Monday, April 30, 2012

Serendipity 2--The Oldest Temple in the World, URFA

We are traveling North from Urfa—the city of prophets, of pilgrims and lost gods. And colors. Women wander the bazaars with tattooed faces, saffron dresses and bright purple head scarves. Pink pours from the lilacs and cherry trees. The markets are filled with mounds of red isot pepper—crimsons, brick reds, clay colored, maron—and the wide pans in front of the tantuni shops bubble with red peppers. 

The Columns At the Throne of Nimrod Overlooking Urfa
The women in the market--pic by Delal

Everything sentence here begins with the ‘Oldest in the World’. The ruins of Nimrod’s castle loom over a mosque built around the cave where they say Abraham was born. In another cave a kilometer out of the city (they say) the prophet Job endured the plagues sent down by God.
North—outside the city. The landscape is haunting, empty—groves of pistachio trees growing out of a deep red earth. The trees are bare, buds just appearing in bright green spots along their bodies. Clusters of huge boulders and rocks boil up out of the ground—little cliffs and canyons filled with new spring grass, neon-green and splattered with patches of butter colored flowers. The sky is big, bigger than I’ve ever seen and empty. This is the oldest place of civilization in the world. The first wild grains were domesticated here. The first cities built here. The first animals domesticated.
We turn down a dirt road and start to wind up through rocky hills. The lowlands spread out for miles—patches of gold and tan and green. There’s not a house in sight, not a village or car—just one shepherd with a herd of sheep that waddle off the road in a clang of bells as we pass.
The horizon has no end.

The road to Göbeklitepe
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We are driving toward a mound in the distance called Göbekli Tepe, The Potbellied Hill (click here for a link). Buried here for thousands upon thousands of years is a monument to gods long lost and buried. There are acres of rings of standing stones. The people of Mesopotamia raised them over  11,500 years ago. The first faith—before Chronus and Rhea, before Yahweh, before the Earth Mother, before Osiris and the Vedas. 6000 years older than Stonehenge, 7000 years older than the Great Pyramids. It came before pottery, before the wheel, before writing, before everything.
Most historians believe that organized religion formed after human beings developed agriculture. The logic goes like this—large scale farming required people to stay put and work together—and thus form cities. This level of organization led to organized faith, complete with ceremonies and rituals and formal myth.  But the temples here came before farming—their sheer size required, by some estimates, the organized labor of at least five hundred men. Animal bones were found everywhere but no evidence of cooking fires or houses—suggesting that game was gathered from miles away and brought here for sacrifice. Mass worship—the suggestion is that it wasn’t agriculture that created cities, but the impulse to worship. A longing to touch the other world. To explain why we die. To account for all the mystery.
The view from Göbekli Tepe is astounding. In the west you can see Yaşar Kemal’s Taurus Range, still crowned in snow.  A rocky path leads up the hill toward the site of the first excavation. There are T-shaped megaliths arranged in a circle in a pit.  Some of them have animals carved into them—foxes and snarling boars, ducks and vultures.  The boar is fearsomely detailed—with fangs and snarl and raging eyes. One tall megalith catches my attention above all the others. On the bottom, a human form is carved from the waist down. The genitals are covered with the pelt of a large animal—like a wolf or a fox. It has legs and feet. Above the waist, the stone is blank—a smooth pale surface except for these enormously long arms. They stretch from unseen shoulders, three to four times the length of the legs and as thin and spidery as the arms of the aliens in Close Encounters. They float in nothingness—no head, no neck, no body of any kind.
‘This must have been their god,’ Delal says.
               And there’s something unsettling about it, an image floating out of the subconcious. Something behind the door in the dream. Why should worship be the driving impulse?  Magic and myth and mysticism.
                I have these dreams of the dead. Sometimes my grandmother, now thirty years in the grave, still lives in her old house on Hampton Avenue back in Lakeland, Florida. I find myself at the back door, the one that led into the Florida room from the patio, and she is in her chair watching television.  Without looking up, she asks where I’ve been.  She looks older, but alive. The sunlight has a strange quality as it pours through the jalousies—this whole world is the skin of a soap bubble, whirls of color and something that makes you stop in child-wonder, but you know it’s going to burst. And then it does, and I wake up, and there’s this buried wound that throbs so softly under the skin, it’s like it’s singing to me.
                Or I dream of my father. He’s living in a trailer near Gainesville, bagging groceries at the Winn Dixie. ‘I thought you were dead!’ I say. He takes it in stride. We drive out in a car neither of us has ever owned deep into the woods. We’re going to Lake City down a road that is miles and miles of pine scrub without a break in sight. If you look too hard at the sky you can see it’s blue surface tremble. It’s a bubble too, drifting toward the gentle burst lifts me awake and I think if I had just gone a little further into the woods, there would have been an answer.
Death was the universal 12,000 years ago as it is now. For both me and the people that worshipped here, there was that undiscovered country out of which creatures like this long armed faceless giant might emerge. It holds that old insight—the gods cannot be looked at directly or imagined in full. There is another carving around the other side, a vulture holds a human head in its wings.  Carved on the stone below is a headless human body. It could mean anything—but maybe it’s what they thought happened to their dead friends and family. They had watched the birds pick at corpses and then fly upward—perhaps they thought they carried the dead to heaven.  
The Stone on the left is the vulture god with the head in it's hands

