Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Letter Home OR My First Whiff of Tear Gas--the November 17 Solidarity Hunger Strike

Dear Defense Technologies,

The sexy and sleek, Spede Heat CS
Today I tasted some of your gas—probably from a long range Spede Heat CS cannister , the preferred model of the Turkish police, but I can’t be sure because there wasn’t a lot of time to stop and check the exact model.  
No I am not a soldier or an agitator or a regular attender of protests.  I am a middle school English teacher living in Istanbul. We have something in common because the contact page on your website lists you as headquartering in Jacksonville, Florida and I was born and raised in Florida. In fact, my father lived in Jacksonville for a long time when he first moved down from his small farm community in Georgia. My mother is your proverbial ‘country girl’ from West Virginia—she likes Michelob Lite, can ride a horse, and worked for years as a P.E. teacher. She lives in tiny Pinson, Alabama now along with the rest of my family. They attend a Baptist church. My sister works with handicapped kids. My brother’s a fireman. My nephew works in disaster clean-up.

Today, my wife and I went to a demonstration on a public fairground on the outskirts of Istanbul to support thousands of political prisoners who were hunger striking in Turkey’s prisons—most of them Kurdish.  64 of the strikers had not eaten for 67 days and were literally on death’s door—the pictures of them that came out of the prison reminded me of concentration camp victims—gaunt, hollow eyed. Several thousand who had joined later were well on their way to the same end—including my wife’s 60-year-old father, a retired elementary school teacher and a diabetic. Family members on the outside felt it was the least we could do to come together and conduct a two day hunger strike of our own to show that we had not forgotten them.

We arrived at the fair grounds to a small gathering of mostly old men and women. A good eighty percent of the crowd was over fifty. I may sound like I am exaggerating for effect, but the busses carrying the younger people from the center of the city, an hour away, had not yet arrived. There were only about six or seven young men in a crowd of not quite a hundred people. It was cold—a gathering of chubby  grandmas sat huddled together on make-shift stools and a group of old men talked over cigarettes.

Gendarmes with riot shields took position on the sidewalk. Three alleys across the street were shoulder to shoulder with police and ten police busses filled the parking lot of the city hall. Two police tanks and several armored cars were parked along the side of the road. I laughed at first because, honestly, what in the world did this small army think was coming from this crowd of shivering retirees?

Winter rain clouds turned the sky an ashen gray—we chatted with a friend of my father-in-law’s, Zekiye. She is sixty years old and has long, cotton-white hair with dark expressive eyes that, despite her not being able to read or write, shine with intelligence.  We’ve brought tea and sugar—she seems pleased.

The first volley of water cannons--no one's all that convinced yet

I notice a man standing on the side walk with a megaphone. He is middle-aged, pale, with thinning blond hair and thick glasses. He is dressed in a powder-blue jacket and slacks.  ‘We are asking you to disperse,’ he says in a quiet voice. ‘Who is this guy?’ an old man asks. ‘Disperse for who?’  Then in quick succession, the man with the megaphone issues 3 warnings, as required by Turkish law, ‘We will not permit this, we will intervene.’ The old ladies on the stools looked puzzled—then stood and started gathering their things. That’s when the tank moved in, firing water from the cannon on the top. It struck the smokers first who were slow to react. They behaved like cats chased away from a meal, grumbling and flinging their cigarettes down in frustration. Then the tear gas cannisters began to fly—I’ll never forget those trails of yellowish smoke streaking across the grey sky--and we fled.

I have never breathed in tear gas before—it hurts, but then I am fairly young and can run. The hobbling old women in layers of skirts and the limping old men, on the other hand, though a whole lot spryer than I gave them credit for, were far slower than I, and had a hard time getting away.

Those first few moments were strange. I remember wondering if the police could possibly be serious. I stopped and ran backward. My wife was running toward me, covering her mouth with her scarf. Her sister came next, tossing me an extra handkerchief so I could cover mine. I didn’t at first—just watched in a kind of stunned disbelief as the tank advanced on us and more tear gas cannisters rained down. A young man fell in the mud and couldn’t get up. Another came behind and tried to lift him. ‘What’s wrong with him?’ my wife cried. Then a tear gas cannister fell near me and my lungs began to burn, though thank God it was far enough a way that my eyes were only slightly affected.  One woman took a direct hit and had to be rushed to the hospital. I covered my face with the handkerchief, but my glasses immediately fogged up so I had to give it up. If I choked, I choked. We ran toward the line of apartment buildings at the opposite end of the fairgrounds—and then ducked down a side street.  All the neighbors poked their heads out the window to find out what was going on and then quickly ducked back in once they understood.

We stopped in front of a small convenience store and frantically discussed what to do. ‘Let’s go back,’ someone said. I was in tears from the frustration and rage—looking at all these ordinary people around me wiping at the burning eyes and clutching their throats. One young woman was shouting ‘What do we do?’ and as if in answer some of the young men started scrounging the street for rocks. The old folks in the crowd were trying to stop them.  One man waved his arms and cried, ‘Don’t hurt anyone! This is our neighborhood! These are our people!’  Thanks to him, no one broke any shop windows, but they all rushed back the way we had come for a go at the tanks, and soon they came running back toward us, this time with armored cars following.

The subsequent chase through the backstreets and alleyways was terrifying. The armored cars left the rock-throwers behind and came after all of us. I dashed down an alley with an old man in a beret and very fat woman who couldn’t really run at all but only waddle quickly in front of me, clutching the wall as she went for support, and panting as if she were about to have a heart attack. The three of us tried to leap a brick wall and climb over a wood pile—to my astonishment the woman didn’t need any help--but a group of our people from the other street were coming from the opposite direction, fleeing from armored car on that side, and we realized we were trapped. We ran back to where we came from. On that street, one of the armored cars was speeding down the road swerving left and right after anyone it saw in the street as if it were trying to run them down.

I grabbed my wife’s hand, or she grabbed mine, and together we ran out onto the main highway and fell into a crowd of ordinary pedestrians. By now, the police were wandering the streets in plain clothes making arrests, so we all dispersed and tried to look like tourists seeing the sights.

I find it difficult to articulate all the things I felt during this attack. There was anger—watching all those old people flee in terror from what amounted to a small army. And for what?  I could certainly understand why those men threw the rocks. Why so many police against so innocuous a crowd? Why attack the demonstration in the first place? It was infuriating that they could make you feel like such a criminal, so immediately on the defensive. As soon as I saw those men pick up the rocks, I knew how this would be portrayed in the Turkish papers—‘Police had to intervene when protesters turned violent,’ and I started framing a defense in my head though anyone who was there would not require it.  This was the undeserved humiliation they imposed--at the end, we were skulking through the streets as if we had just committed a crime.  I wonder, is this the kind of society our country wants to support—where ordinary people have to live in fear of the very people who protect them?

During the whole ordeal, I had so much adrenaline pumping through me that I didn’t have time to feel afraid—at least not until we were cornered between the houses. I was worried for those closest to me--my wife for one—though of course to be honest I have the general impression that should she so desire she could, Wonder Woman like, pick up one of those tanks and hurl it through that line of riot police. Watching her younger sister run was more surreal—Zelal never leaves the house without going through a three-hour salon treatment. How odd to see this pain-stakingly made-up woman in a leather jacket, designer jeans, and chic boots fleeing from a rain of tear gas and tanks.

