Sunday, August 28, 2011

The New Old Country

I'm not the first person to travel back to my 老家, or ancestral homeland - from any land to any other. "Roots" tourism is a well-established industry (in fact, it's practically its own business model in China). Ever since people have been immigrating, moving or simply forced to leave their homelands, they or their descendants been trying to find ways to return, even if just to poke around the place a bit. That's basically what I'm doing right now.

We arrived in Antioch (Hatay) yesterday after a long and improperly air-conditioned bus ride from Sanliurfa - I am hoping to blog about my experiences earlier in our trip after this one. As I have mentioned numerous times, on my mother's side I am Armenian from Turkey - Musa Dagh in Hatay to be precise. Before 1915, they were living in Bitias, a village on the slopes of Musa Dagh - one of the eight ethnic Armenian villages that once graced its slopes among farms and orange trees.

My great grandparents fled Turkey in the wake of the Armenian genocide, but not until after my great grandfather spent time as a freedom fighter for the resistance, escaping death by hiding in an olive barrel, and my great grandmother's family fled only to end up in Izmir (Smyrna) where Turkish forces and the Great Fire of 1922 - almost certainly set on orders of Kemal Ataturk - claimed many fatalities. They fled to Greece, where their three children, including my grandfather, were born. As World War II rolled in they fled once again for the USA and settled near Troy, New York. My grandfather married and had five children, the oldest of which is my mother.

So here I am, not quite 100 years later, back in Antioch - not only a historic city in its own right but also the nearest decent-sized town with accommodation options to Musa Dagh. One hundred years and I made it back to the Old Country. I may not be the first person to return to an ancestral homeland, and I won't be the last, but I'm the first in my generation to go - I don't believe anyone in my mother's generation has returned either, but I could be wrong. It's a pretty big generation, including many distant cousins I've never met.

I have to say this: when one returns to The Old Country, one expects to see, old country. Don't get me wrong - Turkey's quite old, possibly the oldest settled, civilized place there is and boasts approximately one butt-ton of ancient stuff. I mean that one expects this ideal vision of what an "ancestral homeland" should be: whitewashed buildings, donkey carts, women in headscarves, an exotic bazaar.

One certainly does not expect to start rolling into town over a mountain range, as one does to enter Hatay, and see a shiny modern wind farm spread out across the peaks and ridges.

One does not expect, regardless of what the guidebook noted, a cosmopolitan downtown full of smart cafes with HDTV and Turkish techno-pop, WiFi everywhere, upscale restaurants with pleasant outdoor seating, bars that welcome women (a rarity in much of Turkey besides the party towns of the Mediterranean and larger cities), women in skinny jeans and halter tops yakking on cell phones and people generally more smartly dressed than you - you scuzzy traveler, living in rumpled t-shirts from a backpack for weeks on end.

I know I'm not the only one to feel this way: I've had at least one acquaintance in Taiwan tell me that somewhere in the back of his head was lurking this idea that his ancestral home in China was still this stone-house, chickens-in-the-courtyard, ancient-temple and peak-roofed paradise in rural farming country. When he got there and found a mid-sized town of dingy tile and concrete buildings, snarled traffic and paved-over boxiness, he admitted a touch of disappointment.

I've had Indian friends note the same thing: their parents left when their towns were, well, quaint, with goatherders in white lungis and women in saris and vendors that crisscrossed the neighborhood with carts of goods, and toilets that required hand-flushing. A lot of that is still there - the goats certainly haven't gone anywhere - but children return and are shocked to see women in pants (still a rarity in non-urban India but becoming more common), flat-screen TVs, Western toilets and everyone with an iPhone.

As we walked through pleasant evening breezes down the bustling nightlife of downtown Hatay - a thoroughly pleasant city with the exception of the stinky Orontes river - music flowing from cafes, locals on laptops, lights playing off pedestrian walkways, I thought to myself Nana would not recognize this.

Of course, I should have known that the Hatay of 1915 would look nothing like the Hatay of 2011. It was, on an intellectual level, abundantly clear. It's just that the reality - which is exactly what one should have expected (other than, perhaps, the fact that such a small city is so cosmopolitan - usually mid-size towns in countries like Turkey are a bit tatty at the edges. Not Antioch) - was not what my mind associated with "The Old Country".

We still haven't tackled Musa Dagh - we were far too tired today, Brendan has a very angry digestive tract and public transportation out there is unreliable at best. We're planning to go tomorrow and visit Vakifli, the last remaining ethnic Armenian village on Musa Dagh. We don't imagine that there is anything left of Bitias to see, but I personally am hoping to at least do a little rural walking or hiking on the mountain.

Today, we went to the bazaar and the museum (and a few of those smart cafes). I have to say that - hometown pride notwithstanding - Antioch's bazaar is my favorite. Goreme didn't have one (instead it had streets packed up and down with souvenir shops). Gaziantep had a great one full of coppersmiths and huge plastic tubs of fresh paprika and cayenne powder, but an entire chunk of it was given over to a tourist bazaar in one of the restored caravanserais and I never did feel entirely good about buying anything there (for the record I do think the "tourist bazaar" was just as much for the domestic tourists looking for high-end gifts). I will say that Tahmis Kahvesi, a coffeeshop in the heart of Gaziantep's bazaar, was one of my favorite kick-back spots in Turkey. Sanliurfa's is exotic and huge, but I feel in some ways it banks on its reputation as such and is given over to kitschy tourist shopping - although, again, much of that is for domestic tourists. We did buy four silk scarves - two for me, two for gifts.

Antioch's bazaar is distinctly non-touristy. We wandered it for hours, got a little lost, and found alley upon alley of things that actual locals who live their lives and need stuff would want: household goods, decorative items, clothing, spices, jewelry, food. I saw exactly one shop selling souvenir-type goods which seemed popular with Turkish schoolgirls. It was very much an Everyman's Bazaar and I love it for that.

I bought some amazing smelling olive oil soap and a set for Turkish coffee (which the Turks do drink, just not to the great extent that they drink tea) - the kind a local might buy if they had a desire for coffee.

What I love generally about the bazaars in Turkey, and especially about Antioch, is that the snaking alleys and backways of shops are set around ornate - or sometimes half-hidden - entrances to mosques you would never guess were there, ancient bathhouses and crumbling caravanserais. You get the sense that these shopping streets have had the same function for millenia, or at least as long as it takes to build a caravanserai, have it be used and have it crumble. As you walk through, much of it is shaded, which is the only way you can possibly shop during the heat of the day. You round a turn and - here's what I really love - you see an old caravanserai entrance, so you poke your head in and more often than not you come upon a courtyard of locals relaxing or even a tea garden. We found one today shaded by trees rustling nicely in the breeze, set among a water station where people were washing their feet and hands, and a cage full of exotic birds. Needing a break from the packed bazaar alleys - it's "Ramazan Bayrami shopping season" (people seem to do a lot of shopping as Ramadan ends, not too unlike Christmas shopping in terms of the sheer crowds and sales volume) - we breathed a collective sigh of relief as we found this little paradise tucked away right in the middle of the bazaar, and downed several glasses of tea while I wrote postcards and Brendan worked his way through a book. Sure beats a food court at the mall.

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