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.
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.
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!”
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?
The next morning we saw Urfa, and it was like having left the country – very middle-east; little Turkish spoken; Kurdish and Arabic; covered women; men wearing baggy pan
ts. First impression is how beautiful it all is. There’s a wonderful section of narrow streets with medieval houses with lattice-windowed overhangs; over the doors were pictures signifying which houses had members who went on Hajj (to Mecca). But the surprise was how welcoming the place was, rare for such a religious area. An elementary school principal spotted us on the street and insisted we come in and drink smuggled Syrian tea with him. When we finally escaped from his school, we went to Abraham’s Cave (Hz. Ibrahim Magalar), where Abraham supposedly was born and spent his first ten years hiding from the local Assyrian tyrant Nemrut. Both Jewish and Muslim texts have Abraham living here and being told by God to take his family to Canaan. Since he’s also considered a Muslim prophet, the entrances to the cave were separated, Elif had to cover her head, people were bowing down in there quite vigorously, and it stank.
From there we crossed to Golbasi, a park with two mosques and three pools loaded with carp (Balikligol). The story is this: Abraham came out of his cave and then defied King Nemrut, trying to smash the idols in the local temple. This irked Nemrut to no small degree, and he slingshotted (or threw) Abe from the columns of the castle (Mancinik) into a fire below. But God wasn’t going to sit by and let all this go unnoticed, so He turned the flames into water and the firewood into carp. By the water, a girl wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt asked us if we would convert to Islam. Elif had a nice talk with her, telling her that if the were super-nice to foreigners they’d appreciate how great Muslims were.
From there we went to Urfa’s Kapalipazari/Bitpazari, the bazaars, where I snapped roll after roll of pictures of people. Isik (E’s stepmother) and Elif bought traditional eastern headcoverings from a very old man, who was very nice and showed them how to wrap them on, but asked Isik, “Do they all dress as open as you in Istanbul?” Isik: “Even more so.” Old guy: “But aren’t you all afraid of the other world?” Elif: “No, because our hearts are pure.” Everyone was very, very nice to me. A bunch of kids selling tobacco made me sit down and smoke it with them. Two men playing Turkish dominoes made me come over and play a game with them. (Pieces move like a chess rook rather than a chess bishop, which confused the hell out of me, along with other rules.) Everyone loves Ibrahim Tatlises, a Turkish superstar from Urfa who is the godfather of arabesque but now sings folk songs; he’s so tied in with the mafia that he’s basically the Turkish Frank Sinatra. One of the domino players confessed to me that he plays tapes of Tatlises every night and cries to them. I’ve seen Tatlises concerts on TV, where you can spot audience members cutting their arms with razor blades. Anyway, I was having lots of fun. I tried on baggy pants, which didn’t look good on me at all, but E looked great in them and bought a pair. We bought a rug made out of sweat – you lay the wool in a hamam and lots of Mustafas dive on top of them, flattening them out to their current design – which will hang on our wall. I went into the cave where the wool was spun, but only for a second to snap off some photos, as any longer would have given me black lung disease. And we all drank meyan koku from a guy walking around selling it from a bagpipe-like bladder strapped on his back, with holders for glasses, which he cleaned by dipping them in water; meyan koku is made out of some root and tastes like bitter earth, horrible really, but has an aftertaste sweeter than sasparilla. We bought some root; the recipe: 250 grams koku, 2 liters water, 1 tsp. baking soda, dash bit cinnamon; wait; strain. We also drank mirra, a local espresso that tasted like strong and burnt coffee gone sour. To make it, use ½-ground coffee, boil for ½ hour, let cool for ½ hour, and skim the top.
We drove 45km southeast to Harran, where they have these amazing wood-less gumdrop beehive-style houses. Abraham (unlike George Washington and Edgar Allen Poe) slept there on the way from Urfa to Canaan. It’s one of the oldest settlements on earth and looks like it must have looked 6000 years ago; Arabs and Kurds smuggling sheep from the Syrian border 10km to the south. When we arrived, children came from everywhere to be our guides. There was no getting rid of them. They had a minaret of Ulu Cami, built in the 700’s; a Crusader fortress from the 11th century; an astronomy kulesi tower; and a Harran Universitesi arch. It was all gone and abandoned, like a lot of the stuff near Armenia. One of the girls begging and following and being our “guide” was so strikingly beautiful, it was like that National Geographic girl from Afghanistan years ago. I wasted a half roll trying to get her picture; she was very shy. One beehive house had an Arab with 14 children, and the Arab had lots of Arabic costumes, which we put on in the amazing heat and played dress-up and took pictures of each other. Here’s Kadri and me, looking like stern semitics: bonding.
(People I played dominoes with in Urfa: Mahmut C*akalli* and Yusuf Usul email@example.com, Yusuf_usul@hotmail.com)
After three days at Elif’s father’s house in Antalya, swimming and eating as if on a beached cruise ship, Kadri announced that we’d be going east to Nemrut Dag, as if it were a surprise: what the hell else were we going to do there for 15 days? He’d already taught me some pantomime, took us to a village without running water so they could show Elif how to make Gozleme (kindof like a pizza), brought us to the mall, and ran out of ideas. He made up a list of rules for the car: it’s a democracy, and everyone gets one vote on what to see, and no whining (aimed at Eylul, who’s at the age – 12 – where everything seems funny and nothing seems interesting). I added one rule: that everybody should talk ten percent nicer to their spouses than they feel like doing, which was aimed at Kadri, who, in our presence, likes to point out to his wife that she’s basically a simpleton. Sitting threesome in the back of the car made me feel like we were all brothers and sisters, not a romantic holiday but a necessity when you’ve got such a practical SUV that seats and holds about as much as a small sedan.
