WORLD - EASTERN EUROPE - MEMOIR - The Eagle of Ararat
"Van in this world, paradise in the next.”
Photo by Joy E. Stocke
The ferryman steers his skiff across the surface of Lake Van toward Akdamar Island. In a lustrous wash of color, the alkaline water mirrors a blue-white sky and ripples topaz, reflecting the mountain range surrounding us.
The manager of our hotel, who has offered to be our guide, sits cross-legged at the prow facing us. Dark brows underscore a high, wide forehead, and receding hairline. It’s impossible to guess his age, although he could be anywhere from his late twenties to his mid-forties.
“You are journalists,” he says, studying my traveling companion Joy’s notebook.
“No,” she replies. “But, we’re writing a book about your country.”
From the open notebook on her lap, she reads a description of Van Lake written in fine-point black ink and I show him my sketchbook flipping through thumbprint drawings of monasteries, mosques, and a field of purple crocuses we saw the week before high above the Black Sea.
“I write stories, too,” he says, motioning us closer, lowering his voice so the ferryman can’t hear. “But, trust me when I tell you that in Van the walls have ears. It is better to say you are teachers. If the authorities see your notebooks, they will become suspicious.”
He doesn’t say who the authorities are, but it would be a good guess that he refers to government officials who are here to keep the peace, some of whom we met at the tourist office.
“You see, I am Kurdish and a Turkish citizen,” he says, glancing at the ferryman. “I am not a terrorist, but if you are Kurdish and live in the east, the authorities suspect you of supporting the PKK.”
He goes on to explain that for the Turkish government and much of the world, the PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party, are terrorists, even as many Kurds see the PKK as liberators. In the late nineteen-eighties, a young Kurd, Abdullah Ocalan, called for all Kurds in Turkey to take up arms against the government and create a separate state joining their territory with their fellow Kurds in northern Iraq, a treasonable offense under Turkish law. Eventually exiled in Syria, Ocalan orchestrated a well-armed militia, directing assassinations of teachers, journalists, politicians, tourists, or anyone sympathetic to the government. The Turkish military retaliated harshly, burning villages throughout the southeast.
In 1999, Ocalan was finally arrested. Travel restrictions and warnings were lifted, but the damage had been done. Ocalan and the PKK had struck a blow to tourism from which the east has never recovered.
“We don’t see many American women traveling alone,” says our guide. “So, the police may question why you are here in Van without a tour group.”
His words echo what our friends in Istanbul have said. Even though none of them has ventured east of Ankara, all of them have warned us that traveling in the east could be dangerous. Over 30,000 people were killed during the civil war, rebels and Turkish soldiers, and many innocent men, women, and children caught in the middle. Yet, our Kurdish friends on the Mediterranean Coast have assured us that not only would we be safe, we would be well cared for.
“I must tell you that I have been arrested many times only because I am Kurdish,” says our guide, defiance filling his voice. “In prison they tried to make me confess that I was part of the PKK. They used electric prods on my back and sticks to beat the bottoms of my feet. But the beatings are nothing compared to the mental torture. I could hear screams coming from the room next door. They told me they had my mother and sister, and that they would continue to beat them if I didn’t confess. Even though I was sure they didn’t have them, how could I not have doubts?”
He looks away as if he has said too much, but continues. “They pressed me to lie and say I was part of the PKK, but I never did. So please,” he adds, looking again at our notebooks, “if you write about Van or me, do not use my name.”
Joy snaps her journal closed and glances in my direction for a cue.
“You could use a pseudonym,” I suggest.
Our guide pauses in thought, staring across the lake and up toward the distant, barren mountains. “Yes,” he says at last. “You may call me the Eagle. This is my favorite bird and I think the American symbol of freedom.”
For a while, talk subsides. As the skiff nears the island, the Eagle’s face softens. “I wish to tell you a beautiful and sad story, the story of a princess.”
"Once upon a time…” teases Joy.
“Yes, once up a time,” and then he smiles, a beautiful, open smile.
