Doing the Shimmy with Thomas Mann

September 2005

I’m sleepless between midnight and dawn, drinking mint tea and smoking. Perhaps it’s time to take in some narcotizing TV. After midnight there’s usually an old movie on the ABC. The screen zaps into fuzzy and saturated Technicolor. Beautiful people swan around in tuxes and powder-blue gowns somewhere on the Riviera. Why, there’s Humphrey Bogart dangling a cigarette! And is that Ava Gardner dancing the night away in a gypsy camp? She’s not a gypsy; she’s a famous movie star, raven tressed, fiery and tragic. The scene shifts to a restaurant. The music is lush, smoky and jaded. It’s the Casino de Monte Carlo. A couple of rich and garrulous Americans, several playboys and hangers-on sit around a table. An elderly gentleman, witty and melancholy, has drunk too much, nodding off into his champagne. He manages to stand and toast Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini. His creamily wrinkled countenance is resigned.
“He is a king among counts, whereas among kings, I am a clown.”
It’s the world-weary pretender-king surrounded by the nouveau riche. His eyes sidle with a sly twinkle towards the camera lens, stealing the scene. I recognize that face. I mean, I knew that old man, that actor. The film is The Barefoot Contessa with Humphrey Bogart as washed up movie producer Harry Dawes, and Ava Gardner as the downhill-dancer Maria Vargas. The old king is Tonio Selwart. I used to visit him years ago.

I’m vacuumed back to my first heady months in New York City.

I’d left Heathrow on a-one way ticket on Bangladeshi Airlines for ninety pounds, the cheapest, and arrived in New York on May 5th 1989 and got myself a room at the 63rd street Y. It reeked of pee. The grimy and battered color TV had a picture as dirty as Broadway snow. My second night there was the night of the Kentucky Derby (Sunday Silence won that year). For days thereafter, in a penniless rush, I attempted the conquest of Manhattan on foot and by phone. There were the usual rebuffs.
“I’m sorry Mr Kaplan is still at lunch, don’t you have a number he can call you back on?”
And the usual social enquiries: this one from a smoke and whiskey timbred woman chasing me out of the Church of the Incarnation one Sunday.
“Are you renting yet? How much do you pay, how much do you pay?”

Then I found a crack in the wall, and through it, heard a crisp, delicately cultured answer.
“I’ll be back in town on Tuesday. Dooo come and have tea, won’t you dear?”

Felicity Mason was a graceful English beauty who taught acting with the Michael Chekhov school, had had a string of young lovers, and had written a tell-all about her sex adventures under the pen name “Ann Cumming.” In her seventies, she still knew how to draw a young man in—she told me an anecdote about her last lover, a tall moody Italian in his late twenties, who yearned to remain close but passion-free after their brief affair lost its sparkle.
“My dear boy”, she’d replied to his platonic plea, “we could be lovers, but we could never be friends.”
Felicity knew many of the minor stage luminaries of generations past and was very kind to lonely young men. She knew to get people together usefully.
“Tonio’s a dear friend who’s ninety-three and gone rather blind. He needs someone nice and intelligent to read his letters to him. Would you mind?”

As the summer grew hotter, sweatier and louder I trudged every week from my shared space on Madison and 38th, ducking through the clang and rumble of 42nd street, up the 5th Avenue canyon and over to an old pilastered apartment building on W57th to visit Tonio Selwart, an ancient Austrian actor who lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment facing the back.

June 2 1989. Hot exhausting day. Living at Tom Sweeney’s on Madison and 38th. Met Tonio, 93 yrs. An old matinee idol from Austria. He’s blind, and needs someone to read his letters to him once a week.
Tonio’s apartment is tired and chintzy, with custard coloured paint on the walls and yellowed floral drapes over little grey windows. The rooms are cluttered with photos: of himself and his wife together in the thirties, studio shots of him in Ruritanian uniforms, or young and cocky and delicately fey, a studio sailor-boy with a creamy blond mop. Everything he needs has been arranged on shelves and little tables around the room. There’s a box for bills, and a box of letters. A very large magnifying glass sits on a lace doily.

June 18. Spent two hours reading a couple of his letters to him, and some of my poetry. He thought it was good, original, evocative. Likewise, the bits of my music compositions I played him.
I’m reading him a letter from Switzerland, from an elderly Italian countess. She regrets she has not heard from him in a long time. Is he in good order? Why does he not write? Then something about her sister Louisa, who had died. The fine, shaky handwriting is in a watery indigo, as though from a very old bottle of ink. Tonio wants me to draft a reply, and he gets me to fetch a box of paper and a pen, but then he hesitates.
“No, perhaps we shouldn’t do that Larry.”

