[Note: Since certain Turkish letters are not supported by ASCII, I will
substitute the following: c' will stand for c-cedilla and is pronounced
as "ch"; g' will stand for g-breve and is silent; i' will stand
for dotless-i and is pronounced as a schwa; o" will stand for o-dieresis
and is pronounced like the German o-umlaut; s' will stand for s-cedilla
and is pronounced as "sh"; u" will stand for u-dieresis and
is pronounced like the German u-umlaut.]
In countries where prices are considerably below the G-7 average, there
is always the exception of the cost of getting into town from the international
airport. Usually one can sidestep this obstacle by going over to the domestic
terminal (where there are buses headed to the city center), or by going
to the nearest train or subway station. As long as you are not in a hurry,
the public-transport option saves money and gives you an immediate flavor
of every-day life in the strange new country. (Think of a first-time U.S.
visitor going into Manhattan from JFK using the subway.)
Old Istanbul was a 25-cent, 40-minute train ride from the airport. The
carriage had missing fluorescent lights and a door that refused to open
and close when it was supposed to. A beggar and several peddlers (young
boys) with petty merchandise in plastic garbage bags-pencils, batteries,
notebooks-made their rounds, while stubble-faced men flipped through prayer
beads with deft flicks of the wrist and old women with head scarves stared
out the window at the Sea of Marmara.
Getting off at Cankurtaran (good thing I had kept count of the stations,
for there were neither announcements nor platform signs), I walked up alleys
and crooked streets to the Sultanahmet area, which is the heart of the old
city. This was essentially a back-door entrance and lacked the drama of
steaming into the Golden Horn by sea with its classic views of the mosque
domes and minarets crowning the hilltops. But for postcard views one could
always buy the postcards.
One thing quickly became apparent: This was a serious tourist
zone. The style of hard-sell was smooth -- aggressive, largely formulaic,
but occasionally oblique. The most common was the "What is the time,
please?" gambit, where if you answer back, the would-be seller would
chat you up with whatever tidbits he knew about your country and eventually
get around to mentioning that his brother owned a carpet shop just around
the corner, how about going there and sipping some apple tea with us, no
need to buy anything. All the big-league tourist languages -- English, German,
Japanese, Australian -- were covered, and there was always a relative
living in your country. "Where are you from?"
"Oh, Mars! Wonderful place. I have cousin there who has a restaurant
. . . "
The most entertaining attempt at luring me into a carpet shop was by
a very well-dressed middle-aged man, who, upon discovering that I was an
American, pulled out the business cards of a Major So-and-so of the CIA
and a Ms. Such-and-such, Executive Assistant to Mrs. Bush, and told me the
tale of George's visit to his store and the Presidential purchase of one
measly carpet. It may even have been true, but why would I have wanted to
buy a carpet at the same store that Bush bought from?
Turkey in general has a brain-boggling depth of recorded history, and
the physical stratigraphy of Istanbul (nee Constantinople, nee Byzantium,
nee Lygos, nee Semistra) in particular retains the memory of peoples and
religions that had gained ascendancy at one time or another. Look at Aya
Sofya, the grandest cathedral of early Christendom turned into fifteenth
century's greatest mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror, the iconography covered
over by arabesques. Or how the inscriptions on monuments have turned from
Greek to Arabic to Turkish (Arabic script) to Turkish (Latin script). I
had to concentrate just to keep the various periods in order: Let's see,
Hittite, Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman...oops, forgot the Seljuks-they're
in there somewhere.
Topkapi' Palace, the Egyptian Bazaar, the Covered Market, the Blue Mosque
-- all very impressive, but my favorite sight of old Istanbul was the Yerebatan
Saray ("sunken palace"), an underground cistern built in the sixth
century by Justinian the Great to store and redistribute fresh water brought
in by an aqueduct. It is 80 x 150 yards and 30 feet high, supported by 336
Ionian and Corinthian columns with the occasional carving to catch you off
guard, even an upside-down capital with a Medusa head.Why the ornamentation?
Was this a secret swimming hole for the privileged on scorching August afternoons,
flickeringly lit by smoking torches? Now the water has been mostly drained
and wooden walkways installed for anyone to enjoy its sepulchral ambience.
The colored mood lighting and the piped-in New Age music was a bit much,
Nightlife in Istanbul conjures images of kohl-eyed belly dancers performing
in front of corpulent men with sweaty palms reclining on oversized cushions
and stuffing their faces with legs of lamb. As with most such dated stereotypes
(like Turkish coffee -- popular during the time of the Ottomans' colonization
of Arabia, these days tea is the national drink and one is hard-pressed
to find anything stronger than Nescafe), belly dancing has been superannuated
as a typical mode of Turkish entertainment. But tourism and purists have
kept it alive, and one can certainly pay a lot of money for the chance to
watch a performance at a four-star hotel or at more dubious night clubs
where the emphasis may slide right off the women's dancing skills down to
more fundamental concerns.
An interesting alternative was the free belly-dance performance that
took place every Friday night in the rooftop restaurant of the Orient Youth
Hostel. The backpacker hangout of the moment in Istanbul, the median
age of the international SRO crowd must have been around 21. True to Turkish
time, the start time rolled around and kept going while the youths smoked
and drank beer (but not too much-alcohol is always the heaviest load on
the budget traveler), while Eurodisco boomed and a vintage mirror ball spun
When the trio of instrumentalists dressed in concert-black suits entered
the room, the cassette was abruptly ejected and the crowd hushed itself.
They began with an ensemble overture, then a short taksim (solo)
by each to display their chops: the klarinet, the deblek (small
hand drum), then the kanun (box zither). To me they seemed competent
but sloppy, as if the venue and audience were not enough to merit their
full attention. Then the dancer, a compact, high-teens girl with long, wavy
black hair, entered the fray and proceeded to entertain us with a very interactive
show. Unsuspecting members of the audience (both men and women) were dragged
one by one to the front to shake and shimmy their stuff with the professional,
some with more enthusiasm than others. With the men, she would take off
their shirts in rhythm, much to the delight of the female spectators. Fortunately
I managed to elude being chosen, but little did I know that later on this
trip I would be forced to perform in front of a much bigger gathering .
