Friday, September 30, 2011

Lonely Planet Entry on Conag

A break from my long Conag blogs (I only have one more brewing) and a short Conag sketch with something whiny and ordinary at the end to top it off.

If there were a Lonely Planet entry about Conag, the Things to Do section might feature something along these lines.

At the Merga Ağe

‘Feeling parched?  Then stock up on your thermoses (thermi?) and mosey on up to the Merga Ağe.  The word is local Kurmanci lingo for ‘the Lord’s Fountain’.  That ain’t the Lord Jesus, kiddies, but rather the feudal type—called an Ağa in Turkish and an Ağe or Aga in Kurdish. By the way, that last g is pronounced like someone just waking up from a long (drunken) winter’s nap and trying to pronounce a French r. Villages for miles around know the Merga Ağe—it has a rep for spewing the best, purest water in the world. Of course the locals will pass onto you their own thermoses, empty soda bottles, and cups as you pass.  ‘Fill it, won’t you?’ they ask. It’s best to oblige. They’ll hook you up with some tea and snacks on the way back down.
The red algae in the dike

Follow the path that winds up the hill and catch the stream that the villagers use to irrigate their fields. The stream turns into a dike and continues snaking around the mountain side past various precarious drops. Some sections of the dike are extraordinary.  It grows this blood red algae that from a distance looks like a scarlet ribbon trailing over the rocks. The water from the Merga Ağa is as yummy as its rep, and it comes with a story about how it got it’s name, told by a local over tea one night.

This fountain once belonged to an Aga (Turkish Lord) from Kiğı, thirty miles north. This Aga knew that it was the best water in the world, bar none, and so he dispatched his servant to fetch him some. The dude liked the water, but the help was lacking. The work was hard—(imagine carrying buckets of water for thirty miles!) and so the servant decided he’d just take the shortcut, pinch some water from any old fountain and then have himself a nap in the shade before wandering back to his Aga with the goods.  Of course, the Aga wasn’t fooled. He took one sip of the counterfeit H2O and chuck the entire bucket at the luckless peasant. ‘Go to that fountain and bring back the water!’ he shouted. ‘Or next time you will lose your life!’ And he did.  Every since then, the place has been called The Fountain of the Aga.

Incidentally, my wife is starting a cooking blog about Kurdish food so we watched Julia and Julie—in light of her project it was fun to watch and inspiring, but as a 40 year-old-writer, it was both galling and encouraging.  Julia Child’s struggle to get her book published, despite its commercial potential, was a lesson in perseverance and luck. I just don’t really get why the other woman got such an overwhelming response from her readers—Maybe that’s my problem. Do I have readers? One wonders. Anyway, as soon as Delal’s website is up and running, I’ll give you all the news. Then you people can partake in some of the wonderful Kurdish food I get to have—I think the Kurds have heeded Julia’s advice.  You can never have too much butter.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Another Conag blog--Be back soon, Gone Villageing!

Kurdistani Entertainment

Out East, there is a past time I like to refer to as ‘going villageing’. Basically one starts by waking up slightly earlier in the morning than usual and has a breakfast of dorak, bread, and salad out on the balcony.  If you are in the elderly set (Dede), you start this process around six. If you are slightly younger than 83 (like the rest of us), then you get up when the elderly set knocks on your door and repeatedly calls your name—say 6:10.

Delal! Hun hişar bun!? You awake?

(I keep mentioning dorak by the way. That’s Kurmanci Kurdish.  I forget the Turkish word, and have never eaten it in the presence of a Turk anyway, but basically it is a dairy product, a kind of sour, cheesy sort of grainy mixture that is creamed with butter and eaten on toast, sometimes cooked with eggs.  I like it, though my mother did not find it so palatable when she was here.  I believe the word she employed was, ‘YUCK!’)

After breakfast you hop in your car--if you have rented one, like we have--and drive to a village where you hopefully know someone or know someone who knows someone. If you are from the Mala Memli  (remember? The House of Memli), this is never a problem. It should be a nice village—and there are many around Conag with reputations for having lots of trees and brooks and friendly non-fanatical folk.

We went villageing several times. On one such adventure, I set out with Dede, Uncle Celal, Delal, and Zelal early one sunny morning. Our first stop was the village of Hopık, about fifteen kilometers and two hours from Conag. No, I didn’t miswrite that. You head down a dirt road, round a small lake and then dive left into the brush, fording small streams and washes until you park at the foot of a very steep and very green hill. The village sits on the summit. The climb up takes you past a lush orchard with a tall wooden fence. A gate in the fence reveals a shadowy trail vanishing into a crowd of mulberry trees—the woods lush with vines and clusters of plants. At the first row of houses Uncle Celal shouts out to the first person he sees—a man working on his roof. The man stops working, and wipes his brow. They launch into small talk hollered across great distance. Çerre? Rindin? Hi? How are you? Where you coming from? How are things over there? Oh things here are fine, fine. Lots of visitors for the summer. Conag? How’s the water situation? By the way, is so and so about? We know a friend of his….

It’s odd to think about here in Northern Mesopotamia, but as we labor up the hill and Celal stops to chat with random strangers standing in their doorways, it strikes me that villaging was an activity my father was good at. Born in a town back in rural Georgia Conagians may have found small, he was the last of an old fashioned breed of Southern gentleman. He liked to ‘pay calls’. When I was a kid, we would hit small towns in Georgia and Florida and, starting out with an acquaintance of a relative of a friend, slowly work our way around. His method was similar—stomp up in the yard and holler a name. If there was trouble or doubt, invoke the name of the famous family head. In his case Grandma Hattie (famous from Valdosta to Tifton). The results? Tea and sweets and tongue wagging. He would have loved Conag.

The house we are seeking belongs to the parents of the husband of one of Delal’s mom’s cousins. (Figure that one out.) They welcome us warmly with plates of cookies and nuts and of course cup after cup of fresh tea. Kaçak (bootleg) tea from Sri Lanka—the preferred kind. The wife boils it on the wood burning stove in her kitchen, and we sip with her for an hour or so out on the shady front patio, sharing Istanbul gossip and news, learning about the gossip and news of Hopık. They stop to inquire after the foreign zava for a bit. (That’s me!) The usual questions, how am I holding up in such an out of the way place? Can I take village life? They’re picturing me in New York cruising down 5th Avenue in my Benz. I’m remembering scratching chigger bites in the trailer in the swamp where my father lived my 3rd grade year—we paid lots of calls that summer.

We didn’t just choose this village for the company. It commands a pretty spot in the hills. There are lots of walnut, plum, and mulberry trees giving shade and endless green meadows. Many of the houses have plums drying in their guardians and one family we visit give me a free taste of some of their homemade prunes—they’re dark gold and sour and incredibly fun to eat. We pop them in our mouth as we descend back down toward the car, squeezing our faces up into a grimace as we chew.
Our hostess in Hopık

The dried plums!

A view from a stable in Hopık

Our next stop (after several police checkpoints) is Zenan. Zenan is where Delal’s mother hails from. It’s a Sunni village and so they are hard core Ramadan fasters—no water, no food, no nothing till the evening ezan—the Conag Alevis are a bit wary of all this faithyness. To wit, the whole place is empty when we arrive. We have come to see the mother of another second cousin—whom we call Amoj (Auntie). Amoj, being one of the elderly set, doesn’t have to bother with fasting, and she welcomes us in with open arms and lots of kisses and begins preparing a meal of boiled lamb and rice—her specialty which we eat out on her front patio, probably to the envy of many invisible eyes. After tea, we have a look around her house, a small but spotless earthen walled home with a picture of the Last Supper mysteriously hanging in the bedroom.

