Turks Walking #2


Turkler geliyor ve Turkler gidiyor… Benim Türkler Yürüyor dizinin ilki!

Episode #2 of my latest artwork, a video project called TURKS WALKING, is up! 36 seconds. The woman with the headscarf is in a hurry, and the man in white turns.

Turks Walking #1


Turkler geliyor ve Turkler gidiyor… Benim Türkler Yürüyor dizinin ilki!

Today I’m delighted to announce the release of the first installment of my latest artwork, a video project called TURKS WALKING. All episodes will range from 30 to 60 seconds in length. Enjoy!



The elections are coming in two months. The leftists include two Jews whose-families converted to Islam in the 1920’s, Al Gore types, western-oriented and American-bred. They’ve split off from Prime Minister Ecevit, and then from each other, and there are now something like 27 secular parties (at last count) who will all be running against pretty much one religious party. I’ve seen this movie before. I can see why people would vote for the religious party – the secular politicians are factionalized, corrupt, and anti-charismatic; the general economic condition sucks; and the European Union wants nothing to do with Turkey. Elif and Dilek are optimistic. I think it’s not unlikely that the religious party will win again with 25% of the vote, just like in 1995, and that we may some day have to add another chapter to our movie.



A cropped image of Foreign Minister Abdullah G...
Image via Wikipedia

On the way out of the country yesterday, at Ataturk International Airport, Elif voted in the elections by absentee ballot. She was one of the first in the country to vote, and as she put her ballot in the box, she was interviewed. They asked her who she voted for, and she answered, “Look at what I’m wearing, my physical appearance.” Dilek tells us that the interview made the TV news last night.


Postscript (from Wikipedia):

On November 18, 2002, Abdullah Gül, from the AKP (the IslamicJustice and Development Party“) was elected prime minister and formed “a government which was to serve as a transitional government. The goal was to make a constitutional amendment, in order to permit Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the chairman of the AKP to become prime minister (as Erdo?an could not be elected to parliament because of his punishment), thanks to a by-election round in the south-eastern Anatolian province of Siirt. On March 14, 2003, Erdo?an took over the post of prime minister from Abdullah Gül and appointed him as his deputy prime minister and foreign minister.”

Yom Kippur in Istanbul

neve shalom synagogue istanbul
Image via Wikipedia

Last night, we went to temple Neve Shalom on the European side of Istanbul so our Israeli friends could check out the Yom Kippur evening services. As much as I hate being among a group of people who believe in the absurd, it’s a historic and hidden building, Istanbul’s oldest and supposedly nicest synagogue. We get there, and the whole street was lined with nightclub-bouncers, burly young men, some with their heads shaven, obviously spent time at the gym, well-dressed with earpieces connected to walkie talkies, and Jewish! I didn’t know they came in that size.

We’re all dressed up, we get out of the cab, walk up to the metal detector, show our American and Israeli passports, and one of the guards, not liking the name “Elif” on my wife’s passport, looks at her and grills her on Yom Kippur. She says she’s married with an American Jew and points to me.

He gives us a Sophie’s Choice: I can go in, with the Israelis, but Elif has to wait outside. And, by the way, she shouldn’t stand by the front doors but down the street, and the rest of us have to stay inside for over an hour until services end.

We’re incensed; the Israelis complain mightily; the nightclub bouncer says (while waving a few shlomos to go inside) we were bombed once 20 years ago; and the Israelis say, so what, our temple in Israel gets bombed every month or two. I think of some line my dad once told me about a Jew being welcome in a temple anywhere in the world, and I remember it again a couple hours later at the Tapas bar down the street, as we happily play backgammon and toast Dionysus over pitchers of homemade sangria.


