In reaching the last destination on my list, my guide and I passed into Kurdish country- a six hour drive east of Cappadocia. Once the territory was crossed, his demeanor changed: on edge, overly attentive of the surroundings, quieter. I saw the difference, but didn't understand the reason of the one-minute-to-the-next paradigm shift.
"We've entered an unsafe area," Ibrahim stated as if reading my mind.
I looked around me. Aside from being a bit run-down, it wasn't a place that I would have pegged as dangerous.
We pulled over and parked in front of a kebab shop. Ibrahim jumped out to get us lunch. I watched young teenage boys at the neighboring shop play with a pink umbrella.
"It's amazing how well they all speak Turkish," Ibrahim stated as he got back into the car.
A bit confused, I asked why that would be a novelty, especially since we were still in Turkey, albeit Eastern Turkey.
"Because they're Kurds," he stated matter-of-factly, as if that alone was enough of a reason.
The area referred to as Kurdistan was divided amongst the newly formed states of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq in the early 1920's, just after being promised their own sovereign state. The divided land, one rich in oil and water, had been inhabited by the Kurds for over 2000 years. Today Kurds make up over 20% of the population in Turkey. Their culture, language and way of life are distinct to their ethnicity. The Turkish government has tried for years to assimilate the Kurdish people, yet the Kurds' main desire is to create a defined separation in the form of their own country. Requests on both sides are ignored.
"The government will start repairing roads and at night the Kurds will destroy what was fixed. Then they'll complain that the government isn't helping them at all, when in reality the government is giving them special treatment to placate them."
Ibrahim continued by speaking of his cousin who was stationed in Eastern Turkey during his army service. Many in his troop were good friends with a local grocer. A grocer who, one evening, was shot dead after he and other Kurds tried killing the soldiers who frequented his shop.
But it wasn't until driving in the fog filled mountains with low visibility that his voice lowered and he told the story that keeps him unnerved every time he makes the visit eastward.
"It was on one of these roads," he began. "I was 12 and begged my dad to let me join a tour group to Mount Nemrut. When we reached an area like this, a group of dirty long haired, long beard, nasty, really gross looking men with AK-47's ran down the hillside and created a barricade. When the driver slowed to a halt, the men circled the van. Our driver tried calming the women in the van saying 'it is going to be ok, it will all be ok' but he was shaking himself."
"One man banged the driver side window with the butt of his gun yelling at the driver to open the door. Every time the gun hit the window, the women would scream. We thought we were going to die."
He paused, recalling the memory. "The old woman held me tight as I cried."
"The driver finally rolled down the window after the nasty man threatened to shoot. 'Let me see your papers! Let me see your papers!' the man demanded. 'Who are you and what are you doing here,' he continued to scream. Our driver explained he was a tour guide and just taking a group of tourists to see the ruins on Nemrut."
"The man looked in the back at all the crying women and then back at our driver. 'You can go,' he stated, 'but don't be out at night and be careful!' He motioned for the rest of the guys to back away from the car, but our driver said 'wait!' and then asked who they were and why they stopped us."
"They were the secret police. The license plate on the van wasn't local and looked suspicious, which is why they stopped us. But we were nervous the rest of our trip."
Over twenty years have passed, but Ibrahim still remains nervous. On our return back to Cappadocia he would occasionally comment, "we're still not in the safe zone," and once we were, his shoulders softened.