Why we need to politicise Eurovision

Breaking point has been reached: the Israel-Palestine conflict has spilled over into the domain of mass entertainment.

Hatari display the Palestinian flag during Eurovision 2019

Displaying the Palestinian flag during the recap of the acts, Iceland’s Hatari ruffled more than a few feathers. Indeed, it prompted swathes of online commentators to demand that Eurovision remain apolitical. Should that be so—is it best—is it even possible not to politicise eurovision?

[C]onsider this: many normal values we cherish in Western society today – like same-sex marriage, right to due process, freedom of religion – people at one time had to fight for, through being indefatigable in protesting the establishment and demanding change.

—Laurence Watt, The Richest Magazine

“Don’t politicise Eurovision”? It already has been, it already is

There are those who insist that Eurovision remain simply about entertainment—that it remain apolitical. This position has as its foundation the notion that it is not yet political, that it has been, was—up until the point at which Iceland’s maverick quartet Hatari displayed the Palestinian flag to an audience of 180 million Europop lovers (or, at least, abiders)—not political.

But there is evidence to the contrary, decades of it. Luxembourg’s 1961 entry, about lovers facing prejudice, was about persecution on a personal level; Israel’s trans singer Dana International, who won in 1998, contributed to the discourse surrounding gender identity. Identity is political, whether you are oppressor or oppressed—whether you want it to be or not. In 2014, Conchita Wurst became a gay icon and, following this, Ireland’s 2018 performance featured two male dancers acting out a same-sex love story. This year, France’s trans performer sang about marginalisation. For years, Eurovision has served as a platform for highlighting social and political issues.

More overtly political acts have also featured prominently at Eurovision. In 2016, Ukrainian singer Jamala won with a song about the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union in WWII. The following year, Ukraine banned Russia from competing at all—politics, fairly deployed. (Russia’s way of undermining the political act was to dress it up as an amoral one: they sent a woman in a wheelchair to represent them, and spun the story so that Ukraine appeared as the tyrant, refusing access to the disabled) It might be easy to admonish Ukraine on grounds of not trying hard enough to rise above, but if the playground big-kid annexes your peninsula, what are you going to do? Politics is inevitable.

Australia’s induction in 2015 signified “a world where issues and beliefs, rather than borders, are important”—if beliefs and principles are to be the fundaments upon which a Eurovision family is born, is it not important to reaffirm and reform that ethical code? Such were the motives of Dana, Wurst, Jamala and Jean-Claude Pascal. Breaches of the code must be questioned.

The often cited purpose of Eurovision is to connect, transcend borders, subvert the myth that difference = conflict, that adjacent = opposit[e/ng]. It “gives visibility to identities and ways of being that you never see” (Dr Ruddock ,quoted above) – its aim, to harmonise, is a noble one, which it achieves through disruption of the status quo, challenging patchy ethical positions and unifying people by establishing a progressive ethos. It provides a platform for progressive notions and catalyses social change through exposure, focusing the world’s attention on social issues that need progress—LGBT perception and prejudice, body positivity (France 2019), the notion that milkmaids are chaste and prudish (Poland 2014), and so on.

It is my belief that a platform whereon countries, who would otherwise be in conflict with each other (or indeed currently are: Azerbaijan-Armenia, Turkey-Armenia, Georgia-Russia, Ukraine-Russia, etc.), can compete on a level playing field, is inherently political—if only because of the decision to give the combatants a chance to participate. When German and British soldiers played football in no-man’s-land during the World War, that was political. There are some things it is impossible not to politicise. Giving Saudi Arabia a slot on a show defined by its unifying moral codes would be incredibly political. It would be equivalent to saying ‘we, as a community, respect the way you conduct yourselves enough to join our contest’.

*

The rest of this article can be found on Medium, along with several others. Read about my experience of being held in Israeli immigration for five hours here.

Read more stories from the ground about police harassment in Sri Lanka, a research piece about the same, how to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka, or about where to eat vegetarian food on Sri Lanka’s southern coast (originally published on Travelista)

Where To Eat Vegan Food in Sri Lanka, and Chinese

Sri Lanka’s southern coast is replete with delicious, wholesome vegan and vegetarian food – you just need to know where to look!

Originally published on Travelista
Read my other sri lanka stories here

Sandy beaches and coconut trees are a dime a dozen on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Many praise the ‘Wonder of Asia’ for its verdant jungles, luscious flora and elephantine fauna. Indeed, there is something to suit every person, every taste: romantic lagoon retreats for couples, backpackers’ hostels for the solo traveller, five star hotels for the affluent and honeymooners. But can you find vegan food in Sri Lanka? Simply put, yes you can.

The beaten path is well trodden. Kite surfers go to Kalpitiya, surfers to Weligama or Arugam Bay and history seekers flock to Anuradhapura and Sigiriya. For less than a day’s salary in some parts of the world, you can find yourself in the back of a jeep, inches from the lowly flapping ears of an Elephas maximus (Sri Lankan elephant).

