To Asagitorunoba.

I left Ovacik’s cemevi to take a few more photos of it and the grassy plain on which it stands. I was putting my camera away when a car drove past, drew to a halt about 50 metres down the road and backed up. The driver asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “To Asagitorunoba.” The driver had three companions with him and discussion followed before the driver said, “Come on. We are not going to Asagitorunoba, but will take you as far as we can.” I got into the car and a bottle of Efes Malt was offered, which I took gratefully and consumed far more quickly than politeness required.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

The men were going to a wedding in a village to the west of the road to Tunceli and, to access the village, they had to cross the Munzur Cayi on a rather dilapidated suspension bridge before ascending a dirt road for a few kilometres. Predictably, I was asked to join the wedding party, which would have been a wonderful experience because it involved Alevis (segregation of the sexes, so often encountered in Sunni Muslim weddings, would probably have been frowned upon, as it should be), but, had I done so, there would have been problems getting back to Tunceli and I would have had to give up on Asagitorunoba. I politely declined the kind invitation, but thoroughly enjoyed the company of the four men, albeit briefly (three men described themselves as Turkish Alevis. The fourth said his grandmother had been Armenian, but he described himself as a Kurdish Bektashi). When we arrived at the bridge leading to the village, only the driver remained in the car to drive it across. His three companions walked.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

Not long after waving the car and its passengers off to the wedding, and only about 500 metres further along the road, a minibus appeared and I flagged it for a lift to Asagitorunoba. Because the minibus was crowded I was ushered to a stool between two fixed seats. I found myself beside two female students in their last year at high school. One of the young women was very pretty and the other handsome, and the handsome one had an unusual example of metalwork piercing her nose on the right-hand side. Dressed in European or North American clothes and without headscarves, it was obvious they were Alevi, but I was still surprised when they introduced themselves and initiated a conversation. I think most of the other passengers must have been Alevi as well because no one thought what they did was in the least improper; in fact, I think they were glad the young women had such self-confidence because it meant they found out a bit about someone who was, by local standards, a somewhat exotic individual (foreign tourists are still very rare in Dersim in general and Tunceli in particular). Interestingly, we shook hands at the beginning of the conversation and when I left the minibus at my destination. Moreover, the driver refused to accept any money for the ride.

As I waved the minibus off, I thought about how different the journey would have been had most passengers been Sunni Muslims. Males and females unknown to one another would have sat apart, they would have ignored members of the opposite sex and, in all likelihood, the journey would have passed in silence unless a baby or young child had been present and ill or in pain or distress. During the journey just completed, males sat next to females they did not know, people chatted with total strangers, a relaxed atmosphere prevailed and men and women who had never met before could make physical contact without anarchy breaking out.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba is a small, dispersed settlement that spreads over a gently inclined grassy bank just below quite a steep hillside on the north side of the river. Two bridges cross the river, one of which carries a road that leads to a nearby village to the south. Beside the road bridge is a suspension bridge no longer suitable for motor vehicles. Although the old wooden decking is in a state of disrepair, I could not resist walking across it. Another road leads into the hills to the north of the river where two more villages exist.

In all, there are only twenty or so houses in Asagitorunoba and a small, abandoned jandarma post. The houses are a mixture of old and new, and the old ones outnumber those of more recent construction. Most of the old houses are single storey and have flat roofs. They are constructed with a brown stone that has a hint of red and I assume the stone was quarried locally. However, there is a stone house with rooms spread over two storeys. A veranda at ground level on the south-facing façade is crowned with a balcony above. Tall wooden columns rise from the floor of the veranda to support the balcony and from the floor of the balcony to support the roof. These features and the size of the building itself suggest that the house may have been built for a relatively wealthy family, by local standards at least, although the building’s current shabby appearance implies a poor family lives in it now. In fact, none of the houses in the village look as if they now shelter anyone wealthy.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Beekeeping is popular. When I saw some wooden beehives resembling long, slim barrels indistinguishable from beehives I have seen before in the Hemshin area not far from Rize, I asked some men and women sitting around a table on the veranda of an old stone house of one storey if I could take a few photos. I was encouraged to shoot to my heart’s content, after which I was invited to join them for glasses of tea.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

There were seven people altogether, five men and two women aged roughly thirty to seventy. Both women wore headscarves, but in the way that was becoming increasingly common the more time I spent in Aleviland: the headscarves were arranged loosely on top of the head like a hastily tied turban and no attempt was made to cover the ears or all the hair.

