by April Thompson

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

If any place has one foot in the old world and the other in the new, itís Turkey. A Muslim country where drinking spirits rivals praying to them, and a nation whose largest city, Istanbul, straddles Europe and Asia, Turkey never fails to contradict itself and surprise its guests.

Most travelers glimpse only Turkey's western and southern coasts, following the well-trod loop from the sumptuous Ottoman palaces lining Istanbul's harbors to the liquored discos and skimpy beaches of the Mediterranean, via the classical cities along the Aegean Sea.

As a repeat visitor, I come seeking Turkey's esoteric east despite myriad warnings about journeying to the southeastern homeland of the Kurds, the country's largest ethnic minority. "Women traveling alone will not feel comfortable in Eastern Turkey," one guidebook warns. Another cautions that if youíre kidnapped by the PKK (the guerrilla Kurdistan Worker's Party), you will be forced to subsist on a nauseating diet of raw snake and hedgehog. Above all, never, ever travel at night, all sources agree; that's when terrorists rule the roads.

My entry to the east is the city of Urfa, 24 hours from Istanbul and one hour from Syria. The long bus ride is broken up by tea breaks in gritty industrial towns whose primary sources of civic pride are 12-domed downtown mosques. Suddenly, as if we have crossed some invisible border, the scene outside the window shifts. Nomadic patchwork tents shiver in the wind. Children squat by the road while their female kin hunch over crops and their fathers swing wooden-handled scythes of wheat-flecked fields. The radio swells with throaty women telling sad stories. This is the Anatolian steppe, the land bridge for a dozen empires, and birthplace of as many civilizations.

On the streets of Urfa, boys in blue school-dresses nip raw green chickpeas from leafy bundles, the scent of syrup drips from fresh baklava, and game tiles clatter, like hail on a tin roof. Slow old women clasp long ebony veils to their chins, following behind stone-eyed husbands in knit skull caps.

Eastern city life converges in the bazaars and tea gardens. With mixed murmurs of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic, the markets feel like 19th-century frontier trading posts. Nonchalant vendors recline in carnivalesque booths offering long-barreled shotguns, pearly-beaded scarves, and sage-colored suits. Their fingers stained juice-red, small girls balance silver bowls of boysenberries on their heads; smoky skewers of lamb sizzle on wobbly street grills. In the teahouses, men with wild white hair, bright against their bronzed skin, sip tea and smoke tobacco over cards and backgammon.

The fear of the unfamiliar intimidates me until I learn that a hint of a smile can crack grins on any of these faces. One step toward the people of eastern Turkey, and they take 50 steps forward. Instant friends become my escorts, taking me into their homes, schools, villages, businesses, passing me on to acquaintances in my next destinations. My new friends educate me about their plight as a people. Until the last decade, speaking their language or listening to bootleg cassettes meant a trip to jail because Kurdish culture was outlawed. Traveling with Kurds, I share their humiliation of frequent passport checks, cross-examinations, and pat-downs. I may understand only a thimbleful of Turkish politics, but I can easily grasp the bitterness of the Kurdish people. Traveling among them, I have never felt more safe and less alone.

Having traced the country's far borders, I return to Istanbul, its Europeanized nerve center, better able to see that the Eastern soul is everywhere. I thank a Kurdish shopkeeper in his native tongue; he cracks open a melon and pours me a fresh glass of salty, mint-trimmed Ayran. On the city's dance floors, instead of rock and roll, the people belly dance. Turkish studs combing the hostel bars for quick fun and drinks are really looking for lasting love. And although the carpet-dealing mafia that terrorize Istanbul's bazaars use tea as sales bait, they will still happily caffeinate an empty-pocketed guest.

As I cross the border for Bulgaria, Turkey's flag waves a humble good-bye. A simple white star and crescent moon on red, the banner is much more dignified than our garish stars and stripes. It seems to sum up the understated pride of its people and the deceiving modesty of a place where every door opens to ten more.

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