Meeting Kurdish women in their homes

Baking bread with Ayten, Gollu Village, Turkey

While walking along the streets of Southeast Turkey, Jorge and I encountered men everywhere. They were our waiters, our hotel clerks and our taxi drivers. They were the denizens of the teahouses, bakeries and kebab shops we frequented. They were the ones who we negotiated with when buying carpets and ceramics.

If we were lost, for even a moment, a man would appear out of nowhere to guide us graciously to our destination. And even if we were not lost, we were constantly chased down by grinning men eager to share with us the one English phrase everyone in Turkey knows (“Hello! Where are you from?”) and then invite us for tea at their shops or houses.

Women, on the other hand, were noticeably more discreet. We rarely saw women and, when we did, they were heavily cloaked and dared not look our way. When I had my camera out, men would gesture to me from afar to indicate they wanted their pictures taken. Women who saw my camera would hold up their hands to conceal their faces.

It was not until we had the opportunity to visit Kurdish families in their homes, which we arranged through a local company called Nomad Tours, that we interacted with women for the first time. To see women in their homes was to see women in the sphere in which they reign. I was stunned to find confident, outspoken women who looked me in the eye and answered for their husbands and brothers.

The first home we visited was in a rural Kurdish village of about twenty families near Sanliurfa. There, we stayed in the home of Ali and Ayten and their five children. Ali and Ayten were both extremely welcoming to us. But whereas Ali generally hung back, smiling sweetly and saying nothing except to tell the occasional joke, Ayten made it clear that she was in charge.

Ali and Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Upon our arrival at the house, we found Ayten crouched on a stool with her purple headscarf milking sheep, while her children stood by ready to follow her orders. Ayten then proudly showed us her garden, where she grows eggplants, tomatoes, almonds, pomegranates and a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables. She told us about the intricacies of bee-keeping and carpet-making, for which she is regarded as an expert by her community. In fact, Ayten is revered by women in her own village and the neighboring villages for her leadership and competence.

Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Over our meals, which we ate while seated cross-legged on carpets, Ayten was the first to speak. She told us about the food (for dinner, bulgur she had dried and ground herself and, for breakfast, cheese, yogurt and bread she had prepared from scratch that day) and about the family’s routine. When we timidly asked about topics that might be sensitive, such as arranged marriages and education for women, Ayten did not hesitate to answer our questions directly. She even boldly tested out her English on us (“Welcome! This is the bathroom”).

Breakfast with Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

The following day, we met a few more women Kurdish women while visiting a camp where nomads live.  We found the camp by driving along a main highway near Siverek and stopping when we saw tents on the side of the road.  Two young women, both strikingly beautiful with large eyes and dazzling smiles, greeted us warmly.  They did not seem in the least perturbed or scared by the fact that we had shown up uninvited.  They were trailed by several chubby, curly-haired toddlers.

Nomad Camp near Siverek, Turkey

The women invited us into one of their tents and laughed merrily as they told us about their lives.  They had come to this region with their families only for the winter to graze their animals.  The rest of the year they live in Erzurum, a city in northeastern Turkey with a much harsher winter climate.  We were shocked to learn their ages—only 12 and 15!  They exhibited the poise and maturity of women at least twice their age.

Kurdish nomads, Siverek, Turkey

When we peppered them with questions about marriage and education, they did not bat an eye.  They had both dropped out of school (presumably due to responsibilities at home), which they now regretted.  They were in no rush to get married and would choose to marry whomever they liked once they were older.  For now, they cooked and cleaned and cared for the children of their older siblings.

Kurdish nomads near Siverek, TurkeyBy meeting Kurdish women in their homes, I discovered that the women of Southeast Turkey are not universally submissive or shy.  The women we met, in fact, were as self-assured as the men who regularly ran up to us on the street.  However, in a society in which men and women occupy distinct social and physical spheres, what you see on the street is only half the story.

 

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, also known simply as Urfa, is a holy city. Islamic pilgrims flock here to honor the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. The most iconic site in Urfa is the Balıklı Göl, or Pool of Sacred Fish, where God is believed to have intervened to save Abraham from his death. When King Nimrod attempted to sacrifice Abraham by throwing him into a funeral pyre, God saved him by turning the fire into water and the coals into fish. Today the pool representing this miracle swarms with supposedly sacred carp, which pilgrims feed.

