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Village Voices: Issue 53

Iznik Diary

After a wet and stormy summer, the Iznik olive harvest plummeted last winter and Azize Ethem’s neighbours fear for the future of a life on the land. On a cheerier note, there are biscuits to be baked and stories with happy endings

Winter arrived early last year, with local folklore dictating a harsh one. A large pile of logs was stacked outside the kitchen door, and candles and torches made ready for the inevitable power cuts. The jackals came down from the hills and for the first time ever I heard their blood- curdling calls in the night.

Here on the edge of the lake I’d had an enjoyable summer, with interesting guests and no great dramas. Well, the malfunction of my 400-metre underground electric cable caused a bit of a palaver, with no electricity for a week. A bevy of village men arrived each day to gossip, drink tea and advise the electrician on which spot to dig for it. Luckily, my friend John arrived to stay and soon had things organised. A contraption that filled the back of a medium-sized truck was dispatched from Bursa, and within a minute of playing with a few wires the operator declared the break was 1.68 metres from the pylon. None of the assembled experts believed a word of it, but unbelievably it was exactly where predicted. The joy of having electricity again overcame any ill feelings towards the electrician for not bringing this black magic in seven days earlier.

A ferocious hailstorm followed by dramatic thunderstorms hit while the olive trees were in flower. No pollen equals no olives, and the crop for the whole area was only 25 per cent of the average yield. Driving down the lane through the olive groves, the trees were barren. There was no work for the itinerant farmhands. Bank loans had to be reassessed and shop owners looked worried. No wonder young country folk are rejecting life on the land.

The previous winter every road in Iznik had been dug up for the laying of sewage pipes, and the trenches were only roughly filled in, making driving a nightmare. Unbelievably, every ditch is now to be reopened for the placing of natural gas pipes. So we are in for a second winter of trench-leaping, mud and impassable roads.

Back in September, with the Kurban Bayramı festival days away, it was time to dig out the best cups and saucers and bake biscuits in readiness for visitors. I never know who will come, but the most welcome guests are Rıza and his family, who make the trip from Iznik each year.

Fifteen years ago, when we started renovating our house and barns in Iznik, Rıza was one of the labourers employed by the builder. A short, thin man in his early thirties, he was impressively strong, attacking every chore with gusto. The first stumbling block with the builder was a request that Simba the dog be tied up all day. He explained that Rıza was a Kurdish Şafi Muslim who would have to undergo a lengthy cleansing ritual if touched by a dog. My husband, Selim refused, suggesting he simply keep his distance. It worked, and Rıza was soon playing with our great hairy beast without the pair ever touching.

We got to know Rıza and his sister, Şadiye, who came to help me set up home amid the dust and rubble. Their parents had fled the strife-torn village in the southeast where they had lived for generations. Rıza, his wife and six children had followed, now living in a one-room basement with an outside tap and lavatory. Each morning a child would be sent to the bakery to buy 15 loaves of yesterday’s bread, which formed the bulk of their diet.

Restorations complete, Rıza stayed to help me build a garden and tackle chores. Şadiye quietly kept the rambling house in order, revelling in her newfound skills with such exotic gadgets as a vacuum cleaner and washing machine. Charity was not an option, but there were ways to circumvent their pride. A huge vegetable garden produced far too much for us and they happily took the surplus. Selim bought Rıza a motor scooter so he could run errands for us – not that we had any. The family moved into a small apartment with the luxury of indoor plumbing.

After many years it was time for Rıza to move on. He floated from job to job, eventually landing work with an elderly roofing contractor. Rıza proved a boon to the business and was made a partner. When the old man retired, he handed it over to Rıza lock, stock and barrel.

On the day of the festival they arrived – Rıza driving a spotless, gleaming vehicle, his proud wife beside him. The daughters were decked out in lovely glittery dresses, while the boys sported top-brand trainers. Stale bread no longer features in their diet.

But when Rıza announced an arranged marriage had been organised for Şadiye, I was distraught. I held forth on the injustice of marrying her off to a second cousin she hadn’t seen since she was four. She would be doomed to a life of drudgery in a horrid little village hundreds of miles away. Selim quietly told me this was these people’s tradition and there was nothing I could do. To temper my distress, Selim met the groom and his father on their arrival in Iznik. He stressed what a special young lady Şadiye was and how he expected her to be cared for properly.

A religious wedding took place that day, with no frothy white dress or guests, and Şadiye, her groom and father-in-law boarded a bus for southeastern Turkey.

A few days later she phoned. The day after her arrival she’d had a real wedding, arranged by her mother-in-law: a civil ceremony with guests, music, cake and all the trimmings. The most wonderful wedding dress in the world had been chosen for her – with chiffon, lace, frills and sequins. Even more amazing, Şadiye, a girl who had never had her own bedroom, was now mistress of a whole apartment.

Order ‘Beyond the Orchard’ by Azize Ethem (Çitlembik) from, price £9.99

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 53
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    Three groundbreaking archaeological exhibitions shine a spotlight on great Anatolian empires and their champions. Istanbul showcases John Garstang’s illuminating work on the Hittites. Berlin celebrates the work of Friedrich Sarre, who brought the Seljuks to life. And treasures from the Phrygia of King Midas head for Philadelphia

  • The Empire Unvarnished

    Luigi Mayer made his mark with lively, quirky scenes for the British ambassador to Constantinople, painting viziers and villagers, soldiers and servants across the Ottoman Empire. He deserves to be plucked from obscurity, argues Briony Llewellyn

  • Connoisseur 53

    London’s luminous Liotards, prayers on a shirt, bare truths in Beyoğlu, and a Biennial all at sea… Plus three lost Anatolian empires and their intrepid champions

  • Eastern Nuance

    The 18th-century Swiss portrait artist Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789) is widely regarded as the first Orientalist. The four years he spent in Turkey from 1738, drawing and painting Western merchants and diplomats as well as Ottoman citizens, made him the first serious European artist to find his subject matter in the East.

  • The Grandest Vizier

    Few statesmen of the turbulent last years of the Ottoman Empire can have held more illustrious titles – at a less auspicious time – than the diminutive Küçük Said Pasha. David Barchard looks back over the eventful and chequered career of a man of many parts.

  • The Princes Islands

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  • Broad Bean Feast

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  • Büyükada: the Writer’s Island

    Since he became enchanted by the ‘Big Island’ 15 years ago, Owen Matthews has enjoyed its seasonal changes and watched its popularity grow – not least among soap-opera fans

  • Heybeliada: Notes on a Smaller Island

    Heybeliada is more compact and less showy than Büyükada, but just as fair

Buy the issue
Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
£15.00 / $19.05 / 630.39 TL
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