There was no bus from Gaziantep to Mardin, said the man in the otogar (bus station), but he knew a man… The man stood beside a white Ford Transit minibus, looking dubiously at me and my new travelling companion, a student at a university in İstanbul, travelling back to his village for the summer holiday. Clearly, this journey would need some work to turn a profit.
We zigzagged the back streets of Gaziantep searching for passengers and calling out the names of places on the way to Mardin. “Nizip… Birecik… Urfa…” We found a man who wanted to go to Birecik. He knew of someone who wanted to go to Viranşehir, on the other side of Urfa. We went in search of this person.
We drew up at a car repair yard and the driver asked the whereabouts of our prospective bus mate. Nobody knew where he was. The driver got out and shook hands with everyone in a crowd of men drinking tea, reading newspapers and gossiping. To one side was a small boy actually fixing a car. He was sent in search of the Viranşehir man. Twenty minutes passed. The driver took his second glass of çay. The Birecik man beside me grumbled volcanically. He was wearing a heavy woollen jacket in the 40ºC heat and, inexplicably, was not sweating.
The university student got out. We followed and were supplied with çay. The small boy returned in triumph. Our traveller had been asleep in a nearby house and was now on his way. We finished our çay and got back in the dolmuş. Half an hour passed. The Birecik man started to sweat. His glimpses at his large pocket watch increased in frequency and pointedness.
A door opened at the top of a flight of steps and our passenger appeared, adjusting a powder-blue khaffiyeh. He was immaculate in a black three-piece suit and his moustache was trimmed perfectly. His half hour had been well spent. He greeted us magisterially, breezed into the privileged front seat, and we were on our way with four passengers.
Once on the road, there was a steady stream of people headed from village to farm, from farm to village with huge sacks of produce, or from village to market with enormous sacks of everything. The roof-rack filled until we reached Nizip, the first major town, and refilled with the belongings of people going further down the track.
At Birecik, we crossed the mighty Euphrates River and disgorged most of our passengers, including the overdressed grumbling man. We picked up a couple of young soldiers returning to their posts after leave. They sat gloomily with their city clothes and haircuts, unenthusiastic about returning to the life of the conscript.
Urfa produced a scramble of activity. The dolmuş ambled through the outskirts, stopping frequently to let people and their bundles on and off. Purchases from the big city piled up on the roof and we rumbled past the small factories and repair shops back into the open country. After a river crossing, the university student alighted and strode purposefully into the emptiness.
The first roadblock came shortly afterwards. My foreign passport attracted no comment but the two soldiers were hauled out and their leave permission papers examined minutely. Shortly afterwards, we arrived at a grim military outpost. The soldiers retrieved their camouflage bags from the roof rack and set off gloomily towards the barrier gate. A child fell asleep on me, semiconsciously climbing onto my lap and finding a comfortable position before slumping and beginning his deep, regular breathing. I looked around to see his parents at the back of the minibus chatting animatedly. That sort of trust existed in the western world not so long ago.
Near Urfa, the land had been blooming with new greenness. The GAP dam project and its associated irrigation had transformed the semi-desert of ten years before into a rich tapestry of cotton fields and orchards. Here, however, it was the same horizon-to-horizon patchy grassland with occasional flocks of goats watched by weatherproof herders.
In the middle of nothing was Viranşehir. This means ruined city. Viranşehir lived up to its name. It was composed of concrete blocks scattered in no readily observable pattern around the road. The blue-headdress man got out here. He sauntered over to a group of men drinking çay as though he had left them only five minutes earlier. Before we set off again, he had a glass of çay in his hand and was deep in a conversation.
On the way out of town, the nearly empty minbus was flagged down by a large man with a moustache and a speech impediment. He convinced the driver to enter the maze of Viranşehir streets and reverse between two of the ubiquitous car repair workshops.
The moustached man ran off and reappeared with 17 members of his family and a corpse on his back. The corpse was dumped in the front seat of the dolmuş and propped up by a woman who squeezed in next to it. Eleven other family members clambered onto the minibus, filling every possible space. From their happy chatter, it appeared that they were all going to visit relatives in Kızıltepe, the next town.
A little way out of Viranşehir, the corpse served notice that it wasn’t dead. It coughed, slowly and dolefully, then again. It continued, each cough coming faster than the one before until it sounded like a diesel engine ticking over nicely. The family clamoured for the driver to stop. The corpse was hauled out and laid flat on the side of the road while the coughing slowed and finally stopped. It lay there, a corpse once more. The family continued its animated conversation.
When the corpse had been still for what was judged to be long enough, it was loaded back into the front seat and arranged to lie as flat as possible. Off we went again, picking up no passengers because the dolmuş was full.
Just before the rambling town of Kızıltepe, the family called for the driver to stop and disgorged as a body. All except the big moustached man, the corpse, and the woman who propped it up straggled off happily down a dusty road towards a distant village.
The much quieter bus headed into Kızıltepe with an urgent conversation going on between the driver and the man with the moustache. As a result of this, all the other passengers were dropped at a dolmuş stand, while the corpse and its two attendants sped off elsewhere, hopefully to a hospital. The remaining four of us traded glances, shrugged and got into a dolmuş with a ‘Mardin’ sign.
As we drew close to Mardin, a range of flat-topped hills appeared out of the plain. Around the summit of the tallest mesa was a good-sized city crowned by a ruined castle. This was Mardin. The Ford Transit ground up through a modern city, predictably called Yenişehir, then wound around the mountain opening up wider vistas as it went higher. When it reached an open stretch of relatively flat ground, it stopped.
I walked up the main street, Birinci Caddesi, into a medieval world of low, honey-coloured sandstone buildings. The Post Office on the right was in a 17th century kervansaray. Of several unobtrusive mosques with massively prominent minarets, the chief was the 11th century Selçuk Ulu Camii. However, I was aiming for the ugliest buildings in town, the hotels. The Hotel Bayraktar was a tall, crumbling, blue monstrosity that looked as if its rooms would have wonderful views of the surrounding plain. The lobby was empty except for a smiling old man slumped in an armchair.
