Kurdistan


It may seem like we’ve dropped off the face of the earth for the last week or so, and in a way we have—we went back in time thousands of years in our visit to eastern Turkey.
We’d thought about staying for Obama’s visit to Istanbul, but then decided it was unlikely that we would be able to get past the 9,000 Turkish police officers. Perhaps we’d have had a chance to meet him, but in any event it was cool to see on TV the places we’d just lived nearby. The day after Jacob took his exam, which was proctored kindly by Jonathan from the Istanbul LDS branch, we left Istanbul. Yusuf took us to visit our friend Ali and say good-bye at his work, where he makes shoes. We were given a special handwritten message to give to his brother, who lives in Kahta. Yusuf took us to the bus station, and we said good-bye to the city we’d stayed the longest. We’ll be back one day, though.
The bus ride was hospitable in typical Turkish fashion. We were served drinks, treats, and Jacob got the back row. It was wasn’t long until a little boy wandered to the back and struck up a conversation with Jacob. A girl soon followed, who I assumed was his mother, and later found out was his sister. They were Kurdish.
Insert a brief note here: this whole time I have been talking about Turkish people, what I have really meant is Kurdish people. The Kurds are our friends, the ones we have really gotten to know. I haven’t been making the distinction until now, but I have slowly come to realize that the difference between the two peoples is quite stark.
Turkish people descend from Siberia, from Central Asia. These are the people who ruled the Ottoman Empire, who are accused of the Armenian genocide, who tend to be the more educated, and who dominate the government. They are more typically European. They have smaller families, and have white skin with dark hair. Turkish people refuse to recognize the Kurdish, calling them “mountain Turks.” The Turkish hate Bush and the Iraqi war, and consequently refused to allow the US to use their country as a base to launch attacks in Iraq. At the end of Bush’s administration only 9% of people approved of America, but now everyone adores Obama. They love Ataturk, the founder of Turkey.
Kurdish people, by contrast, come from the Sumerians of old. In fact, they think they descend all the way from Noah. They are more Middle Eastern. They are from Mesopotamia back from centuries. They have dark tan skin, dark hair and eyes, and families of up to ten children are common. They are much more traditional, less modern, and more country or rural than the Turks. These are the people who love George Bush. Why? Because he deposed Saddam Hussein, who killed 180,000 Kurds with chemical weapons. For no other reason than he wished to extinguish them—racial cleansing. Kurdish people are less impressed with Ataturk, who didn’t advocate a separate nation for Kurds. Here is a cute Kurdish baby:
The great problem of Turkey today is getting the Kurds and the Turks to mesh, because they are at war with one another right now, as for the past decades. Things are slowly improving.
Back to me and Jacob’s story… the girl, named Bashak, and her brother were as always undeterred at their lack of English. They watched with amusement when we played Skip Bo and they communicated with us via the 10 words in Turkish that we know. They stayed in the back talking to us even when we wanted to sleep. Bashak invited us to go to eat at her home, but we knew that probably wasn’t going to happen—we didn’t know our plans. Talk about not needing personal space… she moved my legs to plop down next to me, playfully cuffed me in the jaw, and wanted to take pictures together constantly.
The views outside of the bus were incredible as we could literally see the transition from modern to ancient on the drive to Mesopotamia. I can’t sleep long on buses, so the view’s how I entertained myself along the way.
We were pulled suddenly off the bus by Yusuf’s uncle’s friend. Yusuf had convinced us to stay at his uncle’s hotel, even though it was a little out of our budget. We were pretty much at the mercy of people’s recommendations because the East doesn’t have hostels listed online. We were taken to the smoky, smelly hotel in the town where Yusuf and Ali were born.
Of prime importance was always finding wireless internet. If we have an employer, that is it. After a power nap and some delicious pizza bread, we were off to Mount Nemrut, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That’s Nemrut in the distance:
Nemrut Dagi is a remainder from the times of the King who wanted to deify himself by placing his head along with the heads of the gods. The eagle right next to me symbolized Nemrut. This area of the world is the one who tended to worship nature, including the sun.
We also saw an old Roman bridge and a tombstone from the kings two thousand years ago.
Our guide’s voice was very distinctive. Very deep, strong, and matched his personality, which was pretty bossy. He told us many things we needed to do that were “very important.” Irfan and Yusuf’s uncle spent the day with us, and introduced us to a Kurdish family with 10 kids. The traditional Kurdish families don’t use furniture; they sleep on rugs and sit against pillows on the floor.
They also revere the partridge and it’s a kind of good luck to keep a male and female in your house, breed them, and set them free in the mountains. You don’t eat them though; it’s bad luck.

