I am going to Turkey.
Post covid, of course. When – I don’t know. Where – mainly Istanbul. How – a flight, no doubt. No long ocean cruises for me. Why –
Well, that’s another story.
I will walk across the Galata Bridge, from Europe to Asia. Different continents in the wink of an eye: try gripping that, Australians! If walking is now forbidden, a ferry will have to do – a mere fifteen minutes. I recently learned that the Galata Bridge I knew – the fourth Galata bridge – was destroyed in a fire in 1994, and rebuilt. So I’ll be walking across a different bridge.
Will I remember it at all? Will it be deeply altered?
I’ve been to Turkey once. A very long time ago – 1986. The years from then to now are double my child’s lifetime.
That bridge, the Galata Bridge, was purple, I recall, in twilight. (Or am I confusing it with the Bosphorus Bridge?) My favourite mosque’s towers to the east flickered from majorelle blue at dusk to silver spears in the sun. Istanbul is mustard gold, exotic, layered in musky perfumes and smog.
I have inadequate recollection of that trip, despite spending six months there. Some memories:
– Summer was burning; it snowed in winter
– Men walked arm-in-arm
– A few beggars were missing legs or arms; I feared they were lepers
– Turkey’s first McDonald’s opened
– The scent of spices, herbs, sweat, sewer. It’s still in my lungs.
I arrived in Istanbul one dawn – far too early for me – dewy-eyed with fatigue. After the ferry from Athens to Rhodes to Marmaris was the ride north, ten hours on a rickety bus. I read The Odyssey, a secondhand copy I bought in a market in Athens. My bag was too cumbersome, too big. The chatty American girl and English guy in the seat across from me were hitch-hikers; both were amazed that a girl so young, from so far away, would travel somewhere so far-flung, alone.
I’m not sure how I saw the bear. (No one believes me now, but even with my sketchy memory I know it’s true.) In the honeyed sunrise in Sultanahmet Square I heard a tinkling, a heavy footfall, metal dragging. A densely-bearded man was behind me, walking from the shadow of the great mosque, speaking in tongues to a huge brown bear tottering on its back feet behind him. A tight muzzle around its snout, chains around its feet. Bells on its neck. I know I saw it, and was dazed, bedazzled. The American and Brit and I stared in wonderment as bear and owner headed towards the market, clink, clink, clink.
The bear’s groans echoed.
I knew it was cruel, the belittling of animals. But coming from Sydney, it was still a marvel.
Such was the beginning of my complex relationship with Turkey.
Things I’ve been promising myself I’ll do before I die:
– Learn to play the mandolin
– Study Russian
– Travel to far-eastern Turkey
– Climb the pyramids
I intended, that year, to visit Cairo. I’d seen Nefertiti’s head in a Berlin museum (the guy beside me gushing that she was the most beautiful woman in the world: I wasn’t yet old enough to not be miffed with envy). But my time in Turkey was much longer than I’d expected, and when I finally left I felt compelled to return directly to my studies in Sydney. That remains a true regret: with the current political situation in Egypt I’m not sure I’d feel safe there anymore (despite, as Naguib Mahfouz said, it being unseemly to be pessimistic at my age).
But I still do dream of sands running red, of Sphinx and pharaohs and death on the Nile.
I must stop biting my nails. The cuticles are dry and flaky, the hangnails bloody. The trip is coming, it isn’t coming; the pandemic is passing, we’re again in lockdown. I need more toilet paper, I need vaccination, I need to paint a cross on my door. Angels tell me Istanbul is open, waiting for me; the Basilica Cistern remains damp and mysterious and wine-dark, deep underground. Unchanged, perpetual.
An acquaintance visited Istanbul a few years ago. She raptured about malls selling designer goods cheaply, clean westernised toilets; men definitely did not walk arm-in-arm, hamburgers and sandwiches were available; girls were seen in miniskirts, people were seen hugging. Her words left me dismayed.
It must change, I suppose. Everywhere must change – such is evolution.
I tried to hug Veli in the Grand Bazaar. And in the sloping street where he lived, where I stayed. Hugging was not sanctioned; I recall men nearby laughing, a woman pointing; I was a western hussy, I suppose. It was quite a turn-on.
Now…now…I respect the Koran. I don’t hold it below my waist anymore, I don’t wrap scarves with lines from its chapters around my hips. I don’t ask to see portraits of the Prophet, I don’t want sex during the muezzin’s call. I’m not sure any young person would do that these days. Were all Australian girls in the eighties so naïve? Or just me?
There are two people inside me, there always have been. (Or perhaps more?)
– The goody-goody
– The risk-taker
It all began in Stockholm. While purchasing a ticket for a long train north to Örnsköldsvik (to visit an ex-schoolfriend) a polite man with a luxuriant moustache started chatting. He bought me dinner in a revolving restaurant – my memories of that city are darkness and ice, sheer white, like a Grimm’s fairy tale – and he gave me his details in Istanbul. So when I arrived there, months later, I called Sevket from a payphone. Why didn’t you write me? he asked; I had no answer. I don’t think I expected to reach that city.
(When people in London later told me Istanbul was too far away I pointed out that flying from Sydney to Perth took two hours longer. Their faces remained doubtful.)
I had no money. I’d stayed in slums and slept on train stations. Called my mother and begged for cash. Stood in long queues at American Express not wanting to change my meagre travelers cheques. So yes, when Sevket introduced me to his friend Veli I agreed to stay at his flat. What did I have to lose?
And so began a much unexpected affair.
