Some people travel for the museums and points of significance. I mostly travel for the people. In a museum I am a more keen observer of the little girl twirling in the corner or the young couple newly in love who can’t see anything but each other.
So I was delighted to wander the street outside our hotel the evening we arrived in Diyarbakir, the provincial capital in Southeastern Turkey. Soon I was offered a stool near a clutch of men playing dominoes, and someone bought me tea. I spoke no Kurdish and none of them spoke English, but we were able to establish that I was indeed from “Amereeka.” People were surprised, but despite the checkered opinion of the U.S. in this part of Turkey no one responded negatively. A few minutes later and just across the street a man anointed everyone in our group with perfume he bought in Mecca, a blessing from his pilgrimage to ours. I was having a good time.
But not everything was warm . Just before this outing our group had it’s first exposure to the complex history and reality in the region. Our guide brought three men to talk with us, a Kurd, a Syriac, and an Armenian. In 15 minutes much was said, and more was unsaid. It looked like this:
- The other two men did not know the third was Armenian. Look up the Armenian genocide of 1915 (and other purges) to understand why, and then ponder that 100 years later Armenians still don’t reveal themselves.
- The Syriac people suffered under the same genocide as the Armenians, though their plight isn’t well known. The Syriac priest in this group of three leads a congregation of three families, including his own. Along with his wife and children, he lives at his church to protect the property, and they live under constant threat. The Armenian is able to hide his identity; the priest has no anonymity.
- The Kurds themselves feel a long history of oppression by the Turks. This doesn’t translate into the Kurds treating even smaller minority groups with respect, however.
The three men argued about a simple question we posed. They held a long, heated debate and found no agreement. We would come to see that historic conflicts and current mistrusts dominate interactions, and leave people with little willingness to try to walk in other’s shoes.
Two and a half hours down the road from Diyarbakir (and after a night’s delay from a road block instituted by the Turks to harass the Kurds) we met Bishop Samuel of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Over the course of several days he and others showed us what it is like to be a dying culture in a dangerous place. As people in the midst of trauma they didn’t provide reasoned, independent analysis of their situation; they shared their grief and anger, their experiences of threat, intimidation, frustration and loss. We began to understand viscerally the reality of life in southeastern Turkey.
This is also part of encountering people. It was fun on the street, and it was hard with the Syriac. In both cases, I was really glad for the experience.
This is the second in a series about my trip to southeastern Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, along with four others from the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. The trip was led by Fr. Dale Johnson, who grew up in northern Washington but has lived much of the past 25 years in southeastern Turkey as a Syriac Orthodox priest. The first post in this series can be found here.