THE HEADMAN’S PYJAMAS
by Jessica J.J. Lutz
"It's late," said Sheyhmus, looking up into a dark, star-punctured summer sky. "Time to get inside." The hour was barely seven, but here in Görümlü, a hamlet in the far reaches of Southeastern Turkey, a machine-gun enforced curfew started shortly after sundown.
As we went inside, I felt more alienated than ever. This desolate spot deep in the mountainous Kurdish border lands with Iraq was a world apart from my penthouse on the Asian shore of İstanbul, with its dreamy view of the Sea of Marmara and the green peninsula of Topkapı Palace. Instead of the continuous, upbeat roar of the metropolis, here silence made my ears ring. For now.
Sheyhmus seemed concerned, his grooved face furrowing deeper. A red-and-white chequered scarf was loosely wrapped around his head and topped by a dark, flat cap, the typical dress of Turkey's Kurds.
"Where do you want to sleep?" he blurted out, clearly uncomfortable with the question. " I mean, you're different." He paused, embarrassed. "You can stay here with us."
The faces of Sheyhmus' six sons lit up expectantly. They had made themselves comfortable on flat cushions, which were spread out on the dark red, factory-made carpets that covered the floor. At their backs a set of stiff pillows lined the bumpy mud-brick wall of the spacious living room. Obviously, their father was a rich man by the standards of this God-forsaken mountainside near the town of Silopi. He had three wives and could afford to keep them under lock and key.
Not that any of the doors of the house actually needed to be bolted. The chains of tradition and the treachery of living in a war zone were enough to keep the women within their proscribed boundaries. I had spent hours on the veranda of his house chatting with the men-folk of the village without seeing wives or daughters, only a pair of female hands extending tray after tray of sweetened tea through a crack in a half-opened door to a young man who served it.
Such segregation would be most unusual in Western parts of Turkey where village women work the fields and joke with the men, but here some people still indulged in illegal polygamy and employed the most restrictive traditions of the harem. These men, even if monogamous, would have considered it an offense to drink tea with each other's wives, but due to the circumstances I, a foreigner and a reporter, clearly defied categorization.
The year was 1993. The first half of the 1990s was a bad time for Turkey, and worse for the Turkish Kurds. Many of them had been seduced by the dream of an independent country. Naturally, the Turkish state defended itself against regional secession, but the rebels were tough. As a freelance journalist for Dutch and English-language radio and newspapers I traveled regularly to the region to cover this bitter conflict. On this particular trip I had met Sheyhmus in Silopi and he had brought me to his village. Now he was asking me to where I wanted to sleep.
"Where are your wives?" I countered his question with my own.
"Ah yes, you're a woman," Sheyhmus replied pensively, as if he suddenly remembered that under normal conditions he would never sit in his living room, the men's domain, with a woman. "Why don't you go visit them?" he continued with an encouraging smile. So his eldest son, a slender boy of seventeen or so, took me to the womens' quarters, forbidden to males other than those of the family.
I had to bow my head to get through the door, and took a few steps down into a small room in which the main feature was a huge, shiny, light blue refrigerator. Crouched at its base sat three women, dressed in bulky şalvar-trousers of dark, flowered fabric. The stocky, round figures reminded me of pumpkins. While trying to keep rebellious strands of henna-red hair under their black headscarves, they pushed away the four or five children around them and spread thick grey blankets on the concrete floor.
"They're preparing their beds," the son explained to me. "They have to get up early to bake the bread and feed the animals."
I had always imagined the innermost part of a Muslim house to be luxurious, where a man could wile away his leisure time with his wives. In the face of this poverty-ridden harem, I understood I had certainly read too many books romanticizing the East while studying Turkish literature and history at university in my home country Holland. There was nothing enchanting about this place.
As much as a shock it was to see their quarters so different from the Orientalist painting in my mind, my appearance must have been equally disconcerting. To these women I must have looked like a space alien with my field jacket full of pockets, bulging with the tools of my trade: microphone wires, pens, notebooks and camera lenses.
A girl came in with a huge tray. She could barely lift it as she placed it in the corner of the room, on top of a television that I only now noticed. It was on, but the sound was switched off.
"Why's that?" I asked. "Too busy to watch, I'll bet?"
The son laughed and said something in Kurdish to the women. It made them laugh too. "They'd love to understand what's going on in the soap," he translated, "they watch it every day, but it's in Turkish. So they make up the story themselves."