“Hello,” I said. He nodded and chuckled.
“Do you have any rooms?” I continued. He chortled and raised his eyebrows to show that he didn’t. I looked at the board behind the reception desk. Every room key was in place. I indicated this.
“Are there no rooms free at all?”
He raised his eyebrows again and laughed. “Closed,” he sniggered.
“Closed?” I looked around. He was right. Everything was closed. “Why?”
“Inspection.” He chuckled to himself about this.
“Oh. Why is it being inspected?”
The old man began a protracted bout of guffawing.
“Will it be open later?” More laughter. “Tomorrow?” Ha ha ha ha ha.
Clearly, I would be staying somewhere else tonight.
I walked back to the uninviting Hotel Başak, which I had seen on the way, and booked myself into a cell which was more than twice as high as it was long. However, it did have an electric fan, and the toilet down the hall worked.
Later I found that in the old city of Mardin, Birinci Caddesi was the only street that cars could enter. The rest of the city was too steep and the thoroughfares too narrow for anything but pedestrians and donkeys. As a result, donkeys played a vital part in the life of the bazaar district. Produce was carried there by donkey and everything, including garbage, was taken away by donkey. One of the main businesses in the bazaar was the making and repair of donkey saddles. These intricate affairs were made from fine kilims and included a wide variety of pockets and panniers. I had seen parts of these saddles offered for sale in İstanbul’s Kapalıçarşı (Grand Bazaar) but I had not seen the whole process before.
Above the main road, the secondary thoroughfares were reached by steep steps. I climbed as high as I could until I reached the military zone at the top of the hill. Then I walked along the top of the city, looking down on the flat-roofed sandstone buildings with the blue-painted bedsteads on which people slept outside in the hot season. Far below was the patchwork quilt of the cultivated plain.
As the sun set, the sandstone turned a warm red and a breeze sprang up. Suddenly, the sky was full of kites – multicoloured hexagonal ones with long, centipede-like tails. As I was photographing the Ulu Camii in its rosy, sunset glory below me, a big blue and yellow kite intruded into the frame.
If I could put the kite into the right position, it would make the perfect picture. A shouted conversation with the kite-flyer on the flat roof far below resulted in him flying the kite as close as possible to my camera. It dropped to the ground a couple of times so I scrambled across the roofs, dodging washing and apricots spread out to dry, in order to retrieve it and throw it back into the sky.
A flim later, I moved onto the twin fluted domes of the İsa Bey Medresesi, an ancient Islamic seminary. Local families enjoyed the view in the shade of the majestic domes. Finally, the sun set completely and the city below came alive with children playing in the narrow streets, women sitting in companionable groups outside each other’s houses, youths promenading along the main street, and men gathering to drink coffee in the slowly cooling air.
On the next day, I took breakfast in a çay bahçe with a Selçuk minaret and the spectacular view of the plain on one side, and the unexpectedly handsome Post Office on the other. Small boys carried baskets of baked delicacies from person to person and the world was a wonderful place.
My aim for the day was to visit Morgabriel Monastery (Deyrul Umur). This was a Syriac monastery, established so close to the time of Christ that the language of worship was still Aramaic, rather than the more widespread Greek. The area had been an important one for the Orthodox Church but the depredations of time and politics had eroded the number of Christians living there. Mardin itself had several handsome churches. These were walled like fortresses, presumably for good reason.
My first stop was Midyat, in atmosphere a little like Mardin without the hill. The old town was a maze of narrow lanes and arch-windowed Arab houses. Churches loomed at intervals like great ships in the sea of low, flat buildings. Christian families were still living here, but the region was mostly Kurdish now.
Small children appeared when they saw my camera. They had three questions in English: “What is your name?, “Where are you from?”, and “Are you married?”. Then they got down to the real business. “Money, money?” They also offered to accept sweets and ballpoint pens. They proved to be reliable guides, pointing to large and obvious churches and exclaiming “church!”. They then followed me to the dolmuş stand and stood gaping while I found the minibus to İdil, which would pass within a few kilometres of the monastery.
Half an hour later, I was standing on the road at a signpost that pointed to Morgabriel. The dolmuş roared off, leaving me in total silence. I walked to the top of the hill and saw in the emptiness a few kilometres away a complex of buildings surrounded by a formidable wall.
Eventually, I reached the impressive gateway and passed along the cool avenue through the trees that surrounded the monastery. The locked doorway had several impressive Syriac inscriptions and a notice informing that I had arrived out of visiting hours.
As I wondered what to do, the door opened and a young, well-dressed man emerged. We exchanged greetings and unexpectedly he began to speak in excellent English when he realised that I was foreign. It turned out that Fırat had been a student at the monastery and was now back for his summer holidays from studying at a university in İstanbul where tuition was in English.
I was embarrassed that my arrival time had revealed my complete lack of preparation, but when Fırat found out that I had walked from the main road, he immediately ushered me through the entrance gates and began to show me the monastery.
We passed through an archway carved with intricate tree designs and Syriac inscriptions. We were now in a courtyard surrounded by sandstone buildings of the same style as those in Mardin and Midyat, but with a higher level of decoration. This contrasted with the austere interior of the chusrch into which we now passed. The sanctuary was entered through a narrow opening protected by a massive stone stand on which rested a huge Bible with a cover of beaten metal. The atmosphere in the church was respectful but this did not inhibit the animated conversations.
The great age of the monastery was emphasised by the obviously Byzantine design of the building to which we passed next. This was a huge, domed chamber which had been a gift from Empress Theodora, presumably before the bishop of the area broke with the Patriarch in Constantinople over a difference of opinion of the nature of Christ, which resulted in the establishment of the Syrian Orthodox church. This cool, quiet place had been a refectory for the resident monks although its superb acoustic qualities would have been perfect for choral music. The old kitchens were in satisfyingly solid barrel-vaulted chambers to one side.
