The winds of al-qadr found me on a bus ride – a long bus ride, perhaps the longest one in my life thus far – to Van after coming back to Antalya from Olympos.
When I reached the otogar (“bus station” is Turkish) coming from Olympos, I didn’t quite know where I wanted go next. Having stayed two weeks in Istanbul and having had my fill of Antayla as a touristic city along the West coast of Turkey, I decided to ditch my previous plan of traveling to Bodrum and Izmir for fear of being inundated with familiarity, which, in the immortal of Shakespeare, breeds contempt. I’m sure each city has its own essence disparate from that of either Antayla or Istanbul, and I certainly would not want to suggest otherwise: for me, it’s just that, having been raised in the country and in small towns (relatively speaking here), I tend to be only enamored with urban city-scapes for so long before it becomes repetitive, exhaustive, and even nauseating at times. One of the beautifies of traveling alone, so I’ve found, is the spontaneity, the will of a whim, the plan of having no plan so to speak. Assuming funds are available, you can go as you please or stay as you please. I had the urge to travel eastward, since I was told that Eastern Turkey is distinct from its Western counterpart, so I decided to act on that urge.
In addition, I also wanted to spend some time amongst Kurdish people, who largely inhabit Eastern Turkey. While living in Atlanta, I developed a close friendship with a Kurdish Muslim named Hawar. Through my friendship with Hawar, I developed an affinity for Kurdish people. Their problems, their viewpoints, and historical experiences and realities were easy for me to relate to and sympathize with as a Blackamerican, even from the perspective of their experiences with Muslims in America. I’ll readily admit that my cross section of Kurdish experience prior to venturing into Anatolia was limited only to my friendship with Hawar. Nevertheless, he kindness and frankness had left a mark on my heart and I wanted to see his people because of it. While searching for a destination among the many bus companies in the otogar, the idea of traveling through Anatolia to Eastern Turkey, to Van, popped into my head, per the recommendation of a friend of mine.
I approached a representative of the Metro bus company. “Where are you going?” he said to me, in accented English.
I replied, “Van.”
“Oh! You must come quickly then! The bus is about to leave in five minutes!”
And, before I could even contemplate the repercussions of my reply, the affair was settled as my small black suitcase was shoved into the bottom of the bus and as I took my seat near the back of bus. To Van it was – no turning back.
As for the trip, it was a grueling twenty-eight hours, complete with wailing infants screaming into either ear and malfunctioning or no-functioning air-conditioning for large portions of the journey. I’m convinced Allah created travel to teach the human being patience, or either, to test one’s patience, possibly both. Whatever the case may be – and Allah knows best as to what that is – my patience was put to the fire to test the ranges of impurities therein. Al-hamdu’ilah, if I can be said to posses even a modicum of patience, then I think I was rewarded in being able to see the gorgeous landscape of Anatolia, replete with mountains, massive lakes, and expansive farm lands. Subhan’Allah, one image remains burned in my mind. The bus traveled along a mountain cliff side with a large gölü (“salt lake”) at the base during dusk. The lavender, topaz, and crimson reflected off the water, producing this surreal coloration on the surface of the lake, quite easily, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, çok güzel (“very beautiful”), the Turks and Kurds would say. I’ve seen nothing comparable to sunsets in Anatolia thus far. My mere words do the scenery little justice, and I don’t think a picture from my camera would have sufficed any better: it was more so an experience to be had than a sight to be seen, if that makes any sense. Maybe is this particular part of my journey is parable of something greater, something to keep in my mind as I trek down the trodden path – Allahu’Alim.
I sat next to a Kurdish man whose name I now can’t recall, a coeval in the Turkish Army, for the entire the bus trip. We communicated using our cell phones (for numbers, age, distances, stuff like that), some rudimentary Turkish language books a good friend lent me, and body language. Occasionally, when I had access to the internet, we upgraded to Google Translate. As much as I could gather, he told me he had an eş (“wife”) and that he had a son, a small boy, perhaps a toddler – I can’t exactly recall his age – and that he was building an ev (“house”) for his family in Van, which is his home town. During the trip, he looked after me and spoke on my behalf since I neither spoke nor understood either Turkish or Kurdish. Though I can’t remember his name, insha’Allah I’ll make du’a for him and his family, as his kindness no doubt made the difficult trip much easier.
When I arrived in Van, I hailed a taksi (“taxi”) to take me to an otel (“hotel”). Any otel. After traveling for twenty-eight hours, I didn’t care one iota as to where. Al-hamdu’ilah, the driver took me an expensive otel, one with internet and one that was near a camii (“mosque,” “masjid”), both of which, while they may appear ostensibly trivial and random at first glance, actually enhanced my experience in Van.
