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  • Writer's pictureDominik Täuber

Eastern Anatolia


Somewhere between tourism and war


"Are you really here as a tourist?" the receptionist asks me in amazement.

There don't seem to be too many Western guests in the southeasternmost part of Turkey, in the border region with Iraq and Iran. A bloody conflict between Kurdish fighters and Turkish security forces has been raging here for decades. Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives in the conflict. Time and again, there are attacks and firefights.

But it was not necessarily this conflict that originally motivated me to travel to this region. Through a report on zeit.de ("Dann fahr'n wir raus zum Vansee", December 16, 2010) I became aware of the scenic beauty and cultural diversity of Eastern Anatolia. A few months later, in October 2017, I was on a plane and flew via Istanbul to Van and the lake of the same name, which is the largest in Turkey.

As a photographer, I wanted to get to know the country and its people and thus form my own picture.



The lake Van

It is almost too warm for this time of year. The cool wind, which blows in my face on the twenty-minute boat ride to the island of Akdamar, does me good.

On the boat there is still a group of students who are immediately interested in me. With a little English and help from a translation program on the smartphone, we can communicate. They are obviously very happy that I visit their country, Kurdistan, as they call it. The obligatory group photo with the guest from the West must not be missing, of course.


There I stand now. Inconspicuous and yet full of splendor, the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross towers over Lake Van. It was originally built by order of a king of Vaspurakan, the Armenian empire at that time. Today it is the main sight at Lake Van, a popular destination for excursions and a photo motif.

Besides Turks, many Iranians from the near neighboring country come to visit.

On my tour near the lake, I still visit the fortress in Van, which towers above the city on a rock massif, as well as the tombs of Ahlat. However, it is especially the people to whom I would like to dedicate my trip.



Welcome

Sheep, shepherds and sheep wool as far as the eye can see. During my daily encounters with the local people, mostly Muslims, I especially meet numerous shepherds. Whenever they see me, they approach me warmly and want me to photograph them. I am often invited to eat and drink with them and sit around the campfire. Linguistically, we can almost not communicate. But the facial expressions and gestures, the great hospitality, say more than any words.


During an excursion into the crater of Nemrut Daği I meet a group of men sitting around a fire. As soon as they catch sight of me, they beckon me to join them. A bit hesitantly I join the group and am immediately invited for tea and food. With a little English we can exchange ideas. They are from Istanbul and are visiting the area. We talk about the beauty of the region but also about the local conflict. They are very happy that I am visiting their country, especially now, when in Germany there is certainly not a good image of Turkey in terms of politics.



The conflict on the ground

The further south I travel, especially in the region around Hakkari and Yüksekova, the more I encounter Turkish military. Again and again there are bombings and fights in these areas.

At the numerous security checks, I am first received somewhat skeptically and sometimes have to explain to generals my motivation for wanting to travel so far into Kurdish areas as a photographer. Many places and sometimes even whole valleys can only be reached through military posts. Some of them may only be visited during the day. At night there is a police blockade.

The controls, which I pass daily, can sometimes take a long time. After you are the first in the queue in the car, you get a sign to drive into a kind of protective corridor, which is fenced in by thick concrete walls. There follows the identity check and questioning where one wants to travel with what motivation.

Despite the tense situation I am treated very friendly and invited several times to drink a tea with the soldiers or to sit down at the fire and eat together. Probably I am simply an interesting change and offer some entertainment in the face of the tense everyday life.



Curiosity

I feel this especially in the villages of Eastern Anatolia. I walk through the small settlement of Güzelsu. Many houses have collapsed. If it weren't for the occasional clothesline hanging in front of the house, one might think that the place was deserted. Then a young girl catches sight of me from her window. A little hesitantly she comes out, waves to me and greets me. It does not take long and I am the attraction of the day. The village community gathers around me and gives me a warm welcome. It is clearly noticeable how the people want to exchange ideas with me. Unfortunately, there is a lack of a common language.



Islam

I was deeply impressed by the open-mindedness and friendliness of the people towards me, a stranger from the West. In the general reporting and in the opinion of many people in our country, Islam and Muslims do not always come off so well. It is often argued with prejudices and generalizations, which the Muslims have towards us people in the West. This was another reason for me to travel to an Islamic country and see for myself what it is like there.


Eastern Anatolia may not be a typical vacation destination. However, if you travel there with an open mind and follow general safety rules, you can have wonderful experiences.


Visited regions & places:

Van, Görecek, Caldiran, Gevas, Göründü, Altinsac, Hizan, Tatvan, Ahlat, Bitlis, Catak, Cavustepe, Güzelsu, Hakkari, Yüksekova


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