“We advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to Ankara and Istanbul due to the heightened threat of terrorism and the potential for civil unrest (High risk).
“We advise against all travel to within 10 kilometres of the border with Syria, and to the city of Diyarbakir (Extreme risk).
“We advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to the provinces of Batman, Bingol, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Gaziantep, Hakkari, Hatay, Kilis, Mardin, Mus, Sanliurfa, Sirnak, Siirt, Tunceli and Van in south-east Turkey (High risk).”
It was another of the regular advisories that appear in my mailbox from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara. Well, first of all, let me say that I appreciate their concern. It’s nice to know that my government is looking out for me although I am so far from home. And I have registered with them as they ask me to, so I guess I have to accept the stuff they send me as part of the price of citizenship – which I also do appreciate.
I feel sad, however, to see the leaders of my country jumping on the international bandwagon badmouthing Turkey and contributing to the campaign apparently aimed at portraying Turks and their government as corrupt, evil and dangerous. Thousands of New Zealanders and Australians continue to visit this country every year, welcomed by touchingly hospitable locals, as they commemorate the invasion perpetrated by their grandfathers 100 years ago.
I have been living in Istanbul and traveling to all parts of the country for many years and I have to tell you, I feel safer here than on the streets of Auckland, Sydney or London. Certainly this is a dangerous part of the world, and security is necessarily tight – but for heaven’s sake don’t use that as another reason to bash Turkey! Security is pretty damn intrusive in the USA too.
Dilek and I recently applied for a visitor’s visa so she can accompany me on a brief 6-day visit to Auckland – and the hoops she has to jump through! These days applications are processed by NZ’s foreign affairs people in Dubai. Now I want you to take a quick look at the map of Dubai and its immediate neighbours. And I would also like to refer you to an article that appeared on News.com.au in March this year:
‘There’s an ugly side to Dubai that you won’t read about in its tourist brochures — its army of migrant workers. The workers, who are largely from South East Asia, are paid well below the prices charged in the city’s expensive boutiques and glamorous hotels.
The migrant workers are not only at greater risk of exploitation, but are often housed in filthy conditions, with little down time. In short they are the hidden slaves of a rich city.
According to Human Rights Watch, foreigners make up 88.5 per cent of United Arab Emirates residents, with low-paid migrant workers being “subjected to abuses that about to forced labour”.’
Eighty-eight per cent of the residents are foreigners! Come on, guys! Fair’s fair! Ninety-nine per cent of Turkey’s population are citizens of the country, the government is democratically elected – and millions of refugees are flooding in from neighbouring countries seeking safety from violence created largely by the interference of Western governments. Let’s have a little positive reinforcement here!
I must admit I haven’t been to the southeast of Turkey for a few years, and even the news media here in Istanbul make that region out to be a pretty dangerous, lawless place. It always surprises me when students from that part of the country assure me things are not as bad as we big city dwellers are led to believe.
Last week there was a four-day culture festival in our new seaside park in Maltepe, featuring the attractions of Siirt: the cuisine, the natural beauty, the history, the local produce and handcrafts. I had to look at a map to see exactly where Siirt is. You’ll notice it is one of those areas that receives a special mention in that NZMFA warning – HIGH RISK!
Well, we figured we’d be ok crossing the road to our local park, so last Thursday we went over to take a look. You’ll see from the map that Siirt is way, way out in Turkey’s southeast, not too far from the border with Syria and Iraq; and pretty near the city of Mosul, currently witnessing major military action as a motley coalition tries to drive out occupying forces of ISIS/Daesh. The majority of Siirt’s population is Kurdish – and that combination of factors might lead one to expect that things would be none too peaceful. Somewhat surprisingly then, the people we spoke to were positive, cheerful folk enjoying their few days in the metropolis, but not all fazed by the prospect of returning home.
