Journey to the bottom of Turkey

Journey to the  bottom of Turkey

Yüksekova, a district of Hakkari Province, is situated close to the border with Iran. (PHOTO: TODAY ZAMAN)

June 25, 2012, Monday/ 17:58:00

Turkey is a huge land mass, with nearly 75 million people inhabiting a space that spans 2,000 kilometers wide.

With a view to explore this great country as much as I could, I had the fortunate opportunity to visit the town of Yüksekova, which is 200 kilometers further east from Van, and located in Hakkari province. It is effectively at the bottom end of Turkey, approximately 60 kilometers from both the Iranian and Iraqi borders.

Getting into Yüksekova after flying to Van proved a treacherous journey crossing mountainous terrain approximately 2,000 feet above sea level. Rivers flowed beside us as we drove on the rocky roads in earnest, finally arriving in the town of Yüksekova, which is on a flat plain surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides.

According to recent estimates, the town contains approximately 60,000 people and they are all of Kurdish ethnicity. In effect, I was deep inside “Turkey’s Kurdistan territory.”

I stayed with the family of a colleague from my university, İsmail Hakkı. A well-built man in his late 20s, he is a proud Kurd, as are all Kurds I have met in recent months here in İstanbul. I was afforded the warmth, peace and nobleness of his most generous family, including his five brothers, who range in age between the mid-20s and 40. Their mother and father were kind and gave me the freedom of their home as if I were one of their sons. Steeped in traditional Kurdish and Sunni-Hanafi culture, we ate together on the floor, seated on elegant kilims and cushions. The food I consumed was lavishly prepared by the matriarch and her daughters-in-law.

We all ate together, young and old, and by the third night I had them all trying to speak a little English, while I continued to embarrass myself with what little Turkish and Kurdish I so far amassed. What was comforting was the way in which Kurdish and Urdu have so many common phrases and terms. We drew comfort in trading interchangeable Kurdish and Urdu phrases while I continued to emphasize the culture of my parents and how the ways of my hosts were not too dissimilar to them.

Feeling at home

I sometimes regard myself culturally imperialized, disconnected from my heritage through the migration of my parents to England in the 1950s and early 1960s, and now far removed from the place of my birth, the city of Birmingham. Presently living in a land with its own array of peoples and cultures, unified under the banner of a modern secular republic, all the while keeping the deeply rooted cultural traditions of old alive behind the facade of tall residential buildings, I find myself an “alien.” In Yüksekova, I felt at home, or the nearest thing to it, past or present, real or imagined.

There was one embarrassing moment on the third night, however. In Britain, when eating a meal together, it is normally customary to begin when the host begins and to leave the table only when the host decides to. I realized that here in Yüksekova, while we all began to eat together, it is the host who does not get up until the guest decides to. Not realizing this, I waited for many minutes for the mother and father to get up so that I could, too. But they did not. It dawned on me that they were waiting for me to get up, and I duly did in the end but not until some cajoling from İsmail, who asked as he walked across the room, “Are you still eating?” I had in fact been waiting to get up for many minutes, but I did not realize my mistake. Sometimes I feel that as a BBCD (“British-born confused desi”) I do not belong anywhere. While this helps to keep a critical edge when I am looking at the world around me, it is often a lonely place.

The highlight of the three-day trip was “the picnic.” We piled into three cars, driving first to the ancestral village of the Hakkı family, some 50 kilometers away. A brand new family house, only months away from completion, is situated at the corner of the village, surrounded by rolling fields and mountains in the distance. The house will have everything necessary for life there, even wireless Internet. We then drove further on to a place described as “a garden” by İsmail. When we arrived to a space that had nothing but wild growth to show for it at first, I discovered an orchard, with trees and plants of fruit of every variety and hue. A stream flowed alongside, gently humming in the background at all times. I followed the folk deeper into “the garden” to discover strawberries and cherries so vivid in color and so succulent in taste. I last recall picking fruit from a tree and eating it as I did so in the early 1980s, when all the rage for families in England was to visit places such as Evesham to “pick your own.”