Oct 4. See Tonio 4pm.
Tonio shows me a photograph of himself. He’s standing by a swimming pool in Montegrotto on the Italian Riviera, firmly upright, gazing out as though at someone in the pool. A merengue peak of wavy hair, tanned chiselled wrinkled cheeks and a toothy grin. His blind eyes are pale points on a hazelnut face. He wears a crisp white shirt, biscuit coloured suede shoes and pants, and a trimly tailored white summer jacket with fine grey-blue and pale pink stripes. He carries his left hand behind his back, left foot forward, with a white walking stick in his right hand, held with forefinger down the cane. He could be an aristocrat having his portrait done. He is dressed as he probably dressed in the 1920s and 30s, like the youngest son of a tycoon, an easygoing darling. The kind who made older women relax and laugh. The kind who made older men tense and shy as they swallowed and looked away.
He hands me the photograph with a tremble.
“This is a little souvenir for you Larry, as a token of our acquaintanceship.”

October 9. Reading Tonio his letters and bills.
Tonio pours tea into little floral cups, cracked and tannin stained. He serves Sacher torte from a wooden box, which I placed next to him. He often receives a torte from a cake shop in Vienna. I read him some letters in German and a sheaf of poetry sent to him by an old friend, in German and French. Vocal chords ache after an hour, unused to sustained talk. Tonio likes my pronunciation, but I don’t understand most of what I declaim.

Oct 20. Tonio had some good advice on reading. Don’t get into the poetry too much. It tells its emotions itself. Be a little cool, natural.
Tonio gives me an envelope with $50 in it. I know he doesn’t have much but he insists, in a courtly way. Not yet having a social security number or a job I need it, but feel like a whore as he presses it into my hand. I put it in my jacket pocket anyway.

Nov 5. See Tonio. A magical evening’s conversation.
Tonio reminisces about his youth.
“I remember Thomas Mann. We were all at a costume ball in Munich in 1924. Mann was quite terrifying, serious and dignified, so. And such a great writer. But there were a lot of rather, you know, colorful people there, and someone dared Mann to come out and dance. So he did, declaring ‘only once shall I do this,’ and just then I was dancing the shimmy. And so he and I danced the shimmy together and oh, we laughed so. He then went back to his table, serious again, as though nothing had happened.”

Jan 18 1990. Tonio cancelled. He lost a tooth.

Feb 22. Read to Tonio. Did his bills.
I ask about acting, and Tonio mentions his career.
“I played a lot of Nazis Larry, but I always tried to add something to the character, I tried to make them good Nazis.”

May 20. Read his cards and letters to him. I must be getting New York hyperactive. I wasn’t as relaxed as I have been. Too much coffee.
I visited him less often after that, having found other friends and paid work. I think my last visit was on a fall day, more than a year after we had met.

Oct 24. See Tonio 4pm. Tonio asks if he may touch my face.
Tonio can sense light and dark, and is aware of shapes sitting close to him.
“I will never know what you look like Larry. May I touch your face?”
He lifts his arm and touches my cheek. He runs his hand over my brow, nose, and hair, and then my arms with his dry fingers. I am still too young to imagine what he might be feeling. And I don’t know what I feel either, perhaps empathetic, in a safe, cerebral way. I go to the bathroom before I leave. Tonio has felt his way into the kitchenette with the cups trembling on their saucers. I offer to wash them, but he calls out, “no, please don’t come in to the kitchen Larry. You may leave now.” I’m abashed, and then dimly aware of an emotional possibility. I call out warmly, goodbye, see you soon, and let myself out. As I close his door I hear a cry from inside, a sharp rising moan of loneliness and utter embarrassment.

I didn’t record regularly in my diary, and cannot remember, but this may have been my last visit to Tonio. A year or so later Felicity died. Of AIDS, whispered some with a touch of awe. I lost touch with the others I’d met at her parties, the stately old English homo with his clutch of aging lavender acolytes, the shy, terminally ill French count, the frail old Russian ballerina who knew Nijinsky, a couple of man-hungry Manhattan socialites, New Age junkies, old Buddhist beatniks, the woman I married and divorced.

I picked up a paper in late November 2002. Tonio had died on November 2nd. He was 106 years old.

