Excerpted from a larger project in progress on the village and people of Hasankeyf
Set in the creamy limestone hills of southeastern Turkey, the twelve-thousand-year-old hamlet of Hasankeyf is the only place on earth that meets nine out of ten UNESCO World Heritage Site criteria. Venice meets six. The Great Wall, five. The Grand Canyon, four. All but Hasankeyf made the cut. That is because the Turkish government has made no effort to propose the village’s inclusion, which would get in the way of its controversial Ilisu Dam project. Built fifty miles downstream, the dam will flood Hasankeyf into nonexistence.
Many Turkish and international news outlets have reported on Hasankeyf but few have been able to capture the complexity, nuance, and human element of the situation.
Life is not easy in the impoverished village, where the loss of electrical power is a regular nuisance and locals struggle to find work. Touting development projects and the gated suburb that is “New Hasankeyf,” government officials say its dam project will “save the people of Hasankeyf.” But the people are not so sure, and their voices have been muffled at every stage of the decision-making process.
That is how I came to find myself in April 2012 bouncing along on a minibus to Hasankeyf, where I spent ten days immersed in the homes and lives of these locals.
Even though I then had a firm grasp of the Turkish language and had worked as a journalist for two-and-a-half years in Istanbul, I recognize these stories are told through the lens of an outsider. Even after only two visits to Hasankeyf, though, I was able to understand that much remains between the lines of newsprint.
When I first visited Hasankeyf, everything and everyone was black or white. Hasankeyf, good. The dam, bad. The villagers, good. The authorities, bad. My second visit, I learned the stories of Hasankeyf and its people are messy, filled with both joy and fear, hopelessness and resilience, community and infighting.
I have drank tea with locals who are building the government’s dam and their village’s demise simply because their families need the money to survive. I have played street ball in alleys with young women who dream of traveling the world and giggle about Hollywood actors but would not dare take their games public because they “belong at home.” And I have herded cattle with Kurdish shepherds living across the Tigris who also will lose their homes to the dam but say they are not welcome in the resettlement housing.
These are a few of their stories.
I first met Arif, who travels all over the Middle East in search of fine carpets, in his rug shop in the carsi (bazaar).
Naturally, it was over tea in his shop and while whipping out Persian and Kurdish rugs that he told me his story. Arif is one of seven children. His brother runs the café nearest to the castle (which everyone knows serves the smoothest Turkish coffee), his father owns one of the fish restaurants along the water, his cousins work the butcher shop on the corner, and his fedora-sporting, graying uncle still practices traditional weaving across the street. “Do you know everyone in this town?” I asked him once, laughing and shaking my head because we couldn’t make it down one block without stopping for tea. I was reminded of my mother, the worst power-walking companion for the same reason, and more generally of the warm, familiar culture of my home, Louisiana.
Before breaking into the rug business, Arif, who speaks fluent Arabic, English, Kurdish, and Turkish, worked as a translator for the dam construction company. After learning of the destructive implications for his village, he left and became one of Hasankeyf’s most vocal advocates.
Whenever given the opportunity, Arif defiantly says he refuses to move to “New Hasankeyf.” But once I pressed him. “So, what will you do if Hasankeyf is indeed flooded?” It was an uncomfortable question for both of us, because I was asking him to entertain defeat.
We walked a dusty block in silence before he answered, “I don’t know.” He paused again before adding, “Maybe I’ll move to one of Turkey’s border cities.”
My first time in Hasankeyf, I left without a rug. “Next time!” I told Arif as I dashed for the airport-bound minibus. His response stayed me until I touched ground in Istanbul: “We may not be here next time.”
When I first met Arif, he regaled me with stories of his womanizing past. “Wait, wait,” I said, counting on my fingers. “Was she after or before the German?”
Sometime between my first and second visits to Hasankeyf, Arif proposed to a woman in Batman named Sukran. Whenever her name came up in conversation, his cheeks would turn an uncharacteristically blotchy crimson.
