Category Archives: Travel

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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The Pull of Mevlana

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As I wandered through the Mevlana mosque complex, caught up in my own thoughts and the beauty of the area, I didn’t notice the two covered young teenage girls shyly making their way towards me. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. I almost certainly bumped into one of them when taking a step back to frame a picture properly.

The Pull of Mevlana
Seeing Rumi’s tomb from afar may have been one of the most exciting moments in my life.

The Pull of Mevlana

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A Trip to Konya

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There’s a Rumi quote that, ever since first reading it, has floated around in the confines of my mind – “Not eastern, not western – human.” The beauty and simple elegance of this verse affected me so much, I almost decided to get it as a tattoo in it’s original Farsi. Fortunately, I did some research first and discovered that this is actually a doctored phrase in English, and to Iranians it would be much more recognizable in it’s modernly used – and highly un-Rumi like –  form of “Not eastern, not western – the Islamic Republic.”

A Trip to Konya

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Hasankeyf

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About an hour and a half north of Midyat, and just outside of Mardin Province, lies the small village of Hasankeyf. A small and rustic village nestled on the shores of the Euphrates River, Hasankeyf is about as picturesque a place as anyone could possibly imagine. Although the modern city is not much to look at – as is generally the case with modern Turkish cities – historic Hasankeyf lines the banks of the river. Also noted for it’s hiking and interesting geography, Hasankeyf has at times been called the Capadoccia of the East.

Hasankeyf Manzara

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Midyat

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About one and a half hours east of Mardin, easily connected by a direct dolmuş, lies the equally historical city of Midyat. Midyat, much like Mardin, is also a culturally heterogeneous city with a strong Syriac Christian history and presence. Lining the streets of the new city are boutique shops selling locally grown Syriac wine or newly made silver jewelry

Midyat

Whereas the old city of Mardin though is entirely located on a hill, giving it an amazing feeling of looking down upon or up at the city wherever you are, Midyat is unfortunately located on a flat plain. Robbed of this matter of elevation – with also a much smaller old city to speak of – Midyat is less a main attraction and more a sideshow between seeing Mardin and the rest of the area.

 Midyat Konuk Evi

If you do find yourself in Midyat, make sure to see the historical guest house (konuk evi) located in the heart of the old city. With a total of three floors and an upper observatory deck on the roof, the guest house provides an unparalleled view of the rest of the city. The building itself is also beautiful, constructed in an older Middle Eastern style from the same sandstone bricks as the rest of old Mardin and old Midyat.

Midyat
We are the kings of Midyat

The insides of the guest house are also perfectly preserved, and offer a slice of life of the Ottoman period close to the borders of Syria. If you find yourself in Mardin, do not pass up the guest house. It may just be the best thing you see there – as well as one of the most beautiful buildings you’ll see in this part of Turkey.

Unfortunately I don’t have many pictures to share; Midyat was in a state of constant downpour during our visit.

Deyrulzafaran Monastery

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Mardin’s environs are full of priceless, and not quite so priceless, treasures. One of the must sees though is the old Syriac Monastary – Deyrulzafaran. Originally built as a chamber on a hill overlooking Mesopotamia for the purposes of worshiping a sun god, this place of worship was later adopted by Christianity. On top of what was once a small chamber a great monastery was then built.

Deyrulzafaran Monastery

Rising out of the dusty arid hills stands the monastery. Long baked dry by the sun from scorching summers, the building stands constructed from yellowy orange, almost saffron, colored stones. Turkey is full of old churches from it’s days of being one of the gateways of Christianity’s spread. Today, most of these churches have now been converted into mosques or have fallen into disrepair. The Deyrulzafaran Monastery is unique in it’s uninterrupted use as a living place of worship until today. Continue reading Deyrulzafaran Monastery

The Wealth of Mardin

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Due to the protracted military conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels – which luckily seem has come to an end, finally – South Eastern Turkey has long been a no-go zone for tourists. With the easing of tensions in recent years the wonders of Turkey’s south is becoming a more and more enticing option. At the top of the list for any would be traveler in this area should be Mardin, a truly cosmopolitan city overlooking the fertile plains of Mesopotamia.

Wealth of Mardin
Looking down onto a mosque and Mesopotamia

The wealth of Mardin is hard to put into words. An old city built on top of a mountain, crowned with a castle, Mardin is much more Arabic than Turkish. Mardin is actually unique in Turkey in that the general spoken language in the city is Arabic, the language in the province is Kurdish, but the national language is still Turkish. If you’re lucky, you can also hear and see scatterings of Syriac – one of the few living dialects of Aramaic – still spoken by the Syriac Christian community of the city. Mardin is also apparently home to members of the elusive and secretive Yazidi Community – a faith that seemingly blends together elements from Gnostic Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, among other faiths.

Wealth of Mardin
Looking through a madrassa’s arch at the castle,

Wealth of Mardin

The wealth of Mardin is not just measured in people. The city is known throughout Turkey as being the home of the best handcrafted silver goods available. The silversmith trade was a noted profession of Syriacs, and would often be passed down through a family line in older days. Syriac wine is also famous, and the main street of old Mardin is full of authentic wine stores selling their goods to Turkish tourists and city locals alike. The main street of the city functions as a checkerboard of dried fruits from the Mesopotamian plain, Syriac wine, and silver stores.

The Wealth of Mardin

The wealth of Mardin also manifests itself in the buildings of the city. Similar to the old city of Urfa, old Mardin is a maze of narrow streets and older honey colored stone houses, with the addition of immense madrassas interspersed with ancient churches. Rooftop cafes rise throughout the city, competing for views of the plains below while the Leylan Cafe and Kitab bookstore in the center of the city sells wine, as well as books in Turkish, Kurdish, and Farsi.

Mardin

The wealth of Mardin is something that must be experienced rather than read about, seen not heard about. Although a long way from the normal tourist destinations of Istanbul and Turkey’s western coast, Mardin is a must see. The warmth of the people alone – a mixture of the general Turkish/Kurdish/Arabic love of guests, coupled with a small town feel – makes Mardin a city I will never forget.

Wealth of Mardin

Where Russia and Turkey Met

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Rising from the high steppe that leads into the Caucasus is the jumble of small alleys and narrow boulevards that make up the provincial city of Kars. Most foreigners who come to Kars are drawn by one of two reasons: either they are inspired to see the city because of Orhan Pamuk’s fabulous novel Snow, or they are using the city as a base camp to see the ruins of the old Armenian city of Ani. Either way, visitors on the whole are rare.

Kars Panorama

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