I’ve tried to find some of the films he was in, most of them forgotten. I do a Google search. He had roles in many plays, TV series and films: The Cross of Lorraine, The Hitler Gang, Lupo della Frontiere, Anzio, Romanoff and Juliet, Hangmen Also Die. The local video store has Anzio, a late sixties WW2 action movie set in Italy, so I rent it. Three quarters of the way through there’s Tonio as the adjutant general discussing orders with Von Kesselring in the back of an enormous black automobile. His deferential bark has a cultured, silvery sheen. One of those good Nazi officers I suppose, a nobleman of character and wit dealing with these new vulgarities as prudently as he can.

 

“This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

Kayseri

Excerpt from Turkish Diary

It’s not a tourist town, but a big, noisy regional city. So no cheap hostels with dormitories for backpackers, only a few hotels in the center of town. After being helped by men on the street to several more and more expensive hotels where my hands were washed with sticky and alcoholic lemon water as soon as I entered reception, I found something reasonable, a room at the Çamlica Hotel (the cheapest in town) with no private bath for 20TL. Turkey is definitely not cheap like Morocco or Israel. It is more like an eastern European country. But I am relaxed enough to go with the flow, and although I was a bit weary after an hour wandering sweatily around hotels with fancy reception areas with my pack on my back, it was all fine. Learning to take time. I had a shower, some vodka and water and my last chocolate biscuit and I was ready to hit the town.

Crowded, busy, but a citadel with big basalt walls, full of market stalls. Got some vinyl sandals for 5TL. And a chicken pita and cola from a beautiful big-eared Anatolian boy (these lovely lads all seem to have wide ears).

Mt Erciyes rears up eighteen miles to the south. 12,800 feet. Am going to see if I can hike up it. Wonder if St. Basil ever did, or was he a bookworm?

Wandering the bazaar, I was greeted by a wide-eyed lad who asked me if I spoke English. He wanted to practise a bit, so we chatted. It became clear that he wanted to guide me around, as he explained things in great detail and then said, “I know Kayseri like the back of my hand I could be very useful.” He then led me to his cousin’s carpet shop. I decided to relax and go with it this time. I am not going to buy a carpet.

His cousin, a beefy guy named Mustapha, sat me down and roared for tea. The lad scurried off, shooed out of the conversation now. Once we got the dance about carpets over with, I said I was studying and travelling, and that I had bought carpets before but on this trip, unfortunately, this was out of the question, even if they could ship back to Australia or Norway for me.

He replied, “Well, Kayseri is not like Istanbul. It is not a tourist town, here we have time for people.”

Spent an hour over two cups of tea with him, and he was keen to discuss with me the poverty of European culture and the strength of his own. He asked me, as everyone does, if I was married and had children. My stock answer is that I am divorced, and have no children (which is the truth). He eyed my gold and lapis lazuli ring with a dry look, and probably twigged that I am gay. He was very confident of his opinions on Europe versus Turkey. Europe is full of drugs, homosexuals, lesbians, and loose women. He knows, he said, as he lived in Germany and got women constantly, in fifteen minutes if he wanted. I think he was exaggerating his prowess. But he had changed, he said, rather piously, and now studies the Koran and goes to the mosque and is married with two children. He does scripture study every week.

He wanted to know about living conditions in Australia. Was life good and easy there? He then made a little complaint about how hard it was in Turkey. “You know, a guy with money in Europe, he has about one million euros. But here, the same guy only has about 500,000 euros.”

“Half a million Euros!” I exclaimed. “That’s a huge amount. Neither I nor anyone I know has anything like that.”

Mustapha spoke about marriage and women, opining, “You know, here a woman has to be a virgin. If she is found not to be, you can divorce her and demand all of the wedding preparation money back.” He seemed very happy with the state of Turkish marriage, that families were strong and there was little divorce or marital disharmony. I asked him, “What if you find your wife was not a virgin but you really love her anyway?” This question seemed not to register with him at all. Then I asked if men have to be virgins too. “Oh no, a man before he married, all his friends pay for him to go to a prostitute so he can learn how to do it.”

I asked about double standards. “Double standard?” He thought for a minute. “No, no double standard.” Then he said, “You think just like my friend Dean from Canada did, but he has been here a year teaching English, and fell in love with our culture, and next week we are going to Izmir to celebrate his marriage to a Turkish girl.”

I did not bring up the subject of increased suicide rates among women in countries like Iran, where traditional laws are enforced. Turkey is one of the countries with no immediately available statistics on suicide.

I asked him what would he do if he got sick of his wife. “Oh, I would keep her and pay for her house but I can take another one. You see, I would shoulder the burden financially, and it works just fine.”

