by Jeff Gibbs
Our shambling minivan shifts into third, shudders, and begins to climb. The stunted bushes around us have thinned out, and everywhere are the heavy bodies of mountain rock and boulder. We bear up toward a gathering of grey storm clouds, which suddenly split apart to unveil the summit of Mt. Ararat startling, majestic, draped in snow even in mid-June. But the clouds tumble closed again, there is a flash of lightning, and we hit our first police checkpoint. Everyone begins to chatter nervously and dig in their jeans for their wallets. The back of the van is thrown open by a young Turkish soldier no more than nineteen, a machine gun draped over his shoulder. He jerks our bags out one by one and asks, "Whose is this? And this?" Another soldier slides open the side door, and we hand our passports forward.
"Who are they?" he asks the driver, gesturing toward me and my travel companion, Jonathan.
"Germans, I guess," the driver says with a shrug.
"Welcome to Kurdistan," I mutter to Jon.
After the checkpoint, the passengers relax. They are in their own country now. Conversation erupts loudly in Kurdish, full of glottal Qs and back-of-the-throat Xs the forbidden Kurdish letters whose use on signs and official documents can lead to jail time. I am a little awed and a little scared. The language was banned in Turkey until just a few years ago, possession of Kurdish "language materials" illegal before 1991, and it is still under heavy restrictions. In the unofficial Kurdish capital of Diyarbakır, a ten-year-old girl was investigated by police for teaching her friends Kurdish, while in the Turkish capital of Ankara, a young man named Emrah Gezer was murdered in a bar by a man sitting next to him because he sang a Kurdish folk song. Words are perilous here.
The road levels out, and we ride along a tall cliff wall for a few minutes and then, to our left, a vast green plain opens outward, rolling and dipping toward the cone of Ararat. The mountain is cloudless now, bright white against blue sky. For the ancient Armenians, the mountain was the home of the gods; it certainly looks like a god, a great, white-headed giant reigning over the plains, crowned in storms. Mud-roofed houses squat below among the grey rocks. A goatherd sits just beyond the last hut, smoking on the side of the road as his flock ambles among the stones behind him; he waves as we pass. Around the next bend, a hitchhiker hails us down. The doors fly open, and the other passengers yank him in. I cannot stop staring at his gold colored eyes, "honey eyes" in Kurdish. The four old men crowded into the front of the van crane their necks back and bark something that makes him grin. He takes a cigarette from the driver.
This is our summer vacation, and Jonathan and I are heading toward the tiny eastern city of Doğubeyazıt to see the palace of Ishak Pasha, one of Turkey's premier tourist sites, at once postcard-famous and also seldom visited, mainly because of its precarious location in Ağrı, the eastern-most province of Turkey and homeland of the Kurds.
"Kurd." Before the 1980s, you could get arrested for even suggesting such a people existed officially they were "Mountain Turks." Nowadays, they are automatically associated by most Turks with terrorism. The nightly news features stories of heroic "martyrs" cut down by Kurdish guerillas fighting for the PKK, the group that for decades have been struggling against the Turkish government. Just last year, in fact, Kurds kidnapped a group of German tourists attempting to climb Ararat, the very mountain in whose shadow we'd be staying.
My fiancée, Delal, is a Kurd. She's an intelligent, witty, beautiful woman who works as a food scientist in Istanbul. She's the kind of intelligent that's scary. She read all of Dostoevsky's books when she was just twelve years old and speaks English almost fluently, even though her first time outside of Turkey was last year. We've been dating for over two years now, and this fact has caused problems with a few Turks. One of my middle school students, a twelve year old girl, said, "You're girlfriend is Kurdish? You know, the only good Kurd is a dead Kurd." A work colleague even asked me if Delal had a tail, a popular prejudice among more nationalist Turks.
