Still the violence followed us as a PKK member drove a tractor loaded with 2000kg of explosives into an army base 10km away, leaving much death in its wake. As we left the small town we’d stayed in, every shopkeeper in town was frantically closing shop and minutes later it became apparent why. A thronging mass of Kurdish bodies chanted their way down the street, coffin lofted high and posters of the recent martyr thrust above their heads...a hasty departure followed on our part! Half an hour out of town and we rode past the aftermath of the suicide tractor bomb – an army base the size of a very large house with the entire front façade and rooms obliterated…a sobering experience amidst tangible tension from those on guard.
The people were the most friendly, interested and hospitable people that I have experienced to date. A day on the road would never go by without being invited for tea, gifted fruit, chocolates or some other gesture of kindness, not to mention the myriad of greetings, horn honks, etc. With long days on the road and being among people with who you mostly cannot communicate, it is so uplifting to experience such gestures regularly, so thank you the Turks and Kurds of Turkey your hospitality was immensely appreciated.
It is true of many countries that there is often a vast difference between the people and the rulers and in Turkey this is blatantly apparent. Under Erdogan, Turkey is a country that severely limits freedom of the press and pours immense resources into promoting Sunni Islam, which says much of the lack of separation of church and state. The outcome being that people are heavily socially policed (especially away from the urban centres, which is vast swathes of the country) and strict conformity to prescribed (religious) norms accounts for the behaviour of the vast majority. And discussions regarding ‘contentious’ issues such as the Kurds or Armenian genocide is generally not socially acceptable. Consequently, people are kept ignorant and aligned with the ruling elite’s agenda. That is not to say there are a lot of conservative religious people who are aligned with the status quo, but the choice is not openly there for those who choose otherwise.
As a feminist travelling to an Islamic country I was determined to put principles aside and try assess the culture objectively. It is a patriarchal culture and Islam prescribes this (as indeed does a lot of Christianity) as a positive trait in that the woman have a vital role in looking after children and the home, and as such the majority of the people you see are men. The woman I did see would usually never greet me (again Islam prescribes this with the phrase ‘lower your gaze’) but would often greet my mother. Although these are quite contrary to my personal principles they are religiously and culturally important and I slowly found myself being able to accept them as such.
One trait I could not accept is how relationships are formed and the inequality in the treatment of the genders in this regard. I had a number of opportunities to sit in chai houses and chat with young guys (between 18 -25) and I’ll recall a telling story from one such experience – I’d been chatting to a group of five roughly 25 year old guys for a while and they asked to look through my phone pictures. Obliging, I scrolled back to the beginning of my trip on a crisp February morning in the UK with pictures of my mates giving me a send-off (see below). Their collective and enthused response was a single word, “GIRLS!”. Now call me a liberal hippy, but if your reaction to seeing a few thoroughly clad men and woman in a group is your hormones going wild, then I put it to you that your culture may be severely hampering the development of your social skills. And indeed, interaction between the sexes is severely restricted for seemingly most communities outside the large cities. Added to that the double standard requiring only the woman to be a virgin when she marries, and you have all the ingredients for a maelstrom of social and sexual issues.
Let me just say at this juncture that the western world dishes up its gender issues slightly differently, but with gross sexualisation and objectification of woman and a raft of double standards in men’s favour, it’s not substantially better –that’s a topic for another time but noted for fairness.
To close-out the shit sandwich, the Turkish scenery offered much variety from lush mountainous terrain all along the Black Sea to the stark high altitude Anatolia plains that are covered in snow for much of the year, along with many ancient sights in-between – we were certainly never bored during the more than two thousand kilometres we rode here.