I brought up the subject of freedoms as principles, and that a man has that freedom in principle, strongly, totally, but that perhaps a woman has that freedom conditionally, conditional on the man.

He paused but did not answer, before going on to talk about Islamic values and helping the poor. “In Europe, no one helps the poor. No one gives money on the street for example.” I talked about different structures, of higher taxation and government responsibility for welfare. I agreed that it made westerners less socially minded and there was a problem with that. I told him about volunteer work, helping people that way. He discussed at length the helping of poor people with gifts at night, under the cover of dark where no one else would see, this was the Islamic way. For example, a poor man who is on a salary of only 300-400 euros a month (typical lower civil servant salary) might need help with his wedding, circumcisions, buying a house. Of course, he would help, and he was only telling me this as part of an informative conversation.

He called out in English to his colleague, busy on the computer, “So are you coming to class today? The Hodja will discuss with us the subject of giving generously to the poor.” His colleague smirked, and gave a look that said, “Huh? No way, buddy!”

I said that I had seen very poor people living in tents outside some of the towns.  “Oh those,” he replied with a contemptuous flick of his finger. “Those are just Gypsies.”

I said that I did not understand much about Islam, but I mentioned Sufism. He did not seem to know what I meant. I elaborated, that I found Mevlevi and the Mathnavi inspiring. He did not register this beyond a dismissive look that seemed to say, “Oh, those people!” I said that it was this aspect of Islam that touched me here (I indicated my heart). He was not interested in the topic. So after our two glasses of tea I said goodbye and said I would surely drop in on my next visit to Kayseri.

Afterwards I thought about our conversation and Mustapha’s enthusiasm about his newfound religious life. The kind of religion that nourishes him is one that fully endorses and supports the privileges and prejudices of a heterosexual male. This left me feeling a bit depressed. To me, the religious path, the spiritual path towards God, which includes a developing sense of social relationship with others, involves a breaking open of the self, as well as an acknowledgement of the self. Without the former, the latter becomes hard and stagnant and eventually backward. Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the ego can be a burden and a blockage on the path. The stories in Christianity and Judaism tell of suffering and the breaking open of the ego, and that this, and the trust that goes with it, is what brings a soul to maturity and then to nothingness. I have not yet encountered this in my limited discussions on Islam. I got absolutely no sense of it from the personality of Mustapha. Only from Rumi, who once said “I was raw, then I got cooked, now I am burned” do I get a sense of this terrible and paradoxical development.

This excerpt first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

The Seven Kurdish Butchers

By five o’clock a breeze has risen over Diyarbakir, tempering the sun’s scorching silent treatment. It’s the right time for another walk down Gazi Cadessi, the long street between the Dag Kapi, the Mountain Gate to the north, and the Mardin Gate, the southern gate of the walled city. The city is busy, messy, crowded, with a few ancient monuments and mosques, and a couple of Syrian churches tucked away. The north end of town is bright and clean, with more modern, more expensive shops and cafes. The further south I walk, past the old mosque built over the Byzantine basilica and the stone cloisters of the Hasan Pasha caravanserai, the poorer and darker the street becomes. The street is dusty and crushed with vans and boys on bicycles, with frayed electrical cords snaking from one shop to another, with broken bricks in the pavement to stumble over. At the southern end, there’s the old Caravanserai, now an upmarket hotel. The Tigris is a couple of miles south of the walls.

The narrow crush opens to another square at the southern gate. The ancient basalt walls, enormous and strong, have settled into the earth like a burnt and battered tractor tire banding together the clamour, the odour, the silence, terror and beauty of the old city.

The jeering caw of several grubby little boys follows me through the Mardin gate. In the distance, half obscured by the trees that lean into the river, I get a glimpse of the On Gözlü Küprücü, the ten-eyed bridge. It spans the river three miles south of the city. My sandalled feet scuff past a stretch of dusty car repair shops, and down the long hill, which levels out near an old Turcoman palace garden, popular with weekend picnickers.

The Tigris: In the middle-distance its muddy, blue-slivered waters, heavy and barely awake, roll druggedly around the eastern side of the city. A mile south of the old walls the river spreads, thick, and still, barely moving through a depression lush with reed beds and cultivation. As I get closer, the ten-eyed bridge disappears behind thickets of river trees, shabby shrubs and dry, broken grass. A goatherd in a torn flannel shirt waves a shaggy brown flock along the riverbank. Three wet and silky youths slide their narrow nuggety shoulders back through the rippling suck of water, and emerge again, laughing.

