Bülent Şık
27 Mayıs 2019

A graffiti on the Tatvan-Van highway in the south-east of Turkey: “Don’t forget to be happy.” A journey from the Kavar basin of Tatvan to the Pinnacle Point cave in South Africa and from Patagonia via the documentary The Pearl Button back to Tatvan. Meanwhile, Lake Van echoes the sentiments of the Chilean poet Raul Zurita: “We are all streams of the same water.”


In September last year, we conducted a food workshop with the Kavar Food Cooperative, which is located in the region known as the Kavar Basin in the south-east of Turkey. I had visited the Kavar Cooperative, established by the inhabitants of five villages of the Basin, in 2014. This article is an account of the comparison of observations and emotions experienced four years apart. I believe that the ideal of a life lived together is about sharing of hopes, dreams and sorrows and that there is a need for deeds of a nurturing and constructive hands, rather than hate, discriminative and destructive speech of the political powers.

I. One hundred and sixty five thousand years ago

The entrance of a cave at Pinnacle Point in South Africa, faces the Indian Ocean. Inside the cave are the remains of shellfish from a meal eaten long ago. It is assumed that people must have took refuge in this cave, due to the mild temperatures and abundance of shellfish offered by the sea during the time of the Ice Age almost one hundred and sixty-five thousand years ago and the depilating droughts of the continent of Africa.[1]

It is thought that the majority of the human population died out during that era and that only a few lucky hundred survived.[2] Developments in molecular biology provides the opportunity to identify the traces of the lost populations in our genetic codes. For example, it is thought that one of the most important reasons for a low genetic diversity in comparison to many other species is due to this population loss. The genetic diversity of a small population remains relatively limited.

Today, the parents of all humans are the descendants of the few hundred who managed to survive one hundred and sixty-five thousand years ago. No matter how distant, or which geography or culture we live in, and no matter how diverse we may seem in terms of language or communities, we are really only living in a world comprising of our relatives.

I have a pounding urge to explain all this to the law enforcement officers who stopped us at three different check points on the highway between the Van airport and Tatvan, which I should mention is only a one-and-a half hour drive. There we sat in the long queues of vehicles waiting for our turn to come.

I had travelled to the Van district of Tatvan, staying for a week, to attend a food workshop at the food cooperative established by five villages in the Kavar region. Everything from the cameras placed on the security fences at the entrances of the areas of settlements, the mimics, attitudes and looks of the security officers and their questions made it obvious that there was a “we” and a “they”. Any reminiscent thoughts of common ancestors, mothers and fathers of so long ago vanish immediately.

This is my second visit to Tatvan. My visit was in 2014, during the “cease-fire” environment of the peace-making process and the air in the region was very different: it had scent of hope.

The main source of nutrition for the people living in Pinnacle Cave in South Africa was shellfish and a variety of plants for a very long time. The main source of nutrition for the Patagonian natives was shellfish until two centuries ago.

II. The Kavar Cooperative: before and after

It is thought that those who found shelter in the cave at Pinnacle Point ate the corms and bulbs of the plants found in rich vegetation and the shellfish that washed onto the shore by the tides. Shellfish are high in protein and oils. I wonder how they ate the plant corms? Today meat dishes and seafood are served with or cooked with onion in many parts of the world; maybe this is an eating habit we inherited from our ancestors. Perhaps. Who knows. What I do know, is that plants are an essential part of our nutrition and without plants we would not have access to any of our nutritional sources.

In the activities we conducted with the women of the Kavar Cooperative, one of the products we focused on were plants. We talked a lot about how to dry fruits and vegetables, how to make paste and pickles. During lunch we would all sit down to a meal of the traditional dish of the region made of giant fennel. At first, I thought it was made with sautéed onions, but I soon learnt it wasn’t. Giant fennel is a plant which grows in high altitudes and dry climates. I also found out that it was not of the onion family (Alliaceae). I cannot be blamed for mistaking it for onions; the dish made with fennel, eggs and flour leaves an onion-y, scallion-y taste in one’s mouth. I also learned that the dish takes quiet some effort to make; the first step is to rid the plant of its bitterness.

Plants may be bitter or secrete a variety of chemicals which may be poisonous as a means of self-defence, so to speak, to prevent them from being eaten. But throughout history, humans have found ways to consume plants. The giant fennel is cannot be directly eaten because it is very bitter. It is soaked in whey to reduce the bitterness. In this region, milk is plentiful in spring and summer. The fresh milk is mainly used to make herbed cheese. The fennel is placed into the whey, which is collected as a by-product of making cheese. Once it is soaked in the whey for a day or two, the bitterness of the plant is released into the whey. The whey is drained and repeated a few times until the plants are no longer bitter.

