The global journey of Cao Sao Vàng (Golden Star Balm)

One thing I’ve learnt in life is that no matter how much the world changes, you can trust it to be profoundly weird in the most unexpected ways. I was reminded of this recently by a certain old-school Vietnamese product. It all started when I talked to a Kazakhstani acquaintance at university in the US, who mentioned that the only thing he knew about Vietnam was that we produce Golden Star Balm. A little bit of back-translation made me realise that he meant Cao Sao Vàng, which was a product that I hadn’t thought of for many, many years. To me, it recalled a whole range of inexpensive products that were produced by state-owned enterprises during the command-economy era and which were ubiquitous before Vietnam opened up fully to the global economy. These products tended to have a very particular design aesthetic that made them immediately recognisable. With increased competition from imports, most of these products are no longer as prominent but can still often be found in their original forms (having survived partly because of nostalgia but also partly because many of them were and still are quite high quality – I still buy Lubico coconut biscuits, although I now buy them from a brightly-lit supermarket shelf where they’re placed with a hundred other biscuit choices from a dozen countries rather than from a dark cupboard in a corner store where they were the only type available). Others have undergone changes to compete with new products and tend to be indistinguishable from them at this point. But what does this all have to do with Kazakhstan?

The answer to this lies in the Cold War. During the command economy era, Vietnam was part of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, known as COMECON for short (Сове́т Экономи́ческой Взаимопо́мощи or СЭВ in Russian). This meant that Vietnam traded largely with the other Communist countries. As a poor country that was at war, Vietnam mostly exported agricultural products and… Golden Star Balm (not a bad exchange for industrial equipment!). The balm consists largely of camphor, cajeput oil, peppermint oil, menthol, and cinnamon oil and is part of a class of medicated oils that are used by Vietnamese people for colds, bug bites, and nausea (although my dad himself preferred Phật Linh brand… which I have just learned is stocked by Walmart). It was first produced in North Vietnam in the late 1960s and was introduced in the Soviet Bloc by Vietnamese students and other travellers before becoming a major export to the USSR and Eastern Europe after Vietnamese reunification in 1975. In retrospect, it seems like a perfect product for the Soviet market, as its warming effect makes it well suited for the bitterly cold winters. Combined with the iconic socialist design, the product seemed destined to be a winner.

Proudly brought to you by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

What has fascinated me, however, is that its popularity in the export markets endured even after it lost market share in Vietnam. Indeed, when my mother attended an Asia-wide conference, the Russian representative requested that she bring coffee and… Golden Star Balm, which was also well-received by the representative of Mongolia (another former member of COMECON). The balm has been recognised by friends and acquaintances from places as far apart as Cuba and Kyrgyzstan, and is apparently popular enough as a Vietnamese item that I saw it stocked in some souvenir shops in Saigon. It is now available even on Amazon in the US (where it has a five-star rating), and through an Amazon review, I found that the balm even features as a medical item in a Russian first-person shooter game, Escape from Tarkov.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the balm appears to be regaining some popularity and seems as widely available as ever (albeit with a much higher price tag). Either way, it’s a fun reminder that the world is connected in all sorts of strange ways.

What’s in a country’s name?

Country names is one of those lessons that invariably come up when learning a new language, as each language seems to have its own conventions on naming. Vietnamese is no different – official country names run the gamut from Sino-Vietnamese readings of Chinese country names to transliterations of Spanish and French. It’s amazing how much this reflects Vietnam’s history, from the strong influence of classical Chinese to French colonisation and alignment with the Eastern Bloc. The names adhere roughly to the following conventions:

  1. Sino-Vietnamese: Many countries are referred to by Sino-Vietnamese readings of their Chinese names, which themselves are frequently transliterations, meaning that they often bear little resemblance to their original versions. Many of these Vietnamese names are also shortened or modified versions of the Chinese original, adding further confusion. This grouping can mostly be found in the Indo-Pacific region, such as China (Trung Quốc), South Korea (Hàn Quốc), North Korea(Triều Tiên), Japan (Nhật Bản), Mongolia (Mông Cổ), India (Ấn Độ), Australia (Úc) or in/near Europe, such as the United Kingdom (Anh), France (Pháp), Germany (Đức), Spain (Tây Ban Nha), Portugal (Bồ Đào Nha), Netherlands (Hà Lan), Belgium (Bỉ), Switzerland (Thụy Sĩ), Sweden (Thụy Điển), Norway (Na Uy), Denmark (Đan Mạch), Finland (Phần Lan), Poland (Ba Lan), Italy (Ý), Greece (Hy Lạp), Egypt (Ai Cập), Turkey (Thồ Nhĩ Kỳ), and Russia (Nga). The United States (Mỹ/Hoa Kỳ) also fall into this category, along with South Africa (Nam Phi) and the Central African Republic (Cộng Hòa Trung Phi). Many other countries, such as the Philippines, New Zealand, Mexico, Ireland, Argentina, and Iceland used to be referred to using Sino-Vietnamese names but common usage has shifted to versions that match their native names more closely. Sino-Vietnamese names are distinct in that they are not hyphenated (Vietnamese orthography dictates that multi-syllabic western loanwords be hyphenated).
  2. French: Due to the legacy of French colonisation in Indochina, several countries’ names are simply Vietnamese transliterations of their French names. This group consists mostly of former French colonies, such as Algeria (An-giê-ri), Tunisia (Tuy-ni-di), Morocco (Ma-rốc), Lebanon (Li-băng), Syria (Xi-ri), Guinea (Ghi-nê), Benin (Bê-nanh), Cote d’Ivoire (Cốt-đi-voa), Mauritania (Mô-ri-ta-ni), and Gabon (Ga-bông), along with several countries (mostly located near the Mediterranean) that are not former French colonies such as Libya (Li-bi), Jordan (Gióoc-đa-ni), Albania (An-ba-ni), Bulgaria (Bun-ga-ri), Romania (Ru-ma-ni), Luxembourg (Lúc-xem-bua), and Cyprus (Síp). The French version of some countries’ names, such as Singapore, used to be more prevalent but has fallen out of use.
  3. Spanish: Countries in Latin America are usually referred to by their Spanish names. Examples that are most obviously Spanish include Mexico (Mê-hi-cô) and Argentina (Ác-hen-ti-na).
  4. Russian: Former Soviet republics are usually referred to using their Russian names. Examples that are most obviously Russian are Lithuania (Lít-va) and Georgia (Gru-di-a).
  5. Countries’ native names: Cambodia (Cam-pu-chia) and Laos (Lào) are both referred to by their native names (in Khmer and Lao, respectively)
  6. Mixed: Some countries mix Vietnamese words with foreign names, usually when the Vietnamese word refers to directions, geographical features, or conjunctions. Examples include Equatorial Guinea (Ghi-nê Xích Đạo), Trinidad and Tobago (Tri-ni-đát và Tô-ba-gô), Solomon Islands (Quần đảo Xô-lô-mông), and Timor-Leste (Đông Ti-mo).
  7. Indeterminate: The remaining countries are referred to using names that are similar to their English counterparts but may have origins from other languages that also use these names (e.g. when the French or Spanish name is largely indistinguishable from the English name).

For example, here is a map of Europe colour-coded by the most likely name etymology in Vietnamese (in several cases, such as Estonia and Latvia, where the name in Russian and English are similar, I made the judgement call of labelling it as Russian, as Lithuania is referred to as Lít-va, which is clearly based on the Russian Литва. Other cases for this are Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Georgia is also referred to as Gru-di-a, based on the Russian Грузия). Ireland and Iceland used to be referred to by Sino-Vietnamese names (Ái Nhĩ Lan/爱尔兰 and Băng Đảo/冰岛, respectively), but neither name is the most common usage at this point. Interestingly, both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia had SIno-Vietnamese names (Nam Tư/南斯 and Tiệp Khắc/捷克, respectively).

European country name etymologies in Vietnamese

Here is the map for Asia. As in Europe, usage has changed over the years; for example, the Philippines used to be known as Phi Luật Tân/菲律宾, Myanmar as Miến Điện/缅甸, and Singapore as Xanh-ga-pua/Singapour. Cambodia may also occasionally be referred to as Cam-bốt/Cambodge, or, more rarely, using the pre-20th century name, Cao Miên/高棉. Thailand is an interesting case, as Vietnam uses Thái Lan/泰兰 instead of the name that China currently uses, which is 泰國/Thái Quốc.

Asian country name etymologies in Vietnamese

These maps were labelled to the best of my knowledge, so please let me know if I got anything wrong!

Stories from a Village

In July, I went to my father’s village for the death day commemoration of my great-grandfather. His village lies in Quảng Trị Province, home to the infamous border at the 17th parallel that divided North and South Vietnam during the war. The village itself lies less than 40 km (25 miles) from the dividing line and was essentially entirely destroyed during the war. Being there is always a bittersweet experience for me, as beyond the childhood memories of family reunions and picking wildflowers by the rice paddies, I also remember the stories my father told me and the people that I have met who are living testaments to Vietnam’s turbulent history in the 20th century.

