Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Haunted Chios

The Ancients Fasted to say these things

The “feribot” to Chios, Greece from Turkey spews a cloud of black smoke into the blue Autumnal sky.  My friends and I sit huddled on the aft deck where the noise of the engine drowns out our ipods.  The first rays of sun warm the deck and we sit huddled there, anticipatory grins on our faces.  The dark smoke from the sputtering engine billows up into the sky and dissipates against a backdrop of clouds and marine birds. 
This is my first time to Greece, but many of my co-workers are familiar with the place.  “We go there all the time.  We have family over there” they say.  There is very little ill will or resentment in their voices when they speak of the history between the Greeks and the Turks.  “That was a long time ago” says my friend whose name in Turkish means “favorite courtesan of the red-light-district.”  But at the same time, there is a distinct tension.  Downtown in Izmir there is a statue of Ataturk expelling the last of the Greeks and all of the rest of the “foreign invaders” after World War 1.  The history hangs like smoke from an ashtray. 
We disembark under a banner of unfamiliar lettering.  The math teacher in the group knows the names of the Greek symbols and announces them as the officials lazily slap our thickened passports with an inky insignia.  I recognize only “kappa” and “gamma” because those were the symbols I knew from my girlfriend’s sorority in college.  We begin walking and the first sight that catches my eye is an old military bunker right next to a row of businesses.  It is crumbling from disuse, but the symbol is clear.  “Stay out” it says.  But as Oscar Wilde reminds us “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”  I glimpse what might be a coffee shop in the distance and move on without taking a photo. 
We plod along the waterfront esplanande which is decorated and substantially improved with expensive stone-work. At once it is clear that deficit spending has at least been kind to public works.  A café beckons, and we slump into wicker chairs to enjoy an espresso.  It’s notable for what it’s not—it’s not Turk Kahve, that sludgy cowboy-coffee-on-crack beverage which we chew several times per day.  The wireless network at the café informs me that nearby there is a UNESCO heritage sight, an 11th century monastery knows for its tile mosaics.  We rent a scooter and motor up there. 
The monastery is closed until the late afternoon, so we trudge up the hill for a view of the ocean, and Turkey, our home for the next few years, in the distance.  A fire has swept up the hillside, cracking the ancient limestone, once a sea floor now uplifted, burned, blackened and cracked.  Charred trees stand like actors in a tableau of the wastelands after a horrific war.  The air is still but the occasional breeze rattles through the stand of snags and shakes branches upheld like angry  arthritic fists to the sky, cursing a now absent deity.  Our feet shuffle over charcoal and the trail beneath or feet crunches and creaks, the landscape a dead memory.  Ruins dot the hillside where once stood the houses of monks and shepherds.  My friend motions me over to a crumbling edifice and motions for me to poke my head inside an enclosure.
At first I’m not sure that what I’m seeing is real.  Through a hole no bigger than a book cover, I peer inside at a row of objects in the darkness.  My eyes adjust to the light and I step back when I realize that they are human skulls piled on top of one another and lit by a faint candle.  At first my reaction is to try to play a joke on a friend, but it doesn’t take long for my heart to settle into its questioning routine.  What was the story behind these deaths, and more relevant still what rhetorical machinations can explain the need for these morbid skulls to be on display here?  
A hike up the hill allows my mind to settle a little, but the footsteps plodding is a noise like Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.”  It seems that nothing lives here—no birds, no insects, no noises except for those which come from ourselves within this coffin of a silent world. 
The hilltop brings us to a more modern monastery where a bearded monk with a Rasputin look slouches and sweeps the dust of the afternoon away from the empty doorstep.  I reach up to pluck a dried fig from the branches above my head but find that the fruit has dessicated away in the summer hilltop heat and the fig crunches and becomes inedible grainy sand in my palm.  The monks eye us suspicisuly as we reach for the borrowed clothes that visitors use to cover themselves out of respect for the observant.  An eerie pall descends and a few photos of a half bnurned tree satiate the urge for further meanderings.  We slide down the scree back toward the rented 50 cc motorcycle. 
On the way out a man points to a door and we step inside the old cathedral which has cracks running down its supports from an age old earthquake.  More skulls—this time inside a glass case that informs us—in many languages for the foreign visitor—of the cruelties of the long ago Ottoman Empire.  The sign informs us that an estimated 80,000 occupants of Chios were slaughtered by the Ottomans as a wave of anti-Turkish rebellion swept across far flung islands formerly belonging to Greece.   These are their skulls. 
The Turks left the hillsides burned. Tales circulate around the island like ocean currents of the women and children who leapt off cliffs to avoid capture.  The Sultan enslaved many of those who were left to work in the mastic farms.  Mastic is sold now in the convenience stores in the form of peculiar tasting chewing gum.  The firebranded hills tell of the roots of these trees which leeched the soil of their nutrients and now are bare, the hills framed through the halo of burned out sunlight.  Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and was sentenced to having his liver eaten repeatedly by an Eagle, left this fire, this martian landscape.  And we have knowledge; we suffer.  The Greeks have a saying—“the ancients fasted to say these things”—and some choose to ensure that this suffering is not forgotten.
We mount the scooter and glide down the hill.  My passenger and I are having pleasant conversation as the last lights fade to the west over the hills, and beyond that the sea; we are talking of a road-trip down the California coast.  My mind is there, and then suddenly around a hairpin corner we are on the ground.  The violence of the crash is over quickly, brain synapses firing all too rapidly make time slow as we check for injuries.  Mine a chafed elbow in a borrowed sweater and hers a ruined pantleg and a painful knee.  Strangely a hollow and haunted sense invades me and I feel nervous, as if the next danger is right around the corner.  We are not safe in these harbors. 

