ROCKING THE CRADLE OF CIVILIZATION: Drawing on The Hasankeyf Train

LITTLE GIRL DRUM

Little Girl Drum
Little Girl Drum ©2007 – Trici Venola.
Flock of Sheep
Bright Face in Batman

Although the very Minister of Transportation had been involved with this journey, the train was all-day late. The railroad town of Batman, adjacent to Hasankeyf, waited seven hours in the thick heat to welcome us with brass bands, banners, crowds of shouting children, and the mayor himself passing out red carnations to every woman on the train.

In the fierce heat I wore a small black shirt, a huge black hat and shades. Where are you from? The little boys screamed in Turkish. I was never so glad to be from Los Angeles, because it is so far away. And because of the movies everyone knows what it is. So I screamed back, Merhaba from Los Angeles, Hollywood, California, USA!! The head of the brass band put down his trumpet, stuck out his hand and said ON BEHALF OF THE CITY OF BATMAN WELCOME, and gave me two red carnations.

Arrival in Batman

The kids made us cry, singing and wringing our hands. Little boys pressed sweaty wads of salted watermelon seeds into our hands and kissed them.  Little girls in tribal dress banged huge tambourines. I thought of them out there in the searing sun all day, dressed up and waiting. We were hustled into buses and half an hour later we were winding through Mesopotamia when the bus slammed to a stop and there it was, Hasankeyf, the fantasy in the late afternoon sun.

DINING IN THE TIGRIS Buket and I wandered as much as possible in the time before sunset. I drew our grave, kind, fifteen-year-old guide, Erkan. His portrait has hung on my wall ever since.

Three young men, students from Izmir, held still on the edge of the castle for portraits, staring down into the vista of caves and lantern light. “We read Atlas,” they said, “and so we travel Turkey this summer and learn our history.”

 Buket and I climbed down the slippery stones from the top of the Byzantine clifftop castle to dinner on the beach below. Dinner was river trout barbecued and served at tables set up in the shallows. A jolly crowd sat at a tilting table with our feet in the Tigris, eating the fish caught in the river and throwing the bones back in to repay the river. Girls in trailing headresses waded out into the rushing water, legs glowing in the gloom.

We were going to sleep on railed platforms set up in the river. I hiked across the rocky beach toward the vast sheer cliff with the zigzag staircase and the castle on top, to use the pay restroom set up in a cave and manned all night by two hardy kids, when I saw…

OPEN SESAME

The cliff shone pale in the moonlight, impossibly high and huge, like something from another planet, like something glimpsed near sleep. Near the bottom of the zigzag staircase was a huge natural arched entrance all lit up and hung with tapestries.

I peeked in: a vast multistoried cavern fitted out for lounging. Reaching all up inside the cliff, natural stone passageways and staircases and wooden platforms covered with cushions and little tables, halogen lamps hanging here and there showing the top of the cave high above and the water sluicing down the far wall from the natural cistern. They called it Transpassers’ Cave. Hmph. It’s Ali Baba’s cave from Arabian Nights– Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

I ran and got Buket and we slept there, along with a litter of flea-free month-old kittens, up on the second platform high above a slumbering company from the train.

I hoped to dream of Ali Baba or to channel the ancients, but all I heard was Celine Dion on the sound system until they shut it off around dawn. No matter! Stiff from sleeping doubled up on the train, I sprawled in bliss on the cushions. Hasankeyf’s altitude prevents fleas and mosquitos and other pests. A night to cherish, and in the morning they only let us pay for our breakfast.

THE FIGHT CLUB

Iz TV and Demonstrators
Iz TV and Demonstrators ©2007 Trici Venola.

These kids interviewed Buket and me for a show on Hasankeyf to run on Iz TV. In the background, three young guys and their grandmother held a sit-in.

Protest Tower Composite

I was there thanks to Celal Ogmen at Kalamar Restaurant in Kumkapi. My first year in Turkey, I designed Kalamar’s logo and drew pictures of the place while eating fish dinners. Never did I pay for one. The art has variously decorated the tablecloths, napkins, walls, brochures, ads, menus, business cards, waiters’ T-Shirts and the packet holding the refreshing towelette.

