Saturday, September 3, 2011

Summer in Conag--Kurdish Village--Part 1

A View from Conag

It is a story immortalized in the film ‘Meet the Parents.’ Boy goes to his inlaw’s house for the first time--desperately wanting to make a good impression on the girl’s family. Hijinx ensues. Boy is humiliated.

This summer, at the end of our honeymoon, Delal and I boarded a bus East for her village, Conag, located in the Northwest corner of the province of Bingöl. It was a rather involved journey. We took a twenty-hour bus first to Dıyarbakir, and from there caught a slightly smaller three-hour bus to Elazığ, walked a mile to the minibus stop in sweltering desert sun, and from there caught an overcrowded van driven by a man who refused to open the windows despite the 100 degree heat (might catch a cold or get a hernia!) to Karakoçan (Kurdish-‘Dep’) where we then made arrangements to be taken the last 50 kilometers to Conag in the village mayor’s SUV. The mayor’s whole family is squished into the backseat with us, along with supplies of food for a week. His two daughters are smashed against the window on the opposite side of the cab from me.

‘You’re going to Conag?’ one asks.


‘I’m afraid to go there. We live up in town in Xolxol.’

Odd, I thought. The mayor doesn’t even live there. ‘Why in the world are you afraid of Conag?’ I ask.

‘Joni,’ the girl says in a low voice. Now they only thing that the name Joni brings to mind is Richie’s sister from Happy Days. I have a brief vision of an aging Erin Moran roaming the Kurdish village, terrorizing the unwary inhabitants.
The terror of Joni hits Conag!

‘Joni is the scariest dog in the world,’ her sister explains. ‘He attacks everyone.’

‘He’s not just a dog,’ the first girl says. ‘He’s half bear. People say that his mother mated with a bear in the forest and that’s why he’s so mean. No one can walk the village at night. That dog jumps right at their throats!’

‘Dede found Joni when he was just a puppy,’ Delal explains. ‘The boys in the village used to throw huge stones at him and tortured him in all kinds of ways. That’s why he’s so crazy.’

The path from Xolxol to Conag can only be called a ‘road’ with a bit of imagination. There are parts so cracked, broken, and fallen with landslides, bursts of water, and fallen boulders that I had to close my eyes as we passed. After days of constant travel, when the truck rolled to a stop at Dede’s (Grandfather’s) door, we were exhausted. We unloaded the groceries—the girls would not leave the car for dread of the fearsome Joni. Dede met us at the door with the customary kiss on both cheeks and a hug. We dropped our bags in the bedroom and went for a shower only to find that there was no water in the house due to an ongoing civil war over water in the village.

(Basically it goes like this—no matter how small the place, it is never too tiny for politics. Until a few years ago, there was a fountain in the center of the village that trickled merrily throughout the day, the sound giving everyone the illusion that they were cooler than they actually were. Then the fountain dried up and the older villagers have decided to make do by leaving their sinks, toilets, and hoses running all day. The result—87 fountains and all the houses on the upper slopes run out of water by noon. People have been fighting about it for weeks by the time we arrive.)

At dusk, before dinner, Dede takes me down to his garden below the house. He and the other old men of the village have quite the set up—a spool for a card table, chairs, an impromptu grill where they barbecue chicken and lamb. He then proceeds to give me a tour of his house.

‘This was my wedding gift to my wife,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to marry her, but I was too poor at the time. So starting in 1947, I worked and saved money and slowly got the first floor built.’ The first floor is traditionally for the animals—here many years ago stayed the family’s cows, sheep, and goats. The walls are made of earth and stone and it is the coolest place in the village—the perfect refuge from the brutal summer sun that that week was pushing temperatures above 110 degrees. He takes me upstairs and proudly points out the roof beams. ‘We carried those trees here through the forest from over thirty miles away. But the hardest part was the roof in the television room. I couldn’t quite get the roofbeams to sit level. You can still tell they’re crooked.’ The balcony is his pride and joy, I think. It overlooks the canyon of the Peri Su (Fairy River) and has to command one of the best views in the village. ‘Finally, after two years and lots of work—once I ran out of money and nearly despaired that I would ever finish—I got it done and was able to get married. Since then I have been adding to it every year.’

What is my first contribution to this pride and joy? Read on! ,

The blood, sweat, and toil of two years--and then came the grandson-in-law

Dede and I go downstairs and I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. Under the stairway is a mountain of hair with two glowing yellow eyes in the middle.

‘Joni!’ Dede says. ‘Scat! Get out of there this instant.’

He looks at me a bit scoldingly. ‘Now you have to make sure the front door is latched when you come in! The animals try to come in here to get out of the sun and mess everything up!’