But the one whose attitude is the most difficult and painful to deal with is Serhan, my best friend in Turkey, indeed, one of my best friends, period. Serhan is family. Indeed, he is the reason I came to Turkey in the first place. I met him in Boston, where he was studying English at the school where I taught. When we first got to know each other, I found him to be one of the gentlest, most thoughtful people I'd ever met. Most impressive to me was his curiosity and enthusiasm for people different than himself. We went to a Buddhist ceremony together, an all-black Evangelical church, and even a Quaker service. His best friends were Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese. He hungrily ate up anything they could teach him about their foods, their faiths, their ways of life, and he thrived among the differences. He only went home to Turkey because he had to do his military service, an obligation upon all Turkish males, and it was a painful parting for us. I felt like I was losing a limb. And so it was with a sinking heart that I listened to him tell me on the phone, the very night before I moved to Turkey two years ago, that the most useful thing I might do in his country was shoot a Kurd. "It's easy," he'd said, "like killing a chicken." He had just come out of his military service, and this was what he had learned. The man I had once known, who would have recoiled at such celebration of murder just one year before, seemed lost. Granted, there was context. There had been an attack out east near the place he had been stationed. Several young men his age had been killed.
How then to account for the winter break I spent with family in Kütahya, a conservative city in the heart of Anatolia? As all Turkish people do, his mother brought the subject around to my love life. Was I planning on getting married? Did I have a girlfriend? Is she Turkish?
"More or less," I answered.
"More or less?" She looked puzzled.
"Oh no," his mother said. "No, no, no. Break up with her right away. I'm going to call your mother and tell her what you're doing!" She speaks with a smile, stirring lentil soup on the stove as she talks. She is teasing somewhat, as if explaining something to a child who simply doesn't know any better, but she's also serious. It reminds me a little of when I was a boy and my uncle would call me into the living room where he would be watching TV. I would be up for a visit from Central Florida to the woods of North Florida, and he'd want to inspect me for whatever God-awful reason. "Let me see your lips, Jeffrey," he'd say and grab my chin, turning my face left and right. "See if you've got any black on them from kissing nigger gals."
It was humiliating.
I had felt that same sense of shame with Serhan's mother last year, that weird kind of shame that sullied both of us, for I knew I would forevermore hate in some small way a person I was supposed to care about and yet never say a word. I never said anything to my uncle. I said nothing to Serhan's mother. And I was silent when Serhan compared murder to killing a chicken. Coming east to the heart of Kurdistan was partly a deliberate rebellion against my cowardice, these words a way of breaking the silence.
As we crest a hill and the town of Doğubeyazıt reveals itself in the valley below, I think of Delal. She has told me so much about her homeland at night, when we stare out her bedroom window at the glittering lights of Istanbul, she talks about the mountains out east, about sleeping on the roof in the summers under a dome of glittering starlight, about the sheep and goats she herded for her relatives during school vacations, about tea in the garden and apple orchards and soldiers coming to burn their forests because they might hide guerillas, about the legendary hospitality of her people.
Right off the bus, we are accosted by a tout. A goon from the Nuh Otel (Noah's Hotel) grabs my shoulder as I pull by bag free from the back of the van and insists we come with him. "Only sixty lira a night," he says. "You won't find any cheaper." We try to dodge him and duck into the nearest tea shop to discuss our options, but the tout lurks outside the doorway, pacing aggressively back and forth until it becomes apparent we aren't leaving anytime soon. Just to spite him, we choose a different hotel listed in the guidebook, the Hotel Tahran. I ask the waiter for directions, and he immediately volunteers to lead us there.
"But, you're working," I say. "Is it okay?" I look from him to the woman sitting behind the cash register who appears to be his boss.
"I insist," he says.
The waiter can't be any more than seventeen. He walks slightly in front of us, not because he's fast, but because he seems to want to keep a certain distance. He's tall and a little gangly with straight black hair. I try to chat him up in Turkish. I ask his name, and he delivers the answer, Ahmed, without meeting my eyes. I ask him about football, a subject that generally warms up any Turk or Kurd. Does he like to play? Which team does he root for? But he gives only one-word answers with the same unchanging serious expression.
