The Children of Basmane

This summer I spent more time in Izmir’s Syrian neighborhood of Basmane than anywhere else. One of the reasons I like Basmane so much is that it’s one of the most diverse places in Turkey. The population of Basmane consists almost entirely of refugees from every part of Syria. This means I can have coffee with an atheist Yazidi Kurdish intellectual from a mountain city, and go next door and have coffee with an Arab devout Muslim trucker from a tiny village in the middle of the desert.

Without the normal social prisms that determine where people live based off of race, religion, social status, or money, Basmane has become a neighborhood of Syria’s bright stars, all concentrated into a single neighborhood.

One of Basmane’s brightest stars is Nour, a 19 year old Syrian woman. I met Nour while I was teaching at a volunteer-run school for Syrian children. She was the dance teacher. I was the English teacher. Later, I heard that she also wrote for the Arabic facebook page of ReVi, which is the organization that we volunteer under.

(You can find more information about ReVi here.)

A couple months ago ReVi started a project where we gave children disposable cameras. The children took photos throughout their neighborhood. An idea for a book sprung from this project. To give the photos more context, we decided to interview the children of Basmane.

After interviewing the children, Nour wrote articles from them. Because the articles were written in Arabic, I enlisted the help of a couple more Syrians, in order to translate and edit what Nour had written.

These are the articles Nour wrote. According to everyone who has read Nours writing, she has a unique style, and it’s very beautiful. As an editor, I hope I have done these articles justice. Note: I have changed all the names of the children.

Nadia (written by Nour. translated by Ali. edited by Zac.)

Nadia was a shy 10 year old child who was full of dreams. When I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she told me she wanted to be a famous singer like Arabic popstar Nancy Ajram. “She’s my idol,” said Nadia. We talked a lot. I started the interview with a question about her friends.

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Nancy Ajram

Nour: Do you have any friends in Izmir?

Nadia: I have one friend here. They’re Syrian like me. I don’t have any Turkish friends. I don’t think the Turkish people have love for me.

Nadia then started talking about the photography project they did. “I was so happy when we were running through Izmir’s streets and taking photos. It was a really great day. When I saw the photos I felt proud of myself. I want to have another day like that.”

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Basmane. Child’s photo the ReVi photo project.

I asked Nadia about her dreams about the future.

Nadia: I would like to travel the world and discover everything, and I’d really like to see Canada.

Nour: Why Canada?

Nadia: I don’t know, but I’d like to see it.

After that we talked about school.

Nadia: I was studying in Syria. I wanted to keep going to school there, but because of the war, I couldn’t. I also study here but I’m not happy.

Nour: Why?

Nadia: I don’t know why. Maybe I’m afraid. Maybe I can’t cope.

I got the feeling that she was scared in general, not just about school. Everything for her was unknown. She didn’t have confidence in herself. I changed the subject back to Syria.

Nour: If you could send a message to Syria, what would you say?

Nadia: I hope everything is beautiful in Syria. I don’t want to see children without education, or crying. I want to see everybody happy. Enough war. I don’t want to see people carrying weapons. I just want to plant love and flowers.

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Basmane. Child’s photo from the ReVi photo project.

Aysha (written by Nour, translated by Noor, edited by Zac.)

Aysha, ten years old, told me that she loves reading and writing, but she’s still a beginner. She dreamed of being a teacher for children. She has four friends in Izmir, all of them Syrian. She loves them very much.

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Basmane. Child’s photo from the ReVi photo project.

Aysha had a lot of things to say about the war, violence, and sadness because she had direct experience with them. I was struck by her intelligence, clarity, and maturity. She talked like an adult, or maybe better. She told me about everything she saw in the war.

“There was killing, blood, violence, right in front of me. Everything was so difficult. In the beginning I was afraid of everything, but eventually what I saw gave me strength instead of weakness. I have a lot of faith in Syria. I think it will go back to like it was before the war. Just like with me, the terrible things that Syria has witnessed will make it stronger. But it’s still hard to watch right now. I don’t watch the news because I don’t want to see my homeland like this. I want to see it be beautiful again.”