Postscript (from Wikipedia):

On November 15, 2003, two truck bombs slammed into the Beth Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey and exploded. The explosions devastated the synagogues and killed twenty seven people, most of them Turkish Muslims, and injured more than 300 others. The two suicide bombers also died. A Turkish militant group (IBDA-C) claimed responsibility for the blasts, but Turkish Government Officials dismissed the validity of this claim by pointing out that the minor group did not have enough resources to carry out such an intricately planned and expensive attack

Fighting at the Sultan’s grave

Elif met me one day near Mesut’s bread factory in Fatih, and we went to the Sultan’s grave at the Suleymanie Mosquegot, where we got into a lovely fight with the ticket-taker. He told her to wear head-covering, which not only against the law for the municipality to demand (ominously, the heads of the government Islamic tourist center, and even the ticket-takers on Istanbul’s boats and buses, are looking more and more religious in appearance), but it’s actually contrary to Islam: you’re not supposed to pray over a person’s grave.

On our way out, he nagged us repeatedly to make a donation, to which Elif said, “Just do your job and sit in your chair; there’s already a ‘donations please’ sign.” He made the grave mistake of talking back to her; Elif asked him, “Did you say something?” (That’s Elif’s pet “Are you talking to me?” expression.) He told Elif to “calm down, sister”; she said she wasn’t his sister and that she had every right as a Turkish citizen to be there as she pleased; and he came outside his booth and said a phrase he immediately regretted: “You’re just saying that because you’re in charge of the country now…”, implying, “You just wait till we religious people take over in a couple of months.” A nice crowd of Turkish women not only in headscarves, but in burkas, had gathered to see him visibly shake when Elif demanded his name for making that comment. He refused to give it, so I got in his face and made him. It was really great in nice, safe, broad daylight to back up Elif and watch him quiver with fear, with him thinking we were important and wishing he could eat his words. It’s even better that Elif’s mother will call the municipality today and give his name. Most likely, it won’t help a damn, but as I told Elif, men here have to do military service, so this is your duty for your country.

More Turkish extremists are being arrested in Germany every day, which is where they’re fleeing from the Turkish government in order to plot the revolution. One couple was arrested simply for trying to name their kid “Osama bin Laden.” Another was arrested for plotting to blow up US stuff there. We stopped by the American Consulate, and they’ve instituted a phone chain warden system. “If you are registered at the Consulate you become part of our emergency notification system, called the ‘warden system.’ In the event of a natural disaster or other emergency affecting American citizens, the Consulate will phone a number of volunteer ‘wardens’ who are American citizens resident in Istanbul. They will in turn call 20-25 other Americans residing in their area to pass along information from the Consulate. If you are interested in volunteering to serve as a warden, please call the Consulate’s American citizens services unit.” I was born in Los Angeles and live in Istanbul, so natural disasters are a way of life. It’s the threat of “other emergency affecting American citizens” that begins to worry me, which is the whole point.

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Six months with the Istanbul Opera


The Turkish Opera had its auditions on the 11th for new people to become a sozmesleli, or independent contractor. You toil away for the opera at low pay for a few years doing that, waiting for an opening as a lead singer, or cadreau – at which point, you’re on the gravy train, salaried, tenured, with bennies, set for life. Lately, though, because of the influx of new students from the schools and the economic crisis, there’s a bottleneck of sozmesleliler, with no new cadreau openings. They just have to wait for a lead singer to retire or die, at which point, the sozmesleliler enter a competition for that new cadreau opening.

Elif auditioned for sozmesleli, and it turned out that the real purpose of the audition was actually to fire people rather than to hire new people; they made many sozmesleliler re-audition. They asked Elif to sing the bitchy Pamina aria, and then Mimi (instead of Micaela), which meant she had to sing long slow lyrical lines that need lots of breath, when she could barely speak – because she was so spent staying up with me during my recovery from my tonsillectomy. And still, with all of that, she made it in, number one on the list. We talked with the director, Mesut, and they put her down for lead roles as a lyric soprano, no coloratura anymore, thank goodness, go to the head of the class. But when it will all start is anyone’s guess; this season ends in May, so we’re figuring next season.