Down by the old stone bridge, spanning the river over ten pointed arches, small groups of men squat, chatting and smoking, on the soft young grass between their cars. I stumble down the gravel bank towards the nearest arch, finding my feet on tufts of soggy moss, in order to gaze romantically at the distant city walls through the vaults that hold the bridge together.

A couple of ten year olds sit with their feet in the water, lazily throwing stones at one of the piers. They see me approach, and jump onto a couple of rusty old bicycles, to follow me back under the bridge. They wobble around me demanding “lire, besh lire!” I hear the sounds of reasons being listed, the hammed-up dramatics of poverty, the knife-edge of sarcasm. Nothing dissuades the boys as I march onward, knowing enough to know that showing coin will only make it worse for me, and no better for them either.

After a few dozen yards of this, a few noisy sallies and silent parries, a lone man sitting on a rug smoking and drinking tea waves his thin arms around and shoos them away. He turns back to his smoke and his glass of tea, ignoring me, his duty done.

I want to take some pictures of the bridge, black stone piers and arches, dusty, and mossy where the water shoulders its way through. Passing a few men sitting around relaxing, I greet them, “merhaba.” One of them greets me in return and gestures, asking me to sit and eat some grapes, drink some tea, smoke a cigarette. They’re sitting around a low cane table on some straw covered stools. A youth runs back and forth, bringing tea and more stools from the back of a white Toyota. Apart from a few words from the one who invited me in, the men appear to speak no English. I speak no Turkish, but with the aid of my dictionary we’re able to communicate.

*****

At first there are four of them, but then several more men arrive, eight in all. I imagine they’re a group of friends having a Sunday evening break from their wives. I’m introduced all round. Of course I won’t mention their real names, the names I remember, some of which sound familiar, some which are new to my ears. I will use Kurdish pseudonyms: Baran (the melancholy), Dilovan (the merciful), Heval, (the friend), Pelewan (the hero), Serbest (the free), Serdil (the lionheart), Berevan (the peacekeeper), Camer (a nice person).

They’re Kurds, not Turks, as they point out. Nearly everyone I’ve met in Diyarbakir is keen to make the distinction. I reply, “Kurdistan, çok güzel” or “Kurdistan, very nice/beautiful,” indicating how much I like Kurdistan, as distinct from Turkey. It’d be nice to say it in Kurdish, which would be more appropriate. They appreciate my effort with big stubbly grins. And so we get through the thorny social issues between Turks and Kurds with a few winks and ironic smiles.

“Dost?” I ask, waving at all of them, wondering if they are friends. Heval replies, shaking his head and waving at all of the others, “kuzen.” They are cousins, all eight. He attempts to tell me what they do for a living, pointing to himself and six of his cousins, leaving one out, a tall, melancholy looking fellow sitting on the river side of the group. “Kasap,” he says (in Turkish of course, for my benefit). As I fumble hurriedly through my dictionary the seven of them stand and make chopping motions along their arms, indicating that they’re all butchers. And then, just in case I still haven’t got it, Heval, Pelewan and Serdil laugh luridly, calling out, “kasap, kasap,” while making savage, knife-across-the-throat motions with their fingers, hugely enjoying the joke. I suppose I might run screaming up the steep bank, to the occasional car trundling across the bridge, but manage not to, and laugh heartily along with them.

The cousins are between 30 and 44 years of age. Baran, the only one who’s not a butcher, is the tallest, slim and greying, with a sad dream in the crease of his bitterly lovely smile. He indicates that he spent seven years in Istanbul, and that he still misses someone terribly, perhaps a family, a wife or a girlfriend. He’s an electrician. Or perhaps it is interior plasterwork that he does. I am not sure. His soft tarry eyes are a million miles away as he speaks, and then they dive down and grab mine in a way I know his cousins do not see. He performs delicate, elaborate mimes to explain things to me, rapidly touching his face and his chest with his hands. His fluid, complex gestures, spellbinding and impossible to understand.

They’re keen to know about me. Slowly, with bits of English, and my dictionary to help, Heval asks about my job, where I’m from, how old I am, how long I have been travelling, do I have children? If not, why not? Am I married then? Why not? And therefore why do I wear a gold signet ring? I get through all these sticky questions with good humour and no trembles. I can honestly say I am divorced.

Pelewan, with a thick five-o’clock shadow and hair as sleek and black as a panther, raises his ten fingers, and wiggles them one by one. He has ten children.
“Ten children!” I exclaim. “Kurdistan football team! Many wives?” Everyone finds this hilarious.

