In Search of Lost Memories (Chapter 3): Cradles of Civilization

On arrival in Istanbul (early January 1970), I went to a nearby pension and contacted Cengiz. A day later he and I were in a dolmus (pronounced as dolmoosh), and off to find a place for me near Taxim (Square). Dolma is Turkish for stuffed, and a dolmus was a taxi whose driver had the prerogative of taking on extra passengers who were going in about the same direction: that is to stuff his vehicle. It was not only cheaper but actually much more fun than solo.

English: The dome of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul,...

Hagia Sophia

In the days that followed Cengiz took me on a personally guided tour that included the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, a former, Byzantine cathedral that had then been called Saint Sofia. In their magnificence these delighted my eyes, but even in that regard, their memory must defer to those of the shops and cart vendors along Istanbul’s streets, and indeed, to the Bosporus.

On a couple of occasions, I got across the strait by a ferry to Middle Eastern Asia and visited with the families of London Turks, Mehtin and Selim. It was Mehtin who had given me the name of his friend, Mrs. Jacobs, to look up in Amsterdam, my first stop on the continent.

The meeting with her and her daughter, Joanne (a local TV director or producer) had included a tour of the city and later lunch with the latter. First the three of us went to the red light district with its prostitutes displaying themselves in shop windows much like manikins at Victoria’s Secret. At one point they (my guides) asked where I would like to go, and I expressed an interest in visiting the Ann Frank House. Mrs. Jacobs spoke slowly, “yes, why not,” and added that neither had ever gone there. Up until then, a part of human nature had eluded me; her words caught me off guard.

Earlier on she had revealed how both of them, as Jews, were in hiding during the German occupation, but in separate locations. Unlike that of the Frank family, their seclusion had held for the duration. They lived Ann’s story, but it would be a while before I realized that their civility could have brought them little else but pain.

Mehtin’s parents were cordial and put forth a fine dinner. Beyond their warmth and my excitement over a first trip to Asia, little comes back to me. In time, I said good-bye and took the ferry back to European Istanbul.

Days later while traveling the streets with Cengiz, I noticed him pay for something with a handwritten note and some Turkish lira. “What did you just do?” I asked. He had handed the seller an IOU written, however many transactions ago, in a specified amount by someone out there. I told him that he couldn’t do that; to which he replied that everyone in Turkey did it, and that the economy would collapse without it. Each citizen could print money but was responsible for what he or she had printed. Today someone might bundle millions of such notes and issue derivatives but without the backup mortgages, I suppose. We agreed to disagree, but today I wish that I had myself more deeply understood what I had tried to tell him.

On February 16th , I flew towards Athens. Almost immediately I could look down upon the magnificent Marmara where days earlier, Cengiz and I had hopped a ferry that stopped at some of its islands.

That earlier passage was exquisitely beautiful, even Dog Island with an ugly truth beneath its beauty. Its use has now been abandoned, but in those days, it was inhabited by packs of dogs, and would occasionally receive other feral dogs. Those newcomers entered into a life struggle between becoming pack members or pack meals. Landing at a further island, we rented bikes, rode around, and finally after I had paid for damaging the one I rented, we headed back to Istanbul.

Growing up, I was completely enthralled by Greek history, literature and various art forms. In no way were my expectations let down by what I found in her capital, Athens. For days I walked about both the monuments to times past, and those freshly built to delight passersby, now and 2,500 years hence. In time I discovered the mathematics department at Athens University, and there met Demetrius. He spoke English and soon invited me to a department party celebrating Carnival.

English: Old wooden metrotrein in 1979. Pireus...

Train Station (Pireus)

Before the event I went to Piraeus to check out ships to Israel and to plan for passage after the party. There was a red snapper dinner served at an overlook of the Aegean, and then the train back. Every place in Athens had taken me into pages of its history and culture; now on the train, it had to be Thucydides describing Athenian defensive walls being extended to Piraeus.