On one of my last nights in Hasakeyf, Arif invited me over to his family’s house for dinner. As we sat cross-legged on the floor and washed down stuffed tripe with chilled yogurt-chickpea soup, we watched a TV special on Jay-Z.
“What does she do?” I asked between commercials and mouthfuls of fluffy bread. I was surprised I didn’t know; after all, I spent more time with Arif than anyone else in Hasankeyf.
“Nothing. She stays at home all day,” he said proudly, reaching for the pitcher of frothy ayran (a salty yogurt-based drink).
By the end of my second visit, I had learned my lesson. I returned home carrying under my arm a square, brightly colored Kurdish rug that reminds me of a kaleidoscope.
I never thought myself to be especially blood-shy. After all, I spent a significant part of my childhood on a farm in rural Louisiana where I pierced my knee on barbed wire (and had to yank it out), witnessed our four-wheeler skin the flesh of my sister’s leg, and watched, horrified, as our family dogs massacred our flock of chickens.
I was standing in front of one of two butcher shops in Hasankeyf. There was a third butcher, but no one talks about him. He was “sent away.” Outside Abdul Aziz’s shop in the carsi (bazaar) is a blue plastic bucket, the same bucket I passed every day on my way to Mehmet’s for breakfast. I never made much of it. After all, it was just a bucket. Probably a trash bin.
Today, though, l finally looked. Inside were severed animal heads. Goats, sheep, cows, all of their hair and eyes intact. I desperately wanted to look away, but my gaze was locked and my mind still was processing.
“That’s some of the best meat right there,” a lanky young man said cheerfully as he sidled up beside me. He grinned as he rifled through the bucket, selected one of the cow heads and held it close to my face to inspect. As its dead eyes bore into mine, the guy grabbed the still hairy cheek of the beast. And then he grabbed mine.
“That meat right there. It’s perfect for soup.”
“Oh right, of course, soup,” I tried to say casually.
I took a deep breath before stepping inside. The one-room store was simple, its black-and-white tiled walls wet-clean. The trails of soap, bleach, and raw meat intermingled. A mirror ran along the entire length of the right wall. Hanging on bright blue hooks along that wall and across from me were headless skinned animals.
Abdul’s family opened this shop forty years ago. He began helping his dad here when he was seven years old, and you can tell by the way he slices and chops. And that’s what he was doing when I entered. What exactly he was chopping I’m still not sure, but he was going at whatever it was quickly and with impressive precision. He looked up, without hesitating, and smiled.
“Arif said you might stop by. Come in, sit down,” he said, nodding to three orange plastic chairs stacked atop one another in the corner. I not-so-gracefully scaled the side of the crayon-hued tower.
“Bring our friend some tea,” said Abdul, which for some reason struck me as comically formal given the setting.
We talked as he worked. Customers selected the meat they wanted from the freezer that could be seen from the street. After shaving off a leg or some other body part I did not recognize, Abdul brought it to the tree-stump-turned-cutting-board and sliced some more. At some point, he caught me wincing (damn it) and laughed that kind of whole-body laugh. Abdul then weighed and wrapped up the meat before finally scribbling in a green notebook, its spine taped together, and equivalent to the size of his gut. I never saw money exchanged.
Customers asked about one another’s families, quibbled over politics, and caught up on the village gossip. One guy I’d never seen before turned to me. “Weren’t you looking for the provincial governor?” Well, yes, I was. I had been chasing him around the village for days, in fact. “He just left.”
A day in the life of Abdul starts at 6 a.m. across the Tigris. That’s where the animals are butchered.
“Would you like to join us tomorrow morning?” he asks. His assistant, dressed in an orange apron, looked up curiously.
“No, no, I have to, uh, write.” The memory of what had been for me an unexpected killing of a chicken a few feet from my face earlier that day was still fresh. The assistant smirked as he pierced what could have been a sheep with an empty blue hook.
We began talking about the local officials’ decision last year to close the fortress at the end of the street, which until recently drew caravans of minibuses of tourists every weekend.