As with most ethnic Vietnamese on the central coastal plains, my father’s family can trace its roots back to the first generation that settled the village after leaving the northern plains. At family reunions, we are usually counted by generation, a practice that also helps with relationship titles, as titles such as “aunt” or “uncle” trace themselves back to the nearest common ancestor. I am the twentieth generation since the settlement of the village, which would date the foundation of the village to about the early 1600s.

My grandparents are illiterate, while my father remembers a childhood of hardship, where he had to walk for hours to collect firewood as a ten-year-old. Even as a child, I still remember when the fields were ploughed by water buffaloes, and the road was still a dirt road that snaked through the fields. My grandparents’ house did not have an indoor toilet – I remember being terrified of the outhouse at night, and the only source of water was from a well in the front yard. Today, the sealed road through the village is lined with streetlights, my grandmother has air-conditioning, and WiFi is available at my cousin’s just a few houses down. While visiting my grandparents has become immeasurably easier, sometimes I still miss the moonlit nights on the rice paddies, when the moon is so bright that it can cast shadows. Living in the cities, we forget the power of the moon, but out in the depths of the countryside, moonlit nights filled with the sound of chirping crickets took on a magical quality.

Every time I’m there, I hear new stories that reveal aspects of the village’s history. Just this past trip, my dad told me a story of how he used to find old jars and urns filled with beads from an abandoned Cham cemetery across the river. It’s a poignant reminder that prior to 1307, this was the northernmost province of the Kingdom of Champa, given to the Vietnamese state (along with what is now Hue) as a bride price for the Princess Huyen Tran.

The village itself lies on the plains by a river, and across the river are the white sand dunes that extend for tens of kilometres along the plains here. The sand is so white it resembles snow. My dad’s village is lucky in that the dunes are across the river – villages in the middle of the dunes used to be inaccessible in the summer, as the villagers, who were too poor to afford shoes, could not cross the hot sand on foot. In emergencies, a villager needing to leave would carry a stack of banana leaves to tie on his feet as each leaf became worn out. When my dad was younger, the dunes were all bare and would shift with the winds – now, forestation campaigns means that the sand is held in place by trees.

IMG_20180712_091836

Today, green fields surround the village, extending all the way to the forested peaks of the Truong Son Mountains. However, my dad told me that, during the war, the peaks and much of the fields would all be barren and red, with all foliage destroyed by defoliants or burned to cinders by napalm.

IMG_20180711_073114

Meeting people in the village also means meeting living pieces of history. I remember greeting an old lady at the entrance of the village. After we exchanged pleasantries and she went on her way, my dad explained to me that her mother was killed when she was fleeing the village, shot in the back by French soldiers while carrying her child in her arms. Her relatives later found her child, the old lady, still clinging to her dead mother’s breast. Another man I met at my dad’s cousin’s place was the sole survivor among his three brothers in 1968. His two brothers, aged 4 and 6 at the time, were shot by American helicopters while they fled across the fields, leaving him, only 8 at the time, as the sole survivor.

It is hard to imagine the neat little village with flower-lined paths nestled among the green fields was the scene of such terrible violence. However, remembering history reminds us of the value of the peace and prosperity we have today

The Imperial City remembers

This morning, as I headed to Thuan An Beach (14 km from Hue) for my usual sunrise swim (the sea is calmest at sunrise here, and the heat of the midday sun makes swimming uncomfortable), I noticed that a shrine by one of the entrances to the beach was laden with offerings and had prayers playing all morning. I was mystified until I remembered that today is the 23rd day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, the day when the city of Hue commemorates the failed attack on the French garrison in Hue in 1885 that marked the beginning of French control over the last free part of Vietnam, Trung Kỳ in Vietnamese (also known as Annam).  The day is known in Vietnamese as Kinh Đô Thất Thủ (京都失守).

