We Live Under The Same Sky

Somewhere between 8 and 20 million native Kurdish speakers live in Turkey, though to honour this man and his kin ‘Turkey’ should be in inverted commas. To them, this is not Turkey and they are not Turkish. It is northern Kurdistan, a land traumatised by history.

—Elif, Araban, Southeast Turkey

Hills and trees and boulders. Half a day’s ride out of Gaziantep I reach Elif. Squat in a small hot valley, Elif is Turkish. That it is Turkish is not a given, but it is important. It was once a Roman settlement, Sugga. Now it is poor, very poor. The word ‘destitute’ keeps springing belligerently to mind but I push it down. This is Turkey, not Mali, not Afghanistan. But it does not align with what I have seen of Turkey. The Turkey I have come to know is plump, eager, communal—it invites and laughs. Here, something has left, something is missing.

There are children in clothes looking with the same curiosity but without excitement, without glint. They collect by the bike for something to do, their eyes need something. What is it? What do they lack? I don’t know how to feel. I want to give them something intangible, immaterial; to show them something, bring a spark to drive them to life. They are not in school but they are also not playing in gardens or tormenting parents or digging holes, they are just standing.

That this is Turkish and the relevance of this I only learn later, in a town I don’t know the name of, from a Kurdish man, in German. There are a string of Kurdish towns dotting this road out of Gaziantep, following the Euphrates up to the Atatürk Dam (pictured on the 1 lira banknote, 2005-9). Kurdish by majority. 80% of this town, 23,000 in the neighbouring towns and villages. Somewhere between 8 and 20 million native Kurdish speakers live in Turkey, though to honour this man and his kin ‘Turkey’ should be in inverted commas. To them, this is not Turkey and they are not Turkish. It is northern Kurdistan, a land traumatised by history.

*

Since late antiquity, the land called Kurdistan has been a battleground. The Roman, Persian, Safavid and Ottoman empires fought bloody wars on soil occupied by Kurds. Assyrians were driven out by pagans who were replaced, mostly, by Sunni Muslims. After WWI, the Allied Forces contrived the Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1920, which marked the beginning of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. They, the benevolent We, offered the Kurds a truncated Kurdistan located entirely within modern Turkey – leaving out the Kurds of Iran, Iraq and Syria. This apportionment stoked the flames of Turkish nationalism, which sought to establish an independent Turkish republic out of the ashes of the OE. Ultimately, the death-knell to Kurdish self-governance was rung by Atatürk, a figure much revered by Turkey’s Europe-orientated west, who preserved Turkish sovereignty at the expense of Kurdish independence.

Fast-forward to June, 2018. I am sat with ethnic Kurds who, in the lead-up to the Turkish general election in June, are at once galvanised and resigned. They want to tell me what it is like for them, for Kurds, here in Turkey. Do I know? How much do we really know of Kurdistan in Western Europe, in our bubble of Brexit and Trump? Predominantly, these people oppose Erdoğan’s regime for its continuance of a series of policies which relegate Kurds to second-class citizens, stripping them of language and agency. Orwellian, but for us in the West it has always been a sideline issue. We hear about military clashes and brand the Kurds terrorists. Indeed, the only Kurdish voice given an international stage during the latter part of the 20th century was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which NATO and the EU both hold to be a terrorist organisation. Theresa May has used the phrase “Kurdish terrorism” and Joe Biden agrees, what they “continue to do is absolutely outrageous.” These are the united voices of the UK and the US. Meanwhile, there are those who argue that Turkey sat on its fists while Kurds fought ISIL militias in Syria, hoping two wrongs would make a right. Let leftists and fascists battle it out until all that’s left is land, and bones.

Thankfully, the political injustices inflicted on Kurds by the Turkish government are finally being dismantled. While Kurdish language was forbidden in education and broadcast media until 2002, recent policy changes mean Kurdish is now available as an elective in schools, Kurdish language signs are no longer illegal, and a 24-hour Kurdish television station began airing on 1 January 2009. Still, conservative Turkish areas are suffused with an anti-Kurdish sentiment, and many Kurds feel hostile towards the Turkish government. For decades, they were without language. Next, one hopes, comes political agency.

Ibrahim, also at our table, is pro-Erdoğan—he is the only Kurdish Erdoğan supporter in the town, and proud to be an exception. Collectively, we talk about Election Day, 24 June, which looms. This is the first of many times my opinion is asked. To them, the West I represent is a cooperative amalgam of functioning democracies, operating with a collective goal in mind. Perhaps it is. Regardless of my own view, to them, in a sense, I represent an authority on the matter of successful governance. Asking me is like asking the teacher, except I don’t know how to answer. What do I think will happen? You tell me.