Later on, we all gathered together in the headquarters of the Kurdish political party. I met a young man there from Diyarbakır, an eighteen-year-old jazz percussionist. He told me his mother had warned him that if he joined this protest today, she would never cook for him again. He laughed.

‘She said ‘That will teach you to hunger strike!’ She’s scared for me, of course. The police used to harass us all the time. I remember one night my dad was coming home from playing cards and some gendarmes stopped him in the street. They poked him in the belly with the rifle and said ‘Why are you strutting so slowly down the street?’ ‘No reason,’ he answered. ‘Then walk faster!’ they told him. So he did and one of them stopped him again, and again poked him in the belly with the barrel of the gun. ‘What are you running from? What did you do?’ This was every day life for us. We lived in the Bağlar neighborhood of Diyarbakır when I was a kid—a very active neighborhood. That’s where I went to elementary school. We breathed tear gas every day on the way home from school! It was just a part of normal life. One day, when I was in first grade, me and a friend decided to join one of the protests.  I was about 7 and he was about 12. We had both started school when we were older. My friend got caught throwing rocks at the police and a group of them knocked him down and beat him with billy clubs. They killed him.’

He says it so quickly, it doesn’t quite register.

‘They what?’

‘They killed him.  Oh, that happened to a lot of guys.’

During the course of the night, I hear stories from others. One woman’s little sister was tortured so badly in prison that she now cannot walk. ‘I came today for her,’ she tells the crowd. ‘Because I can do nothing else for her.’

This is the government you are selling your tear gas to.

I have no doubt that the millions of dollars worth of tear gas cannisters you produce have their place—a non-lethal and usually harmless method of dispersing mobs who have gone out of control, but this is not how the Republic of Turkey uses your product. The police break up every manner of gathering in a similar way that they did ours—whether it is a group of secular nationalist on Indepence Day, a gathering of Kurdish mothers in a tent, townspeople protesting the building of a dam or students objecting to tuition hikes. They attack teachers, church goers (a sizeable Christian community lives in Istanbul), democrats, rock musicians, children and housewives.  And the gas cannisters are certainly not always harmless—a Google image search on ‘tear gas cannisters’ is enough to yield some pictures of injuries from these things that turns your stomach. There are rumors sometimes that the police are deliberately targeting people.

I am writing to ask you to be more judicial in who you select as your customers, to not sell your product who regularly use it to attack their own people. As men and women of morals and good conscience, I am sure you don’t want the name of your company and those who work for it connected to such primitive brutality.

Thank you for your time,
Jeff Gibbs

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Where does it all come from?

Ambitious title: we are now embroiled in the struggles of the prison hunger strike. According to the BDP there are 10,000 people now on strike--a number difficult to confirm. In any case, my father in law is now one of them. We are proud, worried, and distraught at the increasingly militant stance of the government. I have been meaning to write something all week about it--time is running out--but I can't seem to gather the thoughts. They are a mess of emotion, fear, excitement, desperation, nerves. We have faced down police tanks at demonstrations--others in the East and farther from the eyes of the press were attacked by them. In any case, I took a textbook from our high school. It's used to teach the mandatory class of 'National Security Science' which everyone in Turkey is required to take. Here is a section from this 170 page book that I think neatly encapsulates that what hunger strikers and indeed, anyone who wants to live in a just society are facing. A people trained to delude themselves into thinking a militarist, paranoid dictatorship is actually the true meaning of democracy. The parenthesis and italics are mine.

Distributed by the Ministry of Education
Published in 2010


Those termed 'destructive actions', in general, have the aim of destroying the existing regime (The secular-democratic system) through force of arms and setting up a system governed by their own ideology. Actions designed to destroy the country from the inside arrive at their goals through four phases (preparation, organization, action, and civil war). First and foremost, these activities are financed through human and narcotic trafficking. At the same time, these organizations profit from donation campaigns, the sale of illegal magazines and newspapers, the collection of monthy fees and concerts.

Our country stands confronted with constant attacks designed to spread ideology and remains the target of destructive activities aimed at obliterating the rapidly developing social and cultural integrity that goes hand in hand with a developing economy taking its place in the world of international and geopolitical politics.

In this arena, the 1980s saw the development of organizations designed with the sole aim of destroying the Constitution of the Turkish Republic and setting up their own views in its place.



Splittist threats directed at our country with great constancy go back 200 years. Throughout the process of history, threats have appeared that are extensions of the Imperialist Powers efforts to profit from the Middle East region. Today, too, movements, and demonstrations have surfaced with their own internal conditions and alliances with outsiders.

As for today, splittist activities among elements of our fatherland claiming to be separate races or nations and carrying the quality of a threat were begun by outside powers in the days of the rise of the Ottoman empire. European states, during the 19th century, not only exerted efforts to foment rebellion but at the same time played an effective role in the creation of splittist-ethnic organizations.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, westerners in various disguises as archaeologist, historians, theologians and geographers at every opportunity sowed the seeds of dissent among eastern tribes as part of their missionary work. These actions opened the road to the weakening of state power through various rebellions and uprisings at different periods.

One of the most important of these rebellions supported by foreign powers was the Sheik Sait uprising, the results of which, forced The Turkish Republic, with the Lozan Peace Treaty, to give up its right to the Musul-Kirkuk region that lay well within its borders.

The PKK, with which the Turkish Republic has struggled since the last quarter of the 20th century, was founded on November 27th, 1978 with the support of foreign countries. It began operations with the raids on Eruh and Şemdinli in 1984. The final and true aim of this terrorist organization has been to split off lands starting with Turkey, and spreading to Iraq, Iran and Syria; lands that have been theirs since their foundations, to have the Kurdish identity recognized in the constitution (this makes saying the word Kurd a terrorist act essentially) and to form an autonomous or federal Kurdistan region which later will become the United Democratic Greater Kurdistan.

                This terrorist organization, with these aims, has endeavored to implement the following struggles.

·         The murders of 30,000 people charged with the duty of securing the state without regard for the elderly, women, or children

·         To destroy the vehicles of service to our citizens and hinder the development of the Southeast region


Since February 16th, 1999, with the capture of the head of this organization, they understood that they had lost on the battlefield and changed their tactics to attacks on the political field. (Thus nonviolent political struggle is also terrorism). With this aim, they took advantage of our citizens living in the East and Southeast who for various reasons were not able to find educational opportunities. This terrorist organization:

·         Forced young people without regard to gender to take up arms during their education years and turned them against the state.

·         Tried to break the national unity spirit of the Turkish people by fomenting divisiveness and splittism.

·         Profitted from the civil services for years and used them in actions against the state to incite the loyal people at every opportunity against the state.

·         Forced our children still at a tender age when they are still playing with toys to join protests and instilling in their vulnerable minds violence and disobedience against the state.

·         The above activities have been propagated side by side with armed actions and with the support of foreign powers.

This terror organization, after the terrorist attack of 9/11, in order not to draw the ire of the world have struggled to disassociate themselves from the word ‘terror’ but several countries and foundations have put these new names on their terrorist lists.

