To Asagitorunoba.

I left Ovacik’s cemevi to take a few more photos of it and the grassy plain on which it stands. As I put my camera away 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 also have been Alevi 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 the journey would in all likelihood 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 with 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 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 some 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 suggests 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 to 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 drive 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 waved the livestock 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 were 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 knew what it meant to suffer discrimination and oppression because of their identity.

Advertisements

To Ovacik.

I wanted to travel through the Munzur Vadisi Milli Parki to Ovacik, but the next minibus was not until 11.30am. This gave me just enough time to visit the car park of the very large hotel mentioned earlier from where there are excellent views of the river below and the hills and mountains to the east, then I went to the small park with the statue of the local notable wearing a turban to admire the views of the hills and mountains to the north and west. From near the statue delightful views lead the eye along the valley that eventually leads to Ovacik. I could tell I was in for a wonderful treat.

The small office from where minibuses departed for Ovacik very helpfully had a timetable printed on the door, and the timetable revealed that services to and from Ovacik ran roughly every hour until early evening, so I knew that, as long as I stayed on or close to the main road, I could easily return to Tunceli.

The minibus left just over half full, but we picked up three extra passengers along the way. About 10 kilometres into the journey we stopped while large earthmovers engaged in some road improvements, but the delay was only fifteen minutes. A male passenger aged about twenty-five clambered up a hillside to pick a plant that had a very strong smell and a peppery taste. The plant looked like clover or cress with very large leaves. The man handed out stems to every passenger. The man and his travelling companion got off the minibus about 20 kilometres before Ovacik to walk along the river.

The road to Ovacik.

The road to Ovacik.

The road to Ovacik is about 60 kilometres in length. It goes through scenery of exceptional beauty, so much so that the road immediately became one of my all-time favourite short hops in Turkey, a country with dozens of excellent similar short hops. At first the road hugs the Munzur Cayi in a narrow valley with steep walls on both sides, and in May the trees, grass, scrub and herbs are many shades of green. In the grass and among the trees are many wild flowers, and the inaccessibility of some of the mountains suggested to me that many wild animals must prosper, especially given that where there are villages the villages are small. Back home I read that the Munzur Vadisi Milli Parki is the most bio-diverse park in Turkey.

Every so often the valley widens and the hills and mountains can therefore be better appreciated from the minibus. Where the valley widens a small settlement might overlook some fields, orchards and lots of beehives. Asagitorunoba is one such settlement where fields, orchards and beehives prosper and, because it looked so pretty with the hills and mountains around it, I resolved to visit it properly, provided I did not spend too much time in Ovacik.

The road ascends quite gradually all the way, then it crosses a wide upland pasture (“ova” means “grassy plain” or “meadow”) with snow-smudged mountains to the north and the south. The small town of Ovacik lay ahead. Ovacik has a population of only 3,000, but it spreads some distance to the east of the small central business district. Its situation is outstanding, but in winter it must be frequently cut off from surrounding towns by snow.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik has acquired some fame and, in some circles at least, notoriety in recent times because its mayor, Fatih Macoglu, is a communist and no other town or city in Turkey has a communist mayor. When Ovacik’s citizens voted for their mayor the result was close. The TKP, or Turkish Communist Party, got 36% of the vote, the Kemalist CHP 33.4% and the AKP 15.4%. It is said that Macoglu’s success owes a lot to the support of the DHF, the Federation of Democratic Rights, a leftist organisation founded in 2002 that has deep roots in Dersim.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Alevi inclinations toward secularism and leftist politics (in Tunceli, a shop in the pazar sells books and magazines analysing the world solely from liberal, socialist, communist or anarchist perspectives) made for a refreshing change from the many parts of Turkey shaped by mainstream Sunni piety. By the end of the day I had conversations about politics with eight local people, male and female. All the people with whom I interacted said that it was the “Sunni Muslims” who were “the problem” because they “never stop talking about religion and religious orthodoxy”, and because they think that “the fascist dictator” Erdogan is “wonderful”. To call Erdogan a fascist is unfair, in my opinion at least, but he is increasingly a problem, not least for dictatorial inclinations that Ataturk would no doubt have approved of, despite such dictatorial inclinations being utilised to further Sunni Muslim interests, which Ataturk would never have tolerated.

View south from Ovacik.

View south from Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

In Ovacik I went briefly mad with the camera because the visibility was sublime, the surroundings were exceptionally attractive (puffs of white cloud clung to the highest peaks) and the town itself was a delightful mixture of old and new with plenty that was overtly eccentric. There was a large police and jandarma presence, the latter in a fortified compound, which meant I had to point my camera with some care. At least three hotels looked more than adequate for a short stay, and there were plenty of shops. Bars and lokantas sold good food and alcohol, and an ogretmen evi was just north of the road to Tunceli. The oldest surviving buildings in the town were houses, some of which were timber-framed while others were made with stone, and a lot of buildings old and new utilised corrugated iron and flat metal sheeting to excellent visual effect. I chatted with a teacher who emerged from the ogretmen evi and called at a small but very modern supermarket for an ice cream. Being an overwhelmingly Alevi town, men and women were very friendly and spoke to me without any embarrassment. Some of the grassy plain around the town had been turned into fields, but most of it remained pasture for sheep and cattle. Inevitably, lots of wild flowers prospered in late spring and early summer. Ovacik was an absolute gem and one year I would love to stay in it overnight, although at present it had one minor short-coming. Roads led to Yesilyaza to the west and Hozat to the south (the latter is a town I planned to visit later on the trip to access an unusual Armenian church), but public transport to both settlements appeared to be non-existent.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

At the eastern extremity of Ovacik, about 1.5 kilometres from the centre of town, is a modern cemevi much larger than the one I had visited at Onar. I decided to have a look at it although the chance of getting inside was very small. The walk was delightful. I admired the mountains around the grassy plain and, just to the west and north of the cemevi itself, examined what looked like shanty houses that had been constructed from waste material by some very poor families.

