Monday, October 31, 2011

A letter to the congressman or woman for the release of my father in law and others...

For the problem, see my last entry. If you are American, you can copy and paste this letter (add your name at the bottom of course and your reps name at the top) and send it off. 

Dear Representative ___________,

I am writing in regard to the proposed sale of Cobra helicopters to the Turkish military.

According to the Leahy Amendment it is illegal to sell arms to a country found to commit gross violations of human rights.  This weekend the Turkish government has rounded up 50 academics from the opposition BDP party in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’. This includes Kemal Seven, the father-in-law of my friend and Massachussetts citizen, Jeff Gibbs. More than 7000 people from the opposition have been arrested in the same way over the past 2 years. This past week, human rights groups and activists have accused the Turkish military of using chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels in the southeast—including napalm in clear violation of international law.

I urge you to block the sale of the Cobra helicopters and other weapons in Congress until Turkey ceases the random arrests and the use of chemical weapons.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Purge In Istanbul Yesterday

On Friday morning, while I dressed for work and Delal made me breakfast, the police were ransacking my father-in-law’s house just blocks away. According to her sister, they took down every one of his books, flipped through the pages and dumped out anything found sandwiched between. They confiscated over a hundred CDs and DVDs. They plucked post-its off the computer screen, bills off the coffee table. Two neighbors were called in to serve as witnesses in accordance with a new law—both woken up at 5:30 to observe the proceedings. It was a tremendous blow to my father-in-law’s pride to have these strangers gawking at his humiliation.

‘He looked so crestfallen,’ my sister-in-law said. ‘I’ve never seen him like that before.’

‘One of the neighbors looked so scared,’ quipped my mother-in-law, ‘I bet she went out right after the police left and bought a ticket for Germany!’

My father-in-law Kemal Seven was one of forty-two people arrested on Friday morning, and while the police were civil at his house—calling him beyefendi (sir) and taking care not to break anything—in other parts of Turkey they kicked in doors and ransacked homes. The detainees are all members of the Kurdish-affiliated BDP party—all minor party officials and academics.  They were not all Kurdish either. One of the arrests was Professor Büşra Ersanlı—a sixty-one year old woman. She is distinctly Turkish, a liberal constitutional law professor and a member of the BDP’s constitutional commission—and therefore a person who could have challenged the ruling party when the new constitution is drawn up later this year. Another is Ragıp Zarakolu—a sixty-three year old publisher and human rights activist. All are charged with sympathies for ‘a terrorist organization’, namely the KCK—the supposed urban arm of the PKK.  This is only the latest round of arrests. The government has been chipping away at the BDP for a while now. Over 7800 party members have been taken into custody—from mayors to city council chairs to members of parliament.

 And my father-in-law is one of the smaller fish caught in this net.

 Delal waited to tell me till I got off work. We’d been planning to go to a concert but before that, she said, we needed to to stop by Aksaray, though she wouldn’t explain why over the phone. (I couldn’t figure it out—there was nothing worth seeing in Aksaray—just a mall and the Istanbul police station where I have to go every once in a while to renew my residence permit.) When I saw her at the ferry dock, I could tell immediately something was wrong. Her face was drawn and anxious and she couldn’t stop wringing her hands.

 ‘They’ve taken my Dad away,’ she said.

 I’ll never forget that ferry ride. I’ll never forget feeling so angry and helpless. We were heading into the great maw of the State to try and pull some tiny concession out of its jaws—and evidence of its power was everywhere. The red banner of the Turkish flag--the color had never seemed so aggressive--covered every building, boat, and bridge. Police filled the streets. The Turkish national anthem chimed all around us—people were using it for their ring tones--and the headlines of the newspapers being read by our fellow passengers raged about Turkey’s fallen ‘martyrs’. Looking at all those front pages, I felt like our allies were dropping like flies. Last Friday, the Prime Minister had met with all the news agencies in Turkey and made them agree to report on ‘terrorism’ as he instructed them, too.  ‘News will reach the subscriber by considering the social benefit and solidarity. The public order will be taken into account." In effect, the media willingly put themselves under government control. There was no longer any hope of truth or objectivity from the news—no hope from anywhere

 On the ferry, Delal held her father’s diabetes medicine in her hands, cradling it in her lap like a child might clutch a teddy bear. She thought they might let her in to see him if she had some sort of medical excuse. I got her tea, I held her hand, I hugged her as hard as I could. I tried to be any kind of comfort I could be. I hated seeing her look so small and lost, and I hated the people who made her feel that way.  

 The police station was a gigantic fortress. As we passed through security—I stared at the ten story Turkish flag hanging from the A wing just outside—next to it was an equally gigantic picture of Ataturk, and carved into stone at the building’s top floor were the words ‘How Happy is He Who Calls Himself a Turk!’ Never had these three symbols seemed so frightening—it all seemed to say, if you’re not Turkish, you are nothing. We were let into Ward C, the anti-terrorism department. They took the diabetes medicine, but would not promise to give it to him without a doctor’s note, which we didn’t have. A bushy-haired old sergeant manned the information desk. ‘Don’t be scared,’ he told us. ‘If anything happens, they’ll run him immediately to the hospital. It’s right across the street. We have heaters in all the rooms. We have pillows and comfortable beds. No one gets beaten or slapped around here anymore. They’ve passed laws against all that. He’ll be fine! And who knows? He might be released in just a few days!’

