Tuesday, October 22, 2013


On July 12th this year, after three days in Istanbul, I traveled with my friend Serhat, to Erzurum, a regional city about 770 miles away in Northeastern Anatolia.

The flight was 2 hours long. After takeoff, the plane first took a northwards course: the dark blue waters of the Black Sea were beneath us. A few minutes before, I’d glimpsed the 32-km-long Bosphorous Strait, Istanbul’s iconic landmark. Istabulites know the maritime significance of their city very well, but to me it was a revelation: a ship traveling from Odessa, a Ukrainian city on the north cost of the Black Sea can travel via the narrow Bosphorus to the Sea of Marmara; and from there through the Dardanelles Strait to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas; and finally through the Strait of Gibraltar to the Atlantic Ocean.  

The marked spot to the right of the map indicates Erzurum

The plane eventually steered eastward, following Turkey’s Black Sea coast, and during the last half hour, it turned inland to northeast Turkey. The landscape was consistently mountainous: sometimes lush green (especially when close to the Black Sea), sometimes covered with cloud, sometimes dry, the ridges on the slopes of brown mountains casting shadows in the late afternoon light, creating a distinctive visual texture. 

Erzurum, a town of about 367,000, lay in a sprawling plain at the base of one such dry mountain range (Mt Palandöken is a ski resort near Erzurum). A haphazard checkerboard of farms stretched for miles and miles around the city. Many of them, I discovered later, were hay farms, important in a region whose economy depends heavily on stock breeding  We rented a car at the airport. The small airport, the plains around and the mountains in the distance reminded me a little of Bozeman, Montana. On our way to Erzurum center, we passed by the gates of Ataturk University. With 30-40,000 students and medical school to boot, this is a major university and contributor to the economy. 

By the time we had checked into the Esadaş Hotel, along Cumhuriyet Caddesi, Erzurum’s main thoroughfare, it close to iftar time; light was fading fast and the Ramazan fast would soon be broken -- at 7:53 pm.  We started walking to the popular Gelgör Restaurant.  On the way, we passed by two historic mosques: the Yakutiye and Lala Pasha. Erzurum, like the rest of Anatolia, has seen many layers of history: it has been influenced by Greek, Roman, Arab, Persian, regional Georgian and Armenian Christian, Seljuk and Mongol rulers.

In the courtyard of the Lala Pasha, we ran into two boys, aged between six and ten. The younger one was selling toilet paper or rolls of tissue neatly folded in a plastic cover; the older was carrying some small contraptions, one of which looked like a low plastic bench.

We did not buy anything, but Serhat got to talking with them. He told them that I was from Hindistan. Almost immediately, the boys started repeating a few words frantically to me. The younger one said, “Amita..bhaccha” at least five times, before I realized they were referring to Amitabh Bachchan. The older one was saying Shahrukh Khan in his own way. Bollywood’s popularity in unexpected places is not unusual --  from West African taxi drivers in Minneapolis, to painters on the streets in Lima (Peru), to an Uzbek man I met on a Grand Canyon hiking trip: everyone is familiar with Bollywood. The bigger surprise was that these kids, making do with basic Turkish, were not locals but from Kabul, Afghanistan. Serhat learned that they had entered Turkey illegally in what must have been a very long journey from home.

Just then there was a loud explosion and puff of smoke: this was the city cannon signaling the end of the fast. Prayers immediately reverberated from the minarets all around. When I looked at the twilight sky above, I saw large numbers of swallows emitting low shrill sounds and flying very fast like quivers of arrows – their excitement probably had nothing to with the excitement of a Ramazan evening, but in my mind at least it seemed so. The fact that I was traveling in a predominantly Muslim city in a far corner of Anatolia had until then only been a fact. But the impressions of that evening – the unlikely meeting with the kids from Kabul; the firing of the cannon; the azans; the swallows – all came together with special force to make that moment personal.  


We continued to walk towards the restaurant. Ramazan is a time to be with family and friends, so the streets were completely deserted, and this reminded me of the bleakness of American suburban neighborhoods. But Gelgör was bustling with people relishing their kebabs delivered non-stop on skewers by busy waiters. Here it was easy to feel the festive, communal atmosphere of Ramazan.

After dinner and a rich dessert – the kadayıf dolması – we walked through the streets and alleyways of Erzurum, and came across more old tombs and mosques. The emptying out of streets at iftar time had given the impression that the night life of the town was over. But after 9 pm the streets got busier and busier.

Tea houses are a distinctive feature of Turkish life: male Turkish life, if you are in a conservative town. In alleyways and the main streets of Erzurum, I saw plenty of informal, open-air tea houses: large, stylish and what looked like stainless steel samovars (heated, in one case, atop a hearth with wooden sticks); men chatting with other men, tea cup in one hand, cigarette in the other; dark red tea in glass cups pleasing to the eye. Even the little cubes of sugar provided on the side have aesthetic value. This tea habit – one cup is never enough and each cup costs less than a lira -- reminded me Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s novels, where in the large gatherings, parties or soirees of the aristocracy, the presence of tea served in samovars is mentioned without fail, often at the expense of other items (Dostoevsky hardly ever describes food items other than tea, which left me to wonder if Russian food at the time was very dull).

