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Kurdish Delights

TURKEY | Friday, 31 July 2009 | Views [4020] | Comments [2]

Travel warnings for southeast Turkey included rape, murder, religious extremism, and terrorism. Even one of the locals I befriended warned me not to trust anyone (horror movie, anyone??). I guess I was pretty lucky, then, to have emerged unscathed from an unexpected crash course in Kurdish culture.

April 25: The Trust Factor

It rained the entire bus ride from the Akdamar harbour to Diyarbakir, the biggest city in southeastern Turkey and the unofficial capital of Kurdistan. I find that the weather has a huge impact on how I perceive my surroundings, so it's a good thing the rain ceased shortly before I disembarked, otherwise I may not have been in the right frame of mind for what would happen next.

Just as I was wondering to myself how I was going to find a cheap hostel for the night, a pair of young guys sitting behind me piped up. Like pretty much every other young Turk, they were keen to practise their English skills and I seemed to still stick out like a sore thumb as a foreigner in places not typically frequented by tourists. They had just finished their year of mandatory service in the state military and were heading home to their families, also in Diyarbakir.

One of them named Mesut was particularly good at English and, upon arrival in Diyarbakir, even offered to help me secure a bus ticket to my next destination. I happily obliged; when you're used to communicating primarily through exaggerated hand motions and little drawings on scrap paper, having someone who could speak both English and Turkish was incredibly useful. Perhaps I balked a little too much at the prices of his suggested "affordable" hotels in town, but when I was about to thank him and bid him adieu, he also offered for me to stay with his family overnight. Normally I would never even consider such an offer from a man on his own, but anything concerning spending time with a family is usually a safe bet and a unique opportunity to experience some of the local culture - an awfully tempting proposition for an anthropology geek like me. Some people have told me that one day my curiousity will get the better of me if I'm not careful.

I triple-checked that it was okay with Mesut's mother before accepting the generous offer. I really wasn't sure about the social norms and expectations that I would be placed under in such a situation - a son the family hadn't seen in a year was coming home with a female foreigner he had just met - but in yet another testament to the mind-blowing hospitality that abounds in this part of the world, his mother literally welcomed me with open arms and promptly ushered me to the dinner table.

As his mother was turning in for the night, Mesut asked if I wanted to go out for a bit. Again, I was incredibly wary of how that might be perceived, but he assured me repeatedly that it was okay with his mom. It's possible that I was being a bit too oversensitive, but one can never be sure. We wound up finding a live band at a pub downtown that even played some English covers. At first I was thrilled to hear songs I knew and loved, but when they played Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" and Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", I found myself missing a certain someone a little too much for my liking. Maybe it was with good reason that until then, I had been isolating myself from the creature comforts of 'the West' in the name of immersing myself in my immediate surroundings. After all, those things were just associated with memories of people I wouldn't be seeing for a really long time. It was much easier to just avoid them altogether.

April 26: Kurds just wanna have fun

I woke up early and joined Mesut's mother and youngest brother in a hearty breakfast of tomatoes, feta-like cheese, Nutella, and homemade emek bread. Since his mother's English skills were about as good as my Turkish (i.e. nill), we relied upon the little brother's primary schoolbooks, two-way dictionary, and computer-based translator to muddle our way through the standard topics of conversation like family, customs, and hobbies. Despite the language barrier, we connected well with each other and I had to mask my shock when I learned that she had never attended school and was still completely illiterate. Not only that, but her father had married her off at the age of 13 and she had her first child, Mesut, just a year later. Apparently girls are now allowed to go to school, but I would be surprised to hear of many fathers actually encouraging them to do so. Social change occurs slowly indeed.

When a second son showed up, I asked the two of them if they wanted to play some football at the neighbourhood park. They looked at me as if I was crazy (perhaps in part because girls in Turkey usually take no interest in football, let alone play it) and reminded me that Mesut was still asleep. I was actually having more fun with his brothers and mom and I didn't see why it mattered that he was still asleep until they said that they weren't allowed to go anywhere with me without his permission. I looked at them incredulously but held my tongue; I wasn't sure if it was them being subservient or me, but I didn't particularly like it.

Taking advantage of her eldest son's laziness and my subsequent restriction from football, the mother offered to take me to a friend's wedding party that afternoon. Once again, I was wary of the multitude of social norms that I would surely be subjected to, but jumped at the chance to join her and her female relatives at the celebration of such an important social institution.

I suddenly realized that I had nothing even remotely appropriate to wear to a formal wedding. Before I knew it, I was being whisked off to a cousin's apartment down the street to find an outfit to replace my hiking boots, jeans, and t-shirt. I opted for the least sparkly thing I could find (a plain black skirt and long-sleeved green top) and waited expectantly for the 3 other women to leave the room. They motioned for me to hurry up and change my clothes but I just stood there looking at the cousin helplessly. None of them spoke English but they eventually got the point that I didn't want an audience and left me alone, probably to shake their heads at how uptight Westerners are. Once I was ready, they flooded back into the room and helped each other put on their makeup and hijabs in front of the mirror. Again, I had a moment of cultural sensitivity-induced concern. So far, I had had a few too many Turkish men showing a little too much interest in my braids, and the last thing I wanted to do was draw even more attention to myself as a foreigner at someone else's wedding by not wearing a headscarf. The women indicated that I was fine without one - they fussed over my braids like a proud mother and seemed to want me to keep them out in the open - but I insisted otherwise. The cousin again came to my rescue and somehow managed to cover all of my hair with a few expertly placed ties and pins as I politely declined the offer to be doused in cheap perfume by Mesut's 9-year old brother.