This place is still charged. We find arrow heads as we walk—cream orange and grey flint stones lying in the dirt.  Sheep bleat. The hot wind makes the fields of grass and flowers ripple. Thomas Wolfe began the chronicle of his youth with these words, ‘A stone, a leaf, an unfound door, and all of the forgotten faces.’
Loss and faith seem so entertwined—nothing makes me believe in a God more than that mysterious pain of a long-ago grief.  My old faith begins with loss—God drove Adam and Eve from home, from their garden, and placed terrible cherubim with flaming swords at each corner to make sure they never ever entered again--a violent, final ripping you out of home, the return guarded by monsters. Genesis says ‘The Lord God sent Adam forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken.’ Some historians say that  the Genesis story might be an old folk myth about the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture, from a time when you could pluck food from the trees to a time when you had to sweat and labor to plant it—a loss of a more intimate connection to the natural world. The archaeologist who works this site says that Göbekli Tepe may be an illustration of that story. It lies between the Tigris and Euphrates of Eden and marks a deep irrevocable change in the human species.
A Kurdish teenager in sunglasses explains the site to us—he works with the archaeologists and sells standing stone ashtrays and guidebooks from a folding table at the fence gate.  The wind whips the  money we lay on the table up into his face.
One cannot almost feel the giant Cherubim near, circling and circling the sacred space—their faces hidden, their swords swinging in their long arms, the blades pure lava flame.

A self proclaimed 'subject of many pictures'--'I am in coffee table books' he says

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Holy Crap! Apologies and the Armenian Genocide without the Quotes!

                I have checked gravity several times and asked the people I spoke to today if, in fact, they are imaginary. I had Delal slap me around a few times to make sure I was awake, and I encourage you all to double check this news as soon as you finish reading to ensure that I am not under the influence of some kind of hallucinogen, but it does indeed seem that one of the AKP’s members of Parliament—right, the same guys who brought you mass arrests of just about everybody—apologized for the Armenian Genocide. Here in Turkish.

His name is İsmet Uçma and he’s a super conservative AKP founding father from Ordu.
AK Partili milletvekili Ermenilerden özür diledi
İsmet Uçma of Ordu--what that boy say?


Okay, he didn’t use the G word—he did say, however, that it was  ‘the exile of a race’ and blamed the Committee of Union and Progress (the government at the time). He went on to say even crazier things like, ‘Their pain is our pain. We need to open the borders with Armenia and give the Armenians peace of mind and comfort. From the Deportations to the Diaspora, from the issue of compensation to Sabiha Gökçen, we need to display an approach to many issues that rethinks the old cliches. The ones who made the Armenians and all our country men suffer in those days was the Committee for Union and Progress. Those responsible for all of these things are not us, but the CUP. However, we must be able to say that ‘we apologize for certain things that you went through in our mutual past.’ This apology I personally make for the ‘Race Exile’.

