The Uncertain Fate of Laleli


Once you leave the Baksı Village and follow the river Çoruh, you would pass through endless shades of browns. Over the steppe that stretches before you, your eyes can only see the brown of the soil and the blue of the river Çoruh. As we were traveling, what made us halt for a moment was the 100-house village located on the shore of Çoruh which passes through the wide steppe and the trees surrounding the village. This village, Laleli, which is located on the blue coast of Çoruh has also given its name to the dam whose construction was planned in the 1960s but whose fate remains uncertain.

It is common practice to name the dams or hydroelectric power plants after the regions where these energy projects are built. This practice of naming is not without a reason. There are studies that indicate that the names of the regions are specifically chosen as part of public relations work that aims at influencing people’s thoughts and behaviors. Research shows that by preferring such names the authorities try to create the impression that those structures “belong to that region” and aim at gaining reputation, creating consent as well as persuading the people and getting their support.[1] It is difficult to say that this strategy works for Laleli:

“No one wants the dam here. Everyone has their own history here.”

“They say that we will be compensated for everything we own. They cannot compensate for the pleasure of drinking tea on that balcony.”

When we steer towards the village, we are not sure about exactly what we will find there. We did not talk to anyone from the village before the field research. We are moving with a feeling of the unknown. When we talk to the villagers, we understand that this feeling of unknown is also shared by the locals of Laleli.

When we sat in front of the computer and started to peruse the websites and books for our preliminary research, we were not able to get hold of any information about what happened to the Laleli Dam. Was it finished? Was it still under construction? Has the construction work ever begun? Even if it is not being built as of now, do they still consider building it? What we understand from the conversations we had with the villagers of Laleli is that uncertainty about the fate of the dam lingers on whether you are a researcher from Istanbul or a villager from Laleli.

For many years, nothing has been done in the village due to this uncertainty. In the 1960s, rumors about the construction of a dam began to circulate in the region. Drilling works have been carried out. In the 2000s, the rumors about the dam intensified. If they build the dam here, Laleli will be submerged under water. After 30 years of hearsay, the villagers have concluded that the dam is not going to be built. Only then they began the construction works in the village.

“Some people are renovating their houses. Others are building new villa-style houses. Because of the dam we remained backwards, otherwise, everything was very beautiful here.”

Even though they evaluate their situation in terms of backwardness, it is possible to say that the uncertainties about the dam contributed to the preservation of the village texture. Structures which were built with traditional construction techniques are very well preserved and people are actively using them. That said, concrete buildings have also started to take the place of old structures. The wooden mosque of the village is still standing; it is very well taken care of, and people are actively using it. After the people of the village concluded that the dam is not going to be built, they started constructing another mosque in the village. Yet, no public statements are made about the construction of the dam. People of Laleli interpret the presence of the public officials at the groundbreaking ceremony of the mosque as an indication of the decision to not construct the dam.

“The official groundbreaking ceremony was held with the participation of Erzurum Metropolitan Deputy Mayors, Pazaryolu Mayor and Deputy Mayors and people from the surrounding villages. At least the head officials of our state would have said to us ‘You are building a mosque here, but this place will be a dam.’”

Sitting in the coffee shop at the village center, we are conversing with the locals of Laleli. What we hear are familiar migration stories. With the dissolution of the rural areas, the villagers started experiencing economic hardship. In the 1950s, the migration wave to Ankara had begun. In Keçiören, there are 150 households from this village. In 1987, they founded the Laleli Culture and Solidarity Association in Keçiören. Both the people who migrated and those who stayed in the village are members of the association. People had migrated not only to Ankara, but also to Istanbul and Germany, albeit in smaller numbers. Nonetheless, even those who migrated return to the village on holidays.

“We want to be away from the cities. People are sick and tired of city life. In Keçiören, a neighborhood of 550 households, there are 150 households from Laleli. They all come here on holidays. None of them go to İzmir or any other place.”

Once the economic conditions got better in the village, people began to return. They are very attached to their village, their past, and their memories. We walk together along the shore of Çoruh. As we walk, we come across the famous İspir beans, laid under the sun, in the gardens of almost every house. The beans, bursting open under the sun, make us smile and remind us how fertile the lands of the village, which is in the middle of the steppe, are thanks to Çoruh. As we walk, we keep conversing with the locals of Laleli. They tell us about how people they met during mandatory military service were shocked when they figured out that they know how to swim even though there is no sea in Erzurum. They tell us stories about how the İspir beans became famous, how they cultivate beans in large amounts, how they do animal husbandry…

Just as it is the case with every village we visit, what awaits the graves when the village is submerged under water is a burning issue for Laleli. Besides all these concerns, they are hopeful that the dam will not be constructed. It seems that as this uncertainty subsides, the locals of Laleli will once again find their own life rhythm. 

[1] Alptekin Ocak