We got to Alanya and arrived at the red castle; I asked to go up and was immediately outvoted, which was a fine thing, as I didn’t really want to go up it at all; I used the trick that every child eventually learns when manipulating their parents: ask for a red herring, let them deny it, and then get the thing you really want later. (Take me to the Syrian border, mommy!) So we headed inland from Silifke through the tombed runs of Demirci, where we bought fresh pistachios. While Turks love their fresh nuts, I find that fresh almonds, walnuts, etc. are more tasteless than dried – but what have we here? Pistachios turn out to be a happy, happy exception: they taste like full-out pistachios, mixed with a taste of fresh coconut – yum!
We stopped off at the ruins of Olba (now called Ura), where villagers were milking goats and let us milk them – at the foot of the acropolis, whose stones were being taken and used for their abodes. Uzuncaburc had a small Roman theatre off the side of the road, as well as a monumental gateway, going through which leads you into a surprisingly-intact colonnaded street with a few small ruined temples and a high tower. We drank kenger kahvesi (diken azmani), coffee made from acanthus, some roasted grain; it tasted like Nescafe and had a nutty aftertaste.
From there we headed to Narlikuyu to see the Caves of Heaven and Hell (Cennet ve Cehennem). Cennet Deresi, Heaven, is a 70m deep gorge that you enter, paradoxically, by descending 452 steps cut into the rock. At the entrance is the Chapel of the Virgin Mary, a very cute Byzantine church bui
lt over the former Temple of Zeus. The “steps” down were slippery muddy things, and everyone was falling on their asses; I only fell on my hands. We were well-dressed, having no idea what we were in for. At the bottom was the Cave of Typhon, with a running stream. We arrived back up and a few happy rednecks told everyone who would listen that they never would have fallen going down or up. Then we went to Hell, Cehennem Deresi, which, paradoxically, you have to walk uphill to get to, but once you get there, there’s a platform, and you step out onto it and look into a deep, scary hole. Last thing we saw there was Asthma Cave, which had 200 meters of subterranean halls with stalactites and stalagmites that rivaled Howe Caverns but barely rates a mention in Turkish guidebooks – this country never ceases to fascinate me. No guided tours, but it did have a spiral staircase down that smelled like sweat and a guy at the bottom hawking photos.
Heading east, we went to Antakya, which is the site of ancient Antioch. By the 2nd century BC it had a half-million, but like so much else in the region, it was sacked, suffered earthquakes, was abandoned, and passed into the French after WWI, who only had it for a few years but that’s a good thing, because they built some fine-looking buildings (the prettiest of which is now a porno theater). They had a spectacular archeological museum with a huge collection of Roman mosaics, many were from Greek mythology; our guide Elif explained them to us. Antakya also had Sen Piyer Kilisesi, the cave church of St. Peter, a small little nothing; Peter was in Antioch between AD 47 and 54 and set up one of the world’s first Christian communities, and may have even preached from this hole. We ate at the Sultan Sofrasi, a wonderful place where we had Tantuni (dried meat and salad in pita) and Bumbar (intestines filled with rice). They had a book with the region’s recipes, poems, folklore, and songs; a guy autographed his picture in it for me.
Kadri wanted to go to Gaziantep, which was ugly as hell, but I did get to eat Sobiyet and Bulbul, both (especially the former) the best baklava dishes I’d ever had. From there we drove to Urfa, my favorite of all. Urfa’s now called Sanliurfa, “Glorious Urfa,” for its resistance to the French invasion and occupation of 1918-20. We took a public bus to a hotel Kadri found. On the bus, a local was having far too much fun ogling our women; Kadri, first off the bus, made a nice point of bashing into his shoulder; Eylul kneed his leg; and I, not having seen any of this, was last off; the guy yelled at me as I passed, “You bunch of bears!” and I had not a clue why. The hotel was the Gulizar Konukevi, a real palace, and Kadri and I signed in and walked around, bonding, taking pictures of the glorious courtyard, of the hamam, standing on the beautifully-restored roof, marveling at our perfectly-decorated Ottoman rooms with the beds on the floor and rugs all over the walls. You can imagine how surprised I was to hear Elif emerge from the room and proclaim, “It’s a shithole.” “Why is it a shithole, Elif?” “Where’s the bathroom?” Let’s see…no, that’s a closet…no, another mini closet…oops, it’s a shared Turkish squat-toilet downstairs across the courtyard. “Where’s the shower?” Let’s see…inside the hamam… Sometimes guys forget that having a private bath is a make-or-break for people who cannot do their ablutions in a shared space. What it all meant was that Elif, Eylul, and Isik would not be able to poop that night.
We were to have no such problems later in the trip, however.
It was late in the day by the time we got to Erzurum, and it felt as if we had left Kurdistan and entered Saudi Arabia. (Erzurum’s mayor is from the fascist party.) Every woman was covered, some wearing çar?afs – a huge cloth that looks like a gunny sack – and many women wearing the entirely-black çador which only shows their eyes. Elif has no problem with traditional headscarves but really, really does not want to see her country go this route and calls women in burkas cockroaches (or, when she’s feeling kind, black bugs). As we checked in our hotel, we once again had Co? drive around the block so Elif and I could go to the registration desk. This time, our prudence was a good thing; the guy asked if we wanted one room, only one room and not two, and he stared at us forever, and Elif said, yes, me and my husband want one room, and my parents will have another. And she showed him our ID’s with identical last names and the guy was much relieved.
