At certain times of the year, the highway from the Iranian border with Turkey to the eastern city of Van can be bumper to bumper as party-seeking Iranians drive into the city. More than 100,000 of them headed to Van in the first four months of this year; they come to shop, drink and dance at private parties, and recreate what a more liberal night out in Tehran could one day look like.
The Iranians are going where few other tourists dare nowadays. Van was once the gateway to Turkey’s Kurdish region, which stretches south to the Syrian border. But this is also the heartland of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody campaign against the government since the 1970s in pursuit of a separate Kurdish state. A ceasefire temporarily held the peace but its breakdown in 2015 scuppered a nascent tourist trade. Engin Piskin, a tour guide who recently added Farsi to his list of languages to meet demand, remembers the days of back-to-back tours in the 1990s, when European campers arrived to pitch up tents lakeside or make a road trip through the region. “Now those tourists are too frightened to come here,” he says. “But if this war ended, within two years they’d be back.”
For the Iranians, Turkey’s eastern fringe has become an unlikely byword for a visa-free bolthole of freedom. Van is only a three-hour drive from Tabriz, the fifth-largest city in Iran, and is a more affordable sojourn than jetting off to, say, Dubai or Europe. Many come to buy home essentials such as clothes, linen and furniture, purchases that have become inordinately expensive back home with the economy in recession. The line of cars from the border in March, when Iranians arrived en masse to celebrate Persian new year (Nowruz), was so long that teams from the municipality in Turkey met them with glasses of chai.
The influx is a case of people voting with their feet – and credit cards. When Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran in 2013 he promised to restore dignity to the Iranian passport and made pacts with technocrats, centrists and reformers to re-engage with the world, while reassuring hardliners that he wouldn’t jeopardise the Islamic Republic. “Rouhani’s claim was, ‘We can continue to do the same but receive less western pressure in return and we’ll be better managers of the Iranian economy,’” says Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior analyst at the Foundation For Defence of Democracies, a Washington-based policy think-tank. Rouhani’s bloc did not deliver, says Taleblu, because the things that keep Iran isolated – state-sponsored terror, ballistic missiles and the nuclear portfolio – are the purview of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), not the president.
These fanatical protectors of the Islamic Republic enforce the word and strict moral codes dictated by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and brutally put down any dissent. Since the 1980s many of the IRGC have also become heads of industry and this has mired the economy in corruption: “As we start to see the removal of the nuclear sanctions, Iran’s institutional challenges are coming to the fore: crony capitalism, nepotism and false privatisation.” Iran, it was hoped, would some day become like Turkey: a democracy where religion is kept apart from politics and the judiciary, and the country not beholden to fanatics of the regime. For Turks who decry the growing power of political Islam and President Erdogan’s personality cult, Iran has been the looming spectre of where things could lead.
Yet Turkey, for now, is not Iran. It may be the world’s worst jailer of journalists and have been reshaped by its post-coup purge of civil society but there is still a baseline of individual rights – to wear what you want, for most men and women – and some rule of law, even if both are deeply imperiled. “Here there is happiness; in Iran you can’t find such joy,” says a middle-aged Iranian family man above the jangle of Persian pop in one of the many bars that cater specifically to Van’s new Iranian market. Most prefer not to give their names, concerned about what might await them when they get home. Women discard chadors at the door, strangers link arms on the dance floor and the atmosphere is like a family wedding, even though nobody knows each other.
Many of the young Iranians who move to Van, usually to staff the bars and nightclubs that cater to their countrymen, are marginalised back home, be they Kurds, Christian converts, Zoroastrians or those with conspicuous tattoos (which are banned in Iran). They say they’d like to move to Canada, the US or Europe; in Van the pay isn’t great and they feel ripped off as foreigners. “For now Turkey is like a mother and a father to me,” says Mina, a hostess at a Persian nightclub, who fled a divorce in Iran. “They treat women very differently here; I feel no fear.”
The city has natural appeal. It sits on the edge of Lake Van, a vast body of water flanked by a row of snow-capped highlands that stretch to Armenia. A crossroads of Armenian, Byzantine and Seljuk empires for centuries before the Ottomans, the city is today a concrete sprawl that was hurriedly rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 2011. The city’s breakfasts, however, have become a Kurdish signature. “Van breakfast houses” can be found in Istanbul’s desirable neighbourhoods, serving large plates of honey, kaymak (clotted cream) and well-herbed cheese. Van was also a popular stop-off on the Trans-Asia Express, a train service that ran from Istanbul to Tehran, before fears of attacks saw passenger services grind to a halt two years ago.
