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.