In a region dominated by the vast turquoise waters of Lake Van, the southeast corner of Turkey is a land of contrasts: From the lofty barren mountains to the broad green valleys; from the grey, noisy, urban sprawl of towns such as Van, Dogubeyazit and Hakkari to the scenic fields of wind swept grass just minutes out of town, and from the decorative apartment blocks and towering mosques to the simple mud brick villages, there’s plenty here to capture the imagination of everybody including the wide-eyed tourist who’s desperately trying to dodge the carpet sellers or the hardened backpacker, en route to northern Iraq or Armenia and Azerbaijan.
With something like 90% of the local population being comprised of the much-maligned Kurdish folk, there’s an undercurrent of tension wherever you go. As if Kurds and Turks alike are regarding you through suspicious eyes, lest you are a government plant or PKK sympathiser. Who can blame them? Why else would a tourist want to come here?
I thought I’d go and see for myself.
Kava is an enterprising Kurd who runs a small carpet shop and tourist services from his humble premises down a back street in Van. I first met him when I travelled there in 2001 and stayed in his uncle’s hotel. He’s about 34 years old, confident, and speaks fluent Turkish and Kurmanji. He also speaks very passable English and Italian; languages he says are essential if he is to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of Kurdish tourism. I wasn’t interested in buying carpets, but quickly built a rapport with Kava, recognising that he could be a very useful contact to discovering the more interesting aspects of Turkish Kurdistan.
We spent a couple of days touring the area in his ageing Toyota, in which time I made it clear that although the historical churches and Armenian ruins were very interesting, I was far more keen to get an insight into the heart of the Kurdish culture and so, the next morning, after a simple breakfast of bread and cheese, we hopped back into his car and headed south out of Van on the road to Hakkari.
After a while, we passed wide flat fields of wind-blown grass, stretching away to the nearby mountains. We cleared the inevitable, occasional military checkpoints, and headed up a deserted mountain road. Weaving around the bends slowly, always climbing, Kava was in high spirits and subjected me to his deafening Kurdish folk music on the stereo, which he proudly sang along to.
A small trail to the side of the road, between a couple of large rocks barely registered with me as we motored past, but it was enough for my singing driver to hit the brakes, reverse a short distance and go off-road.
Derabasi is a very typical Kurdish mountain village: Nestling among the foothills of the northern Zagros Mountains, the village is one of about thirty mud-brick homes representative of the thousands of such settlements that dot the mountain sides and valleys throughout this region. Hidden from view from the road, it wasn’t clear where we were headed, until we reached the top of a slight rise and the village came into view. As we slowed to negotiate the rough track, a crowd of young boys appeared and surrounded the car, threatening to pelt us with rocks; not the kind of greeting I was expecting, but understandable given the feudal lifestyle that underpins the very social structure of these mountain villages. Outsiders will always be treated with suspicion.
We faced the boys silently until an old man wandered up and spoke to Kava through his open window. A few spoken words and the crowd parted as we drove ahead. With the outer-perimeter security breached, all we now had to contend with were chickens, dogs and excited children. We drove to the end of the track and parked up between two derelict looking homesteads.
On an average working day in a Kurdish mountain village, there are very few adult men to be seen, as they are mostly out working in the fields, tending to the crops or the livestock. In the village, the women are washing, cooking and tending to the children whilst the children in question are either in school or helping around the house with their mothers and older sisters. We arrived in the early afternoon, not long after school had finished for the day (schools finish at 13:00hrs) and very quickly found ourselves being followed around the village by an ever-increasing mob of excited boys and girls. There had been a wedding that morning and although the ceremony and subsequent festivities were over, there were still a large number of visiting family members present.
A young man in his late teens, wearing a black leather jacket approached us and spoke with Kava.
“He says you are invited to his house for lunch” said Kava.
“Welcome” added the young man, and pointed in the direction of his house.
Inside the house we were asked to remove our shoes and led into the main living room where we sat on the decorative floor mats. A dozen or so of the excited children were permitted to join us along with the older family members, while the remaining mob, crowded around the windows outside, pressing their faces against the glass and blocking out most of the sunlight. Foreign visitors were evidently a rarity in these parts.
The man introduced himself as Ferat and as his sister, Zubeyde disappeared into the kitchen to rustle up a spot of lunch for us, I studied my humble surroundings. Almost devoid of furniture, the main feature of the room was a sideboard that was home to a small stereo system and a widescreen TV. Not so humble.
The main topic of conversation turned quickly to English language and suddenly I had half a dozen schoolbooks thrust in my face. As I went through the basics of numbering and the most rudimentary vocabulary with the undivided attention of all in the room, Zubeyde produced a fine spread of tea, eggs, tomatoes, cheese, cucumber, yoghurt and bread, which she laid on a large platter in the middle of the floor.
Unblinking eyes regarded me as I started to eat, and then everyone else joined in, seemingly satisfied that the eating habits of foreigners weren’t all that different from their own.
We stayed with Ferat and Zubeyde for about an hour and then graciously bid our farewells and returned to the car. A crowd of about 30 children chased us noisily all the way down to the mountain road.
I didn’t see Kava for two years after that, but when I called to say I was returning, he was there to meet me at Van airport. Business hadn’t been good since 9/11 as tourism in the region had dwindled to an all time low and passing trade in the carpet business was sparse to say the least. However, business in other areas was thriving and Kava and his wife and two sons were living comfortably.
