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.


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.



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.

The Great Schengen Adventure

In the previous post, I complained at length about my visa struggles. However, the one visa that is the bane of my existence (and thus deserves special mention) is the Schengen visa, which allows entry to the Schengen Zone (EU minus the UK and Ireland, but plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein). While the US makes an effort to expedite applications of those who have been to the US before and will grant longer-term visitor visas, the Schengen countries will give you just enough for your visit and make you reapply again. And again. And again. The requirements are also quite elaborate and seem to be at the whims of the visa officer. The insurance letter, for example, MUST state a very specific combination of words (never mind synonyms), and be prepared to give your last three pay stubs, bank statements for the last three months, flight reservations, and accommodation reservations. If you want to stay with a friend or family, be prepared to deal with the letter of invitation. As I usually stay with my aunt in France, she has to provide me with an Attestation d’Accueil, which is essentially a form that says that she has a house and is willing to host me. To get this form, she must go to the local mairie, fill out a form, pay a fee, wait for a week before picking it up, and then mail it to me. Yes, snail mail (this may be France-specific, as I recall reading that the Austrians let you do this all online). Then I must take the form to my visa appointment, which usually has to be planned at least a month in advance. If something happens to your visa application and you must reapply? Too bad; once the Attestation d’Accueil is used in a failed application, you have to get a new one. From France. By snail mail. Maybe I’ll just go to Las Vegas and see the Eiffel Tower there…

The consulates also vary in their policies. The French consulate in New York is wildly inconsistent in attitude (here is their Yelp page for reference), while the French consulate in Los Angeles was a delight to deal with (and seemed very short-staffed, so I really appreciated the effort). Also, last I checked, for whatever reason, Vietnam is in a list of countries that requires extra time for processing, so lucky us (we’re mysteriously on this list only in New York but not at other consulates in the US). I’ve heard the French are moving some of their visa procedures online, but as with most things related to French bureaucracy, I’m not keen to try it out unless I have to.

You also have to carry all these papers with you when you travel. This happened to me, my mother, and my sister as we were going from Cairo back to Paris to catch a flight to New York. A German guy with CSA Czech Airlines (to this day I don’t know what his official capacity is) refused to let us board because we didn’t have our insurance letter with us, even though this insurance was a necessity for getting the visa in the first place. We tried to explain this to him to no avail – he did not speak English or French, and the Egyptians could not help us since he also did not speak Arabic. Goodness knows what he was doing there. And because European airlines are especially awful, we had to buy a new ticket with Cypriot Airways, and, armed with our insurance paper, went back to the airport the next day where the Greek guy at the counter asked for…nothing. I have also never been asked for this form since, but I still always carry it. Arbitrary bureaucracy at its best. Don’t expect to get sympathy from many Europeans either – when I told a Dutch cyclist I ran into in Uzbekistan about this, he sneered and told me that it was necessary to “keep out the migrants”. I suppose transparency and efficiency are too much to ask for.

As harrowing as these experiences sound, they are far from uncommon. A Vietnamese friend studying at a well-known university in the US wanted to do an internship in France for the summer, so she went to the French consulate in New York. No such luck, since her US visa expires before she leaves France, even though her round-trip ticket was from Vietnam (where she would also be renewing her US visa). No matter, she thought; she tries to apply for it in Vietnam, only to be told that since she spends more than six months out of the year in the US, she cannot apply in Vietnam since she is not a resident (never mind that she is a citizen). It also doesn’t seem to be limited only to the French – a Chinese friend of mine had to shuttle back and forth from central Virginia to Washington, DC because of some paper technicalities demanded by the German embassy. Such is life.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The US, as already mentioned, allows visa renewals to be done by mail. The UK will give six months automatically. Australia allows online applications. Canada encourages people to apply for longer visas, and in my experience, their consulates have been unfailingly polite. Of course, all this has enormous implications for my travel patterns, and I’d imagine the travel patterns of lots of other Vietnamese. This summer, for example, my mother wants to treat herself and take her first proper holiday in many years. She really wants to go to Greece, but decided not to based on the onerous visa requirements (which would have meant that she had to go to Hanoi to do an interview). Instead, it looks like we might go to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, both of which offer visas on arrival for us. So long, Santorini, I guess. Europe has made its priorities clear, so we have to make our choices accordingly.

