It was spring and I was in a minibus leaving the town of Mush, in south-eastern Turkey. I was glad to be out of Mush, an ugly place, a place so poor that a turned-up collar is the only defence against the perpetual rain, a place so pious that there is nowhere to get a drink. In Mush, I had felt hemmed in – looking no further than the next puddle, the next grimy address to visit, seeking out the plain-clothes policeman I knew to be following me. Now, as the minibus bounded along, I stared at a stupendous landscape. South-eastern Turkey has the vastness of the Central Asian steppe but none of its tediousness. It is jagged like Colorado but doesn’t parch the throat, far less the spirit. It has Somerset’s lushness and twice the virility. Brooks meander glassily through spring grasses embroidered with flowers and rivers scoop nutrients from the soil. The sun strikes the turf-clad roofs of distant huts and steam rises into the sky.
This is a rebel landscape. The people know the redoubts, a shelter from unexpected snowfalls, the almost inaccessible summer pastures. The government officials do not. The state can burn houses but it can’t stop the rain, can’t round up all the sheep. It isn’t an easy place to control.
After about an hour and a half, we rounded a bend and I saw my destination: an inviting little town with two well-stocked markets at different points along the main street and minarets rising before a green backdrop of gently sloping hills. There was no sign of the five- and six-storey apartment blocks that distinguish rich Turkish towns from their poor equivalents. The houses were simple, with slanting roofs, respectful of the grandeur all around. And there were beer signs, a bar or two, some women strolling bareheaded.
A man was waiting to meet me. He was burly and he wore a leather jacket of superior cut. ‘Welcome!’ he said with a smile. Another man, balder and taller but similarly attired, stood behind him. The tall one put my bag in the back of a dirty white Fiat. I sat in the front passenger seat, next to the burly one. ‘Celal the accountant?’ he asked, gunning the engine.
The white Fiat; the jacket; the paunch accumulated over fifteen years of sitting behind a desk, behind the wheel of a white Fiat, of eating greasy börek on the go; the narrow, placid gaze of someone who knows how to damage a man without leaving traces for the human rights lawyers – such are the markings of the Turkish intelligence agent. You may not spot him in his home town on the prosperous Aegean coast, but here, in the mountains of eastern Anatolia, he is a conspicuously superior specimen, better paid and better padded than the stringy malcontents he has to deal with. For all that, you will occasionally notice a flicker of doubt cross his features; although he represents the mighty Turkish state, he himself is weak. He has been sent to the Kurdish south-east against his will, in the face of his wife’s objections. It’s a bum posting, this unknown town in the middle of nowhere. And while he tells himself that this is his country and that he should feel at home here, he does not. At the local school, his daughter’s excellent grades stand out like her dazzling smile beside the neglected brown teeth of her classmates. But she derives no satisfaction from these and other distinctions. At the school gates on their way home, the other children stop speaking Turkish and revert to their own languages, and she wonders if they are talking about her.
The burly one was called Sedat, and there was no need for the Fiat because Celal the accountant’s office was barely a hundred yards from the patch of open ground that served as the bus terminal. Celal, Sedat told me in the car, used to be in business with his cousin, also called Celal, but they had fallen out and the first Celal was no longer working as an accountant. He was busy with the affairs of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association, of which he had recently become the local representative. It was in this connection, Sedat ventured to guess, that I had come to see Celal.
Pir Sultan Abdal was a sixteenth-century poet and mystic who was executed by the Ottoman authorities for inciting rebellion. Even today, his followers, the Alevis, remain distrusted for rejecting orthodox Sunnism, for their traditions of profane music and poetry and for their periodic rebellions against central authority. There are about twelve million Alevis in Turkey, and the Turkish Republic, which Kemal Atatürk founded in 1923 from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, does not quite know how to deal with them. The Alevis tend to be secular in outlook, which makes them useful allies in the state’s campaign against militant Islam. But lots of Alevis claim Kurdish ancestry, and many are socialists. This is awkward, for the state is sensitive about people who trumpet their Kurdish identity, and it doesn’t care for socialism at all. In the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Kurdish Alevis joined a separatist rebellion by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebellion that seemed to have been defeated in 1999 with the capture of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, but is now showing signs of coming to life again. Some Alevis have links with illegal left-wing organizations that launch bomb attacks on civilians.
