History, Rivers, Zoos, and Education

The sun had just begun to breach the horizon, the sky slowly lightening from midnight blue to a hazy lavender. The digital clock on my phone read 5:22 am. After a beautiful day exploring Hatay, it was time to move on to Gaziantep. I had been looking forward to seeing some Turkish friends from Sao Paulo that I had made before this journey in Turkey.

The sun shone intensely, turning the sky a brilliant azure and the rolling hills to a colour of ochre. The car raced down the highway, its speedometer edging to 140 km/h. I had my earphones on, and Linkin Park thundered through my brain while I tried to make sense of the scenery around me.

Suddenly, my companion shouted: “Take a picture! Take a picture!” His enthusiasm jolted me out of my trance. I whipped out my camera, trying to keep it steady from the car’s rocking speed and zoomed in on the hill he was pointing at. On its peak, sprawled in large white letters, were the words “Vatan Önce”. The phrase was foreign to me, yet it stirred a deep dread in my heart. Nationalism has that effect on me. Once we reached the hotel, I researched “Vatan Önce” and confirmed its meaning – “Country First”.

Fırat reminisced fondly about his time in the army as we drove through the countryside of East Anatolia. With every anecdote he revealed, I learned more about his life in the base, filled with hardships tempered by humour and sarcasm. I knew his deep-rooted patriotism when we stopped in Kilis for lunch. He took me to an exquisite restaurant, and as I was about to sit down, I remembered my urgent need to use the restroom. An attendant showed me the way, and I entered a typical Turkish bathroom–a deep porcelain pot in the ground. With some difficulty, I managed to squat down, relieve myself and make my way back.

I returned to the restaurant, and the lunch had been chosen. My mouth watered as I saw the platters of köfte, grilled tomatoes, and roasted peppers. After lunch, Fırat lit a cigarette, and I watched people of all ages crossing our path while he exhaled smoke. But that day, instead of çay, we were offered something different to accompany the Turkish coffee—menengiç or terebinth juice. It had an exotic taste, and I knew then it was a flavour I’d never forget.

Fırat spoke fondly of the city. “Gaziantep”, he would say with a knowing smile, referring to it as Antep. I soon discovered that Gaziantep is the sixth largest city in Turkey, with a population of 1.3 million. Its history and artisanship have made it a popular destination; its carpets and delicious pistachios are known worldwide.

The first stop on our tour was at the “Gaziantep Savanması ve Kahramanlık Panoramasi Müzesi”, or the famous Gaziantep Castle, now turned into a museum. At the entrance, we were met with statues of brave warriors and heroes from past battles between the French and Turkish forces. We walked through the courtyard, awed by its magnificence.

As we stepped through the imposing stone archway of the castle, Antep whispered in awe at the sheer magnitude of the architecture. Inside, every detail was an ethereal reminder of the war-torn past that had brought this country to where it is today: from English and French rulers to the birth of the Turkish Republic. We followed a path through the halls, passing statues and portraits of heroic commanders and soldiers, their weapons, and the beloved figure of Atatürk. Television screens scattered between them flicker to life with testimonials from those who fought and lived through the battle.

But the stories were broader than just those of war; here, women and children were honoured too, their panels and statues paying tribute to those who helped but weren’t in uniform.

In a corner, I spotted a statue that caught my eye; it depicted seven children in agonising pain. I read its plaque: “Martyrdom of 14 children in Dorkucum Mill”. Fırat looked at me in confusion, so I explained: “During the fighting between French and Turkish forces, locals –women, elderly people, and children– did what they could to support the soldiers; these fourteen children were in charge of maintaining water supply networks. But they were arrested by French forces and kept in a sealed-off room with no water under intense heat and suffocated.” We stood there momentarily, both silent, knowing how tragedy can come from human greed.

We exited the castle and explored the city, admiring the souvenir shops full of copper trinkets and sampling traditional Turkish dishes on busy side streets. After walking for roughly forty kilometres, we arrived at the edge of the river Euphrates. The heat was oppressive, and the river’s blue colour was great. Fırat waved me to an outdoor terrace overlooking the riverbed and offered me a cold drink. I gazed out at the view and asked him what river it was. He smiled and said, “Fırat,” his name meaning “Euphrates.” We laughed, and I realised I was seated on the banks of his namesake river.

As I stepped through the tent that covered the ancient city, I felt transported back in time. The ruins were well-preserved, a testament to its former glory. We wandered around, taking pictures and capturing the site’s details—even though most of the mosaics and statues had been moved to a museum.