I had read somewhere that in Chile they place potatoes in a cloth bag and leave them immersed in a river for a while. This is a similar process to soaking foods to remove their bitterness by changing the soaking water frequently. The fennel is either pickled or is boiled and frozen in storage. To make the dish, the fennel is boiled, battered in egg and flour and fried in oil. It could be said that this dish is the result of a combination of raw milk, harvested mountainous plants and the time and effort of the women over a long period of time.

The amount of ewe’s milk is not as plentiful as it used to be at the village. It wasn’t the case four years ago: the ewes would be milked each day by the women, after they were grazed in the valleys in the spring and summer months. The collected milk was handed over to the mobile milk collector to be kept in the cooperative’s cold storage facilities. From there, it was taken by those who process the milk.

The situation now is very different to what is was four years ago. In 2015, everything changed as a result of the whirlpool of violence which started once again due to the policies of the AKP government. Sheep must be grazed in the valleys and pastures. However, when the AKP government prohibited access to valleys and grazing areas, almost all villagers had to sell their livestock. While the sheep population of the 46 household-village was 1,200, four years ago, the number now is almost only 100.

The mukhtar of the village, whose house I stayed in, told me how he sold his sheep to buy two cows. The story continues with the difficulty he faces to feed the animals, the additional feed needed for the cows but that now they have no other choice: “the sheep were like our factories, if we had sheep, we had no livelihood problems”. His tone of voice tells me how dear the sheep were to them all… My thoughts about the sheep are interrupted by the sounds of playing children under the neighbour’s apple tree, carried inside by a light, apple-fresh breeze.

III. The natives of Patagonia and the entrance of Tatvan

The main source of nutrition for the people living in Pinnacle Cave was shellfish and a variety of plants for a very long time. In time, other similar caves were also found. Those caves were also home to shellfish remnants, leading to hypotheses about how humans spread out over the globe. The migration route of humans spanning tens of thousands of years shows that the journey began from the shores of the seas and oceans, where the flora and shellfish hitting the shore with the tides provided a livelihood for those on the route of survival.

The migration of humans followed the shore, sixteen thousand years ago, and reach the then shallow Bering Strait. This shallow strait allowed them to cross over to the continent of America. From here, they crossed the entire continent, and arrived at the coast of Chile, close to the south pole, reaching the cold and deserted Patagonia region. The main source of nutrition for the Patagonian natives was shellfish until two centuries ago.

IV. Jemmy Button and The Pearl Button  

The workshop at the village ended in the late evening. The mukhtar insisted on accompanying me to Tatvan. This common act of hospitality did not come as a surprise. He dropped me off at my hotel, we said our goodbyes until next time. In my room I turn on the TV. To my luck, The Pearl Button airs tonight. It’s a documentary by the Chilean director Patricio Guzmán. A two hundred-year history of Chile is outlined by taking the natives of Patagonia and two pearl buttons as its main focus. I start to work at my computer, but I listen to the documentary at the same time.

Patagonia. The place where people have travelled from island to island in small handmade canoes, where shellfish are consumed, the place where the words “god” and “police” do not exist in the native language, the lands which are home to various native communities until migrants from Chile and European countries sailed to its shores two hundred years ago. The migrants committed decimation of the natives. They tried to “educate” them and enslaved them.

The most well-known native in the history of this decimation was “Jemmy Button”. No one knows his real name.

While trying to gather information about thermometers to measure the temperature of milk during the pasteurisation process, I try to listen-watch the documentary. In the meetings I had with the women of the Kavar Cooperative, they had informed me about the difficulty of making cheese from boiled milk and how the cheese of this milk is not as tasty. The women are the experts in milking cows and cheese-making. And they all know about Brucella and that it is transmitted to humans from raw milk and cheeses.

The Pearl Button is a documentary outlining a two hundred-year history of Chile by taking the natives of Patagonia and two pearl buttons as its main focus. The Jemmy Button in the documentary is a Patagonian native taken to England by Robert Fitzroy who had collected the evidence which served as the basis of Darwin’s Origin of Species.

