NONFICTION: ISSUE #7

Throwing Stones at Apple Trees

by John Messick

 

Necha samar sochmoq esa shoh ishi,
 Ko’proq otar tosh anga tergan kishi.
The more apples a tree has grown,
 The more stones at the tree are thrown.
—Ali-Shir Nava’i

 

"Landhaus" (photograph), V.A. Smith, Mud Season Review

“Landhaus” (photograph) by V.A. Smith

Along the limestone southern coast of Turkey in the port city of Mersin, tucked amid Roman ruins, fields of iambic columns, and newly built high-rises, I spent three days in a back-alley whorehouse. The sign in front of the building was small, barely visible. “Otel,” it read. Old men sat sipping tea in the lobby, too broke to afford the girls who lurked in the dark streets outside; the women with sagging breasts and creases around their eyes came in drunk, drugged, pawed by laughing businessmen.

The faded wallpaper had peeled in places, been gouged around the doors by knives and bottles. The calendar on the wall was five years old, the chairs and lone couch were covered in sheets of browned plastic. In the mornings, the old men who at night sat in envy could be found in their seats, wearing sweatpants, still sipping tea. They offered me glasses with cubes of sugar in the same polite way they had offered a “luxury suite” on my arrival, before I knew this was a brothel and assumed it was just another business hotel of the Turkish interior. In the quiet inland cities, the dervish pilgrimage town of Konya or the village of Iznik (once called Nicaea), the hotels and guesthouses had been austere and mostly clean, used by men who prayed with their fingers on bracelets of amber beads.

In those places, nobody had bothered me. The desk attendants hadn’t even blinked at an American who sputtered Turkish phrases from a notebook. I had liked this anonymity, had appreciated the local’s indifference—feigned or real—and in nearly a month of travel, I had come to believe that driftlessness was the best way to forget my broken relationship back home.

I usually accepted the offer of tea, added a greasy sugar cube, and pretended to understand the old men’s questions. One spoke to me in German. He served as spokesman for the rest, who smiled, nodded, crossed and uncrossed their legs when I responded in Spanish. The lobby lapsed into silence while I sipped my tea from the tulip-shaped glass that invited a delicate touch, my fingers burned red from the steaming liquid.

I had taken the luxury suite, because it was the same price as a regular room and had an international TV channel. I imagined a large bed with an air conditioner but found three twin mattresses arranged under a clattering fan, clinging to the ceiling by wires. I thought the international station would be a news channel, but when I lay down on one of the beds, unpacked, and turned the dial on the television, hardcore pornography appeared. I assumed the room would be my own, but on returning to the hotel the second night I found a Turkish salesman seated on the bed next to mine, watching an Asian woman masturbate on the TV.

I wondered whether the sad, smiling tea drinkers watched the sex channel in their rooms, too, despite the prayer ropes a few kept draped around their wrists.

When I finished my glass, I always thanked them, saying, “teşekkür ederim,” and the tea drinkers would smile, nod, and return my rosebud glass to the tarnished copper tray in the corner. I would hand my key to the concierge and exit into the streets, where I wandered for hours each day, searching for a café or kebab shop with the perfect ambiance—a place to sip coffee, nibble baklava and write in my journal.

Mostly, when I was in the hotel, I talked to the concierge. He was young and griped miserably to me about his job—the daily monotony of dealing with drunken prostitutes, serving the tea drinkers in the lobby. He endured their sparse banter while the old men sat waiting for something to happen, casting back over lives that had come down to a flophouse-whorehouse chair.

We relied on sign language to communicate—except once, when a drunken man fell down in the hallway and dragged a grubby woman with him. She cursed, kicked at his belly, and the tea drinkers laughed and smiled and nodded as the man grabbed her leg and tried to pull himself to his feet. The concierge attempted to calm the couple with cigarettes. The woman dropped hers and watched with blurred eyes while the cinder burned into the flesh of the plastic-covered couch.

After they had stumbled up the stairs, when the moans echoed into the hallways and onto bathroom tiles black with mold, the concierge reached across the desk for my pocket dictionary. He thumbed through for a moment, and sighed.

“This,” he said, “is my job.” He lit a cigarette and passed the pack around the room. The tea drinkers nodded, smiled, crossed and uncrossed their legs, and looked again to the concierge for a booklet of matches. Soon, the lobby was a dense haze of smoke.

