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?

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