I put the question to him. Will anything change? He says there are many verkaufte Menschen in Turkey, citizens who have been ‘bought’ by the government—votes traded for securities and wealth in a bid to secure Erdoğan’s victory. What do I think of all this? I think Britain’s squabbles are petty. I think of privilege, politics and perspective. I feel hollow as to what to do, personally. I wonder if there is anything I can do—or they can do. Are we all powerless? Es ist kein Democracy, he says, but I don’t know. He is full of life and heart and that must mean something—to me, to the world. His energy, vitality and anger must have a knock-on effect somewhere down the line. No? He has purpose. I suppose that’s where I come in. I am a messenger, an outsider who can take word back and effect change, external to the soft war between Kurd and Turk and therefore, perhaps, a bearer of responsibility.

What I do know is that I am glad to have met him. I am grateful to him for the effect he has had on me, and that we could converse in a mutual tongue. Plied with kahve and cigarettes and lime soda, I move on. As I leave I think back to Elif, the Turkish town. I think about why I was struck by it. It occurs to me, given all we’ve talked about, that it isn’t so much about money as about something deeper. It is not so black and white as oppressor and oppressed; these people are not the policies which govern them. But it is true that oppressed people join together. They join together in Kosovo. They join together in (and out of) Armenia. And in Kurdistan, community is their fallback. They come together to talk, because they must. They are bound by urgency and interdependence. They have been failed by the politicians. Now it falls to them to take action, and to look out for each other.

A Midnight Visit

Past these dwellings, down a steep bank, the Göksu, or “blue water”, flows softly into the Euphrates, the longest river of western Asia.

—Gaziantep Province, Turkey

This evening I am nestled on a craggy hill, among outcroppings of limestone scattered like sprouting nettles. It is quite moonlike, but not so much as before. I have been climbing through surreal landscapes, past naked trees and whitish spotted boulders, among herds of rattling sheep and goats managed by herdsmen and their ample repertoire of hoots, ticks and whipples, in their cyan-striped clothes, who pop up as meerkats to turn the flock. I am 3km north of the Euphrates, not far from Pistachio Mountain.

The sky is that dark pale blue which comes just before sunset, when objects’ outlines blend together, nuzzled by the approaching night. It is cooler than it has been. I am perhaps 200m west up the hill from the straight road which cuts through the low mountains, the road which brought me here. In the distance lies a hunchback of houses on a perpendicular lane. Past these dwellings, down a steep bank, the Göksu, or “blue water”, flows softly into the Euphrates, the longest river of western Asia. This water which slips past me here will eventually reach Syria and Iraq, where it will combine with the Tigris and flow into the Persian Gulf. No one will ask it questions. This water will house the mangar, or ‘Tigris salmon’; soft-shelled turtles will plosh on its banks in the company of golden jackals, Syrian brown bears and the ghosts of Arabian ostriches.

But here it is just me, and some goats. Perched on a crag overlooking its valley, I am cooking pasta (again) and listening to Barbara Acklin. The bubbling water and the sweet sharpness of Acklin’s voice send me into that reverie I know well, that cosy inner warmth which is something like meditation, or a result of meditation, or of fitness and finding a rhythm, a peace which takes time to reach but lasts when you do... “After laughter, comes—”, but I am interrupted.

A pair of headlights has left the road and is jouncing over the uneven ground towards me, making its steady unstable way through and among the protruding bits of mountain. It stops about a stone’s throw away. It is a white saloon, a rattler. After a short pause, a man steps out. He is stocky, hairy-faced, in military camouflage from head to toe. He wields a large gun, a two-hander, which I assume is the real deal. He is followed by another man, leaner and sullen-eyed. I think of Sponge and Spike, but also of Laurel and Hardy, Cook and Moore. Retrospectively I think of Dostoevsky’s Polish soldiers in The Brothers Karamazov. They have a dynamic, yet each one walks as if he is alone. They march in my direction, expressions as yet unreadable in the dimness of dusk, the shorter one slightly in front. I switch off the gas burner, take a deep breath and put on the most inoffensive face I can. When we are only a metre or two from each other, I extend my hand and smile.

(At this point I am thinking that I could, if necessary, shift camp, though I’d rather not. I’m not here to step on toes—especially toes with guns.)

