What is a Turkish face? What is a Greek face?
Sunday, 19 May: Cappadocia (Ürgüp). The
night is spent at Yasar Baba's nightclub, situated, as
all worthwhile tourist destinations in Cappadocia ought
to be, inside a cave carved out of the tufa; it is an
establishment worthy of a happy hobbit. The idea is to
drink raki beyond excess while enjoying the Anatolian
folkloric music and dancing, and I mean to well and truly
play my part. Today being a national holiday, the multi-level
complex is overflowing with Turks throwing themselves
into the Bacchanalia with abandon; they enjoy themselves
the way they fight: fiercely.
On this day in 1919, Mustafa Kemal (not yet Atatürk)
landed at Samsun on the Black Sea and the Turkish War
of Independence began. Under his leadership the Turkish
army managed to push back the invading Greek forces and
quash once and for all any hopes they might have had of
regaining Asia Minor. We are seeing the creation of the
modern Turkish Republic; no wonder the Turkish red and
white is everywhere! And what an impressive flag it is
the folk dancers emerge, to much percussive encouragement,
they are wind passing through a field of wheat, surging
forward and retreating like a force of nature. The clarinet
is the sexual fluid coursing through their veins, loaning
their feet wings, prancing from flower to flower. When
they retreat, a wind-swept loneliness is etched on their
foreheads. When the girls ululate it is to rouse the black-clad
boys to a masculine bellowing that comes not so much from
the field but from the tundra beyond Turkey.
first dance is a fierce warriors' challenge in which the
girls play the role of clarion. In the second, the dancers
leap forth attired in resplendent colours of the earth
in autumn - it is harvest time. The men reap what
they have sown; they sweat and thirst and the ever-handy
women are there to wipe away the brow and offer jugs of
refreshment. (I would have sworn quite the opposite is
the case in reality, but this is myth and symbol, not
everyday life, after all.) Only when there is bread on
the table, is flirtation and courtship unharnessed in
acts of gallantry and shows of modesty.
the dancers is a dark, brooding thunderstorm. He dances
with an expression of such fierce concentration as to
be straight out of the pages of a legend by Yasar Kemal.
His legs are lances slicing the air, his arms swords,
the sudden twist of his ankle a curt dismissal; his mere
glance chastens the onlooker for daring to be so passive
before such a mighty force. Oddly, he reminds me of a
younger Ahmet. On his arm is a sublime lithe girl whose
serene face carries a touch of bemusement as she skips
from one toe to the other like a spring shower. In her
traditional dress, she looks to be straight out of a Sergei
Paradjanov film, Ashik Kerib, perhaps. I toast her and
she delicately twirls her silver-birch wrist in acknowledgment.
I dare not toast the young man for fear he lobs a thunderbolt
onlookers encourage the dancers with whistling and clapping;
like me, some are even dancing between the tables, twitching
and coiling like pythons in a frenzy. When at the climax
of the warriors' dance the young man clambers on the backs
of the other male dancers to unfurl the Turkish flag,
the eruption of patriotic fervour in the room nearly blows
the roof down into the valley. I clap and cheer as loudly
as any Turk in the room; my heart swells to bursting at
the sight of the very flag I used to hate having to kiss
every Monday morning before classes could begin.
the spectacle, you see immediately just how far the Ottoman
Empire spread, from Persia to the Balkans, with traces
of the earliest Turks from the Asian steppes. When the
empire finally retracted, it brought back the rhythms
and sounds and dances of every country it possessed. Here
is Bulgaria, Russia, Africa, India, China and, of course,
Greece. I clap and clap; my hands are red meat, my grin
spreads from ear to ear. This is my country, my heritage.
Dimitri," Yusuf yells. "Aren't you forgetting
you are Greek? There is Greek Zorba and Turkish Zorba.
You are doing both at once." I laugh and say, "That's
because I am both, Greek and Turkish. What's the difference?"
He laughs and eggs me on.
when I join a pagan conga line around a bonfire outside,
I drag him into the dance; Refik has vanished. Sparks
fly into the starry sky like an expression of joy. As
the night deepens, I am swept away by the familiar songs
and dances and gyrate like a happy snake. "You are
romantik," Yusuf says as we drive back to the hotel.
nothing like a long bout of drinking and dancing to lubricate
the way for some sound theorising. So indulge me for a
minute. Only the slimmest line separates Greek from Turk.
