From Istanbul to Van: A Turkish Traverse

Istanbul, 1

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 got 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?" "Mars." "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 (née Constantinople, née Byzantium, née Lygos, née 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.

Topkapı 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, however.

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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 Nescafé), 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 overhead. 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 Çanakkale 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 Çanakkale 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 Atatürk, 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 the Europeans.

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 destination. 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. So, in effect, they were commemorating the loss of national virginity. Never again would they jump like lemmings off a cliff to prove themselves worthy.

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 Atatürk, 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 deal.

Kurban Bayaramı, 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.

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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 Kaş, 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 Kaş 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 Kaş.

The Golden is managed by Hakkı 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, Hakkı 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 on cassettes.

Hakkı 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 Mönchengladbach (where I once lived and worked for a summer) between the ages of 3 and 8, and Hakkı with a daughter there that he has never seen. Before he came to Kaş to co-manage the Golden at Ismail's invitation, Hakkı 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 Hakkı 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 Hakkı 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 Atatürk 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 Hakkı "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. Hakkı shows me a lottery ticket with a top prize of $800,000. "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 Kurds.

Ismail is back early tonight. On the radio Muazzez Ersöy croons of love gone bad. "This is my music," he says. "I'm going to cry."

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 Yörük 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, Germany.)

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 campfire.

Kadir's Tree House was, of course, owned by Kadir who used the excuse that the aboriginal Yörüks 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 rakı (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 Eğirdir and Konya, then several days in a renovated troglodyte dwelling in Göreme (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 southeast. 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 Şanlıurfa, 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 Atatürk (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 identity. So far it did not seem to be working. (More on this later.)

Urfa had been recently renamed Şanlıurfa ("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 multiethnic city that I had seen in Turkey, outside of Istanbul. 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.

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While in Urfa I got the notion to visit a Turkish bath for the works--massage, scrubbing, and all. So 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 wrestler. 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.

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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 Özcan, 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 week. 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 Özcan, 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] Çiller 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-Atatürk ideas. He felt that the Koran should only be taught in government-controlled schools, not in the private imam-hatip schools. (In fact, Çiller, 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 creeping fundamentalism. 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 been liberated." 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 Özcan asked about "blood law." I figured out that he meant a feud. For the past year he had been employing a teenage boy, Hasan, for odd jobs out of favor to a friend. Hasan 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 Hasan 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. Özcan said Hasan 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 Diyarbakır, 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.

Diyarbakır 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.) Diyarbakır 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.

Kumar (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 Diyarbakır, 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.

I ask Kumar 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 than $3. 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 bus. 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 dolmuş (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 ("Stanbulstanbulstanbulstanbulstanbullaaaahh!!"), 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 Süphan Daği, 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 to rubble. 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 Güzelsu, 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 dolmuş 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 Turkey. Three of them (Şivan, 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 Şivan 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 Şivan wrote down the numbers for me in Kurdish--yek, dudu, , çar, penç, şeş,--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 Çiller was again vilified for her underhanded ways. And, as with Kumar in Diyarbakır, they claimed that the PKK was supported by all Kurds. 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." Şivan 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 Selçuk I had spotted a duo playing a düdük (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 began. 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 düdük 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 to 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?"

Istanbul, 2

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 Diyarbakır 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.


June 1997

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Copyright 1997, John Nagamichi Cho