In the terrorists’ footsteps

Sivas - Çifte Minareli medrese
Image by ? alemdag ? via Flickr

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.

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