While northern Vietnam and southern Vietnam had already come under the control of the French (the north as the Protectorate of Tonkin and the south as the Colony of Cochin China), central Vietnam was still under the control of the Nguyen emperors. When the Emperor Hàm Nghi (咸宜) was crowned, French forces declared the coronation unsanctioned and marched to Hue from Tonkin and took over a section of the walled city of Hue (known as Mang Cá, which translates to ‘fish gills’).  After a defeat of French forces in Lang Son in northern Vietnam, the war faction of the imperial government requested that the French withdraw from the citadel, which prompted the French to plan for an attack of the citadel.  In addition, the French demanded that the imperial government order the acquiescence of all subjects to the French forces and planned to capture the leader of the war faction, Tôn Thất Thuyết (尊室説), during negotiations.

Tôn Thất Thuyết, knowing this, had secretly moved weaponry to a strategic location and tried to preempt the French by attacking the French garrison first. However, the attack failed, and afterwards, French forces rampaged through the city and massacred over 1500 of its people. After this failure, Tôn Thất Thuyết fled with the 12-year-old emperor Hàm Nghi and issued the Cần Vương (勤王) edict to call for a general uprising and restore the full power of the monarchy.  The French, on their part, installed the emperor Đồng Khánh on the throne, ending any meaningful autonomy of the Vietnamese crown.

The day is remembered as one of the darkest periods in the history of Hue.  In 1894, the Ministry of Rites constructed an altar, known as the Âm Hồn (陰魂) altar (Altar of the Spirits) on the spot where Tôn Thất Thuyết commanded his forces next to the city walls. In Hue today, the day is commemorated as a collective day of mourning, with offerings akin to those made during death day commemorations. The offerings are made to the spirits of those who died on that day, and the beach town of Thuan An has a particularly large commemoration due to the large number of people who perished there (the town lies at the mouth of the Huong River and guards the entry to the city of Hue from the sea).  The commemoration is a testament to the fact that despite the city’s brief tenure as the national capital (only 150 years), it witnessed some of the most important events in Vietnamese history and has a unique and complex culture as a result of this history.

This event is even remembered in a nursery rhyme and children’s game, which I remember playing with my dad as a child.  The game is usually played with little children, with the adult prodding the palm of the child for the first five lines, and the child trying to catch the adult’s finger on the last line. However, the lines have more meaning than that. The first line, Chi chi chành chành, sets up the story (a type of “Once upon a time). The second line, Cái đanh thổi lửa, means “the đanh blows fire” (I’m not sure what đanh translates to), refers to Tôn Thất Thuyết firing on the French garrison. The third line, Con ngựa đứt cương, translates to “the horse has lost its bridle” refers to the death of Emperor Tự Đức in 1883, which led to considerable turmoil in the imperial court. The fourth line, Ba vương lập đế, translates to “three kings crowned emperors”, refers to the year 1883, where Vietnam had three different emperors. The fifth line, Bắt dế đi tìm, translates to “Catching the dế (which I would translate as cricket, but may be a variant on đế, or emperor) to search” refers to Tôn Thất Thuyết fleeing with Emperor Hàm Nghi. Finally, the last line, Ù à ù ập, is an onomatopoeia of a trap springing, refers to the capture of Emperor Hàm Nghi in 1888 (Hàm Nghi was eventually exiled to Algeria).

Surviving Traffic in Vietnam

Anyone who has been to Vietnam knows that our motorbike traffic is the stuff of legends. In fact, it is a common sight in most Vietnamese cities to see foreign tourists stranded on the pavement, looking fearfully across the street to seemingly-unreachable destinations on the other side. This is a particularly serious problem in our two largest cities, Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), where the flow of motorbikes is endless at all times of the day. In fact, the flow is apparently so impressive that I’ve seen tourists taking photos of motorbike traffic (which always struck me as rather odd, since this is essentially our equivalent of tourists taking photos of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, but who knows what tourists think). I have even seen YouTube videos on traffic in Vietnam.

So in the face of this unceasing onslaught of motor scooters, what is a hungry traveller to do when some of the ubiquitously excellent food lies tantalisingly just across a stream of motor scooters? Simple! Just start walking, don’t hesitate, and stop only for cars, trucks, and buses; the motorbikes will change course to avoid you.

What about driving? Many foreign tourists think that they can rent scooters and drive around Vietnam, Top Gear-style. While getting on a scooter and moving is fairly easy (especially on an automatic), navigating traffic is not, and tourists have the reputation of being particularly bad drivers among locals, as most have little clue how to navigate traffic and as a result cause many accidents (indeed, my car driving instructor warned us all to stop if we saw foreigners on motorbikes, as more likely than not, they would be accident-prone). Moreover, as far as I know, without a motorbike licence from elsewhere, driving a scooter in Vietnam is, in fact, illegal, regardless of what scooter rental shops may tell you.

