Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Of a strained and outer edge of Turkey

I haven't been to Ani for more than twenty five years now, but when I did go it had only recently been opened to visitors with cameras. A few months earlier, as we had heard from some friends who had gone there before the Berlin Wall came down, you could walk through the grass and the ruins, and even look out very briefly (if you dared) over the river towards the isolated Soviet military towers on the hills beyond. But you couldn't take photographs of anything you saw -- whether of the hills across the river or of the stones in the abandoned city -- because of the likelihood of being shot at by border guards. Of course, I took lots of photographs when I went there -- or at least as many as I thought I could afford to take, given the cost of film to such parsimonious travellers as we were then. And yet even so -- despite the sense that I had, at the time, of the ruins and the river and the hills and the stones being somehow camera virgins -- and hence abundantly fresh to this sort of gaze -- I can see now that this freshness hasn't dissipated -- that there is nothing in terms of freshness that differentiates my much earlier and but otherwise undistinguished photographs from the bleakly beautiful images in Francis Alÿs's 2015 film, The Silence of Ani. The haunted gap that is Ani, and lies between what Ani had been once and might yet still be, seems very much the same.

In Alÿs's film, we learn that probably local, and very much private or privileged -- that is, Özel -- school children -- children with noticeably Turkish-sounding names, like Ayşegül and Gürkhan and Turğçe -- had been invited to participate in a work that attempts to bring some sort of life to the once thriving city that was abandoned after repeated invasions in the eleventh century by Seljuk warriors from the east. Some minutes into the film, the eerie stirring of wind in the tree-less hills is interrupted by the intermittent sounds of what could be the calls of isolated birds, but which turn out to be the curiously hollow notes of whistles, played by those Turkish teenagers, in imitation of the birds that are no longer there. As I continued to watch this film, I couldn't help thinking of some very different teenagers that I had once seen among those ruins -- jumping over the boulders and hiding in the grass, just as the kids in the film were doing -- even though those earlier kids weren't ethnically Turkish -- and hardly Özel -- school-going teenagers -- but rather colourfully, if shabbily dressed, Kurds whose main interest had been cadging a few coins from us or any other foreigner. And, for some reason, this small note of difference between the film and my memories disturbed me. Where were the Kurdish children now? Did they no longer hang around so hopefully in this ghost town? And I began to remember how confusing both the identity and feel of Ani had been even then, at the turn of the last decade of the twentieth century: for instance, how, at the gates of the site, the official signs had described the place as a ruin of a Turkish rather than an Armenian city, as if the clearly church-like buildings that we could see had somehow been built by the Seljuk themselves. And I remembered how this sort of Turkifying signage had been visible here and there throughout the whole of the east of Turkey, at least wherever any remnants of the distinctly reddish-bricked ruins of ancient Armenian buildings could be found nestled among the long grasses of the yayla, or high plateau.

Kars, the city that is closest to the ruins -- and from which most expeditions to Ani begin -- was a city, then, that closed early under curfew. It was a city, too, where my partner and I were categorically refused accommodation together in the Teachers' House because we did not have what was then known as a marriage passport even though we had been legally married for years; a city where, the instant we had stepped out with some new acquaintances from the bus that had brought us there from the garrison town of Van, we were dispersed by the terrifyingly hoarse cries of a man who was chasing another with a foot-long butcher's knife through the crowds. This was a city where my partner and I bargained in a basement with what felt, at the time, to be our scrawny-necked lives and for what might have looked, to anyone else, to be little more than a dull bit of rug that had been woven, merely, from the differing natural tones of wool from the local sheep -- a bargaining event that ended, surprisingly, with a cheer; a city whose taut and muffled ambiance accompanies a memory of being wordlessly dragged away from my partner as we emerged from buying nuts and fruit in a tiny shop -- after the curfew, as we later discovered. This subdued ambiance is what Orhan Pamuk presses carefully -- from the perspective of the exiled Turkish loner, Ka -- into the darkened corners of an evocation, in his novel Kar or Snow, of a strained and outer edge of Turkey; a feeling or state that elsewhere he calls hüzün. In what other way, he seems to be asking in Snow, can anyone possibly even begin to make sense of a place like this if not through a protagonist who, himself, is a little alien, and who continues to stumble around among the many differing claims and contradictions of this part of the world, most of the time confused?

From this perspective, I can see that when these several Özel school-aged Turkish "bird" callers participate in a film about Ani and its lost liveliness -- a film that is leached of any distinguishing colours -- leached, therefore, of any problematic colours -- they stand in, in fact, for so much more than a few once-citified birds.