Let them change their name as often as they want, every foundation that takes aim at human life is a terrorist organization (which qualifies all the militaries of every country as terrorist) and they are responsible for all damage done to the state and every murder they’ve ever committed.

The desire and wish for humans to live in peace and security grows all the faster as the regional services and investments by the state and the passionate endeavors by the state for the people are lost through terrorist influence in the region.

THE DUTIES THAT FALL TO CITIZENS WHO ARE AGAINST THESE THREATS TO THE STATE (Though all sections of this chapter have been underlined by the student who used this book, this one is double underlined)

·         To take responsibility for the development and enrichment of a nation and people reliant on the principles of secularism, democracy, and modernity.

·         To know Turkish history and draw lessons from the past

·         As Turkish Youth (not my capitalization) to work diligently to raise Turkey to a high level of strength, wealth, and prosperity.

·         To learn the ideas of Atatürk and use them in our daily lives.

·         To know the aims of cadres of threat and propaganda from both internal and external sources who aim to impede Turkey’s progress.

·         To learn the Turkish language, tongue, culture and literature and bring it to life through the example of their own lives.

·         To know and defend the principles of Atatürk regarding the People and Nation in terms of national unity and togetherness.

·         To see clearly the truths and falsehoods of the publications of media press organizations both outside and inside the country and support ones that benefit the country and reject those that don’t.

·         To live knowing that knowledge is the guide toward the truest path and knowing the need for work and production.



Friday, November 9, 2012


I want to get away from writing political stuff--but we are up to our necks in it,and the water is rising. Delal's dad entered the hunger strike last week, along with about 10,000 others. To say we are freaked out is an understatement--he is diabetic, his cell mates have heart disease, kidney disease. I'd say it is a mark of their desperation. In any case, it worries us to death. Their demands were basically agreed to on Tuesday by Bulent Arınç (the vice Prime Minister), and we waited all week for some sort of concession. Nothing changed and so the hunger strikers continue--this is a letter from one of them released by gitamerica. I am reprinting it here. A transcription is at the bottom if you can't read it.
Gulan Kılıçoğlu was a 4th year student at Ankara University, Faculty of Political Science when she was arrested under the pretext of the Union of Kurdish Communities (KCK) operations and have been on a indefinite and un-alternated hunger strike since September 12, 2012. She was arrested on April 1, 2012 and sentenced to 6 years and 3 months for being a member of an illegal organization. Judge decided that it is against the course of the life for her to go to the Hewler and conduct a research at Selahaddin University as a student in her sentencing.
See a video of Gulan singing in this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qd1UnK9REc
I have been in the Siirt Prison in Turkey since 2010. There are thousands of people in the prison now. Many of the prisoners are Kurds. I am a political prisoner. All of us wanted live in equality. In this way we can change the political choice that makes us free and free. We just want the freedom of choice, the freedom of language, the freedom of rights, the freedom of history which contains us the Kurdish people!
Now there are about 750 people on hunger strike, so am I. I have been on Hunger Strike since October 12. Our demands areabout the rights of human beings.
The government of Turkey isolates Mr. Abdullah Ocalan from his society. Abdullah Ocalan is an important person. His warfare is about the equality of Kurds and most of Kurds have a faith in him. But now he is in the prison of Imrali and no one can learn about his situation. There is an international isolation, political isolation,
You know isolation is a crime so;
1-     Want government to change the conditions of Mr. Ocalan in a good way.
2-     We want to speak our language – mother language- We are Kurds and we have been learning the Kurdish since our families but after the age of 7 we have to go to the school and the educational language is in Turkish. This is coercive for us. We want to speak our language in our schools.
We can’t do anything free from Kurdish from Mr. Ocalan.
We are on a hunger strike since October 12, and our health is getting worse and worse. We want you to do something….
Gulan Kilicoglu

Sunday, November 4, 2012

54th Day--Hunger Strike

                Tonight was unusually warm for November—humid, everyone in short sleeves. I was coming from a friend’s house where we were doing some filming for an improv theater we are starting up on the Asian side. I went down to the wharf to fill up my Akbil (the card you use for busses, trains, and ferries) when I noticed a group gathering next to bus station. About a hundred people sat in front of a line of candles illuminating signs that read, ‘We are here on the 54th day to support the hunger strikers’ and ‘Ölüm değil, çözüm için’ (not for death, but for a solution) They chanted slogans—‘The murderers will have to answer for this crime!’  From the dark beneath Kadikoy’s Haldun Taner theater came another group marching with red flags. They called to each other across the newspaper sellers and sausage stands who started to notice. ‘What the hell are they shouting about?’ one asked. A crowd started to gather. Police began to notice.

I stopped in front of the candle flames like a moth. I don’t know what it was exactly—but the graveness of the situation seemed to flicker in that candle light. In Turkey, hunger strikes have always meant death. The prime minister denied their existence. ‘We have no hunger strikers!’ Or else called them terrorists. ‘The state will never bow its head to the pressure of terrorists’ or else said it was all a show. Every day there’s something else he says that is more crass. Some of the newspapers are saying that not much interest is being garnered by the hunger strikers—but here is this gathering crowd at the Kadikoy wharf. In Denizli 91 students from Pamukkale Univeristy were arrested for marching in support of the hunger strikers. Galatasaray students and others from universities all over the country have started sympathy strikes.

While we were filming tonight, a friend asked me if my father-in-law was striking. ‘Not yet,’ I said. There’s been an announcement tonight that all the prisoners will start striking—(some estimates put that at over 10,000 people, though it is still unclear just how many people have been arrested in the KCK case. The arrests continue—yesterday 21 people more people were arrested in Mersin.) This will include my wife’s dad, of course. And means…means what? There’s a storm coming. Shadows. I am proud of him. I want to help him somehow. But the government seems so ruthless, so indifferent. It throws as much propaganda as it can at the strikers. But I have felt how frustrating it is to be among these people and face the power of the Turkish state.

And I have seen a hunger strike before. In 1998, six Tibetans in New Delhi stopped eating to protest Chinese occupation. It ended when the Indian police stormed the tents and Thupten Ngodup, a 60 year old man set himself on fire. It changed nothing of course. For the past few months, people all over Tibet have been doing the same--self immolations, deaths, self-murder as the only weapon against the all-powerful State.
Those candles at the wharf tonight reminded me of the candles in front of the Tibetan strikers tents. And there’s this dread that spread over with the wind coming off the water, that the flames are rising again.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hunger Strike, 50th day--and year anniversary of Mamoste's Arrest

We spent the Bayram holiday on the Mediterranean in the village of Kaş—swimming, kayaking, canyoning, and eating seafood. We always enjoy food on vacations (and every other day for that matter, we’re plumping up like Thanksgiving Turkeys, or Bayram sheep) and it was with an odd pang of unease that we gorged ourselves silly as the papers across the street seemed to accuse us with headlines about the hunger strikers.

