After years of unenthusiastic consideration, I thought I might revisit Turkey after all. Osama bin Laden's supposed call for a revival of the Ottoman Empire gave me an idea: a trip from Istanbul to Belgrade. What was he thinking? "We must crush Israel and reclaim Serbia - and not necessarily in that order!"? "Limitless glory accrues to him who dares reconquer Bulgaria!"? Given the stiff absenteeism of Arab leadership, we'll never know if ol' O said those things, or anything at all, but by the same token we are free to imagine that he did. Imaginary citations do him credit: his authentic ravings can only be more lunatic still. Yes, on the fringes of Moslem kookdom, Istanbul to Belgrade would be as luminous a ride as any.

As I resumed my studies of Turkish, however, I had to admit that this wouldn't be enough of a visit. I'd have to spend most or all of such a trip in Turkey itself. I groaned at that. In earlier writings I'd described the slothful menfolk that are so much failed Mesopotamian agriculture: these guys came in "droves" or "sheaves." What word would I use next? "Windrows"? Again I descended into apathy. But I made myself rally. A war was next door. I had to be near it.

Actually, it wasn't, and no, I didn't. But the idea would get me far enough, and once there, I'd find far better justifications for my presence. The Middle East, a nutty place that can nevertheless be made to work, could stand the ribbing, the informed ribbing, I had almost but not quite forgotten how to deliver.


Lands that have failed to remain important to me aren't ever forgotten, but they do undergo a reduction in size, without actually losing physicality. They condense - that is the word. Anything Russian, for example, is now a big chipped urinal. Certain Latin American and African areas are a banana peel in a hotel ashtray. Iceland is a small cheap coat-hanger-like antenna, like the ones that projected from most surfaces of the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Reykjavik in 1983. It's funny that Turkey, another low-rent listening post, hadn't dwindled to the exact same image.

What it dwindled to - I discovered this in a cheerful empty restaurant at the airport in Istanbul - was a seed, now sprouting. They offered Adana kebab, about which I'd said in 1992, "it looked like a bowel movement," "it was deftly spiced," and "I'd order it again." All three statements remain valid. At that moment I knew the trip would be different from anything I'd imagined. There had been a lot of little pleasures after all, and I might find them again, when I wasn't even looking. Looked like a...deftly spiced...order it again. I never dreamed I'd say those things again, but now I wanted to, and was glad I'd come.

I was ready. I had some of the language. And I was wearing a Brooks Brothers tweed jacket, not a T-shirt that read ISLAM IS LIKE BARBECUE - NOT BAD, JUST OVERRATED. My bona fides were diamond-hard.


Two little pleasures not recoverable because I hadn't had them in 1992 were lodging next to a restaurant named Kebabistan and watching my cabbie almost flatten a hadji. This was in Diyarbakır, to which I'd just flown. "He came from Mecca?" I asked needlessly - hadjis come from nowhere else - but I mention this to give the reader an idea at what level my Turkish conversational skills lie. Right there and not one inch higher. Or, Next to Kebabistan, where else?

And two little pleasures had then and now were seeing nearly the scariest medical promise in Turkish - "Circumcisions Are Done," second only to "It's Our Circumcision Season" - and a crushed beercan near an office of Turkish State Radio. The latter are considered a unit because they reminded me of many fine autumn evenings listening to Prokofiev and German opera and sipping brews and and writing things like True, the Ankara Polyclinic had displayed a banner that read, "It's Our... ." I'd forgotten how serene and agreeable those Turkish nights were, and at once planned on having another this very day.

That would be in Cizre, the last town of size before Turkey's sole port of entry into Iraq. Waiting in the Diyarbakır bus station, I inspected what must be the exact opposite of Prokofiev and German opera, Kurdish and Turkish pop cassettes. "Ali Hotface?" I exclaimed. Ali Sıcakyüz, actually, but the reward for studying Turkish is the ability to translate nearly all people names and placenames between Greece and China. Most turconyms mean something in everyday Turkish. Besides being charming, these may be the foundations of family legends: Şekercioğlu, which happens to be the name of an eminent ornithologist, knows his father or grandfather was The Sugar-Seller's Son. He knows where he came from. Perhaps a certain undersecretary in the Education Ministry does too: his name is Birinci, which means First. My grandfather was First - you think so? Before I get carried away, however, let me concede what somebody (in the U.S.) suggested to me, which is that all surnames probably started out like this. A scene, perhaps, from medieval Slovenia: "You need a hut? Talk to Hutter. He's OK. Just don't go to Shacker. That'd be a big mistake."

As for Kan, a person introduced to me in the Diyarbakır bus station, I'm not sure. Kan means "blood" - I blurted it in English, but it didn't register. A crowd had gathered: male, and claiming to be employed by bus companies. I took their picture, and they gave me a bus station address to mail it to. When I told them I was from Texas, they exclaimed, "George Bush!" just as Turks had done in 1992. Then and now, people who'd had to live next door to Saddam Hussein were happy that a Texan had sought to improve the neighborhood. Texas was and is prestigious, and Massachusetts wasn't and isn't.