Like many others, these Kurdish women didn't speak Turkish because they were never sent to school. At university I had mastered Turkish which allowed me to communicate with the men, even if I had trouble understanding their guttural accent, but all we women could do was smile hesitantly at each other, recognizing we had nothing in common, language the least of it.
Still, I wasn't quite able to believe what the son was telling me. "So they sleep here, on the floor?" I asked, to be sure.
"Yes," the son nodded. "It's close to the courtyard where they do the cooking."
Indeed, a rough wooden door was all that divided them from the thick summer heat that hung between the courtyard walls, which had the pale color of bone-dry earth.
At dawn the next morning I was to see the women out there, one sweating above a small wood-fire over which a thin domed sheet of metal was placed. On it she slapped rounds of unleavened bread to cook. In the shade of the corrugated roof that covered part of the courtyard and provided some coolness in the early hours, the two other wives helped each other lift heavy plastic drums of water off their shoulders onto the stamped earth. Each morning they filled the containers at the stream that ran through the village.
At first glance, it seemed life here had been the same for centuries. My arrival at their village, however, was a sign of the tremendous upheaval the whole region was experiencing.
The atmosphere in the nearby town of Silopi had been so tense it had set the hair on my back tingling. People scurried around nervously, pressed to finish whatever business they had as quickly as possible. Traveling in the dark was extremely risky because the rebels took control of the roads. During the day, at countless military roadblocks and checkpoints, vehicles were searched from top to bottom, the identity papers of every passenger scrutinized, making any trip nerve-wrecking. So when I had entered a teahouse, trying to escape being noticed by a group of heavily armed, evil-looking policemen (it was not yet known that these were actually deathsquads) fourteen pairs of black eyes had met me with a suspicious glare.
Of course, this was a place reserved exclusively for men. Fair-haired, tight trousered women were a rare sight in teahouses even in normal times. More upsetting for them was that I was obviously there to ask questions when it was best not to talk in these troubled days. On previous reporting trips people had asked me time and again: "What if the enemy reads what I said and comes to find me?" I would then explain it was highly unlikely that anyone involved in the conflict would read a Dutch newspaper, and, that if they wanted the world to do something, the news had to get out.
Apparently Sheyhmus had understood this even without my explanation. As I stood indecisively in the middle of the teahouse, he and two friends invited me to sit with them. With tears in their eyes the three men were soon telling me of the disastrous impact of the war. The fruit trees of their village had been cut down. All of their wheat harvest had been burned. Then the major of the nearby military post informed the villagers they could no longer go up the mountain to let their animals graze because the rebels might rustle the sheep to eat them.
The men insisted that I come see their besieged village. That would be hard. Because of the fighting, the government strictly forbade reporters from traveling into the countryside. Conspiring on stools around the low teahouse table the men constructed a plan to get me there. One of them tensely jiggled his leg up and down. None of them had shaven in a while. Their faces were half-hidden behind the red-and-white chequered scarf they wore under their flat cap, like Sheyhmus, whom they respectfully called muhtar, the elected headman of the village.
Out on the street, we split up as agreed. My companions vanished like bedbugs into a mattress and after a moment's hesitation I walked off quickly in the opposite direction, careful not to trip over the pungent refuse littering the broken pavement. In the midst of a guerrilla war nobody cared about cleaning up the streets. In a back alley I found the three again, standing by one of the rickety minibuses that served as public transport. It was full of people, and clearly waiting for me.
"I can't go in that," I protested, surprised at their naiveté. "I'd be picked out immediately at the first checkpoint."
My remark caused a buzz. The male passengers started whispering in Kurdish to each other, while a middle-aged, head-scarved woman invitingly patted the empty seat next to her.
"Gel," Sheyhmus said. "Come on, get in. We've sorted it out," he urged.
He was sitting in the front seat next to the driver. I sat behind him, squeezed in between the friendly woman and the skinniest of my three guides, who extended a hand with a grip like a vice.
"I'm Ali," he said, smiling. "Don't worry. We're taking an alternative route. We're not allowed to take that road anymore because it's dangerous, but there won't be any checkpoint. The driver says he knows where all the landmines are."
"Mines?" I squealed. I hadn't expected a busload of people to risk their lives, and mine, to smuggle me into their village. I wasn't prepared to die, but in the face of their courage I could hardly turn back.