Elif immediately went down to the famous opera cafeteria, where the singers hang out and drink tea all day, to shmooze and rekindle her old ties with singers from like almost a decade ago. The prodigal daughter returns. To celebrate, we went to Changa, a New York-type bar owned by a famous chef whose name I forget. We had some nouveau trans-continental cuisine (eggplants with a sauce that was a combination of miso and tahini – yum!) and two drinks: mine was called an Asian Fusion (which included vodka and cucumber and ginger and some other stuff) and Elif’s was something of a pomegranate vodka snow-cone – it had all the sweetness, tartness, and bitterness of eating a pomegranate.



One of the top people at the opera has taken Elif on as a vocal coach for free, so certain she is of her stardom. Mesut, the opera director who loves Elif, is under the cloud of a scandal for fondling his students, and there is talk that he may be on his way out. Although he’d promised Elif the role of Musetta in La Boheme, it ended up going to one of the cadreaus. Mesut, who likes to please everyone, swears that he’ll violate the pecking order and give Elif the lead (the only) role in Menotti’s “The Telephone” (a 1-hour modern opera where the audience gets to hear Elif’s side of a telephone conversation).

Despite the crunch in funds, there’s a drive to open new opera companies in remote outposts. Elif is told that her biggest hope by far to become a cadreau in the near future is to sing in Samsun for a couple of years, and she’ll get fast-tracked so that by, say, 2004 or 2005 she’ll be tenured. Elif is not going to go to Samsun or any other Turkish city; her plan is to stay in Istanbul and get onstage here in whatever roles she can, and then, when a cadreau opens up here, audition for it.



Elif got a huge writeup in the large Turkish newspaper Radikal, a delightful piece about her singing career, her CD, and our film COUP. The article had the unexpected result of getting her strongly reprimanded by the opera company. Combining the best of Ottoman and Soviet organizational thinking, the opera heads told her that it was wrong for an individual player to grant an interview to the press, because opera is a team effort. Although they talk about Elif internally with such terms as “the future of the Turkish opera” &c., they don’t want to read about her in the papers – after all, people don’t go to see Placido Domingo, they go to see Tchaikovsky. Their biggest problem with the article, though, was Elif’s comment: “People unfamiliar with opera shouldn’t be scared of it. It’s not all big people screaming poetry for five hours – the melodies were once pop songs of their eras, and the librettos are often as light and silly as a soap opera or romance novel.” They informed her in no uncertain terms that opera is a serious, serious art, and people are all working very hard (and getting government salaries) to work on its serious, serious production. (I guess F.T. Marinetti wasn’t able to save art from the Solemn, the Sacred, and the Serious after all.) Elif came home irate, mostly at herself for swallowing her tongue for the first time I can think of.

Each time she goes for lessons with her free and enthusiastic vocal coach, she has to stop by the cafeteria to shmooze, and it’s really getting her down. She says that the singers are morally low and spend all their time gossiping, bad-mouthing, and philosophizing on the Ottoman intricacies of working your way up the opera hierarchy. One of the opera directors came into one of her vocal sessions and then gossiped about her to another student.

The good news is that she is down on the board to be a lead in next season’s Mozart aria festival, “Do You Like Mozart?” The bad news is that we saw one of the productions of that this year, filled with sozmesleliler, as it gave the company an opportunity to give its people stage time, and it was so bad that we thought it should be named “Did You Like Mozart?” Nothing’s posted on the board about them even mounting “The Telephone,” let alone with Elif starring in it.



The scandal over them having granted a sozmesleli to a Minister’s mistress has gotten out of control, so all current opera members, including Elif, have to reaudition. Elif is disgusted by the whole situation and says she has no intention of doing so. I know Elif, and when a situation doesn’t feel right for her, she’s completely done, and nothing will change her mind. Her vocal coach will be heartbroken, but I suppose we’re heading back to the U.S. soon.