From here, Fırat led me into an underground chamber which contained the remains of the thousands of monks who had lived, worked and died at Morgabriel, and were interred as martyrs. The remains of the founders of the monastery, and those of the first Patriarch, were buried in separate chambers with holes from which pilgrims could take the consecrated earth back to their villages in the same way that the devout take water from Lourdes.
We were in a church dedicated to the mother of Christ when an insistent bell rang. Fırat politely continued showing me the altar, but it was clear that I was keeping him from something. It turned out to be lunch, an important event in the daily routine of the monastery. I walked with him to the refectory and was about to leave when he asked me to eat with them. Another man appeared and repeated the invitation. I refused four times before it occurred to me that not only was I committing a breach of etiquette, but that I hadn’t eaten for several hours and the emergency supplies in my backpack were not terribly tasty.
The refectory was almost full when I sat down. Most of the occupants were students, boys from the Christian families of the surrounding villages. These students come to the monastery to learn, among other things, the Syriac language needed to worship and study the sacred texts. They were serious, well-scrubbed and silent. The boys who were on lunch roster distributed bowls of lentil soup and pieces of pide bread. Soon the Bishop and the two monks arrived and took their places at the front table. The Bishop said a prayer in Aramaic, after which everyone crossed themselves and began solemnly eating.
The second course was a kısır, a mixture of bulgur, vegetables and parsley in olive oil. A salad of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers and onions accompanied this, and kavun (honeydew melon) followed. The meal was similar to those served in the four private schools in which I had worked in Istanbul, but vegetarian, and probably more tasty and healthy. The Bishop said a prayer at the end of the meal, and he and the monks swept out in a dignified manner. This was the signal for everyone else to follow them into the sunshine and begin speaking again. I had been greatly impressed by the monastery and asked several people about making a donation, as I had not seen any of the receptacles that are often provided for such things in religious buildings frequently visited by tourists. Each enquiry was met with embarrassment and I left without giving anything, and feeling embarrassed myself.
About sixty people were living in the monastery. Most of these were students, although there were gardeners, cooks, caretakers and the people carrying out restorations to some of the buildings. Clearly the population has been much greater in the past and, if the current stability in the area continues, perhaps Syrian Christianity can again thrive in this part of Turkey. (A friend visited Morgabriel in 2014 and said that the atmosphere was very different – oriented greatly towards tourism.)
I walked back to the main road and hitched a ride back to Mardin with the driver of the van that delivers newspapers to the area. Mardin was beginning to feel like home. I walked around in the cool evening, enjoying the changing colours of the buildings as the sun set, watching the rising flocks of kites, and allowing the smells from the restaurants to guide me towards my choice of evening meal.
I had an inexpensive dinner in one of the many kebap restaurants. Here water was kept cool in an enormous earthenware jar that allowed heat energy to be lost by continuous slow evaporation. This method has probably been used since the beginning of civilisation. Further down the street. I looked in the window of a shop and saw rows of brand new Singer foot treadle sewing machines, the type that are sold as quaint antiques in expensive shops on the Kings Road in Chelsea. The shopkeeper said that this was his best-selling model because the electricity supply was not always reliable. A quick look in the tailors’ shops in the bazaar showed this to be true.
My old Tissot watch had stopped so I took it to a watch repairer, who called for çay, changed my battery, adjusted the angle of the hands so they could go round unimpeded, and snapped the watch back together. Then he moved his chair opposite mine. It was time for conversation.
Did I know that most people here were Kurdish but not allowed to listen to music or have children educated in the Kurdish language? Many Kurds were strongly in favour of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union because this would focus attention on what EU countries would regard as human rights abuses. I had not heard this argument advanced by any of the politicians campaigning for the forthcoming election. It appeared that although almost everyone in this region could speak Kurdish, very few people were literate in the language, simply because there was nothing to read. Almost everyone could read and write Turkish because of the effective Turkish education system. I later met some people in Hakkari who got around the language problem by logging onto Kurdish websites.
Enough of politics, he said, and asked the usual question about whether I had children. He had read that the population was falling in Italy and other western countries because people were having less children. I gave some reasons for not having children yet, such as the cost of bringing them up and educating them, and the ways that having them would curtail freedoms that I valued. He looked at me blankly. In Turkey, education is free, he reminded me. And if I wanted to go out with my wife without the children, I could just leave them with one of the family members that lived with me. There didn’t seem to be much point in talking about the cost of childcare or universities, or telling him that none of our family members lived in the same country as us.
He filled the gap left by my silence by talking about divorce. Did I think my wife and I would get divorced? Did many people do that where I lived? I remembered how many of my students in Portsmouth came from single-parent homes. He told me that only one in a thousand marriages in the Mardin region ended in divorce. Perhaps, he suggested, it wasn’t a good idea to have children if we were only going to separate in a few years.
I went back to my hotel cell with a slight headache born of discussing familiar topics from unfamiliar points of view. Washing some clothes took my mind off it. I had originally intended to let my normal standards of hygiene slide a little during my time in the south-east. Perhaps I would not bother to shave and maybe I could wear the same clothes for two days instead of one. I had reckoned without the obsessive cleanliness of the people in this region. Every man was either clean-shaven, or had his beard neatly trimmed. And how did people manage to walk across several miles of wilderness and still get onto a minibus with uncrinkled shirts and knife-edge creases in their trousers? I had been forced to buy shaving equipment and clothes-washing detergent as soon as I reached Gaziantep.