Such activities are well and good—they are well infrastructured and cater to the taste buds of tourists. However, for this very same reason, it can be difficult to find peace, and space, when partaking in them (and without spending lots of money on an expensive resort).

Sometimes the best thing is to take a step back, and relax at the Japanese Peace Pagoda, Unawatuna. Watching the sun dip below the horizon while encased in its smooth white walls, a certain serenity descends.

Great Hikes

Or, if you want to keep moving, take a rucksack and go for a long walk around part (or all!) of the perimeter of Koggala Lake. While crocodiles were introduced to the lake some years ago, its size means you are unlikely to encounter any. Romping from shore to shore, you can let the quietude of Koggala wash over you. If you go at the right time, you may even see traditional stilt fishermen, alert upon their pedestals, eyes trained on the abyss beneath.

Great Beaches

Or, if you would rather spend some time near the sea, make a visit to Coco Beach, where you can snooze in a hammock big enough for three people, or soar on their giant rope swing out over the ocean. Be careful though, the sea can be a bit rough!

But this isn’t really about hiking, hammocks or swings. It is about the most important thing in the world – food. Where can you find vegan food in Sri Lanka?

Read on to find out where to eat delicious vegan, Chinese and Mexican food on Sri Lanka’s south coast.

You can also find the full version of this article on Medium, along with several others. Read about Sri Lanka’s problems, namely sexism and police corruption, as well as its blessings.

Old China vs New China

One student of mine said her boyfriend was ugly because he was too dark. They used to call him Blackie. How does one approach that?

—Chengdu, 2017

Old China bad; New China good?

Something clicked recently, a sort of phenomenon which has come to light in my head in the last week or two. It’s about the relationship between the old and new, those who do and those who document, the rugged and the pristine. There is a rift in so many ways – behavioural, habitual, maybe even ideological – and the natural response of the present generation, who perch on the edge of a thousands of years-old series of dynasties and handwritten histories and instead look upwards to the stars through a pixelated lens, is to ogle. Ogle and boggle. Because people doing things with their hands – that’s fascinating. Really, it is, especially if the current vogue is to cover up as much skin as possible so as to avoid getting any darker, play LOL (League of Legends) on your iPhone in order to pass the time, and go to the canteen three times a day for your sustenance. One student of mine said her boyfriend was ugly because he was too dark. They used to call him Blackie. How does one approach that?

What is the difference?

Old China is ghastly, gaunt and decrepit – it is all the adjectives under the sun (the invisible sun, the elusive sun), and heaves as it breathes. It is drooping eyelids under the weight of its own history. It is playing mahjong or Chinese chess in hoards of old men, bent over like stray cats, lost in a mist of technology and change, caught in the eye of the storm, finding refuge in nostalgia, routine, traditional, stillness.

It is square dancing solemnity, lit incongruously by LED screens blaring ads and silent infomercials. It is being written constantly and literally onto the paving stones of parks, by men and women stooped forming right-angles over brushes, inhabitants of a bygone era, plucking watered words from their pasts and sweeping them in swathes over stone – only to be washed away with the rest. Hosepipes scatter puddles and the slate is cleaned. It is meditative, persistent, never cowing, droning on patiently in the background.

It is transient and permanent and clung to and revered. Temples, water, work, rice, sagging, beautiful, real – radiant, sad. Old China underpins the New like a giant slab of concrete, impermeable to change and being blinkered out, stifled by the monster redevelopment project of New China, by social upheaval and hyper-modernity and WeChat. Its song is mellifluous but its fingernails are breaking and its scratches are no longer indelible on the minds of the young – who flaunt the badges of New China like gold stars. The old chime lugubriously as their pasts are stripped away, & collect round each other with sunflower seeds and flasks of tea and chortle like characters from Beckett, half-dead, gripped by laughter and serenity.

The New China strides like a juggernaut, indefatigable and unforgiving. It is cement, glass, pragmatism – shiny, rustling faux leather and long puffer jackets, fashion town, colours, blasé, picture-taking paradise, boyfriends and girlfriends and shirking tradition – absence of past, eternal present future beckoning, industrious and lurid and loud and lawless and gloriously all of the above, unabashedly everything and in abundance. It towers over all else and constantly surveys, tacky and deadpan and resplendent and giggling, full of life and in perpetual motion – patterns and patents and discovering yourself – dancing yourself.

It is bottled green tea and inflated packets with mock croissants, 8000¥ t-shirts and exhibitions of wealth. It is techtonik dancing in an LED-lit, floodlit, jam-packed shopping reverie, pink hair and profile pictures. It is getting to grips with the ever-changing notions of flux and self and self-hood. It is unabashed and by itself, beside itself, fighting itself, for itself. It is of interest above all, and is only ever boring if that boredom stems from being overstimulated and therefore desensitised. It is WeChat. It is self-procreating, reproducing, simulacra-inducing, churning out versions of its own existence onscreen. It is expectorating chicken ankles between selfies, and whitening its cheeks and teeth to meet the new criteria.