I feel a bit sorry for her—at one point, Celal, Dede, and I get embroiled in a political discussion and Amoj is kind of relegated to smiling and nodding in the background as the menfolk prattle. She remains gracious by keeping our tea glasses filled, but seems bored.  

The streets of Zenan are cobblestone and narrow. Many of the lanes are barely wide enough to fit one large man walking. On the largest streets a small dike runs down the side so that the sound of trickling water fills the whole village. Chickens and donkeys wander about, more plentiful than the humans during the day.

We visit a few different houses—relatives of relatives of cousins—again catching up on news great and small between Istanbul and Bingöl. I see the house where the Armenian sister Magrik first knocked on the door to find the man who would save her (the story is here). There is a large field in the back, all empty green grass now but which, in the old days, sported the most fertile, lushest garden in all of Bingöl. A party of women is just breaking up and as they burst laughing out of the gate, they blink wide eyed in surprise and then shower us with hugs and kisses on the cheeks.

Xer hatin! Xer hatin!  Welcome! Welcome!

More friends and relatives of Delal and Dede.

Pulling out of Zenan in the late afternoon, we pass the cemetery where Amoj’s husband is buried. As soon as we are even with his head stone, a magnificent woodpecker with a black and white spotted crest lands in the middle of the road.  I honk the horn and he flies up only to land a few feet ahead of us to land again.

‘How strange,’ Delal says. ‘He appeared right next to that grave! It’s like he’s trying to tell us something.’

The bird’s name in Turkish is Dik Suleyman—Spiky Suleyman, and Spiky keeps appearing for the next thirty miles, hopping in the middle of the road and flying away only after I have stopped and blasted the horn to drive him away. It was just the beginning of our wild life encounters for the evening.

From Zenan, we drove North to the small town of Kiğı. The dirt road winds for thirty miles along the Peri River Canyon past several dam lakes. To the right are dramatic drops to the bue-green water.  To the left red towers of rock and cliff. After the woodpeckers stop pursuing us, there comes a new kind of bird—as big as a Western Bluebird with bright blue and green wings—I mean tropical bright—and a fanned tail. The bird is magnificent, and when we first sight it, it hops into a bit of brush on the side of the road and when I stop to get a better look, even Dede leans out the window for an eager peek.

We round a corner with a glorious view of a valley streaked with silver lakes. It’s sunset, and the water is starting to blush a deep wine red at the edges. The sky is purpling.  And there, in a cluster of green hills at the foot of a tall mountain is a patch of lights, like a constellation fallen to the ground. This is the town of Kiğı, where Delal was born. Our last ‘village’ on our villageing tour that day.
A view on the road to Kiğı

If Bingöl reminds me of Arizona, then Kiğı is its Flagstaff. It’s much cooler and greener here than in the valley below. There’s a waterfall to the side of the road as we pull into town. The minaret of a mosque older than either the Ottomans and Columbus sticks up out of the shadowing dusk. Somehow, though we are two hours away from Conag, Dede manages to locate a friend within five minutes of leaving the car and we are invited to dinner at the local lokanta where we have moussaka and tea and warm bread.

This area has a long history—at least five thousand years. The Hittites were here (more Biblical folks). The Persians were here. It was part of the Urarturan Empire for a bit, and a castle looms crumbling from the mountains behind to prove it.  Then came the Byzantines (as always) and more ruins. Later it was controlled by the Ak Koyunlar Turks (White Sheeped Turks?) who had their capital several hundred miles South in Diyarbakır. They were founded by Tamerlane the Great, and built a mosque in Kiğı with an odd attached square minaret that still stands today. The Armenians were prominent here as well, and during the genocide, this was one of the smaller centers of killing. Then came the Russians with a brief invasion, followed by Republican Turks.  And now, well, us. It was the usual layer-cake of people and civilizations but with ruins scattered everywhere—unexplored, unsurveyed, and fast dissolving into dust.

There are other things that remind me of Flagstaff—the whish of trees after a desert, the Old West atmosphere of the old town with its shut up wooden shops and saloons and the posters advertising concert festivals with folk singers and barbecues. Of course, the big history here is astounding if largely undocumented, but it’s really the smaller history that I’ve come for--this is also the town my wife’s first memories take place in.

She remembers the one-story red building where she first went to school. She remembers the pharmacist we visit on the way back from dinner—her father’s friend who at first think I might be big brother Heval. She remembers the teacher dorm where her family lived when she was born.

‘Is this the house you nearly plunged to your doom?’ I ask.


One day, when she not yet two, Delal was playing on the balcony while her mother, Safiye, was working. Suddenly, she fell over the edge. When her mother looked up, the spot on the balcony was empty. ‘My heart was in my throat,’ Safiye tells me. ‘I knew that if Delal had fallen…’ Holding her breath, she peeked over the railing only to find Delal sitting up as if nothing had happened.

‘I think it was because she landed on her butt,’ Safiye says. ‘That cushioned her fall.  But I couldn’t tell her father what had happened. He would be furious with me! So I just waited around to make sure she was okay. One of the neighbors said I should keep watch for signs of anything strange. If nothing happened in twenty four hours or so, she’d be fine. I watched, and well, she just sat around smiling and playing and everything seemed fine. I still think her butt saved her.’

This wait-and-see-if-something-weird-happens is a far more hands-off approach to parenting than most people I know here. In other hands, Delal might have been in ICU for a month—just as a precaution.

Safiye follows this up with another story.

‘And do you know when she was one year old, she was already singing? I was singing a turku and I heard someone humming it after me. I looked around, wondering who had snuck in the house, only to see Delal smiling up at me and humming away, just as pretty as can be.’

Other stories of a less funny nature, but still a bit comic in a way darkly…

Delal remembers at age five or six, her father was arrested. Being a somewhat apolitical kindergartener, she can’t quite remember the reason, but in those days in the mid eighties, it was just after the coup (the Turkish word is darbe-as in a blow from a beating) and you didn’t need much reason to arrest a socialist, Alevi Kurd. ‘It was like a funeral at home,’ Delal said, ‘And somehow my mother sent me with our neighbor, whose name was Fate (Kader), to pick up my Dad. When the soldier saw a five year old approach the prison gates, he must have thought he was dreaming. I told him why I was there, my dad had been arrested and was in prison and I had come to pick up.’

If you knew Delal, you’d be able to picture this scene perfectly—the saucy five year old telling the prison guard to cough up her father. But he didn’t, ‘Get out of here! They’ve taken your father to Bingöl City,’ he said.

Everyone calls my father-in-law hoca, a rather old fashioned word for teacher—more akin to ‘school master’ I would say. I do, too but I find it puts such an odd distance between us, at least in my own thinking. It’s hard thinking of him as human. He’s not a man with flaws, he’s hoca. But there’s one story from the Kiğı days that really struck me.

‘I used to write, too,’ he told me once. ‘Around the time of the coup, I kept lots of journals. It seemed like an important time in history and I wanted to record what was happening for posterity. I was hoping for a book one day. I had researched. I had collected books for years and written hundreds and hundreds of pages, and then, one day, the gendarmes came to my house. They dragged all of my books and journals outside and piled them into a huge mound and then made me burn them.’ He paused. ‘I have not had the heart to write since.’