“This story begins with an Armenian king named Gajik who built a place on the island carved of the finest stone with reliefs of birds and lions and all the creatures of the plain. His daughter fell deeply in love with a peasant boy who tended the island’s fruit trees. She was young, just beginning her life, so, of course, she could think of nothing else but the boy.
“The king found out and grew angry, threatening to kill the boy. But his daughter’s love only grew stronger. When the moon was new and the sky dark as ink, she hung a lantern in her window. From the opposite shore, the boy saw it glimmer and silently rowed his boat across the lake to a grove of cherry trees where she waited. There, on a bed of the velvet moss amongst the cherry blossoms, they made love.
“One night, the king’s watchman found them and on the king’s orders, shot an arrow into the boy’s chest. The boy died in the arms of the princess. Filled with grief, she refused to eat or drink a drop of liquid. She grew thin and pale as the moonlight itself, and when next full moon rose, she joined her lover in death. To this day, when the sky is filled with stars, you can see the boy’s ghost rowing his boat toward the island and a faint glow of lamplight from a shadowy tower.”
We become lost in the Eagle’s story, one that traveled along the Silk Road from Persia on caravans carrying bolts of silk and bags of cardamom and pepper across the Van plateau. Lost in a world of dreams and stories and a violent past.
When we reach a well-used dock, the ferryman ties the skiff to a post and the Eagle holds out his hand. With a firm grip, he helps us to shore and leads us up a path toward an exquisite, imposing church built in the shape of a cross with a distinct drum turret and conical roof. The church of Akdamar, called the Church of the Holy Cross stands in silent testimony to the Armenians who claimed eastern Turkey as part of greater Armenia, and who, in 301 CE, were the first nation to adopt Christianity as their official religion.
In the interest of full disclosure, I tell the Eagle that I have an Armenian friend in San Diego whose parents were forced to walk from Van through desert and scrub to Syria. Many of his family died along the way. He stills considers this part of the world his homeland and has campaigned to name what happened to his people, genocide.
Joy and I have been surprised by what we’ve discovered about the region. Armenian history reaches back to the seventh century BCE when tribes migrated from the east into the area around Van and assimilated with the local population. Ottoman maps from the sixteenth century show Armenian territory spreading from Ankara in central Anatolia to the eastern border into Persia. With nearby Mount Ararat as their spiritual center, the Armenians chose Van to be their capitol and dominated the region’s political and cultural affairs until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century.
“This is a crazy place in so many ways,” says the Eagle. “A few years ago, a local official planned to destroy the church and say that no Armenians lived here. But, the church has been photographed so often and travelers have written about it. Even he had to agree the idea was stupid. Although no one will say it out loud, everybody knows the Armenians have been here as long as anyone can remember.”
Although we are the only people on the island, the Eagle’s voice drops to a whisper. “My grandfather told me what happened before the First World War,” he says. “When the Russians controlled this region they encouraged the Armenians to claim the land and separate from Turkey. Local Kurdish tribes including my own were hired by the Sultan to help drive out the Christian Armenians. He said we could keep the land and take the Armenian’s property. Very few Kurdish people want to admit this truth.”
“But you are talking,” says Joy.
He shrugs his shoulders and leads us into the church, his voice rising slightly. “I have done some research. When Adolf Hitler ordered his soldiers to invade Poland and kill every man woman and child, he said that no one would stop him. He said, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’”
A flock of swallows swoops over our heads and out a high window. The inner church walls show soot and smoke damage. Inside the dome are larger than life-size frescoes of holy men, their long oval faces and almond-shaped eyes resembling those of the Eagle.
“Someone has to say the truth,” he whispers. “And because you are writers, you will take the story into the world."
Photo by Angie Brenner
Studying the frescoes, we find it impossible to believe the Armenians could be wiped out so completely in a span of less than twenty years. Yet the church offers clues into the hearts and skills of Van’s Armenian citizens. Carvings on the outside walls tell stories from the Old Testament in vivid block-cut relief. Goliath slays David next to Jonah and the whale. Adam and Eve rise before us, their bellies carved full and round as if both are pregnant. Eve stands with the snake next to the tree of life, her eyes challenging onlookers as if to say, “Who among you wouldn’t take a bite from the apple?”
