The Turkish Dolmuş — The Nation on Wheels

Craig Dicker

“What’s in the sack?” I asked in Turkish, pointing to the large, coarse, white sack sitting under the legs of a passenger in the minibus (dolmuş) from Mardin to Batman in Southeastern Turkey, a trip of just over 130km. I was standing immediately above, grasping the seat directly in front, hanging on to dear life as I struggled to keep from flying across the swerving vehicle as it soared down the pock-marked road.

The middle-aged fellow, his skin likely weathered from years of exposure to sun and wind, turned to me and gawked silently as if I had descended from another planet. Thinking that I might have mispronounced something in my less-than-perfect Turkish, I repeated myself, pointing to the large white bag beneath his legs.

“What’s in the sack?”

He continued to stare, seemingly confused and perhaps even shocked. Perhaps he didn't speak Turkish. I was, after all, traveling in a part of the country where the vast majority spoke Kurdish as their mother tongue.

“Broken tiles,” my neighbor finally mumbled nonchalantly, breaking a long, awkward silence.

“Where are you heading?” I asked, hoping to chat with him in an effort to break the monotony of what was turning out to be an unexpectedly long journey.

The guy examined me suspiciously. I wasn't a native Turkish speaker, something he probably detected the second I opened my mouth.  Perhaps he thought I worked for the Turkish intelligence services, which inconspicuously monitored Turkey's volatile, Kurdish-dominated southeast. However, that wouldn't make much sense, given my Turkish. I could have been mistaken for an expatriate Kurd who was born, bred, and raised in Germany and periodically returned to visit relatives, although I doubt anybody would have imagined I had family ties to the region.

After another long silence, he responded,

“Batman.”  He continued to glare at me.

“Oh…. Is there a shortage of broken tiles in Batman?” I asked, trying to lighten things up.

He remained frozen, staring blankly at me and failing to pick up on my pitiful attempt at levity. He finally responded

“No.”

When I embarked on the dolmuş just outside of Mardin, well over one hour ago, the vehicle was packed, as dolmuşes are wont to be. Most of the passengers stood, clinging on to each other to maintain their balance or, for those who could reach, grabbing a ceiling rail or anchored seat-back to keep from flying across the vehicle. The dolmuş constantly swerved around countless potholes and screeched to sudden halts every kilometer or two to pick up passengers. Anybody could flag down a dolmuş anywhere along its posted route. Younger males like myself were expected to stand unless the vehicle was largely empty. Those who managed to score seats earlier in the voyage courteously surrendered them as older passengers, women with children, or the visibly pregnant embarked. By the time the packed dolmuş neared the town of Cinar, I had been standing for nearly two hours. I was relieved when more than half the passengers disembarked, presenting me an empty seat, at least until the next wave of passengers crammed aboard.

The dolmuş is Turkey’s primary form of intra-city and inter-town transportation. They are widely used in big cities like Istanbul as well as in rural areas like the one I was traveling through. The word dolmuş, meaning ‘filled,' accurately describes these vehicles. Considerable space is reserved for upright passengers, thereby maximizing capacity. Although public buses exist in southeast Turkey, most are limited to routes originating or ending in bigger towns like Adana or Diyarbakir. To travel by bus from Mardin to Batman, one must head west to Adana and then catch a bus back east to Batman, making a 130km (80 miles) journey closer to 600km. The dolmuş offers a reasonable alternative, and nearly everybody uses them. They are also cheaper than buses. Privately owned and operated, dolmuşes remain profitable because they manage to constantly accommodate high passenger volume.

Embarking passengers, wedging themselves into previously non-existent spaces among their fellow travelers, shout their destination to the driver as the vehicle jolts forward at breakneck speed, often without bothering to close the side entry door. The driver shouts out a price, and money is passed from hand to hand among the passengers standing between the newly embarked traveler and the driver. When appropriate, the driver provides the change and hands it back to the nearest passenger, who, in turn, passes it back to neighboring riders until the change finally reaches its rightful owner. Pilfering is unheard of.