We went to the car to find out that Co? had driven onto the sidewalk by accident. Driving off of it, he said they scraped the bottom because Dilek was too fat and weighing the car down. When we left the car, Elif yelled at her mom for taking that abuse, especially since Co? is fatter than she is, if you could call Elif’s mom fat at all. Elif and I went to a bakkal by ourselves to get some water, and on the way, we passed a 14-year-old boy who looked at Elif, looked back at her twice more, and finally threw his hands in the air as if to silently say, “Allah, can you believe such a woman exists?” Every night as I lie in bed with my wife, I ask myself the same question. The bakkal owner, though, was about 60, and surprisingly much more liberal – friendly, loquacious, loves America, a Korean war vet. That night again, the hotel shut their water at night to save money, but at least they were up-front about it – it would only be off from 12 AM – 7:30 AM. They also saved money on electricity by using something like 10-watt bulbs in the halls and rooms – I couldn’t even read in bed – they were more like night-lights than light bulbs, really.
The next morning (Wednesday the 26th), we saw Erzurum, which included a wonderful museum of Islamic and Turkish art which was right inside the Yakutiye Medresesi – the 14th-century school of Islam – with exhibits right inside the student’s cells. We also saw the double-minareted Çifte Minareli Medrese mosque from the 1200’s and the Üç Kümbetler mausoleums. After I had proved myself capable at the stick shift and able to drive on the correct side of the road, they had me drive the rest of the way. When we pulled out of our parking spot on the sidewalk, Co? again told Dilek to get out because she was “too fat.” Dilek, only capable of showing her anger at Co? to us but not to him, could only joke with him like a child, saying, “You’re fatter than I am.” He then said, “C’mon, let’s not even start, we know who’s the fat one of the couple.” Amazing.
Driving from Erzurum, we still passed two more Jandarmerie checkpoints, which wasn’t too unusual, since nearby Erzincan is a known harbor for the PKK. We stopped at Erzincan for lunch, and I wasn’t a fan of the place – fewer people were “covered” than there were at Erzurum, but the ones in Erzincan who weren’t seemed like rednecks: skinny prayer-bead-twirling macho men wearing tight jeans with their T-shirts tucked in and walking around as if they had lats like Arnold.
So we head off after lunch, and I’m only a few kilometers west of Erzincan when suddenly a group of farmers are running across the road in front of our car, and I slam on the brakes. I curse them out – what’s wrong with these people? – because when driving in Turkey, you frequently encounter the stress of kamikaze sheep, cows, cars, villagers, or UFO’s trying to kill themselves in front of your car and take you with them. But I then noticed something quite unusual that they were running towards: on the right side of the road, by a farmhouse, were four haystacks on fire, and farmers were frantically throwing buckets of water on them, beating them, trying to put them out. And I’m thinking, what the fuck? Was it the PKK punishing local villagers for collaborating with the Jandarmerie, or was it some petty act of vandalism?
Four kilometers down, I had my answer. Because once again, farmers were running across the road, forcing me again to slam my brakes, but this time they were running from the right side of the road to the left. And this time I didn’t curse them out, for on the left side of the road was disgusting sight: about a dozen mutilated cattle, lying all over in pieces by the road, with bullet holes in their heads, their necks hanging off, and their stomachs slit open and their innards hanging out, killed in a messy and violent way, and lots of villagers sitting there, stunned.
When we reached our hotel in Amasya, we saw the television news headlines blaring: “Wild shoot-out in Erzincan this afternoon leaves eight PKK members dead.” I wonder if it was one group of terrorists traveling on the same road in the opposite direction as us, or if they were separate incidents. Amasya was safely outside of PKK territory, and the hotel was adorable: it was an Ottoman house that had been owned by an Armenian family, restored to its original state. Staying in the huge, ornate rooms was like being a sultan for only $20 a night – Ottoman furniture, wall-couches, beds, and a bathroom in the closet just like in the old days. They had an outdoor patio with the typically fine Turkish selection of beverages: Efes beer, and water. The owner was sad that the two girls sitting at the table couldn’t understand him when they asked him the price, and when he wanted to show them the inside of the house, they refused. Elif went over to them to help translate, and there the girls were, smoking and drinking. Elif told them, what he was trying to answer when you asked the price is that the rooms were 4-8 million lira each and that it’s a restored Ottoman house. They looked at her and snottily said, yeah, we knew that, and then they went back to their drinks and left Elif and the owner there, flabbergasted, the poor owner still consulting his English phrasebook. From their accent, I it was impossible for me to tell exactly tell which town in France the two girls came from.