I didn't verify this by asking, though I could have. Even though somebody guessed I was a reporter, I did not pretend to be Jayson Blair, though I could have.


I once read a foolish column on a Brazilian website calling the Iraqi experiment a monumental failure. This was modish posturing, no more: no Latin American has any business telling anybody what is and is not a successfully launched country. Besides, this guy lives next door to Colombia, for crying out loud. Nobody is calling that country a failed state, even though compared to Iraq it has been more violent longer. Wouldn't it be funny to go to Colombia and say, "I couldn't get into Iraq and this was nearly as good"? It certainly would be funny to go to Iraq and say, "I was planning on going to Colombia but then I thought, why settle for second-best?"

Iraq, the town of Zakhu specifically, was a thirty-mile cab ride away. All you had to do was show up. I couldn't justify it, though. After an expensive trip to Zakhu, I could either take an identical one back or continue all the way to Mosul. But I just didn't have the Arabic. (I had considered signing up for Arabic lessons, but writing about this in a letter to one of my brothers, I splashed so much anger on the page that I knew I had best forgo this sort of thing. The lessons were being offered by a visiting Syrian dancer. Was there any question that she'd say something like: Americans should study and respect Arab culture! And was there any question that I'd explode: If popularity contests are so important to Arabs, why don't you have democracy?) Without the language, I had no business going. Yes, I could discern "Made in Iraq" on the box of tissues the hotel manager had given me in lieu of toilet paper, and yes, if I walked into Iraqi video rental places I would be able to count in Arabic the number of copies of Animal House they had, but neither bespeaks any great linguistic capacity.

So, reluctantly, I decided that Cizre was as far as I'd go here. It seemed a premature retreat: Kurds are nice but they do not turn anything into an exotic edge. On my first full day ever in Turkey, I was in a Trabzon hotel room whose windows were weatherstripped with Georgian newspapers and I could pick up an Arabic broadcast on my radio. That was a frontier. Here in Cizre, I was reduced to visiting Internet cafés. The first required that I put on slippers - what the hell was this, a mosque? The second was run by teenage boys who insisted on showing me a soft-porn chat room.


Cigarettes as humanitarian aid: you heard it here first, folks. We couldn't go wrong dropping crates of smokes, and smokes only, out of the Moslem sky. Tobacco is undeniably very popular. The recipients of this aid could never claim it was unwelcome. And it just might turn into something seldom if ever seen in that part of the world, a constructive stress. While overworked women went hungry, underworked men, puffing away, would look even more useless than they already are. Might tempers at last flare?

In Cizre this might not work because the boys smoked and worked. Complicated, I know, but it's their fault for insisting on shining my boots and packing cigs too. One asked me for a light. He also asked me if I was rich, and when I hesitated (partly because of his accent - he pronounced zengin "zangın"), he asked me if I was poor. There was in the evenness of his questions a remarkable faculty: this, I thought, is hustling. Here's a guy destined to spend taxpayers' money and lots of it.

In Şanlıurfa the plan might not work either because everybody was too busy. Smokers walked so fast they left ash in my face. This had never happened to me before, not even in train compartments where air eddies just right.

Şanlıurfa is where I went because there was almost noplace else left to go by bus from Cizre. A road runs almost the length of the Iraqi border; another ascends to Lake Van, which I really wanted to revisit; but either way it's a cabbie whacking your knee with his stickshift for 3 hours and 80 dollars, if you insist. I considered another look at Mardin, a town astonishingly sited on the south side of a rampart that practically slides into all Syria. But then I just said the heck with it, I'm going to the Mediterranean. Şanlıurfa is halfway there. It is still called simply Urfa because şanlı still means glorious and Glorious Urfa still sounds ridiculous.

I'd been through before, just once, without stopping. You remember. The train on the Syrian border? The old man who yearned for my pocket watch? The guy with the speech impediment and the three kids? And then the bus driver who guessed I was Rumanian? Yep. That's it. Now here I was, staying the night, and what a surprise. Like Diyarbakır, Urfa is nearly 100% apartment blocks. And like nearly 0% of Turkey, Urfa pulses with life.

Why? I have no idea.

I also have no idea why boys with bathroom scales were on the sidewalk offering to weigh me. They just were, as they had done in Ankara and Ankara only back in '92. And that monument with Arabic inscriptions in the middle of the traffic circle at the dead center of town...only one place else, near Kars I think, had I seen a date in Arabic. There it was something in the 1800's. Here it was 1222, though that could be in the 1800's too if you call it an Islamic calendar figure. You may not even call it Arabic - one of the inscriptions showed the letter p, which is not native to that language.

This bubbly pedantry, these memories in couplets whose first line I never told you, the merry shortage of logic: aren't these exactly the things an Orientalist would hand you and which you should hand right back?


Now who was it who dubbed feedsack luggage "Turkish suitcases"? Oh, wait, that was me. The memory was long in returning because in '92 I rode mostly trains and in '06 I'd been exclusively on buses.

