Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Conag--Part 2, Calling on the old folks.

We travel as a foursome—Delal, Zelal, cousin Husein, and I--paying visits to all the old people’s houses—up one narrow dirt path and down another.  We wind past mulberry trees, ford small streams created by people irrigating their gardens, make way for cows (one young steer gives chase to the girls—he’s almost as famous and feared as Joni.)

A visit runs as follows—you walk in, kiss the old person’s hand and then put it to your forehead (if someone does this to you, it means you are very old so a lot of them will yank their hand away and say its not necessary).  Then the old person—say, the ninety year old grandmother of someone you know back in Istanbul—will leap to her feet to bring chai.  Everyone will beg her not to go, but she’ll dash off to the kitchen anyway.  Then the tray of tea comes out—you drink several hundred cups until your stomach starts to flat up, out of your neck and into your mouth and then you go to the next house and repeat the process.  Sometimes, there are variations. When we went to the dairy headquarters of the village we were, mercifully, served warm milk and honey.

The conversation usually runs like this.  First, to Husein, the old woman of the house will say in a gruff voice, ‘Hey, what’s going on?  You working these days?  Still holding up?  Well, you’re young, buck up.’  Then they turn to me—the American zava (Kurdish for groom and the explanation for me)--and their voice suddenly goes very high and, as if they are dressing a two year old or a kitten waddling unsteadily toward them, ‘And how are you doing, dear one?  Just look at his face!  Who’s a happy boy?  You are!’
Whenever the camera comes out, suddenly everyone goes into National Geographic mode


These visits never stop.  It takes several hours to go anywhere because you must stop at each house on the way for tea.  One woman in a village down near the dam asked me my name, where I was from, how long I had lived in Istanbul, did I like it, what was my job, then turned to Delal and said, ‘Does he speak Turkish?’ ‘That’s how I have been talking to you for the last five minutes!’ I say. On another morning, on a trip to the local hot springs, a passenger boarding Şerafettin’s early morning van sat down next to me and asked in that same high pitched for-kittens voice, ‘Hi sweetie, you speak Turkish?’ Only she asked in Kurdish with only the word ‘Turkish’ in Turkish.  It’s kind of like being asked, ‘Usted puede hablar en English?’ by a Cuban in Florida.

There’s a tree in the middle of the village—the old square—called Pişte Mezara, ‘on the back of the graveyard.’  The cemetery used to be here nearly a hundred years ago, until, accoring to cousin Ali, a flood lifted the bodies out of the ground and they moved everything to high ground on the mountains behind grandfather’s house.  Still, a few gravestones still lie about, and under an old mulberry tree, every day, all the old men sit and have a gossip session.  They invite me to join them one afternoon—the foreign zava—and I try to assimilate by making up gossip about Hussein. (I have one rumor I’d like to spread about Joni, but Delal orders me not to--nevertheless it relates to the fact that I often see Joni palling around rather closely, if you ask me, with another male dog. I have also noticed that the roosters in Delal’s mom’s village—the somewhat distant Zenan—travel around in male pairs, unlike in every other village where there’s always a hen).

One of the men stands and begins to explain about kids (zaroken).  He is saying everything in Kurdish, but by some miracle, I manage to catch the main idea. This square under the tree used to be filled with kids, hundreds of them playing games all day long.  They played a game just like your baseball with a big stick that they hit the ball with.  And they used to have enormous weddings where 80 sheep and goats and cows would be butchered for barbecues that lasted three days or more, and people came from all over the region for dancing (the halay of course, accompanied by the davul drum and zurna pipe), but now there are no children and no animals anymore. And then he switches to Turkish and says, ‘Eski gibi değil’.  Nothing is like it used to be. This is a common refrain I hear out of almost everyone’s mouth. It pops up at least once a day—there’s a powerful sense here of a lifestyle lost. Its ghost still wanders Conag and the surrounding villages, looking for a new body but slowly fading away.  Cows seem to be all that’s left—(including the poopy quartet that paid the unwelcome visit the other day—kept by a chunky woman named ‘Gift’ ). The loss of animal husbandry is the thing most deeply felt—only a few villagers keep animals anymore.  When we travel East to Van with Grandpa, one of the things that transfixes him the most is the sight of vast herds of sheep and goats on the plains of Muş. At the sight of them moving like cloud-shadows over the dry-yellow grass he sighs and says, ‘We used to be like that.’