We’d done a series of concerts, I’d written a screenplay and a stage play, Elif got into the Turkish opera, I taught English, and we were down our cat. Elif thinks it’s time to leave. She’s had it with the Turkish opera and will not reaudition for sozmesleli just because the opera admitted a Minister’s mistress. She says that she achieved her goal of getting into the opera, and that she only wanted a career here if she could get leading roles immediately and become a cadreau next year at the latest. I asked her about taking them up on their offer to fast-track her if she went to Samsun, but she says that she can’t spend a part of her life in such a place if she’s not doing a great public service like being a doctor. She’s also concerned that I’m finishing up a lot of my writing here and now need a real community to work in as an artist, and I’m barely able to do that in Istanbul, let alone in a small industrial city on the Black Sea coast. She says it would be fun to live in New York and make more recordings and do avant concerts. She seems at peace with this, as if getting into the opera again has cleared up a lot of “what-if” questions in her mind, ever since she divorced Mehmet in 1993 and came to America and met me.

I’m not thrilled to be going back to New York. I think that NYC works a little too well; that it constantly reminds one of opportunity and sunk cost (rent); that its finger points at your indolence and others for comparison; that it’s difficult to have or hear of or express a meaningful political opinion there; that living there will force me into its mechanized systems of transaction and utterly predictable rhythms of transportation and movement; that I’ll be captive audience to the John Cage symphony of car alarms, at which I am trained to understand that they in fact signify nothing other than the start of a time block which will hopefully pass. I love the chaos and wonder of Istanbul, the city that prays to the twin goddesses of atrophy and Brownian motion. I love being in an Islamic country whose national celebrities are transvestites, even Tansu Ciller.

But it’s settled, and I know better than to try to change Elif’s mind once I’ve seen that itch in her. It will be fun to take classes with David Rosenthal, to hook up more often with my friends and family, to think about my future in grad school for philosophy, or not, to make some strange short films about consciousness, and perhaps to mount a nifty new play I wrote based on Dennett’s Multiple Drafts Model.

Puking in Diyarbakir and Nemrut Dag

Statues of gods and the pyramid-like tomb-sanc...
Image via Wikipedia

Now it was time to head north to Diyarbakir. I was pissed at Isik for having sung Mardin folksongs the whole time we were around the region; now as we were approaching the oil wells of Batman, it was payback time: over and over: “Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo BAT-MAN!” After the merriment passed, as Kadri was trying to see if the car would fly us to Diyarbakir at warp speed before PKK time travelers could arrive to catch us, I started to feel not well at all. They passed me a bag, and I breathed in and out of it, in and out, and when we arrived at the hotel in Diyarbakir, I staggered through their lobby, found their toilet, squatted (even the lobby had a Turkish toilet) and probably flooded Hasankeyf all by myself. I was unable to puke, unable to walk, and they drove me to the hospital, where I tried to get into the elevator but could not, found the toilet in their lobby, squatted, and left the rest of my insides there for good measure. I had sweat through my shirt in the process, removed it, and made my way upstairs, under Kadri and Elif’s arms, and the doctor told me I had tyfo, which is not typhus or typhoid but something else, something I didn’t understand, but I knew exactly what it was, knew that he was wrong, and I got a cup and gave another stool sample, a porn star in my ability to deliver the goods on demand. The aide came in, gave me a knowing wink, and announced that my old friends E. Hystolitica had again found a happy home in my intestines. They put me on serum and some anti-nausea drug, and the serum was too strong, or started to panic, but in any case, under the drip, I started to freak out after awhile. I got hyper and started yelling and banging my head like at a heavy metal concert, and Elif convinced the doctor to add some downers to the drip, which he was at first loathe to do but indeed did, and I felt mighty fine after that.