It takes quite a bit of doing to get Joni out. For his all his fierce reputation, he hangs his head and stops at every table, chair, and sink to cower until Dede shouts at him again. He clearly has no desire to go back outside and when he does finally waddle out the door, he stands looking hopefully at the latch for at least half an hour before sighing dramatically from the heat before skulking away.

Joni--the apparent result of Dede's mad efforts to breed a bear and a dog.

So no savage attacks from Joni, just a passive aggressive kind of guilt trip.

Remember: Must lock door against half-dog, half-bears.

The next day, I go out for some wood for the stove. I return with two big armfulls of logs and carry them upstairs to Delal. We chat for a bit, the call of nature comes, and I tromp downstairs to go to the bathroom. When I hit the bottom steps I freeze. Four more pairs of yellow eyes. I switch on the lights to discover four cows standing standing against the wall. When I appear, they start to shuffle nervously and shit. I tromp back upstairs to Delal.

‘What is it?’ she asks.

‘I’ve done something,’ I announce.

Together, the two of us, armed with brooms, manage to drive the cows out. But not without consequences. I don’t know if the cows have been munching a high bran cereal, but they’ve all got the runs. From wall to front door they shit continuously and then once more on the front step for good measure. What is the result of Dede’s new grandson-in-law’s first day? A Jackson Pollock like series of poo poo swirls and blobs from stairwell to street all over the first floor of a house built with his own to hands in the hope of marrying the woman he loves: a year’s sweat and toil soiled with bovine diarrhea.

Dede--the man and two youngsters sent to make his life more difficult
(Miraculously we got most of this cleaned up before Dede noticed--he had been out visiting. An errant and forgotten pile caught his attention a week later when it was already quite dried and easily carried to the garden for fertilizer.)
Luckily animals in the house are not all that unusual anyway. Every night, a whole platoon of bugs (the Kurdish Air Forces) descended upon the house for tea and chit chat, swarming around the porch light in tornado-like profusion. Wherever I went, I seemed to run into a very large grasshopper with leaf-shaped wings—it was on my pillow, flew into my face one night in the kitchen, landed on my shoulder, found its way into my bag. I took it as my totem animal.

Animals abound—there was a donkey somewhere in the village, who, every night around 2 in the morning began to bellow and scream. This set Joni to howling and the two of them would sing duets to the wee hours of the morning.

Then there’s Badi—Joni’s quiet friend, owned by the cranky and somewhat crazed driver of the village minibus, Şerafettin. Şerafettin also owns a cat and a sheep. The sheep is the one that really caught my attention. It leaves little rabbit like pellets of poop wherever it ventures. I named it Stew since it seemed to have no other discernible appelation. Stew is rather focused on food. It’s face is either in whatever pile of grass is nearest or in whatever you are eating. We sat at Şerafettin’s house chatting over tea one afternoon and Stew kept jumping in his lap trying to drink from the glass.

Stew--looking coldly on, thinking of food.

Şerafettin, by the way, is as mentioned before, a bit irrascible. He strikes me as a kind of wise man in the village, impatient with nonsense and only to happy to nip it in the bud before it starts. He lugs the villagers wherever they want to go—whether to town for shopping or to the hot springs for bathing—but his minivan always leaves at 6:30 in the morning. Once, when it was just us going on a trip to the hot springs, we suggested he leave a little later, at seven maybe.

‘Oh so now you’re telling me my job!’ he snapped. ‘6:30!’

Hrant Dink-Şerafettin looks like him
--only much scowlier.  I think its the hair...

But I like him somehow—the kind of guy who calls things like he saw them no matter who gets their feelings hurt. And he has a huge mop of black hair that reminds me alot of Hrant Dink.

When we come over for tea, he announces that we will be staying for while, then goes muttering outside with Stew trotting behind. He wants to pluck some apricots from his tree for us—the only one in the village to still bear fruit. Only the best for his guests. While the others are occupied with their tea, I watch from the window as Şerafettin wrestles with the ladder, shoves it angrily into the branches of his fig tree, and then begins to climb. Not satisfied with the apricots near at hand, he crawls out onto a rather thin branch that quickly snaps and sends him somersaulting to the ground with a tremendous crash that does not in the least distract Stew from his grass munching. I wait for one breathless instant, prepared to call out for help but hesitating because I know, from observation and experience, that the most terrible fuss will be made even if he is completely uninjured. Hours and hours of advice about hospitals and ice and herbal remedies and medication and people making him lie down for days every time he turns around. Maybe some weeping. And so I wait, and sure enough, he scrambles unharmed to his feet, plucks the orange fruit from the fallen branch and tromps inside—the indifferent Stew trailing behind baaing longingly at the fruit in his arms. His Dinkian hair is mussed and full of straw and leaves, but no one seems to notice.

‘Branch broke,’ he says simply and goes into the back to wash the fruit.

And they’re quite tasty.

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