As we left the cliff-side town of Artvin in Eastern Turkey, we passed a pair of life-sized statues of ferocious looking, massive-shouldered bulls squaring off opposite each other. Unfortunately, we’d missed the bull wrestling matches that are popular here every June during an eagerly anticipated annual festival.
Bulls from far and near, we were told, are sent out to battle according to their weight and the thickness of their necks. On a large flat, grassy area on the mountain above Artvin, the bulls challenge each other, jostling and pushing, catching horns, even tossing each other, until finally one of them gives up and runs away, leaving the other victorious.
“But, of course,” we were assured, “neither of the bulls is ever badly hurt or killed.”
We just had to take that statement on faith. Maybe, if we came back someday, we’d find out for ourselves.
As we continued, the next day, we drove quite close to a military base near the Iran border, complete with barbed wire fencing, soldiers with machine guns in bunkers, tanks, and watch towers. We were lucky, our driver announced, as we drove into the Kurdish area of eastern Turkey. At times, tourists are not allowed in the area. Over the years, there’ve been a number of skirmishes and violent confrontations in this part of the country.
We’d been told that some of the problems go back to when the European powers, especially England and France, carved up the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War One – with little regard for the local populations, creating artificial borders that ran right through ethnic and tribal groups.
Violence in Iraq and bordering countries, when we were there, had pushed many refugees to flee into Turkey. However, although there had been Kurds in Turkey for many generations, the Kurd refugees weren’t always welcome.
Later on, after driving through a very sparsely populated area, as we were approaching a town, we noticed what looked like a party in front of a faded robin’s egg blue house set back from the road. A large group of men and women were dancing in a wide circle to recorded folk music on the open area between the house and road. One man seemed to be photographing the festivities with a video camera. We asked the driver to stop the van and go up to the house to find out what was happening. He went up, talked to some men, and came back. It was an engagement party, he said, for a young Kurdish couple – and we were invited.
As we walked up the dirt driveway toward the party, several children ran down to greet us. The adults smiled and welcomed us with pantomime gestures. The energetic dancing in the circle continued. From time to time, the young man with the video camera turned it toward us, as we watched the dancing. The joy and pleasure on the faces of the dancers, especially the young ones, made us grin, too. Legs and feet pranced and stomped and kicked high and fast, as arms stretched out over the shoulders of other dancers.
Some of the women wore long skirts and flowered blouses, loose jackets and kerchiefs, but the younger women left their hair uncovered and wore less bulky clothes that revealed their figures. The younger men danced in blue jeans and tee shirts. Sometimes, the men and women moved in one large circle, other times they separated into a circle of men and another of women that moved past each other in opposite directions.
“Where are you from?” some of them asked, through our driver. When we said the United States, they were surprised, but seemed pleased. They offered us fruit juice and sweets, then pulled us into the dancing circles. Laughing, we did our best to copy the high-stepping, complicated dance steps.
Jet planes suddenly roared overhead, slicing trails like chalk scratches on the blue sky.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Military planes,” our driver translated. “There is a U.S. air base near here. The border is just there.” He nodded toward the hilly horizon.
After a while, I dropped out of the circle. Immediately, a young man came up to me and, with a few words of English and eloquent gestures, invited me to follow him into the house. It turned out that the engaged couple was not out there dancing with the others. They were sitting in state inside the pale blue cement block house.
We crossed the little porch and stepped into a low-ceilinged living room carpeted with overlapping rugs, where a dozen family members were sitting on carpet-covered sofas. Greeting everyone respectfully with “Merhaba,” I was ushered along through a second door into a room just as crowded with more people. These were the bride and groom and their immediate families.
Absurdly young and innocent, the boy and girl sat stoically enthroned on a bulbous old sofa draped with flower-patterned cloths. The bride, a serious girl in a long plain white gown with high collar and wide full sleeves, gazed up at me and murmured something. The young man at my side told me that she welcomed me. The groom, a thin youth in an ill-fitting black suit, resembled photographs I’d seen of Franz Kafka, with hollow cheeks, dark eyes, and big ears. Were they as terrified of the future as they appeared, I wondered? Of course, I couldn’t ask.
“Please,” I asked the man with me, “tell them that I wish them happiness and good fortune.” Then, hand over my chest, I bent toward them and backed away.
This experience inspired part of my new book, DELPHINE, published by TEXAS REVIEW PRESS. Available at University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Texas A & M University Press Consortium (800-826-8911), and bookstores.