Taking Over

Fellows Spring 2004

By Siobhan Roth

June 04, 2009

TURKEY -- I was just so tired. Halfway into a six-week reporting trip in southeastern Turkey and I was tired of wondering whether teenage boys would throw garbage at me again if I walked alone after dark. Tired of hotel owners looking at me as if I’d tramped dog poop into the lobby and waiters sniffing for whiffs of whorishness, of shrouded women staring then averting their eyes, of feeling like a freak show. Wandering the maze of Sanliurfa’s bazaar, I barely noticed the famously treacle-sweet apricots glistening in the sunlight that snuck through chinks in the vaulted roof. My nose ignored the smoky pistachios, brown from the roasters that puffed their dusty aroma into the wet air. To pause, or even to slow the shuffle of my feet along the slush-slick cobbles meant interaction with yet another man, a man who might find my presence unseemly — or worse, titillating.

I was in Turkey’s predominately Kurdish southeast to research stories about the lives of poor Turkish women, a mystery to many of us in the West. In images of traditional Muslim communities, the women always seem to haunt the background. They peek from dim doorways, holding up their veils to shield their faces from the prying camera. News stories about them tend to focus on oppression or abuse. But what’s the texture of the lives led by the women in those doorways? What’s it like to be them? That’s what I was after. Shyness unbecoming a reporter, however, along with some rotten luck with timing and translators had yielded three weeks of unsatisfying progress.

In that bend of the bazaar, at least three-dozen vendors must have been selling headscarves. I glanced casually at the stalls, never allowing my eyebrows to rise or my chin to dip to one side, keeping always the appearance of disinterest. Despite the poor treatment I’d received and the disappointing results of my work so far, the possibility of putting on a headscarf hadn’t crossed my mind, certainly not in Istanbul or Ankara, and not even in the notoriously conservative city of Diyarbakir, a crucible of Kurdish culture and politics. This wasn’t Iran, for heaven’s sake, this was Turkey, where strict laws forbid women from wearing headscarves in schools and government offices. Many of the women I’d interviewed so far were educated feminists who stepped out of their apartments with elegant coiffures they would hesitate to cover with winter hats, let alone veils they considered retrograde or even repugnant. And the women I knew who wore hijabs did so for deeply personal reasons. What a fraud I would be if I covered my own bottle-blonde head.

The ancient city of Sanliurfa, though, is different. Less than sixty miles from the Syrian border, “Glorious Urfa” claims to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham and home to the cave where Job spent seven miserable years. Tens of thousands of devout Muslims make pilgrimages to its shrines every year. If I’d seen a single bareheaded female since arriving in town two days earlier, I can’t remember it now.

One scarf stall in the bazaar, up ahead on the right, drew me. Two women had just left its tables, and the proprietor was straightening the wares they’d inspected. Finally, I would get a good look at the things, these flags of piety and politics. Maybe I would buy one, just as a keepsake. Tan and burgundy silks — the sort favored by grim-faced city girls protesting the headscarf ban — dangled from clips over the table. Such fancy schmatas didn’t interest me. I wanted a pale blue one like so many Sanliurfan women wore, the kind that framed the tattoos on their chins and foreheads, the women I’d come to Sanliurfa to interview but hadn’t spoken to at all. Palest blue with white embroidery. The vendor had hundreds of them. Each was folded into a square and wrapped in sparkling cellophane. The packets cascaded across the table like waves lapping the shore of some peaceful lagoon. Man, was I tired.

The salesman and I tiptoed through the transaction in an awkward amalgam of Turkish, Kurdish, and English. He had frowned quickly at my dithering over embroidery patterns, and I, unsure of the propriety of my desired purchase, resented his impatience. In the end, I tucked a cellophane packet into my knapsack, and he tucked more lire than he’d ever gotten for a headscarf into his cash box, and we turned away from each other relatively pleased.

Back in my hotel room, I experimented with the scarf. Let it hang, and I summoned my childhood image of the Virgin Mary. Wrap it loosely and the scarf gave me a Benazir Bhutto-like glamour. Bad girl of the East. You wanna mess with me, Indira? But, ugh, when I fixed it properly, hiding every hair and inch of neck, a pallid moon face gaped at me from the mirror, all fat cheeks and mannish nose. I guess that’s the point: Don’t show off.

***

The hotel clerk glanced up just as I reached the bottom step into the lobby.

“Çok Güzel!” he exclaimed. “Very Beautiful! “Çok çok güzel! Dis is so nice.”

“It’s okay?”

“Yes. Much so better. Çok güzel. You want çay [tea]? No? Okay. Have good afternoon.”

This from the guy who’d acknowledged me only with silent sneers since I’d arrived.

I took off for the Cave of Abraham, the prophet’s possible birthplace, still slightly self-conscious, but with a straighter spine, a stronger chin, a poise of the sort I thought only retired ballet dancers possessed. A new steadiness cauterized my constant, clumsy embarrassment and flushed through my veins whenever I passed another person without attracting attention. By the time I reached the sacred carp pond about ten minutes later, I felt the oddest sensation of freedom, as if I was both naked and invisible. Sisterly affection for my fellow covered women swirled within the fortress of my Land’s End parka.

***

That afternoon, the Cave of Abraham kept eluding me while I wandered past the palm trees and colonnades of the holy precinct, grinning like a stoned hippie. Truly, I had no idea where I was going. The signs all pointed in conflicting directions. Do pilgrims just feel their way? I worked up a sweat trudging up a minor mountain to what turned out to be a medieval citadel. The parka came off; the headscarf stayed on. Hours passed. I ran out of water. Darkness lurked on the horizon. A woman who looked about my age, thirty three, and a girl, young enough to leave her hair uncovered but with the hard, wary eyes and sharp cheekbones of an adult, caught up to me on the rocky, garbage-fringed path.

“Where are you from?” the girl said. “Are you lost?”

What did they want?

“No, I’m okay.”

“Come. We’ll show you.”

I don’t know why I agreed. Some need glinted in the woman’s expression. Would they hurt me? My gut said no. When I looked in the woman’s eyes, I felt instant kinship, and a mutual curiosity, as if we were two girls on the playground the first day of school, cautiously sounding each other out for a game of hopscotch. Just that morning, I wouldn’t have been able to look in her eyes. Reluctance to invade her privacy might have been the excuse, or maybe my own fear of rejection as an outsider. It finally dawned on me that the barrier was my own inability to see past her headscarf and the provincial boundaries of my Western assumptions. Until I put on a headscarf, she might have been just another shadow woman, either oppressed or disagreeably pious or both, one for whom I could feel sympathy, but not one whose eyes reflected my own.

The girl took my hand. Hers felt dry, like lunch-bag paper. Her fingers were long and strong. How could a girl so young have such old hands and eyes? With her shiny brown hair in that messy ponytail, she couldn’t be more than thirteen. Could she be the woman’s daughter? The thought made me shiver. Although I’d met Kurdish women who had married and borne their first children before they turned sixteen, they’d all been older than I, or at least seemed older. Hard lives age you quickly. Maybe this slim woman, whose heavy skirts and high-heeled pumps didn’t slow her stride, was much younger than she looked.

She and the girl took the hill with sure footfalls. Like billy goats, my father would say.

We were walking in the direction opposite the sacred precinct and my hotel. What happened to the Cave of Abraham? How far had we walked? I could barely see the other hill, where my hotel hid in an unnamed alley. I stumbled on loose stones. “Come, come,” the girl said. She tugged urgently at my hand, and I complied. What was I going to do? Run screaming from a woman and a teenage girl who’d done nothing to me? Where the hell would I go? We entered a dark section of the city I didn’t know existed, and even if I did, would probably never have entered on my own. The broken-cobble streets twisted up the hill, colliding and disappearing into one another. Metal doors punctured endless limestone walls that concealed the households behind them. These were the households I’d been so reluctant to invade with my western, possibly offensive curiosity. The women who spent so much of their lives behind those walls were my reporter’s prey, the ones I’d been too timid to approach over the past three weeks. Even when introduced to them, questions about their lives, their educations, their daughters died on my tongue. I worried they would think I was judging them. I worried they would judge me, reject me. And their private business, when you get down to it, was really none of mine.

We stopped abruptly at a turquoise door. The woman banged on it hard, shouting. A boy’s voice answered. She shouted again. This time her scolding lilt magically unbolted the door from the inside. A little boy peered around the edge just as a half-dead soccer ball thudded off his shoulder.

“We are here,” the girl said to me.

“Where?”

“Our home. Come. Drink çay.”

Incredible. Three weeks of professionally crippling shyness and all I had to do was put on a scarf.

A blur of toddlers and longer-limbed kids zigzagged around the courtyard. The girl, the woman, and I washed our hands at an outdoor sink with soap and frigid water and shook them dry, scaring the cats that had already skulked over for a sniff. Doors and windows surrounded the courtyard. We walked through one of the doors, stepping out of our shoes before crossing the threshold. Within, a diorama of domesticity enveloped us. A little dazzled, I paused. Thick carpets blanketed the floor. Drapes embroidered with gold flowed over the walls. A wood-burning stove vibrated in its own warmth, its proximity to so many textiles causing no alarm. The only furniture was a giant bookshelf that dominated the front wall, crammed with photos and dolls and boxes, and a twenty-inch TV. Sitting cross-legged near the stove, one woman crocheted lace. Another, leaning against pillows, braided a pre-teen’s hair. And a third, on a prayer rug in the corner, kneeled and stood and bowed and put her hands to her mouth and forehead and bowed again in the postures of her afternoon devotions. I’d never seen a woman pray like that before.

“Hosgeldiniz.” Welcome, said the woman with the toddler. The crocheting woman nodded. They beckoned me closer.

We sat and stared at each other, smiling and nodding. Only the girl spoke English. I spoke no useful Kurdish, and really, not nearly enough Turkish.

“We are glad you are here,” the girl translated for one of the women. “Do you like Urfa?”

“Yes, Sanliurfa is beautiful,” I said in Turkish.

