Category Archives: People You May Meet

The Fervent Kurd

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It was getting to be time to grab dinner, and a dusky glow was already starting to illuminate the narrow stone streets of the old city of Urfa. Danielle, Fabio and I were hungry from a long day of exploring the city, in all it’s ancient glory, so we decided to grab a quick dinner of pide and lahmacun at a cheap restaurant we passed the day before not far from our pensiyon.

View of Urfa

The night was still early, and few Turks were out eating at all when we slowly approached the glass fronted restaurant with a grill that spilled out onto the street in front. As soon the restaurant owner saw us, he passionately herded us down to sit at a table on the sidewalk in front of his small establishment. Business must have been slow that night, for, except to shepherd a few other customers into the restaurant or to give instructions, he spent the entire night by our table, earnestly explaining his situation.

“This is our soil, our soil, you understand?” He fervently expounded to us, over tea. “This is Mesopotamia, we’ve always been here. This land belongs to the Kurds, you know? If we have to, we should fight for it! The PKK,” he was shouting, but quickly took stock of the fact that he was in the street.

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The Bucharest Express

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The Bucharest express from Vienna was a clunker; perhaps once a grandiose train in the ’70s USSR, the express now stood rusting, with interior compartments lined more with crumbs and grime than pleasant memories. It was the only train that night via Budapest, our destination, so without any second thoughts we jumped on and easily found ourselves a private cabin, for the train was all but deserted.

Seemingly so, at least. The conductors, speaking no English and barely any German, left the three of us alone as we settled into our cabin and closed the glass door separating us from the hallway. The heat was turned up – although it was summer, the nights were cool and damp as Central Europe was still recovering from the massive flooding that had just burst river banks from Germany to Hungary, and possibly beyond. Soon enough, the three of us nodding with sleep, a family raucously ambled through the narrow corridor yelling at each other. Curiously, they peered into our cabin as we gazed tiredly back at them.

A large family – father, mother, at least two children, possible an aunt, a boyfriend, it goes on – wearing tattered clothing, they soon deemed we weren’t actually all that interesting as they settled into a cabin next to ours. Now and then the children would dash out of their compartment, past our door, apparently not entertained enough by the brown upholstery of the chairs that were slowly coming apart.

As they would dash along, I would keep a checklist of their features to pass the time – matted blond hair, fairish but burnt skin, mullets, a language that seemed to sound like something I vaguely had heard before. “They must be Roma,” Maggie said to me as we both gazed at them. “Are they speaking Romanian?” I asked. She merely shrugged, as we both guessed they were taking the train the entire way to Bucharest – about 12 hours all in all.

The flooding slowed our train journey too, as what would normally have been a three hour ride slid more and more towards the five hour mark. Due to impassable terrain, we were rerouted through Bratislava – our train sat, seemingly in the middle of pitch black fields, for an endless amount of time as freight trains passed roaring by us in either direction. Suddenly, the train’s door opened, and a man with a massive backpack – at random – opened our compartment and sat down with the three of us.

“So, where are the three of you from,” he asked us smilingly as he sat down. His English was nearly impeccable, except for his Hungarian accent.

“We’re American.”

“Ah, just backpackers then, yes? Where are you going? To Bucharest?”

“Actually, we were English teachers,” Maggie said. “We’re going to Budapest.”

“Ah, Budapest, fucking Budapest,” he smiled. “That is where I’m going too. I fucking hate Budapest. I grew up there, lived there, work there, but I fucking hate it.”

“Why?”

“Well, really, Budapest is a good city, but Hungary is a fucking mess, you know? I love Transylvania – you know Transylvania? Dracula and everything. I love it there, it’s beautiful, the people are friendly, lots of Hungarians but they aren’t so fucking annoying as the ones in Hungary.” He laughed as he said this, and brushed aside his extremely thick brown hair.

“What’s wrong with Hungarians,” I asked him, “they all seem friendly enough to me.”

“We’re lazy people. Fucking lazy, but we never take responsibility for it. Oh, we say it was the fucking Russians, or the Germans, or the Turks, or even the fucking Romanians who took away our power, but really we just complain all the time. Look at Hungary now – Budapest is growing, but the rest of the country is fucking awful, and everyone complains but no one is willing to work. So, people are unhappy about it. They blame the rich in the country – the Jews – and the extremely poor – the gypsies – but no one is willing to actually work to make it better. You know back in the USSR times, they would call us goulash communism, because instead of focusing on infrastructure products we just sat around eating goulash and drinking beer the whole time.