 ‘Can I ask you what they’re going to do with all the stuff they took?’ Delal asked.  ‘All the books and CDs and everything? Are they seriously going to look at all those things? It could take forever.’

 ‘No, dear,’ the old man answered. ‘They already have some kind of evidence or they wouldn’t have arrested him.’

 And the evidence is apparent in the newspapers the next day. A phrase taken out of context from a lecture by someone at the BDP Academy--‘We must make them see us as bombs,’ a teacher supposedly said in regards to the reigning party. ‘And we must see ourselves also as flaming bombs.’ They were speaking metaphorically of course, talking about building themselves into a political force to be reckoned with—but that’s not how the AKP is spinning it. The same tactic was used to condemn Hrant Dink five years ago—there was a line taken from an article in Agos about Sabiha Gökçen, the sentences before and after removed, and then pubished in the newspapers. It urged the ‘poison of the Turk to be cleansed from Armenian veins.’ The ‘poison’ Dink actually meant was the bigoted ideas that Diaspora Armenians have about Turkish people, the ‘cleansing’ was the need to put them aside before the two peoples can move foreward. But without a context, that was not apparent at all and Dink was assassinated a few years later by fanatical nationalists. Now the government is trying the same thing with my father-in-law and his colleagues.

 ‘He’s innocent,’ our aunt Cemile says later that night. We are having dinner at my mother-in-law’s house, the family gathered together to comfort one another. ‘They could be bugging us right now, but let them! Who cares? They’ll never find anything on him. He’s done nothing wrong. Nothing!’ She’s my father-in-law’s sister and I have never seen her like this. Usually she’s laughing and joking and passing around something she’s baked. Her face is swollen and red, now, but the tears won’t come. ‘I’ve never been able to cry like normal people,’ she tells me. ‘It all happens in my body. This morning my back gave out and I can’t walk—that’s where it hits me. But I still haven’t cried. I was like this when my mother died. Now they’ve taken my brother! People disappear in this country when they’re arrested!’

 ‘That doesn’t happen anymore,’ I assure her. ‘That was in the nineties.’

 ‘Every day you see on the news about some mass grave they’ve dug up.’

 ‘But all that was in the nineties.’

 She’s unconvinced. ‘So many people have disappeared and never been seen again.’

 Her brother, my father-in-law’s little brother, is nowhere to be found. He’s supposed to join us, but is mostly likely drinking somewhere. He has been profoundly shaken by his brother’s arrest. We can’t tell grandfather because of his heart condition—God only knows how it will effect him. And yet it’s inevitable that he will hear about it from someone soon. Cousins and second cousins are calling to find out what’s happened, everyone worried to death. I myself am afraid to publish this for fear it will make my own mother worry too much back in the States. And what do I know anyway? My in-laws have all lived through years that make me shudder—when assassinations of Kurdish politicians, no matter how smallfry were happening everyday, and going to prison meant certain torture and mutilation. It seems different now, but then this arrest seemed impossible just a few months ago.

 It’s Sunday morning, now, and all we know is that the court’s decision will come tomorrow. He will either be released or prosecuted. In the Western news and on Al Jazeera, there is nothing about the latest political purge. They have, instead, put up articles about a suicide bombing in Bingöl that killed three people. Delal and watched the news about the bombing on TV last night.

 ‘That doesn’t seem like the PKK’s style,’ Delal said, and I began to wonder, starting to be affected by the fear and paranoia, knowing that the media now works for the government, that everything is biased, that you can take nothing at face value—maybe this is a distraction? Maybe they did the bombing themselves to take attention from the arrests? I don’t believe this, but it’s the kind of thought that starts going through your head when you no longer have access to real information and everything you read and see in the news becomes suspect, and someone you love is now in the power of something much bigger than yourself that you can neither fight nor touch nor argue against without great risk to them and yourself.

 Hopefully he will be released tomorrow. There is talk that it’s all because of a BDP political meeting that was supposed to take place today—that they merely wanted to sabotage the meeting by getting rid of its members for a day. Out of the 7000 or so people arrested over the past two years, 3000 have been released. There’s a good chance.

 This will backfire on them in the end. I hope. I hope. Young people who have never been that political are angry now, like Delal’s little sister, who watched the police drag her father away for the first time in her life (she had been very young the other times). There’s an anger when she speaks I’ve never heard before. It’s like a whole new generation is waking up. My eyes are certainly starting to open.


What can you do, reader? I don't know. You can give me advice, because I suck at this kind of thing. My ideas are those of an amateur--forward this entry to anyone who might care. Twitter it. Facebook it. You could write to Human Rights Watch at Amnesty International at To your congressman or your parliamentary representative?  Maybe a letter like this,

'In the past few days, Turkish police have arrested 42 members of the opposition BDP party, mostly Kurds. This is a political purge that over the last few years has landed over 3000 people in jail on trumped up charges of terrorism. I am deeply concerned about the prisoners and their families and urge Turkey to release them as soon as possible.' 

I know it sounds cheesy but political pressure does work. I know Tibetans who told me their torture in prison ended after letter campaigns. I take it personally because it's my father in law now. I guess to most its just another set of numbers added into the world's list of butchered and abused.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Addendum to the Last Entry

I must say that the response to the Van Earthquake kind of highlights both the best and the worst of society in Turkey. First, the generosity of the great majority of the country is breathtaking to behold--Kadıköy's city hall is sending supplies out by the truckloads, hundreds of volunteers are working for free, and most cities from East to West, AKP, BDP, MHP, or CHP (the four big parties) are doing the same. Every movie star, sit com face, and talk show host is holding telethons, and even the leader of the far right party (the MHP) has called on the racist comments to stop and for everyone to lend a hand. Many of the donations come with personal notes--one man wrote 'I have experienced earthquakes, too. I know what you're going through. If you need anything else, please call me anytime. DO NOT HESITATE!' And he left his number. The level of mobilization of aid is breathtaking.

