Aziz Gökdemir's Archive | THTB Index | August 3, 2000
Mardin kids
Kids in Mardin. Photo by Oryal Gökdemir, Summer 2000.
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Borderlands

When violence backs off a bit, tourists always rush to fill the void. There's always the chance that you might end up with your head in your lap, but there will always be plenty of crazy souls to make the plunge. In any event, the risks they take are nowhere near those faced by those who choose to take up arms in the name of a cause, by the people for whom "there" is not an exotic destination but home, by journalists who step in front of a bullet, and by conscripts who're sent to "mop up" a mess that's not their doing, thrown into the fire like bug-infested blankets or something -- expendable padding to burn through until the flames are satiated.
spaceSo that's how I ended up touring Turkey's rough back country this summer, what a guide book once called Borderlands. The place prompts trepidation in the outsider imagination, with all the bad press it's received. "Is it safe?" someone asked our guide during one of his previous trips, referring to the stretch of road that follows the Turkish-Syrian border. "It's the safest place in the world," the guide replied. "The entire right side is an uninterrupted minefield. So you have nothing to worry about."
spaceThat wasn't the only minefield there, of course; there are others that exist chiefly in our minds, governing the way we think, talk (or don't), and act in a region where the movement of people and history do not necessarily follow the same lines that borders and agreements do. And so, you end up with dark shadows at night, cutting through fields and valleys clutching their Rambo gadgetry, their hearts going BA-BOOM BA-BOOM...
spaceThe chief reason for taking the trip at this point in time was the sudden sense of urgency Hasankeyf's (see below) prominence in the media had triggered. It was as if the place would be under water if I didn't go right away. (In fact the Ilisu dam has not even broken ground and I'm not sure that it ever will with the intense debate in Turkey and abroad on what can be done to save this remarkable town from being sucked under.) The rest just followed, I guess. So here it is, in no particular order:

Harran

Site of an ancient observatory in northern Mesopotamia, very close to the Syrian border today, this is often called the world's first university in tourist brochures. Well, let me tell you, there's no Oxbridge here. The place, with its distinctive beehive-shaped mud homes that grow as family members get married and add makeshift rooms, has changed little over the past half-century other than adding some power lines and a few boxy buildings, as the two photos show below.

Harran in 1964
Harran in 1964. © David Lees/CORBIS. Licensed for use on this Web site.

Harran today
Harran today.

The poverty is crushing; kids roam and fight over candy you brought. But for their blond hair, they'd fit right in with characters in Andrew Vachss' books.
spaceBill Gates asks, "Where do you want to go today?" These kids are not going anywhere, and if piss-face showed up himself here with one of his Wintel-carpetbombing philanthropic publicity stunts, they wouldn't know what to do with a computer.
spaceThey'll congregate and wave when you're leaving in your air-conditioned car, though.
spaceDon't come here looking too clean, or you'll feel even more ashamed.
spaceSo, have you checked your email today and prayed to the New World Order? Have you read your daily Chomsky and felt content in having done your daily good deed of raising your global consciousness?
spaceDon't go to Harran sober.

Hasankeyf

A lot of people have heard by now about this stunning place and the uncertain fate that has kept it in limbo for 20 years. I wrote the following for Aegean Times, for a blurb on the visit of British MPs to the town to evaluate the displacement facing Kurds:
I'm not, as people can probably guess, a fan of this dam (or dams in particular, for that matter). Conceding that a rapidly industrializing country needs power and some of it may need to be supplied by dams, this still seems like an exceptionally bad place to build for reasons that have been mentioned already. The only good reason to build there is arrived at from an engineer's point of view, and this entire Southeast Anatolia Project has been designed and implemented by engineers, many of whom ended up in political positions. I am an engineer myself and I know we don't make the most well-rounded people intellectually without some kind of special effort, and I don't see that effort in the long line of engineer/politicians in this picture. It's no secret that there's been virtually no public involvement in the American sense in the planning of this project. Only now, on late night TV, are we beginning to hear from Turkish energy experts who have ideas about alternatives to flooding Hasankeyf. The whole process is backwards.

