The Laz of Hopa

A few days ago I sat on the right hand side of Hussein, the brother of the late Kâzım Koyuncu.  The band at the front of the restaurant has been playing for hours. Empty bottles of Raki sit at abandoned tables and the band is beginning to sing primarily in Laz. Half the room is on their feet. The singer asks Hussein’s permission to play something “a little arabesque” and everyone laughs. Hussein sang along with every word and all I could do was put my hand on my heart, since my translator was across the table and we didn’t need to talk about it. I am hearing a song that has been known two, three, who knows how many hundred years ago. Maybe not this song, but many of them. The tulum player holds a note until everyone in the room is clapping. What more can one note do?

The Laz dance in a circle, holding hands, swinging them left, left, right, right, the entire circle synching their feet like a herd, their facial features like a people. Someone later joked that the Laz dance the way a local anchovy-like fish swims. I’m not sure I can visualize it, but I did see a Laz villager catch a much bigger fish with his hands.

The tulum looks and sounds like bagpipes made from a large, black hide. It is accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a kemenche, which can be safely described as a fiddle-looking and fiddle-hearted instrument.

A man is crying, his friend kisses his cheek. Someone is wiping sweat from the faces of the dancing circle that has grown to over twenty people. It’s as though the Irish and the Gypsies eloped to the Black Sea.

The band has finished. The singer kisses Hussein and a huge smile sits under his heavy eyebrows. The tulum player has taken his baby-goat-sized instrument away from the microphone and into the middle of the circle, which is now dancing and chanting louder than ever. Now it’s only pipes, shouts and feet.

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After the Laz performance I went back to Hopa’s center with my friend Mahir. He took me to a hotel disco to show the other side of this border town, located about a half hour from the Georgian border. He said all hotel discos in Hopa are the same – old men and foreign prostitutes. I’m told the girls are from Georgia, Dagestan, Russian, Azerbaijan and everywhere else that isn’t Turkey, although I wonder how anyone really knows.

The girls sit in the middle of the room at a table made of smaller tables pushed together and chain smoke cigarettes. The men dance under the fancy club lights to paper-thin pop music in the excruciating Slavic-techno-English style. The older men greet each other and drink overpriced beer while the middle aged ones dance. The prostitutes seem to be an afterthought – sometimes a man will come up to one of them and whisper something in her unresponsive ear. She will wait until he is finished and say something back. Usually he just leaves.

Mahir tells me that this means she is hired or pretending to be, but the girls just continue to sit at the table, smoking, drinking and picking at food on the table. At one point, a girl threw a paper ball at a waiter to get his attention.

Occasionally there is a slow dance and men of all ages move close and slow with the girls – like an awkward high school dance. It’s a hard concept for me to grasp, but there it was.

Every hotel is like this, said Mahir. I would have preferred to while away the night in a cheaper hotel that couldn’t afford such loud speakers and had to settle for card games and what I was assured was ghastly live music. But it was not worth another ten lira beer and I had to get back to my host’s house.

As for the prostitutes that Hopa is apparently famous for, it was a strange but predictable sight. Some of the girls are good looking, others not, but the atmosphere was not sexual - except for the dance floor, which was exclusively male and remarkably unabashed, with the strobe light selecting one Dionysian pose after another. Maybe going to a brothel is as much as about uninhibited dancing as it is about paying for sex – maybe they need to dance to get themselves in the right mood.

I saw one man leave the dance floor and walk out of the room with one of the girl’s arms clenched in his hand, holding it firmly as she looked out at nothing in particular and he talked to a friend and ordered another drink. He did not loosen his grip and when he whisked her out the door it seemed an afterthought .

Not one person was smiling in the disco and there was a pragmatic air to everything. The girls did not look unhappy or flirty or even bored – aside from their bodies they could just as well not have been there.

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Before I left Hopa, I took a half hour drive to the Panchol village to learn about falconry. It’s a custom as old as the Laz, who say they are descended from hunters and gatherers and were late to settle into an agrarian society. Originally, they trained falcons to hunt birds as a way to get meat into their diets, but today the practice has become a hobby and a business.

Forgive the lack of falcon photos. The season for catching them is in the late summer and the law says a person may only keep one falcon past that time. I guess they kept either none or more than one, because I was told there was no way to see a live falcon until then.

To catch a falcon (the word is Atmaca, which refers to a baby falcon), you need to catch a Hacho, which is another small bird and the Atmaca’s favorite prey. So first you take a Danabutnu (which we could not clarify exactly, but it seems to be an insect of some kind) and put it into this cage:

Then you tie the foot of your Hacho with a string to a stick, where you feed him. The point is to get the Hacho to be calm around humans. They also put leather straps above the Hacho’s eyebrows so it cannot see a potential falcon above it. The point is the Hacho must be calm and minding his business, while he keeper hides behind some bushes and waits.

They know a falcon is coming because it sounds like a bullet when it dives for the Hacho. But at some point it must spread its wings to slow the descent, and it is at this moment that the netting is sprung and the falcon is snared.

Training the Hacho takes a long time time and the falcon is not able to catch it, because one Hacho is used to lure dozens of falcons.

Training the falcon is a process of socialization. The young bird is also tired to the stick and fed when it sits on the arm of its catcher. It can take weeks to get the bird to become calm around people, so it is taken everywhere its catcher goes, includes cafes and fields. Eventually the length of the string is increased to twenty meters, at which point the bird is able to fly and hunt.

Once the falcon has caught a Balgerjan (which I’m guessing is a pheasant of some kind) its catcher runs over and takes the valuable meat, feeding some of it to the falcon “so it remembers how much it likes the taste.” Some falcons are released at the end of the season, while others are sold who knows where.

That’s the process. I have no doubt this is a modern day business, with a wide and varied ethical code, but in the villages themselves, there is an easy attitude about it. Men are proud of their hawks and train them for strength and speed, understanding the animal and its role in the woods of the Black Sea coast. But there is clearly an export market which I sense does not afford the bird 20 meters of string or an end to its captivity.

After this primer my falconry guide invited me on a walk to a beautiful view of the hilly coast. We were standing at grave of Kâzım Koyuncu, who it turns out was born and buried in Panchol.