For once, I had a plan. I would try to take a direct bus to Cizre, then take whatever form of transport presented itself to Şırnak, Siirt and, if time remained, eventually to Van. The permanent fixture behind the desk at the Cizre Nuh İtimat bus company informed me that a bus to Şırnak would leave at 9:30. I bought my ticket and retired to the çay bahçe with the unparalleled view, and bought my breakfast from the boys with big trays on their heads.
Feeling that I ought to try taking some pictures of donkeys and kilim-saddle-makers in the pazar, off I went with my conspicuous camera. Spotting a particularly industrious man constructing a saddle, I screwed up my courage and asked if I could take his picture. “Yap!” (Do it), he said crossly, as well I might if some weird stranger blundered into my workplace and brandished a camera at me. When I asked if he wanted the pictures, he immediately smiled and was much happier about me sticking optical equipment in his face. His address, when he gave it to me, was minimalist: name, occupation and street.
Having some time, I squeezed myself into my hotel cupboard where the fan was making a brave attempt at neutralising the 40ºC furnace, and read about how Jane Eyre was unable to wash one day because the water had frozen in the ewer.
The Şırnak bus contained the usual assortment of conscripts returning from leave, nuclear families paying extended family visits, and people bringing Pazar purchases back to their villages. And a foreigner going to Şırnak which nobody could work out. The man beside me had bought a spring balance (designed for weighing fish) in Mardin, and he was intent on finding out whether it could be flicked about like tesbih worry beads. Grunts of annoyance indicated that it couldn’t, so the real tesbih appeared and was put into service.
The fare-collector brought welcome cups of Pepsi to everyone, then asked me if I had a document that showed that I had permission to pass through Cizre. Cizre and Şırnak had been prominent in news reports several years before as centres of Kurdish rebellion. In several regrettable incidents, PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) activists had killed Turkish soldiers and teachers working in Kurdish areas. However, I had heard nothing of such incidents for a long time so I had assumed that getting permission was unnecessary.
The fare-collector suggested that I go to the Vali (governor) in Diyarbakır to get permission. As Diyarbakır was several hundred kilometres in the opposite direction, I was not in favour of this plan. When we reached Nusaybin, the border post with Syria, he recommended that I go into the town to see if I could get a document from the police there. The driver gave me my bus fare back.
I could see their point. If the bus were stopped at a military checkpoint and I did need permission, it would mean a considerable delay for the bus and its passengers while it was sorted out. I went off to Nusaybin’s dusty otogar (bus station). Here I explained my problem and asked what I should do. The Turkish decision-making huddle formed. There were four factions:
- I didn’t need permission so I should rejoin my bus before it finished filling up with diesel.
- I should go to the Hükümet Konağı (government building) in the centre of town to see if they could do anything.
- I should go to Diyarbakır and get the proper permission.
- I should forget the whole thing and go somewhere else.
A man of action from faction 1 ran behind a wall, returned on a motorcycle and urged me aboard. We raced off past the service station and eventually overtook the bus.
“He doesn’t need permission.”
“Oh yes he does.”
“Oh no he doesn’t.”
But the driver was having none of it. The bus continued on its way and we returned to the otogar, stopping to pick up the man of action’s “tennis” baseball cap which had blown off in the chase.
Faction 2 put me on a minibus , giving the fare-collector strict instructions to confuse me as much as possible. He put me on another minibus which took me to the Hükümet Konağı. Inside were two policemen, one of whom knew enough English to tell me, “You do not need permission to go to Cizre. You do not need permission to go anywhere. Everywhere in Turkey is free.” What this actually meant was, “Well, I don’t think you need any documents but I really don’t know. Anyway, we can’t do anything about it in this office so why don’t you go away and try your luck and stop wasting our time with questions we can’t answer?”
So I got onto a minibus, and another one, then a dolmuş to Cizre because the buses to Şırnak had finished for the day. Just before Cizre, we were stopped at a military checkpoint. Unaccountably, everyone’s identification papers were checked except mine. The soldiers were more interested in checking the conscripts returning from leave for the right paperwork. İ didn’t know whether to be relieved because I was past the checkpoint or worried because I was in Cizre illegally.
Cizre is in the underexploited oil-rich area of south-eastern Turkey. Although there is probably quite a bit of legitimate wealth-creation going on there, the number of 34 (İstanbul) and 06 (Ankara) registered Mercedes Benzes, the unusual number of expensive hotels, and the proximity to the Syrian border suggested that not everyone was paying their taxes.
Although surrounded by arid hills, Cizre had a pleasant atmosphere because of the Tigris River running through it. The river was full of children having various forms of fun. The air was dusty because of trucks moving around on the river bed harvesting alluvial sand.
Turning down multitudinous helpful offers of taxis to far-off places, I found the dolmuş to Şırnak. We set off, crossing the Tigris and watching people below splashing about on rented surf-skis. All of Cizre’s houses had blue-painted bedsteads on their roofs or in their gardens because the interiors of the houses were too hot for sleeping in the summer.
We drove parallel to the Tigris for a while, then followed a tributary up into mountains similar to South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. There was a routine check-point. Soldiers took ID from everyone including me. Soon, one soldier returned everyone’s identity cards, but asked me to go and explain myself. The commander in charge of the post called for çay and watermelon and commenced a good-natured interrogation in which I admitted that I did not have permission or any good reason to be in this part of the country. It occurred to me at this time that having nine Turkish entry stamps in a passport less than three years old was the kind of thing that invited suspicion.
It transpired that Şırnak was the one place in Turkey where my presence was not permitted. A the commander pointed out, if I were kidnapped by terrorists, how would that reflect on the man in charge of the checkpoint that had allowed me into the area? My dolmuş roared on to Şırnak without me.
In the meantime, cars, trucks, animals and pedestrians came and went. A man was found to be carrying goats in his truck, despite not having the veterinary certificate required. He protested that he only had three goats and that they were all healthy. The commander glanced at the goats and agreed, but suggested that he have the necessary paperwork next time.