“Fucking Hungarians, you know.” He gave a hearty laugh.

We all sat in silence for a bit. The train continued to bump its way along Central Europe. The man laughed, and smiled, and continued to talk. “So, where were you all teaching?”

“Turkey.”

“Oh, Turkey. I love Turkey, I was just there visiting friends in Istanbul. It’s funny, you know. Whenever I visit Turkey, Turks always go ‘oooh! You are Hungarian? Macarıstan, Macarıstan!’ – Hungary in Turkish, you know. ‘We are brothers from Asia!’ they would say, and I would just smile and laugh, because in Hungary we always talk about how much we fucking hate the Turks. Although they did give us fucking good coffee.”

“You guys have Turkish coffee too?”

“Kind of, although a little different. Of course, sometimes people fucking call it things like Serbian coffee, or Hungarian coffee. Of course we all fucking know it is Turkish. Actually, no, most people in Hungary are too uneducated to know anything. Like the EU, they have no fucking ideas about it.”

“What about you,” I asked. “Do you have any ideas about it?”

“Me? Of course I fucking do,” he laughed. “I think it’s fucking bad. Sure, it helps build Hungarian infrastructure slowly, but where does all the work come from? Where do all the train systems, and mechanical engineers come from? Fucking France and Germany – so it’s really fucking good for them, of course our infrastructure very very slowly gets better. Lazy fucking Hungarians. But who would build our infrastructure, you know?”

We didn’t, but we nodded along with what he was saying.

“So,” Maggie asked him after a brief pause, “what do you do in Budapest?”

“Oh, me?” He smiled, “Well, I’m a civilian engineer.”

The Fatalistic Bosnian

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“How was your flight coming in?” Dzemal asked me, as he grabbed my suitcase and loaded it into the back of his ’80s hatchback. “God willing it was a good flight. Did you come all the way from America?”

“No,” I replied, “I came from Turkey. I’ve been teaching English there.”

“Oh, Turkey! Very nice, I know a lot of people from Turkey. Some Turks are staying in the inn tonight. Maybe you can meet them. But I don’t know, maybe you won’t see them. It’s hard to know what will happen, you know?”

Fatalistic Bosnian
The street outside of Dzemal’s house.

Here we go, I thought to myself. It was nice of Dzemal to pick me up from the Sarajevo airport, but I can’t stand the idea of making small talk about possibly seeing some Turks who may or may not be staying in the hotel. 

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Polar Opposites

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“So, how did you meet each other?” I asked the two girls sitting across from me, seemingly polar opposites. One was a fast talking bubbly girl, with long hair and designer clothes. Her friend, on the other hand, was much less energetic and spoke softly. A scarf covered her hair and a dull red overcoat covered her clothes.

“Us?” the bubbly girl asked. “Well, we went to the same dershane (basically extra prep-classes for the college exam) together and we had a mutual friend who introduced us.”

“We didn’t like each other at all, at first,” the other girl pipped in.

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An Ottoman Warrior

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“I have a lot of problems with the Turkish Republic,” he said with a big smile on his face. “I do not like the Turkish Republic. I like Ottoman. I am an Ottoman warrior,” he continued as he munched on an egg and sipped some tea.

“Why is that?” I asked inquisitively. Usually, the answer has to do with politics and how ethnic minorities feel as if they are being assimilated into the overall Turkish sphere.

“Religion!” he put in triumphantly. “Turkey ignores religion. It says Islam is not important, but we are Muslim. We are a Muslim country. It is important that we follow our religion. For this reason, I like Iran. I want Turkey to be like Iran.”

I was amazed. This was the first I had ever heard of anyone in Turkey, no matter how religious they were, openly saying that they wanted a system in Turkey like that of Iran – people always insisted on the opposite.

“You like Iran then,” I said cautiously, unsure of how to proceed.

“Yes, definitely,” he continued as he poured us more tea. “Iran is very good, except for violence towards women. They throw stones at women, kill women. This is bad. You know, I read the Qur’an and it does not say these things. So that violence is very bad.”

“Right, it says be merciful to people, right?”

“Yes, yes, exactly.”

We sat in a short lived silence, as we continued working on our breakfast. “But I do like Iran, you know. I think all women should be covered. You see some women and you think what are they doing. It’s very bad.”

“Yeah… What about alcohol, though? Should that be banned?”

“Absolutely. I never drank alcohol, it is forbidden.”

