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"A Visit to Soapmakers" by Jeremy Seal - Part I
Posted 18 December 2003 - 12:05
A Visit to Soapmakers
Part - I -
The aouthor travels deep into rural Turkey to explore the tensions between Turkish history, urban life, and ancestral homes.
THERE WAS NO SIGN OF AHMET THAT JANUARY MORNING, A morning so cold that any sign of him and the warmth of his car would have been welcome. What light there was reflected weakly off gray potholes of crushed ice. Refrigerated wind blew in pulses off the street as if timed to signal the arrival every half-minute or so of another overnight bus from Trabzon, Konya, and Amasya, distant cities of the Turkish interior and the Black Sea coast. Glimpsed faces at the windows stared out at the blear dawn, and what they saw was concrete, skittering litter, and unfamiliarity at the beginning of a new life.
They clambered from the buses, these families, gathered their shapeless coats around them, and started to unload their belong- ings. There were old cardboard boxes bound by string that once held cartons of soap powder. There were blankets and rolled-up mattresses. There were suitcases straining with necessity. There was an ironing board and a small table and an empty birdcage, and piles of pots with bottoms seared by cooking.
A thousand people were moving to Istanbui uodayjust as a thou- sand people had done so every day for the last ten years, turning the city's outlying villages into sprawling suburbs housing hundreds of thousands. Not long before, I guessed, the day had come when these families had finally realized that there was nothing to do but leave, the cruel, indifferent processes of economics and history turning the screw tight until it could no longer be borne. Such was their situation that the things that mattered-their friends, perhaps a tree, a courtyard, or a scrubby hillside, views from a window that they and their grandparents had known as long as they could re- member-had become sentimental luxuries that they could no longer afford. Today, economic necessity had defeated a thousand more Anatolians, and the old life became the past as they shoul- dered their ironing boards and empty birdcages and took the only chance remaining at the jostling margins of the big city.
Ahmet's parents, newly married, came this same way and took such a chance in 1946. They left their village and their families for the city, a common story of the twentieth century. They were lucky. Ahmet's father did well, making cakes and pastries from honey, walnuts, and pistachios. He sold them to sweet tooths across the city, became rich while dentists prospered on the teeth he had ruined, and then he grew old. Now Ahmet was running the fam- ily business.
A group of migrants were arguing over the price of a cart. "We could get a truck for that!" a man exclaimed disgustedly at the price mentioned. "Where are you from, brother?" replied the carter, hugging him- self repeatedly to keep warm. "Trabzon? Ordu? You m ight get a truck for that price in Ordu. Here, you get this." And he pointed to a broken horse standing patiently between the withers. Carter and migrants stood around making comments about Ordu and the horse, respectively, of a desultory, unflattering kind that hardly seemed de- signed to lubricate the negotiations. One of the younger women stood back from the group. Dressed in a head scarf, she looked over her shoulder at the departing buses and perhaps only now realized what it had meant, that last glimpsed view of the village on a winter afternoon before it disappeared among tucks in the hills.
A car drew up and hooted. When I reached Ahmet, he was watching the negotiations intently but from the warm cocoon of a car all his own while he listened to Turkish pop. He wore an expensive tweedjacket. On the back seat lay a newly savaged carton of 200 Marlboros. I asked him how he was, and Ahmet tugged ruefully on a cigarette. Last night's hangover, it tran- spired, came courtesy of Chivas Regal. Twenty-eight- year-old Ahmet lived a Euro- pean life on the fringes of geographical Europe. Except that his car, jacket, and taste in whiskey were more expensive, he was very Eke me.
