The bus stops in freezing Bingöl, half way between Diyarbakir and Erzurum. The young guy washing the bus begins to speak to me in German. Sprechen Sie Deutsche. Ein bissen. Ich habe vier Jahre in Deutschland gewohnen, und jetzt, was mache ich? Ich wasche Bussen. But he doesn’t seem too sad. Why did you come back, I ask him. Family, family… He orders me some free tea. The owner of the restaurant also comes out to chat to me in German. Many Turkish Gastarbeiter returned; many didn’t; and the Turkish community in Germany now numbers more than three million.
The great majority of women I see on the icy streets of Erzurum are covered: headscarf and long coat; or full black chador with a mere slit for the eyes; and a new variation for me: women in a brown sackcloth, sometimes begging at the mosque door who even cover their eyes completely. Few couples on the streets, even on St. Valentine’s Day. Men spend time with other men, often walking along with their arms lightly linked. The mosque, the barber shop, the tea house where they play cards, are the focal points of the lives of many men. Separate rooms at many Internet cafés. On long distance buses the conductor will juggle passengers to make sure strangers of opposite sexes will never sit next to each other.
Diyarbakir is near Kurdish territory and has attracted many Kurdish migrant workers. Traffic is stopped at checkpoints in the region. The men wear Arab-style headscarves and the baggy shalavar trousers. The bus driver and conductor on the bus from Mardin tell me they are Kurds. They warn me of the many thieves in the alleys of the old town, but the only problem I have is the fatigue from the excess of “He-llo, What is your name?” I even pass a mother restraining her children from popping the question.
There is a ceasefire now in the Kurdish part of Turkey, and the situation is relatively quiet, though the government is worried about the activities being organised from outside Turkey, in France, Blgium and Germany, where the Kurds get a good press and the Turks don’t. I read that the Mayor of Diyarbakir has been posting up signs in Kurdish, but I fail to see any. Instead I read that civil servants writing official material in Kurdish have been prosecuted.
Turkey fears a break-up of Iraq and that a separate Kurdish state will fuel demands for Kurdish territory in Iraq to be included. But what we must do, says Hussain Sinjari, a former Kurdish member of the Iraqi caabinet, is to support Kurdish democracy within Iraq and help them to set up democratic institutions.
In old Diyarbakir I visit the Syrian Orthodox Church and a new evangelical church opposite. The fresh-faced American who shows me around tells me it’s a tough job. Difficult with the authorities. He’s been there for six years and is proud to have a congregation of some sixty, both Kurds and Turks.
The Erzurum Conference of 1919 with Atatürk presiding was one of the founding moments of the Turkish state. It set in motion the Republican movement and defined the boundaries of present-day Turkey. In the Municipal Museum I see a section on the Armenian massacres – those committed by Armenians against Turks during the First World War. Mass graves were bug up, and bodies were examined to expose the Armenian cruelty. Armenians had been treated very well, the exhibition tells us, they had never suffered discrimination in the Ottoman Empire and had occupied some of the highest posts, and now they saw a chance of founding their own state and were supporting Russian rather than Turkey, which was fighting on the side of GermanyThey were becoming a fifth column inside Turkey.
Streets in Turkey are extremely crime-free, but take care with the little boys selling paper handkerchieves. “Istemiyorum”, I don’t want any, I say. “Istemiyorum”, the 12-year-old corrects. I buy a couple of packets to thank the for the pronunciation class. His gang crowd around, but they are shooed off by the locals.
Every city has its citadel which usually dates from Roman times. Old Diyarbaakir is completely surrounded by its black basalt walls. Erzurum has its 13th and 14th century medresses, Koranic schools. And in the East the mosques are often square or rectangular, unlike the domed mosques of Istanbul. Every city has its museum, its ancient pottery and coins, its ethnographic section with its portrayal of life in Ottoman coins, and maybe, as in the case of Gaziantep, Roman mosaics, here from the Roman town of Zeugma.
My time is up, and I fly back to Istanbul. Back in Taksim Square, Istanbul. Tourists, hardly any covered women, and no one saying “Hello, what’s your name?” Now, after my ttrip to the East, I am more aware than ever of the sense of openness and freedom which many from the provinces find in Istanbul.
Turkey: a country divided between Islam and Secularism; between Turkish nationalism and cosmopolitanism; between East and West; between social and regional differences; between Europe and Asia.
I pack and catch a taxi to Atatürk Airport along the ringroad, past the huddled apartment blocks, the intersecting freeways, the warehouses, office blocks, glitzy banks and shopping malls. I glimpse the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia for the last time, at least for the time being…
Güle Güle Istanbul
Go smiling Istanbul