Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 - No comments

Mardin Trip Prewriting: Passport to the East

(from Wednesday, Oct. 19)

We’re “just” taking a trip out east, but everything about this trip makes me feel like I’m heading to another country.

I had to laugh at myself as I loaded up my suitcase. I’ve got little bags of four kinds of snacks, as if we won’t be able to find food along the way, and all the fixin’s for coffee, as if we won’t be greeted with that classic Middle Eastern hospitality that will keep us on a perpetual caffeine buzz for the duration of the trip. I even had to remind myself that I won’t need an adaptor for my phone.

Perhaps its the “untamed frontier” photos I’ve seen of the vast plains stretching from Mardin down to the mysterious unknown of Syria. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that my Turkish won’t get me very far in a region where nearly everyone’s mother tongue is either Kurdish or Arabic. I have this delicious sense of anticipation that I am about to be dropped in the middle of an unfamiliar world where all the learned customs and rhythms, all the adopted bits that make up my carefully constructed Western Turkish self are going to be rendered completely useless. And I can’t wait.

There’s something about going to a new place that makes my senses feel more heightened and alive, like I’m actually experiencing everything I see instead of just “walking past it.” Flavours are richer, sounds more jarring, views more intriguing. It’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere “new” in Turkey, and I am fully looking forward to having my senses assaulted, to really noticing the faces of the people I pass on the street, to new arched alleys to explore and dishes with unpronounceable names to sample. Armed with 16 GB in memory cards and my travel writing notebooks, I am ready to relish “the foreign” again.

I’ve done tons of research for this trip, but the more I read, the less I understand. I would venture to guess that the oldest building in my hometown couldn’t be more than 200 years old (if that), and yet this week I will spend the night in a monastery built in the fourth century. This is Mesopotamia we’re talking about. From the Sumerians to the Turks, civilization piled upon civilization, conquerors building upon the foundations of the conquered, sometimes absorbing, sometimes obliterating. This is a land that has hosted more vibrant cultures and witnessed more tragic bloodshed than my mind can comprehend.

A hundred years ago, this particular region of Turkey was nearly 100% Syrian Orthodox or Armenian, but with the dawn of the Turkish Republic, most of those “mysteriously disappeared.” Over the subsequent decades, all but a handful of those who remained were either driven out or fled to Europe as it became increasingly difficult to stay afloat on their “Christian island in a Muslim sea” as waves of Kurdish refugees flooded in from the mountains, their own villages the theatre of civil war violence. Still, there are tiny pockets of Syriac Christians that have managed to survive - many behind the safety of high monastery walls - and still others that taking their chances on the current slightly more favourable political conditions and returning to make a fresh start in their ancestral homeland.

I am so curious to see what life looks like when the minorities are in the majority. Will the reactions to this week’s attacks be the opposite of what they are out here in western Turkey? Will we hear church bells more than we hear the call to prayer? Will Turkish even be spoken in the streets?

And, most importantly, will the monks let me help in the kitchen?

Our time out east will be incredibly short for the amount there is to take in - not even three days total - and I am prepared for the fact that I know I’ll be disappointed because it just won’t feel like enough. We’ve been waiting five years for this chance, knowing that without a guy (and his family) along we’d be pretty limited in what we could do and where we could go, not to mention rather unsafe. Besides the conservative, male dominated culture and the infamous stone-throwing children in that part of the country, there have been two terrorist attacks on both civilians and soldiers out east this week, and while nothing has happened in the area where we will be, emotions - both Turkish and Kurdish - are sure to be running high.

Mardin is not Istanbul. It's not the kind of place where I’ll be able to get up early and roam around by myself with my camera. I keep reminding myself that as much as I’ll hate to be restricted by having to stick with the group and go at a pace that will likely be faster than my usual meet-the-locals-and-shoot-everything-from-five-angles-and-take-detailed-notes-on-it-all one, I’m lucky to be going at all. This will be an appetizer - just enough of a taste to fuel my imagination until I get to go back for longer someday.

I’ll just have to marry a patient man who is a curious traveler like myself and will be happy to drink gallons of tea while we meet every family in every village on the next trip. :)