I laid back with the drip in my arm and heard a nice new aide, fourth day on the job, tell Elif that even though I’m an American (I think screaming in English was the giveaway), “we don’t like Americans,” and Elif tried to be civil, saying that a government’s actions don’t always reflect its citizens, and its citizens don’t really know or need to know or give a fig that Apache Longbows are stopping people like him from seceding from a country six thousand miles away, especially when there’s Reality Television on, but when he extended it to saying it was all the Jews’ fault, Elif gave up. Kadri was able to yell at the guy when paying, as the guy tried to get the full price of $16 rather than the discount of $12 from us, and Kadri made a big shame on him for trying to charge us more than promised, etc., but we were not liking Diyarbakir one bit.

The hotel was dirty, the hotel was gross, but the hotel was home, and when they left it to walk around Diyarbakir the next morning, I was not about to join them; my usual phobia of missing out on anything was nowhere to be seen, there was only my pillow. They came back an hour later, angry and wanting to bust town: unlike Urfa, although they all talked in Arabic and Kurdish on the streets, no Turkish, everyone gave them filthy looks and told Elif she’d burn in hell if she’d go into the mosque dressed like that, and she wasn’t at all provocatively dressed. So they saw some buildings from the outside, packed me in the car, and headed toward Nemrut Dag.

We drove the better part of an hour way up the 2 km summit; the whole road was cobblestoned. On the way, we were stopped by a gendarme: can you please bring up these food supplies to my men at the top? Sure… but can Brian use your bathroom? And in a violation of every policy, I got to see the inside of a gendarme station, which was very unspectacular, but their (Turkish squat) toilet was (before I used it) very, very clean.

When we reached the top, there was a storm and it was like 40 degrees Fahrenheit, drizzling, and there was no way I was going to leave the car. They hiked up while I slept in the passengers seat. We got a hotel nearby.

The next morning, they took me back, it was much warmer, and I was able to hike up with them. Nemrut Dag is a silly but terribly wonderful site, with lots of massive stone heads adorning the temple and tomb of the great king Antiochus. Antiochus I ruled from 64-38BC and the son of Mithridates (whom Mozart did an opera on); he founded the Commagene kingdom, and it was some rinky-dink empire, covering from Adiyaman all the way to Gaziantep. His main accomplishment was to hold off the Romans from the territory for awhile. At some point, he decided he was a god, claiming descent from Darius the Great of Persia and Alexander the Great, but when he sided with the Parthians against Rome and was deposed, and the Romans took the territory, end of the great Commagene kingdom and end of story – but he left behind a massive funerary ode to himself. After hiking up, we came to the eastern temple with 6 decapitated seated statues and heads all over the place; we then walked around to the west and there’s more of the same, plus lots of reliefs; a lion has an astrological chart on it signifying something. When you look at them left to right, Elif pointed out the Lion, Eagle, Antiochus, Commagene (female), Zeus (authoritarian and bearded), Apollo, Heracles (bearded like Zeus but a bit younger), another Eagle, and another Lion; but our guidebook says it’s Apollo, Fortuna, Zeus, Antiochus, and Hercules. Me? I trust Elif.

Threatened Hasankeyf

Photographs from Hasankeyf, Batman, Turkey
Image via Wikipedia

All these stories and Kadri suddenly opened up in the car about his family history: Armenian; his grandfather died at 42, Musur, went from Caucus to Iraq, moved to Kiziltepe where one uncle stayed and another liked to whore. We pushed east, through Siverek, and I loathed it. It looked like it was bombed, and it probably was, for Turkey had razed 3400 villages and towns during their civil war against the PKK, and everyone looked Arabic, but not a friendly Arabic, but positively glowering walking down the street. And then I remembered, hey, this is the place Mehmet warned about, with the nasty-as-dogs trigger-happy members of the Bucuk Clan!