When asked what the Deportations were he said, ‘If you were to confuse the struggle against the PKK with the struggle against a whole people, then something tragic would occur. You cannot explain. We must look at the Armenian bandits who conspired with other countries and our Armenian compatriots driven into exile differently. The CUP saw them as one and made all the Armenians pay the price. There are other examples of deportations in history, but people who are deported must not even suffer so much as a nosebleed on the journey. Was this true of the Armenian Deportations? No.’

And finally, most startling of all considering my previous posts on Hrant Dink….

‘Sabiha Gökçen was an Armenian orphan from Bursa. She was Mustafa Kemal’s adopted daughter. You took that child, raised her and made her into a pilot. But you raised her in such a way that she could bomb Dersim later in life.’

Of course, the BDP’s Sırrı Sürreya Önder was more direct (and probably a bit more sincere--in Turkish here), but this is no surprise. What was a surprise was that he said it in a press conference with the Turkish Parliament—something that would have gotten him assassinated or at the very least, arrested, a couple of years ago.  ‘We joined the demonstration in Taksim to commemorate and mourn the Armenian Genocide and share their pain. Such things happened on our soil. The CUP committed a great massacre which everyone in the world calls a genocide.  Like their bodies, their cultural and material goods were pillaged. By defending ourselves with excuses like  ‘Our grandfathers didn’t do it’, we become accomplices in the crime of murder.’ He went on to say, ‘As a member of the HDK (People’s Democratic Congress) and a member of parliament, I recommend that April 24th be set aside as day of sharing our grief and pain.’ 

And the times, they are a changing. I hope.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Night of the Blind

(In light of April 24th, I thought I would post this piece about the night of my father-in-law's arrest)

Sidney Robertson Cowell

If this were a movie, the first scene would play this music.*

It’s the evening of October 28th, a Friday, and the weather is gray and wet. It’s getting cold. Galata Tower has it’s head in rain clouds and a ring of tourists stare down at us from its parapets through the eyes of their camera lenses, like a troop of cyclopses, their flashes white flares against the ever darkening sky.

We’re hurrying down to a dinner-theater called Karanlıkta Yemek (Dıning in Darkness). Our friends Cari and Stephen come running behind us—we might be late. (But then this is Turkey—one is never late!) We’re wearing false smiles so as not to ruin their evening, and just maybe to trick ourselves. But the sense of menace clings to us.  

Karanlıkta Yemek was founded by a group called the Blind Photographer’s Project, and like many similar projects around the world, was designed to fight prejudice against the blind by immersing customers in their world for the night.

On this October night, they are serving mulled wine and putting on a concert in memory of the Armenian composer Soghomon Gevorgi Soghomonyan, better known as Komitas Vardipet, who died in a Paris asylum 76 years before on the 22nd. He was deported from Istanbul at the launching of the Armenian Genocide on April 24th, 1915, when 250 Armenian intellectuals were arrested throughout the city and sent to a camp in Çankırı, a way station on the road to extermination in the deserts of Syria’s Der Zor. Though summoned back from annihilation through the intercession of powerful friends, Komitas never mentally recovered from the things he’d seen on the trip out. (And just what had he seen?)

Deportations and round ups, random arrests of people branded as traitors and terrorists based on their ethnicity. Made up charges and hidden plans. The past is never past in Istanbul. It keeps cycling back, like that mythical Kraken whose existence the villagers deny, but that nevertheless rises out of that murky lake to eat one of their daughters every year.  

Well it was our turn this year. We’ve given that sacrifice this year. We’ve seen the monster below the dark waters come for us.

Unbeknownst to our friends, just an hour before, Delal and I were in the Istanbul Eminiyet Müdürlüğü, the Security Bureau—we were trying to get news of her father who had been taken that morning in a nationwide round-up of Kurdish intellectuals and their supporters. Delal had brought a blood-sugar test kit. Her father was diabetic, but honestly it was just an excuse to make contact—without a medical emergency of some kind, any and all communication would be forbidden during the first 48 hours of detention. I couldn’t get the dottering old security guard’s grinning reassurance out of my head—‘Don’t worry, they will treat him well. They don’t torture or mistreat like they did in the old days.’

The old days.