Because of the still-cold weather, I left Istanbul after a few days in
search of a better April climate. After a choppy crossing of the Sea of
Marmara in a hydrofoil, then a brief stay in Bursa where hot springs helped
to warm me up, I kept moving westward by bus seeking the moderating influence
of the Aegean Sea. And knowing nothing, I happened to arrive in C'anakkale
only ten days before ANZAC Day, when the town's location across the strait
from the Gallipoli Peninsula turns it into the largest collection of Vegemite
and Marmite eaters this side of the Great Barrier Reef.
Gallipoli. To me it was a movie that I had not seen, starring a pre-superstardom
Mel Gibson. To the Downunderers it becomes Mecca on Australia and New Zealand
Army Corps (ANZAC) Day, and every year 12,000 of them make the pilgrimage
to where 10,000 of their ancestors were slaughtered in a futile attempt
to force open the Dardanelles during WWI. The hotels and pensions of C'anakkale
are well prepared for this latter-day onslaught by the Antipodeans, with
free nightly showings of the film Gallipoli as well as a documentary
on the ANZAC pilgrimage phenomenon itself.
What is less known by Westerners is that an estimated 250,000 Turks died
defending the short stretch of ridge on this slender peninsula, and that
the then-obscure Lieutenant-Colonel Mustafa Kemal, founder of the modern
Turkish republic (later to be decreed Kemal Atatu"rk, literally "Father
Turk," by the legislative assembly while still in office), made his
mark by successfully repelling the ANZACs. It was a crucial point in Turkish
history, as the loss of Gallipoli would have undoubtedly resulted in the
opening of the Dardanelles to British warships, which then would have led
to an easy sacking of Constantinople, and thence the rest of the tottering
Ottoman Empire. Thus, although the Turks were ultimately on the losing side
of the war, they were able to keep their homeland from being colonized by
But the obvious question for the pilgrims was: Why commemorate a bloody
military campaign that resulted in ignominious defeat? I put this question
to the Aussie and Kiwi lodgers at the Yellow Rose Pension and received largely
similar answers. The basic idea was this: Australia and New Zealand, as
newly independent nations, were eager to prove their mettle when the call
came from England during WWI to contribute soldiers. Young men (even underage
boys who lied to get in) joined up in droves, knowing nothing about their
So, Point One was to honor those innocents that fought bravely and died
in a strange, faraway land for a cause that was not their own. Point Two
was that in the aftermath of Gallipoli, the innocence was forever lost,
and the countries staked their "true" independence from Mother
Britannia. In effect, they were commemorating the loss of national virginity.
Never again would they jump like lemmings off a cliff to prove themselves
Most of the pilgrims were of the same young age as the original ANZACs.
And in my brief observation they were just as tight among themselves in
their mateship and still as self-conscious of their place in the world,
and many who were almost as ignorant of Turks and their homeland as the
soldiers who landed 82 years ago. Perhaps I was being harsh, but the irony
was that they were still eager to root themselves in some defining historical
moment, still trapped within the young-nation complex.
The Turks, although they worship Atatu"rk, do not make a big deal
out of Gallipoli. To them it is just one recent victory in a string of others
reaching back for hundreds of years. They have a well-developed sense of
themselves as a "people" and a nation, but this has its own drawbacks
as we shall see later with respect to the Kurds.
Sacrificial Lambs and Marble Toilets
Exiting the Dardanelles, rounding the northwest corner of Turkey, southward
along the Aegean coast. Greek islands just offshore faced by hollow-bricked
condo-like buildings sprouting up among clumps of pine trees. Arrived in
Bergama (Pergamum) just in time to catch the frenzy of sheep buying at the
pre-holiday bazaar. A muddy field just outside of town center was teeming
with horse- and tractor-drawn carts and trucks full of sheep marked with
orange and red dyes. Small tent-shelters were set up for tea and kebap,
both rancher and would-be buyer biding their time for the best possible
Kurban Bayarami', the most important religious holiday of the year, celebrates
Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to Allah.
Since it was only a test of faith, Abraham was allowed at the last moment
to kill a sheep instead. The custom is for every household that can afford
a sheep to sacrifice it and share it with those with less means. At the
pension where I was staying, the owner had purchased a ram for $150. It
grazed quietly in the front yard, but later butted a window, shattering
the glass. The owner joked that if it wanted to come inside, it should be
allowed to watch TV with the rest of the family on its last night.
Next morning, 8:30 am. Clear sky, slight but chilly breeze. At the call
from the mosque, the ram's feet are bound together, it is laid down next
to a pre-dug hole, its throat is slit by an old man with a knife, the blood
pumping out into the hole, steam rising from the warm dark fluid. When the
blood slows to an ooze, the head is sawed off, the skinning of the carcass
begins at the hind legs. The skinning continues as the body is hung from
a tree in front of the house, a status symbol of religious piety and wealth.
Turkey's Aegean coast is littered with ruins of Hellenic and Roman cities.
Troy, Priene, Miletus, Didyma, Iasos, Kaunos. Amphitheaters and temples
and palaces and gymnasiums and fountains. Sculptures and tombs and engravings,
but again, as in Istanbul with the great cistern, I was most impressed with
a bit of civil engineering at Ephesus: continuously flushing sit-down marble
toilets! And they say that running hot water was even available.
After visiting several of these historic sites I stopped trying to figure
out who built what was sacked by whom did they worship, etc. and started
noticing signs like "Please don't picnic on the ruins" and "Some
children may be disturbed by this exhibit" (the latter at the entrance
to the torture chamber of St. Peter's Castle in Bodrum).
And I was getting tired of the rapid bus-lodge-eat-sightsee-bus pace
of travel. It was time to hang out and absorb for a while.
My strategy had worked.
The Aegean had been considerably warmer than Istanbul, and as I segued
into the Mediterranean coast (which reminded me of the southern California
coastline north of L.A. in terrain and vegetation) I found myself switching
to shorts on occasion. Sometimes the road would turn inland and switchback
up a steep mountainside with sudden, rewarding vistas of sea and islands
at the pass. At other times it twisted its way up, guard-rail-less, to thrilling
heights above ultraclear waters that could only be called turquoise in color,
leaving you hoping that the evil-eye charm and the printed invocation, "Allah
korusun!" ("God save us!"), at the front of the bus did not
mean that the driver had abdicated all control of the vehicle to the supernatural.