I sleep to troubled dreams, but a coffee on the sunlit porch is a welcome start to the morning.  Breakfast brings us to the village of Pyrgi, a medieval town which is famous for narrow alleyways which were built for defense against Ottoman Turks and pirates. The alleyways are reputedly so mazelike that invaders would be led into corners where they could be easily attacked.  We drive past cottages, farmhouses, desiccated bushes, parched beasts of burden and the strange walls of Pyrgi come into view.  The walls are painted with otherworldly designs called Xysta which are created by applying black sand to the walls of buildings, covering it with plaster which is then painted white.  The artist or homeowner will then use a scraping tool to carve geometric designs out of the white plaster so that the appearance is a black etching atop white background.  The designs are oddly symmetrical and eerily perfect. 
We sit in a center courtyard and order a pizza from a friendly Greek named Costas who blasts Metallica from a room behind the brick wood-burning oven.  He is jovial and friendly and soon brings what is easily the best pizza I have tasted in years.  We devour, and as the check is paid and we are getting ready to leave, we strike up a conversation.  He asks if we got a chance to look at the town, and I said that I did and that I noticed the narrow alleyways. 
“Those are for the pirates.” 
“And by ‘pirates’ do you mean Turks?”
As this query comes out of my mouth it instantly occurs to me that I have asked too much, overstepped the boundaries of our relationship.  The idiom in Turkish is “kishinin bashina gelen agzindan chikandir” which means “what a man suffers is the outcome of what goes out of his mouth.” I see a change in Costas’ face, and he gets defensive.
“I don’t believe in that stuff man.  I’ve got kids.  I think of the future for them.  What kind of world am I bringing them into?  Do I want to raise them to hate other people?  To think of the past? I live for them; I live for what comes next.”
His answer shocked me as it bespoke opinions far deeper than were warranted by the question.  I smiled and shook his hand as the rest of my group was readying themselves for departure.
We wind around bends on treacherous sandy roads again, slow, slow.  Past the cliffs where the women jumped, past the dimly lit bone filled museum, past the vacant vast golden beaches and the sunsets of the ages, the 50 cc “dink” bears us onward.  We pass the old barracks and the bastions of the defense that once was and are oceanbound again to Turkey. 
Later I asked a Turkish colleague.  What’s a saying that has to do with conflict? She thinks for a moment and says “Ish amana binince kavga uzamaz” –When one side surrenders, the fight is over.  

