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Return to Tenedos

by Dmetri KAKMI

In memory of Kaliopi Kakmi (1939-1993)

I 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.

Bozcaada, Turkey

There's 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.

Given 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.

In 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 years’ absence.

The 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.

A 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.

I 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.

Time 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.

Portrait of Dmetri Kakmi

As 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.

I’d 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.

Curious 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.

Yet 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.

It 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.

On 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.

Impossible 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.

Across 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.

Now, 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.

Why 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 my body.

Suddenly, 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.

As 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 water.

They 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.

DMETRI KAKMI is a critic and essayist. He works as an editor for Penguin Books Australia.

© Dmetri Kakmi, 2002

This issue is dedicated to the legendary author and scientist Sir ARTHUR C. CLARKE for his 85th Birthday...


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