The old days are what cast such long shadows on the events of today. There are the nearby old days filled with faili meçhul –the ‘perpetrator unknown’ assassinations of Kurds and leftists by secret government orders. And then there are the faraway old days of the Armenian Genocide—with all the massacres and pogroms before and between—the Hamidian massacres, the Dersim massacres, the Greek pogrom of 1955, the Alevi massacre in Maraş, the fire at the Madımak Hotel.

They’ll tell you there’s no monster in Turkey, they’ll assassinate you for talking about it, but then the surface of the waters will start to tremble.

The lobby of Karanlıkta Yemek is bustling with people checking their coats and having one last chat on their cell phones. A Braille Turkish Playboy lies on a coffee table. Photographs fill the walls—black and whites, abstracts. The time to start is called and we banter with our friends as we descend the stairs into the restaurant of the blind.  We are all chattering excitedly. What will it be like?  Will I knock over a table on someone?  Will Stephen spill his wine? Will we freak out?  There are black lights at the entrance that make our teeth and eyes glow—we laugh and make toothy Joker grins at each other. I had done this before in Atlanta with my mother and niece—I figured I’d be okay. 

We are escorted inside as a chain of blind souls—each with his or hand on the shoulder of the person in front. We wind around a maze of tables through the scent of spice and wine. I see only one single red spot of light in the far corner—a camera? An exit sign? Our escort seats us with a shove down on our shoulders and then explains that our wine is on the table already. We gently spider our fingers forward across the table cloth until they close around the stem of the glass. 

The program begins with a biography of Komitas. He was born in Kütahya.

Now I have this penchant for finding connections—they aren’t always so meaningful, history wise, and yet I find them haunting. They’re like déjà vu’s—fleeting, sharp, and yet elusive. The more I try to get at their meaning, the less focused they seem.  For example, Komitas being born in Kütahya.

I first came to Turkey because of a friend from that city—in fact, he has played a pivotal role in my life here and I have spent several Bayram holidays in Kütahya with his family. I’ve trekked the mountains outside of the city, bathed in her hamams, had tea on the ruins of the old castle as the ezan echoed around the cliffs. I’ve visited the Mevlevi dervish lodge, the Roman ruins, sat in on a zikr with Rifai mystics. I’ve tasted his mother’s exquisite breads and böreks, her divinely inspired mantı. Yet there was no mention of Komitas while I was in the city, no mention of Armenians at all—no brown historical sign, no plaque in the city museum. I remember only the book on my friend’s shelf which told me all I needed to know about how the subject was viewed at home. It was by Samiha Ayverdi, a mystic and writer revered by his family. The book was titled ‘Turkey’s Armenian Problem’.  ‘We have remained silent,’ the back cover reads, ‘While this campaign of groundless lies and slander snowballs out of control.’

I wrote about the ezan in Kütahya and my first namaz at the Great Mosque in the city center—it was my first published piece about Turkey. And here is a second dimension to the connection I make--one of the first and certainly most moving pieces of music we hear that night at the Dinner for the Blind is a rendering of the ezan by Komitas, who was the first to put the Muslim call to prayer into western notations—an astounding act of humanity if you think about it (and it may have happened while he was listening to the muezzin of the same Great Mosque I unwittingly wrote about). A Christian Armenian recognizing the beauty in the rival faith and committing it to paper. The soloist is Gülay Arslan—a native of Erzincan, Kurdish most likely from a part of the country where Armenians once lived.

One of the last songs of the night has another parallel that is more disturbing—and in that panicky, nervous first night of my father-in-law’s captivity, it completely chilled my heart. Back in the early 20th century, around the time of the genocide, Delal’s great grandfather, Mehmet Suleyman, left his family in Conag and went half-way around the world to the United States. He stayed for nearly fifty years. No one knows what he did while he was there, or how he got there, or why—but given the timing we suspect that he either knew the way because of, or escaped with the Armenians.  He came back in the 1960s when he was already quite old and divulged nothing about his life in America. We do know that he had two addresses, one in Butte, Montana, and one in Lodi, California. California was where many of the Armenians escaping the genocide also settled, and surrounding the address we have for him in Lodi are a few Armenian churches. Suleyman died to a song that Dede played. I wonder if he sometimes sang to himself in America—no one around him knowing the language or melody, just him singing alone as he worked or walked or drove.  Around the time he lived in Lodi, a woman named Sidney Robertson Cowell (wife of composer Henry Cowell) was collecting ethnic music from all around the United States (much like Lomax in the South) but especially from immigrants living in California.  Not an hour’s drive from Lodi, she came serendipitously upon a man named Vartan Shapazian singing a tune in a foreign language as he worked. He was from Harput—modern day Elazığ, the city we fly into to go to Delal’s village, only an hour away. There is nothing but Shapazian’s voice—bare, worn, scratchy...In the background you can hear a dog bark. It was recorded on October 30th nearly the same night as the concert for the blind. The subject of the song is the march to death and doom.