My fingers (and toes) are crossed. A smile goes a long way. Yes, in this case, it is reciprocated. They are burningly curious, which is understandable. Of all places, why here? Here. One laughs, the other smirks. They think I am a silly sausage. There is a strange feeling. It’s jovial but I’m hungry and waiting for them to say something like I have to leave. I don’t know. I show them my map: where I’ve been, where I plan to go. It’s all terribly amusing. They recommend a particular route to Adıyaman and ask repeatedly if I like çay. Yes I do. You like?  Yes, I still like. Eventually, at the first twinkling of stars, they get back into their car and exit loudly. I carry on with my pasta. Night happens.

My evening routine at this point is to eat food, wash pans, listen to ‘Hooked On A Feeling’ by Blue Suede, pack and arrange my things, smoke a roll-up and drink something hot before finally bedding down with The Pale King for around half an hour, switching off the lamp and curling up. So, I do this. This, I do, and drift off into a primal snooze.

At some unknown hour, from the deep recesses of sleep, I hear a rumble, a car engine sounding off, a door opening and Turkish words. Am I dreaming? No, alas. Here are my gendarmes, back for more. A flashlight is on.

—Salaam alaykűm.

—Alaykűm salaam.

I can just make out his features past the steady beam he’s shining into my face. It’s the same dude, the squat one, the more talkative of the two. There is always a leader.

—Çay?

—What?

Is it not bedtime? I have been asleep and you have me, what, snapping to attention? He’s already got a bundle of sticks under his arm which he throws (the sticks, not his arm) to the ground. He gathers rocks and fashions two joists, across which he places a beam. He has clearly done this before. The fire takes quickly and laps at the kettle.

Look at the stars, see how they shine for—

Kettle boiled, the tea goes in the top. Two heaps. Let that simmer, let that hang. The talkative man slinks off and I hear the sound of a car boot opening. I see for the first time how close the car is. It is practically on top of the tent, and as the flashlight dances over its insides I see the sullen man, tall, arched, watching me from the front seat, folded like a shadow puppet. The first man returns with a BIM plastic bag containing torn pieces of flatbread and a çokokrem tub full of halloumi, or a similar salty cheese. I taste it, it is good. These are for me, he motions. He pours tea, and some more into a second cup for me for later. At last, we take a breath of silence. Stars beam down on us. We sip our tea.

Suddenly the taller man speaks, and somehow he is standing right by the tent. How did he—? His words are a call to arms, and they snap into action. It is military. Fire and ice, ice and fire. Two shakes of a goat’s tail and they are departing, trundling noisily over the uneven surface, honking their farewells. As quickly as it started. One more piece of cheese and I’m back in the tent, snuggled in the dark and cosy.

I rise at quarter past six and shortly have breakfast on the go. Porridge oats with dates, chia gel and apricots, a bit of sugar. Reheated tea, which I enjoy immensely. Peace and quiet. Peace and—what? My boys, really? Have they slept? Do they sleep? Are they on duty? Is this their duty? We exchange a few words but don’t really have anything to talk about. They loiter for a few minutes, smile at my tea and then bid me a final farewell. I wave after them, and look forward to a day’s cycling, to Adıyaman, to Nemrut.

Cappadocia Is Nuts

Şaban, Ali and Ramazan are in their late twenties. They wear dark green trousers and light green shirts, have clean-cut jaw lines and the peculiarly hyper social energy that comes with intense anticipation. They are in charge of counterterrorism and rural policing. On paper this is impressive but in reality it seems to amount to drinking lots and lots of çay, insistently offering bad route advice to cyclists and laughing sententiously.

The bell-heads of rock formation are so far from irksome it is euphoric, and otherworldly—sprouting like so many stone balloons out of green grass, sunning themselves in the calmness of late afternoon, housing birds whose songs, resonating in the valley, remind of witches, of waterlessness and somehow of Lou Reed. And pigeons, I suppose. Stalking among the chimneys are four adults, adult yet intrepid. Yet? Yet and but like children snooping and climbing for the first time, explorers. Coaches rumble like big gnats, spilling bodies out onto the gravel; my socks are dry. It is all dry and all of a piece, except the bodies.