*

This piece also appears on Medium, along with several others, covering China as well as other countries.

For more bits on China from this site, follow these links:
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
The importance of being sincere

Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe

The terrain is constantly being redesigned, reshaped, remoulded, in a bizarre and at times saddening demonstration of power of machine over nature.

The terrain of China is constantly being redesigned, reshaped, remoulded, in a bizarre and at times saddening demonstration of power of machine over nature.

—Chengdu, sichuan province, china, 2017

How many people are there in China? There are lots of people in China.

As there are 1.3(86) billion people here, pragmatism and utility are first priorities in a lot of processes. Canteens are enormous and churn out vast quantities of food, very cheap, for hoards of hungry hippos. Wastage is wastage, but the children are fed. Everything is made in order to accommodate hundreds or thousands or millions of people. The subway carriages are bigger than London’s; the roads are wider, have more lanes; local small-time bakeries are constantly constantly constantly producing loaves, and constantly constantly constantly have queues; towerblocks are in perpetual construction, popping up like Lego tenements; in the outskirts of the city, gigantic roads are mid-way through being built, and jut out at the sky 15 floors up in order to one day ferry people upon people upon people to the corners, near and far, of China.

And of the land

And the land: if it can be changed to better suit its purpose, it is. Whereas in England or France or for that matter most of Europe, you’ll nip around and see mostly large flat or hillside fields either growing maize or sunflowers or hemp or lying fallow or being pastoral with grazing animals etc etc., the actual lay of the land existing in its own way, in Sichuan much of the land is shaped and sculpted in order to suit the needs of the country, the people of the country. The terrain is constantly being redesigned, reshaped, remoulded, in a bizarre and at times saddening demonstration of power of machine over nature. Seeing this process mid-way is the most strange: the land sits bare like a big brown pudding being carved up. Gradient is no good, so hills become steps, and vehicles need access, so mudded highways are scraped into the soil, laid over so that the system is practicable.

I don’t know. I guess it’s completely normal. And it fits with the unabashed nature of social interactions – there are no political or societal reservations (as a whole, anyway) about redesigning the land they inhabit, if it thereby becomes more effective, more productive, more utilisable. It is a triumph of change, progression or something other, in a country heavily preoccupied with its own ancient history. I find it interesting.

How did you find it?
With a map.

Coming for you
squeaky faced Every day
cut and paste Weighing up
less speed more haste London town
where I was graced.

*

This piece also appears on Medium, along with several others, covering China as well as other countries.

For more bits on China from this site, follow these links:
Old China vs. new China
The importance of being sincere

China: The importance of being sincere

Stalls sell frogs’ legs and chilli squid alongside dried kiwis and skinned pineapples, bulbous wooden instruments and chariots made of sugar.

WeChat is a god.

Reflections on modern China, by a short term resident

—Chengdu, sichuan province, china, 2017

Chengdu is a human city much like any other. As, I suppose, are the other myriad cities which adorn China’s landmass. All the city constants are here – fashion is here, just as in London or Paris. There are leather trousers everywhere, sexy boots and ‘distressed’ jeans, lensless glasses and bouffant barnets. Pretty hip youngsters parade in garish patterns and wear expensive jackets with lurid docketing (like Superdry for the Chinese – examples include MY EX DIED and DON’T WORRY, WE ALL DIE ALONE), there are old, haggard street-people hocking loogies onto the pavement; there are juniors gobbing incongruously between glances at their phones. Phones are everything. They watch you just as they listen to each other. Kids lollop about, glued to luminescence, parents trailing them along by a thumb.

paragraph 2: of people, and social media

People are active. They are also everywhere. Street food vendors line narrow roads and churn out all hustle and bustle. Everyone is different – noisy, quiet, boisterous, timid, grotesque, refined – all nestled among architectural & societal & cultural contradictions. The city is oxymoronic. Stalls sell frogs’ legs and chilli squid alongside dried kiwis and skinned pineapples, bulbous wooden instruments and chariots made of sugar.

WeChat is a god. It is social media profiling, instant messaging, filesharing, video chat, timeline, group conversations, it is scanning for a bike ride, paying for your taxi, it is your credit card, your face, your identity, your geo-mapped position and your way of communicating with everybody – friends, family, students, bosses, companies, yourself.

paragraph 4: of metro, and food

The Metro is a recent addition to the city and is gorgeous. It is more navigable than the London Underground, even for an English speaker. Metro TV, bag searches, glowing arrows on the ground, flashing lights and screens and the future. Meanwhile, the busses wheeze like bloated locusts through the streets pumping dust and fumes into car windows.

Rabbit head, duck head, chicken feet, pig trotters & snouts, lambs’ ears, squid and frogs’ legs are all available at a dime a dozen, shimmering with oil and flecked with chilli. At a hot-pot restaurant everything is available – intestines, brains, fish innards, offal of all shapes and sizes, some peachy pink, others maroon red. Personally I have seen very few selfie-sticks for sale (weird) though possibly a million in action.