At the same time there are constant allegations by people in Van that not enough is reaching them. An exhausted director of the Red Crescent last night begged patience. 'It is not such a simple thing to transfer tons of supplies from one side of the country to another! We are doing our best. They will get to the people who need them!' And I have driven the road to Van--and I do mean 'the road' as in the one decent road, and it was hard hard hard. But still there are allegations of corruption--which is where the other side of Turkish culture comes in--the same side I see at school and at every level of society. A complete lack of organization.  The BDP mayor of Van seems to think that his job is to be out 'calming people' instead of setting up aid convoys or help desks. A lot of supplies seem to be filtering off to people not in need--but rather to brothers and friends and relatives of the people in charge of them. A little bribe here, a little tea there, say 'abi' a few times and whine and beg and whatever you want can be yours--whether its a good grade you don't deserve, a visa stamp, a PhD, a football goal, or a Red Crescent tent you don't really need.

Like I said before, it looks like Katrina

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

If only the news would be funny...then I could--a Bit about the Van earthquake

Remember our trip to Van--it used to look like this

Why can't news anchormen be monkeys? Spider monkeys perhaps, armed with pellet guns? Then the news would be hilarious (for me at least)--all the news in Turkey recently (and elsewhere) has been unrelievably depressing. We will crawl out from under the cloud soon, with any luck, but for now, let me rain down upon the English speaking internet some of the silly things the Turkish press and politicians has been saying about the Katrina level disaster in the Kurdish city of Van.

First, we have the brunette. If you are considering these three tools as the cast of Three's Company, she'd be the Janet of the group, namely the least nauseating of the three. Her name is Duygu Canbaş (which means Feeling Life-Head). She said, on live TV as footage of the destruction scrolled beneath her, complete with dead moms and screaming babies--"Tüm Türkiye, her ne kadar Van'dan da gelse haber, üzüldü.'  'Okay, even if the news comes from Van, all of Turkey feel ssad about (the earthquake).' A barrage of angry phone calls, Tweets, and emails persuaded her to retract and qualify this statement, which my wife and thousands of others interpreted as 'Well, even if it did happen to them Kurds, we ain't completely unfeeling.' The less disgusting interpretation might be, 'Even if it didn't happen to us here, we still feel sad,' which would just imply a lack of empathy rather than an unfeeling racism. The channel says--'She didn't mean it like it sounded, honest.'
That's Duygu Canbaş between Müge Anlı and Erdoğan Bayraktar

Then we have Chrissy, the freakishly blond Müge Anlı who said on atv--another live news channel, 'The first people to intervene in Van were the very police that they make their children throw stones at!' (She's speaking about the all-powerful Kurdish boys who sometimes throw rocks at the vulnerable and brittle battle tanks.)  She goes on, 'Our poor soldiers! My little brother, Selcan, is doing his service in Van, and God willing, he will finish without a problem. May God not bring any harm to our boys! And may he break the hands of those boys (in Van) who throw stones at them! They (the Kurds) say, 'It's like hunting birds! We pick them off with stones to our hearts content. We shoot them in our mountains. But if something happens to us, oh, then it's call the police, call the army! Let's play it safe, boys. In hard times, we'll say 'oh honey baby poopsy woopsy' We won't hunt them like birds.' Well, we say, it's not that easy. We'll put you in your place!' (The Turkish is at the end of this piece if you want it...' Müge/Chrissy had to take her account of Facebook from all the angry email she received.
Müge demonstrating the odd configuration of her breasts

Our Jack is Erdoğan Bayraktar, Minister of Cities and the Environment (his experience as a developer makes him an excellent protector of the environment*) He said, in response to a reporters question about why there was still a shortage of tents in the disaster area when thousands were out on the streets in freezing whether--'Well you give them tents, and then what do they say? How about my animals?' He spent the next minute complaining about how needy everyone was acting and how the rubble that they were now living in or dying under would one day be 'sparkling clean modern new villages!'

The esteemed Minister of Cities (and oh yeah, the enviro---what?) It may not look like him but a better likeness could get me arrested by an anonymous 'patriotic' informer for aiding terrorists or whatever. (an easy way to make a lira)

On the bright side, Delal was down in Kadıköy today and said that literally hundreds were at the city hall working to send packages of blankets, water, food, toys, and warm clothes. They told her they were sending supplies to the Red Crescent and the provincial governor's office, but there were interviews all over the TV saying that these two groups and their supposed help were nowhere to be found. (Maybe they are heeding Chrissy's call to 'put them in their place'?) So Delal called up again and was assured, 'We have received so many complaints about helps from the Crescent and the governor's office, that we decided to send our own people.'  Our school has mobilized (after a few meetings of course--one to decide to have a meeting, the actual meeting itself and then a final one to evaluate the meeting), and our English department run by our intrepid Cindy--who needs no meeting--has also set up a donation point down in the school basement where the English office is. According to rumor, even the street kids of Kaıköy are gathering old boxes to put back together for shipping supplies.