I had informed that the risk of Brucella could be eliminated when making cheese if the was warmed at low heat up to 72 degrees centigrade and pasteurised for 15 seconds. I had also informed that this process would not affect the taste. But it is very difficult to carry out the low-heat pasteurisation process without the necessary thermometers to measure the heat during the process. Here I was, my eyes on the thermometers on the internet, my ears on the pearl button. I finally find a few examples which I want to show the women the next day, I save the files. The documentary is so engaging that I cannot help but continue watching. When it ends, thoughts, memories, evocations swim through my mind…

“Evolution” of Jemmy Button (1839)

The Jemmy Button we see in the documentary is a Patagonian native who was taken to England by a man named Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the famous ship the Beagle (which sailed for five years around the world) and who had collected the evidence which served as the basis of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Robert Fitzroy had in mind to “civilise” and display (!) Jemmy Button. It is claimed that, while on a journey to map out the Patagonia region, Fitzroy had persuaded Jemmy Button to travel with him to England in exchange of –lo and behold– a pearl button.

Buttons of different shapes and sizes are made from the mother of pearl of seashells. These buttons were the most important aspect of the clothing worn in cold climates. Maybe Jemmy Button was so easily convinced due to the durable pearl buttons. This reminded me of Napoleon’s Russian expedition.

A button is not just a button! In 1812, Napoleon reached Moscow during his expedition to Russia. However, it was winter months and they had run out of food supplies. Only 50 thousand out of the 500 thousand soldiers could make it back home. Most of the soldiers froze to death. One of the reasons suggesting to what contributed to the death of these soldiers was that the buttons on their overcoats were made of tin. These tin buttons froze and crumbled away in the cold weather.

V. Women, bees and cooperation

It’s early morning. I am at the village again. We are discussing the process of drying with the women. We trying to decide which vegetables are more suitable for drying. We are talking about which vegetables will be produced next year, but vegetable production in the region is very low. The main reason for this is that the water supply to the villages from the valley become scarce during the months of July and August. Growing vegetables requires a lot of water; but the water supply is barely enough to meet the daily needs during those months. So, they can only plan to grow vegetables for their own consumption, and not attempt a larger scale production.

A main concern for the village is the dying of bees. All the women are beekeepers. Today the bees are in their hives, but tomorrow the hives may be empty. I explain that the reason for the empty hives could be because of pesticides. There is an opinion that pesticides may be harming the internal navigation system of bees, which prevent them from finding their own hives.

The detrimental impact of the bee hives is also a topic of discussion that same evening with the men of the village. But, as I understand, the use of pesticides in the village is very minimal –agriculture is limited due to the water shortage, hence the limited use of pesticides. So, it is difficult to conclude that pesticides are the main reason for the death of bees. My own opinion on the matter is that the temperatures are very variable, even within seasonal averages. Perhaps these factors combine to create this impact. I cannot be sure.

Discussions then centre around finding a water source for farming purposes. I’m told that years ago, the villagers pooled their resources to establish a pipeline to carry water to the village from the valley, which is kilometres away. The story is one of real tenacity. The village made many applications to all relevant public institutions regarding their request for a water supply. No solutions were brought by the public institutions. Finally, the villagers got tired of waiting and decided to take the matter into their own hands and came up with their own solution.

In the last two years, the amount of snowfall has gradually decreased. In due time, this may mean that water in the summer months will become less and less. We keep on discussing the climate crisis, what this means in terms of rainfall, possibility of drought and how water can be preserved. However, currently, the most urgent problem for the villagers are their dying bees.

VI. Fifty shades of violence

Four years ago, we had discussed with the villagers the problems they face. But then, spirits were high. In the 1990’s, the state forced the villagers (who were members of the Kavar Cooperative) out of their villages and they were forced to migrate to other regions. During my last visit, I sensed a renewed feeling of security in the villagers; those who had the means of returning to their villages in the 2000’s and started afresh. They repaired their houses, took on breeding livestock, started their beehives and began to cultivate the land once again. But this time around, I observed that their spirits were wounded and their previous liveliness was not in sight. The lives of these people were made even more difficult, and it was clear that the government’s security policies was the main culprit. Here, violence is a part of daily life.

There are many types of violence. The never-ending reminder and permeating experience of violence is a rasp on the desire of peaceful coexistence. The earth is not owned by individuals or communities or states and it shall never be the case. However, there are always those who relentlessly say “mine”. Thankfully, there are those who do cry out, “we can live here together in freedom and peace”. Sometimes we hear this cry from a far-off land, like Chile, through the voice of Guzman’s The Pearl Button. And we realise that not only our hopes and desires for the future, but our daily sorrows are common.