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Young Turks

The old windmill stands unused and overlooks the windless waters of Foça. The town is silent on a Sunday and from the top of the hill where the windmill sits, the sounds of the call to prayer waft over the still water through the afternoon haze.  A soccer game is starting nearby.  The field is clear from atop the hill and the players scuttle about like crabs along the shore, tiny from this vantage point. 

There are some youths loitering near the windmill, aimless.  They smoke cigarettes to make themselves feel older, more in charge of their own destinies, confident that they will never die.  The posture with each other and slap each other into their places in the pecking order of Turkish masculinity, a loud and confident type of movement that is unapologetic and unafraid. 

Recently in my class a student had to memorize a 5 line poem and he chose “We Real Cool.”  He found it on the website I gave them, one of the few who followed instructions.  I asked him why he liked it, and he said that it reminded him of the older boys he knows.  But when he recited the poem, it became clear to me that the ironies were lost on him.  “We die soon,” he said, with a huge smile. 

The Turkish kids by the windmill overlooking the bay of the town of Foça wish to escape this little fishing village where their headscarf wearing mothers and grandmothers coax gelatinous squid out of the water near the dock each night for their dinners, defeated squid that turn angry colors and discharge inky blackness that mingles with the emptiness of the small town, no lights on, nothing doing.  They are inhaling something inside a bag, breathing deeply in and out, their faces melting into expressionless puddles staring at the ground.  Empty bottles of sealant and glue lie there sticky in the sand at the base of large sandstone boulders that sit as witnesses. 

The soccer game is starting, and the first notes of the Turkish national anthem float out into the air across the boulders.  Its plodding dirge copulates with something inside the boys and they stand quickly erect and form a line.  One stands at attention with a salute, but they all stand silent and face the noise.  The bags and the glue and the cigarettes, broken bottles and tossed rocks sit silently on the ground.  The last note sits plaintively and seems to hang in the haze of afternoon.

I climb off my stony perch and march past the truculent gang of boys.  They stare at the girls that I am with and then address me, the man of the group, as is customary.  They say “where from?” and I tell them America.  But I walk past and pretend that I have somewhere to go.  “Problem?” he says.
“problem YOK! Memnun Oldum.” Nice to meet you. And then I motion to his bag and say “Afiyet Olsun.” This is not really appropriate as it basically means “enjoy your food” or “Bon appetite” but it is something I say when I’m leaving a place where I have to speak Turkish—often a restaurant or a place where people are eating.  This comment seems to shame him or anger him or something and he tails me for about 20 steps, then watches me go and turns away.  I don’t look back.  These kids make me think of school, which is something I don’t want to do on a Sunday. 

The trail snakes down the hill next to a big tin cutout of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk trudging uphill wearing his World War I uniform, his shoulders burdened by many obligations, a definite weight which is seen in his posture.  He is younger in this picture, which I see often, then in the photos you see in offices and in private homes—an image of the elder statesman conducting the duties of office.  There is an old cannon that rests beside a big pile of horse manure.  The date reads 1857-- engraved on the weathered steel.  It points out toward Greece, toward the island of Lesbos, which is not quite visible in the distance. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

You must change your life

Standing beside a ruined cathedral, leaning against an ancient marble pillar, posing for yet another group photo soon to be posted to facebook and envied by unknown legions of friends-of-friends, it suddenly occurs to me that I am not entirely sure why I decided to move to Turkey.  It was an impulsive decision, and decisions of this nature are often subject to the scrutiny of hindsight.  To use a “familial” allusion, my brother would often act impulsively when we were growing up and my dad would say “Matty, why did you throw that in there?” to which Matty would reply “I can’t phink.”  If you were to ask me right now “John, why did you move to Turkey” I would have to reply with Matty’s old adage, which sums it up pretty well. 