After that, we talked about Aysha’s situation in Turkey. She explained the difference between life in Syria and life in Turkey.

“My life here is not beautiful. Turkish language is not beautiful. It’s hard. I can’t learn it. As for school, I can’t learn there either.”

I asked her, “Why? What’s stopping you?”

She replied, “The world here doesn’t love me. We are Syrians and [the Turkish people] try to shame me for it. They want me to be embarrassed because I’m from Syria. But I’m not embarrassed. Never! I am proud that I’m Syrian. So many Turkish children give us a hard time. When they see a Syrian, they shout bad words. That makes me feel angry. I don’t want to stay here. My only dream is to come back to my homeland. I don’t want anything else.”

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Basmane. Child’s photo from the ReVi photo project.

Kemal (written by Nour. translated by Noor. edited by Zac.)

Kemal was a fifteen year old young man who traveled from his home in Syria, to Izmir, Turkey. In Syria he studied up to the ninth grade, but couldn’t go further because he had to flee the war. He still dreams of becoming a nurse. In the future he wants to build a medical center.

When I first started talking to him, I felt that he was closed off. I couldn’t be sure, but there seemed to be a certain sadness in his eyes. It was like there were many things inside him that were sad and painful.

We start talking about his job and how employers and others treated him. “My job is to sew. Most of the Syrians who are living in Turkey work in this field.” He talked about how hard is it to work in Turkey, and the difference between Syria and Turkey. He saw big difference in treatment between the Turkish laborers and Syrian laborers.

“A Syrian laborer is not allowed to do anything, but it’s exactly the opposite of  the Turkish workers. In Syria there was time for everything. We could work, study, relax, have fun, etc. But in Turkey most of the time is spent working. It’s unfulfilling but I have to do it!” I asked him why he had to work so hard. His answer surprised me.

“I am alone here. My family isn’t with me. They are still in Syria. I talk to them once a month because the internet is so poor right now. That’s why I can’t contact my family. I’ve been away from them for nine months now.”

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Basmane. Child’s photo from the ReVi photo project.

He had been holding back from crying, but wasn’t able to control himself after saying, “I really miss my family.” It is really affected me to see someone who misses their family so much, without being able to contact them. Kemal began talking with me about his thoughts of going back to Syria, but an auntie intervened, not letting him talk about that.

I persisted, asking him, “Why did you decide to go back to Syria?” He told me, “It isn’t enough for me to be near my family. I don’t want to just send them money every month, I want to go to my home with this money.”

He ended the interview by saying, “You shouldn’t ask Syrians these kind of questions, because you are just like us. You got hurt and you have seen everything in this war.”

From all of my heart, I wish that peace returns to my country. I want to go back too.

Arabic versions written by Nour. Names are changed to different names, but the children are the same.

