I spent my penultimate night in Anatolia at a homestay in the village of Yuvacali (Yu-va-JA-li), following a day tour to the ‘bee hive’ houses of Harran, near the Syrian border, and the ancient sites of Sogmatar and Gőbekli Tepe – the latter, dated from 9000 BC, being the world’s oldest known religious temple. Both experiences were courtesy of Nomad Tours, an responsible tourism outfit run by British ex-pat Alison Tanik – now married to a village man – and employing her various in-laws and other villagers. More on Harran and the ancient ruins later; for now I am very glad to be able to give further impressions of Kurdish culture, thanks to my new experience of their tremendous hospitality. I stayed with married couple Pero and Halil, and their two sons Farouk and Fatih. Fatih, 19, has taught himself English and speaks it with languid delight. After dinner, he gave me an overview of the history of the village, and the next day his parents and uncle, Mehmet (my driver on the tour) gave me bread-making and sheep milking lessons, and a taste of daily life.
About 1000 people reside in Yuvacali, their humble mud and cindercrete dwellings curving around a tall mound which has been a centre of human habitation for over 11,000 years. Hosts of hoopoes – called ti-ti in Kurdish – and a beautiful blue-tailed swift I have yet to identify swirl the hill, while evidence of the deep past is everywhere underfoot. From the foundations of old stone houses to broken pots and jugs, Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians and Ottomans have all left remnants of their lives behind. More recently, Armenians and Jews lived with the Kurds in the village until, respectively 1915 and 1948. The Jews immigrated to Israel, while Fatih was diplomatic about the Armenian departure, saying he doesn’t know whose version of those tragic events is true – though he did think Armenians from the village had survived what most of the world considers a massacre by the Turks, and settled in Armenia. They left behind a predominantly Kurdish population, farming wheat, tending sheep, cows and chickens, and living in the poorest conditions in Turkey.
When Alison arrived in the village, eight years ago, she did a door to door survey, and spoke to all the villagers about their basic needs. At that time Yuvacali – only a five minute drive from the large town of Hilvan – had no telephone, internet, running water, refuse collection, or sewerage system, and homes of up to eight people were surviving on less than one dollar a person per day. The village school taught in Turkish and when children started at the age of seven they couldn’t understand the lessons. Over half of the adults were illiterate, many families suffered from malnutrition, and dental care was minimal: most children didn’t own toothbrushes. Despite these deprivations, the family seemed remarkably tolerant of Turkish rule. Fatih told me he liked being Turkish, while Mehmet expressed a longing for Kurdistan, but said the people of the region had always gotten along, and even inter-married: it was the politicians who caused trouble.
Alison – who was in the UK during my visit – responded with brio to the village’s problems. Now the mother of two, she set up Nomad Tours with the intention of introducing visitors to Kurdish culture in a respectful manner, and campaigning for better living conditions for the village. Currently eight families offer homestays: a day with full board – three sumptuous organic meals of village cheese, chicken, bread, herbs, stewed beans and fried aubergine – costs 60 lira (about £20). This money benefits the families directly – Pero and Halil appear to be using their profits to educate their children. Farouk is studying to be a lawyer, Fatih want to work in the tourist industry and their young daughter is at boarding school. But the village as a whole prospers too. Profits from the regional tours are fed back into the school, which has now built a kindergarten for the younger children, while visitors are encouraged to donate to one of three current campaigns: the planting of fruit and nut trees in the villagers’ gardens, thus combatting malnutrition; the purchase of toothbrushes and toothpaste, which are dispensed at school; and the buying of books, to improve the village literacy rate.
After my experience the next day following Pero around as she attended to her tasks, I thought there should also be a campaign to provide massage to the village women. She started the day sitting cross legged in a shed in front of a low shruff and hay fire. Like a magician with a staff, conjuring the moon, she rolled the dough with a dowelling rod into discs of about 20 inch diameter. These she flipped over a convex iron shield, until they puckered and bubbled a toasty golden brown. How she got them perfectly round is a mystery to me – though Pero was very kind about my own effort, it was rather more amoeba-shaped, and uneven in thickness. I was no more successful (in fact, rather less) at sheep milking. The family have 17 sheep – a small flock – which we cornered in their pen. Halil held the largely uncomplaining animals by the head, while Pero crouched behind and grasped their teats, squirting jets of frothy milk into a big plastic bucket. When I tried, the bristly udder seemed impossible to manipulate, and I could only produce a few thin streams resembling watery milk from pin-holes in a coconut. She must be empty, I said – but no, back in Pero’s capable hands, the udder expressed what seemed like pints more milk, the bucket fairly shuddering at the impact. Strong, yes, but ache, Pero said, rubbing her thighs when I admired her labours. She suffers backache too, and I gave a her short massage myself later, but my writer’s fingers (and even my bony elbows) hardly felt up to the task of unlocking the pain of her solid trunk. The closest hamam (Turkish bath), is in Şanlıurfa, an hour away and impossible for a busy farming woman to get to. As Halil said about his own work tending the cattle and fields, and now helping with the cooking – farmer, no holiday.
But while the villagers’ lives are grounded in hard work, they also contains much laughter, pride in their accomplishments – Nomad Tours hosted over 2000 home-stay visitors last year – and a tremendous sense of family. Kurds like to live close together, Fatih told me in my orientation talk: this is a significant part of their culture. And indeed the only house in the village with some fair space around it is Alison and her family’s. This preference for communal living has also influenced Kurdish dress: while they are Muslim, their conservatism is social, not Islamic, Fatih explained. The men wear traditional loose-loined trousers, and the women long skirts because these are suitable for sitting cross-legged opposite each other in their cushioned reception rooms. Female visitors are asked to respect these customs and wear an ankle-length skirt. I had brought one I acquired recently at a clothes swap – my own local cultural tradition of sharing.
One particular communal tradition, common to Turks as well in this hot region, I had come too soon for. In the baking summer months the family – and their guests – take their wool-stuffed mattresses out onto on the flat roof, and in what they call their ‘million star hotel’, the crickets sing them to sleep. While there is still no refuse collection, landline telephone or internet in the village, Fatih can get online on his mobile phone; Pero uses hers as a family photo album, and who needs Facebook when nearly everyone you love is a mossy stone’s throw away?