"Sandwiches," said Ahmet, thrusting a bag toward me. "Rose-petal jam." Only in Ahmet's sandwiches, it seemed, did traces of his past linger. Grimy concrete build- ings disappeared in low cloud around the second floor. Gray figures milled along the pave- ment, skirted around tarpau- lins where salesmen had spread their wares-bundles of sheeny-gray socks piled like catches of fresh fish, a neat stack of paper tissues, a pile of worry beads shiny like viscera-and. spilled across the road in breaks between the traffic. "Life is hard," said Ahmet sententiously. I nodded, think- ing that but for a brave decision by his parents in their youth, Ahmet might now be a new arrival in Istanbul standing in the cold arguing the price of a horse and cart. Or he might be persevering
They approach the conversa- tion formally, discussing answers between themselves and often responding as "we," which sometimes means the representa- tive we, "women like us." "We were always Muslims. We did not discover Islam." They're both from provincial families that came to Istanbul. Few peo- ple on campus, they say, are reli- giously in-between, and few of the secular or wealthy students have converted," though they hope more will. Relations with other students are usually fine, though tensions do arise. "For example," the more serious one says, "club activities and sports. We must follow the harem rules, which makes it difficult. But we can make up the credits by tak- ing private classes. I'm taking private tae kwon do classes.
-Scott L. Malcomson, Borderlands: Nation and Empire
with life in the same Anatolian village where his grandparents and several uncles' families still hved--six hours away if we drove fast. As the migrants poured in from Anatolia, Ahmet was taking me back to the world they had forsaken. Sentiment and memory were luxuries that Ahmet could now afford.
As we crossed the Bosporus Bridge, coal smoke rose from countless houses beneath us to be lost in the haze above a litter of roofs, brown and broken. Minarets gleamed in the morning, a bro- ken bed of nails above the city@ Then the bridge was behind us and we were in Asian Turkey, in Anatolia.
Beneath the cigarettes and the music, Ahmet seemed preoccu- pied. "My fanffly, you understand," he eventually explained, "are very poor people. Very simple." There was instinctive pride in this, but a stronger, tragically learned element of apology. "Poor!" As if he feared me to exclaim, "I didn't come here to see poor people, even if they are your family. Haven't you got any rich friends I can sponge off, sleep with?" Ahmet looked relieved when I said some- thing trite about the privilege of meeting them, and my apparent lack of concern encouraged him to emphasize the point. "I mean, really poor," he insisted.
We climbed gently onto the high Anatolian Plateau, flat and in- terminable, a kind of underfiinded Holland on stilts where the trucks were always breaking down. Engine guts and various tools lay scattered around stricken vehicles while their defeated drivers warmed themselves by roadside fires and wondered how miracles worked. Low horizons appeared on all sides with occasional dun hills streaked with old snow. There were broken fence lines and unnaturally precise stands of poplars protecting more featureless dun hills from the wind. Unfinished buildings regularly appeared, as illogically situated as the poplars.
"What are the buildings for?" I asked. "Maybe for watching the poplars." Ahmet was clearly feeling better. Poplar progress observation posts, we agreed, abandoned when it was recognized that poplars do the growing themselves. Unlike buildings. And so brick or concrete-block constructions that would never finish their growing stood beside piles of bricks or concrete blocks topped in snow. Steel rods protruded from each roof, buildings condemned to know nothing but neglect, the wind, and the memory of confused builders'voices.
At the small town of Diizce, our road became unfinished, and we left it for a minor one leading into the mountains. Ahmet was now smoking at a ferocious rate; something else was worrying him. "One more thing," he eventually said. "My family. They do not use toilet paper."
"Toilet paper?" I replied dismissively. "Toilet paper's for sissies." But although we laughed together, you could tell whose was the laughter that did not ring hollow.
"When in Rome" is all right up to a point, and that point is generally accepted to be well passed when it comes to, say, head- hunting with the natives of Papua New Guinea. Nor, in my view, does the point extend to smearing one's fresh droppings over the left hand. Nothing had been more firrrAy impressed upon me in my journey through life than the signs along the way saying "Do not touch the kaka," and on this at least I had been a quick learner. I hid my discomfort with the thought so successfully, however, that Ahmet's mood was transformed, and he changed gears with extravagantly dramatic flourishes that left his arm hanging in the air with open hand long after the new gear had been found. I kept thinking he was releasing doves into the confined space of a small car going fast.