Dolmuş drivers, generally mustached men, epitomize the art of multitasking. In addition to driving, scanning the horizon for new passengers, and providing change, they chain-smoke and drink hot tea while navigating their crowded vessels forward at breakneck speed. During one of my many dolmuş journeys, a new passenger with a baby climbed on board. She needed to rummage through her purse to find money, so she handed the baby over to the driver, thereby freeing her to conduct the search. The dolmuş had already lurched forward, accelerating from 0 to 80 km an hour in a matter of seconds. The driver calmly held his tulip-shaped glass of tea in one hand, puffed on the lit cigarette hanging from his mouth, and nonchalantly added the baby to his load as if such juggling acts were part of his daily routine. He steered with his left knee as the minibus flew down the road while the mother searched for the fare. Nobody but me seemed to be the least bit concerned. I'll never understand why road accidents aren't far more commonplace in Turkey.

Despite the crowded conditions and the less than prosperous appearance of my fellow dolmuş travelers, the minibusses didn't reek of body order or filth. Any detectable odors could be blamed on the livestock accompanying some passengers. Sheep and goats aren't known for their meticulous hygiene. The animals must have adapted to dolmuş travel as they rarely bleated or brayed but stood patiently, crammed in among the legs of the standing humans.

As soon as the dolmuş emptied in Cinar, I commandeered the now empty seat next to the broken tile merchant, still hoping to strike up a conversation.

“Why are you taking a sack of broken tiles to Batman?” I asked.

My less than garrulous seatmate suddenly smiled and said in heavily accented Turkish,

“My uncle needs them.”

He introduced himself as Eylo, a general handyman who was off to Batman to help his uncle tile a new outhouse. Eylo’s uncle's wife insisted on a tiled bathroom, and the uncle couldn't afford new tiles. They planned to create a colorful mosaic using these discarded, free tiles to keep this uncle's nagging wife at bay.

I continued to try to engage Eylo.

“Do you have a design for your mosaic?” I asked, smiling.

Eylo appeared confused and, after another prolonged period of silence, said,

 “A design? Why do I need a design? It's for an outhouse, not a harem, mosque, or madrasah. People go there to shit.”

Just then, the dolmuş driver hit the brakes, catapulting passengers toward the front of the minibus. The smell of burning rubber filled the compartment. Eylo and I somehow managed to remain seated as others tumbled forward, nearly landing in the driver's cabin. Unbelievably, nobody was hurt. Dolmuş riders seem to be indestructible and casually accept some of the world’s worst driving conditions and drivers.

Without a building, fence, or tree insight, a man, at least 75 years old, embarked. He was thin, short, and donned a snow-white beard that reached the middle of his chest. He wore a white knitted kufi prayer cap and a long white thawb, a loose-fitting Middle Eastern male gown covering his entire body to his ankles. He didn't announce his destination nor pay. The other passengers instantly fell silent, each staring at the old man. He surveyed the dolmuş carefully, eyes halting on Eylo and me, and approached us. Eylo immediately stood and started to ease his way out of his window seat. I was about to get up when the old man gestured for me to slide over so he could sit by my side.

The thin, wrinkled man looked at me and just smiled. After several minutes of silence, he asked me in excellent Turkish,

 “Where are you from?”

“New York, originally,” I responded somewhat nervously.

“An American! What brings you here?” the elderly man said, clearly surprised to find an American on board.

“I’m working in Turkey, based in Ankara, on a 3-year assignment,” I said. “A project brings me here.”

“Why are Americans interested in southeastern Turkey?”

“It's an education project,” I responded hesitantly, hoping to highlight my good intentions. After all, who doesn't like education?

“You realize that the central authorities in Ankara control all aspects of education throughout the country, don't you?” he asked sternly.

“Yes, but I'm sure some accommodations are made for local realities. I understand that the Turks send new state university graduates here to teach for a few years. They tend to be enthusiastic, smart, and caring. They seem open to change and curious to learn.”

The old guy stared cynically at me for over a minute, smiling whimsically, and then said,

“No, they follow the curricula and exams set by Ankara. No accommodations whatsoever. They are, after all, Turks themselves.” He continued to glare at me with a scornful look plastered on his withered face.