Avoiding the upscale yacht-harbor towns where the beautiful set bought
each other $5 beers and danced the night away in massive discos built to
look like extraterrestrial "Greek" temples from the old Star
Trek series, I kept moving until I came to Kas', a small port town of
5000 folks squeezed into a narrow space between "Sleeping Man"
Mountain and the sea. Just a couple of miles across the water lay the tiny
Greek isle of Kastellorizon, so small that its inhabitants had to ferry
into Kas' for groceries. Lycian tombs carved into the sheer mountainside
looked down on the town where a small dockside plaza acted as the focus
for commercial and social activities. I was immediately charmed by this
place and decided to stay for a while.
I took a room at the Golden Pension for $5/night, which had a rooftop
terrace from where you could look out over all of Kas'. The Golden is managed
by Hakki' and Ismail, childhood buddies from nearby Finike. They rent two
stories of the building, with the landlord's family living on the other
floors. They also sleep in the pension, Hakki' on a couch in the common
room, Ismail preferring the cot on the porch. Their dinner tonight consists
of home-cooked fries with lemon juice and slices of bread. They invite me
to eat with them in the kitchen, and we sit around the rest of the evening
talking over glasses of watery Izmir wine and listening to Turkish pop music
Hakki' is the older partner at 29. He has long hair, unusual for a Turk,
and a sad face. He looks more like 35. Ismail is short and compact with
a chubby, unshaven face. He is 23. Both of them have connections to Germany,
with Ismail having lived in Mo"nchengladbach (where I once lived and
worked for a summer) between the ages of 3 and 8, and Hakki' with a daughter
there that he has never seen. Before he came to Kas' to co-manage the Golden
at Ismail's invitation, Hakki' had run an inn at Finike with a German partner/girlfriend.
But the unknown child was the result of a relationship with another German
girl in his teen years. He had refused to go to Germany with her and she
had refused to stay in Turkey.
I ask Hakki' about his mandatory eighteen months in the military. A lot
of hiking around in the mountains. Not knowing where he was at any given
time, just following commands. Always jumpy about the PKK (the rebel Kurdistan
Workers Party) ambushing his patrol. But he emphasizes that the PKK is not
supported by most Kurds. "PKK, Kurdish people, separate." He managed
to get through his term without shooting anyone.
The subject turns to the origin of the Turkish people. (Ismail leaves
to chase after Liz, a Welsh boarder.) The Turks originally came from Central
Asia, and Hakki' is keen to identify himself as more "yellow"
than "white." He believes the future of the country lies in becoming
a leader and socio-political role model for the newly independent Central
Asian nations with linguistic and historical ties to the Turks. He says
that Turkey could be like the United States to them. He does not favor integration
with the EC, saying that Turkey would always be the bottom dog.
On another night, after several beers, he starts claiming that Chinggis
Khan was Turkish, that it's the mixing of blood that makes the modern Turks
look different. His surname is Tan, which means "dawn," and he
insists that it is the same as the Chinese Tan. Somehow I doubt this, since
surnames only became de rigueur for the Turks after Atatu"rk
decreed it to be so in 1935. He thinks that I should grow a long trailing
mustache to look like a warlord.
In the daylight hours I scramble up to the Lycian tombs, explore the
Antiphellus ruins, and laze about on warm rocks by the sea. One day I take
a two-hour boat ride out to Kekova Island where half of a Byzantine town
lies submerged under water, the severe consequence of an ancient earthquake.
I dive into the water for a closer look but manage only a few minutes because
of the cold. On the mainland shore there is a necropolis and a medieval
fortress to explore. Several old women from the nearby village come out
to hawk scarves with tiny shells and trinkets sewn onto them.
Back at the Golden I help Hakki' "fix" the stereo (all it needed
was the right antenna hookup and the right selector button pushed in) and
give him a lesson on how to compute percentages using a calculator. It is
tax time and he has a pained expression on his face. He and Ismail have
big dreams for the future, but no matter how frugal they are, the money
never seems to amount to much. The standard joke here is that every Turk
is a millionaire, with one million Turkish lira equal to about $8. With
annual inflation still running over 80%, billionaire status may be within
reach of many soon. Hakki' shows me a lottery ticket with a top prize of
"How many Mercedes-Benz is that?" he asks.
About ten, I guess.
"Nicht genug," he sadly replies. He means not enough to retire
on. I ask him what he would then do with the $800k. He says he would hire
twenty to thirty men and start a drug smuggling business. He does not seem
to be joking. There is already a Turkish mafia in Germany, he says.
His take on this is simple: They oppress us, we take advantage of them.
He sees the Turks working hard, getting rich there, while German youth being
lazy, ("Drug, drink, sex..."), jealous of the Turks' success.
His bitterness then comes spilling out, eyes swollen with indignation and
beer. Even though he has never lived there he equates the Turks in Germany
to blacks in America. "Turkey" on the other hand "treats
all people equally," he says, never drawing the home analogy to the
Ismail is back early tonight. On the radio Muazzez Erso"y croons
of love gone bad. "This is my music," he says. "I'm going
The Tree House Mafia
I happened to be reading Pynchon's Vineland, so it was with an
eerie sense of life-imitating-art that I first walked into Kadir's Yo"ru"k
Tree House joint. I was immediately greeted with "You from the AFRC,
too?" from a buzzhead ex-football player and a "Do you play ping
pong?" from a tie-dyed hippie fossil.
Then an ultraperky blonde in a red "Maine" sweatshirt ("Yep,
that's where I'm from!") explained the tree house rules at 90 mph,
"Put yer valuables in the safe, everything on a tab system, breakfast
and all-you-can-eat vegetarian dinner included in the daily six bucks, hot
water twice a day, no sex in the tree house (do it on the beach or in the
woods away from others), do you have a sleeping bag? No? Then you'll need
four blankets, just let me know if you need anything else, okay? My husband
Rick and I were traveling around Europe for our honeymoon last fall, ended
up in Turkey, then here, and haven't left yet!"
There were 26 tree houses in total, with names like Fawlty Towers, Wookey
Hole, Banana Republic, Love Shack, Nuthouse?, Pooh Corner, and Chocolate
Factory, scattered among a volleyball court, ping pong table, and hammocked
shelters. Fiona (the Maine girl) told me that the place could hold 160 lodgers,
and that they expected to reach capacity during the high summer season.
