Of Cameras and Kurds

Warning–this is a longer post than normal. So grab your favorite beverage, sit back, relax and enjoy!

I did not intend this to be a long post. It just happened. Some days I am not inspired to take a single photo, but in the past few days I have taken about 200. It’s strange, sometimes I look around and I don’t see anything worth photographing. I am sure the photos are there, I just don’t see them. Then the next day, I see great photos everywhere.

I guess like all art forms, some days you are inspired and some days not. I am sure this applies to all creative activity such as writing music or literature, painting, drawing and sculpture. While in Tbilisi I met a Swiss journalist who, in the middle of a conversation, got up and bolted out of the room. He returned an hour later explaining that he was inspired to write something and he had to get it down before the moment passed. I guess it is part of the creative process. Anyone who makes a living as an artist, writer or musician care to comment on that?

Another reason for the long post is that I decided to take a break from cycling for a day and try out the Turkish bus system. Just for one day. But it’s amazing how much more energy I have. When I cycle all day I usually get into a town around sunset. By the time I find a hotel, shower, wash clothes, eat dinner, and shop for food for the next day, it is pretty late. The internet ends up being the last thing I do, and I am usually dead tired, so not much gets done. Add to that the internet cafes are usually noisy and smoke-filled (especially here in Turkey–they smoke like fiends) so I just do the minimum and get out. But with a couple days rest I have a lot more energy. You will have to decide which is the better alternative. Maybe it’s better when I write less????

Anyway, back to the road…

As I made my way south and west I had a frightening experience. I had descended from the high mountains and was planning on camping one night. I rode until it was nearly dark (which around here is only about 4:30 pm). I finally spotted a small road that led up a hill to some ruined buildings. Not great but the best I could do. Only after setting up my tent did I realize I was next to yet another military compound. As it became darker they lit massive floodlights. I know they saw me because I saw a couple soldiers looking down at me from the adjacent hill.

Anyway, that night I dozed off only to be awakened some hours later by voices. I assumed they were from the military camp. Then I heard a sound that made my blood run cold: A machine gun or rifle magazine clicking shut. A few seconds later there was a loud CRACK as the rifle was fired. The echo through the valley was incredible and I heard (and felt) the bullet whizzing over my head. I froze and thought, ‘do they know I am here? Are they target practicing at something near me? Are they just firing into the air?’ Another CRACK, then another. For about ten minutes they fired the machine gun, sometimes a few rounds at at time. I lay there trying to make myself as small as possible, listening to the bullets whiz by me. Should I get out of my tent and yell at them so they know I am here? In the end I just waited them out. They stopped and eventually I started breathing again and fell back asleep. That was one of the scariest moments of this trip.

The next day as I rode past the camp, the soldiers invited me in for a cup of tea. I accepted, but they did not speak English so I could not express to them my terror of the night before, or find out what they were shooting at.

So I continued on to the city of Diyanbakir, which has a majority Kurdish population. Just as I was beginning to learn some Turkish, in Diyanbakir they spoke to me in Kurdish which is completely different. So now I had to learn a few words in Kurdish. It is driving me crazy. So far on this trip I have had to pick up a few words of the following languages: Japanese, Chinese, Uyger, Russian, Kyrgysz, Uzbek, Turkmen, Azeri, Georgian, Turkish, and now Kurdish. And I still have Arabic and Swahili to look forward to.

So here are a few shots from the road to Diyanbakir.

These two schoolgirls were so excited to have their photo taken. Then they wanted money. The kids in Turkey seem to know just a few English words: ‘hello’, ‘what is your name?’ and ‘money’. And not necessarily in that order. As usual, I never give them money unless I have them pose for my camera.

One the many steep hills on the way. When you see this you need to psych yourself up.

Some Turkey turkeys talking turkey.

That is my attempt at the Buffalo buffalo play on words. (For those of you not familiar with it, the following is a grammatically correct English sentence: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.)

As I descended from the mountains into the plains of southern Turkey the weather became much warmer and drier. It was glorious. Lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, this is the land of Mesopotamia. It was here that some of the world’s first great empires emerged.

Diyanbakir’s history starts with the Hurrian kingdom in 1500 BC and proceeds through domination by the civilizations of Urartu, Assyria, Persia, and Alexander the Great. The Romans took over in AD 115, but the area changed hands several times until conquered by the Arabs in 639. It was occupied by various tribes until the Ottomans came along in 1515 and controlled the place until WWI. But during this time the area was caught between armies from Anatolia, Persia and Syria. They are used to fighting.

For me, Diyarbakir was a beguiling place, and a photographer’s dream. The old town is filled with mosques, old mud houses and narrow cobblestone alleys filled with interesting Kurdish people. I took over 100 photos in a few hours of walking around. Here are some of them.

One of the many mosques that can be found there.

An old man sitting in one of the mosques.

Olives are everywhere in Turkey. They even serve them for breakfast.


Honey is popular too. Here is a guy selling honey on the street straight from the hive.


