Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Diyarbakir, My Heart (Or: How To Communicate Without a Shared Language)

We flew from Kathmandu to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.  The only thing I'll remember about the UAE is that drinking water is not freely available in the airport--guess that's what happens in the desert?  The flight from Sharjah to Istanbul didn't arrive until midnight, so in typical Davo and Nico style, we slept on the cold marble floor of Istanbul's Sabiha Gökçen Airport.  The following afternoon, we flew to Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey.

Why Diyarbakir?  Why not.  ;-)

Ok, I'll stop being cheeky.  :-P  The well-worn grooves in the Asian backpacker tourist trail left me disillusioned with the potential for meaningful travel experiences.  I wanted to get a little farther off the beaten path.  Most tourists to Turkey stick to the western half of the country, but everything I've read highly recommends a visit to the eastern half.


It was clear that we were the only foreigners on the flight to Diyarbakir.  Diyarbakir's airport terminal is smaller than Ithaca's.  All signs were in Turkish.  We said, "Otobüs" to some men in uniforms.  It worked!  The pointed us outside.  The bus driver knew only one English word:  "Yes."  Well, I guess it's time for adventure!

We were dropped off at some place near the old city.  I'm used to locals staring openly at me, and we sure drew some attention.  Within five minutes, a group of children had noticed our big backpacks and circled us like puppies wanting playtime.  A young woman shook Dave's hand vigorously and kissed my cheeks multiple times.  This was the pattern for the next few days:  someone talks to us loudly and slowly in Turkish, repeating the words again and again, as if that would help me magically understand (it's hilarious!!).

ercan, ugur, and another guy whose name i forget
Ten minutes later, three non-English speaking students befriended us and appointed themselves our unofficial tour guides for the evening.  Together, we toured the "mean streets" of Diyarbakir.  Diyarbakir had/has a bit of a bad reputation due to local activity by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), a terrorist organization according to the USA and the UN.  This is a poor city by Turkish standards, and my impression is that many Turks from the west find it backward, provincial, and conservative.  Young people frequently told me that they had 7 or 8 siblings.  A surprising number of men sit in teahouses in the middle of the day--unemployment is high.

We visited the city walls, the central bazar, and the Ulu Mosque, and we drank tea together.  The students identified themselves as Kurds, not Turks, and were very proud to teach us Kurdish words and to drink Kurdish tea.  Kurdish pride is everywhere and constant.  When the man selling me a bus ticket randomly indicated that Diyarbakir was Kurdish, not Turkish, I said "roj bash" ("hello" in Kurdish) to him, and I thought he would die of happiness on the spot.
woman wearing the white headscarf typical of diyarbakir

muhammed and sabra
As we were walking to our couchsurf host's apartment, a man stopped us to invite us to dinner at his home.  Muhammed, who is studying to be an imam (Islamic leader), lives with his mother and his sister.  We learned that his family is Zaza, which is related to but not the same as Kurdish.  His mother made an amazing vegetable dish of eggplant and tomato, served with bread and rice, with a drink of ayran (a watery yoghurt).  It was delicious!  When she saw Dave's bare feet, she insisted on giving him a pair of socks.  I liked her a lot, and I think she liked me, as well.

We spent this entire evening in the company of new friends who know maybe a dozen English words between them.  A shared language is not necessary for communication, nor is it necessary for a good time.  With the university students, we pantomimed our sentences like a three-hour game of charades.  Better entertainment than communication, but guaranteed to provide plenty of laughs!  At Muhammed's house, we used Google Translate to "talk" back-and-forth.  The translations aren't always perfect, but it's possible to talk about more than "I like ___" and "This is called ___ in my language."

on top of the city walls
The next day, we wandered around the old city again.  My journal lists twelve separate awesome interactions with Diyarbakir citizens, from someone who wanted to practice English with us to multiple invitations for tea.  The old itself has a medieval feel, a twisting maze of tiny streets flanked by ancient taupe buildings.  I had the best meal since New Zealand--some sort of cold eggplant dish with rice, fresh bread, and multiple salads.  Pomegranates, olives, and cheeses are sold on the street.  We climbed up onto the city walls and watched the sun set over the city.  There is nothing to interest tourists here, and that is precisely why I love Diyarbakir.

the courtyard of a centuries-old hotel,
back when europe was in the dark ages and the muslim world was the light of civilization
I couldn't take enough pictures to truly express our experiences, but here's a start:

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