Other copycat tree house camps had sprung up toward the beach with largely
the same deal, some inside citrus groves. The place looked like a denied
or repressed child's fantasy gone berserk as an adulthood business scheme.
It was a retro-counterculture summer camp, a pocket of refuge from reality
and Turkey for international backpackers. It looked like a movie set built
in the forests of Humboldt County. And, quite appropriately, a satellite
boob tube radiated cartoons, B movies, music videos, and football matches
all day long in the cafeteria.
Besides Fiona and Rick who worked there, there were lodgers who had been
stuck there for months, addicted to the space-time warp, the easy friendships,
the ping pong tournaments, that third helping of pasta and fried eggplant
with yoghurt sauce. (By the way, AFRC = Armed Forces Recreation Center,
a little-known U.S. military perk that employs civilian sports instructors
at resorts all over the world. For some unknown reason Kadir's was overpopulated
with ex-ski instructors from the AFRC program in Garmisch-Partenkirchen,
But aside from this fantasy theme park, the area was sparsely inhabited
and still gorgeous. The ruins of Olimpos, a town with a history reaching
back at least as far as the second century BC, were scattered in the narrow
river valley and along the coastal rock outcroppings, rewarding the serendipitous
hiker with unexpected finds of a sarcophagus here, an aqueduct there. On
the pebbly beach one could greet local fishermen coming back from the day's
haul, and perhaps be presented with a fresh fish after a friendly chat.At
night one could make a trip to the nearby Chimaera, where natural gas seeping
out through cracks in a rocky slope had kept a field of flames burning since
history began to be recorded, to bask in the light that was once used as
a lighthouse by sailors, or to toast a marshmallow or two in the eternal
Kadir's Tree House was, of course, owned by Kadir who used the excuse
that the aboriginal Yo"ru"ks used tree-based shelters (they were
actually lean-tos rather than treetop houses) to start the business that,
in only a few years, had become the hottest open secret on the backpacker
trail. It was a brilliant move, and clearly showed signs of a deep understanding
of his clientele, but against all expectations he was not the affable,
effusive bloke who personally greeted each one of his guests with humor
and hospitality, imparting easily digestible dollops of insight into Turkish
culture and thought, leaving the impartee with a warm, fuzzy feeling of
having made contact with a "cool" local. No; instead, everything
about him screamed "mafia boss."
He did not deign to speak to any of his lodgers, and every word to his
staff was a command. Sometimes he would hold a business dinner in front
of the TV with other senior colleagues, all dressed in leather jackets,
picking at their specially prepared fish, drinking raki' (the Turkish equivalent
of uzo), and cutting deals over the portable phone. Junior members
would come up to them to pay their proper respects, then sit down in a far
corner sipping beers. What nefarious schemes were they cooking up? "Discouraging"
their new competitors with mysterious "lightning fires"? New tree
house operations in other promising Mediterranean locales? Or going whole
hog-an international tree house franchise? I could see it now: a big, golden
"K" made to look like a dancing tree supporting a hut full of
smiling, youthful faces.
"You de-serve a tree today. So get up and get away. To Kadiiiir's-we
built it all for youuu!"
Back in my Penthouse I met an Aussie who was fleeing the tidal wave of
post-ANZAC pilgrims now emanating from Gallipoli. He told me that a riot
broke out at night after all the memorial services were over. Some Turkish
teenagers had allegedly tried to abduct a few Australian girls. Aussie boys,
rather plastered (as the ANZAC Day custom called for a serious bout of group
inebriation), had responded violently (or tried to) in defense of their
national honor. The police had to be called in to break up the melee, and
a few bruised egos had to spend the night in jail. Turks 2, Aussies 0.
Of Armpits, Politics, and a Family Feud
After brief stays in Eg'irdir and Konya, then several days in a renovated
troglodyte dwelling in Go"reme (imagine valleyfuls of ancient Bryce
Canyon-type towers hollowed out into condominiums and cathedrals by skillful
excavators-the scene looked extraterrestrial; in fact, a part of Star
Wars was filmed there), I decided to leave the tourist trail and headed
Because of the ongoing Kurdish insurgency, foreigners were discouraged
from venturing further east than Cappadocia for fear of kidnappings, which
had ruined more than one vacation in the past. From talking with locals
I judged that traveling in the southeast would be safe enough if I stuck
to daytime public transport only -- the PKK favored private cars traveling
at night. I thought of the situation as a blessing designed to allow bold
(stupid?) travelers escape the hassles and disappointments associated with
oft-visited sites. And the difference was stark.
Between Adana, where tea sellers at the bus station were shoving filled
glasses into my hand and expecting payment, and S'anli'urfa, where people
hung around just to practice some English with you, there seemed to be a
magic line. Landscapewise it had turned extremely flat, with a massive scale
of irrigation that recalled the San Joaquin Valley. Turkey is a food-exporting
nation and I was entering the Fertile Crescent, having just crossed the
Euphrates, which had been dammed to create Lake Atatu"rk (the downstream
Syrians were not happy about this). "The cradle of civilization"
-- echoes of history and geography lessons from childhood. The recent expansion
of irrigation and the revival of agriculture in this desert was part of
the GAP (Greater Anatolia Project), which was a governmental effort to bump
up the living standard of the Kurds. The idea was that if you make them
richer they will forget about not being able to maintain their own cultural
So far it did not seem to be working. (More on this later.)
Urfa had been recently renamed S'anli'urfa ("Glorious Urfa")
by the national government in belated recognition for playing a key defensive
role in one battle or another. It seemed to be yet another attempt to instill
patriotism for Turkey, as other southeastern cities had also gained such
stirring prefixes as Gazi ("Defender of the Faith") and Kahraman
("Heroic"). But Urfa was Urfa to most people. Roughly 50% Kurdish,
35% Turkish, and 15% Arabic, Urfa was the first multi-ethnic city that I
had seen in Turkey. This fact was apparent in the variety of dress and in
the stalls of the wonderfully chaotic bazaar.
With no other Western tourists in sight, I was able to leisurely walk
through the various sections: the rhythmic clanging of copper sheets being
pounded into pots, pungent wafts from volcanic mounds of crushed red peppers
of varying hue, tobacco, nuts, and grains, sampling a strange fruit reminiscent
of the Japanese biwa, the meat section full of sheep heads and sundry
other organs as well as the usual cuts, the weighty glitter of gold in the
jewelry row, the quietness of the kilim and carpet shops, then popping out
unexpectedly into a caravansary courtyard where old men hung out smoking,
playing backgammon, and sipping their tiny tulip-shaped glasses of hot tea.
