Backstory: Wrestling on a mountain in Turkey

A trip for a cup of tea was interrupted by a village wrestling match.

We went to the wrestling festival by accident. My husband Jack and I are bicycling through northeastern Turkey this fall, visiting the mountains where Jack worked as a hiking guide in the early 1990s. One Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, we turned off the highway and pedaled up a winding side canyon, in search of a 10th-century Georgian cathedral and a few glasses of steaming black tea.

The cathedral was there, in all its ruined glory, but the tea wasn't.

"Tea? Yok," said the village storekeeper. "Bread? Yok. Cola? Yok." Everything had been hauled several miles up the valley in preparation for the next day's wrestling festival, he reported.

Wrestling? Jack and I looked at each other. Maybe it was worth pitching our tent here in Çamliyamaç.

The next morning, the village was in a tizzy of anticipation.

We caught a crowded minibus for the white-knuckle ride up the narrow valley, and tumbled out with other passengers into a meadow surrounded by steep, mist-wrapped slopes and a scattering of wood and stone houses. The festival, we soon discovered, was a combination of county fair and family reunion; to our Western eyes, this celebration was both exotic and deeply familiar.

While we wandered around the makeshift wrestling ring staked out in the grass with plastic flagging tape, a crowd of well over 1,000 gathered in the meadow, packing the bleachers and claiming picnic spots nearby. Smoke from small cooking fires rose into the chilly air; knots of gray-bearded men sat around outdoor tables, enjoying those elusive glasses of tea; vendors loaded skewers with lamb and chicken kebabs, and hawked housewares and trinkets.

Eastern Turkey, far from the beach resorts of the Mediterranean, is a conservative place, and we were in one of its most conservative redoubts. Near the ring, women sat separately from men, according to strict Muslim custom, and all but a few women wore fringed white or patterned headscarves. Yet Turks of all political and religious stripes are famed for their hospitality, and the signs of our outsider status – my bare head, Jack's baseball cap – were met with outstretched hands and warm greetings.

In fact, the welcome was a little too enthusiastic.

During the introductions of local sponsors and visiting dignitaries, we were – to our horror and amusement – hustled before the crowd.

"These are our guests from America!" cried the emcee, with all the verve and volume of a country auctioneer. "He speaks Turkish, and she understands a little. Let's give them a hand."

The crowd applauded kindly, and we were soon allowed to slink back to our inconspicuous seats.

The wrestling began with the smallest combatants – at 66 pounds or less, they looked like energetic sparrows battling for crumbs – and moved quickly through the ranks toward experienced amateur and professional fighters. These "grass wrestlers," as they're known here, fight barechested and barefoot, most in quilted green leggings of sturdy cotton.

Before each confrontation, the fighters performed a ceremonial warm-up dance meant to imitate an eagle's flapping wings (this was undertaken with fervent enthusiasm by the kids, reluctance by the teenagers, and a muscular grace by the men). Under the eye of a referee, the wrestlers then feinted and tangled, accompanied by a booming drum and the nasal, melancholy tones of the zurna, a Turkish flute. The winners sometimes celebrated with handsprings, and the opponents usually made up with a hug or a traditional kiss on the cheek.

Such festivals are common in rural Turkey. Many, like this one, take place in yaylas, the high-altitude summer villages where farmers pasture their stock. Urban Turks often maintain their family connections to these remote places, and return to the mountains for holidays and festivals.

Here, city life recedes: Cellphones are silent, and electronic entertainment is replaced by curving lines of men performing the halay, a traditional Anatolian dance.

In the afternoon, as the intensity of the matches increased, so did the questioning from our new acquaintances. One young soldier wanted to talk about Jim Carrey and Bob Dylan. A young woman in a snug headscarf, a student of English literature in the nearby city of Erzurum, stopped to chat about Jane Austen and Shakespeare. But most wanted to talk about politics.

"Iraq is our neighbor, Iran is our neighbor, Syria is our neighbor," said a high school geography teacher. "We feel as though we have to choose between America and our neighbors."

Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey has had a secular government – a point of pride for many Turks – and it has long had a friendly relationship with the US. But this is also an overwhelmingly Muslim country, with a sense of loyalty to the rest of the Islamic world. With conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East intensifying, many Turks' frustration with the US government is palpable.

Like its Muslim neighbors, Turkey is also seeing an upsurge in public expressions of belief; at the wrestling festival, the speeches by local politicians were heavily salted with religious references.

The last match of the day was hard-fought, and Adem Shakar, a broad-shouldered 28-year-old physical education teacher from Erzurum, lost in a contested decision. But he's got nothing to worry about. He participates in both grass wrestling and traditional Turkish oil wrestling – in which combatants slather themselves with olive oil – and he sometimes fights four matches in a single weekend. So he'll soon have another chance at the winner's purse of about $700 – and he may even confront the same opponent, as the world of Turkish wrestling is close-knit indeed.

"Inside the ring, we're competitors," he said, "but outside, we're friends."

At the end of the day, as the announcer's final exhortations echoed off the mountainside, we walked down the road to the village and its cathedral, where our bicycles awaited. The festival audience trickled past us in cars and trucks and minibuses, honking cheerfully and gesturing offers of rides. For the moment, at least, hospitality remained undimmed by politics.

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