We bought two beautiful kilim rugs from a woman who runs a carpet-weaving school for the Siirt City Council teaching her skills to local women, and ensuring they get a fair price for their labours. There were stalls selling Pervari honey from the flowers of upland pastures, dried figs, pistachios and other local delicacies. We bought some interesting cheeses, one of which, yeraltı peyniri, gains its special flavour from having been buried underground for four months – I kid you not! Lunch was a plate of tender lamb roasted in a three-metre deep well lined with fire bricks, followed by the regional dessert künefe, a cake of shredded wheat filled with cheese, soaked in syrup, baked in the oven and topped with clotted buffalo cream and grated pistachio. Mere words cannot do it justice.
People from Siirt, we learned, pride themselves on knowing three languages Kurdish, of course, but naturally they learn Turkish at school – and historical links to the Middle East mean that Arabic is also common. In the past there was a fourth language, Syriac, spoken by Assyrian Christians, who were tragically caught up in the great imperialist games leading up to the First World War. Some years ago, I visited the city of Mardin, and a nearby monastery, Dar-ul Zafaran. The building has been recently restored, and descendants of the original flock are returning, especially as a result of escalating violence across the border in Iraq and Syria. Interestingly, the monastery was built over a much earlier structure, a temple dedicated to Zoroastrian fire worship – an ancient religion predating Christianity and Islam.
The town of Siirt also contains shrines sacred to several important Islamic saints. Veysel Karani was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammed. Originally from Yemen, he journeyed to Medina in the hope of seeing the great man, but his timing was apparently off. Muhammed, however, impressed by Veysel’s piety, sent one of his personal robes as a gift – now preserved in Siirt as a holy relic. Ibrahim Hakkı Erzurumi was an 18th century Sufi mystic, poet, mathematician and physicist who wrote influential books on astronomy and philosophy. Zemzem-ul Hassa Hanım was a pious Muslim woman who lived in the town from 1765 to 1852 and was famed for her wisdom and devotion.
More recently, Siirt gave birth to Emine Hanım, wife of Turkey’s current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who actually represented the province in the National Assembly from 2003 to 2007.
I’m keen to get down that way again, and having met people from the area, we are persuaded that we will be welcomed with bountiful hospitality when we do. Turkey’s southeast may still be a little daunting for visitors from abroad, but don’t cross Istanbul or the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts off your list. To add a little perspective to the tourism business, I came across the following list on a New Zealand website under the heading “Bashing tourists now a national pastime.” In fact I am not publishing the entire list:
- Elderly Australian Tourist Stabbed in Head at Waihi Beach, Murder Investigation Launched.
- Haka Thugs Attack French Tourists Near Raglan.
- Vicious Sex Attack on 5 Year Old Belgian Tourist – little girl severely injured in a frenzied attack as she lay sleeping in a campervan in Turangi.
- Austrian tourists mugged in Palmerston North.
- Australian honeymooners lose it all. Two tourists robbed near Milford Sound.
- Te Anau Troubled By Tourist Attacks – drunken youths attack visitors in Te Anau
- Swiss Campers’ Tyres Slashed In Kaikoura.
- Chilean Tourist Robbed, Loses Life’s Work. Robbed in a motel near Auckland international airport.
- “New Zealand is a wonderful country, but be careful as it’s not so safe” – Swiss campervan tourist loses everything in Whangarei.
- Honeymoon Couple Lose Precious Photos. British couple robbed outside Auckland zoo.
- Czech Tourist, Jan Fakotor, Stabbed in a Motueka backpackers.
I also found an opinion piece in mainstream Auckland daily, The New Zealand Herald, where the writer reported:
“In New Zealand, political songs get banned, politicians easily reward themselves with new election advertising funding, donations to local government candidates are still somewhat opaque, taxpayer funds get misused by politicians, and new parties face big barriers to getting into Parliament. It sounds like an authoritarian country rather than a liberal democracy.”
I don’t see any of this reported in Turkey’s media, nor do I see panic-stricken travel advisories warning tourists against visiting New Zealand. Covering your butts is one thing, but let’s get a bit of balance here guys!