"What does it feel like for a child to see someone die?" I asked. "When everyone thinks it's normal it feels normal," he said. "It didn't bother me at all." "Then why are you still talking about it?" I asked. He glanced at me and changed the subject.
I was talking to a lifelong Turkish resident of Diyarbakir, a musician I befriended in the cafe of the Diyarbakir cultural center. He appeared to be in his late sixties, with grey hair and a mustache. He was about five feet tall and held a guitar in his lap the whole time we spoke. The man around the same age seated next to him wore a grey cotton blazer and a black and white horizontally striped tie. He did not talk much but mostly smiled and nodded his head in acknowledgment. His eyes were closed. He was blind.
I could tell my new friend loved Diyarbakir by the enthusiastic way he talked about food, people and history. His childhood memories held my interest the most, like the story he told me of the two hangings he watched in the town square in the 1940's. His father had taken him there to witness justice being served. The second man hadn't even committed a crime. He was dying to protect the big landowner in the area. At that point in the story I stopped feeling sorry for the blind man. I was relieved he could not see such nonsensical atrocities. He was spared from birth from having to visually experience such trauma, which would probably haunt him for the rest of his life.
I had walked by that particular town square where hangings--were public until the nineteen fifties-- as soon as I arrived in Diyarbakir that morning on the way to my hotel. It was packed only with men. They were all seated on tiny stools, hunched over drinking Turkish tea or playing backgammon. They were mostly dressed conservatively in overcoats of shiny polyester fabrics that glistened underneath the November sun. They wore knit vests underneath and their heads donned either newsboy or skullcaps used during prayer. Some of the men were wearing the traditional şalvar, baggy trousers with low riding crotches. People around me were speaking Kurdish, a language I have not had much exposure to. I was struck by the sense of being very far away from home, in a very different place with its own people, distinct culture and style. It did not feel as if I were in Turkey.
I had stumbled across the musician, and the blind man on my exploration of the city in the back alleys near my hotel on my day off, simply because I had to wait before I could go to the camps. The Director of the human rights group had not received clearance from the camp leaders, who were Kurdish. The residents of the Diyarbakir camp were also Kurdish, but of the Yazidi minority religious community. They were Iraqi citizens who had recently escaped the onslaught of ISIS in August of 2014.
My hotel was in the older part of town, in the historical district. There were signs everywhere pointing out the major monuments and sights to visit in between all the shops and markets, a clear sign Diyarbakir was a major tourist destination in the region. I was staying right next to the Ulu or Great Mosque of Diyarbakir, the main architectural and religious attraction in town. The building, one of the oldest mosques in the Islamic world, predates the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century. It was converted from the St. Thomas church in 639 when the Arab armies under the Umayyads, the first Islamic dynasty, conquered Diyarbakir.
I decided to take a closer look and went inside to the courtyard of the mosque. I was pleasantly surprised. It looked as if I were standing in the courtyard of the Great Ummayad Mosque of Damascus I had visited several years back. The architects had borrowed the style of this building from the Arab prototype, displaying the influence of early Islamic architectural style in Anatolia. The masonry looked familiar too. The bricks had been made of black basalt from a local quarry and are the same in color as all the other buildings around town. I was struck by the beauty of the exquisitely crafted, highly ornate vegetal decoration of the cornice and inscription band of the mosque. The columns were reused Corinthian capitals a reminder of the many civilizations including the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, who once thrived in these lands over the centuries.
My conversation with the musician continued after we left the cultural center and made our way further in the narrow back streets of old Diyarbakir. He offered to take me to the Armenian section, an area of town I would have never found on my own. He had grown up there among the dwindled Armenian population who in 1915 had witnessed the genocide by local Kurds, one of the main executors of the massacres in Diyarbakir under the Ottomans.
The buildings were typical Diyarbakir style, made of the same grey basalt masonry. Some had white decorative trimmings only around the windows and doors while others had entire facades made of black and white stripes. Unfortunately, they were all in shambles with many of them missing entire walls. Some had graffiti on them displaying first names of people who had passed through there. Children were playing and climbing the walls and hiding in the windowsills of the clearly visible interiors. There was litter and crumbling parts of the buildings all over the ground. Some of the children were throwing bricks. I was glad I was not alone.
We stopped at the main church the Armenian church of St. Giragos, built in the 14th century, one of the two in the area we had visited. It appeared to be the only operational, well maintained, and largest building around. It had a distinct square shaped bell tower made of material that looked like metal from the distance, a style I had never seen before. Unfortunately, I could not go in. It was closed at that time. I leafed through the books and pamphlets a book vendor was selling right outside the front door. Armenians from Diyarbakir, but now living in Istanbul restored the church in 2011. "I was always in awe of churchs." the musician informed me. "I always wanted to go in, but because I was Muslim I was not allowed. One time when I was a tiny boy I tried to sneak in by hiding under an Armenian woman's skirt. She kept kicking me away," he said giggling.
As we were leaving we were approached by a man around the musician's age, but much taller. It was the musician's childhood Armenian friend. "It is all your fault, you Turk!" he said laughing as he shook the musicians hand. "You see, we love each other," the musician said to me, grinning.
I had yet to see anything specific about Kurdish culture. I asked my friend to take me to the Dengbej House. The plain doors opened to a courtyard and I heard a man singing in Kurdish but there was no music. To my right were seated three men with thick mustaches all or whom were wearing the classic blazers with knit vests I had been seeing all around town. The one in the middle was singing and his hands were sporadically waving around. He would pause to cough every now and then. As soon as he finished the man next to him transitioned into singing, but unlike the first he cupped his hands behind his ears. There were about 30 people, many of whom were tourists, seated in the audience.
After about ten minutes we left. The men were Dengbej singers. "Dengbej is an old Kurdish tradition of storytelling. They recount stories from the past mostly tragedies and grief. The stories are both personal and of the sufferings of the Kurdish people as a whole. It wasn't just the music; they used to hold signs up recounting events with words. You don't see that anymore," the musician said. The men were volunteers who had learned the tradition in their villages at a young age. But between 1980 and 1991, it had become illegal to speak Kurdish in public. The house was opened in 2007.
It was getting dark. The musician escorted me back to the area of my hotel and warned me not to stay out alone too late. I walked past some police parked in a large tank like armed vehicle. It was next to a few fires that had been lit by young boys burning trash on the side of the road. Tomorrow was a big day. I was going to my first camp.