Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Electricity came to Akcil six weeks before I did. There is only one way to reach the village — the hard way, by the road north to the precipitous edge of Turkey, and that is the road the new power line and I both took.
Actually, once it leaves the northeastern plateau’s rough villages and rich checkerboard fields dotted with haystacks about ten miles from the Russian border, it abandons all pretense of being a road and wanes to a slender, ancient path etched into the mountain face for the benefit of horsemen and hay carts. This solitary whorl dips, loops, wraps around the mountains like a tentacle, rises and crests on a round hillock, then dips down again to the edge of a cliff. Here the path and Anatolia end abruptly. Crowding the precipice in immense solitude lies Akcil, the last village in Turkey, 1,000 miles from Istanbul, fifty feet from the stone bluffs of Georgia.
The electrical transformers now in place seem as congruent with the land as a pizza parlor would be. They are the only evidence that the modern revolution proclaimed by Ataturk sixty years ago intends to reach this remoteness. It may be years before this late sign of recognition by the world beyond is followed by another. Akcil is an Iron Age settlement once removed. It emanates from the rock and shares its roughness. It has no connection with modern events or thinking. Its people live in stone huts of the approximate comfort of chicken coops; a thousand years have not changed the way they marshal their animals and haggle with the soil.
Their ancestors chose self-banishment on this treeless saddle of rock because it was easier to leave the mass of mankind than to fight it. Akcil has entered a costly bargain with nature, renewed and ratified daily: it endures earthquakes, snow, and wolves in return for limitless isolation. It accepts the world’s indifference and returns it.
The only constant witnesses to this life apart are Soviet sentries in guardposts spaced at half-mile intervals high above on the opposite cliff. What they do not know of the village happens only behind walls. It struck me, as I watched the villagers in the morning, that even their most intimate actions are not entirely private. There is only one outhouse, and people prefer to use the declivity below the village that slants down to the stream dividing the two countries. Each morning they slog through muddy streets to the hillside, carrying wash water in a pewter jug — Turks use their left hand in lieu of toilet paper — greeting neighbors similarly bound. In this vast rain-cleansed space 9,000 feet high, they are observed only by God and the KGB.
Akcil adheres to no dictates except those imposed by earth and sky. Its knowledge is limited to what the terrain has taught it. It seeks no more than it needs. People there have almost no money — only what they earn by selling grain, a few animals and an occasional carpet — but they live on mud and manure. Their lip of land has black soil and spring water, and that is enough.
Even their houses seem to grow out of the dirt. An assembly of field stones coaxed into rough walls, surmounted by beams and a layer of earth, may serve as den for ten people and twenty animals crowded into two small rooms. The kitchen, a dark sliver of corridor, has a stone hearth and a hole in the ceiling through which smoke escapes. These are the only buildings in Akcil, aside from the school. The village has no mosque, no shops, no meeting hall, and no central square. Rain turns its streets to muck and intersections occur willy-nilly. Geese are the most frequent pedestrians.
A horse carried me to the rim of Anatolia a year ago because no motor vehicle travels that far, save one truck which lumbers up once a week in good weather to take away hay and passengers. In Kars, a frontier city in the foothills where sheep clog the streets and the air roils with dust and the shouts of sweaty men, a traveler from Istanbul approached me. He was quick to speak, as many Turks are, especially if they know a few words of another language, often even if they do not. In French, Timur asked me to accompany him to Akcil, his boyhood home, which he had not visited in two years.
And so we journeyed in a small van through mountains the color of singed brick, mounting horses when the road became too rough. In one village, silhouetted against the dusk, a muezzin standing on a low roof brayed a guttural call to prayer above our heads as we passed. Night and temperature fell: it was cold when we arrived at a collection of cottages cowering beneath black buttresses of rock. Street lamps made no great dent in the darkness. We dismounted and entered his parents’ crowded hut. Family and neighbors squatted on carpets to await Timur’s arrival: squinting old men with faces like wrinkled burlap, women in torn robes and leonine headdresses, girls pouring tea. They watched us eat, remarking from time to time on the lone dangling lightbulb burning in place of banished oil lamps. Smoke and talk congested the room. When they had gone and pallets were spread on the floor, I felt the silence of the mountains engulf me and I fell asleep.
In the days that followed, Timur and I took long walks in the hills, down to the stream that cuts a cleft through them, across fields smelling of thyme and mint. In boyhood he knew them intimately from days spent exploring on horseback. “I thought I was a king then,” said Timur, whose name means “iron.” He would live by the scythe today had he not had a chance, in his late teens, to move to Istanbul to live with an uncle. He attended school there and in time, harboring notions of a well-paid life abroad, ventured to Switzerland to study. Finding the Swiss cold and unfriendly, he retreated back to Turkey and is now a hospital official in Istanbul. He has a salary, a car, an apartment, a family. City life pleases him and never again, he told me, could he submit to the seasons as his parents do, in Akcil.