Getting later…we pushed east to Midyat, a double city, the first one new and of course horrifying. We’re all getting slightly nervous about time; we want to see Hasankeyf and the sun’s starting to go down, and you do not want to drive anywhere in this area at night. The war’s pretty much over, the gendarmes stopping us every 20km (three years ago it was every 6km) say it’s fine ,they’re not kidnapping civilians anymore, but they just killed some soldiers and police last week, and we should really get moving. I tell the others it’s a double city, that a few km down there’s a second old one that’s supposed to have lovely streets and Syrian churches, but they all want to triage it out, and it’s so ugly in the first city they don’t believe there is a second city. Luckily, the second one was past it on the road to Hasankeyf, and the prettiest church was right there on the road. We got out to see the Suryani Kilisesi, and inside there’s a class of children in a small side room talking in Aramaic. A guy named Ayhan comes out and shows us around. I ask him if the class is on the up-and-up, and he says it’s yasak dil ve din – forbidden (illegal) tongue and religion – but I gather that since they’re no big separatist threat, the government lets it all happen. The story is very sad: there was a 2000-year history of Christianity in Midyat, but it’s now down to about 300 people, since the PKK ’s been extorting money from the merchants and the Islamic extremists have been making death threats and the economy’s gone to hell. He showed us the class, the beautiful church, the folkloric paintings, and the hundreds-of-years-old bible.

Kadri’s gunning the SUV like a bat out of hell for Hasankeyf, which is on the Tigris river. I point out, often, that every cop has said there’s scant terrorist threat to our lives, but it seems that if he doesn’t calm down, we’re going to fly off the cliff. Kadri of course looks calm, his blood cold, his face expressionless, but his foot remains leaden. He slows down and asks me to get out and take a picture of the Hasankeyf sign for him. I grumble that it’s a stupid picture, what else in the world looks like this, but I comply – at which point a gendarme steps out of nowhere and informs me that I’ve just taken picture of a military training site and it was forbidden. My heart’s in my mouth for a minute as I don’t want to give up my almost-completed roll of film… but then he looks me over, smiles, and says, well, don’t do it again, and waves us on.

We get to the site and the whole thing look like an ant or mole complex. Caves everywhere, another Cappadocia, lining what was once the silk road. We climbed around and up the stone pathway uphill to the 12th-century palace of the Artukid (Turcoman) kings; looked down the sheer cliff face, saw the four pillars of an old Artukid bridge across the gorge, and saw the 15th-century Zeyn El-Abdin Turbesi, a cylindrical dome tomb with turquoise tiles and red brick. Inside the latter somebody had had an izgara picnic party, and there was bits of vegetables left over. Lots of children wanted to be our guides, and Kadri announced that if they went away, he would offer anyone 250,000 TL (15 cents) for any piece of blue mosaic they found on the ground, which he immediately regretted, as not only did everyone come up with goods, but they started throwing rocks at the building to get more for us, and we did not want to take any home at all of course, he just said it because he thought it was an impossible task to keep them busy. He paid off a couple and begged them not to ever throw rocks at the building. Not like it matters anyway. The whole site – the complete stunning town, the entire gorge, every ruin, one of the most unique, precious places I’ve ever been – is scheduled in two years to be completely flooded, under water, as Cabriel would say, kaput, as Turkey enlarges its Ilisu dam to develop the southeast region’s agriculture and economy and stop its cause for separatist strife. As we left, as the sun was setting, a filthy boy of about 6, earnestly tugged my arm: “Which team?” I looked at the colors of his shirt and answered correctly “Galatasaray,” at which point he danced and hoo-hooed to all of his friends.

Syrian monks at the Saffron monastery

Ancient Syrian Orthodox Church, 569. Photograp...
Image via Wikipedia

I was getting to see all the places I wanted and they pretty much let me decide, and I kept saying, east. We drove to Mardin, a city of 60,000 settled at the top part of a hill with a great view of the Syrian plain. It ’s always been very politicized, with lots of riots, separatist movements, Islamic fundamentalism, etc., but things have “died down” (thanks, Sikorsky!). The new part of town is very ugly (the usual: nouveau concrete), but the old city had lovely Arab-style houses.

