The prostitute fidgeted uncomfortably beside me, her knee brushing mine, a glass of tea, and a cigarette in the same hand. The sound of the police radio a constant crackle of an unintelligible code, the chaotic room bathed in neon blue as another squad car passed the tiny window.
I took another deep breath and massaged my throbbing temple with my middle and index fingers, things were definitely not going to plan. I’d been a very silly boy.
My friend Simon had texted me and asked if I fancied a cheeky weekend in Van, absolutely I would. And so after a long bus ride from Damascus to the border with Turkey, I crossed over, and with plenty of time on my hands decided a short excursion to the seaside was in order, I headed to a small beachside village with no more in my mind than a cold beer and a Mediterranean sunset. Once suitably refreshed I planned to take a leisurely route east exploring the cultural heritage of Anatolia before making my appointment with my friend on the shores of Lake Van.
I woke that morning with a feeling of childlike excitement, adventure beckoned; grabbing my bags I skipped out of the cheap pension, the tweenage receptionist waving me off as I flagged down a minibus heading towards Mersin. A few hours later I am on the bus to Sanliurfa, the sun streaming through the windows, I am one of only a few passengers and the bus steward is feeding me cake and paper cups of instant coffee, outside rows of poplar trees were filing past like the flicker of a super eight movie. Its times like this you treat yourself to a well-deserved smug smile.
Then the needle scratches across the vinyl, the soundtrack comes to an untimely end. A sudden feeling of sickness wells up from my stomach, I realize I had stupidly left my passport in the cheap pension some four hundred kilometers behind me. I spent the next two hours saying fuck quite a lot.
By the time the bus rolled into Sanliurfa I had a plan. I would check into my hotel, then, taking full advantage of the famous Turkish hospitality get a member of staff to accompany me to the police station, the police were less likely to speak English I surmised, then the police would call the cheap pension and have my passport put onto the next bus bound for Sanliurfa. I was convinced it was a workable plan, all over the Middle East, I had seen intercity busses act as couriers for all kinds of transactions, granted they may have been less than legal but still.
The hotel staff didn’t speak English. They wanted my passport before letting me check in. My attempts at explanation were met with shrugs that translated as it’s not their problem. By some utterly unexplainable quirk of foresight, I found I had a crumpled photocopy of my passport ID page and eventually was allowed to check in.
A small group of uniformed police officers gathered around me and listened attentively as I explained my situation, bewildered and fascinated they stared at me, one was smiling at me as though he understood and thought it an amusing story when I finished speaking the group dispersed, I didn’t get the impression anyone was calling the cheap pension. I went into an adjoining room, with a desk and framed portraits of illustrious leaders, this looked more promising, I re-told my story, and I tried to simplify it a little and left out the part about Mediterranean sunset. I was handed a glass of tea with three cubes of sugar, I felt I was making progress, by the third glass of tea and the umpteenth telling of the story we had condensed the word count down to three; passport, hotel, Mersin, followed by some hand gestures and a stupid grin.
No problem, come back in the morning.
It turns out Turkish law enforcement can be quite grumpy in the mornings, my chirpy optimism was met with tuts and twitches of dismissal. So I wandered through the streets of Sanliurfa, my interest in whatever culture it had to offer had long since waned, in the shadow of the castle I sat and drank coffee beside an ornamental lake, the waiter busy setting out colored table cloths and ashtrays, water spluttering from a stone fountain, mini rainbows dancing in the early morning sunlight.
Mood improved I mooched around and began slowly to pay attention to my surroundings, stooping old men with walking sticks and black peaked caps, small groups of pious looking tourists, trendy looking teenagers who looked as though they were skipping school; I followed the trail of activity that leads to a beautiful multi-domed mosque with a series of sand-colored arches set beside a large fish pond.
This is an antique land, its history infinite, a monolith of myth and myriad stories that color its past, of fact and faith inter-twined, where empires were born and buried. It was once Edessa and later Urfa before being bestowed with Şanlı meaning glorious for what they did to the French.
I chatted to a guy selling fish food beside the pool, business was brisk and the carp were very well fed, I joked they would be pretty tasty if grilled, he said I would go blind if I ate one, ah the pollution I surmised? No, the fish are sacred he said with a look of utter consternation.
This was the land of Nimrod and birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, Nimrod a mighty warrior king, great-grandson of Noah; he married his own Mother and lived to be two hundred and something.
Abraham, the young upstart visionary was born in a nearby cave, the oracle had deemed him create a new nation and populate it with his seed, Nimrod was understandably concerned and started a pogrom of burning babies, eventually, Nimrod tossed Abraham into the burning pyre of logs but the fire turned to water and the logs into fish and they have been selling fish food here ever since.
Pilgrims were clamoring to get a glimpse of Abrahams’s cave, cupped hands held out in prayer and blessing, I decided I had better get back to the police station, time was passing. On my way I passed through the Bazaar, shafts of dusty sunlight rendering silhouettes of passing shoppers, the market reminded me of the souk in Aleppo, not as chaotic or crowded but here in the Bazaar the mix of ethnicities in Urfa was most evident, Arabs and Kurds, keffiyehs and colored skirts. A man tried to sell me a copper cauldron, it was half a meter wide and almost as deep, I agreed the quality did look impressive but that I had other more practical reservations. From silk and spice to filigree and kilim, artisans and traders have been doing business under vaulted ceilings since the time of Suleyman the Magnificent.