People are largely unabashed by social etiquette details which grind Englanders’ gears: proximity, being watched, spitting, eating with gusto (and I mean gusto), etc. Everything is honest, as it comes; you know where you stand. There are very few thank yous and, as far as I know, there is no way of saying please in Mandarin. Does language sculpt a national character or vice versa? What came first, the chicken feet or the steamed egg?

Eerily, the folk await –
the music sucks you in;
and if you choose to take the train,
it’s madness that you’ll win.

*

This piece also appears on Medium, along with several others, covering China as well as other countries.

For more bits on China from this site, follow these links:
Man vs. Land—geo-cultural differences between China and Europe
Old China vs New China

How to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka

In many Asian countries, foreigners enjoy a liberty unavailable to them at home. It is fun to use ‘Monopoly money’ and drive liberally. However, it is important not to let such freedoms lead to hooliganism. Do not drop your guard.

In many Asian countries, foreigners enjoy liberty unavailable to them at home. It is fun to use ‘Monopoly money’ and drive liberally. However, it is important not to let such freedoms lead to hooliganism. Do not drop your guard.

Ella panorama

Sandy beaches and coconut trees are a dime a dozen on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Many praise the ‘Wonder of Asia’ for its verdant jungles, luscious flora and elephantine fauna. Indeed, there is something to suit every person, every taste: romantic lagoon retreats for couples, backpackers’ hostels for the solo traveller, five star hotels for the affluent and honeymooners. The question is, can you luxuriate ethically? How easy is it to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka?

The beaten path is well trodden. Kite surfers go to Kalpitiya, surfers to Weligama or Arugam Bay and history seekers flock to Anuradhapura, the sacred city, and Sigiriya, one of the world’s many ‘Eighth Wonders’, for Lion’s Rock. For less than a day’s salary in some parts of the world, you can find yourself in the back of a jeep, inches from the lowly flapping ears of an Elephas maximus (Sri Lankan elephant).

Such activities are well and good—they are well infrastructured and cater to the taste buds of tourists. However, those who want to stay a bit longer, as well as those who just fancy something different, may like to add a few things to their itinerary. For people who don’t have the money for safaris and kitesurfing equipment, who can’t afford to hire a driver for a week, enrol in a scuba course or to stay in plush resorts, what remains? What should be known? What are your responsibilities as a tourist in Sri Lanka?

Values: Essentials

Resorts and upscale hotels are typically western-owned. European, American and Australian banknotes buy more than Sri Lankan rupees, so locals often cannot compete with a foreigner with a few years’ savings under their belt. For this reason, staying in such places can further concentrate the wealth in the hands of the comparatively rich.

Homestays and even entire houses can be rented monthly at remarkably low cost, and feed money into the local community.

Due to large differences in cultural habits and behaviours, many western hotel owners find themselves increasingly frustrated by the perceived incompetence of their Sri Lankan staff. Rather than take it upon themselves to learn about intercultural communication, train their staff appropriately and appreciate the reasons for such professional differences, western capitalists grow weary, condescending and even abusive towards their staff. As members of a ruling class, granted privilege by a history of barbaric colonialism and exploitation, it is the responsibility of foreign property owners to act with cultural sensitivity and respect—and our responsibility as consumers to hold them to it.

If you witness an exchange which makes you feel uncomfortable, between a western tourist or business owner and a Sri Lankan employee, call it out.

The Police: Know Your Rights

In many Asian countries, foreigners enjoy a liberty unavailable to them at home. It is fun to use ‘Monopoly money’ and drive liberally. However, it is important not to let such freedoms lead to hooliganism. Do not drop your guard.

Sri Lanka is tightening its policing laws by the year. Do not be caught out as, in most situations, the police hold all the cards. There are many misconceptions regarding their powers, so be aware that a police officer is permitted, by law, to: enter your home without a warrant; use firearms if deemed appropriate; and seize your driving license without stating what crime you have supposedly committed.

However, it is also important to know that police officers frequently stop, question and demand arbitrary fines of tourists and expats alike. If one claim is refuted (“No officer, I did not overtake on a double line”), another will appear. For example, that you did not stop quickly enough when they flagged you down, or you must pay a penalty for not carrying the correct documentation.

To avoid trouble, you should:

  1. Carry our license with you, and your IDP (which, if you are from the UK, you can apply for online), and your insurance card, and your tax documents. The police can catch you out on any of these.
  2. Understand your rights, and theirs – penalties for road traffic offences were increased in July 2018, and are set to increase again. Such increases will render offences like driving without valid insurance cover and driving through railway crossings ‘in a haphazard manner’ punishable with fines of up to Rs. 30,000 (currently £131).
  3. Know when to stand your ground – on-the-spot fines are often dished out clumsily, and find their way into the pockets of the police officer who dealt them. Because we lack a deep understanding of the local language and legal system, it is easy for officers to take advantage of foreign ‘offenders’ who do not want to deal with the hassle of going to court and making a statement. Often, if you demand that a penalty notice be officially written, the value of the fine will be significantly reduced.

