A town of smugglers and family memories A LETTER FROM KILIS, TURKEY

February 10, 1991|By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO | DIANA JEAN SCHEMO,Diana Jean Schemo is a Sun staff correspondent.

KILIS, TURKEY. — Kilis, Turkey.

IMEET KILIS, finally, shrouded in darkness, lit by a full moon. I have waited these years and now I come, to discover its poverty in wartime, to see what he left behind.

The streets are narrow, crammed with squat concrete buildings like secrets stuffed in crevices.

A statue of Kemal Ataturk stands in the main square, of course, along with the obligatory quotation in the post office.

All this could not have been here then.

"These houses were built in what, the 1940s?" I ask Resit Celebioglu, the local stringer for the Milliyet newspaper. "1978," he says. He is eager to please.

This is not at all what I imagined.

We are near the border with Syria, a place my grandfather, Jack Shrem, left as a boy some 80 years ago. Modern Turkey would come 12 years after his departure. His birth certificate bore the seal of the Ottoman Empire.

It is the first time I have come here, ever. I approach Kilis like the agile boys carrying bracelets of sesame bread piled high on their heads, bearing the tales he raised me on: Cent'il Telj -- the Year of the Snow -- when the rooftops were covered in white and

families stretched rope from house to house to find the way. How my grandfather was left back in school one year because he could not pinpoint Chicago on an unmarked map.

Each mile farther south on the drive from Adana, I see my grandfather more vividly: coming home from work, he stands at the bottom of the stairs and whistles to us kids. In the fading afternoon, he teaches my brothers Torah, tries vainly to teach me Arabic script.

With the years, he shrinks, losing some of his hair, his sight, his hearing. Near the end, head thrown back against the white hospital pillow, eyes half-closed, he silently mouths the words of his last Passover seder.

But this Kilis is quite different from the one I imagined him leaving. The Kilis he knew was part of the Jewish community in Aleppo, Syria, some 15 miles south. Since 1939, Kilis has become the border town between Turkey and Syria, and that border has come to define Kilis.

This is now a rogue's town of importers, smugglers and customs officers. An unusual number of people here are missing arms or legs, victims of mines laid around the border to deter smuggling.

We stop for dinner at Kilis' best restaurant, a second-floor terrace with vines and colored lights hanging from the ceiling. Carpets stretched across the wall show mosques under crescent moons, rendered in phosphorescent blues and yellows modern Kilis' answer to black velvet paintings? A television set up in the corner relates the day's fighting in the Persian Gulf.

A gypsy has somehow gotten his violin to play Turkish music, while a boy raps a bongo. The pair wanders from table to table; the owner and a few customers, stoked with the powerful licorice-tasting raki, sing hearty and proud.

I am the only woman here tonight, though the restaurant is packed, one might even say loaded. I think I am the only one sober.

Before long, the locals come to join us, eager to talk, to boast, to complain.

"If Turkey instead of America attacked Iraq, it would take us 10 days to get to Baghdad," said one customs officer.

"This embargo . . . ," he said, and flicked his wrist in dismissal of the U.N. blockade. "It's nonsense. We send Iraq olive oil, livestock, wheat. It goes through Syria, then Jordan. And from Jordan to Iraq."

The customs agent estimated that 50,000 tons of olive oil have made it through to Iraq this way since August, while the Ankara government looked the other way. "From our end, its legal. What happens after the merchandise leaves Syria is their business."

"This place is dying. Everyone is going," said Resit. "Whoever can afford to has left." Kilis has no industry of its own, and men like Resit see no future here; I guess my family didn't either.

"I started out taking photos, and that wasn't enough. Then I picked up reporting, and that's still not enough. I do what I can to make it," Resit said.

Because of the high birth rate, the overall population of Kilis has risen to 83,000 since 1985. But the last ten years have been marked by the exodus of thousands from this town. Poverty and desperation have taken root in the place they left behind.

As in much of the rest of Southern Turkey, those who are rich have gone to Istanbul, fearing the gulf war may spill over or Kilis become part of another territorial tug of war with Syria.

The smugglers have gone to Urfa and Mardin, closer to the Iraqi border, where they can make some real money.

After dinner, Resit offers to show us the old Jewish neighborhoods of Kilis. We go through a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets, Romanesque arches and jutting wooden balconies more reminiscent of Prague or Budapest than Damascus.

"Yehudi masboot," he repeated. "The Jews, they were good."

L I wonder if this is part of local hospitality or Kilis lore.

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