The final touch was perhaps the most dreaded: the heels. I had myself and the other women barely holding back fits of laughter as I wobbled around the apartment, testing out the only pair that somewhat fit. To be honest, what unsettled me the most about wearing heels was the fact that I would not be able to run or play football - two things I'd prefer to retain the ability to do at all times. I guess I'd have to assume that the wedding party would not require either of them.

When we arrived at the tackily decorated hall, we headed straight to a table already staked out by other relatives of Mesut's mom. I smiled and cheek-kissed and shook hands with so many people that I felt like an amateur politician. I was surprised that no one spoke an ounce of English but it was a nice change to be able to simply watch and listen and not even try to understand what was being said. It wasn't long, though, before one of the younger girls dragged me away from a nearby baby and onto the dance floor.

Kurdish music and dancing was unlike anything I had experienced to date in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The music was way too loud and accentuated with the high-pitched trills reminiscent of Xena, but I quite enjoyed the massive drum slung around one man's waist that he beat incessantly with a cane to set the rhythm for the entire afternoon. The dancing began with a few women in a line facing the centre, hooking pinky fingers with those on either side of her. They moved their arms up and down in concert with a little step forward, backward, and to the right, so that they moved slowly around the perimeter of the dance floor. Eventually, enough women joined the line so that they went all the way around in a large circle, with one woman leading with a small hankerchief in hand. The men joined in as well but they formed a separate circle inside the women's, also led by a man with a hankerchief.

After about an hour of doing the same little move over and over and over, they responded to some unseen signal and split off into two straight lines at right angles to each other, one for the men and one for the women. The men showed off some impressively fast moves all in perfect unison in the line, and then dropped to one knee as one of the older men grabbed the hankerchief and took a solo in the centre. Dressed in traditional shalvar pants, he dazzled the audience with feverish footwork, shoulder shimmies, and arm movements that seemed chaotic to my untrained eye. With the sequined hankerchiefs in hand, his dance moves reminded me of the displays of a male peacock. When he finished, he dropped the hankerchiefs on the ground for the next male soloist to pick up.

During each solo, a couple of adult men tossed money (I think it was American dollar bills, for some reason) onto the dancer. Children dashed into the centre and snatched up the money amidst the stamping feet of the soloist. It took me a few rounds of this to notice that the children returned the money to the throwers rather than keeping it for themselves.

By the time the bride and groom finally arrived at the hall, I had all but forgotten that we were supposedly there to celebrate their union. I was surprised to see the bride looking downright miserable and even on the verge of tears for the rest of the party, but Mesut later told me that it was likely an arranged marriage and she was probably 10-15 years younger than her groom.

As soon as Mesut's mom and I returned home, Mesut urged me to get ready to head out again. He had somehow found two tickets to the championship football game that evening between Diyarbakir and one of the Istanbul teams and I had time to watch at least the first half before catching my next inter-city bus. We took a couple of dolmushes and buses to get to the stadium and I could feel the excitement (and traffic) mounting the closer we got. The entire city seemed to have turned out to support their home team: huge corporate-sponsored banners were hanging in the streets, cars were decked out in team colours and horns, and face-painted kids were waving flags in droves on the packed sidewalks.

When we arrived at the stadium, Mesut told me to wait outside while he tracked down his friend who was holding the tickets for us. Just as I was starting to feel the heat of hundreds of pairs of eyes tracking my every move (I was back to being the only woman in sight), he came back visibly distressed. It seemed that either too many tickets had been sold or too many officials had been bribed; the stadium was already well over capacity and they weren't letting anyone else in, even those with legitimate tickets. Mesut was pretty upset but to be honest, I was quite amused to just watch the crowds around us. Some fans were so eager to see the action that they scaled terrifyingly high walls to get inside the stadium. Even with riot police pushing their way through the crowds and yelling at them to get down, they were cheered on by the crowds and pulled over the top by fellow fans with a bird's-eye view of the mayhem in the streets below.

With the electricity in the air as palpable as it was, I didn't find it hard to believe how easily riots could break out at national and World Cup matches. With all my years of playing the beautiful game, I had never been to a professional match. I suppose this one didn't really count, since I didn't actually get to see any of it, but still - soaking up the atmosphere outside the stadium was a pretty sweet substitute. I can only imagine what it will be like next year in South Africa!

April 26-27: Until the fat lady sings

On the overnight bus from Diyarbakir to Cappadocia, I was seated beside a rather robust woman and her 6-year old grandson. It's not uncommon here for a woman to squeeze herself and two kids into two seats, but I was shocked to see this little gaffer sleeping UNDER the seats in front of us throughout the night. I tried to squeeze over as far as possible for him, but to no avail... Granny was simply too big for him to fit on her lap. I swore then and there that I would never let myself get too fat to accommodate my grandkids.




Hey shrummer16,

We really liked your blog and decided to feature it this week so that others could enjoy it too!

Happy Travels!

World Nomads

  World Nomads Aug 10, 2009 11:55 AM


If you could get some authentic music, the dance with the handkerchiefs would be a good demonstration for the junior students to experience some of the culture. The teachers would enjoy it too.
love, mom

  Janet Aug 10, 2009 12:49 PM

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