Celal wasn’t at the association. Sedat said we would wait. We sat down and made conversation with the three or four other people in the room. They didn’t seem surprised that Sedat had paid them a visit, or that he had brought a foreigner with him, and they contributed to the bonhomie that Sedat deemed appropriate to the occasion. There was a pleasant rattling conversation in which the state’s representative and a group of suspect citizens expressed their mutual affection and regard, and vowed to put previous misunderstandings behind them. Was this for my benefit? I think not, or not entirely. I have met plenty of Turks like Sedat, people who harbour cynicism and idealism without distinguishing between the two. Sedat had a fantasy that the joshing could be for real, that all obstacles could be removed and the Alevis would realize how lucky they were to be Turkish citizens. If only!
My attention was caught by a slight, balding man in early middle age, as grey as cigarette ash. He wore a badge with an Atatürk profile and his eyes glittered with a pained, ironic intensity. Sedat followed my gaze and said by way of introduction, ‘Mr Ombudsman! How are you?’
Without waiting for an answer, Sedat explained to me, ‘Mr Bulent here is our ombudsman, and he’s also the head of the local branch of the Communist Party. Now, you may have heard from certain foreigners who understand Turkey only very superficially about our Kurdish brothers and our Alevi brothers, but what the foreigners neglect to mention is that the majority of our brothers are not unhappy, that they don’t regard themselves as minorities, that they have no truck with the terrorists and state-splitters. Take Bulent here. He’s a Kurd, but that doesn’t stop him being a Turkish patriot and a secularist, does it, Bulent?’
‘And an anti-imperialist,’ Bulent said, looking at me, and everyone laughed. ‘The gentleman is from…?’
‘Our foreign guest is a writer from Britain,’ Sedat said, ‘but tell him your views on the PKK, Bulent. I know he’d be interested.’
Bulent shrugged. He didn’t like being paraded by Sedat. ‘Mr Sedat, everyone here knows my views on the PKK, although many others do not agree. They’re a creation of the Americans and other imperial powers and their aim is to divide the Turks and the Kurds so they can’t form a united front against Western capitalism.’
Sedat and his colleague smiled indulgently, which irritated Bulent. He started speaking faster and he jabbed his finger as he spoke, poking an imaginary Sedat in the chest. ‘This is why I wear Atatürk on my lapel, and why I’m a member of the Association of Atatürkian Thought. This is why I stand foursquare with the police when they prevent reactionary young women from entering the universities wearing the headscarf and propagating their reactionary Islamist ideology. This, Mr Sedat, is why I am for the reform of the state, so that it stops suppressing the legitimate democratic and socialist aspirations of the people.’
As the conversation petered out, I found myself recalling previous trips that I had made to the south-east, in the 1990s, as a reporter living in Turkey. For journalists and diplomats, ‘the south-east’ was code for the rebellion that the PKK had been waging since 1984, and for an older struggle over Middle Eastern land that started decades before Israelis and Palestinians went at each other’s throats. And it was code for a largely ignored third party, the Armenians. The Ottoman Turks had solved the Armenian ‘problem’ during the deportations and massacres of 1915, in which at least one million Armenians – most of them living in the Turkish south-east – are thought to have lost their lives. Now, there were no Armenians; their skeletons lay below the surface.
My friends in Istanbul and Ankara had viewed my south-eastern trips with slightly bemused indulgence. They, westernized Turks living comfortable European lives, had no reason to visit this benighted region. They spent their holidays on Turkey’s western coasts, drank their wine in sight of a Greek island. If they went further afield, they headed west, to Paris or New York. They had been taught to think of the south-east as a part of Turkey – it was the reason why so many conscripts were dying there – but they spoke of it as if it was a different country.
My view of Turkey was heavily influenced by these friends. I liked the idea of a secular Muslim country that was animated by the same ideals as Western, democratic nations. (It was the best riposte to those who argued that Islam and the West would always be in conflict.) Certainly, the country had problems, of which Kurdish nationalism and Islamic militancy were the most serious, but they would be solved, I believed, and Turkey would take its rightful place among the happy, powerful nations of the world.
The solution, of course, was for Turkey to join the European Union. There was a debate, inside and outside Turkey, over whether or not the country could be considered properly ‘European’. Then, in the late 1990s, a Turkish prime minister called Mesut Yilmaz observed that Turkey’s path to Brussels ran through the south-east. Yilmaz was widely pilloried and the reason, I think, is that he did not couch an awkward subject in the usual abstract terms. He was talking bluntly, about land and power, and saying that conflicts between the two must be resolved before a country can be at peace.