Iskenderun, and the trip to it, otherwise awoke little because little about it had ever fallen asleep. I still had all the mental images. Here the Mediterranean first showed itself the bewitching storied sea, here the sun at the center of the Earth was rightly honored with palm trees and high mountains. With snow on those mountains now, the old vision, handsomely tended by me all these years, simply got better still.

Yet memories were already in decay, and I was glad this was the extremity of my trip, with little left to do but go back to Diyarbakır and catch a plane home. It wasn't that I forgot where my hotel was, though I did - that could happen to anyone in a town with unnamed streets, not enough minarets, and a souk setup, where being in the Heavy Electricals sector is no clue you're next to the Fine Glassware sector and it wouldn't help even if it was a clue. It was that I'd thought Iskenderun had a taciturn civility the rest of Turkey lacked. Not true now. Who was it who dubbed Turks "talking toys"? Oh, yeah.

"Hello hello OK Alman [German]" was out, but catcalling adolescents, waiters springing from the doorways of empty restaurants, and gabbling self-appointed cicerones were in. One of the last-named offered to guide me to my hotel, but I thought he was going the wrong way, and sheared off. Later I found him directly in front of my hotel, claiming his brother ran it, and quoting information from the register which made this claim plausible. I pretended the information was wrong, though I knew it wasn't; he followed me up the stairs, offering to prove it.

What a jerk, one of many. Middle Easterners are a little bit easier to bear when they're like those battery-powered wall clocks, the ones that run for years on a single AA dry cell. They draw almost no current. They have almost no moving parts. Either way, though, they are funless people in a funless place. Religious determinations are beside the point. They don’t have Christmas because they don’t know how.

Bayram lights, which this town had strung up here and there, certainly lacked conviction. Anyhow, safely in my room now, I drank the beers I'd found. They cooled off the lahmacun, which looked like six pizzas, was deftly spiced, and I'd order it again. That had been a pleasant meal, though way too big. For a while I just sat, trying to digest. Considered reading Zaman, which used to be Turkey's regulation enraged-Islamist newspaper: maybe it still was, but I'd been reading headlines over bus passengers' shoulders for three days now ("Five Bloody Keys," "All About Water," "These Twins Are Kayseri's Top Cops," "Babies Born In Winter Are More Intelligent," and a soccer coach issuing some kind of warning to Italy), and wasn't up for more. Considered the radio, but so far it had been exclusively that twanging tootling Mideast pop. Finally considered, in not quite so torpid a way, how much I had liked near Elâzığ's hotel in '92 and near Iskenderun's hotel now the word züccaciye, which means Fine Glassware. Turkish c is pronounced like English j: I hope that helps you like it too.

And now that I was back to the almost-lost nuggets, I thought of yet one more, one I'd lighted upon around midday. In all those big dry hills between Urfa and here, we'd crossed a stream, and I thought: this country feels so alien, even that stream feels alien. And I remembered Sivas in '92. Not just the cops picking me up and searching my hotel room and questioning me and finally treating me to lunch in the police station, all the stuff you've already heard. What you haven't heard, and what I'd forgotten about, was what I was doing just before that: finding a wooded spot by a stream where I might have a picnic. I was just going back for supplies when the police scooped me up.


So I'm thinking about Istanbul to Ljubljana, next. The Turks never did take Slovenia. And the snow's better up there.

The rest of the trip was, as expected, anticlimax. Even that blizzard in Diyarbakır, which would prove so inconvenient, was esthetically null. I just said Turkey feels alien, but the snow and ice correct me. Turkey feels like exactly what the Diyarbakır airport staff did to peel them off the runway: nothing at all. Snow that isn't American has to be Slavic, just as sun that isn't American has to be Latin. In Turkey, these phenomena are, like the architecture and the beer, just more neutral inventory. The one and only Turkish feature that isn't merely Turkish furniture was, and had remained without a break from 1992 to 2006, its language.

On my last full day in southeast Turkey, I got by far the most practice in it. Wandering Diyarbakır, I photographed the famous battlements in winter, then drifted over to the railway station, where I discovered a waiting train. Ho, says I, if I'm ever going to get to Batman, here is my ticket, so I bought one and boarded. Batman had a funky name and was only 90 kilometers away, which on the whole is saying a lot. The town itself was a dump, and I will allow that the stops along the way were a little nervewracking, what with wild fowl meeting loose chickens in muddy fields crossed by incoming passengers, but there was lots of talk and I finally found my voice. Somebody asked me, not for the first time in Turkey, to take him back to America with me. (Eastern-Hemisphere Moslems don't hate us - they hate themselves, and for all the right reasons.) A swaggering teen introduced me to his very pretty and considerably more mature sister; I photographed her. And just making conversation, I asked a guy about bird flu. I wasn't really worried, and neither was he, nor was a second guy who said, "Bird flu...bird flu...I'm fed up with it." At one stop, we opened the window and considered the empty snow-fuzzed hills of the Tigris river valley. Ducks flew high overhead. We looked at them, then at each other, and grinned.

"That's where you get bird flu from," he said.

© 2006 J.A.Hutter

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