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.


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