Nesfe Jahan, pt 40

25 October 2010

Dear reader. Sometimes I get it wrong. I try to blog punctually and keep you up to date on my experiences, moods and current location. I leave out certain facts, to highlight others. What you read here will never be my direct experience, and I think it’s the nature of all writing that it is never like this. It’s also, and probably much more, the end product of many hours of contemplation. Just as life is more about thought, reasoning and judgment than direct experience. And in this case, I blogged about my experiences in Hasankeyf way too soon. I was planning another short piece about 14 hours I spend in a truck stop, but it fits way better here in a bigger context. I got it wrong, and I have to start again from a few days ago.

I probably have to start this at the truck stop, 25 km out of Diyarbakir. And it doesn’t start when I start to receive the incredible hospitality from the Kurdish employees, as they supply me generously with food and shelter. I think it start during a football game, when the 18 year old dishwasher aims a shotgun, usually hidden behind the manager’s desk, at the TV screen, acting anger against an unfair play. He laughs as he shows the gun is unloaded. That night I sleep in the bedroom of the restaurant with the cook. The room is totally bare. Walls, ceiling and floor are made from too sandy concrete, crumbling. It smells like shit too. Next to the bed, within reach, is a rusty farming implement. And it’s not there for farming. The first truck I hitch in the morning has a shotgun on the bed behind him. Also within easy reach. We ride through the endlessly rolling fields slowly. It’s dotted with ragged looking shepherd, oil wells, rusty abandoned trailers of oil trucks and abandoned military checkpoints. But everything is cool, in a Wild East kind of way. Even the slums on the outskirts of Batman, where children first start to ask me for money, and things quickly get dilapidated. I make it to Hasankeyf before the sun sets, and immediately feel comfortable. Shabby hotel (singular), overpriced restaurants. And it’s amazingly beautiful. Gorgeous actually. As I try to enter the main attraction, I see another white tourist (the only other one in town) talking to a policeman through the closed main gate. I hatch the plan to try and side-track our way into it, and take her with me. Pretty soon we are joined by a 10 year old girl, quiet but clever. She takes us on a small tour of the historical part, and meanwhile I talk to my German companion about the Ilusu dam project that threatens to wipe this place off the map. She gets on her high horse immediately, claiming she will write to her representatives to save the site. I decide to play devil’s advocate, claiming that IF this project does bring jobs and higher income to the region, it wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in the world. I’ve noticed from the outside that most of the houses here are tiny one room affairs. Chickens roam the street. Shoddy construction and peeling paint on the modern houses next to the highway. But we are interrupted when the girl invites us for tea in her house. We accept, grateful for an opportunity to see one of these houses from the inside. When I come inside, it’s even worse than I could have imagined. The room I enter is bare, save for a washing machine, a single gas stove and a pile of crockery in the corner. The floor is compacted dirt. Through the doorway to the other room, I can just make out a stack of matrasses on the wall. The mother stands in the room we’re in, almost apologetically. She barely interacts with me when I try to talk to her. In a few seconds, and I start to feel sick. I hightail it out of there, with no goodbye. The German girl is too preoccupied with taking pictures of a cat to notice I’m gone. And I wonder. Why doesn’t she see this? I quickly gang up with some local kids, and go for some running in the local gorges. Something I know I like. The next day is a school day, so the streets are mostly empty. I drink a tea, and I’m suprised to figure out most commercial places here don’t have a toilet, they direct me to a communal one. If you have ever seen one, they look the same everywhere. I explore the outskirts of town. I find that the cave houses that are the furthest from the village are being used as stables for goats,cows and chickens. There’s a military base just on the outside of town, big enough for a hundred soldiers, but it looks abandoned. Far from any border, but on a mayor highway. Things don’t quite click for me yet. I spend the majority of the afternoon exploring the bigger gorges a bit further from the village. Not a soul in sight, they are only used twice a year by shepards. But I can’t keep my attention on the hike. something is gnawing at me. It’s not the poverty, I’ve seen that before. I wasn’t expecting it, but I’ve seen it before. When the sun is down, and I’ve taken my obligatory pretty pictures, I log in online. I’m exstatic once I found out I can be a guest in a house of teachers in a small village in the Sirnak province. I wanted to see some Kurdish places besides the touristy cities and Hasankeyf, and I thought I had just gotten very lucky. I knew I couldn’t just hitch back to Batman and North, I was too curious to see this area. Too much research. In any case, I knew it was going to be safe for me. My first plan was to blast to Sirnak itself, then straight to Hakkari, and cross the border there. I know these places have nothing to see but ugly buildings and beautiful nature. But now I could spend some time in a small village, and I could just head north from there. The pictures of the town were of smiling shepards, beautiful lakes, and the teacher team acting friendly. I can be extremely naive at times. This time I’m travelling alone, and there is nobody to stop me. That night I can’t fall asleep due to anxiety, I barely catch 3 hours before I wake up around sunrise. The day starts as I expected it, I managed to stop by Midyat and a Syrian monastary for some guidebook tourism. And I make it easy to Cizre. But when I get out of the car, people suddenly aren’t curious about me anymore. When I ask some random people for the way, I mainly get the answer “why are you going there?”