I have to get used to it. Being the highlight of a family, the one-woman show being once again on the road. And I will get used to it. Not all families are as enthusiastic as in beautifully named Tilki Tepe.
The road to and from Mardin is wonderful. I pass men in turbans drinking chai, sheepherders strolling the dry earth. Overlooking the flat plains below me, I stand high on where the old town of Mardin is carefully laid out, now dotted with satellite dishes and a few ugly new concrete buildings. Entering Mardin from the West I saw the new city first, climbing steep towards the old town, I am overwhelmed by it’s sheer beauty. I eat a soup and some bread and decide to cycle on…
The highway road runs parallel to the Syrian border. Large fences are erected and every hundred meter is provided with a watchtower. Some military men have put a helmet on a stick and are not to be seen in their tower. Others point their machine guns to offenders, coming close to the barrier, setting the scene on fire, just a few meters from the good part of the fence. The good part where I am. Dishonestly divided world…
No food, me hungry
The highway is a rather boring road, the scenery doesn’t change much. It’s hot and there are no shops to be found. There’s one big gas station annex restaurant and hotel in Nusaybin. The first breakfast at the family was not too heavy and I top up here witht a second light breakfast. But better I had taken a full lunch. A soup is a mistake as there are no more gas stations nor shops appearing. The feeling of Saharan cycling comes up slightly, and I often get requests to shove my bicycle in the back of passerby’s.
Men in trucks get their vehicles to stop at the shoulder, men in cars just slow down in the middle of the highway. Some truck drivers are so amazed seeing a woman on a bicycle they pull to a halt and just watch me. Asking me where I am from, where I am going to. Asking me my opinion about Kurdistan, beaming with smiles if I tell them how much I like their Kurdistan. Another has slight different ideas and try to pursue me to stop, he pretend he has problems with his truck, going around his vehicle, touching bolts and tires, and then, when I come close he tries to offer me water. I am in need of water, that’s another miscalculation of me, but the way he’s offering it to me is a too nervous one. He pulls back to the shoulder 4 more times, drives on it until I come close again. When I see a small roundabout leading to a tiny village in the far distance, I turn and leave the water provider behind me.
Perhaps he was just genuine helpful, perhaps not. A fact is that I do become thirsty and more yet, hungry. I really misunderstood how it would be on this road. It’s a long stretch without shops. It’s hot too. Every village in the far distance I put my hopes for a shop or a lokanta and every time there’s none. Then, in a desperate need for food I turn into such a tiny village. I see no shops nor lokanta yet but a guy playing with kids in a compound. It turns out to be a teacher. I ask him where I can find food. His answer ’60 kilometers further, in Cizre’ doesn’t help me much. He says immediately ‘but I can help you, do you want to eat?’ And within 5 minutes one of his little girls students goes off to her house and comes back with a tray full with food. A huge mountain of macaroni, yoghurt, fresh herbs, a green apple and a bread. Plus my two bottles filled up with water. After this truly welcome meal I go to thank the well-doers, and the teacher and me end up with the well-off farmer in his air-conditioned house. We get Nescafé and I leave with a bag full of candies.
This bag of candies I later present to the nurse of the hospital in Cigir, 50 kilometers away from Cizre.
I get to choose!
One of the very positive sides of traveling alone is that I get to choose the places to sleep. In the past it happened often that I had to follow the one in front. No place was considered safe enough, nor hidden enough, nor suitable enough. Now, the only requirement for me is: what do I want? Quietness or the activity of a family? I want the first, so I choose a hospital. It turns out I get a room for myself and after I have watched the sunset with my journal on my lap, enjoyed the quietness of being alone with precious processing thoughts, the luxury of letting pass the sweet moments, the beautiful scenery I’d passed. I watch the highway, very gradually descending, hardly noticeable.
