Killing Jesus

A recent encounter with a salesman – i thought he was an evangelist when he approached me – has reminded me of the scene i encountered when i was out shopping a few days before my trip to Turkey. It was Good Friday and, while supermarkets were frantically selling chocolate eggs, out on the street groups of Christian and Muslim preachers were preaching about the Crucifixion. What they were preaching however was very different: while the Christians were proselytising that this (plus the Resurrection) was the most significant event  in history, the Muslims were denying it had even happened: according to the Qur’an* (4:157–158) it only appears as if Jesus was crucified:

However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so.

Nevertheless this was the first time I’d ever seen Muslims making a fuss about the issue.

I say Muslims; but these people appeared to be Salafis,  a group which has doesn’t have much space for intrafaith differences of opinion, never mind interfaith ones. That in turn made me think of how things have changed since i was a child. Back then my best friend was a Bangladeshi and what impressed me most about her family’s religion was how reasonable, inclusive and life-affirming it was – especially compared to Christianity which seemed to have lost its way in doctrinal squabbles and evangelical arrogance. Most of all i admired the fact that there was no obsession with being perfect. It was enough to be a good human being. God was God, Man was Man.

It wasn’t until i moved to London and started university that i encountered a different kind of Muslim: ultra-pious, ultra-covered and ultra-judgemental: i remember her looking at a girl in a short skirt and saying she only had herself to blame if she got raped. At the same time however she emphasised the kinship of Islam and Christianity – even if she did make it clear which she considered superior – and never actively proselytised or rubbished Christian beliefs. In fact, it’s a startling thought, but those angry young Muslims i described earlier would probably denounce S as not strict enough. In fact, i wonder if they truly feel convinced that anyone is strict enough: for all Islam’s insistence that perfection is for God alone, it seems to me that increasingly it is developing the same obsession with it that, as i said earlier, mars Christianity.

And then there’s the irony of the fact that of all Christian beliefs it was the Crucifixion the preachers were attacking. The Qur’anic disavowal of this event** has always struck me as odd and seems to undermine the Islamic insistence on Jesus being Man, not God. It resembles a belief of the Gnostic strand of Christianity which was common in Arabia at the time Muhammad lived. The Gnostics rejected the idea of the humanity of Jesus: God, not Man. Docetism, as the belief was known, was the idea that Jesus’ body was illusory – he only appeared to be flesh and blood – and as such his crucifixion was too. This developed in various Gnostic groups into the idea that someone else took his place on the cross.

Strangely enough, i didn’t feel any great urge to discuss this issue with the Muslim preachers though. Nor for that matter with their Christian brethren who, were trying to emotionally blackmail everyone to go church (“He died for you”) a few metres along the road.

* The Message of THE QUR’AN Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad; ISBN: 1-904510-00-0; pub.: The Book Foundation (2003)

** Since this post was originally written i’ve started reading a book about the place of Jesus in Islam*** which makes it clear that (a) the Qur’anic verses relating to the crucifixion can be interpreted in a number of different ways (partly depending on how the Arabic verbs used are understood) and (b) the verses have been and still are interpreted differently by different Muslim sects.

*** Images of Jesus Christ in Islam by Oddbjorn Leirvik; ISBN: 978-1441181602; pub.: Continuum (2010)

Friends are always dropping keys

This poem was just sent to me by a friend. Thank God for friends!

Dropping Keys

The small person
Builds cages for everyone
She
Sees.
Instead, the sage,
Who needs to duck her head,
When the moon is low,
Can be found dropping keys, all night long
For the beautiful,
Rowdy,
Prisoners.

It’s by the Persian Sufi poet Hafez (1315–1390).

Trip 2010: back to Turkey… and for longer than expected

The trip diary for the remainder of the days i spent in Turkey is a bit more basic than for the earlier part, mainly because i wasn’t expecting this part of the trip to last for quite as long as it did and was too busy dealing with the uncertainty of the situation to make notes each day. From memory…

Thursday 15 April

This time my cabinmate on the night train was a Greek although i didn’t find this out till the morning as he was asleep when i got on the train. I made my bunk up in no time; in fact i felt like a bit of an old pro to tell the truth! As was the case on the journey to Thessaloniki i found myself half-asleep half-awake, listening to the train moving over the railway track, for much of the journey. Not that i minded: i love the sound and the sensation of a chugging train, especially a sleeper train. On the one hand, the feeling of being sheltered and taken care of; on the other the feeling that we are hurtling towards some magical destination. By dawn we were nearing Istanbul and when my roommate got up and we put the bunks away i saw the very same towns and suburbs appear that i’d seen on the evening of my journey to Thessaloniki. Only the order of their appearance was reversed! Eventually, i realised we were nearing the end of the journey. We weren’t quite as close as i first thought however and there were some more areas of Istanbul to pass through (the city is huge!) before we did get to Sirkeci. At one point we travelled alongside a yard containing several stray dogs. A man came out of a building and threw a stone at one of them and laughed. Human beings, honestly.

