Syrian Refugees on the Turkish-Syrian Border

Syrian refugee camp at Yayla Dagi, Turkey, on the Syrian border

How do you get into a Turkish camp for Syrian refugees?  Not easily, it turns out.  I had taken a shared dolmus minivan to the village of Yayladagi where the camp was located, about 60 km south of Antakya and almost at the Syrian border.  I sat sandwiched between two grim men who were among the few people in this country resolutely uninterested in conversing with a foreigner.  It was already getting late in the afternoon by the time I arrived, so I hurried through town to reach the camps on the other side.   They were hard to miss, with white tents stretching row upon row across the fields.

I walked up the road to the camp, past the Red Crescent-operated hospital. As I approached the police control point manned by two officers, I stopped to take a picture of the hospital.  A shout from them indicated they were not photography fans.  They then barraged me with a stream of questions: Who are you? Why are you here? Where are you from? Do you have any permission documents?  Eventually, one of them pulled a cell phone from his pocket and called for instructions about what do with this Amerikali.  The answer was to let me pass, after giving me the choice of going to the Arab camp or the Syrian Turkmen camp, which were divided by a road between them.  I picked the Turkmen camp, on the grounds that I would be more likely to find a common language with them — the Turkmen are ethnic Turks living in Syria.  I then walked further up the road to the Turkmen camp gate, where I was asked exactly the same set of questions by three policemen as the first pair had asked me. They were not moved by my protest that I had already been screened by their colleagues just 150 meters down the road.  Again, the cell phone came out, a conversation was held, but it seemed that the person on the other end of the line was not the same one as the one who had approved my passage just five minutes earlier.  This time the gods of Turkish bureaucracy did not smile upon me, as the policemen muttered about a decision-maker in Ankara who refused to give entry permission.  I tried proposing that one of them escort me on a walk through the camp, but they were not buying it.  So I left, intending to try the other camp back down the road, thinking that perhaps another phone call might connect with the same official who had approved me the first time.

Regugee camp at Yayla Dagi, Turkey

However, along the way to the other camp’s entrance, that of the Arab refugees, I took some pictures through the ragged plastic sheeting of the fence surrounding the camp.   Within minutes, a police car with a couple of smartly dressed young officers drove up and began to ask me the same questions — I was getting quite practiced at answering these by now — but also made it very clear that taking pictures was verboten.  At this point, I was beginning to feel that my luck was running out, and that persisting with my quest might lead to a longer and more difficult conversation at a police station. With a plane home to catch the next morning, I was feeling less open that usual to new adventures of this sort.

I walked back into town, thinking to simply find some men to talk to in one of the village tea houses.  On the way, I stopped at a bakery for some fortifying baklava, for which the baker declined payment.

Mimar and Sinan in Yayla Dagi

I sat down at a vacant table on the sidewalk in front of a likely-looking tea house, a technique that had almost never failed me in Turkey for finding local people to talk to.  Sure enough, a couple of teachers soon showed up, and sat down, and we talked.  One of them was Mimar, an English teacher who did most of the talking, and the other was Aslan, an information technology instructor.  All it took was a single question to Mimar about what he thought of the thousands of refugees in the midst of his town to unleash a torrent of strong opinion.  “This is Syria’s problem. We feed them, we house them, and we even arm them. Their soldiers fight, then come over here for a few days to rest, and then go back once again.  Tell me, would the people of the United States ever tolerate something like that?  If Mexico were having a civil war, would you let one side keep its fighters on the American side of the border?”  I admitted that was a remote possibility.  Then he launched into the economic dimensions of the issue. “The shopkeepers in town are the only ones who are happy about all these refugees, because for them it just means more business. But for me, it means I pay more taxes. We already have the most expensive gasoline in the world.  You see that car over there?”, he said, pointing to a very modest small car that looked as if it might sell for $15,000 or so in the US. “Here, even a basic car costs 50,000 lira [about $28,000] and I can’t afford one.  I can’t afford to travel and have never been outside of this country.  Most teachers make around 1500 lira a month.  I have been a teacher for five years, and my salary only goes up 3% every year.  Meanwhile, the government tells us that inflation is only 5%, but everyone knows it’s closer to 8 or 10%.  I am getting poorer every year!”  I asked the inevitable if tactless question: “Why don’t you change jobs?”  He responded: “This is what I trained for at Marmara University for four years. I don’t have the skills for other work. ”

Since he felt that way, I asked him what he thought the Turkish government should in fact be doing in Syria, if not helping the way it already was.  “We should provide humanitarian aid only: food, medicine, tents.  Then, let the Syrians solve their own problems.”