Doğubeyazıt is swarming with street kids. Kurdish boys approach us left and right asking us if we want a shoe shine, postcards, a hotel; our guide fends them off as best he can, but the onslaught is overwhelming. By the time we reach our hotel, a little gang of them is shadowing us, and I simply want to hide in a secluded room somewhere. I offer Ahmed a tip for guiding us, and he scowls.
"No!" he says.
"No. It was my pleasure."
He takes a few steps back to make his point clear, beyond the reach of any more insistence on my part and I tell him zor spas, "thank you." At the sound of Kurdish, his eyes light up. He smiles, and placing his hand over his heart gives us a little bow. I mentally thank Delal for the emergency Kurdish lessons she gave before I left.
From the rooftop café at the hotel, Ararat is visible, its volcanic cone towering over the city. Noah's Ark supposedly came to rest somewhere on its slopes. Some biblically-minded group or another is always finding evidence of it. Most recently, a group of archaeologists out of Hong Kong calling themselves Noah's Ark Ministries, claimed to have discovered a piece of petrified wood in an ice cave at 4,500 meters. The mountain certainly looks Old Testament. Another storm is rushing in. Black clouds swallow the white cone and lightning spills out in glittering webs of electricity.
In Turkish, Ararat's name is Ağrı, which is a homophone for pain. Heroin traders from the border and PKK guerillas have all used its crevasses as a hideout. Mostly though, its slopes host the tents and herds of the Jelali nomads, a Kurdish tribe that has historically spawned leaders for major rebellions against Turkish (and before them, Ottoman) rule. The mountain is also a long-standing symbol of nationhood for the Armenians, who eye it hungrily from their nearby capital of Yerevan. They consider it stolen from them when the Turkish Republic was formed following the Armenian Genocide. Avalanches, landslides, and hypothermia claim lives every year. The Turkish army maintains a strong presence around Doğubeyazıt. A battalion of tanks sits parked just outside the city, and military bases dot the hills with nationalist slogans written in white stones on the hilltops, rather like the Daimonji letters you can find on mountainsides in Japan. "Fatherland before all!" "My Life for My Country!" and Atatürk's famous "Blessed is He Who Calls Himself a Turk!" This last an accusation in a land where around 80% of the people are Kurds.
I can't look at these bases without a certain sorrow. The army had taken my best friend and not only trained him to kill, but taught him to see it as noble. To question this system was seen as "evil." All soldiers are heroes, and when there are rumors of Turkish forces killing Kurdish civilians or burning villages or starving refugees, well, he dismisses them as lies and the people who tell them traitors. His unquestioning nationalism is frightening, and the distance it puts between us is painful. I wonder if I will ever be able to introduce him to Delal, the woman I am going to marry...
A bed now secured, the first order of the day is food. We're bone-weary of kebabs, so we are eager to try some Kurdish cuisine, anything different, though I dimly remember Delal saying that the four Kurdish food groups are meat, bread, yogurt, and garlic. Not much else.
We hit the streets and are immediately accosted by an endless procession of shoeshine boys and postcard kids. "Hello hello my friend, where you from?" repeats like a mantra around us. Young soldiers stroll by on the sidewalk, arm in arm in their green camouflage. Shops hawk football jerseys or else tours of local sites. Posters block out entire storefronts with ads a meteor crater near Iran, ice caves, hot springs. At the end of a long, tree-lined street is an unassuming restaurant called "Yoresel Yemek Evi," literally "The House of Local Food." It is run by a Kurdish women's group whose husbands, fathers, and brothers (Serhan's enemies, Delal's compatriots) are in prison. They have taken it upon themselves, says a sign at the entrance, to learn to stand on their own by starting a business.
"Give us something that we can't get in Istanbul," I tell the cook. He smiles, shrugs, and says that we are a tad late. The lunch crowd has cleaned them out. "But I'll see what I can do," he assures me.
He arrives with a plate of magyar tava, spicy links of ground lamb, and keshkek, a salty wheat porridge, accompanied by the bottomless baskets of Turkish bread. It's not the most adventurous of meals and I am a little disappointed, but there are promises that if we come back tomorrow before two, there will be a lot more dishes to try.