“Without that steady flow of people on our street, business is really suffering. Everyone on this street is having a hard time,” he said. “Last year, I sold fifteen to twenty animals a day. Now, I am lucky if I sell a third of that.”
That’s when a tall man sporting dark wash jeans, a tailored blazer, and leather shoes entered with purpose in his step. My first thought: he was not from around here. Without so much as a “merhaba” (“hi”) or an “affedersiniz” (“excuse me”), he stepped in between me and Abdul.
As I straightened up, the three chairs beneath me squeaked.
“What’s she doing here?” the man asked Abdul coolly.
“She is a journalist. She is interviewing me— ”
“She is interviewing everyone, I hear,” he said, still without looking at me. “What are you telling her?”
Abdul murmured something, visibly withdrawing into his faded black hoodie.
“What are you telling her?” the man said more loudly this time.
Abdul was focusing on the drawstring of his sweatshirt. “I was just telling her about the economy. And how life has been hard since—“
“You all know why the castle was closed,” he said, cutting off Abdul. “All you all think about is me, me, me.”
“And you believe this nonsense?” he asked, finally turning to me.
“I think he poses valid questions and concerns.” I glanced over at Abdul, who was wrapping and unwrapping his drawstring around his pudgy index finger.
“What are you writing?” he asked as he tried to look over my shoulder and into my notebook. I shut it, slipped it inside my book bag and smiled.
He smiled back. “Stop by and let’s drink tea sometime” was all he said before leaving us.
Abdul laughed, slapping his knee, as soon as the mysterious man was a block away.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“The police chief.”
On one side of the Tigris sits Hasankeyf. On the other, Kesmekopru Village. This morning, I grabbed my usual simit (Turkish-style bagel) from the corner teashop and crossed the bridge to Kesmekopru to visit my favorite monument, Zunel Bey’s Tomb. But I never made it there.
Instead, I found myself drinking homemade ayran beneath a tree with Cetin Cile and his two small boys. The creamy beverage he served me in a plastic cup resembled the ayran I had drank and even made myself hundreds of times in Istanbul. But its taste—smoother, fresher, slightly less salty—was new to me. That makes sense, as he does this—raises goats and sells their meat, cheese, milk and, yes, ayran—for a living.
Cetin, a tall, lean man with leathery skin, a bushy mustache, and a defined jawline, cracked a toothy smile in my direction. “Nice mustache,” he said, pointing to the leftover yogurt on my upper lip. Then he poured me another glass.
Suddenly, I felt a light tug at my foot. There, relishing my boot laces, was a baby goat. “Bahhhh,” it protested in a tiny, tight voice when I pulled my foot out of its reach. I couldn’t help but laugh and pick it up in my arms.
“What will you do in New Hasankeyf?” I asked, stroking the fluffy creature pressed up against me.
Looking over his shoulder at the resettlement housing in the distance, Cetin frowned. “My family and I won’t move there.” He didn’t raise his voice, and he didn’t sound angry, like Arif. Just resolute. There is nothing for us in New Hasankeyf. Just dirt and buildings. How would I raise my goats there?”
Abdulkadir’s mother, Halime Can, was born and raised in a cave among the now closed fortress ruins overlooking Hasankeyf. In the 1970s, she and her family came down to the stone house where she lives now.
After paddling us down the Tigris one sunny afternoon, Abdulkadir, twenty-five, invited me over for tea to meet her.
We sat on cushions on the floor of their living room, eating handfuls of homemade trail mix and flipping through yellowed photos of family picnics, soccer matches, and a much younger Abdulkadir with that same goofy smile.
Her Turkish is a bit rusty, “like yours,” said Abdulkadir, laughing, “so you two will understand one another just fine.”
Like many women in the area, Halime grew up speaking Kurdish and never learned Turkish. That is until now; her son is teaching her.
“Halime Hanim [equivalent of the English suffix Mrs.], what was your childhood like?” I expected a whimsical tale of picking wild flowers and playing hide-and-seek in the valleys.
