The first place my couchsurfing host takes me in Suleymania is a trendy restaurant. It looks unlike anything I’ve seen in the last weeks, very few headscarves lots of selfie sticks, but then again the city has the reputation as the most progressive city in Kurdistan. My host himself is a nice guy but a bit guarded which is both a pity and understandable since, as he tells me, he grew up in Iran since his father was participating in a Tehran supported Maoist insurgency against Saddam.
I spent a few hours the next day in one of Saddam’s old prisons which has now been turned into a museum. Models of man being tortured stand in different rooms while in other rooms bits of graffiti are protected by sheets of glass. While outside old tanks and army cars are rusting away.
Heading to the border I get a ride from three police officers, one of which tells me in broken English how he’s the only one from his family to survive the Halabja massacre. The sight is actually pretty close by and I’ve heard there is a good memorial but it’s time for me to leave Kurdistan though not without telling almost everyone I meet that I’ll definitely be back one day.
Not too far out of Erbil I get a ride from a guy in his thirties. He asks me if I speak French, he used to work in France and England but unfortunately I can’t dredge up my high school french so we continue in English. He tells me he’s trying to save $3000 so him and his family can be smuggled to Germany. He invites me to his family’s house for lunch, and old school building where his father lives with his two wives, and several children and grandchildren. Some of them speak English including the sister of the guy who drove me. She tells me that after graduating from university the government only allowed her to study English whereas she had much rather become a scientist.
After being given a ride to the highway I quickly find my next ride. A huge gun lays across the back seat but because of a communication barrier I can’t ask what it’s for. The driver has no problems at the check point though. The guards are more interested in me. I’m crossing into a part of Kurdistan which is controlled by another political faction. After having assured the female soldier that I’m just a tourist, and unpacking my bag to show I have nothing to hide I get permission to pass.
Back in the car I’m starting to get a bit uneasy about the driver. I don’t think he’s really aware of my intention and his hands start to wander. I ask him to stop, he doesn’t understand or want to understand so I apply my emergency trick for these situations. I open the door slightly as he’s driving and he quickly stops. Still a bit shaky I get my next ride from a well off and well traveled couple. They tell me they grew up in Baghdad but moved to Kurdistan after the city became too unsafe. They seem a bit puzzled by the way I travel, holidays for them are always a very luxurious affair.
After having camped in a field along the road I decide I’m not awake enough to hitchhike, besides there’s hardly any traffic on the road. So I start walking. It doesn’t take long however for a car to stop however, two friends on their way to Erbil to sell some gym equipment, and they speak a bit of English perfect. After a while the younger of the two men begins to tell me how the American army is responsible and actively helps out ISIS. I often hear conspiracy stories on the road and usually I just remain quiet and smile, but this time the other guy turns his head, looks me in the eye and asks, ‘you don’t believe that, right?’.
They drop me off in the center of town and since I have some hours to kill before my couchsurfing host gets off work I decide to visit the local historical museum. As I make my way past the bazar surrounding the old citadel I notice how few women there are and how seriously people seem to look, my host later tells me it’s rare to hear someone laugh on the streets of Erbil. As I continue my way a rather concerned looking youngish western man in a suit emerges from a car and asks if I’m in need of help. I guess tourists aren’t a common sight in these parts.
I spent the next morning visiting the relatively liberal Christian neighborhood which currently houses many Arab Christian refugees and has a very different feel compared to the Kurdish parts of the city. Later I go to the old citadel in the city center, but it’s under reconstruction and large parts are closed off, and honestly though it’s one of the oldest cities in the world Erbil doesn’t impress me much.
So the next day I hitchhike out of town to a beautiful canyon my host recommended I visit. I try to find an old church in a town along the way but I can’t quite seem to find it. It’s one of the few historic artifacts in a region which architectural legacy was largely bulldozed into oblivion. I meet up with my host and another guy again in the evening. We eat and drink tea on a long street filled with tiny restaurants and tonnes of plastic chairs occupied by men who enjoy the coolness of the evening. Afterwards we go for a walk and with some local insight I do get to see some interesting places, but I’ve already decided to leave the next day.
I decide to take the back roads to Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil. Through small villages and farmlands just south of the mountain range that forms the border with Turkey. As I walk to the highway in Dohuk I spot a sign saying Mosul 75 kilometers and it feels unreal how physically close fighter are dying on the front line while the city just continues on its ways.