At Sirkeci my cabinmate and I said our goodbyes. I was thrilled to be back in Istanbul. “Civilisation!” i said to myself. I had a day of book-buying ahead of me but first i needed my breakfast. I can’t remember now whether it was while i was eating breakfast or later on during the day that i received the first text (from my mum) about the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Surely it was later – after i’d spent hours rushing round Istanbul, convinced that i had only one day left in the city. The warning about the volcano sounded ridiculous, surreal even: the very idea that an event in Iceland could have any relevance to me in Turkey! In fact, to be honest, it sounded like someone’s idea of a wind-up. About five minutes after the first text another arrived about the same subject. This one was from my son. In it he urged me to check whether or not my flight would be going.

Back at the hotel i tried to find out but couldn’t. I shrugged and decided i’d find out in the morning. I’d got my books anyhow including three books F had recommended to me. Two of these were novels: Dear Shameless Death by Latife Tekin and A Mind At Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. The other was a memoir called My GrandmotherFethiye Çetin‘s book about her Armenian grandmother who lived most of her life ‘disguised’ as a Turk. I also bought a book of poetry by Nazım Hikmet. More of an extravagance was the book (two books as it turned out) that i bought at the Istanbul Modern about the work of the painter Erol Akyavaş. Oh well.

Friday 16 April

In the morning it quickly became evident that my flight would not be going. The news didn’t upset me nearly as much as it did some of the other guests who began to discuss flying to Madrid, where the airport was still open, and getting a train or more likely several trains home from there. Mind you, they were German. It was easier to decide to stay where you were if you were British. The idea of being stuck at Calais did not appeal.

I arranged to meet up with B but once she arrived we were at a loss to know where to go. I think we first headed back up to Beyoğlu and the bookshops where i bought yet more books of poetry: Oktay Rifat, Cevat Çapan and Ataol Behramoğlu this time. Then it occurred to me that she would really like the museum of modern art. In fact, when i’d been there the week before i kept thinking of her and wondering what she’d make of the paintings. Off we went, down the hill. It was much more fun going round the museum with B – even the paintings i didn’t like seemed more interesting when there was someone to discuss them with; plus, the fact that B (unlike me) is actually artistic meant that she noticed things that passed me by. I showed her ‘my painter’, the afore-mentioned Erol Akyavaş. Eventually, it was time for her to go to work however and i was forced to allow her to escape.

Saturday 17 April

Immediately after breakfast we were informed by the lady on the reception desk at the hotel that there would be no flights for at least another two days. Would we like to extend our reservations? My answer: yes, please. I had already been thinking about what i would do if – as had seemed likely the night before – i had to stay in Istanbul a bit longer. My favourite part of Istanbul – of those i’ve been to so far – is Kuzguncuk. I’d assumed i wouldn’t have time to visit it again during this trip but now i had the opportunity i was determined to do so. I took the ferry over and walked along the road to Icadiye Cadessi, just as i’d done the previous year. The only difference was that this year i knew where i was going. By the time i arrived it was lunchtime and i walked up the street looking for the cafe i’d been to last time. I couldn’t recall its name for the life of me but i was sure if i saw it…

Suddenly i recognised it: Pita Kuzguncuk. As i walked in the proprietor looked up and saw me. I was absurdly pleased to realise that she recognised me from my visit the year before. She greeted me and asked me how i was. Did i live in Istanbul? It was rather wonderful. Being in a strange city for any length of time does that to you though: you develop a craving for human contact – for another human being to greet you as an individual and for that moment to be transformed into a person, not just a body passing along streets full of millions of other bodies. I had quiche. I had lemon cake. I drank tea. Then i left and it was back to being anonymous again.

Kuzguncuk houses

Kuzguncuk street view

View from Kuzguncuk

Synagogue in Kuzguncuk

Church door in Kuzguncuk

Another house in Kuzguncuk

Another view of Kuzguncuk

Still at least i was in Kuzguncuk. I wandered about photographing the pretty houses, painted many different colours. I also photographed the tree-lined roads, the synagogue and a Greek Orthodox church (this was once an ethnically mixed neighbourhood). Running out of things to snap i followed the road up the hill, noticing how gradually the look and ambience of the area altered. By the time the road terminated at the top of the hill it was a lot less quaint and a lot less affluent. A man stopped me and asked me where i wanted to go. When i tried to explain that i didn’t want to go anywhere he looked at me like i was mad.