The door of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association opened and Sedat exclaimed, ‘Here he is! Celal!’ Celal was a slim man with wary eyes and a left-winger’s moustaches. (They droop morosely, unlike an Islamist’s, which are prim and sandpapery, or a Turkish nationalist’s, which follow the arabesque of the mouth.) Sedat gestured in my direction. ‘We’ve brought your British friend. He is here to study the question of minorities. He has heard that we have Kurds and Alevis in our little town, and he has heard that we used to have Armenians, and he thinks that this is very interesting.’
It is interesting; this is one of the most disputed regions in the world. To the Turks, this is Turkey; to the Kurds, Kurdistan; to the Armenians, Armenia. The land is old and thick, but the people move fast when occasion demands. You will be hard pushed to find a village whose inhabitants have been in the same place for more than two generations, where there haven’t been looting and burning, forced marches, expulsions and counter-expulsions. In times of trouble, the men head for the hills with the family Kalashnikov, and vow to take back what is theirs.
You can’t rationalize an attachment to land. You can study its effects on people, see it in their histories and self-image, in their memories – ingenious vacancies when you ask them about their own atrocities, encyclopaedic when discussing the cruelty of others. In this corner of the south-east, you will find Alevi villages and Kurdish Sunni villages. You will find two separate Kurdish languages and, in the towns, Turkish as well. You will come across Cyrillic carving on stones that lie embedded in the wall of a hut and you will know that this village, or part of this village, once belonged to Armenians, and that the village had a church. The world knows that the Armenians were deported by the Istanbul government and massacred, by Kurdish tribesman and government forces, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed during the First World War, in what many historians regard as a genocidal foretaste of the Holocaust. But you should pause before remarking on these stones to your hosts; they may think you are accusing their grandparents of stealing the homes of others, of putting women and children to the sword for a swathe of nice pasture. They will tell you of an infamous incident in local history, when the Armenians herded several dozen Alevi women and children into a barn and set the place on fire, and you will take the hint and shut up.
This corner is full of battlefields. To the west there is Tunceli, where a Kurdish rising in the 1930s was brutally put down, and where Marxists competed with the PKK to torment the state in the 1990s. Close by lies the ancient Armenian monastery of Surp Karapet, which was much admired by European travellers such as Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and H. F. B. Lynch in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and now consists of a single wrecked apse that the Kurdish villagers, refugees from the PKK rebellion, use as a woodpile. To the east there is the great Lake Van, scene of some of the worst atrocities against the Armenians, and, to the north, Erzurum, where Turkish nationalism begins and hundreds of local lads fell fighting the PKK. At Erzurum’s Atatürk University, under a Turkish flag the size of a block of flats, professors are hard at work to prove that it was the Armenians, collaborators in the Russian invasion that took place in the First World War, who perpetrated the worst massacres – against Turks and Kurds. They dispatch intrepid parties to discover mass graves and then pronounce, using their knowledge of skull types, that these are Turkish bones. No one listens – the number of parliaments across the world that have recognized the events of 1915 as genocide is well into double figures – but the patriotic work must go on.
Sedat was a true patriot. He followed Celal and myself when we drove out of town to visit the tomb of an Alevi saint, or to a Sunni hamlet that once belonged to the Armenians. He joined us when we followed the river into the dense forest to eat trout and drink raki at a restaurant that belonged to a friend of Celal. Glancing in his rear-view mirror, Celal would curse Sedat, but I could not wholeheartedly dislike him. Behind the slow smile, you sensed someone who had been tainted by dark memories and decisions. One day, I vowed, I would sit with Sedat and he would tell me of his colleagues who had been killed by the PKK and the Marxists, and of their wives who had been widowed. And then I would feel sympathy for him, and perhaps look at Celal – generous, humorous, pitiable Celal – in a harsher light.
Between them, there was a fine balance of power: over me, over their little town, over the whole of south-eastern Turkey. Upsetting the balance, bringing unpleasant things into the open – everyone knew the cost of that. You did that only if you were prepared for the consequences.
Sedat stayed at the door when Celal and I entered the office of the district administrator, or kaymakam. Lynch visited this man’s predecessor in the last years of the nineteenth century, but I don’t suppose the present kaymakam has read Lynch, or even heard of him. There was a tart philistinism to him, not because he hadn’t a sense of culture – he had, as I would discover later – but because he had decided not to dignify this culture, the murky whatever that lay around him, with his critical attention. The kaymakam was in his late twenties but he looked nineteen. He wore a dark blue suit and a white shirt and a blue tie with a big knot. His father was a businessman on the Black Sea coast. The kaymakam was nervously superior, a Sedat without balls.
