WORLD - EASTERN EUROPE - MEMOIR: The Eagle of Ararat-Part II:
The Meaning of Freedom
"Van in this world, paradise in the next.”
ISHAK PASHA, Photo by Jonathan Wilson
Desolate land unfolds in layers of burnished hills toward the Iranian border. We are headed to Ishak Pasha Palace, a fifteenth century castle straight from a fairytale and built by a Kurdish chieftain. A caravan of dust-covered trucks carrying vegetables within their red-slatted sides leads the way toward a military checkpoint blocking the road ahead of us. Blue glass eyes dangle from rearview mirrors to ward off evil spirits. Painted across a tailgate is the word, Mashallah – what wonders God hath willed.
The Eagle ejects the cassette of Kurdish folk songs from the tape deck as we approach the army guardhouse, a four-by-four turret of sandbags, and shoves the tape under the seat. The muscles in his jaw clench and his eyes grow fierce.
A soldier pokes his head through the Eagle’s open window and speaks to him in rapid-fire Turkish. Tension fills the pit of my stomach. The soldier, no more than twenty years old, plays with the strap of his AK-47 and deliberately fingers the trigger, pushing the gun behind his back when the Eagle hands him the identity card all Turkish citizens are required to carry.
“You must give them your passports,” says the Eagle, turning to us. “You will get them back.”
While we rummage in our daypacks for our passports, the Eagle gets out of the car and opens the trunk for inspection. Two additional soldiers lift aviator-style sunglasses from their eyes and peer into the car. I self-consciously pull my scarf tight over my bare shoulders and see Joy cover her bare knees with her daypack.
We hand over our passports and watch while the soldiers take time pretending to study each page. One of the soldiers smiles when he sees our photos and lifts his glasses to his forehead. He looks into the open window for a closer inspection. Under his leering gaze we find ourselves powerless and humiliated and can only imagine how the Eagle must feel.
“They wanted to check more than our passports,” I say, when the Eagle finally gets back in the car and pulls away.
“Because they rarely see American women outside of television,” he says.
The checkpoint fades behind us as the Eagle pops in the cassette and cranks up the volume. “Did they think I’d have guns or drugs in my car?” he scoffs, still thinking of the guards.
He shifts into high gear passing a truck and drives through a valley of wheat fields and sunflowers tapering off into scruffy hillocks.
“If they had seen this cassette, they would have taken it and destroyed it.”
He twists the volume even higher. “Hai, Hai, Hai!” a man sings.
“He is calling for freedom,” the Eagle shouts.
Speeding along the dusty highway, we join the Eagle. “Hai, Hai, Hai!”
Ishak Pasha fortress rises in the distance. Rectangular walls and a minaret appear like a mirage from the amber and cream-colored stone of the mountain on which it sits. We drive past a boy holding a switch broken from a tree branch, tending a few goats grazing amongst the rocky outcrops. Nearby, in the shade of an olive grove, a family sits on a blanket eating lunch.
Higher up the adjacent mountain face, we spy the crumbling remains of an even older fortress, part of a city built by the Urartians who ruled the region for three hundred years beginning in the ninth century BCE. Excavations have revealed sophisticated techniques in metalwork and stone masonry, their openwork filigree jewelry refined centuries later by the Armenians.
Gusts of hot wind swirl dust at our feet when we step from the car and enter the palace through the main gate. We pull scarves over our faces to shield noses and mouths, and cross a courtyard large enough to hold the khan’s army.
The palace took more than one hundred years to build and was influenced by the art and culture of the nearby Georgians, Ottomans, and Persians. Armenian floral relief designs were carved over archways and the Seljuk tree of life motif graces the khan’s tomb. Systems for heating, sewage and water were installed, and from a squat toilet in his chamber, the Khan could sit and watch for an approaching army.
