Haydarapaşa Station looms over the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The gateway to the East, this elephantine Prussian castle was built by the Germans a hundred years ago as part of the Kaiser’s Berlin to Baghdad railway, intended to bypass the British-controlled Suez Canal. The grandiose sandstone pile shadows a huddle of railway platform kiosks selling packets of biscuits, bottled water, cans of thick, sugary peach juice and bread rolls stuffed with cuts of processed cheese and wilted lettuce leaves, tightly bound, like Egyptian mummies, in bandages of plastic film. I stock up on water, and find a kebab stand grilling a dripping cylinder of chicken pieces, and fill my stomach with a couple of cheap tavuk döner sandwiches. The waiting room is imperial and dingy, and the restaurant expensive.
The Meram Ekspresi to Konya leaves at 19:20. It’s another hour’s wait, but there’s a cafe serving tea by the ferry dock. The sun sets behind distant slabs of cloud, and the sky glows mauve and sooty over the domes and minarets of Istanbul across the water.
Turkish train carriages are sleek, white and narrow. There’s room for three seats abreast, two on one side, and one across the aisle. The ticket is cheap, only 23 Lire for a reserved seat in a Pullman car. Another 30 Lire would get me a bed in a couchette. However, nearly everyone smokes in Turkey, usually harsh, dark tobacco, and there’s no guarantee, even in a non-smoking compartment, that someone won’t light up in the middle of the night.
On my way to my carriage, I pass a row of compartments already full. Youths sprawl across the padded benches with their feet up on each other’s seats, joking, talking, smoking. The couchettes are filling up fast with families, groups of friends, and baggage. I step into an empty one for a minute. The brown velveteen-covered seats are pocked and burned, and the air is flat, a whiff of floor cleaner and dead brown smoke. For the moment I feel lonesome.
My seat in the open car doesn’t recline properly but it’s not so bad. After I’ve settled in and spread myself out a bit, a pale, black-clad young man passes and turns back, grimaces carelessly, and flops down next to me. He seems irritated at having to share, and we ignore each other. The train rolls out of Haydarapaşa, smooth and heavy over the regular meter of clicks and jolts, surges ahead and slows down again as it skirts the coast, the Asian shore of the sea of Marmara, through miles and miles of suburbs. We pass by a ridge of five- to eight-floor blocks of flats, with docks and jetties on the seaward side, small and rusty freighters, fishing vessels and large cargo ships lining the shore, and many more out at sea as well.
The light fades to grey beyond the glass. We leave the bright outskirts of the city and the train turns inland. The world of exterior things fades away, the shifting stream of the world disappears.
A small, dark, wiry-armed man runs down the trembling carriage aisle with a large tray of simit, crispy bread rings dotted with sesame seeds, and plastic pots of ayran, a salty yoghurt drink. Down by the front end of the carriage a raging child chokes on his indrawn breath, and then explodes in sobs and wails. His mother murmurs wearily. Another snack vendor runs down the aisle, with tea, Nescafe and small packets of biscuits.
The young man next to me gets up and heads off to the vestibule at the end of the carriage. When he sits down again he reeks of smoke, and clicks his teeth in annoyance at the wailing baby.
I get out my dictionary and find the words, “tren, dolu” (train, full). He responds immediately with a smile and a shrug. Yes, train full. Then I find, “bebek bagirmak, yok uyumak” (baby cry, no sleep). He shrugs again. He speaks as much English as I do Turkish. But we exchange a bit of information. His name is Husayn and he is going to Eskişehir, a couple hundred miles inland. I tell him I am going to Konya.
“Konya, Mevlana, Sufi.” I say. He nods. The Mevlana (or Rumi, as we know him) is a famous poet and everyone knows he lived in Konya.
I show him the book I am reading, by Yashar Kemal, and find the words, “mükemmel yazar, Kurdçe yazar” (good writer, Kurdish writer). He frowns and waves his hand in disagreement, replying in English, “Turkish writer.” I try to find the sentence on the back cover, about how Kemal is from the Kurdish part of Turkey, then remember where I am and reply tactfully, “peki, evet, Turkçe Kurd” (OK, yes, Turkish Kurd). Kemal is Turkey’s most famous novelist, and Turkey does not recognize Kurds, preferring to call them Mountain Turks.