The sky is orange, the field vaguely golden, my arms dark reddish brown. I marvel about the Kurdish hospitality. I knew it would be great, having been here twice before, but on a bicycle I seem to be even more welcome. Perhaps being alone on a bicycle amplifies their feelings towards me? It surely is twice as tedious for me, so I am happy when the doctor says: ‘I see you tomorrow’. It’s only 18.30, we had plenty of chai, I have been shown the toilets and washed my hair, even shaved myself over the squat toilet. Half freshly washed I lay the self inflating mattress out next to the couch and off I am. An early sleep…
Of course, some of this quietness I have to pay off the next morning. I went to bed without dinner. Remember, I am on this stretch of road where no restaurants seems to exist. Where people prepare their own meals, from bread to cheese and own grown vegetables. The doctor had asked me if I were hungry and I wasn’t because I had a late meal at school. Now, in the morning I am terrible hungry. I cycle up and down this weird village of Cigir which seems only to exist of mechanic shops and oil drums. I end up with a handsome guy sitting on a coach surrounded by oil, grease and truck drivers, where I buy 3 eggs and in desperation start frying them with my own cooking gear.
I obviously carry too much with me, still loaded as in Africa. I hardly use my cooking gear and I never got to use my tent on the whole of Kurdistan.
Again some thoughts…
The road continues along oil fields and golden yellow earth of cut off wheat, made fertile again by blackened patches of burned ground. I ask myself how people will perceive me? As I have said before, Turkish Kurdistan is a male dominated world, and here I am, as a woman alone on a bicycle? Would they be a little overwhelmed by me, I must be regarded as a strong woman. Or at least as a crazy one. Do I frighten them by this act of weirdness? Yet, often they ask me to put my bicycle in the back of the car and drive me where I need to be, like cycling is a mean of poor transport, not something I love to do.
While cycling my mind goes back to Africa. Over time thoughts fall into place, analyzing, comparing, I think a country can be partly judged upon the way how it’s people treat animals and strangers. While I got some stones thrown at me by children it must be caused by their fear, where the African children often ran away. I have not seen animals maltreated in Africa, other than killed as a means of food, but her in Kurdistan I often see dogs and cats very roughly handled, if not completely ignored. Some hungry, hairless scoundrels search the highway for food. Then again, the hospitality towards strangers is in no way to compare with Africa! While the African men are most gentle towards me as a lone women.
Cycling along the highway sometimes create funny meetings: a young boy with his herd of cows sees me coming and waves at me. When he got my attention he passes the highway, trotted with many trucks speeding on the perfect maintained tarmac. He doesn’t speak English but knows how to ask for my Facebook name. We exchange our names and off we both are…
The progress of Turkey
Every where I go I see Turkish flags. There’s a Kurdish flag and rather surprisingly it’s on the back of my bicycle. It’s a forbidden flag, no where to be seen in Kurdistan. The colors are red, yellow and green, just like the flag of Cameroon. Kurdish people like to have a state of their own, an independent part, like the Iraqi, and with what’s going on in Syria, it might turn out to be a strong separate state which Turkey seem to be afraid of, allowing the Kurdish. So the Kurdish have little rights on it’s own, it seems. All the advertising is in Turkish language, while Kurdish’s a whole different language on it’s own. Students can choose English in school and if they do they can also choose other languages, but if they choose Kurdish then no other lessons in foreign languages are on offer. Kurdish television is broadcast from Germany, not from Turkey. It seems Kurdish people are accepted but not embraced. There are Kurdish politicians but they don’t fight for Kurdish rights. Kurdistan has their own culture and language and are part of Turkey, while the Kurdish wish for independence. I met a woman, a complete stranger, walk up to me, saying: ‘I speak English and Kurdish but I refuse to learn Turkish.’ There’s a bitterness against Turkey. PKK is spoken about, and the leading man, Abdullah Öcalan, who fought for an independent Kurdistan, a terrorist? Not by the Kurdish.
