08 April, 2010

Yolağzı, part II: Lament for village life

"Misir, misir," Ayhan tells me loudly, tugging my arm and gesturing toward a combine with a corn head parked in the village center, a few meters from the mosque. Ayhan Abi (Abi is a term of respect for male friends, literally "older brother") is a shepherd, or in Türkçe, koyuncu - the crazy shepherd i'd met on Monday, who herds sheep in his car, tears through uneven pastures and takes the narrow village streets at maybe fifty kilometers an hour. Ayhan is a sun-creased, perpetually smiling man proud of his power windows - and he seems to have taken a keen interest in showing this interloper around. He steers me toward the mosque, barely breaking from a rapid monologue about the joys of Karacabey women which Oğuzhan doesn't bother to translate.

The three of us step from the village center into a perfect, carpeted silence. Down a split staircase from the door is a white tiled space with faucets, benches, and a trough for performing abdest, the ritual ablutions preceding worship. We slip out of our shoes, Ayhan out of his rubber workboots, and in silence climb the other set of stairs to the worship space. It's a cool room with sky blue walls, aqua and purple carpeting; a prizm-decked chandelier hangs in the center. Up another flight of stairs is the balcony where women worship. My companions point out the mithrab - a podium with its own staircase, several meters above the rest of the room - from whence the imam speaks. This is my first time inside a cami, and i'm still soaking in the symbols, details, the reverential essence of the place - i haven't even consciously registered the domed ceiling - when Ayhan urges us onward. This time Oğuzhan translates: the shepherd joked we should leave before the cami collapses to bury him in punishment for his (hyperbolized) sins.

Piled into Ayhan's car, we leave the village, crossing a broad field to the state farm where my guides hope to show me the Arabian horses. But a security guard turns us back at the gate, and so we drive the winding road to neighboring Gonu.

In sharp contrast to Yolağzi, Gonu is an original village, perched well above the floodplain, and rows of olives stripe the hills around it. In the center, beside an Ataturk statue, is a kahve, where we sit and again drank çay. The group of young men smoking at another table glance our way, and a couple of them drift over to join us, curious about this foreigner. I make what small jokes and innuendos i can in Turkish, and soon i have them laughing heartily - though only later does Oğuzhan explain just why. (I insulted all the men of Gonu, but see "Bursalıyız" - a point for Yolağzi in the village rivalry - which, as we laugh about it again in the evening, the Yolağzi youth attribute to my drinking from the town spring.)

Back in Yolağzi, we stop at the village club; it's empty except for the manager, watching Turkish soap operas. It seems the differences between the two villages are more pronounced than their road plan or lack thereof. While there is still life in Gonu, Yolağzi seems to be dying, losing the vibrance it had to rapidly growing Karacabey. At one time, Oğuzhan tells me, there were two stores, two teahouses. Now what remains of one is a crumbling, deserted shell of a building. Satellite dishes on every tile-roofed home beam in models of a glamorous urban life without traditional chores.

fertilizing the far field

In the past three days, Oğuzhan has shared more than his village and a mattress on the floor; he has also shared much of his own story. At first i failed to understand the weighty sense of responsibility he carries as eldest son, but gradually it becomes clearer. So too does the world of his recollections. This morning in Karacabey, we visited his old high school, seated at the edge of town where sheep still graze, and met his teachers, one of whom inspired him to study university physics. He told me bits he hadn't told them - how in his first year he realized that though he had studied English, important words like "minus" were missing from his vocabulary; about a calculus teacher's thick Russian accent which made lectures difficult to understand, proverbial algae on a crucial stepping stone.

Like his father's, Oğuzhan's life is perched between the familiar ground of a dying village and the pull of urbanization. To most Americans - and an increasing number of Turks - life surrounded by green fields, the night chorus of frogs, and the natural rhythms of village life are merely a thing of nostalgia, or completely alien to urban consciousness. My time in the Yolağzi reminded me of Wendell Berry's seminal critique _The Unsettling of America_ (one of the strongest influences prompting me to study agriculture). From the industrially-managed kavak groves, the empty club and crumbling buildings, the throbbing growth of Karacabey, it seems i am witness to an unsettling of Türkiye. Yet there are crucial differences. The flow of agricultural innovation in Turkiye is market-driven; new ideas are spread more by advertising interests and charitable organizations than by a more recently organized Cooperative Extension - but developing Türkiye is also influenced by the globalized ideals of the organic movement. Will organic ideals come to matter here? It seems an open field. (Note: i have yet to become familiar with Türkiye's organic organization TaTuTa.)

Sometimes the most powerful images happen when you don't have a camera - images with an essence that must be internalized rather than represented. Left of the cami, just outside the village center past a pine grove stands the old elementary school. To Oğuzhan, a shrine of childhood memory. As we followed the cement walk littered with shards of glass, he recalled the rose bushes that had once lined it; "like a heaven," he said. Three small buildings painted a warm yellow - one for the first four grades, another for the rest, and the principal's house - stood vacant, vandalized, picture windows shattered like sightless eyes. The interiors were littered with debris, yet the view out the back windows showed a magnificent stone-walled olive grove, silver-green in the afternoon sun. My friend said they used to harvest olives to raise school funding; now only the trees stand in memory. There are few children left in Yolağzı, and these days they're are all bused to school in Karacabey.

view from Yolaği spring to the neighboring village Gonu

We pass this final evening in Yolağzı at the club with Oğuzhan's friends. Frustrated by my inability to conduct a real conversation in Türkçe, i ask Hasan if he'd like to play ping-pong, and he proceeds to embarrass me for over an hour. Besides ping-pong, there's not much to do here in the evening. Oğuzhan and i have both decided to leave, he to return to Ankara and resume studies, and i continuing to Istanbul. Ayhan Abi wants to exchange MSN addresses. There's a brief but side-splitting round of doubles play, a parting photograph. Izzet takes his oversized lighter-flashlight and sends the ping-pong ball to the floor in a ball of flame. He kicks it out the door and down the steps to the still-puddled basketball court.