Serbest, the oldest, smooth shaven and heavyset, with a commanding perceptiveness in his gaze asks me, “alkol, ispirto?” Do you drink? A little beer, I say, a little wine, a little raki. I do not like to be drunk. He indicates that of course they don’t drink alcohol, as they’re all Muslims, and Muslims don’t do that sort of thing. Then he surprises me with a few words of English. “You and me . . . like brothers,” he says with a faint smile and a steady gaze.

So I sit and eat grapes, drink tea and smoke cigarettes with them as the light deepens. The cousins talk among themselves for a while. Then Pelewan mentions Abdullah Ocolan, the PKK leader, in prison for eight years now, and that he’s the “Kurdish Che Guevara.” He fishes his mobile out of his pocket, and flips it open to show me a photo on it, of a thickset, moustachioed young man who looks to me like a youthful Saddam Hussein. “Ocolan,” he says, as though letting me in on a big secret. I mime a theatrical “my lips are sealed” motion, zippering my lips, and they laugh. Then Heval, the one who speaks a few words of English, indicates that it’s mostly cousinly butcher shop talk they’re talking, not politics.

It’s getting late., I’m supposed to meet Ihsan, my student friend, when Heval asks me if I’ll join them for dinner. I imagine this means going off to a restaurant somewhere, and I decline, making my excuse “dost, hotel.” But the serving youth fetches a small charcoal grill and lights it, and then brings a plastic bag full of marinated chicken pieces, and a big bowl of tomatoes, brown onions, bunches of bitter green salad, and great wads of flat bread. He grills the chicken, and brews more tea. I decide I might as well relax and enjoy their hospitality. I can worry about time later, which, for me, is a challenge.

*****

The Tigris is slow and silent, it is so slow. The soft sliver of the moon comes slowly into focus above the bridge. Some of us sit on the small stools, some cross-legged on the soft green grass. We pass around the spicy, salty chicken, the sweet tomatoes, the bitter green salad and the pungent onions, devouring everything, smoking, and drinking sugary tea like we’re sipping liquor.

Baran, the tall melancholy one with the lovely tarry eyes picks up his stool and goes and sits by the riverbank for a while, to be alone. I want to go and sit with him and embrace him like a brother. I can feel the waves of his pain and loss and loneliness. He comes back to his cousins after a while. He’s busy fixing something on his lap, putting papers together, crumbling and rolling. As he finishes his task the object becomes recognizable in the half-light; the fattest joint I have ever seen, a mix of tobacco and quite a lot of marijuana. He looks up at me with a faint smile, a question. I shrug and smile back, “why not!” The joint floats around the blue half dark, like a hot coal dangling from an invisible string, and those who partake get stoned and quiet. I feel myself expand, the wrinkles in my mind gone, then sag comfortably.

Dilovan and Heval, who didn’t smoke, get up to say goodbye. They have to go to work, to do some butchering for the morning I suppose.

The sky darkens, a couple of planets glimmer above the bridge, blunt and yellow, and in time the stars come out, first one, then three, and then thousands seeping like a fine colourless dust into the deep blue sky. Along the banks of the river, Kurdish folk tunes waft out of several car stereo systems at once. The music is hypnotic, aggressive, and melancholy. The verses are simple and repetitive enough for me to hum along to.

A couple more of the cousins get up to leave, including Baran, the melancholy one. We shake hands, and then he pulls close to me and knocks his head against mine on one side, and then turns my shoulder so he can knock our heads together on the other side as well, grinning and saying in English, “goodbye, like Turk.”

After another half hour, Camer, the youngest, and the driver, indicates that they’ll take me back to Diyarbakir. I have no idea what time it is, but it’s completely dark. We pack up, get in the white Toyota, and drive for a while, and I don’t know why we’re driving away from the lights on the hill to the north, away from Diyarbakir. Camer stops and makes a couple of mobile phone calls. I have no idea what’s going on. In the distance, families with small children pass by, getting to their cars to go home after a long evening picnic. I’m stoned, my head is spinning, and I have a couple of flashes of paranoia from the drug. But I let any worries (lurid phantasms from television news about terrorists and kidnappers) flit through me and away.

Camer does a U turn on the dark stretch of road by the river, talking on his phone some more. We stop again by a stone wall, waiting. After a while we drive further and stop beside a brightly lit structure. It’s the petrol station. I recognise it from my long afternoon walk down. Two of the cousins who had left earlier, including Baran, the tall melancholy sweet one, jump in either side of me. Once again I suppress a strong urge to put my arm around him in a gesture of brotherly solidarity.