After staying up with our new Israeli friends, we discovered back in the hotel at 12:30AM that there was no water at all; when we called down, they wouldn’t turn it on, saying the city was without water. The next morning (Tuesday the 25th), Elif and Dilek had a little conversation with the owners about the problem, during which they realized the owners were lying: they had turned it off just to save money. First, the owners claimed the water was always there; then, they said it was off citywide; then, they said the hotel’s water was broken but they were fixing it; then, they said they had to shut it off because of a problem but they turned it on when we called for it; and finally, they said if we didn’t like it, why did we stay in the hotel for two nights? The last comment was the final straw for Elif and Dilek, because we were only there one night and at 12:30 AM they knew we couldn’t well go elsewhere. So they started yelling once again. The guy had to close the curtain on us so we wouldn’t be heard in the main lobby, and he said the main owner was a Hajj (one who had made a pilgrimage to Mecca) and was absent – but we spotted him, with the skullcap, hiding from us on the other side of the curtain. Dilek yelled that the Hajj’s were even more disgusting than other people, and that she was embarrassed to be Muslim, embarrassed to be Turkish. Elif added that they were so twisted in their own lies that they couldn’t even keep their stories straight. Dilek screamed that the hotel was even making their bellboys, children, lie for them. Finally, we gave them 8 million instead of 10 million and refused to pay the rest. They asked if we wanted trouble. We said that we’d love trouble and left. I was glad for the experience, not for the fireworks, but because it was like taking a pill for the day – it meant that us four would not fight today over the itinerary, and that we could project our aggressions onto an external enemy and then happily go about our business.
And it was in that relaxed state of mind that we entered Kurdistan. I knew that we had arrived because a few kilometers before Digor, we were stopped by the Jandarmerie who not only checked our passports but wrote down all of our personal information in a log. Then, 20 km later, another one, this time without taking our names. And then another: we were stopped at nine checkpoints in all. Minibuses were being pulled over and inspected thoroughly – it was a real border crossing within the same country. After the second checkpoint, we didn’t get talked to, just waved by after we parked at each one, and each one saw that we didn’t have mustaches and that we had the “34” Istanbul license plate number – but I really felt sorry for these Jandarmes. They looked like nervous kids. They were in pairs, one standing in the road stopping cars, and one in a ditch behind barbed wire, at first crouching and looking through binoculars at the cars, and then letting go of the binoculars and emerging with his gun out. As we passed each one, the second guy always went back down into the ditch, like when your boat on a Disney ride had just passed a mechanical figurine and it had finished going through its cycle. Elif says that the PKK simply blast their way through those checkpoints, and if you get selected in the army to serve in the east, and you get selected to be a Jandarme, you should just write out your will and say your last good-byes.
All of which was very moving, but, traveling in the east, all I could think of was: when can I shit? Where is it safe – to stop so I can shit? Because rather than being killed, my diarrhea was first and foremost on my mind, and if we encountered any PKK, I would have just asked them, please, do you have any Limodin? The road was constantly being patched up, because, Dilek said, of mines. But we saw nothing of interest except for Jandarmes, Jandarmes, Jandarmes. On the mountains was written in huge rocks, “Önce Vatan” (“Country first”) and “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” (“How happy it is to say one is Turkish!”) I wondered if these signs were not only wishful thinking, but also a bit confrontational in an area where people speak Kurdish and look entirely different from Turks.
We stopped in ??d?r, a fabulously dusty town that looked positively South American and not at all Turkish. Then we went to the incredible Ishak Pa?a Saray?, in Do?ubeyazit near the Iranian border. It was the palace of a Kurdish chieftain built around 1700, and it was created to rival Topkap? in Istanbul. Apparently, this angered the sultan, who then made the chieftain disappear, but the palace remains. It reminds me of the kind of insane fancy that one experiences in deserts – fantastic works, delusions of grandeur and folly – even a little like the Watts towers in Los Angeles (but of course much, much larger). The place was so ludicrously over the top, so opulent – completely ruined but all the stonework was intact – adopting all grandiose Selçuk, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Kurdish styles. Again, we were the only tourists there except for another couple, which is just how I like it, and I was thankful for its remoteness and the modicum of danger which was keeping people away. We would have had the place to ourselves except for two 9-year-old children inside, who insisted on being our “guides.” Normally, we wave this off, but there was nowhere to hide and there was no saying no. The kids would completely make stuff up in a childlike way – “these are the prisons, these are the holes where they were fed” – they had an impressive imagination – but they were climbing all over some delicate-looking fountains and pulling at us and giggling and they were behaving like K’s assistants in Kafka’s The Castle, and we finally asked them, how would they like 50 cents each to please just go the hell away? They looked at each other and saw that we were serious, and said they’d like that very much.
In the town of Do?ubeyazit, we went to a covered market. Co? parked the car and yelled at a young soldier who was blocking the road, simply because he felt that he could yell at him. Way to go, Co?. Inside, the shopkeepers were glad to see us, since we were the only tourists there, and they were telling us that the hotels were all completely empty. The Kurds were incredibly nice (like the Turks), but not at all pushy (unlike the Turks). The prices were no better than in Istanbul, which surprised Co?, who had heard stories of loads of hot, cheap goods. We asked why and one of them told us in confidence, “Too many askerler (soldiers) – we can’t go across the border and move goods like we used to.” I went to a tea seller in the market and ordered a tea to calm my stomach down, and the seller refused to let me pay for it. Then I saw he was making a Ku?burnu drink and got one of those, a hot sugary cranberry-juice-like drink, and he wouldn’t let me pay for that either. Then I ordered another tea and insisted on leaving 25,000 lira, about 8 cents (the tea cost 20,000 each and it was all the small change I had), and after some effort, I managed to hide the money on his tray.
The tea seller was playing a tape of some of the most unusual Kurdish music I’d ever heard, nothing at all like what I got from Smithsonian Institution when they had sponsored my conference and nothing like what I’d ever heard in Istanbul, so I asked where I could get a copy. He pointed me toward a record store in town. We went there and we forgot the name of the artist, so the store owner sent a boy over to the covered market to find the artist’s name for us. When he came back, he said the tea seller had no tape and no tape recorder. Apparently, either the tea seller’s tape was a bootleg and he didn’t want to piss off the store owner, or it was a compilation taped off TV or elsewhere of some Kurdish music that may have had some objectionable lyrics. No one would ever find out which.