Actually Urfa does get its share of foreign visitors, albeit mostly from
other Islamic countries. Claiming the birth cave of Abraham, Old Urfa is
a sacred site for the faithful. Inside the cave is a holy fountain, which
is assisted these days by an electric pump. The pilgrim is free to take
a drink from it for good luck.
While in Urfa I got the notion to visit a Turkish bath for the works-massage,
scrubbing, and all. I received directions to go by bus to the Alican Hamam
in the suburbs, figuring that it would be one of the least touristy baths
in Turkey. I figured right, for when I stepped into this hamam (which was
situated in the basement of a modern apartment building) quite a commotion
ensued. None of the workers there spoke English, so it was a comic pantomime.
It was not so hard to get across to them that I wanted everything done,
so after that it was just following the attendants through the various stages.
They wanted their foreign guest to go away with a good impression, so they
brought out their best masseur, who, predictably, looked like an amateur
The procedure went like this. I was given a key to a private booth where
I undressed and stored my clothes, and a large piece of gray cloth that
I wrapped around my waist. I was then taken to a sauna where I sat bleeding
sweat until I had to exit and jump into a cold-water pool. Then back into
the sauna, then out to be laid flat on a towel for the massage. It was a
bit unnerving to have a very strong man manipulating your muscles and joints,
jarred by strange cracking sounds on occasion, not knowing what he was going
to do next. I can't say that I enjoyed it -- in fact, it was rather painful,
and I came out of it with a bruise on my lower back.
Next was the skin-peeling session, which, I suppose, they think of as
merely a thorough scrub down. The attendant, armed with a loofah mitten,
scoured my body repeatedly, sloughing off wet skin that looked like dog-chewed
wads of paper towel. Then came the semaphore-question: the attendant raising
one arm and making a rubbing motion with his other hand under the armpit.
I took this to mean, "Do you want soap for your armpits?" So I
blithely nodded "Yes." The next thing that occurred was like a
dream sequence happening in slow motion, but about which you can do nothing.
Another attendant arrived with a razor, and, raising my left arm, in a few
swift strokes my armpit had been shaved for the first time in my life.
At that point it seemed useless to prevent the other one from being shaved,
so I said nothing. I found out later that it is a religious custom to keep
your armpits shaved.
The next day I made an excursion to Harran, about ten miles from the
Syrian border and one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages on Earth.
Lacking public transport I went with O"zcan, a primary school teacher
in the subjects of Turkish, math, and manners, who moonlighted as a guide.
He was studying for the national English exam, which, if passed, would qualify
him to teach English at a university. In 1990 he scored 60; he needed 90
to pass. Recently he began studying again and was memorizing 270 words per
He kept asking me questions: "What is the difference between dwell'
and live'?" "How do you use forsake'?" He was very happy
to talk with me, as native English speakers were scarce in Urfa. As we drove
southward through pistachio orchards, I asked O"zcan, an ethnic Turk
and a committed secularist, about politics. He had nothing but contempt
for the current line-up of political leaders.
"Politics in Turkey is bullshit. [President] Demirel is a liar.
[Deputy Prime Minister] C'iller is two-faced. [Prime Minister] Erbakan is
even worse." He was especially angry at the Islamist Welfare Party
that was leading the coalition government at the time. [As I write this
in June 1997, Erbakan has just stepped down under intense pressure by the
secularist military, with promise of an early election.] He claimed that
the Islamic middle schools were teaching anti-Atatu"rk ideas. He felt
that the Koran should only be taught in government-controlled schools, not
in the private imam-hatip schools. (In fact, C'iller, leader of the center-right
secularist True Path Party, had just announced a proposal to extend mandatory
public education from five to eight years, thereby eliminating the role
of the rapidly expanding imam-hatips.) As I had heard many times by now,
he voiced his fears of Turkey turning into another Algeria, succumbing to
The irony, it seemed to me, was that in their paranoia (justified, perhaps)
the Turkish military was about to make the same mistake made in Algeria:
cracking down too hard and further polarizing the society. But on the other
hand, the military was the most trusted public institution in Turkey, and
had taken over the reins of government more than once with the approval
of the majority of citizens.
At Harran, a sun-baked collective of "beehive" mud huts (actually,
with the domes grouped in pairs and with the vent stones perched on top,
they looked like a field of women's breasts), we happened to coincide with
a government press briefing about the successes of the Greater Anatolia
Project. A tent shelter had been set up to provide shade for the journalists
(mostly from Europe), who, with their plastic name badges and "GAP"
baseball caps were busy scribbling and shooting videos and stills. Midsummer
afternoon temperatures can climb up to 120 degrees; today it was a comfy
late-spring temperature of around 90.
A Brit came up to me and whispered, "They say this area has recently
The mayor of Harran spoke hopefully about the great tourist and business
potential of the region; he himself did not seem entirely convinced. Meanwhile,
the villagers went about their daily business (which meant, at this time
of day, staying inside the shadow of their huts) with hardly an ear for
the eloquence of the spin doctors.
On the return drive O"zcan asked about "blood law." I
figured out that he meant a feud. For the past year he had been employing
a teenage boy, Hassan, for odd jobs out of favor to a friend. Hassan had
had his father and his brother killed by an uncle, who was arrested and
convicted, but had been freed after only three months thanks to connections
and money. Now everyone expected Hassan to take revenge and kill his uncle.
It was more than an expectation, it was an honorable obligation. But he
did not want to murder, and so he had to hide in shame in a far away town.
Now he only wanted to leave Turkey forever.
O"zcan said Hassan was studying electronics. "Such a nice boy,"
he said. "There are some stupid ways that never die."
Into the Zone
Further east of Urfa the GAP irrigation stopped. Huge farms gave way
to sheep and cow ranching and pointillistic fields of wild flowers-red,
yellow, lavender. But the soil was still dark and rich, and the pipelines
were inexorably on their way. Right before entering Diyarbaki'r, located
on the northwest corner of the Kurdish homeland, our bus was stopped at
the first military checkpoint I had encountered in Turkey. IDs were examined,
then we were waved into the Extraordnance Zone. From here on our progress
would be hindered by a checkpoint every thirty miles or so.