I think it had something to do with wanting adventure, seeking challenge, attempting to redefine myself in some tangible way.  I have gotten used to the idea that life is supposed to be ceaselessly exciting and interesting.  When things are unfamiliar all the time, boredom is an unknown concept.  However, there’s also the expression “no matter where you go, there you are.”  A change of scenery is not enough for one to escape the bondage of internal malaise.  Even in Turkey, I’m still essentially me.  Changing perspective, doing the work of educating myself and attaining wisdom is not a matter of simple relocation.  I’m still the same here as before, until I do the work to make myself who I want to be. 

I of course had to start with a phonetic spelling of my name.  In Turkey, they don’t have John.  They have “Can.”  “C” makes a sound like a “J” so this is how my name is now spelled.  It means “spirit.”  In Turkey, everyone’s name has a meaning.  I met a woman just the other day whose name means “favorite concubine of the Sultan.”  “Can” is often a girl’s name, so sometimes people laugh a little bit when I introduce myself this way.  But it means “life” and “soul” and “spirit.” In English, both “John” and “Can” are synonyms for the bathroom.  Combine my first and middle names (John Thomas) and they are a British euphemism for the penis.  So for now I prefer the Turkish meaning. 

I also share my name with a famous beer.  I have been asked by students whether I prefer Miller of “Efes” which is Turkish beer.  This beer is named after the legendary ruins at Ephesus, an hour from town.  In Turkish, it’s “Efes.” The beer was likely so named so as to be able to capitalize on the fame of the place itself.  The un-beer-related ruins in Ephesus are one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.   This means of course that it’s not all that wonderful today because it’s been destroyed time and time again.  The temple of Artemis was destroyed by “St.” John Chrysostom and a mob in 401 AD after it had stood there for almost 900 years, looking wonderful.  Presumably it was destroyed because it didn’t quite match the new religion. 

Now there is a bus park from which the throngs of tourists and their guides march solemly down a marble road and take pictures of the ruins.  Blocks of other marble line this marble paved road, but it’s hard to say exactly what was once there or how these piles of marble blocks were once connected to one another.  If you listen to the guide (I sort of did) there is one pile of marble blocks that was the gladiator’s graveyard, there is one that was the hospital, there is one that was the church, there is one that was the theatre (this one was pretty obvious) and there is one that was the fountain.  But you have to use your imagination. 

This strikes me as a pretty good metaphor for a life.  It has been an intriguing but frustrating activity for me to attempt to formulate a narrative out of my own life.  In telling a story, we have to ask ourselves first “how long do I want this story to be?”  If you want to keep anyone’s attention, it had better be fairly short.  The next decision is of course “where does the story begin?”  If you can frame the beginning properly, the story will make sense to most people.  None of us can truly know the ending, but we work with an ending in mind and we choose the end that best fits the story.  Even if the story goes on from there.  Storytelling and examining a life is like looking at a ruined village that has existed for too long for the story to be fully clear to anyone. 

I walked down the path a little bit behind all of my co-workers who were feverishly snapping photos of themselves in different poses and then posting them to facebook to wait for the comments to flood in so that they could bathe in the self assurance which is brought about by the jealousy of others.  But actually it was just really hot in the sun and we were all getting tired.  I stood in the shade of a fig tree with near-ripe fruit that caused its branches to sag down into an umbrella shape. From underneath the fig tree I could see this sort of torso of a Roman God.  There’s really no telling what it once looked like, but it was striking that it was fairly intact, given its age. 

I was sitting there under the fig tree letting my mind wander while I munched on a fresh fig (which is awesome by the way).  I was thinking about this show that I like on tv called “The Sarah Silverman Program.” The episode from the previous night had involved a character who is really lazy and has become morbidly obese and sprouted male breasts.  In one scene he slams the window on his man-boobs which forces him to need an emergency breast reduction.  He asks the doctor to put his excess fat in a jar so that it can be buried in a sort of religious ceremony.  At the boob funeral, a friend of his is reading a poem by Rilke.  She says: “would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life” and it’s funny because there is an air of solemnity to this comical faux-funeral. 