Both women smoked cigarettes. If a woman smokes cigarettes in Turkey, many pious Sunni Muslims regard the habit as one that hints at extreme immorality, perhaps of a sexual nature, but to the great majority of Alevis and Bektashis all they see is a woman asserting her right to do as men do. Put a little differently, when a woman smokes a cigarette, Alevis and Bektashis see a female asserting her independence vis-à-vis males.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

I had assumed I was in the company of Alevis, but things were not quite as they appeared to be, someone who still has a lot to learn about the region’s ethnic complexity. The women and four of the men were Kizilbash and the fifth man was Armenian. I confirmed with my companions what was obvious from the evidence of my eyes, that the Kizilbash regarded the Armenian as their good friend and vice-versa, and then we chatted about how everyone made ends meet economically. The Kizilbash concentrated on making honey and growing crops in fields and orchards, but the Armenian reared sheep and goats for the meat market. A little later I saw the Armenian driving his large flock of sheep and goats along the road leading to the two villages to the north. About half a kilometre from Asagitorunoba he drove them off the road and onto pasture on a hillside overlooking the river below.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Turks, Kurds and (albeit a very small number of) Armenians living together, as do Alevis, Sunni Muslims, Kizilbash and people with no religious faith, and as do speakers of Turkish, Kurmanji, Zazaki and Armenian. Dersim is my kinda province.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

I walked up the road leading to the two villages north of the river, primarily to secure views over Asagitorunoba and the glorious scenery that encloses it. A man stopped his motorbike and kindly carried me a little further into the mountains from where the views are even more spectacular. By the time I got back to Asagitorunoba I had seen the village and the Munzur Cayi from high above, the hills enclosing the valley and the more distant mountains with their forest and smudges of snow. Wild flowers grew everywhere and most of the sky was blue. It was now late afternoon and the visibility excellent.

View south above Asagitorunoba.

View south above Asagitorunoba.

View west over Asagitorunoba.

View west over Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Small though Asagitorunoba is, I spent another half hour examining some of its houses, small gardens and beehives, then chatted with a young man who lived in a house with his parents at the easternmost extremity of the settlement. I was reluctant to leave because, as so often happens in Turkey, I had found a dot on the map that had worked its way under my skin. And why had it got under my skin? I was in one of the most beautiful areas of a country with hundreds of beautiful areas, and the ethnically mixed people I had met were reassuringly liberal and inclusive. This said, Tunceli shares with Asagitorunoba exactly the same qualities, although it is obviously much larger. Was I on a winner? Of course I was.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

I began walking along the road to Tunceli knowing a minibus to my destination would eventually catch me up, but, after about fifteen minutes spent beside the river mostly in the shade cast by mature trees, a car stopped and the driver offered me a lift. The driver had two male friends with him and they were in a hired car they had picked up a week earlier at Elazig Airport so they could tour Dersim, the region from where all three originated. They had a 9.30pm flight to catch to Istanbul where they now lived and worked. The driver of the car ran his own company in the town of Gebze not far from Istanbul’s second airport.

Leaving Asagitorunoba.

Leaving Asagitorunoba.

Two of the men were Alevis and one was Kizilbash. They considered themselves Turkish by ethnicity. They were very pleasant company, but all of them had the usual concerns about Sunni Muslims, Erdogan and the lack of minority rights. They came across as gentle but perceptive and reflective individuals, individuals who have known what it means to suffer discrimination and oppression because of their identity.

