The occasion of this post is to share with you some of my discoveries about the city of Van, a city on the eastern fringes of Turkey. Often referred to as a “border outpost” town by both foreigners and their own countrymen to the west, this city is indeed an interesting one from several perspectives: Van is overwhelmingly Kurdish, a factor in Turkish politics; the geographic location of the city makes it a crossroads for several countries with decidedly different regional and global political aims, and lastly (as far as this short-list is concerned, anyway); Turkey’s eastern region – of which Van is the centerpiece – seeks a national economic relevance which appears to elude it at present.
The first point I bring up, concerning Van’s ethnic landscape, is very important to present-day Turkish internal affairs. The bane of just about every historical empire ever to have flung its borders outward, modern Turkey suffers from a separatist element within its population. In their case, Kurdish separatism has a violent aspect which frequently employs terror-tactics not unlike those in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m an outsider, so don’t necessarily take my word for this, but from what I can gather, the average Kurd is not interested in breaking free from Turkey. On the other hand, there is a militant political party which claims to represent the Kurdish interest; they are very much interested in their own autonomous homeland.
Van has a sort of border-outpost flavor due to another factor: its peak position in the pyramid between Syria, Iraq and Iran. Major routes from each of these countries lead north, eventually into Van. Nowhere is this more evident than in my hotel’s parking lot or the hotel lobby. Iranian license plates intermingle with Iraqi ones, and Arabic-speaking businessmen occupy every square-inch of couch space next to the revolving entrance door. Clairvoyant that I surely must be, I had already deduced in advance that there was no way I would be doing any heavy “blending-in” during my stay. I was surprised, and more than a little caught off-guard by the complete lack of English knowledge out here, though. Hotel employees, workers in the restaurants and even in the airport have so far been very patient with me, but take a guess at how far you can get when you’re five minutes into repeating the same set of questions, over and over again. And to my Turkish counterpart’s credit during one such episode, it sounded like he was doing the same thing in his language. The patience on their part is astounding, and fits squarely with the Turkish reputation for exceeding hospitality. I am sure I will return to this theme of Turkish hospitality, because it is consistent.
The hospitality and service industry is frankly a good segue to the last observation I have regarding this area so far. Van is a fairly big place – too big for the muted economic activity in evidence. I am trying to guard from making any broad-brush statements about the place, and there has certainly been a deleterious effect on local infrastructure from the October 2011 earthquake out here, but even prior to that calamity the Turkish government had been casting about for ways to better-integrate this region into the greater Turkish economy. In part, binding Van province more tightly to Ankara would serve both an economic and a political purpose; money inflow might even help to take some of the steam out of calls for regional separatism, although economic considerations usually tend to hold little weight among separatists the world over.
The earthquake has wreaked considerable havoc throughout the city. Whole blocks of apartment buildings in a formerly attractive city have been rendered unusable, and are currently in various stages of the knock-down/rebuild process. Everywhere you look, buildings stand vacant with ominous vertical cracks running top to bottom. Conservative estimates place the total lost living space at 10%, leaving 60,000 of a roughly 600,000 in makeshift shelter camps such as the ubiquitous metal shed compounds on the outskirts of town. It must be underscored, though, that the Turkish government is working around the clock to create new apartment buildings and suitable residences for these displaced people. The massive effort stands in brilliant contrast to what I saw in Georgia a few months ago, which even today is warehousing its IDPs (internally displaced as a result of the 2008 Russo-Georgia War) in similar compounds with scant relief in sight. Where in Georgia the IDP relocation issue is to a great extent an election campaign item, here in Turkey there is a sense of urgency altogether divorced from politics.
Well, I hope that gives you at least an initial snapshot of what this place is about. I’m looking at the calendar with no small trepidation, because – like always – there is more to do than time in which to do it. I’ll tell you this with zero reservation, though: eastern Turkey is absolutely beautiful, rugged, wild… fun. Get out here, if you can make it.