[slideshow] Mustafa* hosted me for two weeks in Afyonkarahisar while I wrote about the province and he treated me with all the hospitably Turkey is famous for. Like many people in this small city he seemed to know someone on every block. He has hosted so many couchsurfers and exchange students that a local web forum listed 'walking with Mustafa' as a sure way to spot a foreigner.

As a veterinary student at the Afyon Kocatepe University, Mustafa’s main concern on May 28th were the back-to-back final exams he had to pass – but the day also marked a dubious anniversary. It was exactly one year since a group of men viciously attacked him for being gay.

“Five or six or seven people took me from the store and kick me on the street. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t hear anything, I just screamed for people to help me and said, ‘stop, it is enough,’” said Mustafa, “One of them used a stone for my head… I don’t know how many kicks I had, but my face was fucked up. Finally one of them used a scalpel on my back. And then they left, I heard one of them say ‘okay, it’s enough.’”

The attack took place around 9 pm in the city center, the part of the city where university students – a more socially liberal segment of the city’s population – typically hang out and couples are sometimes so bold as to hold hands or sneak a peck on the cheek.

Mustafa said the attack took place at the location and time of a meeting he had made with an internet user who had contacted him a few days before. “He said he wanted to know me because he was also alone and gay and wanted to make a friend,” he said.

Mustafa required 38 stitches to close the gash on his back.

At first he told the police it was just a random attack. “But after one month I was so sorry for me, for my humanity, I thought I should tell them the true story,” said Mustafa, “I told them the whole story, I gave them the messenger address - but they said probably they cannot find them, because it is not enough. Then I talked with a lawyer, and he told me if I don’t have any witness, [nothing] will happen. I know the shop seller saw everything, but he told the police he cannot tell them who these people were.”

I asked Mustafa if the police could set up a sting and he replied, “If they want, they can find them.” One month after the attack, Mustafa signed on with a new instant messenger name and encountered the same internet user. “I said nothing about the attack,” he said, “At that time I was sure, and I am still sure, he was also gay. Probably he is attacking to other gay people because he wants to hide himself.”

According to a Nevin, a representative of the Ankara-based gay rights group KAOS, such inaction is the default for attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Turkey. Perpetrators who are caught often have their sentences reduced because of an “unfair provocation” article in the criminal code.

“[The punishment for] stealing could be the same with killing an LGBT,” said Nevin. Her group is aware of fifteen “hate murders” in 2009.

Mustafa has an unusual interpretation of his sexual orientation: “I am non-alcoholic person because it is forbidden,” he said, “I don’t eat pork, I pray, I fast for Ramadan, but I am gay. Everyone is thinking if you are gay – if you have sex with a guy – you can do whatever you want [because] this is a really big deal. But I do not think like them. If I go to hell because I am gay, well – God is the most forgiving and I hope God will forgive me. I know I will go to heaven one day – maybe a few years in Hell first – but I don’t want to be there long so I try not to commit other sins.”

His belief is based on an interpretation of the Koran says Hell is not necessarily the final destination for sinners. According to a scholar on “Ultimately, God will remove from Hell those believers whose sins were not forgiven nor atoned for by good deeds in their lifetimes, and they will then enter Paradise. The remaining inhabitants of Hell will stay there eternally.” (That link is current down, but this notion is widespread.)

“How can I be gay and be a Muslim? How you cannot chose your eye color [is how] I cannot chose myself. It’s not a selection, it’s not genetic thing, it’s from God, I think,” said Mustafa, “I know a lot of the gay community does not think like me… they do not care about the religion, but I care, I believe. I think if we are on the exam in this world, for heaven and hell. We have to pass these problems.”

He came to this decision after what he referred to as an eight-year Jihad that he undertook in his teens. “First I believed it’s forbidden. You can be gay, you can think about it, but you have to stop yourself – you cannot act upon it. I was thinking: I am Muslim and I am Turkish and I cannot be a wrong person. I didn’t know anything about gay life, gay community, other gay people, I thought I was alone.”

He spent several years talking to psychologists, many of whom consider homosexuality to be an illness that needs to be treated. He spent some time on American religious sites such as

Mustafa embraces the original definition of Jihad, one rarely mentioned in today’s media: “Jihad is not like Taliban wars,” he said, “Jihad is war for God in your inside. It should be like this. You cannot use a gun or bombs for this Jihad, you have to use your brain and your heart.”

