Demand for seats on planes to Turkey in mid-May must have been quite low because I secured return flights with highly regarded THY from Manchester to Diyarbakir via Istanbul Ataturk Airport for only £214. Moreover, I got to my destination on the evening of 15th May generously fed and watered and only twenty minutes late.
The flight from Manchester carried plenty of British people, some quite elderly and of diverse ethnic origin, destined for a city break of a few nights in Istanbul. I wondered what they would make of the now-vast city on the Bosphorus that spreads like a virus every which way into the surrounding undulating countryside, and in a manner rendering the once distinctive city increasingly like any other, particularly in the suburbs where houses and apartment blocks of similar design, and shopping malls, office blocks, hospitals, schools and industrial estates, could be deposited in a hundred other nation states and not look out of place. I have heard worrying stories about how, in recent years, much effort has been devoted to smartening up even the imperial heart of Istanbul so that the hordes of tourists that now descend on the city will feel more at home. It really was time I returned to the city for a few days to see for myself what remained of the things that first sparked my love affair with Turkey. Would I be reassured or repelled by what I found? A bit of both, in all likelihood.
About a third of the passengers on the flight from Manchester were Turkish nationals, or Turks and Kurds of British nationality, travelling to destinations in the republic further south or east. After getting through passport control and having my visa confirmed (visas for the Turkish Republic can now be downloaded electronically in advance of arrival), I collected my large bag from one of the many luggage carousels and followed them to the domestic terminal. Once I arrived at gate 105 from where the Diyarbakir flight was due to leave in about an hour’s time I was the only person, other than two or three women married to Turks or Kurds, who was not a Turk, a Kurd or an Arab. Although some of the women around me dressed in a manner that Erdogan, the economically liberal but socially conservative Sunni president, would have approved of (they wore headscarves, loose-fitting lightweight coats that reached to the ground, two or three layers of clothing under their coats, socks or dark tights and flat shoes of simple design but shabby appearance), most women wore what might be called conventional European or American clothes (trousers such as jeans, tee-shirts or blouses, and trainers or leather shoes with heels) and definitely no headscarves.
Matters associated with the second flight were so informal that it almost felt as if we were catching a bus rather than a plane. At Diyarbakir itself, and in contrast with a visit I had made a few years ago, I was not taken to one side so the contents of my luggage could be checked by uniformed representatives of the state.
One of the best things about Diyarbakir is that the airport is relatively close to the city centre, so much so that I could walk about 500 metres to a busy intersection, where I had a chat with a woman aged about thirty in trousers and a tee-shirt who had flown from Istanbul on the same plane as me. We chatted as if in a European city where it is normal for people of the opposite sex to talk with one another. The Muslim Middle East, which so frequently requires rigid segregation of the sexes, seemed far away. I asked if she was a writer – she had been reading a diary of her own composition on the plane – and she said, “Sort of.”
I waited beside the road for a minibus to take me to the edge of the old city. I stood beside an elderly couple also destined for the same area and we began to talk. They said they knew of a recently opened pansiyon in which I would like to stay. Because it was not yet 10.00pm, if the pansiyon turned out to be no good I could easily identify somewhere else to stay, so I let the couple lead the way.
As the minibus drove into the old city via Mardin Kapisi, we passed a lot of police vehicles, some armoured, parked at important intersections. We also passed large, heavily fortified compounds in which army personnel were installed. Diyarbakir felt and looked like an occupied city where unrest might break out at any moment.
We got off the minibus almost as soon as we crossed the point at which the two main roads in the old city, the ones running north to south and east to west that subdivide the area into four sections of almost equal size, meet and, facing north, took a turn to the right away from the Ulu Camii and the main section of the pazar. We nonetheless remained in a section of the pazar itself, although most businesses had shut for the night (a bakery, a tea house and two shops selling food other than bread remained open and, it being Friday and the start of the weekend, a few people were walking around). About 100 metres down the road we turned right onto an even narrower road, one wide enough only for a donkey or motorbike, and, about 40 metres along, arrived at the entrance to the pansiyon. I met four young people, male and female Kurds, who, collectively, ran the place and, after shaking hands with them and having a short chat, was ushered into the courtyard around which the pansiyon is arranged.
The flat-roofed pansiyon, an old stone house that spreads over two floors, was described to me as a one-time Armenian home. If it had once been Armenian I could detect nothing that obviously rendered it such, but it was a delightful place not far from Surp Giragos Church, the only Armenian Apostolic church that still functions in Diyarbakir. I was told that a room for the night cost 60TL, but it came with a breakfast that I was told I would enjoy very much. I had to share washing and toilet facilities with others, but the room I was allocated was next door to what Americans would call the bathroom. Moreover, the large room was simple but spacious and windows overlooked the courtyard and the street outside.
I had glasses of tea with the man in charge of the pansiyon for the night and the couple who had led me to it, then the couple left for home, which was nearby because they said they could see from their house the bell tower of Surp Giragos Church. After the couple had gone I was offered a glass of red wine made by Syriac Christians in the vineyards around Mardin or Midyat. It had been my intention before leaving the UK not to have any alcohol when away, but when offered such wine by someone so grateful that I was staying the night, I succumbed to temptation immediately. The glass was a generous one and the wine very good. I was having a delightful start to the trip.
I had a brief chat with a Turkish couple from the west of the country who had just finished a meal with wine in the large dining room overlooking the courtyard from the side furthest from the door leading to the street, then I prepared for bed. I had a very good night’s sleep. From midnight, the only sounds I heard until about 5.30am were the occasional raised voice, the bark of a dog and the day’s first adhan, or call to prayer.