Firewood and Sweet Victory

UPON returning from the village coffeehouse one evening, my husband told me that he had agreed (on my behalf) that I would accompany our landlady, Zeynep, up into the hills the next morning to gather firewood. He had done so, he explained, because the men were skeptical of my willingness and my capability to perform a task so menial and arduous. ``You don't mind that I said you'd go?'' he questioned. Zeynep was the widow who had rented us her spare room for 15 liras a month - about $1.50. A goat, a loom for weaving goathair rugs, some orange trees, and a wild grapevine that yielded some of the finest grapes in the village were her only assets. Out of a growing affection for her we often called her Zeynep ``Anne,'' the Turkish word for ``mother.''

There was no graceful way to extricate myself from the plot. Words exchanged in the coffeehouse penetrated every courtyard and home, and not to go with Zeynep in the morning would mean loss of face that would undermine my role as a Peace Corps volunteer and would confirm to the villagers that American women were not the quality wives that Turkish women were.

I tried the tack of viewing the adventure as a lark - an episode that would provide good grist for letters to family and friends. After all, Zeynep must have been at least 60, and couldn't I feel reassured that whatever physical feat this slight, gray-haired woman could accomplish, I as a young woman in my 20s could expect to duplicate?

It was with this sense of adventure that I followed Zeynep and two other neighbor women the next morning on the path that led toward the foothills behind the village. Dressed in a long-sleeved shirt - one of my concessions to the Muslim culture in which we lived - and my shalvars, the traditional baggy pants of rural folk, I felt adequately dressed for the occasion. The tree roots that frequently laced the path made me grateful for the sturdy oxford shoes I had bought for our two years in Turkey. The gradual ascent over the next hour enlivened with periodic chatter about the upcoming marriage of the muhtar's daughter to the son of one of the larger landowners of the village. ``Have you seen the room where the young couple will live?'' asked one of the women. ``Didn't you think the embroidery on the pillow covers and tablecloths especially pretty?''

Since my initiation into Turkish village life, I had been wrestling with the fact that young adolescent girls lavished all their sewing skills on fancy embroidered items for their dowry instead of on more practical items, but I was beginning to comprehend the investment role that lace and ornate floral designs played in their successful entrance into womanhood.

We passed a concentration of walnut trees, which my companions surveyed. A few minutes later the women stopped, satisfied that there was sufficient wood on the ground to fill our loads. I stayed close by Zeynep to see the size and shape of the branches she selected - long ones, two inches or more thick. We made four equal piles, laying the wood neatly all in the same direction. Watching them work matter-of-factly at the job at hand, I envied them because their lives were not complicated with choices. They had known from girlhood what the structure of their lives would be like, and there had been no career changes.

The piles were swelling rapidly and I was beginning to have my first misgivings about the return trip. From deep within the folds of their shalvars the women produced heavy goat-hair ropes that they wound securely around their bundles of wood. Hunkering down, backs to their loads, they grasped the rope ends firmly, hoisted the wood up onto their backs, and stood up. As soon as Zeynep helped me lift my pile onto my back, it was evident to all four of us that I was not going to get up, let alone make it back to the village. I felt immediate empathy with young David in the Bible who had struggled to walk wearing Saul's armor. Gratefully, no tongues clicked in a ``just as I thought'' gesture. Supporting their own loads with one hand, they worked with their free hand to reduce my load by about a third. I assured them that it was now manageable and that I didn't want to delay them further.

We headed off down the path, slightly bent forward to compensate for the weight. I was less aware of the scenery this time, concentrating on keeping up with the three bobbing piles of wood ahead of me and keeping a watchful eye on the ground for any roots or unevenness. My pleasure at being able to share in this cross-cultural experience more than made up for the awkward posture of our descent.

This was an undeniable example of the sharp division of men's and women's work, and the fact that these women never thought to ask their husbands to take a turn at gathering wood would have offended my liberated friends back home. How could I explain to them that these women knew a kind of peace that eluded most Westernized women? That the basic chores of everyday life - the cooking, the washing, the bread baking, the sewing - were social experiences, and that the threads of fellowship and communal sharing brought levity to their labors. These women had plenty of manual labor; they did not have stress. We Westerners have exchanged toilsome lives for stressful ones and consider ourselves progressive, but I wondered if we hadn't struck a bad bargain.

I was getting lightheaded. The ropes which crossed my shoulders near the base of my neck seemed to be cutting off circulation. I could scarcely feel my feet touch the ground, and I felt as though I would be airborne at any moment. I repositioned the ropes an inch or two and forced my mind to focus. I sang inaudible songs - church hymns and nursery rhymes - anything to stave off the faintness. I mustn't disgrace myself. I must make it back, not just for my sake but my husband's and all American women's.

I was still doggedly following Zeynep's scraggly gray braid, which protruded below the point of her scarf, when I saw the minaret of the village mosque and realized that we were nearly home. The thought of imminent relief and my husband's welcome gave me a second wind. Just a few minutes more. We passed the house of Ossman, the elderly man who often visited us after dinner to teach us about Turkish history. Men on the road who ordinarily wouldn't have looked twice at a group of women carrying wood stared at us, and even the fact of my smaller load did not diminish my pride. At last we reached the rock wall around Zeynep's house and turned in at the gate. My husband came out with camera in hand to record the moment before I sank to my haunches to separate myself from my load.

I look at that picture today and see Zeynep beaming her almost toothless smile at me. It was a sweet victory!

ABOUT THE RUGS

The Kilim (or Kelim) rug is an all-purpose, multifunctional item commonplace in middle- and lower-class Turkish households. It is used as a curtain, bed cover, table cloth, or wall hanging, and is typically earth-toned in color and geometric in design. Colors are connected by what is called a ``slit weave,'' which creates gaps in the rug that are often misinterpreted as defects. Americans are enamored by the primitive charm of the Kilim, and at their relatively inexpensive cost of between $700 to $2,000, these rugs have become much sought-after.

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