Dancing with Yasemin
The most exciting way of exploring the history and current affairs of a country is to travel and look for them. Last week I went to Van, a city on a two hours flight east of Istanbul.
Only one species of fish – the Pearl Mullet – can live in its brackish water, but it is in danger of extinction by overfishing and other destructive fishing practices. Fortunately, there are still practical idealists, like Dr. Mustafa Sari, a biologist I met at the Fisheries Department of the Yuzuncu Yil University of Van. Together with most fishermen in the 35 communities around Lake Van’s shores Sari set up a project in order to ban illegal fishing in the spawning season. Together they engineered protective measures that will sustain the environment and the fishing communities it supports.
Architecturally Van is a boring, monotonous city. Literally built from scratch in the 1920s, at the beginning of the Turkish Republic. Until 1915 Van was an Armenian city with 35,000 inhabitants at the feet of the citadel. An area with debris is all that is left of the Armenian presence here. Silent scars of sectarian bloodshed that still poison the political atmosphere.
When you arrive from Istanbul Van is totally a different world. On streets, in shops and at home people speak Kurdish. Turks are in a minority. A lot of them were sent by the state: officials, military, teachers, spies. Most would immediately leave to the west of Turkey, if they were given a chance. “Because there is absolutely nothing here”, says one of them.
Xemil Shanu, director at the UNHCR office in Van, is happy I visit him again. “There are no foreigners here with whom you can drink a beer in the evening and have a chat”, says the Albanian, who takes care of refugees from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In this dirt poor backwater of eastern Turkey people complain that the rest of the country doesn’t care about them. My impression is that they don’t exaggerate. In no other part of Turkey have I seen so many beggars and children with weight-scales, napkins and shoe-polish equipment. Unemployment is almost 50 percent. “There is no investment. We have no train connection. And although we are close to the Iranian border, Ankara refuses to give us permission of extending the custom facilities, so we could handle all import and export paperwork ourselves”, says Sinan Hakan, the chairman of the industrial zone.
I love Van, because of the wide selection at breakfast with fresh herbal cheeses, yoghurt, eggs, honey, olives and watermelon; because of the mix of Persians, Kurds and Turks. I also love the old bazaar, where butchers with big knives skin piles of sheep heads and cut their ears. This is an exotic place where the Kurdish driver of our minibus has a gun on his hip and delivers all kinds of goods during our trip at people’s homes, a beheaded sheep included, that he picked up somewhere in a village.
I love the villages around Lake Van, where people still live in harmony with nature; where you always are welcomed and invited for tea and food, seated on the floor; and where all brothers participate in the butchering of a calf to prepare it for the wedding party. I enjoy the warm hospitality for unexpected visitors like me, and the exuberance of their parties. As during the wedding party of the Kurdish bride Yasemin, who is radiant with happiness on the arm of the love of her live Timur, a handsome Turkish detective.
The ball room is filled with ladies with colorful Islamic headscarves. Most of them prefer to sit and observe. Their daughters, uncovered women and men dance, sometimes together, sometimes separated. When a Kurdish city council member is told that I’m a reporter, he immediately starts to complain about the lack of EU support for the cultural rights of the Kurds. ‘Maybe’ I deflect his question. Tonight I’m not in the mood to talk politics. Tonight I only want to enjoy dancing with the beautiful Yasemin amid the exciting rhythm of the Kurdish music.