Afterwards i explored the nearby neighbourhood of Harem and then took the boat back across the Bosphorus.

Sunday 18 April

My great idea for Sunday morning had been that i would take a walk, heading west out of Sultanahmet. At first all went well but i very quickly got lost. In some streets there were no signs or plaques to tell you what they were called; in others i could see the names but couldn’t find them on the map. F told me later that street names are forever being altered, so perhaps it wasn’t just the fault of my lousy map-reading skills. Finally, i found myself outside the gates of Istanbul University. From there i was able to find my way back to Sultanahmet where i sat for a while in a cafe. I half-heartedly considered re-embarking on my walk westwards but couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the idea; then i remembered that my friend Ö had recommended that i visit Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city.

Istanbul University gate

Haydarpasha

Parade on Istiklal Cadessi

Off i went on the ferry, a different one than i’d taken to Üsküdar the day before when i’d visited Kuzguncuk. Kadıköy is further south. The boat was chock-a-block, a fact which ought to have made me suspicious in itself. When we arrived at our destination i found it was a shopping district, snighing with people. No matter which way i turned, which street i went down, i couldn’t break free of them. I couldn’t work out what they were buying: none of the shops looked especially impressive or interesting; although admittedly few shops do look impressive or interesting to me other than bookshops. After about an hour of battling the crowds i gave up and returned to the dock. I made one last ditch attempt to explore the area, heading towards Haydarpaşa Railway Station which i could see in the distance but abandoned it when i found my route blocked by a bus station. Enough already! I returned to the European side of the city and trudged up the hill to Beyoğlu where i watched a mysterious procession of people wearing letters of the alphabet.

Monday 19 April

My extended holiday was extended even further on Monday when it became obvious that i wouldn’t be flying home that day and probably wouldn’t be able to fly the day after either. I’d arranged to meet up with B and F again if i was still in Istanbul on the Monday and at 10 am B arrived. I’d had the idea the evening before that i’d like to visit Balat and Fener, old neighbourhoods of Istanbul. According to the guidebook these were best accessed via the Golden Horn Ferry. We hit a snag however: it was by no means obvious where the Golden Horn Ferry sailed from. Eventually, we found the dock – or i should say B found it, mostly by asking everyone she met until we got there. We boarded a ferry we’d been assured would take us to Fener and take us to Fener it did; the only problem being that it didn’t stop but just sailed straight on! It was the same story at Balat (or was Balat before Fener, i can’t remember). We were stuck on the boat until it reached Eyüp, quite a bit further west along the Golden Horn than we’d wanted to go.

Cemetery in Eyüp

Old men in Fener - 2010 april 19

Fener
Once off the boat we tried to work out how we could get back to Fener. Again, it was B who sorted it out: apart from speaking Turkish she’s also charming. I stuck to my dumb tourist impression; i’m quite marvellous at it. The best solution seemed to be to take a taxi which we did. On arrival we set off in search of the seat of Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church: the Ecumenical Patriarchate is still based in Istanbul although this is nowhere near as important as it was in the past; Greece, Russia and other predominately Orthodox countries have their own national patriarchates now.  I have to confess we never found this elusive location but we did walk up and down a fair few hills, peek at the ruins of a church through a locked gate and chat with the locals. This was the friendliest neighbourhood i have ever been to in Istanbul. From the man in a workshop who got B to bring me in so he could say hello to me, to the ladies sitting on chairs by the side of the road, to the young men who proudly recited the Muslim profession of faith (the Shahadah or, as we used to call it when i was a kid, the Kolyma) in English – everyone we met in this conservative, run-down neighbourhood was welcoming.

When we’d finally accepted that we were never going to find the church we took a taxi back to Taksim Square and found a cafe to recuperate in. Later F joined us and we sat chatting for a couple of hours. A wonderful day and, truth be told, i wasn’t all that bothered about the phantom church: it was just a destination to aim for; i didn’t care whether we ever arrived.

Tuesday 20 April

This was supposed to be my first day back at work! I’d emailed work on Monday to let them know i wouldn’t be there – although i suspected they would guess. As there was still no sign of flights resuming i headed off with the idea of – finally – visiting the Islands. I was unable to find the dock from which the ferry departs however. Stubbornly, i refused to ask anyone (i hate asking for directions!) for hours. By the time i gave in and found that the ferry now departs from Kabataş i’d lost all enthusiasm for the trip (and probably wasted too much time too). Instead, i headed up to Beyoğlu where i spent what turned out to be my last day in Istanbul (as opposed to the airport) making one last tour of the bookshops and exploring some of the back streets. I bought yet another book: a biography of Nazım Hikmet called Romantic Communist.