Sanliurfa, Turkey

A pleasant coolness infuses the warm air in the Gölbaşı gardens surrounding the Pool of Sacred Fish.  Women cloaked from head to toe stroll arm in arm beneath the shade of tree-lined canals, while couples meet for ice cream in cafés cleansed by the spray of nearby fountains.  There is even a small pond where families take their children for boat rides.  It is a fresh, pristine place where everyone seems at peace.  A small garden paradise to match the holiness of the site.

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Beyond the Pool of Sacred Fish and surrounding gardens, Urfa transforms into a chaotic and gritty city dominated by the complex web of shops that comprises its ancient bazaar.  Here, vendors sell spices, vegetables, rugs, hookahs, prayer beads, copperware, shoes, furniture and electronics.  Tailors in small cramped stalls lined with fabric make men suits and women skirts.  Men carrying large trays brimming with honey hued glasses deliver tea, the lifeblood of the bazaar, to the vendors and their customers.

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, Turkey

The people of Urfa dress conservatively, but stand out from their compatriots in neighboring provinces in their preference for purple headscarves, which are worn by men and women alike.  A variety of other attire can also be seen, from red and black checkered head scarves on men to full black chadors on women.   Sanliurfa, Turkey

Sanliurfa, Turkey

The population of Urfa is predominantly Kurdish and Arabic.  However, during our visit, we noticed a significant number of Syrian refugees.  When we would ask people in Urfa where they were from in Turkish, often they would respond with quizzical stares to show they did not understand Turkish.  As way of explanation, they would say “Suriye” (Turkish for Syria) and then, to provide further clarification, thrust their hands in the air and imitate the sound of bombings.  This was particularly sad when reenacted by children, like these three adorable boys we met while climbing to Urfa castle.

Sanliurfa, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

I was not prepared for the allure of Hasankeyf. My guidebook had called it a “heartbreaker” and I had seen the photos of its famed minaret and stone bridge. Yet, I had not expected much from this village strewn with rubble from a forgotten civilization—a story so commonplace in Turkey that it loses its wonder after a while. I reserved only an afternoon of our two-week trip through Southeast Turkey to visit the ruins of this ancient city.

Jorge and I arrived at 1:00 p.m. and, from the moment we stepped off the bus, I was taken by the tranquility of Hasankeyf. The main street of the village consists of a collection of teahouses and kebab shops perched precariously on a cliff overlooking the Tigris River, the site of the stone bridge I had seen from the photos. I peeked through one teahouse and felt a rush of cool breeze. Around me, old men on low wooden stools sat sipping their tea, their faces glowing from the warm light that emanated from the waters below.

We wandered beyond the main street and bazaar and reached the perimeter of the village. There, we discovered two steep cliffs with caves carved into the sides and large boulders littered between them. The cliffs narrowed into a gorge, which we followed along stairs and ladders built into the rock. Out of nowhere, a young man from the village ran up to us and offered to show us the way to the top of the mountain. We followed him and, as we ascended the gorge, verdant mountains spiraled around us.

At the summit, we beheld the most spectacular sight: a vast city of caves, complete with a mosque and castle, spread across the top of the mountain that faced us. Our guide told us that this was the old city of Hasankeyf, where 5,000 people had lived in caves until the 1960’s when the government forced them to relocate to a new village by the river. This old city remained perfectly intact, tantalizing in its proximity.  Officially, it was closed to the public, but our guide told us it would have been possible to visit if we only had more time.

Our bus was scheduled to leave at 6:00 p.m. Realizing we had less than two hours left in Hasankeyf, we rushed down the mountain, still bewitched by what we had seen. At the foot of the mountain, we entered an open air café, facing the castle of Old Hasankeyf, where men sat cross-legged on large flat cushions drinking coffee and smoking. There, we met an an American journalist and learned about the construction of the dam scheduled for 2015 that will flood Hasankeyf and force its residents to resettle once again. This time, the ancient city will vanish.

We had heard about the dam before coming to Hasankeyf, but had not understood the scale of the tragedy that was about to unfold until we had seen the city for ourselves. We left on the 6:00 p.m. bus, as planned, but were so captivated by Hasankeyf that we changed our itinerary and returned the following day. Even after a second day of exploring this city and talking to its residents, we felt we had barely scratched the surface of this fascinating place. Hasankeyf is one ancient city in Turkey you must visit while you still have the chance.  Though the construction of the dam is currently scheduled for 2015, residents told us it likely won’t be built for a few years, which means you still have a few years to see this city before it disappears.