Like the ghosts of a lovelorn boy and princess, the church seems to us a tenuous reminder of a population vanished from their homeland. A deep sense of melancholy overtakes us on the boat ride back to shore. We ask the Eagle to translate the words pressed into the mountainside in bold, white twenty-foot high letters.
His voice carries a hint of irony when he reads the words, “I AM PROUD TO BE A TURK.”
Persian Miniature - Husrev and Shirin
“It’s nice to have you as my guests,” says the Eagle, relaxing into the cushions set around at brass tea table in the hotel lounge. He orders a round of tea and we ask him about his family.
“We used to live on our land in the mountain valley on the Iranian border. This was where I was born. My father raised sheep and had horses and donkeys. I loved this life, but when I was a teenager, the government forced our tribe to move into Van. My parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins now own an apartment building near this hotel. But my mother hates living in the city. She and my aunts still go to the mountains to spend their summers. You cannot forget that kind of life.”
When the tea arrives, he drops a cube of sugar into the glass, watching the granules melt and disappear. “As a child, I listened to many tales of our people. The elders would gather the boys around a fire and tell stories that would last for three nights. The women would do the same with the girls.”
“Your English is excellent,” says Joy, “But you seem to have an American accent.”
“I taught myself, mostly from books,” he says. “And when I was in the army they sent me to Izmir where I worked as a translator for an American officer.” A grin crosses his face. “My commander told me I was the best translator on the staff. It was only when he discharged me that he found out I was Kurdish and from Van. He said he was glad he didn’t know or he would never have given me the job. Many people believe that all Kurdish people are terrorists and want to separate from Turkey. This is not true. We were here before the first Turkish tribes came from Central Asia. So really,” he says, pleased with his conclusion, “you could say we are native Turks.”
We finish our tea in silence, trying to absorb all the Eagle has told us. Joy gets up and wanders over to a bookshelf in the far corner of the room. She picks out the English translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel of unrequited love, Love in the Time of Cholera.
“This is one of my favorites,” she says.
“Mine too,” says the Eagle. “I read everything, mostly what tourists leave behind. It is not easy getting these books in Van. I have a collection in my room upstairs. Come, I’ll show you.”
We take the elevator to the fourth floor. He turns the key in a lock to the room directly above ours and invites us in. Three cinderblock walls are lined with well-worn books whose titles might belong to an advanced literature student. The Iliad and The Odyssey in Turkish and English share the shelves with English translations of Voltaire and Rousseau, E.M. Forrester’s short stories, and Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces. On the nightstand a Turkish–English dictionary has been stuffed with sheets of notepaper.
“I like Albert Camus the best,” he says, taking a paperback copy of The Stranger from the shelf. “In the end, we are all strangers in this world, don’t you think?”
“And yet,” teases Joy, “In Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez writes about the ultimate triumph of romantic love.”
“Yes, it is possible,” he says. “This is what I write about too.” He picks up a stack of papers covered with handwritten pencil notes scribbled in tight cursive, and absently thumbs through them.
“I’ve been writing the story of Akdamar in English,” he says. “I would like to show it to you when I am finished.” And then he bids us goodnight.
In the morning, a haunting melody weaves through our dreams. We wake to hear the Eagle singing in the shower directly above us. By the time we reach the dining room for breakfast, he’s waiting at a table, his hair wet and slicked back.
“Good morning,” he says, making no mention of the shower serenade. I detect a hint of a wink when he pulls out a chair for me, but dismiss the flirtation as wishful thinking on my part.
“From the back pocket of his jeans, he pulls a map and spreads it across the table. Eastern Turkey and Iran appear before us marked into borders and landmarks and towns.
I have a surprise, today,” he smiles. “We are going to Mount Ararat.”
Photo by Joy E. Stocke