Early that afternoon we reached Karabiik, where a great iron foundry stood against the mountains in dystopian grandeur.
"What does karabi4k mean?" I asked, leafing through the possi- bilities in my mind. Anvil? Blacksmith? Forge? Fritz Lang?
"Blackberry," replied Ahmet. One of Ahmet's uncles had come to live in Blackberry ten years ago. Less intrepid than his brother, he had chosen to compromise at a dusty little house on a hill an hour and a half from the village that would always be home. He had found work as a security guard at the foundry and was not at home. But his aunt was there, along with a selection of Ahmet's cousins. Among the younger girls was Emine. She greeted Ahmet-with his car, his wealth, and the sheen of the big city-by touching his outstretched hand first with her lips and then her forehead before rising to kiss his proffered cheeks. Ernine, who was fourteen, had lost her father six months earlier when he shot himself to escape gambling debts.
We sat wreathed in smoke, drinking tea and discussing cousin Mustafa's appendix. He had complained of stomach pains on Tuesday night, been admitted to Blackberry General the next day, and was operated on the same night. Light snow was falling on Blackberry and coal smoke from the foundry turned the night sky mocha at the window. Dogs fell silent as the muezzin started singing from a nearby minaret.
For much of the evening, a black-and-white television chirrup- ing away in the background was affectionately ignored like a senile senior of the family. But everyone came to attention with the main news item. One of Turkey's most highly regarded journalists, known for his democratic and secular views, had been blown into a hundred pieces by a car bomb in Ankara, 150 miles to the south. An organization called Islamic Jihad was first to claim responsibil- ity. Emine turned away from the television and the reminders of loss that it served, hoping that her retreat into sorrow would not be noticed.
Before we left the next morning, Ahmet distributed money on the instructions of his father. Distance had not undone the family bonds, bonds other-wise expressed in the manner that the family referred to the village where they all had their origins. They spoke of it not by name but in the possessive, referring to "our village" long after they had moved away. It was a kind of yearning constantly expressed in spite of the townie haughtiness they had consciously adopted in its place; people have been taught that big- city life confers a respectability, but village rhythms are not easily unlearned.
Ahmet's evident excitement grew as we drove through a bright and cloudless morning. I could detect it in the way he hummed indistinct tunes and changed gears in that elaborate manner of his. Orchestral conductors could have learned something from Ahmet. "Where the Bee Lands," 'he said, announcing the name of a village where the metaled road gave way to track, and broken ribs of ice straddled the deep tire tracks. We climbed steadily through hazel and pine woods and slalomed our way up north-facing slopes where ice and snow lay unbroken among the shadows. That morning, I had noticed Ahmet sling two shotguns on the back seat.
"So what are we hunting?" I asked him. "Kurds," he replied.
I knew something of Turkish-Kurdish enmities and of the per- sisting troubles in the southeast of the country. But I did not know that young men from Istanbul had them in their sights when they packed their shotguns for a weekend's sport in the northwest.
"You often shoot Kurds, do you?" "Oh yes. There are many about in the winter. They take our chickens." Taking chickens struck me as an arcane separatist gesture.
"And you're allowed to shoot them for taking your chickens?" "Oh yes. Deer are rare so we don't shoot them."
"But you shoot Kurds." "Yes. 9'
"Why?" "I told you!" Ahmet exclaimed in exasperation. "The chickens! " And as we followed the rutted track around a corner, the vil- lage finally came into view. But since it was not my village, I refer to it by its proper name of Sabuncular, or Soapmakers.
Soap has not been made in Soapmakers for as long as the villagers can remember. So to suggest that Soapmakers has remained unal- tered for 500 years is not entirely accurate. Equally, change hardly encapsulates the prevailing mood in late twentieth-century Soap- makers. While the xest of the world is being transformed, change meanders into Soapmakers, makes the vaguest of gestures at the future, and then goes away again. Seasons pass much as they always do; it gets hot, it gets cold, but the village spring continues to run.