“Right, but what about for Christian or Jewish people? They need alcohol for their religion. Can they drink it?”

For a second here my friend, the Ottoman warrior, faltered. Although he continued to have his big welcoming smile, you can tell he was trying to work out a conundrum in his head. Within a second though he had recovered.

“Yes, yes, of course they can. You know, I read a lot of Nietzsche. You know Nietzsche? My family always asks me why I have these books. ‘God is dead!’ But for me, no problem. I like reading, I like new ideas. People are people, you know. So for Christians if you need to drink, you can drink. No problem.”

“The Ottomans were like that, right? Every group had their own laws, it was very tolerant.”

“Yes, yes. You know, I am a soft Islamist. Every person is special, so you should not hurt or kill anyone. If I cut you or  I cut myself, it is the same blood, yes? We hurt the same.”

“People are people,” I murmured in agreement.

We sipped our tea and sat for a few moments, admiring the beauty of the traditional Mardin courtyard we found ourselves in.

“So tell me, friend” he said slapping me on the back. “What do you do?”

“I am a teacher,” I replied smiling, expecting the normal positive response that I get from Turks.

“Teachers? I hate teachers,” he said with a big smile. “You know, I was a teacher for a while. Then they arrested me. I was in prison for two months.”

“Why, what happened?”

“In class I told them all how I hated the Turkish Republic, and I was an Ottoman warrior,” he said laughing. “They were not happy.”

The Kindness of Strangers Kars

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Whenever I travel, I generally come across the extreme friendliness of the Turkish people, although up until now this has been most pronounced in Malatya and Urfa. I say up until now because the kindness of strangers Kars version is by far the best I’ve ever been treated; I have never been made to feel more welcomed in my life.

Where Russia and Turkey Met

After exploring Kars and Ani for a day with my friend Ben, who you may remember from Antakya, we each went our separate ways for my second day in the city. Having seen everything worthy of note in the city during my first day, I planned to resummit the castle and read a book in a cafe overlooking the city. Halfway up the summit, daydreaming as usual, I was interrupted by an urgent:

“Excuse me! Excuse me!”

Turning around, an eager woman started walking quickly towards me. “Where are you from?” she asked with a huge smile.

“I’m from America.”

Instantly she switched into broken English. “America?! Oh, that’s wonderful! Why are you in Kars? Did you read Kar, Orhan Pamuk’s novel? All the foreigners come here because of that book. I don’t understand.”

“No,” I smiled, “I came here to see Ani. I’m an English teacher in Malatya.”

“You? You are teacher? But you’re very young! I have a teacher now, from England. But she is very bad. I don’t like her at all.”

Kindness of Kurds

This chit-chat continued until we found ourselves at the top of the castle, where two of her friends were waiting. “Do you know Kurdish?”

“No, sorry,” I said, with a lame smile.

“All of us Kurds, from Batman,” she proclaimed. “This is my friend Mesut, and Şirin. I forgot, my name is Hazal.” This set off a rapid exchange in Kurdish between all three of them. “You like join us?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good. You should learn some Kurdish.”

“Actually, I know a little,” I said. “Maybe like five or six words…” And here I quickly exhausted all my Kurdish knowledge, like: hello, how are you, and my name is. It was all I needed. Before I could wrap my head around it, Mesut and Şirin both had their arms around me and were speaking about everything and anything in Turkish to me, even faster to each other in Kurdish, all the while throwing out whatever random English words they knew.

After a quick exploration of the city and some photo shoots (completely prompted by them), I was being guided towards an old Russian church turned mosque on the other side of the city. Not wanting to disappoint them, I didn’t let them know I had already seen it.

Kindness of Kurds

“My family is very poor,” Hazal continued as we made our way through the city. “I am the oldest with five brothers and sisters. I could not go to school, I had to work to help my family. But I had a dream of being an English teacher. My father said you’re crazy, my mother  said you’re breaking my heart, my brother said you can do it. So I bought all the books and I studied alone for the exams. I passed them, and now I am studying to be teacher at Kars.”

“That’s amazing. You must be very hard working, but I’m sorry your parents were so hard.”

“No problem, no problem. My parents are funny. My dad is a leftist, my mom is very religious and hates him. But my father loves her and always says ‘We are married for thirty years. I don’t need you to love me.'”

“Okay, come on, come on,” Mesut interjected as we had reached the mosque. “Come on, let’s go inside.”