A herd of boys is waiting for us on the steps as we come out. There's another chorus of "Hello, hello, my friend, where are you from?" One little boy is particularly persistent. "Shoe shine? Your shoes very dirty!" He points to my muddy sneakers and tsks. Already beyond weary of this, I answer in Turkish, "We're not tourists, okay? We're teachers. We live in Istanbul." A stupid thing to say, really, as Istanbul is just as foreign to him, perhaps, as Tokyo and of course, we are tourists, but it has the desired effect.
"Oh you speak, Turkish!" he says laughing, and grabs my hand to give it a shake. "Memnun oldum, abi. Nice to meet you, brother." Along with English, he drops the attempts to clean my shoes and peppers me with questions. How long have you lived in Istanbul? What is it like? Are you American? Do you live in New York? What football team do you support? Are you married? Why not?
"My name is Ferhat," he says. "I'm twelve."
I glance down for the first time. Ferhat looks a bit like Opie from The Andy Griffith show. He has the same sweep of bangs across his forehead, the same spray of freckles across his cheek. Unlike young Ron Howard, Ferhat's hair is black, and his eyes are the deep brown of strong tea. He kicks a water bottle as he walks. His shoe shine kit dangles at his side, and clanks loudly against his leg with every kick.
I quickly text Delal, asking her to remind me of the Kurdish for "My name is..." The answer comes almost instantaneously and I say
"Nave min Jeff e."
"Oh Kurdish!" he exclaims, and wraps his free arm through mine. "Now we are kanas! Blood brothers!"
"Roj Bash. Cere?" I add for good measure (Good day! What's up?) and he throws his head back and laughs. "Roj bash! Oh yes, my kana!"
"So how's business today?" I ask.
He wrinkles his nose. "Look kana, just look at all these people's shoes.” He sweeps his hand in an arc that takes in the crowded sidewalks on both sides of the street. “Yesterday it rained and everyone's shoes are covered in mud. Yet no one wants a shine.” I look and sure enough, every man is wearing a pair of black dress shoes caked in grey mud. “Not one customer today.”
"These people are crazy," I say.
"No, just cheap," he says. "Hey, you want to see our mosque? It's very old and historical."
"Well, I don't know. I've been in lots of mosques."
"Oh, ours is special," he says. "They just redid everything inside. I'll take you all around if you want. Wait here a second."
He dashes across the street to a tea shop, talks briefly to the waiter his hands doing most of the explaining then sets his shoe-shine kit inside behind the cash register.
"Okay," he says as he runs back. "Let's go."
The mosque is on the main street, and though it might be historical to a twelve-year-old, the sign over the door says Built in 1952. The truth is that nothing in Doğubeyazıt is old. The old city was farther up in the mountains around the base of the famous palace for which all the tourists come, but everything was moved down into the valley in the 1930s. There's a bit of deliberate mystery as to exactly when and why. Different guide books, tour agencies, and websites, for instance, give the dates for the move as 1927, 1936, 1934, or 1937. No one talks about the reason. Yet the dates suspiciously coincide with Kurdish uprisings and their brutal suppressions. The first, 1927, saw the creation of a rebellious Kurdish nation centered on Mt. Ararat the ill-fated Republic of Ararat.
After World War I, the Allies, in the Treaty of Sevres, promised the Kurds an independent homeland then quickly reneged. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a few Kurdish groups in Anatolia attempted to establish that promised nation while the new Turkish Republic was still unsure of itself. Some did so out of nationalist aspirations, some in resistance to the Turkish government's efforts to assimilate them. In 1927, a group of Kurds under the head of a Jelali tribesman, Ihsan Nuri, declared the Republic of Ararat. In the final battle, the Kurdish defenders faced down over 66,000 Turkish soldiers on Ararat's slopes. It was a crisis for the new Turkish Republic, who, having avoided near annihilation following World War I, were determined to hold on to whatever territory they had left. A hundred Turkish war planes bombed the hell out of the mountain, "raining down fire" according to contemporary news reports. By 1931, the Kurds were utterly crushed. A system of forced evacuations and Turkification began all over the East. There were rumors of massacres like the ones that had erased the Armenians two decades before. Perhaps the old village had either been bombed into oblivion, or the survivors forced to move to the valley so that they would be easier to keep an eye on. Ferhat, for all I knew, could be the descendants of one of the founders of the short lived republic.
