Zulkuf knows perhaps a dozen words in English, which is roughly 11 more words than I can speak in Kurdish. Sipas means thank you, and that’s the extent of my Kurdish vocabulary. He is a 41-year-old Kurd from south-central Turkey. But, like me, he is adept at communicating with hand signals and smiles. Or frowns. Or, occasionally, gently bringing his fingertips to his heart. His dark hair is so thick that Alec Baldwin would be jealous. The two times I have visited his corner of the world with other Armenian-Americans to explore the remains of Armenian civilization, he has been our driver. Last week when we were there, he proved that on top of everything else, he is a great friend.
Our group this summer included my wife and my daughter. Visiting medieval (and older) Armenian ruins in the desert in scorching August heat probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to a family vacation, but it was important to us because my daughter and I are part-Armenian and descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, and my blond wife is seriously Armo by Choice.
By the last day of the journey, our group – at one point as large as 16 – had dwindled to five: my wife and me, our daughter, our great friend Khatchig Mouradian who voluntarily leads these trips, and Zulkuf. Everyone else had returned home, because they were only planning on doing select parts of the expedition. We were now in northeastern Turkey and had spent the day before at the haunting medieval ruins of the Armenian city of Ani. We decided to conclude our trip by venturing to a small town called Digor to see St. Sargis, one of five ancient Armenian churches that Turkey blew up there in the 1950s, and the only one that partially survived the demolition.
We knew it was going to be a long walk to the ravine where the five churches had once stood. Moreover, my family and Zulkuf were recovering from a bout with a plague that, according to one local official, had sickened lots of the local children that summer. But as weak as we were, we gamely soldiered over some gently rolling hills, conserving our water, and eventually we reached the precipice. When we looked down we were utterly awed. Several hundred feet below us stood the battered but proud remains of the thirteenth-century structure, including the iconic dome that marks an Armenian church.
We were well aware of how privileged we were to see it; relatively few westerners have. We also knew that fewer still had climbed down into the ravine to walk inside it and savor its beauty up close. And so despite the fact that we were exhausted from nine days on the road and the hike to the edge of the cliff, we started down.
We took a circuitous path down the mountain, but it was still rocky and steep and there were vertigo-inducing moments when we looked over the edge and pined for a guardrail. Or the common sense to turn around. My wife fell and cut her arm, but gamely soldiered on.
When we got there, we were even more moved than when we had stared down at St. Sargis from the top of the cliff. It was among the highlights of the trip.
But then, of course, we had to climb back up – which brings me back to Zulkuf. My wife is in great physical shape. But she had been hit hard by the plague that week, and was still weak. She had also taken that tumble on the way down. We agreed that Zulkuf would always be in front of her as we ascended and I would always be behind her. Just in case. About a third of the way up the cliff, I started falling behind. Why? Because Zulkuf was quite literally pulling my wife up the mountain, not for one moment letting go of her hand. When we all reached the top, he just shrugged as if what he had done was nothing.
But that’s Zulkuf. Back in 2013, after we met the last survivor of the Armenian Genocide in Chungush, Turkey, most of our group was crying or on the verge of crying when we returned to the van. Zulkuf put his hand on one fellow’s shoulder and said, “In my country, we often don’t even cry when we lose a loved one. You people are so big-hearted you cry for people you never knew.”
Maybe. But Zulkuf, my friend? Your heart is plenty big, too. Sipas.