Even though Ishak Pasha had all the modern comforts of its day, we can’t help thinking how the fortress might have felt like an elegant prison for its inhabitants, and how the khan’s daughters, sequestered in the women’s chambers staring at the empty landscape, might long to run off with a nomadic lover.
Back in the car, a trail of dust obscures the road behind us making us feel as if we’re flying. Along a mountain ridge a line of sheep wind their way down toward a grove of black-wool tents.
“I have saved the best for the end of the day,” says the Eagle. “Look.”
He pulls the car to the side of the road. Across the valley Mt. Ararat floats dreamlike on the horizon shrouded in clouds, a symbol of God’s wrath and salvation for three major religious faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The story of Noah and his ark, of lions, elephants, camels, cats and dogs obediently filing up a wooden ramp is etched into our consciousness and we long to see the shape of the ark.
The roots of the story told trail through time long before the advent of the written word. Historians have found more than seventy thousand separate stories in over seventy languages telling of a God who became displeased with his people and caused a great flood to destroy an evil world.
Photo by Joy E. Stocke
“You are very lucky,” says the Eagle as we get out of the car. “The mountain is always covered in clouds. In Turkish we call it Agri Dagh, the mountain of pain. It is a dangerous mountain with cracks and glaciers, and people have died looking for the ark.”
Clouds drift past, revealing and then obscuring the volcano’s snow-covered peak. For a moment it becomes completely possible to believe that a man, his wife, and animals two-by-two, rested safely on the mountain of pain.
As quick as my camera shutter clicks, the clouds slide back to eclipse the mountain peak. The Eagle checks his watch and informs us that curfew approaches. Everyone except military personnel must be off the roads until morning.
On the drive back to Van, we pass a mile-long convoy of open-air trucks. Soldiers sit, tightly packed together in the back, their rifles poised. Several tanks fitted with gun turrets follow behind.
“Where are they coming from?” I ask.
“Iran,” says the Eagle with a shrug of his shoulders.
“How can they do this? Can they just cross the border into another country with armed soldiers and tanks?”
“It is common here,” he says. “Our borders with Iran and Iraq have been highly patrolled since the first Gulf War when our government allowed your American planes to fly over these mountains.”
Ahead, the road splits. One sign points right toward Van, and the other left toward Hakkari, a frontier town near the Iranian border. In deepening twilight, the land stretches open and empty toward the hills. We turn right and maneuver our way through a flock of sheep ambling down the middle of the road. They skitter to the side only after an insistent honk of the Eagle’s horn. Within a few minutes cinderblock structures appear, announcing the outskirts of Van.
At nine a.m. the following morning, the temperature already inches toward one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the heat, we’ve put on pants, long sleeved tops and headscarves, and have ventured onto the streets of Van to visit the museum. We might as well be naked for all the attention we’re getting. For a couple of blocks, two schoolboys follow close behind whispering taunts. When we confront them, they scamper away giggling.
Little remains of the Van that once was a vibrant Armenian city before the final years of the Ottoman Empire. A thriving metropolis of gardens and cafes, where Christian craftsmen made prized filigreed, Van was known for its beautiful homes with tiled floors and gardens filled with fruit and olives trees.
Those homes have long been replaced by cheap, utilitarian concrete construction giving Van the look of a city in survival mode. Still, like many Turkish cities, Van possesses a symbol hinting at its inner nature, a unique statue. Here, we expected to find modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, on horseback claiming Van as part of the new Republic, or maybe a Soviet-style army tank as homage to Turkey’s military might.
But Van’s statue catches us off guard: a two-story tall snow-white cat indulges a pair of frolicking kittens. With one eye painted aqua-blue and the other sea green, the mother cat stares in benign grace at passersby while a group of boys scramble over her paws and ears.
Later, in the window of a pet store, I see one of the famous cats the statue represents, simply called a Van cat. I pull Joy inside. From a row of cages, kittens stare up at us with wide green and blue eyes, meowing, we’re sure, to be set free.