Something did happen in 1962 when the village mosque was restored by Ahmet's father, flush with new cash when his cakes went down a storm in distant Istanbul. But since there were no shops, no school, no police station, just a room in the mosque building where the village elders gathered to make their decisions, the restoration of the mosque served only to reinforce the influ- ence of the past.
We drew up in a small yard before the mosque. Below us, tracks threaded their way between a cluster of some fifteen houses Aere smoke rose in orderly plumes. Chickens pecked between rafts of ice and dogs skulked against stone walls larded with old snow.
Ahmet's grandparents lived opposite the mosque.We pushed our way through an old wooden door and found a man bent double by age, tending to his two donkeys in the stable on the ground floor. Grandfather was known as Haci Baba and wore a beard in recog- nition of the fact that he had made the haj to Mecca. He wore a brimless woolen cap and puzzled over my interest in his donkeys.
"Donkeys," he said simply, frowning as I scratched their ears. Perhaps, I reflected, I would have been equally puzzled by his dis- proportionate interest in my electric lawn mower.
The living quarters were upstairs. Grandmother was tending to the stove in the middle of the kitchen. On my appearance, she hugged, kissed, and patted me more like a lover-and not so long lost-than a friend of her grandson's.
"It's your blue eyes," Ahmet told me. Eighty-eight-year-old Grandmother had not seen many blue eyes.
She was as hunched as her husband. In fact, one could have in- serted extra floors on every level and neither resident would have been in the least danger of bumping heads. Like Haci Baba, Grandmother's face was gnarled, knotted, and lined, the color of old wood, and their eyes were similarly bright. It was as if, in the course of their long lives together, the differences between them had been gradually eroded. The brightness of their eyes was im- portant, for without those spots of light I would have struggled to locate their faces against the ancient woodwork of the paneling around them. Whenever I met their eyes, hers were always smiling, and his expressed something that I took to be a vague fear for the welfare of his donkeys.
"A Visit to Soapmakers" by Jeremy Seal - Part I
Posted 18 December 2003 - 12:13
A Visit to Soapmakers
Part - II -
They gave us lunch at ten o'clock in the morning, soup, bread, and a salad of fresh onions and eggs, wheeling out a wooden table that stood six inches from the floor and making space for us around it.
"So who is this man?" Haci Baba asked his grandson. "He's my friend from England, Haci Baba."
The old man nodded vigorously. "England, where's that?" "Europe, Haci Baba."
"What does he want?" Haci Baba could be a trifle suspicious. "Nothing. He's here as a guest."
" Oh, that's good." Haci Baba thought a moment. "Does he need any chickens?"
Haci Baba had once run a farm of 600 sheep. But as his sons moved away or found more easeful ways of making money, the old man sold his land and sheep until all that remained were his chick- ens. In the summer, he would take the donkeys to the higher ground and gather wood for the winter. In his old age, he had more time for his God, had been to Mecca three times, and was often to be found reading his battered copy of the Koran in the light of the window as the snowmelt dripped off the roof. Haci Baba was the aga, the head of the village. He was in his eighties now. And for a few short years, I calculated, he would have been a fez-wearing Ottoman.
When the muezzin started, Haci Baba, bemoaning the latest vil- lage priest's inability to sing straight, hunched off to find his boots. Ahmet grabbed the shotguns and took me hunting. I was uncom- fortable about this but was enough of a shot to know I could always make sure I missed any chicken-stealing Kurd we happened upon.
We walked among young Turkish oaks and pines, trunks sur- rounded by scraps of snow. The ground at our feet was a wet mulch of red-brown.earth and pine needles warmed by a weak sun. The crisscross patterns of animal tracks in the remnant snow indicated dogs, wild pigs, small deer, and rabbit. There were also bears in these mountains, although Ahmet had never seen one. At one point he stopped suddenly and gestured me over. "Kurd," he said with authority. But he was pointing at a large paw mark, and no Kurd has paws. But a kurt, the Turkish word for wolf, does. in fact, we did not encounter so much as a rabbit. Ahmet unleashed his frustrations by letting off the two rounds of his shotgun. The echoes resounded around the hills, returning to us with the distant noise of alerted dogs and alarmed cattle.