Set everything aside, I think any benefit from this dam has long been outweighed by the bad publicity and ill will it has attracted around the world before a single ton of concrete has been poured. I've been to Hasankeyf, and I can tell you that you don't want to flood it any more than you want to submerge the Grand Canyon, Cappadocia and the Ihlara Valley, or for Greek readers, Meteora. The tourism potential is astounding, if nothing else will move the people in power to shift their thinking.

(And here's a link to the full item -- which features two links, by the way. The BBC one should be permanent, but wire links expire after a couple weeks. Keep in mind that BBC articles usually give you other links to follow, in this case campaigns focusing on saving Hasankeyf.)
HasankeyfspaceI owe the good time I spent there to the little kids who act as tourist guides. They don't try to sell you anything like others you may encounter in Istanbul, they don't push you around, and they know a lot about the ruins; they'll also make sure you don't plunge to your death while you're not paying attention to the edge of the cliff. If you read this and subsequently go there, tell them their good reputation has traveled far. And pay them well, they deserve it.

Mardin and Surrounding Areas; Assyrian Monasteries

The city of Mardin (as opposed to the province, of which it is the capital) is predominantly Arab-Turkish and Assyrian, which explains why the Kurdish conflict never hit it in a real way. The way it affected the city was tangential, but damaging enough. Since every battle taking place in the province would carry the Mardin byline and the roads leading to the city were always dangerous with adversaries fighting for control, visiting remained a risky proposition. The new era has brought a measure of quiet, not to mention flights from Istanbul, so the ubiquitous Mr. Bilen, owner of the town's most prominent roach motel, should soon have competition from aspiring B&Bs.
spaceAnd Mardin fully deserves the Lake District treatment. The people are very friendly, and they must know they have an architectural wonder - - even though it must be said they treat it less and less carefully as the Assyrian stone masons behind all that good work leave town for good one after the other. The tall, navy blue-turquoise-striped Telekom building is the most obscene transgression to date; it juts out of the delicate indigenous fabric of honey-colored, two- or three-story buildings like someone giving you the very inelegant, unminaret-like thick finger.
spaceHistoric Mardin (the "old city") perches on a mountain top and looks straight down over the Mesopotamian plain. At night villages and towns dozens of miles away look like waterfront settlements on the other shore of a lake, and cars' headlights appear to be ships gliding in the dark. You don't know what you're missing until you've been invited for a sunset drink and subsequent dinner by someone who owns one of the homes with this killer view. And trying to find the right house on those winding streets that tunnel under homes is part of the fun. Mail is delivered using donkeys here, and something else that's cool about the whole region is the abundance of the white donkey, which is rare elsewhere. (I sure hope, though, that their color doesn't render them more attractive to certain individuals who might view donkeys as "dating material." Ouch.)
spacePerhaps even more striking than Mardin itself are the Assyrian monasteries that dot the landscape around it. The Assyrians consider themselves the real deal, the original Christians who still speak the ancient Aramaic language Jesus spoke. They've suffered greatly over the centuries, and it seems miraculous they've been able to keep these temples going during the bloody conflict that has devastated the region in the past two decades. Even as they fight depletion, they maintain the properties in tip-top shape, and their sense of humor intact. I leave Mor Gabriel, Deyr-ul-Zafaran, Mor Barsamo and other churches hoping that clear skies are ahead for them.
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Halfeti, Zeugma, and the Euphrates