Once again I’m a bit apprehensive about hitchhiking in a new country. The last time around I took the time to learn a bit of Turkish before heading out, now all I have is a small picture dictionary a Turkish Kurd gave me, it’s the wrong dialect but it makes for a good prop. Luckily the first driver knows a bit of English and he drives me all the way to Amedi, an ancient town which, according to locals, was the home town of the three wise men of the east. My luck continues when a young local men offers to show me around in perfect English and I spent an hour or two visiting old Churches and Mosques though unfortunately he doesn’t know where the former Synagogue is.
I start a conversation with the next driver in English but we quickly switch to Dutch when it turns out he spent years working in my home town, now that he’s retired he went back home. Afterwards I meet a German speaker who’s back to bury his father. He brings me to a checkpoint where the guards force me to wait until they find the next ride. Since there are PKK fighters in the mountains the government forces (who have their own agenda) are careful with who they let through the checkpoints. The regions seeming stability is strictly guarded.
The guy who invited me into the van to cross the border has taken it upon himself to make sure I have a good start in Kurdistan. His wife and kids are picnicking in the mountains so he has some time to kill before their return. We set out to buy a sim-card and when my recently bought phone refuses to acknowledge the tiny chip we visit his friend in the city center who runs a phone repair shop. He tells me a bit about the history of Zakho how it used to have a large Jewish and christian populations but that after many waves of political violence the place is now mostly Kurdish. And at the moment the region is very safe, safer than the Netherlands my new friend jokes. Which might be true, in any case it’s safer than the other side of the border where I had to avoid several regions and cities because of civil unrest.
It’s getting too late to hitchhike now so the guy gives me a ride to a stand for shared taxis and I end up at a hotel in Dohuk. Over the next two days I discover there is not much to do in town, except for visiting a tiny art gallery, find some relief from the sun in some parks and a strolling around a central market. The most interesting thing is just to look at the the people, the old men in their traditional costumes, the young man with their carefully combed up hair, the women wearing different styles of colorful headscarves.
I turn down the offer of the truck driver to go to his house, switch to his car and drive the last 5 or so kilometers to do the border. Nothing too explicit happened, but he instructed me too many times to find a Dutch wife for him and at this point I just want to get out of his truck. Though I’m slightly starting to regret my choice a few kilometers down the road when my backpack starts to feel too heavy under the scorching sun.
I’m elated when I finally see the line of cars lining up in front of the Turkish border post. I spot some Dutch license plates and I try to make some small talk but the driver doesn’t seem to be impressed or even care that he’s meeting a fellow countrymen, he’s just trying to get his paper work in order.
I consider going back to that car when the Turkish border guard tells me I can’t continue on foot. I ask him how I am supposed to cross when a man in a crowd invites me into the van he’s in. He ushers me through the checkpoints. The Turkish one is unremarkable and standard bureaucratically unfriendly. The Kurdish-Iraqi check is more informal with a gun laying very casually between the mouse and the monitor of the guy who is examining my passport. He tells what I’ve already read online. If I want to stay in the territory for over 10 days I need to go to the police and that the stamp only gives me entrance to the Kurdish territory and under no circumstance am I allowed into the area not controlled by the Kurds. I agree he stamps my passport and returns it to me. The Iraqi stamp is one of the very few signs I’m in what is internationally recognized as Iraq. Outside the border post a wave of Kurdish flags flutter.
I’m surprised to hear the guy giving me a ride is a cop. Maybe I misunderstood him. He just seems so friendly and with his basic grasp of English combined with my random bits of Turkish vocabulary we are managing to actually have an interesting conversation. It’s just that all the people I’ve hung out with recently were so anti-government that it’s easy to forget there could be decent people working on both sides.
We have a kebab together before I catch public transport for the last few kilometers as he heads off to his elderly parents on their farm a few kilometers from the Syrian border. My couchsurfing host Hawar is still at work, but has told me to meet him at the teachers hostel. When I go there the guy behind the counter has no clue who Hawar is, but I manage to communicate that I would like to use the phone. Via my host I ask if I can leave my bag for a few hours, the guy behind the counter looks a bit uncomfortable, he asks if I’m carrying a bomb before agreeing.
