Ali İhsan Çolak is a 48-year-old transwoman who has been living in Akhisar’s Kayışlar Village for the last 13 years. She has established her trans identity amongst villagers, and long struggled to live openly.
Source: Sultan Eylem Keleş, “İhsan Hala: Fransa’dan Kayışlar Köyüne Bir Trans Dayanışma Hikayesi,” (“Auntie İhsan: A Story of Trans Solidarity from France to Kayışlar Village,”) Bianet, 6 February 2016, http://bianet.org/biamag/lgbti/171847-ihsan-hala-fransa-dan-kayislar-koyune-bir-trans-dayanisma-hikayesi
We are in Kayışlar Village in Manisa [a city in the Aegean Region, Turkey — Trans.], Akhisar district. We enter a green single family house through a massive yard. On our left is a sheep dog, who startles us a little at first. Then, we learn from Auntie İhsan that the dog is “Kontes” [Countess — Trans.], “she is a girl just like I am, that is why she is called Kontes,” İhsan adds, giggling. Behind this house is a 25-chicken flock: Auntie İhsan makes her living selling eggs.
Ali İhsan Çolak is a 48-year-old trans woman who has been living in Akhisar’s Kayışlar Village for the last 13 years.She has established her trans identity amongst villagers, and long struggled to live openly. At first, the villagers called her “Sister İhsan,” then “Auntie İhsan,” how they refer to her still.
Auntie İhsan welcomes us with all her warmth and a smile. We embrace tightly as though our lives touched before at some point. We enter a hall filled from end to end with hundreds of pictures of Bülent Ersoy [a famous transgender singer in Turkey, known as “Diva” — Trans.], A teapot heats on a stove. Auntie İhsan has been a huge Bülent Ersoy fan for as long as she can remember. She unsuccessfully tried contacting her many times. “Are you heartbroken?” we ask, to which she halfheartedly responds, “No, I love her anyways,” and keeps quiet.
Auntie İhsan’s bathroom, a detached mud-brick unit outside, as with other houses in the village, has been in bad shape for the last year. Unable to endure rainstorms, the bathroom collapsed, leaving Auntie İhsan helpless, unsure what to do.
Recently, Auntie İhsan has been trying to make ends meet by selling her chickens’ eggs, yet realizes she cannot herself afford to reconstruct the bathroom, so solicited support over social media. Dilara Gürcü, from France, knowing Auntie İhsan from the documentary “Hala” [paternal aunt — Trans.], responded to this call and launched an indiegogo campaign.
Though not very hopeful in the beginning, Dilara and Auntie İhsan cannot believe how much support they had received after a month. The campaign helped collect 6,500 of the 10,000 TL needed for the reconstruction. They drew together the rest from other external support.
Dilara explains the process: “I could not have imagined receiving this much support, however, when the sum reached somewhere around 5,000 I was convinced. I vouched for her and told the constructor we would pay in cash. And he rushed to finish the job before we arrived. For the past year, İhsan had been taking her showers in the backyard during the summer, and at her neighbors’ in the winter. For a woman, it is very depressing not to have a private area to bathe. This place was İhsan’s private area; it became her cocoon. She owes her existence to this house. We took a step towards making it habitable. I met amazing people during this campaign. I am very grateful to them all for trusting and knowing that the money would reach Auntie İhsan.”
As we chat, Auntie İhsan says, “Where’s France, where’s Kayışlar Village? It’s the other end of the world. I was not at all expecting such thing would happen. I was very hopeless.”
Auntie İhsan was born in Kayışlar Village, lived in İzmir starting from age 11 until her family fell sick. While in İzmir, she worked at a record store, loved her job, and got along well with the tradesmen in the neighborhood. Indeed, the small business owners called her “the butterfly” as she stopped by at every single store, and was acquainted with everyone.
While trying to establish her life there, and enjoying her occupation, her family fell sick and she felt obligated to return to her village after 30 years. She prefered not to return to İzmir after losing her family. She says it feels good to live in a home filled with her family’s memory and visit their grave.
Following her settling in the village, exploitative circumstances emerged for her. She started working at part-time and under-paid jobs with no benefits, no insurance. She works for 12 hours but is paid less than half of her wage. She has made a living by cleaning houses for a while; she says such jobs do not come up anymore. She wants to retire by paying for her own pension fund; “At least I would have a pension” she says, but she cannot pay for that either. She lives in a rental house, and her only means of living is the local eggs she sells. Her house is covered in mold all around. We ask what she does when it rains, she says she waits with a bucket and cloth in her hand.
Auntie İhsan cannot receive her father’s pension either, as her gender identity is stated as “male” on her ID card. She wants to have gender reassignment surgery, and submitted an application. However, she had to give up on that as well due to tedious procedures and expenses associated with the surgery. Women who hear about Auntie İhsan’s story send her packs full of cosmetics. She puts on her make up exultingly with aspiration in front of the mirror.
Press is very much interested in Auntie İhsan; however, the Auntie is not pleased with her statements being twisted in the news and tabloid news stories made about her. She mentions a number of people saying “I came for my class, I’ll do an assignment,” filming her documentary, writing news stories about her, earning money off of this work, and adds “you see, the rich man’s wealth tires the poor man’s mouth [a Turkish proverb used to make a point that poor talks too much about what the wealthy has. — Trans.],” and cracks up.
Auntie İhsan, indeed, wants to work and sustain her life with her earnings, yet she cannot find a job. When we look at her kitchen, we see holes in the ceiling, and an empty fridge. We learn that, she usually eats at her friends’; however, she told us about the buns she baked just for us with the herbs she picked. We enjoy her homemade pastries with tea brewed on a log burner, after which we have to take off.
We leave behind an aunt imprinted on our minds with her warmth, vivacity, and sincerity despite all the difficulties, all the pain she has been through.
Sultan Eylem Keleş is a student in Department of Journalism at Ege University, İzmir. She resides in İzmir, reports for Jiyan and Kaos GL, is a member of erktolia press commission, and an activist at Woman for Peace Initiative.