This powerful journey was submitted to The Kurdish Project from English traveler & storyteller, Hannah Ait Ahmed
A chance remark can lead you on a journey. This happened to me when a stranger said: “You care about Palestinians, because they don’t have a state—but you don’t care about the Kurds. We don’t have one either.” He disappeared but his words stayed with me until two years later.
“Kurdistan. Is there such a place?”
“There is. You’re going there!”
The Kurdish professor who I sought advice from in my home town in the UK said. “I’m sorry I can’t put you in touch with any writers and artists. Only last week my friend who runs a literary publication was arrested and her offices closed down. The situation there is very sensitive…but the breakfasts are amazing!”
So that is how I touched down in Diyarbakir on a warm night in October 2019. Diyarbakir is widely recognized as the Kurdish capital of Turkey, and I never felt so at home so quickly in a foreign land as I did there. When I found myself at the Demir Hotel, the staff were the kindest and most hospitable people, despite not understanding my English. I don’t speak Kurdish, so I was so grateful for mobile translation!
The breakFEAST consisted of 5 of the 16 varieties of regional cheeses—Penir, Qesar, Toraq, Lorik and Teleme, quince and fig preserves, honeys, olives, breads, soups, salads, halvas and more. Everything in a delicious plural, of course! I set out as a solo, conspicuously foreign & blond female along Gazi St., to the click clack sound of the Ava Suse (licorice drink) sellers. The reflections from jewelers’ shop windows illuminated the whiter than white snowy headscarves of women as they bobbed about, shopping from carts overflowing with tiny orange Yenidunya fruits. On the curb, a man was using a sliced in half plastic bottle as a microphone to sing into. No one laughed at him.
I crossed the wide, soft sounding, slow traffic moving street making my first ‘by chance friend’ Lila—both of us en route to the City Museum. Talking proudly she walked me around the artifacts of her agricultural mountain heritage. Then unexpectedly, as we peered at a sheep’s fleece and spindle… “I won’t marry” she said, “men rule in Diyarbakir. It will never change. In the villages the women are… too… too religious I’m not”. She pointed to a picture showing boys and girls seated together in class. “This was in the days of democracy before Erdogan. Now, girls only, boys only… kept separate”. Another old photograph featured an old man leaping high over a stick, “it’s part of the story he’s telling. Kurds didn’t write things down, they just remembered”.
In a courtyard of a traditional house I find three elders— ‘the Dengbej’,— continuing this oral tradition, which runs deep—way back into pre Islamic history, deeper than fiction across the landscape where the shepherds walked their flocks, into the very soul of the people. The half spoken songs in Kurmanjii dialect exude—melancholy, joy, hope and love—summed up by the word, ‘Xemgini’ to a drop-in audience of all ages.
Although not comprehending the words, I am recognizing ‘lamentations’ in the minor key soaring like swallows to sweep the sky, their returning descent against the dark basalt walls, beginning to echo another note, that of the claustrophobic mood of more and more young people I meet.
There’s the proprietor of a tourist bureau who can’t offer me any brochures in English because foreigners don’t come here any longer. They are too afraid. “The situation is getting worse. Mayors arrested, imprisoned. We are being more and more constrained.” He had been to Wales. Had a fiancée there, but it didn’t work out and was forced to return. He has lost all hope.
There’s the university student, Dab, openly declaring in a loud voice that he supports the HDP, in spite of our table abutting closely to others in a packed restaurant. “No problem! We can talk openly here.” He reassures, digging into kebabs, as I skirt round yet another plate of tomatoes and cucumbers. Did I mention, to make the most of the breakfast in meaty Diya if you are a vegetarian? Dab believes in science and the internet, and also rejects religion and marriage. I asked how he thought there could be a united state of Kurdistan. “Being divided by borders between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, each being different to the other, makes it difficult to come together and organize ourselves to get power,” he replied, “it rests on the involvement and influence of the international community.”
