Music at dusk

Something else I need to get down in words before, as Herodotus would say, time draws the color from it. How many days ago was this? My camera claims it was on Aug 3rd, but it already seems so far away.

Han and Sila’s families arranged a bus tour up to Comakdag, a traditional Turkish mountain village north of Milas. Traditional except that, in a shrewd move to ensure their financial survival, they now give tours of the town once a week, and put on a mock traditional marriage ceremony in the town square, with the tour group being “guests of honor”.

Our group consisted of 20-odd people, mostly the Berkol-Kiliccote-Cohn clan, with a few assorted Belgians thrown in for variety. We arrived late afternoon and piled out on main street. Women were given headscarves, men were given glittery red handkerchiefs to tuck into our belts. Only slightly more subtle than a blinking sign over our heads saying “These are the Outsiders – make sure you Act Traditional for them!” But hey, it’s a small town – we know that we’re part of the show, too.

We smile at dour men watching indifferently from the shade of the square’s “coffee house” (we’re told that the best shade in town is always reserved for the coffeehouse, and set off down the dirt and cobble streets. Our guide leads us to a yard with a small, square two-storey house set in the corner. An exterior staircase leads up the carefully-laid stonework wall to an entry door on the second floor – entries here are always on the second floor to keep the livestock from wandering in uninvited.

The lady of the house (I never quite get her name) gives us “Vanna” poses of the various parts of the house, while our tour guide narrates – this is where meals are cooked, this is where they sleep. The construction is simple, but the attention to detail draws us all in – the roof beams are carved and painted with tiny geometric figures reminiscent of the patterned fabric we see on everyone’s clothing here.

We’re led up the street again, to the town’s silk cooperative. An elderly woman boils cocoons over an outdoor fire; another spins it on a drop-spindle while her daughter tidies up; inside, a third weaves dyed silk thread on a handloom. A different and less fearsome rendition of the three fates, but no less compelling.

We return to the town square, where our dinner is laid out among pillows on a carpeted platform. Villagers start to gather around the walls to watch – earlybirds getting good seats for the show.

A Comakdag wedding is an elaborate, four-day affair; while trays of dolmas, boiled millet, roast lamb and fresh halvah arrive, we’re given the compressed version. It’s not quite Proust summarized, or Talmud while standing on one leg, but they’re clearly skipping a bit: there’s the groom’s “stag party” which involves somber and manly dancing, the procession to the bride’s house. The bride’s bridal party, which involves somber, womanly dancing and singing dirges (they don’t seem big on the “This is the happiest day of my life” bit). The tallying and displaying of bridal gifts, all carefully accounted for. The public “milling of the millet” – no, this isn’t some sublimated metaphor about sex; these folks are farmers. Finally, the bride and groom appear together, and there’s more dancing – not quite as somber this time.

Throughout, townsfolk sit around the walls of the square. I’m keenly aware that this is staged, that we’re part of the entertainment, that they’re watching us watch the dancers. But that doesn’t rob the moment of its magic. These are ancient traditions, direct descendants of a time when the world was still flat, though they may not last much longer. Already, we’re told, the village is changing – a satellite dish here and there, poured concrete houses instead of the traditional stonework. Many villages die out when their young leave for glamour and money of the city – this one is taking a calculated risk to ensure its survival.

It’s a weeknight in a small town; not much to do but watch the outsiders. But they’re also watching the show, watching the dance. This is their small but glittering inheritance, both their responsibility and their promise of survival. They share it with us for an evening; in exchange, we offer a little money, but carry the sights, sounds and smells of this night away with us. In twenty years, the stone houses that have stood here for centuries may be lost in modern concrete. The town square may have a shopping mall selling “traditional wedding” videos and Comakdag snow-globes. These memories that we have carried away for safekeeping may be all that’s left of the old ways. But maybe not – these are clearly smart people; they’ve seen change before, and they seem to know how to look it in the eye.

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