You can read about my/our experiences with the police in Sri Lanka here and here.

Where, and how, to eat as a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s national dish, a plate of rice served with a variety of curries, coconut sambol and papadum, can be incredibly tasty. It can also be incredibly cheap. There are myriad roadside eateries serving large portions of rice and curry for as little as Rs. 100 (£0.44 at time of writing). Or, you can go to a restaurant and pay the tourist price, which is typically Rs. 800.

What you might miss in terms of service, you will regain twofold by the look on the cook’s face when you walk into his or her rice and curry shop.

Look after yourself, please

Despite a plethora of online articles lauding the friendliness of Sri Lankans, it is fundamental to your wellbeing to face two harsh truths.

  1. 90 per cent of Sri Lankan women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment on public transport (I have written about this here);
  2. One in three Sri Lankan men admits to having carried out some form of sexual or physical abuse on a woman.

Yes, taking a local bus is an experience worth having. Yes, Sri Lanka is known for its spectacular train journeys. It is also true that the majority of Sri Lankans value your happiness over your body. However, due to a combination of western cultural exports, ignorance and behavioural differences, harassment of western tourists is frequent and often severe. I have heard testimonies from other foreign residents of groping in plain sight, incidents within hotels and massage parlours ranging from creepy propositions to unambiguous assaults, joggers being pursued and harassed on beaches, hotel owners entering rooms late at night without consent, hostel owners taking advantage of impressionable young women, and the list goes on.

Modest dress does not preclude harassment.

So, while taking in the sights and sounds of the ‘Wonder of Asia’, be sure to keep your wits about you. While to some you are a welcome guest, to others you are a promiscuous piggybank. As a traveller from a relatively affluent and sexually liberal society, you are subjected to various prejudices. Be aware of them.

* Further reading (external links):
Being a Woman and Travelling Solo in Sri Lanka
Find out the truth: Sri Lanka Police
Groundviews: Sri Lanka’s Pandemic of Sexual Violence

READ ON TO FIND OUT WHERE TO EAT DELICIOUS VEGAN, CHINESE AND MEXICAN FOOD ON SRI LANKA’S SOUTH COAST.

You can also find this article on Medium, along with several others. Read about issues faced by tourists in Sri Lanka, namely sexism and police corruption, as well as the joys that can be experienced there – for example, the (vegan) food.

Police Harassment in Sri Lanka: fines, bribes and batons

While it is becoming increasingly regulated, policing is still conducted by corrupt individuals who act outside the law. Appeals typically result in chaos, humiliation and dead-ends.

Military patrols operating on Mirissa Beach
Military patrols operating on Mirissa Beach

Many foreigners experience police harassment in sri lanka while driving. It is your responsibility to know when you are within your rights, and when not. many have multiple stories of unwarranted interrogation and arbitrary fining.

There are times when distinguishing between rigorous but routie police checks, and police harassment, in Sri Lanka, is difficult.

Sri Lanka is tightening its traffic laws

In July 2018, Sri Lanka Police bolstered its fines for traffic violations, making misdemeanours like driving without a helmet and driving without a license punishable with on-the-spot fines of up to Rs. 1, 2 or 3,000 (about £4/9/13).

It was proposed in January 2019 to revise penalties for ‘major motor traffic offences’—i.e., driving under the influence of alcohol, driving without a valid driving license, entering a vehicle into a railway crossing irresponsibly, driving under-age and driving without valid insurance—to Rs. 25,000. Such offences are the leading causes of road traffic accidents.

The tightening of traffic laws is welcome to those of us who witness the results of unregulated roads every day. Busses, the indefatigable tanks of Sri Lanka’s road network, with crumpled faces; scooters scattered by trucks; bloodied bumpers and men yelling at each other by the side of the road, desperate to keep it from the police. It is par for the course here, to a degree, though that does not make it any less tragic.

Witnessing these roadside set-tos, it is easy to see men squabbling over money as a symptom of petty greed, or callousness. The real issue is that the larger fines and increases in regulation only add a financial burden to those who are accustomed to the old system, without allowing them the benefits. If you are caught out and can’t pay your way, you are penalised. New policies help, but the problem is still endemic.

Why tighter laws don’t necessarily eliminate police harassment

Powers granted to police officers include the ability to enter and inspect homes without a permit, use a firearm if deemed appropriate, and seize a driving license without explanation. In addition, the state of emergency declared by the President after the Easter Sunday attacks handed out liberties police officers had not previously known. The highly criticised Emergency Regulations, which lasted for 30 days, covered censorship, public gatherings, restrictions on publication and the spreading of “rumours” – maintained with any force necessary.

On top of this, extrajudicial acts, like the public humiliation of three suspects in 2013 and assaulting a student protester who had fallen to the ground in 2015, are seemingly swept under the rug. In the former case, the Superintendent of Police allegedly ‘paraded, and […] thereafter cut the hair of three suspects in public’.