One final Kiğı story. One of Hoca’s friends, a fellow Conagian and leftist, had dodged the draft. He was operating under a fake id and trying to leave the country.  Now, in Turkey, the army is somewhat sacred. Questioning the military service ever, anywhere is like burning a flag in front of Daughters of the Revolution meeting hall back in the states. In any case, he was found out—a slip up by his wife-- and the police were in hot pursuit. He ran to Hoca’s house and asked for help. The cops weren’t far behind. There was a door between Hoca’s house and a neighbors and Hoca quickly shoved him through. ‘A neighbor woman lives here,’ Hoca explained. ‘A friend of ours. Oh yeah, by the way, her husband just got back from jail though. He killed a man because he thought he was having an affair with his wife, so take care.’ And then he shut the door.

I was lucky to meet the fugitive a while later.

‘Hell, I didn’t know what to think. Either I threw myself on the mercy of the police or I waited for this guy to come shoot me! Thanks hoca!’

It’s night when we pull out of Kiğı and start on the road back home. There’s not another car on the road, just a spill of stars in the sky and these odd little birds perched in the middle of the right (our!) lane. I stop the car and let the headlights flood over them—miniature white owls.  They don’t move until I turn off the headlights. We see the first one when we cross the river and then they start to turn up every five minutes or so. It’s slow going.

Sometimes there’s another bird—usually in the left lane--that bears a striking resemblance to the chuck-wills-widow back home. Both are ground nesters and both look like a pile of dried leaves. I think it’s an Anatolian species of nightjar—which in Turkish is called a çobanaldatan—The Shepherd Tricker. This guess sparks some lively debate in the car. Maybe it’s a bapuk (Kurdish word)? No, no, impossible, not the season. There’s a night bird we hear in Conag that has a similar melancholy cry to the Chuck Will’s—a soft rising coo calling from tree to tree. I think the little bird in the road is probably one and the same.

And then come the foxes. We have counted twelve before we finally pull into the rocky  lane that descends into Conag only to have a pair of them pop up and dash into the brush. And it is also this night that I start to notice the little glow-in-the-dark bugs that gleam a pretty yellow-green from the weeds along the road.

If there are so many unexplored ruins here, I wonder how many of these animals and plants are unexplored? I can find nothing on the area on the internet or in the library. One of the cousins said a German botanists had come through last year researching one of the plants on Mt. Silbüs which was supposed to be a possible treatment for arthritis.

Another morning, we go villageing down below Conag to Xasköy—where a hot springs resort entertains the locals. We take Şerafettin’s van which means leaving at 6 and picking up everyone else along the way. At one stop, there is a view of a wide rolling valley. Near the lowest point is what looks like a herd of cows, and then someone whispers, ‘Boars!’ The bus erupts into a chorus of hisses and tuts and curses. ‘Pis domuz!’ Filthy pigs!’ and the whole herd dashes into the forest as if in shame. They’re huge animals and one of the men on the bus, wide-eyed, tells a story he heard about a man being gored to death by one. ‘It attacked him out of nowhere!’ he says. ‘They’re deadly!’  The rest of the drive is filled with rabbits and hares (one small and black and white, the other long legged and dun colored). We unload at the spring and immediately embark on breakfast. Cousin Husein and I mosey down to the water when the men’s turn comes, harassed the whole way by fat horse flies. (Another similarity to home!) Just like at Lake Geneva back in Florida, I spend the next half hour ducking under the water and splashing the pursuing fly above the surface. There’s a trinity of old men commanding the coveted spring mouth where warm water gushes out like a Jacuzzi. They never yield up their position and spend the entire two hours of the men’s turn complaining about how fanatically religious the surrounding country side is—Alevis looking down on their Sunni neighbors, also Kurds.

But to be fair, there’s some history to it. First of all, the Alevis here have a reputation for tolerance that Sunni Kurds do not. They hid the Armenians when they fled from the genocide for instance, while the Ottomans used Sunni Kurds to do the killing. And of course, the mountains here sheltered the Alevis themselves when they fled the pogroms of Sultan Selim the Grim who enlisted the aid of Sunni Kurds to help with the massacres. After this, there was such intense pressure to conform to the mainstream Sunni religion that Alevis in general became fiercely opposed to all forms of external worship—at least according to a book on Alevism I read, although its backed up by personal observation. My ex-ney teacher, for example, always stressed the inner self and dismissed any kind of external worship, and while mainly taken up with Sufi and Bektaşi philosophy, he also reads Buddhist, Christian Mystic, and Hindu literature.

There is a footpath that connects to the road to Hasköy with the Conag cemetery. If you follow it, you find a small spring spilling water out of the rock. This is the fountain of Xıdırilyas—Kurmanci Kurdish for the saint Khidr or Hidrellez who is also supposed to roam Mt. Silbüs. It’s an Alevi shrine where we stop to drink the water, whisper a prayer, and wash with the sacred water.  It’s cold and bright clean. Down below the stream skips past a row of shady poplars, where we sit on the grass, have a cup of tea and cookies, and talk. It’s the late afternoon. The sun is honey gold, the trees rustle in the wind. A fire on the hill across from us sends black smoke up into the blue and Mounts Silbüs and Taru tower in the distance. It’s a glorious, sleepy place for a picnic.
Our picnic spot down from the spring

On the road to Hasköy

Hasköy was rather unremarkable to me, save for the speedbump that nearly tore out the undercarriage of our car. It has a friendly father dog, who plays with his puppy rather than chase strangers. And it has a little girl named Hivda who seemed a little surprised at the foreign zava.

‘I don’t think you’re really American,’ she says.

‘Why not?’ I ask.

‘You’re not black!’

‘How’s that?’

‘I know Obama. He’s American and he’s black. So is Michael Jordan.  But what are you?’

After centuries of civil rights struggle on the part of our black people.  After my own travels in Asia where somehow the word American always equaled ‘White’. After lynching and slavery and profiling and whatever else you want to throw out there, we have come to a point where this Kurdish girl doesn’t believe I am American because I am white. I laugh out loud, and show her my driver’s license. See? She looks unconvinced, and repeats, ‘You don’t look anything like Obama!’

Her mother lays out a huge tray on the table and we gather around for dinner. It’s dusk. The call to prayer is signaling the end to the fast. There’s soup, lamb, lavash, and as always tons of questions and hospitality.

Before I close here, I want to mention a few of Conag’s own locals, who seem very important to this whole experience. For going villageing could often involve simply visiting several people in Conag itself, walking around randomly and popping into houses as you go to partake in conversation and whatever refreshment they brought out (usually tea). I couldn’t learn all the names, but let’s run through a few.

There’s Remziye Abla—Big Sister Remziye, whose legs were broken when she was young by the collapse of an power line. She uses two homemade crutches to walk, but is always smiling and when Husein and I pass her one day on a tour of the village, she grabs our arms and leads us to a hidden little plum tree loaded down with fat purple fruit. ‘These are the best in the whole village! I’ve kept them a secret until now!’ They taste like grapes—incredibly sweet. She then leads us to a huge mulberry tree in her yard. The west side of the tree, toward the bottom, bear white mulberries, the rest of the tree fat black ones. She laughs as we climb up and start to gather fruit, raining berries down on her head. ‘Take all you want!’

Then there’s Cengiz Abi (Big Brother Cengiz) with his honey—he’s a beekeeper and diplomat who keeps trying to negotiate the water crisis in the village. He has a soft, deep voice, a world-weary grin and always stops when he passes by to bid me a normal hello—without any of the marveling at the foreigner. Somehow, I just automatically feel at ease around him—right from the first handshake. I don’t know what it is.

