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Letters from Anatolia
Part 3

by Dmetri KAKMI

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.

Cavusin - Cappadocia

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 too.

When 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.

The 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.

Among 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 at me.

The 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.

Watching 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.

"Hey, 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.

Later, 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. "Very romantik."

There's 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?

What 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.

Sultanhan - Doorway

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.

A 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.

The 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.

They 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.

Ataturk's Mausoleum in Ankara.
Atatürk was originally buried in Istanbul and brought to this megalith
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.

The 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.

If 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.

As 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 and Romans.

Illusions 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 sunny morning.

My 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.

Outside 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.

Right 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.

Finally, 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.

If 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 to earth.

To 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.

It 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...

"You've 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 history.

"Where are you from?" the interpreter asks, inevitably.

"From Tenedos,"I say.

"Ah, 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?

I 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.

"Of course, I have no experience in this sort of thing," says Harvey. "But I'd say you've been damaged by history."


Saturday, 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."

As 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 and trust.

Just 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.

Looking 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.

"You can stay here," Ahmet says. "I will be at work. The place will be yours. It is peaceful. No need to play the tourist."

It 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 of Istanbul."

Outside 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.

Will 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.

Sure 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?" he shouts.

And now Istanbul is three hours ago. Damascus is behind us. Baghdad is vanished in the night.

I 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 away always."

Now, 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."

_ . _

DMETRI 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

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