The mayor of Van, Bekir Kaya, after being grilled by CNN Turk-'What exactly is the problem? The tents and supplies have been sent and you say nothing is being distributed.' Mr. Kaya answers 'As leaders, one of our biggest responsibilities is to give the public accurate information, and not pretend things have been done that haven't.' This was the beginning of a long debate--both men getting frustrated and red in the face. The anchorman shouting 'All of us want to help but you say nothing is arriving. What the hell can we do? What is the truth? Why is there no coordination there? Who is responsible? The Turkmen villages so no help is coming because you are BDP and only help Kurds. The Kurdish villages say that no one is helping them because they are Kurds. The bottom line, no one is getting help. What's the problem?' The mayor never does explain and again, a barrage of angry tweets come his way. 

It reminds me of Katrina.

* probably just complete fiction

The original Turkish of Müge Anlı
"Her fırsatta küçücük çocuklar tarafından taş attırılan polisler, olay yerine gelip ilk müdahale edenlerdi. Mehmetçik... Bizim Selcan'ın erkek kardeşi de Van'da askerlik yapıyor. Ona ve tüm askerlerimize hayırlı teskereler diliyoruz. Allah da askerimize polisimize zeval vermesin. Onlara taş atanların da elleri kırılsın. Canımız istediğinde kuş avlar gibi taş atıyoruz. Dağlarda vuruyoruz. Sonra bir şey olunca da asker gelsin, polis gelsin diyoruz. Dengeleri kuralım. Zor günlerde canım cicim. Kuş avlar gibi avlamayalım bunları. O kadar kolay değil. Herkes haddini bilecek..."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I promised something funny...I lied. Oopsie

After the Hakkari Attacks

There’s this growing sense of dread.

We are walking home from the Cuban restaurant—a night of salsa and mojitos—and suddenly we come upon the place that, just a week ago, had been a Lebanese falafel cafe. They’d had everything you could want—tabouleh, humurs, falafels, shwarma and a moody but excellent Lebanese cook who also made, from his days in the Netherlands, Holland fries. The Lebanese menu is still there below the window—but everything else is different. The name is now Ali Usta’s Liver Restaurant. The men cooking at the grill are younger and don’t speak Arabic, and the signs hanging from the second floor advertise tantuni wraps and künefe instead of lamb shwarma and falafel platters. Maybe it’s because I was discussing the belief in demons with a friend back at Cubaneo (we both come from Southern evangelical backgrounds), but I have this feeling that the place is being possessed. Something about it feels different than the buildings around it—a dark energy.  It’s such a strange metamorphosis—the Turkishness slowly creeping groundward. There are thousands of liver restaurants in Kadıköy alone.  Why do we need this clone? Why can’t this one non-Turkish restaurant not fold? Does everything have to crushed into this sameness? Why can’t they leave it alone?

I used to have a dream when I was very small. I would be playing on the street and our little house on Hampton Avenue would suddenly undergo a ghastly transformation. Towers would rise out of the roof, the windows would stretch and darken until they looked like eyes, and the tree in our yard would die and twist into a mangled claw of wood and branch. When the change was complete, the windows started to glow red. And no one else noticed but me. In the dream, my mom would come come from work and call me inside for dinner, and I always awoke as we walked in the door, feeling both relief and a presentiment of some coming doom. There were demons in there.

I lie in bed with Delal that night—she asks me if something is wrong, and I can’t quite understand why this restaurant’s closing has affected me so, and so I say nothing. When I close my eyes, I see again that bright October afternoon and we are walking into downtown Üsküdar. We passed through the bazaar and into a street market, then emerged in a crowd of cops. They were everywhere, standing in groups and staring north toward a building I recognized—the BDP headquarters where Delal, Zelal, Hoca, and I celebrated the election of thirty-six independent ministers to parliament with a euphoric crowd of election workers. I remember the wall to wall crowd cheering as each new minister was confimed—there were hugs, whoops of joy, kisses on the cheek. Now the building had been completely emptied out. There were ‘For Rent’ signs on the windows though the BDP placard still hung out front.

Delal and I hurriedly crossed the street past the milling police and she called her father (the Hoca). We stopped right in front of the entrance to the street market, and she began speaking Kurdish loudly into the phone. A headscarved woman started staring at Delal first, running her eyes from head to foot in a kind of wide-eyed fear. Then a man behind her stopped to watch as well. The sound of the language had clearly disturbed them. But were either of them undercover cops? Or just potential leaders of a mob? Or maybe were they just maybe staring for no reason at all. I kept stealing glances at the party building, the windows showing empty rooms—floor after floor of nothing and yet the bright yellow BDP sign still hung out front, destined for destruction.

Red Turkish flags fly everywhere, a statement not of morning but of war. The threats from the Prime Minister’s Office increase. Official reports place the number of Turkish soldiers killed in the Hakkari attacks at 24 but uncomfirmed reports from Kurdish channels say its more likely around 80. This is the biggest PKK assault since the early 90s at the height of the undeclared civil war. Who’s telling the truth? Who knows? They’re taking back the story of the 22 batallions over the border—‘Most of our troops are operationg inside the country; the invasion story was a misunderstanding,’ they say now. How could they have gotten something like that wrong? Last night on a news program a woman said, ‘We should have completely assimilated the Kurds when we had the chance.’ Left no trace of them. Erasing a people perhaps is a logical solution for a place where a genocide and several ethnocides have never been answered for, much less called ‘wrong’.