Once inside, Mesut and Şirin insisted on us taking pictures together on the condition that I would share them on Facebook. Şirin even had me partially climb the spiral staircase to the upper floor of the mosque for a good photo-op.

Kindness of Kurds

Then, before I knew it, somehow we had ended up at Mesut’s student house and I was partaking in a Kurdish version of menemen – Kurdish only because it had an inclusion of hot peppers – eaten with hands and chunks of bread and tea spread out on a tablecloth on the floor. Despite there being at least ten other guests for lunch, I was the guest. As such, I was made to eat thirds and fourths way past everyone else had managed to stop eating… Not that I was complaining.

Come Sit On The Grass

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My morning class ended early today. The students were supposed to give presentations, but half the class didn’t show up because they took the National Collegiate Exam yesterday. The students who did come, though, were the creme de la creme. So, to reward them – and also because I had apparently promised them – I found myself ushering them all as quietly as possible past the directors office, out of the building, and onto the lawn outside.

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Küçük Şeytan

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During my time in Malatya I’ve made friends with a few families living in my university neighborhood. For the most part they all have small children and work in the hospital on campus. In exchange for giving some free basic English lessons to their children, the families usually invite me over for dinner and provide some hands on Turkish practice.

It’s mostly the food that’s important, though.

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The Eager Alawi

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Taking the overnight bus from Malatya to Hatay with Danielle and Fabio, I immediately cursed my bad luck as I was forced to sit next to a wide squat Turk who was expanding into my seat. No sleep for me, I thought to myself; of course, I was wrong. I fell asleep almost immediately and did not truly stir until we arrived in Hatay province.

Still with a half hour to go until we reached our final destination – the city of Hatay, formerly known as Antakya, the old city of Antioch – my seat mate and I made eye contact and started to chit-chat.

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A Modern Muslim

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“Do you drink?” Füsun asked me as I got in her car.

“Yeah, sometimes I guess,” I tried to respond coyly.

“Oh, wonderful! You’ll come over for dinner next week and meet my husband. Make sure to bring wine, though! We both drink.”

“Really?”

“Yes, yes! I am a modern Muslim! I don’t cover – I think covered women look so ugly – and I drink. A modern Muslim, I am a modern Muslim woman!” Füsun continued to rant like this switching between broken English and Turkish on the ten minute ride she gave me from the campus shopping market to my apartment.

“Really!” she insisted, bright red dyed hair glinting in the street lights in front of the apartment, “We would love to have you over for dinner next Wednesday. Okay?”

“Uh, yeah, sure” I smiled back at her.

“Wonderful! See you then, iyi akşamlar!” hung in the air as she sped away back to her own apartment.

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Expat Thanksgiving

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To celebrate Thanksgiving – and to soothe our mounting pumpkin pie cravings after having taught about Thanksgiving for an entire week – Danielle and I headed down to Gaziantep. There are six other Fulbrighters posted down in Antep, and another 5 assorted American and Turkish friends also converged on the city for us all to celebrate our collective first expat Thanksgiving. Danielle and I were also pleasantly surprised by how close the city was – only three and a half hours by bus from Malatya – which is wonderful considering the amount of sights within the ancient city center that we missed out on.

This time around in Antep, we saw nothing of the city itself as we immediately headed down to our friends’ apartments on the outskirts of the city by Gaziantep University. Once we had all assembled, with friends coming in from Osmaniye, Sivas, Malatya and Gaziantep, we made an executive decision to skip Antep cuisine (a horrible crime, I’ve been assured) and instead eat at a local Syrian restaurant opened up by some wealthy refugees. I assure you, I love Middle Eastern food in America; however, this restaurant was truly the first time I have ever been floored by the cuisine. The combination of having it cooked authentically with the intended regional fresh produce made it outstanding. I just wish I remembered what the name of what I ate was… Or what it was, besides chickpeas.

Thanksgiving Prep
I am confused by kitchens

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“Home” for the Holidays

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Last week I had been feeling a little homesick. I’m not really sure why, but it may have been due to the approach of the holidays and students talking of visiting their families, the gradual approach of fall, or the knowledge that this would be my first Autumn and Halloween spent outside of the country. Whatever the case, heading to Amasya helped buck my spirits up, as well as the knowledge that I would be spending Kurban Bayramı in Ankara with my old Turkish host family from last year – the same host family I had tried to visit two months ago.

Home for the Holidays
Ankara has a bad rap amongst Turks of not being beautiful – bah!

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