I returned to the portacabin to thank the workmen for their hospitality and sound advice, but found it deserted. The workmen must have left for the new town to eat a meal or buy food for consumption while living in the portacabin, so I walked down the slope from the Kucuk Camii to connect with a path that was just above the river. The walk that followed in the early evening light with my shadow stretching behind me was stunning. The wide river, the surrounding hills and mountains, the citadel, Eski Palu, the railway entering short tunnels in the rocky outcrops and the most easterly of Palu’s buildings coalesced into views of such beauty that I began to regret that the trip was nearly over. In the long grass I walked beside a large tortoise. This was not the first tortoise of the trip. At Ulu Kale I had seen two mating.
At a point where roads, a bridge over the river and the railway confirmed I was in an urban environment, albeit an urban environment of a town with an official population of not much more than 6,000, I called at a small shop to buy a litre of milk. The young woman with a headscarf recognised me because, at the beginning of my walk to Eski Palu, I had stopped to buy a litre of fruit juice. She welcomed me with a shy smile, but was quite glad when I left. Palu is overwhelmingly on the Sunni side of the street and unknown males and females should not therefore engage in friendly chat. After four days in liberal Dersim where it did not seem to matter what your gender or ethnicity were or whether you had religious beliefs, Palu was a bit of a culture shock, one made more shocking because most women covered their heads with a scarf, some dressed from head to toe in a black, loose-fitting garment and a few covered everything but their hands, eyes and the top of their nose. As nightfall approached women deserted the town centre, which soon became a male-only zone of occupation. Earlier, when women were in the town centre, albeit in small numbers, they ignored the men just as the men ignored them. Pathetic.
My thoughts turned briefly to earlier in the day and the minibus journey from Elazig to Palu. On one of the seats on the right-hand side of the minibus that existed in splendid isolation was a young woman aged about twenty. She had dyed blonde hair, skin-tight trousers, shoes with high heels, a t-shirt tight enough to confirm she was well-endowed and a blushing pink jacket that matched the colour of her large handbag. Had I been in parts of the north-east in and around Trabzon there would have been a good chance she was a prostitute exploited in Turkey’s enormous sex industry, but she was a young Turkish or Kurdish woman seeking to confirm she had no sympathy for the conventions of dress that Sunni piety demanded. What was intriguing was that Sunni women with headscarves found it harder to take their eyes off her than the male passengers.
Segregation of the sexes was more apparent in Palu than in Elazig or Erzincan, and males in Palu seemed to dictate to girls and women exactly what they could do and wear to a degree more overt than in either of the large cities just identified. In short, girls and women were constrained by all sorts of rules and requirements imposed on them by their male relatives, and women were expected to work all or most of the day in or close to their homes. On the other hand, males could dress as they wished, chat with whoever they wanted (provided those they conversed with were male, of course), waste time in the tea houses, smoke cigarettes and play silly games such as throwing water at people they knew. Male family members sometimes did the shopping so females would not have to visit the town centre where unknown males might fantasise about forbidden sexual liaisons!
Yes, Palu was definitely on the Sunni side of the street, but no male wore a headscarf to cover his hair or ears, or walked in the streets in a loose-fitting black garment that covered him from head to toe. Nor did any male dress so that only his hands, eyes and the top of his nose were exposed to public scrutiny. Nor did any male walk two or three paces behind his spouse, as some women were required to do when out with their husband.
I returned briefly to the ogretmen evi, then walked to the railway station to look at the main building and some trucks along two sidings. The ticket office was locked. A nearby tea garden was popular with many of the town’s men.