Lunch was eventually served, consisting of the meat of two goats slain earlier that morning. We ate it with glee, washing it down with lashings of tea. As the boys and I lounged around, allowing the food to digest, we decided to go swimming in the river. We walked to a point where it was felt safe to do so, stripped down accordingly and took a collective plunge into the cool water that was fresh and fast as the streams from higher up formed a rapid flow below. It was a lot of fun indeed, and we enjoyed those moments of trying to stay standing as the water splashing flights ensued.

Returning to the flock, and after some further lounging around, we decided to climb the nearest mountain. And we did. I struggled a little as the air was light and I could feel how unfit I had become living the sedentary life of an İstanbulite. We got to a position called Govend Rock, at which point we paused and took in the amazing scenery and looked down at the garden, which appeared now more as a forest from high above. The brothers decided to engage in an impromptu dance. Govend Rock means dancing rock. I noted brotherly love unsurpassed as I looked on.

Getting down was far quicker if not more eventful. Using the groove between two faces of the mountain side, where sand and small stones had collected, I was running and sliding down at the same time. With my trendy shoes full of sand and small stones, we returned to the family to be greeted with great amusement that I had actually come back unscathed. As the unfit alien foreigner, all I could do was to empty the sand and stones from my shoes to emphasize my bravery. They were not impressed.

The next day I had the opportunity to attend a Kurdish wedding. Women, who are not always seen on the streets in great numbers, were dressed in long dresses with such amazing shades of purple, green and blue. Gold was adorned around their necks and wrists, and they sat with confidence and poise. It was not the image I had of the cowering Kurdish woman at the hands of the dominant male. While women often remain in the domestic sphere, they have full authority of their domains while maintaining a hold on all family relations. When it was time for the collective dance, which included all, men and women, young and old, I was encouraged to join in. It was at this moment it was confirmed that I indeed have two left feet as I found it hard to coordinate what seemed an easy routine as an onlooker. The pressure of performance took its toll and I quickly assumed the guise of the foolish outsider who wanted to fit in and failed but should at least be given some credit for trying.

At times I was with other people in various new settings that I found myself in when accompanying members of the family, after pleasantries were exchanged between us through İsmail, who acted as translator, and after they asked where I was from and what I was doing in their town, the inevitable question came. What did I think about the “Kurdish issue”? Of course, I am still learning more about this “issue” myself and so I turned the question back on them. Various responses came back, including the idea that discussions are better than they have ever been and that it is possible to be optimistic at some level and that within a year a solution could be had. Others pointed the finger at the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) itself and said that they are the problem per se. Some were of the view that no solution could ever be achieved. For them, the status quo will remain, as it has since the emergence of the secular Turkish state.

There was no overwhelming consensus. However, what is clear is that the local population had a local Kurdish leadership in place. It certainly felt to me that the Kurds were in charge of their local affairs. Even the Turkish police only roamed the streets in bulletproof machine gun-loaded vehicles. Some areas of the town were described as no-go areas for the police.

My own experience of the wonderful family I stayed with was a sense of charm and warmth. I ate fruit from trees, climbed a mountain to get to a rock where a dance ensued and I swam in a river (or rather floated downstream most of the time). I also attended a wedding where I danced with other guests at the wedding party, albeit with two left feet. Time has another dimension for people in Yüksekova, who are rich in tradition and culture, humble and serene.

While I thoroughly enjoyed so much of my time, I had the feeling that things were not calm. Sadly, just over a day I left the town to return to İstanbul, in the Dağlıca area of Hakkari province, 50 kilometers southwest of Yüksekova, near the Iraqi border, PKK members and Turkish soldiers exchanged gunfire, leaving 26 dead, with casualties on both sides. It was one of the fiercest exchanges between these opposing groups in recent years. It has raised further alarm bells among the political establishment of Turkey. But what remains true is that the spirit of the people in deep Kurdish territory will not be unabated. Theirs is a world far removed from high political drama. Their land is in their blood and it pumps through their collective veins with vigor, and in spite of any attempts to make them think or believe anything else.