We are too scared to admit it, and perhaps we don't even
know it, but we are the same. After 400 years of cohabiting,
there are no real differences left. Is it possible that
we have been fighting each other for so long we can no
longer perceive that, somewhere along the line, we fused
into one body with two heads?
is a Turkish face? What is a Greek face? I look but can't
tell the difference. The varnish might differ but we're
cut from the same wood. Ouzo is just another name for
raki; the food on our tables is interchangeable. Without
denying the very real pressure exerted by religion, anyone
insisting on differences must also acknowledge their superficiality;
refuse to give them solid shape and they'll vanish. My
money says that the young Greek woman who runs a smoky
little bar in the heart of Ürgüp came to the
same conclusion long ago.
Monday, 20 May: Cappadocia (Ürgüp). In the
catacombs of the ruined monastery of Eski Gümüs
(Old Silver) a kid with its neck twisted and dried blood
caked around the nostrils, lies in the ancient hearth
waiting to be roasted. Just as I am about to comment on
the ingenuity of those who thought to create such an "authentic"
experience for tourists, I see that the animal has simply
plummeted down a hole in the ceiling, beyond which is,
of course, the bare hillside. When the accident is brought
to the attention of the sleepy caretaker, he rushes to
remove the offending matter, not thinking that to make
it part of the show would be far more imaginative.
boy's face suddenly blocks the light streaming down the
hole. A glistening pearl disengages itself from the blackness
of his face and glides down to us. When finally it hits
the cold stone, the spittle splatters before the caretaker
who raises hell. He swears volubly, raising the dead goat
over his head like an offering to the gods who might smite
his nemesis. I wonder if he gives this performance daily
or dusts it off only on special occasions. The vision
is certainly in keeping with this remote region that hid
this underground monastery from Arabs, in what would once
have been the outer tentacles of the Byzantine octopus.
nearby underground city of Kaymakli (Creamy) is a work
of Escher; twisting and winding every which way like a
drug-induced illusion or fun fair mirror of distortions,
multiplications and refractions. You could walk around
for days and not find your way out, and if you did you
would be as blind to the light and cold to the touch as
one of Welles's morlocks.
say only a quarter of the city has been excavated; perhaps
troglodyte lives still persist on the other side of these
walls. When I lay my hand against the damp clay, I can
feel the undying heartbeat. To be driven underground by
necessity or desire. Eat, sleep, cook, piss, worship,
all underground, entombed, without a hint of daylight
from dawn till dusk. After a time, above ground becomes
a dream, a place of chimeras. When you die, you can't
tell the difference and remain where you are. The living
and the dead will pass you daily and acknowledge you as
they have always done. One sunny day you will smell the
fragrance of flowers, pears, figs, seeping down from above.
It will remind you of a distant time. Like Persephone,
you will clamber to the surface only to have your head
lobbed off by a waiting scimitar. To die in a fig orchard
would be divine.
Mausoleum in Ankara.
was originally buried in Istanbul and brought to this
after it was completed in the late 1940s.
Wednesday, 22 May: Ankara. What would Atatürk
make of his capital today? The seat of his secular, western-style
government is today governed by a right-wing religionist,
who has replaced the city's traditional Hittite emblem
with that of a mosque.
great leader moved his new capital from Istanbul to this
unremarkable town in the central plateau in 1923, in the
hope that the general atmosphere would infuse his burgeoning
republic with a distinctly Anatolian tenor, free of the
burden of Byzantine Constantinople. An ironic gesture
surely, for he must have known that Ankara in the time
of Alexander the Great was Ancyra, Greek for anchor, and
later an important city for the Romans.
what is said about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk carries
an ounce of truth, I say the great leader would not approve
of the ostentation that is his final resting-place. Built
as a rectangular compound with the mausoleum at one end
and the various museum and collections buildings at the
other, it is a temple that would be at home at Hattusas,
capital of the Hittites. It is there for you to see in
the straight, unadorned columns and reliefs depicting
scenes from the birth of the republic, cut into the stone
on either side of the immense stairway. The actual tomb
itself is of immense proportions and made of marble. Atatürk
was originally buried in Istanbul and brought to this
megalith after it was completed in the late 1940s.
this is the capital of the republic, it makes sense that
the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations focuses on the Hatti,
Hittites, Phrygians, Assyrians and Ururtu, while relegating
the Greeks and Romans to a modest space in the basement.
Before anyone starts bellowing propaganda, it needs to
be stated that the Greco-Roman world is more than amply
represented elsewhere. The West has a bias toward Greco-Roman
world, often forgetting that they were not the only ones
who influenced civilisation in Anatolia. The Hittites
and Phrygians are as much a part of the making of this
land and its complexity of cultures as the Greeks and
Romans. Likewise Turkish education needs to impress on
its young the impact of the West on Turkey to prevent
any further rise in the nationalism that characterises
both young and old who do not pursue a fuller education.
