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.
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.”
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?”
“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.
“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.
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.