Love, law and good old moral outrage

Turks believe the row over 13-year-old 'bride' is typical of English jingoism
DEVLET Yildirim could not have thought up a more prescient name for his hair salon: the Little Bride, its flimsy veiled door set next to the janitor's flat where a 13-year-old Essex schoolgirl, Sarah Cook, was to spend her first days of "marriage'' to her Turkish holiday lover.

Not so long ago, Mr Yildirim's own bride was little too. He married a 13-year-old girl, a girl 17 years his junior, and, like most of the rest of the population of this eastern Turkish town, has been astonished to learn of British notions that this might be morally or physically wrong.

"We get on very well. She was going to school, but I took her out of classes. Everything else she learned from me. That's normal here,'' said Mr Yildirim - though his 21-year-old assistant, Attila, quickly made clear that his generation of Turks took a different view. Young brides were now much rarer. But his friends had no objection to girls who wanted early marriage and whose parents agreed - as in the case of Sarah Cook.

So it is perhaps not surprising that British moral outrage at the way Sarah could be illegally "married'' to 18-year-old Musa Komeagac has been met by mounting indignation in Kahramanmaras. Reporting on growing local resistance to a British High Court decision ordering Sarah's immediate return as a ward of court, one national television presenter dubbed the struggle for Sarah a "national cause''.

Driving over the quirkily named Black Moustache Mountains into Kahramanmaras, I sought folk wisdom on the subject of young brides. My travelling companion, Ahmed Yuksel, had seen it all in his 61 years, in which time this region has hurtled from an 18th century subsistence economy into booming, modern city life. Back in 1947 he was aged 13, his bride just six months older.

"Young people are hottest at 14 or 15. That's when the sherbert really fizzes. After 20, the polish begins to wear off, doesn't it?" Mr Yuksel said. ''This Sarah loves the boy, Musa. That means she is a woman and ready to bear children. But things have already changed a lot here. Before they brought in that civil code, people used to marry off the girls as soon as they were big enough to jump over the roof roller'', a device used for squeezing rainwater out of flat mud roofs.

As I talked to more people, it became clear that Turks were less worried about young brides than the fundamental legitimacy of their laws. They wanted to move from the outdated Islamic sharia law of their Ottoman grandparents, but had not completely assimilated the Swiss civil code dictated to them by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of republican Turkey, in the 1920s.

"It's not just the civil code,'' a baggy trousered local notable said as we broke the Ramadan fast together. ''We also imported the Italian penal code, the French commercial code and some laws from Germany. And underneath we still have our old customs. The fact is, we're all mixed up.''

The provincial governor of Kahramanmaras came up with a formula to square the legal circle, calling Sarah and Musa "not officially married, but married according to our customs and beliefs''. Even the line taken by Turkey's racy media has been quite different to the more prudish tones detected in Britain.

With Musa still languishing romantically in jail and Sarah defying British officials trying to order her home, Turks were told of a story of love, a latter-day fable of Leyla and Majnoun - a Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet - in which Britain and Turkey were cast as the Houses of Montagu and Capulet. "My only crime is to have loved,'' Musa told Turkish television on Wednesday night, speaking from his concrete prison outside of town. "My wife loves me too. She changed her country, her religion, her way of life for me. They didn't throw her in jail, but they have turned Turkey and England into one big prison for her.''

Musa's English communication with Sarah is not exactly Shakespearean. A letter from jail, addressed "Hello Hony Bony'', read: "My very much bad because my heart only you for working understand but England manager to get you please understand my heart work finish and for ever sleep I love you...''

But love is blind for a curious coalition of Islamic revivalists, delighted by their new convert, and liberal and feminist commentators outraged at the Turkish court's clumsy virginity testing of Sarah and the jailing of Musa on charges of statutory rape. Moreover, Musa said on Friday that Sarah, who moved to Turkey in November, is now six weeks pregnant and ''wants to be a mother'', though Sarah yesterday denied that she was pregnant.

''Sarah felt herself ugly," wrote novelist Duyge Asena, "and loved Musa when he loved her. If the two families agreed to the marriage, what forcing has there been?'' Other commentators agreed: everybody was happy except for the Turkish government, keen to prove its imported European laws were at work, and British public opinion, always sniffy on the subject of Turks.

"The English popular press just loves to look down its nose at Turkey,'' said the noted foreign affairs commentator Sami Kohen. Turkish anger was further fuelled by prejudice and distortions in tabloid reports. The Sun's remarkable break of Sarah's story last Monday maintained, for instance, that Kahramanmaras was a "village.'' In fact, about 400,000 people live in this bustling market town, centre of a booming cotton, textile and farming region. Sarah's "father-in-law'' may be a "humble caretaker", but he has a rent-free flat, two houses of his own, a shop and a car.

The Turks are also upset at the British assumption of moral superiority. I was constantly asked whether young teenage marriages were so much worse than young single teenage pregnancies or drug addiction, problems that are only just beginning to surface in Turkey.

Others challenged the idea that Sarah's exchanging of a cold life in Braintree, teased in school for being a podgy and having a squint, was necessarily worse than the jealously protective blanket of love and attention that she was clearly getting from her new Turkish family.

In the end, however, there may prove to have been little that was saintly in the struggle for Sarah or for her story. I slipped into the family's confidence as a translator. A female Turkish TV reporter went further, climbing over Sarah's family's garden wall, knocking on the back door and shouting: "Sarah, Sarah, let me in! I'm just a kid of 20 and I want to share your feelings!'' She was met by a ripe rebuff: "If you think I am just a kid, get the f--- out.''

Among themselves, some Turks also acknowledge that one of the attractions of Sarah for Musa must have been the dream of a better life in the West. Sarah decided on her drastic course of action after Britain had rejected a visa application by Musa, who has not yet done his military service.

"I know how this boy thinks,'' said a local hotel keeper. ''He has seen all the films. He thinks the West will give him a comfortable life. So he chose a woman. But it turned out to be the wrong woman at the wrong time. But I've been in Germany and I came back. I know the West is not always as wonderful as they make it out to be.''