For example, in the 1960s we had not the faintest idea
that our ancestors, the Greeks and Romans, played any
part in the structure of this nation. What I know, I learned
later, as an adult pursuing further education in Australia.
Similarly, Refik tells me that it was not until he began
working as a tour guide that he learned about the Greeks
are to mental balance what blood and bone is to earth.
Thursday, 23 May: Istanbul. I let myself be carried
away by vulgar noise and the incessant parade of people
on Istiklal. Have just returned Eleanor to the hotel and
hit the streets again. A plethora of physical delights
are my joy and ordeal. Just for once I want to experience,
see, smell, touch, taste, but not have to trip myself
up with thinking. I think and analyse too much to be truly
happy in this city of blighted happiness. Besides, I don't
want the banality of whatever joy offers. I want never-ending
curiosity, convulsions of discontent, the memory of survived
anguish, a spark in the eyes, so that I don't fall into
an irretrievable stupor and forget to get out of bed one
guess is that we're born to ask questions. If we don't
then we forfeit life. Never take anything at face value,
not even yourself, especially not yourself. The day you
stop questing for that elusive answer, you might as well
be dead. The sensorium should be wide open to whatever
life throws at it.
Pandora bookshop a twenty-something man, tall, handsome,
brushes against me and says rather too loudly in my ear,
"You are very beautiful. I want to "with you
tonight." He rubs his forefinger suggestively against
his thumb, creating an all too vivid picture. I pretend
ignorance, laugh and keep walking. No one's said that
to me in twenty years! Maybe it's an offer too good to
refuse, and may never come my way again given the age
I'm slipping into.
now the most important thing is to quiet that slow-burning
hysteria that is rising to the fore. I feel like a man
stalked. My brain is on fire. I am missing something but
don't know what. Everything here reminds me of that one
irretrievable thing. It is that I have grown up but my
brain remains stuck at some distant point where childhood
is left in the balance and unable to catch up to the mature
man striding into oblivion. There, it is still yesterday.
Here it is today but without the possibility of a tomorrow,
because how can there be a tomorrow if yesterday and today
do not meet? At the rate I am going, we might never catch
up to one another. Today will always be one step ahead
of yesterday, and might even manage to give tomorrow the
slip. And only death will bring the three musketeers together.
I have to admit it. I am jealous of these people. Jealous
and in love. I am jealous because they have what I can
never have. Yes, jealous, that's all it comes down to,
like a petulant child. Jealous of their laughter, voices,
gestures, the way they hang on each others every word,
body language, the texture of their skin, the very soil
they walk on and the air they breathe. I am jealous even
of their sleep and the bread they eat. Jealous that I
have been cheated of what was mine and thrust out into
the cold. Jealous of the fact that I will die with only
a preview of the life that could have been mine had things
been different. Could still be mine if...etc. But who
am I kidding? It's all bullshit; just a delusion.
I had the courage, I'd stay here and start life anew.
But, at 41, I need my illusions intact. If I should remain,
as Ahmet has suggested, and fail to make it work, what
will there be left to dream about on immoderate days?
Illusions are to mental balance what blood and bone is
make matters worse, the thought of setting foot on Tenedos
next week throws me into utter paralysis. If I return
to the locus, I will dissolve like a sugar cube in tea.
I fear finding myself, a perfectly preserved ten-year-old
wandering the streets, still going to school and living
in the same house. Living the kind of charmed life that
only selling your soul to the devil can purchase. How's
that for a hackneyed theme: to be so attracted to a place
that its proximity collapses your lungs.
is late, much too late. I drag myself to the hotel, and
here I am now, unable to sleep for the tremors that come
out to play fiddles with my body. Loneliness is not being
able to cry too loudly at three thirty in the morning
for fear of waking the other hotel guests. I crave for
the solidity of that other life, the one I can't bring
myself to name, over the sea and far away...
been damaged by history."
Friday, 25 May: Istanbul. In the former Church of
Saint Saviour of Chora I ask two Greek priests and their
interpreter the meaning of some symbols in the dome. We
regard one another like startled animals on the savanna.
Over a glass of tea in the sunshine, one old priest rants
against the "Turkish beast" that has made first
a mosque than a museum of the old church. "They're
animals," he bellows, "bound for hell."
His youngish interpreter, a realist and a pragmatist,
placates the old man with gentler words, the wisdom of
are you from?" the interpreter asks, inevitably.
one of those." He nods, sagely. "He's from Tenedos,"
he tells his two charges. He says it like no other explanation
is necessary. Immediately a flood of something that is
beyond words altogether. I see it in their eyes; their
faces simulate all emotions but the ones they truly feel.
The fear of those forced to confront the unspeakable,
drilling into my head, attempting to open it like a flower.