Halfeti, I completely forgot at the time, is where Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan is from (I wrote about him back in March); or to be precise, his village is under the jurisdiction of this county, and Halfeti is the county seat. [Today the official name of the village is Ömerli, the Kurdish name of Amara or Ammara still lingers for obvious reasons. An Assyrian reader from Peru, whose letter enables me to add this parenthetical tidbit here, notes that Assyrians know the place by the name of Masarte, Maserti, or Mahserti. I wouldn't be surprised if there turned out be other names for the same village -- perhaps in Armenian and other languages.] Only a couple years ago this fact would've been inescapable, but when I visited, Ocalan had already reminded everyone that he had a Turkmen mother after all, and redefined his role as peacemaker. His family had continued to live in this area during the bitter war -- except brother Osman, of course, who had joined the PKK -- but they did not live in the town center and when they were noticed by the media at all lately, it was when they traveled to Istanbul for prison visits. So the focus was on how the town was soon going to be partially underwater because of a new dam. In fact, the homes closest to the water were already being licked by gentle waves.
spaceEarlier that same day, we'd checked out Belkis, which had become another flashpoint between officials and environmentalists because the planned dam was going to flood a portion of the ancient Roman city of Zeugma. When we arrived the scene was one of utter chaos. I'd never seen an archeological site turned into a total zoo before. There were camera crews from France and Turkey, workers from the dam-building company who were operating the heavy machinery lent to the scientists, museum officials, and curious outsiders like us, not to mention the archaeologists. We walked around and filmed freely. I watched as a beautiful mosaic (an almost-lifesize likeness of some wealthy Roman guy) was lifted from the villa's floor and wrapped for the trip to the Gaziantep Archaeology Museum.
spaceOver on the other side of the hill, the last remaining resident of Belkis village, most of which was already under water, was holding court. I made the mistake of commenting on the extension the President had granted that day so that more stuff could be salvaged before the water was released. "Yeah, excuse me," he said, "but as far as I'm concerned, he can extend his DICK instead!" He was mad that everyone was there for the mosaics and nobody seemed to care that people were being displaced. The money offered for relocation was comical, he said; the new village was subpar, and even the damn money they were supposed to give was being held up. He said he'd been employed by the museum until some years ago. "Back then, no one would care about this place," he went on. "This is my village. I know the rocks. Rain would wash some dirt away, the corner of the face of some Roman gentleman would appear, and I would go tell the director, 'I got another one for you.' And he finally said, 'Stop bothering me with your mosaics; we have no more room.' They knew about what was here before the contract was even signed for the dam. And now their asses are all aflutter." (For more Zeugma coverage, you can run this Aegean Times topic search and see what comes up. It's not as colorful as this guy, but it was once linked by The Guardian's weblog. The Net rules; I know you didn't need to hear that.)
Euphrates shorespaceI left the man even more bitter than he'd been an hour ago, I'm afraid. I can't say my mood had improved either. It didn't help later when we traveled along the Euphrates north of Halfeti and came upon empty villages, partially swallowed by the algae-green/blue (depending on your angle) water, sitting there like ghost towns. Some of them were old Armenian villages, I knew from reading ahead, and they didn't have pleasant stories to tell. Once again, I thought of my grandma running away from Macedonia during the Balkan War and leaving her grandparents behind to die because they were too old for the trip. We can't rewrite history, but we've got to write the new pages better, is all I can say.
spaceWe drove as far north as Rum Kale (the "Greek Castle," known to Armenians as Hromgla), an old fortress ruin that looks like it's going to slide down its cliff and plunge into the river any minute.
spaceThere used to be a road that connected the two shores right where the fort stands, but the water's too high now. That's where we turned around. It turns out around the same time Mesrob II, the Armenian patriarch of Istanbul, came rowing to look into rumors that the fort, where a saint was buried would end up underwater. I read this in the July 7 issue of Agos. It turns out the river won't touch the castle, by the way.

Harput

Most of what I saw around Harput ended up in a full-page travelog I published in Agos (July 21, 2000, p. 11), and since I'll eventually translate that and post it in the Essays section I won't say a whole lot here. Here are a couple photographs of the mountains south of town, though.