The recent upswing of tourist traffic from Iran is offering hope on both sides of the border. Van has bucked the disastrous downturn in Turkey’s broader tourism sector following two years of bombs and a failed coup, while Iranian rials are revitalising businesses. For the Iranians it’s a place to breathe at a depressed moment back home; the same happened in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, when Damascus was the place where less-wealthy Iranians went to kick back.
On Van’s Cumhuriyet Caddesi, shop windows are bright with signs in Farsi. One family business from Turkey’s Black Sea region set up shop six months ago to sell artisanal cheese wrapped in goatskin (OK, slightly niche) and received two or three busloads of Iranians a day during Nowruz. There are also businesses staffed mostly with Iranians: Haldi Hotel is a marble affair where the clocks in the lobby read New York, Istanbul and Tehran. “We’re constantly busy,” says receptionist Sanaz Mahmoudi, who’s from Tabriz. She and the bellhops are prepped for another surge at the weekend.
It may have been Van’s best year for tourism in decades but the mood at city hall is tense. Late last year a new mayor was handpicked by the government after the previous one was arrested and charged with having terrorist links after voicing his support for greater autonomy in Kurdish provinces. Longstanding civil servants were either reshuffled or given the boot.
“I’d prefer we didn’t get into politics,” says Sinan Bagli, who worked for the city for 24 years before he was appointed head of culture and tourism in December. He keeps a large photograph of the “Van cat”, a local breed with mismatched yellow and blue eyes, on his office wall and though happy about the surge of arrivals, he’d prefer it if the Iranians soaked up more culture than the malls and nightclubs. “Iran, compared to Turkey, simply doesn’t have as many freedoms,” he says, adding that the municipality is restoring the beaches on Lake Van and building a new border gate in time for spring 2018.
This year the municipality bussed Iranian Nowruz shoppers from the malls to the 9th-century BC fortress that keeps watch over Van. Beyond that are stunning panoramas from atop beige hills, overlooked by medieval Ottoman fortresses and chiselled canyons. Yet all are devoid of visitors save for platoons of well-armed Turkish soldiers who check passports on the lonely highway. The 13th-century Saint Bartholomew Monastery, named after the apostle who brought Christianity to Armenians, used to attract pilgrims from Yerevan until a few years ago. Today the path to its crumbled façade is blocked by military barbed wire.
Iranian trade is more hedonistic than some would prefer but it has proved a reminder of Van’s better days. “Before the curfew wars these streets were full of tourists,” says Yavuz Karaman, the vice-chairman of Van’s Chamber of Commerce. He believes it’s fruitless to talk about the future until the peace process resumes. “It was especially comfortable in the 1990s and there was a lot more cultural tourism.” He reckons that 80 per cent of the bars in town that opened in the past few years take advantage of Persian money.
Over the border, the traffic to the city has not gone unnoticed. “Iran does its best to stop their people from coming because they leave a lot of money here,” says Burhan Kayaturk, one of the ruling party’s two members of parliament for Van. “When we have a small problem – a terrorist attack, say – Iran wants to make sure their people don’t forget it,” he adds, without a hint of irony given that this part of Turkey has hardened after decades of conflict.
Van epitomises the impasse for Turkey’s Kurds: an unerring demand for greater autonomy in the provinces and a governmental red line that’s more rigid than ever. The Kurdish regions were once the swing vote for President Erdogan’s party but the recent referendum to deliver him executive power revealed the depth of opposition to his rule in this part of the country. He faces a general election next year and the pressure is on to restore faith in this disenfranchised part of the country, reboot the economy beyond a growing crony class and stop playing to his fanatical support base by being combative towards the rest of the world. There’s certainly more common ground between Turkey and Iran than just Van’s nightlife.
For Iranians, however, Turkey remains an enticing prospect. Mahan is a 25-year-old DJ from Tehran who works in the Iranian discos and sports a high-shaven side parting and soul patch; here he can be himself. He shows us a photograph taken a year ago when he had a sensible haircut and conservative blazer. “Iran is a full dictatorship,” he says, and then waves his outstretched hand. “Here it’s so-so.”
Top three Iranian tunes in Van’s nightclubs
Mohsen Yeganeh Vabastegi (2016)
The perennially popular Mohsen taps into Tehrangeles’ bounce.
Roozbeh Nematollahi Nafas Nafas (2015)
The fiddly keyboard-organ is a floor-filler. Handkerchief-waving ensues.
Sina Shabankhani Jadoye Khas (2014)
Unabashedly Eurodance, with plenty of echo on its throaty, quivery vocals.