I’m really stoned, looking inward, outward and nowhere, and totally unsure where we are until the emptiness beyond the side window pulses with dark shapes and grey, orange haloes: from a few fruit and vegetable stands that remain open, each lit by a single sputtering bulb, the crush of battered white vans and the shadows of people slicing through the headlights. We’re driving up Gazi street again, insects buzzing around the grey lamp light. Camer stops the car in the middle of Diyarbakir. I know where I am, it’s the corner of Melek Ahmet street and Gazi street. Hotel Küprücü is a ten minute walk north. The Kurdish butchers and the melancholy electrician wish me well as I jump out of the car, with many Salaam Aleikums and Aleikum Salaams between us.

*****

I’ve found my way back to the big square by the Dag Kapi gate. The bright lamps dotting the square hold up a thick, black sky. Young couples wander up and down, the women’s moonlike faces sailing along in veils, their slim husbands in sharp black pants and shiny shoes. A street vendor in a crisp white shirt churns ice cream in three big brass tubs. The ice cream hangs on the churning rod like toffee before he plunges it back into the misty freeze. He dips my chocolate and pistachio cone in a bowl of slick dark chocolate and rolls it in crushed pistachio. I’m smiling at everybody, humming a fragment of Kurdish tune. I really must moonwalk over to one of those concrete benches.

So I’m sitting there in the brightly lit darkness beaming and eating my nutty, chocolaty ice cream, when I’m accosted by two friendly young men, Adem, who comes across crude and greasy, and Hassan, clean and temperate, a gentleman. They speak English. “Are there any women staying in your hotel? Can you talk to them for us?”

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Istanbul

From Turkish Diary

Monday 6th

Probably will spend a couple more days here in Istanbul, just to slow down.
Today after the hostel breakfast of watermelon, gooey cheese, olives, bread, jam and coffee, went to the bazaars looking for simple cool cotton pants and shirt.  Istanbul men like jeans and flashy cotton poly shirts and leather shoes so it took a while.
Finally found a row of stalls selling natural or khaki-coloured shirts and loose pyjama-like pants, for 15 lire each, about 15 Aus dollars or 12 US dollars. The label says all cotton, but it feels a bit like cotton polyester, and the back of the label says dry clean only. Glad I got XXL, for shrinkage. Anyway, much more comfortable today.

Got a second hand Lonely Planet for 20TL, and also a novel by Turkey’s greatest writer, Yashar Kemal, translated as “They Burn the Thistles,” so I have something to read. Might see if I can get some second hand poetry, for long bus trips.  Much more relaxed today, chatting with stallholders, and not so guilty about saying I am not buying and then moving on. It’s the way it’s done. Sample some little cups of tea, and some Turkish delight. Long walks up and down the crowded hills. Inside the Blue Mosque today. It is very grand, but the inside, through beautiful and impressive, did not move me. The exterior of the blue mosque is a magical pile of marble cupolas. Sat for a while in the small Firuz Aga mosque. Not visited my many tourists. Just a few men praying. This mosque, on the main street between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque is small and classically perfect, built in 1490. The decoration is intense but not heavy.
Then a long wander up the hill to the Suleymayne mosque, one of the grandest in the city. It overlooks the whole city and inside is tiled with intensely jewel like stained glass windows.

After that to the Rustem Pasha mosque down by the spice bazaar, another smaller gem of perfect proportions, honey coloured wooden doors and blue tile work.
Got a big glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a kebab and wandered down the street of metal cans and plastic piping, the street of chainsaws and lawn mowers, the small cul de sac of toilet paper and household cleansers, the long narrow alley of hammocks, wooden spoons, chairs and children’s cots, to the plaza of table cloths, baby clothes and sateen quilt covers, then out to the roar of the buses and trams crossing the Galata bridge, and the New Mosque (built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) where I could rest and meditate for a while. This mosque is heavily gilded inside, and so it shimmers in the light of many small bulbs, which dangle in the huge wheels of small class cups. The glass cups would have held oil and wicks a hundred years ago.

Back up the narrow streets to the main covered bazaar, the contents of the shops changing from utilitarian goods to carpets, copperware, tiles, silver ewers and cups, jewels and twenty-two-carat gold necklaces. A good day of walking, drinking tea, and resting in the shady arcades of marble courtyards reading my book.

Will head east, perhaps to far eastern Turkey in a couple of days. My guidebook says Ramadan starts on the 11th of August, so I will need to eat my food and sip my water discreetly during the day.

Tuesday 7th
The mosques are all open. I have sat quietly in quite a few. Oh, today I did see some women doing the prostrations behind a screen for the first time.

