Mustafa's Tongue

I am not exactly sure when Mustafa joined our crew, but I am glad he is here now. We are in the mess tent in the Low Camp. He is working; I am avoiding work.

Mustafa is probably in his mid 30s. He is about medium height and build, has black hair, a dark complexion, worn-out leather shoes, and a baseball cap. He is of Kurdish descent (unlike our Turkish minders) and speaks no English.

Mustafa at work.

I try to converse with him. Naturally since I don’t know either Turkish or Kurdish (or Farsi for that matter), it isn’t going well. My acute skills in “taxi-Arabic” do nothing to help matters either.

I motion to the top of the tent, “Rain?” My inflection is meant to suggest that this is a question. My wet boots suggest it is simply a recent and personal experience.

He replies, “deche.” 

“Deche is rain?” I ask.

Mustafa shrugs without shifting from his squatted position. His eyes return to the propane stove. He is making dinner for the group. I suspect that this is a task he does regularly throughout the two month climbing season on Ağrı Dağı. He knows just how much food to buy, pack, and prepare for a party our size. At the moment he is stirring a frying pan full of diced sausage. The smell fills the large canvas tent and is magnificent.

Now that I think about it, I probably first saw Mustafa in Doğubayazıt, in the grocery store. He was carrying out the supplies that we would need for the week on the mountain. After helping to load these supplies onto the roof rack of the van, he climbed into the front seat and rode to Çevirme. From there he must have come by horse to the Low Camp. (That has to be it, I think.) I don’t remember seeing him at the hotel and I never saw him walking the trail.

The photo does not lie. Mustafa is loading supplies on the morning of our departure from Doğubayazıt.

I engage him not only because is it always wise to befriend the cook (not to mention the fact that he seems to be a nice guy), but also because Mustafa represents something very interesting to me. His culture is Kurdish. His language is Northern Kurmanji (or Kurdmanji), a modern-day descendant of the old Median tongue (remember the Medes and the Persians?). His local dialect has a name too, but is beyond my ear. Mustafa represents millions of people who live near the junction of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. His distinct culture does not sit comfortably within the arbitrary boundaries of these political states, and does, from time to time, run afoul of them. In fact, sparks still fly from the yearning to unite this significant minority under the name of “Kurdistan.” The Turks, naturally, have attempted to douse these sparks, but with little success. The problem is most deeply felt in this corner of the country where Kurds are numerous, education is hard to come by, and poverty is rampant. As a way to overwrite this unique heritage and unify (read, “Turkify”) these folks, the Kurds were relabeled “mountain Turks.” Fortunately, the label did not stick any better than the law that made speaking Kurdish a crime against the state. Some of these harsher measures have been repealed in recent years. But it remains a deep-seated problem.

Distribution of Kurdish.

I drift back to the seditious lesson.

Roj baş.”

He is now looking at me, waiting for me to repeat the syllables. I try it again, this time with more focus. I squeeze out the sibilant -sh like a punctured tire. The phrase sounds something like “rose bush” in my ears.

“Yes!” Mustafa exclaims in perfect English.

I smile. He smiles. Another brick falls off the Babel tower. Well, perhaps. I believe my new phrase means “Good afternoon,” or “Good day,” or maybe even “Your wool cap of my donkey is on fire” in Kurmanji. Whatever.

“Sipas dekem (thank you), Mustafa.” I chirp awkwardly, as the lesson ends. I look forward to learning more about what it means to be Kurdish. I also look forward to the dinner in the pan.