Just after I finished my MSc in Development Studies at SOAS, The University of London – I was briefly working for an international NGO that specializes in med aid in conflict zones. To gather more experience, I was sent into the field to work alongside their Syria project – but from the safety of Gaziantep, Turkey. Whilst I was based there for almost two months, a perfect storm was created due to polarizing domestic and local crises, which subsequently created a political vacuum during the fall of 2016. For young women or specifically, I would not recommend settling in Gaziantep at the moment since the region is so unstable. It’s such a beautiful city with such amazing history, but give it a few years for the national government to calm down.
Nevertheless, here are my top tips for traveling through Gaziantep.
I would 100% NOT consider staying at any of the major UN/Expat hotels. These are the main targets when it comes to terrorism and with so many sleeper cells in the immediate vicinity, be sure to go to lesser known or elaborate locations instead. I would rather not repost the names of specific hotels/restaurants that are known UN/Expat hotspots purely for safety reasons but I WILL recommend that you stay in a hotel that is 3 STARS OR LESS. Call me paranoid, but this was always a recommendation I got from the various security officers I worked with. Act local, stay out of harm’s way.
Coming from dreary London, I WELCOMED Gaziantep’s warm, dry heat… but there were definitely expectations regarding the way I would dress. Even if it’s 35C (95f), I was fully expected to coverup no matter what the temperature. When I was in a local restaurant, I took off my sweater for a split second – before then putting on a shawl – and my bare shoulders were enough to stop people eating mid-chew. Interestingly enough, Turkey use to be a surprisingly open society in terms of sexuality – brothels are legal in Turkey – but recent government policies has turned the region more conservative. Dressing for the weather in Gaziantep is tricky based on what you’re use to and your own way of expressing yourself. I would stick to linen during the summer and proper winter clothing (as it can be 3-2C) from November till March.
In the fall/winter of 2016, politics were strained in Gaziantep and there was an obvious cultural divide between the newly immigrated Syrian community and the Turkish/Kurdish locals. Whilst I was in Gaziantep, I observed Syrian businesses, talent and labor competing heavily with locals for resources and the national government was starting to prosecute Kurdish regional leaders as part of a larger political agenda. These forces created a hostile environment for foreigners, Syrian or otherwise, which was made worse by local suspicion that the Syrian community was slowly imposing intensely conservative values on otherwise liberal Turks/Kurds.
Kurdish and Turkish food in Gaziantep changed my life. Historically known for their pistachios, Gaziantep food culture combines flavors and spices from around the world perfectly. You could literally go into any corner shop and have a breath-taking culinary experience. Take advantage! I would say an average meal would cost you <$6, depending on where you’re dining. Be sure to sample the Pistachio Baklava – as it’s the regional favor.