The Seven Kurdish Butchers

By five o’clock a breeze has risen over Diyarbakir, tempering the sun’s scorching silent treatment. It’s the right time for another walk down Gazi Cadessi, the long street between the Dag Kapi, the Mountain Gate to the north, and the Mardin Gate, the southern gate of the walled city. The city is busy, messy, crowded, with a few ancient monuments and mosques, and a couple of Syrian churches tucked away. The north end of town is bright and clean, with more modern, more expensive shops and cafes. The further south I walk, past the old mosque built over the Byzantine basilica and the stone cloisters of the Hasan Pasha caravanserai, the poorer and darker the street becomes. The street is dusty and crushed with vans and boys on bicycles, with frayed electrical cords snaking from one shop to another, with broken bricks in the pavement to stumble over. At the southern end, there’s the old Caravanserai, now an upmarket hotel. The Tigris is a couple of miles south of the walls.

The narrow crush opens to another square at the southern gate. The ancient basalt walls, enormous and strong, have settled into the earth like a burnt and battered tractor tire banding together the clamour, the odour, the silence, terror and beauty of the old city.

The jeering caw of several grubby little boys follows me through the Mardin gate. In the distance, half obscured by the trees that lean into the river, I get a glimpse of the On Gözlü Küprücü, the ten-eyed bridge. It spans the river three miles south of the city. My sandalled feet scuff past a stretch of dusty car repair shops, and down the long hill, which levels out near an old Turcoman palace garden, popular with weekend picnickers.

The Tigris: In the middle-distance its muddy, blue-slivered waters, heavy and barely awake, roll druggedly around the eastern side of the city. A mile south of the old walls the river spreads, thick, and still, barely moving through a depression lush with reed beds and cultivation. As I get closer, the ten-eyed bridge disappears behind thickets of river trees, shabby shrubs and dry, broken grass. A goatherd in a torn flannel shirt waves a shaggy brown flock along the riverbank. Three wet and silky youths slide their narrow nuggety shoulders back through the rippling suck of water, and emerge again, laughing.

Down by the old stone bridge, spanning the river over ten pointed arches, small groups of men squat, chatting and smoking, on the soft young grass between their cars. I stumble down the gravel bank towards the nearest arch, finding my feet on tufts of soggy moss, in order to gaze romantically at the distant city walls through the vaults that hold the bridge together.

A couple of ten year olds sit with their feet in the water, lazily throwing stones at one of the piers. They see me approach, and jump onto a couple of rusty old bicycles, to follow me back under the bridge. They wobble around me demanding “lire, besh lire!” I hear the sounds of reasons being listed, the hammed-up dramatics of poverty, the knife-edge of sarcasm. Nothing dissuades the boys as I march onward, knowing enough to know that showing coin will only make it worse for me, and no better for them either.

After a few dozen yards of this, a few noisy sallies and silent parries, a lone man sitting on a rug smoking and drinking tea waves his thin arms around and shoos them away. He turns back to his smoke and his glass of tea, ignoring me, his duty done.

I want to take some pictures of the bridge, black stone piers and arches, dusty, and mossy where the water shoulders its way through. Passing a few men sitting around relaxing, I greet them, “merhaba.” One of them greets me in return and gestures, asking me to sit and eat some grapes, drink some tea, smoke a cigarette. They’re sitting around a low cane table on some straw covered stools. A youth runs back and forth, bringing tea and more stools from the back of a white Toyota. Apart from a few words from the one who invited me in, the men appear to speak no English. I speak no Turkish, but with the aid of my dictionary we’re able to communicate.

*****

At first there are four of them, but then several more men arrive, eight in all. I imagine they’re a group of friends having a Sunday evening break from their wives. I’m introduced all round. Of course I won’t mention their real names, the names I remember, some of which sound familiar, some which are new to my ears. I will use Kurdish pseudonyms: Baran (the melancholy), Dilovan (the merciful), Heval, (the friend), Pelewan (the hero), Serbest (the free), Serdil (the lionheart), Berevan (the peacekeeper), Camer (a nice person).