It was a gorgeous Fall afternoon in Üskudar—crowded, noisy, but the October sky had that haunted look my dream used to have, and glancing around at the dense cluster of buildings and banks and mosques and cafes it seemed like they had undergone some sort of change—there was a spirit in them now, something demonic.

The friend who I talked with about demons has a wife who works at a school teaching business classes. Her students had told her the night before that there had been terrorist attacks by the BDP. In the minds of the mob, the PKK are the BDP are the Kurds. There’s no difference. The BDP had attacked no one, but their offices were being attacked all over the country—masses of people marching in the street crying out the glory of the Turkish nation and their soldiers. Why does mourning for soldiers you’ve never met always turn into such savagery?

Demons. My sister’s mother in law ran a church in North Carolina. At some services, they performed exorcisms. My brother-in-law told me when he was young that he remembered sitting in the back pews and watching a man come up to the altar. The preacher lay his hands on the man’s forhead and the man began to shake, then a ball of fire erupted from his body and swept past the whole congregation and out the door. He trembled when he told this story—I know he believed it. His mother confirmed it. She’d laugh and slap your knee if you questioned her about it, and say ‘Lord, honey, I cast out devils every day. That was nothing!’

We are in no immediate danger, I’m sure of it. But something is not right, here. It hangs in the air like an invisible cloud. Maybe it will pass quickly. The students at school are planning some kind of demonstration on Monday—there’s a call for everyone to wear black (though I suspect this is a rather unscrupulous attempt to get out of wearing school uniforms). At lunch, a woman got angrily up from the table when I was talking too loudly about the injustice of assimilation.

By the pricking of my thumb, the witches said, something wicked this way comes.
Nazlı Ilıcak is the journalist who said 'I wish we could have assimilated them completely, but we couldn't and now we are stuck with giving them 'democratic rights'.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

More War on Terror

The smashed busstops in Kadıköy on September 1st

     I turned 40 on September 1st. My friends took me on a picnic and swim to Heybeli Island--it was a strange, unhappy day despite all our best efforts. All day long there was a tension in the air--nothing felt right. When we got off the ferry that night in Kadıköy, we found the area around the wharf devastated by rioting. The glass around the bus stops was smashed. The newspaper kiosks were also crushed. The windows of the Conservatory were broken and police barricades littered the streets. We called Hocam (Delal's father)--he had been part of a peace protest that day and we were worried something had happened to him.
     'The police attacked us,' he said. 'Some of our young men were carrying banners calling for the release of Öcalan. They got mouthy with the riot police and the police responded by throwing tear gas (the solution to everything). Within minutes it was utter chaos.'
     I remember the busride home that night, straight through the rubble around the wharf--nothing good would come of this.

     Almost two months later--this happened.
      Last night, when I got home, Delal had prepared a Kurdish meal of keşkek and pırgaç—one a buttery porridge of bulgur, the other a hearty bread traditionally eaten by shepherds. All over the TV was the news that the PKK had attacked a town in Hakkari the night before and killed 24 ‘martyrs’. The whole country was up in arms, and being part of a Kurdish family suddenly felt like a dangerous thing. All over my Facebook were Turkish friends posting denunciations of the BDP, the mostly Kurdish political party that Delal and I acted as election monitors for. People called them terrorists, collaborators, traitors—though the party itself and all its members have time and time again denounced the attacks. Lies! Everyone screams. And that’s the problem really, as usual, that everyone is out screaming hysterically—unquestioning, violent nationalism is the mood everywhere you look.

          Delal keeps erasing people on my Facebook page that display the Turkish flag. The flag waving I can understand—though I have never been a flag waver. When your country is attacked, you feel attacked and the flag is an easy and powerful symbol of nation and solidarity. What enrages Delal is, of course, that the flag is used for a lot more things than protecting Turkey—and the people who wave it generally are not the gentle patriot type. Under that banner, thousands of Turkey’s own citizens have been tortured (in Diyarbakır’s infamous prison number 9, for example, and indeed all over the country). Whole races have been massacred (the Armenians,the Chaldeans, the Suryani, the Dersimlis, the Alevis) or driven out of the country and homes by state sponsored violence (the Greeks in the 50s, the Kurds in the 90’s, the Romany). The symbol is tainted by the fascist regime of Kenan Evren in the 80s and the legions of murdered in its name. Now Kurds are once again ‘the enemy’ and quite normal people are crying for blood—the blood of my wife and her family. And as they shout their battle cry, that flag is in their hands. I feel the threat, too.  The whole ride home from school, the flag was everywhere and it felt like the watching eyes of some Big Brother.

            ‘They’re sending in 22 battalions into Iraq!’ Dede cries when I got home. ‘All hope for peace is gone!’

           My Kurdish family members do not approve of the attack. They are not happy those men died. They are not secretly funding the PKK. We all sat last night together and watched the news in horror. And yet they are targets today.

            The BDP is in trouble for NOT calling the attack an act of terrorism. Since it targeted soldiers and gendarmes, I don’t really think it fits either. Terrorism, as I understand it, is a political attack against unarmed citizens.  This fits the bombing in Ankara a few weeks ago, but not an assault on soldiers. It's a war and you don't need to call it terrorism to be sad about its casualties. Of course, reason is not what people want. It’s blood. I am reminded of the United States after the 9/11 attacks. People all over the country who resembled Muslims were attacked and in some cases, murdered brutally. The mentality became a primitive, brutal, tribalism and I don’t think it has really lifted all that much. It’s ugliness still leaves a stain on everything we touch. Now Turkey is sending an invasion force into Iraq to combat the ‘terrorists’ while the very people who support the invasion still point the finger at the US in false indignation—‘How dare you invade Iraq! Think of all the babies you’ve killed!’

