Checkpoints in Kurdistan

Kurdish Music
Image by Kurdistan Photo ???????? via Flickr

After staying up with our new Israeli friends, we discovered back in the hotel at 12:30AM that there was no water at all; when we called down, they wouldn’t turn it on, saying the city was without water. The next morning (Tuesday the 25th), Elif and Dilek had a little conversation with the owners about the problem, during which they realized the owners were lying: they had turned it off just to save money. First, the owners claimed the water was always there; then, they said it was off citywide; then, they said the hotel’s water was broken but they were fixing it; then, they said they had to shut it off because of a problem but they turned it on when we called for it; and finally, they said if we didn’t like it, why did we stay in the hotel for two nights? The last comment was the final straw for Elif and Dilek, because we were only there one night and at 12:30 AM they knew we couldn’t well go elsewhere. So they started yelling once again. The guy had to close the curtain on us so we wouldn’t be heard in the main lobby, and he said the main owner was a Hajj (one who had made a pilgrimage to Mecca) and was absent – but we spotted him, with the skullcap, hiding from us on the other side of the curtain. Dilek yelled that the Hajj’s were even more disgusting than other people, and that she was embarrassed to be Muslim, embarrassed to be Turkish. Elif added that they were so twisted in their own lies that they couldn’t even keep their stories straight. Dilek screamed that the hotel was even making their bellboys, children, lie for them. Finally, we gave them 8 million instead of 10 million and refused to pay the rest. They asked if we wanted trouble. We said that we’d love trouble and left. I was glad for the experience, not for the fireworks, but because it was like taking a pill for the day – it meant that us four would not fight today over the itinerary, and that we could project our aggressions onto an external enemy and then happily go about our business.

And it was in that relaxed state of mind that we entered Kurdistan. I knew that we had arrived because a few kilometers before Digor, we were stopped by the Jandarmerie who not only checked our passports but wrote down all of our personal information in a log. Then, 20 km later, another one, this time without taking our names. And then another: we were stopped at nine checkpoints in all. Minibuses were being pulled over and inspected thoroughly – it was a real border crossing within the same country. After the second checkpoint, we didn’t get talked to, just waved by after we parked at each one, and each one saw that we didn’t have mustaches and that we had the “34” Istanbul license plate number – but I really felt sorry for these Jandarmes. They looked like nervous kids. They were in pairs, one standing in the road stopping cars, and one in a ditch behind barbed wire, at first crouching and looking through binoculars at the cars, and then letting go of the binoculars and emerging with his gun out. As we passed each one, the second guy always went back down into the ditch, like when your boat on a Disney ride had just passed a mechanical figurine and it had finished going through its cycle. Elif says that the PKK simply blast their way through those checkpoints, and if you get selected in the army to serve in the east, and you get selected to be a Jandarme, you should just write out your will and say your last good-byes.

All of which was very moving, but, traveling in the east, all I could think of was: when can I shit? Where is it safe – to stop so I can shit? Because rather than being killed, my diarrhea was first and foremost on my mind, and if we encountered any PKK, I would have just asked them, please, do you have any Limodin? The road was constantly being patched up, because, Dilek said, of mines. But we saw nothing of interest except for Jandarmes, Jandarmes, Jandarmes. On the mountains was written in huge rocks, “Önce Vatan” (“Country first”) and “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” (“How happy it is to say one is Turkish!”) I wondered if these signs were not only wishful thinking, but also a bit confrontational in an area where people speak Kurdish and look entirely different from Turks.

We stopped in ??d?r, a fabulously dusty town that looked positively South American and not at all Turkish. Then we went to the incredible Ishak Pa?a Saray?, in Do?ubeyazit near the Iranian border. It was the palace of a Kurdish chieftain built around 1700, and it was created to rival Topkap? in Istanbul. Apparently, this angered the sultan, who then made the chieftain disappear, but the palace remains. It reminds me of the kind of insane fancy that one experiences in deserts – fantastic works, delusions of grandeur and folly – even a little like the Watts towers in Los Angeles (but of course much, much larger). The place was so ludicrously over the top, so opulent – completely ruined but all the stonework was intact – adopting all grandiose Selçuk, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Kurdish styles. Again, we were the only tourists there except for another couple, which is just how I like it, and I was thankful for its remoteness and the modicum of danger which was keeping people away. We would have had the place to ourselves except for two 9-year-old children inside, who insisted on being our “guides.” Normally, we wave this off, but there was nowhere to hide and there was no saying no. The kids would completely make stuff up in a childlike way – “these are the prisons, these are the holes where they were fed” – they had an impressive imagination – but they were climbing all over some delicate-looking fountains and pulling at us and giggling and they were behaving like K’s assistants in Kafka’s The Castle, and we finally asked them, how would they like 50 cents each to please just go the hell away? They looked at each other and saw that we were serious, and said they’d like that very much.

In the town of Do?ubeyazit, we went to a covered market. Co? parked the car and yelled at a young soldier who was blocking the road, simply because he felt that he could yell at him. Way to go, Co?. Inside, the shopkeepers were glad to see us, since we were the only tourists there, and they were telling us that the hotels were all completely empty. The Kurds were incredibly nice (like the Turks), but not at all pushy (unlike the Turks). The prices were no better than in Istanbul, which surprised Co?, who had heard stories of loads of hot, cheap goods. We asked why and one of them told us in confidence, “Too many askerler (soldiers) – we can’t go across the border and move goods like we used to.” I went to a tea seller in the market and ordered a tea to calm my stomach down, and the seller refused to let me pay for it. Then I saw he was making a Ku?burnu drink and got one of those, a hot sugary cranberry-juice-like drink, and he wouldn’t let me pay for that either. Then I ordered another tea and insisted on leaving 25,000 lira, about 8 cents (the tea cost 20,000 each and it was all the small change I had), and after some effort, I managed to hide the money on his tray.

The tea seller was playing a tape of some of the most unusual Kurdish music I’d ever heard, nothing at all like what I got from Smithsonian Institution when they had sponsored my conference and nothing like what I’d ever heard in Istanbul, so I asked where I could get a copy. He pointed me toward a record store in town. We went there and we forgot the name of the artist, so the store owner sent a boy over to the covered market to find the artist’s name for us. When he came back, he said the tea seller had no tape and no tape recorder. Apparently, either the tea seller’s tape was a bootleg and he didn’t want to piss off the store owner, or it was a compilation taped off TV or elsewhere of some Kurdish music that may have had some objectionable lyrics. No one would ever find out which.

What struck me most about Do?ubeyazit is how occupied the place feels. The military presence there was no stronger than at Kars or Hopa or Ardahan in the northeast, but here, the local population was obviously ethnically different than the army, and it really felt like those films you see of American soldiers in South Vietnam in the late 60’s and early 70’s – Turkish soldiers bopping in and out of Kurdish-owned shops, buying things.

Alas, my expectations turned out to be wrong about us not fighting that day. Co? started driving on the left again, and Dilek said he was driving too fast with all of the holes in the road, which resulted in Co? slowing down to 40 km/hour, acting like a child, and finally he just pulled over and told me to drive. So I drove his stick-shift fine, much easier than I thought it would be, a lot of fun, really. Given the fact that I was now driving and given the petulant way Co? had been behaving, it was the very first time on the trip when I wished our Fiat had driver’s side air bags.

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