For three days, I whiled away the hours in the carpet shop, watching people come and go and brushing up on my Kurmanji. Kava and I made frequent visits around town and outlying villages, wherever there was a sniff of tourists. He clearly knew a lot of people and I wondered, not for the first time, what other ‘businesses’ he was involved in. I began to ask him more and more probing questions. I was even bold enough to mention the PKK but as always, he was politely evasive.
I decided a more direct approach may produce results and told Kava I’d like to be introduced to the “workers” if he knew anyone that might be able to arrange it, but he just said that would be far too dangerous and they’d most likely rob me and shoot me. I didn’t believe it, but felt it unwise to be too pushy.
As the days slipped by, Kava grew aware of how frustrated I was getting at not making any headway.
“I have an idea”, he said on the afternoon of the fifth day.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to take a drive to the north”. “I have a friend you should meet”
Murat was a tall, solid build, intimidating man, with short-cropped hair and a big smile. He made me wary. When we first arrived at his restaurant, Kava and Murat disappeared for a chat and I was left to drink tea with three young, attractive girls who were also visiting. Eventually Kava returned and told me he was going to drive back to Van, but I should stay, and Murat would take good care of me. We bade our farewells and Kava left.
Murat fixed me with an intense gaze, studied me for a moment before smiling broadly and said,
“Come, let’s talk.”
And so we talked, mostly him asking questions about my family, and me but also offering information on his own background. It came somewhat as a surprise when his tone became more serious and he asked if I would agree to become his brother. I chose my words very carefully:
“Why do you want me to be your brother”, I asked, “you don’t really know me”.
“Kava has talked to me about you. I trust him; I trust you”, he replied.
“I had three brothers”, he continued, “Two of them were shot, fighting for the PKK. Now, the other is in jail for the same reason.”
“You are with the PKK?” I asked, quietly.
“Everybody here is” said Murat. My eyes followed his around the room, taking in the handful of restaurant staff.
Murat called over Ficat, a tall, Arabic looking man and said something in Kurdish. A few seconds later, Ficat returned clutching a Kalshnikov assault-rifle and receiving a small nod from Murat, handed it to me. I checked it over; unhooking the banana shaped clip, and seeing that it wasn’t empty, I reattached it and unfolded the gunmetal shoulder rest.
“Can we take it outside for a little sport?” I asked, giving Murat a sly smile.
“Unfortunately, no”, he said, “It’ll bring the military running”.
I handed the AK back to Ficat and he spoke a few words to Murat before spiriting the weapon away. Ficat was a grim looking man, who hardly spoke a word. I thought to myself “he’s one to watch”.
We drunk a lot that evening and talked. I asked Murat for his views on the horrific stories we hear about the PKK, the allegations of the mindless execution of countless schoolteachers, tourist kidnappings and extensive bombing campaigns. He replied that it was mostly misinformation spread by the Turkish media to fuel anti-PKK sentiment. It’s no great secret that Kurdish newspapers and radio stations are a bit thin on the ground and so there remains little that the Kurdish Workers Party can do to counter the propaganda that so effectively reaches the listening world.
“So are you saying the teachers weren’t killed then?” I asked.
“Yes, they were killed” he said, “but they were working for the government as spies. We know that.” “The Turkish government want you to believe that we will kill innocent people, but that’s not the truth”.
I had a whole raft of questions for Murat, and he certainly seemed happy to answer them. However, the three girls I had met earlier joined us and the conversation immediately changed to less clandestine matters.
As the beer flowed we began taking it in turns to sing songs around the table, and outside the sun set behind the distant mountains. Eventually, after numerous songs and countless beers, Murat tried to say something to me in slurred broken English but only succeeded in passing out with his chin on my shoulder. Ficat and I help him to his room and left him snoring loud enough to wake the dead. I went to my room and crashed out fully clothed with my desert boots still on.
The following morning I was woken by Murat’s beaming face at the window. Considering my pounding head, he seemed remarkably, (annoyingly) lively and when I opened the door he bounded in and said,
“Come. We leave in 20 minutes”.
I didn’t know where we were going but when Ficat clambered into the back of the car with me and Murat leant over and handed him a Browning pistol, I began to think I may have learned too much the evening before. Visions of a hastily dug grave half an hour outside of town occupied my mind and I had to remind myself that Kava had introduced me to these people and he at least I knew I could trust.
As things turned out, we just took a drive into town to drink tea and try to make contact with family members of the nomads who live on the slopes of Mount Ararat. Murat had previously suggested that I might want to spend time with the nomads and I had responded favourably to the idea. That was enough for him to set the wheels in motion, even though I may have completely forgotten the conversation. That, of course is another story.
Unfortunately, time ran out for me in East Turkey and I had to fly back to the UK, but shortly before I departed, Murat took me to have lunch with his parents at their place down a leafy back street in the centre of town. We ate bread and cheese and drank tea before it was time for me race to catch the bus. Ficat drove me the short distance to the bus terminal and bade me farewell with the customary kiss on both cheeks. As the local mosque sounded the afternoon aazzaan (call-to-prayer), I climbed into the minibus and we rolled of down the baking hot, dusty high street. Ficat waved, smiling his yellow-toothed smile. He still never spoke a word to me though.