Celal had accompanied me so he could invite the kaymakam to an evening of Alevi music. Celal had recently been released from jail, where he had spent two years on suspicion of being a PKK member. I’m not sure if the kaymakam knew this, but his distant manner suggested that he regarded Celal as an unfortunate choice of host. As we talked awkwardly of this and that, the kaymakam’s phone rang. He spoke at length about which of his colleagues had been appointed to which provinces. ‘Yes, I heard he got Isparta… Yes, it’s hard, difficult… We’ll see what happens when the next transfers come around.’
The kaymakam told me about the state’s efforts to improve the local economy. He had personally distributed twenty-five rams to different villages; it was a way of replenishing stock that had been depleted during the conflict with the PKK. Private-sector incentives were in place. But the kaymakam did not seem hopeful. The tribal system, he rued, is very strong in Kurdish society. ‘All the same,’ he went on, ‘they expect the state to do everything for them.’ He smiled one of his unpredictable smiles, a smile that said: you see what we have to put up with here?
‘And what is being done to satisfy the demands of minorities, for example…?’
The kaymakam cut in quickly: ‘We have no minorities in Turkey. A lot of people talk about minorities but we don’t have them. It’s out of the question to have minorities. There is no discrimination in Turkey.’
We sat dully. Celal had crossed his arms and was looking intently at the floor.
I asked what proportion of the local population had moved abroad. The kaymakam said, ‘I’m not sure we have those figures to hand, but I’ll get them for you. It will be something for our statistics department to work on.’ (Again, that unpredictable smile.) The kaymakam pressed a buzzer.
A man came in and the kaymakam asked for the population statistics. ‘I want ages and place of residence.’ The man looked puzzled. The kaymakam repeated what he had said and the man left the room. The kaymakam turned back to us and picked up the thread of his thoughts. ‘As I was saying, we have no minorities.’ He looked at Celal. ‘Isn’t that the case, my friend?’
Celal nodded sagely. ‘Of course, Mr Kaymakam.’
A different man came into the room holding a piece of paper, but it contained the wrong information. Eventually, after more buzzing and toing and froing, the first man came back with the statistics that the kaymakam wanted. According to these figures, the district had several people in their mid-140s. The kaymakam saw nothing funny in this. ‘Some people must have died without informing us.’
That evening, the kaymakam invited me to his house so that he could practise his English. He would utter the first two or three words of the sentence in English, finish it in Turkish and get me to translate what he had said. Then he would repeat my translation.
I remarked on the music stand next to his sofa. The kaymakam removed a violin from its case.
‘I shall play,’ he said, ‘if you…’ He said the rest in Turkish.
He smiled. ‘I shall play if you don’t mind.’
The kaymakam played a piece by Zeki Muren, a composer who used to appear in drag on state TV every New Year. When he had finished, he lamented that, what with his duties, he rarely found time to practise. His teacher would be cross.
He laid down his bow and began to tell me about himself. I learned that every civil servant must spend at least five years in the south-east.
‘How long have you been in the south-east?’
‘Three years. I do not know how much…’ He ended the sentence in Turkish.
‘How much longer I can take it.’
‘Yes! Take it for two years more.’
The kaymakam wanted to invite girls home, for tea and Zeki Muren. He wanted to stroll down clean streets, watch a film, eat lamb kebab without a bodyguard. He wanted to be liked, respected. He resented those of his colleagues who, by dint of their superior connections, had found a way around the five-year rule. I wondered whether it had ever crossed the mind of anyone in his position, anyone at all, to learn Kurdish – rather than English or another European language. It would facilitate communication, after all. It would show a bit of goodwill. But the kaymakam wasn’t interested in that. He was interested in getting out.
I left his house at ten and found Celal and Bulent and some others sitting on stools in a small shop that sold alcohol. There was no need to put the beer in the fridge – even in May, the cans were cold when you took them off the shelf. Celal introduced me to a dapper man in a suit: Abdullah, the town jailer.
Abdullah gestured towards Celal. ‘I locked him up. I’ve locked up most of my friends at one time or another, and my brother-in-law. You get used to it. Of course, you’d like to hand over the key and say, “Get out,” but the authorities aren’t going to like that. Celal knows the score.’ He raised the can to his lips.