Travelling on a Vietnamese Passport

When I was little, I thought travelling abroad was an impossible dream.  My dearest ambition as a teenager was to have travelled to ten different countries by the time I turned thirty.  Beyond the financial considerations (as Vietnam is still a very poor country), travelling on a Vietnamese passport was not (and still is not) easy. It was beyond my wildest dreams that now, as I celebrate my twenty-seventh birthday, I have surpassed that dream and feel incredibly privileged.

Travelling independently on a Vietnamese passport is challenging at best.  Visa requirements are complex (often with additional complexity as a special “bonus” for us Vietnamese), which drastically changes the preparations needed for travelling.  That last-minute flight deal to Europe? Good luck getting that visa with less than three months of preparation.  Want to pop over to Jordan from Israel? Go without me, because who knows when I’ll get that visa.  Fancy a short hop into Guatemala from Mexico? Have fun, because I can’t figure out what a visa consultada even entails.  Since not many Vietnamese people travel to more “unusual” destinations, finding visa help can also be quite difficult online (although this is changing very quickly).Vietnamese_passport

Because of this, when I came across the page of a Filipina traveller on visas, I felt an immediate sense of solidarity (however, a Philippine passport gives visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 63 countries, clocking in at 75th in the world, compared to just 49 for a Vietnamese passport, putting us at 88th).  Quite a few countries have special hoops just for us Vietnamese to jump through: we require prior security clearance in both Lebanon and Jordan, require an advanced visa in Macau, must get prior approval from the Ministry of External Affairs to enter El Salvador, and cannot enter Armenia without a special invitation letter (which appears to be impossible to obtain).  I’ve had to change my travel plans multiple times due to visa snags, and the bureaucratic hoops are never-ending.  Neither is there rhyme or reason for these policies: while it is impossible for me to get a visa to Armenia, both Azerbaijan and Georgia are quite open with their visa policies; on the same trip where I could not get a Jordanian visa, the Israeli visa was fairly straightforward; and despite my difficulties entering El Salvador, I can go to Panama and Chile visa-free (along with Mexico and Costa Rica with a valid US visa).  There’s a special place in hell for the Schengen visa, so it’ll deserve its own dedicated post.

Of course, there are a few perks for Vietnamese passports.  Russian visas are quite straightforward to get and don’t cost much (although Russia doesn’t seem to apply its policy of reciprocity to Vietnam, as Russian citizens can enter Vietnam visa-free for two weeks) – the Russian consulate even made sure I got my visa in time and gave back change in cash (however, I just checked the website of the Russian embassy and it turns out that processing times are now 20 days.  So much for that).  We can theoretically stay indefinitely in Kyrgyzstan and don’t need to register with the police under 60 days (whatever the land border officials might try to tell you).  The requirements also have been getting easier – Chile just abolished visas for us in 2018, and many other visas are much easier to get than before.  Travelling on a Vietnamese passport also makes you inherently unsuspicious in a few places, which makes checkpoints much less of a hassle.  We can also travel visa-free around Southeast Asia – however, there may still be problems at borders.  When I tried to cross from Singapore to Malaysia, I was taken into a separate room, questioned about why I travel so much (heaven forbid someone from Vietnam likes to travel), and then allowed in…while they forget to capture my fingerprints, which would have happened had I gone through the regular line.

As nightmarish as this all sounds, it is a huge improvement to what it had been before. My mother, who had first gone abroad in the 1980s as a student to Australia, is still stressed out by the prospect that border guards will arbitrarily stop us.  Because of all this, I always feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to travel.  I suppose all these visa stickers also make my passport more “interesting” to some people (which causes my friend to retort: “what you mean is I’m very good at jumping through bureaucratic hoops”).  So, next time you go anywhere on a whim because you don’t need a visa, spare a thought for our struggles.