While it is becoming increasingly regulated, policing is still conducted by corrupt individuals who act outside the law. Appeals to local police departments against the unjust or inappropriate behaviour of road traffic officers typically end in chaos, humiliation and dead-ends.

Civilians taking the law into their own hands… whose law?

Little reported (though more so in recent weeks) is the way in which Sri Lanka’s Muslim population has borne the brunt of this approach to policing. There are stories rising to the surface of ministers resigning over harassment, and worshippers being harassed, and people being detained for reading the Qu’ran. Following the burqa and niqab ban, Muslim women stayed indoors to avoid abuse. The government recently set up a hotline exclusively for Muslims to report such incidents.

There have been calls to boycott Muslim-owned shops, amid increasing distrust of Sri Lanka’s Muslims. This hostility has been stoked by Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or “Buddhist Power Force”. The group’s chief executive, Dilantha Vithanage, warned that Sri Lankans might be “forced” to deal with what he called “a rise in Islamic extremism” on their own. As quoted in Reuters, he claims “[t]his is a bigger danger than Tamil separatism”.

Buddhist fundamentalism and Islamophobia

Buddhist fundamentalism receives little coverage in the international media – it is drowned out by Islamophobia. Whether an event is politicised or not depends on which narrative it supports, or undermines. The overarching global story regarding Buddhism is that it can do no wrong; Islam, conversely, is frequently scapegoated. One can see how easy it is for civilians to target Muslims with racist abuse and assaults – they are *protecting their country*.

Radicals scare governments either to submission or oppression.

Ever since independence in 1948, Buddhist fundamentalism has been the driving force behind Sinhala intransigence on the ‘Tamil question’. A Buddhist monk assassinated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the country’s fourth Prime Minister, in 1959. His crime? Making too many (in fact they were too few) concessions to the country’s large Tamil minority had cost him his life and spawned a dynasty. But the deterrent effect worked. Sinhala politicians of all stripes began to pander to the monks. Anti-Tamil discrimination was institutionalised. It was a tragedy for the island. The notion that these warped methods could produce long-term stability is risible.

–Tariq Ali – Colombo Telegraph

Militarised Islamic fundamentalism has led to increased security throughout the entire country. Military patrols are ubiquitous, spot-checks frequent, places of worship guarded, transport hubs surveilled, and so on. On the other hand, Buddhist fundamentalism – or, for that matter, attacks by white supremacists (Christians) in New Zealand, the US and Norway – rarely prompts such sweeping policy changes.

Where do foreigners fit in? Context

Understanding the way in which the foreign presence fits in requires a little context.

The 2004 tsunami killed 30,000 Sri Lankans and cost the country’s tourism sector Rs. 26 billion ($250 million). In its wake, Sri Lanka’s tourism authorities sought to spin a torn country into an island of upscale resorts. Bounce Back Sri Lanka, set up in close consultation with the private sector, was an international marketing campaign aimed at restoring tourist traffic. Hotels were rebuilt and beaches cleaned. While funds were funnelled into this, little was done to assist genuine recovery.

A year after the disaster, thousands of coastal Sri Lankans were still living hand-to-mouth in camps, uncertain of their future. Seemingly ignorant of this, the Sri Lankan Tourist Board was optimistic:

‘In a cruel twist of fate, nature has presented Sri Lanka with a unique opportunity, and out of this great tragedy will come a world class tourism destination.’

The deflation of prices following a disaster leaves locals hard-up. At the same time, it makes foreign money all the more powerful.

Where do foreigners fit in? Perception

In a country marred by inequality directly connected to race, forced to cow to a burgeoning tourism industry, it is understandable that foreigners receive mixed reviews.

While many locals are very friendly, it is hard to ignore the obvious divide in wealth, opportunity and privilege. The real cost of things is unknown to much of the foreign community, and it is well known among expatriates that, for this reason, many tuk tuk drivers overcharge. There are fights between the local drivers and those who use PickMe (a Sri Lankan equivalent to Uber), because it undercuts those who overprice.

When news breaks of attacks on religious sites or conflicts between religious groups, foreigners get together and discuss. When word gets round of a series of houses being broken into, we keep our doors locked and lights on at night.

Foreigners are assumed rich and often are, assumed to be naïve and promiscuous and to be wearing rose-tinted glasses. Indeed, they/we often are.

We do not speak Sinhalese and we do not understand the nuances of the Sri Lankan legal system. We are vulnerable and moneyed and do not wish to be detained in police custody. Indeed, the extent to which we do not wish to be detained is such that we are willing to play the game and accept the fine, well aware that the money will be immediately pocketed. It is a convenient way to avoid the frightening unknown.

Where do foreigners fit in? Policing

On the 10th of May, 2019, I was pulled over, with my partner, by two police officers. We were on our way home from an open mic night. It was about 11pm and the road was almost empty.

