Image by runran
Imagine several Muslim women sitting cross-legged on a floor, stitching embroidery and watching a music video liberally spiced with soft porn. Imagine them watching a news feature about a religious zealot in the suburbs of Ankara, Turkey’s capital city, who hacked off his neighbour’s head with a machete — the murderer sits on a chair facing the camera while beside him on a table rests the victim’s head. Imagine all of this followed by a dubbed version of Flipper. If you can, then you can imagine the paradoxical nature of the gift that Hayriye Balci delivered to the small Turkish village of Emirimkoyu.
Although Hayriye Balci was born and spent most of her childhood in Emirimkoyu, she completed her secondary schooling in Belgium, where she embraced feminism and became familiar with media-generated culture and computer technology. When she returned to Turkey to manage a hotel in the small town of Kas, on the Mediterranean coast, it was "a bit like returning to the Dark Ages", where fax machines were still largely considered cutting-edge technology.
She also returned to a torn country, neither West nor East, rooted in Islam but yearning to be European. When I met her, Hayriye had already managed the Hotel Villa for two years — one of the only women in the small coastal town of Kas who did anything other than raise children or work for a family business. She was a rare member of that new class of Turkish citizen, as yet quite undefined — a female entrepreneur.
Although she loved Turkey, her country wasn’t quite ready for her feminist views. Thus, to maintain a balance in her life, she planned to spend the winter off-season in Belgium with her sister and friends. But she decided first to visit with her parents in Emirimkoyu, and to deliver the gift of a television. "My mother and grandmother can watch it," said Hayriye. "There is nothing else to do in winter." And because it was easier taking the television in a car rather than on a bus, my partner and I accompanied Hayriye to the village, agreeing to return the rental car to Kas.
It was easy enough renting a car, but then came the actual driving. I’ve always imagined myself to be a good driver, and I actually relished the experience of negotiating the winding roads that slice through the craggy-backed coastal range along the Mediterranean. I thought I was prepared. But, in Turkey, the car is imperial. Driving is a free for all. Show no hesitation or you are deemed unworthy to be on the road.
Islamic warriors used to charge into battle calling out the name of Allah — it was considered the highest of honours to die with Allah’s name on your lips. I now believe that many Turkish drivers hold the same conviction when they sally forth in their automobiles. One time, pulled up behind a tour bus that had stopped at the bottom of a hill, waiting for oncoming traffic to cross a single-laned bridge, the driver of a pony-drawn cart decided that it would be an opportune time to pass. But he was overtaken by a man in a wheelchair who bobbed around all of us and then weaved through traffic on the bridge. I’m certain he had Allah’s name on his lips.
The perils of the road are legion: caravans of nomads in carts loaded with every manner of household goods; fearless dolmus drivers who imagine their unwieldy mini-buses are in fact race cars; motorcyclists determined to deliver the goods (it’s not unusual to see a family of three with sacks of fruit and vegetables hung on the handlebars, labouring up some narrow road on an aging Jawa, oblivious to diesel-spewing, overloaded trucks bent on crowding lesser vehicles off the road). Government officials and businessmen in Mercedes with black-tinted windows accelerate past like phantoms, the army sets up numerous roadblocks (usually at some blind spot in the road), and men in behemoth construction machines will gladly engage in games of chicken.
We passed the ruins of Lycian cities, Greek amiphitheatres, Roman walls, and Byzantine fortresses — evidence of a history so multi- layered it defies any easy understanding — each civilization built upon the ruins of the former. We passed Patara, where it is said Apollo was born; Xanthus, once home to a people so proud that, when the Roman general Brutus finally defeated them in battle, they set fire to their houses and destroyed themselves.
Once in the mountains, the traffic eased, and we passed many deserted villages perched on the sides of stony hills. Hayriye explained that the people had all moved to the coast for the winter, that they would return in the spring — an annual exodus that has continued for thousands of years, and the only reason why any citizens of Xanthus survived beyond Brutus’s seige of their city.
