The Lost Immigrants 6 September 2002

Edinburgh’s late summer was beautiful. The festival was over and a lazy peace enveloped the city. It was warm and the people were warm. The crowd of orthopaedic surgeons from South Africa were great fun albeit that a large part of the fun involved trying as many pubs as possible. This all culminated with the end of the festival firework show, which was quite spectacular. It was also the night of our second visit to Cappadocia, a Turkish take-away which we tried a few nights before. The doner kebab was a great giro with fresh salad and lashings of a spicy chilli sauce. Eugene did not eat that night and the cook noticed it. The second night he ate, and the cook noticed that as well. He noticed too that Eugene was a huge man but of the earth. He probably didn’t notice that he had typical rugby ears.

The story starts with me not being too happy about supporting a Turkish business.  But then again, they were the closest thing to family for me in Scotland. Still, I remember Nicosia and the Red Line that divided families and destroyed lives. It was and it still is sad. But one of the soundest principles by which one can live is never to generalise. It is useful having such basic principles. We always learn our lessons the hard way.

Our last night in Edinburgh was sad; we had made new friends and built up lasting relationships. We had learnt a lot and drunk a lot. So we visited a few pubs on that last night.  The weather had changed slightly.    It was cooler and there had been some rain the previous evening, but it was still unseasonably warm. I went for a long run around Arthur’s Seat. The surroundings are not quite the Highlands but there are two pretty little dams that look like lochs. I ran up through a saddle and saw ravens struggling like crowbars bending in the wind. Their cruel call came at me straight from Macbeth with the three witches just around the corner. They were not ….

So we spent the last evening at Cappadocia. There was a severe earthquake in Greece 3 days before and the Turkish government was the first to send a search and rescue team. Strange, as they had just had 12 000 of their faithful killed by one largely because of fly-by-night builders who did not adhere to the appropriate codes. When we arrived at the little take-away we rushed in and it was empty. Eugene had hesitated outside to see if the owner would miss him. Indeed he did and came rushing out to drag the giant in by his arm. Indeed a warm welcome for a stranger that had eaten there only once before. We all ordered Doner Kebabs again and he laid on all the extras as if we were all good friends of the family. Haig, who did not order any food and asked for a coke, was given this on the house. We struggled through the huge meals looking at posters of Turkey that are Greece in a different language. Or the other way around.

As we relished our food a couple walked in. They were Turkish, we all presumed. In their late twenties and he looking like any Greek palikari while she was a goddess. Her hair was straw coloured with the sun still setting. Her eyes were blue grey like the med at midday in the midsummer’s shimmering waves. They went behind to the two tables at the back of the counter and sat and chatted; she animatedly with her hands while she rolled up a cigarette in a slip of paper and then smoked it. She did not eat. I think they just had coffee and then they left. As she passed I noticed a crucifix in her ear – she couldn’t be Turkish. She said goodbye to the old man and hugged him. She then left with her partner talking Greek and shedding the Scottish weather as if she had oil on her body as she got out of the sea.

So I called the old man over. I asked him if the couple was Greek, which he confirmed and added that he had many Greek students in winter that spent their evenings there. I told him that I too was Greek and half expected myself to have a human rights abuse argument with him. I didn’t, and instead introduced myself to Kerrim, who by now had his arm affectionately around my shoulder. We spoke of the Turkish earthquake disaster and then obliquely about Cyprus. He shrugged his shoulders and said that we were friends and that politics was ugly. Indeed it was. So we carried on and I asked him if he had a small coffee. I could not bring myself to say a Turkish coffee. He apologised that he only had the coffee and briki at home, but wanted to kerasi us some cappuccinos. We were now part of the family. Some Scots came in while we were chatting and he ignored them essentially till they left so he could continue with his new friends. We told him where we were from and our profession. Faf Labuschagne, a lost immigrant as well had joined us and through him we were able too guarantee Kerrim access to the best orthopaedics that the NHS had to offer.

I gave him my business card and he proudly stored it; in exchange I got a take-out menu with his hand-written name. He is sixty years old and married a Scottish lass with two children aged 7 and 5. He proudly showed us photos of them. John had pictures of his two daughters and he shared a bond across the sea and cultures in a moment of pure pride for the two of them. Kerrim had just opened this shop 6 months ago and was working everyday from lunch 4 p.m. until closing at 3 or 4 a.m.. A hard life at sixty, but not without its rewards; like the time a Greek student brought a belly dancer to dance just for him as a thank you for all his kindness. His face lit up at the gesture but also at the vision of this nubile dancer gracing his small storefront.

He used to be a singer, first in Turkey and then in the UK. He was even on television and he proudly showed us the review in the newspaper, the faded yellow paper glinting like gold foil in his eyes. Then out came an ancient photo album of him in his Austin Moore outfits: velvet jackets and frills creasing an ancient microphone. He shoed and belittled himself but enjoyed sharing his experience of San Francisco with us: he stayed mistakenly in a gay hotel and when he tried to date a hot babe she refused him on confusing grounds. But once the misunderstanding was cleared up he had the time of his life.