Are the Kurdish behind in terms of grow compared to Turkey? I have no idea as I have not been cycling through Turkey. It seems the educated are not willing to deliver 8 babies starting at a young age. They know two children is enough, but I think the poorer people living in the countryside still choose a large number of children. Although choosing is the wrong word. Women do not get to choose much. Women born and living in the countryside seem to have a very basic lifestyle, there are no woman rights, yet being part of Turkey wanting to be part of the European Union: there’s still a long way to go. It seems to me Turkish Kurdistan has it’s legs wide spread, traditional values on one side, modernization on the other part. In cities I see the educated young rich alongside the traditional oppressed. At the countryside young women think it’s best to have large families, perhaps having no choice, no better example than their mother hovering over 8 children. Children are outfitted with rotten teeth, getting too much sugar and candies. Little girls seem to know the task ahead of them, being warm and protective already. This part of Turkey is balancing between past and now…
More about Veys and Inci here
Finally the luxury of a hotel
Coming close to Cizre I check into a hotel. It’s the first time I enter a hotel since cycling and I feel a bit out of place in this surrounding with only businessmen. Not many people speak English so I struggle a bit to keep my profile low, since a man in impressive religious style is sitting behind me. He wears a long beard and a white cloth covering his head. ‘Can I help you?’ he asks me in perfect English. He’s from Australia and shows no sings of any shock, seeing a woman alone on her bicycle cruising towards Iraq. He just function as a helpful translator, and he answers that there’s some discrimination in Australia indeed, ‘but those people forget where they come from, since almost all are immigrants.’
The hotel boy, a timid Syrian guy who’s educated in university, knocks my door, ask if I am married or do I have a boyfriend? ‘I am married, my husband is in Iraq’, is my answer. My husband is always some kilometers ahead of me, however strange that might be, I rather choose to have an invisible husband than none at all. He then asks if I have children, my answer is ‘no’, not a very weird answer, although being over 40, it fits with having an invisible husband. I wonder why these boys knock on my door and ask such questions? Perhaps they have the same wonderment about me? While trying to have some rest it dawns on me I hardly have any: besides doing all the necessary laundry, I also come in touch with Veys. I met Veys on Couch Surfing because I send him a request and we’ll meet the next morning.
Couch Surfing Host Veys
Once again I am fumed as a long lost princess. The incense of this family comes in the form of traditional food, prepared all day long by Veys wife, a beautiful slim young woman. As soon as I enter I am placed on the long spread out tablecloth on the ground and I enjoy dolma, later it will be a specialty from Cizre, iru keri, rice and mutton filled intestines. Yummie (and that for a vegetarian)! This is finished with a heavy desert, beautifully named künefe and some chai. Then, when it’s already time for me to sleep, we go drink some more chai in a street called ‘Art Street’, not that there’s any art though. And then, already drowsing I get to meet a friend who’d come over from Silopi. Meanwhile Veys wife, Inci, is preparing a couch for me to sleep on and she does this so neatly it’s endearing. Most adorable is that she hands me over a pyjama of her to sleep in…
Ibrahim Khalil border, here I come
Next day Inci and I have breakfast together and although she doesn’t speak any English, we manage to have a lovely time together, assist by the Apple iPhone. Fairly early I am off to the border with Iraqi Kurdistan and on the way I have an extended lunch at the friend’s house I met the evening before, Osman. The way to the Ibrahim Khalil border is lined up with hundreds and hundreds of trucks waiting. I drive in between them, along side them and pass them all. The sides of the road are most woman unfriendly, stocked with oil drums, in grease outfitted men where a small boy manage to pinch my bum. Of course I am off the bicycle in less than a second, grab a stone, boy’s running off. I get a puncture as well and just before dark I enter Zakhu, the first town in Iraqi Kurdistan. I can’t say much about the new country I am in. I have only passed trucks, a few men offered me chai but I wanted to reach town before dark, so I sped on. The sun goes down over a dusty town while I check in to yet another businessmen and truck drivers alike hotel…
I’ve cycled in Turkish Kurdistan from 28th of September to 4th of October 2013, started in Diyarbakir, and took the border crossing at Ibrahim Khalil to exit the country.