What struck me most about Do?ubeyazit is how occupied the place feels. The military presence there was no stronger than at Kars or Hopa or Ardahan in the northeast, but here, the local population was obviously ethnically different than the army, and it really felt like those films you see of American soldiers in South Vietnam in the late 60’s and early 70’s – Turkish soldiers bopping in and out of Kurdish-owned shops, buying things.
Alas, my expectations turned out to be wrong about us not fighting that day. Co? started driving on the left again, and Dilek said he was driving too fast with all of the holes in the road, which resulted in Co? slowing down to 40 km/hour, acting like a child, and finally he just pulled over and told me to drive. So I drove his stick-shift fine, much easier than I thought it would be, a lot of fun, really. Given the fact that I was now driving and given the petulant way Co? had been behaving, it was the very first time on the trip when I wished our Fiat had driver’s side air bags.
Four hours later, at 5AM (on Monday the 24th), Dilek is so hot, sleepless, and livid that Co? would treat us this way that she wakes us up. We enter the stinky bathroom and use their shower, which has no showerhead, so we hose ourselves off like mental institution inmates. Co? arrives at 7, telling us how palatial and comfortable Hasan Bey’s accommodations were for him, and Dilek starts really letting him have it by some fairly timid whining. And just like after he abandoned us in Samsun when he told Dilek that she wasn’t from a village and knew what petrol smelled like, Co? claimed that his drive last night was heroic and that the Teacher’s house wasn’t really so bad.
Now pride may cometh before a fall, but if it doesn’t, you can always count on my wife to help push. Whereas before Elif had been nice-but-cold to Co?, as she always is when she doesn’t care for someone, I now find her screaming at him in the middle of the street that there was no earthly reason for us to be in this town, and that we could have stayed in a hotel in Artvin. I hang back and watch the delightful fireworks display, and, like a roulette ball finally coming to rest on its number, Elif settles on the theme that we’ve come over 200km out of our way for nothing and finally yells,“I’m not going to waste another day of my vacation for you to jerk off on having your ass kissed by a NOBODY.” Co? turned beet red and said Elif was embarrassing him in front of the people in the street, and Elif yelled, “The only people here are rednecks who want to FUCK us.”
This made Co? suddenly stop suggesting that we wait the three hours for Hasan Bey’s man to arrive so he could show us around, and instead he finds a random policeman and tells the cop that he’s a guest of the great Hasan Bey, and that could the cop please tell us where Hell’s River Gorge is? The cop, upon hearing the magic words “Hasan Bey,” insisted on showing us around personally on the city’s dime, and he hopped in the car. He stank so badly that when he started smoking I was actually thankful that there was another smell to distract me from his body odor. We got out at a gorge, less nice than the one at Sakklikent, and he helped us (literally held our hands as we climbed – his hands were huge) up the gorge, where we got to see the naturally-growing Fanta cans and Dorito bags. Co? kept up his pacifying avuncular routine and offered up the scop of taking us to see a church 40 km away on a road covered in boulders. Elif said in no uncertain terms that we had no interest in it, and that we wanted to leave.
Elif demanded that we head straight for Kars, and upon arrival, Co? bought a decade’s worth of honey, which of course took a while. The first shop we went to didn’t have Kars honey but another kind, and the fat boy behind the counter eating ice cream refused to bargain with Co?, saying that only his father had authority to do so. The boy then stepped right outside the door and dropped his ice cream wrapper on the street. He then went back into his store. Elif picked it up and followed him inside, smiled at him, and said softly, “Don’t you know what to do with the wrapper? This is what you’re supposed to do with a wrapper!” and threw it on the floor inside his store.
We went to the Kars tourist office to get the necessary permits for seeing Ani, which is 40 km southeast of Kars and literally on the Armenian border. It’s inside a restricted military zone, so there’s a bit of bureaucracy to go see it. First, we had to stop at the tourist information office to get the forms. The workers, upon seeing my passport of origin, flashed coprophagic smiles – they were giggling like children, literally reading “California” and “Marvin” out loud to each other.
I now realized that a window had just opened for me, a sudden opportunity for me to actually get to see Do?ubeyazit on the Iranian border, which Dilek and Co? had been too scared to go to. I knew from Co?’s behavior at Ardanuç that he was impressed by authority, and also that it was the job of these tourist officials to convince us that everything was quite safe and wonderful in Turkey, one great, happy Turkey uber alles. So I asked them if Do?ubeyazit was safe to go to, and they said, “Safe? No problem! It’s so beautiful – you’ve got to go! You can’t miss it!” And just like they were reciting lines in a play, our two travel companions were impressed, and the thing was settled: of course we were going. I left there floating on air, like I had achieved a major victory in being able to influence others, lead people, and shape my environment. And thus we were off, to the police station to get our forms endorsed, then to the museum to buy tickets, and, finally, to Ani.
When we entered the restricted zone, we had our passports and permits examined, and the sergeant at the entrance to Ani read us the riot act: stay by the monuments where we can see you, don’t go too far off the path, and if you even so much as point your camera in the direction of Armenia we’ll have to shoot you (and, after that, we may even confiscate your camera). None of this impressed me as much as his incredible blue eyes, unlike any I had ever seen before, especially on a dark-complexioned man, and I said to Elif in English, “What amazing eyes! He’s so beautiful!” He then went on, something about how you can’t go to the Covenant of the Virgins, and you can’t take pictures of the river, and blah blah blah, and I ask Elif, “I wonder why we can’t go there! Is it because of the archeological preservation, or is it for military purposes?” and finally the guy straightened up, stared directly at me, and said, in slow and perfect English, “Because we’re using it.” That shut me up. So off we went, and except for our friendly armed escort and two other tourists, we had the place completely to ourselves.