Diyarbaki'r is ringed by a tall, black basalt, Byzantine wall that is
almost entirely intact. I walked on top of it for part of its four-mile
length and got an excellent view of the adjacent Tigris River meandering
through small-scale farms, and also got a feeling for the city's layout,
which was based on a simple ring-and-cross road system. Beyond those main
roads the neighborhoods were riddled with narrow alleys that were a pleasure
to wander through, because they were inaccessible to cars, not to mention
the tanks and armored personnel carriers that were parked with casual deliberateness
on the main thoroughfares.
The city wall, built originally to keep invaders out, had taken on a
more sinister aspect with the traffic cops with their Kalashnikovs, and
the roar and throb of fighter jets and helicopters overhead. (Nearby was
an air force base from which the military launched raids on PKK camps.)
Diyarbaki'r had the look of a prison with 380,000 inmates. Or, perhaps closer
to reality, it looked like an occupied city.
As in Urfa people were very curious about me. Buying a Fanta at a kiosk
I would be offered a chair by the friendly seller, and then suddenly be
surrounded by primary school students in their jacket-tie-and-shorts uniforms.
Even though none of them knew more than a few words of English (and my Turkish
limited to practical phrases like "How much?" and the ability
to count numbers), we still managed to have some fun. But there was always
at least one good English speaker in any city, and that person would find
you because foreigners were so rare and obvious in these parts.
Mehmet (not his real name) spotted me right away on the north-south avenue
and introduced himself. He had worked for Stephen Kinzer, who was reporting
about the Kurds in Iraq for the New York Times, accompanying him
across the border as his interpreter. He also recounted to me of his months
in mandatory service, sweating bullets at the prospect of having to shoot
a fellow Kurd. He was eager to talk to me about the situation in Diyarbaki'r,
so after showing me around town we went into an inconspicuous tea house,
away from the prying eyes and ears of the police and military.
Because he was the filter through which foreigners unable to speak either
Turkish or Kurdish received their "facts," I knew I had to leave
room for some skepticism. But with that in mind, I present what he told
me that afternoon without alterations.
* There is no democracy in Turkey. It is a fascist-nationalist state
always looking for Atatu"rk to return from the dead and tell them what
to do. The political leaders are afraid to lead, because they are labeled
a traitor by the others if they deviate from the Kemalist doctrine. Same
old men -- Demirel, Erbakan, Ecevit -- same old thinking. But the younger
generation is no different.
* Kurds only want to be able to speak their own language, run their own
schools, and have their own TV channel. The Kurds had asked for these things,
but the government gave them handouts instead, creating an unwanted dependency.
* When Tansu C'iller was Prime Minister, she convinced the West to give
money to combat militant Islamists, but she turned around and paid the fundamentalists
to go east and kill suspected Kurdish rebels (one bullet in the back of
the head). "She should be in a whorehouse where she belongs."
* The government claimed that the PKK had set fire to schools in the
area, then used that as an excuse to shut them down and turned them into
barracks and bases.
* The police hassled him whenever he talked to foreigners.
* The PKK is supported by all Kurds. The movement receives financial
support from normal city folks-maybe even from Mehmet himself -- but, of
course, he cannot admit to such a thing (wink).
* The Turks are scared because they know that they have made a mistake
with the Kurds. I ask Mehmet what his solution would be. He answers, "Take
all the members of parliament, tie them up, then hang them, one by one."
At night I go out for a stroll along the north section of the city wall,
enjoying the post-sunset cool-down of a desert climate. Others have the
same idea, with many hunkered down in the plastic chairs of an outdoor tea
garden, mesmerized by the blaring communal TV. I pop in a restaurant for
a hefty portion of Iskender kebap, slices of grilled lamb topped with a
tomato-based sauce; the waiter then comes with a sizzling pan of burnt butter
that, when poured on top of the sauce, spits and splatters all over. (He
holds the lid in front of me to shield my clothes.) With salad and ayran,
a salty yoghurt drink similar to the Indian lassi, it costs less
Another advantage of the southeast is that prices are generally lower.
And, strangely enough, the quality of food is actually better than in the
more cosmopolitan west. But I wonder: Am I unwittingly supporting the PKK
by eating here?
My final destination was Van, on the old Silk Road at the eastern end
of Turkey, the gateway to Iran.
The six-hour bus ride was a transition from low desert to alpine, following
first a tortuous route along a deep river gorge, the water muddy and high
from snowmelt, then along the southern shore of vast Lake Van with considerable
ups and downs on the pleats of mountain ridges that ran right into the lake.
Although there were many checkpoints along the way, not every one made us
stop, and we were only boarded five times for ID checks. However, the cargo
hold was once searched and a cardboard box was taken out to be searched.
Its owner was frisked and questioned, and the soldiers seemed suspicious
of the books that were contained within, but they were both returned to
The driver seemed obsessed with setting a new time record and did not
make a single bathroom stop. We only had a chance to pee when he finally
had to pause for refueling (even then he himself did not use the facilities).
His philosophy of driving was that if you have a loud enough horn, others
will move out of your way. This maxim nearly ended our trip when a dump-truck
driver either failed to hear the obnoxiously arpeggiating diminished-triad
klaxon or simply ignored it and ran us off the pavement.
Let me digress a bit now on the Turkish bus system, since normally it
works so marvelously. First, you can get to any town in Turkey of, say,
larger than 50,000 people by bus. There are many routes available and the
competition between the myriad bus companies is intense. Intercity routes
use the big Mercedes-Benz models with reserved seating, while shorter runs
are made by smaller Japanese buses. The cost is of the order of $4 per 100
miles, and, depending on the company, you get anything from just drinking
water to cookies, tea, and a video en route.
The bigger cities have bus stations on the outskirts, which can be just
a single building with a few counters or an ultramodern terminal with electronic
departure boards and a shopping center; one had to take a city bus or dolmus'
(a sort of shared taxi or van) to travel between the station and the city
center. There is a tax levied on all vehicles entering the bus station,
so budget companies would sometimes bypass it and pick up passengers only
on the road.