By the time we got back to Soapmakers, night was falling. In the mosque, the men were finishing prayers. The door was even- tually opened by a small boy with a plastic machine gun who sprayed Ahmet, me, and a couple of nearby dogs with imaginary lead. I wondered what he'd been learning for the last ten minutes. Happily, he took a tumble on the ice in his attempt to finish us off.
"You just shot yourself in your manhood," Ahmet told the boy, helping him to his feet as the congregation emerged.
They were seven elderly men and a much younger, gangly man who turned out to be the tuneless village priest, or hoca. They mostly wore woolen caps in the style of Haci Baba. One wore a turban in the wild style once favored by British washerwomen. Later, Ahmet told me that its wearer felt safe from those who might disapprove but would be unlikely to wear it on a visit to Blackberry. There was not a fez in sight, but nor was there a brim. The men of Soapmakers wore hats designed for prayer. Only the hoca was bareheaded. As an employee of the secular government, he was not expected to wear anything other than Western hats.
"I prefer," the hoca would tell me theatrically, "to wear nothing." In the manner of Ernine, Ahmet touched his lips and forehead to a number of wrinkled hands. Familiar with villager statuses, he chose the major players and left me to follow his lead. In the con- fusion, I ended up bowing and scraping to a short man with a round face and trouser legs that hardly reached his shins. A hand on my shoulder alerted me.
"You are honoring the village idiot," said Ahmet. The village idiot, who had never known anything more than af- fection, was now receiving a foreigner's respect. In the shine of his eyes, I could see that he would not forget me.
The approaching lights of the lurching village dolmus jabbed crazily through the darkness, illuminating stroboscopic sections of wall, earth, and sky. Dolmus derives from the word "to stuff," most vividly expressive in its frequent use to describe peppers or vine leaves stuffed with rice. But as I looked in at faces, limbs, vegetable sacks, and livestock squashed against the glass in jumbled proxim- ity, I was reminded of nothing so much as bottled preserves.
As the minibus came to a halt and the contents piled from the doors, the natural order in Soapmakers was rapidly restored. Women, who moments before had been crushed out of necessity against all manner of male anatomy, slipped away into the night, dragging their vegetables behind them and reinstating the demar- cation lines between the genders that should properly exist in Soapmakers. Meanwhile, the men joined us to stand in the cold and smoke cigarettes. When we had finished, Mehmet, another of Ahmet's uncles, led us back to his house.
A stove dominated the front room. The floor was covered by pieces of random carpet and linoleum. A cuckoo clock was stopped at two fifteen; the cuckoo had slumped forward, lifeless between its little open shutters amidst a spill of visceral mechanisms, as if the victim of an irritable sniper. In the corner stood a small table cov- ered in plastic red-check gingham on which a solitary plastic salt- cellar stood. A postcard from Istanbul featuring the Bosporus Bridge was wedged between the wall and the electricity cabling. As men filed into the room-the dolmus driver, the hoca, a baker from a neighboring village, and a number of farmers-Mehmet lit a pinecone with his lighter, opened the stove door, and tossed it in.
As young boys ferried back and forth from the kitchen with bowls of chicken stew, rice, and meat pastries, the villagers started to talk.
"We got electricity twelve years ago." "No, it was fifteen."
"It was two years before Ali got the telephone." "But six months ago, we got direct lines. Now, we've got six telephones in the village." "And televisions."
"And in England," asked Mehmet, apropos of little, "what yield do fields give?" "I'm afraid I'm not a farmer," I replied. But even tourists know about yields, the expression of a man too polite to say so protested before telling me about theirs. "Ours give between seven and ten times depending on the weather."
"Good '" I replied lamely. "I once met some tourists in Istanbul," said Mehmet. He had worked there for two summers in the seventies. He opened a cup- board, removed an object with great care, and handed it to me.
