memory of Kaliopi Kakmi (1939-1993)
emigrated from a tiny island to a vast one, from one end
of the earth to the other. My island's modern Turkish
name is Bozcaada. Translated, it means "barren island",
and its reputation is not to be disputed since most of
the island was denuded of trees centuries ago.
a mention of it in the Illiad and the Aeneid, and it's cited as one of the principal
centres of worship to the god, Dionysus, in the ancient
world. You'll find it at the mouth of the Dardanelles,
as it pours its waters into the Aegean Sea. During World
War One, the island would have echoed to the sounds of
gunfire from the battles fought at Gallipoli, so close
is it to that peninsula.
the island's strategic position, at one time or other
it has been occupied by Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines,
Venetians, Geneose and Ottomans. Since the collapse of
pagan antiquity, however, it has maintained a strong Greek
Christian presence, even during its long Ottoman occupation.
Briefly, in 1912, the island was liberated during the
First Balkan War, but the Treaty of Lausanne gave it back
to Turkey in 1923, forcing many of the Greeks to flee.
But to the few remaining Greeks or Rum (pronounced Roum) as the Turks call us,
the island is still known by its classical name: Tenedos.
antiquity, Tenedos, together with Santorini, was also
the sea-girded prison set-aside for vampires that, during
the day, were said to sleep in coffins lined with the
soil of their native land. This Achilles heel always seemed
puzzling to me. Vampires are meant to be noble immortals,
powerful creatures outside the bounds of nature.
That they should sleep on dusty earth seemed somehow
beneath their station. And, considering their eastern
European origins, their aversion to garlic seems downright
unpatriotic. I remained baffled by these contradictions
until the truth behind the legend dawned on me when I
finally set foot on my native soil after almost thirty
last time I saw my island, I was ten, and heading away
from it on board a boat that ferried passengers to the
Turkish mainland. Deep down I was as frozen as that February
dawn. From my perch at the prow of the boat, I remember
seeing an outline of the ruined castle on the crest of
the hill behind the village. Somewhere in that cluster
of sleeping houses, huddled at the base of the hill, are
my two cousins whom I will never see again, I thought.
The desolation that overwhelmed me as my home was finally
absorbed into the horizon and the waves has remained with
me to this day.
Greek family going into voluntary exile, we were bound
for Istanbul, whence we would fly to Athens and then on
to Melbourne, Australia. ‘At least now,’ my
father whispered, ‘we’ll have some money and
we won’t be persecuted.’ When I finally returned
to Tenedos for a visit, I was thirty-eight.
had left a boy in winter, and returned a man at the end
of summer. But as the modern, sleek ferry edged closer
and closer and the island turned from a purple-blue hump
on the horizon to a dry, scorched-looking reality, it
felt as though an eternity had gone by, and yet somehow
everything seemed to have stood still.
contracted, and I was a little boy in shorts and a grown
man with all his defences up all at once. It seemed a
great bridge extended from one shore of my life to the
other, joining the two halves, making inseparable that
which had been split for too long. I had expected tears,
great jubilation. This, after all, had been the spring
from which I had drawn every inspiration for decades.
This was the place where my memories were at their happiest
and sharpest. But I felt nothing. Not even numbness. Only
the curiosity of a distant and objective scientist come
to explore analyse, chart.
we -- my sister, my Turkish friend Ahmet and I -- walked
along the agonisingly familiar yet alien village, it was
as though these rickety, winding streets and haunted-looking
houses in which generations of our kin had lived had nothing
to do with me at all. Not even the house in which I was
born elicited the slightest emotion. I remember touching
its walls, standing back and taking in its unloved façade
and collapsed roof, and telling myself it was real. Yes,
it existed. I hadn’t made it up after all.
always had a secret fear that I was born in some unremarkable
suburb of Melbourne, and created a fantasy island to appease
my love of the exotic. But, no, here it all was. Real,
small, terribly small like a doll’s house. How could
four of us have lived there? I wished there had been some
way that we could force the padlock on the front door.
I remembered that it had been a flimsy door, at best.
Easily opened with a gentle kick. For all that, it might
as well have been a movie set; no more than a facade,
so divorced from it did I feel. Somehow unreal, and yet
more real than anything I had ever seen.
faces pressed against windows as we walked through the
steep streets. Occasionally, covered heads would pop out
of doors to watch as we passed by. One by one, an old
Greek neighbour, a Turkish grocer and teacher, emerged
to greet us with smiles and embraces that only those who
share a common history can summon. ‘Of course I
remember you, my child. You’re the spitting image
of your mother’ said the Greek woman to my sister.
‘I can’t believe you’ve come back.’