Advertisements

Cermik (and more about Cungus).

I admired from a distance the ruins of the citadel high above the town because there is much to enjoy in Cermik itself. The main street meanders into the pazar, which is larger than a town of Cermik’s size would seem to require, but the town is obviously a commercial centre for many smaller settlements nearby. The pazar peters out in a small square dominated by the Ulu Camii, which has two small prayer halls side by side. The prayer hall to the west has three aisles separated by walls pierced at irregular intervals by arches and appears to date from 1144 or 1145, but only some of the original stone blocks remain. The prayer hall to the east, which may date from 1517, has a squinch and blind-arch dome and a three-domed portico.

Ulu Camii and the citadel, Cermik.

Ulu Camii and the citadel, Cermik.

Ulu Camii, Cermik.

Ulu Camii, Cermik.

Ascending the steep slope between the Ulu Camii and the citadel is a part of town where many old houses survive. Some of the houses are timber-framed and spread over two storeys, but others are built largely of stone, are smaller in size and spread over only one floor. Gardens, many in a state of neglect, lie among the houses.

Cermik, from below the citadel but above the last houses.

Cermik, from below the citadel but above the last houses.

It was Saturday evening and many women and children were outside enjoying the gradually cooling conditions. The women chatted amongst themselves or occasionally stirred large pots of food kept hot by wood-burning fires they had built in the street, and the children played games, football included. Some of the women were too shy to talk or, in some instances, even make eye contact, but a more assertive woman with whom I had spoken earlier invited me to consume a bowl of excellent soup made from yoghurt, bulgar, lemon and salt. The soup was so filling that, as well as everything I had eaten earlier in the day, I knew I would not want a proper evening meal. I would have loved to take a photo of the woman, aged about thirty-five, and her female companions aged about sixteen to fifty, but I was in a predominantly Sunni area where taking photos of women is still discouraged. Because I did not want to cause a problem, I kept my camera hidden.

I walked to different spots beyond the last houses to secure better views of the ruined citadel on the cliffs above, but it is not an easy monument to access without some clambering up rocks on steep slopes. Although the views from the summit must be outstanding, the town centre promised more delights.

The citadel, Cermik.

The citadel, Cermik.

Back in the town centre I saw a large hamam in excellent condition, a cesme in very poor condition and a large stone building described to me as a saray, or palace. The saray was extensive and adjoined a stone structure with what looked like a tower. Taken as a whole, the stone structure beside the saray resembled a small castle, but local people said the saray and the “castle” were really one building. Once the home to a rich and powerful family, most of the saray, which spreads over three floors, is now abandoned, but very poor families live in some of the rooms.

The hamam, Cermik.

The hamam, Cermik.

The cesmi, Cermik.

The cesmi, Cermik.

The saray, Cermik.

The saray, Cermik.

Beside the saray, Cermik.

Beside the saray, Cermik.

It was now about 7.15 and I began walking toward Kaplica, but on the way men were dancing in Kurdish line-style in the playground of a religious school. I entered the playground and was soon in conversation with two men, a doctor and a teacher, who explained that a wedding was taking place. The males and females were strictly segregated, of course, the latter inside the school attending to the bride and preparing the food for a large feast in about an hour’s time. I was given tea to drink and invited to partake in the feast, but declined the kind invitation because of my prior commitment to Mehmet and Cemal, and because I did not want to be part of a wedding reception in which I would have to spend time only with the men while the women were having great fun (I hope) elsewhere.

I quickly freshened up at the hotel, then walked back to the brothers’ workshop, where I found Mehmet and Cemal with four of their best male friends and a relative. One of their friends had with him his daughter aged about fourteen. It was interesting to see how easily the daughter got on with her male companions and how often she contributed to discussions. The brothers had only stopped work about an hour before my arrival and looked very tired. We drank tea and ate an ice cream each. About 10.00pm I said I needed to get some sleep and Mehmet quite unnecessarily gave me a lift to the hotel.