It was a calendar dated 1976 and featuring pastoral scenes from Bavaria, complete with statutory lederhosen and foaming pints of beer in lidded pewter tankards. There were neat stacks of firewood and light filtering through the linden trees. Everybody crowded around for a glimpse of this otherworld.
"It is England?" "If only," I replied. "It's Germany."
"It looks like the village," said somebody else. "Except for the mugs," came another voice.
"And the silly trousers." "And the beautiful women." And everybody laughed. Then the man in the calpac walked in. I noticed his hat before I noticed him, and not only because I was becoming increasingly hat-obsessive. I had seen such a hat before, a kind of astrakhan associated with the Turkish military in the early years of the twentieth century, in a portrait of Atatürk that was often featured on the walls of Turkish shops and homes. In it, the great man leans forward as if into a merciless headwind, intent on direction. The picture portrays Atatürk in action during his famous victories at Gallipoli in 1915 and the independence war four years later. But there is perhaps more to the picture than mar- tial glorification, for it struck me that these victories were charac- terized not so much by. going forward in the manner suggested by Atatürk's posture but by crucially holding the line. Modern Turkey's emergence, in military terms anyway, was founded on heroic defense. So I read the picture's meaning as figurative, a heroic representation of his political charge against the forces of reaction, a grim determination to advance, whatever the cost. In the picture, Atatük is in mud-brown military fatigues, and he too is wearing a calpac.
The calpac reminded me of fading daguerreotypes of the Young Turk officers who had opposed the sultan in 1908 and forced him to concede significant constitutional reforms. Historians have called the actions of these officers a revolution, but in truth they were little more than a modification, for all these young men in calpacs had wanted to do was tinker with a system that they largely accepted. They could not accept that the confederation of anar- chies that composed the late nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire was unsustainable. The Young Turk position on hats was similarly indecisive. In shape at least, the calpac was no more than a tinker- ing with the sultan's hat, the fez. For although the calpac was made of black lamb's wool, although it did not sport a tassel and widened to the top rather than the bottom, it was nevertheless conical and, most importantly, brimless, identifying the Young Turks with those who put prayer before practicality.
Mustafa Kemal had been a young officer at the time of the Young Turk modification and quickly took to wearing a calpac. He was sympathetic to the aims of the Young Turks but only in- sofar as they went. Fifteen years later, he would embark on a rad- ical I transformation of Turkish society that mocked the Young Turks' notions of revolution and outlawed their hat along with the fez. In the meantime, the calpac provided him with a stepping- stone, another sartorial caravansary, an initial means of breaking free from adherence to the Ottoman orthodoxies symbolized by the fez. Use of the calpac expressed disenchantment with the old system, but moderate disenchantment, and for a young officer looking for preferment, the appearance of moderation was all.
The man in the calpac was called Ali Bey. He had round mourn- ful eyes, a great stomach for.ballast, and a mustache that continually drooped despite the repeated efforts of his fingers to twist it into horizontal obedience. A young child was soon clambering all over him and reaching for something in the area of Ali's pocket.
"Ali Bey is my uncle " Ahmet explained, "and will be aga when my grandfather dies." Ciearly, Haci Baba had sired many sons. The child eventually emerged from, the folds of Ali Bey's jacket bran- dishing a pistol. Then he aimed it at me. Ali Bey slapped him down and apologized. I asked him why he carried the gun.
He shrugged as if the answer were obvious. "There are no po- lice for miles and we don't know what trouble rifight come our way. Besides, there are wolves in the winter. You'll hear them tonight. Leave the gun alone, child. Where's your water pistol?" The child backed off to gaze enviously at Ali Bey's holster.
The gun-toting, calpac-wearing village lieutenant turned to me. He was fondling a medal that hung from his left lapel in so manifest a way that my next question was prompted. He sat back, trying to appear surprised when I asked him about it.
"It's my war of independence medal," he replied. "Atatürk's war against the Greeks."
