by James Tressler


The dog Sheriff was just another one of many dogs in the neighborhood.

People generally looked after him the same way they did the other street dogs. The shop owners put out bits of bread and dry pet food on the pavements outside their stores each day in an act of general hospitality, in line with the Turkish practice of placing a loaf of bread on the wall outside the house each day. It was not kindliness that drove this act, but rather, an almost unconscious nod to folk wisdom passed over the generations.

At night, if it was cold, most of the cafe owners allowed a dog or two to lounge in the warmth near the entrances, and the patrons in term would pat or cajole the street dogs, or offer bits of food from their plates. So the dogs, and the cats as well, were generally looked after.

The lives of street dogs and cats can be indeterminate, and brief; often, one simply disappears – a certain lean mastiff that caught your eye, or a bright, orange tabby cat, for instance – and you would wonder if it had died, or was taken away by the municipal authorities. But just as soon, others would come along and take their places.

Sheriff was a large, broad-shouldered dog with a massive head disproportionate to the rest of his body. He had a droopy face, and sad, droopy black eyes. He was called Sheriff because of his calm authority and lazy ways. Like the other street animals, Sheriff was a common fixture in this small, southern Anatolian town.

In the hot summer afternoons, he meandered, in his slow, oafish way, to the park, and slept in the shade of the trees, and in the evenings, wandered back over to the cafes to lounge near the tables. By all accounts, Sheriff was a quiet, easy-going dog – his age could be said to be around twelve, nobody knew exactly, but they could tell he was old by the way he walked. He had a certain dependable quality. He even got work once in a while. People talked about how one time a local construction firm used him as a security dog on one of its projects.

Meanwhile, in recent years, others had come to inhabit the streets of this quiet, southern Turkish town – the Syrians. The number of refugees had grown, at first slowly, and then quickly, as the war just over the border worsened. Even dispassionate observers acknowledged the veracity of media estimates that the refugees had come to outnumber the locals.

It was true many refugees had come. A good number of them stayed only a short time, bound for Istanbul, where there was more work, or else to Izmir, where the boats could take them over to Greece and on to points West – if they had that kind of money. These were the “lucky” ones.

The others, equally many, were stranded, had stayed, although some managed to open up shops.

Many of the refugees could be seen begging in the streets – passively, for the most part, with a simple placard announcing a simple plea for help, or else a father sending his little boy to hit up the people at the cafes, or a mother sitting on the sidewalk, while her children hungrily pursued and entreated passersby.

For a long time, the locals accepted, and even helped, the Syrians in the same way they helped the street dogs and cats – in part, with that inborn Turkish hospitality, and also because they were fellow Muslims.

As the months turned into years, however, attitudes had hardened. One local farmer, who claimed his entire cherry crop had been consumed by the Syrians, complained to a visiting reporter: 'It's true they are Muslims and we must help them. But surely, there must be other Muslims in the world!”

Word of “incidents,” in other villages, and in the cities, too, spread like a cancer. Wild, shocking stories, about Syrians taking over neighborhoods, of pillage, of rape, of unrest, began to work their way into the fabric of the countryside, breathing resentment, hostility.

It was in this vein, that the story of Sheriff the dog can be viewed.

One evening, in the town, three or four Syrian youths – the reports later identified them only by their first names and last initials – were reportedly seen abusing Sheriff. The old dog was being kicked and otherwise harassed by these same Syrian youths.

A gang of locals sprang on the Syrians. Knives were brandished on both sides, and a bloody fight soon erupted. By the time authorities arrived, several had been injured. At least one of the Syrian youths had been stabbed in the heart, and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. The others – local and Syrian – were treated and released, with charges reportedly pending.

The dog Sheriff was evidently OK, although the reports did not go into any detail in this regard. Following the incident, we are left to speculate that Sheriff went back to his normal street routine, none the worse for wear. Of course, this is great news, if that's the case. You imagine everyone being especially kind to him, and the cafe and shop owners making sure to feed him something special. You could even see Sheriff becoming a kind of local icon. For in this context, Sheriff would represent the feelings of the town, the outrage of easy-going, good nature abused by “invasive,” “violent-minded” outsiders.

“Why do they have to bring their heartbreak, their violence, upon us? Especially after all we've done to help them? Why don't they go back where they came from? Or take their shit elsewhere?” This would presumably be the not-common, not-unspoken sentiment of many in the town towards the refugees.

Anyway, the outcome of the actual case remains undetermined, regarding the Syrian attackers. But for now, the vague details of the incident stand out in sharp relief, against the thousand-fold other heartaches and sorrows that blister and haunt this troubled region. Shameful to say: You get (almost) immune to bombings, to attacks, and even to the tragic faces of the Syrians themselves on the streets. But when something happens to a decent dog like Sheriff, for some reason it bothers you more. What did old Sheriff ever do to anybody?

This may sound cynical, but something tells me that the fall-out would not have been nearly so drastic, so violent, had the attackers been other locals. Sure, there would have been intervention – sharp words, threats, maybe, even some shoving. But I don't think the knives would have been employed. In this situation, I think the dog Sheriff was, sadly for those concerned, a kind of ammunition. His mistreatment stood, in the locals' eyes, as fuel to their fire against the Syrians, along with all the other stories they'd heard about and read about and personally witnessed and withstood.

What Sheriff stood for in the eyes of the Syrian youths I cannot say.




James Tressler is the author of Conversations in Prague and The Trumpet Fisherman, and was a journalist for the Times-Standard in Eureka, California. He currently is living in Istanbul.