Let’s assume everyone on the road has a licence. How, then, do you navigate Vietnamese traffic? Most of my driving experience has been in Hue and Saigon. While at first glance, driving in Hue appears easier due to the far lower volume of traffic, in my experience, counter-intuitively, driving in Saigon is in fact easier. Due to the low traffic volumes in Hue, bad drivers can get away with driving quite poorly, and often will merge into lanes or emerge from alleys at higher speeds. Running red lights and abruptly stopping are also lower-risk, due to the overall lower levels of traffic on the roads, and blinkers seem to be mere suggestions. In Saigon, despite the overwhelming volume of traffic, most rules are followed quite closely, as bad driving could be fatal. Running the red light usually means getting caught in a large stream of traffic, and signals are followed religiously by everyone. For example, if I were to put on a left turn signal in Saigon, all bikes behind me will drift to the right to give way. In Hue? Probably no one will notice. Speeding is also a much bigger problem in Hue, as the consequences of speeding in Saigon are far more serious. Sometimes, some young men in Hue will try to drive “dangerously” on the road by swerving and speeding to show off, but ironically, these “daredevils” do not dare drive in bigger cities such as Saigon. Another trick worth remembering in Saigon is that driving is ultimately a group activity. One scooter crossing a busy junction is nearly impossible; however, wait long enough and you’ll have your very own bikers’ gang that will exploit the next opening in traffic and collectively cross. This is particularly important at major junctions with traffic lights.

Now with these rules in mind, armed with a licence and a helmet, you should be able to zip down a tree-lined Saigon avenue in no time! That said, I make no promises about driving in Hanoi. I myself do not dare drive there, so if you find yourself in need of getting around our nation’s capital, I wish you all the best while I look for a taxi…

Turkey Day? Meet Duck Day

Today, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month is celebrated as Tết Đoan Ngọ. The holiday started as a Chinese holiday to commemorate the death of Khuất Nguyên (屈原), who was a respected politician and a poet who lived in the country of Sở (楚) during the Warring States period in China. Disheartened over the state of his country and the scheming of fellow courtiers, he committed suicide by jumping into a river on the fifth day of the fifth month. The local people tried to rescue him to no avail, and began to bang on drums and throw food into the river so that wandering spirits would not disturb his soul and the fish would not eat his body. From then on, on this day, people gather at the river where he died and throw food into the water.

Now, the way the holiday is celebrated in Vietnam has diverged significantly from these origins. After going to the same high school with some people from northern Vietnam, I found out that out north, they celebrate the holiday by eating lots of fruit and bánh tro (a kind of rice cake wrapped in leaves – yes, I know this describes dozens of Vietnamese cakes, but we don’t really eat it where I’m from) and drinking sticky rice wine. Friends from Hanoi have also told me that the festival is celebrated much less there than in Hue (my hometown), where it certainly is among the most important festivals in the year. We don’t bother with the fruit and wine however; we do it with a nice duck meal.

Yes, you read that right. It’s the day when we, for reasons unknown to me, eat lots of duck dishes. In fact, it’s quite common to see motorbikes driving around in Hue around this time where the driver and/or passenger is holding two, three, or even four or more live ducks bound for slaughter.

Anyway, I usually spend the holiday out at my paternal grandparents’ place in Quang Tri, about 60km north of Hue – this year, my cousin came to pick us up in the morning and dropped us off again in the afternoon. All my aunts and uncles had gathered in the morning to cook the day’s array of duck dishes, which, this year, included duck noodles, duck soup, boiled duck dipped in fish sauce, and of course, the all time favourite, tiết canh (coagulated duck blood with meat, herbs, peanuts, and various spices, eaten with crispy rice cake).

The meal was great, and it was a lot of fun to catch up with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, most of whom came for the meal, and, of course, my grandmother (who is now 96). In the evening, I headed to my maternal grandmother’s place, and once again, was offered (surprise, surprise) duck. As I really like duck, this really isn’t a problem – in fact, everyone has a great time during Đoan Ngọ each year, with the probable exception of the ducks.

Memories of Diyarbakır

I was reminded of Diyarbakır today when I remembered a story from the New York Times in March about a Banksy mural protesting the imprisonment of Zehra Doğan, a Turkish artist.  Zehra Dogan was jailed after painting Turkish flags over ruined buildings after the bombardment and partial destruction of the town of Nusaybin in 2015.  It reminded me of a very friendly young man from Nusaybin whom I had met very briefly in Diyarbakır who had tried to convince me and some other travellers to come visit his hometown.  I hope his family was not affected.