“This is why I joined the commandos,” said the commander, carrying yet another load of petty paperwork to his desk and waggling his eyebrows. The other soldiers, conscripts for the obligatory 18 months, grinned and continued stopping vehicles, collecting cards and papers and bringing them to the commander.
I found out that the political situation was in a calm phase and that nothing of particular concern was happening. However, it was known that a group which had abducted some foreigners in the 1990s was still in these mountains. The commander indicated the rugged immensity behind him and shrugged. Clearly, this checkpoint stalemate was as far as I was going.
I hitched a ride with two well-dressed and voluble Kurds in a Toyota. They explained the immensity of Kurdistan, sang part of a song in Kurdish to emphasise the frustration of not being legally allowed to use one’s own language, and boasted that oil was making them rich anyway. They stopped outside the best hotel in Cizre while I slunk off to the dolmuş stand again. If I couldn’t reach Siirt through Şırnak, I would have to go via Midyat and the wonderfully-named Batman.
First stop was the market town of İdil, site of the only deconsecrated mosque I have ever seen. One of the two imposing minarets had fallen, and the building was in use as a driving school. From İdil, another dolmuş took me to Midyat.
There was some time to wait in Midyat before the Batman dolmuş left, but thankfully the tribe of children shouting “turist!”was off duty. I sat down with Bilal, the streetwise teenager responsible for making sure that the right people caught the right buses, and drank çay. Confused by my ability to understand everything Bilal said to me but the incomprehensibility of what he said to anyone else, I asked him which languages he spoke. He explained that due to Midyat’s position at the intersection of Turkey, Kurdistan and the Arab world, everyone spoke Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic. I thought of Fırat at the monastery, who had also learned Aramaic and English.
Bilal also asked if I was going to Hasankeyf. Several people had told me that the ancient city had disappeared beneath the waters of another of Eastern Turkey’s great dams, but he said that there were ten years remaining before this was to happen, if indeed it was going to. Apparently, the dolmuş I was to take went past Hasankeyf. Perhaps there was a good side to not being allowed into Şırnak.
Eventually, I was directed into an empty minibus. Bilal jumped in too and hung out of the door shouting, “Batman, Batman” as we cruised for passengers. He then had to go and attend to another bus that was about to leave, so I was deputised to ride around in a bus, happily shouting “Batman” at passers-by.
With Bilal back on board for the money collection, the trouble started. One old man tried to pay in hand-rolled cigarettes. Bilal explained that the fare was fixed by the government and that it was two million lira or no ride. The man disembarked shouting insults, but left his wife and three sacks of onions on board. He returned just as the bus was leaving Midyat and grumpily lit up one of his roll-your-owns. There was an immediate uproar as he was forced to throw it out of the window. He sat there, sulking. I could see his point; ten years ago everyone, including small children, smoked on buses in Turkey.
At the highest point on the road, there was another military checkpoint. The two off-duty soldiers next to me were told to get off the bus and produce the relevant papers. One of the two had been cradling a somnolent toddler all the way from Midyat, and she was left standing on the seat while her father was explaining his papers. She blinked sleepily, looked around confused, and began to wail. The entire bus looked at me. I picked up the crying girl and held her so she could see her father over my shoulder. She stopped wailing. The other passengers stopped looking at me. When her father returned, she went happily back to him. That wouldn’t happen in England, I thought.
The commander checked all of the other identity cards and found a foreign passport. “English!” he bellowed. “Where are you going?”
“To the Batcave,” I didn’t say. “Batman,” I said.
But I didn’t. I ended up in Hasankeyf that night. When the bus first steamed over the highest hill and displayed the massive drainage basin filling the panorama, my first thought was what a great place for a dam. On the floor of this basin, in the small town of Gerçüş, a group of people were putting the finishing touches to their new enterprise, a bookshop called ‘Fatih Mini Kitabevi’. It seemed a pity that their efforts were going to be flooded in ten years. When I actually saw Hasankeyf, the prospect of drowning all of this was more like an obscenity.
A few more kilometres of driving beneath the projected floodwaters brought a cliff of ancient cave dwellings reminiscent of those in Cappadocia. Some tall Selçuk minarets became visible. Then we crossed the Tigris River and the full glory of Hasankeyf  appeared. A massive ruined bridge provided the foreground to a spectacular wall of fortresses, mosques and palaces reflecting the warm colours of the setting sun.
It took me some time to react. We were a kilometre out of town before I mustered the presence of mind to tell the driver that I wanted to stop and another kilometre before he believed that the foreign maniac who had been yelling “Batman” wasn’t going to Batman.
The cigarette man said, “But you won’t get to Batman tonight.”
I said, “I’ll get there tomorrow. This is too good to miss.”
“How can you just change your mind like that?”
“I am foreign. It’s normal.”
So I got off at a village called II. Kesmeköpru (Second Cut Bridge) and walked back to Hasankeyf in the golden light. I came to a türbe, a domed tomb similar to ones I had seen in Samarkand. Its mosaic of blue tiles glittered against the warm red of the clay structure. I wondered how this tomb had, alone of the buildings of this style, managed to survive for so many centuries, and presumably would until its inundation.
A small boy vainly tried to interest me in a guided tour as I rushed towards Hasankeyf’s monuments in an effort to photograph them in the fleeting glow of sunset. As darkness fell, I found a bed in the welcoming but stiflingly hot öğretmenevi (teachers’ house), had a kebap in a sleepy restaurant, and did not buy any goat-hair rugs.
During the night, it became oppressively obvious why nobody slept inside. I was inside and couldn’t sleep at all, despite the soothing sounds of the rippling Tigris and its talented chorus of frogs. After my second cold shower had raised my heartrate enough to prevent me from sleeping until I again became too hot to sleep, I gave up and went outside. It was just starting to get light.