It was later this day that i realised i’d had just about as much of Istanbul as i could comfortably take in one trip. There were just too many people and too few places to go to get away from them. I couldn’t restore myself in my usual fashion, with a walk along the waterside, because in Istanbul main roads run right next to the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. There’s no equivalent of the Thames Path.

Wednesday 21 April

Finally, it seemed Heathrow had re-opened! Turkish Airlines’ website showed that a flight had departed for London but there was no other information – in particular no information about what those people whose flights had been cancelled earlier in the week should do; nor was anyone answering the phone at the airline. I came to the conclusion there was nothing else i could do but go to the airport. Once there i discovered crowds of other stranded passengers. It was hard to work out what to do as there were no signs, no members of staff giving out information. It was a Dutch couple who’d been trying to arrange a flight for the past two days who eventually explained the procedure to me. They pointed towards a row of counters at the far end of the departures hall and told me that the key thing was to get a ticket (from a dispenser hidden amidst the sea of would-be passengers). Once i’d got one it was just a matter of waiting for three or four hours to speak to a member of staff. I was one of the lucky ones: when i did reach the counter the lady was able to put me on a flight the next evening – once she’d managed to locate my original booking (which had been purged following the flight’s cancellation) anyhow.

I’d checked out of my hotel before leaving for the airport. I knew that once i got there that would be it and i was right. I couldn’t bring myself to leave for fear that something would happen while i was away from the airport: there would be an announcement of some kind; i’d get back to find all the flights had been re-allocated and i’d lost my place. It sounds crazy now but it’s an easy frame of mind to get into in that sort of situation. I spent the night sitting in a chair in a 24/7 Starbucks in the Arrivals hall. It was a comfortable chair and though i got no sleep i did at least get plenty of reading done; in fact by the time i got back to Britain i’d read most of the books i’d bought in Turkey and Greece.

Thursday 22 April

One week since i’d returned to Istanbul from Greece – and what a week! I stayed in the Starbucks till about 10 am, mainly because i couldn’t think of anywhere better to go. My flight wasn’t due to leave till 7 pm. I decided i’d better return to the Departures hall however… just in case; and when i got up there i noticed that Turkish Airlines had a check-in desk open. I forget what they were calling it: communal check-in or something like that, but it occurred to me that perhaps i might be able to check in for my flight already. That would move me one step closer to a secure seat on the plane! I approached the desk and my luck was in – i could indeed check in. The relief as the lady handed me my boarding card is something i can’t describe; but immediately i started to worry: perhaps this still wasn’t final, perhaps they could still turn me back. B had said she would come to see me off at the airport but in my paranoia i was unwilling to wait even a couple of hours on the ‘wrong side’ of Passport Control. I wanted to be ‘safely’ inside the main part of the airport. It was irrational of course and i regret it now, as it means we never got a chance to say our goodbyes.

In any case, even once i passed Passport Control i still worried. It wasn’t until i was actually on the plane and it had taken off that i relaxed. Only then did i start to feel sure that i was on my way home. Four hours later the British coastline appeared below us and i almost cried with relief. Finally. Home.

Last year’s trip to Turkey

I’m off to Turkey again next week. When i went last year for the first time i hadn’t yet started this blog, but i did record my impressions in a series of emails to friends. I thought i’d edit them a bit and present them here, so people can see what a wonderful time i had. Hopefully, it will be just as good this year – but without the face masks!

The first email was sent on the evening of Saturday 9 May, the day after my arrival:

I arrived as per schedule yesterday and, along with all my fellow travellers, was met by face masks and thermal scanners at Istanbul airport. I made my way to my hotel via the metro and tram systems, dodging “helpful” locals who wanted me to know that i’d much prefer their establishment. Exhausted by this accomplishment i then collapsed on my bed (after sending the obligatory “hello, i’ve survived” text to friends and family, those with mobiles anyway).

Today i journeyed over to the Golden Horn to buy my digital map and then took the ferry over to Üsküdar, changing continents as i did so! I followed instructions passed on to me by an Iranian-American doctor i’ve been chatting to on Twitter and found my way to a little artsy café, tucked away on a back street in an area called Kuzguncuk. It was only a 15 minute walk from the ferry terminal but there wasn’t a tourist to be seen. The food was great but even better was not being hassled or scammed, which is what happens in the cafés round here in Sultanahmet (the historic and therefore the tourist quarter).

I came back via Topkapı Park where i befriended a cat which was being hassled by a Turkish toddler. It was a poor skinny little mite and i would have liked to have fed it but i didn’t have any meat or cheese on me. One of the things i don’t like about Istanbul is the treatment of animals. I’ve seen three or four half starved stray dogs since i got here, standing around looking like they don’t know what they’re doing in the world. The stray cats look a bit healthier and are treated with a bit more kindness but not with much more understanding. To be fair though, this is the first predominately Muslim country where i’ve seen people with pet dogs and those animals do look well cared for as do the much more commonly seen pet cats.