Now, this might fall into a category of things my father used to call, "Not that useful, but nice to know," some taglines about history to fill out a travel article, but for two people I love, it means much more. For Serhan, it was this rebellion and others like it that threatened his country's very existence when it was still struggling to get to its feet. For him, the bombs and battles that are still claiming his friends' lives on the Iraqi border began to explode here, in this long-ago insurrection. For Delal, The Republic of Ararat is a symbol of all the broken promises made to a people who have, ever since their devastating loss, been forced to hide their language, thoughts, and culture. This failure to secure independence and the reprisals that followed are why her teacher father was hounded from school to school for his political beliefs. It's part of the reason she can't speak her mother tongue well, why her uncle joined a political movement that sent him into permanent exile in Germany, and why her eighty-year-old grandfather was jailed for unspecified and unproven "treason" to the Motherland. And I stand between the two of them, a foreigner alien to this history and its meaning, but attempting to come just a tiny bit closer under the guidance of this young Kurdish boy.
"Take off your shoes," Ferhat commands at the mosque entrance. We obey, and he grabs our sneakers. He wraps them in a plastic bag pulled from a box next to the shoe racks, and he hands them back to us. Together, we pad through the foyer and into the worship hall. Everything glitters: the brass chandeliers, the blue tiles, the silver lightstands at the niche showing the direction of Mecca.
"So pretty," he says whistling. "Look at the chandelier! I think that's real gold."
"Maybe," I say.
"Are you Muslim?" he asks.
"No," I say. "I'm Christian, I guess."
He shrugs. "Well, it doesn't matter. My father says we are all human beings, no matter our race or religion."
"Your dad is a smart man."
He grabs my hand and looks up at me. "I want you to tell people something when you go back to Istanbul."
"Sure," I say.
"Tell them Kurds are not bad people, no matter what they read. They show us on TV as crazy and violent, but we're not. We're good people. My dad and me are good people." He gives my hand a shake with each word and focuses all the power of his dark eyes into mine. "I am a good kid, aren't I?"
"Well, then tell them about me."
So in a way, what you are reading is also a promise I am trying to fulfill to a little boy.
Ishak Pasha Palace stands like a sentinel on an outcrop of red rock overlooking the valley that cradles Doğubeyazıt. From the town below, it doesn't look like much; but as we approach along the road winding through the bare rock, it grows until its graceful red towers, domes, and minarets loom over us out of the bare blue sky like a castle conjured out of the Arabian Nights. The silence here is immense, the silence of a great lonely space, empty miles stretching out into the mountainous steppe with the palace at its center.
As we approach the gate, there's a sudden eruption of hammers CLANG CLANG CLANG metallic blows echo off the bare cliffs. Men in hardhats and tank tops walk the walls, munching last bits of sandwich. The whole place is under renovation; with lunch break over, the workmen have resumed constructing a huge metal frame that surrounds and supports the inner palace walls. Despite the noise, despite the ugly metal girders and braces that appear around every corner, Ishak Pasha feels enchanted. The color of the walls is a light pinkish shade of rust. The domes of the mosque, caps of the towers, and decorative stone work are all a darker brick red, like wet clay. Detail work and swirls of patterns in the marble vary between a light rose and dark salmon. All of these shades of pink and red glow like embers against the perfect blue sky.
An endless maze of rooms defended outside by gargoyles makes up the bedrooms of the harem. In the corners are tall fireplaces, the flues shaped like wizard's hats covered in intricate carvings and filigrees. I can imagine the dark-haired women sitting together around the flames as the Anatolian winters raged outside wind howling, the blinding white of snow on window panes as firelight jumped on the polished pink of the walls. From the windows in the mosque, you can see the whole sweep of land stretching out toward the mountains in the east, a quilt of red and grey and desert gold merging with the green of the valley.