Mehmet (centre) and friends, Cermik.

Mehmet (centre) and friends, Cermik.

It was while we chatted in the workshop that I discovered something of the area’s rich ethnic and linguistic diversity. Two of the men present, one of whom was a police officer, were Turks whose first language was obviously Turkish, two were Kurds who spoke Kurmanji and the rest were Kurds who spoke Zazaki. I was told that a few Armenians and Kizilbash still lived locally.

Back home I found that Zazaki subdivides into three main dialects, with southern Zazaki being spoken in Siverek, Cermik, Egil and parts of Adiyaman and Malatya provinces. Central Zazaki is spoken in Solhan and parts of Elazig and Bingol provinces, and northern Zazaki is spoken in Gumushane, Varto and parts of Tunceli, Erzincan, Erzurum and Sivas provinces. It is estimated that between 1.5 and four million people speak Zazaki in Turkey, with most academics inclining toward a figure of about two million.

About 15 million Turkish Kurds speak Kurmanji, but Kurmanji is also spoken by Kurds in Syria and parts of Iraq and Iran. Moreover, Kurmanji is the language used for ritual purposes by the Yazidis, the great majority of whom are Kurds.

Although a majority of Turkey’s Kurds are Sunnis, as are a majority of the Turks with whom they have had such troubled relations for so long, most Kurds follow the shafi school of jurisprudence while most Turks remain loyal to the hanefi school. However, many Kurds are Alevis and some belong to different Sufi groups, the Bektashis included (sometimes no distinction is made by Kurds between being Alevi and Bektashi, which, if nothing else, confirms the similarity between the two expressions of faith). A small number of Turkish Kurds are Yazidi (most Turkish Yazidis have migrated to Germany because the Turkish government never did enough to protect them from persecution), but Turkey’s Yazidi population has increased of late due to the Islamic State’s persecution of Yazidis in Syria and Iraq and the Yazidi exodus from the lands that they have lived in for centuries (the Islamic State has not withdrawn its threat to rid the world of Yazidis by an act of genocide. We still do not know how many Yazidis in the last year or so have been enslaved, forcibly converted and/or murdered, but thousands have already been killed, of that we are certain). Of course, many Kurds have no faith commitment at all, as is the case with many Turks. Kurds devoid of a faith commitment overwhelmingly incline toward the political left.

Bunting put up by political parties for the forthcoming general election, Cermik.

Bunting put up by political parties for the forthcoming general election, Cermik.

Strictly speaking, the Kizilbash are not an ethnic but a religious minority. They are Shia Muslims who emerged during the late 13th century. Their name means “red or crimson-headed”, which is a reference to the headwear they once wore. Because in the past they regarded their rulers as divine figures, even mainstream Shia Muslims condemned them as heretical extremists. Ethnically, some of Turkey’s Kizilbash are Turks and others are Kurds. In the contemporary era, few if any female Kizilbash cover their faces or wear a headscarf. If females wear a headscarf at all it is usually worn like a loose turban and little care is taken to cover all their hair. To this day mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims distrust the Kizilbash, even though they do not appear in the least fanatical about their religious beliefs and devote most time to securing their economic well-being in conditions not conducive to generating much wealth (many Kizilbash live in villages and small towns and depend on agriculture or semi-skilled labour for a living). Encounters with Kizilbash later during the trip convinced me that they are generally a very sound group of people opposed to religious extremism and in sympathy with secular political parties seeking to combat disadvantage and discrimination.

Only twenty-four or twenty-five hours had passed since arriving at Diyarbakir Airport but I had already seen some amazing places, met some delightful people and been the recipient of remarkable hospitality from complete strangers. The trip could not have begun in a manner any better.