Istanbul itself is a stunningly beautiful city. At times you feel like you’ve wandered onto a film set, it’s just too exotic and spectacular. Apart from the mosques with their minarets there are the rows of beautiful old houses, typically painted shades of ochre, the surprisingly numerous parks and the Bosphorus which is a strange blend of sea and river (i can see it from where i’m sitting in the hotel). Of course, there are slums too, but even those look better in the sunshine.

The people themselves are a strange blend of traditional and modern. It’s most noticeable in the women. You see girls that could be from London or New York and others that are are scarfed and clad in long coats. Obviously you can see the same dichotomy in the UK but those are mostly second generation immigrants. On the surface, at least, everyone seems to coexist happily enough.

Tomorrow i will probably explore the European side of Istanbul. If i can overcome my horror of crowds i might even visit one of the famous sights such as the Blue Mosque or the Topkapı Museum. And then on Monday i’m hoping to either go on the Bosphorus cruise or go on a cruise to the islands.

Tuesday morning of course i move on to Fethiye and the Lycian Way…

It’s a shame there wasn’t able to find time to write another email during my time in Istanbul because on this first day i was really just adjusting to the shock of being in a new city, a new country; but after that i was too busy exploring. Reconstructing the next few days from memory, two places stand out: the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I stood for the best part of twenty minutes leaning on a great stone wall on the upper level of the Haghia Sophia. It had been worn smooth, that wall; and my mind filled with awe at the thought of the number of people that would have taken – thousands of them. I felt surrounded by ghosts. Mind you, i also felt surrounded by cameras: all around me i could hear and see their flashes going off, as people photographed the famous Byzantine mosaics.

Sultanahmet, Istanbul - 2009 May 9

It was quieter in the Blue Mosque (thankfully). I remember being captivated by the intricate patterns of the decorations and pleased to find i could read some of the Arabic inscriptions. Even more than the Haghia Sophia the mosque radiated tranquillity and serenity. Mind you, unlike the Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still a place of worship – still alive, if you like. Coming out, i was depressed at how few people made a donation to the man on the door; and even more depressed to hear a group of blue-rinsed American women discussing “how many mosques” it’s necessary to see in Istanbul before you can say that you’ve “done them”.

A lane in Kuzguncuk - 2009 April 9

I had no intention of trying to ‘do the mosques’ or any other kind of building. With only one full day left in Istanbul i didn’t want to spend my time indoors. Instead i went on a boat trip along the Bosphorus which turned out to be a magical (if rather windy) experience. At at the far end we disembarked and followed a (not very well marked out) path to the ruins of a castle , accompanied by a friendly local dog.

Dolmabahce Palace seen from the Bosphorus - 2009 May

The next day i wandered around the modern centre of Istanbul, Beyoğlu (which i preferred to Sultanahmet), before heading off to the airport. There i sat all night in the waiting area (gazed at with suspicion by a group of Turkish pilgrims) so that i wouldn’t miss my onward flight to Dalaman Airport. I was off to the south and the next part of my trip: a walk along part of the famous Lycian Way. A few days later (15 May 2009), i sent the following update:

I am now in a backpackers’ hostel called George House in Faralya, a small village one day’s walk into the Lycian Way. I originally planned to stay here for no more than two nights but it’s such a wonderful place i have decided to stay one extra day.

That’s not the only reason actually: the fact is the Lycian Way is hard going! Most of the paths are scree rather than mud based, which means that the ground often slips under your feet. Moreover, the paths are rarely level: you are either being taken high into the mountains (in the morning) or back down towards sea-level (in the afternoon). Think Mt Snowdon – and this is the ‘easy bit’! Add to that the weight of the pack (and i kept mine relatively light) and the heat of the sun and you soon start to feel exhausted. Spectacular scenery though and at one point i came across a herd of horses wandering around by themselves in a copse.

Back to the hostel: what makes it so special? Well, it’s a simple place but the owners are very friendly and hospitable, providing free Turkish tea all day long, delicious breakfasts and evening meals and on one occasion spontaneously producing a cake that one of the ladies in the family had baked. The hostel is perched up high on a cliff above a tiny strip of land called the Butterfly Valley. You feel miles above the world here. There’s a lovely swimming pool (which hardly anyone but me seems to use) and breathtaking views of the sheer cliffs on the other side of the valley. There is a path from the hostel down to the beach but it’s extremely steep and at one point you have to use ropes to lower yourself down. As a result i confess i’ve just not bothered. The best thing about the hostel though is it’s one of those places where people actually talk to one another – not just in the sense of chitchat but also conversations of depth about issues such as art, politics, religion, literature, philosophy… you name it!