            Hypocrisy, perfidy, opportunism—the human cocktail.

            I felt the same sort of sick feeling in my stomach this weekend when we watched Inside Job—a documentary about how the financial ‘engineers’ of Wall Street robbed the country blind, plunged the world into a Depression—millions upon millons out of work, plunged into poverty and robbed of their homes--and they were never punished. These same people are on the TV now condemning the Wall Street protesters for instigating ‘class warfare’ and ‘pitting American against American’.  And everyone sits around nodding like a bunch of Stepford Wives. Doesn’t the corruption stink up their own mouths as they say this shit?

            Next on my blog agenda is something funny to wash all the world’s filth out of my head.
            I mourn the soldiers killed--some of them could have been my old students--and I mourn also the murders yet to come from both sides, one of them with the might of a modern State behind it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Scalawags, the Seven Stomachs, and Pir Sultan Abdal.

Dosya:Bulent Arinc.jpg
Hey poor people. I am only trying to help you quit smoking.  Think of me as a political nicotine patch.

Before I start this up…this weeks perfidy champion is Vice President Bulent Arınç. You see, the government has raised gas and electricity prices this year. I wasn’t thrilled, but could understand higher prices for resources among the deepening crisis, falan filan. But then Arınç goes on TV and explains that the price hike is for our health. To wit, the lack of money will help us stop spending money on unhealthy things like cigarettes and cell phones. ‘Some people actually have two cell phones!’ he says in horror. 

You might want to skim down to the end.  The music there is fan-f'ing-tastic

An Old Alevi Tradition Passed On to Me

It’s not like anyone named me Eamon or Aloyisius or Zaqrtyux. My name is not hard to pronounce, and yet no one makes use of it. My mother calls me Joe for obscure reasons (don’t like the name you first picked out, Mom?) Delal’s grandparents on her mother’s side call me Jack, while Dede calls me Cem. There’s at least a reason for that. For someone completely unfamiliar with English, Cem (pronounced like ‘gem’) is the closest thing to Jeff he knows. And yet we subtly try to correct him whenever we get the chance. These days, as a full fledged family member, I now have been given the responsibilty of phoning Dede from time to time. But the quandary remains, how to break the ice when he picks up the phone.

 ‘Hi Dede, it’s me….um….Cem....Jeff…Jefcem?’ Or maybe just talk till he recognizes my voice.

Today is one of the interminable weddings, and Dede comes over for tea before we head out. We are chatting about Kurdish names.

‘So are Heval and Delal and Zelal the old Kurdish names?’ I ask.

‘No, no! In the old days we used the good-old reliable names--Suleyman, Mehmet, Ali. We named each other after the prophets and the saints. I’m Mehmet, my father was Suleyman, his father was Suleyman, his father Mehmet.’

‘I see.’

‘But you, Cem, you have a good name. It means something in our language, too.’

I pause with tea in mid-air. ‘Actually.…’

Cem is the name of our holiest ceremony,’ he goes on. ‘You know, we’re Alevis. We go to the Cem ceremony to worship. In the Cem house everyone is equal, men and women, poor and rich. We are all human beings first! It’s a good, noble name, and you should be proud of it.’

So much for that. I am Cem forever now.

This line of talk launches Dede off on the topic of being Alevi in the old days.

‘Things are so different now. You have courts. Today they’re arresting people left and right, but when I was a boy, you went to the pir if you had a complaint. He was the leader of the village cem. Then he would gather up his congregation, you know, everybody in the community, and they would have a meeting and make a decision. We never had one murder in Conag. Never.’

‘Impressive,’ I say.

‘And then there was the musahip.

Back in college, a few friends and I discovered each other (They also call me a variety of names I won’t mention here.) We were the misfits, the weirdoes, and because of a kind of esprit de corps, we became very attached. At one point, I remember discussing a plan for the end of our lives. When all the children were grown and neglecting us, when we had nothing better to do than sit by the phone and wait for young’uns who never call to call—then we were going to pack up our stuff like hobos, get back together at a point on the railroad tracks in Florida (home forever) and start walking. A last adventure—kind of like Eskimos sending their elderly off on iceflows.

If we had been Kurds before assimilation, we would have become this thing called musahip.

The musahip is a special kind of relationship observed by Alevis way back when. Dede explains as I fix more tea. I decide to cut it with fresh milk instead of water, Dede’s idea.  Delal has been buying farm milk from the Thursday Market, and Dede told me that it would be delicious with tea.

‘My father used to do it,’ he said. ‘All the time. Of course he preferred coffee. We’d roast and grind our own right in the village, but you can’t find coffee beans anymore.’

It is a late October afternoon, and that clear autumn sunlight falls behind him over the rooftops and skeletons of the rising skyscrapers of the neighborhood called New Sahara. Behind me, the TV has been muted but is set to the Kurdish Roj TV which is showing footage of rock throwing boys confronting tanks.

‘Everything from the old days has been taken away!’ he said. ‘Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Like having a musahip.’

In my entries on Conag, I spoke about Ali.  I mostly glossed over him because to explain his actual relationship to Delal and to me would have taken a few paragraphs. He is the grandson of Dede’s musahip, and therefore, by custom and ceremony, equal to a blood cousin.