From Mardin we went 6km southeast to Deyr-Az-Zaferan (Deyrulzafran), the “Saffron Monastery,” named after the color of its rock. It was founded 493AD and was the Vatican of the Syrian Orthodox church from 1160 through the 1920’s, when it relocated to Damascus. Now only two monks remain, and they run a school for about 25 orphans. An orphan boy finally let us inside after making us wait about a half hour. Inside they had an underground vault, used as a temple by sun worshippers four thousand years ago. We saw chapel, whose services are in Aramaic. A bearded monk named Cabriel took an immediate liking to Elif and I and followed us around. He was maybe 40 years old and had a naughty gleam in his eye that winked at you as if he knew everything about you and was about to tell you a joke making fun of every other visitor in the complex. Which he proceeded to do. He spoke very fast Turkish, Elif translated, and he corrected Elif’s English as if Elif were taking minutes for the Congressional Record. He explained the wooden doors from David:24. He made an example out of a poor guy from Diyarbakir who asked if “Catholoc” was the same thing as Orthodox – first, he corrected it to “Catholic,” winking at me. The guy then asked if Syrian was Arabic, which was a big mistake. Cebrail the monk answered, “It’s a race, just like you’re not really a full Turk, it’s obvious you’re a mix.” This is the wrong thing to say to a Turk, and the guy turned red and answered, “In Diyarbakir, if we have 10 wives, we intermarry to keep pure.” Cebrail immediately retorted: “So you’re up to 10 wives now? It used to be 4…”

The guy was hopping mad, and Cebrail was thrilled. I thought it extremely wrong policy to publicly make fun of an eastern Islamic moderate enough to come to a monastery and curious enough to ask questions, but I wasn’t about to lecture Cebrail about this, and he wasn’t about to listen anyway, because the Diyarbakir man was from Diyarbakir, and his wife had a headscarf, and he was dirt. Eylul asked Cebrail, were there once mosaics on the walls? Cebrail answered, they’re now kaput. I said, it’s amazing that after Islam and after Napoleons and after the ravages of history that any interior decorations survive anywhere, and he answered, in his ratatat accented Turkish which Elif had to translate, “Back in those days, you and Elif couldn’t have gotten together, but now, if you two can get together, anything’s possible,” winking at me and letting me on that he knew the whole time I was a Yid. We parted, drank some water with the orphan boys from their well, and left. We were surprised to see him emerge from the door and we posed with him for pictures, and he stood in his black robe under the shade of the doorway arch, looking proud as a monk. Then he turned to me and said, for the first time in English, “Good luck, Brian!”

The Kurdish lord of Viransehir

I had big plans for the next day, we’d see monasteries and border towns and Hasankeyf and it would all be just so, but Turkey always seems to get in the way of your plans. Kadri knew an guy in Viransehir, a high-school buddy he hadn’t seen in 41 years, who had become a lord. By lord I mean Lord, an aga, owner of the whole damn town. Sure Ataturk abolished the feudal system like 80 years ago, but the Kurdish lords mostly went into exile, returned, and still rule their serfs although over smaller lands. If you’re an aga, you own the people; they work your land and get to keep 30%; they want to get married, they’ve got to ask your permission. And we were going to meet one. Sounded fine with me. Screw the monasteries.