A few hours later I meet up with Hawar, and figure out why we aroused suspicion. My host is a Syrian refugee with the accent to match his background. Turns out he’s a pretty impressive guy who fled across the border with nothing, but is now starting his own construction business. I ask him if he’d like to continue on to Europe, but he says he doesn’t want to start over again. Besides at least he”s close to his family now. Living just on the other side of the border though he hasn’t seen them since crossing the border, as a young man it’s too dangerous to go back into his home town.
I spent a few evenings hanging out with Hawer and his friends, while in the daytime I wander through Mardin‘s old city. The historical museum is closed for renovation and though there are many shops catering to tourists it looks like I’m the only foreigner about. The hawkers just seem listless not even bothering to try and lure me into their shops. In a way the town itself is an open air museum with its old churches, steep stairways between streets and old houses perched on top of hill overlooking the Mesopotamian plain.
I have to wander for a while along Şanlıurfa’s beautiful yet narrow and confusing old city alleyways until I find my hostel. For some reason these are very rare in Eastern Turkey and after having spent the last few weeks Couchsurfing I embrace the opportunity to spend some time alone. The place turns out to be the former home of an Armenian merchant. An indication of the city’s more cosmopolitan past.
I’ve heard that the city is ancient, far older than even the city’s old center would indicate. I visit a cave where local allege Abraham was hid as a baby. I join the women and children in the left half of the cave, have a sip of water from the holy source. Some women are praying alone, others are listening to an elderly woman’s chants others still are there seemingly to do no more than hang out perhaps hiding from the outside’s scorching sun.
But outside Şanlıurfa. a far more ancient site was found. I have to take a bus, hitchhike and walk to get to a fascinating archaeological site, though the theories around the structures are more interesting than the actual remains themselves which thanks to some fence work I don’t get to see up close. So I’m happy when a Turkish couple on holiday offer me a ride back into town where I visit some museums and get a chance to see detailed replicas of what I tried to see in the morning before buying some new clothing in a brand new shopping mall. Time does not stand still in Şanlıurfa.
I had never heard of Midyat until a few days ago, but a couchsurfing host told me I could stay at his place there so that’s as good a reason to visit a town as any. As the sun sets a truck driver drops me off in town and I meet up with Osman, my couchsurfing host. We walk down the busy high street and then down some dusty back streets till we get to his flat where I’m in for a surprise. A large collection of books lines the walls of the room I’ll be staying in. As I scan the spines familiar names spring out: Foucault, Žižek, Judith Butler. I ask Osman if he’s got anything by Gramsci and he smiles and pulls the Prison Notebooks out of his backpack.
Midyat proves to be a surprisingly beautiful city full of sandstone-colored houses and old churches. It reminds me more of Lebanon than of a city like Van which I visited just a few days ago. At the weekend Osman and I set out to visit a few churches and monasteries out in the countryside where we stumble upon an Assyrian wedding and are, of course, invited to join in with the festive meal.
The buildings and people are an important reminder of the fact that a hundred years ago the demographics of this place were entirely different and to this day this part of Turkey has a very uneasy relation with the powers that be. Something which Osman, a Kurd himself, is keenly aware off as the village in which he was born has been razed to the ground by the government.
After a few hours spent in the trucks and cars of random people I get dropped off on the outskirts of Batman. My couchsurfing host is still working so I have some time to kill which is never a problem for a person with a big backpack in this part of the world as someone is always bound to invite you over for some tea. This time it’s two retired engineers who speak a fair bit of English due to the city being an oil town.
I’m only spending one night in the city as there’s nothing much to do. But a little further south lies the ancient citadel city of Hasankeyf. Though the citadel dates back thousands of years and has both significant historical value and immense tourist potential, it will soon be flooded when a new dam is constructed. That’s been the story for the past decade at least. Nothing seems to be happening at the moment, but the threat prevents the citadel from being maintained and it is now closed off after a tourist got hit by a piece of crumbling building last year.
As I make my way towards the entrance gate I’m set upon by a few touts who promise to show me around for some money. But they’re aggressiveness is off-putting so instead I go in search of a hole in the fence. Unfortunately the citadel proves hard to enter so instead I just explore the few historical sights outside the citadel proper and have some tea with a Kurdish family who invite me in and give me several handfuls of mint leaves for no apparent reason.