أحمد شاب عمره خمسة عشر عاماً سافر من وطنه سوريا إلى تركيا تحديداً إزمير وقد درس للصف التاسع لكنه لم يحصل على الشهادة بسبب الحرب و السفر كان يحلم ان يصبح ممرض وان يكون له مركز لمساعدة المرضى .
عندما بدأت بالتحدث معه شعرت بأنه منطوي و بداخله اشياء كثيرة ربما هي حزينة او مؤلمة لا اعلم ولكني قد رأيت الحزن في عينيه .
بدأنا بالتحدث عن عمله وعن طريقة تعامل الناس معه في العمل او في غير مكان فكان جوابه ” عملي هو الخياطة وانتي تعلمين معظم السوريين الذي يقيمون في تركيا يعملون في هذا المجال وقد تكلم عن مدى صعوبة العمل في تركيا والفرق الكبير بين سوريا وتركيا وفرق التعامل بين العامل التركي والعامل السوري فالعامل السوري مشدد عليه بكل شيئ اما العامل التركي العكس تماماً .
في سوريا يوجد وقتٌ لكل شيئ للعمل وللدراسة للراحة والتسلية اما في تركيا معظم الوقت في العمل هذا لا يشعرني بالرضى لكني مجبر على ذلك . !
وهنا كان السؤال لما انت مجبر ؟
هنا كانت الصدمة فكانت إجابته ” انا وحيداً هنا وعائلتي ليست معي هي في سوريا إلى الآن أخبرني ايضاً مرة واحدة في الشهر اتكلم معهم بسبب الظروف القاسية للإنترنت لا استطيع التواصل مع عائلتي وانا منذ تسع شهور بعيد عنهم شعرت وكأنه سوف يبكي وقد حصل ذلك عندما قال لي حقاً اشتقت لعائلتي ..
شيئ محزن ان تشتاق لأحد و يكون في مكان بعيد عنك ولا توجد طريقة للوصول إليه ..
أحمد حدثني عن تفكيره في العودة إلى سوريا ولكن عمته التي يسكن في بيتها منعته من حدوث ذلك .
كان سؤالي لماذا فعلت ذلك وقررت العودة إلى سوريا ؟
” يكفيني ان أكون إلى جانب عائلتي لا ان ارسل لهم كل شهر مبلغ من المال اريد ان اذهب مع هذا المال إلى وطني وبيتي ”
في النهاية قال لي لا يجب أن تسألي اي شخص سوري مثل هذه الأسئلة فأنتي مثلنا ايضاً تألمتي و ورأيتي كل شيئ في هذه الحرب .

آتمنى من كل قلبي ان يعود السلام لوطني وان أعود انا لوطني ايضاً . 💔

ريماس :
طفلة في العاشرة من عمرها خجولة جداً لكن حلمها آن تصبح مغنية مشهورة مثل الفنانة نانسي عجرم قالت لي بأنها قدوة بالنسبة لها .
تحدثنا كثيراً كانت بداية اسئلتي عن الاصدقاء هل لديها اصدقاء هنا ام لا ؟
آخبرتني لديي صديقة واحدة فقط هنا هي من سورية ايضاً وليس لدي اصدقاء من تركيا لانني اشعر انهم لآ يحبوني .
ايضاً آخبرتني ” احب التصوير و ايضاً كنت سعيدة جداً عندما تجولنا في شوراع ٱزمير وبدأنا بالتصوير كان يوم رائع بالنسبة لي وعندما رأيت الصور شعرت بالفخر بنفسي واريد مثل هذا اليوم مرة ثانية ”
حدثتني عن آحلامها ان تجول العالم وتكتشف كل شيئ لكن البلد الذي تحب آن تزوره ” كندا ” لا تعلم السبب لكنها تحبه . 😍
ثم تحدثنا عن المدرسة فقالت لي لقد درست في سوريا وكنت آتمنى أن آكمل لكن بسبب الحرب لم استطيع وهنا ايضاً أدرس لكن لست سعيدة لا ادري لماذا .. !
ربما الخوف او ربما عدم التأقلم شعرت بأنها تخاف من كل شئ جديد او مجهول وليس لديها ثقة في نفسها ..
بعد ذلك كان سؤالي لها ” لو طلبنا منك أن ترسلي رسالة ٱلى سوريا ماذا ستكتبين ضمن هذه الرسالة ؟
أجابتني ” آتمنى لسوريا كل شيئ جميل لا اريد أن ارى طفل بدون دراسة او طفل يبكي اريد ان ارى الجميع سعداء يكفي حرب لا اريد ان ارى سلاح بيد احد اريد فقط أن نزرع ورود وحب “
نور : عمرها عشر سنوات تحب القراءة والكتابة لكنها مبتدئة حلمها آن تصبح معلمة للاطفال . لديها آربع اصدقاء في إزمير وتحبهم كثيراً هم ايضاً من سوريا . حدثتني عن اشياء كثيرة عن الحرب العنف الحزن الذي مرت به تكلمت وكأنها فتاة راشدة كانت تتقن وتعلم ما تتكلمه وتخبرني عنه .. ” قالت لقد شاهدت كل شيئ الحرب القتل الدم العنف امامي كان كل شيئ صعب جداً بداية كنت اخاف من كل شيئ لكن هذا الشيئ مع الوقت منحني القوة وليس الضعف منحني الإرادة ايضاً ولذلك لدي إيمان قوي بأن سوريا سوف تعود مثل سابق عهدها لكني لا اشاهد الآخبار لانني لا اريد آن ارى وطني بهذا الشكل اريد ان اراها جميلة ” بعد ذلك حدثتني عن وضعها في تركيا وشرحت الفرق بين سوريا وتركيا من حيث الاصدقاء اللغة المدرسة ايضاً وقالت ” حياتي هنا ليست جميلة لغتهم صعبة ولا آتقنها ايضا ًدراستهم لا اريد ان آتعلمها وسألتها ماهو السبب ؟ أجابت ” أظن ان العالم هنا لا يحبوننا نحن السورين يريدون ان تكوني محرجة من آنك سوريا لكني لا اخجل من هذا الشئ ابداً بل افتخر أنني سورية . ايضاً هنالك اطفال اتراك هنا عندما يعلمون انك سوريا يصرخون بكلمات سيئة وهذا يشعرني بالغضب لا اريد ان ابقى هنا حلمي فقط آن اعود ٱلى وطني ولا اريد شيئاً آخر .. “
The Children of Basmane