My knowledge of Turkey when I arrived: Anzacs had died at Gallipoli; prisons were dungeons (I’d read and watched Midnight Express, and was captivated; my parents didn’t want me to go such a scary country and so were unaware of where I was for the first few weeks); I liked doner kebabs and Turkish delights; Istanbul was once called Constantinople.
That’s about it.
I learned a lot when I was there:
– Sufi poetry
– Ottoman history
– The humanity of Islam
‘Turkey is a European country, an Asian country, a Middle Eastern country, a Balkan country, a Caucasian country, a neighbor to Africa, Black Sea country, Caspian Sea, all these.’ So said a Turkish prime minister. It’s a fine description.
Veli ran a fabric-selling business. He was also an imam. He didn’t sing the muezzin; I don’t recall him visiting a mosque, except to show me Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Perhaps he was no longer an imam and I’d misunderstood him – his English was good, my Turkish hardly grew in the six months. I got a job reading English to children in the mornings and conversing with rich clients keen to practise their English in the afternoon (drinking cocktails in the Hilton’s rooftop bar as the crimson sun set into the Bosphorus while getting paid for chatting was a near-perfect posting). So I stayed. And stayed.
The kindness of strangers.
I drove with Veli to the Black Sea – where we ate mussels on the coast in a café hanging over the sanguine water; Pamukkale – where I splashed bare-footed on the ivory springs and swam among ancient statues in the Cleopatra pool; Cappadocia – where I lost myself in the creamy orange caverns; Hisarlik – ancient Troy – where I performed alone on-stage like a diva (Veli was shocked and aroused. He wasn’t accustomed to the audacity of Western girls); roamed the agora in Izmir. And then we went to Denizli, where he was born. Where his family lived. Despite the shockingly delicious cakes in the neighbourhood bakeries, the olive fig trees in abundance, it was an industrial town to the unsearching eye.
One day we headed to his mother’s house. I had no idea what the occasion was – Veli explained but I failed to understand – but now I believe, judged on the time of year (a sweltering August), it was Eid al-adhar, the annual honouring of Abraham sacrificing his son to God.
The yellow-washed walls, the palm trees, the fire alight in the back garden. Bells and blue evil eyes in each of the rooms. Spotless and sparse but still comfy. The hole-in-the-ground toilet I never quite got accustomed to. His family home, he stressed; we were meeting his mother, aunts, sisters, cousins. Only Veli spoke English. Around the fire they squatted but gave me a small stool; I was embarrassed but grateful. (If we went further east, Veli had told me, I’d have to walk behind him – women still were required to follow their men in remoter villages; I was not expecting such politeness being female; maybe it was because I’d studied law?) They chatted, offered me sugary çay and sweets, and we prayed; then I walked a small way behind their house.
Eventually I came upon a small lamb in a field nearby which I patted, spoke to, not realising that the lamb was there for a specific, holy reason: it soon was brought to the back of the house and sacrificed like Abraham’s son; its throat was slit, it was strung up and gutted. I fixed my face non-judgmentally, prayed my beating heart remained unheard. Rapidly, efficiently, the lamb was dismembered and diced, and its liver, an oily black glob, was cooked in a pan over the open fire then chopped into morsels. My fake smile remained fixed – I feared it would soon shatter into a hundred broken pieces – as they presented me with the first plate of liver – an honour – and I knew my eyes were glassy. I put a well-cooked tidbit in my mouth, chewed as they watched, and nodded and thanked them all profusely. Teşekkürle, teşekkürle. Then politely rubbed my hands on my belly, indicating I was too full for a further nibble. An older lady – an aunt, I think – spoke to me but I was lost, lost; the room spun swiftly; she took the plate from my lap and with her freckled hands gently raised me from the stool. Misery, fear, humiliation billowed over me – where was she taking me? Was this to be punishment for my shameful action? But she led me to a warm room, the sun was a soft golden shawl, lay me on a bed, and rubbed my head. ‘There, there,’ she seemed to say, smiling, her gestures encouraging me to close my eyes and sleep. ‘Shhh,’ she whispered, her fingers at her lips as she closed the door.
The kindness of Muslims.
Too many memories of Veli. Whirling dervishes, vibrant folk dancers, belly dancers. Shops selling swords and scimitars. Egg-blue ceramics and amulets and evil eyes. The Grand Bazaar with its pyramids of spices of extravagant colours: vermilion caramel olive cinnamon saffron cumin chilli red pepper camel; with its tiles, kilim carpets and rugs; its leather and lamps, şiş kebap and mezze and baklava. My consciousness twirled with the dancing mendicants.
It was soon time to leave, despite the welcoming bite of autumn. Goodbyes were harsh. I cried on the ferry, then on the bus. He waved and waved and got smaller and smaller, a compact short man with a heavy moustache, then the bus turned a corner and I never saw him again. Though I knew a life with Veli was not for me I missed the dream already.
(Interestingly, I met a cute Italian-American guy on the bus. He gently asked why I was weeping. An hour later I was laughing so hard the other passengers told us to hush. It was the first time in months I’d spoken with another natural English speaker – it was weird, it was a relief, it was verbal freedom, it broke my heart. We shared the same sense of humour, the same interests, the same love of literature. The opposite of Veli.
He asked me to travel to Rome with him. But it was too early for me to be disloyal.
Will Veli be there? Is he still alive? My chances of discovery are low; but perhaps as I step onto the new Galata Bridge in Europe I’ll see a man, his eyes compassionate, his whiskers rich but grey, waving at me from the other other side. From Asia.