Can you imagine breaking down in tears when somebody pours you a cup of tea? I almost did, last week. I just couldn’t take it anymore. The joke that tea only becomes lethal after the 99th cup on a single day, could hardly make me smile again. All I could do was get up, murmur an apology and leave the room.
Five weeks of travelling in the south-eastern provinces of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Şırnak was totally wonderful and inspiring and educational, but at times also difficult. I only spent one night in a hotel, the rest of the time I was in villages, staying with families. That was of course a conscious choice. I was looking for stories for my book and trying to get a glimpse of daily life in the Kurdish region, and this was a good way to do it.
I have been really touched by the willingness of people to open their homes to me. In one village, somebody arranged for me to stay with the local politician. Which I of course didn’t want: if you want to get to know average people at an average (read: hardly existent) income in an average house, the local politician’s house is the last one you want to stay in. When I explained what I came for, other arrangements were quickly made. We went to a large family who lived in a group of four houses, talked to the pater familias and he gave permission for me to stay in the house of his young widowed sister-in-law and her five children. We went to meet her, and I was accepted. I could stay as long as I wanted. In the eight days that I stayed, many other people in the village invited me to stay in their house too.
In Turkey, and maybe even more so in the south-east, this is nothing really remarkable, but seen from a Dutch point of view, it most certainly is. My mind often wandered off to some imaginary Turkish correspondent, wanting to know village life in the Netherlands and setting of to some remote province, hoping someone would be hospitable to him. The local politician would open the door, but he would have to get into a meeting first with his party to see what he could do. Just walk around in the village and see where you end up? Even if you found people on the street, they wouldn’t easily start talking to the foreigner. And people in their homes, would they open the door? In my imagination, I see curtains being pushed aside just a little bit, to look at the stranger with worrisome eyes, and then quickly closed again when he came too close.
We Dutch, we like our privacy. We can be on our own, either with our own small family or really alone, like the way I live in Istanbul, with my social live evolving mainly outside my house. People asked me if I missed Istanbul while on my trip. No, not at all. It was the lack of time alone that hit me in the end. Time to just sit, read a book, drink coffee by the window and watch life outside, sip wine, write a bit, think and be alone with my thoughts.
That evening, the evening the tea almost made me cry, was a confrontation with the fact that tea represents the non-individual way society in Turkey is organized. The group is most important; it is in the group that life takes place: tea is what the day starts with, continues with and ends with. Refusing tea and leaving the room to be by myself felt like taking a little bit of my individuality back after these few weeks. Ridiculous, in a way, because if anybody in the end was in control of my trip, it was me. But still, that’s how it felt.
It’s funny though, that this happened only after already being part of Kurdish group life for more than four weeks. That must be thanks to the way I was welcomed in houses. I was part of the group and could hardly escape it, but life was natural, nobody kept up any appearance, people shared their stories, their food, their space, their lives. That has touched me and I am very grateful for it. My special thanks go to friend V. with whom I stayed in Diyarbakir. He offered the perfect balance between togetherness and time alone (and no tea!) the last days before flying home to Istanbul. I will be back!