“Are you saying that none of the Kurdish kids’ needs or interests are accommodated in classrooms around here?”

“The opposite. The government uses education to brainwash our children and make them think like Turks. They glorify everything Turkish—their history, music, culture, language, and literature. The Turks use education as a weapon to keep us ignorant of who we are and subservient to the Turkish nation.”

The elderly man looked pensive and deeply disturbed.

“We are all human, except for that goat over there,” I finally said in an attempt to break the deafening silence, pointing to the goat that had just squeezed on board. “And humans are sensitive creatures who want to love and be loved, want to help. This is especially true of the sort who elect to become teachers. I find it hard to believe that all these young, well-meaning teachers are complicit in suppressing the Kurds,” I said, overly self-confident and direct. I didn't want a heated argument, but I wasn't just going to sit there and let this little old man trash all teachers, many of who were sincere, dedicated, and sensitive professionals.

“I have found a few who want to help, who are curious enough to learn a bit of Kurdish, learn about our lifestyles, history, and culture. But they are the exceptions,” the old man admitted hesitantly. “After all, we are all equal in the eyes of Allah.”

“True”

“My name is Selahattin, by the way. And yours?”

“Craig”

“I’m an imam in a village just outside Batman.”

Just then, the dolmuş came to another jolting halt, having pulled over beside a roadside shack with a large samovar standing in front. The driver announced a tea break, not indicating how long it would last, and everybody jumped off the dolmuş to indulge in cigarettes and tea. The men, who comprised a large majority of the passengers, immediately lit the cigarettes they already had hanging from their mouths as soon as they disembarked and then slowly sauntered in the direction of the rickety tables behind the samovar to settle in for tea.

Tea is an essential part of life throughout the region, and most people I know drink plenty of it. My friend Ferdi told me he enjoys his first glass of tea immediately after rising in the morning and his last just before heading to bed at night. He has tea after every meal and often before as well. He also has tea at each cigarette break, which is frequent in his case. Tea is an omnipresent facet of his life; I suspect he's no exception. Fortunately, Turkey grows quality tea along its Black Sea coast.

Tea is served in small tulip-shaped glasses on metal saucers with small metal spoons and is accompanied by bowls filled with sugar cubes.  Good tea is prepared in coal or wood kindling-heated samovars with a teapot of concentrated tea at the top and a spigot to fill the glasses with hot water toward the bottom. Good tea shops know precisely the right proportion of concentrated tea to water and vary it only on request. I have never seen Turks or Kurds serve tea in porcelain cups or ceramic mugs or add milk. When time permits and the company is good, I have consumed six or more glasses in a single sitting.

Selahattin led me by the elbow toward a rickety table not far from the samovar. Without asking, the waiter delivered two teas to the table. Selahattin reached for the sugar bowl, took out two cubes with his fingers, plopped them into the glass of tea, and then stirred vigorously with the provided tiny metal spoon. I followed suit.

Selahattin looked at me and asked,

“Are you a Christian?”

“In part,” I said.

“What part?” Selahattin asked. “From the waist down? Your left side? Or perhaps just your right leg? How can different parts of you adhere to separate religions? That's ridiculous.”

“My parents are from different religions. My dad is Christian.”

“And your mother?”

“Jewish,” I said hesitantly. 

Since the Seven Day War ended in 1967 when Israel occupied neighboring Arab lands, antisemitism has been on the rise throughout the Muslim world. The creation of Israel in 1948 triggered waves of antisemitism, although Turkey was a relative late-comer to public expressions of such sentiments. The recent Israeli raid of the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship, which breached an Israeli blockade of Gaza to purportedly deliver humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, only served to further ignite antisemitism. Nine aid workers on board were killed. Seizing another people's land is an act of blasphemy and justifies any path of rectification, even those involving violence, according to some of the Muslim scholars I know.

“Jewish, you said?” asked Selahattin, glaring at me suspiciously.

“Yes,” I confirmed, sensing that I may have opened an unwelcomed can of worms.