I did not plan to visit Diyarbakır when I came to Turkey in the summer of 2012.  Armed with funding from the economics department at my undergraduate university, I had gone to Turkey to conduct research for my senior thesis, and the plan was to go to İstanbul, Ankara, Konya, Kayseri, and Malatya.  In Malatya, I had decided to take an overnight trip to watch sunrise on Nemrut Dağı, and there, I met an Italian couple from Milan who convinced me to come to Diyarbakır with them.  Since I had another week before my flight out of Istanbul, I agreed.

Diyarbakir, the centre of Kurdish culture in Turkey, is often the centre for conflict between the Kurdish insurgency and the Turkish government and was often considered off-limits for travellers (it is again considered off-limits today); I was lucky enough to have been there during the relative peace of the ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government. However, the city dates back to Assyrian times and boasts impressive historical monuments.

I remember looking out of the window of my bus and seeing a river flowing by the road.  I looked over to the man sitting next to me and asked “O nehrin adı nedir?” (what is the name of that river?).  The man answered, “Fırat”. Fırat. Euphrates. The city of Diyarbakir itself lies on the bank of the Tigris. I was entering Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of human civilisation.

Diyarbakır’s giant city walls are the most immediately noticeable feature of the city.   The first walls were constructed during the Roman era, and today, they encircle the historic centre. with only one gap at the Dağ Kapı Meydanı (Mountain Gate Square).  Inside the walls, the old city has a layout reminiscent many walled cities in Europe, with a tangle of narrow lanes cut through by several major streets.  After I found a room, it was already late afternoon, and I wandered out to the market nearby just as the sun was starting to set.  The vendors were closing their stalls, and I remember seeing a young man rush past me pulling a handcart laden with watermelons as the sound of the muezzin echoed from the 11th-century black-and-white banded Ulu Camii.  It was then that I truly understood that I was in a different Turkey, a world away from the cafes and plazas of the Mediterranean coast.

P1390660.JPG

The alleys of Diyarbakir conceal surprises at every turn, with dozens of mosques and churches of numerous denominations.  Guidebooks will tell you that exploring the warren of alleys alone may be dangerous, and you may have issues with children along the way.  Fortunately, I had the opposite experience – a group of children on their summer break took it upon themselves to lead me around several of the sights while even occasionally chasing away children who wanted money.  Perhaps they found my accent in Turkish amusing.  Before I could thank my little heroes for their help with some candy, however, they had already disappeared off to their next great adventure.

Thanks to the children, I managed to visit quite a few historical sights, testaments to the city’s historical diversity.  A friendly imam took me up to the dome of his mosque.  Churches peppered the landscape, many of which were in disrepair – I remember one was being used by a group of women as a place to do their weaving.  Others still had congregations of varying sizes.  The churches bear testament to the changes that have happened in Southeastern Turkey over the last one hundred years – almost all the Armenian churches in the city, for example, no longer have active congregations, while the docent at the Syriac Orthodox Church of St Mary (completed in the 3rd century) told me that the other Syriac churches in the city have all closed, and only a few families remain in his congregation.

P1390642

 

There were also other hidden delights down the alleys of Diyarbakir.  I remember walking down an alley and peering into a courtyard that turned out to be a cultural centre.  The group of people were there to watch a performance of dengbêj, a form of Kurdish song that is used for storytelling and has no musical instrument accompaniment.  I joined a circle around the performers and listened as they sang and improvised.  I do not understand Kurdish, but the passion that the singers had for their art was palpable.  Afterwards, I went with a Kurdish family who had moved to Denmark to visit a Kurdish music shop, hidden up on the third storey of a shopping centre.  It’s also then that I realised that despite the city’s being majority Kurdish, I did not see a single sign in the Kurdish language in the streets.

Other moments from my time there still make me smile.  When I headed towards the city walls, a man, seeing my camera, insisted that I take a picture of his friend who was napping on his tractor in the shade.  The exquisite stonework on the black-and-white bands stone bands in some of the old houses in the city, a style which I have been told is also found in Syria.  The friendly waiter in the restaurant in the old caravanserai insisting that I try the local specialties.  Even six years later, the memories of Diyarbakır still feel fresh.  The hospitality and incredible resilience of the people continue to linger in my mind, especially as the conflict in Syria and southeastern Turkey drags on.  I hope that one day Diyarbakir will again find peace.