Van Cat by Angie Brenner
“They are the most intelligent of cats, and very devoted to their masters,” says the pet store owner. “And famous swimmers. They love to dive for fish in Lake Van.”
We remember seeing a Van cat in Kalkan. Its owner, a British expatriate, would walk through town in the evening with his ethereal white cat trailing behind him like a faithful dog.
Just when I’ve convinced Joy to help me bring a kitten back to Istanbul and home, the shopkeeper explains that it’s illegal to take Van cats out of Turkey. No longer hopeful of being rescued, the cats stare into our eyes, unblinking through their metal cages.
Before we reach the museum, a wrong turn supplies a tantalizing thread to an older Van. In an alley filled with the sound of cobblers making shoes, vendors selling fruit and vegetables, and men slapping dice onto game boards in cafes, a seller of pigeons talks softly to his birds.
A few blocks away in the neglected garden of the Van Museum a jumble of statues worthy of a wing at the Metropolitan Museum vies for space among the overgrown weeds.
There are no plaques explaining which historical period the statues belong to, and certainly not where they were discovered.
Left to our imaginations, we stop in front of a life-size stone ram poised in the center of the garden like a kitschy lawn ornament. Labyrinth spirals carved into its sides invite our own mythological theories based on the practices of the mother-worshipping religions that once inhabited the area. “Maybe the ram represents the blood sacrifice to the mother goddess,” suggests Joy. “And the labyrinth would be a sacred entrance into her realm.”
Shoots of dry grass force themselves through cracks in the cement sidewalk leading to the entrance. The museum caretaker in a rumpled suit looks at us sleepily, suggesting we’ve interrupted his midday nap. Scratching his head, he studies the placard on the counter to confirm the admission charge, which is higher for foreigners. He takes our money, hands us tickets, and points toward an arrow leading to the upstairs galleries.
The museum once belonged to a middle-class Armenian family. Rooms with dark trim and hardwood floors where families once dined, entertained and slept, now house display cases of artifacts with lengthy descriptions in Turkish and English hand-typed onto note cards with a manual typewriter, the efforts of a dedicated curator no doubt. The ‘e’ key appears to have clogged, making the letter appear like a hieroglyph throughout the exhibits.
We peruse the cases of Neolithic tools and pottery, Urartian metal breastplates, swords, helmets, and jewelry. Under the weight of heavy footsteps, the floorboards groan and we notice the caretaker standing in the doorway watching us.
Keeping a discreet distance, he follows us up a final flight of stairs to the third floor where we come face to face with a large yellow sign in heavy black letters which says: GENOCIDE EXHIBIT.
Our eyes shift to a round glass display case where three human skeletons lie in a haphazard tangle. It looks like a heavy blow has crushed one of the skulls.
At first we think, contrary to all the negative publicity, that the Turkish government is addressing atrocities committed against the Armenians during the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was a different government, a different time, and this is an acknowledgement allowing today’s generation to move forward in their relationship with the Armenian Diaspora.
“Read this,” whispers Joy, moving her fingers along the text on the card. “It says that these remains belong to the innocent Turks who were massacred at the hands of Armenians.”
Confused, we try to comprehend the repercussions of this message and what it tells us about the Armenians and the Turks. Turkey remains resolute about those years, and takes the position that it was an equally balanced war where people died on both sides. It was not genocide.
We gaze at the bones, ivory-white fingers cupping air, the plates of a skull and the jagged hole where a rifle butt? An axe? broke through to the soft tissue inside. Our eyes again focus on the card and the hieroglyphic “e” in the word, Armenian.
Turning our backs on the guard, we descend the creaky stairs into sunlight.
“Please, let me take you swimming so you can forget these things,” says the Eagle when we return from the museum in a gloomy mood.
We agree that a dip in Lake Van won’t make us forget what we’ve seen, but perhaps it can act as a form of cleansing. So, in the late afternoon, we join him and drive north onto a dirt road through a village toward the beach.
