Monday, 18 November 2013

Baggy Trousers and Meanders - Turkey 1994

An Infidel among the Muslims


Turkey 1994-ish.


Like a lost sheep, standing gormless and friendless in the smoky, shabby airport concourse at Izmir, I wondered why the hell I had been so bold.


I had no currency, no transport, and only a vague idea of my intended first-night hotel. Eventually, after the bout of self-pity, I figured out that the post office was the local substitute for bureaux de change, and obtained a vast fistful of currency for my few tenners. I tried telephoning the hotel in Kusadasi I knew to be run by an Englishwoman, but fell foul of an obscure numbering system, getting at best bemused foreign-sounding voices at the other end. I should have planned how to get to my first-night hotel in Kusadasi.


Hang the expense, I extravagated, I’ll use a taxi. The driver tried to stay professional but, when a fellow driver asked him where he was off to, he couldn’t resist a gleeful little twinkle: Kusadasi, as if it had made his week.


So, this was what backpackers do! Admittedly, I had a backpack, but I felt rather a middle-aged imposter. At the hotel I was surrounded by fit, confident young people on a low budget. They had no airs and graces. They had an air of contentment, as if rubbing shoulders with exotic aliens was natural.


In these early days, I hadn’t quite grasped the hell-for-leather nature of backpacking; the shit-or-bust decisiveness of it. I would stroll out of the foyer, down a dusty road between nondescript concrete buildings, drink too many bottles of excellent Efes Pilsener lager, eat a more-than-decent meal in an attractive restaurant, lonely as hell, and again wonder what the hell I was doing there.


A day-trip to the magnificent archeological site of Ephesus began to buck up my ideas. Instead of just shuffling along with the squadrons of tourists, I went off at a deliberate tangent and discovered the hills above Ephesus. At last I gained a sense of tranquility. The terrain was, to my parochial English eyes, spectacular in its aridity. I began to visualise the movements of the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Ephesus before the great city was abandoned. As the sun sank lower, and the slanting light took on a more orange hue, I imagined a squadron of Persian mercenaries coming over the breast of one of the hills, all gaunt helmets, all knees and kilts, bristling with spears and shields.





Part of my motivation for touring round Turkey was to get a feel for places which would feature in my novel, The Godmaker: I was following in the footsteps of Saint Paul the Conman. In trying to launch his new religion, he fell foul of people who had a vested interest in the old religions he intended to displace, in particular the religion of Artemis. This fertility goddess had been worshipped in Asia Minor for thousands of years. She was Earth Mother, Mother Nature, and when they found out what Paul was up to, the siversmiths of Ephesus beat him up and ran him out of town, fearing that the market would drop out of the market for silver figurines of Artemis. Other places he ferequented were Iconium (today Konya) Tarsus where he was born, and Antioch (today Antakya), the third biggest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Athens.


Ephesus was a major port in biblical times, but the heavy annual rains bring down tons of silt. The river is called Menender: as the silt creates mudflats, the river is obliged to meander on its way to the sea. Roman enginers had attempted to create dredging methods, but eventually gave it up as an impossible task, after which the port became unviable and the city died. Today it is well inland. Its archealogical glories have only recently begun to be revealed again. Pink Floyd once played in the magnificent amphiteatre where the silversmiths held a get-Paul meeting, then flooded out to beat him up. Toilets have been excavated – an excellent piece of engineering with running water on three sides of a square, and oblong stone slabs over the channels cut with twenty botty-sized circles - no individual cubicles needed in those days.


In nearby Seljuk, I found magnificent statues of Artemis carved with dozens of small breasts and with all manner of wildlife. She would be taken through town on a chariot at her annual festival, allegedly drawn by a team of lions. I am sure that the statue would have been made of silver. The Temple of Artemis at Seljik was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, once celebrated as much as the pyramids. Today, only one squalid irregular column remains. The bloody Christians systematically destroyed the place to ensure that their new religion would fully overprint its predecessor.


East of Ephesus is the celebrated site of Pamukkale, where a whole hillside is encrusted with white mineral deposits from the volcanic hot springs there. It has been superbly managed, layered with gullies to create an effect like a gigantic stepped wedding cake. I got chatting to some workers picking cotton in a field, and asked what cotton was called in Turkish. It is pamuk. Getting my dictionary out, I wondered if kale was a word. Yes – it means castle and so Pamukkale­ is the Cotton Castle. Yess!


Behind Pamukkale are the ruins of the Graeco-Roman city of Hierapolis. Nearby is a cave called Plutonium. Iron grilles protect its entrance because it is dangerous. Poisonous volcanic gases emerge here, and the bodies of small animals which have trespassed beyond the grille are sometimes found asphyxiated. One can well imagine ancient people venturing in there never to emerge, and people saying that the disappeared ones had fallen into the clutches of Pluto, god of the underworld.