They’re Kurds, not Turks, as they point out. Nearly everyone I’ve met in Diyarbakir is keen to make the distinction. I reply, “Kurdistan, çok güzel” or “Kurdistan, very nice/beautiful,” indicating how much I like Kurdistan, as distinct from Turkey. It’d be nice to say it in Kurdish, which would be more appropriate. They appreciate my effort with big stubbly grins. And so we get through the thorny social issues between Turks and Kurds with a few winks and ironic smiles.

“Dost?” I ask, waving at all of them, wondering if they are friends. Heval replies, shaking his head and waving at all of the others, “kuzen.” They are cousins, all eight. He attempts to tell me what they do for a living, pointing to himself and six of his cousins, leaving one out, a tall, melancholy looking fellow sitting on the river side of the group. “Kasap,” he says (in Turkish of course, for my benefit). As I fumble hurriedly through my dictionary the seven of them stand and make chopping motions along their arms, indicating that they’re all butchers. And then, just in case I still haven’t got it, Heval, Pelewan and Serdil laugh luridly, calling out, “kasap, kasap,” while making savage, knife-across-the-throat motions with their fingers, hugely enjoying the joke. I suppose I might run screaming up the steep bank, to the occasional car trundling across the bridge, but manage not to, and laugh heartily along with them.

The cousins are between 30 and 44 years of age. Baran, the only one who’s not a butcher, is the tallest, slim and greying, with a sad dream in the crease of his bitterly lovely smile. He indicates that he spent seven years in Istanbul, and that he still misses someone terribly, perhaps a family, a wife or a girlfriend. He’s an electrician. Or perhaps it is interior plasterwork that he does. I am not sure. His soft tarry eyes are a million miles away as he speaks, and then they dive down and grab mine in a way I know his cousins do not see. He performs delicate, elaborate mimes to explain things to me, rapidly touching his face and his chest with his hands. His fluid, complex gestures, spellbinding and impossible to understand.

They’re keen to know about me. Slowly, with bits of English, and my dictionary to help, Heval asks about my job, where I’m from, how old I am, how long I have been travelling, do I have children? If not, why not? Am I married then? Why not? And therefore why do I wear a gold signet ring? I get through all these sticky questions with good humour and no trembles. I can honestly say I am divorced.

Pelewan, with a thick five-o’clock shadow and hair as sleek and black as a panther, raises his ten fingers, and wiggles them one by one. He has ten children.
“Ten children!” I exclaim. “Kurdistan football team! Many wives?” Everyone finds this hilarious.

Serbest, the oldest, smooth shaven and heavyset, with a commanding perceptiveness in his gaze asks me, “alkol, ispirto?” Do you drink? A little beer, I say, a little wine, a little raki. I do not like to be drunk. He indicates that of course they don’t drink alcohol, as they’re all Muslims, and Muslims don’t do that sort of thing. Then he surprises me with a few words of English. “You and me . . . like brothers,” he says with a faint smile and a steady gaze.

So I sit and eat grapes, drink tea and smoke cigarettes with them as the light deepens. The cousins talk among themselves for a while. Then Pelewan mentions Abdullah Ocolan, the PKK leader, in prison for eight years now, and that he’s the “Kurdish Che Guevara.” He fishes his mobile out of his pocket, and flips it open to show me a photo on it, of a thickset, moustachioed young man who looks to me like a youthful Saddam Hussein. “Ocolan,” he says, as though letting me in on a big secret. I mime a theatrical “my lips are sealed” motion, zippering my lips, and they laugh. Then Heval, the one who speaks a few words of English, indicates that it’s mostly cousinly butcher shop talk they’re talking, not politics.

It’s getting late., I’m supposed to meet Ihsan, my student friend, when Heval asks me if I’ll join them for dinner. I imagine this means going off to a restaurant somewhere, and I decline, making my excuse “dost, hotel.” But the serving youth fetches a small charcoal grill and lights it, and then brings a plastic bag full of marinated chicken pieces, and a big bowl of tomatoes, brown onions, bunches of bitter green salad, and great wads of flat bread. He grills the chicken, and brews more tea. I decide I might as well relax and enjoy their hospitality. I can worry about time later, which, for me, is a challenge.

*****

The Tigris is slow and silent, it is so slow. The soft sliver of the moon comes slowly into focus above the bridge. Some of us sit on the small stools, some cross-legged on the soft green grass. We pass around the spicy, salty chicken, the sweet tomatoes, the bitter green salad and the pungent onions, devouring everything, smoking, and drinking sugary tea like we’re sipping liquor.