‘When you’re young,’ Dede told me, ‘And you have a close friend, you make a pact, a promise to each other a lot like a marriage. There’s a ceremony in front of everybody in the village—there must be witnesses, and from then on you are like brothers, even closer than brothers.’

‘Really? So how did your ceremony go?’

He looks down as if thinking, and then suddenly raises a finger in an aha moment.

 ‘Yes! There’s a story. A long time ago there was a great Alevi teacher named Pir Sultan Abdal.  He was hung by Hizir Pasha who was a very oppressive dictator of the people. He was hung and as he dangled there, the crowd started to throw stones. Now he had a musahib. His name was Ali Baba, I think. And I guess Ali got caught up in the crowd fever and didn’t want to stick out, because he decided to throw something, too, just for show, but to not hurt Pir Sultan Abdal, he threw a rose instead of a rock.  As he breathed his final breath, Pir Sultan Abdal told his musahib to go home. ‘Because your flower has hurt me more than all their stones put together.’  Ali Baba went to his own house and there found his wife making bread. ‘Pir Sultan Abdal has been hung!’ he said. ‘My brother is lost! Do you know what his last words to me were?’ The wife shook her head. ‘He said go home!’ At that, his wife put the dough she was kneading down and began to rhythmically brush the flour from her hands.’

Dede demonstrates, patting his knees as if beating out a drum rhythm.

‘Why are you here then?’ said the wife. ‘You should be home.’ ‘But I am,’ the man protested. ‘You’re home is not here,’ she said. ‘Not anymore.’ And the man understood then, that he now belonged to the house of Pir Sultan Abdal! And do you know our women still do this when they make bread?’

And he kept drumming his knees in that rhythmic way.

‘They hung him in Sivas,’ he went on. ‘Centuries ago. And then just a few decades ago they came back and massacred all the Alevis there again. They called them infidels and traitors.  I tell you I can’t understand it. A human being is a human being. You do your best not to hurt others.’

Dede is wearing his cap and brown jacket, looking a bit dapper for the wedding we have to go to later. The incident he speaks of was at the Mardımak Hotel in Sivas in 1993. A mob, probably instigated by the police, tried to burn to death the participants at an Alevi conference in honor of Pir Sultan Abdal, partly because one of the guests was Aziz Nesin who had translated segments of the Satanic Verses. Thirty seven people died.

‘So what was your musahib ceremony like?’ I repeated. ‘You know, where you make your promise.’

‘You wear a white shirt and underwear.  Like a shroud.  No, not a shroud exactly, but like the white robes they wear to Mecca.  You take all of your old clothes off and put these white ones on.  Then sometimes you go down to the river and stay.  And there you die together--not really of course, but symbolically.  That’s the meaning of the white clothes—death to your old life. Not everyone does this, though. Of course in the old days, you and your musahip would wear the same shirt.  I mean, they’d put you in the same shirt and you would become one that way, but we never did anything like that. People way back then were strange.’

I nod to let him know that I think it’s a little freakish, too.

‘Now no one did this until they were at an age where, you know, they knew good from evil, right from wrong. You had to be mature enough to make this kind of decision, but after that, you could be joined together. Your children cannot get married because they’re considered family. And if someone hurts your musahip it’s the same as hurting you. Of course, this is a very serious relationship, stronger than blood, so you had to speak to your wife and family. It seals a relationship for seven stomachs, so you must get permission from all sides.’

‘Seven stomachs?’

‘You know, his children and children’s children and children’s children’s children.’

‘Seven generations.’

He points his finger and grins. ‘Right! Exactly! Seven generations.’

‘So Delal and I are only the second stomach down, eh?’

‘Yes! So your children can’t marry Ali’s for example. Anyway, after you make your decision, you announce it in front of everyone. The pir explains all the responsibilities.’ Dede wags his finger in imitation of a holy man’s voice. ‘You are entering into a very solemn thing. You must be sure. Take a year and get to know each other. If after that year, you still want to be musahip, then we’ll do the ceremony.’

One Alevi sheikh says this, ‘A musahip must know his or her musahip’s inner world.’

‘A musahip can be a woman or a man,’ Dede goes on with a shrug like que sera sera. ‘In the Cem, we are all just human beings after all. I had two musahips in my life, Ahmet and his wife Hatun.’

He starts to pull up his sleeve and runs his hand up and down his arm.

‘When I did it, we also had a branch wrapped up in green cloth. It was as big as my arm.  It came from a sacred tree, maybe one in Mecca? I’m not sure. But the Pir hit us each in the shoulders with it and said prayers over us.’

He smacks himself on one shoulder and nods.

‘Just like that.’

We sip our tea in silence for a moment, looking out at the buildings in New Sahra.

‘And oh yeah,’ he says. ‘Some even say the Prophet Mohammed had a musahip. I almost forgot. I think the story goes that one day the Prophet went home to his wife. He smelled something in the house, something really nice, a rosy fragrance and he asked his wife what it was. The sweater (hirka) of his musahip had arrived as a gift and a beautiful aroma lingered on it from the man himself, detectable only to Mohammed himself.’ Dede shrugs. ‘That’s what they say, at least. Rumor and gossip. His name was, let me see…yes! Veysel Karani.’

Some historical stuff:

Veysel Karani was a man contemporary with Mohammed, a camel herder famous for his devotion to his mother. He was not able to go and visit the Prophet because he was too busy carrying for his blind and lame mom. He sent a sweater to the Prophet instead, as a gift. He later died fighting as a partisan of the Prophet Ali, which may explain why the Alevis like him.

