In a previous blog, Journey to the Center of the Onion, I wrote about the trip my son and I had taken to Eastern Turkey last August. I described the places we had visited and the incredible historical and archaeological sites we had seen. In my next blog, Eastern Turkey Part 1, I went on at some length about the excellent cuisine of Turkey, in general, and Eastern Turkey in particular. In today’s blog, I’d like to describe my impressions of some of the people we encountered on the way.
People are people, so why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully…
First Hand Experiences
We had so many interactions along the road of our two-week journey that it would take too long to describe them all. But here are some of the highlights. In Trabzon, a large historic seaport in the Turkish north-east, we joined a day tour to visit the ancient Sumela Monastery, the typical farming village of Hamsiköy, high on a mountain plateau, and the Karaca Caves. Along the way, my amiable son, Emre, struck up a dialogue with the tour bus driver, Ahmet Bey, who joined us for lunch and later went out of his way to do us a huge favour. After driving all day long, he dropped us off at our budget hotel and then, after dropping off the rest of his passengers, he returned and transported us free of charge to a more comfortable hotel on the other side of the city.
In Diyarbakır, a mostly Kurdish city in South East Turkey. I had a very pleasant conversation with a young barrista at our hotel who very openly shared information about the people and politics of the region. A common complaint in that part of the country is that Turks see easterners (i.e. Kurds) as others who are hostile to the state of Turkey. She pointed to the devastation of the neighbourhood of Sur across from the hotel, which had been levelled by the army to quell a “militant uprising” in 2016. She was young, educated and modern in appearance and I remarked that I didn’t see as many head scarved women or women in hijab as we had noticed in the more conservative Trabzon. She dismissed my observation, saying that there wasn’t so much societal / family pressure in the east to cover up and that most girls decided for themselves.
Mardin turned out to be the biggest surprise of all. Built upon a rocky citadel jutting out of the Mesopotamian Plains close to the Tigris River, its Arabic architecture resembles a place you might see in an Indiana Jones film. Dating back to the time of the Hittites, it’s homes and cavernous hotels are terraced into the sides of the hill. Narrow streets, lanes, and stairways lead up to the summit, upon which is found an enormous fortress dating back more than 3000 years. But while the castle itself is ancient, the people themselves are quite modern and cosmopolitan. Mostly Kurdish and Arab, the inhabitants also include remnants of ancient Jewish, Christian and Assyrian communities which seem to live together in peace and harmony. Upon querying the local wine sellers (wine shops abound on the main street through the old town and you can pop in and out of them sampling the local vintages), we were told repeatedly that people there are more concerned about the content of their fellow citizens’ characters than their religious affiliation. It really is a cultural melting pot – not to mention a gourmet’s paradise. If you go there, be sure to travel the extra 65 kms to its sister city of Midyat and visit the Assyrian Women’s Center, which provides education in the Assyrian language, folklore, handicrafts, music, and photography. I was even asked if I’d be interested in moving there to teach English!
Our Right Wing Taxi Driver
While in Mardin, we took up the offer of a congenial seeming Turkish taxi driver named Kemal, who took us on an affordable tour to Midyat, the ancient ruins of Dara, and the amazing Syriac Monasteries and Muslim Medresses in the region. Although he was friendly and had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the historical places we visited, we accidentally stepped into a mine field when our conversation veered into politics. No lover of Turkey’s founder (and his namesake), Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, he reminded me of a Trump supporter for his fervent embrace of the country’s current leader and all sorts of political conspiracy theories. Now my wife comes from a strongly Kemalist family, and Turks of many different political stripes revere Atatürk, who they believe saved them from foreign domination. Having been brought up in the Turkish education system, my son was no exception. This man’s theories were so bizarre and antithetical to all that he believed that I could sense Emre fuming in the back seat of the taxi and I was afraid that at any moment he might leap over the driver’s seat and throttle the unwitting chauffeur. Squirming uncomfortably myself, I diffused the situation by thanking Kemal for his interesting perspective and deftly changed the subject. It was a big bump in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable tour.
Turks are rightly famous for their hospitality. Needless to say, the people of Eastern Turkey aren’t excepted from this trait, as we experienced during our trip on more than one occasion. We also encountered an openness to share and a curiosity towards foreigners that is sometimes lacking in larger cities like Istanbul, where we are a more common sight. Finally, we were sorry to feel their pain regarding how they believe they are perceived by their ethnically Turkish cousins to the west. If only Mardin could be used as a template for inter-ethnic relations in Turkey, the country might be a more peaceful place.