Issue 42: Village Voices

Life in the Iznik countryside has been turned upside down for Azize Ethem by the death of her beloved husband, Selim. But thanks to the support of family, friends and neighbours – and Cornucopia readers – she has watched the bean harvest, seen her garden redesigned and enjoyed the grunts, groans and greasy grapplings of the first Iznik oil-wrestling tournament.

Although Selim had been ill for much of the last year, his death in April was a shock. Our dear friends Dorothy and Tayfun were with me at the hospital bedside and immediately I was cocooned in a blanket of love and support. Within the hour the Iznik loudspeakers were broadcasting the news, resulting in a flood of comfort and friendship.

With our daughter Sara on her way from London, I returned to our new home by the lake to spend the night alone. Simba the wonder dog, who would normally only enter a house when a thunderstorm was imminent, followed me into the salon and later slept on the floor by my bed. Next morning Tayfun took me back to the hospital to complete formalities, and on our return to Keramet we found Sara and friend Linda surrounded by TV people and newspaper reporters. Our poor son, Julian, had no chance of being with us, as Australian anti-terrorist laws prohibit travel without a 48-hour lapse between purchasing an airline ticket and travelling. For the next few weeks I wandered the house in pyjamas and watched rubbish on television. I found it hard to face people.

I don’t know if it is a Turkish custom but so many people have asked me for a set of Selim’s prayer beads to remember him by that I had to buy a dozen sets when I was in Istanbul. I have been surprised by the number of Cornucopia readers who have contacted me with messages of condolence. Mary and Colin Weir from Canada read our news on the internet and Mary, an accomplished quilter, is making me a sympathy quilt “as a small way to express our caring as you move into a new chapter of your life”. Thank you.

Insidiously the world beyond my safe four walls began to intrude. Legalities forced me to leave the house. The Iznik mayor had given the cemetery plot as a present, which I think has to head the list of unusual presents I have received over the years. He had also thoughtfully reserved the adjacent plot for me – not free of charge, I hasten to add.

I had only just paid for my future resting place when I received a proposal of marriage. Sadly it was my 30 olive trees that were alluring, rather than myself. A neighbour who had hired a bulldozer for the day offered as an act of kindness to knock down the beautiful willow at the end of my garden.

In an old section of the cemetery I came across a well-tended grave with five rows of beans and two of onions. This is a time for seriousness but at times I find myself laughing. Selim would have enjoyed it all so much!

Bereavement seems to give people the right to be bossy. Seeing me happily working outside, someone will shout from the neighbouring field that I must put on a sun hat. Mehmet Bean and his wife decided I would move in with their family, 14 kilometres down the road. Mehmet planned to drive me back and forth each day on his tractor. When I wait for a dolmuş on the side of the road, every tractor that passes stops and the driver checks on where am going, and why. Sara phones and lectures me about healthy eating.

Pick of the crop: It is now July and the bean crop is being harvested. Early each morning Mehmet arrives with half a dozen women perched in the trailer of his tractor. Slowly, throughout the heat of the day, bent double, they inch their way down the field picking the beans. Mehmet and his teenage son spend most of the day dozing in the shade as the women toil. The manly chores are the turning on and off of the irrigation pump, lifting the crates of produce onto the trailer at the end of the day and of course the driving of the tractor. Bean prices are good, I am told. His crop of cauliflowers was ploughed into the soil, as the wholesale price didn’t warrant harvesting them. How odd, in a world where millions go hungry.

Up the garden path: My friend Chevrel Traher, the landscape gardener, has taken pity on me and is designing and organising the garden. She and Alan arrive with their large van crammed with plants, cobblestones and an assortment of irrigation pipes. With Fatih, the gardener, I spend hours wrestling with a trickle hose and planting seedlings. A hill has been created which looked good until Mehmet’s son ploughed it as a surprise. Unfortunately I was not at home the day the digging machine arrived to create the bog garden, and I now have a very deep, very large, muddy swimming pool. Men come from fields around to give advice, never deterred by the fact that this is a flower garden and not a vegetable plot. Seventy-five tons of gravel for paths has arrived and the building team has returned to build the garden shed and outside kitchen. Hopefully the carpenter will return at some stage and finish the multitude of small jobs still waiting. Osman, the olive man, zooms in on his tractor with trailer-loads of soil. It is quite heady early evening when everyone departs and I am left to the silence and solitude as I sit and watch the sunset.

