On the seventieth anniversary of Ataturk’s death I was in the mountains between Van and Diyarbakir with a baby on my lap and her three year old brother stretched out on the seat behind me while their mother tried to sleep, the silk scarf slipping from her hair. Soldiers stopped our bus in a valley. Guns slung over their shoulders, they searched our bags and each sack of vegetables. Bombs had been found the night before in Hakkari, set to go off during the ceremonies for Ataturk’s anniversary, so any vehicle bound for towns with ceremonies in the South East was suspect. The mountains rose and fell around us. Bands of goats and sheep and shepherds, women with bright scarves and baggy shalvars at work in the narrow fields that traced the palms of deep valleys, brought the slopes to life. Iraq lay beyond the rockiest, highest mountains. Snow was already thick upon the peaks. Driving out of Van, we passed the road to Iran. The cold bit into me after two months on the Mediterranean. Even so, I was sorry to travel south west, away from Van and the border lands, on the lake that never freezes over. The boatman laughed when I asked if it ever did. It’s a salt water lake, he told me, as his boat carried us to an island and the gold brown walls of Aktamar, an Armenian church built a thousand years ago, with images of animals carved deep and clear into its sides. In Van, the new town pushes against the low brown hills. Sheer mountains loom above. Smoky streets were lit up like Christmas, their paving worn and obscured by dust. Stretching across a high rocky outcrop, the thick walls and towers of a castle dominate the horizon and seem to guard the ruins of the early town razed by the fighting with the Russians and Armenians. A desolate, marshy plain stretches to the lake, undulating with the dim outlines of buildings grown over, covered by reeds and wet, uncertain earth. The buildings that remain are among the oldest, a couple of minarets and the ruins of a church. Men wandered along the firmer paths. Far below, a woman burned something in a pale haze. Through the last gold November leaves I could see the lake, but I’d been told I shouldn’t go there alone, so I did not climb down to watch for the rare birds said to nest by the lakeshore. Instead I stood, watching the people pick out what they could among the ruins.
We came to Diyarbakir in darkness. Every day there was less sunlight so I woke early. The guidebook described the walls in one passage and left the slum neighborhoods to another. I followed the walls along the base, focusing on the dark gateways, the rooftops, until the walls had tumbled entirely away. I had walked into the empty quarter of my map; twisting roads, low houses, hordes of children not in school and women peeling vegetables on doorsteps. Vaguely lost, I took a picture of the pink and blue houses, the rubbish pushing against the thick black basalt ruins of the Seljuk walls that rose from Roman foundations beneath. One civilization scraping out a living in the ruins of another, my mother wrote when she saw my pictures. Children surrounded me and pointed to the Tigris where they swam in summer. I could faintly see the river as it wove through the valley, banked with greenery and melon patches.
Later, someone commandeered their son to lead me back through winding alleys to the main road and the best surviving section of wall, high and dark. Green parks lay to one side and on the other the gecekondus dropped steeply away. A Kurdish man in his fifties spoke to me when I reached the top of one tower. Gesturing, he pointed out the women, families with ten children, the immigrants from further south and east, who had fled or were forcibly displaced by clashes between the PKK and the army. They rebuilt village life as best they could, hence the multicolored houses, life spilling up onto the rooftops and out into the muddy streets. Red peppers drying on strings, bright as necklaces, waved in the wind. When I asked whether the GAP project was bringing money to these people; he laughed bitterly, said something about energy for the west, about Kurdistan being the heart of the Middle East, perhaps the heartbeat, I’m not sure, my Turkish is uncertain.
The next day I crossed paths with the ghost of a certain Englishman for the second time in six weeks, in Harran. The closer I came to Syria, the more familiar the land. We’d traveled there in October and slept in the faded grandeur of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, as had Lawrence of Arabia, Ataturk and Agatha Christie. When Lawrence came through Harran, supposedly he mistook the minaret by the ruins of the Arabic university, once the largest in the world, for a cathedral belfry. I rode a minibus from Urfa to Harran. Men leapt off purposely in desolate places. They wandered off down deserted dirt tracks until I lost sight of them in the smoke of burning fields. Small girls sitting on the open water pipes waved at the bus. I saw no houses. The water was part of the GAP project. Some of the fields were thick with cotton; dirty bags of it overflowed into the road.
Harran sat at the edge of the desert but it felt like the end of the world. Having wandered between mud beehive houses with funnel shaped roofs, I came to the ruins of the crusader castle, once a moon temple, once a caravan saray. Low and distant hills, man-made, rose at intervals from the Syrian plains. In the past they lit fires to guide the camel caravans safely through the desert. This place was mentioned in the Bible. So was Urfa, where I stayed two nights. There I met M., a student in his thirties. His room overflowed with books in English, Spanish, German and Russian, wishes, yearnings, each a fragment from a land he could not visit since he had to care for his mother and his schizophrenic sister. From the balcony I saw white tents, glowing in the night, a cluster of moons.
The next day M. met me by the fish lake, where pilgrims feed the sacred carp. They say you will go blind if you eat one, but that might be a tale to keep the poor from stealing for their tables. Above, somewhere, was the cave where Abraham was born. M. led me through the ancient streets, into courtyards where families showed us an Armenian church with sheep pushing over each other in the semi darkness, the floor thick with hay, basements with farm machinery, cats, shoes to sell and a vaulted stone ceiling centuries old. Pigeons roosted on the arches as the sun fell behind them.
An hour before I left for the airport, M. took me to a friend. And there was a moment, sitting on the floor of a tiny room that opened onto a rooftop courtyard, dark already upon us, when I had eaten my fill of dates from Medina and had drunk the glass of water from the spring in Mecca, when M.’s friend had me place a ruby under my tongue for the health of my heart while he chanted prayers over my head. A moment I have felt before, of departure come too soon, a moment of being close to “the wild terror of understanding the other,”* that hit me again with each jerk of the airport bus. Each light from far across dark plains said there are lives here too waiting to be known, there are peppers drying, sheep clustered inside an ancient church, warrens upon warrens of narrow stone streets, mountains and hinterlands; beneath each ruin there is another.
-Sharon Olds, “Bible Study: 71 B.C.E