The following day, I went to the camii, a massive, rococo, multi-floored edifice adorned with chandeliers, vegetal patterns, Arabesque, and Arabic calligraphy, to offer salah. (I think almost every masjid I’ve been to in Turkey fits this description). After I prayed, I ran into a local imam, teacher, and muezzin, a relatively tall Kurdish man, perhaps my height or a few inches shorter, whose name was Abdul-Rahman. After exchanging the traditional Muslim greeting, he asked, with great care, “Arap?” (“Are you an Arab?”)
I laughed. “Hayir.” (“No”.)
He then asked, in broken English, a question I’ve grown accustomed to hearing since being here, “W-h-e-r-e are you f-r-o-m?”
I responded, “Amerika.”
He looked at me, shocked. “Amerika? Müslüman?” (“Are you Muslim?”)
“Evet. Ben Müslüman.” (“Yes. I am Muslim.”)
His eyes grew wide with amazement, “Subhan’Allah!” He then invited me to the masjid office and offered me vişne suyu (“cherry juice”), su (“water”), and some fruit cake. He sat down behind a large mahogany desk, which had a map of Turkey on top of it underneath a piece of glass, and he asked me, as best he could, where I came from. I explained to him my journey from Istanbul to Konya to Göreme to Antayla to Olympos and then to Van, all via otobüs (“bus”), using the map of Turkey.
As I was explaining my journey to him, another Kurdish man whose name also escapes me, this one shorter and thinner than Abdul-Rahman, walked into the office with a quizzical expression on his which seemed to convey a sentiment to the effect of “Wait a minute? Who is this and where is he from?” Abdul-Rahman told the man that I was a Muslim from America, to which the man looked at me as if he was unsure how to handle with the situation. To allay his uncertainties, I said the Shahadah (The Muslim testimony of faith) to him in the best Arabic I could manage, and he immediately embraced me as warmly as he could as a gesture of trans-national, meta-ethnic, Muslim brotherhood. He then went on to explain his recent visit to Mecca and Medina for Hajj, and they then both suggested that I visit Şanlıurfa to visit the cave where Hazert Ibrahim (Prophet Abraham) was born.
The time for dhuhr salah (the midday prayer) arrived, and Abdul-Rahman lead me to the room where the athan is called, a small room secluded from the rest of the masjid. Masha’Allah, his voice was amazing, perhaps the best one I’ve heard since my arrival in Turkey. I prayed with both of them, and I even got a chance to take a picture with the imam who lead the prayer. Afterward, Abdul-Rahman took me a restaurant where I met some friends of his, more Kurdish people, and where I ate some damn good food: rice, meat, yogurt, cucumber and tomato salad (they love tomatoes and cucumbers over here for some reason!), yogurt, and of course, çay (“tea”). (What meal would be complete in Anatolia without tea?)
Abdul-Rahman served as guide along the main street which runs through Van; he took me to the Metro bus company and inquired for me the price of a ticket to Şanlıurfa; he took me to a local store and purchase a big of kiraz (“cherries”); and he took me an office where I had even more food, this time ekmek (“bread”) with a stew of eggs and tomatoes. We listened to some recitation of Qur’an on YouTube and I even recited some the Qur’an I had committed to memory (which really isn’t that much, I’m afraid to admit).
By the end of the day, I was satiated and sleepy, but nonetheless thankful for the day and dusk. When I left the otel that morning, I didn’t expected to have such encounters. I suppose this is wisdom behind saying that Allah is the Best of Planners.
Akdamar Adası (Akdamar Island)
As fortune would have it, the two of the travelers I met in Göreme, Ilse and Noémie, were also in Van. They hitchhiked eastward from Göreme to Van. We connected via Facebook and made plans along with another American traveler, Elijah, a flamboyant homosexual from San Fransisco, to visit Akdamar Island, a small isle in the Van Gölü a couple of kilometers away Van. Had my otel not had internet, I doubt I would have reconnected with them.
We took a dolmuş (a small minibus, van-taxi. If a taxi and a bus copulated, the byproduct would be a dolmuş) from the interior of Van out to the ferry and from the ferry to the isle. The isle houses an old Armenian Christian Church called Akdamar Kilisesi (Akdamar Church). While taking inside the church, I met the security, Dawud, who was, as with other Turks and Kurds, fascinated with me as an American Muslim. He took to calling me Hamza, after the Prophet’s warrior uncle Hamza Ibn ‘Abdul-Muttalib, because of my athletic build (which I feel like I’m losing since I haven’t really worked out since I arrived in Turkey nearly a month ago) and my stature relative to him. (Actually, I haven’t seen too many Turkish or Kurdish people as tall as me or taller).
