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A Turkish Carpet


Every year I abandon my family to stay with remote farmers in different corners of the world. This year I went to Turkey with Ian Warrell, who not only speaks the language fluently but has a profound knowledge of the country’s culture and heritage.

In less than half a century, Turkey has changed from a country where three-quarters of the population lived in rural areas, to one where three-quarters are in cities. Only last year it was praised as a paragon of neo-liberal economic virtue for making economic policy changes suggested by the IMF. However, it is now suffering from an economic crisis that is causing massive unemployment. So, having been one of the most rapidly urbanising nations, the crisis is making many Turks return to their rural roots.

Our journey began in the city of Kayseri, where smoke-belching factories and concrete high-rises crowd the skyline. Soon we were in the surrounding countryside, where small farming communities live in old houses, blissfully unaffected by the modern world – so far. Perched on a rock face in the hills of Capadocia, we found one such village where an old lady beckoned us up to her balcony. She told us “I would never leave my village. Everything we need is free and everyone knows and cares for each other here. If we need wood, we simply gather it. And food grows easily.”

With a beautiful backdrop of autumnal colours and snow-capped mountains, our journey continued into Eastern Anatolia. Exploring ancient dirt roads, through unspoilt wooded valleys with crystal-clear streams, we discovered what looked like Arcadia. We were struck by the remarkable symbiosis of people and nature. Everywhere locals were busy working the land. We chatted to an old man who was ploughing. When we asked why he was using chemical fertiliser, he laughed saying, “I must have been brainwashed! At first yields improved a lot. But I soon learnt the long-term effects of trying to outsmart Mother Nature. My soil is ruined. The poor farmers who couldn’t afford the chemicals in the first place are the lucky ones. I’m in debt now and have to try to slowly rebuild my soil’s fertility with animal manure.”

In this part of Turkey the countryside has been enhanced by human activity with villages only discernible by a concentration of green fields, orchards and stone houses. We stopped in a small village called Chardak. There we met Sevim, a constantly smiling mother of three who, with time-honoured hospitality, begged us to stay in her house. I admired Sevim’s freedom to invite as she wished. No permission was sought from anyone. As economic life revolves around the home and the family, contrary to popular ideas, rural Muslim women radiated dignity and authority. This view was to be greatly strengthened over the course of our trip.

In Turkish culture, with its nomadic origins, the guest has always held a privileged place. The fact that we were the first foreigners in Chardak generated a lot of interest. Family and locals joined us cross-legged on the beautifully woven red carpet to share tea, home-made bread, butter, cheese, rose hip jam, olives and honey. Sevim lit the stove, adding to the warmth generated by the draft mules and cattle in the stable below. We spent the evening joking and exchanging descriptions of our very different ways of life.

“I didn’t go to school”, Sevim explained. “Girls are bought up copying everything our mothers do”. She continued, “Though my work is sometimes hard, I enjoy working with my friends and relatives. We laugh and joke. We are always together. I couldn’t imagine working on my own. We have to plant and harvest, pickle and dry fruit and vegetables, make yoghurt and cheese, grind corn, bake bread, milk the cows, care for the draft animals, spin, dye and weave carpets and cushions – can you imagine doing all that by yourself? It would be impossible, so we all have to work together.” But then she said sadly “It’s harder today because many people from our family have left the village to work in town.”

That night I went with Sevim to make bread with the women in a neighbouring house. The unleavened bread, baked on a vast metal griddle, is stored in every household to see the family through the snow-bound months. The women worked with perfect harmony, skilfully kneading, rolling and baking with great enjoyment. Though full of laughter and appreciation for my efforts, they must have thought me a poor investment to my husband as I threw the finely orchestrated process into disarray with my clumsy attempts.

At breakfast, Sevim’s tall, affluent looking uncle, Mustofa, a banker from Kyserie, told us that he longs for the holidays when he brings his family to the village he grew up in.

“Young people should stay as farmers,” he advised, “there is nothing that compares to village life. The government just doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the cities are falling apart and filling up with traffic, unemployment and slums”. He continued, “The Turkish people fear that even if our debts are repaid, the terms of trade have been distorted by incessant currency devaluation. Now we have to work twice as hard and sell twice as much to earn the foreign currency we originally borrowed.” Sevim gazed at her uncle with pride as he proceeded to tell us why the EU and the global economy would bring no benefits to Turkey. He felt that a system that globalises trade would only play into the hands of big business.