I had watched the episode again because it features a song called “making new friends” about making new friends.  I was making new friends, although as I stood there under the shade of the fig tree watching them take pictures of themselves, I felt isolated.  So I looked at the torso statue instead.  Just for fun, I looked up the whole text of the poem from the episode of Sarah. 

"Archaic Torso of Apollo"
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

I practically laughed out loud when I read it, because suddenly there was an extra joke connected to the episode of Sarah.  The poem is about an incomplete figure (a God without a head).  The speaker is admiring a fragmented figure.  The allusion concerns a disembodied and broken physical form, so it strikes me as particularly appropriate and hilarious that the poem is read to someone who is burying the fat from their own emergency mastectomy.  I like this joke even more because I know that I’m part of a special elite brand of nerd that chose to look up the literary allusions from The Sarah Silverman Program, a show that mostly revolves around scatological humor.  There’s your English major not wasted. 

After I was done laughing, things got kind of deep and sad inside my head.  I decided to look upon the Torso as Rilke did. 

People often see a work of art and describe it as “life changing.”  This once powerful expression has become an absurd cliché, because people rarely change their life.  It is doubly rare for a person to change their life based on an experience of art.  But we nonetheless describe things as life changing and then go on living life as before. 

I don’t pray, because I don’t believe in God.  But there are moments when I feel something which must be like what people feel when they pray—a sense of surrender to something larger than oneself.  Strangely, this feeling I am describing will occur without warning, and though it forms its basis in tangible things, I find myself pondering elusive qualities. 

What happened to the head of this God?  From what source emanates that strange power which we feel but cannot name? How can we atone for the ravages of time that have caused us to forget the sense of surrender and wonder we once felt when we looked to the sky? 

If we look to ourselves for the answers to the questions that gnaw at our daily lives, then we have only ourselves to blame when we cannot change in the ways we envision for ourselves.  It comes down to that final line of the poem—“you must change your life”-- which feels very much like a prayer to me. 

There are things which we cannot know.  Like the incomplete statue of Apollo, there is some beauty that comes from the fact that many things (even the self) are essentially unknowable.  When we look at anything (ourselves, others, art) we see what is there, but on some level we also see potential. We see the past; we see the future.  Because there can be no definite knowable form, we have complete freedom to invent reality.  This is the glow that Rilke was describing.  It’s the glow of the absurd.  There is no absolute truth but the one we formulate.  There is no self but the one we decide upon. 

So now I can be "Can."  The name means "spirit."  That is who I will be.

Having thought about things for a few quiet minutes, I rejoined the group and posed for a bunch of goofy photos which would wind up on facebook.  Seemingly unconnected details in a narrative that had failed to take shape suddenly fell like puzzle pieces into an interlocking pattern and a picture emerged whole.  I had moved to Turkey to change my life.  I wanted to constantly keep re-evaluating assumptions I had made in the past, examine new evidence, and turn up the earth that covers the disconnected marble blocks of my existence, so that they might tell their story.

Trying to conceive the self (to form a life like forming a sculpture) is a difficult process if we are truthful about it.  So often we talk about the self in terms of what we are not.  The statue is incomplete, but “otherwise it could not dazzle you so.”  Since there is something unknowable about our nature, we often struggle to exist.  To see this incompleteness as a constellation of possibilities instead of a morass of loss is a choice.  Rilke repeats the word “otherwise” often in the poem.  If the statue was complete, he says, “the stone would seem defaced.”  The greatest glories of a life lie in the possibilities for interpretation. 

Can Miller poses for photos with his friends.  He is making new friends.  His life is a bursting star of possibility.  Otherwise his stone is defaced.  He must change his life.