“Eventually I accepted myself,” he said, “Because for the first time I fall in love with a guy. Before him it was like a game or a fantasy or something – I had girlfriends, all that. But after that it was so clear and I told [my girlfriend] I fell in love with a guy. After this point I accept myself – I am gay – and the Jihad was finished. I lost this Jihad.”

Mustafa is also a pacifist and the subject of Turkey’s mandatory service in the armed forced came up in our conversation. “When it is my time, I will tell them I need to be taken to the hospital because I am sick,” he said, “I am ashamed to do this, but they will agree I am sick because of this accident – I call it an accident,” he laughs, “But of course it is not an accident.”

Mustafa said – and KAOS confirmed – that the Turkish Army's version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has a peculiar twist. The army psychologist may require the applicant to bring in a photo where his face is visible and he is engaging in sex with another man. “He must be the bottom too,” said Mustafa rolling his eyes, “Or else it does not count.”

Turkey’s attitude to homosexuals is not framed in the same left-right politics of the West. According to Sedef, of the Istanbul-based LambdaIstanbul, “the homophobic tendency can be seen in all parts of the turkish society despite their political view, and definitely not limited to religious groups. The LGBT associations in Turkey are still fighting with the homophobia within the leftist, socialist or even some feminist groups. In Turkish society, homosexuality or trangenderism is more accepted as an "illness" than a "sin."

Turkey’s current governing party is the AKP, which acknowledge the country’s Islamic history and have made religion an issue in Turkey’s otherwise staunchly secular politics. But according to everyone I’ve asked – from students in Istanbul to villagers in Afyon to taxi drivers on the Eastern border town of Hopa – everyone said the AKP is very careful to remain within the social mainstream. Mustafa, for example, supports the AKP because he thinks they are moderates and distrusts the nationalist sentiments of the secular opposition.

LGBT rights advocates have stuck to a pragmatic approach, fending off legal challenges, staging pride marches and releasing studies. In the words of Sedef, “When it is about politics, it is very hard to find a political party which sincerely believes and advocates that LGBT rights are civil rights… we generally have contacts with a couple of parliamentarians rather than the party itself.”

*While Mustafa originally agreed to be identified by his real name, he has recently asked me to substitute a pseudonym and remove the photos of his face.

The Origin of the Pat-Pat

There is one topic that never fails to elicit a laugh from the villagers. “I am writing about many things,” I usually say, “Like the hashhash, the Saints, the pat-pats…”

“Ah,” They say, squinting their eyes in confusion until I confirm by pantomiming a purring engine. “Paht-paht-paht-paht-paht-paht,” I say and everyone laughs and nods. The pat-pat goes by many names, but this little engine has been a great help to Turkish farmers and is gaining market share by the year.

A number of people confirmed that a majority of farmer households – at least in Afyon – own one.

Pat-pats line up for a going-away party in Gebeçeler

These vehicles run on diesel fuel and can reach speeds of 80-90 kilometers per hour (about 45 MPH). Everyone says they get better gas mileage than car – estimates range from thirty to seventy percent more efficient, but it is not easy to pin down exact numbers for an unregulated and hand-built vehicle, so I’ll just pass along the answers I got: “it runs for a whole hour on just one liter,” “maybe 100 kilometers from four liters?”

People are buying more pat-pats than ever and everyone cited economic reasons - these noisy carts can hardly be considered status symbols. Instead, they bring the benefits of mechanized transport to farmers who otherwise could not afford it.

I saw my first pat-pat factory in Gebeçeler, but factory is not the right word. The vehicles are built and serviced in a garage about the size of an auto mechanic’s shop, with an output of between one and three per month.

Ismail Mengü and his son Mikail building the pat-pat chassis at their shop in Gebeçeler

The engine is actually a modified pump, which once linked to a crankshaft and a frame can efficiently propel the cart and whatever is stocked on its flatbed. These small irrigation pumps are a common sight in this agricultural land and have been used for generations to get water out of the ground and onto the fields.

While the pat-pat doesn’t offer the comfort of a car it has one huge advantage: it costs between 3,000 and 5,000 TL ($2,000-$3000). Considering that Dutch-made tractor that are popular in Afyon costs about 60,000 TL and a car is somewhere around 20,000 TL, it is not surprising that these motorized carts are always zooming around the village roads.

The surprise is how they were invented. Here’s where the first water pump became a vehicle:

The derelict workshop of Ismail Aktekin

This was the workshop of Ismail Aktekin, sitting untouched on the outskirts of the Altuntaş village, located five miles outside of Akşahir. “He spent twenty years playing with it,” said his grandson, who has inherited his grandfather’s name and trade, “He improved it day by day, experimenting.” Sometime in the late 1960s, the first pat-pat hit the road.