We then  talked about the journalists trying to cover the Syrian civil war and the refugee problem that had spilled into Turkey.   Many of them were as ham-handed as I was, it transpired, including a team of five New York Times journalists arrested in the military zone along the border a few weeks earlier, who were duly brought to the police station where Mimar was summoned, as usual, to provide translation services. The reporters were let go without paying the usual fine — apparently the New York Times has a lot of clout even in this part of the world.

Usually, Mimar said, journalists show up without the necessary authorization from the local district governor and try to get into the camps anyway, and then when they are denied admission, covertly take pictures.  Or they blunder into the restricted-access military zone. In either case, they get arrested.   Mimar was happy to supplement his income by providing translation services at the police station or in the courtroom.  The standard fine was 90 euros.  As to who was allowed to enter and who is not, he could not say what the rules were. Sometimes accredited journalists showed up and the governor’s office issued a permit to enter the camps — in such cases, he was typically hired as the interpreter to take them through their visit.  But equally often, he said, similarly accredited journalists were turned back.  He could see little pattern to it.

He said that he thought that this level of tight security was a good thing. One of the most common words heard in the village, he noted, was “ajan”, or agent. Everyone was always talking about agents and speculating who they were and who was behind them: Syria, Iran, Iraq, the CIA, Israel and so on.  A few weeks before, in August, he said that five men had been arrested with a vehicle filled with explosives, thwarting what was assumed to be a planned car-bomb attack on one of the local camps or on one of the many other ones in the region.  Depending on political bent, it was easy to see such an act as a provocation of some kind intended to either deter the opposition to Assad — or the reverse, to provoke a Turkish invasion.  It was a very murky situation ripe for paranoia and conspiracy theories.

It was getting past 6:00pm by then, it was dark, and I was afraid of missing the last dolmuş back to Antakya — which would not be a good thing with an early morning flight to catch the next day.  I returned to the town square where I had arrived two or three hours earlier and soon found the right dolmus parked by the curb awaiting passengers.  After 30 minutes of sitting in an otherwise empty vehicle with only two other prospective riders in sight, sitting on a nearby bench, I asked the driver how many riders he needed in order to depart. He pegged the number at 12, so I paid the equivalent of six normal fares just to get the van to leave immediately.

I got off at a town just outside of Antakya, called Harbiye, to meet up for dinner as arranged with a few others staying at my hotel. They soon turned up, and we went to a quirkily-decorated restaurant next to a lovely waterfall, where we talked about the state of the world. One of those at the table was a Japanese graduate student in Turkey for a year to do her thesis on Alawite society, and desperately trying to master Turkish at the same time.  The Alawites are a small Shiite-like sect primarily found in Syria, where they make up a small minority — less than 20% of the population — but are the dominant group because Syrian President Hafez Assad is a member.  There are a lot of Alawites in Antakya.  I asked what the local Alawites living in Turkey thought of Assad, an embattled leader who had so far killed over 30,000 of his own country’s citizens in a civil war that he could not win yet refused to concede.  She reflected for a moment, and then said: “They support Assad.  They don’t know anything about him other than that he is of the same tribe as them.  Beyond that, they don’t know and they don’t want to know.”