Der zor çöllerinde yaralı çoktur  (The wounded in Der Zor are many)
gelme doktor gelme, çarası yoktur  (Don’t come doctor, don’t come)
bir allah’tan gayrı, hiç kimsem yoktur (There’s no one to help us but God)
dininin uğruna giden ermeni…(Sent away for the sake of faith, the Armenians)

der zor çöllerinde bayıldım kaldım (In the Der Zor desert, I fainted and didn’t get up again)
harçlığım tükendi, evladım sattım  (My money is used up, I’ve sold my child)
ana ben bu candan bıktım usandım (Oh Mama, I’m fed up with this life)
milleti uğruna giden ermeni  (Sent here for the sake of their nationality, the Armenians)

An uneasiness began that night that hasn’t left us, or at least not me. There is a insidious continuity to it all.  The Armenian intellectuals were arrested on April 24th, 1915. All the journalists and writers and poets and musicians and politicians and thinkers and teachers. An Armenian writer, Karin Karakaşlı, gave a speech at this year’s memorial for Hrant Dink. She said of the 1915 arrests, ‘First they took away our voice, so that there would be no one to talk about what followed.’ Delal was there in front of the Agos offices that day. ‘When I heard her say that,’ Delal told me. ‘It made me shiver. It’s exactly what they’ve done to Kurds. They’ve taken our voice.’ Under the same pretenses, and with the same reassurances. Those that can protect them, their lawyers, are taken in the next wave of arrests. Those that protest in the next wave. And it’s all okay because we call them ‘terrorists’.

Every once in a while the last line of that song replays in my head, ‘Sent away because of my nationality.’ Like my father-in-law was. If one never faces one’s history, the old cliché goes, you are doomed to repeat it again and again. It’s that old monster just off shore that no one talks about, and it’s always wandering just under the surface of the water, hunting for prey.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mamoste Update

We were in the old bazaar district of Hatay, trying to lose a Gypsy kid hounding us for change, when Delal got the call that 15 people in the so-called 'KCK' operations had been released. The only name that anyone knew for sure was Ragip Zarakolu--the Nobel Prize nominee. We rushed to an internet cafe and did a quick search of all the live news freeds. We finally found the list on the Bianet website--no one was surprised, but mamoste was not on it. Luckily, his roommate Muhsin Yenisöz was. Mr. Muhsin was seriously ill with heart problems and insomnia and a host of other afflictions that kept him in and out of the hospital so his release was a blessing--though baffling. There was no trial, no hearing, no investigation of any kind. They simply released them--which means either one or two things. They genuinely think they are all terrorists, and releasing terrorists it not a real problem for them (which is insane). Or, they knew they were all innocent in the first place, and this whole thing has very little to do with crime or terrorism, and everything to do with getting rid of your political opponents.

The week before, the prosecutor's indictment of Mamoste and all those arrested with him came out--over 2400 pages of supposed crimes. Mamoste name pops up in an alarming 800 of them, which means they appear to be especially targeting him. The papers have been full of stories about how ridiculous the accusations in this indictment are--one man is giving the recipe of a Turkish omelette and the police say it was code for a Molotov cocktail--I will write something about the indictment later, once I have looked more carefully through it. Not that the indictment really matters. Since this is not really about a crime anyway, salvation has nothing to do with evidence or justice but rather with the whim of the judges and the government.  Hundreds of pages of recorded lectures, telephone conversations, emails, and text messages interpreted and misinterpreted willy nilly to suit the needs of the accusers.  Or maybe just made up.  It's hard to know if they really recorded all those communications or just went all out and faked it like they did in the Balyoz case (which is being chronicled by Dani Rodrik here--take a look at this for a preview of what's in store for us.)

