Rosarin and I are having lunch. We are in Mardin, southeast Turkey. Mardin is a beautiful village on a mountain; it’s very old, well preserved and known for being the most ethnically mixed city in Turkey. Turks, Kurds and Arabs live here, and Christians too. In peace, and they always have. While we are having lunch, our good moods are being distorted by history. We are just chatting, when suddenly Rosarin’s past comes up. She has been living in the Netherlands since the mid-eighties. She fled from Turkey a few years after the 1980 coup – exactly 31 years ago today – and after her very young son was tortured in their house by army personnel.
How did she reach the Netherlands in those days? I ask. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But she started telling the whole story. I’m not going to repeat it fully here, but the most heart-breaking part was the fact that she had to leave her young daughter behind in Turkey. Passport issues. She missed her so much that four years later she returned to Turkey with a false passport to get her and take her to Holland too. She hugged her daughter, but the girl, about 8 years old, was uncomfortable being hugged by a ‘stranger’.
She starts crying. Not a little bit, but really crying. ‘I never talk about it’, she says through her tears. ‘Now you see why. It’s just too much. Those years were so difficult. I took my daughter, but I was still waiting for refugee status in the Netherlands, and when we got into trouble in Romania, the Dutch government didn’t help us at all. It’s dangerous for a woman and daughter to travel alone without anything to guarantee your safety, without any legitimate papers. A human trafficker locked us up in a room for eleven days with only water. Can you imagine, seeing your girl in such circumstances?’
I hug her. We don’t change the subject. We are just silent till it’s time to pay the bill and go.
Rosarin and I hire a car. From Mardin we head further south, to Kiziltepe, right by the Syrian border. We visit Fatma there. Fatma welcomes us in Dutch: ‘Hallo, welkom, hoe was jullie reis?’ (Hello, welcome, how was your trip?) The three of us laugh: here, in this dusty, hot southern corner of Turkey, we understand each other in Dutch. Fatma, now around sixty years old, lived in the Netherlands for thirteen years but returned to her homeland twenty five years ago. Her Dutch is rather basic, but very understandable, and she keeps it up by talking to her children, her sons- and daughters–in-law (some of them Dutch) and her grandchildren, who all live in Holland. But we don’t talk too much Dutch, she can’t really express herself in it. We mostly talk Turkish, and sometimes she and Rosarin talk Kurdish and translate to Turkish and Dutch for me.
The three of us are very different, our lives are very different, but from the first moment, we match. We talk about everything without holding back, we laugh, eat, sleep and drink tea. Fatma lives alone. She shows us pictures. In one picture there is an old woman, and I ask her if that’s her mother. ‘No, that’s me’, she says. I look from the sad, old figure on the picture to the lively woman sitting next to me and ask: ‘How come you were so sad?’ Rosarin immediately interferes: ‘No, we are not going to open those wounds now.’ Fatma gets up and is off to the kitchen.
Rosarin tells me Fatma’s story in short. She married a Kurdish man in Holland, left Turkey to live with him and they had four children. But something went wrong (I won’t get into details here). Fatma filed for divorce, but her husband warned her not to leave. The children were taken by the state child protection institute and put in foster homes. To escape her ex and to obey her family’s demand to quickly marry again and return to Turkey, she fled back to Turkey and married. She became the second wife of a Kurd, and after her he married another woman. The marriage lasted twenty four years and was not happy. Only one year ago did she feel strong enough to leave the man.
In all those years, she didn’t see her children or have any contact with them until after her marriage ended. Fatma returns to the rug we are sitting on in the living room, wiping her tears away. We look at more pictures. A whole lot of pictures of her and her children and grandchildren. There is a CD too. Unbelievable that all these were made in only one year. They have a lot of catching up to do.
The next morning, we go on a trip with four women. A niece of Fatma, Gülbahar, is joining us. She too lives in Kiziltepe, so we pick her up from her home and hit the road. First to Daba, a historical town from the early Byzantine period that is being excavated. Totally impressive, we walk around, make lots of pictures, have tea, buy earrings and shawls in the souvenir shop. Then we go to Nusaybin, another border town. It’s hot, we open the windows, play Kurdish music on the radio. I drive, and they clap their hands and sing along when they know the song. We drive along the Syrian border. There are signs along the fences: ‘Caution, land mine area’. Nusaybin, that’s where the camps with refugees from Syria are, but I won’t get to see any of that. The ladies want to go to some creek, after doing some shopping. I buy a skirt in the old town of Nusaybin, Rosarin buys clothes for her grandchildren, Gülbahar for her teenage daughter.
Gülbahar wears a wedding ring. I’m a bit surprised that she is actually going with us. That could be very prejudiced of me, but in general traditional men don’t really stay home with the children and do the cooking to let their wives go on a fun trip the whole day, so to speak. But I don’t ask anything; maybe I’ll find out her story, maybe not.
The creek the ladies wanted to visit turns out to be ‘Beyazsu’. It’s close to Nusaybin, on the road to Midyat – do visit, if you are ever in the region. There are restaurants right by the creek, corners with cushions to sit in. We occupy a corner, spread the cig köfte we bought in Nusaybin on the table and order a pot of tea. We put our feet in the water. We are warm, sweaty and dusty, the water is ice-cold.
At night, when we return to Kiziltepe, we have (again!) tea, in Gülbahars house. Her two daughters are home, and her son, all around twenty years old. There is a picture of a man on the wall. He looks like Gülbahars son. I look at it, and Gülbahar says: ‘That’s my husband. He was killed fifteen years ago in the prison of Mardin. Tortured to death.’
For privacy reasons, the names of the women are fictional, and a few details were changed.