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Saving an 18-year-old brother from dying too young

A man at prayer in the 12th century Ulu Camii mosque in Diyarbakir

It seemed quite impossible to wander alone around Diyarbakir or any other town in Turkey and not meet interesting people eager for conversation with a foreigner.  I met Muhammed in front of the nearly one-thousand-year-old Ulu Camii, the “Great Mosque”.  I had often found mosques called “Ulu Camii” to be a surprisingly good place to meet people.  A great mosque was a busy mosque, and a busy mosque was always likely to have at least one person willing to talk if  you made eye contact and tossed out a friendly “merhaba” or two in the direction of likely looking souls.  Muhammed offered to show me around the mosque, which was constructed of the somber black basalt of which almost all the public buildings in this city seemed to be made.  He pointed out that there are two kinds of basalt used in the building, which he said were called male and female in Turkish.  The male was the dense, solid variety, and the female was the more porous, pumice-like rock, which he said was a better insulator.  The terminology seemed apt.

An imam talking to the faithful outside the Ulu Camii mosque, Diyarbakir

We left the mosque and soon found ourselves in his shop, which sold assorted carpets, items of clothing, and other knick-knacks mainly targeting the tourist trade.  His first words to me when we entered the shop were: “This is not the job I want to be doing.”  Truly, his heart did not seem to be in it, and he made not the slightest effort to sell me anything, though he did order in tea for the pair of us.  In an alcove somewhere in the shop, his partner snored during a mid-afternoon nap.

We talked about family.  He was from a family of 10: six sons, and four daughters.  He found this fact ridiculous and old-fashioned, and said that he and his wife would have no more than one or two children, but as yet had none.  “If you have 10 children, they become slaves.  But if you have only one or two, they can really become something in life.”

He was a man who believed in his religion but did not believe in nations or in borders.  “If you read the prophets, do they talk about countries?  What good has ever come from borders?”  One of his younger brothers, only 18 years old, ran off earlier that year to the mountains to join the PKK.  He and his brothers tracked him down and dragged him back home.  “We said to him that this was foolishness.  It is 2012.  Do you think you can survive against helicopters and tanks and cannons and spy-planes?  Come home.  Your mother is sick and she needs you.  If you want, make your words like bullets, but the time for being a soldier in the mountains is past”.

Yet, he also told me that if you asked 10 families in Diyarbakir if they had a son in the PKK, five of them would say yes.

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The Woman Who Gave Away 10,000 Trees in Kabul

Not all of Sandra’s visits to Afghanistan have been as eventful as the time that she was blown out of bed one night, accompanied by shards of flying glass, by the explosion of a suicide bomb nearby.  But she has now been there 15 times.

She went to Afghanistan in the spring of 2002 after the overthrow of the Taliban regime by Afghan rebel forces along with a lot of help from the US.  She then travelled around the country, by bus, alone.  She spoke none of the local languages.  This experience and a few others got her hooked on the country, and she kept going back.  For the last five years, the main reason for returning was that she was trying to open a library at the University of Kabul, underwritten by a US charitable foundation of which she is the co-chair and by the Afghan government itself.  Apparently she was persuasive enough when she met with President Karzai that the government committed some of its financial resources too.  Some have been skeptical that the project would succeed, or if it did that it would survive destruction from the usual sources in that war-torn country, but she persisted and the library is now nearing its opening date — fingers crossed.

In an earlier life, she was an academic with a PhD in mathematical economics, and taught at institutions such as the London School of Economics.  She was also the head business strategist for a major US multinational in the mobile communications business.  Along the way, she raised two children, one of whom is her daughter Whitney with whom she has traveled and still travels the world regularly.

I met Sandra and Whitney at an old hotel in Mardin, one of those centuries-old Turkish homes now converted into a wonderful hotel with spectacular views of the city and the Anatolian countryside beyond.  We shared a roof-top dinner at a nearby restaurant and then breakfast the following morning.

Breakfast terrace at the Antiq Tatlidede (sweet grand-daddy) Hotel in Mardin.

I asked Sandra to contrast her experience traveling in Afghanistan in recent years with the current trip to Turkey.  She said that Turkey is for many in the Islamic world, including Afghanistan, their ideal vision of what their own country could be: democratic, prosperous, peaceful, growing.  Of course, many Turks would dispute that vision of town country, especially those who live here in the less-developed Kurdish south-east, but that’s another matter — Turks can be very self-critical.  In comparison to Afghanistan, Turkey is indeed all of those things.  And as she said, as a woman, she feels completely safe here.  Overt signs of crime are few, if littering and flagrant violation of traffic rules are excluded.