I am really not ready to write all this, but I need a place for the rage. When the indictment came out, I remember going out on our balcony full of this random energy, this incredibly powerful hatred. I couldn't stand still. I couldn't think. I couldn't do anything at all but rage and rage inside my head. If I feel like this, I can't even begin to think how my wife and her aunts and uncle feel.

This is evil. This is the use of the might of state power to destroy people's lives. But the fun thing is you can hide it all with all the power of modern advertising and spin. The released of Zarakolu is a PR campaign. See? We've released the poor innocents--as if to imply all those left must be truly guilty. As if to show how merciful and forgiving they are.

More later--when I have time to think and organize.

Monday, April 16, 2012

SERENDIPITY ONE--Kevokên Bêrecûgê, The Doves of Birecik

On a recent trip to Urfa, Antep, and Hatay—Delal and I ran into a lot of tesadüf. The word means both coincidence and chance, and I think best translates in the sense I mean it as ‘serendipity.’ For we just kind of wandered into a lot of unexpected things on our trip that proved more magical than anything we planned. I thought I would take a break from the political stuff we are going through and from these final translations of Hrant to write about some of these—which are related in a loose way anyway.
Birecik--near the border with Syria

The Poppies in Birecik

                Serendipity 1—The Doves of Birecik (Kurdish—Bêrecûg)

                Birecik--all the cascading histories of the Southeast. The ancient city of Birtha to the kingdom of Commagene. The ancient city of Alexander the Great’s successor, Seleucus.  The Crusader city of Bile. The sight of another dam.  The place where the Armenians one New Year’s morning in 1896 were bound and thrown in the Euphrates, where Turkish police gave toys and food to Kurdish school kids to prevent them from joining celebrations of Öcalan’s birthday in 2007, where Emperor Julian rested his army on his conquest of Mesopotamia in 360, where in 2012 a boy walking with his mom picked a handful of daisies for two pony-tailed girls walking bouncing ahead of him, where motorcycles honked hysterically at each other in a traffic jam, where an old man got stuck in the middle of the road when his engine gave out, where families barbecued on the river banks, where we climbed a hill into town to pass the time till our minibus returned to Antep.  A we-might-as-well-explore-the-fortress jaunt into town.

Past the mosque and turn right, the man at the river told us, through the courtyard of someone’s house (some children are playing with a plastic bucket and shovel—one asks ‘are you climbing up to the fortress?) and then up a trail that winds through the weeds that sprout from the old citadel’s walls.

The citadel ruins stand atop a steep outcrop of cliff that looks like a whale head breaching over the town in a lunge toward the river. The Citadel is over two thousand years old—built by Romans or Greeks and refurbished by Arabs in Aleppo.  To the North are the Black Mountains—the Karadağ—of Anatolia, to the South, the great plain of Mesopotamia, an unending empty landscape peppered with Kurdish villages and olive trees and pistachio trees. Red earth. This has always been the transition point from one land to the next.

We slip and slide on the sandy limestone trails. Not much of the citadel is left—half archways, buried windows, arrow slits. There are couples hidden behind rubble—purple and yellow flowers fill the old walls. A plant grows wild here, ‘Yemlik!’ Delal declares. We sit down, pluck and munch the leaves—they taste like a sharp arugula. The Euphrates is before us, molten silver in the afternoon sun that slowly descends over the bridge.

The view downriver

The view upriver

                We tramp the old towers and rooms, up one stone stairway and slipping down the next, and then start across the eastern wall that overlooks the town—a dense clutch of sand colored houses and mosques and a hamam.

Doves fly in circles over the buildings.

                Four or five flocks turn in the sky, round, round, round, tornadoes of black and brown wings. The biggest flock circles just in front of us, over a slightly crooked building that juts up out of all the rest. A boy stands on a roof with a fishnet at the end of a long pole and he’s stirring the air like the sky is an upside down cauldron of blue, stirring to the same rhythm as the doves, whistling as he goes, these high bouncy chirps that accompany the rapid patter of the wings.

                ‘What’s he doing?’ I ask aloud.

                ‘He’s trying to catch them, I think,’ Delal says.

                ‘All those birds in that one net?’