One of the policemen talks and the other is silent. Despite a congenial introduction, the charges immediately jump from overtaking on a double line, to driving without a license, to driving while under the influence of alcohol. I must pay fines ranging from Rs. 7,500 to Rs. 25,000. I am told to drive to Weligama Police Station, to be breathalysed and arrested, despite being told I am too drunk to drive. My license is at home but I cannot drive there to show them. Returning to the spot where we overtook them, to check the validity of the first claim, is impossible. I am not too drunk to drive.

The silent officer lunges at the motorbike and seizes the keys. Then, as we are manoeuvring the bike off the road, he lunges again to lock the handlebars. He raises a hand at my partner and threatens to hit her.

When I take out my phone and begin to record the incident, the other officer lurches at me and snatches it from my hands. He raises his baton at me and tells me I cannot have it back.

They get back on their motorbike and tell us to follow them to the police station. They leave. We remain, confused, not knowing what exactly we should do, and wondering which of our Sri Lankan friends might be able to help us. Are we hopeless?

Two minutes later we see them driving back. After a brief exchange, we are told to give them all the money we have, in exchange for my phone.

As we are driving away, defeated, I wonder if anyone has won.

When we get home, we learn that two of our friends were mistreated on the same road within an hour of us—separate incidents.

How to respond

In situations like these it is easy to feel numbed and immobilised. Consulting foreign friends of ours, who have had comparable experiences, we are told repeatedly that there is nothing we can do, that reporting it useless and no action will be taken unless it goes right to the top. Sri Lankan friends advise us that an appeal would lead to us being criminalised by any means.    At this time of year, tourism moves its way east to follow the surf. As a result, those who make their money off tourists – tuk-tuk drivers, restaurateurs and, yes, the police – want to make a last buck. Besides the police part, this is unsurprising.

However, the shift is supposed to be gradual. Coming back a few days after the Easter Sunday bombings was like entering a ghost town. Since the attacks, tourist numbers have plummeted. Within a week, net bookings were down 186% compared to figures from 2018—more cancellations than bookings. Combine this with the seasonal decline and what is left is a recipe for hawkish behaviour.

The atmosphere of unease created by the attacks and ensuing raids is compounded by ubiquitous military deployment. Assault rifles guard bus and gas stations, and patrol the beaches.

But the reasons for the increased vigilance are to keep people safe by locating threats, and reassure people by having a uniformed presence. It is a crying shame that figures of authority are abusing the powers granted them in the wake of a national disaster. On that very same night, one of our friends, whom we had been with in the evening, returned home to find that her scooter had been impounded. She had left it on the side of the road for a few hours. Another woman who we met that night was harassed by police on her way home.

What felt like an arbitrary siege on a group of foreigners may have been a coincidence. However, it raises the question of why police feel entitled to abuse their powers at a time when the government needs people to have faith in its policies, and those who enact them. More than ever, Sri Lanka is in the international spotlight. Law enforcers must act with consistency towards residents. On the same note, Muslims have called this country home since the 7th century AD. They, too, deserve to be treated with respect.

Further reading:
Endemic Judicial & Police Corruption In  Sri LankaColombo Telegraph
Sri Lanka Corruption ReportGan Business Corruption Portal

If you have anything you would like to share with the author, please get in touch.

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This article also appears on Medium, along with several others.
Read more stories from the ground about sexual harassment in Sri Lanka, a research piece about the same, how to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka, or about where to eat vegetarian food on Sri Lanka’s southern coast(originally published on Travelista)

You can also read the following articles on this site:
Sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is ubiquitous. Are women safe?
Where To Eat Vegan Food in Sri Lanka, and Chinese
How to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka
Police Harassment in Sri Lanka: An Anecdote

Police Harassment in Sri Lanka: An Anecdote

And they’re off, bike screeching, phone in hand. Something glints in the sky and our motorbike keys land on the floor in the middle of the road. Someone shrieks. We stare at each other, nonplussed. A quarter of an hour ago we were listening to an Englishman sing the Blues, shaking our egg shakers and feeling merry. Now we are pissed off, a little shaken, and very bored.

What Can You Do? It is just police harassment.

11 o’clock and we find ourselves, once again, being interrogated and hassled by two men in uniform. One is lean, the other stout. Police harassment is boring. We know this. The charges are overtaking on a double line, driving while under the influence of alcohol and driving without a license. To be clear, I have a license, I am not drunk, and we are not allowed to go back to the spot where I overtook them to check the validity of the first claim.

They asked where we are from, and where we have been. He smells my breath and shouts that I am drunk. —You are drunk! Drinking, driving!
—I am not drunk.

We have been playing music at an open mic event. We have eaten pizza and calzone, and shared a couple of beers between us over the course of about three hours. We are not drunk. —Drunk! You cannot drinking and driving. Come with us.
—To where?
Police station, we arrest you.
—But there is no room on your bike.
Drive. You follow us.
—But you said I was too drunk to drive.

Again, I’m not too drunk to drive. But for a police officer to follow an accusation of drunk-driving with a demand that the so-called ‘drunk driver’ drives himself plus passenger to the police station in order to, I suppose, prove that he is driving illegally, seems not only nonsensical but also actually illegal. —Fine, fine. You give us money.
—But I don’t have any money.
—7,500 rupees, give us money.
—We don’t have that much.