The mountains south of Harput

The mountains south of Harput

When we weren't admiring the subdued beauty of the mountains around town we toured the countryside; saw a few abandoned churches, visited villages we'd read about in turn-of-the-century literature... that sort of thing. The road east from Harput toward Egin, skirting the southern edge of the Keban reservoir, is obscenely beautiful. I hadn't seen such gentle rolling hills since England. Then it got wild and dangerous, following the river very closely, curving north and west right along with it. Not a route for the faint-hearted.
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Egin

Egin (pronounced: Eghin, with a harder "g" in the original Armenian; local spelling: Eğin) used to be a bustling Armenian-Turkish town on the Euphrates, its homes and lush gardens hugging hills. (The town council named it Kemaliye as a show of gratitude to Kemal Atatürk in the 1930s, but locals use the old name even today. Mudguards on truck wheels say Egin on one, Kemaliye on the other; you get the picture.) There's not much of that left today; step away from the main drag and you'll find some old cobblestone streets and beautiful doors. But the old homes are mostly gone, along with their inhabitants, killed or exiled.
Egin church/museum sign detail: Turkish Carpet Co. Est. 1915spaceThe only Armenians in Egin today are those who survived by Turkifying, but farther south in Arapgir a few families are said to remain. One of the old churches burned down long ago, the other one is a sort-of museum, with no mention that it was ever a church and no stated reason why the building has an old sign saying, "Turkish Carpet Company, est. 1915." Amnesia.
spaceBut: you can buy unleaded gas in Egin/Kemaliye. Yay, progress.
spaceBefore you come to Egin, you'll pass by the remarkable Turkish Alevi (or Alawite, a liberal, beleaguered Islamic sect) village of Ocak. The place has a library, an ephemera museum, a guesthouse (free), and even a Web site (in Turkish). Most important, the people smile a lot. Turks have a reputation for being rather dour, so this is a welcome change if you've experienced any of that. Ocak wasn't hit by any anti-Alevi pogroms that claimed scores of lives in the 1970s, but it couldn't help being near the Kurdish rebellion while it was in full swing. The military presence near the village is a reminder of a particularly brutal massacre by PKK rebels not far from there.
spaceHuman Rights Watch has a tally of these massacres; and in turn it archives Turkey's awful human rights record as part of a featured campaign. These two documents do not make pleasant reading, that's for sure.
spaceOverall for the area, military checkpoints have mostly been abandoned, and the PKK members seem to have vanished in honor of the cease-fire that is currently holding as part of a rather dubious and shaky "peace process." The "village guards" and the "special police teams" have also made themselves scarce, sensing change in the air. The Egin area had one of only a handful active checkpoints we encountered, being so close to a historic "problem" area. The too-young soldiers were always polite, as were the officers. One can tell everyone is eager for a new era, yet anxious and tentative because the world has suddenly lurched around them and started rolling in an unknown direction. Speaking for myself, anything that results in people not dying anymore counts as a positive development, and I was happy to see that more and more people could see a glimmer of hope, and no matter how distant that was, manage to smile about it. This was the case also in Diyarbakir, depending on which neighborhood you were in.
space(North of Egin, though, one can guess things are much different. The mountains of Tunceli are snow-capped, hiding valleys, caves, canyons. It's an area so inaccessible that it is said after the 1938 Dersim rebellion the government never regained full control of some areas. It's where the PKK was rumored to have full-fledged camps, training hundreds of people. Locals say there are deep crater lakes with huge fish and the water is so clear you can climb up a ways and shoot your lunch that way - - but it's been a while since anyone's hunted for pleasure around here, so we didn't venture any further.)

Diyarbakir

Ulu Cami (The Grand Mosque), Diyarbakir
I'm walking deep in the heart of the old city, off the main streets, in alleys that are so narrow in places that 50 percent of Americans would have a hard time squeezing through. A few doors are open, the interiors dark and bare. A waste stream runs down the middle of the lumpy street. Children are everywhere, they come out from under rocks, it seems. They don't touch, just look -- or simply ignore you. Some smile and say hello but mostly they seem silently curious: why would anyone come here unless they had to live in this misery? The adults appear nonchalant, but it's clear they're by now suspicious of outsiders. It's reminiscent of Jerusalem's Old City, coupled with the squalor of the Gaza Strip. Streets don't lead out, we end up walking in circles, until a man simply walks up to us and points: "Market. That way."