Ani became the capital of Armenia in the late 10th century, and for about five minutes, it was one of the world’s major cities. Byzantium annexed it 80 years later, and then the Selçuks took it, and then the Georgians, and then the Mongols, and finally the earthquakes came and roll the credits. But what a site! It was like seeing Efes without the tourists. Churches with wild frescos, crosses with snakes in them that looked like images from civilizations predates it by three millennium, cathedrals, a citadel – a real ghost town. We were there for hours. After the first five or so sites, the guards pretty much left us alone, except at the Menüçehir Camii, which was right on the river itself that was the border. We asked if we could climb up the minaret, and they said yes, which surprised me, but they made me leave their cameras with them. The climb up was, in large part, on broken stairs in pitch-dark, and in the parts where there was light, we saw some rats that made us wish for the dark again. On top, the view was phenomenal. The Rough Guide says that the minaret was closed because some tourist committed suicide by jumping off the top a few years ago, but once you’re up there, you realize that it’s more likely he just plain fell. While we were up there, Dilek, who stayed at the bottom, asked the guards what the huge military presence at Ani was for, because relations with Armenians are much improved since they got their own country from the former Soviet Union rather than from Turkish soil. The guards told her that a week and a half ago, they caught a few PKK members a little south of there, and after a brief friendly interview with them over some tea, the guerrillas had volunteered the information that they entered the country through the Armenian border.
Nearby the mosque, we saw some scorpions, and two archaeologists were working to uncover a graveyard. And there they were, sweeping dirt off bones, when suddenly, a baby’s skull popped out right in front of me, with its jaw hanging happily in the sun! What surprised me is how white the bones were after all these years, compared to the brownish mummies you see in museums. We asked them if we could take a picture of the graveyard. They said no and gave us a look that they wished we were some of the bones they were uncovering.
Back at Kars, we went again to buy even more honey from a bakkal. This took an hour not so much because of Co? but because the guy insisted on giving us all free juice and sugars and telling us his story. It turns out that he went to three (!) of the same schools as Elif in Istanbul, and this was his uncle’s store in which he helps out for the summer – for the rest of the year, he’s a ballet in the government folkloric dance troupe. How wonderful! He gets to jump around to cool steps, perhaps, I imagine, even juggling knives, and traveling all over the world to countries I will likely never go to – Azerbaijan, Iran, Romania. But who knows. He was complaining that he never gets to go to the exciting places like the U.S. or Japan, because Turkey’s President only wants to improve cultural relations with local countries.
That night, we met an Israeli couple and two Slovenian women tourists on the street, and we went to dinner with them. It turns out that the Israeli guy (Amir) had served and then worked in the army there for eight years, but he was more anti-Jewish-race-based state than I, and he was cocky about Israel’s permanent military superiority in the region. I found him to be a hoot – a big cuddly bear of a 30-year-old who fell madly in love with a different tourist every week. He liked to travel the world just to meet people (he would never go to Venezuela, Alaska, or New Zealand, because he’d rather go somewhere where there’s more people, less nature.) He went to Turkey by himself and met the Israeli woman he was with, in Cappadoccia! He just goes up to anyone who looks like a tourist, or who looks nice, and starts talking, male or female. He told me he thinks that people are inherently nice, and there’s a few bad people – which is just about the opposite of what Elif and I find to be true (that people are instinctual and that if they don’t eat you alive, it’s a testament to how successful they were socialized). And Amir holds this belief even after what happened to him on his second day in Turkey: he was standing on the Galata bridge in Istanbul, and two Egyptians walked up and started talking to him. They hung out together for three hours, talked to each other in English and Arabic, and entertained him with hilarious stories about their world travels. Then, the Egyptians suggested that they go out to dinner together at 9:30, so he went back to his hotel, shaved and showered, and met them for dinner. On the way, they went to a park and told him that it was an Egyptian custom for them to play the hosts and to offer yogurt-water and figs, but since there were no figs around, they knew of an Ayran-seller nearby. So one of them went to buy him Ayran and came back with the yogurt-drink, and they all drank, and the next thing he knew, it was a day later and he was waking up in his hotel bed from the best sleep he’d ever had in his life. Turns out they drugged his drink and stole his $600 Nikon camera and put him in a taxi, telling the driver to take him to his hotel because he was drunk, and the hotel paid the cab fare and carried him up the stairs, during which time the two Egyptians racked up $4000 on his Visa buying electronics. Amir’s card was insured, but his Israeli parents were freaked out, demanding he come home immediately. He says that the trip after that was the best he’d ever had, and the Turks were the nicest people he’d ever seen, and he didn’t mind the experience at all. All I could think of is how polite the Egyptians were – they didn’t take his passport, and they put him in a taxi and sent him back to his hotel – in America it wouldn’t quite turn out that way.