When I lived in Istanbul, it was taken for granted that Atatürk would have approved of Turkey’s campaign to become a member of the EU. It would be the natural culmination of the astounding project of social engineering that he had started. Within a few years of founding the Turkish Republic, he had set an Eastern autarchy on an enlightened Western course.
My Turkish friends loved Atatürk for emancipating women and for smashing the power of the Muslim ulema. They loved him for waltzing and seducing while he built Turkey anew; they forgave his vicious temper. During Atatürk’s time, it became illegal to talk about the Kurds. He made it compulsory for men to wear Western-style hats. It was not good form to refer to the events of 1915. School textbooks taught that the Armenians had betrayed the Ottoman Empire; they deserved everything they got.
But when the EU and its member states came to review Turkey’s membership application, they declared many of the dogmas to be at variance with the very European ideals – tolerance and respect for freedom of expression – that Turkey claimed to share. If the Turks wanted to the join the EU, the Europeans said, they would have to ditch the old positions, discuss the taboos, make peace with history.
Around the time that I left Turkey, at the end of the 1990s, the Turkish state started to do this. The Kurds were grudgingly recognized. The insurgency stopped for a time; thousands of guerrillas came down from the hills. The torture of dissidents started to happen less frequently. Some Turkish academics suggested that the Armenian massacres constituted genocide and were not arrested. Some Alevis started demanding special recognition. There was a clamour of voices claiming rights. ‘Everyone,’ an exasperated Turkish official told me, ‘thinks they’re a minority now.’
For the Kemalists, these new experiences were painful and disconcerting. Turkey had embraced the EU in the name of Atatürk and now the EU was insisting that they abandon him. The EU process meant acknowledging the untruth, or the incompleteness, of the history that was being taught at school. Moreover, there was no guarantee that, even if it took these steps, Turkey would be let in. Reflecting their electorates, some European leaders started speaking out against Turkish membership. When, in October 2005, the EU finally opened accession negotiations with Turkey, it did so with such an ill grace that many Turks felt confirmed in their conviction that the Europeans intended to string Turkey along, but never to admit it.
On that day in October, I happened to be in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Armenia is a small, poor and ruggedly beautiful country, the eastern limb of what many Armenians wistfully refer to as ‘Greater Armenia’ – a much bigger ancestral homeland that takes up a lot of eastern Turkey. From Yerevan’s Genocide Memorial, overlooking the city, you get a superb view of Mount Ararat, which has an important place in Armenia’s literature and mythology, but which lies across the Turkish border. In 1993, the Turks closed the border in protest at Armenia’s annexation of an Armenian-majority part of Azerbaijan, which borders eastern Armenia, during a war that was marked by ethnic cleansing on both sides. Few of the non-official Armenians I met seemed inclined to distinguish between the inhabitants of Turkey and Azerbaijan. In their eyes, all are ethnic Turks who can be expected to manifest generic traits of treachery, fanaticism and cruelty. ‘You have read Karamazov?’ I was asked on more than one occasion. ‘Dostoevsky understood the Turk.’
In the Armenian foreign ministry building, officials told me that they welcomed the start of Turkey’s EU accession talks. Armenia’s diplomats and politicians believe, probably with good reason, that the EU will not admit Turkey unless it apologizes for the atrocities of 1915 and accepts that a genocide took place. They also believe that pressure from the EU will force Turkey to end its trade embargo against Armenia. Turkey’s EU process, they told me, can only be good for Armenia. Outside the government buildings, however, I found that feelings were more complicated.
One afternoon, I was invited for tea by a philologist and his family. The philologist’s wife had baked a delicious apricot cake, of which I had several slices. While I ate, he told me that, for much of the Soviet era, the massacres of 1915 had been a taboo subject. The Communists had been wary of anything that might fuel ethnic nationalism. He also spoke of a ‘national shame’ – a traumatized reticence of the kind that one might associate with a victim of rape. There had been poets, he went on, who touched on the national tragedy, but a more general expression of interest came only in the 1960s. Young Armenians started pressing their grandparents, survivors of the deportations, to relate their experiences. The Communists allowed the Genocide Memorial to be built. In the 1970s and 1980s (though my host did not mention this) illegal Armenian groups in various countries honoured the dead by assassinating dozens of Turkish diplomats and members of their families.