There I was regarded as an emissary of an unfathomable breed of humanity. On my first walk I was encircled by a large gaping crowd whispering “American.” I made liberal use of my two-word Turkish vocabulary — merhaba (hello) and guzel (nice) — and was rewarded with a panoply of smiles. Though we could not talk, they accepted me completely, without question. As I walked about the village in successive days, I grew accustomed to the feel of a hand on my arm, to a fistful of plums being thrust into my hands by smiling old men with the words, “Selam aleykum” (God be with you).
Hospitality is a matter of honor among Turks. A guest is accorded the utmost of what modest resources a host has. Thus I became something like the seventieth member of Timur’s family, which included his parents, grandfather, cousin, widowed sister and her two children, eighteen sheep, nine cows, and multitudes of fowl. Animals are treated as well as any other family member until consigned to a stew. Each day, after the sheep return from the fields, Timur’s mother spreads salt on the floor for them as a treat. I received similar kindness, though of a different nature: I sat with the rest of the men while the women and girls served us.
One day Timur and I returned to the village as the communal cattle drive clattered in from the fields. Young girls flitted behind the huge animals like butterflies, steering them with switches. After directing each cow to its household, they turned back along the path to scoop up the steaming droppings. These they kneaded like mounds of fresh dough and set the bricks out to dry. Wood is scarce and the dried chips not only keep livestock fenced in Summer, but also are burned for fuel in Winter. That is how Akcil lives.
There is a febrile intensity to life on the precipice — an urgency required to survive this life of detachment, a need to embrace the Summer. People are in constant motion to gather food and fuel: shirtless boys and their fathers fork tufts of hay into golden mounds; women hunch over pails to milk goats and cattle; girls strain under the weight of water buckets dangling from poles across their shoulders; small children usher geese and sheep to the fields. Even infants are put to work as ballast for ox-drawn sleds threshing grain.
That is a child’s introduction to his life’s occupation. Seventy or eighty years and many scythe swings later, if he is male, he stops working and joins the other old men seated on manure stacks to watch and wave at everyone else. Sometimes, as the rest of the village leaves for the fields, he climbs a ladder to his earthen roof to stroll back and forth among the weeds smoking a pipe in solitude. But the women work until overcome by infirmity or death.
There is plenty to do and plenty to eat between June and October. But Winter is a manacle. Six-foot snowdrifts lock people indoors, huddled long days by the fire drinking tea, while their precious store of manure blocks shrinks. Wolves circle in from the mountains to threaten the animals. The farmers need time to rest after the long harvesting season, but they haven’t enough food to build body fat. Most of them are thin. For their hunger in Winter they have only bread, potatoes, onions, what fruit they can store, and occasionally meat, but there is no cheese and no milk for children because the animals give none. For the interminable boredom there is no anodyne: one can discuss a new light bulb only so often. When they emerge dazed and gaunt in Spring to a hungover landscape, cheer and food are all but played out.
One man in Akcil was said to have survived one hundred and ten such Winters. In nearby Georgia, of course, centenarians are common. A baby has a good chance of living to old age if it survives childhood. But one in ten dies before it is a year old. In this sequestered village there can be no question of good medical care or hygiene: regiments of flies blacken animal droppings in the street and then reconvene on one’s plate. Each cut from a rusty blade brings a high risk of infection. The nearest doctor is two hours away by motor vehicle — when there is one — and the nearest hospital is five hours distant. Often a patient cannot be transported down the mountain passes in time and dies en route. The Turkish government is trying to improve medical care by requiring young doctors to serve two years in remote Eastern regions, but medicine has a hard time competing with geography.
I spent a week in Akcil. On my final day there, I accompanied a group of peasants to the fruit orchards in a hollow down by the river. The only cluster of trees within miles, this green copse appears suddenly to soften the terrain’s rough nakedness. There, my friends tilled the morning away in the garden patches, then, discarding their tools, sprawled out in the shade to rest. The spectre of Winter disappeared; all urgency vanished in the afternoon warmth. It was simply time to relax. Children cavorted in the glade, victimizing me with pranks. One fellow stationed himself in an immense pear tree to take target practice on my head as I gathered pears. Women lit a fire and prepared food, we ate and lolled the afternoon by. The hoes lay idle.
That evening they killed a lamb for a feast of stew and velvety yogurt. With Winter close at hand, there would be only seventeen sheep, but guests must be treated with dignity. I left Akcil at dawn aboard a load of hay truck-bound for town. Gray light crept over the mountains; a feather duster of nose-wrinkling dung smoke spanned the village. My fellow passengers, unshaven and clutching cakes of flat bread, tumbled in disorder around me with suitcases and alarmed sheep destined for market. As the truck snorted away, street lamps blinked off to honor the day.