Hediye Abla (Big Sister ‘Gift’) is a plump woman who talks in a boisterous voice and is always laughing. She also greets me normally, like I have lived next door all my life. She is one of the few who stays in the village all year round and is the manager of the calves that I let into Dede’s house the first day. We often pass her in the heat of the day shooing the little cows up or down the hill. Sometimes they wander ahead of her and you can hear her voice far away bellowing after them.
Hediye Abla's employees and my gate crashers

Mehmet Abi and his elegant Armenian wife who spend their winters in Germany—he’s a television produce there. It is there you go when you want to discuss history or music over rakı and beer.

Then there’s Celal’s wife Fatma, who invites us over one night for a dinner of zirvet—this was amazing, a hot fresh tray of soft bread drowned in ayran, garlic, and butter. She adds her own little flourish with a bit of honey.  We dined out on her porch after the ezan (she was fasting) and watched the twilight sky over the Peri Canyon turn from purple to star strung. Her grandson, Yağız was visiting, a little two year old with a big belly who somehow never ever ate—not even junk food, but who also never stopped smiling. His vocabulary consisted of bak and burda (Look! and Here it is!) which he used to mean just about everything. He used bak to ask for help tying his shoes, to say welcome, to point out a dog barking, and to say goodbye

So let me use it here to close. Interpret it as you will.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Conag, Part 10000. Mt. Silbüs--Lord of Light

                                                                The Holy Light—Mt. Silbüs                          

If the natural world holds any interest for you. If you’re the type to literally stop breathing when you see the full red moon clear the horizon, or when you  drive over a hill to find yourself looking over an empty canyon, or if you kind of get a high from a field of wild flowers, or from the sight of a turquoise blue river snaking far far down a mountainside through a sand colored valley—then there is no better place than Conag’s little spot on the border of Bingöl, Tunceli, and Elazığ provinces.

But what if nature is your arch enemy?

You see, I am working on developing a new stereotype. It may even advance to the level of prejudice one day. In any case, I would like to present it here so that others may share in my bigoted beliefs. Won’t that be nice?


People in Turkey hate and fear the natural world.

Never mind the government’s decision  to dam all the rivers and turn over Turkey’s national parks to ‘entrepreneural initiatives’—that’s just good old fashioned greed. I’m talking about the fear of outside air for one. This is why so many people keep their houses shut up tightly even in the summer. Why, when its over 90 degrees outside, your service bus driver and his Turkey born passengers will not open a window.

As a corollary, they fear wind and breezes—those stalwarts of poetry the world over that most cultures describe with pleasant adjectives like ‘cool’, ‘warm’, ‘gentle’, ‘refreshing’, are here agents of Satan blamed for all sorts of illnesses from hernias to the flu.

And swimming in natural fresh water is deadly. It pulls you under and drowns you. When we went swimming at the Özlüce dam I had a very difficult time understanding what all the panic was about. ‘Please don’t swim!’ our host’s mother begged. ‘Please don’t even touch the lake! Fresh water pulls you!’ Tatlı su insani çekecek. Pulls me?  Like on a ski rope?  That sounds fun! But then I use my trusty language skills and figure out from context that she means ‘sucks you under.’ I suppose that when you compare it to the buoyancy of the salty Mediterranean or Aegean, it might feel like being pulled to someone who didn’t know any better.

Also, in the summer you can’t go outside because of the deadly African ticks. The media floods the airwaves with warnings, and Istanbul friends won’t even go in grassy parks for fear of them.  This year bears were added to the mix. There was a bear attack in the East and now everyone’s on the look out for roaming packs of killer bears.  Articles appear in the papers. Are we safe?  Can we coexist? What must be done? As if the whole nation were on the verge of invasion by armies of grizzlies.

And so when we decide to climb the majestic Mt. Silbüs, we are met with the same dismayed response by almost everyone. ‘Oh, you can’t! It’s too hard, and very dangerous.’

The drive to Mt. Silbüs was a hair raiser, I’ll give them that.  After the town of Xolxol, the road turns straight up and changes quickly from pavement to sand with bits of it washed away down the cliffs on either side. At one point, our trusty little Chevy already in first gear, starts to slide backwards down the mountain and it takes a few tries before she is able to clear the hill. The road is barely wide enough to accomodate us. If something happens, there’s no turning around, no getting out of the driver’s side even.

‘In the old days,’ says Delal. ‘You had to park down hill and walk for about twenty minutes, but the road is decent now.’

Flowers of Silbüs

By some miracle, we arrive at the base of the mountain. From Conag, Silbüs looks like a smoothe rounded hill, but from here, it’s gigantic—three successive peaks towering ever higher into the turquoise sky. We are nearly above the tree line. Everywhere is desert brush and alpine flowers, splashes of bright pink, white, purple and yellow scattered among the rocks.  The patches of purple are so profuse it looks like lavender cloud shadows have frozen as they race cover the rock. The real cloud shadows pass quickly, darkening the tones to dark violet. Along the road, century plants stand like centinels, as tall as men. The sky is pristine. Across a small valley filled with bright green lichens is Taru, Silbüs’s mountain mate, a fortress of red rock and stone jutting up out of the earth, and behind Taru, a rolling stretch of smaller hills and canyons as far as the eye can see. Which is far—almost fifty miles even on a hazy summer day like this.

We breakfast at a picnic table overlooking Taru, and as we dig into our olives and cheese, Şerafettin’s minivan pulls in behind us. A troop from the village has come—more than should safely be jammed into a bus. A goat steps out of the back, destined to become a pot of Shepherd’s Stew by the early afternoon. Silbüs, like the shrine of Nur Dede, is a sacred place where sacrificing an animal and distributing the meat to others can win you merit. It is so sacred that it is the solemnist swear one can make.
Serê Silbûse wî! ‘By the Peak Mt. Silbüs!’

I hinted at the story before, but the full legend goes like this.

In the old days, there was a shepherd boy named Siibüs. He grazed his animals on these slopes and back then, the land was a paradise of fresh springs and green meadows. A girl from a neighboring village fell in love with him.  Her name was Star. They met together on the mountain slopes and eventually decided to marry.  But there was a very unhappy witch who saw them from her hut and decided that if she herself were miserable, then everyone around her would be miserable as well. She spread rumors about the couple, (in this culture—what people say about you is paramount) and the girl’s family locked her away and forbade her to see Silbüs. Silbüs was devastated. He wandered the slopes in his grief and finally, lost to despair, lay down weeping in some rocks near the mountain peak and died. Star finally managed to elude her family and ran up the mountain to meet her lover only to find his dead body among the stones. She fell down weeping and died herself from sorrow. The witch, unwilling to let them be together even in death, transformed herself into a thicket of briars that grows to this day between their unmarked graves. In the spring, the two lovers’ ghosts struggle to be together, and their fight against the witch’s magic results in great black storms that engulf the peak.

But then, this is just one version. The mountain harbors layers upon layers of different stories.

In the version I first heard, the two mountains of Silbüs and Taru were the two lovers and the valley between them where the witch transformed herself into a bramble.

It was also apparently a mountain sacred to the Armenians who once lived at its feet.  The name Silbüs is probably a Turkification of Surp Luys (Holy Light). Some say the boy and girl in question were Kurdish and Armenian and that Silbüs means light in Armenian (a la Lucifer) while Taru meant ‘dark’ in Kurdish. So it was a myth for day and night, and for the folly of fighting between two peoples or religion. In other stories, the two mountains are brothers. Silbüs goes off to stop an invasion but his brother Taru doesn’t join him. Silbüs curses his brother, who becomes a mountain of rough and sharp stone with no smoothe meadows.