As for the 10,000 trees: Sandra noticed that there were barely any trees left in Kabul.  The war with the Soviets in the 1980’s, the civil war that followed when the Taliban came to power, and then the subsequent civil war/war with the U.S. and its allies after 2001 devastated the country.  This series of calamities so impoverished people that they cut down whatever trees they could find for fuel to keep warm and cook their food.  The result was a city without any trees for providing shade, reducing dust, retaining soil, uplifting the human spirit, or any of the other things that green trees can do.  So she handed out 10,000 of them, sometimes on street corners, to try to solve the problem.  They were small, bare-root trees, so it will be a while before they’re big enough to make a difference, but they will one day.  Direct action can be a beautiful thing.

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Assyrian Christians Return to their Roots

An Assyrian Christian family returns to their ancestral village church: Meryem Ana

I was leafing through a book on the lectern in the Assyrian Christian church of Meryem Ana, in what I assumed to be Syriac script, written from right to left, when a man came up to me and asked me if I knew what it was.  I said “Biblos?”, taking a wild stab at both what it was and how to say Bible in Turkish.  (I was wrong on both counts).  Just then a young woman walked up and asked if I spoke English. She was from Goteborg in Sweden, she said, and she was here with her parents and husband and other family members. Her voice had that wonderfully musical rising and falling tone that the Swedes use when they speak English, which sounded so much more interesting to the ear than flat North American English. The older man was her father.  She explained that the book in front of us was a prayer book, but she barely knew how to read a few words of it, though her father could read it easily.  She spoke a few words with her father and mother and I asked what language they were speaking.  It was Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and I was hearing it for the first time.

In the village where we were, there were very few Christians left, which is the case for Assyrian Christians throughout the Middle East. As wars have raged, Islamic fundamentalism has risen and the economy in this region has stagnated, the majority of this Christian sect have emigrated from south-eastern Turkey as well as from Syria and Iraq — to Sweden, the US, Germany and elsewhere in the West.  It is bringing nearly 2000 years of history for their sect in this region to an end.  For her parents, the lure was still so strong that they had bought land nearby in Midyat and now came back for six months every year, and so did many of others of their generation, old people who lived all over the globe, but came together to be with family, former neighbors, and friends.  “This is the place where the old people are happy together”, she said.

Sweden was the country where she had lived for 35 years, but she had spent the first three years of her life in an Assyrian Christian town in southern Turkey.  Her husband was also from this area, but had left when he was seven and this was the first time he had been back in 33 years.  He asked what I thought of the church, and I said it was beautiful.  “But do you believe”, he said, “Can you feel God in this place?”  This was definitely upping the stakes.  I paused and then said no, I did not believe, that I thought that there might be a God, but I certainly was not sure of that.  He persisted, “But how can you not believe?”  His face was very alive and his eyes seemed fired with intensity.  “Don’t you believe that it was the faith of the people that let them build this place and allowed it to survive?”  I looked around at the sanctuary where we stood, with its ancient stone carvings, and said, “Yes, it was clearly built by people of faith, and it is a miracle it has survived all these centuries.” I think that coming back to this place for the first time since he had left it all those years before had deeply affected him.

A few minutes later, as I was leaving, I asked his wife how it felt to be here in this place.  She said that she had barely any memories of her early childhood, but her husband who had left when he was a bit older, had a lot of bitter-sweet feelings aroused by being back here.  And back in Sweden, I pried, do you go to the Assyrian Christian church?  “The old people like my parents go every week, but as for my husband and me, we go at Christmas and Easter, and that’s about it”, she replied a little bit ruefully.

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A Kurdish Teacher Mourns His Brother

I took a “dolmuş” mini-bus ride between two towns some hours apart in the south-eastern, Kurdish part of the country.  For part of the way, I sat next to a teacher, who said he taught English.  It was apparent that he didn’t speak much English, a fact of which he was painfully aware, and he soon asked for my permission to borrow the English-Turkish dictionary which I had just been using.  He was to use it a lot during the conversation that followed —  I suspected he thought it was a lot safer to talk in English than in Turkish, even if difficult, and I was certainly happy he made that choice.

