Monday, 31 May 2010

Home Sweet Home

Just a quick note to say we are back in Paris after an exhausting but wonderful week of interviews with Kurds, Turks, Arabs, and Assyrian Christians; bumpy rides on minibuses and leisurely walks through ancient cities; little sleep and much talking; and many, many cups of tea.
It's been an intense trip because we had so little time - we even skipped Istanbul to concentrate on remote south-eastern Turkey - but I hope to travel to the region again later this year.
I'll be publishing some posts on my favourite moments, and a lot of the material will find its way into my novel, "The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages."

Eternal Quest for the Elusive Sugarlump

"Would you like to come to the Turkish-Syrian border with me?" I asked my friend Sophie T. a few weeks ago. "It's very hot and there's not much to see."

"Sounds great!" she replied, and a few days later she had booked her flight. That's a proper hack for you.

It was only when we arrived here that I realised I had completely undersold the trip. There is lots to see - ancient monasteries, cave cities, carved stone mansions - not surprising given that we're in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation (Dan has started making a cradling movement whenever I say this). But when I planned my journey, I was so focused on the things I needed to find out for my novel that I somehow forgot about the sight-seeing aspect. One of the main items on my list was the practice of "kitlama", or drinking tea through a special rock-hard sugarlump (there shouldn't be a dot on the i but I couldn't find the right letter on my keyboard).

By the end of the trip, Sophie T. knew more about kitlama than she ever wanted to find out.

Amazingly, she never once complained that we were spending our time traipsing through tiny, crammed dried-goods shops, miming "tea-drinking" and "sugarlump" to shop owners, being met each and every time with puzzled looks at first, then contemplative head-scratching, then bing!, an expression of "Ha, I know what you mean!" The shop owner would reach up, rummage through tins and boxes, turn to us with a proud smile and hold out a cardboard box of...ordinary sugar cubes.
And we would shake our heads and mime biting on a hard sugarlump.

"Hmmm," the shop owner would finally sigh in a moment of sad understanding. "They only have those in Van."

That didn't stop us from trying again in the next town, hoping that at some point we might run into a shopkeeper from Van.

We also staged a few experiments to test different types of sugar. Here is Sophie T. trying to use a normal sugar cube for kitlama, with mixed results.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Kite Runners of Mardin

Watching the children of Mardin fly their kites in the cool evening breeze over the Turkish-Syrian border made me think of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. The Mardin version is a bit different - Hosseini's kite-running involves one person holding the string and the other running far ahead with the kite, which works on the wide Afghan plains but would be a bit difficult to practice on a Mardin roof terrace.

For a novelist, the advantage of the Afghan version is that it's done in pairs, providing a neat metaphor for friendship:

"Do you want me to run that kite for you?"

His Adam's apple rose and fell as he swallowed. The wind lifted his hair. I thought I saw him nod.

"For you, a thousand times over," I heard myself say.
(The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, 2003)

Here in Mardin, the boy on the terrace lay his kite on the ground, then somehow jerked it up using the strings. The girl's main task was to be a sceptical observer.

It's not as efficient as the running method, I think, because the kite kept falling flat. But it looked like they had lots of fun.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Relaxing in Mardin

Our hotel in Mardin - Erdoba Evleri. Not the most flattering photo of us, especially compared to the stunningly beautiful carved stone arch.

View over Syria from the hotel terrace...and travelling companion Sophie T hard at work. This place would be an international honeymoon favourite if only the Syria-Turkey-Iraq intersection had a better reputation.

Roj bash from Diyarbakır

Yesterday in Diyarbakır - we had tea in this lovely courtyard, followed by tea by the Tigris, followed by tea in a beautiful old gallery, followed by kebab, beer and dancing. Diyarbakır is mostly described as grim and depressing, but we were lucky to have local friends who showed us some amazing places. My favourite was a row of cushioned wooden platforms by the Tigris: families and groups of friends chilling out, drinking tea and enjoying the river view.
Internet access is a bit of an issue...will write more detailed posts later.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Chapter One

A few weeks ago, my helpful friend Wendy introduced me to an expert in all things Kurdish. We were sitting outside a bar here in Paris and she told him that I was going to south-eastern Turkey to work on my novel, which features various Kurdish characters.

"Sophie's case is a bit unusual in that she's already written the book and is now doing the research," Wendy said.

This is almost true.

When I started writing my novel, "The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages", I was working for a news agency and knew I would have very little time for private research. At first, this wasn't a problem. The novel is partly based on the experiences of a Kurdish friend of mine, and he was happy to share his life story (the result is a work of fiction, but it was great to be able to discuss it with him). The action takes place in Germany and France - again, research was quite easy as I grew up in Germany and now live in France. Paris is home to a fantastic Kurdish Institute, with a collection of poems, songs and 19th century travellers' accounts that helped me shape the adventures of Prof. Tournesol, one of the characters.

As for the title: last year, Paris's town hall actually issued a manual to help registrars detect forced marriages (though my fictionalised version differs from the original in many ways).

The one missing piece was Kurdistan. Several characters in the book come from the cities of Cizre and Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey - cities I have never visited. While none of the action takes place in those cities, it still felt important to have seen them and talked to people there.

So, having sold the manuscript and quit the day job, I'll now be able to complete my research before the final draft is due. I can't quite believe my luck! Wendy, the Kurdish expert I mentioned and many other friends have helped me plan this trip - and no-one seems to find it odd that I'm tagging on a bit of extra research.

Thank you for reading this blog; I'll be keeping you updated from Istanbul, Cizre and Diyarbakir.