I arrived at the party, and Demetrius took me around, introducing me at some point to a young woman. I sat by her and knew that it would be French, but conversation was slow and difficult for both us. I didn’t know then whether Sophia studied mathematics or had come as a guest of the fellow introduced with her. He left the moment we began our language struggle and didn’t return. She was with me, and of course, you wouldn’t be reading this if I hadn’t been in the same sense with her.

Nonetheless, at party’s end, I passed up her offer to get together the next day as well as her and others’ suggestions to delay my departure for Israel. Each would have been easy; I made them more difficult. Demetrius was confused but had, without any discussion between us, understood that it was not simply indifference that put me on a ship to Haifa two days later.

He and I would exchange letters for a few years. In each he would mention her: of how she wanted to visit the States; and in time, of a train collision that had taken the life of her father, one of the operators, and had put the kibosh on her U.S. dream journey. He had written all of this with no access to my thoughts that Carnival evening. What had they been?

I had grasped that with little ability to talk to one another, we would have become precociously intimate; that by her youth and by that precocity, I would be taking advantage of her even in allowing her to seduce me; and finally by her native and my acquired Greek heritage, I would remember what I had done and for a long time. There also had been thoughts of her father in fear or affection; either would have made sense.

The ship set out for Haifa on a warm, beautiful, March day. Aboard a black woman went around sharing her exuberance in a series of encounters. I am unsure at which end of the voyage my thoughts were, but when she finally got to me, they were not, as were hers, in the moment. Also on board were a group of French men and women heading to live and work on a kibbutz. For years, I carried around with me an image of the French as cool and aloof, but now I need only recollect this group of adventurers, and wonder if I had out cooled and aloofed them. At Haifa we disembarked and as they left, one of them wondered out loud how it was that they [gentiles] were off to a kibbutz but I [a Jew] would pass that [elle] up for Jerusalem. What awaited was an ordeal, perhaps my just due for having missed the authentic experience; but it would be followed by forgiveness.

Days before, I had passed up something else for Jerusalem; that is, if it ever had a prayer. While checking out passage in Piraeus, I had asked about going to Egypt and was told that I could, but would have to choose between there and Israel. Once my passport had been stamped by either, I would not be allowed into the other. At that time, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s name struck terror in me even before being fully uttered. How Egypt’s pyramids and marketplaces opened my imaginings to such a visit is beyond comprehension.

At first, I had wondered if I could somehow remain inconspicuous, and with an imagined walk through an Alexandrian marketplace, checked that out.

Nasser’s face would flash into those thoughts alternating with Ann Frank’s magnanimous sentiment, and then a miracle happened: two wrongs came together to make a right. I walked into a restroom and as I urinated someone looked over, yelled to others, and they dragged me right out of my plans. Some shade had noticed that I was circumcised, and hence a Jew.

I would book passage to Israel, convincing myself that I had come that close. It would be years before I discovered that the clincher had, in fact, been a second wrong: all men in Islam and hence most in Egypt were and are, as am I, circumcised.

I arrived in Haifa on a Sunday, the eighth of March, and caught a sherut for Jerusalem. In the back of this Israeli version of the Turkish dolmus were a remarkable couple. She was extraordinarily beautiful, the stuff of fairy tales; he, I would eventually notice, was himself quite handsome. Looking back in time, I know that there was no way my own peeking back at her could have gone undetected. Now from the sublime to the remarkable: almost 25% of her face was covered by some blood mark. It may have been congenital or an old well-healed burn. Judging only from his appearances, he could have found almost anyone but had been oh so lucky to have found her.

In Jerusalem, I moved into a shanty at the base of the hills from which Hebrew University peered out at the promised land. I would share it with a member of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who was usually off with his unit. Once I had settled, I wrote home requesting that money be sent via Western Union.

Jerusalem was also one of those beautiful places to walk; and I did so endlessly among the remnants and pilgrims of ancient faiths. One day while looking up at the Tower of David, an Arab youth offered in broken English to show me how to get to a better vantage point. I followed him for twenty minutes, leaping across gaps, taking turns and climbing, always climbing. The views were as promised, but finally I told him that I would like to go back. He replied, “Go ahead, I’m heading on.” How in the world was I supposed to find my way back? . . . Oh, that was the point. This tour to the heights was free, but getting back down would cost. The thought of him abandoning me at that spot mitigated most of my humiliation; and the humorous aspects did begin to sink in as we worked our way down a short cut. In retrospect, had he ever gone to business school he could certainly have skipped the chapter on brisk turnovers.