In the business there are four roles: the driver, the on-board attendant,
the ticket office clerk, and the tout. The procedure goes like this: The
tout, who is repeatedly calling out the name of the destination ("Stanbul
stanbul stanbul stanbul stanbullaaaahh!!"), grabs you if you even happen
to glance in his direction and drag you over to his company office away
from the competitors. The ticket clerk then takes your money and gives you
a seat assignment with a bored look. You board the bus a few minutes before
the departure time, a boy comes inside to sell snacks, then the driver starts
up the engine and honks the horn before leaving. The seat assignments are
adhered to strictly (it makes it easier for the attendant to keep track
of who is getting off where), and if there are any women who have been assigned
to sit next to a strange man, then the seating is rearranged so that she
either sits next to another woman or an empty seat.
Once the bus is on its way, the attendant begins the service by providing
a splash of the ubiquitous lemon cologne (also available for your post-dining
pleasure at restaurants) for everyone. Turkish buses are very sedate. If
the driver puts on a cassette, the volume is kept low; passengers are not
loud and chatty. And, surprisingly, many buses forbid smoking on board (although
the driver is often exempt). On the whole, a very cheap and pleasant, if
not exciting, way to travel.
Lake Van is a large alkaline body of water measuring about 80 miles east-west.
It sits at an altitude of 5700 feet and is ringed by high, snowcapped mountains,
the tallest of which is Su"phan Dag'i, a 13,600-foot-high broad volcanic
cone that dominates the northern skyline. A local legend places a mysterious
serpentine monster in the lake's depths, as depicted on ancient rock carvings.
The city of Van lies on the eastern end of the lake. Although its present-day
site only dates back to post-WWI, the city's earliest known incarnation
as Tushpa was the capital of the kingdom of Urartu (or Ararat) that flourished
from the thirteenth to seventh centuries BC. Armenians settled in the area
after the fall of the Urartians and had stayed tenaciously through subjugation
by the Persians, Parthians, Arabs, Byzantines, Seljuks, and the Ottomans,
but when they sided with the Russians during WWI, hoping to establish for
themselves an independent state, the Turks, angered by what they considered
to be a traitorous act, advanced on Van with a vengeance and reduced it
The old city site has been preserved from development, and all you see
now among a lumpy field of grass and weeds are two broken minarets of sixteenth-century
mosques. The surviving Armenians were driven out to where today's Armenia
lies with its capital Yerevan, just beyond Mt. Ararat.
Turkish relations with Armenia is extremely strained to this day as can
be noted in the contentious exhibit in the Van Museum on the Armenian massacre
of Turks that preceded their revenge attack. Today the majority of residents
are Kurdish, and the city acts as their market center as well as a shelter
for refugees from the Turkish military's attempts at cleaning out mountain
villages suspected of harboring PKK fighters.
Located some distance away from the lake shore, the new city of Van (population
150,000) is drab and run down, especially away from the main roads. Potholes,
broken streetlights, and fluctuating line voltage characterize the bad repair
of its infrastructure, while gray concrete multistory buildings that block
all view of the beautiful surrounding mountains show a lack of aesthetic
concern. Many apartments sport satellite dishes, which, I later learned,
are used for receiving Kurdish programs from Europe. In contrast, one can
easily imagine how pretty the old city must have been with the lake to one
side, the sheer rock formation along its northern edge with its cuneiform
inscriptions and Urartian castle, and a limpid stream snaking down its center.
Using Van as a base, I made excursions to nearby sites: southward to
Gu"zelsu, where another Urartian castle had been spectacularly built
into the contours of a tall, looming rock; northward to Muradiye where the
Bendimahi River fell in a roaring cascade; and westward on Lake Van to the
tiny island of Akdamar where, in the eighth century, an Armenian prince
took refuge from the onslaught of an Arab army. A craggy rock with one sector
flat and the other rising steeply to a plunging cliff, Akdamar was perhaps
a third of a mile in diameter with a maximum height of about 300 feet.
On the flat side stood an Armenian church surrounded by blooming almond
trees. Barley grass and chives grew on the ground. Seagulls dove for fish
from their nests in the cliff, while hawks circled above. In the sky, cumulus
clouds formed over the distant white mountains and were swept and stretched
like cotton candy by strong wind shears. The alpine climate here in May
felt perfect to me.
The carvings on the outside walls of the church were in excellent shape
and were impressive works of art. It was unusual in that the pictures had
not been defaced (literally), as was normally the case in Turkey due to
the proscription in Islam against the depiction of creatures with souls.
(This was the reason for the extremely high level of development of the
calligraphic arts and the emphasis on abstract geometric patterns in Islamic
society.) The carvings, which illustrated Biblical legends, were highly
three-dimensional, and the play of sunlight created illusions of motion
and expression on the characters' faces: Jonah's surprised look as he is
fed to a whale (with a lion's head and a scaly eel-body-was this the monster
of Lake Van?), Adam and Eve guiltily sharing an apple.
A group of Turkish college students were there also, having a picnic
and playing soccer. Posing for a photo, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder
and give the sign of the Gray Wolf (symbol of the ultraright, nationalist
party) with their hands. Laughing, they start a charcoal fire for their
meat. From the south shore of the lake I could hear the deep rumble of a
military convoy moving eastward on the highway.
"Welcome to Kurdistan!"
With the lack of tourists, Van was a friendly and generous city. I was
treated to many glasses of tea by strangers, and had no dearth of interesting
companions with whom to hang out at night. College and high school students
were especially game to try their English on me, although it was usually
one or two in the group who did the talking and the rest would egg them
on. Once, when I boarded a dolmus' on the way back from the lake,
a group of animated college kids inside greeted me with a big "Welcome
to Kurdistan!" and then proceeded to reel off a litany of insults to
Three of them (S'ivan, Murad, and Fatma (not their real names)) got off
at the same stop as mine, so we walked into the center together. Along the
way S'ivan bought us all ice cream from a streetside seller who was hand-churning
it inside a big wooden tub. Then, as we were eating our cones, the street
suddenly erupted with honking and shouting and firecrackers.
News of a PKK victory?
No. Van Spor, the city's soccer team, had just beaten Samsun, 2-1. This
was a special occasion since Van Spor was in third-to-last place and had
barely averted a demotion to the second division. Youngsters draped a red-and-black
flag of Van Spor over a street-spanning telephone wire, and the traffic
slowed and thickened. It was too loud for a conversation so we ducked into
a tea garden, where young people were playing okey, a tile game reminiscent
of rummy. The trio earnestly tried to communicate to me how much they rejected
Turkish rule. Words like "fascism" and "Hitler" were
used freely. Murad pulled out his key chain from which hung a yellow plastic
Tweety Bird. But around its feet were painted rings of the forbidden red
and green-colors of the Kurdish flag.