Sheyhmus looked around. "We'll be alright," he grinned, reassuring himself as well, no doubt.
Over a sandy track through fields of wheat stubble that turned a warm gold in the glow of the lowering sun we bumped towards the middle of nowhere. My heart was in my throat. It was impossible to spot anything irregular on this road, let alone landmines. Apart from us, of course. We must have stuck out like a red flag for any soldier with binoculars. I knew there were military lookout posts on many of the mountaintops. To be on the safe side I dug out a black scarf from one of my pockets. It was part of my gear since, on a different trip, a local religious leader I wanted to interview demanded I cover my head before he'd speak to me. In the minibus, the woman next to me nodded in approval when I knotted it under my chin. My fellow passengers seemed without a care and chattered all the way. Just over the first mountain pass we rattled into the hamlet.
"Keep your head down," Sheymus suddenly hissed, and I struggled to disappear under the seat. The minibus stopped. Ali opened the door and beckoned me to follow him out. We hurried to the safety of a tiny alley. "We're nearly there, but there's a checkpoint in the middle of the village," he explained in a low voice. "We'll have to walk around it."
I had landed in the Middle Ages. A trickle of stinking sewage meandered through the narrow, unpaved alleyways. Barefoot children with crowns of uncombed hair and dirt-streaked faces were playing around it. A toddler dressed only in an oversized t-shirt squatted by the mud-brick wall of a house, defecated and jumped up to continue chasing a scruffy chicken with a stick. A small boy spotted me and let out a yowl of delight. Within seconds I was surrounded by a troop of children who pushed and stretched to press grubby fingers onto my camera lens. Ali shooed them away and quickly steered me into a doorway.
"The searching of the minibus will take a while," he said. "The soldiers check all our shopping. We're only allowed a certain amount of food per family to make sure no extras go to the rebels. Take off your shoes."
Here at Ali's cousin's we were going to wait until the inspection of the minibus had finished. I crouched to undo my shoelaces. In the whole Muslim world, from the Mediterranean to China, shoes lined up by the front door are a familiar sight, a habit of domestic cleanliness maintained even in wartime. I wondered if the children had to wash their feet before they were allowed to step on the threadbare carpets inside.
I exchanged formalities with Ali's cousin, who was just as skinny as he, and we sat down. The room was small and cave-like, and had pillows along the wall. I noticed a swaddled bundle in the middle of the room. Our host followed my gaze.
"My youngest child," he sighed. "She's ill. I don't know what to do about it."
"Isn't there a doctor in the village?" I asked.
"I don't have enough to feed the rest of my children," the man shrugged as I kneeled down by the baby. She was pale and ice cold. Her crying only produced the faintest of sounds.
"Can't you keep her warm at least?" I asked, eager to do something, even if I didn't know what.
Her father waved his hand in powerless resignation. "Without help, she's probably going to die. You can have her if you want."
That shocked me into silence. Was he serious? But what would I do with a baby-- me, Ms. Independent, who had learned very quickly after moving to İstanbul how to deftly avoid the typical impertinent Turkish inquiries about my reproductive plans and tiresome advice about fertility. Where was the baby's mother anyway?
Ali had come to my rescue. "This lady is here on another mission. Let's have some tea, cousin, and then we should go," he said. A few minutes later his cousin appeared with the first of many glasses of tea I was to drink in the village.
"The soldiers will be back at their post now," Ali said as we continued our way through the steep alleys.
"How far are they?" I gasped, breathless from carrying my reporter's outfit in the heat. The village didn't seem that big, although it was hard to get an overview from between the walls.
Ali snorted and pointed vaguely to the left. "The checkpoint is just there, over by the brook. Their post is above the village. They won't come out anymore until tomorrow. They're really afraid of us," he boasted, even though it seemed to me to be the other way around.
Our destination was the house of Sheyhmus. When we arrived, the veranda was already filled with men. In the shade of a corrugated metal lean-to trimmed by a vine, they sat upright, cross-legged. A vibrating shriek of crickets hung in the sweltering afternoon air as the men in the circle watched me take the place next to Sheyhmus. Then, one by one, with soft voices they had started to tell their sad stories, while I scribbled frantically. Soon my head was spinning.