The Alevi Kurds come here now when they want a blessing. They sacrifice an animal at the summit or else go behind the spring that gushes ice cold water to find a boulder blackened with soot. There they light a candle and pray—for themselves or a loved one, especially for women who can’t conceive, people wanting to meet a mate, or people separated from their lovers. This is the mountain of the Kurdish Romeo and Juliet after all. Some say its the mountain of St. Hizir, a kind of trickster saint beloved by the Alevis and Muslims alike—he’s the saint of misfits. He helps the poor and down-trodden and gallops to the aid of anyone truly in need on a magnificent white horse.

We get in line to light our candles, but the wind keeps snuffing them out. I finally manage to get three burning behind a small crack in the stone and say a quick prayer for my family back in the states.

There’s a lot of action going on. The villagers are setting up the barbecue grills, the goat is being led down to an outcropping below the picnic table, and we (Delal,Zelal, and I) decide to make our climb.

It takes only two hours from start to finish, and though there are points where the slope is steep and the air is thin (burning the back of the throad), it’s a relatively easy climb, but just absolutely awe-inspiring. Christ, I am running out of words to describe nature here. The last of the three peaks is up a field of red stones that people have piled into cairns. The sight of these standing stones is eerie. They are scattered with bright purple and lemon yellow flowers that Zelal picks—she says that when they are dried they give off a perfume that lasts for years. Dede still has a bunch in his house picked decades ago.  Delal is far ahead of us snapping pictures, her purple scarf flying out from her neck and snapping in the wind. It looks dramatic against the deep blue. Kites (the bird) soar in the air above us, riding the fierce air currents that whip up over the blade of the ridge.

When we reach the peak we find  boulders covered by hundreds of lady bugs—some orange and some yellow. A stone wall surrounds another black rock filled with tiny multi-colored candles. We light the ones we’ve brought and look out at the expanse of canyon and mountain, rivers and lakes—it stretches far toward the edge of sky where it desolves in a whitish mist of sunlight and distance. The wind is howling over the rocks, jumping past us and plunging into the void with a pained whistle. We can make out the Peri River and the castle of Xolxol far below. We can see the province of Dersim and the old Armenian village of Herdif amid a green wood.  Towers of thunderheads sail in from the north. Two hawks fly in circles next to a mountain peak far below ours and the sight of them, the realization of how high we are gives me vertigo.

‘I think I will always be the daughter of mountains,’ Delal says. ‘The sea just doesn’t call me like this.’

Zelal agrees.
Words don't even touch it

Some Conagians at the celebration--I just like this picture
More of them celebrating Conagians--one the famous Memli Dede
When we climb down, we find the villagers ready to eat. There’s a group of women singing a Kurdish folk song, and some are dancing the halay. Watermelons float in a pool just below the spring and I am reminded of how we used to chill our watermelons in the spring water back in Florida. What follows is hours of feasting and dancing. The goat is served in huge black skillets with flat loaves of lavash bread and salad.

Before the Armenians were driven out, they would have joined in these festivities. Armenians and Kurds, according to all the stories I’ve been told, celebrated each other’s holidays here. At the spring where the water melons chill, Armenian priests used to conduct baptisms for children born on the holiday of Vartavar--the biggest celebration of the year. It dates back to pagan times perhaps, and is thus loads of fun.  People throw water on each other, old and young alike, much like the Thai festival of Songkhran. They also sacrificed animals, ate lots of food, played music, and danced themselves silly right where we are doing the same things (minus the water throwing).

I try to imagine how the mountain would have looked then. 

Dark. The mountain is black, the sky a spray of icy stars.

The Armenians would have prepared for days, buying new clothes, cleaning everything in sight, baking loaves and loaves of lavash. Animals would be ready for sacrifice on the mountain (and all feuds ended, to sacrifice while angry at someone was a sin)

The first hint of sunlight would gleam pink-orange over the village of Xolxol and her castle down below, the mountain ridges lined with a pale light, and the Armenian women—perhaps with Kurdish neighbors—would labor up the slope in barefeet with loads of food, their men behind them.  They would reach the fountain where we now feasted—the whole sky perhaps a deep orange at this point and have breakfast.  The first to reach the water had the right to throw some on the others. I can imagine squeals and shrieks as the icy water made contact.  Then they set out for the summit—files of them trudging ever upward, a priest in front leading the way.  Once at the top, religion and race and creed were forgotten. All worshipped together, touching their heads to the rocks and kissing the stones like people are doing even now at the black rocks above the spring.

There are caves all over the mountain slopes. They supposedly sport piles of snow all year round. In fact, as we get down to the trailhead, everyone asks, ‘Did you eat the snow?’ When we say there wasn’t any, they look at us as if we are lying. Hundreds of people can fit in these caves (though we don’t see them, many people talk about caverns being up there, somewhere among all those crags). In one of these caves, an Armenian priest would feed sacred salt to an animal—only once made holy could it be cut.

They’re all gone now, these Armenians. Or maybe not. There’s a lot of mixing here, and a lot of hidden blood. Still, this whole mountain seems haunted with ghosts and memory.
After climbing it, it never quite looks the same. It is visible from every point important to a Conagian. It is a center, a compass, the great axel around which the world turns.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Conag's Wise Man-Dede

Dede—Grandfather.  Mr. Memli Seven.

Dede is a legend.

He’s the wise man of the mountains, the one all the others seem to aspire to. But seriously.

The hammock in the pine tree planted 60 years ago
There is a phrase in Turkish, ‘Elinden her şey gelir.’ Everything comes from his hands. This is certainly a fact on the ground in Conag. Dede built the house. He planted the apple and pears in the orchards. He planted the giant pine tree down in the garden where we hang our hammock and have our barbecue. He built the picnic table at the mill. He found the famous Joni (after apparently breeding his mother with a bear).

And the others revere him.

For example.

We go over one night to the neighbors for a rakı and cheese party. (A common event in Turkey—anis, different  cheeses, chilled green melon and watermelon). Our host is an exile returned—a German television producer with several documentaries under his belt—(check out his website, It’s night, the winds are blowing hard up from the valley, and he’s talking about the village and how far it has fallen—‘people are selfish and small-minded nowadays. They can’t even turn off their faucets during the day when they know good and well everyone else has no water!’—but he also knows what the village needs to rise again. ‘We need more Memli Sevens.’ He turns to Delal and Zelal. ‘The trouble is there are not many like your grandfather in this village. Or in the world for that matter. For integrity, dignity, honesty, humility, open-mindedness—‘ He raises his glass. ‘He is one if a kind.’ And we drink a toast.

Another night, Delal’s second cousin has come over for tea (this is Celal, Dede’s nephew who I will call Uncle Celal from now on to avoid the complex calculus of extended family explanations.) Celal watches Dede leave the house on his way to have a bath, and then says to me, ‘There’s not one of us like that man, not in this world. When he goes, something important passes.’

‘Well hopefully those of us left behind can live up to his example,’ I say.

He flashes me a look like I have just blasphemed God.

Every village we go to, every town and every city, we introduce ourselves as Memli Seven’s grandchildren, and people just know. They become the Red Sea and make way for the Chosen Ones.

