Fatih Abi, Hilmi Abi and myself are drinking tea at the construction site for one of my projects. On my land alone there are over a hundred olive trees and if you set off in any direction over the rolling hills you would eventually come across hundreds of thousands. Turkey’s Aegean Sea area is filled with olive groves. We are two kilometers away from the village which is itself 17 kilometers up the road from the nearest town. And that modest but growing town, in case you’re wondering, is south of Izmir, Turkey.
The main house is nearly finished, the hybrid reciprocal/conical roof framing of The Mandala House completed, roofing done. Today we are just fine tuning the area behind the house, around the pool, to prepare it for decking.
The tea is hot and each of us drinks it with sugar. Hilmi and Fatih are talking about village related topics. Somebody named Ali Amca was killed by a tree that he was cutting. It’s a shame because he was still a strong man, not even middle age. I remark how life and death are so tangible in the village; you know everyone who is born and you know everyone who dies, not like in a larger town. There are loud speakers throughout the village to make the announcements of death and other pertinent issues. Another topic worth mentioning today is that the water main for the village was shut down again because they were replacing pipes underneath the concrete brick streets. Don’t drive through the village, drive around, below the cemetary, where Ali Amca will be buried today.
Though it is only late spring, I wonder if Fatih and Hilmi can understand how plentiful the olives will be this year by looking at the flowers. This will be a good year it seems; one year good, one year not so much and so it goes with the olives. As long as the disease that nearly wiped out Spains’ and much of Europe’s olive tree groves doesn’t make it out of that continent life in the village will be ok. Besides some grape vinyards here and there, olive oil is the bread and butter for most people around here.
I consider Fatih Abi a friend by the way. He’s helped me on this land since the beginning of this particular journey and though he’s older than me and takes way too many cigarette breaks, and therefore work isn’t what it could be, it’s always nice to have him around. Hilmi on the other hand I’ve just met a few times; like most people in the village, I see him around. He looks older than Fatih. His face more wrinkled and darkened from the sun. His eyes slant downwards towards his temples and he has almost a pleading look about him. He has a full head of greying hair and bushy brows below it. He’s not tall and he has a belly but after a long time of living in such places I’ve learned that beneath such facades the bone and muscle have done incredible amounts of physical work and are much more powerful than most of us.
Hilmi mentions a dog in the village that killed someone’s chicken – though seemingly normal it doesn’t happen often. If you are a dog in the village it serves your interests not to kill chickens after all. In fact, you would do well to do everything you can to protect the chickens and the other animals that are deemed valuable because you, in fact, are not. Unless you can look after the sheep and goats you may just find yourself tied up for the better part of your life. Years before, when I lived in Kabak Valley I was passing Asıl’s house on the way to the main road and noticing his perpetually tied dog I commented on it to him. He laughed and said it had been tied up for the last seven years.
This chicken-killing dog reminds Hilmi of another story, one that he seems particularly eager to direct to me. I understand that Fatih has already heard it. Hilmi Abi had a young dog, not quite a puppy, but apparently nearly big enough for one of his neighbors to suspect it of killing their chicken. Hilmi Abi was offended by this accusation and claimed that his dog would never kill a chicken. But alas, one day another chicken is killed and the neighbor once again brings it to Hilmi’s attention. Hilmi’s dog has been with him all day and therefore it’s impossible for his dog to have killed the chicken… Hilmi says he is too small to kill anything anyways.
Fatih Abi is listening silently to this story, holding a cigarette but not smoking it. He has a twisted smirk on his face hinting at something mysterious or even sinister to come. Which one it is I can hardly be expected to know at this point. He glances at me periodically. The ash on the end of his cigarette gets so long that it finally drops to the ground.
At this point we would do well to be honest with ourselves. We are only animals after all and isn’t it high time to admit this basic fact? Yet we also walk the tightrope to being human. Along this treacherous and extremely dangerous path it is certainly possible, most probable actually, that we all fall off at different points along the way rendering each of us, even in the most nuanced of ways, more ‘human’ than others. More civilized if you will. But don’t give yourself a pat on the back just yet because none of us will reach the end of that tightrope. It is impossible. Forget about a small village hidden in the hills above the crystal clear Aegean Sea of Turkey for a second and let’s close our eyes and imagine a linear scale of the primitivity of humanity, or conversely one where we are measured as being more, or less, socialized and civilized. All of us will end up inhabiting different points on this imaginary scale. Take for example, the apparent gentleman walking down the road, dressed in his nice suit but with his finger stuck up his nose and you will have an idea of what I’m talking about. And then we must ask ourselves; how did we get here? What factors of geography and history, the wealth and economy of any given nation, access to education, the remoteness or nearness of any given place, determine who we as individuals become? Our families (oh don’t get me started!) have either boosted us or ruined us. “Get that finger out of your nose, boy!” And if we truly explore the reasons, the whys and hows, then perhaps one day we may just give up on judging each other.
In the meantime, however…
Hilmi was fed up with his neighbor. He was frustrated and angry with him for making these accusations. What could he do to convince his neighbor that his dog was innocent? Sure, he could have done many things but the ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’ are so irrelevant when we get right down to it. None of us are Hilmi Abi and there was only one path afforded to him. There was one choice, at least for him. Outside in the shed his scythe hanged on a hook, it’s handle made from folding the metal into itself, with a long straight blade that at the very end suddenly turned nearly into a U. Chipped black from years of use but still incredibly sharp Hilmi grabbed it and went outside. He found his young pup and grabbed the skin below its head on the back of its neck. A young dog is used to being held this way… It’s almost comforting because this is how a mother would grab it and carry it. But Hilmi Abi was no mother. Holding the young dog on the ground with powerful arms that have worked outside their whole lives, Hilmi raised his scythe and with one full, smooth stroke chopped off the dog’s head. Leaving the mutilated body behind he carried the lifeless dog’s head to his neighbors house where he threw it into their front yard, yelling at his neighbor, “Now let’s see what kills your chickens!”. To its eternal gratitude from the afterlife, Hilmi’s little dog, barely out of its puppy years was proven innocent as it was eventually determined that it was another dog who was killing the neighbor’s chickens. Hilmi was right!
Fatih Abi remained silent. His eyes blinked too many times though and finally he took a drag off of his cigarrette. I kept a poker face refusing to allow anyone to understand that I was witnessing a man who was so far at one end of our scale that he would be unable to see for most of us. Men kill in the village all the time, but they kill to eat (while we in towns and cities let others do it for us). I would argue that the typical villager has more regard for animal life than that of somebody outside the village. Hilmi, however was obviously made of something different. Teatime was over. It was time to get back to work.