The Grey, Part II of THE BLACK, THE GREY, AND THE WHITE; A BRIEF EXPLORATION OF THE THREE CITIES OF IRAQI KURDISTAN.

I am flying over the Iraqi desert in a half empty medium sized aircraft. The closest passenger is three rows behind me and snoring loudly. My GPS freezes after leaving Turkish airspace, so I play a game of looking out the window to guess where I am. While I am probably somewhere between Dohuk and Erbil, the surface below reminds more of Mars than anything else. An endless series of cracked canyons is embedded between thin mountain chains in the otherwise flat desert. These thin scars stretch between both horizons.

As we begin our descent, I start to notice long white columns of smoke rising from the mountains below. The smoke is organic, the product of burning farmland. It is a refreshingly natural sight. Burning crop waste has been practiced by farmers since prehistoric times in order to fertilize the next crop.

In the distance I see more smoke. This time in the form of a black mushroom could, an indication of a bomb or air strike hitting somewhere in the direction of Mosul.

As we get closer to Erbil, haze from the dozens of oil refineries below trickles into the air, forming an opaque grey ocean between the plane and the airport. “Welcome to Erbil,” says the pilot over the loudspeaker, “the current temperature is 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit). We hope you’ve enjoyed your flight.” The plane drops into the grey ocean like a star falling into a camp fire. In the muddy air I make out the skyline of this once booming oil city.

Although I bought the plane ticket to Iraq on a whim a couple weeks before, I was always drawn this country. I had been interested in Iraq since I was a child. When I was four years old, Bush launched the US into the first Gulf War. While my playmates were intrigued by plastic superheroes like Superman and the Turtles, I was obsessed with Saddam Hussein. The idea that absolute evil could have absolute power was fascinating because I felt that absolute good is by its nature, was unable to have absolute power.

The week the US began its invasion of annexed Kuwait, I bought a miniature army set and constantly re-enacted Saddam Hussein’s world, obsessing over the details of military purges and the placement of troops during his invasion and inevitable retreat.

Now I was here in Iraq: a land which has not only been miniaturized through my toys, but also miniaturized through the lens of newspapers, and through distance, politics, language and cultural barriers. Finally, this land was beginning to expand from outside my airplane window.

The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.

This is going to be a different kind of travel essay. First of all, it will be written in three parts, out of order. For example, I visited Erbil first, but I will speak about it now, in this second part.

Second, I will only write about what I saw and heard. If I were to begin writing about the history of these cities, I might as well begin writing an encyclopedia. Erbil alone, is considered by some archaeologists to be the first city in the history of the world. It’s hard to fathom how much culture and yore these cities have accumulated.