In the family, he’s famous for being unable to hurt another’s feelings or hold grudges. When Dede’s father was dying, he told Delal’s uncle (his grandson, mind you) ‘Make sure my sister doesn’t come to the funeral!’ There was a grudge between them at the time, apparently. Delal’s father quite naturally asked ‘Why are you telling me? Why don’t you tell my father, you know, your actual son?’ ‘Please!’ came the answer. ‘Your father is too soft hearted. He could never tell his own aunt not to come to her brother’s funeral!’

And despite heart problems and the occasional crisis with a blocked artery and his eighty-two years of hard life, he is rather spry. One day, we go on a walking tour of the village. We scale steep slopes, hop cow fences, dash across pastures, pick our way over streams through briar and bramble and he is there in the lead with his trusty cane. He loves his orchard. He leads us weaving through the trees, handing out pears and apples picked fresh off the branches. ‘This one is good! And this one!’ At one point, he calls out ‘Jem! Take my picture’.  Jem is me. Everyone says ‘Jeff’ is too foreign for him to take to, so he’s latched on to a Turkish name in its stead. I whip out the camera and look in the direction of his voice only to find him emerging delicately from a gathering of pear branches, one leg coyishly stepping forward, chest pushed out, a girlish grin on his face. ‘Take the picture! Take the picture!’ And I snap the shot, Pre-Raphaelite Maiden in the form of Elderly Kurdish Man.

Dede is also a wizard at the oral tradition—in other words, he tells a good story—all with his own embellishments, gestures, imitations, and little role plays. If there is a question about the history of the village, everyone refers you to Memli Seven. Behind the orchard and up the hill are the ruins of the old school—no longer in use because there’s no one to use it. The young have all fled to the cities. ‘Hey Uncle Memli,’ Hussein says. ‘Didn’t a blizzard kill a bunch of students here one winter?’ ‘I heard it was teachers,’ Zelal says. ‘Twenty teachers died…or something like that.’

‘No no!’ Dede says scowling, as if the false stories were a bad smell that had suddenly filled the air. ‘People are exaggerating and changing the story. I was there! I know what happened.’

He doesn’t say anything for a long time. We are all waiting.

‘Well then!’ we say. ‘What happened?’

‘It was like this. I remember the date, February 24th. It was back before the school was even finished, because the students hadn’t even come yet. There were two teachers staying there, young men, getting their house set up and trying to ready things for the kids. The day before was very sunny, and so warm that a lot of people started talking about Spring coming early. Then in the afternoon, the snow began to fall. It was light and fluffy at first, and it didn’t stick, but it kept falling into the night, and by early the next morning it had turned into a full fledged blizzard. Oh and such a storm! The winds were howling so loud, we had to hold our ears. The doors shook, the windows rattled, the animals cowered and whined. Of course, we couldn’t go outside at all. I remember when it hit noon, our windows were still black. You couldn’t tell it was daytime. Now, I was hungry, but we didn’t have much in the house and so we gathered around the table for dorak and bread, and then we heard screams. I don’t know how in the world we could hear them over that wild howling of the wind, but we did! Imagine how loud and desperate those men must have been! We dashed outside. The whole village had heard them and everyone was in the street. We heard people from up the hill trying to make it down to us, ‘What is it?! What’s going on!?’ We shouted for them to go back inside. ‘Go back! We’ll take care of it! It’s too dangerous!’ We all raced down through the winds and snow toward the school—that’s where the screams were coming from. We got there to find it half covered in snow. We scrambled over each other, desperately digging and digging to get to the door .’

He pauses for effect, and continues in a slightly quiter voice. ‘When we finally got in, we saw that the roof was gone. It had been swept away in the wind. We found one of the teachers in his room, covered up to his neck in snow, ice in his hair. He couldn’t talk, but he pointed to the class room and some of us plowed a path through the snow in the hallway and kicked open the door. The other teacher was frozen—his hand still held to the chalkboard where he’d been writing a lesson—blue skinned, covered in ice and snow.’

‘Oh God, they died!’ says Delal.

Dede looks surprised. ‘What? No they lived, of course. We dug them out and warmed them up with blankets and soup and they were fine.’

Sometimes he starts stories at the end. One night, when talking about a neighbor having evaded military service with a fake passport, he says simply ‘And of course, that’s why the police raided your father’s house that time.’

What are you talking about? Everyone asks. What raid? When? Why did who raid where?

Sometimes I don’t understand or miss a detail—between my imperfect Turkish, and Dede’s accent, and his liberal use of Kurmanci Kurdish, I miss alot. ‘Have him retell them,’ Delal advises. ‘Believe me, he never tires of going over his stories again.’ One day I ask him to tell me the tale of his older sister and the Dersim massacres. I’ve heard them twice before, but mess up the details. We are in his kitchen, having tea after a rather large breakfast.

‘My older sister,’ he begins without pause, ‘Married someone just over the mountains. The family was a clan from Dersim proper, Zazas. We were just a border town. We’s heard about the massacres, and so the whole family gathered and went to bring my sister back to Conag. Now the government was having a lot of problem with the local tribes there.  For centuries they had lived pretty independently. They didn’t pay any taxes. They didn’t send soldiers to the army. Then the government tried to force them to do these things, and they didn’t appreciate it. I also heard a story about a Turkish soldier raping a girl, a daughter of one of the clan heads, and the father gathering his men for a revenge raid. Maybe all the problems started like that, I don’t know, but in the end the Dersim people basically wanted their own state and…’

Right in the middle of the sentence, Uncle Celal comes over with a neighbor and the story is forgotten. The three older men venture off in search of a sheep (more on that later), and we young people (Delal, Hussein, Zelal, and I) set out on a walk to the nearby village of Mırun to pick up and pick on Murat—the driver from my previous entry who has avoided visiting us the whole time we’ve been in the village, apparently because a trip to Conag would interfere with his intense napping schedule.

We return late that night, too late for dinner, so instead we all repair to the balcony for tea and watermelon.
Dede is relaying some story or another to Hussein about Hussein’s grandfather (and Dede's uncle), whom everyone somewhat sarcastically calls Efendi, or ‘Honored Sir’. Apparently, when Dede was building his house, they were in the middle of a feud. Dede, feeling a bit guilty for fighting with an elder, went to make peace. 'Why don't you come help me build, Efendi?' he asked. 'We'll work together. You would be a huge help!' Efendi came and worked for a few weeks--the feud seemingly forgotten in the common labor. Then one day, he hand-delived a bill for services rendered.

‘I always forget your stories,’ Hussein says. ‘I need to record them or write them down or something. Tomorrow, I won’t remember a word.’
‘I know what you mean,’ I say. ‘Remember Dede? You were telling me about your sister and Dersim? I’ve already forgotten the details.’

He looks at me blankly for a second then its like someone’s flipped a switch, bringing him to life. ‘Right’ he says, ‘And of course the Turkish government couldn’t accept an independent state.’

Hours later, picking up at the exact point in the sentence where he’d left off! Everyone bursts out laughing.

‘They started rounding up the Dersimlis just like they had the Armenians, marching them away and murdering them. That’s why we decided to go fetch my sister before they could do it to her. It took a couple of days of travel over the mountains, but we got her and brought her back to Conag. A few days later, our in-laws show up. Her husband is there and starts shouting at us, ‘I’ve come for Hatun!’ We tell him, leave her with us! We brought her here to save her. It’s safer here. We’re on the border and in less danger. And do you know what their answer was? ‘If they come, they come. We will all die together!’ Hatun went back with them and luckily the massacres stopped before they got to their village.’

