essay

58800 dengbêj evi


Diyarbakır and the Dengbêj House

1 goats

Men sell sheep in a parking lot. They ask not to be photographed,
but allow us to take pictures of the animals.

WE EXPLORE the neighborhoods of the Sur, the old walled city of Diyarbakır, and find a labyrinth of narrow channels within walls of dark basalt, perforated here and there with windows and doorways, leading to unknowable courtyards and the inner sancta of domestic life. A hot sky hovers above us, casting a torrent of blinding sunlight into the narrows, brilliant shafts jabbing like solid objects, painting geometric spots on the ground. The July temperatures go beyond 40°C, and the smallest patch of shade is a gratefully accepted mercy.

The channels split and fork in seeming infinitude, and the wider ones, by twists and turns, soon become narrow capillaries. The streets are cobbled with irregular stones, and earthen patches where the stones are gone, and for some stretches can seem almost deserted, save for the floating voices of the invisible people behind the walls, which slip and smear across the three hard surfaces, like flying birds or skittering lizards. Through the open windows and doorways, we hear conversations: mothers coax incalcitrant children, stern husbands scold bickering wives, children tussle for a favored toy, old men natter about the state of the world.

As our eyes get used to these unfamiliar spaces, as well as the mysteries of local social interactions, and as we habituate ourselves to the many turns and intersections in the streets, we begin to pick out details which seem characteristic. Here an old sign shows that someone who lived here had once been on the hajj; there the remnant of a decoration cut into stone now eroded, its meaning forgotten. The capital of an ancient marble column is here doing service as stool, or there turned on its side as a doorstep; a fragment of terra cotta decoration from a mosque has been used to patch a hole in the wall.

We round corners and find people: standing, walking, shopping, talking. There are things going on in the street, things which go on in probably every street in the world. Noisy groups of boys scratch out places to play games in the dirt, or scream through the narrows, chasing one another with sticks. Women lead bright-eyed children by the hand with their heavy shopping bags. Old men sit on stoops, giving instructions or advice to younger men as to what needs doing and how to do it. Women and girls sit around large bowls, peeling vegetables or sorting beans, while other men sit together, smoking, thinking. Watching. Wagons and pushcarts pass; a fruit vendor burdened with melons calls out offerings, a woman comes out from within to choose from among his stock. Stray cats are everywhere, unafraid, and they eagerly come to you if you beckon.

2 street

Eyes follows us cautiously, curiously. Interactions with people, when not indifferent, are friendly and hospitable. My friend stops to take a picture through the open shop window of the workers in a bakery preparing the day’s bread. They seem delighted at the attention. Before we are allowed to leave we’re handed a fresh warm loaf — no charge.

One of the mosques has just called its faithful, men and boys come to sit on stone stools at a circle of water taps. They are taking off their shoes, washing behind their ears, their necks, hands, and feet, between every toe, the ritual ablutions before entering the space of worship. Some are already going into the inner sanctum; it is dusk and the somber bluish outdoor light is pierced by a honey-colored light coming from within. These wandering bees come home to the sweetness of welcome, and, if only for a brief moment, are connected as one to a thing greater than themselves. Even if one is not religious, this feeling is powerful enough by itself.

We emerge onto a main thoroughfare, the Gazi Caddesi, which cuts straight through the Sur. People are flowing in opposing and chaotic droves on the pavements, inspecting what is laid out before them, fruits and melons of various sorts, mass-produced shoes and cheap toys, kitchen utensils, tea and coffee sets, beckoning the shoppers to make a choice. Boys sell ears of boiled sweet corn or dip ice cream from steel tubs. We stumble upon the grand entrance of a restored caravanserai, the Tarihi Hasan Paşa Hanı, which has been converted into a public space full of shops, tea houses, and restaurants. We pause to admire a collection of antiques in the window of small boutique, and are soon greeted by a youngish man, smiling broadly, who pops out of the door to lend his assistance. Soon, he invites us into the shop, and the conversation quickly becomes less mercantile, more personal. We ask him, does he know of a place where we can hear local music? He enthusiastically responds with the suggestion that we go to the Dengbêj House, established to showcase the Kurdish Dengbêj tradition, a form of folk music as well as oral literature chronicling the life of the Kurdish people from their past up to current events.

We are fortunate; a performance is taking place when we arrive. We quietly open a large wooden door behind which we can hear a strong, clear voice singing in the a capella style of the Dengbêj, and emerge into a room with seating along all four walls, and little tables scattered about. We are greeted with smiles of welcome from everyone, and the main singer beckons me to come forward, to sit beside him, at the head of the room, next to the three singers who will take turns regaling the assembly with their skills. I take my place next to him, another man with a tray sets a glass of tea before me, and I press the record button.

3 dengbej singers diyarbakir

Recording of a performance at the Dengbêj House in Diyarbakır.
Photo by Tamás Sajó.


A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 25th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“

The text has also been published on the blog Poemas del río Wang in English, and Hungarian.