The first word he looked up translated as “compelled”.  He had been compelled to teach English, he said, despite his protests that he didn’t speak the language.  He did speak Kurdish, Turkish and Arabic, as do many people in this part of the country.  He taught a variety of subjects, since in his school there were 600 overwhelmingly Kurdish children, and only five teachers.  He wanted to know how many students there were in the average U.S. classroom, and I said 25-30.  To that, he offered that the children in his classroom were crammed three to a seat.  On top of that, he said that he was paid only $800 monthly for this work and had to live apart from his wife.  I asked him why he decided to become a teacher, and he said that he loved children and he loved his people.  He more than once during this conversation took out his cell phone and showed me a picture of his smiling child, to make sure that I understood his motivation.

He spoke with intensity, and he even rode past his stop because he wanted to continue the conversation as long as possible.  I asked if he taught in Kurdish, and he smiled wryly and said that in his own classroom he was allowed to speak English or Turkish — but not Kurdish.  I was surprised by this and said that I had heard otherwise, but he said that it was only in the universities that Kurdish was allowed.  He looked up the word that translated as “assimilation”, and pointed to it, and I got the point.  He added that the Turkish government had recently begun allowing Kurdish history to be taught, but only the version that it wanted, and not the version he believed to be true.  He could not tell them that the country’s revered founder, Ataturk, had suppressed Kurdish rebellions.  “So you could not, for example, tell them about the mass hangings of Kurdish leaders in Diyarbakir back in the 1920’s and 1930’s?”  “Absolutely not”, he replied.  “We can’t even call Diyarbakir by its Kurdish name, which is Amed”.  (See

He apologized before stating that he didn’t want to have to speak ill of the United States, but he thought it supported the Turkish government in its oppression of the Kurdish people. He wanted to know why the US government did this. I had never liked being asked to defend my country’s foreign policy, having  generally low opinion of an inward-looking country to understand the rest of the world.  I said that the first reason was that the U.S. didn’t understand this part of the world, and the second reason was that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) organization used terror tactics to achieve its goal of separation.  Yes, he said, but the US is not doing anything to help find a solution.  I asked him what he thought the solution was.

There is no “hak”, he said, looking up its English translation, “justice”.  “We don’t want very much, just what is fair.”  “And what is fair?”  “We want to control education, and we want to be able to call our towns by their proper names”.  That’s all?  “Yes, that’s all”.  Then he wanted to know what I thought the solution might be.  I explained that in countries like the U.S. and Canada, there is a federal system, where the central government controls some functions, while the state or provincial governments controlled other matters such as education and health care.  He said that this was exactly the kind of government that they wanted and needed for the Kurdish people.  He couldn’t quite pronounce the world “government”, so he simply gave up and used the Turkish word “devlet”.  I wanted to know what party he thought would best be able to get the Kurdish people what they want, and asked him first about the main Kurdish party in the Turkish parliament, the BDP.  He didn’t think much of them, and rattled off an alphabet soup list of party names, including the BDP and the ruling AK Party, and said they were all the same and they were all in it for the money.  He thought the BDP started out with the right idea, but became afraid — he didn’t say so, but we both knew that many of that party’s parliamentary members were in jail, with others under threat of jail. The only party that he thought represented the Kurds and wasn’t afraid was the PKK.  He didn’t support the PKK policy of armed resistance and killing — he mimed the act of shooting a rifle — but he thought they fought for the right issues.  He leaned in closer and had heard of Abdullah Ocalan, the former leader of the PKK who has been held alone in an island prison in the Sea of Marmara since the late 1990’s and whose name was once and perhaps still is all but forbidden to mention by Kurds.  “Some things he did were right, others were not”, was as far as he would go.

To make sure I really grasped the predicament of Kurdish men like him, he said that he had not yet done his military service, but would soon have to do so.  “I may be killing my uncle, my cousins, my brothers.”  I asked if members of his family had been killed or wounded in the fighting between the Kurds and the army, and he replied with great sadness that his brother had been killed, fighting for the Turkish Army.  He paused to let that fact sink in, or just to collect his thoughts. “It was a great loss and a great waste”, he continued.  “My brother was a good man, an engineer, he studied at one of the best universities in Istanbul, and he spoke wonderful English too.  It was a loss to his family and a loss to the country too.”  He handed the dictionary back to me, and got off the bus.