Amongst the other guests at the moment there’s a deeply thoughtful young Turkish man, an Argentine-Canadian engineer (and would-be photojournalist) and a very eccentric Czech architect/photographer, who is obsessed with European culture and the dangers of Islam. A young German couple have just left: they were philosophy graduates and very serious. Up until yesterday we also had a Taiwanese teenager touring Turkey by himself. He was a quirky boy, in many ways older than his years, and his attempts to learn Turkish from the Turkish man via his heavily accented Chinese English were quite comical.

Finally, we have Brian, an Australian in his 50s of ‘independent means’. He lives in Turkey and is trying to develop new walking paths in this area. Brian is a real character: dramatic and intelligent, gossipy and mysterious, industrious and laid back. We discussed Kate Clow, the creator of the Lycian Way. He has a number of criticisms to make of her, the most serious being that she mapped much of the trail along routes that had been identified as sites for potential new roads. As these roads are built the picturesque goat tracks are replaced with wider bulldozed lanes and then, inevitably, asphalt roads. This explains why to my surprise the first half of the goat track i followed on Wednesday showed up on the digital map that my GPS uses: the map makers include planned roads as well as ones already built. Bryan feels that the Lycian Way is doomed as a long distance path for this reason, but he also thinks there are many other tracks which could be joined together as walks, tracks which do not lie on routes intended to be converted into roads and which should therefore remain inviolate for much longer.

I may go for a (backpackless!) walk today from here to Kabak, the next place along the Way and then come back here tonight. Then i can skip the Kabak leg of the trail tomorrow and move straight on to the next leg. There are regular dolmuşes (minibuses) so getting to Kabak shouldn’t be a problem. Alternatively i may just swim in the pool and sit around reading my book, a novel by a Turkish writer called O.Z. Livaneli called ‘Bliss’. I bought it in İstanbul, despite strong resolutions not to burden myself with anything more to carry. Well, what do you expect me to do when i find myself in a street with four or five bookshops!? I don’t regret it in any case as it’s turned out to be a great read. I will probably leave it here when i finish it to supplement the meagre selection of English language books in the hostel library. Either the Germans are far more generous in donating books or the English language books are more popular and so get taken more often.

In fact, far from going on a ‘backpackless’ day walk to Kabak so that i could skip it, i went on as far as Kabak and then no further. The heat was overpowering and the next section of the path sounded rather uninspiring; the real reason i went no further though was because i’d fallen in love with George House and wanted to return.

About half way between Faralya and Kabak

George House

Horse in a copse on the way to Faralya (from Ovacık)

Tree with a Lycian Way waymark

Yellow and gold wildflowers near Faralya

Purple wildflowers

The sea was blue!

On Tuesday 19 May i emailed my friends:

I’m back in George House in Faralya after 3 nights in Kabak where i investigated the coastal trail and swam in a deserted crystal clear cove (giant flat boulders beneath turquoise seas). In many ways though the best bit was the walk to and from Kabak. The path climbs up and then follows a ridge most of the way before descending at the other end. The profusion of different wild flowers up there is startling and there are turtles/tortoises. We met one during our walk back this morning and he rather reluctantly condescended to be photographed before lumbering off into the undergrowth. Kabak itself is also beautiful. The hostel where i stayed (The Olive Garden) is perched up high above the bay and the view is glorious, particularly first thing in the morning.

Tomorrow i will travel to Kaş (via Fethiye). I’ve got two days there before i have to travel back to Fethiye and then (alas!) back home.

My trip to Kaş, a pretty town on the south coast, turned out to be quite an experience in itself, as i wrote after my arrival:

Arrived in Kaş yesterday afternoon after an unexpectedly wonderful day – despite intermittent heavy rain. After spending my final few hours at George House discussing languages, mapping and the journey of life with Brian the Australian and Öner the Turk i reluctantly took my leave and headed up to the main road to wait for the dolmuş to Fethiye.

While i was waiting a Turkish family (man, woman, little girl) came past in their car and stopped to ask about the route to Butterfly Valley. They asked me where i was headed and offered me a lift. We passed the journey with the parents demonstrating how much English their 3 year old daughter already knew before she eventually fell asleep. When we got to Fethiye they commented that they might as well carry on since it was still raining and in the end they took me all the way to Kaş (stopping at places like Patara Beach on the way), where they insisted on buying me dinner. Now that’s what i call hospitality! They were very interesting people too, not least because Sylvia, the wife, is a member of the Armenian minority. We had some very interesting discussions about the way Turkey is headed and also about Turkish films and literature; they were very pleased that i knew anything about these things as it’s not their usual experience of foreign tourists.

