After leaving Van, the bus slowly crawls up the road, winding its way through the majestic mountains immediately south of town. Soon you arrive at a brown and barren plateau marked with a few towns and scattered villages. The houses are all of the same type: square, single-floor, with corrugated iron roofs and gray, concrete walls. A modern-age caricature of the mud-brick dwellings that once dotted the landscape. Army watchtowers occupy hill-tops along the road. Looking from the outside it is impossible to guess whether they are occupied or not, but that doesn’t really matter – the effect remains the same. Control, intimidation, a show of power.
At a certain point a small stream appears next to the side of the road, just after you passed the ruins of an old Ottoman fortress that was once called “Beautiful Water”. As you drive on, the small stream continues to expand until it gets absorbed by the Great Zab, a mighty river that runs for four hundred kilometers from the mountains around Lake Van all the way across the Iraqi border to the south of Mosul, where it joins the Tigris. Over the ages, the river has carved out its path through the mountains; a rugged-edged canyon overseen by snow-tipped giants like Sky Mountain, Purple Mountain and the ominous Black Mountain.
About an hour-and-a-half after you first picked up the trail of the stream, you find yourself overlooking the town of Hakkâri, known in Kurdish as Colemêrg, a hidden and remote mountain hide-out in the very heart of Kurdistan. The town stretches from the banks of the Great Zab below to a far end up the rocky mountain slopes. Hakkâri itself is less than romantic, with its soulless apartment blocks, a handful iron-domed mosques and military barracks overlooking the town. But there’s a “natural mystic blowing through the air” that makes you pause and wonder what secrets, stories and sagas lie hidden beneath its surface, waiting to be unveiled.
Before entering the town, however, you first have to maneuverer your way through the carefully crafted surveillance maze laid out by the state. “Welcome to the checkpoint” announces a sign next to the road, ironically, as if anyone has ever been honestly welcomed by the state. Concrete security walls, piled sandbags, heavy armored vehicles, an AK-47 casually dangling from a shoulder. The driver is ordered to open the door and a soldier enters the bus. His face hidden by a black balaclava, his dark piercing eyes turning every subject into a suspect, an enemy, an Other. A big patch showing a stylized wolf’s head underneath proto-Turkish runes prominently stuck to his chest – symbols of fascism that unequivocally declare the bearer’s approval of all the suffering each and every single of your fellow passengers has ever endured. It’s hard to imagine a more hostile imagery in this.
The soldier harshly demands to see everyone’s ID’s. After collecting them he proceeds to read out the identity numbers in his transceiver one by one. At the checkpoint your whole identity is reduced to a few digits, a series of numbers that turn the complicated essence of you as a human being into a simple code that can be read, judged and filed by the brainless bureaucratic apparatus of the state. Distinct, readable and unambiguous. The good numbers can stay in their seats, the bad ones are ordered to get off the bus. If you want to be left alone, then whatever happens to the bad numbers is none of your concern; too much curiosity can easily turn a good number into a bad one.
With a bit of luck the entire bus gets the green light, and together you zig-zag your way through the safety barriers, mumbling a few pointless curses directed at the helmets, uniforms, patches and guns on the road outside. But you’ve slipped through, and before long you can loose yourself in the warm embrace of this mythical town tucked away at the far end of the world.