“Yes, it is very beautiful,” came the translated English reply. “Do you like Turkey?”

“Yes, I love it here.”

After a good ten minutes of this, the woman in the corner finished up her prayers, folded her prayer rug and held up her gilded Koran for me to see.

“God is good,” she said in Turkish. She looked just like the sexy Greek film star Melina Mercouri. “Hosgeldiniz.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

The women began talking heatedly in Kurdish. One shouted out the door. A moment later, a boy about nine years old flapped his body flat over the threshold, keeping his shod feet obediently outdoors. More talk and a little pointing at me ensued. Presently he brought wood to fill the stove, and one of the women prepared tea.

They showed me the lace the Melina Mercouri look-alike was so talented at making. They asked me if I was married, and when I said, yes, they all giggled and asked if I had babies. When I said no, they said, Inshallah. Don’t worry, you will.

The girl with the wary eyes showed me her English textbook, which featured James and Anna, two blond, blazer-wearing British children who liked crisps and cinema. She told me she was fourteen. I learned that she and the woman from the hill were niece and aunt, that the woman was married to the brother of the girl’s mother (a much-older woman who showed up during the third glass of tea), and had a baby in a cradle by the wall who’d been so quiet I hadn’t even noticed him. Indeed, the women were all related to each other by blood or marriage, and they all lived with their children in the rooms around the courtyard. But this golden womb where we sat glowing at each other, where a chubby gap-toothed three-year-old girl was trying to massage my calf with her tiny fingers, looking up at me with wide eyes to see if I liked it, this was the family hub.

I don’t know how many children wandered in and out. Maybe nine? Twelve? Mostly the boys stayed outside with the soccer ball and their shouts. The little girls surrounded me. They wanted to cuddle up next to me, braid my hair, read my reporter’s notebook, play with my wedding ring.

“All our girls go to school,” said Melina Mercouri. She nodded seriously and puffed up her chest. “It is expensive. But I say that they must go.”

Had the mothers attended school? Could they all read? Loath to bring up anything that might cause embarrassment and already stumbling over the language barrier, I didn’t ask.

The older woman made dinner, a special meal in my honor, ground raw sheep’s meat that we ate with bulgur, bitter herbs, and bread. Tonight, I thought, sipping yogurt thinned with well water, may be the night my stomach finally rebels.

No men joined us. The women’s husbands worked hundreds of miles away in quarries and factories, coming home just once every few weeks.

I offered my cell phone. The woman from the hill got through to her husband, and they talked for a few minutes, maybe five. I couldn’t understand their conversation. What’s “The baby’s fine. Are you sleeping all right? I miss you.” in Kurdish? When she said goodbye to her husband and hung up, she cried, just as I had done every day for the past three weeks.

The details of our daily existence couldn’t have been more different. These women lived in a compound crowded with relatives and no privacy, in a community where education is the exception, marriage comes before you’re nineteen, and a family’s monthly income would barely pay for one night at my budget hotel. On the hillside that afternoon, the curiosity I saw in the woman’s eyes mirrored my own. Traveling alone so far from home, going to university, focusing on a career before having children, these aspects of my life were as unfathomable and exotic to her and her sisters-in-law as their lives were to me.

Could she possibly have wanted the younger girls to spend time with me, to see something of life outside the compound? Maybe, maybe not. Breaking with tradition, while intoxicating in theory, often levies heavy taxes of heartache and worse. And beneath our different wrappers, our desires were the same: a healthy family, to love and be loved by those we love. Security, in whatever form we imagine it.

It was late. I had to get back to my hotel.

The women erupted in protest.

“No!” the girl said. “You can’t go to a hotel. You must sleep here. We will take care of you.” A better reporter might have stayed the night. It was all too rich, though. Their affection and attention, some lizard part of my brain warned, might suffocate me. And if I stayed, I knew I would pry, tainting the innocence of the day.
I couldn’t stay.

Eventually, a few of the sons walked me back to my hotel, a solid half-hour hike completed in total silence. They handed me off to the desk clerk, who seemed to know them, and disappeared into the unlit streets of the ancient city.

***

A dam burst that golden night. The reluctance to talk to women I didn’t yet know, to ask questions about their lives — to do my job — vanished. In the weeks that followed, the reporter’s zeal surged back. The attitude change, secured by the headscarf, somehow drew people to me. I couldn’t walk down the street without a woman approaching to invite me home. My formerly visible braid would have intimidated some, I found, as much as their hijabs had daunted me. In Turkey’s poor southeast, a scarf can weigh far more than the few ounces a scale might measure. Woven into the fibers of a veil or the plaits of a braid were all the politics of religion and gender that defined and divided our lives.

Now home in Washington, D.C., I think of the woman from the hillside and her family almost every day, particularly in winter. Digging through the tangle of our hats and scarves, my fingertips inevitably find the scratchy voile of the pale blue scarf with the white embroidery. I never wrote a news story about them, and I still don’t know their full names. When I asked them to write their names and address in my notebook so I could send them pictures, they would write only Sanliurfa, and the names of their husbands.