She wept, inviting us in for a drink.
even as we sipped a coffee and savoured a wedge of watermelon
in the tiny living room that seemed a museum piece from
my childhood, the affection, the gladness was tainted
by a detachment. I became aware we were regarding each
other with fondness, yes, but also like two separate and
outlandish species from across the gulf of time.
seemed to me that the kindly woman and her husband had
more in common with Ahmet than they did with my sister
and me. ‘It’s that you only have your memories
to bind you,’ Ahmet observed. ‘Whereas we
are bound by the pulse of our everyday lives here. Time
has moved on.’ I understood, of course, but it did
not make it easier to find oneself suddenly a stranger
in the place that should have been home. Nor did the greater
irony escape me that my sister and I were two Greeks being
escorted around our own island by a close friend who,
nevertheless, was a Turk. I had a dawning sense of what
it means to be spiritually homeless.
the second day, we visited the omphalos, the navel, of our life on Tenedos: the
summerhouse, with its vegetable gardens, vineyard, olive
and cherry groves that had been so carefully tended by
my father, and watered by a spring and the four wells
that dotted the property.
to convey my feelings as the chapel of Saint Theodoros
-- with its curious twin stars on either side of the entrance
-- appeared around the road bend. For generations, my
family had tended this chapel, and in return the saint
had watched over us. And there just beyond it the rough,
clay-red stonework of the primitive, flat-roofed house
in which we lived during the African summer months. My
heart sank as I saw that the line of poplars that used
to guard the house from the road were all gone.
the road, where there had been a copse of trees now stood
a gaudy version of a peasant farmhouse, with a disproportionate
satellite dish teetering on the roof (the summer retreat
of a famous actress, Ahmet said). Suddenly, I remembered
how when I was eight, I had been bitten by a scorpion
while asleep in my bed and had been rushed to Çanakkale
for an injection.
wandering through the ruin of my father’s pride,
beneath the dropping sun of that second day, the garden
was a riot of weeds, thistles and stunted fig trees. It
appeared that the spring had long dried up, the wells
were empty and filled in with dirt, and the cherry grove
had vanished. Gone, too, was the mysterious grave on which
I had sat in the depths of summer to read in the shade
of the olive trees. The house was no more than a shack
for goats. My mother’s kitchen, with its stone oven
at the back, was shrouded in a darkness and a silence
that seemed infinite. As if in protest, the roof of the
chapel had caved in soon after we had left, and the interior
had been stripped. Nothing remained of what we had been,
or so it seemed.
had we come here? To see what, exactly? My heart was breaking.
And then, through a confluence of the sun’s heat
upon the red baked soil, and the burning flat leaves of
the vines, the dusty, sweetly familiar smell of long-forgotten
summers spent in a lazy idyll, zapped through my nostrils
and erupted like a lava flow in my brain. It was a riotous
slide-show playing itself out in my head. Totally out
of my control, thousands of images, sounds, memories,
smells, words, snatches of music, late-night fires crackling
in the open, faces, hands, cascaded, tumbled, merged with
one another until I thought I would have to sit down or
faint with the intensity of emotions coursing through
I realised that I had lost nothing. And although time
had left its inevitable mark on everything, the integrals
remained as they had been, and would continue to be so
for eons to come. Thanks to this little island, I was
bound to this well-trampled soil as surely as the rocks
upon the hills, the caverns beneath my feet, and the history
and religion that binds the people who toil here for their
duration. I knew that my Greek ancestors had sown this
place with their sweat, bone and blood. Thanks to Ahmet's
kindness and compassion, I even made my peace with our
old enemies the Turks. Deep in my gut, I felt a profound
sense of homecoming such as I had never hoped to experience.
we departed the next day for Istanbul, I couldn't stand
to look back at the island falling once again into that
fathomless horizon. I couldn't bring myself to say goodbye
a second time. And, as the ferry drew away, I sat with
my back turned and my hands buried in the soil I had collected
from our garden to fill my pockets. In my shirt pocket,
I felt the small white rock I'd picked from the chapel
ruins. Through the thin fabric, I felt their combined
alchemy penetrate my skin and work its way into my bloodstream.
Now I knew why vampires need to rest on their native soil,
and why it is they hate to travel too far over running
say that the older we get, the more we become what we
already are. I couldn't agree more. A short time ago,
my Greek boss jokingly said to me, "You really are
a wog, aren't you?" I nodded and relished the acknowledgment
as I bit into my bread roll smeared with tarama, the poor man's caviar. I
have never felt more comfortable in my skin since visiting
Turkey last year. Now I know where I belong.
KAKMI is a critic and essayist. He works as an editor
for Penguin Books Australia.
Dmetri Kakmi, 2002