View north from Ovacik.

View north from Ovacik.

Between the town centre and the cemevi, Ovacik.

Between the town centre and the cemevi, Ovacik.

I could not establish whether the shanty houses are lived in permanently or only during the summer, although the latter seemed more likely. I therefore inclined toward the view that the houses are used by families who look after flocks of sheep and goats grazing on the grassy plain and the slopes of the nearby mountains. This said, a large number of such houses exist and, despite being in poor condition, have a semi-permanent appearance. When I saw men and women salvaging waste items to recycle from rubbish dumped on the ground, I wondered if the houses belonged to Gypsies. Gypsies are a relatively small community in Turkey today, but one that lives, as almost everywhere in the world, on the margins of society and suffers extreme discrimination and disadvantage. If Gypsies lived in them, the houses may qualify as gekecondu, or houses built overnight by families laying claim as squatters to a small plot of state-owned land. However, if they are gecekondu they are at a very early stage of evolution into more permanent and substantial housing.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

In everyday understanding, gecekondu refers to the low cost houses or apartment blocks that were constructed in a very short time by people migrating from rural areas to the outskirts of large Turkish cities. Robert Neuwirth writes in his book “Shadow Cities” that squatters are exploiting a legal loophole which states that if people start building after dusk and move into a completed house before dawn the next day without being noticed by the authorities, then the next day the authorities are not permitted to tear the building down, but instead must begin legal proceedings in court to secure a right to evict (and, because of the requirement to begin such legal proceedings, it is more likely that the squatters can remain indefinitely).

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi is a large rectangular building with a dome made of lightweight materials rising above what is the meeting or gathering room at the west end of the upper storey. When I first arrived, all the doors leading inside were locked and I had to content myself with a walk around the exterior, which is not very exciting because the cemevi resembles a small office block or school. This said, the exterior has been painted a fetching shade of pink and has some white detailing.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

By the time I got back to the main door facing south it had been opened by people who had just arrived in a motor vehicle. I went inside and, in the reception area from where a corridor and stairs lie to the right, I examined the pictures of Ali and other notable Alevi figures from the past. I then heard voices the other side of double doors to the left and walked into a refectory and large kitchen. Two women and a man were cleaning up following a gathering the day before. Chairs and tables were washed with a soapy rag, the floor was mopped and some large pans were scrubbed in the kitchen. We chatted with each other as equals and the women were more communicative than the man, although all three encouraged me to look around. The chairs, tables and equipment in the kitchen looked very new. I estimated that the cemevi was no more than two or three years old, but it probably replaced a smaller and much older building.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

I walked up the stairs and entered the large room with the dome. More pictures of Ali and other important male figures were on the walls, and carpets covered the floor where ritual practices took place. Nearby was the pir’s odasi, or the pir’s room, complete with sofas for extra comfort.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The name “pir” is sometimes translated to mean “patron saint”, but it is better to think of a pir as one of the socio-religious leaders encountered among the Alevis and the Bektashis. Other socio-religious leaders are called murshids and rehbers, and all three types of leader are known collectively as dedes. According to the books of the Buyruk, which include the basic principles of the Alevi faith, a dede must be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, operate as an educator and a moral guide for the community, be knowledgeable and exemplary in his character and manners, and follow the principles contained in the Buyruk. A dede must also adhere rigidly to the established traditions of Alevism. Traditionally, the main functions of the dedes can be summarised as follows. They guided and enlightened the community in social and religious matters; led the religious rituals; punished criminals; served as arbiters between conflicting sides; led ceremonies during occasions such as a wedding or a funeral; fulfilled certain legal and educational functions; organised healthcare; provided socio-political leadership; and, in some exceptional cases such as in Dersim, shared the leadership position with the agas, or large landowners. In the modern era, of course, some of the functions just listed have been usurped by the state, but, especially in terms of ceremonial responsibilities, providing spiritual and other guidance to the community, resolving disputes between individuals, families or communities, and providing socio-political leadership, dedes such as pirs still have considerable influence.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

On both floors are other rooms, both large and small, and some rooms have toilets and washing facilities. By the time I was ready to leave I was inclined to conclude that, of all the houses of worship of which I am familiar, the cemevi most resembles a Sikh gurdwara, especially a gurdwara that might be built outside India where Sikhs are a small but respected and valued minority. All such gurdwaras have a diwan, or worship hall, about the size of the room in the cemevi with the dome above it, and a langar, a dining room with a kitchen where food is served to everyone, Sikh or non-Sikh, who visits the gurdwara. Other rooms exist for a multiplicity of purposes such as meetings, language classes or day-to-day administration. There are also toilets and washing facilities and, in more cases than not, pictures or paintings of some or all of the human gurus, who are all male even though Sikhs are very much in favour of gender equality, in much the same way as the Alevis and the Bektashis. I found it quite odd to be so far from home, but in a building used for religious purposes that felt so very much like home (because, in recent months, I have spent an unusual amount of time in gurdwaras).

View west with the cemevi, Ovacik.

View west with the cemevi, Ovacik.