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Seeing Hasankeyf Before it Drowns

Two young women from Batman, visiting Hasankeyf

I took a late morning bus from Bitlis, near Lake Van, feeling so lousy with a cold that I left town without even visiting the fortress that dominates the town. This was a nearly unprecedented event in my personal traveling history: I never leave a town without seeing its fortress, under normal conditions.  I thought I would just have to come back another time, when I could face trudging up the hill.

On the road from Bitlis to a town called Batman to the south-west, the country was very rugged and more highly forested than elsewhere in the region.  This kind of terrain tends to lend itself to making it harder to combat guerrillas.  Soon enough, there was a hilltop army base that we passed, heavily sand-bagged and with a tank to block the entrance.  Near Batman, we also passed a large military airbase, with a dozen or so concrete hangars painted in camouflage paint.

Hasankeyf, on the Tigris River, a miniature Cappadocia

A couple of hours later, I was in the beautiful old town of Hasankeyf, which my niece’s boyfriend Jakub had told me was a must-see.  I sat down in the first restaurant I saw overlooking the Tigris River, the same river that in about four years’ time will drown this town as the water backs up in the reservoir behind the dam downstream.  It seemed as if it would be a great loss.   The waiter was a friendly sort, and sat down to talk with me after he brought my food.  We soon reached the limits of his English vocabulary and switched to Turkish.  He was an Arab, he said, though he also spoke Turkish and Kurdish as well.  (Later I was told that most of the population of the town was Arab, with the remainder overwhelmingly Kurdish).  Eventually the conversation swung around to the current guerilla war of the PKK against the Turkish Army.  “Are there troubles with the PKK around here?”, I asked.  In answer, he cupped his hand around his ear and said “Do you hear that?”  It was the sound of a jet overhead.  “That plane is probably coming back from a bombing run somewhere in Hakkari”, he explained, which is a province in Turkey’s south-east and notoriously frequently in the news due to attacks on the Turkish Army.  He mimed the bombing to make sure I got it.  He said that he had done his military service, and by the description of the location, it was either the very same army base I had passed earlier in the day or one in the same area.  He said he served there for 15 months in 2007-2008, and had the wounds to prove it: he unbuttoned his shirt and showed me the scar on his side, and said there was another lower down on his torso and another on his leg.  He said with a note of pride that he had done his duty as a citizen.  “There were operations every day while I was there”, he said.  It was clearly not the favorite period of his life, as he described being rousted from bed at 5:00a.m. every morning, and subjected to tough discipline.  The food was terrible and there wasn’t enough of it, which he seemed to have harder feelings about than having pieces of hot metal pass through his body.  I asked if the military situation were any better now, and he thought not.

I left and wandered around town for a while.  A young guide named Yunus presented himself to me at the mosque, and for a change I actually hired him.  He seemed enterprising and I like to encourage business start-ups with 12-year-olds.  Soon, a somewhat older guide tried to attach himself to me, flashing what he claimed was a professional guide’s credential and firing off facts about the building we were then looking at.  After a quick interaction, it seemed clear that he would want to speak bad English with me and I preferred to practice my bad Turkish with Yunus, who in any event I had already hired.  “Sorry, I already have a guide”, and off we went.  After a quick tour, it became clear that the chief attraction, which is the cave dwellings that riddle the cliffs nearby, along with the palaces that sit on top of the heights, were closed and would remain closed for some unknown amount of time.  Someone had apparently been killed by rock-fall, and the authorities had decided that the site was no longer safe.  This hadn’t done much for the town’s tourist business, I was told by one of the town’s merchants later on.  Business was very poor.  Still, there was plenty to look at, and it was beautiful and dramatic by the light of the late afternoon sun even if you couldn’t wander into the caves themselves.  This is a less dramatic version of Cappadocia, so it’s a shame that it will largely disappear beneath the waters of the Tigris.