One of the oldest roads inthe world--from the Urartu Empire.  That's Ararat folks.
One thing that has changed everything are the dams.  The canyon that Conag looks over was formed by the Peri Suyu—literally ‘Fairy Water’ in Turkish, but an actual river, though not a big enough one to make it onto a lot of maps.  As small as it is, there are three dams blocking its flow all within 30 miles of Conag—3 dams!  And more further on. This is supposedly to supply power to a region with less people in it than my neighborhood in Istanbul.  The lakes created by the dams have flooded old villages and grazing land (we swim one day on the lake of the Özlüce dam, the beach is the upper half of a flooded and forcibly evacuated village). The flooding has devastated the traditional economy, and many Kurds believe it is all part of a deliberate plan to make their country unliveable to that they have to leave—don’t know about that one, but three dams for a place with about as many people does strike one as awfully suspicious. They are also flooding major archaeological sites—the current government has little regard for either history or the environment and in fact are removing the protected status on most of Turkey’s national parks so that companies can develop unhindered.  And what an untouched treasure trove of sites!  In this area alone, there are three ruined Urartrurian castles (one in Kiğı, one in Xolxol just 2 miles up the road, and one in Bağın, just 15 miles toward Karakoçan)--all unexcavated and undocumented and falling into ruin.  Who were the Urartrians?  Who cares when you can have malls and copper mines!  This Urarturian bunch built one of the oldest highway systems in the world—just thirty miles southeast of Conag—its ruins are still visible in the brush, a road 16 feet wide paved with gigantic red Stones, and the Turkish government has done nothing to preserve it. It would get in the way of the future car lots I suppose.  The Urartrurian land was called Ararat in the Bible ( yeah, that Ararat) and the area around Conag used to be part of their Empire.  They were probably ancestors of the Armenians, another reason to pave them over with something useful like a high rise as quickly as possible.  But its not just these Ararat people. No. The wall of an old Byzantine fortress was found on a construction site down in the valley—apparently enough gold was buried at its foot that one of the construction workers was able to retire after stealing it.  Another construction site near the village of Hasköy revealed the thousand year old sarcophagus of a child.  Road work and house building and dam building turn these things up all the time.  Yes, ancient civilizations on the borders of ancient Mesopotamia.  Do we need to investigate. Hell no!

The Peri Suyu (Fairy Waters)
Ah, the dams. They are all over the Southeast—part of the locally despised HES civil engineering projects one of which is going to flood one of the world’s oldest cities-Hasan Keyf. Water is such a focal point for arguments in Conag, and for life in general. There is an ongoing local controversy about which village has the best water—Conag, famous for its mountain spring, is generally where people head when they want to fill up their jugs with the best of the best.  The name of the province Conag belongs to, Bingöl, means ‘A thousand lakes’ and is, as local legend has it, the secret location of the garden of Eden because four rivers, including the Tigris and Euphrates mentioned in Genesis, flow out of these mountains. The fountain of youth, Ab-ı Hayat, is also supposedly located here, and drinking from it grants immortality. It’s not the Conag spring, I can tell you, cause I continue to age.  Drinking Conag water did nothing to stop the arrival of my fortieth birthday, though it tasted good and was quite refreshing!  Kiss Conag’s ass, Evian.

3 comments:

Carolyn Abiad said...

I know exactly the kitten voice you mean, and the Nat Geo poses are too funny!

Wish more people would head east to see the sites. Awareness is the only way we can save them. Great post.

ALİ NAKİ GÜNDOĞDU said...

Selam sevgili Jeff Gibbs,seni özledim,yaptıklarını takip ediyorum çok beğendim,umarım bir gün yine görüşürüz,NEY üflemeye devam ediyormusun...sevgiyle kal...Ali Naki Gündoğdu :)

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