65 prisoners began their hunger strike on September 12th, the anniversary of the military coup that began decades of purges, disappearances, and assassinations by the Turkish state.  Since the 12th, an estimated 600 people have joined them, with more strikers announced every day (the number varies, sources are notoriously unreliable; the Bayram holiday has made exact numbers difficult to ascertain—at least according to the channel, NTV. Reuters claim 800. Most people say around 700).

Their demands are simple.

1. That solitary confinement (tecrit) be lifted for Abdullah Öcalan on Imrali Island (the island where his prison is located). They’re on good constitutional ground with this one—Öcalan hasn’t been permitted to meet with his lawers for a year and a half. The government has offered some rather silly excuses—‘the weather is not safe for the boatride over’ or ‘the boats are broken’, but no one, of course, is buying. Cengiz Çandar today wrote in the Radikal on Monday that an AKP official told him this:

‘We are aware of the influence of Imrali on the Kurds, but we are the ones who brought about this situation. In other words, the State did it to itself. Since he was captured in 1999 Öcalan has been managing his organization from prison—we recognized the possibility. This is a situation you would see nowhere else on earth. Thanks to us, his managed to increase his influence over his people. Now, for months no one has heard a peep from that island and the world hasn’t ended. That means that the influence he gained (thanks to us) is weakening.’

In other words, the isolation is meant to break any influence Öcalan still holds over the Kurds.

2. That Kurds (and everyone) be allowed to defend themselves in their mother tongue before the court. In their petition to the government, the BDP writes:

‘From today, with over 8000 people in prison for over three years on trial in the KCK investigations, and with our requests for a defense in the mother tongue not only refused but counted for nothing, the judicial process has come to a standstill….The efforts of civil organizations have been ignored and our pleas in the legislature have failed to draw any attention, and so hundreds of prisoners are forced to submit their bodies to hunger and death.

I witnessed the repeated refusals for a defense in Kurdish this July while visiting the trials in Silivri—the court was stubborn, defiant, and seemed bent on hurrying the trial to a predetermined end.

3. As indicated in the above quote from the BDP’s petition, the strikers are also demanding public education in Kurdish.

The first two requests have been met with some positive signs—but so far they have remained only signs. Just today (October 30th) IMC news reports that the government has once more refused permission for Öcalan to meet his lawyers while at the same time the Ministry of Justice tries to circumvent the whole problem by claiming that there never was any solitary confinement. He could meet anyone he wanted, apparently, but they had to apply through the proper channels like everyone else.  Well they do and they’re refused, guys. That’s the issue.

Today—I am writing on the 30th, the BDP’s co-chairman Demirtaş called for civil protest throughout the country today. Businesses were not to open their doors, children and teachers were not to go to school, life was to come to a stop—an attempt to have a Kurdish spring like the Arab one.  And life did come to a stop—all over the Southeast thousands went to the street and marched in support of the hunger strikers. We have been anxiously watching reports coming in from the cities of Van, Muş, Mazgirt, Tunceli, Agrı, Doğubeyazit, Şirnak, Antalya, Adana, and of course, Diyarbekir showing marchers filling the streets only to be attacked by police with tear gas, water cannons, and in a clip from Diyarbekir, a line of tanks. A friend in Diyarbekir said that, despite living in a city where protests are the norm, he had never seen anything so comprehensive. The city was paralyzed.
Photo: Van ve Yüksekova'da Onbinler Yürüyor

Van merkez ile Hakkari'nin Yüksekova ilçesinde onbinlerce kişi barikatları aşarak, yürüyüşe geçti. 

Kepenklerin yüzde yüz kapalı olduğu Van'da  il binamızın önünde açılan çadırın önünde biraraya gelen onbinlerce kişi polis barikatlarını aşarak, yürüyüşe geçti. Kültür Merkezi yolundan Akköprü Mahallesi'ne doğru yürüyüşe geçen onbinlerce yurttaşın yürüyüşü devam ederken, polisler ise kitlenin sayısının artması ve yürüyüşün başlaması üzerine barikatları kaldırmak zorunda kaldı. Kitle Akköprü Mahallesi'nde araçlarla Van F Tipi Cezaevi önüne doğru hareket edecek. Kitlenin yürüyüşü sürüyor. 

Yüksekova'da Onbinler Yürüyor 

Yaşamın durduğu Hakkari'nin Yüksekova ilçesinde İlçe binamız ile Oslo Oteli önünde biraraya gelen onbinlerce kişi, Eski Cezaevi Kavşağı'na doğru yürüyüşe geçti. PKK ve Konfederalizm bayraklarını açan onbinlerce kişi, sık sık "Biji Serok Apo", "İntikam" sloganları atıyor. İlçe halkını akın ettiği yürüyüş sonrası basın açıklaması yapılacak.
The protests in Van

In Diyarbekir
In Istanbul as well—where in Okmeydani police attacked protester, even tossing a gas bomb into a tent with several mothers of strikers holding a hunger strike of their own in solidarity.  (Emine Akdoğan, reports Bianet, has one daughter in the mountains and one daughter, Şehnaz, in prison. Şehnaz told her what she was about to do on her last visit to the prison. ‘What could I do but support her decision? We went to Bakırköy for the Bayram holiday and were met there with a Bayram meal of gas bombs.’ The reporter adds that moments later the tent where Emine spoke to her was ‘dispersed’ by tear gas)

The Turkish media channels report things as if the police responded only after being attacked by Molotov cocktails and rocks.  Oh, I am sure this happened, but wonders what exactly one needed a line of tanks for against some kids with rocks? And really, why does anyone believe the police need any provoking when we have seen countless reports of torture and abuse of people from all walks of life at police hands?  (The woman beaten by cops in Izmir, the man in Istanbul kicked by a team of cops as he writhed on the ground, the girl band tortured in Istanbul. Here's a documentary on the topic featuring pictures of political prisoners on hunger strike killed with flame throwers by Turkish guards.)

And as for police attacks being a response—a video on one of the main Turkish channels show protesters standing in front of a building and being warned that if they don’t move in five minutes, police will ‘intervene’.  No one was throwing a damn thing. In the meantime, the Prime Minister calls the BDP who started the hunger strike ‘terrorist barons’ and says that they themselves feast on lamb while their pawns are forced to starve themselves to death. To prove his point, he shows a picture of BDP party members at a banquet in the town of Kızıltepe near Mardin, but the correspondent reporting never mentions that the picture was taken in July, some three months before the hunger strike was even conceived. Reuters leads with Erdogan’s deliberate misinformation as if it were fact.  Just yesterday, Turkey’s Independence Day, Erdoğan forbade celebrators to march in Ankara. When they tried anyway, police responded with billy clubs and tear gas—and the victims were mostly old Kemalists, well dressed women and old men, members of Parliament and local governors. Erdoğan called them terrorists, too.

The  hunger strikers are entering a critical point—four days ago, it was reported that four women on hunger strike in Siirt are moribund—their stomachs no longer accept fluid. Meanwhile, Amnesty reports that guards in Tekirdağ prisoners are ill-treating the hunger strikers while those in Silivri and Şakran are putting them in solitary confinement. There are also reports that they are restricting strikers access to vital liquids, vitamins, and salts. False media reports are popping up everywhere that the hunger strikes are ending—only to be disproven later. 

Things look grim. And this whole situation hangs over our family like a dark cloud. Over thousands of families.