“Why do you Jews deny us our rights, our lands?” Selahattin asked rhetorically, anger permeating every syllable. “According to the Holy Koran, no holy place should be inaccessible to the followers of any Ibrahimic religion. And yet, you Jews have now occupied Palestine and are denying us the right to visit our holy sites! Such prohibitions are intolerable and blasphemous!” Selahattin took a breath, licked his lips, and further stiffened, taking a combative pose in his seat.

“The atrocities you Jews commit against innocent people trying to live peaceable lives in Palestine are inhumane. How can the descendants of our father Ibrahim act so abhorrently? Why have you Jews turned your backs on the Torah and brazenly slaughtered other people of the book? Have you forgotten the lessons of history? The word of God? You Jews have become perpetrators of torture, mass destruction, cruelty, and inhumanity. How dare you!”

The tirade continued for another fifteen minutes without interruption. I thought about trying to tell Selahattin that I was well versed in the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, and other religious scriptures but realized that I might just be adding fuel to his fire. Finally, after what felt like ages, the driver signaled that it was time to return to the minibus. I appreciated the interruption but realized I wouldn't escape further accusations back on the dolmuş.

Selahattin followed me onto the dolmuş and reoccupied the seat by my side. I desperately wanted to avoid a political or religious confrontation and tried to change the topic.

“Are you originally from around here?” I asked Selahattin.

Selahattin just glared at me as if I were stupid. 

“I'm an imam. And you, a heathen. You Jews must be stopped. You have not only carried out the worst atrocities against innocents in centuries, but you've kidnapped this country as well. Your bankers and financiers control Turkish industries and suck the lifeblood out of the country while millions go to bed hungry. You have co-opted the Turkish military, their politicians, corporations, and the media. You Jews, behind the scenes, control everything.”

Everybody on the dolmuş stared at me as if I were the devil incarnate.  Except for Selahattin’s ravings, a deadly silence had descended. Even the driver turned the radio off. I began to fear for my well-being.

“Why do you perpetrate atrocities against us Kurds? You Jews have driven the corrupt and amoral Turks into a multi-generational war against my people. We want nothing more than to live in peace, speak our language, and appreciate our culture. Through your Turkish proxies, you terrorize us, suppress us, and keep us poor and ignorant. What have we ever done to you?”

At this point, I realized I had made a big mistake.  I should have lied about my religion.

“But all Jews don't support Israel, you know. There are some Jews who….” I began defensively.

“Few Jews openly condemn the atrocities being committed today by Israel,” Selahattin interrupted again. “Few Jews have gone out of their way to call Israel's actions against the Palestinians acts of genocide…. Yes, you heard me—genocide!!!” He wagged his finger in the air.

“Dante says there’s a special place in hell for those who witness but do nothing,” Selahattin continued. “Those who know and fail to act to try to prevent carnage are more guilty than the perpetrators themselves.”

 Selahattin smirked, rose, and signaled to the driver that he wished to disembark. The dolmuş screeched to a stop. As Selahattin stepped down, he looked up at me and said, “A special place in hell awaits.”


About the Author

Craig Dicker was born in New York City and early on fell in love with the endless possibilities and incredible diversity presented to him through reading. Imagines of foreign places and people resonated in his head as he fought the onslaught of the forces of conformity and materialism. He soon morphed into a storyteller and spun the mundane into fantasies and tales that took him and, ultimately, his listeners and readers to wonderous worlds. Fascinated by the wild and rebellious lives and exploits of historical figures, he majored in history and became a history teacher, a profession that allowed him to share multiple interpretations of the past, dovetailing with his passion for good, well-told stories. After spending time with recently returned Peace Corps volunteers who recanted exotic tales of living in the African bush or jungles of Southeast Asia, he decided to live out some of his fantasies and moved abroad. He spent decades living and working in eastern Europe, southern Africa, and south and southeast Asia, where reality can be as surprising and entertaining as fiction. His positions presented him with opportunities to initiate and evaluate cultural and educational exchange programs between the US and the countries where he lived. Craig's writings reflect his fascination with outsiders and nonconformists, the importance of the arts in defining societies and connecting people, the challenges minorities and women face in publicly being themselves, syncretic belief systems and cultures, and grassroots resistance to globalization. His first works of non-fiction are based on his years working in Turkey from 2007-2015.