Baran, the tall melancholy one with the lovely tarry eyes picks up his stool and goes and sits by the riverbank for a while, to be alone. I want to go and sit with him and embrace him like a brother. I can feel the waves of his pain and loss and loneliness. He comes back to his cousins after a while. He’s busy fixing something on his lap, putting papers together, crumbling and rolling. As he finishes his task the object becomes recognizable in the half-light; the fattest joint I have ever seen, a mix of tobacco and quite a lot of marijuana. He looks up at me with a faint smile, a question. I shrug and smile back, “why not!” The joint floats around the blue half dark, like a hot coal dangling from an invisible string, and those who partake get stoned and quiet. I feel myself expand, the wrinkles in my mind gone, then sag comfortably.

Dilovan and Heval, who didn’t smoke, get up to say goodbye. They have to go to work, to do some butchering for the morning I suppose.

The sky darkens, a couple of planets glimmer above the bridge, blunt and yellow, and in time the stars come out, first one, then three, and then thousands seeping like a fine colourless dust into the deep blue sky. Along the banks of the river, Kurdish folk tunes waft out of several car stereo systems at once. The music is hypnotic, aggressive, and melancholy. The verses are simple and repetitive enough for me to hum along to.

A couple more of the cousins get up to leave, including Baran, the melancholy one. We shake hands, and then he pulls close to me and knocks his head against mine on one side, and then turns my shoulder so he can knock our heads together on the other side as well, grinning and saying in English, “goodbye, like Turk.”

After another half hour, Camer, the youngest, and the driver, indicates that they’ll take me back to Diyarbakir. I have no idea what time it is, but it’s completely dark. We pack up, get in the white Toyota, and drive for a while, and I don’t know why we’re driving away from the lights on the hill to the north, away from Diyarbakir. Camer stops and makes a couple of mobile phone calls. I have no idea what’s going on. In the distance, families with small children pass by, getting to their cars to go home after a long evening picnic. I’m stoned, my head is spinning, and I have a couple of flashes of paranoia from the drug. But I let any worries (lurid phantasms from television news about terrorists and kidnappers) flit through me and away.

Camer does a U turn on the dark stretch of road by the river, talking on his phone some more. We stop again by a stone wall, waiting. After a while we drive further and stop beside a brightly lit structure. It’s the petrol station. I recognise it from my long afternoon walk down. Two of the cousins who had left earlier, including Baran, the tall melancholy sweet one, jump in either side of me. Once again I suppress a strong urge to put my arm around him in a gesture of brotherly solidarity.

I’m really stoned, looking inward, outward and nowhere, and totally unsure where we are until the emptiness beyond the side window pulses with dark shapes and grey, orange haloes: from a few fruit and vegetable stands that remain open, each lit by a single sputtering bulb, the crush of battered white vans and the shadows of people slicing through the headlights. We’re driving up Gazi street again, insects buzzing around the grey lamp light. Camer stops the car in the middle of Diyarbakir. I know where I am, it’s the corner of Melek Ahmet street and Gazi street. Hotel Küprücü is a ten minute walk north. The Kurdish butchers and the melancholy electrician wish me well as I jump out of the car, with many Salaam Aleikums and Aleikum Salaams between us.

*****

I’ve found my way back to the big square by the Dag Kapi gate. The bright lamps dotting the square hold up a thick, black sky. Young couples wander up and down, the women’s moonlike faces sailing along in veils, their slim husbands in sharp black pants and shiny shoes. A street vendor in a crisp white shirt churns ice cream in three big brass tubs. The ice cream hangs on the churning rod like toffee before he plunges it back into the misty freeze. He dips my chocolate and pistachio cone in a bowl of slick dark chocolate and rolls it in crushed pistachio. I’m smiling at everybody, humming a fragment of Kurdish tune. I really must moonwalk over to one of those concrete benches.

So I’m sitting there in the brightly lit darkness beaming and eating my nutty, chocolaty ice cream, when I’m accosted by two friendly young men, Adem, who comes across crude and greasy, and Hassan, clean and temperate, a gentleman. They speak English. “Are there any women staying in your hotel? Can you talk to them for us?”

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

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