I picked up my camera and headed out to the main architectural treasures of Hasankeyf. I was halfway up the road to the kale (castle) when I saw the Anatolian Bastard Dogs bearing down on me. Bastard Dogs are crossbreeds of the Kangal or Anatolian Shepherd Dog, a noble tan creature with a neat black mask and a feathery tail. Bastard Dogs have none of the attractive aspects of the Shepherd Dog, just the size and the teeth. One of these hideous creatures had once chased a car I was driving near Doğubeyazıt ten years before, and had actually bitten the tyre while the car was speeding along.
Now two of them were charging at me, barking with that vicious background snarl that convinced me that they had worked themselves into a killing frenzy. I dodged up some stairs towards a nearby house, horribly aware that anywhere I could get to, the dogs could get there faster. The slavering beasts skidded to a halt ten feet from me and roared out their fury, then abruptly turned and trotted away. ‘I wasn’t scared,’ I jeered silently at them when I had started breathing.
I headed away from the dogs and through a Cappadocian valley into the main town of Hasankeyf. The sun was rising and illuminating the substantial ruins of two Selçuk mosques. The sun already had a lot of power and many people were already up and about, taking flocks to pasture and doing building and repair work before it became too hot to do anything.
I decided to try for the kale again. A large group of men, which I later realised was an archaeological team, was in front of me, breaking the wave of the Bastard Dogs’ rage. I walked up steep steps through a monumental gateway and passed some welcoming cafes. The top of the cliff was an architectural treat, with spectacular views over the Tigris and surrounding country. This site must have been built on since people first learned to build. It was close to fresh water and arable land, was the most readily defendable piece of land around, and was spectacularly beautiful.
The family who lived in the ruins was just getting out of their outdoor bedsteads, and preparing to move their goats to feeding grounds. I bypassed their rather inviting-looking breakfast and found myself at Küçük Cami, the small mosque perched on the most precipitous part of the cliff. It would be hard not to pray in a place like this.
Moving further along further along the hill, I found myself having to pass through ancient dwellings and domed storage wells to make progress. These underground chambers were oppressively hot. How could anyone stay in here? Obviously they didn’t in summer. I remembered the cool, rock-cut houses in Coober Pedy, central Australia, and realised why they were buried so deep into the ground.
The Great Palace was built on a piece of prime real estate with a view of everything. Its scale was huge and its ruin almost complete, largely because bits of it had been falling off the cliff for centuries. The Ulu Camii (Great Mosque) was better preserved due to its position on safer ground away from the precipice. It was a beautiful, robust building abounding in elegant pointed arches and reflecting the low sun from its honey-coloured stone in a particularly attractive way.
At close range, the amount of graffiti was alarming. Even the spectacular carved mihrab was desecrated with a puerile spattering of names and dates. With the imminent inundation of the site, there was little effort to preserve the building.
The archaeologists however, were working furiously. Up at first light to avoid the worst of the heat, they were patiently moving down through the layers of settlement, cataloguing their sparse and fragmented finds in an attempt to find out as much as possible about the past of Hasankeyf before it disappeared into it.
My dolmuş to Batman was awash with early morning market chatter. The old man beside me had an unquenchable curiosity about Holland.
“What do you do in Holland?” he asked.
“I don’t live in Holland. I’m a teacher in England.”
“Are you married?”
“Where is your wife? Is she still in Holland?”
“No she’s Turkish. She’s in Istanbul. We don’t live in Holland.”
“How much do you get paid?”
“Er… about a thousand pounds per month. It sounds a lot, but everything is very expensive in England.”
“Do you live in Amsterdam? I want to go to Amsterdam.”
“No, I live in England,” I persisted obstinately.
“Can you take me to Holland? Where is your car?”
“I don’t have a car. That’s why I’m in a dolmuş with you.”
“What must I do to go to Holland?”
“I don’t know. I think you must talk to the consulate.”
“How much money do I need to go to Holland? Can you speak for me?”
“I don’t know how much money. I have nothing at all to do with Holland.”
“I want an electric shaver. Can you send me one from Holland?”
In Batman, I made a mistake. My intention was to head for Van and thence to Hakkari. I was on my way to the otogar to find a bus to Van, when I saw a dolmuş to Siirt. I had never been to Siirt, nor met anyone who had. I had never read anything about the place, or seen anything that came from there apart from some really good pistachios. There must be some hidden treasure there, perhaps a quiet, well-preserved ancient gem of a town, which isn’t in the guide books because nobody has found it yet.
So I was going there. There was half an hour before the dolmuş left so I had a quick tour of Batman. Large amounts of expensive hotels to cater for those who had become rich through drilling for oil, an unfeasibly large number of internet cafes, and wide pavements full of people drinking çay around small, blue, square tables.
Back at the dolmuş stand, my Siirt minibus had disappeared. “Don’t panic,” said my fellow passengers. “It’ll be back.” So I sat down with some çay and poked my toes into the political waters. The man who seemed to be in charge prodded my knee.
“Where are you from?”
“England.” I prepared for the familiar line of questioning.
“And what are you doing in Batman?”
“I have come from Hasankeyf and now I will go to Siirt.”
“Siirt.” No comment. “You are German?” He prodded my knee again.
“You are English and you come to see Hasankeyf. This is funny. English are giving money to make the dam that will destroy Hasankeyf.”
“So you don’t want the dam?”
“Ha!” He put his çay down. He would need his hands to express his scorn. “Do I want my history destroyed?”
“But in Urfa,” I protested, “the whole area has changed because of GAP. Everywhere is green…”
“It is now a farm for Israel and England. The money from this does not stay in Turkey. It is a way for NATO to stop water to Syria and Iraq. And who is NATO?”
“Ah… the USA and…”
“Exactly, USA. And what does George Bush plan for Iraq?” He prodded my knee emphatically.
“Er yes… he threatens war.”
“George Bush and one other. Your leader. Tony Blair. What is this war for?”
I thought for a while. “Petroleum?”