About that time, I was running out of money and began checking Western Union daily. What was keeping that special wire? I followed my original letter with a postcard telling of how desperate I had become. My food consumption got down to a felafel pocket per day, day after day. This went on for two weeks until the return of my roommate(s) with news of a party that evening up the hill at the University. What happened next is a total blank.

English: Hebrew University campus on Mount Sco...

Image via Wikipedia

I awoke lying on a floor. During the previous weeks, I had met a number of pilgrims, getting in touch with their Savior. I never thought of myself as also in search, but there, beside me was mine, Alisa; and now behind me what seemed as seven years of famine. For days I would ascend the hill and visit her and then return to my shanty.

Once on the way down, something on the ground caught my eye; and just as an odd idea came to me, I noticed a woman passing me on her way up and shared it with her. “Ants in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel)?” My what-do-you-make-of-it tone brought a shaking head and held back smile, differing little from what had occurred outside a Czech restroom months earlier; but this time I had intended it so. For someone plagued by the unintentionally ridiculous, I felt an inner satisfaction.

During all of this, no money had arrived from Western Union. One day Alisa, who by now was supplying me with lodging as well as food, suggested that she could cover the cost of a collect call back home. During its delay, the anticipated arrival was always going to be the very next day. For it to be otherwise was beyond common sense, and yet day after day it was, in fact, otherwise. To have Alisa step forward with such a simple solution was at that point insufferable.

One way or another, it all came to an end shortly afterward. On March 18, 1970, U.S. Postal workers had gone on strike and remained so just into April. During that time my postcard, offering little guidance other than mentioning how desperate I was, worked its way pass some out-of-the-way nook wherein the letter, bursting with details, had lost itself. Neither was I then nor am I now capable of planning such intrigue. How does one thank postal workers for being set up so well? Buy extra stamps?

In a sense, I picked up with Alisa where I had left off with Maribé: missing her points. There had been the not so subtle hint, mentioning a requirement in the IDF that men with beards keep those well-groomed. To that I had only wondered why. Why? Because she wanted it so: that’s why. Even before this bout with poverty, I had let my appearance go. In fact, back in Athens while walking and talking with a Greek sailor, a large group of uniformed school girls, themselves walking perhaps 40 feet away, had suddenly pointed towards us and shouted something in unison, to which he had shouted his own words back. I’ve always assumed in a Greek-to-me sense that his words were vulgar, asking him instead what they had said. “There goes Christ and one of his apostles!” He never translated his own remark and even their remark in translation didn’t seem to discourage me my unshorn appearance.

Alisa had never served in the IDF, but had fulfilled her obligation by recording books on audiotape for wounded soldiers. She never spoke to me in Hebrew, but I imagine that listening to her voice was a treat for them. The grounds for her exclusion had been a limp; one day I asked her about it, but she didn’t tell me. How the better word limp had eluded my thoughts is beyond me; in its place came the “c” word, as in “How did you come to be crippled?” We both knew that the term had become tainted in its usage, but feeling that I had not abused it, I used it.

She was clearly hurt, and now looking back, I know that beyond the controversy, my choice was an unnecessarily strong reference to what had been but a slight alteration of gait. I leave this in the context of another recollection: neither her limp nor slim physique ever stopped her from wrestling my arm down to the mattress. I also realize that she had forgiven me. As with the woman in the back seat of the sherut from Haifa, she had gone beyond that. I knew so beforehand but with my silence, remained confused about exactly how far I had gone.