Some of the original metalwork equipment Aktekin used to modify the engine

Except Ismail Aktekin II calls them tak-taks. In fact, everyone in Akşahir calls them that. Had I known this I might have found about this engine's creator sooner - but not by much.

The pat-pat mechanics in Gebeçeler had heard the engine was invented by a retired soldier in Akşahir. I had heard other stories and locations, but this one sounded most specific, so I made the trip.

The two students who had been my makeshift translators both had final exams that week, so I was on my own. I arrived in Akşahir with the word for “central office” written in my notebook. My host had called the Mayor’s office the day before and they said to just come and they’d find a way to help me.

We spent a few hours finding that way: the mid-level management were both bewildered and eager to help as I and went from office to office, floor to floor, asking “English?” or "Tourism?" Eventually someone took my arm and led me to a computer. We managed a little communication through Google translate: one screen for me and one for the crowd of city officials that was trying to solve the mystery of who I was and what I wanted.

It was only one hour and a few rounds of charades later that I learned that pat-pats were actually called tak-taks in Akşahir. Go figure.

My mission was further distilled with each new government office we visited. A little French here, a phone call to someone’s son there, and finally I was invited to take a seat and wait for a very busy man who I now assume to have been an education minister of some kind.

A half dozen more phone calls were made and I found myself being escorted past a schoolyard and introduced to Saim Tuncez, a teacher at the I.Inonu Industrial Vocational High School. He was a soft-spoken and patient man who taught mechanical engineering at the school. I’m not sure if they sent me to him because of this technical background, but he did speak some English – he had learned a bit from a class in Istanbul and practiced while playing bridge on Yahoo.

After more cups of tea with various teachers, we sat in the car of Muja Konuk, the school’s headmaster, as he drove us through the industrial section of Askisir.

This is the workshop of Ismail Aktekin, which opened some fifteen years ago. It is now just one of many such factories, which are usually located in villages.

Ismail Aktekin II and a few mechanics from the surrounding shops told me their business is growing rapidly. "Twenty year ago we were making maybe 10 tak-taks per year," said one man, "Now this region produces almost 300 per year."Ismail Aktekin II's shop in Akşahir

Ismail Aktekin II's shop in AkşahirA pat-pat engine from the mid 1970

The mechanics of three villages all estimated that there are about 250 people working on pat-pats in family shops in the region. The pat-pats are sold throughout Turkey and some villagers had heard they were being exported to Afghanistan, although I could not confirm this.

I visited the Aktekin family and found other innovations from Ismail scattered around the property:

The Aktekin family today
Another Aktekin innovation: a drill powered by a modified pat-pat motor

"He wanted to make an airplane," said his wife, "He was interested in all of those machines - planes, helicopters..." She confirmed he had no formal education and when I asked her how he managed to create such a useful innovation she just pointed to her head. "He was very smart," someone else in the family exclaimed.

The family is wealthy and well-known in the area, but hundreds of mechanics and countless farmers have also benefited from the tinkering of Ismail Aktekin:

Ismail Aktekin II holding a photo of his grandfather and namesake

Pat-pat parts at Ismail Aktekin's shop

The Bektashi of Kayabelen

[slideshow] Sitting in the family room of the Cinars, I am surrounded by mothers holding children to my right and men against the wall to my left. Lunch has been laid out on the floor and we’ve all had our fill of fried sausage, feta cheese, olives, potato bread, eggs, yogurt, and a number of things I cannot remember and certainly would not attempt to spell – let’s just say a wide assortment of dairy products.

Today my friend (and translator) Ayşe and her friend have invited me to his village on the outskirts of Şuhut. With the meal and requisite photography behind us – “Ayşe please! Tell them to pretend I’m not here, no need for everyone to pose like a soldier beneath the map of Turkey” – the topic inevitably changes to who in the world I am and what am I doing here.

To Turkey’s great credit, this question only arises after I’ve been warmly greeted, offered tea, a cushion and then bountifully fed. I tell them I am writing about villages and almost immediately an itinerary is hatched. Sure, they can take me to see the poppy fields and the paht-pahts, but first a trip to the recently built cemevi, the pride of the village.

First we talked about life in Kayabelen. It was good, they said, the village is growing, with a population of nine hundred people, but the young people are leaving to find work in the cities. Ramazan Cinar, the oldest man of the family, told me that times are tough economically.