I quickly washed a few items of clothing and draped them over plastic chairs on the balcony confident that most would dry by the morning. Two balconies along two young women were smoking cigarettes. They were not wearing headscarves and were therefore either secular or Alevi. We waved to each other.

Cermik.

Cermik.

P.S. The following is part of an article that appeared in the 16.4.15 edition of “The New York Times” and is inspired by a visit to Cungus:

The crumbling stone monastery, built into the hillside, stands as a forlorn monument to an awful past. So, too, does the decaying church on the other side of this mountain village. Farther out, a crevice is sliced into the earth, so deep that, peering into it, one sees only blackness. Haunting for its history, it was there that, a century ago, an untold number of Armenians were tossed to their deaths.

“They threw them in that hole, all the men,” said Vahit Sahin, 78, sitting at a cafe in the centre of the village, reciting the stories that have passed through the generations.

Mr. Sahin turned in his chair and pointed toward the monastery. “That side was Armenian.” He turned back. “This side was Muslim. At first, they were really friendly with each other.”

A hundred years ago, amid the upheaval of world war one, this village and countless others across eastern Anatolia became killing fields as the desperate leadership of the Ottoman Empire, having lost the Balkans and facing the prospect of losing its Arab territories as well, saw a threat closer to home.

Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to align with Russia, a primary enemy of the Ottoman Turks, officials embarked on what historians have called the first genocide of the 20th century. Nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, some in massacres like the one here, others in forced marches to the Syrian desert that left them starved to death.

The genocide was the greatest atrocity of the Great War. It also remains that conflict’s most bitterly contested legacy, having been met by the Turkish authorities with a hundred years of silence and denial. For surviving Armenians and their descendants, the genocide became a central marker of their identity; the psychic wounds passed through generations.

A recent article in “The Armenian Weekly” contains the following description of what happened at Cungus in 1915:

“They brought the Armenians here. Thousands of them. They stripped them of their belongings and threw them into the chasm,” explains a Kurdish villager who had spotted us while driving by.

We are standing at the mouth of a deep, eerie cleft – bottomless, according to the locals – called Dudan by Armenians and Kurds for centuries (the cleft is also known as Yudan Dere).

“How do you know the Armenians were killed here?” I ask. It’s not that I’m skeptical. We know from various survivor and perpetrator accounts that the 10,000 (?) Armenians of Chunkush (Cungus, a district in the province of Diyarbakir) were led here by gendarmes and armed chettes (irregular Kurdish “troops” often “recruited” from among Muslim prisoners released to engage in acts of rape, pillage and murder) in 1915, brutally murdered and hurled into the chasm.

“There was a woman in our village. She lived to be 104,” he replies. “She saw it all.”

He pauses. “Everybody knows.”

We had already realised that everybody knew. In Chunkush one of the locals, a teenager, had given us directions to Dudan where, he said, the entire population of the almost exclusively Armenian village had perished.

As we were driving… we asked a man where Dudan is. He jumped into our van and led us there. When we got to Dudan, our driver, a Kurd from Diyarbakir, asked him, “What happened here?”

“Nothing,” the man murmured.

“They say something happened to the Armenians here,” the driver insisted. At that point the man became visibly angry. “I do not know,” he said, and stormed out of the van.

The murder of the Armenians of Chunkush constitutes one of the largest, most brutal in situ massacres of the Armenian genocide. The Armenians from Chunkush were marched to Dudan – only two hours away by foot – and massacred on the spot. Historian Raymond Kevorkian writes:

“The males were dealt with first, in accordance with a classic procedure: tied together in small groups of fewer than ten, they were handed over to butchers who bayoneted them or killed them with axes and then threw the bodies into the chasm. The method used on the women was quite similar, except that they were first systematically stripped and searched and then had their throats cut, after which their corpses were also thrown into the chasm. Some of them preferred to leap into the abyss themselves, dragging their children with them; thus they cheated their murderers of part of their booty.”