Turkey has a history with hunger strikes. In2000, over 800 prisoners in the F type prisons (like Kandıra where my father in law was first held) began unto death hunger strikes to protest inhumane conditions. The strikes ended when police stormed the cells—30 prisoners died. Many are wondering if this is what Erdoğan plans.

There is a petition you can sign to make your voice heard. However lightly.....

Here...Petition for Hunger Strikers

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


It’s Friday. My sixth graders and I are going out to the football field. Their eyes are full of colors.

We’re going to write poetry.

‘I hate poetry,’ a girl announces. ‘It’s stupid.’

One of my clever boys smirks and asks, ‘Why are we going outside to do this, I mean, I’m not complaining mind you, but we could have done it in the class room just as easily.’

I gather them together and tell them to look up.

For a second there’s complete silence. You’ll never see such a sky, such Fall blue, not in Istanbul. It’s like we’re on a mountain in Bingöl, in Arizona—far from every house and car and smokestack in the world. A thousand white gulls pass in a swirl of wings.

‘Run,’ I tell the kids. ‘We’re going to run until we can’t run anymore and then we are going to sit down and look around and write about what we see.’

They write magic.

Some never sit. There’s a little blond girl who runs and runs, let’s her maroon jacket fall down to her elbows. She’s exhausted but won’t stop. Sometimes someone chases her, sometimes they don’t. A boy shows me a poem he’s written about her.

‘I see a girl running. Running and running and running.  Now she runs like a tired zombie. Falls. Her yellow hair on green grass.  She gets up. Red leaves on green leaves. We are lying on green grass. Green trashcans, green notebooks, green pines.’

Their heads are full of Carl Sandburg and Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. (They all agree Williams has a stupid name.) On the play ground, one girl writes while hanging from a rope swing. ‘The sky is blue, I hang in the air and I just don’t care! I just don’t care! I just don’t care!’ One little boy says, ‘I think I’ve written something strange.’ I read what he’s scribbled diagonally across the page, ‘My white sneakers run on green grass, like the white birds on blue sky. White shoes running on heaven.’

 Another boy, the smallest of all, writes eleven poems in a row. About the red maple, about the yellow sycamore, about the sky, about the Fall, about the service busses, about us running around and around and laughing and falling and writing, about how boring school is. He’s on fire.

‘I know why we’re out here!’ the girl who hates poetry says. ‘When you’re outside like this you’re feelings just bubble out! You can’t stop writing!’

Or running. The blond girl still can’t stop.

Whatever they do this coming week, we’ve had a burst of joy today. The 23 of them and me.

The school is getting ready for the October 29th holiday. The administration has selected a theme, ‘The eyes of Atatürk.’ In various places around the school hang pictures of the eyes of the Republic’s founder. Only the eyes, big and blue and staring at you wherever you go.  We will have a ceremony celebrating those staring eyes and none of the students will come (but not because they’re not learning to worship this man—simply because they’d still rather play). We teachers will come because we have to. Songs will be sung in his honor, dances danced, purple prose speeches made.

October 29th marks more than the anniversary of the Republic’s founding. It’s the day that Delal and I took a ferry to the Emniyet (the national security office) to find out if we could see her father. The police. The paranoia. The undercover agents. A black day. He’d just been arrested. We had no idea what would happen. The red Turkish flag was everywhere. No one questioned. The right wing papers were screaming ‘TERRORIST!’ It was the first time I really understood,  gut understood, why my in-laws found it so threatening.

The hunger strike that started weeks ago is on its 40th day—63 people have been striking since the beginning, 420 more have joined—political prisoners all, and not just in Istanbul, but all over the country.  The 63 are growing weak. Some are starting to vomit and show signs of disease.  An article in the Radikal say it’s no longer a hunger strike but a death watch.  And strangely, the government is taking notice. They are allowing stories about it in the papers (the Hürriyet says, ‘President Gül is unsettled by the direction things are moving’). People debate it in talk shows on TV. President Gül says talks with the strikers are possible. Even talks with the PKK are possible.  They may consider the strikers demands which include an end to solitary confinement for Abdullah Öcalan, being able to defend themselves in Kurdish, and general education in the mother tongue. (We don’t know the details because the prisoners are boycotting visits—strangely, the journalists are too. Not one paper, it seems, has sent anyone to find out first hand what is happening inside. Rumors are flying about Kurdish being allowed in the courtroom.)  There are signs for hope.

And yet at the same time, the random repression continues. A journalist, Hatice Duman, is sentenced to life in prison. Never mind that Necati Abay, tried in the very same case, was released. And the prime minister promises no compromise during a speech in Elazığ. He says, ‘We will not negotiate with terrorists! We will even talk to Yezidis (a Kurdish sect) as long as they are not terrorists.’  ‘Even’ with Yezidis.  Notice the wording. And the very same Radikal newspaper devotes three pages to a historian named ‘Ismail Küçükkaya’ who says that Turkey has never been multicultural, and then goes on to insult Kurds in particular.

‘Turkey is not a mosaic,’ he writes, ‘Because those other elements have never developed themselves. When I say this, you might counter with ‘The fascist Turkey never opened schools!’ But actually the problem is not with schools but with the elite. Kurdish leaders are not real leaders. They are not Iraqi Kurd. Put one of those guys across from them and let them see what real governing is!’

Never mind the extrajudicial killings, jailings and legal executions of hundreds of Kurdish intellectuals. How can you develop anything from a grave?

But at the same time, things are being discussed that have never been discussed before. For the first time since I’ve been here. On TV the other night, a commentator said the words ‘Armenian Genocide’ without the hitherto obligatory ‘so-called’.

At night, the smell of livestock and manure wafts through our apartment. The feast of the sacrifice is fast approaching when Muslims celebrate the sparing of Isaac by God. Instead of his son, Abraham kills a lamb.

The papers are full of people arguing one way or the other for the holiday. Editorials, articles. ‘How can we explain this to our children?’ City folk find it cruel and barbaric, this sacrificing of animals. I don’t see it—maybe I’m not used to the blood flowing right in front of my eyes, but it’s done behind the scenes every day. We like our meat already cut and packaged—no reminders of where it comes from. But so what? What, really, is the big deal?  But nothing is without political import here. The old guard does not like the reminder of religion or blood. The new boys in power want everyone to know that this is a MUSLIM country with MUSLIM holidays. The faithful will perform the sacrifice and give away the meat—ideally. The non-believers will go somewhere and have a drink just to show they can. We non-Muslims might hit the streets just to see what’s going on—or head to the beach while the warm weather lasts to take advantage of the days off.

I helped sacrifice a goat last year. It was in Dede’s dream—with his grandchildren he would sacrifice and animal at a holy place and give away the meat. They painted blood on our foreheads to mark as belonging to his house—Mala Memli.

All I know is that the goat meat kavurma we ate on Mt. Silbus tasted good.

That day the sky was blue too. Like the spirit of the mountain named for an Armenian saint of light had cleaned it just for us. We danced the halay with strangers and lit candles to the gods.