On a piece of paper S'ivan wrote down the numbers for me in Kurdish --
yek, dudu, zi', c'ar, penc', s'es' -- an act that had been illegal
until recently. He John Hancocked it with a flourish as if to declare his
independence. He also drew the Kurdish flag, but this he scratched out nervously
because it was still outlawed. They kept stressing that this was Kurdistan,
not Turkey. Tansu C'iller was again vilified for her underhanded ways. And,
as with Mehmet in Diyarbaki'r, they claimed that the PKK was supported by
Fatma, who hailed from the PKK stronghold of Hakkari, was especially
passionate in her defense of the rebels, and she struggled between deep
draws from a cigarette to find the right English words to express her emotions.
At 7 pm Fatma suddenly stood up to leave, as her curfew at her grandfather's
house was 6 pm. She drew a finger across her throat to say, "He will
kill me for this." S'ivan pointed to Murad and Fatma and said that
they loved each other. Murad just grinned, but Fatma violently protested
"No, no, no!" as she left the table.
A Wedding Performance
Turkey boasts an immense popular music industry that incorporates diverse
streams -- art music, rural folk music, gypsy urban styles, Arab pop, and
Western rock-- into slickly produced packages dispensed through cassettes,
radio programs, and video shows. Pop stars come and go, and often it is
difficult to buy an album that dates back by more than a couple of years.
But sadly the growth of mass-market commercial music has been accompanied
by the decline in live music, even at festivals and public holidays that
traditionally called for live performances. These days revelers seem content
with a sound system and several cassettes, or perhaps a large-screen TV
tuned in to Turkish MTV.
So far I had managed to intercept live vibes in only three instances:
1. In Selc'uk I had spotted a duo playing a du"du"k
(a flared-tube oboe) and a davul (a double-headed drum), leading
a small crowd of men down the street. Figuring that they were drumming up
action for a party, I followed them. But it only turned out to be the lead-up
to a drinking match between two men, and they quit playing after the game
2. In Bodrum I went into a bar ("The White House") where
a group of four young bohemians were performing. The woman singer was good,
but the conga player was stuck on one beat, even for the song in 9/8 meter,
for which he just stuck in an extra pa-ta.
3. In Van I was promised "live folk music," which turned
out to be a one-man Casio band (a la the competitor in El Mariachi)
in a totally empty hotel cocktail lounge reprising nostalgic hits from the
past. (In fairness, though, he was quite an accomplished musician.)
Thus, when I heard a very festive, very live sound emanating from a hall
on the top floor of a building as I was walking back to my hotel, I did
not hesitate to go up and investigate. At the entrance to the hall a security
man stopped me and indicated that the event was invitation only. I immediately
backed away and apologized, but then he smiled and motioned "okay,
okay" and pulled me inside. It was a wedding party with maybe about
200 people. In the center there was a line dance going on with separate
lines for men and women. The band on stage was minimally instrumented (again,
a du"du"k and davul) but was impressively high decibel.
The bride and groom sat on a dais, dressed in Western mode-white satin
and lace for her, black coat and tie for him-watching the raucous proceedings
impassively. A video camera was set up on a tripod to record the presumably
happy event. After a short while I was invited to sit down at a table with
a group of young men. With the language discontinuity and the loud music,
not much information was passed between us (except that they were able to
identify various American cities with their NBA teams-"Boston? Celtics!
You know Chicago? Michael Jordan! The best!").
But in the general atmosphere of cheer and good will, they decided to
display their hospitality by dragging me onto the dance floor (in my jeans
and fleece jacket) for some active cultural exchange. Linked together by
our pinkies, we shuffle-trotted two steps forward, two steps back. Body
facing front, body facing sideways. Fortunately it was not so hard imitate.
But then the lines broke up into small circles and we had to take turns
dancing solo in the center -- arms stretched straight out to the sides,
feet shuffle-stepping -- while the others clapped. I could imagine the newlyweds
watching the video after their honeymoon. "My sweet baklava, who is
that badly dressed man flailing about like a blindfolded stork in the center
of the dance circle?"
"Oh my candied marrow, his style seems to resemble that of a mountain
goat in heat -- surely he must be from your side of the family?"
I found it hard to leave Van. I had personal invitations to visit a village
and a small college. I also wanted to keep traveling northward along the
border to Mt. Ararat and to the Black Sea, but my five weeks were running
out. Reluctantly I boarded a Turkish Air jet and headed back to Istanbul.
This time I explored the newer sections of the city and strayed northward
along the Bosphorus. I was now used to the city bus and ferry system, and
found it very cheap and easy to get around. I went shopping for a few gifts,
attended two concerts, and gradually wound down to a more reflective mood.
My armpits were still itchy. The big item in the news was the invasion of
Iraqi territory by the Turkish military in pursuit of the PKK. Cross-border
bombing missions were being launched from Diyarbaki'r, and the government
claimed to have killed fifty rebels in two days. The operation had begun
only two days after I had left the Zone, and I flashed back to the military
convoys that I saw moving on the highways.
The U.S. promptly rationalized the invasion. State Department spokesman
Nicolas Burns stated, "You know that we believe that Turkey has a right
to defend itself from PKK terrorism. Turkey must protect its population
in southeastern Turkey."
The Kurds that I had met criticized Clinton for always supporting Turkey.
They were polite enough not to use a stronger word than "problem,"
but their message was clear: Please help put more pressure on the Turkish
government to change its Kurdish policy. To a certain extent this had happened
already after the Gulf War highlighted the plight of the Kurds; under pressure
from the West, Turkey finally allowed the Kurds to converse in their own
language. But the political discourse in Turkey spiraled around the increasing
polarization between the secularists and Islamists, and the Kurdish question
was not likely to receive its due attention in the near future. "Kurdistan"
would continue to be bracketed by those stifling, pointed quotes, like barbed
wire around an occupied land.
Copyright 1997, John Cho
Contact John Cho at: firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit his website at http://pemtropics.mit.edu/~jcho/
John Cho at Large / Technobeat Central