Still, no matter how harsh and deserted the landscape, even when it seemed that nothing could survive, that not a living thing was anywhere nearby, goats would scramble out from behind some rocks or pick their way down a cliff face. We came upon a small herd sitting in the middle of the roadway, nonchalant, as if the approaching traffic was a minor intrusion into their blessed existence, a temporal annoyance, for which they rose slowly from where they were taking warmth from the pavement, stood aside as the traffic passed, and then moved back to their places in the road. It reminded me of the time when my partner JoAnn and I were sitting in the stone seats of the oval stadium at Aphrodisias — a herd of goats drifted over the far edge of the stadium to graze on the grasses growing through the cracks, creating the illusion that one section of the vast and ancient place had filled with spectators. Goats will always remind me of Turkey.
Emirimkoyu turned out to be a cluster of about 20 crude houses set at the base of a low hill on the western edge of the Anatolian plateau, roughly 30 miles north from the Turkish city of Afyon — once known as The Black Fortress Of Opium. Area farmers still cultivate opium, but now they send their crops to government-run factories that use the ‘poppy straw’ method, which extracts the opium before the sap begins to flow. Also, it was near Afyon where, in 1922, Ataturk finally crushed the Greek expeditionary army and sent them scurrying to the coast. Anatolia has been a battleground for ages, and enough peasant blood has flowed to float several empires.
The tawny earth was strewn with loose rocks, and the village rose as if it too was part of the landscape. Most of the houses had high, stonewalled courtyards, creating a labyrinth of narrow alleyways. Except for the mosque, with its high minaret, the village appeared much the same as a Proto-Hittite settlement from several thousands of years ago.
Although Emirimkoyu is a conservative agricultural village, the women do not adhere to the custom of the purdah, but wear colourful head scarves, loose blouses, and pantaloons. In the hot summer months they cook outside at open ovens, and year round they wash clothing in tubs set out in the yards. In the evenings they gather on porches to work at pieces of embroidery, while small children play at their feet.
Men in baggy trousers and loose cotton shirts, many wearing old suit jackets, and all of them with hats or caps, stroll about the village doing odd chores. But mostly they tend to the animals. They herd their sheep and goats through the streets and up into the hill pastures, following a stream bed that cuts through the rocky soil past olive groves and patches of ploughed earth.
Hayriye’s father, Abdul-kadir Balci, is a licensed poppy grower, and he has done well, making enough to settle his family in Belgium and to buy a big house there. But Bahar, his mother, refused to join them, preferring instead to stay in the village of her birth. She eventually developed Alzheimer’s and began to prowl the village streets muttering to herself. Abdul returned from Belgium one spring to find Bahar living in the shed with the goats. It was then he decided remain in Emirimkoyu.
Our first evening in the village was spent in the warm kitchen area of the Balci’s traditional two-roomed home. The room contained no furniture. All that decorated the adobe-like walls were a few cooking utensils, a photograph of the Balci family, and a small carpeted bag containing the Koran. We sat on kilim pillows and drank glasses of tea. Hayriye acted as the official translator, fielding questions back and forth, while her mother, Hatice, prepared a meal of poppy seed bread, goat cheese, olives, green peppers, and onions.
Although Hatice is a heavy woman, she moved with effortless grace, as if she were made of lighter stuff than flesh. She placed a large, round copper tray on a low wood stand in the middle of the room, and we all kneeled round it on pillows, pulling the loose edges of the tablecloth over our laps to catch the inevitable crumbs. Bahar joined us, but the old woman spent most of the mealtime furtively touching our clothing and hair, clacking her tongue, and clapping her hands. She was obviously delighted to have guests.
Once the meal was over, we placed the pillows back against the walls and had more tea. A few curious villagers stopped by to visit. A couple of women brought their embroidery and sat cross-legged in the middle of the room. Abdul lit his pipe and sprawled across two pillows to savour his evening smoke. Conversation was lively and Hayriye became hard-pressed, often losing track of who she was translating for. But everyone was good-humoured about it.
The next morning Abdul brought the television in from the trunk of the car and set it on the floor against the wall opposite the seating area. He took a small hand drill and bored a hole in the wooden window frame. A neighbour came by to help erect the antenna on the flat, mud-packed roof. Then Abdul threaded the antenna cable through the hole and under the kitchen carpet — and the first television in the village of Emirimkoyu was switched on just in time for the noon news.