Just as our tea seemed to be getting quite relaxed, I let on that I had spent five years in Turkey and that I had good friends who were Turks. This news nonplussed my hosts. It contradicted all that they knew about the Turks. They listened politely as I spoke of Orhan Pamuk’s boldness in speaking publicly of the massacres, and of the readiness shown by many less-celebrated Turks to shoulder the burdens of the past. Then another guest, a middle-aged woman, held up her arms, squeezed her bare forearm rhetorically and exclaimed, ‘No! The Turks do not bleed the same blood as us.’
During the week I spent in Yerevan, I got to know a courteous architect called Armen. During the 1970s and 1980s, when he was a young man, Armen spent many months travelling surreptitiously around eastern Turkey, taking photographs and recording physical evidence of the former Armenian presence – mostly churches, graveyards and ornate carved stones called khachkars. Armen and his companion, a Turkish-speaking European, were arrested several times; among the Kurds, they often met with hostility. Occasionally, they came across Armenians, or the children of Armenians, who had converted to Islam in order to save their own lives. The children of these people tended to marry each other; the Kurds, Armen was told, refused to marry converts.
It is several years since Armen was last in Turkey; younger men have taken over the detective work. Their findings have been gathered in a multimedia archive in Yerevan. From this, it is clear that, slowly but surely, all evidence for the Armenians’ settlement of eastern Anatolia is disappearing. Here, the stone wall of a church is incorporated into a new house; there, a graveyard is ripped up and ploughed over. Armen told me of an eleventh-century Armenian church that he had seen before and after it was used for target practice by Turkish gunners.
Armen was such an engaging companion that it was unsettling to be reminded, as I occasionally was, that he was driven by a resilient hatred. One late afternoon, sitting in a room at the archive, I remarked that some Armenians I had met in Yerevan believed that relations between Armenia and Turkey should be allowed to normalize, provided the Turks apologized for the events of 1915. Armen’s face darkened. ‘They are fools,’ he said. ‘Do you think we will exchange one and a half million murdered ancestors for an apology? That’s our land the Turks are sitting on.’
We sat in silence. Outside, in Marshal Baghramian Avenue, municipal buses were driving people home. Armen brought in coffee. As we drank, I mentioned some villages around Mush that I had visited with Celal. Armen nodded; he had visited the same villages. As a matter of fact, he went on, he remembered an interesting incident that had happened in one of them.
‘It must be over twenty years ago. My friend and I were driving through, and we stopped for a glass of tea in a teahouse.’
‘As soon as we entered the teahouse, the chatter died and everyone looked at us. We must have been the only non-Kurds. You know – those faces, those moustaches. We sat down on stools and ordered tea. We drank quickly because the atmosphere was hardly congenial, but as soon as we had finished that first glass, they brought another.
‘I had been looking furtively around, and my attention had been drawn to something. There was a big Kurdish fellow sitting there; he was wearing a belt, and it glinted like silver. When they brought us our second tea, the serving boy pointed at the man and said that he’d sent it over to us. Then, before we knew it, the man had brought up his stool and was sitting next to us.’
Armen paused. The office was dark and silent; everyone had gone home. He finished his coffee and went on.
‘This fellow had seen me looking at him but he thought I was interested in the revolver he was carrying. He whacked it down on the table so I could have a look. I spoke to him about the calibre and where it was made and so forth, and my stock rose because I know a bit about firearms. Everyone in the teahouse had gathered round to hear what we were saying. The place was an enormous cloud of cigarette smoke. But I was only interested in his silver belt. There was more tea and more cigarettes and my friend kept looking at his watch and saying to me, “We should get going. We don’t want to be on the road after dark.” I kept having to shush him and say, “No! There’s something I have to do here.”
‘Eventually, I summoned up the courage to ask to see the man’s belt. He took it off and handed it over. It was composed of embossed detachable sections and had leather on the back. It was inscribed in Armenian and there was a date, 1902. I was sweating and trembling, but, in the end, I managed to buy the belt from that Kurd.’
Armen fell silent. He had become a silhouette in front of the window. After a few moments, I said, ‘Presumably only rich men could have afforded a silver belt.’
He became animated. ‘Not men! Men didn’t wear such belts! These belts were given to Armenian girls when they got married. They were meant to last their whole married life; that’s why they were made up of removable sections. During pregnancy, they added sections. After giving birth, when they were getting slim again, they took the sections away.’
Photograph © aleazzo