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Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Delayed Post from Eastern Turkey

I wrote this around June 2nd...

In the past few days I have been in some of the same areas of Turkey that I traveled through in 2002. Two years seems to have changed a fair bit in some ways but in others it is like my previous visit was just a month ago.

When I arrived in Diyarbakir two years ago, it was a hot July day with a forecast high of 49 Celsius. No, that is not a typo…forty-nine degrees. This time through it was a little warm, but not quite as stifling as, for example, Khanaqin the week before in Iraq. The city itself seemed quite different as well – even before the run-in with the police! Perhaps it is just a changed attitude on my part that has forced a different lens in front of my eyes this time, or perhaps there have been marked changes. Regardless, it certainly seemed as if there has been a concerted effort in the city to beautify it and to bring back the tourists that once filled its now-dingy and tired collection of hotels. The tea shops that obscured the inside view of the old city wall have been moved across the street facing them; on the outside of the wall, the gardens, parks and playgrounds seem to be fully developed whereas two years ago they were just getting started on building them. Also, it was then as it is now possible to climb and walk the wall, but now the entrances have been cleaned up significantly and while they still certainly would not meet over-zealous European or North American safety standards, improvements have nonetheless been made. Last time in the city it was the height of the watermelon season for which the region is famous, and this made for quite a scene at the watermelon markets just outside the city wall; in their place, however, were countless banners advertising a festival of some sort that appears to have just ended. A last reason for my different impression this time is that two years ago I saw little of the city outside the old city wall and generally speaking, outside the wall the better parts of town are found, with scores of people out on that Saturday afternoon doing their shopping.

All this aside, my different impressions of the city itself could not mask the distinct feeling I had two years ago that all was not well in the city, that while the war with the Kurds was over, the struggle continued beneath the surface. The government is definitely working hard to make that a distant memory, and perhaps had I not just spent time in Iraqi Kurdistan my memory would not have been so vivid. A return to this large city in the heart of Turkish Kurdistan once the Kurds are properly recognized would be interesting I’m sure and no doubt it would be quite the spectacle there with Kurdish dancing and music outside those most impressive city walls.

Dogubeyazit, where I sit now (although I expect to actually post this message from elsewhere), also has given me quite a different impression. This town is not far from the Iranian border and does not have a great deal to it aside from a magnificent old fort overlooking the town on one side and Mt. Ararat, straddling the Turkish-Iranian-Armenian border on the other. As I write this I’m thinking that either of these two things should make one think that there is indeed a great deal to it, and in fact it does. It is by the far the most interesting border town I have ever passed through and now I have the good fortune of being able to do so again.

Two years ago this for me was the gateway to the country which I had long been fascinated by the mere mention of which would kick my mind into gear thinking of radical revolution, clerical rule and status as a pariah state, having that further entrenched a few months previously when named in the axis of evil. Of course, much of what fascinated me about Iran two years ago turned out not to be the case in what to be perfectly honest was a most pleasant surprise. And so, today for me Dogubeyazit is not a portal to a twisted imamate that I thought Iran to be thanks to films such as ‘Not without my daughter’ and my having just read ‘On Wings of Eagles’ on that trip, but instead is the last stop before a country where things are quite normal and in many respects fairly liberal. Perhaps it is my different perception of Iran – what lies beyond Dogubeyazit – that shapes my different impressions of this frontier town.

Iran’s relatively liberal society could well have been upset in the past two years, so it will be interesting to see how things compare to my last trip. The recent elections in the Majlis were a farce and the reform movement from what I have been reading seems deeply divided while the people have tired of pushing for reforms as they seem to have gotten nowhere.

What is particularly strange about both Diyarbakir and Dogubeyazit is that both just seem so familiar. While I didn’t spend too much time in either last time, in each city I have found myself recognizing the hotels I stayed in, where I ate, even where I sent e-mail home. Good thing though, as I was too stingy to buy a Turkey guidebook before coming this time around!

Between Diyarbakir and Dogubeyazit I made a trip north to Erzurum for no reason really aside from that I had to pick up my Iranian visa there at the consulate. The city was quite nice, and the cool weather from the Black Sea a welcome change from the heat further south. From there I headed to Kars, towards the Armenian border as that town is the jumping off point to visit a group of old Armenian churches from around the 12th century. Kars is a wonderful small town, and seems like it is in many respects still stuck in maybe about the 1970s. I had a bit of this feeling in Erzurum, though Kars seemed more authentic given its much smaller size. Kars seemed to me to be how I would imagine some small northern Italian villages to have been about thirty years ago. More likely, though, is that Hollywood has made me imagine 1974 Italy to be like Kars actually is today. Now just watch the Kars tourism board latch into this and sell trips to Italians as how they remember Italy as children.

Ani was until quite recently a closed military zone and as such, clearances were needed to get there and photography was not allowed. Things have changed, however, and while the Russian army still patrols the border on the opposite side of the fence, photography is allowed and no clearances are needed. While photos are allowed, I foolishly lost all my photos from Ani due to impatience uploading them, which is quite disappointing as I did make a bit of a special detour to get to Ani after being sorry to miss out on it last time here (…and no, Mike, I did not lose my photos because I use a Mac, it is because I am impatient, something the good people at Apple haven’t found a cure for…yet). The driver out to Ani was fairly indoctrinated in the Turkish line towards Armenia and was well aware of the motion passed in the House of Commons several weeks ago recognizing the Armenian genocide. I would still maintain that it was perhaps not thing to do in diplomatic terms, it was quite bothersome to hear him dismiss the Armenian genocide in one breath and then in the next talk of the Kurdish ‘problem’.