We have notes amounting to about 1,800 rupees, or eight pounds. Not exactly a great haul, for them. But since the bombings, we figured, they’ll take whatever they can get. Tourists are thin on the ground so they’re targeting those of us who are still here, the residents.—Come with us. Police station. You drive.
—But that’s illegal.
—We have French breathalyser machine. You know? You breathe, if we find 0.9% alcohol in your blood,we arrest you. Lion Beer is 4.8%. Understand?
—I understand. But—. . .
Maybe you are honestly man driver but she is troublemaker.
—She wasn’t driving. I was.

They keep saying they will arrest us and that we should follow them to the police station, but they don’t make any move to go. So far, the lean man is doing most of the talking, but there is something brewing in the other, rounder of face, out of frame. He’s the meat of the mission, brawn, biding his time while the first man, the lean man, has been running circles with his arrest you/fine you/follow me/take a bus/‘maybe you are honestly man’ talk. It is late and frustrating and we want to go home.

At an opportune moment, Mr Brawn, Portly Brawn, makes a lunge at the keys of the motorbike and yanks them from the ignition. He is revealing himself. I get off the bike and try to reason with the first man, the one who talks. When Laura starts to walk the motorbike in the direction of our house, the PB comes into his own, springing to action, rumbling alongside her on his larger, heavier and more functional and altogether more intimidating vehicle. Like a tomahawk he dives onto the handlebars and locks them in place, immobilising Laura & Bike in their tracks.

Laura holds out her hand and asks for the keys back, at which point he raises his hand, as if to hit her. This, oddly, or not, is where time slows down a little. He has raised his hand at Laura. At roughly the same moment, the other is taking my phone, by force, from my grip. As I am reeling from the onset, he unclasps his baton from his waist and holds it high above his head, like an executioner. What is going on?

Peanut Butter wheels his bike round and the other hops on, leaning, lean, bastardly.

Weligama police station. Come now. You follow us.

And they’re off, bike screeching, phone in hand. Something glints in the sky and our motorbike keys land on the floor in the middle of the road. Someone shrieks. We stare at each other, nonplussed. A quarter of an hour ago we were listening to an Englishman sing the Blues, shaking our egg shakers and feeling merry. Now we are pissed off, a little shaken, and very bored.

Two or three minutes later their headlight crawls along the side of the road and slows to a stop before us. Breath of silence. Almost a shiver, if it weren’t so fucking hot. I’m perspiring but I can’t show it.

Personal Best sits there on his throne, beige khakis, dark helmet, breathing heavily, Darth, Medusa. It is the lean man, the talker, who approaches, hand outstretched. Nothing is spoken. His eyes are glued on something in the distance, but nothing moves. A lorry whistles past us, barely a foot from our cheeks and elbows, but nothing stirs. I dig into my pocket and produce a handful of notes. They are crumpled and assorted, a fist of colour. His eyes drop down shakily and observe it in the dark.

I hand him the money, all of it. His hand touches mine and for a moment I feel his fingers groping for something, clawing. Before he turns I look at his eyes and hold them as seconds pass. They are reddened and his skin is paler, almost black in the darkness. He looks almost able to cry. There is a bizarre sense of deflation in the air, like everybody has lost. He sees it. But then he is gone, and we are left collecting our wits. We drive home without talking, sleep without thinking.

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This article also appears on Medium, along with several others.
Read more stories from the ground about sexual harassment in Sri Lanka, a research piece about police harassment, how to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka, or about where to eat vegetarian food on Sri Lanka’s southern coast (originally published on Travelista)

You can also read the following articles on Medium:
Sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is ubiquitous. Are women safe?
Where To Eat Vegan Food in Sri Lanka, and Chinese
How to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka
Police Harassment in Sri Lanka: fines, bribes and batons

Kurds in Turkey: 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.

This article about Kurds in Turkey is part of a series inspired by a cycling trip through Turkey, west to east, from Greece to Georgia (part of a larger trip from France to Azerbaijan). The other pieces can be found here and here.

—Elif, Araban, Southeast Turkey, 2018

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.

Kurds in Turkey

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.

A small lesson in 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.

Present day

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.

Is progress being made?

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.

There are many ‘bought citizens’ in Turkey

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.

The takeaway

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.

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This article also appears on Medium, along with two others written about a bike trip through Turkey:
A Midnight Visit
Cappadocia is Nuts

A Midnight Visit from Turkish Gendarmes

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

Some unwanted attention from the Turkish police turns into an unlikely tale of camaraderie — and all because of a pot of tea.

This article about a late-night visit from Turkish gendarmes is part of a series inspired by, and detailing, a cycling trip through Turkey, west to east, from Greece to Georgia (part of a larger trip from France to Azerbaijan). The other pieces can be found here and here.

—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.

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This article also appears on Medium, along with two others written about a bike trip through Turkey:
Cappadocia is Nuts
We Live Under The Same Sky