I paid off Yunus, and I sat down at a tea house up above most of the town, to look at the ruins across from us and chat with two friendly young women from Batman, who bought my tea.  It was difficult to talk with most Turks except over tea, and it was even harder to ever actually pay for it.

Two young Kurdish girls in Hasankeyf, who between them took about 100 pictures with my camera

I was accosted multiple times by the children of the village, of whom there were many, from those who wanted to serve as guides to those who simply wanted to practice their English.  From conversations with children and adults, it was apparent that the size of families around here was considerably greater than the 2.2 average number of children per woman for the country as a whole.  No one told me that they came from a family of fewer than seven children, and one girl told me that she had 13 siblings, of whom 10 were still alive.  It reminded me of Mexico of a generation ago.  Two young girls attached themselves to me and walked me around town.  Their names were Zehra and Semanur, which they wrote down for me, though I may now be misreading their handwriting.  They shot countless pictures with my camera of me, themselves, the scenery, a cow, a cat, and Semanur’s mother, who kept herself semi-hidden behind the vines in front of her home.  I discovered that Turks say “peynir” when they want you to smile in a photo, which translates as “cheese” — I have perhaps stumbled upon another one of those cultural universals.  I think these two energetic, outgoing girls, the eldest of whom was 13, will be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.



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And Now for the Turkish/Kurdish View from Denmark

She came and sat down next to me in the hotel restaurant (I could never sit there alone for long) and said that she spoke three languages: Kurdish, Turkish … and Danish.  She knew the occasional English word, but not really how to pronounce it.  Not a typical choice of languages, but she had spent the last 32 years in Copenhagen, had gone to university there, had raised four children — but had still married a fellow Kurd.  She thought Denmark was a “paradise”: lots of work, good schools, parks, swimming and so forth.  She was a stark contrast with the view of how life is for Turks (using the term in its citizenship and not its ethnic sense) in Germany, from other conversations I’ve had.  In fact, she thought that Denmark was very much like the US in the way people live their lives.  I’m still not sure why the position of Turks is apparently so different in Denmark than Germany, making the large assumption that she is a typical example.  There are three million Turks in Germany — perhaps that large number creates a critical mass that both encourages people to continue to live in their own language, and also arouses more prejudice from the ethnically German society they’re embedded in?

I asked her about women here in Turkey.  “Oh, it’s not a good life for women here”, she said.  “You can’t work, you stay home, you raise children.  Besides, there’s not much work here anyway, except with the government.  The situation for women here is like feudalism.”  At this comment, the man at the next table apparently took exception, turned around and said that things are much different here now, that there’s been a revolution.  Her problem, he said, was that she had  become a European.  At that, she laughed uproariously, and alternately took off and put back on her head scarf saying: “I’m a European. No, I’m a Kurd. Oh, I’m a European again.”  The man at the next table did not seem amused and turned back to finish his breakfast, no doubt muttering imprecations against this modern generation of women.

She was not a young woman.  Her younger brother was sitting at another table at the other end of the restaurant, not participating unless she shouted a question at him.  He looked to be well into his fifties, so she must have been mid to late fifties.  Her brother lived in Istanbul, she said, and no longer even knew how to speak Kurdish.  The two of them were here for a week visiting family members in the area.

She worked as a social worker, she said, and provided translation services for Kurds and Turks in Denmark at hospitals, schools, gynecology clinics, and the like.

I asked about university for women in this region.  “In small towns like this, no.  In the big cities, maybe.”  And what about the PKK around here?  I had talked to her briefly the day before, and she repeated her statement from the previous day — contradicted by the Turkish teacher we were then sitting with — that there were no PKK guerillas around here.  But in Diyarbakir (a much bigger Kurdish city), she said that there were many.

She had introduced herself earlier in the conversation, giving me both her Turkish name, Gűlseren, and her Kurdish name, Rozerin.  These did not sound remotely the same. I asked her why she had two names.  “Oh, it was very different when I was young here in Turkey.  You needed a Turkish name.  The idea was one country, one language, and there was no room for us Kurds.”  Things have improved.

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