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Chapter 20: Soft Starter

From the border crossing near Zakho I headed for Cizre (pronounced Gizre with a soft "g") - a purely strategic choice, in the right direction and at a doable distance. The further my journey goes, I expect this to be the main deciding factor, rather than crossing between particular points of interests. That doesn't mean there will be fewer stories to tell, as they are found wherever there are people. It only means the stories will be less predictable as I won't know what I will find there. For Cizre, other than that there was someone to host me, I know absolutely nothing.

For the first time since arriving in the Middle East I was hosted by a local woman, Fatma, marking a clear step in a progressive direction from the gender roles in Iraq. Cizre is still seen as a traditional and conservative area in Türkiye, even among the Kurdish-majority cities (Kurdish culture being generally more traditional than Turkish). There are many subtle nuances to cultural expectations, and l am still new to keeping track of them. In Cizre most women showed their hair but skin on legs and mostly arms were still covered, and I learned that an unmarried woman strolling with me would still be judged, if not shunned. It will take a long time before predicting, sensing and navigating strongly gendered cultures come natural to me.

Fatma kept friends around her at all times during my visit, I assume partly to prevent gossiping. I was all the happier for it since they were all lovely folk. I also got the first taste of the Kurdish perspective on the agendas in Türkiye. Whereas the media depiction has led to massive misrepresentation of Iraq, the international news from Kurdish Turkey seemed a bit more locally grounded, and the general standpoints among the Kurds where in line with expectations. But support for PKK, feelings about turks in general and hopes for the future vary wildly between individuals in the Kurdish community. Commonalities include that everybody want to practice their culture and strengthen their language, and while there is a dream of a Kurdish nation most people want to live in peace and see their kids grow up safely more than anything else.

Conversations with me took almost exclusively part through a translator. It would later continue to prove true that english is considerably worse in eastern Türkiye than in Iraq. This should come as no surprise since Iraq has been a British colony and under control of US-lead forces, but somehow I was again ignorant to the facts and thought that everything would gradually become more "western" as I moved west. In hindsight I see that the level of English in Iraq was high for having little tourism and a lacking education system after wars and corruption the past decades. In contrast, Kurds in Türkiye seem to care less for English and are more eager for education in another language: their own.

I met plenty of memorable characters in Cizre. Halime, a little sunshine of a woman who were always close to laughter. Laila, a teacher who would be my choice if I had kids of my own. Özge, a gorgeous volleyballer whose name made me appreciate the alien sound of Turkish to my Swedish ears. Fatma herself, a divorced mother of two, who took care of me as if I was another son of hers. Yet, perhaps most charming of all was Baha.

While I learned about the others through translated words, Baha somehow communicated a lot just in his way of being. It strikes me now that I did not ask any information about him, yet I feel that I knew all that I needed. Baha was liked by everyone and generous to a fault with all he had to share, including his time. More than that, he had a way of moving, smiling and talking that made me calmly confident of his kindness and of his honesty. I do not know what he said, but whatever it was it came from a big heart. And when he picked up the guitar and sang, it was not to impress anybody, only to give from that heart and let others join in. His voice rang as true as his soul, and listening as the friends followed his lead through Turkish tunes invoked a deep feeling of peace. Eventually I had to go to bed, but not before explicitly asking them to keep singing as I could think of no better sound to rock me to sleep.

I still expected Türkiye to be tough, much tougher than Iraq had been. The soft starter in Cizre was a well needed reload before cycling corner to corner in the biggest country by far throughout my journey to Sweden, more than twice the size of any other.


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