Monday, 13 May, 2024

A visit to Turkey’s Nizip, the cradle of pistachio cultivation

There are only three places in the world where pistachios are grown: Turkey, Iran and California – but it is here where they stem from originally.

At four AM a strange strummed melody comes in through my open bedroom window. I draw the curtains and, looking out across the blue-lit street, see a man standing in his undershirt on a balcony with an oud in his arms playing the first tentative notes of thehicaz makam. And then the Azan starts up, followed by a rooster somewhere crowing the dawn. Welcome to Nizip, where the urban and rural mix and mingle in strange and beguiling ways.

Few if any tourists come to Nizip, half an hour’s drive north-west of Gaziantep. We wouldn’t have come either, hadn’t we received an invitation for a henna night. After arriving by bus via Antep on an all-nighter from Istanbul, a taxi takes us from the Nizip bus station to a dusty lot, fringed with fig trees and I-like houses. There, men and women dance to old wedding songs issuing from a three-piece band (saz player, synth and vocalist), the women all dolled up in long dresses, headscarves and gold amid hot whirlwinds of mahalla dust.

It is our second night in Turkey and things are already jumping. Hadice dons all her gold and finery, links hands and dances halaywith the rest of the female guests. I sit down with the men, watch as guests throw money on the bride and the davul and zurna player, boys scrambling around, collecting stray bills. An old white-haired codger whips out a pistol from his pants and fires off a couple of rounds into the air. Curious neighbours peer out the windows at the goings-on, and nobody gives a hoot.

The next day we have a chance to look around a bit in the city of Nizip, population 100,000, pistachios being one of the biggest sources of income here. It is an unlikely destination for a tourist. The old Ottoman buildings in the çarşı are decrepit, falling in on each other and boarded up. There is not a single disco or movie theatre in town, no Western chains and shopping malls. What Nizip does have is a bustling, half Arab street life.

It used to be – maybe a hundred years ago – that people from the West headed East, fleeing the eager, restless, hurried life of Western civilization for the dreamy, somnolent East. In the time being it has become the other way round; the West – specifically Berlin (where I am coming from), has become slow-paced and lethargic, and Turkey the land of the hustle.

A lot of it here is thanks to the Syrian refugees eager to make a buck. The Syrian border is a mere 30 kilometres from Nizip, and just outside the city limits is one of Turkey’s biggest Syrian refugee camps – rows upon rows of small container houses and a mosque with a green minaret poking up at the back.

A lot of the shops in Nizip are Syrian-run and display Arabic script on their store-fronts. You can easily spot the Syrians; the women are mainly covered, sometimes all in black, wearing the niqab; the older men wearing long kaftans and distinctive Arabic headdresses. During the week you can see groups of Syrian itinerant workers, squatting in rows in the çarşı, waiting for someone with a job to organize.

A 600-year-old pistachio tree in Gaziantep province yields around 440 pounds of pistachio per year.
A 600-year-old pistachio tree in Gaziantep province yields around 440 pounds of pistachio per year. (AA)

There is, to be sure, a degree of resentment here in Nizip towards the Syrians. They say the crime rate has gone up considerably since their arrival, and it is alleged that some of the Syrians bring with drugs, in particular, a potent chemical concoction made in Syria called “Fire and Ice” Ateş ve Buz. However, there doesn’t seem to be that much outright racism. Islam is the glue that holds this society together – as in the Ottoman period, as in the present day in Turkey.

Hadice and I are staying with in-laws in Nizip. The husband is a doctor, the wife is occupied round the clock with household chores, making salça– tomato paste – and carving out green peppers for dolma.

It is through the wife that I meet, probably the only German in Nizip. One afternoon she comes over for tea and tells her story.

The woman – Melek is her Muslim name, Stephanie, her Christian one – met her husband some years ago in a small village in Lower Saxony, where he worked in a local McDonalds. The two hit it off. She took Islam, they married and started a kebab shop. The husband was from Nizip, and they would periodically come back to Nizip for holidays. Gradually they started spending more and more time here, until they decided to make Nizip their permanent residence. The idea was to bring up children in a Muslim setting, a place where the Azan could be heard daily.

It could well be that Melek’s husband is domineering and controlling, but her household chores keep her stress-free, she says. That, and the constant ebb and flow of neighbours and in-laws coming round for visits, keeps Melek active and makes life interesting for her. It isn’t like Germany, where one is often alone and prone to depressions; here there are constant diversions.

A striped hyena

On our second day in Nizip, a relative comes over, offering to take us round to see some of the local sites. His name is Mehmet, he speaks spotty English, and his dream is to start a local travel agency, showing off the local sites.

We hop in his white, new-model Opel hybrid and drive off. Soon we are in low, rolling hills covered with pistachio tree plantations as far as the eye can see. It is harvest time and here and there workers sit on plastic sheets under the cool shade of nut-laden trees.

"Fıstık" is the Turkish name for pistachios. There are only three places in the world where they are grown: here, Iran and California – but it is here where they stem from originally.

At the moment property prices are very high in Nizip owing to the pistachio cultivation. It is a far more lucrative trade than real estate. “The soil here is gold,” Mehmet says.

Our destination is Birecik, a historical town twenty minutes away from Nizip on the Euphrates (Firat) River, the dividing line between Turkish and Kurdish Anatolia.

Prior to 1958, there had been no bridge crossing the Euphrates at Birecik. People who wanted to cross the river had to rely upon ferryboat men to paddle them across. Till one day in 1958 when the bridge was built. The ferryboat men were suddenly put out of work. Enraged, they got together and conspired to kill the engineer who had built the bridge.

“This traffic is like Calcutta,” says Mehmet, as he jostles for a room on the streets, vying with motorbikes, whole families on the saddle, and horse-drawn wagons.

Birecik is all hustle and bustle. Its steep narrow streets necessitate the use of horse-drawn wagons as well as motorbikes, which are bedecked with colourful swaths of the Turkish carpet.

Narrow windy streets rise up to a ruined fortress on a limestone crag. No one knows about the history of this castle, only that it predated with Turks and the Kurds.

Although Birecik is largely a Kurdish town, Mehmet says that the original inhabitants were not Kurds, “but another people, who had blue eyes, white skin and blond hair, had long faces and couldn’t speak Kurdish.”

After getting some slushed ice to-go, we paid a visit to Birecik’s sole claim to fame: the Northern Bald Ibis birds. From Birecik these rare birds with black plumes and a long arching beak used to migrate every winter to Egypt. The problem was the Bedouins in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia kept hunting the bird. And so the municipality set up a large, towering aviary for the birds to winter in so that they didn’t have to make the perilous journey south.

One can’t get a close look at these peculiar birds, perched as they are far up in their cage. The best clue as to what they looked like are the stuffed examples in a small adjoining museum, where other rare animals native to the region stand on display, including a funny-looking soft-shelled tortoise, an iguana-like lizard and a striped hyena. I am particularly intrigued by the hyena, which I had previously thought only existed in Africa. Mehmet informs me it can also be found in some of the more isolated parts of the region, where it hunts nights.

We evade the custodian, who is more into trying to flog souvenirs with the Ibis logo on it and head off back into the low, rolling pistachio tree-covered landscape on a road the Germans had built 23 years ago. I look out into the dry, arid hills, and try to imagine the hyenas out there prowling the pistachio groves at night. The land is dry and parched and one has the feeling that the great deserts of the Middle East aren’t far now.

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