Heading towards Konya, some westerners on the bus advised me to lose the shorts before walking around this very Islamic city. Upon arriving there I found Konya magnificent. Its centre featured a muslim university and green parkland. Surrounding quarters were a rabbit warren of tiny workshops, a hive of small-scale manufacturing activity where the blue fire of arc welding sat alongside bakers’ shops. The Turks haven’t yet reached the Western state of large-scale manufacture, and the consequent low productivity directly causes the relative poverty: for every production worker in a western saucepan factory there are three in Turkey bashing ‘em out with hand tools.


The traffic was infernal and pitiless to pedestrians, with a perpetual fug of diesel fumes. One unfortunate handicapped man with no legs was making his way across town with a large leather pouffe attached to his underside. With massive arm-power, he was hopping along with his palms on the filthy tarmac, his nose level with exhaust pipes.


In a delightful garden next to the Muslim University with its minarets pointing at the sky like rockets, I joined in the craic with a bunch of schoolkids keen to practise their English on me. I explained a bit about rugby to them and began passing imaginary rugby balls to them. After looking puzzled, they joined in the invisible game. At one point in the conversation the brightest one enquired what was my religion. I tried to give an honest but evasive answer and said, “Well, technically I am a Christian”. He picked up on the word technically and asked me to explain. “Well, I was christened, but I don’t believe in God.” His eyes opened like saucers, and he slowly said, “Don’t…. believe… in God? But…. but who made the trees? Who made the… the sky?? Who made you???” What could I say? Do I embark on a long explanation of the Big Bang Theory and Darwinism? If I shoot my mouth off too much, will they all sprint through the archway into the university and then come back out pointing me out to a bunch of scimitar-wielding mujahedeen in Ali Baba slippers who would proceed to chop me up into Infidel Slices? No, it was time to backpedal fast. “Look, I’m ever so sorry… you must think me very stupid to talk like this.” The lad realxed and grinned: “No, that’s OK. The Koran teaches us to be tolerant with strangers with wrong ideas.” Phew. Patronising little sod.


A stocky hard-faced policeman came over to investigate the gaggle of people. He was the spitting image of the villanous Turkish jailer in Midnight Express who would beat up the American student prisoner. Konya being hundreds of miles inland, I looked up a phrase from the Lonely Planet Phrase Book: Effendi, can you please tell me the way to the beach? He looked puzzled, then bellowed, “Plaja? Plaja?” (la plage). Only when I cracked my face did he give a great guffaw and shake his head at me disapprovingly.


My french came in useful on several occasions. They have words like chemin de fer and dush. High up in the Taurus Mountains I spent the night in a ruined Byzantine monastery. When the coach had dropped me off at a tiny village, Mut, I had refused the welcome of a bunch of lads (Muttons? Mutts?) who came out of a little bar, and yomped past them up the winding trail in bright moonlight, observing a pair of toads mating by moonlight. Half way there I saw a big cave on my left: now… that might be a suitable place to sleep! But as I approached, I heard a cough, which alarmed me a little. I carried on up the trail until the cave was below me. I called out, Merhaba (hello). No reply. I yelled “mer-fucking-haba you ignorant lot” and continued on my way. Earlier, in the coach, people had been tapping me on the shoulder to point things out to me, the coach grinding its way through the gears as we gained altitude. We saw a camel caravan bringing merchandise along one of the old trading routes, presumably a little-used mountain pass too narrow for the juggernauts. Maybe such people were in the cave, sneezing. My fellow passengers had asked me what I thought of their country. I replied, Turkiye guzel – beautiful Turkey - which made them preen. They told me the river, whose course we were skirting, was called Goksu – Gok=heaven; su=water, the Heavenly Water River. Aaaah! I shared out my Bombay Mix. (I had bought a dozen packets from the Red Lion especially for the purpose of ice-breaking with the locals, telling the Turks that in my country we have this for breakfast every morning. One guy gasped and said avci! – hot! Among my gewgaws I had a little battery-driven fan, and amused the kiddies on the coach by pretending it was an escaping helicopter, and then pretending to cut my fingers off in the blades, which of course they wanted to do as well, their mothers looking on watchfully.


The monastery contained two-metre wide excavations cut into the living rockface: one for each brother’s coffin. The monastery would have thrived before the Turks (from Turkmenistan) overwhelmed Christian-Greek Asia Minor in the 12th century. The whole rockface was honeycombed with these tombs. In a massive act of later vandalism, twenty such holes had been bashed into a single cavern. At first glance, this cavern would be a suitably exotic place to overnight, but the sound of heavy lorries grinding up the pass below was amplified by its shape, so was again an unsuitable camp. Along the hillside I found a stone sarcophagus with its lid ajar. Now, that would be a memorable bed for the night, I thought, but shining my torch into it I saw lots of bones. I shook my head at people dumping their picnic remains in it, and only afterwards twigged that they must be human remains.


