Sunday, November 22, 2015

Diyarbekir Diaries – Rojnivîska Amedê, Day One

Diyarbekir Diaries – Rojnivîska Amedê

Fall break has begun, and we have come to Diyarbekir to visit my sister-in-law who is working in the city as a translator. Inspired by her ”Boston Diaries”, I have decided to keep a daily record of our stay in the unofficial capital of Kurdistan. Maybe I can shed some casual light on a city on the edge of several Middle Easter conflagrations.

Day 1

We get off the plane at 2:00 PM. The airport is brand spanking new—having only just opened two weeks ago. Parts of it are still under construction. F-15s sit on the runway along with commercial jets. There’s some sort of garden-like thing under way in the arrival lounge. It looked like a cross between a Zen rock garden and a putt-putt golf course. There were swathes of raked sand winding through astroturf, all shut off by panes of glass like a green house.

Hilal was doing an interview with Diyarbekir's women’s soccer team and we were to meet her at the sports center. We hopped in a taxi and asked him to stop by an Akbank ATM on the way.

“I’m not sure I know where there is one,” he said. “Not the way we’re going. I’m terribly sorry, ma’am.”

We were coming from Istanbul where there was an ATM at least every 100 feet. He told us, no problem. If we wanted, we could just pay him the day we went back to the airport.

“How’s that?” Delal asked.

“Well you’re leaving, right? You’ll need to go back to the airport.”

“Not for a week!”

“That's fine. You can pay me then.”

And that is the best introduction I can give to Diyarbakir.

My sister-in-law lives in the apartment once occupied by our good friend and Kurdistan’s top foreign correspondent, Frederike Geerdink. (Anything I write here is done in her shadow, and with much respect and in debtedness) At the beginning of the Fall, she was run out of the country for “supporting terrorism” or some such nonsense—her actual crime being, of course, writing things that the state didn’t like. It was odd going into her house without her. Her office (where I am writing from) is untouched, as if she might come breezing through the door at any minute. Her book still sit stacked on her desk. Her schedule still waits for attention, things to do in a list on a dry erase board. There is a haunted feeling about the place, or perhaps, more accurately, a de-haunted feeling, as if a resident spirit has been ripped out.

From Frederike’s balcony we could see a huge park, full of maple, sycamores and acacias on fire with the last yellows and reds of Autumn. After having a snack, we made our way down to the park and strolled around. What struck me first was that all the signs were in Kurdish, and Kurdish only. In the mornings, a group of women do Pilates on the grass, apparently. Now some kids were playing volleyball and people sipped tea next to duck-filled fountains. We ran into two old men sitting on a bench and playing checkers using different colored rocks they had found on the ground. Their board was a card board box on which one of them had drawn squares. In the center of the park was a huge statue with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights engraved upon it in Turkish. Diyarbekir is a political city.

At the end of the park was the clothing store Heft Reng—"Seven Colors", a store that sells traditional Kurdish cil û berg (clothes) along with modern T-shirts with captions in Kurdish. I love to go here every time I visit because it is the only place I have found where people actually want me to casually speak Kurdish to them and will tolerate my mistakes and slow sentences. I know very little of the language but it is always exciting to be able to shop and pick out something in a new language.

We stopped in Aram Book Store at the end of the park to have a look around and have a tea. My sister-in-law met up with us there and brought along a friend, Hasan. Hasan was apparently a writer and had recently published a book on philosophy. We sat for an hour and talked politics. The walls were decorated with pictures of Kurdish writers and poets. Two in particular captured my attention, one because I like the poem, the other because I could understand her poem.

The first was a poem by Şêrko Bêkeş:

If, from among my poems,
You remove a single rose,
Then one season
Of my four seasons dies.
If you remove a lover
Two of them die.
If you remove bread
Three of them die.
And if you remove my freedom
Then my years die,
I, myself, will die as well.

The second from the female poet Evrim Alataş

As long as you
Don’t understand the Kurds’ ambition
You cannot
Understand a thing
About the Kurds.

After the book store we went to the theatre. This was the last day of the city’s theatre festival (Festîvala Şanoyê) and they were performing a modern dance piece about Leyla Bedirxan, a Kurdish woman who lived in Paris. She was the daughter of an exile, raised in Turkey, Egypt and Europe and master of dance. The troupe’s name was Mesopotamia Dance and they were performing a fairly abstract piece about her life. 

We boarded a minibus to the City Hall where the performance was taking place. An odd thing happened on the way. We passed by one of the ubiquitous police "scorpion" tanks and suddenly there was a loud pop. We thought a tire had blown, but suddenly the air filled with tear gas. The streets were dark, no demonstrations were anywhere near, no people, for that matter, and yet it seemed that the scorpion had fired a gas canister into the empty street. The driver commanded everyone to "close the windows" and floored it--speeding us through the gas without even a slight burning sensation to disturb us. Such maneuvers were clearly old hat. 

Upon arrival at the theater, I learned quickly that whatever peculiarities governed life in Istanbul, they were intensified here. We bought out tickets for a dollar only to find a house literally packed to the walls with nowhere to sit. No one seemed to mind and so we chose a place at the back and stood, leaning against the wall.

It opened with darkness and the sounds of thunder and of a house creaking and straining under the brunt of a storm. A spotlight fell on a woman lying on the stage and the snap of boards breaking and glass shattering filled the air. She moved her body to every noise, to every rumble and crack. She seemed to possess absolute control over every muscle in her body. We were impressed. 

Videos here and here.

The rest of the performance was gorgeous, one woman and three young men, sometimes dancing in synch and sometimes in a kind of round of body movements, one cascading off the other. At the end, the crowd leapt to their feet and the city’s co-mayor, Gülten Kışanak appeared on stage with red roses. This woman is one of my favourite politicians in Turkey. I will never forget the elegance of her speech in Parliament during the Hunger Strike and how, without breaking stride, she silenced the rightwing nationalist men trying to shout her down with a simple but effective, “Shut your mouths! Shut your mouths! Shut your mouths!” Childish words maybe, but spoken with such command and dignity that they did shut up, as they never had before.

The dancers on stage with Gülten Kışanak

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