The train rolls on. Hours pass. I manage to sleep. Husayn dozes next to me. Next time Husayn gets up to smoke, the fellow in the single seat opposite asks me, with a few words of English, if the seat next to me is taken. “Yes,” I nod, “it is.”
Husayn comes back, and the fellow in the lone seat across the aisle joins the conversation. He’s a mathematics teacher going home to Kayseri, another day’s ride beyond Konya. I find out through him that Husayn works in IT in Istanbul, Microsoft stuff. They want to know all about me. “Where are you from?” “What are you doing in Turkey?”
I tell them I am going to Konya, Kayseri, and maybe over to Dogübayazit, to see Agri Dagi, Mount Ararat.
“Why do you wear that gold ring on your finger? Are you married?”
I tell them I am divorced. There is laughter and merriment in our row and a grizzly fellow in his fifties two rows behind us chimes in and sighs, “wish I divorce…”
A ginger haired fellow, also in dark business pants and a white shirt, comes along and squeezes into the single seat with the mathematics teacher.
They’re friends, both teachers heading home to Kayseri. It’s sweet to see them tucked in there so close. I’ve heard and seen that Turkish men are comfortable holding each other as a gesture of friendship. But it turns out the ginger haired guy bought a ticket, but only his friend got the seat reservation, things are that tight. So he has to make the whole twenty-four-hour journey finding whatever seat he can.
The train remains full the whole night. As soon as a family alights at some tiny rural siding the empty places fill up again. The seats around me are full of sleepy young men. Further down, a couple of bubbly babies stumble around, laughing, wailing and laughing again.
I doze under the train’s soothing rumble and clack, my face pressed to a cold window, sour dirt moulding the hard aluminium corners, lulled into soothing dreams, a spaceship slicing through nothing, a whistling sword of light plunging into black rock, speeding toward sunrise, or death.
I wake after we’ve passed Eskişehir. Husayn has gone. The ginger haired man gets a bit of rest in the seat next to me. He looks crisp and clean but exudes an agreeable, nostril-pinching stench of sweat and tobacco smoke. It seeps under the lid of my half closed eye, and the sweet puke of vanilla rose cologne mingles with the dried brown mildew of spilt tea soaking the worn carpet.
The children are asleep now but the overhead lights stay on. The grey-stubbled man two rows back snores into the upturned lapel of his old flannel suit jacket. Sometime after midnight the train rattles slowly past more concrete blocks of flats and warehouses and stops at a large station. Is it Afyon? I hope it is Afyon already. But it isn’t Afyon, it’s Kütahya. The journey is going to take longer than I thought.
A slim, delicately-built young man arrives at our row, wondering why the seat next to me is taken. He rouses the ginger haired teacher from his sleep and politely asks him to move, and ginger squeezes in with his friend across the aisle once more.
The new arrival is speaking to me in Turkish, and I respond with “Ingiliz, yok Turk.” He manages a few halting words of English to me. He is a student at the University in Kütahya, studying Physical Therapy. He is going home to Diyarbakir, but will stop in Konya just for a day, to see his girlfriend. His face is dark and solemn. His slender brow is crowned with flowers of black curls. His name is Ihsan, and his English improves rapidly as we speak. And he speaks in a lovely, lilting whisper, about Kurdistan.
“I cannot speak about Kurdistan to Turkish people. Trouble with police.”
“Yes,” I reply in a half joking way, “but talking politics to me in English you’re quite safe. I am not a Turkish policeman, as you can see.”
I show him the Yashar Kemal novel. We find the original Turkish title inside the front cover, “Ince Memed.”
Ihsan is delighted. “It is Kemal’s best book.”
Ihsan gets up several times to smoke, and invites me to join him. I smoke with him in the draughty vestibule. He’s quiet, curious, and serious. I’m employing my usual half smile, a slightly dry shyness. It veils the intensity of the empathy and attraction that is growing as I get to know him. Back in our seats, Ihsan shares his biscuits with me, and I fill our empty plastic tea cups with fingers of Raki, and cloud the pungent and sugary liquor with warm bottled water.
We talk for most of the rest of the night, occasionally delving into my little dictionary for Turkish or English words.
“I do not like to be lonely,” says Ihsan. To respond, I find the different words, “kimsesiz” (friendlessness), and “yalnizlik” (solitude). He agrees that they are indeed different experiences.
“And I do not want to be married or have children. I need to be free to work wherever I am needed.”