He looked surprised. “Yes.” Prod. “Is that a good reason for a war?” he picked up his çay again. “They will never go to war with Turkey.”
A response was obviously required. “Why not?”
“We have already sold our country to the IMF.”
A few çays and a political education later, the Siirt dolmuş left. The road was full of people with huge sacks of things to sell in Siirt, all of whom hailed the bus and added their loads to the Matterhorn on top, then got in and tried to find out why a foreigner wanted to go to Siirt.
I walked around Siirt for a while. It seemd to fulfil all of the expected functions of a town – market, transport hub, services, government offices – without having anything distinctive. I had a kebap and went to the dolmuş station.
“What should I see before I leave Siirt?” I asked a group of çay-drinking men.
“Have you been to Batman?”
“Yes. What about in Siirt itself?”
A man who looked like (and probably was) a commando scratched his impressive nose and regarded me.
“And what do you think of our city?”
“It’s very nice. It has…” I searched my memory for something that was distinctive. “…a nice market,” I finished lamely.
“Siirt is a very historic city.” He nodded wisely.
“Is it?” Here it was. Siirt’s hidden secret.
“Yes. There is a statue of Atatürk. And at the other end of the main street, there is…” he looked impressively around at the rest of the group. “…another statue.”
The group of men turned to look at me seriously. Then they all burst out laughing and told me which dolmuş to catch to get out of there.
Two hours later, I was in Ziyaret. Ziyaret is a dolmuş station at the intersection of roads to Siirt, Diyarbakır and Bitlis. Flocks of geese and occasional lone bulls roamed the street. The main item of interest was the tomb of one Zeynel Bey, which was some distance away. Every time I walked off to try and look at it, someone told me that my dolmuş was about to leave and started another conversation about David Beckham or Michael Owen, both of whose posters were inexplicably displayed on the wall of the çay bahçe.
I had decided to go to Van and had found a dolmuş driver willing to go as far as Tatvan. The problem with going on an unusual route like this meant that he had to be sure of getting enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile. Hence, we sat in the nerve centre of Ziyaret (the çay place) and waited to see if passengers from incoming buses wanted to go to Tatvan. It took about two hours to get a busload.
I was seated in the front of an otherwise exclusively Kurdish dolmuş. We had the usual conversations in which it proved very difficult to explain where my wife was if we lived in England and were visiting Turkey together. The idea that she was Turkish and working for a week at the İstanbul office of her company, while I was English and roaming around the east was particularly indigestible.
“How do you get permission?”
“You mean she is working now and you are visiting here? For fun?”
“You have a very interesting marriage.”
By the time we got to Tatvan, the carefully constructed plans of me smuggling two men into England for $US2000 each had been scotched by the absence of the car in which I was to smuggle them. This sort of conversation was repeated several times when I was in this area. I could never work out how serious people were.
Next day, I boarded a bus which struggled past snorting trucks over high mountain passes on the way to Hakkari. We passed the old Urartu capital at Çavuştepe and the picture-perfect Hoşap castle at Güzelsu before following the course of the wonderfully named River Zap into the canyons of the Cilo mountains. Every half hour or so, bored but unfailingly polite soldiers would take our identification papers and return them a few minutes later.
Eventually, the bus reached the turn-off to Yüksekova and the Iranian border. A huge sandbagged structure with a heavy machine-gun dominated the intersection and big eight-wheeled armoured personnel carriers were distributed conspicuously around any likely escape routes. It was here that we were told that the bus in fact went to Yüksekova, and that those with tickets for Hakkari would have to get off.
A fat businessman in a suit began haranguing the driver. “I paid for a ticket to Hakkari. I have come all the way from Kayseri to attend a meeting which starts in half an hour.” Several other passengers registered voluble protests. The driver stood there like a rock with a moustache and let it all wash over him. When everyone had finished, he stood in the middle of the road, flagged down a dolmuş, and paid the fare of all the Hakkari passengers before driving the bus off in the direction indicated by the machine gun. We continued up steep roads into Hakkari.
Hakkari nestles in a high valley dominated by bleak, treeless mountains. Over the past two decades, a lot of refugees from Iraq have been forced to make Hakkari the first stop in their new country of relative safety. Wherever you stood in the town, you could look up to the surrounding hills and read in huge letters: “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene.” (How happy is one who says ‘I am a Turk’.) Presumably, this was to make refugees feel unhappy.
Now there was an abundance of new housing in the lower suburbs and quite a few refugees were on the verge of feeling a bit more mutlu. Hakkari itself was an unremarkable Turkish city in a remarkable location. Bright green patches appeared unexpectedly by the streams that sparkled through the built-up area.
Clearly, the separatist violence of past decades had eased. I was approached by guides offering to lead expeditions into the Cilo mountains, and I met a well-equipped Turkish party about to set off. I only had a day, so I attempted to scale a hill on the outskirts of town.
Helpful people guided me through the periphery of town, politely concealing their incredulity that a foreigner would come all the way to Hakkari to climb up a small hill. Of course, the summit was a military zone so I failed even to accomplish this humble goal.
Back in the remote outpost of Hakkari that evening, I bought the same kind of toothbrush that I use in England, checked my emails at an internet café, and listened to Kylie Minogue on the radio in a restaurant.
Fortunately, I heard some live music so I found my way to a football stadium where a folklore festival was in progress. This explained the unusual number of brightly costumed people around. I watched extravagant folk dances and hung around until the evening concert began then, driven off by a busy bass player with a flat e-string, I headed back to my friend the toilet.
The Bus From Van
The direct bus from Van to Istanbul makes a lot of stops close to Van and a lot close to Istanbul. It stops near Van to pick people up from the outlying villages.
This is no small event. A trip to Istanbul is not going to be a matter of a holiday or a quick visit to a relative. Someone going to the west from a small Van village has just made an important life decision and is taking a shot at a better life in the big city.
