More dispatches from the summer. After Aykut Uzan, my fixer, and I left Ankara, we spent a few days in Cappadocia. We arrived in Uçisar, after three hours of driving. Aykut turned off the main highway and onto an older, less well-maintained road. He often swerved wildly to avoid the seemingly endless number of potholes and ditches on what?s left of the ancient Silk Road, which ran from Beijing to Istanbul.
Suddenly, on our right was the Agzikarahan Caravai, a 13th century hotel and way station for the caravans that carried the spices and fabrics between Istanbul and Beijing. These caravais were built by the Seljuk Turks every 30 to 40 km and followed a strict architectural style. A central courtyard containing a kitchen and a mosque were surrounded by naves and chambers within the thick walls. A distinctive pointed dome was the signal to weary travelers that sanctuary was nearby — but only for one night.
In Uçisar, Many were worried about a looming war, since Cappadocia is one of the top tourist destinations of Turkey. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the region had been suffering as no one was coming to visit. In the middle of summer, we were able to find a room in one of the beautiful rock hotels in town, with the rooms carved directly into the stone of the canyon walls. But after three days of Cappadocia, it was time to move on. And we headed off to Diyarbakir, the flashpoint for much of the war with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) since 1984.
More than 37,000 people died in the civil war that raged across much of southeast Turkey from 1984 to 1998, ending only when Abdullah Ocalan, the party’s leader, was captured and brought to Turkish justice. While in custody, he renounced violence and sought to be a voice of reconciliation between Turks and Kurds. Needless to say, many Turks didn’t believe his jailhouse conversion and many of his old compatriots in the PKK considered him a quisling. He avoided the noose because of Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union. His death sentence was commuted in October.
But Diyarbakir, with its historic basalt walls limning the city like kohl around a Kurdish girl’s eyes, hadn’t changed in the four years since Ocalan’s capture. The streets were oppressive, with the presence of police everywhere. Aykut and I were followed the whole time we were there, and men came sniffing about my hotel, asking the staff about me and what I was doing there. The people who did talk to me veered from the timid and worried to the brave and/or fatalistic. The dominant thought among the residents, who daily live under the heel of police that routinely use armored personnel carriers to keep order, was that even if emergency rule were lifted — which it was in October — nothing would change as the economy was so devastated, there was no hope for the people to make a living. A. Turan Demir, the deputy chairman of HADEP, the Kurdish party in Turkey with its strongest base in Diyarbakir, listed many of the problems of the region in this interview I had with him: destroyed villages, discrimination, intimidation… A list of offenses that neither side can ever fully forgive.
What follows is a collection of notes and emails that I took when I was in Diyarbakir (and which I emailed out after I realized the level of surveillance I was under.) Reading back over the emails and notes, I see that some of it is insensitive, but I think now that the tone masks a level of frustration both with the environment as a New Yorker and with the treatment that many people live under.
From: Christopher Allbritton
Date: Wed Jul 10, 2002 12:37:10 PM America/New_York
Popped into the local press office today, just to say hi, and they were expecting me. Creepy. There was a document from Ankara to say that I was coming and to accredit me for Emergency Rule Zone reporting. Now I have TWO press cards from the Turks. I was told I could go ?anywhere? and talk to ?anyone? but I suspect that any visits to HADEP offices will be frowned upon. It?s not a big deal to me, as an American, they would likely send me back to Ankara or Istanbul after confiscating film, but my guide, Aykut, lives in this country. He?s married to a Kurdish woman and has a past involvement with radical leftist movements. He?s left it all behind, but I don?t want my troubles to spill over and cause him or his family grief.
Also, the money situation is not good. My tenant, Theresa, has not made deposits as she said she would. If she doesn?t make some deposits by the end of this week, I?ll have to skip Iraq, head back to Germany and then immediately head back to the states, which would just about kill the purpose of all of this. I?m not pleased, obviously, by this development. Nor will Fabiana be pleased either, I think, but at the moment that?s the least of my worries.
Other than that, all is well. Cappadocia was amazing, with all sorts of otherworldly, “Planet of the Apes”-style rockscapes and houses. Diyarbakir, on the other hand, is hot and oppressive.
I?m glad everyone is doing well, and I can?t wait to see you all again.
And this one I sent out later:
From: Christopher Allbritton
Date: Wed Jul 10, 2002 10:18:04 PM America/New_York
And thus, I pass judgment on poor, war-torn Diyarbakir. Christ, what a boring town. I thought war-zones were supposed to bring out the decadence in people (Berlin, maybe?) but instead, I get sullenness. Shit, the one bar that looked good, we couldn’t get in. We had not women with us.
Let me repeat that. I got turned away at the door at a bar in Diyarbakir.
Honestly, how lame is that? Finally, we ended up on the roof of out hotel, listening to the Kurdish version of “Mr. Vegas” on a Casio keyboard sing Arabesque songs in the roof restaurant. If it weren’t for the singer, it would have been almost pleasant. Instead, I felt sorry for the people living the apartments right next door to the hotel. Some were out on their balcony “enjoying” the singer.
Hm. Reading back that last paragraph leads me to believe I would be perfect as a colonial governor in, oh, 1895 or so. All that’s lacking is a British accent, old chap. And I’m supposed to be culturally sensitive. Perhaps I’m just damn tired of nothing working right in this country. Today, I had to mail a contract back to the states so we went to the post office. Looking around, there were no envelopes.
“I need to buy an envelope,” I told Aykut.
“You didn’t tell me that,” he said. “You have to buy those somewhere else.”
What kind of post office sells stamps but not envelopes?
I feel sorry for the police people following us. They must be very, very bored. We walk and we eat and occasionally talk to some poor schmuck on the street. We’re not very interesting subjects to tail, I don’t think. Hell, tonight I was hoping our tails would take pity on us and pull up and say, “You look like a couple of guys looking for some fun. Let’s have a friendly drink at the belly dancing palace.” Alas, such things rarely happened in the Cold War, and I doubt they’re going to happen now.
So that’s the score. I’m back in my hotel room (and everything undisturbed, including my own hair I left sticking out of my laptop in case someone came in and opened it. Paranoia can be fun!)
So that’s all. Safe and sound. I may have an appointment with the military governor tomorrow. Or not. Without doubt I will have to drink more tea. Every time I sit down in an office, a porter brings me tea in the little glasses. It’s tasty, but it’s 120 degrees Fahrenheit outside. And the tea is hot. Aykut drinks the stuff like it was water, says it keeps him healthy and quenches his thirst, but I need real water, not hot tea.
[Ed. — I suppose this last sentence could be mistaken for some kind of metaphor about the differences between the rituals of the east with the cool drink of Western rationalism, but I won’t bother since I never intended the lament for water to be anything more than a sign that I was thirsty.]
To be continued…