"But Ali Bey, you look much too young," I said admiringly, and since he was referring to a seventy-year-old war, I wasn't simply being polite. Ali Bey, it transpired, was indeed much too young. The medal had actually been awarded to his wife's grandfather. But in this village, medals won in distant wars filtered down through the generations like the ownership of fields.
The fact that the medal was borrowed did not seem to trouble the villagers, who gathered reverently for one more look before Ali Bey insisted on slipping it into his top pocket, as if he'd been obliged to boast against his modest will. Nor did it matter to me, for Ali Bey looked every inch one of Atatürk's brave irregulars. He told me that he wore his calpac as he was wearing it now, along the head so that it fanned out at the top when he stood in profile, in the course of his ordinary working life. On special occasions such as bayrams, or holidays, he would wear it across his head like a bishop's miter. Then he would buff up his medal and revel in the glory of 1919 to 192.3, when Atatürkk and his soldiers carved a Turkish motherland out of their heroics, even if only because he had happened to marry a valiant bandolier's granddaughter.
"I am Atatürk's greatest admirer," Ali Bey told me. But Ali Bey also told me that, unlike Atatürk, he was not a rim
"A Visit to Soapmakers" by Jeremy Seal Part - II
Posted 18 December 2003 - 12:23
A Visit to Soapmakers
Part - III -
wearer. Nor, in this alcohol-free village, did he drink alcohol; Atatürk had drunk raki, the local Pernod with muscles, to distraction if not to death. Like most of the men in the vil- lage, Ali Bey supported Refah, the Islamic Welfare Party, and its call for the restitution of the seriat, or code of Islamic law. He would not brook the notion of the women of the village voting or even holding polit- ical views even though they had been granted the vote in 1934-by Atatürk. Ali Bey seemed to revere Atatürk, in spite of himself.
But that was the elastic apl)eal of the Turkish icon.
"Of course he is revered" Vedat proclaimed about the great reformer who expelled the invading Greeks, re-energized a broken nation, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, secularized the schools, and abolished polygamy, all in the twenties. "Quite simply," Vedat declared, lifting his chin, "without Atatürk we would be Iran."
-Hatsy Shields, "Inside Anatolia:' ne Atlantic Monthly
period was merely a piece@ of politicking, a transitional period on the way to a hatless future free of calpacs.
Another image, conspicuously popular in government offices and in Westernized parts of Turkey, depicts Atatürk hatless, in tails and wing collar. In this picture, which unsurprisingly I did not see in Soapmakers, he has considerable poise and looks like a cross be- tween the Duke of Edinburgh and Fred Astaire. Of the images in widespread use in Turkey, this is probably closest to the true spirit of the man. But for Ali Bey and many of the villagers of Soap- makers, it was Atatiirk at his most unrecognizable. From his read- ing of the Koran, Haci Baba had doubtlessly warned the villagers about the dangers of bare heads: "The wicked man will be dragged down to hell by his exposed, lying, sinful forelock."
I wondered then how versatile the Atatürk icon could be. Was the elastic beginning to perish? Ali Bey, who, with the help of his grandfather-in-law's medal, had fallen for the image of the brave Gazi forging a nation by force of arms, could soon look no closer at Atatdrk for fear of the complications that might arise to under- mine a simple, stirring image.
Ahmet lit a cigarette and leaned across. "Refahl" he said dismis- sively. "My uncle is crazy. Uncle," he shouted, "our visitor wants to know why you vote Refah."
Ali Bey paused to consider a moment. "Because Refah will make our village rich," he replied. "Refah will pay for tractors and farm machinery and new buildings."
"Dreams, dreams," murmured Ahmet. "You know, Uncle, politi- cians aren't like that."
"Tractors," Ali Bey insisted. "Tractors," Ahmet mocked him quietly.
"And they'll tidy things up top the fucking on the streets of Istanbul," Ali Bey -added, warming to his theme.
"Do they really do that?" asked the village idiot, appearing at the back of the room behind ranks of villagers. "Can I go sometime?"
