Disembarking the Lake Van Ferry

Excerpt from Turkish Diary.

An hour and a half later, at around 11 pm, the yellow harbour and foreshore lights of Tatvan have grown large, and nearly all the passengers have gone down to the vehicle deck. Achim has gone also, to attend to his bike, which he had tied to the wheel of one of the Iranian freight cars. As I repack my bags, the serious young man with the “Kombat Turkiye” jacket passes by me, and this time he returns my eye contact, and sits down near me to roll a cigarette. I smile, and he offers a sad little smile back, and speaks to me in Turkish, but I indicate I only speak English. He can manage a little, and I have my small dictionary if needed. So we greet eachother but do not exchange names.

I ask him where he is going. Is he in the military? He says yes, and that he is not returning home, he just left home. He is from Izmir, on the shores of the Aegean. He completed his three months basic training, and must now report to Bitlis for a year’s tour of duty. I ask him if he misses home, and he says he does, very much. He will get a one-week break after six months, and then he can go home. He says it will be very dangerous in Bitlis province. It is mountainous, and the mountains are full of Kurdish terrorists, very bad, with machine guns, and bombs and landmines.

So this is why he looks so worried, so seriously homesick, and why his prayers must be intense at this time.  It is also a little strange that he mentions these imminent dangers, as I have just spent time with Ihsan, Necip, and several other friendly Kurds, among them the seven Kurdish “butchers” who shared a meal with me on the banks of the Tigris river. Although there’s some social tension between the Kurdish population and Turks in charge, there seems to be no threat of violence. I wonder if conscripts are fed propaganda about the dangers, and therefore the absolute necessity of their service in the East, or whether Turkish news is silent about any trouble occurring in the mountains these days. I don’t speak to him about this, as we don’t have enough of a mutual language to safely bridge such a dangerous stream of talk.

I then mention that I had seen him pray, out on the deck earlier, and that I respect a man who prays.

He lights up at this, and asks if I am a Muslim. I find it odd that I have been asked this question several times in the past few weeks. I would think that Muslims here would assume that I, a Western traveller, would either be a Christian or a godless materialist. I tell him, that I am not a Muslim, but a Christian, which I have been.

He asks me, “So, what does Isa say then?” I think for a moment, trying to find a suitable quote, a grounding in essential Christianity. “Well, Isa, (Jesus) said the following: ‘You must love the Lord God with all your mind, and all your heart, and you must love your neighbours, all people, as yourself.’” I point to my head, and my heart, as I recite these lines, and add, “this is of course a very difficult task, but we must try, every day.”

He pauses for a moment, and says, “we know that Isa will come again at the last days. He has one task left to do, which is to judge mankind, and to bring all Christians to Islam.”

He then asks, “and was not our Prophet prophesied?”  I pause also, and reply very plainly, “no, the prophet Muhammad was not prophesied in the Christian books, as far as I know.”
I add as a way to soften the plainness of my answer, “in our hearts, in our intentions, Christians and Muslims are alike, even if we do not think alike.”

He replies, “yes, but the Incil (the Bible) was changed.”

I had read that Muslims believe that the Christian books were changed, changes which made a God of Jesus and destroyed any reference to the coming of the last and greatest prophet, Muhammad, and the founding of Islam. I suppose, to a Muslim, as Islam is the summation, the perfection of the Judaic and Christian religions, it had to have been heralded in the holy books that came before. It must be a sign of the deceitfulness of Jews and Christians that they would destroy such evidence. The evidence must have existed. I can only imagine that to discount the necessity of such evidence might well be to discount the greatness of the Prophet. Perhaps this has formed grounds for a considerable amount of suspicion and resentment ever since.

I add, “all books change. It is the nature of knowledge, that people change it over time. Islamic scholars understand that this also happened during the first two centuries of Islam.”

He went on to tell me a little about Islam.

“The Koran says all religions must acknowledge God as Allah, and must pray to Him, only in the name, the word, ‘Allah.’”

He is very clear, that he means the literal word, the syllables, ‘Al-lah.’ I do not know if this is the case with a portion of text in the Koran, or if is a misinterpretation of language and sense, which often happens with non-analytical and devoutly religious people of any faith.

I ask him which verse of the Koran states this, and he thinks for a moment, replying, “I cannot say which verse.” I then talk a little about language. I refer to ‘su’ and ‘water.’ One word is Turkish, and the other is English.  “When you offer me a cup of ‘su’ and I take it and drink it, I am drinking the water you have offered me. And when I offer you a cup of water, and you take it and drink it, you are drinking the ‘su’ I offered you. I believe it is like this with the words, ‘God’ and ‘Allah.’ ‘Al-lah’ or ‘el-Lah’ is the Arabic way of saying ‘the (one and only) God,’ is it not?”

I add, “in all religions, there is childish thinking, and there is adult thinking, and we must all grow from the one to the other, although many do not. Wise Muslims and Christians can surely respect one another, but the unwise cannot, they can only hate each other.”

He sits silently for a moment, perhaps acknowledging something, I am not sure.

I’m warming to my theme now, “And as for understanding anything about God. In my head, I cannot understand anything about God, I am just a man after all, but in my heart, perhaps that is where I can understand something about God through ‘iman,’ or faith, and this is where I pray.”

His face has lost all its brooding heaviness, and he looks at me directly now. “Muslims pray five times a day. It is part of our religion. So, how do you pray?”

I reply, “I do not pray five times a day, I have no formal time or method of prayer. Sometimes I wake at three in the morning, and I am praying. Sometimes I pray on and off all day, sometimes not at all. Sometimes I speak, and sometimes I just listen.”

He smiles, clearly moved. And then I see Achim bounding up the stairs from the freight deck, wondering what I’m up to.

As we get ready to part, I tell the young conscript, “When you are in Bitlis, I will pray for you, for your safekeeping.” And we part, both of us blushing at this dizzying little touch of holiness in our evening. With smiles on our faces and hands on our hearts, we part with “Salaam Aleikum” and “Aleikum, Salaam.”

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

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