To the soldiers on leave, or to university students visiting parents, or to any tourists who might be on the bus, a stop to pick up passengers on the road is a minor irritant. These stops are not brief. The amount of luggage to be stuffed into the undercarriage of the bus is immense: all of the travellers’ clothes, kitchen utensils, and the inevitable sacks of produce because they won’t be able to grow much where they’re going.
When the bus starts to slow down, you look out of the window. There will be a few gesticulating people standing next to a mountain of possessions. The bus draws up beside the mountain. The village empties and disgorges its population in the direction of the bus. In the middle of the mob, you can make out the travellers. Sometimes it is one man, sometimes an entire family. There will be tears, smiles, the whole range of emotions on show.
The bus captain jumps down. “What has to go?”
“All of this.”
A great argument. Pleading. Stern refusal. Negotiation. A search under the bus for available space. It all goes in. No matter how much stuff there is, the bus captain knows how important it is and finds the space.
Now it’s time for the farewells. All of the relatives are kissed in reverse order of rank. The closer the relatives, the more they want to say until it gets to the parents, who hold the travellers as if they will not let them into the bus. Then it’s time for the gestures of respect to the head man. Standing around are the wise man of the village, the joker attempting to take everyone’s minds off the departure, the adolescent boys clutching tools or guns and trying to look unaffected, the children rushing around holding everyone’s hands, getting in the way and trying to balance the excitement with the loss.
Finally, the travellers have farewelled everybody. But their sisters and brothers need to be hugged again, and their parents. And leave must formally be taken of the head man, who now has little girls clinging to each hand.
At last, they’re as ready as they can be. The bus captain is shouting that he’ll leave them behind if they don’t get aboard. The womb of the village propels them up the steps and into the alien atmosphere of the bus.
They stand uncertainly in the aisle. They are wearing their best clothes for the farewell, and for the greeting at the other end of the journey: colourful loose tops, long skirts and headscarves with intricate prints, or best black suits in the summer glare. They rush onto the bus, carrying the excitement of being the focus of noisy attention in their village, and oblivious of those who will become their fellow passengers.
The people in the bus stare at them. The villagers realise that they are in another world. They check their tickets, move quietly to their seats. The bus is moving off. They strain to catch a glimpse of their friends, they wave at their past life as it disappears, but the waving is muted. They have become part of the quieter society of the bus.
We stop at more villages and the people from the first village see their drama repeated in the third person. They see their excited, apprehensive other selves doused by the neutral atmosphere of the bus. They see others doing exactly as they are. They could end up as friends, or competitors, or just live parallel lives in which they strive for the same things in the same way, but never meet.
The bus heads away from Lake Van and into the mountains. It stops no more because all of the seats are full. The first film flickers onto the TV screens. The movies shown on the bus are well-chosen to suit the interests of the passengers.
A man needs money to get married. He leaves his village and goes to Istanbul where he works in a variety of low-paid jobs in which he is continually exploited and cheated. He cannot afford to eat much because of Istanbul’s high prices and he is forced to sleep in squalor. An improbable plot twist allows him to find a better job and slowly make the money he needs, whereupon he is robbed of it all on the journey home. The requisite happy ending is only attained when he bumbles through the basics of a life of crime and is able to show his prospective father-in-law an attaché case full of dollars.
The villagers appreciate the humour and see its relevance to their venture. Surely people in the city won’t cheat them like that. They are still Turks, even if they live in a different way. And they are going to friends who will help them get a start in their new lives. Their hopes are not dented.
The bus makes a late dinner stop. Everyone gets out, stretches, stands on the wet concrete in the middle of nowhere watching teenage boys attaching hosepipes to brooms and washing the buses. The hungry population of the bus struggles into the restaurant. Four million Turkish Lira just for pilav and kuru fasulye! Still, the family has to eat so the purse strings open and let out some of the precious funds for the new life. Why does the bus come here if it’s so expensive? What’s ‘commission’?
Back on the bus, the limon kolonya is sprinkled onto hands and a generic martial arts movie provides the dose of escapism that everyone needs to sleep. A restless night of wriggling in search of a comfortable position. The sun rises, bright and intrusive. But we’re nearly there.
Breakfast stop near Bolu. The prices are even higher than at the dinner stop so most people don’t eat anything. The hunger is assuaged a little as the bus company gives out a small cake, a plastic cup of çay, and another film.
A man needs money in order to get married. A friend promises to smuggle him into Germany where fortunes are to be made, but he and his companions are dumped on the outskirts of Istanbul. A tragically humorous series of events has our hero ending up as a wage slave to the man who tricked him, while this thief carries on a blatant affair with the girl he was to marry.
The people around me nudge me to make sure I appreciate how funny the tragedy is. Right at the end, an impossible plot twist reverses the situation in a fantasy triumph for the underdog.
The bus now passes through Adapazarı and rolls into İzmit. The damage from the devastating earthquake of 1999 is now seen in the fields of prefabricated houses built for those whose dwellings were destroyed. The first stop for the bus is on the outskirts of İzmit near one of the prefab suburbs. The air is yellow with dust and a nearby cement factory provides a grim backdrop. The members of a family shuffle hesitantly out and retrieve their baggage. The contrast between their green, friendly village and this anonymous dustbowl is glaring. But their relatives are waiting to meet them. Their faces light up in relieved smiles and we drive off, leaving them in friendly hands.
Stop after stop sees similar scenes. Hopeful people and their mountain of possessions are left on the side of the road with friends and relations. Usually, those meeting them are standing near a car, that symbol of city prosperity. There is hope for success in this wasteland.
Finally, the bus is left with only those people who boarded in Van. These are not the ones entering the big city for the first time with hope and apprehension; they already have lives with defined roles in Istanbul. We tumble out of the bus at the otogar to continue these lives, while the villagers are now in new houses meeting new people and wondering what life will be like for them after the next glass of çay.