We all went out for tea later that evening and we couldn’t get a table outside in Kars – they were all full – and when one opened up, Elif and I ran to grab the seats, which made the Slovenians and Israelis laugh very much: “You really wear your country’s flag,” they said. The Israeli guy said he left the army after eight years because they would have promoted him from field work to administrative work, which he hated. I asked him what was field work, work in the field with maps, or what, and he answered “Intelligence.” It turns out that – and this is all he would tell me – his fluency in Arabic is due to his tenure in the Israeli army, and he is not allowed to travel to any of Israel’s Arabic neighbors until he is 55 as a security measure. Which is a real drag, because we really like him, and we’ll definitely visit him in Tel Aviv (perhaps soon, because Elif doesn’t need a visa to go there) – but since I’ve been to Israel twice, I was far more interested in schlepping him to Egypt with us, because he’s a lot of fun and fluent in Arabic. But he can’t go there anymore. Elif jokes that due to his naïveté and his experience with the two Egyptians in Istanbul, we may be even safer in Egypt if we go without him.
On Sunday the 23rd, Co? decided he wanted to go to Ardanuç, a small town of five thousand people where a friend of his once knew the mayor. Elif refused to have any of it, and when we passed by the turnoff, Co? kept looking back like a petulant child.
We drove down into the Tortum Valley and saw the massive, domeless Georgian church of Dörtkilise near the village of Tekkale. It had delightful frescos, but the road there was basically made out of boulders, which was ruining Co?’s car. We went to Ösk Vank – a more-intact Georgian church in the village center. It was pinkish, with great carvings on portals and on the columns. There, we picked up a 50-ish man with a skullcap and a thick eastern accent (more guttural sounds in his speech) and gave him a ride down toward Tortum. We found a delightful shortcut highway before Tortum running east to north of Narman, the part of which running from Narman to Oltu being the most beautiful road I’ve been on, although I ran out of film in my camera to take pictures of it. The rocks and mountains were rainbow-colored, with lots of red, even in parts like the American southwest.
At Oltu, we went to the 7th-century Georgian castle. Since it was a Sunday, we had to beg for a key from the local Zab?ta (the health/safety inspector). A boy in his late teens showed us around the castle; the sign there said it was 8th century BC Genoese; the boy said it was Armenian; the Rough Guide says 8th Century AD Georgian. The boy told a story of a Selçuk Turk who fought there with his head cut off, and that he’s the one buried in the castle graveyard; two women reportedly turned to stone when they laughed at the man being headless. The boy said that we should cover ourselves and even wash before visiting the graveyard, so we didn’t bother going in to it – he said that the dead guy wouldn’t like it otherwise. Dilek answered that the dead guy would like it better if we didn’t wash first. The boy asked if I had converted to Islam yet (the thought of Elif converting from Islam wasn’t even considered as an option).
From there we went to Bana to try to see a Georgian church there, but we missed the unmarked dirt-road turnoff. We asked directions from an old man with one eye wearing a woman’s sweatshirt. The old guy was selling cucumbers by the side of the road, and he insisted that we take him too, and he’d show us. Instead, though, he took us up a treacherous boulder road to see a pile of rubble that was not Bana. He said that villagers stole the church pieces to make houses hundreds of years ago and then abandoned it after an earthquake, and that the church graveyard’s skulls came up having bigger jawbones than we now have today. Although the trip was annoying and destructive to Co?’s car, we returned the one-eyed Turkish cross-dresser to his roadside cucumber supermarket and bought a few cucumbers off him for his troubles.
Then Co? decided that he really had to go to Ardanuç after all, which was now 210 km out of the way. Dilek was coddling him, after he had the grave misfortune of being forced to spend the day with us seeing Turkey’s best landscape and monuments in the world’s largest open-air archeological museum. So back to Ardanuç we went, just so Co? could be well-treated by a mayor of a village of five thousand. (Being impressed by authority seems to be a Turkish trait; there’s an Aziz Nesin short story about townspeople going all-out to impress a minor authority who’s coming to visit, training each other to stand up straight and walk in line and even erecting a statue for him – and then the guy never shows up.)
On the way back to Aradnuç, we passed through Ardadhan, which was fascinating – a military and industrial town with Russian architecture, but completely random: instead of a village growing into a city, the once-Russian city was now amusingly overrun by shepherds herding sheep right down the main street, with geese following in tow! (I have to mention this: right now on TRT – Turkish Radio Television – as I’m writing this – there’s a TV program as part of the GAP project [southeast development] educating villagers not to fuck their siblings or marry your cousins. The show is talking about genetics and showing retarded children and such. Very exciting stuff. The program ended just now with a boy and his girlfriend/cousin standing at a crossroads; the boy looks in his hand to see a pair of dice there; the dice then turn into the face of a retarded child; then the boy throws the dice away onto the ground (thus littering, which is something that Turks excel at), and the couple finally walk away from each other going in opposite directions from the crossroads as the music swells.)
It was getting late, and our Rough Guide said that the hotels at Ardahan were overrun by natashas, so we decided to push on to ?av?at, where the book said you could spend the night in the Sahara hotel. But the Sahara looked really seedy, as did every other hotel in town, and now it was 10PM. We inquired at the gas station, and we were informed that the Sahara was too dangerous for us to stay at, and that the Iviera hotel would be a far better bet.
We drove to the Iviera, and its lobby was straight out of a Hollywood movie. The guy behind the front desk played the pimp, who was wearing a satin black shirt with the top two buttons undone and a very loose tie; the actor was complete with greasy black hair and smoking a cigarette. Splayed across the torn-up couch was the fat madam with a mustache. Downstairs strutted a rather large whore in a white dress, appearing as if she had just finished doing something important and looking around to see if there was anything new. The reservations clerk asked us for our ID’s, and Elif said we were married. He smiled a little and said that of course we were, but wouldn’t it be much nicer if we just filled out the reservations book with me staying with Co? and Elif with Dilek, and then later we could do what we wanted.