Anyway, i’ve signed up for a boat tour today and then i want to go back to the bookshop i found yesterday down a little side street. I bought a Turkish novel in translation (albeit not a very good translation) and i’d like to buy some more. I won’t be doing any more trekking now so the weight of the books isn’t a problem.

I note that by this point i was signing myself off ‘the Turkish Adventurer’! The boat trip was more interesting than i expected it to be, in large part because of the conversations i mention below:

I’m back at the hotel now following my boat trip round Kekova island: interesting, but more for the conversations than the ruins. Somehow, outside of Time Team, remains of ancient buildings soon start to blur into one another: this is a Lycian wall because their stone architecture was influenced by the techniques they used to carve wood; whereas this one is Roman because the wall is built from stone blocks and this one is Byzantine because it’s built from bricks. By the time we arrived at the Ottoman Era i was lost and, if i’m honest, bored.

We were meant to be able to swim as well but the relatively cool weather and rain put everyone off except one Turkish couple. Mind you, apart from me, a Turkish family (the afore-mentioned couple plus their young son & a set of grandparents) and a French-Canadian couple the other people on the trip were all elderly Germans, members of a watercolour club. Once we got out of the harbour they got out their painting kits and began working in earnest. No conversation was possible.

Conversation was possible however with the French-Canadian couple, Alain and Marie. They were lovely people, retired teachers who now enjoy travelling the world. We talked about how they feel about being Canadian: Marie said that in Canada she identifies herself as Quebecois, not French-Canadian but is nevertheless not a Quebec Nationalist. When she travels abroad she does identify as French-Canadian, largely because she doesn’t think many people would know what Quebecois means, but also because she is proud of the positive reputation that Canada has: liberal, tolerant, inclusive.

I also had some great conversations with Dilek, our guide, a funkily fashionable girl: purple cargo pants, pink nail polish, long henna tinted locks. She lived in London for 5 years and misses it. People complain about London when they live there, she says, but it has something distinctive and eclectic about it which you find yourself craving when you leave. I said she’s probably right but i still want to leave!

We also talked about Turkish attitudes to travel and cultural diversity. She confirmed what i’d read – that it’s expensive for Turkish people to travel abroad: passports are expensive and they have to pay a tax to leave Turkey on top of the expense of the visa for the destination country. And that’s assuming they can get the visa. At least three separate people have told me they’ve been refused visas for Britain and these are educated people looking to visit as tourists, not would-be dole artists.

She said that the problem goes deeper than that however: the intense propagation of Turkish national identity has tended to make people both inward-looking and wary of diverging from the norm in any way. Some people actually take a pride in the fact that they have no desire to travel outside Turkey. She advised me to visit İzmir, which she says is the most modern and forward-looking city in Turkey, much more so than İstanbul. Mind you, she does come from İzmir…

After more conversation about Turkish novels in translation, the pros and cons of commuting and her forthcoming 3 month trip to Guatemala to learn Spanish we returned to Kaş and the hotel. Then i set off to re-find the bookshop i’d discovered the previous day. This was easier said than done. For a small town Kaş has a lot of nooks and crannies. Eventually i did find the shop and bought two more Turkish novels in translation – and was rewarded by a joyful smile from the owner. I don’t think she sells a lot of those books.

Tomorrow, as i think i’ve already said, i have to return to Fethiye. I can’t believe that will be my last day! Tonight though i am going to pretend i’m staying here forever. And, more immediately, eat the dessert the waiter has just brought me.

That was the last email i wrote during my trip. The next day i took a (very comfortable) bus back to Fethiye, which i realised almost instantaneously was not a place i wanted to spend any time in. After lunch, i caught a bus to Dalaman Airport, which was even less inviting, and ended up travelling to Istanbul a day early after changing my ticket. I spent the night in the airport. My final memories of Turkey are of wandering aimlessly about the stacks of Turkish Delight piled high for tourists seeking last minute presents. No matter, it was a great holiday. Here’s hoping this year’s will be just as good. I leave you with this picture of Ollie, Turkey’s greatest dog and a resident of the Olive Garden guesthouse in Kabak:

Ollie, possibly the friendliest dog in Turkey


Paan & the Mesabji

A couple of weeks ago I saw a series of NHS posters about the increased incidence of oral cancer in people who chew paan. One of them was in Bangla and it instantly brought to mind the image of the Mesabji, or teacher, who presided over the little ‘school’ at the house of my friend, N. I was ten or eleven at the time. The ‘school’ was held on Saturdays and was compulsory for my Bangladeshi friends, which inevitably meant it was something of a chore for them; whereas i attended of my own free will and loved every minute of the experience.