A lot of the faithful here are very casual. No skullcaps in the mosque. People sit on the steps, which say “sitting forbidden” in Turkish and English. It’s all very mellow.

Now, as I suppose, anyone wandering around on their own in the Middle East must be considered a bit weird. I was sitting on a park bench in front of the Blue Mosque, when it was all lit up in laser light show (dervishes, a sound and light show about Rumi) last night and families milling around everywhere, and was propositioned by a young ex soldier (he spoke a bit of English, and I got a bit of tough life story).  I’m sure I didn’t look that gay, as I have a four-day growth, glasses on, and look scruffy. He told me eventually, as he put his arm around my shoulder and offered for me to take him back to my hotel “this park, this big bazaar!”  But I declined with a smile and said, “God be with you” before I wandered off.

The only Sufi thing I can find advertised anywhere is a big dinner show with dervishes. I have found nothing else in English on the net.

Konya most definitely is on my itinerary. I will probably go to Ankara tomorrow to see if I can get a visa for Syria. Or, go to Konya. I don’t know yet.

Maybe in Konya I might meet someone to chat with.

Today I took the bus out to the walls of Theodosius and went to the little twelfth-century Chora church, which is covered in mosaics. Sublime. Went for a wander on top of sections of wall, only a few vagrants, scared dogs and lots of rubbish around. Great view of the back of Istanbul.  Walked back into the city, down Fevzi Paşa Cadessi, passing a few mosques on the way, including the very grand Fatih Camii. I had shorts on so I didn’t go in.

Passed the Aqueduct of Valens, a very pretty urban part of Istanbul. The street that crosses under the aqueduct is lined with butcher shops, maybe a dozen of them, selling sides of lamb, boiled lambs’ heads, tripe.

Further into town, at a large freeway junction, the lower levels of the crossing are crowded with bicycle shops, baby carriages, and plastic toys. A littler further on, past the Sheherazade mosque, I found a lad selling khaki cotton shirts and pants for 5 lire each, a third of what I paid at the bazaar, so I got another shirt.

There are orange plastic rubbish receptacles hanging from electricity poles on the main commercial streets outside the historic areas. But around Sultanahmet I see nowhere to dump an empty water bottle or a used paper napkin. Everyone drops things where they stand, and I begin to do the same, seeing that there are many elderly men walking about with twig brooms, sweeping rubbish into pans and then dumping them into rubbish bins on wheels.

A pretty young woman in a floral print dress prepares to take a photo of her equally pretty boyfriend, or perhaps her brother, who leans, clasped in a languid, almost amorous embrace with his father. Both of them smile beatifically for the camera. It is so tender, like a lover’s embrace, to someone from a cold northern climate.

In the back alleys near my hostel, after much to-ing and fro-ing in the leather and hardware streets, with the word for plug mistranslated as funnel, eventually found a housewares shop and got clothes pegs and washing powder, and then a plug and did my own washing (tourist laundry is exorbitant here, 10 bucks for a couple of kilos) and hung it up on the terrace.

Wandered through the Palace gardens. The gardens are full of cats, as are the back streets around Sultanahmet.  Istanbul cats are wild and free, but fed. Some that prowl around the squares and parks are sleek and disdainful, but most are scrawny, dirty and very affectionate. The large sleek, disdainful cats must be the Khans of the Istanbul cat world.

Took the ferry over to the Asian side, to check on train timetables at Haydarpaşa station. and a leisurely ferry trip back to the Galata side and walk across the bridge into the city. Nice vistas. The big city monuments tourism thing will wear off very soon with me. But I am feeling relaxed and mellow.

On the plaza outside the Yeni Camii, down by the Galata Bridge, old ladies in tattered shawls sell small metal dishes of grain, so we might feed the pigeons, which swarm over the cobbled plazas. People here do not keep pets, but they care for their animals. Oh, but a few keep pets. I have seen a few modern trendy Istanbulli with large dogs, pit bulls, and retrievers.

I don’t know what it is, but one of the restaurant touts was chatting with me as I bustled through this evening, offering me the specials, “Adana Kebab, Iskender Kebab, and … My Kebab . . . .” followed by a pause and a wink. “You are a very bad boy,” I banter back.  As I left I laughed and asked, “so how much is your kebab then?” and he got all coy and said his kebab was only for the ladies. Yeah, right.

So this is about as much local conversation I have got so far. Train trips are often good for late night talks. And I have a half litre of Finnish Vodka. That might help!.

This excerpt first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.