Palu is so small that the Hukumet Konagi, the Belediye, the ogretmen evi and the railway station are within 400 metres of one another. As I said earlier, the Hukumet Konagi is of very recent construction, although it has elements reminiscent of the architectural style that characterised the early years of the Turkish Republic when the shapers of the new nation state were keen to create a built environment strikingly modern or progressive which nonetheless confirmed that the republic was unequivocally Turkish. The expressions of modernist progressivism built in the 1920s and 1930s were rather dour and somewhat austere in appearance, despite their obvious monumentalism, but Palu’s Hukument Konagi, while very similar in terms of scale, outline, presence and overall effect, is far too colourful and user-friendly to have won the approval of those serious-minded but intolerant nationalists who could not even bring themselves to concede that about a quarter of the republic’s population was Kurdish. As for me, what did I think of the Hukumet Konagi? I quite liked it, despite its nod toward Disney and/or Las Vegas! I certainly preferred it to all the Ottoman-style mosques that have gone up during the years of AKP ascendency, the mosques that reminded me, perhaps perversely, of the mock-Tudor semis found in the more affluent suburbs of English urban centres. Pastiche architecture, the unconvincing recreation of architectural styles of the past, has much to answer for, in the UK as well as in the Turkish Republic!
But for the fruit picked by the manager of the ogretmen evi I had gone without food since breakfast, so was determined to have an evening meal. I asked someone associated with the ogretmen evi which was the town’s best lokanta and he pointed me toward the Teras Café ve Restaurant near the west end of the main street about two or three blocks from the small but interesting pazar. I ascended the stairs to the first floor premises to find a place designed to appeal to female customers, but only males were eating or sipping tea or soft drinks. I ordered lentil soup, one and a half portions of liver grilled on skewers and ayran. The liver arrived with two salads (the salads were the trip’s worst, perhaps because they had been prepared well in advance of my order), bread and a lot of chat with the staff. Overall the food was better than I thought it would be and I could not leave until consuming two rounds of tea with the staff. As I rose to leave I saw that ice cream was in the fridge, so I ordered portions of three different flavours (plain, banana and lemon). It proved the worst ice cream of the trip, but because it cost only 3TL and refreshed me, I could not complain. I was exactly where I wanted to be, of course, in the mountains and far from the madding crowd.
It was now almost nightfall, but I walked around the pazar hoping to find a tailor who could mend the strap on my large bag, a rucksack that could also be carried like a long holdall. I soon found a tailor who immediately knew what the problem was. He made the repair in about five minutes and, in the fashion typical of tailors in Turkey who complete small jobs for rich foreigners who arrive unexpectedly in small towns, would not accept payment.
I went for a last walk around the town centre, which was now completely devoid of girls and women. A few men invited me to consume more tea, but I was almost ready for bed so declined the kind offers. I chatted briefly with a guard on duty at the entrance to the Hukumet Konagi, then bought a litre of fruit juice to take to the ogretmen evi where I heard the voices of only two people in a room on the ground floor.
In bed that night I thought about my last walk around the town centre. Small though Palu is, there are at least four shops selling clothes to young men who want to look as fashionable as their peers in Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir, and most of the barbers have photos in their windows of young males with hairstyles similar to those of young males you would see on a high street in the UK. But young women in the town cannot access clothes or hairstyles so fashionable or Western in appearance. Two or three shops sell the drab and shapeless clothes preferred by pious Sunni women that cover as much of the body as possible and disguise any curves that might inflame male passions, and kuafors lurk in the side streets, but the kuafors do little to suggest that they can do more than keep long female hair neat and tidy. Palu’s males can present themselves to the world as modern versions of dandies, but females have to do all that they can to suppress their femininity. Think of Palu’s males as the peacocks and the women as the peahens. But in reality, Palu’s women are not even allowed to be the peahens.
In fairness, Palu’s males were very friendly toward an unknown foreign male who appeared from nowhere to subtly disrupt normal routines, but I did not see much evidence that they treated girls or women very well. Given the case in the UK not so long ago in which butchers in a halal abattoir in Northallerton were filmed mistreating animals in a way that defies all understanding (a case which no doubt confirmed in the minds of many UK citizens that halal meat should be avoided at all times), I wondered how kind they were toward animals.