The mud-packed road narrows into a lane where goats graze in small pens abutting low-slung houses. Men gather in a small square smoking and drinking tea. We pass a woman sitting inside her doorway wearing a colorful flowered kerchief and spinning threads of yellow yarn by the weight of a hand bobbin. Her toddler in a calico dress clings to the loose fabric of the mother’s chalwar pants. A group of ragamuffin children, shocks of red hair springing from their heads in tangled mats, runs after the car hurling stones. The Eagle speeds up and they disappear in a cloud of dust.
Outside the village, the road follows the shore of Lake Van. We park the car and walk across the stony beach. After spreading thin towels onto the rocks, we strip off sweat-soaked clothes down to our bathing suits.
Lithe as a gymnast, the Eagle runs across pebbles, stopping every so often to show off a perfect handstand before diving into the gleaming water. We move gingerly over the rocks to the shoreline trying not to bruise the bottoms of our feet.
The water of Lake Van has become translucent as beach glass in the waning light. Fed by mountain streams, the lake has no outlet except through evaporation, making it the world’s largest soda lake. For thousands of years, the locals have used the lake’s salt deposits to make laundry soap.
A few steps into the lake and the bottom drops away. We’re in over our heads, but the buoyant soda water that stings our eyes, also keeps us effortlessly afloat. We roll onto our backs like sea otters and spot the first star of the evening on the eastern horizon. Striations of flamingo pink and plum clouds fan the sky’s western edge where the horizon fades away.
The Eagle swims up to us and initiates a splashing contest. Before long the water roils with our attempts to fend off his two-handed waves. Joy calls a truce when her eyes become blurry from the soda-filled water. Laughing, we swim to shore and lay on our towels, letting the sun-soaked stones warm our backs.
“I used to live a nomadic life with my family,” says the Eagle, his hands behind his head as he stares into the dusky heavens. “I didn’t see a television until we moved to the city. Now, I make my living from tourism and can’t live without my cell phone and the Internet. But when I was a child, my father gave me a tough Turcoman horse, and I trained him like a puppy. I would gallop across the plain and know that I was perfectly free.”
His story sounds idyllic. I imagine myself on horseback, cloaked in yards of flowing silk, riding beside him, but he goes on to describe another reality of cloistered village life. “By the time I turned twenty, my parents expected me to marry one of my cousins,” he says. “But after working in the family hotel business and learning the ways of the west from tourists, I could not do this. I’ve tried to educate my family that cousins don’t have to marry each other.”
“Couldn’t you marry someone from another village?” Joy asks.
He sits up. “This is forbidden. The elders don’t want to weaken the family bonds. Anyway, how can I marry a village woman who doesn’t understand me? I’m used to meeting modern women like you two. I want my wife to be my partner, to share my love of books and poetry, not only to have children.”
“I suppose it’s impossible to marry a foreign woman,” I say, tempted to make a proposal.
“My mother would kill herself,” the Eagle says flatly. “She has told this to me. So what can I do?”
He stands up to shrug off a subject that has no resolution, and combs the beach for stones, finding smooth pebbles of pink marble and gray volcanic rock striped with white quartz. They look like a princess’s jewels when he places several stones in my palm.
By the time we dress and zip up our daypacks, the Milky Way brushes the sky in a swath of stars. Reluctant to leave, we share a single orange left over from breakfast, savoring its sweet juice.
As we walk back to the car the Eagle slides between Joy and me settling his arms over our shoulders. “Look up,” he says.
Tonight, Van’s brutal past and uncertain future fade beneath stars shooting across the full breadth of the sky leaving flashes of green and red tails.
“I’ve finished my Akdamar story,” he adds, and squeezes my shoulder affectionately. “It does not have a happy ending, of course. This is our way of looking at life. But when you return home and read it to your friends, perhaps you will think of me.”
The Eagle on the shores of Lake Van