During the first half of the class we learnt how to read the Qur’an – and I do mean read: there was never any expectation that we should be able to comprehend the words we were reciting; it was enough that we could speak them. We started by learning the Arabic alphabet. Actually, what we learnt was the Bangla pronunciation of the letters: ا alif, ب ba, ت ta, ث sa. After that, we worked our way through vowel markers and joined up letter forms until we could read words and, eventually, sentences.

In the second half of the class we turned our attentions to Bangla. My friends had the advantage over me then, as they understood what we were reading. I struggled along with the help of N. I could already read the script however: I think I’d learnt it the year before with N’s assistance; but my grasp of the the language itself was minimal. I seemed to spend the whole time grappling with the first lesson in আমার বই, ‘Āmār Bai’ (‘My Book’). Āmāder desh shundâr desh* is the only bit of it I can still recall.

Nevertheless, I loved it: Arabic and Bangla alike. I even loved the fact that we had to do a funny ritual (uzu) in which we washed our hands, feet etc before we had the class. I didn’t understand why we had to do these things until a couple of years later when my friends’ dad acquired a couple of books in English, but it scarcely mattered: participation in a ritual generates a meaning of its own.

The mesabji himself spoke no English. He communicated with me entirely through smiles and via valiant attempts at interpretation by my friends. I remember how keen he was to try and learn though. He used to sit and pore over Ladybird books, even as we grappled with Arabic and Bangla. I can picture his face now: the childlike expression contrasting with his long grey beard, as he stares at an illustration of a toothbrush and attempts to say the word on the page opposite. “Tootbrash” is how it always comes out, no matter how hard he tries.

He was such a gentle old man, at least with me; and I revelled in my ‘special pupil’ status. As a ‘convert’ I could do no wrong**. At the end of the class my friends’ mum would bring the paan. The bright green leaf and the red stain on the Mesabji’s teeth were the signal that the class was ending; which explains, I suppose, why I’ve never liked the stuff.

* Our land is a beautiful land”, or thereabouts.
** By contrast, N’s brother A could do no right. The poor lad had a stammer. He was punished with a rap on the knuckles each time he fluffed a word, which happened more and more often, as he got more and more nervous.

The black and white world of Marjane Satrapi

In the past week i’ve watched the film Persepolis and read the book on which the film is based. This is the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, who was around ten years old when the Iranian Revolution took place, ultimately bringing the Islamists to power. In both the book and the film she describes the initial optimism of her middle class but left leaning family. It sounds almost absurd now but it seems many such people seriously expected Iran to become a Communist state.

For Marjane, her family and for many other Iranians the actual outcome was a tragedy: her Uncle Anouche ended up executed, the Iran-Iraq war claimed the deaths of thousands of young men and the women of Iran, Marjane included, found that they were expected to dress and behave according to the dictates of the Islamists’ puritanical code.

I don’t dispute any of this. What i do find puzzling is that nowhere in either book or film is there any consideration of what Iran’s fate would have been if the Communists had come to power. Are we to imagine there would have been no executions of political opponents by the Communists, no curtailments of freedom? Maybe Marjane’s family would not have experienced these things. If they were part of or connected to the ruling elite – rather than in opposition to it – then perhaps they would have been protected. But another family might have suffered – an Islamist family perhaps?

Uncle Anouche, the most important Communist ‘character’, is a weary, gentle man. He is also a survivor of torture under the oppressive regime of the Shah. Of course we warm to him but surely, among those who returned from the prisons, there were also weary, gentle Islamist men? The point is: it’s rarely these naive individuals who end up in power, but rather their harder, much less innocent comrades.

In fact, even Uncle Anouche shows us a glimpse of something which doesn’t seem to sit right with his talk of democracy. In a conversation with little Marjane he tells her about his uncle Fereydoon who “proclaimed the independence of the Iranian province of Azerbaijan” and “elected himself Minister of Justice in this new little republic”. Elected himself?”

I wonder what Marjane’s feelings about freedom and leftist politics would have been if the Communists had taken power? Would she still have left? Would she have ended up an apologist for the regime? Or would she have eventually rejected it, just as some Iranian Islamists have rejected the Islamist regime? Might she even have rejected leftist politics altogether? (Note if you’re reading this that i’m not judging the left or the right. I am suspicious of all politicians).

Those who have never had power do have this sad luxury: if you have never had the chance to act then your actions by definition cannot be judged. But Marjane Satrapi, the adult, has lived abroad and seen other countries, other regimes, other possibilities, yet she never shows any awareness of this issue. The politics of Persepolis are as black and white as the illustrations themselves.