Walking Through a Land of Fear

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 124-126:

The muhtar who takes me in, Talat Tekine, is kafka (Caucasian), as is the entire population here. He tells me that their ancestors arrived in 1874. There isn’t a single Turk in the entire village, and the inhabitants only speak Caucasian. But no one knows how to write in that language, since only Turkish is taught in school. The two other Caucasian villages that I later go through give me the same impression: there is a strong and self-sufficient sense of community, like little Anatolian kolkhozes. People are mentioning terrorists again. And although I take these warnings seriously, I can’t help but notice with a little amusement that the “terrorists” are always other people. At Tokat, where I’d been forewarned that they were everywhere, people said that there weren’t any. The imam at Çıftlik said they were somewhere around Kızık. In Kızık, they said I’d find them in the vicinity of Altınoluk and Çırçır. Now that I’m there, they tell me that they’re mostly near Tokat [a formerly Armenian Christian city]. We’ve come full circle. Still, it’s a warning not to be taken lightly. Garrisoned in this backwater village is a detachment of jandarmas, tasked with fighting terrorism, and their presence here is certainly no coincidence.

The first village I have to traverse is called Akören. As I approach, I see a man step out of the first house. He spots me, goes back inside, and comes promptly back out with what, from a distance, looks like a stick. As I pass him by—he’s in a squatting position, ready to jump me—I notice that the stick is a rifle. The man looks at me with hostile, stern eyes. Panic paralyzes me, and, for a moment, I’m afraid that my knees might give out. Despite the fear gripping me, I muster the courage to hail him with a sonorous and affable “hello,” but unfazed and stubborn, he says nothing. I continue on at a pace that’s as neutral and light as possible, as if my inexistence might ward off the volley of lead the scoundrel intended for my backside.

A little farther along, on the village square, two old men who had seen me coming look away as I draw near. The young whippersnapper washing up at the fountain points the road to the next village when I ask him about it, without even turning around. Once again, I’m stricken with fear. A diffuse sense of fear that makes my heart beat faster. I’ve heard about “terrorists” for a long time; perhaps now I’m in their midst? The day before yesterday, Mustafa, Kızık’s mayor, told me, “There are some in Altınoluk.” That’s one of my next destinations. The three men, like the man wielding a “stick” a short while ago, are uneasy. They’re not hostile; they’re simply paralyzed by fear. It’s not the same fear that seized me when I saw the rifle and that, in a flash, drained me of my energy. No, the fear they feel is permanent, it’s something they live with. It dictates their every move. I also noticed that not one of the few vehicles that passed me on the road, cars or tractors, stopped to offer a ride. Fear trumps curiosity. And workers in the fields no longer wave to invite me over for tea, as they often did before Tokat. I’ve entered the land of fear.

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Filed under Caucasus, language, military, nationalism, religion, travel, Turkey

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