Then it was time to return to Pollock Halls; we hugged goodbye in the true Mediterranean fashion and left warm in our new friendship. At the landing outside there was a beggar. Eugene dragged him in as he begged for money, put £5 on the counter and ordered Kerrim to give him a doner kebab. Just like that. Just like the silent moment Eugene took in prayer before his meal.

Constantinople 6 May 2011

Here is an answer:

Some Fill With Each Good Rain
There are different wells within your heart.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far too deep for that.

In one well
You have just a few precious cups of water,
That “love” is literally something of yourself,
It can grow as slow as a diamond
If it is lost.

Your love
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you.

There are different wells within us.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far, far too deep
For that.
It’s a long story and it’s not my poem. It belongs to a Sufi poet, Hafiz, from the 14th Century.

I am so confused about going to Istanbul. I have on this same hard drive copies of letters written by my father dated 21 August 1974, my 12th birthday. Co-signed by his friend George Bizos. To the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Africa, the Ambassador to Pretoria of the United States Government and the Ambassador to Pretoria of Her Majesties Government. All decrying the behaviour of the Turkish government in occupying Cyprus. This shortly after we had returned from Greece. I remember the morning clearly, at Hotel Solon in Tolo, where my father took my brother and told him that he was the head of the family now. My father had been conscripted to fight in the Greek Army. The nation was tuned in to black and white TV with military marches blaring while Turkey invaded Cyprus with American hardware. Nothing has changed, in the week that America assassinated Osama bin Laden. Or murdered him. For what are we if we stoop to the same level as our enemies, if not the Devil himself?

In 2002 I wrote this about a Turkish Takeaway called Cappadocia in Edinburgh. The piece was called The Lost Immigrants:

The story starts with me not being too happy about supporting a Turkish business.  But then again, they were the closest thing to family for me in Scotland. Still, I remember Nicosia and the Red Line that divided families and destroyed lives. It was and it still is sad. But one of the soundest principles by which one can live is never to generalise. It is useful having such basic principles. We always learn our lessons the hard way.

So best not to generalise, even about the Americans. Who can imagine the details of their existence?

Who can imagine the details of anyone’s existence?

So here I sit in  Turkish Airline’s new Airbus en route to Istanbul. Originally to see the Grand Prix, with Caterina trying to open all sorts of doors at the race for us to enjoy. So far the best seems lunch with Mercedes on Saturday.
But the best after some thought is that I am going to what was Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium Christendom, to visit Agia Sophia. And at the same time see feel the streets Hafiz and Rumi walked on, perhaps to find an old book of his poems.

Only to discover that Ataturk banned Sufis. They are now tolerated but are not a force within the confusion of this non-secular nation of Islam.

And so we arrived in a cold and wet Istanbul. I exercised a bit then slept and then we made our way to Istanbul Park, the Grand Prix circuit on the Asian side. The first Formula 1 car that started up and shook out of the garage got me feeling like a little boy with a new bicycle. Pure unbridled joy! I took lots of pictures, mainly panned shots and had a lot of fun. It was cold in the stands.

That night I wrote in my journal:  Wow, I can see why Alexander the Great was enamoured by the Persians. They are a gentle, beautiful, quiet nation,  full of life and joy and passion. Let me try explaining the appreciation:
Turkey works. They have an economy that is still growing at 6 % per annum. The city of Istanbul has a real European capital infrastructure. There are huge suspension bridges over the Bosporus Straits, highways and intersections with automatic toll registration. They have their own airline fleet. Friendly airline staff, even friendly ground staff. An ethos on looking after tourists. Sure, the Turks like to bargain in a shop, or worse in the Grand Bazaar. And there are beggars. And they are Muslim. But the founder of modern day Turkey, in the beginning of the 20th century, outlawed the burka  and adopted the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic script. The hotel we stayed in was clean, did not smell of smoke and the staff were quiet and unobtrusive as they went about their work. I was walking up one flight of steps from Dom’s room on  the last morning , at about 8am, carrying a small suitcase and one of the cleaners insisted that he carry the bag for me. Genuinely. And was disappointed when I would not let him.

But there is a negative dichotomy. The Turks do not have freedom of speech. There are over 300 journalists and outspoken professionals in detention. Prison really. They have internal strife with the Kurds. They have odd bedfellows in Libya and the USA. They are very chauvinistic.

And they have invaded the northern half of Cyprus. That hurts. The fact that they conquered Constantinople shows their military and organizational superiority. And I wonder at the military and organizational inferiority of my home nation, the Greeks. Still resting on their laurels proclaiming them as the fathers of democracy. Pity they have not realised that has no value in the financial bale out package offered by the European Union.

The Roman empire ruled over the Greeks for a few centuries and the Greeks have got over it. The Macedonians ruled over large tracts of the near and Middle East and they seem to have got over it. The Crusades stole the Lions from Agia Sophia’s towers and left them in St Mark’s Square in Venice. The Ottomans seem to have got over it.

The epitome of a name change, for those of us familiar with South African modern history. Istanbul became the new name for Constantinople when the Ottomans conquered Byzantine in the 1400’s.  Greeks still refer to it as “Konstatinopouli”, somewhat romantically and also bitterly, the way hard liners would refer to Verwoerdburg instead of attending a cricket test at Centurion.

So yes, Turkey is complicated. Even for a South Africa Greek with Cypriot family.

Agia Sofia