After breakfast we went to a nearby village where thirty per cent of the inhabitants had either gone to the city or to Germany. While we enjoyed the idyllic scenery our host, Mehmet said, “I made this stove forty years ago. I am keeping it burning, as I know that those fools will soon return. Village life was intact here until the 1980′s when many left their land to find work in city factories. I remember it all began at once with TV advertising. The cities needed workers from the villages to work in the factories, so they engaged in propaganda like the US and Turkish flags tied together to signify booming trade and an easy life for everyone. But it has all proved an empty promise. What’s the use of another IMF loan if it supports an economic system that undermines rural life? If it’s ruining my village and every village around, then who does it benefit?” He threw another log in the stove.

Mehmet had told us about a remote village that might interest us, but had only given vague directions. We found ourselves heading up a rough and extremely steep trail, with a precipitous drop to a river gorge below. We began to wonder if anybody could live in this place of ancient gnarled pines clinging to a vertical rock face, when suddenly the forest gave way to rolling meadows. We met a shepherd and his brother guarding sheep from the wolves and mountain lions, and they showed us the way. Eventually we arrived at Yesil Koy, a village of people originating from the Caucuses. We were welcomed with tea and the customary home-made bread, butter, cheese and local wild fruit preserves.

Musa told us that here, very few people had left the village and, to avoid dependence on outside bureaucrats, his village has as little to do with central government as possible. He said, “We have no crime and try to settle disputes between families. The final word is always with the elders. People will always accept the elder’s decision”.

The following day, we travelled much further east to the part of Turkey where Kurdish population and government forces have battled for political power. In this sensitive area, it is illegal to stay in private homes. With some caution, we approached a nearby village. We asked a farmer, returning from his field where we might stay. He insisted we came to his home! After a sumptuous meal with his entire extended family, numerous neighbours joined us sitting cross-legged in the salamlik, a special ornately decorated room used just for receiving guests.

Here, we witnessed an example of the polarity of thought between the generations. Our host, Isa, believed in the superiority of the Western system. “My children are doing well at school” he said, “and I have a new tractor”. However, his father dismissed his ideas: “You don’t remember what this village used to be like – full of life and gaiety. Now you park your tractor in your best friend’s house because he has left the village. Most of the other houses are empty too. Education is all very well but if you fail to get to university”, he said “you have to return to the land with your tail between you legs. Isn’t farming an honourable occupation? How many lorry drivers or pilots do we need?”

The next morning, as we took our leave, the women showered us with gifts of hand-embroidered scarves, nuts and dried apricots. We continued our journey. We passed through miles of small pistachio forests. As we climbed huge mountains, the forests gave way to dramatic river valleys where we found beautiful hamlets of rammed earth and log buildings surrounded by tall poplars blowing in the cold mountain breezes. When we stopped to ask directions from a Kurdish man with a big moustache, he said “You must stay here with us!”

As always, we were overwhelmed with hospitality. The other villagers quickly gathered on the large veranda, beaming their welcome to us. As we sat under sheathes of drying tobacco, inevitably we came to talk about the rural-urban dichotomy. The question of protecting rural life was in all our minds. Our host, Ali, explained the problems facing him:

“Seventy per cent of my village has moved to the town. You can’t blame them; a government employee earns in a month what a villager earns in a year. Everyone is tempted to go. But going to the city is not necessarily a solution. Although you earn money you have to pay everyone to do what people would do freely in a rural community. As people leave the villages, valuable skills disappear. I had to pay $5000 to renovate my house with breeze-blocks and corrugated iron when it used to be free using local materials. In the past, everybody helped each other; it was not a monetary economy”. When I asked him if there were enough resources for every one to return, he replied, “Of course, there is no shortage of land”. He even offered to give us a house and land if we would settle in his village!

While sipping tea, cracking walnuts and eating mulberries and pomegranates, Ali’s brother, Musa, told us: “We used to sell wheat but now, our market has collapsed due to subsidised US imports – we simply can’t compete. So now we are forced to grow tobacco illegally. Tobacco was banned recently by our government due to pressures from US tobacco companies. Because we can produce it cheaper than US imports, part of the IMF loan conditions was that we stopped growing it. The same has happened with sugar, wheat and every other commodity. Cheap imports kill off Turkish producers, then foreign companies increase the price.”

As I left these generous village communities, and headed back to the city, I thought of the one remaining hope for these rural people. Turkish villagers seldom sell their land and, with urban opportunities curtailed, many are returning to their roots to take up the threads of their former lives. Then the cities would be less populated, and a better life could flourish there too.

I see traditional communities like a beautiful Turkish carpet. Their cohesiveness and interconnectedness is represented by the woven fabric; their beauty and symmetry by the geometrical pattern. Exposure to a linear and individualistic Western culture is unravelling the carpet and homogenising its colours. If people recognise the joy and beauty of so called ‘underdeveloped’ cultures, why should their demise be ‘inevitable’?

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