I watched as the sun shone down on the Euphrates River, its calm blue waters glistening in the light. It was a sight that few had seen before — a tribute to the grace of God and the fertility of the plains of Mesopotamia that had housed so many civilisations throughout the years.

With time to spare, we decided to visit the local mall. Fırat needed to pick up a few items, and I snapped a picture of us standing in front of Gaziantepspor’s store. Even though neither of us was a fan, it didn’t stop us from respecting the team.

Shopping complete, we made our way to the city zoo. One of the largest in Turkey, its biggest draws were the aviary and aquarium. But what captivated me was what was happening on the opposite side of the zoo. Thousands of people milled around in a park, barbecued, and had picnics while children ran and played.

The zoo was crowded, and I was surprised to see the same attractions as other zoos I have visited worldwide. We meandered through the park and found everything to be the same as the other zoos I had visited. We did not stay long; the heat was stifling, and I found that the temperature was 40°C that day.

We returned to the car and headed to the Castle area. Once we reached the town centre, we turned down a dirt road. The houses around us looked run-down, but the yards were well-kept, with flowers blooming in window boxes and pots. The road ended in a cul-de-sac, where a fire station had been converted into an activity centre for children’s groups.

Fırat wanted some pictures of where the children were martyred. I didn’t want to visit this place because it entailed stepping over tiny scraps of clothing caught in a chain link fence. Finally, it was time for us to meet with Bayram Bey.

Bayram Bey is a lovely man. Soon I felt at ease with him. Our first stop was one of the schools, or better, activity centres that the Hizmet (Gülen) Movement supported in the region. It was more like a community centre than a school, with many brightly coloured rooms for various games and classes. Each room had an accompanying teacher and volunteer coordinator who watched all activities closely to ensure everything ran smoothly.

The school is focused on the student as a person, including their family. They seek out children who lack the support to thrive and provide them with guidance. Many of these students now work as teachers, helping others in turn. One of their goals has been to promote acceptance between Kurdish and Turkish children, demonstrating that differences don’t have to be a source of conflict. The director said he was a Kurd and worked cooperatively with Turkish and other ethnic groups. I was thrilled to witness the signing of this place.

We followed Bayram Bey to Zirve University, a short car ride away. The campus was impressive in size and opulence – a jewel in the crown of Gaziantep. Through the generosity of Bayram Bey and other benefactors, the school would offer high-quality bilingual education to Turkish citizens who, because of the school’s successful education programs, would have successful careers in industry and business. With Turkey’s industry and population growth, the need for high-quality, qualified employees was also rising. With the help of Zirve University, many more people would be able to rise above their initial circumstances into rewarding careers.

From the University, we headed to a TV station. It was a Kurdish TV station which broadcasted in the Kurdish language. Dunya TV was the way to tell Kurdish people they had a place and voice in the country and that their lands and flags could be shared without rancour and prejudices. It was funny watching the broadcasts and all their equipment. One more lesson learned.

Bayram Bey led us to a restaurant. It was dinner time. The Antep cuisine is fantastic. Lahmacun is a type of Turkish pizza, and baklava is a sweet pastry made of filo dough and filled with pistachios, although the Antep version is filled with pistachio and walnuts. I appreciated how the ayran was served in a bowl with a spoon. Of course, I felt ashamed because I could not eat half of what was offered. The restaurant owner came to ask if I had not liked the food, and I blushed. Exhausted, I went to the hotel. I know the road was waiting for us the next day.

Some more information:

In 2016 a faction within the Turkish armed forces organised as the Peace at Home Council attempted a coup d’état against state institutions, including the government and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During the attempt, this group bombed the Turkish Parliament and the presidential palace, and many people were killed and injured.

The consequence was mass arrests, with at least 40000 detained, including 10000 soldiers. For an unclear reason, 2745 judges and 16000 education staff were suspended. The license of 21000 teachers working in private institutions was revoked after the government stated they were loyal to Gülen. More than 77000 people were arrested, and over 160000 were fired from their job on reports of connections to Gülen. (source: Wikipedia)

The 2016 events led to the closing of all Gülen educational centres in Turkey, including many of those I had visited. Those living in Brazil took Brazilian nationality, but even then, Erdogan asked the Brazilian government for their deportation. The University of Zirve was closed, and the buildings were transferred to Gaziantep University.

%d bloggers like this: