I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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Kusadasi — Bird Island — punctuates the soft Aegean coastline east of Izmir. Once a fortress, a regal retreat, the islet dots and focuses the bay like a beauty mark. It’s now a nightclub. The scant distance between the shores has been filled in and paved over to form an isthmus, known in Turkish as “the stony tongue.” What you want you can get there. In summer, cruise ships bring exultant droves of westerners to the town, who, along with extensive drug trafficking, have transformed the region into a wealthy, peaceful appendage to the otherwise bellicose, indigent body of Turkey. Like the thin layer of crude oil on the Mediterranean, affluence stratifies.
The present owner of the islet, Prince Akhur, offered me a glass of raki on the terrace. Prince of hashish, I thought. “Tesekkur.” Thanks. I lowered my eyes slightly. The nightclub band was comprised of four Turks, mid-twenties — two guitars, saxophone, drums. The lead singer is Willy Morgan, my high school friend’s son from Jersey City. Wild Willy and the Renegades pound out soul music with a Turkish twist. Willy is black, a private in the U.S. Army, stationed in Istanbul. At incomprehensible military “discretion,” Willy travels around with the Renegades and livens up the disco and nightclub scene in Turkey. To the United States government, all of Anatolia is a strategically located launching pad for missiles. I myself am nomadic.
Prince Akhur (there are nearly as many princes in southern Turkey as figs), between droughts of the anise-tinted alcohol, complained how difficult it has become to market hash with the constant American intervention. He shipped “the smudge” in a refrigerated semi with a false floor; frozen squid and fish lived upstairs. Drug talk is as boring as sex talk. However, he is my host, and his “principality” is magnificent. “Icmiyorum,” I declined his cigarette. He persisted, pushing the pack toward me, not believing I didn’t smoke.
It’s half a stone’s throw to the Greek Islands from Kusadasi; the nations are in constant conflict, war pending. Potential loss of blood doesn’t distract from the beauty of the islands, splendid sea colors, curves and ridges of the coastline. The sea is often oak-leaf green, warm and inviting. Various cultures — African, European, Asian — have intermingled and merged from the beginning. There is nothing nordic about the pervasive feeling here; nothing rushed or framed with the fear of encroaching winter. Many have come and gone from this arena.
“She is Sufi,” said the Prince, watching my eyes. She returned my unashamed raki gaze. “What is a Sufi?” I asked instinctively in English. The Prince laughed at my effrontery. The face of the woman was the only part of her body exposed; an azure shawl covered her head, gathered around her neck. No lines in the forehead or beneath the eyes, maxillae bones riding high in her cheeks, right-hand twist to her nose. Italian, I thought. Even lips, square chin, small cleft. She allowed the tall glass to receive its measure of raki and water.
An Aegean breeze shifted the sun’s rays, which undulated like a long bolt of golden cloth, unraveling between the horizon and shore. Along with the early dawn hours, this was when I preferred to swim. There is neither struggle nor competition with the sea. If anything has inundated my psyche in the three and a half years since I left the States, it is my essential American character: pioneer instinct, puritanical thoughts, stiffness of limb. Where you come from gives you courage.
My sandal strap broke my second day in Istanbul. I sought a cobbler. As is said: a well-made shoe is a dozen kind thoughts. He turned it around in his hand. And then, of course, before beginning, ordered cay (tea). Found some scraps, spliced a piece on to the strap, reinserted it between the soles. The cay, deep amber, was nauseatingly sweet. “Here in Istanbul, the West ends, the Orient begins. It is far enough to go on one pair of sandals.” I listened, took in the shop, his torn apron, leathery hands. I turned to pay and he made the typical backward nod and simultaneous cluck with his tongue that means no payment is necessary.
Now I drank the gritty, bitter Turkish coffee, touched the Prince on the shoulder, and smiled at the woman — Dashid. Not her name at baptism. She listened cordially — like a mistress, I thought — to the too numerous tales of our host, but said not two words to him. In perfect English with a delicate fragrance of French, she said directly to me, “If you wait until the sun has completed setting, I will join you in the sea, Insh’allah?” Had I mentioned swimming? “Of course,” I assented, “Insh’allah” (if God wills it).
For months — perhaps years — I had been celibate. In a fundamental sense, I didn’t care. Premarital relations are highly discouraged in Moslem lands. Forbidden. “It’s not necessary,” Taner, lead guitarist for the Renegades, told me wryly one day. “There are the state-inspected houses and the promiscuous Turkish ass. Just remember when you go courting, take the three necessities — string, apple and mirror.” “What are they for?” I asked. “The string is to tie up the ass’s tail, so she doesn’t shit; the apple is for her mouth, to keep her busy and quiet; the mirror you place on the rump, so that no one sneaks up behind you.”
This woman was not the sort with whom I was familiar. French Canadian, I would later find out. Flipping the figurative coin — tails — we went to her secluded bathing spot. Even in this hub of Turkish sophistication, tradition demands the female keep her body covered when in public. Whereas the sea dictates nakedness.
The moon hung like a monkey’s tail — third or fourth day waxing. Four distinct phases of the moon exist, each seven or eight days apart, and divided accordingly into seven or eight slices. Once in the habit of observing the nocturnal queen, the exact day of phase is readily discernible. Quoth the once upon a time scientist. And she: “There are twelve forks in the Sufi Path; at the divergence of the ninth, the sojourner realizes the incompleteness of the eight previous, takes the committed step, and says I am a Sufi. Insh’allah. Until that step one is not a Sufi. I am not a Sufi.” She smiled openly.
Past the distant jetty, where enormous stones had been deposited to aid in calming the port, we arrived at a precipitous puzzle, which Dashid — foot here, hand there — solved. We dropped down to a sandy nook. In front, guarding the entrance to the sea, was a massive outcropping, with a small, irregular tunnel through which, after folding clothes on rocks, we half-walked, half-swam. I glided out into the salt water, dipping and diving, enjoying the sting and cleanliness as it sought and balanced the liquid within. I could see Dashid on the immense rock, perched like a sea lion. Breast-stroking, spewing water, snorting through my nostrils, I eased up onto the sharp rock. Her body was not a virgin’s. The curve of her hips spoke of children; a faint scar bisected the small folds of her abdomen — Caesarean, I thought. Her breasts had been used, and though not particularly large, hung below her diaphragm.
“My life was drying up in Canada. My throat became continuously parched, literally. Twice I was cut in childbirth. My two children, Claire and Alexander, live in Boston with their father, my husband of nine years. I inherited money when my father died, and since then I have traveled, trying to get rid of the arid feeling in my body. There are no concrete limitations placed on me yet by my teachers. Be in the world, not of it, is part of the Path. As Rumi says, ‘Whatever is in the world is but in your own self — seek in your self whatever you want, for all is in you.’ ”
A sincere voice, but to me just so much religious doggerel. As I stood to re-enter the water, a twinge of remorse flashed behind my eyes. I realized how unreceptive I had become, hardly giving half an ear to what she said. So much of the last years, I followed wind currents, a lost balloon, insulated in my own head, giving little credence or consideration to what others expressed, self-indulgent and indifferent. I turned toward her; she had risen and was now descending toward the shore. She was a lovely woman, in her early thirties. Stretched out, all four limbs on different ledges. Poised like a cat descending a tree, she met my stare: “Wednesday I am beginning a trip to Isfahan in Iran, Insh’allah. If you want to go, be at the morning bus.” As Dashid passed into the shadows of the rock, I splashed into the Aegean, more like a broken tree limb than an amphibian.
Tuesday night, late, I reclined on the edge of Kusadasi, fulcrum between the electrified music and the soothing lap of sea. Willy put more emotion into his songs than I had in my entire being. He sang an old, melancholy Otis Redding song: “Sittin’ here restin’ my bones/ and this loneliness won’t leave me alone/ Sittin’ on the dock of the bay/ wastin’ time. . . .” I looked up at the setting moon — sixth day. A sliver short of half-full. But it was the other part I gazed at, the dark portion, outlined like a black arch. That was my home, and I felt that I would soon be going home.
It was already hot at the Izmir bus terminal; industrial odors mixed with diesel exhaust and forty-odd bodies, seated, awaiting departure. From way back when, I remember Reverend Thomas Dolan — Holy Roly Doly — ranting and ricocheting words off the stained-glass windows, lauding the haloed Mr. Christ; and in the next breath, condemning me for being a lost sheep. A lost sheep. A lost goat. A lost camel. A lost mosquito. “You think of yourself as an old man without purpose, anticipating the fulfillment of your destiny. You expect nothing, presuming that death will be some escape. But you are wrong; not to act, only to wait, is the violation. Death is no escape.”
As is said: “Death is more like yesterday than tomorrow.” No escape at all.
Turkey is not small, 900 miles or more across. Roads are adequate in some places, but in poor repair. In August every mile is a hot one. Drivers race as fast as possible, never foreseeing some incident, a temporary blockage of the road; they maintain a lofty contempt for all pedestrians, animal or human. Our bus driver would accelerate up to flocks of sheep, only to slam on the brakes, jolting every passenger, and proceed to beep the horn incessantly, cursing profusely. Turkish execrations are copious, lengthy, and insulting. The bus overheated between Konya and Karapinar; old and young alike piled out into a nearby sunflower field and either broke or cut off a yellow head, bringing it back to their seats. Dashid and I did the same. If you get stuck someplace, it is the will of Allah: eat the sunflower seeds. The seeds moved quickly from hand to mouth, and the shells came flying out the other side onto the floor like empty cartridges from a machine gun. An hour later the driver brought around perfumed, moist cloths for our hands and faces.
For the first 400 miles we said nothing. Dashid read, of all things, the Koran — in French, no less. She was not uncomfortable to be with; she either read, slept, or meditated. When I meditated many years back, I received one of three messages: you are bored; you are horny; you are wasting your time. “The mind is really the Devil,” Dashid said. “It will give you thousands and thousands of excuses to keep you from seeing God.” We agreed to stop a day before entering Iran. I wanted to visit Lake Van Golu. Dashid registered us in the Hotel Mustafa, a single room. It was late afternoon when we reached the excursion boat, the last one of the day. We sat on deck, stood occasionally, and sipped raki. Whatever kind of religion Sufi may be, it doesn’t prohibit alcohol. “The Sufi Path allows for everything on the earth to be enjoyed; it is all part of God’s gift — meat and wine, song and dance. On the Path they are all encountered, and with right attitude, all are praise. Insh’allah.” I placed my arm around her shoulder as we leaned against the railing and watched the diverging wake trail away toward opposite shores. I thought of my wife, the one I could never please, the one who bore no children, the one whom I loved. She smashed every piece of glass and porcelain in our apartment and then threw herself out the window. Lifetimes ago.
We ate across the street from the hotel — tabouli salad with yogurt, kahve Turk and baklava. I like the combination of syrupy pastry and dense coffee. Lighthearted, for me anyway, we strolled the length of the town, peering into shops — spices, cloth, meat, shoes, a cigarette stand with a huge round of halvah oozing oil. A group of boys gathered behind us, cursing us, softly at first, and then with vehemence. They began tossing stones; one bounced up and caught me in the calf. I turned angrily, picked one off on the fly, and was about to return it. “Don’t!” said Dashid. “They are so angry with us for seeking hashish, wearing short skirts, for our disrespect to their religion and culture. Don’t meet action with reaction.” A momentary lull. I walked on, annoyed, drifting once again into my habitual state. What’s the use? At worst they could break my skull open. Or at best.