I camped out on a nice flat spot, and would open my eyes from time to time to see the moon in a new position, like the hand of a giant clock. In the morning I was awakened by the tinkling of sheeps’ bells. A shepherd was driving them along a contour below me, and didn’t spot me in my bright blue rucksack. I figured that the cough in the cave was a sheep, not a person. The shepherd would have enclosed his flock with thornbushes.


Before packing up and moving on, an attack of diahorroea struck. It lasted for several hours, by which time the hillside looked like an explosion at the Andrex factory. Since the place was clearly abandoned, I didn’t feel bad about littering the place so. I realised that until my guts got better I would be unable to go down and catch a new coach. Mid-morning, I was startled when a man appeared in front of me. Using my best body language and my Turkish dictionary, I enquired if he was a shepherd. No, he said, he was gardyan – French for a caretaker. He said: bilyet (ticket). I paid him the two-pence entrance fee, and wondered at the economics of his following me up from the village for such a paltry sum. Noticing my loo-roll fiesta all over the stone blocks, he shook his head in sad disapproval, embarrassing me.




Tarsus was a horrible ugly place, so I decided to stay on the coach and go on to Antakya (Antioch) at the top-right-hand corner of the Med. Upon arriving, I noticed that the people here were very different. They had none of the open friendliness of the Turks, but peered at me distantly. I realised that this place was arabic – part of Syria until taken by the Turks in a land-grab some decades before. The surly men all wore baggy trousers. The tourist office was most unhelpful. The river was polluted with green froth.


On walking up a little sidestreet, a bunch of lads sitting outside a café clocked me and fell silent as I approached, rucksack on my back, wearing my shorts. Five metres past them, I turned on my heel and yelled “Worra you looking at??? Yeah, you!” I strolled back to them and said, “is it these? Is it these fine English legs?” They were flustered and discomfited, wondering how to react. “You think I look stupid in these shorts? Worrabout you in your baggy trousers?” I took a pinch of one guy’s trousers, waggled them, and said, “What do you call these, then?” He meekly replied, “Shalvar”. I whipped out my dictionary. Shalvar translates as baggy trousers. I hooted. “Baggy trousers? Ha ha ha! Just like the song! You know the Madness song, don’t you?”, and proceeded to sing all the words I could remember: “Lots of girls and lots of boys, lots of smells and lots of noise, baggy trousers do-doo do-doop.” I then hefted my rucksack and waved them goodbye. They were in a catatonic trance.


From this far-point, I had an interminable coach ride back West to Izmir. The distance seemed to be doubled by the discomfort of sitting next to a man with the world’s most spectacularly smelly armpits. Given that our sense of smell is actually detecting different molecules – a tangerine molecule being of a different shape to a smoky bacon molecule – I reckon that a microscopic examination of this guy’s stink would reveal grotesque gothic shapes.


Half way back we stopped off at a well-appointed services in the middle of the endless steppe. My food was served by a woman behind a counter. I smiled politely at her and got in return an offended scowl. It suddenly clicked that I had seen hardly any women in this country. Where were they all? Pretty obviously hidden away indoors. How strange, at least to my western eyes. 

Before embarking on the long-distance stuff, I spent a few days at the nice little hub-town of Seljuk. Hangin’ out with nothing much to do in the town centre, I sit down next to a man with a shoeshine stand. We begin chatting, and after a while he calls a tea-seller over and buys us a round. These boys dart around the streets holding circular brass trays suspended on a trio of chains, never spilling a drop from a dozen tulip-glasses if tea. He then asks if I am hungry. Well, yes I am. OK, he'll nip off and get us some food. No no, I say, I will buy us some food. "How about this, then", he says. "You give me some money, I go off to buy the food, you keep an eye on my shoeshine stand." I get my wallet out. He riffles through it, selects a few banknotes and shoots off. I wonder if I've been had.

But there's fun to be had here. I can be a shoeshine man. This stepped wooden box, with its polished brass lids, contains a number of brushes and different shades of beeswax polish. I start my act, "Shoo-shayn! Evvrybaddy! Shoo-shoo-shayniepoos! I a-shayn-a yorr-a shoos for youse!" The toursist are mostly Brits, who walk that bit faster when being hawked at. I took especial pleasure in offering my services to people in trainers.

My blokey comes back with an armful of grub: sandwiches and a square of the wonderful bakhlava, a sticky amalgam of almonds and sesame seeds drenched in honey. He gives me my change and I realise that this little banquet has cost far less than I would have paid for just one sandwich.

One of my fellow hawkers (I'm in the union, you see) was shouting out trying to drumup business for his little restaurant: "Very nice food. You come eat here." A young couple come into sight, the girl with the face of a dolly and a shapely figure, wearing hotpants. As they pass us the food hawker's tone drops to a lower pitch, and he calls: "Very nice. Very tasty......" The boyfriend's head swivels slowly round, like the turret of a battlecruiser, his eyes fixing the hawker. If looks could kill....


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