Children, Diyarbakir
The "market" is the commercial strip that bisects this city (Turkish spelling: Diyarbakır; older names: Diyarbekir, Amida). Here the faces are more relaxed, the conversation more animated. Perhaps they're simply marveling at the fact that only a couple of years ago, their town was gripped by fear -- and now something so simple as sitting outside and being themselves is a miracle. And no more mysterious white Renaults with Ankara plates.
spaceAt some point our group is augmented by a contingent of cops carrying their sputtering walkie-talkies. They don't want pickpockets targeting us, they explain, and a few minutes later, disappear just as marvelously. We enter a military compound that has an old palace on its grounds. A laid-back sergeant offers to give us a tour; a young officer comes out of a building running, yelling, but they sort it out quickly. We walk to the edge of the black basalt walls, where the compound, and the old city, ends. Down below I see the Tigris and the slums filling in the slope between it and the outer wall. It's where our crazy taxi driver nearly plunged us off the road just last night. I shake my head and remember whether I'll be able to remember all the strange things that happened during this trip.
spaceMost people who could, moved out of the old city in the past two decades, and outside the walls is what's called the new city. This is where the five-star Hotel Dedeman decided to set up shop a couple years ago too. As night falls you can take a quick dip in the terrace pool and eat your dinner across from a military base. Choppers lift off and land every couple minutes while you eat, even though there's no known battle going on in the vicinity. Are they just stretching their muscles? Perhaps. The following night there was no more noise, though. Maybe they wanted to sleep, just like we all did.

Atatürk Dam

This is one of the biggest dams in the world, and it's impossible to comprehend its enormity without being there. Actually, let me reword that: you go there and you look at it and you still don't get it. Until they tell you the vista point you're standing on is two kilometers from the concrete face and that speck of dust you see down there is a truck (or a barrel or a worker).
spaceSyria is worried that its water supply will dwindle because of this dam, but the doorman-slash-official guide thought the Syrians were barking up the wrong tree on purpose. "They're afraid of the exact opposite," he said, and proceeded to explain calmly. "They know if we open these floodgates in the evening the map will show a Syrian Ocean by tomorrow morning." And what about our towns? "Our topography is more canyon-oriented around here," he elaborated with a dismissive wave of his hand. "We lose a couple cities, no big deal." I had the crazy feeling that if he were made king tomorrow, he could do it. I was amused and scared at the same time. The guy was something out of Brecht, or even Dali.

Urfa

People visit Urfa for Abraham's (you know, the prophet whose children can't get along farther south) cave, and the gigantic catapult they used to get medieval on him. And then they stay for the food, which is quite good but at the same time a serious health hazard considering the relentless heat. The city was smart enough to build an underground parking lot downtown, though, so your car waits for you in the shade.
spaceUrfa's also famous for its Lake Full of Fish. They're so plentiful you can just reach in and grab one for lunch. The locals love the fish, though, so this isn't recommended.

Urfa, The Lake with Lots of Fish!

Antep

And Antep, old name Aintab, new name Gaziantep, equally famous for its food. Turkey has finished the interstate from Adana up to this point, and it's clear Gaziantep is meant to be the showcase of the Southeast. Progress, roads, and a good dose of flooding followed by American-style massive irrigation and accompanying consumerism; this is what's being tried now as the balm to heal regional, economic, and ethnic discontent.
spaceIt's the middle of the night, and the northern entrance to the city is flooded by the parking lot lights of a shopping center. There's a mega-market, a department store, and a Burger King. On streets endlessly lined with stores closed for the night, you encounter kids doing pirouettes on their BMX bikes. You can rent cars from Budget, buy coffee table books in Turkish and English, and dream about the hopeful future.
spaceBut at some point, the past tugs at your sleeve. A massive old church, now used as a meeting hall for the (National) Department of Education, must be such a sore issue with Mr. Director that he doesn't want you taking pictures of it, even from a distance. (Luckily, some of his staff follow common sense when he's not around.)
spaceIt's as if a whole country is considering Neo's dilemma from The Matrix. Take the blue pill, or the red one?

August 3, 2000

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