“Back in the 1970s and 80s, prices were higher. Now we are producing more, but the prices are half as much. Sometimes we cannot find someone to buy what we grow,” he said. “Before, if you sold thirty tons of potatoes you could buy a tractor, now it takes a hundred.”

But Ramazan’s family seemed happy and it was certainly growing. And how would life be different for all the children in the room, I asked. “Well, they will have a say in who they will marry,” said his wife, Nazik. Everyone agreed it was a change for the better, but Ramazan did not think the change in the culture was fundamental.

“The main reason for our cultural change is movement – from village to city,” he said and pointing to the television. Everyone agreed that technology had changed a lot of things. I asked when Kayabelen got electricity and without missing a beat, he said 1973. Then he paused to type something on his cell phone and continued, “But the culture is the same. It just looks like change.”

Nazik said the big difference was education. I asked what they would do if they were young today and she replied she would study. “To be a teacher or a doctor,” she said and then paused, “well probably not a doctor.”  And Nazik? “I would become an archeologist,” he said.

“Did the women in the other villages shake your hand?” he asked. I told him they did, but they seemed embarrassed to do it. “Our women would,” he said with some pride. The Ginars, like most of their village, were Bektashi, a form of Islam that combines elements of Shiite, Sunni and Sufi traditions.

I should pause here and make clear that my knowledge of the intricacies of Islamic sects is about two weeks old and any information I provide here has been gleamed from Wikipedia and the like, but verified with my own eyes.

Bektashi make up between twenty and thirty percent of Turkey’s population and they share many beliefs with the Alevi who also number in the millions.

As we toured the village, the first place they showed me was the cemevi, which is a hall filled with warm-colored carpets and pillows that serves as a gathering place, a prayer room and the stage for the Sema ritual. Had I known about this a week ago, I could’ve attended the three-day ritual of the twirling dervishes, when the villagers pray – meditate? – by spinning.

“Downstairs is the wedding hall,” said Nazik, “So there are times when someone is here praying as a wedding is taking place below. That’s not something you’ll find in a mosque,” he added.

Women are considered as equals among the Bektashi and can pray alongside the men in the cemevi. This is just one of many of their rituals and beliefs - including saints, sacred tombs and unorthodox interpretations of the Quran – that have caused suspicion and violence between them and certain Sunni groups in Turkey, such as the Sivas massacre, which led to the death of 33 Alevi cultural figures. The history of this tension goes back for centuries, deep into Ottoman Empire’s cultural and political history. For example, the Sultan’s infamous guards, the janissaries, were Bektashi.

Just I was getting my Ali’s mixed up and adding a year's worth of wear to Ayşe’s dictionary, we heard a wedding procession making its way to the groom’s house! Even without the gun shots, this was exciting enough to distract me from my exhaustive photo shoot of a local shepherd’s flock.

I rushed into the jubilant yard shortly after they arrived, the men dancing in a circle and the women looking on from the balcony, with children running in every direction, one firing a gun into the air before someone not-much-older took it out of his hands and unload a few more rounds.

I grabbed my camera and set to work (I’d love to embed it, but as Rumi said, patience is the key to joy). Unfortunately, the day was beginning to darken and I had yet to see the poppy fields, so I could not stay for long. Just as we were about to go, Hamza Kaya, another farmer (and as I would soon learn, the man responsible for creating the cemevi) had invited us for tea.

“Oh, we’re in a bit of hurry,” said Ayşe.

“How about coffee then?” He offered.

Ayşe looked at me and of course I knew what she was thinking: it would be rude to decline and besides, I have never said no to Turkish coffee.

We entered the house and began chatting, but contrary to my expectations, it was Hamza who went to make the coffee and we spent the next ten minutes chatting with his wife.

She had a big laugh and told us of how weddings were in her youth. Ayşe had some trouble keeping up with the translation, but I came away with the impression that it involved many flags and outfits as well as the groom’s entire family marching to the bride’s house and then taking her away upon a very handsome horse.

Hamza came with the coffee and then told a few of his favorite village memories, which Ayşe assured me simply cannot survive translation. The big knee-slapper was about the Worst Wife in the village.

She was riding along with her husband on a cart pulled by several bulls when they came to broken part of the road. Unsure if his animals would be able to pull him through, the man asked some locals about it and they jokingly replied, “Sure they’ll make it, once the road is fixed.” Unfortunately for the wife, the man seemed to be hard of hearing, because he only understood the first part of the sentence and set the beasts amarch.