The 366-room complex was commissioned by Çolak Abdi Paşa, a Kurdish Emir living on the border of Persia. It took 99 years to build. It's an amalgam of Persian, Seljuk, Armenian, and Georgian craftsmanship: a hybrid of styles that reflects the racial mix of the region itself. There's no other building like it in the world; in fact, legend has it that the hands of the Armenian architect were cut off to prevent him from building anything similar. Çolak died before it was finished in 1784, and his son Ishak was the first to live in the completed castle he named it for himself. It once rivaled the Seraglio of the Sultan, who, it is said, grew jealous when visitors from the East went on and on about the grandeur of Ishak's home while standing in the middle of his. Even the plumbing fixtures were pure gold.
I said Ishak was Kurdish, but it's difficult to determine his ethnicity. Turkish tourist brochures mention nothing about it, but that would not be surprising given the government's tendency to gloss over anything that might hint there are or once were other peoples living on these lands. Kurds, of course, would be interested in claiming Ishak for their own. A few foreign sources say Ishak was most likely, like his palace, a mutt: a random mix of Armenian, Seljuk, Persian, and Kurdish blood. Back then, no one cared much to keep track of things like race. When the palace was in its golden age, however, it sat squarely in the middle of a land marked "Kurdistan" on Ottoman maps, a word utterly taboo now. I use it all the time with Delal, but have to censor myself with Serhan.
At a tea garden in the center of town, Jonathan and I play backgammon as Ferhat watches. The garden is walled off from the rest of the city, and at first the waiters would not let Ferhat in. He was a shoe shine boy, and the rich men who drank tea in the cushioned pavilions clearly did not want a street rat wandering among them. But with a bribe and a promise from Ferhat to leave his shoeshine kit outside the walls, our waiter agrees to let him stay. He watches me play with his chin resting on his forearms.
"Don't move there!" he warns as I capture one of Jonathan's men.
"Because you're opening your sixth position, and it's more important that stay guarded."
He undoes my move and looks very pleased with himself.
"Don't you ever go to school?" I ask and rethink my strategy.
"I went last year," he says. "And I'll go back next year, but I had to quit for a while to help my father make money. There's an economic crisis in the world you know." He sits up. "But don't worry, I'm always learning." He digs down in his pocket and pulls out a battered little notepad with mud stains on the first few pages. In it, he has written lists upon lists of English words and phrases and their Kurdish equivalents.
"I study this whenever I have free time. I'm going to be a tour operator and have my own business someday!"
"Good plan," I say as Jonathan takes one of my pieces.
"Oh, that's bad," Ferhat says somberly. "He's got you, now."
"You suck," I tell Jonathan in English.
Ferhat copies me, "'You suck.' What does that mean?"
"Here," I tell him, "Let me write it down."
"I'm glad you can speak Turkish," he says. "You can teach me many more useful words. How do you say boş ver?"
"'It doesn't matter'."
"How about geÇmiş olsun?"
"Get well soon."
He writes everything down, drawing each letter with meticulous care.
"I have almost a hundred pages in here now," he says as he writes. "I figure I will have learned enough to open my business when I'm eighteen. By that time, I'll be fluent. I'll give my father a job there, too, if he wants it."
Jonathan rolls the dice and Ferhat looks up, his face following his pieces as they move across the board.
"I think you are going to lose."
His eyes are bright. Maybe it's the teacher in me, but I see his face and feel such potential. How will he ever manage when he skips whole years of school to shine shoes on the street? But maybe that little notebook of his, clutched now in his hand as he gloats with Jonathan over the oncoming victory, will help save him somehow.