(Back in Istanbul it’s not okay to talk about any of this, by the way. That statement he started with about the Armenians is enough for death threats--and just a few years ago, arrest and prosecution. Telling the bit about Dersim amounts to treason, splittism, and terrorism in the eyes of some in the government. NO ONE talks about these things, but in the village, they’re simply part of a shared history, and the evidence is in the back yard.)

And a certain old fashioned magic hangs around the man.

Before we arrive in Conag, one of Dede’s neighbors has a dream (Uncle Celal’s wife, in fact). She sees Dede walking hand in hand with his grand daughter to the shrine of Nur Dede. (Nur Dede is a local ‘Saint’ sacred to the Alevis). They have a sheep, and together they sacrifice it at the shrine and give the meat to the poor. A few nights later, a woman in the village down by Özlüce dam calls Dede to tell him about her own dream, and it turns out to be the exact same one.

He decides its a sign. And its hard to argue.  As soon as we, the grand children, arrive, the search for the sheep begins. It proves fruitless.  Animals are hard to come by these days, and when you do find one, its prohibitively expensive. No one likes my idea of offering up Stew, who I think has gotten too uppity for an ruminant. After a long search, Dede turns up one afternoon with a black goat whose fur is matted with lumps of beggar weeds. 

I have long wondered how I would react to seeing an animal butchered, but the goat proves so annoying that I would have volunteered to do the cutting myself, early, if it wouldn’t have ruined all the holiness. The goat starts bleating that afternoon—loud, furious screechy bleats--and it bleats on into the night (keeping everyone awake) and is still bleating madly in the morning.  (Do goats sleep?) Only when we load it into Şerafettin’s van does it finally quiet down.

The ride to the shrine takes an hour almost, down long stretches of gravel roads winding through the mountains--and the goat is so calm that I forget it’s there and am somewhat startled to see it come calmly stumbling out at the end of the trip. It’s silence is eerie. It trots up the path to the shrine without resistance, as if it knows and has accepted what’s about to happen.

The shrine itself is a village house that the owners claim is eight hundred years old.

‘It was the first house built in Şixan, by the holy man Şıh Harun,’ explains a plump woman who welcomes us inside. ‘We call him Nur Dede—the Old Man of Light’. We’ve brought candles, and each of us grandchildren lights a few and sets them on a stone in front of a sort of altar, at the center of which is a large stone pitch black with centuries of soot. The walls are hung with portraits of the prophet Ali and his grandsons Hassan and Hussein. There is soot around the door, too. No one seems to know the explanation for anything here. ‘It’s tradition,’ is the only answer I can get. Of course, Alevis do take a few things from the Zoroastrians—including a reverence for fire, which might explain the candles. After kissing the black stone, we are hurried outside and up the hill behind the house. There we find Dede and the shrine keeper standing over the quivering body of the goat. It’s neck has been severed until the bone and blood streams out into the dirt in a stream of cartoon red that looks too bright to be real. The shrine keeper dips his finger into the goats blood and dabs it on each of our foreheads. The blotch on Delal’s looks like a cross. The one on Hussein’s looks like a Zen painting of zero. The one on mine feels cold.

‘Are these your grandchildren?’ the shrinekeeper asks.

Dede looks at us all and nods. It’s an odd moment. The blood is a mark somehow, an initiation. Wearing it brings me viscerally into the Mala Memli (The House of Memli—in the village, everyone wants to know what house you belong to, and this is the answer.) I came not particularly believing in any of this sacrifice stuff, but you can feel some kind of sacred space now—if only from the presence of Dede and the four of us, blood on our foreheads in his name.

The Sacrifice
Delal films and takes pictures, and the rest of us simply watch silently as the man turns this once living animal into a pile of meat. Out pops the heart and liver and the brain. In the end, the meat is taken back inside the shrine and distributed to the poor of the village who have materialized out of thin air in our absence.

‘Vultures!’ Delal’s uncle calls them later. ‘The people in that village live off the donations to that shrine, and they’re neither poor nor needy!’

But it’s the intention, isn’t it? And Dede seems to have made peace with the dream. We journey back to Conag with the blood dried maroon on our foreheads, and Dede tells the story of the shrine (of course, he has a story). And it all has to do with cucumbers.

‘A long time ago (1200 AD according to some of the old folks), there lived a very important vizier. He was trying to have a road built through these mountains and one of his strongest mules fell and broke its leg. Now work couldn’t continue without that mule, and so he sent two of his finest soldiers in search of Sheikh Harun—a holy man that people said had mastered the power to heal. After some wandering, the soldiers find a man called Harun. He invites them into his garden for some tea and a rest. As they drink, he places cucumber seeds in one empty row of his garden. No sooner does he start the second row, than the seeds of the first sprout and begin to grow. When he begins the third, the first begins to flower and by the time he gets to the fourth row, the first is full of fat, ripe cucumbers!’

Harun picks two and says, ‘Take these to the vizier. But don’t eat them before you arrive! If you can manage this, I will not be far behind and heal the donkey.’

They left with the vegetables, but one of them was unable to contain his curiosity. ‘Can it be a real cucumber?’ he said and then took a bite. He immediately fell over, stone dead. The other soldier raced to the vizier and told him all that had happened. The vizier was incredulous, and stared in wonder at the cucumber, wisely deciding not to eat it. Just then, an old man appeared coming up the road. His face was radiant with light. He was shown to the mule and as soon as he touched its leg, it rose to its feet and began to work. A miracle! The dead soldier’s grave is still in the forest outside Şixan!’

Our last few days in Conag, we decide to take a trip East, to Lake Van. Not wanting to leave Dede alone, we try to cajole him into joining us the night before we leave. ‘My health is not good!’ he protests. ‘I have heart problems!’

‘We’ll drive you immediately to the hospital if something happens,’ we promise.

‘Then I’ll ruin all your fun!’

‘What fun? It’ll be boring without you.’

‘Or I’ll slow you down. I can’t take the heat you know. I always have to rest.’

‘We’ll keep the air on in the car.’

‘Traveling is for young people! Just leave me alone already!’

‘Your only eighty-three.’

‘Well,’ he groans miserably. ‘We’ll see.’

This is a chink opened in his armor. Delal opens it a bit further. ‘You can see that friend of yours that lives in Van. Your cellmate.’

When he was seventy-eight years old, Dede was arrested by the Turkish gendarmes and sent to prison for three months in the province of Muş. He was charged with, yes, the old classic, aiding and abetting terrorists. The army had captured a PKK guerilla and to save his own life, the captive gave the soldiers the names of several people in the surrounding villages as his ‘helpers’. ‘Memli Seven’, being one of the most well-known names in the region, was among them. And though innocent of the charges (I know, because he has shared stories of guilt for NOT helping the guerillas) and though seventy-eight years old with a serious heart problem, he was loaded in the back of an armored car and driven through the middle of the desert heat and tossed in a prison. There he met Ali, a merchant who worked in Van.

‘He told me where to find him if I should ever get out,’ Dede says as we load him into the back seat, having persuaded him in the more optimistic light of morning.

It takes as a couple of hours to clear the mountains of Bingöl. The highway climbs a steady slope for what seems like hours and then, as we round the top, an enormous plain comes into view, stretching in all directions toward the horizon. The far edges dissolve in a white haze of heat and dust. Dede sits up and looks excitedly through the windshield. This is the legendary Plain of Muş.

‘I’ve always wondered what it looked like!’ he says. ‘When they brought us through in the armored car there was only one slit in the very top of the wall and we took turns peeking through it. But we had to stand on our toes and you could hardly see a thing!’