But for once, the Turkish sense of humor was not tickled. Uncle and nephew stared at each other with a mutual lack of comprehension. They clearly felt too much love for each other to be truly at variance, but the differences between their lifestyles and beliefs were all too apparent. Uncle believed himself to be Turkish and thus Islamic; Ahmet believed himself to be Turkish and thus European. Families have divided over less. A Turkish journalist called Ugur Mumcu had died in a car bomb in Ankara the previous day for championing the essentials of Ahmet's in- stinctive convictions.
Refah has existed in various guises through the turmoils of Turkish political life, but at no time has it enjoyed its present lev- els of support. Nor has it ever been so effectively organized. The party receives significant funding from Saudi Arabia, which it ploughs into communities at grassroots levels to fund the con- struction of new schools and hospitals. The Islamic Welfare Party can afford to live up to its name and deliver promises that other parties can only hope will be conveniently forgotten.
As the evening grew late, the conversation was steered into safer waters. The villagers wanted to know where I was next headed, and hearing my destination was two hours to the east, imagined me entering another world where none of them had ever been. The dolmus driver wanted to know about prices in England.
"Well," I said, short of conversation and noticing a pile of dis- carded husks in a corner of the room. "Pistachios are very expen- sive in England." A whispered command woke a young boy and sent him scurrying from the room. The foreigner who could not afford pistachios would take a large bag of them from Soapmakers the next morning.
Ahmet and I skirted the village dogs, which stirred malevolently at our presence, slipped into Haci Baba's house, and threw mat- tresses down as waves of heat blurred off the stove.
"Refah," murmured Ahmet dozily. "Bah!" There was moonlight at the window and, as I fell asleep, the dis-
tant howling of wolves. I awoke early to a similar sound; Haci Baba was right about the new hoca's singing. After breakfast, I washed and then went with misgivings into the lavatory. I looked through the hole in the floor, looked at my left hand, and promptly left.
Haci Baba found me examining the old farming gear in his shed. Strange how little the foreigner knew; only this morning, Mehmet Bey had told Haci Baba that the Englishman did not know what yields his fields gave. "A d6ven"' he explained pa- tiently. "A horse drags it across cut wheat to separate the ears from the chaff."
It was a large wooden sled, similar to the one I'd seen on the wall of Halil Bey's hotel in Pomegranate. But this one was covered in winter cobwebs, not coated in shiny display varnish. It would be some time before the d6vens of Soapmakers slipped from the pre- sent to serve as a nostalgic reminder of the past.
When the time came to leave, Haci Baba received my kisses and handed me a plastic bag. Inside was a chicken rough plucked. I thanked him as convincingly as I could.
"He always does that," muttered Ahmet as we drove away. "What's a man supposed to do with a chicken in this day and age?" He glanced at me, irritated. "Your hair:'he exclaimed. It was damp from a cursory wash that morning. "You should have borrowed my hair dryer."
"It's wonderful, your village I told Ahmet in an attempt to pla- cate him as we bumped along the track.
"Your village too," he replied, "now that you've been here." After a few hundred yards we drew up opposite the@ village cemetery@ Ranks of simple stones topped with snow abutted a ploughed field.
"A fine place to be buried," I mused. "Yes '" replied Ahmet. "I'm almost looking forward to it."
"But you live in Istanbul." "And this is my village. Refah or no Refah."
I tried to picture how they would one day bring Ahmet here and lay him down alongside his forebears to return to the earth where his heart-in spite of his absence@-had always been. But vague recollections of a recipe that somehow incorporated both chicken and pistachios to spectacular culinary effect kept nagging at me, and Ahmet's final scene eluded me.
Jeremy Seal speaks Turkish fluently, worked as an English teacher in Ankara, and wrote A Fez of the Heart: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat,from which this story was excerpted. He has also written The Snakebite Survivors'Club and Treachery at Sharpnose Point. He lives with his wife and daughter in Bath, England.
"A Visit to Soapmakers" by Jeremy Seal Part - III