                There must be over thirty of them—some brown, some grey, some white.

For a long while the doves ignore the boy, coy (but you know they know he’s there, it’s something you can just feel in the air, an electric charge jumping between them) and then the flock changes shape, flattens, from a funnel to a spinning wheel which dips slight to the left of the building, just below the roofline. The right side of the wheel remains up high above the boy’s net.  Round and round and round, and finally the boy lowers the net and leans back against the wall, casting up those chirpy whistles every once in a while. Bubbly. The wheel of birds dips lower and lower, but only on the left—now that the boy is no longer after them, they want to be closer to him, but they’re still playing hard to get. In a surge the wheel whirls up as high as it was at the start, and then even higher. They seem on the verge of escape.

 The sky has turned a deep primary blue—the light coiling and deepening before it deserts us completely with the plunge of the sun into the snaking Euphrates behind us. A breeze, the grass trembles.

‘Let’s go,’ Delal says and starts to descend the walls, but there is a sudden change in the air and I see one of the birds dart out of the wheel and lower itself onto the ledge next to the boy.

‘Something’s happening!’ I say and as we leap up the rocks to the very edge of the fortress walls, all the birds dive and flutter down in a blur, a whoosh—some coming to rest on the boys shoulder, some on the ledge to either side of him, next to the first, and some on the satellite dish in front of him, and there’s something about this that takes both our breaths away—the sky is purpling now, red in the west, and we both look at each other and laugh—what is it? What is it?—There are other flocks descending now—one to the far right of us, one down and below to the left—one man is swinging a T-shirt in the sky, another is just whistling and each time the birds form that same wheel of wings.

What is it? Why can’t we stop smiling? Is it the mythological freedom and adrenaline rush of bird flight, something wild and ancient choosing to tear itself out of the sky and rest here, for the night, a quiver of movement, of soon to fly, uneasily contained in those dovecotes, not because they’re really caged or trapped, but because they choose to be with these people whistling up for them to come down. It’s Pentecost, a glimpse behind the door, a light cast down through the clouds to settle on our shoulders and purr and rest for a night, uneasy and asleep and wild and stirring above our heads.
The last flock of doves we saw

PS:  The keeping of doves is thousands of years old and is still a huge tradition in the Middle East and especially Southeastern Turkey (Urfa is one of the centers and we ran into restaurant owners in Urfa who had the most exotic looking doves--tea-brown birds with feathery feet that looked like mops. 'We all keep them!' one waiter told us.)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mamoste Update

This picture taken from the 19 Ocak Kolektifi website
                Tonight is the goodbye party for my father-in-law’s sister. She came to Istanbul a month ago from Şırnak because she could not rest nor sleep nor drive from her head the image of her brother in jail. ‘I had so many nightmares,’ she said. So she came to see him for herself. We are sending her back now, but nothing has changed at Kandıra or anywhere else in Turkey. Erdoğan is allowing news channels to interview Kurds on the news again, but still shouting about how the operations against the ‘terrorists’ will continue and Turkey is appearing on news show after news show for having a record number of journalists in jail, all the while talking about how democratic it has become. How much has changed since Hrant Dink was vilified and killed? The worry of his family in the following pages is certainly something I witness on a daily basis with my in-laws.

When I first read this last chapter in the last chapter of Hrant Dink’s life, two things about it unsettled me.

One, was that a similar thing was happening to our family. As the book began to reveal in the last batch of narratives I translated, one sentence was pinched out of a series of essays, twisted, and used to launch a smear campaign that led to Hrant’s prosecution, villification, and eventual cold-blooded execution. When my father-in-law’s turn came in the endless round ups the government so disingenously calls the ‘KCK operations’, it was because of one line uttered during the course of a lecture at one of the Peace and Democracy Party’s Academies.  That line was,

 ‘We must organize our people and we must make sure that they are readied in a way that enables them to bring a people’s revolutionary war if necessary. If we believe that we can create a big explosion, we must not be afraid. We must see ourselves as a giant bomb.’