We then were taken to meet Ali’s brother. He didn’t speak a word of English. They called him Zani. We gave him the note from Ali—who knows what it said—but then he took us to a restaurant and fed us like kings. Salad, chorba, huge glasses of yogurt, and pizza. We managed to have a little conversation. We discovered Ali’s wife and their two kids live with Zani, his wife, and their three kids. Zani owns a bakery and he took us there afterwards. We were already completely stuffed, but he brought out all kinds of dessert, including ice cream with the consistency of taffy and cotton candy mixed.
He called a leader in the Turkish army and a soldier who knew English very well to translate for us. So we had a very pleasant evening all getting to know one another. Their position on the Iraq war is that it was a mistake, that Bush is a power-loving man, and that it was the Iraqis, not Bush, that rid the world of Saddam Hussein.
We were cordially invited to breakfast the next morning, where we again feasted with special food made just for us. Our only regret is that we left without meeting Ali’s wife or kids. Our next stop was Diyarbakir, the capital of Kurdish culture. This was my favorite city of the east. Here is a typical black and white stone building of Diyarbakir:
On our way to Diyarbakir, we took a ferry across a ford. I sat next to a sweet Turkish college student.
When I told her where we were going, she widened her eyes and said, “I don’t like Diyarbakir.” Why? I asked. Her English was very limited, and her only reply was, “Terror.” It set quite a tone for our arrival. I knew that the official position of the Turks was that Diyarbakir was the hideout of the PKK, a recognized terrorist group, but I’d had a friend who said we needed to go because the people were so nice there, so it was a stop on our list.
You can’t see the pants in this pic very well, but it’s the style to have the middle section between the pants legs hang down nearly to the cuffs.
From Sivarek to Diyarbakir, the guy sitting next to Jacob called his friend who spoke very good English. Ramazan convinced us to get off the dolmush (shared taxi) and go with him to his brother’s game hall. His friend went to get his car to help us find a hotel. We stayed at Aslan Palas.
Ironically “Aslan” means “lion” in Turkish. Did the author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe speak Turkish? Someone online suggests that it is derived from Farsi, a language CS Lewis adored.
The hotel was very cheap, about $18 per night, had continuous hot water, and good wireless. Our only requests! Ramazan and his friend gave us their phone numbers, and told us to call them. The next day, after working on the Internet, we called Ramazan. He was immediately ready to come hang out with us.
He finished university two months ago studying computer security systems and is still looking for a job. He says it is difficult for anyone to get a job from Diyarbakir because there is so much prejudice against it. He led us around the city, which is famous for the second longest walls in the world, after the Great Wall of China. We saw the Tigris River from the Bible,
ate a huge Kurdish breakfast with Ramazan’s friend Tariq,
visited an Armenian church turned mosque,
and agreed to call Ramazan the next day where he had invited us to his home for dinner.
We made a lifelong friend in Ramazan, we think. He was so kind and helpful, and proved once again that the Kurdish people are very special. He is the best representation of Islam that I have met so far. Ironic, when his uncle was killed as a member of the PKK (said pey kah kah). But the Kurdish from the east do not see the PKK as a terrorist group, but as their own personal army fighting for a separate Kurdistan from Turkey.
I don’t know enough about what the PKK has done to know what to think of them yet. Although they used to target civilians, now they only fight against the army. I tend to think they are an extreme group acting in desperation to extreme and unfair measures made by the Turks. According to Ramazan, they wish to discuss their complaints with the Turkish government, but the Turks refuse to have talks. There is no doubt that the Turks have been very unfair to the Kurds. For many years, it was forbidden to speak the Kurdish language or you would be imprisoned, and there are still no Kurdish television stations or Kurdish in public schools. Kurds are supposedly the largest population in the world without a state.
I have new hope for Islam after getting to know Ramazan and his family. Ramazan is the best representation of Islam that I have met because he believes that men and women are equal, that Muslims and Christians should be able to worship how they please, and that peace is the ultimate goal. He called us “brother” and “sister.” His family seemed very independent; his sister never wears a head scarf, makes her husband help around the house, and doesn’t want children. This is unusual compared to a typically traditional Muslim household in Turkey.