The better question to ask at this Kurban Bayram is this:

Many of Turkey’s own sons and daughters lie on the altar now—are they going to strike or spare them?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Hunger Strike at Silivri and Beatings (Türkçeşi en aşağıda)


That’s the prevailing mood for the past year. Sometimes the anxiety is aimless and sometimes it is a divination.

On Monday, my sister-in-law received a call from her father. Monday are the days prisoners at Silivri get a phone call. She said his voice sounded strange—subdued, morose. We found out that a hunger strike was planned among the prisoners in the KCK case. We had no idea if my father-in-law would be among the strikers. His name was missing from the official lists, but it was clear from his voice that something was wrong. The trial is resuming next week. The visitation this week was canceled—the prisoners themselves were boycotting visits as a means of protest. We would have no news for a while.

Tuesday, my wife, determined to see her father and find out if he was okay, arranged a car and a lawyer to go with her to Silivri—while family could not get in, most likely a lawyer would be let through. The only trouble was finding a driver—we called friends, friends of friends, and friends of those, but there was no one who knew how to drive (imagine having that problem in the States!) She was talking about driving out there on her own—a thought which terrified me, given her lack of experience. It looked like we might have to give up the trip, but something was nagging at her and she had to get out there somehow. I was about to call in to work to make the drive myself when a friend came through at the last minute.

The rest I heard from my wife herself.

The prison was eerily empty—the crowds of visitors for the KCK inmates missing, home because of the protest. The lawyer was let in and met with my father-in-law, Kemal Seven, who was extremely pleased to see him. Something had happened, and in their isolation, he had feared no one would ever find out.

My wife’s instincts had been correct.

Tuesday, September 25th, 10 of the 99 detainees remaining from this particular round-up began a hunger strike. They wrote a petition to the prison announcing the strike so that later the officials could not claim ignorance should something happen later on. The remaining 89 prisoners wrote a petition of their own declaring their support. Sometime the same day, roughly between  40 to 50 guards and riot police in full gear (this means shields, gas masks, billy clubs and pepper gas) gathered at the door of the prisoners wards. Among them were the assistant warden and the chief of the prison guards. They entered the cells to take away the hunger strikers. Apparently, they were taking them to one-person cells isolated from the others. Their comrades did not want to give them up—they feared that in a few days the strikers would no longer be able to take care of themselves, and expected little help or understanding from the prison officials. Thus, they tried to prevent the guards from taking them awa. The guards attacked. Everyone was beaten (Remember, please, that resistance or no, many of these men are around 60 years old with a host of ailments ranging from heart disease to diabetes). The ten hunger strikers and 2 other prisoners were taken away. None of their belongings were removed from the cells and they’ve had no word of where they’ve been taken. The others worry because, on hunger strike, of course, they need to drink water and sugar water quite regularly and there has been no sign of anyone making provisions for that.

The remaining 89 have refused food since Tuesday in solidarity. I’m posting this on a Saturday, so this might have changed. The trial will resume Monday. Most likely with the reading of the 2,500 page indictment-I think after 10 days in July we left off on page three hundred and something.

Türçesi (Özet)

Silivri L Tipi Cezaevinde, KCK davasından tutuklu bulunan 99 tutukludan 10 kişi süresiz dönüşümsüz açlık görevine başladılar.  Bir dilekçe yazıp, hapishaneye bildirmişler.  Kalan 89 kişiden bu arkadaşları destek verdiği diye bir dilekçe yazmışlar.  Sonra robokop şeklinde 20-25 hapishanenin gardiyanı ikinci müdür ve başgardiyan koğuş kapılarını açmışlar bu on kişi alıp bir tek kişilik hücre götürmek istemişler.  (Bu arada koğuşlar 18 kişilik. 99 kişi kalıyor, bu koğuşlarda, her koğuşa gardiyanlar dağıtılmış).   Dün Salı günü yaklaşık 40-50 kişi yarısı gardiyan yarısı robokop şeklinde, koğuşlara girmişler. Koğuşlardakiler tabii ki arkadaşlarını bırakmak istemdiler (Çünkü bu 10 kişi 10 gün sonra kendi ihtiyaçlarına bakamayacaklardı). Direnmişler. Gardiyanlar onlara darp etmişler.  10 grevlileri götürmüşler bir de direnen kişi den iki kişi daha. Bu 12 kişinin nereye götürüldüğünden koğuş arkadaşlarının haberi yok. Henüz gardiyanlar gelip onların eşyalarını götürmemişler. Açlık grevinde olan bu kişilerin su ve şekerli su almaları gerekiyor, bu yazı yazıldığında kendilerinden bir haber alınamamıştı. Tüm tutuklular Salı gününden beri arkadaşları destelemek amacıyla yemek ve ekmek almıyorlar.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Portrait of the City

(I am doing little scetches around the city at the moment, word sketches--taking a break from the heavy political stuff)
Here, every day, the giant sits outside his cafe puffing on his nargile with his right hand and mashing buttons on his cell phone with his left. He has a shaved head and a black goatee and wears heavy metal concert shirts that hug his bulky body. Tattoos peek out from under both sleeves, and it so tight that every fold and mound of flesh is clearly outlined under the T’s. One would not call him movie-star muscular—he has bulk that is more bar-bouncer frightening than inspiring, and though not quite fat, aggressive lumps and masses of flesh push the limits of that tortured shirt until at the shoulders, pectorals, belly, and sides it seemed ready to burst. Over his head hangs a banner that proudly advertises—ALCOHOL FREE EFES BEER SERVED HERE--though he himself does not look particularly alcohol free.  He is friends with the couple who run the pink painted yoga studio on the other side of the alleyway. They lean out the window from time to time to shout down at him—requests for linden tea or a simple greeting. She is a frail girl with pale river-nymph skin and a bird-song voice.  Her boyfriend is a lean serious faced twenty-something with curly hair that pours out of his scalp like a jungle vine.

The giant’s brother—nearly alike in hair style, body shape and fashion choices, manages the ALCOHOL FULL bar next door. The two brothers rarely speak. The brother’s bar is set into the four floors of a narrow Pre-Republic home (most likely Greek), with the usual cluster of tables out front in the street. Portraits of famous leftists cover every inch of the walls—reverent photos of Che Guevara, Deniz Geçmiş, Nazım Hikmet, Hrant Dink, and Lech Walesa. The shelves of the bar itself are lined with bottles he has collected from the eskici over the years—a Moldavian Brandy from the Soviet Years, an empty rakı bottle from the 40s, a jug of cheap wine from the U.S., unopened bottles of British Champagne.  He has asked, but the eskici never tells him the secret of his finds. Where in the world does a collector of street junk come up with these extinct varieties of alcohol in a country rapidly clamping down on imbibing of all sorts?

