Arriving in Diyarbakir – one of the most remote and unexpected travel destinations I have ever set my heart on – was in the end a strangely familiar experience. I was the only Westerner on the plane, but rather than feeling isolated by my conspicuous presence in the crowd of Kurds, I found myself reconnecting with my past – the person who took a 17 hour bus journey through the Mexico jungle, an indigena woman’s baby partly resting on my lap; or crossed Southern India on a train that trundled along so slowly I could sit on the steps of the carriage and watch the butterflies flit by. I had lost some of that independence over the last decade, I realised, and it was good to feel it edging back.
I also felt reassured by the nature of my travelling companions. Be-suited gentlemen with sun-creased faces sharing a joke in the departure lounge, women in sombre colours and shiny headscarves carrying babies and black tote bags: my fellow passengers seemed like hard-working country people returning home from a well-earned trip to the big city. Perhaps they’d seen family, done some shopping, attended to important business. Or maybe they’d just had a holiday. Perhaps one old couple, like me, had finally taken advantage of cheap flights, and visited Istanbul for the very first time; maybe, like me, they’d walked the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet marvelling at how a vast twenty-first century megalopolis could smell of roast chestnuts and corn and sea salt and apple tobacco. Had they too eaten fish bread at the port, had a fresh-squeezed orange juice from a cart on the Galata bridge? And had they taken a cruise up the Bosporus, holding hands and marvelling at the soaring suspension bridges spanning the great waterway between two continents, then picking out their favourite Ottoman-era villas on the far European shore? Perhaps, like me, they’d struck up a conversation with a waiter, and discovered he was Kurdish. Though they would have no need to ask him to teach them a few words of greeting, those words would be exchanged, a bond formed, and perhaps a couple of glasses of raki would be set down smartly on the table, on the house.
Or maybe that whole supposition was a sentimental yet cunning travel writerly device, a way to insert a few impressions of Istanbul before this blog leaves the city far behind. For some of the faces I saw held more troubled stories. A woman in a neat black skirt and trim sweater caught my gaze twice; both times her eyes were glistening; and once I was close enough to detect a hint of red veins spiralling the dark irises. On the bus to the plane she held hands with her mother, though they could have been twins born in different generations, so identical were their long bony faces apart from the steady impact of time. A man her age was protectively hovering near them. Was he her brother? Had they been to a funeral? I didn’t want to stare. Nor at the older couple in the second row, sitting either side of an adolescent in the middle of a seizure, the man tenderly resting one hand on the boy’s forehead, with the other gripping his flailing wrist. They looked old enough to be his grandparents. Had they taken him to the hospital in Istanbul while his parents worked and looked after his siblings?
I didn’t know, and couldn’t know, and moved on to my window seat, to be joined by a portly gent in a tweedy rust-coloured suit, and his unsmiling wife. He appeared not to have flown before, as he couldn’t locate the second strap of his seat belt, and appealed to me for assistance. I tried, via various hand gestures and lifting of my bum, to indicate he was sitting on it. Shyly, he summoned his English: ‘Manage’ he whispered. Then, with a smile, ‘Underneath,’ though he made no attempt to fish about under his own firmly-wedged posterior. Whether kindly or wisely, the stewardess refrained from ordering him to do so; though she did, at his request, show him how the sick bag worked, taking it out of the seat-back pocket and opening it up so he could inspect its depth. To my alarm, the intended receptacle didn’t look nearly large enough for the contents of his stomach, but thankfully there was no turbulence on the short flight, and the couple enjoyed their coffees and I a cup of creamy lentil soup. I munched the croutons as we flew down through the clouds and over the pachydermal folds of the Nemrut mountains, white worms of snow still filling their deep crevices.
It was when we started our descent into Diyarbakir, though, that I understood why I felt so comfortable with the Kurds. How many times had I flown home myself to a small city in the flatlands? The Anatolian steppes undulated at a greater frequency than the prairies, their strips of cultivated land were greener and thinner than the patchwork of Canadian wheat fields I’d grown up with, and the cracked river bed we passed over was a dry brown ghost of the Saskatchewan River, but the essence of the landscape was the same: a growing place, wide open to the sky. And as the young taxi driver drove me to my hotel, Diyarbakir – renowned centre of the armed Kurdish resistance to Turkish oppression – was suddenly a city I recognised: a city with an airport as big as the lobby of the average UK cinema; home to farmers, businessmen, high school kids bursting out of the school yard, and everywhere an impoverished, dispossessed indigenous population. I know, of course, of the danger of stretching a resemblance. Regina Airport doesn’t boast a small squadron of military fighter planes at the ready to vanquish an uprising, and it’s been a long time since my hometown was a feared bastion of guerrilla resistance. But the sense that I had a toehold on some kind of common ground with my hosts struck not the first uncanny note in the chord of my decision to come to Diyarbakir. For while, as I have said, Kurdistan was an unexpected destination, the closer I’ve got to the place, the more I seem destined to be here.
But it’s late now and tomorrow I have to get up early to post this, then meet Çelal, the impeccably mannered hotel waiter, who saw me reading Kurdish poetry and wants to show me around his city. So more tomorrow night on why I’m here, and the eerie signs I have no choice but to be; and after that, a report on what he has to tell me. Hopefully tomorrow my website hosts will have fixed my media upload issues, and I’ll be able to post photos as well.