The old house was in Cumalıkızık, outside Bursa, easily one of the most gorgeous places on the planet. The old chestnut-wood boards were almost totally exposed, but sturdy and it was just the size for maybe five guests and a salon/dining room. Our dream-starred eyes imagined a reconstructed Hansel-and-Gretel home, enchanted tourists eating wholesome fresh food and we, the gracious hosts, happily serving tea and telling our story. The lady who showed us the house owned it, at first. Then, after she could see we were really interested, it turned out her daughter actually owned it. What the place lacked was a garden; as lovely as the location was, a project such as we imagined included an outdoor venue for tea and meals. There WAS a garden, she said, and took us right across the road, lifted up some vines, and exposed a charming, wild vacant lot. I was rapturous, already planning to preserve most of the plants while clearing a space for memorable al fresco dining experiences. Until the lady told us that the garden was owned not only by her daughter and herself, but also by four other people, two of whom lived in Germany, and two others of whom she was pretty sure she could find. The whole dream started to fall apart then and was never resurrected.
Our village in the East has similar issues. Part of the land in the village belongs to the village as a whole, such as yayla grazing lands, and common grazing lands in the village proper. I don't know who owns the village bakery, but I believe it, too, is common. Other land belongs to individual families, but with marriages to relatives, which is mostly the case, the lines get very blurred. Large families add to the mix. For instance, if a field belongs to two brothers, each with an undivided half interest, and one brother has seven children and the other has six, and both have living wives, if they die in the same accident, there are now 15 people with various undivided interests in the land. In light of that, the idea of common grounds for grazing makes a lot of sense. Our little experience outlined earlier pales in comparison.
In Ottoman times, no one owned the land in the villages where they lived. Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, or so our elders tell us, there was a movement by the Young Turks to get more Europeanized. They persuaded the sultan to pass a law giving non-Muslims more rights and also to allow people in the villages to own land. Our family thinks they were one of the families who came under the latter part of that law. However that may be, after the establishment of the republic, lands were measured, meted out and recorded. The method used to determine who got what land was, basically, that the land you were farming and lived on became yours, so most people know when they were first given title deeds to their land. But it was still a long time ago, and many, many babies have been born since then. It becomes trickier, because in several villages, ours among them, new houses were built for people who owned houses in harm's way, in our case a cliff that likes to drop rocks on people during earthquakes. So, the question arises, if they sell the old house, does the new house go with it? Also, a garden, owned by a disabled auntie, is attached to the old house, so if she sells her interest in the garden, does the buyer get both houses? One? Just the garden? No answer is concrete, it seems, so whenever Sayda Bibi gets it into her head to sell the garden, a ruckus ensues that involves half the village.
Getting back to the republican land recordation, the government didn't measure and record yayla properties. What I call the shadow villages in the yayla are still occupied and used under customs that go back to the Ottomans, as to which village grazes its herds and lives in the buildings of which part of the plateau. Borders are designated by landmarks -- tors, streams, the summits of hills. However, even ancient custom is not respected always. In our yayla's case, a former muhtar of the actual village is said to have taken a present of a few goats, and maybe a cow, to allow another village the right to graze on our ancestral land. After a few years, the people in our village wanted it back, but the new tenants refused to comply, or even share, pulling out their “permission” letter from the former muhtar. Slowly, slowly this is moving to the courts, but when no one holds title to these lands, it is a pretty problem to figure out how to sue. Another example is the row that ensued in a neighboring village, that of a relative of ours, and involved land in the actual village. Another family was claiming land that was being farmed by our relative, who refused to budge. The other family had given a present to their muhtar, and he was backing their claim. With the muhtar in the lead, the claimant family marched on the land in question, only to be met at the border of the property, a bridge over a stream, by our relative and all of his relatives, the co-owners of the property in question. Fortunately, when they saw the size of our relative's family, who had turned out in force, there was no violence, just some fist-shaking, dire threats to save face and everyone went home.
My husband recently went to a relative's house, asking to see the Ottoman document said to be in their possession, designating the original title, before the republican one, of our Baba's grandfather's land. There was a great deal of hemming and hawing, but he got the document and photographed it. Unfortunately, no one we know can read it because it is written in antique Turkish, so he will go to the archive in İstanbul to see if anyone there can tell us what it is. It won't make any difference today, but it would be a link to our little bit of remaining land and its past that would mean a lot to us all.
So, if you ever visit a lovely village, and want to buy a place for a pension, think again, Pilgrim. Still villages run deep…
*Elsie and her husband live in Kocaeli, in the village of Eskihisar.