (the Turkish for church is kilesi).  One can visit the Church of the Virgin Mary, Katolik Church, Protestant Church, Armenian Church - the map lists seven in all, scattered among the more plentiful and, in some cases, architecturally unique mosques. While mosques throughout Turkiye show domes and rounded surfaces typical of Ottoman design, here there are several in the Arabic style with flat roofs and square minarets of the same dark basalt as the walls. (There are also a couple of unusual Ottoman-period minarets to be seen.) I would hardly have noticed these tourist sights if not for stumbling across them as i traversed the city in search of my camera.

Each of Turkiye's major cities has an emblem that appears on municipal signs, police badges, you name it. In Istanbul, it's a stylized image of the ubiquitous Ottoman mosques. Here in Diyarbakır, the emblem consists of two stone towers flanking a church steeple, and forming the rounded base, the third motif: a watermelon. Karpuz, as they're called in Turkish, are the region's specialty, and images on souvenir magnets depict the massive fruits. Watermelon colors are everywhere; red and green is common on signage, they are the Diyarbakirspor team colors, and even within the Great Mosque courtyard, ceiling and timbers underneath an overhang are painted red and green.

The other color i saw a lot of was lavender. Here in D-bakır, older men often wear loosely wrapped scarves to keep the sun off their heads, and lavender was by far the most common hue, leaving me to wonder about its significance.


The fourth motif of Diyarbakır you will not find on souvenirs. 

Last night, tired and hungry, i'd gone to a restaurant on Gazi Caddesi. It looked like your typical "Lokantasi" (cafeteria-style eatery), perhaps cheaper than the restaurants scattered among the hotels on Kibris Cad. Inside, the options weren't inspiring, but i ordered a plate of pilaf and another of vegetable goulash. It was the same sort of thing the Ministry fellows had shared for lunch - a spicy mixture of peppers, tomatoes, and onions - though this one had no potatoes, and instead of being ground, the meat came in bony chunks. 

It's rather troubling if you stop to think about the difference between tourist food - the gourmet specialties of the city, rich şiş kebabs - and what the locals actually eat. Protein, for example, is not plentiful. As i picked carefully at the scarce meat hidden among those vegetables, i reflected how life in Diyarbakır's old quarter is rather like this meal: a spicy, muddy mingle where things lie close to the bone, where the meat is hard to find.

15 June, 2010

Diyarbakır 3: There are things, and then there are pictures.

And then there are no more pictures.

At the mosque, i took parting photographs. There just outside the door to the mosque, with traditional carpets behind them, six new friends filled the wide screen of my camera with their handsome smiles. I would treasure that picture for years to come, i thought. The perfect day: swimming, futbol, and access to the sacred silence.

As they had accumulated, they trailed away. With Oktay and three others i saw more of the city sights, the last one being an old Ottoman stable. From atop the walls by Urfa gate we saw fruit sellers park their carts for the evening rush.

If there is one reason to come here, aside from the walls, restored churches, and unique minarets (only mildly interesting), it's the fruit. Everywhere street vendors offer cherries, plums, apricots, apples, grapes, watermelons, all in season here mid-June. Children carry trays atop their head, laden with bowls of mulberries.

Another of the local specialties is şerbet. Known to American health-foodies as kombucha, it is a dark, fermented black tea drink, both nourishing and refreshingly cold on such wuthering days. Şerbet sellers line the sidewalk, jingling the tin cups that dangle by a chain from their apparatus. It's a rather nifty paraphernalia they carry: a metal tank, often modified with backpack straps. A spigot projects to the front like a faucet. Though many of them have a collection of both tethered tin cups and disposable plastic cups, i have only been served from tin, or from a common glass which they rinse between customers with another spigoted container (like an oilcan) of water.


Though fascinating, my time in Diyarbakir has been overshadowed by frustrations like the couchsurfing host who let me down, not replying to text messages. After the old Ottoman stable, i was tired and both spatially and psychically disoriented. I had been straining to understand my companions' Turkish all day, and exhausted, i wanted to politely leave my new friends and have some quiet time. After a couple hours in an internet cafe, i stopped at a restaurant, and against my intuitions sat at a sidewalk table, where it was cooler than indoors. As fate would have it, they have security cameras on the sidewalk tables - but mine was just off the edge of the screen.

What happened i can only guess at. Yakup, one of my favorite characters from the afternoon, walked by as i was eating. I sat for over an hour drinking tea and spilling the overload of thoughts and new experiences onto the laptop screen. And when i checked, the camera case buckled by a carabiner to my pack strap - was empty.

Panic set in. I had been so overwhelmed with information and disoriented in that concrete and stone labyrinth i didn't know where i had been. When the panic cleared i realized i may have set the camera down inside the Ottoman stable, though i recalled only its visual elements and a few environmental cues along the way. I would bet on my own careless distractedness over ill intent any day. Knowing the place was locked up tight, i harbored a hope the camera might still be sitting on the oval stone watering trough this morning.