Maside Bar in Kadıköy
The skinny eskici can often be found leaning against the wall of the bar as customers from all four floors swarm down to pick through his stuff. He wears the blue vest that all Kadıköy eskicis wear and a white baseball cap with faded lettering.  Smoking under the grapevines, he simply smiles with pride at the frenzy his finds produce and answer every excited inquiry into prices with an outpuff of smoke and a soft-spoken, ‘Well, that all depends…’. He could simply wait here for an hour and make over a hundred lira. When other eskicis pass—with carts full of metal wire and a tire, or a single box of old magazines and a broken electric kettle—they gaze at him with defeated envy. His cart is a mountain of useful junk, every day, a traveling bazaar, an ambulatory version of the best garage sales in the US. He has vintage clothes that would go for a bundle back in the thrift shops of Boston—old furs, seventies bell bottoms, tacky blouses, big hats with feathers, scarlet shoes with gold roses on the toes, tube tops. He has costume jewelry, old disco records, gaudily painted dishes, rhinestone purses, road atlases in Russian and Turkish of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and various other countries that don’t quite exist anymore.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Buckhannon, West Virginia and Conag, Turkey--Sister Cities?

We sat on the porch swing—Delal, Demet and I. My cousin Roy was on the steps.

‘You’ve lead such an amazing life,’ Roy told me. ‘Going to Japan and now living in Istanbul. Man, I’ve barely ever left this place.’

He waved his hand dismissively at the stunning mountain scenery that enfolded us there in that little hollow.

‘For us, West Virginia is pretty amazing,’ I told him. ‘Wherever you live is going to eventually seem a little ordinary and you get blinded to what’s amazing about it. Istanbul was driving me crazy when I left—but you would probably love it.  And here you’re saying it’s boring here, but it’s incredible to us.’

And what was so incredible for us? The mountains for one. Driving in and out of town took you through landscapes that cut to the quick, deep valleys with winding rivers and a sunset sky turning electric purple above. Quiet hollows full of fireflies.  Mist sending tendrils slithering over the rivers. We were staying in a cabin on the Middlefork River. Across the water was a huge meadow--a picturesque farm pastoral, the kind of thing you see in paintings in public buildings worldwide that seem so cheesy because they can’t be real. Such scenes are run-of-the-mill here. Our meadow—an empty green field, a dirt road winding through two poplars, a barn to the right, rolling green mountain backs behind, two horses grazing lazily.
The Middle Fork where we stayed

And then there was the animals. Everywhere we went, and I mean everywhere, we saw mother deer and their fawns. There were two fawns at the cemetery, a herd of six behind the car rental place, three out in the field next to the corn at my Uncle Jack’s house, three more at the empty lot next to the Wal-Mart.  A flock of wild turkeys in my Uncle Butch’s pasture, bears, rabbits, skunks, hummingbirds, groundhogs and a flock of wild red-headed ducks that made its way to Uncle Jack’s porch at 7:00 PM every day for bread.
The fawns wandering the Union Cemetery where my grandmother and her parents are buried

One thing about leaving a place for a long time, you’ll have a different vision when you come back. It had been nearly six years since I had last visited West Virginia, and I had a new set of eyes this time thanks to my wife and her sister. With our trip out to Bingöl and her village last year, I found myself in West Virginia looking for all the similarities to her Kurdistan. And there were quite a few—some more direct than others.

My Uncle Keith took us on a tour one day. We followed his pick-up down the four lane highway toward Elkins until he suddenly turned right onto a broken dirt road that wound round hillsides and dove deeper and deeper into the woods. At a spot just past a long stretch of nothing but maple shadows, the road winds between a farm and the ruins of an old one-room school house. This once was the community of Gormley, and this the Gormley School where my grandmother’s brothers and sisters learned to read and write a century ago. It was a one roomer, wooden, and now was a shell of gray planks and broken window panes. My sister-in-law tramped our way through the tall milkweed and peeked through the windows—a raggedy couch and bed sat pushed against the wall.

‘There was a family living here for a while,’ Uncle Keith explained.

My grandmother’s older brother Dick attended this school until the third grade. Her older sister for only two years. She herself finished the eighth grade—though I’m not sure where.

The Gormley School

I found myself thinking back to the one-room school house in Conag—also in ruins, also the place Delal’s grandparents had learned to read and write, also in the middle of a poor mountainous region in the center of the country where many people had to quit school early because there was work to do (and not enough teachers anyway) then later, being a people of tremendous pride, feeling embarrassed for it, yet having no reason to be embarrassed at all, for through hard work, strong character, and yes, intelligence, they carved for themselves respectable livings that we of the younger generation stand in awe of. These are no superficial comparisons—these kinds of things leave their mark on a family—the way you think and carry yourself in the world--and because of them I think that Delal and I have more in common with each other than we do with many of our own countrymen.

Up past the school we drove, leaping and hopping over boulders in the road until we came to a spring bubbling out of the woods on our left, flowing under the road and into a meadow on our right.

‘This is the spring that fed the Nesbitt farm,’ Uncle Keith explained.

Down in the meadow was the ruins of the Nesbitt Farm, a rickety shed that once served as home to my great grandfather Francis Alfred Nesbitt, his wife, her parents, and their eleven children—one of whom was my grandmother Lela.

Delal got out and hopped over the rocks to get a drink. I followed suit. The water gathered in a shadowed pool lined with fallen sycamore and oak leaves. It tasted of the forest—earth, green, cold. It looked like the pool of Xidirilîyês (Hıdrellez) in Conag where we’d picnicked one afternoon. The pool was also off a dirt road winding away from the village, also pouring from a spring to gather among the rocks, also lucid and lined with leaves. In Conag, the Pool of Xidirilîyês is a holy place for all the surrounding villages, where people come to drink water and pay respects to the spirit of the two saints Xidir and Ilîyês, patrons of those in trouble on land and sea respectively. Xidir was rumored to have drunk from the Water of Life and springs and water seem to hold a special place for the Alevis in Conag—springs, fountains, and rivers are sacred places. This little spring of ours, while no pilgrimage spot, felt sacred to me as it was by this water that my great grandparents and their children survived the wilderness. Uncle Keith seemed to feel at least an echo of this—it was him that took us here, to the middle of the forest, to show us this modest little spring.

The spring flows down into the Middle Fork River. The old Nesbitt homestead of my great grandfather sat on its shores in 1900. This place is remote now—fifteen miles from the nearest town of Buckhannon (itself only a small town of 5700 people) down a back road off a back road.  Back in the beginning of the twentieth century it was a bit livelier—there were communities all along the river built by the railroad for its workers in the coal mines and lumber mills. My mother took us on a tour of the river one day. She pointed out the ruins of all the wooden houses that sat high on the rocks or rotting up among the trees. ‘That was a railroad company house, and that one, too.’
A train of the Moore Keppel Lumber Company--along the Middle Fork. My great grand father worked for them

There are lots of trailers in the woods, cars junked in the yards.

‘The mountain people used to live out here,’ my mother tells the Delal and her sister. ‘We would come out to the camp meetings all piled into the truck and you could just see, lining the hills, these people watching us. They didn’t smile or wave, just stared. You could tell how poor they were from their worn-out clothes. No shoes on the kids. They had the spookiest looks in their faces.’

She had frightened them a bit with tales of mountain people a few days before—families that lived on the remote peaks and almost never came down. She said she had a dentist friend down in the south of the state. Sometimes her friend would hear a knock on the back of the office door and find two kids standing there, unspeaking, without shoes or sometimes without a shirt. She’d tend to them for free, but they’d never speak.

