Istanbul – Kadıköy – Turkey
A café au lait on a black wooden table and a tabby sprawled out in a chair, its eyes half-closed. Victorine is engrossed in her work; one hand is covering her mouth while the other taps away at her laptop keyboard. Street noises blend seamlessly with electro music wafting through the café’s large doors open to the sunlight. A truck drives by, blasting a party jingle. The elections are just ten days away. Blue stands for Erdogan, red for the opposition. Locals sit at tables, reading, writing, and debating over cups of rusty-colored tea or black coffee.
It’s been ten days since we hit the road. We’d covered the three thousand kilometers from Paris in a single stretch. Istanbul has welcomed us with open arms. This vibrant city, bridging Europe and Asia and divided by the Bosphorus, pulsates with intense life. The rhythm is set by the booming horns of the “Vapurs,” the ferries shuttling between the two banks.
We’re not sure where we’ll head next. Istanbul opens onto the Black Sea, which brings to mind images taken by photographers Vanessa Winship and Matthieu Chazal. We’ll figure out the rest later.
The Black Sea
After the bustling harbors of the Sea of Marmara, teeming with container ships patiently awaiting their turn to dock or navigate the strait, the Black Sea appears remarkably desolate. Its dark green shores, fringed by beech and oak forests, remind us of Europe. We soon face a dilemma: where to go next? Should we follow the coastline eastward? Head south again? We have no clear objective, no guiding principle to propel us forward.
Aimless wandering is harder than it seems. In no time, you get lost. Like a rudderless ship, you go adrift. A lighthouse comes into view at the edge of the gray sea. Lost like us, it watches over seafarers in the night. Wandering might be good for poets and drunken boats. It sounds fine on paper. But on the road, with multiplying intersections, you lose your bearings. Where to go next? And what for?
As we were perusing the works of Yaçar Kemal, the renowned Turkish novelist, it struck us: the Dengbêjs. “I come from a family of brigands and itinerant poets,” declares the writer of Kurdish origin. Who are these brigands and poets, where do they come from? These are the same traditions that brought us the ancient Greek tales of Achilles and Patroclus, or, closer to home, Roland and his paladin Olivier. Deep in the mountains of Anatolia, these bards passed down, by word of mouth, from one generation to the next, epics, love songs, and poems thousands of lines long.
Today, we have resolved to seek them out. To do this, we must journey to the Kurdish regions in the southeast. Our course is set.
The road winds like a grey river meandering through dense pine forests. The air is humid. A heady scent of flowers fills the mountain air, seeping in through the half-open car windows. Villages of wood and sheet metal dot the grassy plateaus. A man in a white cap, swarthy and toothless, leads his cows with the tip of his staff. We stop and try to strike up a conversation. Our hands flutter helplessly, words are lost in the wind. A dialogue of the deaf. Not a word gets across. English, the lingua franca of our time, has not yet penetrated these remote corners. We resume our journey.
We feel a little lost on these Turkish roads, like the Polish writer Kapuscinski upon disembarking in India, powerless in a world where he can communicate only through smiles and gestures: “I felt trapped. Besieged by language. Language struck me at that moment as something material, something with a physical dimension, a wall rising up in the middle of the road and preventing my going further, closing off the world, making it unattainable.” (from Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels with Herodotus, trans. Klara Glowczewska, Vintage, 2007)
Ankara. We descend into the capital from the surrounding mountains: one of those giants cast in concrete that are the markers of our civilization. As we get closer to the city center, the Clio gets mired in the sluggish currents of a six-lane highway. Passing on the left, passing on the right, honking in the rear. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever make it.
On a sweltering night in Aksaray, a family huddle on the stoop of their pottery shop (a local specialty), listening to an election news broadcast. Victorine goes up to photograph them. The next thing we know, we’re drinking apple tea together. In the East, hospitality is a sacred value. The conversation turns to economic hardships and Turkish pride. In the Anatolian highlands, Erdogan is seen as a champion who has restored the country’s dignity and modernized it. Against all odds, the incumbent’s approval ratings are nearly 49%.
