Travel: Behind the facades of Kurdish Turkey 


News that 44 people were slaughtered at a wedding in southeastern Turkey in May - an instructive if extreme case, said Reuters , "of the depth and bitterness of blood feuds, clan rivalries and vendettas" among Turkish Kurds - shocked the world.

The feud apparently involved a single extended family, and while triggered by a jilted groom had roots in a lengthy land dispute in the village of Bilge.

The article went on to say that southeastern Turkey, west of Iran and north of Iraq and Syria - where the Turkish army, backed by often unaccountable village guards, is trying to contain the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - is awash with guns and a tendency to solve differences "blood for blood."

Bilge sits just outside Mardin, a gorgeous city that climbs (or flows down) a funnel-like mountain topped with a citadel (occupied by the Turkish army) and overlooking the flat and seemingly endless Mesopotamian plain.

Almost all the buildings in this ancient crossroads, just north of Syria, are of a golden-hued stone, leading to a comparison with historic Jerusalem. In the last decade, Mardin has gained popularity with Turkish travellers and outsiders, inspiring Lonely Planet to write: "Get there before the crowds do."

Which all goes to show that you don't necessarily see behind the facades and the smiling faces. Such was the case with my recent trip through Eastern Turkey: I didn't see the Kurdish anger, yet there were signs.

In the north, our group of 16 in a van, organized by the company Explore, kept coming across massive patriotic signs embedded in the hillsides. They were pleas to the Kurdish population to behave themselves - and at least to try to be patriotic. They said things like (in Turkish, or perhaps Kurdish): "We do everything for our homeland."

All along the two-lane highways that cross from the Anatolian Plateau through the Kackar Mountains into eastern Turkey and then wend southward along the borders with Armenia and Iran, we were stopped at roadblocks manned by Turkish soldiers.

Also through this region, along the roads and hills, you see Kurdish shepherds - often a twenty-something male wearing a seemingly unsuitable suit jacket, with a flock of goats or sheep numbering no more than 400.

In summer, Kurdish families graze their livestock in the high pastures - carrying with them horsehair tents and portable kilims. In the autumn they return to the lower elevations to spend the winter in sprawling compounds of rough-looking stone huts.

Near Mount Ararat, close to the Iranian border, the town of Dogubayazit has a frontier ambiance. I was told the grocery store sells drivers' licenses. A restaurant we dined at had walls lined with half-timbers, like a log cabin in a Western movie, and served lentil soup, kebabs and salad (the usual in the region) costing two or three dollars.

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