Things seemed to have gone well at the police station, the mood was cheerful, tea was drunk, I had been assured and reassured that everything was under control, of course very little of the actual conversation I understood but the gist was enough, I imagined a team of detectives had been employed, what could possibly be more serious I thought as I waved at the heavily armed guard positioned behind a bulletproof shield outside the station.
Well, apart from the insurgency, obviously. Turkey has been embroiled in a war of attrition with Kurdish groups since the late ’70s.
Food is reason enough to travel to southeast Turkey, the rival cities of Gaziantep and Sanliurfa are the frontline of a battle to be culinary capital. I was getting hungry; a grubby-fingered barrow boy had spent fifteen minutes trying to explain the difference between the Urfa and the Adana Kebab, they sounded identical, they are not he insisted, they have spices he repeated. I explored other options, I seemed to be in the street of meat, all kinds of testicles were being grilled, the only vegetables were plump red peppers, a man thrust a skewer of kebabs at me, the sheep’s heads were grinning. I crossed the street and found a shack selling burgers and limp fries and a warm Fanta.
And soon this became the pattern of my days, wandering the cobbled streets of the old part of town, tea with the gendarmes, coffee in the park, and offal in the evenings. My passport would arrive at any moment, I thought. The hotel staff asked me at every opportunity and clearly not convinced of my story. Annoyed I would sit by the pool of carp and feel calmer, the fish food seller eyeing me with suspicion.
And so here I was, playing footsie with a prostitute in Sanliurfa police station, it had been my third visit that day, I had begun to realize they were just plying me with tea and taking the piss. That morning I understood my passport was on its way. I came back later to no avail although I was wanted on the phone; a chirpy constable said someone high up in the Ankara police wanted to talk to me, finally, I thought, a top-ranking chief of police, but it turned out he only wanted to practice his English and had hung up before I could use the connection to my advantage. I was utterly bemused at what was happening. A teenage boy was being dragged by his shirt and cuffed around his ear, two officers were shouting at each other, the prostitute paid no notice and seemed perfectly relaxed. I stood up and confronted the officer I had seen earlier. My passport was on its way, he informed me with a tired expression; it had been posted that morning, and the fact it was now the weekend and a public holiday it could arrive anytime in the next week or so, maybe.
I couldn’t really contain my consternation; they could see how upset I was and genuinely thought more tea would help. Fuck off I shouted, the chaos paused for a second as all attention turned to me, an ill-advised thing to do I admit. I barged my way towards the exit, I was being called back but I just cursed some more.
I calmed down in a coffee shop just along the street, while I was sitting there one of the police officers entered and come over to me, he immediately began to apologize, the good cop from the routine. He suggested we go see a friend of his, a businessman who spoke English.
We made an unlikely threesome; the scruffy backpacker, the policeman, and the importer-exporter of light fittings. I explained my story and the businessman translated it to the policeman who seemed quite surprised and clearly had understood very little of my earlier attempts. They had a chat in Turkish and then said they had an idea. We went back to the police station and in an empty room usually meant for extracting confessions the policeman wrote a letter explaining why I was traveling without identity documents; he added his mobile telephone number should anyone need to double-check. With this signed letter, I was assured I could travel the east of the country and my passport would be waiting when I returned.
It seemed an utterly implausible plan but I took the letter and boarded the first bus leaving for the city of Van.
Rugged and remote the eastern borderlands of Turkey are both beautiful and troubled in equal measure. Ethnic Kurdish identity is not confined by the legality of demarcation. A struggle not limited to Turkey but over its borders in Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Places of eternal dispute and artificial geography.
And so for the next few days, we roamed the fringes of Anatolia, fortresses, and palaces and funny-looking cats and through the haze, we glimpsed the Ark.
At every military checkpoint, we passed my grubby papers were passed to the front of the bus, the Gendarme would hold the letter aloft between his thumb and finger as though it was contaminated, much like my teachers did with my homework, and whose is this? That inevitable exasperated question again. The other passengers would look nervous and sheepish; I would raise my hand and smile like a naughty child, and just like that, my papers would be folded up and passed back to me, no problem, and the passengers would look at each other with justifiable dismay. Only once was I asked to leave the bus and explain myself. Hotel receptionists would roll their eyes and sign me in while armored cars would rumble past and martial law enforced.
I arrived back at Sanliurfa bus station in the early hours, I couldn’t face the same hotel again and decided to sleep on a bench and wait for dawn to break before going to the police station. My passport was waiting for me; I shook hands with the entire morning shift and went for breakfast. I texted the import-exporter of light fittings guy and offered him lunch, his reply; short and concise “sorry, gone to China”
I departed Urfa, City of Prophets, a wiser man, and the lesson, not just the obvious one of being more careful with my passport but that of the bigger picture; the privilege my passport affords me, one I did not work for but one I was lucky enough to be born with.
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