The other man Dede mentioned was Pir Sultan Abdal. Whenever they Alevis have a demonstration or a march, they use the symbol of a man holding up a bağlama—if you don’t look closely, it resembles a rifle. This is Pir Sultan Abdal—poet, musician, rebel, and symbol of the Alevis. He died as Dede explained after leading a rebellion against the Ottoman governor Hızır Paşa.

According to the website of the Young Alevi Movement: ‘The roots of the Musahip go back to the Prophet Ali. He once said, ‘All people are spiritual brothers—from either faith or from creation’ With these words, Ali underlined the two aspects of brother (or sister) hood—genetic and spiritual. It is possible to characterize the relationship of Ali and Mohammed as Musahip.’

Dede’s musahib passed several years ago, but the responsibility has passed onto us, the second (or would it be third?) ‘stomach’ down. We’ll have to keep any future daughters away from any of cousin Ali’s future sons…or vice versa.
Not sure this is true...but two of the all time türkü/bağlama masters is Muharrem Ertaş and his son Neşet. A couple of website claims Ertaş (born in a village called Abdallar) is the 8th generation grandson of Pir Sultan.  In any case, this song is amazing.  The caption says--although not an exact translation, I think it captures the spirit 'Heart! What are you looking for in this place of wandering? Muharrem Ertaş-Pir Sultan Abdal.'  Someone correct me if I am wildly wrong!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Journey to Van--A Pictoral Entry

This is going to be a quick visual run-through of our trip to Van--I think images are really the only way to explain this place after a point because the landscape was just so mindblowing.

The first place we stopped was the small city of Tatvan in Bitlis province. This is the home of one of Turkey's Mt. Nemruts--not the one with the famous heads of the Komagene kings, but the other one, you know, with the chain of volcanoes filled with crater lakes?

From Tatvan, you drive up the inevitable horrifying road, straight up past villages and goats into the mouth of the ancient volcano. Sometimes the sides of the dirt road are washed away. Sometimes the potholes are so big you have to descend into them and ease out, but once you make it to the top you are rewarded with stunning scenery. We took a detour down a cowpath that barely accomodated the width of our car--at times we actually had to jump small faultlines in the road where there was nothing for the tires to hold onto, but we ended up in a place like this.

 Now Dede was as transfixed as the rest of us and wandered around exploring rock and brush. We even sat down for an evening picnic, and he commented how stunning the scenery was.  'What is this place?' he said in wonder. But then we heard the yelps. Howls and squawks and yips echoed across the lake. Dede's head lifted suddenly. 'Jackals!' And he started gathering up our food and packing it away. 'Oh Dede, they're far away, no need to worry!' And suddenly, the lakes became the ugliest place in the world. 'Look,' he said, 'What's so special about this place anyway? You can see an old lake anywhere. I'm actually quite bored, so let's go ahead and get out of here! Hadi hadi!'

The plant life here was very curious. First there were these luminous coils of wheat colored grass. Then there were the spiky purple flowers that you find all over Kurdistan. Not exactly something you want to stick your nose into because it's a bit thorny, but nevertheless very pretty.

Then we traveled another two or three hours around the shores of the great lake to the city of Van. About thirty miles outside of the city itself is the port for the ferry to the church of Akdamar, an ancient Armenian cathedral with the ruins of a monastery around it. There is a legend about a Christian daughter of a priest and a Muslim shepherd boy falling in love. The girl's name was Tamar, and her father was not pleased with her choice of beaus. So he dragged her out to this island for safekeeping. She was a naughty girl though, and would signal her lover from shore with a lantern at which point he'd swim to her in the middle of the night and do the deed on the island's shore (washing his clothes in the process because the lake is so full of different salts and sodas, you don't need laundry detergent). Well, the father caught wind of this monkey business and locked her up one night, then took the lantern out on a boat and left it in the middle of the lake. The shepherd boy swam to it as always, but finding himself exhausted and in the middle of nothing, drowned. The last words on his lips were 'Ah! Tamar!' and that's how the island got its name.

For years, Aktamar has been falling into ruin and only recently has the Turkish government allowed Christians to have services here and made any effort at keeping it up.  It's very existence is a little annoying to the establishment as it implies Armenians might once have lived here. They often play it off as being very ancient and all a very long time ago.  Right.

The carvings on the side are extraordinary--stories from the Bible and animals and intricate vines.

After Akdamar we head to Van and go straight to Van Castle, the stunning medieval fortress that sits over the city. It was occupied by the Russians during World War 1, but abandoned when the revolution started, leaving the Armenians to protect it alone. The Ottomans made short work of them and now the castle and everything around it is in utter ruin--here once stood centuries upon centuries of churches and mosques together.  We were guided around by one of the Kurdish boys who roam the ruins looking for tourists--this one was quite informative.

We ended with a Van breakfast at sunset in a square named for the Kurdish poet Ahmed Xani. It was good tea, carted all the way from Tatvan in our trusty thermos. Ramadan ensured the streets were utterly deserted--all the stores covered in metal gates and so we could not partake in the genuine Van breakfast. This was the day of the bombing in Hakkari and so on the way home we experienced the only encounter with a soldier the whole trip--he stopped us on the way out of the city, took a look at the foreigner, the old man, and the two girls, and waved us on with a smile and iyi geceler.