She undressed in the washroom — a light summer nightgown. I scanned her form with the memory of romance and vague sexual thoughts — far across the precipice. My forearms rested above my knees and I observed the rolls of flesh, gray hairs, and small indentations. My bellybutton. Flabby thighs, skin draped like wet towels over the bones. Not much, I thought. She smiled up at me from her bed, shrugged her shoulders. I forced air through my nostrils, mimicked her shrug, and lay back on the hard bed, hands behind my head. Eyes closed, listening to the stir and rumble on the street below. I had little trouble going to sleep; nothing on my mind, few experiences to mull, no plans to calculate. Dashid began her nightly chanting, almost inaudible, but full of “Allahs.” Allah is the breath, she said. My brother Edward, one year younger than I, who shared my room in Jersey, always prayed at night: “Lord above/ Let Thy Love/ Protect me through the night/ If I die/ Bring my soul/ To Thy House of Light.” He asked me, “If you die in your sleep, you want to go to heaven, don’t you?”
They were waiting for us the next morning when we appeared in search of coffee. Dashid seemed oblivious to their disparagements, but I felt the need to protect her. Why, I’m not sure. Carrying our belongings, we headed toward the bus station; this evening we would be in Iran. Behind us came horse hoofs, faster than a walk. A Moslem was riding directly at us, and I grabbed Dashid’s left arm and yanked; the horseman lunged for her shawl, spun her off balance. She fell, flinging her bag, and exposing her long blonde hair — insignia of the infidel. I was furious and didn’t care if every Moslem was crucified, then burned at the stake! I chased after him, and as he stopped and turned to relish his triumph, I seized hold of his tunic and pulled him to the ground. They say they all carry knives, but my anger outran all reason. He began to cry and beg for mercy; in disgust I watched him groveling in the dust. Bastard! I picked up the shawl, and panting and sweating carried it back to Dashid, who had regained her composure. Her cheek was scratched and streaked with dirt. “Tesekkur ederim,” she said, shaking the shawl and replacing it carefully, to conceal the western and feminine features. A sprig of life in the old boy yet. “You’re quite welcome.”
Shit, I thought, as we approached the border. I don’t have a visa. There are two entrances into Iran by land: the London Road — used by ninety-nine percent of travelers — and this rather inconspicuous southern route. The bus stops about four hundred meters from the actual border, a no man’s land, which must be traversed either by foot or hellish taxis that wait days for overburdened emigrants. I decided to use the ignorant tourist ploy to get my passport stamped. I would resort to the ol’ “baksis” technique if that didn’t work; bribery is the staple of the bureaucratic diet. Our modest luggage in tow, we sweltered toward the Iranian border. A few emaciated chickens scratched around the station; a camel was tethered in the distance. Six green-garbed soldiers squatted on the porch, chatting and smoking, rifles leaning against the building. As we walked up the wooden steps, I sensed their eyes penetrating Dashid’s clothing. Innocuous children awaiting war. A serious backgammon game was in progress. The agent would not speak with us. “Sit.” He sent a boy for cay. The further east you go, the longer you wait. We dropped into chairs, glad to be out of the sun, mindlessly sipping the hot tea. “Let me see your passport,” the agent awakened me. I prepared my humble speech. “So you have no visa. Well, it is foolish to enter a country without a visa, do you not agree?” Yes, foolish. “I will grant you a temporary one-week visa which must be renewed in Tehran before you will be able to depart. You understand?” Indeed, my lord. “There is a bus for Rezaiyeh tomorrow morning at 8.” Is there a hotel? “None.” Where can we spend the night? “Are you married?” No. “I have no idea. Goodbye.” And that was that.
“It doesn’t matter,” Dashid told me. “We can eat just as well tomorrow as tonight. Insh’allah. Food is at times enjoyable but not necessary.” We started off in the direction of the tethered camel, where trees stood, offering some protection and privacy, out of the soldiers’ sight. “I am very excited at being allowed to meet Master Ozmaek. I feel as though I am at the edge of my life. My past is crumbling with each step. In front of me are majestic valleys of understanding. I have new eyes to see with, and the sights are very beautiful. It is the difference between the growth of a wildflower and a tree. A slow process.”