Is it pity, shame, repulsion, that they leave behind?
We tread water for some minutes, on the look out for sharks.
Where has the ground gone?
rather detest that we have become "one of those"
exiles capable of eliciting the burden of sympathy and
free tea at the drop of our guard.
course, I have no experience in this sort of thing,"
says Harvey. "But I'd say you've been damaged by
25 May: Istanbul. "I feel like a car has hit
me," says Ahmet when I tell him I've decided to cut
the trip short. "I am leaving on the first available
flight tomorrow,"I say. "I won't be staying
with you, after all. I can't stay here any longer."
I stand on his balcony, I almost go back on my word. His
apartment is a safe egg with vistas I need never leave
the house to contemplate. Ersin and Oya call to see what
is going on. I melt; unable to say anything that could
possibly explain this perversion to the people I love
a little while ago the world seemed open, now a shriek
as immense as the Sahara fills my head. Out of love, Istanbul
has grown intolerable. Out of respect, I must turn my
back on her.
at the overpowering weight of the Bosphorus rushing down
from the Black Sea, a sudden calm descends. My heart leaps
with the span of the bridge to the Asian shore, a cool
evening with salt on its breath. The lights are coming
on. The ferries lit like fireflies. This could be mine
for a fortnight yet.
can stay here," Ahmet says. "I will be at work.
The place will be yours. It is peaceful. No need to play
was thirty years ago, and it was yesterday. When something
is torn out from your being so forcefully and utterly,
does the cavity ever fill? The closer we get, the further
away we are. I look at him and shake my head with disbelief
and shock. Words annihilate me. This life I seek is truly
beyond reach now; there is to be no going back, after
all. Stupefied by this unexpected turn of events, I can
only think of Pierre Loti's hopelessly delusional lament,
"Who can ever return to me my Oriental life, my life
free in the open air, my long aimless walks, and the uproar
the Pera Palace, I cling to Ahmet like a creature capable
of emptying him of life. Sustenance for the long trip
back, for the even longer years to come. Quickly, I leap
out the car and disappear into the alleyways without looking
back. Fragmentation dogs my heels, a sense of metaphysical
loss caught up in the mechanics of a constant return,
a recycling of claims and counterclaims.
I ever see my friends again? Right now, the very though
of returning to Turkey brings on a cold sweat.
"You know you can't run away always."
Sunday, 25 May: Istanbul. I want to see Haci, the
shoeshine boy with a code of honour, before I leave for
the airport. He is bound to be outside the Pera Palace,
where tourists are easy to corral. When I was here three
weeks ago, he tried to buff my boots. Being in a hurry,
I thought he might be content with 250 000 lira rather
than my boots. But when I shoved the wad of money in his
hand and dashed on, he shouted, "My friend, I do
not take money for nothing. Tomorrow I wait for you."
True to his word, there he was the next morning, eager
to practise his trade. This time he succeeded for I had
to allow, even shoeshine boys have pride. From there on
a friendly bantering and jostling developed between us.
He is all of twelve, dark as a gipsy and rangy as a coyote.
His black hair looks to be maintained with a daily application
of shoe polish.
enough he is at his bench. When he sees me, he leaps to
his feet. "My friend Dimitri," he yells across
the square. "Let me clean your shoes. They are dirty."
"Haci, I am leaving this morning." "I will
be quick..." "Haci, I don't have the time. But
I want you to have this," I say, pressing whatever
money I have left into his hand. "But I told you,
I do not take money for nothing." "It's not
for nothing; it's because you are my friend," I say,
leaping on to the bus. "When you come back?"
now Istanbul is three hours ago. Damascus is behind us.
Baghdad is vanished in the night.
recall the whirling dervish who sat with me yesterday
in the gardens of the Mevlana Monastery in Galata, the
young dervish in black pants and black woollen vest, despite
the heat. His English was worse than my Turkish but that
did not stop him from wrapping an arm around my shoulders
as I lamented the failure of this trip. "The Almighty
will see to you," he said. He was learning to whirl,
which is not whirling at all but a way of rotating on
the spot by propelling the body around with one foot.
"It allows me to get closer to God," he said.
"When I do this I am infinite, too." As I took
my leave, he leaned forward and placed the breath of a
kiss on my unshaven cheek. "You are doing the right
thing," he said. "But you know you can't run
on board the plane, I see myself light a lantern to return
to "that room so out of the way and peaceful, whose
very distance is one of its charms."
_ . _
KAKMI was born in Bozcaada (Tenedos). His essays and
criticisms have been published internationally. He words
as an editor for Penguin Books.
Dmetri Kakmi, 2003