He notices an interesting development. “Men here are feeling a greater sense of powerlessness. It is a patriarchal society. But at the same time as our rights are being stripped away from us, women are beginning to stand up for themselves—the Kurdish nationalistic fight is helping the womens’ movement. The two are going hand in hand.”
‘The path to democracy through gender equality’ on the day of my visit to Kamer Foundation, has led its only English speaking members far and away over the hills and plains of Anatolia to stand in solidarity with women and children of Erzurum who are in need of support.
I am left in their office, translator-less to drink Liptons and admire macramé string bags, which can only hold back the embarrassment for a certain length of time. I ring Lila who drops her work and races to my rescue. “What about your boss?” I ask her, “he understands. It is in our culture to help” she says.
I learn that the eight volunteer ladies around the table have all, in the words of 13th century philosopher Nasreddin Hocu, ‘fallen from rooftops’. At some point in their lives they have been victims of violence. Having picked up the pieces, climbed back up and rebuilt their lives, they are now reaching out to other women and children of all ethnicities to support and encourage their recovery. Syrian and Yezidi women have been in particular need due to displacement.
“How can women stand up for themselves if they don’t know their rights?” demands one member. “We aim to empower them through knowledge. We have seen great success with our education through play of mothers and children and the men have been very supportive. Our hope is that a new generation will reject violence and grow up male and female in mutual respect.”
Lila and I leave together to go to my favorite teahouse. I can’t keep away from this magical place.
Suluklu Han. Watching mulberry leaves drift down through the cigarette smoke mists of an early autumn afternoon (a lot of residents smoke), I soon get carried away. It’s easy to imagine ancient China—the Silk Route—caravanserai. Turbanned traders with their blubbery mouthed camels instead of young intellectuals seated round, sipping menengic coffee today.
This carefree mood lingers into the evening when visiting Ullu Camu Mosque. I have to hold back from dancing in the courtyard under the moon and stars, which of course wouldn’t do at all, and return visits during daylight cause me to reflect more seriously on the lives of those who have lived through unstable times.
A man dressed in an austere manner.
Which part of the city is he from?
When I wander back out onto the square a child tightly clutching a kitten races past me disappearing down a narrow alley. I wonder if the old man is her grandfather and if he will follow on homewards.
I couldn’t tell you where I’ve wandered to, lost in the maze of once beloved homes. A family seated with their neighbors around a little fire, amongst the rubble of 2016 incursions are cooking aubergines… ’join us, you are welcome’, is understandable in any language.
Terry Richardson wrote in The Telegraph in August 2015 ‘Diyarbakir wears its Kurdish identity openly’.
“If I erected a Kurdish flag now, I would be taken to the prison,” one resident now tells me.
UNESCO failed in its bid to protect ancient mosques, churches and historic homes which were either destroyed in the ‘so called’ urban counter terrorism operation or afterwards knocked down deliberately.
Six neighborhoods of eastern Sur were emptied of its population. Where did they go? Have they come back?
I find these houses very quiet today – difficult to see if anyone is living in them or not? Walls half demolished jut in mid-air. Lives. Cut off.
Metal barricades like some apartheid fence separate them from newly built villas on the bulldozed plain, buildings, that no local will be able to afford and that no tourist will find of any interest.
Time and again invited into peoples’ courtyards, I am uncertain if, when I look into their burnt umber eyes, the response they are searching for is ‘pride in my beautiful home’ or ‘look what ‘they’ have done to my house’ response.
One young mother has painstakingly painted white lines emulating the traditional limestone tracery between the black blocks of her walls. In places the paint has dribbled down.
“Tourists will roam where terror once loomed.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised in June 2018.
During my one week stay I saw two—one tall, also conspicuously blond Austrian lady heading to the Syrian Orthodox Virgin Mary Church and one Korean backpacker complaining about sofa surfing in Afghanistan.
If terror did not strike my heart in Diyarbakir, its effects were clearly manifest in former residents’ scattered belongings.
As I turned my back the phrase ‘autonomy for the Kurds’ left me hanging!
- The names of the people in this story have been changed for their privacy & protection