“What childhood?” said Halime, retying her floral headscarf. “My family married me off at the age of fourteen. I had two children before I turned seventeen.”
I visited Mehmet Altundag’s teashop, across from Arif’s rug shop, at some point everyday. By the looks of it, so did everyone else in the town.
“Gunaydin, Aly!” shouted Abdulkadir, though it sounded more like “Ellie.” He waved at the blue plastic chair beside him. Arif and Coban Ali (Shepherd Ali), seated at the same table topped with newspaper and a tempting spread of bread, cheese, and veggies, echoed him.
Mehmet welcomed me with a respectful nod and tea. Gingerly passing the piping hot glass between my fingers, I sipped. The short, round teashop owner waddled to his stovetop, where a double kettle and a copper cevze (small pot for brewing Turkish coffee) gurgled and steamed.
“Medium?” he asked me, referring to my preferred sugar level.
“Yes, please.” Two years in Turkey, and I still can’t start my morning without a cup of coffee.
Mehmet and his family came down from the castle in 1970. After completing his mandatory military service, he married and opened his teashop in 1985. Because of the government’s building ban, he and his mother, wife, and seven children live under one roof.
“Our conditions here are very difficult,” Mehmet said, scratching his head with one hand as he handed me my coffee with the other. “The economic situation has made life even harder. We are barely getting by.”
He paused and slightly cocked his head before adding, “Maybe the government will help us if the dam comes.” Was that a twinge of hope in his voice? Or desperation?
Mehmet visited the resettlement housing last year with his friends.
“New Hasankeyf is very modern. The houses are beautiful,” he said, nodding. “But no one knows how life will be. Here we bake tandoor bread and have cows and sheep; we cannot bring these to New Hasankeyf.”
“The government says they will buy our homes and we can pay for our new, more expensive homes by installments, but how will I do that?” Mehmet asked.
50 Cent was playing on the TV mounted to the back wall. Everyone, except for Abdulkadir, was entranced.
“Don’t you listen to 50 Cent?” I teased him. Abdulkadir tutted loudly, tilting his head back and sharply raising his eyebrows. It’s Turkish body language for “no.”
“I only listen to Kurdish music,” he said with pride and while tearing off a piece of tandoor bread and dipping it into the bucket of Chokokrem.
Merve Ozturk, fourteen, is easy to miss. She lingers behind groups, nervously fidgets with her headscarf and rarely speaks unless spoken to. Her loose-fitting tunics and floor-length skirts swallow her frail frame. Having twenty-two siblings does not help.
But Merve is a different person with a ball in her hands.
We were waiting for dinner to be served and clearly flustering Esra, Merve’s older sister and chef of the house. “Stop hovering,” she chided Isa, the youngest brother, before turning to all of us. “The potatoes won’t be ready for another half-hour.”
The suggestion of a pre-supper ball game was not at all surprising but that it came from little Merve, ball on her hip, was.
We played Kale (Castle), a mix between soccer and H.O.R.S.E, with some of the kids in the neighborhood. Merve, confidently darting to and fro across the cobbled road, kept pace with her brothers (she scored against me several times, but that’s not saying much).
When I accidentally kicked the ball square into Merve’s face, my mouth fell open in horror. But she just laughed loudly. “Aly, try for the goal this time,” Merve said with a playful wink.
Later, as the large group of us sat on the floor gushing about Hollywood actors and debating who was the hunkiest, Merve resumed her traditional shrunken posture and remained quiet.
After the young women of the family finally had reached a consensus (Orlando Bloom), I turned to Merve, who was slowly picking apart her share of borek (flaky pastry). “You really like sports, don’t you?” I said, forking an especially buttery slice. Our eyes met, and hers brightened.
“Basketball,” she stammered excitedly, “I love to play basketball.”
“I wish I could play basketball,” Melike, her eighteen-year-old sister, interjected. I waited for an explanation but none came. Everyone nodded at some undeniable truth I had somehow missed.
“Why can’t you?” I asked after a few moments of silence.
“Because people pass by my school,” she said by way of explanation. When she could see I still had no idea what that meant, Melike added, “They would see me and talk.”