Third, again, unlike good journalism, I am not going to write the truth. I’m only going to write what I was told, read, and saw. Perhaps I’m spending too much time in the Middle East, or perhaps it’s my upbringing in a cult, but I believe in order to understand people and cultures, I have to understand their truths separately from the facts. If everyone acts on a truth that diverges from reality, how valuable is that truth compared to reality? When studying history, the facts mean everything. When observing culture, facts are things that usually get in the way.

 

Part Two

The Grey: Erbil

 

There is a grey chemical haze that envelops Erbil like a fog cap on a mountain. The haze comes from three main sources; oil refineries, car exhaust, and generators. The oil refineries around Erbil have transformed the parched land into a sunny Mordor. It is hard to imagine so much smoke being pumped into the air by anything other than a chain of active volcanoes. Yet, as disturbing as these refineries are, they are the lifeblood of this nation.

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Erbil is one of the oldest, if not the oldest city, in the world. Although in its current incarnation, the city has become a tiny Los Angeles. Its streets are as wide as freeways. Its layout requires cars, yet there is no public transportation. The seemingly unregulated exhaust from the endless stream of traffic puts a layer of dusty particles on everything, including my skin, which made me feel like I was living in a drizzle of soot.

While the refineries and cars do some unfortunate things to Erbil’s atmosphere, I believe it’s the generators that do the real damage. The power goes out in Erbil once or twice an hour which prompts thousands of diesel generators to simultaneously turn on, making the inside of houses and hotel rooms smell like the inside of train engine, and the outside a train yard. This said, I suppose one gets used to the air, and it’s the worst in the Summer.

Although most Iraqi-Kurdistan was astonishingly in tune with its surroundings, Erbil had an unnatural “green-zone” feel to it. Still, it was not set up for travelers. For example, there were streets lined with dozens of hotels but only one ATM in the city. And it was broken. There were rumours of a second ATM, but it was not found. There were places with names, “Italian village” , “English village” , and “Dream City,” but these were all just heavily guarded gated communities, as out of place with the rest of the city as colonies on the Moon. On top of that, much of Erbil consisted of half built cement mega structures, destined to become mountains of crumbling cement. The global oil crash has not been kind to this city.

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This mall went on forever but only had a few businesses inside.

The center of the city was an exception to the ugliness. As it was the original city, it retained beauty and soul. The elaborately ornate bizarre was massive, loud, and vibrant. The citadel, raised above the rest of the city on a masa, looked too ancient to be real. The plaza below was an aesthetic refuge for the city’s population.

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Erbil’s citizens were also an exception to its ugliness. Everyone I met was kind and thoughtful. The biggest shock came when I had to cross the giant streets. These Niles of asphalt were daunting at first. There were no crosswalks in Erbil, and if there was something that resembled a crosswalk, it was not working because of the chronic lack of electricity. Instead, pedestrians crossed the street by walking from spaces between the lanes.

In my home city of Izmir this would truly be a death sentence. However in Erbil, drivers would press the brake pedal just enough for me to run in front of their car onto the next space between lanes, until I made it all the way across the street. It was a great system. By the end of my trip I was addicted to crossing the street, thrilled at the recognition of my humanity.

Another example of Kurdish thoughtfulness came when I would attempt to buy something. I knew about five words in Kurdish. The Arabic I could speak was a different dialect, and while some people understood a little English, the typical shop owner did not.

In some cultures, not knowing the language and wanting to buy something as simple as a bottle of water, results in a clusterfuck involving a congregation of multiple shop owners, customers, and cellphone calls to the cousin that took an English class in 1982. But in Erbil, I was able to calmly explain things through hand gestures and broken Arabic, until the shop owner understood.

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Taken in a strange neighborhood of broken buildings which had people still living inside.

Even though Erbil did not seem like a functional or even livable city, I look back on it with affection because of the simple appreciations of my humanity – something that is rare for any city. I left Erbil after spending a little over 24 hours there. Perhaps more time would have reveled a better side, but I doubt it.

The Grey, Part II of THE BLACK, THE GREY, AND THE WHITE; A BRIEF EXPLORATION OF THE THREE CITIES OF IRAQI KURDISTAN.