A view of a mosque from the town wall.

Part of the town from the fortress.

Kids playing in the park.

An interesting mode of transportation. This kid was riding the wheelbarrow down the hill.

I liked the color of this building.

Young girl carrying something.

Now this was really weird. These are traditional pants worn by Kurdish men. I just can’t figure out why. They have this baggy part in the middle that looks like they have crapped their pants. It must have a practical value but I have not figured it out yet.

These guys were preparing some carpets at a mosque.

Baking bread in a traditional tandoor.

I came across these kids and their drum kit. They let me play a little. Boy am I rusty on the drums.

Two women passing time.

A Kurdish girl.

Not sure what they were hauling.

Typical view of the old town.

Three young Kurdish guys who wanted their photo taken.

Two old women.

A woman and child in the old town.

As I was looking for my bus I saw this grisly site. For some reason this man was slaughtering a sheep right there in the bus station. You can see the front of the bus sprayed with the sheep’s blood. I never did find out why he did it.

The bus took me to the town of Sanliurfa. I wandered around one night to try my hand at some night photography. I used a tripod and time exposures for these shots.

One of the dozens of mosques in town.


I came across this floodlit cemetery and thought the shadows looked cool. I really like the way this photo came out.


The cemetery gates.


These pools are home to sacred carp. According to the story, King Nimrod had the prophet Abraham immolated on a funeral pyre, but God turned the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. Feeding them brings you blessings but if you kill one you go blind. They are the luckiest fish on the planet.

One of the mosques and minaret.

Sanliurfa is a holy place. Abraham and Job were born there. So it attracts a lot of pilgrims. Here are a group of Iranian women from a tour group. I was told it is easy to distinguish between the Iranians, Arabs and Turks by their dress.

A muslim woman wearing the chador. I like the way these outfits accentuate a woman’s eyes. Well, there isn’t much else to see.

Cotton candy with legs.

A view of the citadel and a man contemplating the city.

A view of Sanliurfa from the citadel. This woman was having an argument with someone on her cell phone (probably her boyfriend, but I didn’t ask).

Kids would frequently follow me, usually asking for money. I gave a few cents to this group because they were so entertaining. Plus I was lost and they helped me find my way back.

I continued on to the towns of Birecek and Gaziantep. Here are a few shots from those places.

Sunset on the Euphrates river and a view of the Birecek fortress at night.

A metal worker with his wares.

Turkey is known for Baklava and boy did I pig out on it. It was irresistible. Take a look.

A tribute to the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, aka Ataturk.

Kurds and Whey

So we come to the Kurds. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Kurds are yet another oppressed minority who have suffered at the hands of their neighbors.

The Kurds are a non-Arab, mostly Muslim people with their own language and culture. They number some 20 to 25 million, and are concentrated in a heartland that spans southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Iran and parts of Syria. The Kurds were promised their own state–Kurdistan– in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which carved up the Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War I. But Turkey subsequently forced a renegotiation of the treaty, leaving the Kurds as a nation without a state.

The Kurds are not recognized as a minority in Turkey, and do not enjoy the same language rights as other minorities. The Kurdish language is illegal in schools, broadcasts and politics.

The Turkish government has consistently thwarted attempts by the Kurds to organize politically. Kurdish political parties are shut down one after another, and party members are harassed and imprisoned for “crimes of opinion.” Most famously, in 1994 Leyla Zana–who, three years prior, had been the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament–was sentenced to 15 years for speaking in Kurdish to the parliament. Her party was banned.

Adding to the grievances of Turkey’s Kurds is the economic underdevelopment of the southeast. The Ankara government has systematically withheld resources from the Kurdish region. As a result, there are two distinct Turkeys: the northern and western regions are highly developed and cosmopolitan, part of the “first world,” while the south and east are truly of the “third world.”

As a result of this oppression, the Kurds formed the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), which is dedicated to creating an independent Kurdish state. It is an ethnic secessionist organization using diplomacy towards the Turkish state, but also force against military targets for the purpose of achieving its political goal. Its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to death. However, the sentence was changed to life in prison after Turkey abolished the death penalty as a condition for EU membership. Öcalan still wields power even in prison. People in Diyanbakir rioted a few weeks back when a rumor circulated that Öcalan had been mistreated.

But Öcalan is no saint himself. At least 134 teachers have been murdered under his orders. One of his aims is to protect Kurds from being forced to learn the Turkish language and abandon the Kurdish culture.

Here is a bit more on the Kurdish plight.


It is really depressing to see the extent which one group of people subjugate and oppress others. But I guess that has been going on for millenia, and does not look to end any time soon. Is it part of our genetic make up? Did evolution (if you believe the theory) program humans to fight as a condition for survival? Were there at one time peaceful, non-aggressive, cooperative early humans whose genes did not survive because they were wiped out by more aggressive beings? Are we meant to fight each other to weed out the passive ones among us? Are wars and slaughter just part of natural selection?

In any case it looks like arms dealers will continue to have robust and growing businesses.