Night Train To Kurdistan
We decided to go to Iraq overland from Istanbul.
The route was like this: a three-night sleeper train from Istanbul to Diyarbakir, a bus from Diyarbakir to a border town called Silopi, and from there across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan, to Irbil.
The train we took was called the Güney Ekspres, and leaves every other night at 10:55 PM from Haydarpaşa station, a ten-minute walk from the Kadiköy ferry stop on the Anatolian side of Istanbul.
We got to the train early, and the only other people on it were an Iraqi family from Mosul. The father, Haitham, spoke to me in high FusHa (Classical Arabic), articulating every syllable with the utmost clarity. He had been an English teacher under Saddam, but recently his father had gotten sick so he had to take over the family textile import business. He had been to Istanbul six times, but never with his family, and never overland. He said they were returning overland because 8 plane tickets (him, his wife, his two sisters, and four young children) would have been more than 1500 dollars. Over the coming days, Haitham and I spoke often, and Rachael and I shared food and tea with him and his family many times.
Our bunk was shared by a family of three, and a young man from Kayseri who had been in Istanbul for a month visiting his older brothers. He said he was in high school, and I asked how many years he had left. He replied, saying he was going into his senior year. “And after?” I asked, to which he answered with a salute. Military service is mandatory here. “But!” he said, and placed two fingers on his shoulder. He explained that he had done a high school pre-army training program similar to the JrROTC, and he would enter as a junior officer. He said he was looking forward to it.
The train pulled into Eskişehir around four AM, and the family who shared our cabin got out and was replaced by two young guys on their way home to Batman, in eastern Turkey. I was drifting in and out of sleep, listening to the conversation between them and the young soon-to-be recruit. He asked, “Did you study foreign languages?” They replied, good-naturedly, “Well, Turkish is a foreign language for us.”
The morning came, and people filtered out of their cabins into the hall to watch the countryside pass by. I was approached by a twenty-something guy from Istanbul who spoke idiomatic English, and we talked for a while over a cup of tea. He studied hotel management and said he worked at a five-star hotel in Istanbul, and that meeting and speaking with tourists was his favorite thing, because it gave him a glimpse of a world beyond Turkey. He declared that he hates being Turkish, and said he would rather have been born a dog. He asked me about Texas, “Is it like in the movies, with the big hats? Guns, gambling, horses…and jeans?” When I said it probably was, in some places, he sighed a long sigh, saying, “They don’t have no problems there.” It occured to me, then, that the desire to flee is so innate to the human experience that it manifests in all places, all walks of life, no matter how privileged. For me, Istanbul is a wonderful, incredible city. For those who were born within it, it is just home, and somewhere else is undoubtedly better. He tells me that by sixteen he had memorized the map of Manhattan (which he pronounced MANatin, to rhyme with manatee), and could tell you what to see anywhere in the city.
By noon, our co-cabinists were asleep, so Rach and I put the top bunk up and had a picnic on the middle one. Tuna sandwiches, pumpkin seeds, nutella filled crepes.
We pass through countrysides of rolling hills, small villages with a single minaret, and burnt meadows.
When you look out the window of the train, the heads and elbows of the other passengers are there with you, watching the countryside pass by.
After we passed Kayseri, I was speaking to a boistrous older Kurdish man sporting a Stalin moustache. He gestured out the window with a karate-chop motion. “Here,” he said, “Kurdistan begins.”
Next in the series: Diyarbakir: The Houses of Bakir.
All photos by Rachael Strecher.