Back at Cumhuriyet Caddesi, which runs through the city center, families – plenty of women and children – were out in full force; the noise and the traffic was incredible, given how late it was. Near the Yakutiye and Lala Pasha mosques, a stage had been set up and there would perhaps be skits and other entertainment. Glass-fronted dessert and ice-cream shops were doing quick business. There were billboards advertising stylish and expensive Islamic wear for women: the elegant black dresses and ornamented head wear had a touch of modern fashion in them even if their basic function was conservative. Overall, Erzurum conveyed a sense of prosperity and wealth.    


There were many questions I had about Turkey and Erzurum, and Serhat did his best to fill me in. He pointed out the billboard of a radical Islamic party with the motto, “Morality and Spirituality First”; the party wanted to appeal to all Turkic peoples of Central Asia. This affinity to the broader ethnic group stemmed from history: the Turks as a people were originally from someplace in south Siberia; they had slowly, over a millennia or more, made their way westwards, interacting with many other cultures along the way -- borrowing loan words from the Persians and the Arabs (this is perhaps why many Hindi and Turkish words mean the same thing, because India too was ruled by Central Asians). The westward movement of the Turks finally culminated in the creation of the Ottoman Empire. In Eastern Anatolia the Seljuk Turks, whose architectural remnants are a major attraction in Erzurum, were prominent a few centuries before the Ottomans arrived on the scene. 

This idea of Turkic groups conquering new lands raised some issues. How did the rulers bring the original inhabitants of Anatolia, who would have had their own diverse traditions and languages, into their fold? I was also curious how, in the early 20th century, the Turkish state had been fashioned by Ataturk, especially this far away in Anatolia, and the tensions inherent in the transition from an empire to a nation-state. I had questions, too, about the predominance of a single language and religion in Turkey. To my eyes – perhaps because I had grown up in India – Turkey seemed remarkably homogeneous, but I knew that couldn't be entirely true. Whatever its history and politics, Turkey seemed to have done much better than India in some essential aspects: its regional cities were cleaner, more organized and better equipped in terms of infrastructure. 

To the questions on history, I found some partial answers in the Rebel Land, a non-fiction book -- a very personal one -- by the English correspondent Christopher de Bellaigue. About a 5-10 years ago, Bellaigue visited the seemingly nondescript town of Varto, 3 hours south of Erzurum, for extended periods, in the attempt to unearth “the riddle of history in a Turkish town”.

Fluent in Turkish, Bellaigue was able to talk to the town mayor, civil servants, army men, businessmen and shepherds. In the process he unveils a complex and tangled history bringing to fore fault lines in modern Turkish history: the Kurdish question; the Alevis who were at odds with the majority Sunni Muslims; the Armenian mass deportation and killings that had happened in the chaos of shifting alliances in the First World War, a time when the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, its Christian subjects in Europe had become nation states, and Russia was advancing into Ottoman territory in Eastern Anatolia.  

In an early chapter of Rebel Land de Bellaigue is still deciding which town he should choose for the book.  In Ankara, he meets a Kurdish friend for dinner. The friend tells him about Varto, “a small place in the southeast… but not far south as to be caught up in regular fighting…a little north of the great Armenian monastery of Surp Karapet.”  De Bellaigue’s friend had “got to know Varto through his wife, also an Alevi, who had relations there.  The Alevis of Varto generally spoke Zaza, he said, and the Sunnis Kurmanji; both were Kurdish languages”. He then said that the “Alevis of Varto suffer from a peculiar existential angst. They are divided over whether they are Turks or Kurds.” 

These were precisely the sort of nuances I had no idea about. Recently, a native of Erzurum, now living in the US, confirmed how her home town stood out sharply as a Turkish Sunni bastion even among the generally conservative towns of Eastern Anatolia. In a few days, I would visit the much smaller and poorer town of Kars, close to the eastern border with Armenia. Almost immediately after getting off the bus, I could tell that Kars was messier but more diverse and relaxed in its outlook. Maybe I was biased; maybe I felt that way because there were many good places, with vegetarian options, open for lunch in Kars; lunch during Ramazan at a restaurant in Erzurum does not seem to be possible.

After that evening in Erzurum, Serhat and I left early the next day. We drove north through the mountains, to the town of Rize – the hometown of the current prime minister, Erdogan – on the Black Sea Coast. From there, we headed east towards a group of villages (part of a United Nations Biosphere) located in a lush green, mountainous region on the border between Turkey and Georgia. After twelve hours of driving we finally got to our accommodation at 8 pm. I will describe this journey by road in my next post.