“In my life, I have a new feeling, too,” I said. “It is death. I felt its inertness this morning, walking back from that bastard Moslem on horseback.”
“Hazrat Inayat Khan says that death is life’s shadow. As the shadow is seen and yet non-existent, so is death.”
“Perhaps. I have no idea. Words and thoughts, that’s all. Eating, sleeping, and excreting round it out.”
The moon was approaching fullness. Through the branches came her light, breathing her night blessings into our sleep. Dashid awakened and unwound her skirt and lay beside me, covering us both, warming me until I was aroused. For a quick promenade the wind rose, stepped lively in the trees, and sent a messenger to confuse the moonlight. Military laughter brought us to morning.
Since the bus began at the border, we were the only passengers. The driver was more maniacal than the previous ones, swerving the bus tail over cliffs as we climbed and dropped through the mountains. But there was nothing to say. Relax and enjoy the view. Several gypsies flagged us down. The habitual squeak of brakes. Haggling, tossing of heads, waving of arms. They gave a few coins to the driver; in less time than it takes a camel to rise from a kneeling position, the bus was filled with colorfully arrayed women and children, goats, satchels, chickens, rugs, bags; a dozen or more men clambered up on the roof. Chickens were paired leg to leg. Goats on short ropes nibbled at the seat stuffing, already minimal. Both fowl and four-footed commenced defecating and urinating. Dashid and I laughed freely, truly the best laugh I have had in many a year.
We rode on in this fashion, slowed by the additional weight and chaos, serpenting mountain to mountain, roller-coaster style — inch by inch ascent, and then, breathtaking plummet. How could the men hang on the roof? An older woman squeezed in next to Dashid, immediately grasping her hand, glancing at the lines, loosening the shawl and caressing the golden hair; with maternal smile and black blazing eyes she stared intensely. She wore several pairs of earrings, a ruby nose jewel, a long necklace of mixed beads, a scarlet cloth tied behind her head, a very dirty blouse, and a long black skirt with at least one other beneath. She was shoeless. There were rings on every finger except the thumb. She nodded gently, closing Dashid’s hand in her own, and turned her obsidian eyes to me. Her gaze was like a hungry hawk; I felt ice along my spine. She reached out for my hand, and without thinking, I offered it to her. We felt a thud against the front of the bus, a deer or goat probably. Her countenance changed. She uttered some words in a strange dialect, then her voice rose to a shout; she repeated it over and over again. The whole bus load of gypsies began moving and screaming as though a swarm of hornets were loose. They banged on the doors until the driver braked to a halt, slinging foul curses at them. The doors swung open and they poured out like fish over a dam. Men leaped from the roof. The goats dug in their hoofs, but were pulled out. The old gypsy woman was dragging Dashid by the arm, screeching at her. Dashid was crying, holding on to my shirt. “What is going on?” I yelled. “Is there a bomb?” My eyes blurred. “Dashid, come back!” Her face was red with sobs and tears. Her voice pleaded, “Come! Come! Please, come!” But I could not leave. It was all too demented and confusing. The bus started up suddenly, and I saw her through the side window, hand stretched out toward the moving bus, struggling to get away. I must go to her, I thought. She needs my help. But I did not. Where I was, I stayed. I felt the engine speed increase, released from its load, racing down the mountain now. Out the window, I saw a sheer drop of several hundred meters, and the next instant I heard the bang of a tire exploding. The bus swung outward to make the bend, hit a rock, and careened off the hillside. Then I knew. The bus plunged off the road; my face was slammed against the window. I could see the ravine drawing near. But there was no fear; I relaxed, in a calming flow of happiness. I saw Dashid’s beautiful French Canadian Sufi face smiling up at me; small cleft in the chin, loving eyes. I smiled with all my heart. She smiled back. Her face was radiant white, and lost in it, I moved my lips — Insh’allah.