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.
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.
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.