In 2015, everything changed as a result of the whirlpool of violence which started once again due to the policies of the AKP government. When the government prohibited access to valleys and grazing areas, almost all villagers had to sell their livestock.

From one end to the other, Chile is four thousand kilometres. The natives of Patagonia are geographically so far from the central government, that they have never felt a belonging to the state of Chile. Those in power have always oppressed the natives and have not allowed them to enjoy their rights or met their political demands. This has kept on until the time of Salvador Allende, who promised to recognise the democratic rights to the natives.

In 1970, when Allende, a Marxist, was elected as the president of the country, he kept his promise and recognised the language and the culture of the natives. The small population of natives still talk of Allende as a legendary leader. In 1973, acting with the support of the US secret service, General Pinochet overthrew the Allende government by a bloody coup. Pinochet declared a dictatorship in Chile and Chileans paid a high price for supporting a socialist government.

The fascist Pinochet regime rounded up thousands of Allende supporters into more than eight hundred concentration camps throughout Chile. Thousands of people were the subject of torture in these camps. Not satisfied with murdering thousands of Allende supporters, their bodies were tied to railway tracks, put into sacks and thrown into the depths of the ocean.

Long years later, the Pinochet regime was overthrown. Investigations into the “missing” persons under the regime were called for. The depositions of assailants and accounts of eyewitnesses led to a search in different regions. The underwater search resulted in the finding of countless, rusty and corroded railway tracks. There was, of course, no longer any trace of the victims, human remains had naturally become an inseparable part of the ocean. However, there were signs of these people to be found on the railway tracks: each track was unique in its shape and bear witness to the physical trace of the human body it had coupled.

Today, these railway tracks are on display in a museum. One which stands out from the rest is displayed with a magnifying glass: to ensure that the remnants on its surface are clearly visible. With the help of the magnifying glass, it is possible to see one pearl button, embedded into the iron of the railway track. One button, mother of pearl; the only remainder as evidence of someone who once lived.

It was a single pearl button that not only cost Jemmy Button his freedom but also lead to his displacement. Years after the murders by a regime which not only took away their freedoms, but also took their lives, the only thing to attest to their existence is a mother of pearl button embedded into the cold iron of a railway track. It is this lone button that reminds us why efforts of speaking out for the rights of those of another land, a separate language, different culture, decades apart from the days of their sorrows is such a virtuous endeavour.

VII. “Remember to be happy – or at least hopeful”

On the way back to Tatvan we are faced with a very long queue of vehicles at the security check point of the district’s entrance. We have no idea why. The drivers inform that sometimes they have had to wait for over an hour at the check point. After a 20-minute wait, we finally enter the district. I ask the driver to drop me off on the outskirt; I wish to take a walk on the shore of Lake Van.

As I walk, I run the experiences of the week in my head. And draw parallels between these and the book I’m reading about the migration of mankind, The Peral Button documentary, the devastation caused by military coups in Chile and also Turkey. And the Mamak and Diyarbakir prisons which were transformed into torture camps. I think about those killed and those who are “lost” under custody. The military coup of September 12, 1980 ripped away the soul and spirit of this country.

Does evil manifest itself in the same way everywhere? And what about compassion?

I arrive at the crossroad which leads to my hotel. I spot something written on the wall of a house nearby. It is as if a message for me, placed at the right time and place: “Don’t forget to be happy”. (In Turkish; Mutlu olmayı ihmal etme.)

I look at the words and add a phrase: “Don’t forget to be happy – or at least hopeful!” Tomorrow, I shall be on my way home.

VIII. “We are all the streams of the same water”

The mukhtar accompanied me to the airport. As we drove to the airport, we revisited the idea of establishing a dairy for the cooperative, taking up the discussion we had had four years ago during my last visit. “Kismet”, as we say, maybe one day it can become a reality.

I look down to Lake Van from the airplane window. What is the starting point of the rivers which feed the lake? How far do the rivers branching out from the lake go? Water has no limits. Aren’t the few hundred human beings surviving in Pinnacle Cave thousands of years ago just like the rivers and streams spreading out to all corners of the earth? As the Chilean poet Raul Zurita says: “We are all streams of the same water.

Translated by Ebru Pepedil


[1] Jonathan Silvertown, Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink and Evolution, 2017; pp. 43-47 of the Turkish translation of the book by Can Evren, Kolektif Kitap.
[2] Curtis W. Marean, “When the Sea Saved Humanity”, Scientific American, 2012.