I write recollections of serenity, but must purge my thoughts of today’s suicide bombers to recall that, leading up to my visit, there had also been in Israel bombings on a far smaller scale. My anxiety peaked during a visit to the Dead Sea. Naively I had made no plans on how to get back and there, too late, stood listening to an Arab explaining the approaching curfew. At that time, I had never experienced being out in a night lit only by stars and our sun’s reflection off the moon. I had contemplated walking back in dimness, not in pitch blackness.

A bus came along and stopped nearby. Some elderly Dutch (or Danish) tourists walked up and began boarding; it had been chartered for them. I explained my plight, and they took me on. At the last minute, three or four members of the IDF, ran up, tapped on the door, and asked for a lift back to Jerusalem. They were also welcome, and as we departed, one issued an order and in an instant, their weapons had been activated.

In a few days Turkish Airways took me back to Istanbul, and there I got together with Cengiz and other Turks. On May 8, four days after that flight, a school bus was attacked by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization killing nine children and three adults, while leaving 19 other children to limp (or worse) through life.

Soon Cengiz took me to a school on the Bosporous, introducing me to his English class; it was a treat for all of us. The teacher mistook speed for fluency and probably would have done better being himself immersed in spoken English. Then I was introduced to a lovely Turkish woman who was looking for someone on whom to practice as part of her studies in dental hygiene. My teeth needed and got her attention.

The warmth of this community was so complete that I never felt threatened by its being Muslim. Some may well have felt animosity towards me, a Jew, but they didn’t. Besides walking its busy streets, I could always find serenity by the Bosporus. An occasional large Soviet vessel, out of or bound for a Black Sea port, would cruise unobstructed by bridges as yet to be built.

Istanbul from the Bosphorus Bridge

Image by CyberMacs via Flickr

One day on its bank, I spoke to Cengiz of swimming across it in the spirit of Leander of ancient Greek lore. In retrospect, my romantic vision had left out some details: how important it would have been to have Hero waiting on the other side, and that she had actually been waiting across a different straight, the Dardanelles. Cengiz told me that the swim had been done, but that some didn’t make it, forfeiting their lives. For one thing, Leander didn’t have to dodge these enormous Soviet vessels.

Well, so what. We would get a rowboat in which he and others could trail behind. I went down to the edge and found the water was brrr . . . cold. As a romantic, it is all about the warmth of love and the heat of passion; this water was something else. We dropped the crossing, rowboat and all.

There would come a time when we would sip tea and behold the strait in its vast magnificence. Some of his Armenian friends had set up a tea room atop Emirgan. At the time I noticed a difference in their features; but had attached no special significance to Cengiz and their having found a mutual cordiality.

On an evening towards the end of my stay, he, his aunt, and I got into a dolmus and headed up the Bosporus towards the Black Sea. There we dined at a nightclub; enjoyed the music and some belly dancing; finally returning to her Istanbul home overlooking the Bosporus. By then I was exhausted and did not stay long. Walking down the steps towards the main avenue which hugged the straight, I came upon a large crowd milling around. There in its vortex was a man’s body with blood flowing from it. I continued down to the avenue and made my way back to Taxsim.

The next day Cengiz told me that a man had been murdered. This owner of a fleet of Istanbul taxis had just married and had either found or claimed to have found his wife not to be a virgin. Upon hearing of this her brother was ready to kill—but whom? By the outcome I presume that either in honesty or for survival, she had claimed a prior chastity. She and her brother were eventually executed. Here I extend to a judiciary, which had been secularized by Mustafa Atatürk, the benefit of the doubt and will trust that her abetting the murder had been proven and that her gender had not influenced the verdict. A Sharian court would neither want nor get my trust but, in this case of a male murder victim, the pair would have come to the same end.

When I mentioned my having seen the body, Cengiz was surprised that I hadn’t walked back up to tell them. It is difficult to know a person, let alone an entire community, from a single act, but that must have been how I had become overly casual about death in Istanbul. Early in my visit (or perhaps in London), he had confided to me how in a single moment and in a similar circumstance, both his father and uncle were lost to him. He never used the word, honor, nor should we be so confused as to allow such usage to corrupt an authentic meaning.

On May 28th, I was back on a Turkish Airliner heading for Vienna and, of course, Prague.

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