After nearly an hour searching, i'd found the place and figured out its name, but no keeper could be found. Back at Iç Kale i waited for nearly three hours and explained my problem over and over again in broken Turkish to the men of the Museum and Historic Place mintistry-thing. The trouble was that the idea i'd been inside Cemil Paşa Konağı was a bit of a stretch for them. Was it one of the mosques, one of the churches? No, i insisted. It was one of the only historic places that has not been restored, and the only way we got inside was that my companions knew the man with the key. At last one said, go back and knock. A teenager named Ercan volunteered to accompany me. With Ercan's skill as a translator, we found the keeper of the key nearby. Five hours of search and waiting, and no camera lay inside.


Diyarbakir has already left a vivid mark on my consciousness. It left me reflecting on the nature of trade; asking where is the limit of job creation. (Diyarbakir, in my perception, has a population that outscales its economy.) It left me aware that there are two types of people, the ones out to skin you, and the ones - like Yavuz, who refused entrance money for his pool, and Ercan, who offered me cold drinks even as he helped me look for my camera - who want to share, no matter how little they have. (It seems that depends on their major source of business; people who don't depend on tourist money see me as a new friend rather than a potential sale.) It left me wondering - is there any way to give street kids something better than a desperate, badgering capitalism? And of course - though throughout the afternoon my concerns dissipated - it left me wondering, could i trust these new acquaintances? Who took my camera?

After the disappointing lack of discovery, Ercan took me to the teahouse where he works as a waiter. His boss, a smiling man who likes to read Sartre and Fromm, offered words of wisdom and consolation i could only partly understand. The pictures will last, he reminded me, inside your head. Boys caught mid-leap from the roof into the pool, the faces of six handsome young Kurds who idolize Abdullah Ocalan as a martyr - these linger as i write.

It is not the loss of the thing that troubles me so much as the loss of its use, and the loss of the images that were to accompany these past three posts. I apologize that, for an indefinite period, the only pictures you will find on this blog are the ones i poorly transsubstantiate into words.

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.

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.

13 June, 2010

Mardin: the afterlife of kites

They aren't dead...still catchıng the breeze.

Mardin: chance company

Now if it weren't for those darn feral puppies, it would have been a perfect night's sleep as well. But during the night they would whimper to enter the walled lawn, and since the puppies were small enough to wiggle through the gate, just after sunup i woke to find three pawing at my pack. 

After breaking the fast with a watery-sweet overripe kavun (melon), we were more than ready to hit the trail. The monastery would not open for another two, nearly three hours. Bidding our host farewell as he watered the visitors' center plantings, i shouldered my pack and my chance comrades mounted their bikes for the trip back to Mardin. Though i could have ridden, the walk was better; familiar songs on the iPod, stopping to snap photographs as the spectacular landscape unfolded around me. These are just a few. 

In Iraq, the pirated Lonely Planet on my laptop (published mid-war) offered nothing. The Turkish LP guide is a resource i simply haven't used. In Mardin, the mixture of ethnic and religious groups - Kurds, Turks, Syrian Christians, Arabs, and Çerkez - creates an eclectic atmosphere unique to this city. Here, as in Aleppo and Damascus, churches stand side by side with mosques - though as i talk to people i learn that many are Muslim, with Christian parents. The town's hillside perch sets it apart, as does the architecture, far closer to Syria than to anything i've seen in Turkiye. No doubt i missed some worthwhile sights. 

Instead, i spent all of the few waking hours i was in Mardin on foot. I've come to the belief that to know a place, one's eyes are insufficient. Ears, even sense of smell, only fail to produce a complete picture when coupled with locomotion. I know the landscape through my feet. 

Wendell Berry said it well, in a quote that has become one of my mantras: "On foot, you will find that the world is still large and full of beguiling nooks and crannies." In Mardin those included narrow alley-staircases descending in the old city, and a small waterfall overlooking the Syrian plain. In that same fold in the landscape, ancient sheepfolds are carved into the worn rock. One is inscribed with two lions over its arched mouth; just a few meters from the city's edge, their floors bear no evidence of use save the litter so plentiful in southeast Turkiye. 

The thing that will linger longest in my recollection of Mardin is the boys. As i walked the old city in the evening, nearly every boy i saw between ages five and fifteen said hello. Many knew the basic phrases in English that i had learned in Kurdi. Five small children shouted from a crowded staircase below: HELLO. HELLO. GOOD MORNING TEACHER. HELLO. WHAT IS YOUR NAME? at the top of their lungs until i disappeared from view. Then i encountered a gaggle of boys (eight to fifteen, i'm guessing) on bicycles. For half a kilometer they pedaled slowly beside me asking for money, pressuring to become Musluman, and asking probing questions about my sex life: seks seviyor mısın? Amerika'da kaç tane kız siktin? I motioned to the old women standing nearby to dodge: kadinlar var. Even as i sat writing in an internet cafe a group of boys gathered, looking over my shoulder, introducing themselves, and curiously questioning me in Turkish too fast to comprehend.