The irony of the situation stares back at me through charred eye sockets. A roasted goat, coiled in a fetal position on a three–foot platter, dominates the rickety table set for our al fresco lunch. The fruit–laden grapevine bower overhead fails to camouflage this cinderblock restaurant and its garden from what it really is: little more than a shepherd's pen and butcher's block.
"Jenny, you eat! Is good!" calls out Sami, the crisply dressed father of my Turkish fiance Bilgehan. He tears a piece of greasy flesh off the goat's rump with his fingers, holds it up, and pops it in his mouth, indicating I should do the same. He chuckles at my dubious expression.
On this blistering August day in 1993 at a makeshift mountaintop restaurant in Kirkpinar––my first trip to Turkey–– my hardy–traveler bluff has officially been called.
A 22 year–old suburban Michigan girl, and daughter of a hunter, I once used to pluck feathers and buckshot out of my father's game fowl, barbecue wild boar steaks, and skin rabbits with a razor blade. Now I can't even gag down a bit of goat to please my eager hosts, my prospective in–laws. My hesitation has good cause. After shooting my first kill at thirteen, I can no longer bear witnessing death up close.
Stressfully aware that my reaction is being weighed by my companions, I gauge why they might have chosen this crude setting and whether they'll take my refusal of the goat as a rejection of their hospitality, and by extension, them. Crickets buzz in the dry, rocky pine forests surrounding us as I guiltily push cucumber and tomato salad around on my plate. It is a few meals too late into my vacation to claim I don't eat meat.
Still fully intact, the size of the goat implies it must have been a suckling kid a few hours earlier, like the others who bleat frantically from their enclosure one hundred yards behind the restaurant. I look at the carcass on the table, trying to calculate how much this concession will cost me in the larger equation of intercultural marriage; if we wed, I will have to give up my American life to move to Turkey's capital when we graduate college. Is it too soon to draw the boundaries between what I can and can't accept, especially when I can't conceive of how many––or more gruesome–– sacrifices might lay ahead?
At this rest stop en route to the family village, the baggy shalvar–wearing restaurant owner delivers more drinks to our table and exchanges a few sentences with us. Bilgehan laughs, "My father always changes back to the local accent whenever we go to the village. As if he hasn't become a city boy during all the years my folks used to live in Ankara." My untrained ear can't understand their conversation, but I chuckle because Sami's expensive–looking clothing must speak more loudly than the rural accent he is affecting. That he makes an overture to conform to his surroundings, however, is not lost on me.
Until today, the first two weeks in Turkey had all but convinced me that Bilgehan's family was one I wanted to fit into and this country a place I wanted to live. Terra cotta tiled roofs and spires of cedar trees offered a scenic backdrop to each day's adventure: visiting Istanbul's Ottoman treasures and dining on the moonlit Bosphorus waterfront, dancing at discos in Ankara, and soaking up the sand–and–surf lifestyle of Fethiye, a resort town on the Mediterranean where Bilgehan's parents now resided. The hot and sunny climate was a balm after cold, cloudy Kalamazoo.
You can't afford to romanticize, I tell myself, as Bilgehan and his family chatter to each other in Turkish. If I am going to sign on to a new life, now is the time to weigh any doubts. Think of what you're about to give up: your home, culture, family… your identity…
I look to the cosmopolitan Yuksel to see how the mischievous Ankara–born artist will proceed with the meal. In her dark, oversized Chanel sunglasses and brightly beaded jewelry, she appears to belong in this rustic landscape even less than Sami. Both she and Bilgehan cut into the goat and swallow some meat, but they certainly put more zeal into consuming the bread and salad, washing everything down with copious swigs of Efes Pilsen beer.
I attempt to chase back my concerns with more beer than is wise, given the conditions of the switchback mountain road ahead and my impending introduction to the village relatives. What if this backwoods meal is a more accurate indicator of what your everyday life here will be like? I have yet to see the inside of a city supermarket but I certainly passed butchers' shops in Ankara with whole animals hanging on hooks in the display windows. Maybe this acceptable proximity to violence is reflected in other social situations. What if this is just a small indicator of more barbarity in store?
Apparently it is.
After Kirkpinar (Forty Streams) we head to Sami's mountain plateau village, Arpacik (Little Barley), where four of his six siblings still live, traditional farmers working the land. It may be a village of 4,000, but the mountains are high and the farms spread far enough apart through the valley that we only see a handful of houses as we inch down the narrow gravel road. We pass the main square, which consists of a feed and hardware store and a coffee shop, where the men pass the time as the crops grow and the women tend the homestead. When I ask why there isn't any market, I'm told that everyone grows and makes their own provisions, right down to the daily bread, milk, butter, cheese, and olive oil. What they lack, they get by trading with their neighbors.