We went to his home and met his family. Later, Ramazan told us his mother was apprehensive about this. She thought she wouldn’t like it, he explained, because we wouldn’t be able to communicate. But we all had a great time. His mother has a great sense of humor. She told us that burkas creep her out. She thinks that the women are hiding who knows what, maybe weapons under there. We showed each other pictures of our families after dinner, which was very good and included sheep’s cheese and ayran. The rugs were kept like new and we learned how his mother did it. Washed outside, beat with wood, and hung out to dry like this:
If Turkey has a flaw it’s smoking. I read that 75% of Turks smoke, but I feel it must be much higher than that. Ramazan said not to be shocked if I saw a child smoking, but of course I still was. Everyone smokes here; it’s as much part of the culture as drinking chai (tea) and people are surprised that we do neither. But they respect it.
Ramazan convinced us to stay one more night to attend a football game. Diyarbakir against a Turkish team from Izmir. It was very intense. I was also literally the only female in the stands. Ramazan said there were girls on the other side, but I didn’t see them. Women don’t like to go to the games, probably because they get a little wild. For example, there was a fight, the police were called to take care of it, and the entire stadium started chanting the police should go away, and they want a certain leader of the PKK back who was killed by police. The police carried shields as protection.
The Kurdish people are a wild, passionate people, intensely direct and prone to deep feelings of loyalty and brotherhood. After the game, which Diyarbakir won, the streets were an absolute madhouse with fireworks, people driving down the street honking, children taking sitting cars and rocking them back and forth, and the police probably slinking away and seeking safety from the mayhem. I’m not sure what would have happened had Diyarbakir lost.
Diyarbakir’s people were very friendly. One day I decided to wear the hijab, or head scarf, that Ramazan’s mother had given me around town. Everyone absolutely loved it! I had people nodding and smiling at me, pinching my cheek, giving me compliments, and overall absolutely showering me with attention. I thought it would help me blend in more, but we were told our skin is too fair. It’s obvious we were foreigners, but I was a foreigner adopting their style, and it went over really well.
Ramazan told us that he and his sister would accompany us to Mardin, our next stop. We rode together to his cousin’s house, who is a policeman. His wife fed us lunch and afterwards we took naps in their living room. Jacob entertained the family with magic tricks.
We then explored Mardin, which is called the Old Jerusalem of Turkey.
It had a similar bazaar, but quite a different feel. It’s got tons of Syrian churches, and it’s a beautiful city set upon a hill. This particular Syrian Church’s art looked cartoonish.
We could not find a place with wireless, so Ramazan’s cousin helped talk an expensive hotel down, but then the wireless ended up not working anyway. The next day we just wandered around, stopping to snack and watch a shepherd with his flocks.
An aside here: everyone has heard of Texas around here. In Germany, we were told by a Turkish driver that his dream has always been to visit Texas. Cowboys, horses, lassoing on the great frontier. I only hope they never get their hopes dashed were they to visit and see how cosmopolitan it is. On the other hand, it’s very common here in Turkey to have livestock even in the cities. Here are some goats at a bus stop:
In Mardin children followed us adoringly. “What’s your name?” and “Where you from?” The only English they could furnish. I was given a bouquet of dandelions. Jacob’s muscles were admired.
I think Americans have the potential to be as hospitable as the Kurdish if only we could tell who were strangers. America is so diverse you can’t tell who’s different. In the Middle East westerners can’t hide their identity. We watched a lady make naan, or bread, on an outdoor tandoor, or stone/clay oven. She builds the fire from below and the bread is pressed against the sides on the rock. She told us to come back in an hour and she would give us some. It was really good.
We decided not to stay long in Mardin because the hotel was too expensive. We left at four o’clock for Sanliurfa. Ramazan and his sister came with us part way.
We gave Ramazan a gift of a keychain from Israel with an evil eye on it (popular in Muslim culture for good luck) and a Book of Mormon. Jacob says that being out here is kind of like being on a mission. We go into a lot of people’s homes, eat their food, and every time turn down coffee and tea, which opens up a discussion about our religion. The Kurdish like the Mormons it seems, because we have a lot in common: big families, conservative values, and reverence for God.
I’ll write about Urfa later.
Kalli Hiller

Article by Kalli Hiller

Kalli Hiller is a voluntary vagabond who, with her husband Jacob, has traveled full time for the last eight years.

Kalli has written 364 awesome articles for us.

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