Slippery customers: With a new house and a field to turn into a garden I am not exactly lost for things to do, but friends are repeatedly telling me to get out. Actually it is more nagging than telling, so last Saturday I bowed to pressure and attended the yağlı güreş tournament on the lakefront.

Oil-wrestling is said to date back to the Persian Era but is a Turkish national sport. The Ottoman Sultan Orhan Gazi, his brother and forty warriors wrestled for fun at a place called Kırkpınar. Later the rules, together with covering the body as well as the tight leather trousers with olive oil, were formalised by the Janissaries. Kırkpınar in Edirne is now the site of the annual national competition where first prize is $100,000.

On Saturday we had our first ever local oil-wrestling event, held in Iznik. There was an enormous crowd and 200 would-be wrestlers had gathered from surrounding towns. Hundreds of men of all shapes and sizes, glistening with liberal coats of olive oil, waited for their turn to grapple, grunt and writhe on the grassy shore of the lake. It all looked very aggressive, as well as dangerous, but when one competitor got a piece of grass in his eye, his opponent gently removed it for him before they returned to the enthusiastic, slithering and noisy combat. The tea-boy from the çayhane near my bank came third in his category and his excitement as he received his certificate was wonderful to see.

‘Beyond the Orchard’, a book of Azize Ethem’s stories, published by Çitlembik–Nettleberry, is offered to Cornucopia subscribers post-free at £6.50

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 42
  • The Flutterby Ball

    The Kaçkar Mountains are heaven for butterflies, as the butterfly book author and photographer Ahmet Baytaş, economist by trade, ecologist by nature, discovered when he returned to Yaylalar, the village of his birth

  • Mother of the Uighurs

    The Turkic Uighurs of Western China have long chafed under Communist Chinese rule. Christian Tyler meets their formidable figurehead, Rebiya Kadeer, who spent five years in prison for protesting against her people’s treatment and now carries on her fight for their freedom from Washington


  • Gorgeous Georgian

    Robert Ousterhout is agog at the remarkable Georgian churches of the Tao-Klarjeti, the two medieval Georgian principalities between Kars and the Kaçkars


  • Water Over the Bridge

    For the English-speaking community of Istanbul the suggestion of aqueduct-hunting in Thrace strikes fear into the hearts of all but the foolhardy. Relentlessly cheerful, Prof James Crow of Edinburgh University would laugh off each misadventure and forge onward.


  • Heat and Dust

    Leo Gough grew up in the hothouse atmosphere of Cold War Ankara, where his father was director of the British Institute of Archaeology. He recalls tales of derring-do from the larger-than-life visitors and scholars who passed through the institute’s doors

  • Four Walks in the Kaçkars

    Kate Clow, pioneering waymarker and author of two walking guides to the Taurus Mountains, has now created a guide to trekking in the Kaçkars. Here she describes four breathtaking one-day walks.



  • A Day on Black Rock Pasture

    By whatever name it is known – whether Karataş Yayla (Black Rock Pasture) or ÇaGrankaya (Singing Rock) – this spur of the Kaçkars is full of drama. Andrew Byfield battled rain and fog to reach its riches

  • Wrestling with Life in the Mountains

    High in the apparently empty Kaçkars, the way of life is as old as the hills. Michael Hornsby joins in the fun at a village festival in remote summer pastures. Photographs by Giulio Rubino


  • A Cold, Harsh Reality

    Norman Stone unravels the history of Kars


  • Portrait of the Artists

    Unlocking the door to the private world of Feyhaman and Güzin Duran, by Maureen Freely


Buy the issue
Issue 42, 2009 Adventures in Anatolia
£8.00 / $11.02 / 42.13 TL