Celal and his throng of relative-employees are from Van, to the north of Hasankeyf. He originally wanted me to go and draw his birthplace, but found the protest train and sent me to Hasankeyf instead. During the IZ TV interview, I was able to give Kalamar Restaurant a well-deserved plug, in subtitles yet! This IZ TV Hasankeyf documentary was shown often. Total strangers would run up to me on the street and rave about the dam. 

From the Castle

Houses in Town

Hasankeyf is one of the most beloved places in Turkey. Covering it with water is considered sacrilege.Most people of Hasankeyf aren’t happy about losing the cave homes they’ve occupied for generations.

There’s a fatalism about  the town. Still, there were townsfolk protesting with us. Ozcan Yuksek, editor of Atlas, climbed up a radio tower and got a photo of all 374 of us cohorts standing around a huge sign: HANDS OFF HASANKEYF.

Hands Off Hasankeyf

Two guys sitting under a protest sign said in Turkish We will live under water if we have to. There are now scuba tours of the fabulous mosaics at Zeugma, the ancient trading port now covered by Turkey’s damming of the Euphrates years ago.

IMAGINE

Turkey wants to be one of the most visited places on earth. Right now it’s Number 7. The most visited place is France. Hm, I wonder why. Perhaps it’s the presence of exquisitely preserved cultural treasures–  Notre Dame!– and the absence of billboards, trash and Walmarts. People don’t cross oceans and continents to see what they can see at home. Sure, people shop. But cultural tourism combined with shopping is huge money, and it doesn’t destroy your cultural heritage, it preserves it. Turkey has absolutely unique places, important to the whole world, for Turkey is geographically and historically in the center.

Tree-Shaded House

Imagine six years later. Buket and I are still great friends.  Iz TV interviewed us both back in Hasankeyf,  and the show has been aired about a hundred times on public TV in Turkey. I know because delighted strangers stop me in the street and tell me. Hasankeyf seems to bring out the best in people.

Lon Chaney Sr 10
Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, 1923.

Trying not to think about Hasankeyf being flooded or ruined with bad promotion, I imagine Victor Hugo’s vexation about Notre Dame. It created Quasidmodo, gibbering in hideous rage on the tower as he pours molten lead on the mob hammering at Notre Dame’s doors, trying to get in and destroy the unique and exquisite Esmeralda. Snatching her from the moronic maw of the ravening mob, bearing her into the church, screaming Sanctuary! Sanctuary! That’s just how I feel: Lon Chaney as the fearsome Hunchback, and how I wish I was strong enough to ring his bell. Rage can make Quasimodos of us all, but he did save the church.

A Street in Town
Hay Piled Behind Barns


Now imagine Hasankeyf as the center of a cultural tourism Renaissance in the troubled Southeast of Turkey. Chronic upheaval makes for fascinating history, which can mean great tourism. Imagine a fine life for the poverty-flattened people of Hasankeyf, with government sanctioning of their town as a regular tourist destination, with UNESCO backing and with the kind of money that educated tourists are willing to spend to see something unique and irreplaceable.

Hasankeyf Blue

There’s that great big highway they’re building, there’s that great big bridge. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it led to a  better life for all. In situ. Just imagine! As they say in Hasankeyf, the rose is most beautiful on the branch.

Waving Kids

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All road drawings, spot illustrations and portraits Plein Air. All other drawings Plein Air with some augmentation from photos in places due to time constraints. All art, including most photos © Trici Venola. These drawings are part of the Drawing On Istanbul™ Series by Trici Venola, produced  with drafting pens on rag paper in sketchbook format. Large drawings are 18 cm X 52 cm.  Special thanks to John Crofoot, Buket Sahin. and to Celal Ogmen and the staff at Kalamar Restaurant in Kumkapi. We love their fish, and we love your comments. Thanks for reading.

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