A lot of the tales of the old family feuds—the Hatfields and McCoys that come out of West Virginia have their origin in the clans of the Scotch Irish who settled here. In Dersim, the province that Conag culturally used to belong to, a similar clan system was in place, leading to similar kinds of feuds—whole families holed up in the mountains managing their own affairs independent of the central government.

On our river tour, we pass an enormous white house, all boarded up. Next to it was a little white-washed building.

‘That was my Uncle Elam’s house—my grandmother’s brother,’ my mother explained. ‘And that little building was Uncle Elam’s store. We used to have our camp meetings out on the grass. People would gather here for a few days or so in the summer and have baptisms and preachers would give sermons. I always sat in the back with my girlfriends and spied on the boys. One day we were just a giggling and carrying on and I saw my grandmother way up in the front, suddenly stand and scan the crowd for me. Her eyes locked on me and she motioned with her finger for me to come up front. And there I went, walking all the way down that aisle in front of the preacher, God and everybody.’

‘Or another time I remember me and my cousin Bobbin went out on the river swimming. There was no one around so we figured we’d take off our bathing suits. We were about 11 or 12 at the time. We took them off and lay out on the rock to sun and just as soon as we did, two men came down to water their horses. We jumped up to put our bathing suits on only to see them go floating down the river.’

I’m going to veer into a bit of drier history here—you can skip this paragraph if you wish.  The camp meetings my mother spoke of are a unique feature of Appalachian religion. They used to come when everyone wasn’t busy with farming and focused more on the ‘plain folk’, ecstatic variety of religion—lots of singing, baptizing and evangelizing. The central churches didn’t like it much—because by that time they had established a church hierarchy complete with leaders that conflicted with the individualistic faith of the mountains. And so they sent missionaries (particularly starting in the 1880s with the ‘home missions’) to ‘correct’ the Christianity of this ‘backward’ region. Delal’s region of Bingöl has a similar dynamic going on with Alevism—the Alevis were pretty self-sufficient religious group living in the mountains, and the surrounding Sunni communities saw them (and see them) as deviants from the true Islam.

We pass a ruin of a blue house set up against the hillside. ‘That’s my Aunt Sarai’s I think.’ She pronounces it Say-ree. ‘She was my grandma’s sister. My great grandmother used to stay with her. I remember she would sit out on the porch smoking a pipe and swearing at us all in German.’

Dede’s Dad used to wander through Conag, drinking coffee and wearing American clothes, swearing at kids in another language (English). My grandmother’s grandmother used to smoke pipes and fuss in German.

My mom and her cousins filled a book about our family with stories of their parents—the eleven children who grew up in that shack on that Nesbitt farm by the river. My mother tells this one:

‘Being the meek and mild child that I was, I got blamed for a lot of things for some reason. I would be put on restriction and had to stay in my room, which was on the second floor. I could look out the window and see all the kids playing and having a great old time. One day I decided I would climb out on the roof, climb down the drain pipe and no one would know the difference. Wrong! My mom was coming home from somewhere-I didn’t see her-and saw me coming down the drain pipe. She met me at the bottom with a switch!’

Or this from her cousin Jack about his dad—my grandmother’s older brother, Dick. ‘One day, my dad decided to get another pony and we loaded that pony into a two-door 1934 Ford. Dad turned the back seat up and we three boys got in, the pony sitting in front of us. Mom got in the front seat with the dog ‘Rex’ on the floor. We had about forty miles to drive like that and I remember all the folks in the small towns we passed through just stopping and staring. And whenever we’d hit a stop light, that pony would just raise cane!’

My aunt Joanie writes about my grandmother’s younger sister, ‘She and one of her siblings upset the outhouse once while Uncle Dick was still inside. And once she and her sister Lela (my grandmother) hotwired their dad’s Model T Ford with a fingernail file and took off on a joyride. Her old job used to be to pick the beetles off the beans and the bugs off the potatoes. When her youngest brother Bob was born, they had no money to pay the doctors and so they paid him with a ham.’

These stories of my mom and her cousins remind me of Dede’s stories back in Conag—funny, pastoral, and opening a window to a past that I am always surprised I am so closely connected to—poverty, camp revivals in the woods, German immigrants, coal company towns.

There’s a picture from the days of the camp meetings—an old blurry black and white. My grandmother is a little girl—about 6 years of age. She stands with a group of her siblings and cousins. Behind her is her mother with all her brothers and sisters, and her grandmother with all of hers—about 40 people in all, over a hundred years ago. They all made their lives down here on the river where we were staying. They bathed and swam in the swimming holes where we were bathing and swimming. I sometimes went down at dusk and followed the river to a swimming hole at a point where it forks—there were no houses here, no sign of people at all, just a dense wall of oaks and poplars and ash. The sky would be pink or else already fading into a dark purple-blue, fireflies would have ignited along the shores. I would hear nothing but the flow of water over the rocks, the crickets, the cicadas, and the frogs. It might be 2012 or it might be 1890 when my Great Great Uncle Elam swam here with his brothers or friends or father.

This blood continuity, this connection with the land is another thing that we have in common. Delal and Conag, me and here.

And like in Conag, in West Virginia the family protects. One night, as we drove back to the camp Delal asked me if we had enough gas. I looked down at the needle—an eighth of a tank. ‘Sure,’ I said. When we pulled into the drive the needle dropped and the empty light flipped out.


We were fifteen miles from town.  From any town or major highway. Figuring I should take care of this now (we had a long day trip the next day) I called my Aunt Bobbin, owner of the camp, and asked her where the nearest gas station would be. ‘We’re a little close to empty and close is best.’ And then I took off, with my mother driving behind me just in case. Of course, the needle went back up to an eighth of a tank as soon as we started and I was fine.  When I got back to the camp, my sister told me I needed to call my Uncle Butch and Keith right away.


‘Well Aunt Bobbin told Keith and he told Butch, I guess, and now they’ve filled a gas can and are going to come looking for you!’

I laughed. You always feel taken care of out here—for a kid who grew up with an absent father, it’s a tremendous feeling. This kind of thing and others is what made my wife tell me that West Virginia was the only place in all our travels that didn’t feel foreign, that felt like home.

I think on what Roy said to me on his Dad’s front porch.  Why do I travel? Why have I always been drawn to foreign places? That feeling of discovery? Of roaming new worlds? I remember last year when I first stepped into Delal’s village. Everything was so different, so rich in a history that I’d only come across in storybooks. There was a culture so colorful and strong.  Sometimes I lose track of the same thing back home, or maybe looking for it here in Turkey makes me see it more clearly when I came back home.

There’s a picture of my mother and all her cousins, standing at the camp along the Middle Fork River for an impromptu barbecue-slash-reunion. These are the children of the eleven kids who grew up along this same river—all of them long lost to old age and disease and death. There’s something special about this group of people. When they are gone, a precious thing will have passed out of this world. I have a picture of their parents, too.  Eleven children born to a poor farmer in the backwoods of a backwoods state. How they grew up, how they took care of each other, how they were intricately wound into each other’s lives bespeaks a culture that will be lost and is almost as foreign to me as Delal’s own.
The Nesbitt Children around 1918--my grandmother is Lela
The children of those 1918 kids in 2012

Their children and grand children and great grandchildren (and one great great on the way)