"We're innocent. We're not helping the rebels, honestly," they kept saying, inhaling nervously the acrid smoke of cheap tobacco. Although I was a smoker myself and we were in the open air, that afternoon I felt sick. Each man must have smoked at least three packs of cigarettes. It was only later, after they left and the poisonous cloud of tar and nicotine lifted that I had become aware of the sharp smell of a small herd of sheep, condemned by the war to live in a stable under the veranda.
At dusk a large meal of rice and mutton appeared. Hungrily we all dug in with our fingers. As the guest of honor I got the first pick, then Sheyhmus had a go and soon there were only a few bony pieces left on the savaged heap of rice. The tray was then sent back to be finished off by those inside, the women and children of the house. I felt sorry for them and hoped at least the children had had a chance to nibble on some of the meat before it had been devoured by the ravenous pack around me on the veranda. I figured it was not often they ate meat.
A few men belched appreciatively after the meal, as they do in the East, and lit yet more cigarettes. Enjoying the silence I looked up at the stars. My Turkish husband back in İstanbul was probably eating out with some friends in a meyhane restaurant by the seaside, feasting on exquisitely prepared fish, or squid, or roasted eggplant. He had no desire to travel the east of his country and could hardly believe what I, a foreigner, told him about it. I wondered if he could have enjoyed the crude meal I had just consumed. That's when Sheyhmus declared it was bedtime.
"Let's go inside," I heard him say. "Normally we sleep on the roof in summer, but that has become too dangerous with all the shooting."
We said goodbye to the men who had come to share their stories. Once inside I was confronted with a confounding decision: where to sleep. Surely the proper thing to do was to join the women. I regarded the red carpets, the thin mattresses Sheyhmus' sons were laying out, and remembered the concrete floor by the refrigerator with just a blanket to cushion it. I was ashamed of my lack of fortitude. Had I known Kurdish, I would have gone to the women, I told myself to justify my conclusion.
"There's hardly any space in the kitchen," I said sheepishly.
"It's more comfortable here," Sheyhmus agreed. "I and my sons will go to one end of the room so you can have the other." He disappeared briefly and came back with a bunch of white bedclothes, which he shyly pushed into my hands.
Shortly after I lay back on my bed in a corner, an explosive rattle of a machine gun not far away made me sit bolt upright.
"Lie down and keep away from the window!" Sheyhmus warned from the other end of the room. "The soldiers are supposed to shoot over our houses. It's just a measure to keep us inside and the rebels away, but sometimes the bullets stray. One of my animals got killed that way. The wall will protect you, though."
As I tried to ignore the sound of the gun, and the occasional thump of a bullet that hit the wall, I swallowed hard and felt grateful for not having been born in a Kurdish village.
Two years later I was in Silopi again. The war was raging with full force, making it even more difficult to travel or gather information, but I decided to try my luck. To my astonishment I was able to drive up to Sheyhmus' hamlet without being stopped. At his house the local army commander was sipping tea. Pretending I didn't know Sheyhmus, not wanting to implicate him, I greeted the headman. He welcomed me with a broad smile.
"I remember," he said. "You were here when we still supported the rebels."
As my cheeks went red, he turned to the officer and continued. "We smuggled her in, you know. She stayed the night."
The major smiled benignly. "Thank God such things are no longer necessary now that you support the state," he said.
"A state for ourselves would have been great, you know," Sheyhmus added to my amazement. "But the rebels weren't strong enough. And they started kidnapping our children to make fighters of them. That was the limit."
The Turkish State showed its presence in Görümlü with a small dispensary, built and manned by the army. A school was on its way. Food was no longer rationed Sheyhmus updated me. Then he began to chat about me to the commander as if I were an old friend.
Bewildered, I slowly realized that this apparent change of heart was an opportunistic flexibility that had also made him put aside the region's strict rules regarding women during my first visit. He had no choice but to accept the circumstances, but he did so with great flair. With my behavior of traveling alone, smoking and freely interacting with the village men, I broke all taboos. He solved his dilemma by treating me like a man.
In hindsight, Sheyhmus also made me understand that Middle Eastern hospitality overrides all other possible concerns. No matter how odd or inconvenient, or even potentially dangerous, a visitor is a guest from God. During that frightening curfew two years before, Sheyhmus had honored this principle with his awkward offer of the white bundle: they were his own pyjamas for me to sleep in.
This story was first published (in a slightly different version) in Tales of the Expat Harem, a wonderful collection of true stories from foreign women who live in Turkey. I recommend you buy the book .
Here you'll find more information about the book.