We go to a drugstore to inquire about him and find out that he’s dead. Kadri looks deflated. “Man, I’ve got a 38-year-old wife, but my peers are dropping dead all around me…” then somebody else informs him that it’s only the dude’s brother who’s dead, but the guy is very much alive. People scurry about trying to hunt the guy down. I walk into the street and it’s another Hollywood movie set. Look one direction, surreptitiously point my camera at a covered woman with a tattooed face, snap; look one way, point the camera at some guys jocularly fighting in the streets, snap…then the lithium battery dies completely, kaput. Where am I going to get a battery? Elif and I walk down the street to the dusty town’s one camera store; there’s no lithium batteries within miles save the used one in the owner’s camera, which he removes and insists we take free of charge, and I mean insists. I love the Turks. Back on the streets, snap, snap, we decide to buy him some chocolate, we give it to him, go back to the drugstore, turns out the lord is in Mersin at his other digs, but his son-in-law Mehmet shows up, maybe my age.

His son-in-law insists, and I mean insists, that we go to his land and eat lunch. Kadri, almost the best negotiator I’ve ever seen, says no, but the son-in-law says, do you want everyone to think I’m some kind of a gypsy, of course I have to give you lunch, it’s already 10AM, we’re going to the village now, it’s a fait accompli, and he gets into Kadri’s SUV, done deal. We take him to the village his father-in-law owns. The village is a small dusty town off the road called Baskoy (“Head village”) Kadri’s friend owns its 600 residents. We climb the stairs of its only grand house and sit on the roof balcony. There are holes in the walls, which Elif tells me are gunholes to shoot from. We are served tea by Mehmet’s helper. Warplanes are flying overhead, headed east to the Iraqi border. There are cotton plants everywhere.

This is what he tells us: They are in the Mili Clan, which has 20,000 members. He married well: his father’s prominent in the clan, but Kadri’s friend is really big and rich. Mili is a good clan, not like the goddamned Bucak clan in Siverek, who are a bunch of filthy dogs, ordering random killings to terrorize everyone around. Viransehir is a good place to be if you’re in the Mili clan. The town’s name means “smashed town,” and it has 107,000 people. Many of the people around are poor because of the blood feuds, but not them. Take his uncle, for example: he borrowed $200,000, still can’t pay it back, but who’s going to demand he do so – he’s too powerful. See those people in the tents over there? They’re gypsies, and we let them stay free on our land. They don’t harm anyone. (I can see the Motel 6 ads: GYPSIES STAY FREE.) As for the serfs, he likes the Kurds (of course, as he is one) but hates the Arabs, who are just plain lazy. Of course, he couldn’t care less about the Iraqi Kurds, but the ones here are our people. His wife’s name is Rosa, which means “Freedom came.” His baby’s name is Berfin, which is Kurdish for “flower.” It’s illegal to give your child Kurdish names, but let the government sue. Right now he’s suing the government for their land back from 80 years ago. The government offered them 35 villages near Syria, but screw that: they want land, land, oil-rich land. He’s a member of HADEP, the Kurdish political wing. He quoted Carl Jung to illustrate a point whose real point was him using Carl Jung to illustrate it. He showed us his Antep Pistachio trees, each of which give 200 kilograms of nuts per year. He showed us a well that cost $25,000 to open, and we drank water from a pipe going 250 meters down into the earth. He was amazed at me as I drank, that I was drinking the water and could stand the heat: you’re a Turk now!

He called his friends in town and we settled on them feeding us lunch there, a quick lunch, which of course turned out to be all kinds of kebab. One of his friends took a particular interest in me, considering me an Israeli expatriate who lives in America, just as he considers himself a Kurdish expatriate living in Turkey. He kept asking me what was up there, as if I’d know. He told me about the tifo diseases they have there and asked what the biggest disease they had in Israel. I answered, “Religious extremism,” which got a big laugh; “Ariel Sharon” would have been funnier but I didn’t want to get into any big discussions. We talked about marriage dowries; the dowry for an ugly girl is 1 billion TL ($600) but a pretty one can bring 5 billion lira ($3,000). He asked me how to play the game Bantumi on his Nokia cell phone. We asked how the roads were at night, with the PKK and all, and Mehmet said, the Kurds aren’t dangerous, it’s the government…did you know that they didn’t let us wear headscarves and they beat us when we were children?