I settle myself down atop a grassy bank of cliff overlooking Göreme. One side of the town is soaked in orange. The other casts long shadows towards me. As the sun inches and spreads over the horizon I cook my pasta, a healthy nutritious portion including vegetables and cheese. It feels good to fill up on hot food on the edge of a cliff overlooking an alien moonscape surrounded by stalagmitic protrusions of rock and bank and grass. I eat pasta and as I finish it I hear the call (the Ramadan call, followed by another). Meanwhile, three jandarma boys have been preparing their feast over an open fire a short way up the track, also watching the dying sun, stomachs rumbling. The call—their call, to me—is abrupt and is not a question: I am invited, therefore I go. We share words in bits and pieces. Güzel ma? Evet, çok güzel! For it is indeed very beautiful. Ben İngiliz, I am English, an öğretmen, teacher, which is the easy answer. Bisiklet, yes, that’s me. Alone, for now –yalnız. Would I like to yemek? Yes, please, of course. Tamam, teşekkürler. I was secretly hoping something like this would happen, though truly it is always a delight and a surprise.

Şaban, Ali and Ramazan are in their late twenties. They wear dark green trousers and light green shirts, have clean-cut jaw lines and the peculiarly hyper social energy that comes with intense anticipation. They are in charge of counterterrorism and rural policing. On paper this is impressive but in reality it seems to amount to drinking lots and lots of çay, insistently offering bad route advice to cyclists (“The highway! It is a perfect road for you”—it’s not) and laughing sententiously. Tonight though, it means eat and eat well. They have prepared an enormous tray of raw salad sprinkled heavily with mint, flatbread is heating on the fire, the spicy sausages are being torn apart and distributed along with lamb chops with blackened ridges, garlic bombs are sitting in the embers and whole chillies on the grill. They pour ayran and, of course, tea. After ten minutes of frenzied feeding, I am fuller than I would like to be, and laughing deeply. It is almost frantic, our cheeks bulging and aching so that speech hurts, and yet we are giggling, oil dripping down our chins and mixing with salt and yogurt and a minty fragrance riding on the air.

When I rise in the morning my phone says 04:55. I think really? Is it not absurd? For it is absurd. Sure, I have been waking with the sun, but to be awake actually before five seems madness. But still, I rise, and a faint dawn warms the tent, the inside glowing a soft orange tinged with green. Somewhere outside there is a hum, as if building works have started far away. The sun has not yet poked its head over the distant hills, but I need a pee, so I put on clothes and unzip the tent. Immediately I am awash with apricot warmth, the sky melting steadily into peach-pink at its edges, a single solitary supine cloud hanging purply far above, a limp puppet hung from the stars. The first of a hundred balloons lumps up over the lip of the cliff, almost sighing, like a bubble underwater, expelled by some gaseous deposit. Then comes a second, racing after its sister. They fill the sky slowly, jostling for space in three dimensions (Humans are not used to this). Some rise in momentary panics and inflate with hot bursts of the flame-drum, while others merely hover, pacific, almost bovine, so that as a whole they take on the aspect of a school of jellyfish—swarming, bubbling, colluding.

With me on the cliff is a family with two children. I wonder at these people who have travelled here, to this spot, to witness this spectacle, kids in tow, in the gloom of early dawn. It is remarkable because the young ones do not fidget. There is no hunger or impatience, only a soft marvelling at the hum and silence of the morning. Together we stand stock still, mouths slightly agape, not really smiling as such but definitely sharing something; in each other’s company but happy to leave it at that, happy for nothing to happen but the gentle being, here, for an extended moment, as the sun inflates the sky and warms a hundred flame-filled buoys, along with our hearts. And we share this—me, the family, the thousand passengers and the people still in their beds, asking nothing and finding it peaceful.

It strikes me that many aspects of Turkish life have to do with sharing. Giving and asking nothing in return. Roadside trees plump with white mulberries or bright yellow loquats, picked and squeezed by the afterschool rush. A pot of fresh tea and a trough of aubergine stew—meals shared between families, fellow workers or with a cyclist who happens to be passing through. People share their homes, their goats’ milk and dolmas, their strawberry bushes and vats full of olives, share tobacco and rides and handfuls of plums, share the shade of a black pine, share eyeglints and stories, handshakes and menemen with heaps of parsley, spades of heaven, tomatoes and eggs, and pomegranate syrup in little blots on your çiğ köfte making it oh-so and lip-smackingly tah-tah-tah so that you want to sing, somehow, with the sweetness of it all. And those dust-coloured flop-eared mongrels who just wanted to share the space, that family with two little ones, and all the balloons jostling for room in three dimensions, sharing and reflecting each other’s light.

Balloons over Cappadocia