Road to Cappadocia
Out on the open road, always on the move. No room for boredom, there is always a book at hand. The AC is chugging away, and windows are rolled all the way down. Victorine is reading, I’m driving. The car struggles up the hill, the engine is wheezing, but the trusty Clio holds. Samuel Forey and his Les Aurores Incertaines is our traveling companion: a poignant, relatable journey.
Atop the mountain, four majestic statues overlook the expansive plains. The landscape must have changed a lot over the past two millennia. A feverish dawn sweeps away the night chill. The sun sets the lakes ablaze, fiery like the eastern sky. We are in the embrace of the Atatürk Dam.
We take a detour to see the Nemrut Dağı, the famous tomb of King Antiochos. Late at night, we find refuge in a remote mountain hotel. The owner, a tall, thick-set man, invites us in for tea. When we ask him if we’ve crossed the border into Kurdistan, he responds with a wry smile: “This is Kurdish territory, but there is no Kurdistan here.”
Road to Diyarbakir
Some summer evenings seem to pull you into their limitless sky—the landscape of the Diyarbakir province offers one such spectacle. The countryside is vibrant. Wheat spikes dance in the sunlight. Swifts and swallows dart through the air like shooting stars. The outside world filters through our open windows. Up ahead, a man drives his tractor. We pull over to make way on the narrow road and he waves thanks. Victorine takes his photo and he laughs.
A woman in a white head scarf has dozed off in the shade of a tree. Shepherds and their flocks claim the roads and trails, masterfully choreographed by the leader’s staff. Village children infuse life into fragile heaps of stone and tin, breathing to the rhythm of the countryside. Once upon a time, that’s what spring must have felt like back home.
Towards Lake Van
Victorine snaps photos, her lens capturing life’s fleeting moments through the window of the Clio. Each shot is an epiphany of grace, awe, or tenderness: children relish ice cream as they wait for their school bus; men stand around in suit jackets, their gaze alert; a shepherd swings his staff in the air as his sheep trot behind; workers ride on the back of a truck, pensive, staring at their feet… In a brief moment, a whole universe unfolds before our eyes.
We’ve been seeking the Dengbêj in the Kurdish territory for four days. Our report is not just an assignment; it’s an opening onto an unfamiliar world, an ideal pretext to meet the locals. Life for the Kurds in Turkey is far from easy, and the Dengbêj, an emblem of a rural past, are disappearing.
Fragments of this ancient world resurface in unexpected places. Ask about a Dengbêj in any café or shop, and soon an elderly man, a living archive of folk songs, gathers an audience around him, his quavering voice piercing the air.
In Güroymak, we meet Alistar, an old man whose clear eyes send a profound message: Dengbêjilik is life itself. A woman tells us her story: forced into marriage at the age of twelve, she became a Dengbêj to ease her pain. In Diyarbakir, we meet a man with a weathered look and a drum as red as a blood moon. His father was a wandering poet who went from village to village reciting his poems, just like his son, until he got caught up in the city. These are the glowing embers of an already extinguished fire, the last representatives of a bygone era. Everyone agrees, the practice of Dengbêj storytelling isn’t what it used to be, and it has lost its former place in society. There are no more apprentices. The aghas (chieftains) who once supported them have vanished. Entire villages have also disappeared, either emptied by a massive exodus or sometimes even destroyed by the state in its fight against the PKK.
South of Van, the military presence suddenly intensifies. There are checkpoints at almost every crossroads. Soldiers are checking passports. “It’s because of the border,” we’re told. What we’re not told is that the mountains serve as a refuge for soldiers of the PKK—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, founded in 1978 in the Diyarbakir region. It casts a shadow over the rocky terrain and the words of the inhabitants.
On the road to Sofia, Bulgaria
I take Victorine to Sofia. She has to head back to France. She decided to take the bus: a thirty-hour journey. “You know, it’s already over and I feel like the journey is just beginning,” she observes.