We arrive to a swarm of introductions to Bilgehan's elderly aunts and uncles and a slew of cousins. We are seated and served tea. In the bubbling soup of unintelligible conversation swirling around me, my mind wanders as I consider all the tanned and creased faces. Women in white cotton headscarves, mismatched floral print shirts and voluminous pants. Men in wool flat caps, trousers, button–down shirts and sweater vests (in this heat!). I nod and smile in intervals when people meet my gaze.
Before I can be lulled by the rhythm of tulip–shaped tea glasses being stirred, sipped and refilled, a village neighbor steps through the gate with a shaggy sheep slung over his shoulders like a bleating fur stole.
Yuksel tells me in her stilted English, "He will buy this one for killing."
The animal fidgets as the uncle and neighbor harness it to a chain and then hang it from a sturdy tree branch a few yards from where we're seated.
I turn to Bilgehan. "What's going on?! We aren't going to sit and watch, are we?!" I whisper through gritted teeth. Perhaps such things were mundane for villagers, but I couldn't be part of it. I get up from the table and pull him by the elbow to follow me. "Look, the slaughterhouse lunch was enough. I can't take any more of this animal killing." I knew how petulant I sounded given that we were in farm territory, but I had surrendered at Kirkpinar. Granted it was only a few bites, but I could still taste the stringy, gamey meat in my mouth, a distasteful tang made worse by the nearby yawping of kid goats who would soon be food for the next diners. I thought my compromise at lunch was supposed to absolve me from having to face any more brutality, not pave the way for more.
"Calm down. He's just weighing it. That's a scale," Bilgehan replies.
"He's buying it now to sacrifice it later."
"What? Why does he need to kill it at all?" I demand. As much as I want to fit in, I cannot muster any cultural sensitivity.
Bilgehan doesn't know what to say. It turns out lunch has been difficult for him, too.
Tenderhearted like me, as a child Bilgehan had converted his squadron of plastic toy soldiers into a soccer team by hand–sewing shorts and shin guards on them. He earned himself nonstop kitchen–duty during his compulsory military service when he repeatedly refused to pick up a gun. This gentle man now had to put sacrifice into context for me.
Bilgehan sighs, takes my hand and leads me through the chick pea field towards the pomegranate bushes and cherry trees on the far side of the small farm. "In our culture, when something very good happens to you, you're supposed to share your good fortune with others. Traditionally that means sacrificing an animal and giving the meat to your neighbors or to the less fortunate. Sacrifice is a gesture of giving."
"Can't they just buy presents or give money?" I insist.
"These people aren't poor, but they don't have cash. They have to barter." He points out the crops around us: kiwi, runner beans, cucumbers…
I roll my eyes.
"Actually, in the village, most people can rarely afford to eat meat."
"Seems to me they're killing animals left and right!"
"They don't kill livestock unless they have to. It's not economical. The chickens give them eggs, the cows and goats give milk, the sheep give milk and wool. In the village, everything gets put to use."
He did have a point there. I noticed even petals of the deeply–scented roses on the veranda were used for jam, which two of the aunts and one of the cousins had been making when we arrived, stirring a massive copper cauldron over an open fire in the back garden.
"No one takes any pleasure from having to kill an animal, but my uncle just sold some land and now he is duty–bound to share his good fortune somehow. This is the biggest gesture he can make."
He puts his arms around me. "Sacrifice is about giving up something important for the sake of something even more important."
I look over at the group weighing the sheep. It scampers towards the barn as they let it off the chain. To my surprise, my future mother–in–law puts the chain around herself and swings from the scale. Laughing and complaining that she gained weight since lunch, when she gets up, all the aunts, uncles, and cousins take turns weighing themselves on the tree scale. Whooping and guffawing, they call us over and prod Bilgehan and me to give it a go. Afterwards, a giggling Yuksel weighs herself a second time, hoping for a better result.
These people are not barbaric. Sami and Yuksel had not been not testing me at the mountain restaurant. How could they have known my particular sensitivity? They were doing what they thought was the best way of honoring me. Whole goat may not have been to my liking, but it was the grandest gesture Sami, a village lad, could make in that humble canteen, just like gifting something valuable like sheep meat was the best a village man could do to share his wealth.
As Yuksel and the aunts dry tears of laughter and pour the last round of tea, and the men bid the sheep–selling neighbor goodbye, the brutality of this backwoods begins to evaporate. I decide to acknowledge their offering in the spirit in which it was given, and accept Bilgehan's proposal of a Turkish life. Now what remains is to determine what I am willing to give in return.
Jennifer Eaton Gökmen is the co–editor of the international bestselling nonfiction anthology Tales From the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey. Gokmen is currently penning her Turkish adventures in a comical transcontinental confessional Elective Brain Surgery and Other Tales of a Reckless Expat. She holds a degree in Creative Writing and American and English Literature from Western Michigan University. Gokmen lives with her husband Bilgehan in Istanbul, her home for more than a decade.
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