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#1 truthonlytruth


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Posted 25 August 2003 - 12:34

I tell you truly,
everything you now see
will vanish like a dream.
—RUMI, "From Box to Box"

Rumi was not a Turk by birth, but he whirled to spiritual fame in Konya, an ancient Turkish Islamic capital. He is recognized as a mystic (the founder of the order of dervishes) and poet, and, as such, his verse is meant to touch the spiritual voyager in all of us. His words on the intangibility of dreams strike me as paradoxical, a reminder of the illusory nature of time and of the impermanence of human creation, but also of the importance of the immediate. Never mind these mundane struggles, Rumi seems to be telling me; but pay close attention to your surroundings, nevertheless.

His words seem particularly relevant to the subject of these stories: Turkey and its inhabitants. Journeys so often lead us to profundities, in any case, deeper ways of thinking than we're accustomed to in the everyday. Why not flip the process? Let's begin this journey with Rumi's universal truth in mind, a truth that's applicable to the subject in more ways than one.

Turkey is shockingly timeless; all around the country, from mountains to plains to coastline, it's impossible not to step into the currents of past, present and future. It is ancient, young, and not yet born. The cradle of civilization—the river basin of the Tigris and Euphrates—lies within its borders; countless cultures have trod its shores and plains, leaving behind no more than layers of crumbling ruins and echoes of whispered voices. Modern Turkey, however, born as recently as the 1920s, still struggles to find its true nature; positioned at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, it teeters from one way of life to the other, swayed by the forces of politics, religion, tourism, and television. And this precarious balance gives rise to a question pertaining to Turkey's unknown future: Which way will the country swing in the coming years, and how will this color the lives of its inhabitants, world neighbors, and curious visitors?

I didn't know much of Turkey before I left to go there. Nor did my friends or family. When I shared the news that I'd gotten a job in Istanbul and would soon be moving, the most prevalent comment made by people was, "Have you seen Midnight Express?"

The question was never asked in genuine fear for my safety. At least I don't think it was. Still, there's something a bit strange in the question coming up at all, because many of those who asked the question hadn't even seen the film. I certainly hadn't, and, what's more, I absolutely refused to see it before I left. I didn't want any sort of nightmarish Hollywood vision clouding my perception of a place I hadn't yet seen.

The point seems to be this: enough people I talked to had long-lasting negative impressions of Turkey based on the 1978 film, whether they'd seen it or not, that I refused to see it. How many others in the West have avoided Turkey based solely on this film?

Turkey is not the land of Midnight Express. As certain of these stories attest, brutal acts have been perpetrated within its borders, but Turkey's shadows are no different from any other country's, developed or not.

I had been in Turkey—in a strange suburb near Istanbul—for exactly fourteen days when the first major 1999 earthquake hit; my new job as a teacher was to start that very week. It was approximately 3 a.m., and I was awake when the shaking started. As habituated to earth tremors as I am after nearly a lifetime in California, I wasn't ready for the violence of this upheaval. The rocking was long and strong, and it gathered in force over a full forty-five seconds. I leaped from the sheets, and stood, shakily, in my bedroom doorway until the trembling stopped.

Even with the intense fright—deeper than any I'd ever known—I still might have climbed back under my covers; it's what I always did back home, whenever we felt tremors.

The voices of my neighboring Turks, however, lifted up from the outside and in through my open window. Looking out, I saw them filing out from our apartment building and the ones nearby, to huddle together in and around the playground. I watched the growing crowd, heard the incomprehensible murmurs (nothing in view had crumbled—unlike the devastation in Izmit and Avcilar, thirty or so miles away—and so the crowd didn't seem at all panicked), and became convinced that the people down there knew something I didn't. I descended to join my neighbors, to await any aftershocks or news.

After two years in their midst—as friend to some, stranger to most, observer of all I came across—I'm now positive that Turks know many things that I do not. How to make the most of any open patch of grass, for example, or how to profit from a sunny day (first step, go outside, no matter what kind of landscape you find yourself in). Lingering over breakfast is an art, particularly on a weekend. Soccer is a religion (albeit, a gender-centric one; but men also embrace warmly, and kiss each other on the cheeks when they meet). Bread is considered sacred, and never thrown out (in Istanbul, the hard, inedible ends are left outside for the numerous street cats and dogs, both of which share a shaky, often perilous existence with the vast city's human inhabitants). And children come first, for all Turks. In each of these aspects of daily Turkish existence, there seems to be an echo of Rumi's admonition that the present moment matters. It matters very much.

Two years wasn't enough to begin to know Turkey in its entirety of place and people. I even came back to California with the vague and uneasy feeling that, despite my daily wanderings in Istanbul and frequent travels around the country, I hadn't let much inside of me. The research I've done for this book, however, has changed that feeling, revealing to me faces and sites that I easily recognize, even ones I've never actually seen.

Turkey is exactly what you'll read here, and more. Ancient. Diverse. Hospitable. Harsh. Stunning. Paradoxical. A little nutty. And timeless. But the pieces you'll read here—for all their color and character, for all their diversity and depth—certainly can't do complete justice to the country. I hope that these stories, though, will give you just enough of a taste of the place that you'll decide to go there and sense for yourself, before the Turkey of today vanishes like Rumi's dream.


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