On a recent trip to Urfa, Antep, and Hatay—Delal and I ran into a lot of tesadüf. The word means both coincidence and chance, and I think best translates in the sense I mean it as ‘serendipity.’ For we just kind of wandered into a lot of unexpected things on our trip that proved more magical than anything we planned. I thought I would take a break from the political stuff we are going through and from these final translations of Hrant to write about some of these—which are related in a loose way anyway.
|Birecik--near the border with Syria|
|The Poppies in Birecik|
Serendipity 1—The Doves of Birecik (Kurdish—Bêrecûg)
Birecik--all the cascading histories of the Southeast. The ancient city of Birtha to the kingdom of Commagene. The ancient city of Alexander the Great’s successor, Seleucus. The Crusader city of Bile. The sight of another dam. The place where the Armenians one New Year’s morning in 1896 were bound and thrown in the Euphrates, where Turkish police gave toys and food to Kurdish school kids to prevent them from joining celebrations of Öcalan’s birthday in 2007, where Emperor Julian rested his army on his conquest of Mesopotamia in 360, where in 2012 a boy walking with his mom picked a handful of daisies for two pony-tailed girls walking bouncing ahead of him, where motorcycles honked hysterically at each other in a traffic jam, where an old man got stuck in the middle of the road when his engine gave out, where families barbecued on the river banks, where we climbed a hill into town to pass the time till our minibus returned to Antep. A we-might-as-well-explore-the-fortress jaunt into town.
Past the mosque and turn right, the man at the river told us, through the courtyard of someone’s house (some children are playing with a plastic bucket and shovel—one asks ‘are you climbing up to the fortress?) and then up a trail that winds through the weeds that sprout from the old citadel’s walls.
The citadel ruins stand atop a steep outcrop of cliff that looks like a whale head breaching over the town in a lunge toward the river. The Citadel is over two thousand years old—built by Romans or Greeks and refurbished by Arabs in Aleppo. To the North are the Black Mountains—the Karadağ—of Anatolia, to the South, the great plain of Mesopotamia, an unending empty landscape peppered with Kurdish villages and olive trees and pistachio trees. Red earth. This has always been the transition point from one land to the next.
We slip and slide on the sandy limestone trails. Not much of the citadel is left—half archways, buried windows, arrow slits. There are couples hidden behind rubble—purple and yellow flowers fill the old walls. A plant grows wild here, ‘Yemlik!’ Delal declares. We sit down, pluck and munch the leaves—they taste like a sharp arugula. The Euphrates is before us, molten silver in the afternoon sun that slowly descends over the bridge.
|The view downriver|
|The view upriver|
We tramp the old towers and rooms, up one stone stairway and slipping down the next, and then start across the eastern wall that overlooks the town—a dense clutch of sand colored houses and mosques and a hamam.
Doves fly in circles over the buildings.
Four or five flocks turn in the sky, round, round, round, tornadoes of black and brown wings. The biggest flock circles just in front of us, over a slightly crooked building that juts up out of all the rest. A boy stands on a roof with a fishnet at the end of a long pole and he’s stirring the air like the sky is an upside down cauldron of blue, stirring to the same rhythm as the doves, whistling as he goes, these high bouncy chirps that accompany the rapid patter of the wings.
‘What’s he doing?’ I ask aloud.
‘He’s trying to catch them, I think,’ Delal says.
‘All those birds in that one net?’
There must be over thirty of them—some brown, some grey, some white.
For a long while the doves ignore the boy, coy (but you know they know he’s there, it’s something you can just feel in the air, an electric charge jumping between them) and then the flock changes shape, flattens, from a funnel to a spinning wheel which dips slight to the left of the building, just below the roofline. The right side of the wheel remains up high above the boy’s net. Round and round and round, and finally the boy lowers the net and leans back against the wall, casting up those chirpy whistles every once in a while. Bubbly. The wheel of birds dips lower and lower, but only on the left—now that the boy is no longer after them, they want to be closer to him, but they’re still playing hard to get. In a surge the wheel whirls up as high as it was at the start, and then even higher. They seem on the verge of escape.
The sky has turned a deep primary blue—the light coiling and deepening before it deserts us completely with the plunge of the sun into the snaking Euphrates behind us. A breeze, the grass trembles.
‘Let’s go,’ Delal says and starts to descend the walls, but there is a sudden change in the air and I see one of the birds dart out of the wheel and lower itself onto the ledge next to the boy.
‘Something’s happening!’ I say and as we leap up the rocks to the very edge of the fortress walls, all the birds dive and flutter down in a blur, a whoosh—some coming to rest on the boys shoulder, some on the ledge to either side of him, next to the first, and some on the satellite dish in front of him, and there’s something about this that takes both our breaths away—the sky is purpling now, red in the west, and we both look at each other and laugh—what is it? What is it?—There are other flocks descending now—one to the far right of us, one down and below to the left—one man is swinging a T-shirt in the sky, another is just whistling and each time the birds form that same wheel of wings.
What is it? Why can’t we stop smiling? Is it the mythological freedom and adrenaline rush of bird flight, something wild and ancient choosing to tear itself out of the sky and rest here, for the night, a quiver of movement, of soon to fly, uneasily contained in those dovecotes, not because they’re really caged or trapped, but because they choose to be with these people whistling up for them to come down. It’s Pentecost, a glimpse behind the door, a light cast down through the clouds to settle on our shoulders and purr and rest for a night, uneasy and asleep and wild and stirring above our heads.
|The last flock of doves we saw|
PS: The keeping of doves is thousands of years old and is still a huge tradition in the Middle East and especially Southeastern Turkey (Urfa is one of the centers and we ran into restaurant owners in Urfa who had the most exotic looking doves--tea-brown birds with feathery feet that looked like mops. 'We all keep them!' one waiter told us.)