In the city of Muş itself, we pass a sign for the State Prison. There is a rather uninteresting road plunging through some concrete housing and brush.

‘That must be where you were, Dede,’ says Delal.

‘It’s hard to say. We couldn’t see anything going in, nor anything going out.’

He’s wearing a wide brimmed women’s hat with a white cloth hanging down the back (the girls have stuck this on him to protect him from the sun coming through the window) and looks for all the world like a cross between an elderly Lawerence of Arabia and a fussy British country club lady. He pulls out his phone, ‘I think I’m going to call Elif.’ (his daughter).

‘Hey Cemile!’ he says. ‘Guess where I am! Nope! I’m on the road to Van!’

And one by one, he phones all of his children to brag about where he’s going.

‘Kemal, how are you?  How am I? I’m on my way to Van! We’re in Muş now.’

‘Fatma, you’ll never guess where I am. No! On the road to Van!! We even went to the floating islands! We’re going everywhere!’

The floating islands are Bingöl’s claim to fame—three islands on a small lake over 180 feet deep. The islands literally glide over the surface of the water at the slightest breeze. To get to them, you have to turn off the highway and drive down a cracked and ruined road that passes through several deserted villages and a dry riverbed. The islands themselves are located in a valley just on the other side of a Kurdish village in the county of Solhan. At the entrance to the village is a guard box. Inside is a man dressed in camouflage and carrying a machine gun. We sight another gunman walking the streets of the village itself. Several serious face little girls run out to throw themselves at our car. They are trying to sell flowers or plums, but there’s something bizarre about them. A kind of gloom hangs over their faces, and when we stop to buy some purple daisies off of them, the do not smile at our jokes or answer our questions with anything more than a few monosyllables.
The floating islands--not impressive in a photo, maybe, but when they get moving, it's spooky
The girls of the Home Guard village

‘This is a Home Guard village,’ Delal says. ‘I have never seen one before!’

The Home Guards (Korucu) villages are villages who have agreed to work with the Turkish government against the PKK. At best, they are ostracized by other Kurds and targeted by the PKK. At worst, they also do a lot of the government’s dirty work for them. Another camouflaged guard waits at the park entrance, sleeping with his arms around his machine gun next to a rather depressed looking park guard. It’s the middle of Ramadan, and over a hundred degrees outside, so they can be excused their lethargy, but nevertheless Dede decides to try and talk to them.

‘I’m curious about these guys!’

By the time we return from our exploring, he’s in the middle of a rather lively conversation.

‘You don’t have home guards?’ the man is asking.

‘We sure don’t,’ Dede says.

‘But I thought all of our villages were controlled by the Home Guards!’

‘They gave us the choice, work for us or we will bomb you. We said we wouldn’t work for them, but somehow they never bombed us.’

This was the choice given most villages.

Later in the car, Dede says, ‘That was a strange place.’

Lake Van is majestic. At the Armenian church on Lake Akdamar, despite all his fussing about the heat and his health, Dede cannot hide his fascination with the carvings. We walk around together and he traces the intricate lace-work designs on the katchkar gravestones with his fingers. ‘Look at this stonework, Cem!’ he says. ‘The people who made these understood something we don’t. They’re just incredible!’ When the girls try to get him to sit in the shade, out of the heat, he gets frustrated and says, ‘But how will I be able to see everything if I sit down?’ I’ve never seen him so enthusiastic about anything. The inside of the church captivates him as well. ‘These are like the carvings in our Shrine back home!’ he says, marveling at the crosses and ivy designs in the arch above the entrance to the main sanctuary.
Inside Akdamar Church
Akdamar Church from the Mountain Behind--Lake Van

We pull into Van City late afternoon. The sun is setting, the sky a deep blue as lucid and unspoiled as the lake itself. From the top of Van Castle they look like one reflected into the other. When we first drive into the downtown area, it’s jammed with cars. At one point we sit for thirty minutes in a traffic jam made of horses, eskici carts, motorcycles, sports cars, minibuses, and cement mixers all seemingly pointed toward us. Then, miraculously, as the sun sets the traffic lifts and the streets are completely empty. We find a parking spot on the main artery through the city, and begin walking the back streets.

‘My friend works in the Old Wheat Warehouse,’ Dede tells passers-by. They point us down one side street or another, and for a long time we walk through a maze of shops whose owners are busy turning off lights, locking doors, and pulling down shutters. After living three weeks in Alevi Conag, I had forgotten about Ramazan in Sunni Muslim lands. That’s why the traffic had suddenly vanished. The İftar breaking of the fast was coming in the next ten minutes, and everyone was rushing toward a meal.

‘Dede,’ Delal says. ‘I don’t think we’ll find him. Everything is closing.’

But he won’t give up. He ducks into a bakery trying to fill all the last minute orders for Ramazan Pide. ‘Do you know Ali Çelebi? He used to work around here.’

‘No, uncle.’

‘We were in jail, together.’

‘Sorry uncle.’

He walks into a tea house, an old man shutting off its lights. ‘Sorry Uncle.’ He asks two men sitting out in front of their cloth shop with plates of food waiting for the dusk ezan to announce the end of the fast.

‘Sorry uncle,’ they say. ‘We don’t know.’

The streets are emptier now, everything shuttered tight. We see one tall young man coming toward us, but he is hurrying elsewhere and doesn’t look up. Dede catches another man with a load full of food in his arms on a delivery run.

‘Sorry uncle.’

His devotion to this friend is touching, and very characteristic of him. In the end we come to a lonely park hidden away in the center of this maze of streets. There is a group of old men sitting on the grass, silently staring at four sealed tupperware containers in front of them. Their hands clasp therir forks. They’re ready for İftar. The park is called Ahmed Xani Park—named for one of the most famous Kurdish poets, their first nationalist, and the first intellectual to write a Kurdish grammar. 

‘Come on, Dede,’ Delal says. ‘Let’s stop and have a bite to eat.  We’re not going to find him.’

A TV blasts from a tea house at the edge of the park. It’s the news. There’s been an attack in Hakkari—9 soldiers have been killed, including officers. The Prime Minister is promising retaliation. The talking heads on the screen are screaming for revenge. The voices echo through the empty streets in an eerie way. We stop everything and listen for a moment.

‘They’re angry,’ Delal says. ‘After all those promises, and all the hopes they raised.  Then nothing changed, and now all that rage is coming out.’

Dede and I walk closer to the TV to see the screen. His eyes are wide, he looks shocked. ‘Nine Martyrs Lose Their Lives!’ flashes the headlines over pictures of one of the officers and his family. They had apparently just had a new baby. ‘PKK terrorists will pay, promises Erdoğan.’

‘I’m afraid its going to start all over again,’ Dede says to me, his voice cracking with an unconcealed despair. ‘All over again. This horrible and bloody civil war.’

There’s a man standing with us, a dark-skinned young teen in a bright yellow shirt. I watch his face, but he shows no reaction to what Dede says.

‘It’s starting all over again,’ Dede repeats miserably.

Dede lost a son to that old war. He was driven into exile and he will probably never see him again.  Suddenly the ezan sounds. The call to prayer breaks over the little plaza and the men on the grass begin to eat. I return to our table where the girls have laid out a spread of bread, salad, cheese, and pırgaç (a Kurdish pastry we made before leaving the village).  But Dede stands staring transfixed at the TV, until a commercial comes and breaks the spell. He notices our voices calling him over, and comes over to eat.