Some guys buy sports cars to cope with turning 40. Gökhan Mekik flew 5,500 miles, tugged on trousers of water buffalo hide, slathered his upper body in olive oil and went to battle in the Turkish national sport of oil wrestling.
In body and heart, the Turkish-born Charlottean went home again.
You might never have heard of the slippery sport. Mekik himself had never fought, but he comes from Edirne, home of the oil wrestling tournament called Kirkpinar, which has been staged each summer since 1362. Wrestling there is deeply rooted in family and honor, and the right to be called pehlivan – it means “hero” – passed from father to son through generations.
It’s part of a heritage that Mekik had once brushed aside but ached to reclaim. After moving to the U.S. in 1999, he worked for US Airways and now runs an expedited-shipping company. But he sometimes thought, as he grew older, of how little he knew of his native culture.
When a 2008 motorcycle accident broke his legs and left him in a two-week coma, Mekik pondered the missed chances in his life.
“In the hospital, I started feeling like I wish I had done this, done that,” he said. “That became more painful than my legs.”
Depressed and out of shape, he thought of Kirkpinar.
The tournament’s age limit is 40, which Mekik would reach the following year, in 2012. It left no time to waste. He yearned to experience sweaty grappling on grass.
Charlotte resident Gökhan Mekik (center) wrestles an opponent in a frame from “The Oil Wrestler,” a documentary about his quest to compete in the Turkish national sport at age 40.
Brian Felsen Electrolyte Productions
“He is extremely curious, and when he’s interested in something he wants to understand as deeply as possible,” said his wife, Jane. “He obviously has an adventurous spirit and likes physical challenges.”
Mekik thought his unlikely quest could also shine light on his homeland, an impulse that once led him to open Charlotte’s only Turkish restaurant and, in 2014, to start a school that taught Turkish language and culture. Both are now closed, although Mekik hopes to reopen the school.
He called Brian Felsen, a Los Angeles artist who he had met years earlier after Felsen produced a documentary on Turkish military coups. The result is “The Oil Wrestler,” a documentary about Mekik’s adventure that Felsen completed just a few weeks ago.
“I think he knew that what he was doing was a little bit crazy,” Felsen said. “I got sucked into it.”
‘Thrown around like a sack’
The film, which has not yet been released publicly, takes it from there:
Mekik, we learn, is prone to grand, tender gestures. Years after the sudden death in 2000 of his sister, Gülhan, he walked 1,000 miles across Turkey in her memory, from her home to her grave. Her portrait is tattooed on his left shoulder and her name was stamped on the back of the wrestling trousers called kisbet.
“I always feel like she is watching me,” Mekik says. “What should I do that would make her happy?”
His mother, back in Turkey, did not applaud her son’s foray into oil wrestling.
“They’ll call you a lunatic!” she cries over the phone. “You’ll be thrown around like a sack! They’ll break your arms and legs! You’ll become crippled! Did you lose your marbles?”
His father frets that an experienced wrestler will try to hurt his son: “He has a pure heart. He won’t know. He is very naïve.”
The film shows Mekik awkwardly jumping rope as he begins training, nearly collapsing on a cross-training machine and yelping as he lowers himself into an ice bath. He trains with North Carolina wrestling coach Adem Kaya and endures the high heat and humidity of hot yoga with the instructor who is now his wife.
After a year of training, the 6-foot, 190-pound Mekik lands in Turkey to compete.
Mekik first travels to Biga in hopes of notching a win that will let him compete in Kirkpinar. Officials turn him away because of his age and inexperience, but allow Mekik to wrestle for the camera. He is quickly defeated.
At his next qualification stop, in Silivri, he wrestles for 14 minutes before his exhausted opponent concedes. Advancing to the next round, a larger man pins Mekik in 25 seconds.
Then it’s on to Edirne, where for a month Mekik is allowed to learn wrestling technique and culture with a team of experienced wrestlers. In turn, his future wife, Jane Patterson, gives the pehlivan yoga lessons.
“They understood my mission,” he says. “I felt adopted to their clan.”
The last pure thing
On the day Mekik is to wrestle at Kirkpinar, banners fly in a small stadium where the grass grows long to cushion falls. Brass bands blare and costumed men pound drums. The 100-degree air smells of olive oil.
“The only pure thing left for Muslim Turks is oil wrestling,” says former champion pehlivan Kenan Simsek. In the old days, a single bout could last up to two days. Now they’re limited to 45 minutes.
But Mekik’s big day is a nervous rush, ancient rituals set aside.
Mekik had been told he would wrestle a day later and has little time to prepare. He struggles to squeeze into his zipperless kisbet. He and his opponent, a 26-year-old also in his first competition, don’t have time to properly anoint each other with oil. There is no time for the pre-bout dance of courage that simulates eagles taking flight.
Fourteen minutes into their bout, the younger man is out of breath. But as Mekik rolls to his right in an effort to pin him, his belly turns toward the sky – one of several ways way to lose – and the bout is over.
Mekik briefly embraces his opponent then walks slowly off the field, head down.
“I wish I could have gone a little farther. The reason I didn’t was my own movement,” Mekik says. “But that didn’t last very long because I didn’t go there to be a champion but to experience what I could.
“It was a feeling that I wish could last a little longer.”
A new challenge
Now 45, Mekik’s wrestling days are over. He has a new appreciation for the old sport – the endurance, power, flexibility and balance it demands – and for his native culture.
He and Felsen have no expectations “The Oil Wrestler” will be a commercial hit, but they believe the documentary will find an audience. Mekik said he will plow any money he makes from it into reopening the Turkish school in Charlotte, named “Gülhan’s Children” for his late sister, who was a teacher.