I said, Elif, let’s leave, now. Elif turned to me and said, “Stop being such a problem, I hate you when you get like this” and added that we’d get killed if Co? drove any further this tired, this late, on mountain roads. I said that the odds of us getting killed if we drove on were only about 30 percent, whereas if we stayed here they were closer to 90, so she began to ignore me. I asked her, loudly and slowly so her mother would understand, how much the hotel’s hourly rate per room was, but Dilek and Co? had no idea that we were in a whorehouse – they just thought it was a regular disgusting hotel. Now, it’s delightful to be able to walk around a low-rent Turkish bordello, it looked too disgusting and dangerous for me to want to spend the night.
So now I’m practically yelling let’s go go go go go go go, and finally Elif said, let’s look at the room. We went upstairs, and it was an adorable little operation they had up there. Everyone was working, and the whores were waiting in the green room with couches and floor mattresses and phones. Finally, the owner, upstairs running the whole show, saw that we really were a family and said “You really shouldn’t stay here, the Johns (Mehmet’s?) would certainly take a liking to you, and the doors don’t lock, and they may not take no for an answer…” (I tried to imagine our story in the country’s newspapers’ typically lurid headlines had we run into a problem there: “Married judge in tryst with attorney ‘friend’ found in whorehouse with her daughter and son-in-law.”) One prostitute felt as if she had to apologize to Dilek, saying, “We’re just trying to make a living,” and Dilek hugged her and said that she firmly supports them.
So we drove off into the night. In the car, Dilek and Co? insisted that the women were yabanç?s – “foreigners,” (Georgians), but Elif said that they know better Turkish than Dilek does, and I pointed out that they were quite Turkish in appearance, not Russian. (If they had looked like the natasha I saw at the Besst hotel near Trabzon, who knows, I might have stayed.) I tried to keep Co? awake by teaching him the game “Ghost”, but it doesn’t really work in Turkish – they just kept adding suffixes to get huge one-word constructions which translate into something like “Wouldn’t you really not be the one who would call himself an American worker.”
Again we arrived back at the turnoff to Ardanuç and Artvin, and instead of going to Artvin where there are hotels, Co? takes the road to Ardanuç, where there are more whorehouses. He decides that now, with his impeccable wisdom, that Sunday night at 11 is the perfect time to pay his mayor friend-of-a-friend an unannounced visit so that he could really show off to us three what his influence as a judge can bring. We arrived, and he left the car in the middle of the street in front of the Forest Works building – and, just like he did in Samsun, he doesn’t come out for over an hour. We have no idea what’s happening, and we shout out, “Where are you?” and a man comes out to say Co? is drinking tea inside while they’re still looking for the mayor. He also suggests that we move the car. So I get behind the wheel and park it, and Dilek asked me why I didn’t drive if I could operate a stick-shift, since he had been driving on the left side of the road the whole time. I said I didn’t know I could and I didn’t want to strip the gears or kill the clutch on a new car.
So Dilek, Elif and I move to a schoolyard and sit in a playground for another half hour. It’s well after midnight, I haven’t eaten all day except a candy bar, and I’m pissed off. I gave Co? the latitude that although he has no intellectual interest in archeology or anything else other than football, we were driving his car, he was paying for well more than half of everything, and there were cultural differences I needed to take into account in his wanting to impress the mayor of a tiny whorehouse town (the main cultural difference being that he is a schmuck and I’m not). But at least I wanted not to be randomly abandoned in various places I suddenly found myself in merely because he was behind the wheel (and not doing a very good job of driving at that). Elif is using every trick she knows to make her mother hate her boyfriend; I start saying that at least Co? can provide for her and he doesn’t beat her – in my exhaustion, I’m really thinking that I want anyone, anything, to provide for her so I don’t have to be around any other person than my wife – and I offer the opinion that Co?, like any man, both will do whatever he can get away with and will treat her how she teaches him to treat her.
Finally, Co? comes out. The mayor, of course named Hasan Bey, has been located but can’t be told by his handlers that Co? is here illegally with a woman who’s not his wife. Hasan Bey offers him a room in his house, and to us three he offers two rooms in the Teacher’s House – a ubiquitous boarding home in Turkey for traveling teachers. All he has to do now at 12:30 in the morning is to kick a man out of his room, which he’s actually anxious to do in order to display to us his extreme hospitality.
Elif refuses and says she’ll sleep in the car if he tries to kick anyone out, so Elif, Dilek and I will cram into the one vacant room at the Teachers’ House. We all get into the car, and Co? is following Hasan Bey’s deputy’s car down the road, and we pass a bakkal (grocery store) that has a light on. I yell, “Stop the car, NOW!” and Co? doesn’t, saying we shouldn’t disturb the mayor’s deputy by making him wait. I am furious and open the door while the car is moving, which forces him to stop, and I hop out leaving the door open. I buy a can of tuna fish and crackers, which I devour. Co? dumps us at the Teacher’s House and leaves for the comfort of Hasan Bey’s house. Our room is hot as hell and stinks of the public toilet that’s right outside our door. The sheets and pillowcases haven’t been changed, merely hastily turned inside out, and are filthy. I now wish the mayor had kicked out the other guy, who turns out to be a drunk who keeps leering at my wife. I put a T-shirt around the pillow and sleep.