Girls are not to play sports, they told me. And if they are seen doing so, they will get a bad reputation, which is everything in a village in southeastern Turkey.
“But Merve was playing ball in the street,” I pressed.
“That’s because she was playing in front of our house. She could never do that in public,” added Esra, who looks much older than twenty-two.
Girls and women cannot go shopping, they cannot stroll through the bazaar, and they certainly cannot drink tea at the cafes. In fact, if Esra and her sisters want to hang out with their friends, they travel an hour away to the province of Batman.
“So where do girls and women belong? Where is your space?” I asked.
“At home.” Esra and Melike responded in unison. Merve nodded, adjusting her headscarf.
“Do you feel restricted?” My questioned seemed obvious, but I asked anyway.
They shrugged their shoulders. “Eh,” Esra said nonchalantly, “That’s life in Hasankeyf.”
Hasankeyf is not the only village in Turkey the dam would wipe out, and its people are not the only ones facing forced evacuation. The government already has relocated the people of Ilisu, the hamlet nearest to the dam in progress.
The road to New Ilisu was rocky and dusty. Murat, Arif’s childhood friend, was driving us because he used to do the same for the dam construction company. “Fewer questions,” Arif assured me.
Along the way, we passed over patches of newly laid pavement—“That’s where the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) placed roadside bombs,” Murat said casually, slowly sucking a cigarette with not a single window ajar—impromptu military checks, and uniformed gendarmes.
When we pulled up, we were surprised to find plastic-wrapped administrative buildings, mounds of mud, and a stray wheelbarrow abandoned in the middle of the road. A lone duck wobbled past us. New Ilisu looked like an unfinished construction site, not a village resettled more than two years ago.
Bahar Dikmen, leaning against the gate of her home, was the first person we came across in the seemingly empty town. When we walked up, she was arguing loudly with a man sitting inside what looked like it once had been a white pick-up truck.
“You all complain but look at the houses you live in. Are you telling me your old homes looked like this?” He was shouting but seemed to enjoy it. At least he was smiling.
“Our new homes look beautiful, yes. But they are not built well,” she shot back.
“He doesn’t even live here,” Bahar said, turning to me though loud enough that the man could hear. “He’ll make money when our old village floods.”
As if suddenly realizing I had not been beside her all along, she introduced herself and invited me into her courtyard. A little girl with dark curls was happily playing with an orange.
Bahar brought out tea, pungent cheese, cookies, and fruit. All we could offer was a quarter loaf of bread a poor woman had given us while visiting the Ilisu Dam site earlier that day.
“We were happier before,” she told me simply. “We have nothing now.”
She placed my hand in hers and led me inside the home with the modern façade. “Look,” she said, pointing to the web of cracks working its way along the walls of what appeared to be the living room. “What good is a beautiful house if it cannot last?”
Bahar moved to the window, looking out on the school across the street. “My children study there. When it rains, the third floor of the school leaks.”
Those who work in New Ilisu, like Bahar’s neighbor Abdulsan Aykurt, work for the dam company. As Abdulsan lifted the dark-headed child onto his lap in the courtyard, he told me he used to work in construction in Eskisehir.
“What will you do when the dam is complete?” I asked. The little girl bashfully offered me the orange she had used as a soccer ball moments before.
He shrugged. “I’m not sure. Perhaps we will return to Eskisehir.”
But Abdulsan is one of the lucky ones. For now, he can provide for his family. Rabia Dogan, an elderly woman whose husband is terminally ill, is one of the many who are not so fortunate.
“The government bought our home in Ilisu for TL 25,000. They sold us this new house for TL 70,000,” she said, wringing her hands. “The government says we do not have to pay anything the first five years. What does that matter? My husband is too old and sick to work. What will we do?”
“If you could give the people of Hasankeyf a message, what would it be?” I asked them.
“Fight,” Bahar said without hesitation. “They told us life would be better, but it is not. Fight for your village. The government will win, but don’t give up.”