Van & Diyarbakir

The return to Turkey was made through the significantly more dilapidated border between Vale and Türkgözü. The terrain seemed more suited to a forest bridleway than an international checkpoint but we, and a collection of beer-drinking Azeris made it across without incident to Kars. Whilst I had been in the Caucuses, Ramadan had arrived and the empty streets were testament to this fact. Dining in the early evening during Ramadan ensures that your only dinner guest will be a stray cat sniffing around your table. I ventured off to explore the city that Pamuk decided to set his novel ‘Snow’ and by the time I returned back to the centre, the streets were thronging with the people of Kars making a passeggiata. The next morning I unsuccessfully tried to haggle for bargain-price honey (a Kars speciality) whilst swatting bees away from my face. I left Kars honeyless and on a bus to Van.

Floating on the sodium-rich waters of Lake Van is Akdamar Island. According to the folklore, its name is derived from the dying words of Princess Tamar’s lover. Accustomed to making regular swims across the lake for a rendezvous with the princess, one night he was unlucky (possibly because the King found out about him and switched off the lights on the island) and washed up on the shore only to utter the immortal words ‘”Ach, Tamar!”

Atop the island is a beautiful Armenian cathedral from the 10th century, adorned with biblical friezes. Naturally, the church has a turbulent history, suffering at the hands of the Turks. Even a recent restoration project descended into farce when arguments were raised over whether the church should have a cross, or the word ‘Armenian’, and why shouldn’t the Turks just erect Ataturk statues all around it anyway? But it is a serene spot, and the water of the lake feels like swimming through a pool of Perrier. By the rocky shore I met an Iranian journalist exile hoping to seek political asylum in Canada. He explained that he had a son in London so I produced my ‘souvenir royal wedding’ Oyster card for using on the capital’s public transport (which only last week had gained me a discount at the National Gallery of Armenia). Judging by his smile and handshakes (and my noisy Republicanism), I have a feeling that it meant a lot more to him than me, and I made a friend for the whole journey in dolmuses back to Van.
Later on, everyone was asleep at our host Sermet’s 7th floor apartment, everyone except me. It was around 3 A.M. and, unable to sleep, I was engrossed in a film, wearing headphones so as not to disturb anyone. But at some point I started to become aware of a cacophony in progress outside. I moved to the balcony and for the first second I assumed machine gun fire, but it became clear that it was quite energetic drumming coming from somewhere near. It stopped and I looked down into the neighbourhood below for some minutes until suddenly the percussion started up again but seemed to come from a completely different direction from before, even closer to the house. This time the drumming was accompanied by a long chant, echoing out into the night. I saw the red lights of a police car moving slowly through a dark backstreet. Who was this hooligan breaching the peace? Two more blasts of the drums and after a short time all was silent again…

The next day, I was told that I had been informally introduced to the ‘Ramazan Davulcusu’. or the Ramadan drummer. His job (which is rewarded financially) is to wake people up very early to remind them to eat before the fast starts. Some wealthy Turks sometimes like to flaunt their money and pay him double to drum extra around their neighbourhood, guaranteeing a wakeup call and the envy of their neighbours.

The cats of Van are celebrities due to their different coloured eyes and their alleged swimming talent and I was told that there was a research centre at the university that housed many of them. It was over a month on the road by this point and the further east I had gone, the more the temperature had crept up toward 40 degrees. As a traveller who is often pushed for time to explore an area, this can mean that you find yourself running around town under the glare of the midday sun, or all you can do is repose in the shade with all manner of cooling fluids. This was just one of those listless hot days and it was already becoming dusk by the time we made it to the university on the edge of town. As a result, the whole campus was practically deserted and the only orientation we could use was a ‘Kedi Evi’ (‘Cat House’, naturally) sign pointing to a road stretching into the distance. 

Climbing over hills, stumbling past rusting buses and incongruous mosques we started to peer into the windows of any building we found that looked vaguely like a feline research centre until finally we found a compound surrounded by metal fencing. The white blurs moving around the cage attached to the building confirmed that we had arrived but after circling the building, it was clear that no human was around to let us in. I didn’t entertain for long the ideas going through my mind about climbing over the fence to get a closer look because they were soon replaced with Hitchcockian visions of murderous, rainbow-eyed cats and a very undignified obituary. As the sky began to turn mauve, we stood forlornly staring at distant cats mooching around a building on a seemingly empty university campus in Eastern Turkey. It is in these moments when you wonder what you might be doing back home, if you hadn’t decided to be here.

The next destination was Diyarbakir, one of the hubs in the South East situated near the Tigris. With a predominantly Kurdish population, it has a Gothic air lent by the extensive walls made from black basalt that wrap around the city. The outskirts are characterised by endless tower blocks, the sheer amount is astounding, all in various states of completion which represent a huge migration flow from the rural areas. It is possible to wander on top of the city walls and take in the views. A local student took us into a recently built dome and a recently vacated prison, Diyarbakir Prison to be precise – a building with an extremely grisly reputation – where weeds grow over old rotting mattresses and a noticeable chill seems to whip around the corridors. In the shadow of the high city walls, the street scene resembles a medieval village with chickens and horses milling around the hay strewn roads, the sounds of busy pots and pans drifting out of windows and men in butchers’ overalls standing by bloodied sheep carcasses swinging from hooks.

It was in Diyarbakir when the decision was made not to cross into Syria. Despite being so close and holding valid visas, the month of August had started with government tanks rolling into Hama and violence between the regime and citizens only seemed to be intensifying. Parts of Damascus were even reporting exchanges of gunfire and multiple deaths and casualties. It was still a difficult decision to make. Journalistically, it was agonising. I had accepted at that point that I wouldn’t be free to wander through the country seeing the sights but I was curious to see the situation on the ground. Civilians (and lately even ambassadors) were leaving the capital – the country was slowly emptying out of foreigners. Before I left, I had been approached to do some reportage in Syria for a newspaper in London but it was clearly because they didn’t know anyone crazy enough to go, rather than my contacts and resources which were severely lacking. My uncle was then living in Latakia but despite messages and calls, he was keeping a low profile. In an internet cafe I looked again at grainy YouTube footage of Syrians running away from gunfire and booked a cheap domestic flight from Adana to Istanbul, and then another flight to Beirut.

But at least the next day I would be in Iraq.

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