Photographs and narratives by ROBERT LEUTHEUSER from and of his travels through Kurdistan and the greater Middle East. Published in conjunction with his photographic website

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28 November 2009

Hoping the Weather Holds, Diyarbakir

7 November 2009 – Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey

In spite of brimming the river banks, the surface of Tigris' gray-brown water appeared peaceful as it rushed south to Syria. The week of rains were welcomed after a dry autumn in southeastern Turkey. I decided to take advantage of a break in the weather on my last of many days in Diyarbakir to walk through the puzzle of narrow streets in the old city – a municipality known as Suriçi – and along a stretch of the city walls looking down on the river.

Diyarbakir is the largest city in southeastern Turkey, officially estimated to have a population of 600,000 (but widely accepted to be at least twice that figure) overwhelmingly dominated by Kurds. Its population swelled during the 1984 -1999 guerrilla-styled Separatist War that pitted the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) guerrillas against the massive Turkish military juggernaut that, among many other things, employed the oft-used tactic of forcibly emptying and/or destruction of Kurdish villages thought to be providing succor to the PKK, who also victimized villagers. It is estimated that about 3,000 villages were so emptied and 1.5 million Kurds displaced. Many of the refugees streamed into Diyarbakir and other cities in southeastern Turkey, as well as in western Turkey cities such as Istanbul and Izmir. The effects on the unambiguous Kurdish social structure, still fully intact in the villages, have been profound. Urban poverty is a driving factor.

After a leisurely morning wander through the maze of passageways enlivened by occasional, if not rudimentary, banter with women and children sitting on the stoops, I emerged to the massive tower-studded black basaltic walls that encircle Suriçi. They are 5½ kilometers long and up to 9 meters high, and as magnificent as they are forbidding. I left the cramped surroundings to walk along the exterior base of the walls admiring cloud-laced sky, and the near-bucolic scene of garden plots that stretched along the Tigris and crept up the slopes.

As I walked three teen-aged boys approached and asked if I would take their photo. I agreed directing them to a spot that held feint promise for a good image. But apparently it wasn't to their liking so they drifted out of my awareness. It was a glorious morning. I heard voices behind me and thought little of it. A hand from behind shot in and out of my front pocket. With speed like that who needs finesse? The futile chase was on. I scrambled up the embankment behind the them, hurling universal English profanities - and a couple of rocks - along the way. I raced through a hole in the city walls but they had disappeared into the warren. The booty? A half a pack of cigarettes.

I was livid, and although not naive, obviously had once again become a bit too lax. Indeed, 2 years prior some children tried to steal from my camera bag while I walked through the back passages, and 5 years prior to that I was present when two young Kurdish men were caught trying to steal religious artifacts from a bunker of an Armenian chapel. And of course, the warnings of such thievery have been constant from local friends and acquaintances through my years of visiting.

I remembered what someone had recently related to me - A Kurd would be more likely to kill you than to steal from you - a notion which at first I thought preposterous. But I thought about it, and slowly came to realize that it was consistent with my (and most if not all others') estimation of the inordinately high value Kurds place on honor in their traditional societies. Therein lay the problem. Desperation was posting small victories in its war with honor.

Knowing that there was no future in continued pursuit, I resumed my walk determined to enjoy the day. Along the way another teen approached me and asked for money. As I was giving him a peace of my mind, an old man with his grandson in tow walked up and gave the teenager a spirited tongue lashing. The teen skulked away.

At the old man's insistence I walked back to town with he and the boy. He told me that his nephew was getting married tomorrow in a clearing by the city wall. He thought the weather would hold. I told him I thought it would.

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