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.

12 thoughts on “Of Cameras and Kurds

  1. Ben Kilpela November 5, 2008 / 8:55 pm

    Entertaining the old, discredited theories of Rousseau, Kev? That the “natural” state is wholly good and people become bad because of society or social entanglements? Most scientific studies of behavior now refute the idea that there was any blissful land of good people before human beings rose from tribal groups to state-controlled societies. There was a fascinating article on the question of revenge and its importance to human competition, as you call it, in the New Yorker some months back, by the renowned scholar of early societies Jared Diamond. My opinion? In a very small nutshell: what else would you expect of beings who have to find the resources to live, raise their children, and be happy, and can consciously think, too. When you put it all together, how we think and what our tendencies are and what situation we find ourselves in on this planet, oppression makes sense, however immoral it might be. But don’t take that as an endorsement of oppression, but as its opposite. By recognizing the sensibleness of our behavior on one level or another, we can seek ways to minimize the bad behaviors and bad effects that arise from those “sensible” behaviors. Hoo boy, is there a lot to explain there. Sorry I started, since I’m trying to write quickly.

    Kippis, Ben

    Loved the photos. All those dusty villages you have seen. The world is a lonely place, much lonelier than I had expected you to find in your journey.

  2. Katrina November 6, 2008 / 4:23 pm

    I am amazed that you were actually able to fall asleep after all of the ongoing gunfire. I have trouble falling asleep after the phone rings in the night. That’s pretty scary. And I will be thinking about it for the rest of the day. Thanks.

    Turkey is by far one of strangest places Ira and I have ever visited. Very often we found ourselves in peculiar situations wondering what the heck was going on. For one example, in our hotel room one night in Istanbul, we were woken up by our room shaking, with what sounded like a giant recliner been tossed down a long staircase outside our room. Around 15 minutes later, another one–maybe a sofa or something. Then again, a huge dresser tumbling and smashing down the stairs. That’s exactly what it sounded like! This went on and on. Both of us were too chicken to open up the door and find out what was happening. Ira decided that in Turkey they have late night furniture throwing contests, and in retrospect we should of joined in the fun.

    By the way, the only Turkish phrase I remember is “chok guzelle” . It means ‘very beautiful’ so the next time you take a photo of some girls, you should say that. They will be impressed. Just don’t accidentally say it to the guys.

    Be safe Kev, and for heavens sake no more gun fire.

  3. Kevin Koski November 6, 2008 / 7:13 pm

    Ben, Based on history, the “bad behaviors” will continue for a long time, regardless of our efforts to minimize them. The desire for power and wealth will trump “good” behaviors until humans evolve to a higher state of societal cooperation. Unless of course we destroy ourselves first.

    Kat–I am familiar with the term chok guzelle. But I have to admit I did not see any girls in Turkey that deserved to be described in that way. In fact, in 2 1/2 weeks in Turkey I don’t think I spoke to a single woman except to ask directions now and then. As I said before it is overwhelmingly male. The women are kept at home and out of sight. Not my kind of place.

  4. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr November 6, 2008 / 9:59 pm

    According to some anthropoligists, Neanderthal Man lived cooperately for thousands of years with Homo Sapien Sapien Man, even in the same sites. Of course my theory (which is a good as anyone’s given what we know) is that he, NM, was subjugated by HSSM and made to be his slave and treated well, like a pet animal who did all the heavy lifting. Read “The Neanderthal Enigma,” a wonderfully informative and entertaining book on this strangest of creatures (men?).

    I believe if you trace man’s “bad behaviors,” you will find a religious source.

  5. DAD November 9, 2008 / 5:29 pm

    Don—you are right with your last sentence. KEV
    gring me one of those baggy pants—DAD

  6. Ben Kilpela November 12, 2008 / 10:46 pm

    We’ve already made some progress on the road to higher states of societal cooperation. Heck, what you’re doing is an example. No one has done you in yet for traipsing around on their land and taking pictures of their pretty girls. You’re a lucky guy to have lived in a time after all this progress was made, because that progress, hard won, made it possible for you to follow this quest you’re on with relative safety and even comfort.

    But no matter what higher state of cooperation we reach, there will always be people who commit crimes and perpetrate evils. It’s just the nature of the world with rational, conscious animals inhabiting it, as I explained briefly.

    Don seems to think that crime and evil (in general?) have a religious cause. I don’t know whether he means all crimes and evils in all times and places, but if he does, I can’t disagree more. Religion and religious beliefs and experiences have caused a great deal of good as well as a great deal of evil in our world. Sorting out the score sheet would be mighty difficult. But there is no question in my mind that religion has no more blood on its hands than the simple “tribal” competition for resources.


  7. Wendy November 17, 2008 / 12:37 am

    I’m interested in the bread making thing, very curious. Could you explain the process Kev?

  8. JoJo March 1, 2009 / 4:47 pm

    The new fashion trend amongst males (mostly black males) but also white, is called, I think, “sagging” (Ijust heard the term on “The Tyra Banks Show”). Grif does it “somewhat” where they wear their pants down below their underwear, probably halfway down their rear. I don’t get it. It’s not attractive and I still don’t know what it’s suppose to mean or how it got started. Some cities have banned it citing it as vulgar.

  9. A Kurdish December 4, 2015 / 2:41 am

    Hello there!

    I though to drop you a quick note and thank you for this wonderful blog.

    Regarding the old Kurdish men with baggy pants — traditionally Kurdish pants were designed for horseback riding and climbing, so that’s why they are baggy on the top and tight on the bottom for wearing long boots (no longer seen). Some old photos of Kurds in Kurdish clothes of their area — old but still relevant). As you may know style of the pants can vary from the north to the south in Kurdistan. Those pants in your photo are mainly seen in the Northern Kurdistan and interestingly are very similar to some traditional Greek pants. Here is an ebay auction photo http://www.ebay.com/itm/Greek-Traditional-Costume-MANIATIS-6-12-years-old-PALATINO-/171989530455

    In regards to the sheep and the Bus — this is very similar within the islamic nation. If person has purchased a new (car, bus, house) usually of significant expense then — for good omen the owner (of the car, bus or house…) should do the ultimate (islamic) ritual of sacrificing (a sheep or goat) and distributen the meat with poor or cook it and feed people… The blood is marking that this event has taken place — similar to ceremonial ship launching and the bottle on the ship.. (personally, even as a Kurd, I don’t like the blood on the bus — it can send a wrong message — instead of feeding the poor!)

    Thank you for describing the Kurds and their plight. Kindly, a Kurdish friend! 🙂

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