. Having a friend there doesn’t seem cut it. Neither does tourism. Luckily two adolescents take care of me, and help me find the right minibus for the town. But in this short walk, I’m having a lot of second doubts. It’s saturday, which explains why there are so many kids on the streets. But most of them are actually working, at a market stall, loading a pick-up or pedalling a fully loaded pushcart. The highway runs through the city. A couple of cows are grazing on the traffic divider, staring blankly at a lonely brand new Porsche with Istanbul license plates. In theory, every side of the road is double, but parked cars, overspill of tea houses and shops have reduced this to one and a bit. The bit gets used by bikes and motorcycles in both directions, on both sides. When we finally arrive, it turns out that the minibus is going to depart in 3 hours. I’ve had my fill of Cizre. It stopped being cool. I go to the tea shop a few meters down the block and spend the time sipping tea, trying to look annoyed when the locals try and talk to me. I can only talk rudimentary (hilariously called “Tarzanic” here) Turkish with them, and they the same rudimentary English with them. The same question, over and over again. Why are you going there? I’m relieved when the minibus finally comes. It stops a few hundred meters further, to get refueled. By a adolescent who can’t be more than 14, with a funnel and a 16l corroded can, obviously heavily reused. Illegal gasoline, maybe from Syria or Iran, probably Iraq. About forty meters down, a guy is smoking. Meanwhile, some live chickens are loaded in the back, providing me with some needed comical relief. And then we’re moving, and there’s no way back. As soon as we leave Cizre, nature kicks in, and it’s beautiful. Rocky hills, a road full of hairpins stunning views and a beautiful stream running through it. I decide to make a video to remember this. An armored vehicle whizzes by, and I’m happy to have it in the frame. A signpost to Sirnak, capital and origin of most problems on one side of the conflict. But we’re not going there. We take a hard left to a bridge. And then, there I am. At my first real military checkpoint, holding my camera in recording mode. Shit. I drop it quickly, putting it on the ground. They only check inside quickly, and pretty soon we’re moving again. Things go downhill from there. Every tiny hamlet has a small base attached to it, with about ten armed soldiers looking out. Most of them have a missile vehicle or two, facing the road. From time to time there is a single file of soldiers on one side of the road, with full gear. Assault rifles in hand, and a rocket launcher on their backpack. One of them is sweeping for mines in the front. I know it’s just training, there can be no mines under the tarmac. They are just in training, but that doesn’t make me feel any safer. My driver honks at every group of them, about three in total over a twenty kilometer stretch, to make sure he’s not missing any order. He’s uneasy, but used to it. It’s been like this for many years, and most of the time it was worse. And we keep going. When I arrive to Guclukonak, the minibus drops me off at the teacher’s house, where I will be staying while I’m here. Well, calling it a house would be kind of a stretch, it’s more like a compound, with a perimeter fence and a gate. Everything provided: food, entertainment and lodging. No need to go outside apart from going to school. It’s home to about 30 teachers from all around Turkey, mostly from the West. It’s where you get sent if you get bad grades in university. After a couple of years, you can leave, and the vast majority do, leaving the average age of the education staff here not dissimilar to mine. There are local teachers too, they live in ordinary houses and make very good money by the village standards. Education is done entirely in Turkish, which can be slightly problematic because the younger kids don’t understand it at all. Even the Kurdish teachers have to teach in Turkish, creating a situation not dissimilar to Spain half a century ago. We take a tiny tour of the village, past some roads lined by cliffs pockmarked by mine explosions. When I get back to the compound, the police is waiting for me in the manager’s offices. They check my passport, twice to make sure. Same question, over and over. Why are you here? While I’m waiting, I’m passing time by looking at the CCTV monitor. There are camera’s everywhere, with the ones on the outside infrared. When I go to bed, I notice from my balcony rhar most of the village is lit up. With a couple of street lights, but mostly floodlights. I’m in Guclukonak now, and I’m safe and I’m fine. Two days ago, I was suffering from the biggest culture shock I’ve had in a long while. It was over the next day, and everything getting more normal by the day. I’m staying here longer, because the are still many things I can learn here, and I think it will be good for me to learn these things. But now I have to go to bed early, because it’s a school night. And tomorrow I’ve got a class to teach.