On our last morning, we hike up to the ruins of an old fortress behind Ishak Pasha. Ruins of brick walls and tombs and towers wind up into the face of a cliff. One door opens out onto a hundred-foot drop to the rocks below. A shepherd leads his sheep up a steep embankment. They leap up crags that at times look vertical, in the end stopping to graze under a crumbling tower. The air echoes with the sound of their bleating and the clang of bells around their necks. I climb beyond them, straight up to the top of the mountain. The wind is so powerful here it actually pushes me back. I take refuge behind the half-collapsed wall of an old watchtower and gaze out over the plains spread below. The ruins are from an ancient people called the Urartians, who lived here over 2,500 years ago. These bricks are easily the oldest manmade thing I've ever touched. The Urartians vanished millennia ago. Many of the more cynical Kurds, citing massacres on the Iraqi border and inside Iraqi Kurdistan, feel their turn is coming.
But things are looking up. The ruling government is working on a "Kurdish Initiative" to solve the Kurdish issue once and for all. They are proposing a fundamental change in the constitution that will recognize Kurdish, and indeed, all minority languages and cultures, as protected parts of the Turkish nation. It's a mini-revolution, but not without martyrs. Arrests continue of Kurds who speak Kurdish in court, or in parliament, or in songs.
Ferhat walks us to the bus terminal "in case we get lost." He seems nervous. "You have to go?" he asks.
"Yep," I tell him. "I go back to work in a few days."
As if suddenly inspired by something, his eyes light up, and he grins. "Wait here," he says and disappears. When he returns, he's carrying bottles of water and distributes them to Jonathan and me.
"You'll get thirsty on your trip. It's a long way back."
"Thanks," I say. I try to hand him some money for the waters, but he pushes my hand away. We stand awkwardly staring at each other, and then the bus driver climbs into the driver's side and announces we are leaving. I shoulder my pack.
"Well, I guess this is it," I say.
"Don't you have something to say to me?" he asks. He stares fiercely into my eyes.
"What do you mean?"
"This is goodbye. Don't you want to say something to me before we part?"
"I, I don't know." I stammer. "It was good to meet you. Thank you for everything?"
Something in his eyes seems to break. He frowns, blinks, then forces a smile and shakes my hand.
"Oxir be," I say to him in Kurdish.
"Bye bye," he answers.
As we pull away, I turn back and see him walking slowly after our bus, waving. What had he wanted me to say?
The bus is jammed full of people chatting in Kurdish. We round the base of Ararat again. The police checkpoint appears sooner than expected, and the driver slams on the brakes. Two young men slink out of the side door and off into the boulders and shrubs on the side of the road. What could they be running from? Were they former PKK, or had they merely forgotten their IDs?
When I get back to Istanbul, I'll tell Delal everything that happened here, but I'll probably tell Serhan almost nothing. I'll talk about the tourist sites, sure, but not about what really matters to me, not about Ferhat, nor the restaurant, nor the two men who just sneaked off the bus. It would embarrass me too much if he said the wrong thing, and I don't want to feel that shame I felt toward my uncle, toward him. I couldn't bear it.
Turkey is so familiar in some ways. When Serhan was in the US, I never took him to my uncle's lake where I had spent so many happy days with my cousin, though I longed to share that with him. Serhan would have been just the same as the "niggers" my uncle so hated. He had said as much about the Japanese friends I'd brought there once, and I couldn't get over the shame.
Historical wrongs are more than travel article topics; they linger in the blood of those connected with them in me and Serhan and Delal. The children and grandchildren they produce are eternally divided, familiar with emotions that are hybrids of shame, love, and pride. It is something that transcends nationality, transcends American or Kurd or Turk.
On impulse, I text Serhan.
"Doğubeyazıt was gorgeous. Met a cool Kurdish kid named Ferhat. He was a good guide."
There's no response for a long time. I keep my eyes on the screen of my phone, hopeful, apprehensive. Finally, a message arrives. I click View.
"Sounds great, man. Tell me everything."
Maybe I will.
Jeffrey Gibbs is a writer originally from Florida, currently living and teaching in Istanbul. He occasionally writes for Istanbul Eats, Time Out, and other local magazines but he is mainly working on a memoir comparing the American South, where he grew up, and Muslim Turkey. He also keeps a blog at istanbulgibbs.blogspot.com (which will be updated once the Turkish government lifts the ban on Blogspot).