Unfortunately for the husband, his wife only had one working eye, so when the cart got stuck and her husband joined the bulls in pulling, she didn’t have a clear view of who she was whacking with the stick – and hence, the Worst Wife in the village.

Next we trekked to the poppy fields, but that is for another post. Instead it seems most appropriate to end my story of Kayabelen with a question Ramazan asked me: “What do you think of Turkey?”

Having just eaten the best part of the milk from cows that are considered some of the best in Turkey, my answer was easy: it’s very friendly to strangers.

“Oh,” he said, “Well of course. In Bektashi culture our philosophy is to love people because God created them.”

Full size Photos:

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Seyyid Hasan Basri

Centuries after Seyyid Hasan Basri arrived in the village of Şeydinar, members of his family continue to tend to his tomb, maintaining his holy resting place and offering a traditional medical treatment to visitors of the village.

When I arrived at the mausoleum, Döndü Cetainkaya and her daughter Maria were sitting beside the adjacent cemetery where generations of Basri’s descendants are buried. Basri, himself a descendant of Caliph Ali – a figure especially revered in Turkey’s folk Islam – had six brothers who each specialized in treating a specific medical illness. Basri’s focus was rabies and mental illness.

The women answered my questions about the rabies treatment with a calm shrug: no, it does not work for animals, but they don’t try; yes, people know about it and come from the surrounding villages when they need to be cured; no, they don’t know how it works.

Döndü is an older woman who stood with a stern expression each time I pointed my lens at her, but otherwise she seemed content and distant and patiently told me the story she has obviously told a thousand times.

The women said the family traded off cleaning and occupying the tomb, with a different branch of the family taking over the responsibility each week. She said the men were busy, so it was left to her and her daughter to tend to any patients this week. “We had many visitors once,” she offered, “but now not so many.”

She said she has seen hundreds of rabies cases in her lifetime, “impossible to count,” and almost all were successfully treated.

“Only one died,” she said, “It was a child and they brought her too late. The cure must be administered within forty days to be effective.”

While I waited for her to bring the powder, her daughter explained the freshly made bed that sat in the corner of the mausoleum, alongside the resting places of Basri, his wife, and his children. “When children have mental problems – nightmares, anger, these sicknesses – they bring them here and they sleep in this room.”

My interpreter was not eager to translate my question – “what was Basri’s philosophy on mental illness, how did he treat it?”  “Faith,” he said with a smile and before I could continue, Döndü returned with the panacea.

Every year a small bug appears in the sands around Seydinar for a few weeks in August. These insects are gathered and ground up along with the sand and stored for the rest of the year. The treatment involves fasting and taking a pinch of the powder every three hours with Turkish tea or coffee until you are cured.

I asked Döndü whether they have tried to publicize this miraculous treatment, especially considering that rabies continues to be a problem in Turkey. “We are not exporters, there is no money involved here,” she answered, “People bring their sick from other villages and we treat them.”

Do I think the treatment works? I have no idea. It’s certainly not outside the realm of the possible, but that’s for scientists to figure out. Modern medicine has produced a vaccine that the World Health Organization says is "virtually 100 percent effective," if administered correctly - maybe that's why there are less visitors.

I do have some thoughts on the bed in the corner of this mausoleum.

Will it cure autism or schizophrenia? Probably not. But consider the effect of arriving in a solemn, ancient place where there are devoted caregivers to watch over you in absolute confidence, asking about your symptoms only to ascertain the contents of their prayers.

I spoke with a social worker here who learned English from her academic studies. She told me her recent cases include a series of suicide attempts by adolescent girls in a small town. Speculating on how best to treat the girls, she said isolation was a big problem.

“At that age, they hide many things from their parents and they feel them so intensely – it is a very self-centered time in our lives,” she said. Surely there is nothing uniquely urban, or Turkish, or Islamic about that.

Tomb of Seyyid Hasan Basri

So imagine that instead of shuffling from one expert’s waiting room to the next, you take a trip outside your village - possibly for the first time - to a place revered almost since the time of Mohammed and spend a night in the company of the peacefully deceased. How can this not be a viable treatment for a child - or anyone really – who is suffering from mental anguish?

Atatürk Day in Gebeçeler

May 19th is Atatürk Day. It’s actually called Atatürk, Youth and Sports Commemoration Day, but that seems like false modesty, not something you’d normally associate with the man responsible for carving out modern Turkey (actually a little more than present day Turkey according to his maps). So the holiday to celebrate the start of the Independence war was one of the biggest non-religious events for the village - especially because their kids got all dressed up.

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