Per the recommendation of Abdul-Rahman, Ilse, and Noémie, I decided to visit Şanlıurfa before heading back to Istanbul for my return flight to America. At the otogar, I had a “conversation” with a small Kurdish boy – I think he was eight years of age or so – named Yusef, who, like many others, was enamored with my dark skin and coarse, kinky hair. And just like Abdul-Rahman, he asked me if I was Muslim, to which I replied in the affirmative. The next thing I know, I’m taking photographs with him, like a celebrity.
An older gentlemen, who I took to be either Yusuf’s uncle or grandfather (I really couldn’t tell), then invited me to his house in Diyarbakır. I didn’t want to impose, but I didn’t want to refuse either, as perhaps they might have taken umbrage. His daughter, who spoke some English, assured me that I wouldn’t be imposing and that my visit would be most welcomed. In that light, how could I refuse?
And again, another trek through Anatolia, with its beautiful landscapes.
We arrived in Diyarbakır at night, and I was escorted to an apartment decorated with books, calligraphy, and paintings depicting what appear to be Arabs and Afro Arabs.
While waiting for supper, the conservation I had with their son, Muhammet, a mechanical engineering student who spoke reasonable English, reasonable enough for me to understand him anyway. I told him I came to Van because I wanted to see Eastern Turkey and because I wanted to meet some Kurdish people.
He smiled, nodded, and replied, “You know, I like Black American people, not White American people so much, but Black people.”
I couldn’t suppressed a chuckle. “Why?” I asked him
He retorted, “Because Black people are cool, and they are like us Kurdish. Nobody likes Black people, not Europeans, not Arabs, not Turks, nobody. Nobody likes Kurdish people either.” He put his index fingers together, which is a symbol of friendship or matrimony in the East. “Black people are Kurdish people are like this,” he said.
I smiled. “Do Kurdish and Turkish people inter-marry?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said slowly, as if trying to find the words to say in English, as if trying to translate his Kurdish thoughts into foreign English ones, “Kurdish people have no problem with this, but many Turks do because they like White people. They say Kurds are ‘too dark.’ Plus, our cultures are…different, you know this?”
“Yeah, I know this, very well in fact.”
“Are you married?”
“In America, Muslims come from everywhere. We have Arabs, some from Pakistan, Hindustan, Iran, White, Hispanic, African, Black. Everybody has their own culture and most times they don’t mix too well with one another. It’s hard for young people to get married because of it.” I smiled. “Plus, some Muslims don’t like Black people. They say we are ‘too dark,’ like the Kurdish. Many Muslims in the US prefer lighter skin people. Go figure.”
We both shared a laugh. By that time, dinner was ready and I had nice Kurdish feast with Muhammet, his father, and his younger brother Ali.
Afterward, they showed me around Diyarbakır, which they considered the capital of Kurdistan. They showed me the historic masjids and the Diyarbakır city walls. They gave me a most excellent tour of the city. My only regret is that I didn’t take any pictures, as it was night time.
They dropped me off at the otogar after all was said and done, and the father even paid my fair to Şanlıurfa. We exchange addresses and Facebook information, and we parted in the traditional Kurdish manner, touching cheek to cheek, one after the other. A couple of Kurdish guys, college students and avid supports of the PKK, helped me out while waiting for the bus. I arm wrestled on of the guys to a stalemate. When we parted, we also did so in the Kurdish manner, a gesture of brother love and support.
A note about my Black skin
Somehow, I doubt I would have had the interactions I did had I been a White or an off-White foreigner. That is not to say, of course, that the people here are racist or anything like that: if they are, I haven’t experience anything of it thus far. I think it’s just people are generally not use to seeing Black folks. Despite the challenges inherent in American Blackness, being Black has opened an array and ranges of experiences that others might not have access to otherwise, for better or worse. Perhaps it’s part of the gamut of human experiences, something we’re meant to learn from – Allahu’Alim.
A wise woman, a White Sufi, once told me that my Blackness is as filter for people, especially concerning Muslims in America. I would add to her statement that it is also as a key to open to the door to unique possibilities of engagement.
Al ḥamdu lillāhi rabbi l-‘ālamīn (All appreciation, gratefulness and thankfulness are to God, the Lord of the worlds)