It opened with an item pertaining to a traffic accident in Sursurluk, a town about 100 miles southwest of Istanbul, where three people died in a black Mercedes, including: a member of Turkey’s ultranationalist criminal underworld who was on Interpol’s most wanted list for several political assassinations and international smuggling; his girlfriend (once Turkey’s Miss Cinema); and an ex-deputy police chief from Istanbul, an expert on anti-terrorism who was under investigation by Amnesty International. The fourth occupant of the car survived — a tribal leader with a private army of 8,000 mercenaries who also served as a high-ranking Kurdish member of the True Path Party, the controlling party in Turkey’s uneasy coalition government.
The television stayed on all day, and the Balci’s home became like a drop-in centre. Villagers in animated conversation gathered in the streets. There were several arguments. Because the Balci’s had spent so much time in Belgium, they were no strangers to television, and some of the villagers had relatives with sets in Afyon or the nearby town of Emirdag. But most villagers only went to town on market days, and any news of the outside world was often days late and, inevitably, altered in the re-telling. Now, with a television at hand, the villagers of Emirimkoyu could join in the pace of the modern world. And presently they were engaged in the national debate over what those four people were doing in the same car.
But the pace was obviously too much for Bahar, because she spent most of the day crouched in a near fetal position on the roof of the shed. Hayriye and Abdul tried to coax her down, but Bahar wouldn’t budge. She even refused to come down for dinner, which, although Abdul had slaughtered a goat in honour of his foreign guests, was a hurried affair. The table was not put away for ten minutes before two village women arrived with their children. But the warmth and conversation of the previous evening were lacking. There was no circle of people facing each other, because everyone was facing the television.
At one point Hayriye flipped to the music station and the screen opened on a half-clad vamp crawling across a long table laid out with a veritable feast, red wine dripping from the corners of her mouth, while a long-haired and muscular man sat at the end of the table beckoning the woman onto his lap. Bahar, who had finally come down from the roof of the shed to join us, pulled her head scarf over her face and yelped like a wounded animal. Abdul said something to Hayriye, and she changed the channel.
Hayriye had brought the television as a gift so that her grandmother would have something to watch in the cold winter months, but, after the short and obviously frightening experience with the music video, Bahar left the house and began to prowl the porch. Every so often she’d peer in through the window. Soon she would be just another ghost walking the stonewalled alleyways of Emirimkoyu, and it’s easy enough to predict that it won’t be long before the village will shelter only ghosts.
Turkish television commercials are reminiscent of American versions from three decades ago — with washing products and processed foods offered as an end to the drudgery of toil. The suburbs of Ankara and Istanbul are choked with villagers who envision a better life. But the truth is that they usually have to take up residence in huge shanty towns, built of recycled shipping materials once containing the same consumer goods supposed to make their lives easier. If they’re lucky, they still have their television sets, and they can watch budget versions of American game shows, situation comedies, and pot-boilers. They might find a documentary focusing on traditional Turkish music and lifestyles, or flip the channel and watch the latest news report about the Turkish military’s efforts to destroy that same lifestyle.
Over the past few decades, 3,000 villages have been emptied, and Turkey has a displaced population numbering in the millions. The new urban poor are mostly unskilled workers and farmers, the most religious of all Turks. And, by offering aid to the poor and the dispossessed, Islamic organizations create widespread support for Islamic political parties. Thus the country’s problems continue like tides.
For centuries the people of the Anatolian plateau have had to bend to the whims of the ruling elite in Istanbul (or — in Byzantine times — Constantinople). It makes no difference that the capital is now in the Anatolian city of Ankara — the power still resides on the banks of the Golden Horn. And Turkish television programming can be viewed as another instrument being employed in the long campaign to turn the peasant’s faces to the West.
On the evening before we left the village, I stood on the roof and watched wood smoke rise from the open-ended clay pitcher that served as a chimney. The smoke seemed like a wraith curling around the newly-erected antenna. Then, from the minaret at the outskirts of town, came the call to prayer — a solemn plea that wavered through the gathering twilight.
Like most tourists, I thought it would be nice if Emirimkoyu could stay just as it was –a village of peasants engaged in work that, like the Anatolian air, was clear — raise crops, tend to the herds. But I also knew that it was an absurd notion in this age of global capitalism. And now, back home in Canada, I better understand why Muslims are so angry with the West. I watch news reports from Azerbaijan and Baghdad, and I can’t help but think about Bahar, how she yelped and covered her face with her scarf. If only it were that easy.