The explosion was a metaphor for political impact, the bomb for aggressive activism, but that didn’t matter to anyone. Taking it literally made the thousands of arrests and blackballing a righteous crusade, a safety precaution, and it stirred up the race anger of a society trained to be stirred up from elementary school. Thus, plucked out of context and spread through the media, it spawned the same sort of frightening calls for violence that Hrant’s did—From the paper Akşam ‘Terror Academies! The plans of the traitors have been decoded.  In oral lectures at their academies, the BDP teach young men how to be suicide bombers.’  From the Haberinvakti ‘Alarming details have surfaced about the founder of the Academies, Jew-blooded Büşra Ersanlı.’  Or in the Yeniçağ ‘Everyone knows the BDP=the PKK, and the PKK is in a state of war with the Turkish State.  Those who make war on the front must also establish security behind the lines.’ Calling Büşra Ersanlı a ‘Jew’ was key—it separated her from that saintly ‘Turkishness’. The same process was being followed as had been for Hrant—call them traitor, accuse them of being anything other than pure Turkish, and then, eliminate them.  For weeks, I had this sick feeling that that was exactly what the state planned for mamoste and all those arrested with him.
Rakip Zarakolu and Prof. Ersanlı--'accused' of being a Jew by the Yeniçağ

Which brings up the second point here that I found so unsettling. All the denials of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey suggest a people that know nothing about their past and simply cannot bring themselves to accept that their ancestors might have done something so heinous. What the whole process of Hrant’s murder suggests is that the machinery and mentality that spurred on the genocide has never been dismantled or even seen as wrong, but was just as ready to go into action in 2007 as it was in 1915.  Look, please, in the following translations, at how elements of the Turkish media manage to turn themselves into the victims—the endless playthings of the Great Powers who denigrate Turkishness --a precursor idea that also served as a justification of the mass killings of 1915. Notice also the careful way they quickly draw lines between Hrant and ‘the Turk’—nationalists go to his office to sing the National Anthem, ‘as if we were citizens of a different country,’ says Hrant’s friends who was there.  The words ‘secret internal enemies’—used also for the Armenians of 1915, or the Jews of the Third Reich--make a notable cameo, (and indeed appear in high school textbooks for the National Security class like the one I swiped from my last school—referring to Greeks, Armenians and Kurds). And then of course there is the way that the government used criminals and fringe groups to do their dirty work in both cases.  It is no hyperbole that Turkish historian Taner Akçam makes when he says that Hrant was the last victim of the genocide. 

Luckily, things have not taken a murderous turn for our captives, and the mainstream papers did not conduct the same sweeping smear campaign that they did against Hrant. Rags such as the Yeniçağ and Akşam do not so much form public opinion as confirm the fascism of their own cadre of readers.

Signs of a thaw (though far far too early to be optimistic) have arrived with the spring. There appears to be a flurry of political maneuvering around the Kurdish issue these days, which includes the KCK operations.  The US wants something from Turkey in regards to Iran and Syria and now suddenly Turkey is talking about signing a section of EU law that talks about the ‘local autonomy’ that Kurds have wanted for years, a policy that, until last week, could get you labeled a ‘splittist and a traitor that had to be stopped’ in papers such as the Akşam. Of course the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem was shut down, then abruptly allowed to reopen. Everyone seems confused. Meanwhile, my wife’s family continues their visits to Kandıra prison week after week and things have gone stagnant—with the indictment of Ersanlı and Zarakolu, ours is surely soon to follow. They want 22 years for her for leading the KCK. What will they want for us?

The türkü Hrant discusses at the end of this installment comes from the Kurd poet Ahmet Arif—from a poem he wrote about being in prison. (Check out this page for some English examples—the translation here is my own, but—proudly—very close to the wonderful one on this website)

Haberin var mı taş duvar                
Demir kapı, kör pencere                  
Yastığım, ranzam, zincirim              
Uğruna ölümlere gidip geldiğim     
Zulamdaki mahzun resim               
Haberin var mı                                 
Görüşmecim, yeşil soğan göndermiş 
Karanfil kokuyor cıgaram                
Dağlarına bahar gelmiş memleketimin

Do you have news stone wall?

Iron door, blind window.

My pillow, my bunk, my chains.

The sad picture in my secret hiding place

For the sake of which I come and go to those deaths.

Do you have news?

My visitor brought green onions

My cigarette smells of cloves

They tell me spring has come to the mountains of my homeland