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

 

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Midyat, Turkey

Midyat, Turkey

 

Midyat, another ancient city in northern Mesopotamia, was historically defined by its large population of Syriac Christians.  In fact, for much of history it was known by its Syriac name, Tur Abdin.  Syriac Christianity originated in the first century AD in Antioch, modern day Antakya in southern Turkey.  It was the religion of the followers of Jesus Christ and, to this day, Syriac Christians speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Today, Kurds outnumber Syriac Christians in Midyat.  Most Syriac Christians emigrated to neighboring Syria during the past century following the Armenian Genocide (in which 300,000 Christians were also killed) and the enactment of discriminatory policies against Christians by the Ataturk government.  Some have returned as a result of the recent war in Syria.  Their legacy persists in the Aramaic still spoken on the streets and the nine Syriac churches throughout the city.

 

Midyat, Turkey

Midyat, Turkey

Midyat, TurkeyMidyat, Turkey

Midyat, Turkey

 

Mardin, Turkey

Mardin, Turkey

Mardin, an ancient hilltop city of honey-colored stone buildings, overlooks the fertile plains of Mesopotamia.  This region, situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is considered the cradle of civilization of the West.  Mardin itself dates back to 4000 BCE and has witnessed the passing of many cultures, from the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Muslim Ummayids, who introduced Islam to the city.  Mardin was also an important stopover point along the Silk Road due its strategic position at the junction of two transit roads.

Today, Mardin is a diverse city of Kurds, Turks, Arabs and Syriac Christians.  Women cloaked in head scarves and dark flowing skirts float down narrow sloping streets, past glowing mosques, madrasahs and caravanserais, before disappearing into shadowy arched arcades that house markets and serve as passageways.  Old men in black suits and skull caps idle away their hours in the city’s many tea houses, chatting and contemplating the views of the expansive plains below.  The younger men sell jewelry, copper ware and textiles along a bustling thoroughfare throbbing with cars and Arab music, the only street in Mardin that is wide enough to permit the passage of vehicles.  In the rest of the city, donkeys provide the sole source of transportation, functioning as garbage collectors, porters and water carriers.

In our day and a half here, we have met only two people who speak English, the Imam of the Great Mosque and the owner of a nearby restaurant.  Nonetheless, absolutely everyone we have encountered has been incredibly warm and friendly and treated us like royalty for being foreign.  For now, Mardin is a favorite destination only among Turkish tourists.  I highly recommend coming before the hoards of foreign tourists arrive and you can still feel the thrill of stepping back in time as you wander the streets of this ancient city.

Mardin, Turkey

Mardin, Turkey

Mardin, Turkey

 

 

Leaving for Turkey

Kas, Turkey

In 2011, I visited Turkey for the first time. It was love at first sight. From the idyllic beaches and Roman ruins of the southern Mediterranean coast to the ancient cave churches and dwellings of Cappadocia to the bustle and energy of Istanbul, Turkey enchanted me. I was struck by its beauty, its rich history and the gentle generosity of its people.

I was also intrigued by the social and political tensions that were hinted at nearly everywhere we went. Repeatedly, I heard guides, innkeepers and waiters grumble about Prime Minister Erdogan and the religious affiliation of his political party. They accused the governing party of wanting to turn their country into a Muslin theocracy like Iran. They feared losing their individual liberties and way of life at the hands of a religious government.

The Turks I encountered represented the liberal, progressive half of this society. They drank raki, wore bikinis on the beaches I visited in the south and danced wildly in a gay pride parade I stumbled upon in Istanbul. They were proud of being Turkish, but identified strongly with Western values.

I wondered about the other half of this society, the religious, conservative Turks of whom the liberal Turks were so suspicious. I had only one brief glimpse into this other world. On an all-night bus ride from the southern city of Antalya to Cappadocia, we made a stop at dawn at a bus terminal somewhere near Konya, a city known for being deeply religious. All of the women were draped in loose dark clothing, their heads covered by scarfs. They rushed by me silently, small children clutching their hands. Men engaged in hushed conversation sat low to the ground drinking tea. No one spoke English. There was a calm restraint in the air, a heavy feeling of holiness. I was mesmerized. I did not want to board the bus.

Now, three years later, I am once again on my way to Turkey. This time, I am skipping the beaches and splendor of the coasts and devoting my time to Southeastern Anatolia, one of the most conservative and overlooked parts of the country. I am drawn by ancient Arabic cities, ruins of lost civilizations and the opportunity to explore a more obscure side of Turkey. I will spend the night in a Kurdish village, drink tea with nomads in a tent and visit the spectacular snow covered head statues of Nemrut Dagi at sunset. This will be a very different trip.