It was a packed dolmuş ride to Batman, and the unlucky barrage of disasters I experienced along the way seemed to indicate that I would never make alive it to that fabled place with a superhero’s name. In the hot rickety minivan I sat next to a young family of affable Turks or Kurds (whose eastern accents made it sound as if each was constantly hawking up phlegm) and helped them to pacify their baby in the bright, burning afternoon heat, earning their favor in the process. The father gave me his infant child and asked me to hold him up to the dry wind rushing in from the yellow open window, and I realized quite abruptly that this was the first time I had ever held a baby before, and that despite my disgust with this particularly ugly child and my nonstop efforts to keep it from shrieking in my ears at all costs, there was something elemental and primordial about holding someone so young, small, and helpless—someone largely unknown to the world and to himself, with infinite potential, the capability to do anything, despite the unluckiness of his fate to be born to a family of sheepherders near the besieged Kurdish stronghold of Diyarbakır.
The father interrogated me in bemused Turkish for maybe an hour, and the entire minivan looked on without shame at us for the entirety of the trip, with one maiden aunt glaring at me with the usual Eastern mixture of terror, boredom, and curiosity stretching out her pale rubbery face, every single time I moved—and I may exaggerate sometimes but I do not exaggerate here. Two younger school teachers, each of whom possessed a smattering of English, attempted to converse with me, and asked me to tell the world that the people there are not terrorists. They gave me what seems to be a collection of bookmarks that quote the Koran in Arabic and Turkish, and said that to read it, even if I didn’t understand it, would bring me luck—proving to me that there is little ultimate difference to the superstitious folk religions scattered across the world, and that most are primarily concerned with simple rituals that bring the believer fortune, as if the creator of the universe cares about such things. I can remember the scam in Luang Prabang, in Laos on the other side of the planet, at the foot of the beautiful green mountain called Phu Si, where tourists are asked to pay money to free baskets of sparrows—“it will be lucky for you!”—which are probably either caught again or simply trained to come back to roost as soon as the tourist skidaddles up to the top to see a giant Buddha footprint.
Let’s also just say a little about the mutual media manipulation going on in our two cultures, made obvious by the conversation with the two kindergarten teachers—everyone in the West thinks all Muslims are terrorists, everyone in the East thinks all Westerners think all Muslims are terrorists. Oh television! If only you didn’t keep people so scared and divided! If only these people didn’t elect politicians who freely dole out blank checks to the military! This is obviously unfortunate for everyone since I think most people could be friends regardless of the various ridiculous species of kookiness bouncing around in their heads.
I stuffed two cold water bottles in the baby’s shirt and was kissed on my forehead by the father after I told him that I would not be drinking any water in front of them since everyone in the minivan was observing Ramadan. They were all undoubtedly parched, exhausted, and irritable by midafternoon from drinking no water and eating no food in a vast, arid furnace, and for me to drink even a single drop would surely have infuriated them (though I think it would take a bit more to break their facade of hospitality). To be without water in such a place for even half an hour is intensely uncomfortable. Children are supposed to be exempt from taking part in the challenges of Ramadan, and the baby in the dolmuş certainly was, but on a different trip I later saw a young boy, maybe only six years old, sucking a few drops of water through the cap of a full bottle that his father—the driver, a suicidal asshole—refused to allow him to open.
The dolmuş broke down twice in the middle of the road, there were all kinds of other vicissitudes, but everything was worth Hasankeyf, where I soon, somehow, arrived…