He wants to help his people as a Physical Therapist. I hunt for the words, “adama” (dedication, or vow), and “meslek” (career, or vocation), but he does not seem to understand what I am trying to say with these words.
“I would not want to raise a child into a difficult life.”
“But someone like you would be such a good father,” I say.
He shrugs his shoulders. Later he tells me that if he were to marry, he would be expected to marry a Kurdish girl and settle in his parents’ home in Diyarbakir and look after them. Marrying anyone else and moving away with her seems out of the question.
A thin, ascetic-looking teenage madrasa student in baggy black pants, loose beige shirt and large knitted skullcap sitting in the row ahead glances back at us now and then, coolly, through the delicate prisms of his wire rimmed spectacles.
“I do not like religion,” says Ihsan.
I find the word “ruh” (soul).
“But we have a soul,” I say. “And there is God, and the relationship between the soul and God is not dogma, it is a mystery.”
I get all of this language out slowly, flicking through the pages of my dictionary for the big words in Turkish. Ihsan nods in appreciation. I tell him briefly about my Christian background. That it is a language in my heart, and not a dogma.
“Yes,” he says, “I have Islam in my heart too, but I don’t like the religion.”
I point to the Madrasa student. “Let’s hope he gets a chance to fall in love, and be broken hearted, and experience sin, before his mind closes up.”
I do not question him about it, but wonder how he thinks about his need for independence, to not be encumbered with a wife and child (never, he insists strongly) contrasts with his statement about the fear of loneliness?
One by one, throughout the night, men shuffle along the swaying aisle to smoke and talk in the vestibule. Do any of the women get up to smoke or stretch themselves? Do women actually have lungs, or legs? The wives and mothers stay sleeping in their seats until morning. If they move about at all, it’s so no man will notice.
It seems Ihsan and I have both managed to sleep. I wake with a backache, a crick in my neck, and my left kneecap hammering away from the inside. The dawn glowers over the plain like a red-hot poker. Through the windows on the other side dry white peaks have risen. The jagged peaks sail past slowly. The dawn looks as hot and dusty as a desert sunset does. We have reached the beginning of the great Anatolian plain, and Konya is a few hours away.
I need the toilet, and leave wet footprints on the floor as I squat over the shit-flecked stainless steel hole, filling an empty juice can several times from the small brass spigot and balancing precariously in order to splash and clean up properly.
I want a decent breakfast, and invite Ihsan to eat with me in the dining car. He is a student, with no money. It takes a while, and some persuasion, but he eventually accepts my offer. So we get fresh bread, boiled eggs, and a dish each of cheese, olives, a shriveled slice of tomato, a fresh slice of cucumber, butter, jam, honey and cups of tea.
We talk about Northern Europe, about financial opportunities, versus the coldness of the cultures up there, about capitalism and communism. Ishan’s father was a communist, and he is too, idealistically, but acknowledges the difficulty, of dogma versus human nature.
A low grey wall rises out of the haze, ringing the dry yellow hills to the South East. As we get closer, the wall morphs into concrete apartment blocks, the outer suburbs of Konya, shadowed by tall, belching factories producing cement, asphalt and beet sugar. Konya has become a sulphur dioxide-choked boomtown, as well as having been, for millennia, a place of pilgrimage, a city which grew rich on woven carpets, processed cotton and silk, mined salt, cinnabar and chrome. It was once Iconium, where the apostles Paul and Barnabas preached, first persuading, then angering the population of pagans and Jews, before getting themselves kicked out of town. It became the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rome (Rum, in the Turkic tongue), the city of Celaluddin Rumi, the Mevlana, saint and mystic poet of Sufism. And there were nearly as many Christians as Muslims living here before the upheavals that erupted after the end of the First World War.
The train shudders slowly into the railway station. Exhausted and elated, I invite Ihsan to stay in touch, and we exchange email addresses. He’d like me to visit his hometown, Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish South East. We wish each other farewell, and he heads north to meet his girlfriend at the bus station.
It’s 10 am, and the air is not stifling as I’d feared it might be, though the sun burns my face and neck. It’s a mile and a half walk north and east along wide but busy streets, past shops and apartment blocks, to the old part of the city. I am comfortable stopping people and gesturing a request for directions. An older fellow helps me out. He speaks German. He’d worked and travelled all around Europe in a trailer. I understand enough to respond. To his delight I manage to say, “teşekkür ederim, hoşçakal.” Many thanks, and goodbye.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org