——

One night in Mersin I met two brothers outside a cinema. I’d just watched a newly released British film, and they’d been the only other people in the theatre. When I asked whether they liked the film, they kissed their fingers and cried, “Beautiful! Magnifique!”

The streets, bathed orange in a Mediterranean sunset, were deserted, saturated with the sounds of muezzin calling the city to prayer. I listened to the hollow, hallowed chants until one of the brothers touched my arm and invited me to a café, where we smoked nargile tobacco from decorated pipes and drank tea for many hours.

They were Kurdish. And in Mersin, to be Kurdish was to be a foreigner in your homeland. The PKK, or Kurdish People’s Army, two weeks earlier had detonated a bomb at a nearby naval base. These terrorists—or rebels, or revolutionaries, or freedom fighters—were demanding a nation for the Kurds, one that included regions of Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, and Syria.

The brothers lamented their lot—they could not attend university, and so during the day sold rings of sesame bread—simit—on the street corners.

“For Kurdish, no education,” said Sadik Aktas, the older brother. “For Turkish, there is education. But…I am Kurdish.”

The brothers seemed desperate for knowledge. They smashed their fists on the stained plastic table when, despite our best efforts, we could not break the barriers of language.

“No English!” the eldest said. His frustration mirrored my own.

“No Turkish!” I replied.

They had opinions—on politics, on literature, on the nuance of words. The brothers could not bear the idea of a life spent selling rings of bread and packets of tissue on a Mersin street corner, could not bear the tedium of wasted potential. Their resentment did not need words to be understood.

——

“There are two sides to every coin,” a Turkish Cypriot in Gazimağusa tells me several days later, and I am reminded of these boys. According to the Turk, the Kurdish uprising is the fault of Western influence and capitalism. For him, the Kurds are just whining, their inequality imaginary. For him, the real problem is the Greeks.

“For thousands of years, the Kurds like everyone. Look. Salahadin, hero of Islam, was Kurdish! Then Israel comes, and America comes, and now they want to fight. So where do they get their weapons? I think it is from America. Did Kurds suddenly decide they have been cheated after one thousand years? I do not think so. Israel and America do not want peace here.”

“What about the schools?” I say.

He remains adamant. “Fifty percent of the university in Cyprus is Kurdish! They have rights! They do not even pay at the hospitals.”

It is nighttime along the beach, and we drink thick glasses of raki, anise liquor turned milky from an ice cube. Smoke pours off a grill where lamb kebabs roast and thick squares of halloumi cheese fry and sizzle. Bowls of olives rest on a plywood bench; their pits litter the sandy floorboards of the tin-roofed beach hut. The summer air of Northern Cyprus is dry and salty and still warm. A bare light bulb and the moon serve as the only light for our small party. The boats we had used to dive along the reef earlier in the day rock now on their moorings under the watery light. And in the Cypriot sand, out along the lapping waves, when the discordant notes of a saz player on the radio fall silent, I can hear the clattering and fluttering of crabs.

“But the Kurds, they are not so bad,” the Turk continues. “But the Greeks, in Greek Cyprus, I feel only hate.”

“But Cyprus is in the EU,” I say.

“That is a—what is the word? Hypocrite. They say Cyprus must have no border, but there is a border, and there will be no peace. Thirty-two of my family were killed in the war. The Orthodox say, ‘What about our land?’ but I say, ‘What about my life?’” He pauses. “I am Muslim, but to have no religion is better than massacre.”

Behind our party, back in the dunes, piles of rubble and barbed wire lie covered in brush. Concrete bunkers, pock-marked with bullet holes, stretch farther down the shore, and everywhere in Northern Cyprus there are soldiers. Civil war, though not active, continues. The unification of the island, while debated, seems a farce. Northern Cyprus uses the Turkish Lira; Greek Cyprus, the Euro. In Gazimağusa, there are small handfuls of tourists. On the Greek side of the island, there are crowds.

Tanks line the walled and wired border, pointed toward the European Union side of the country.

“The Kurds are also Muslim,” I say to the Turk. “Is that a religious fight too?”

“In Cyprus, the Turkish peoples have come from the area of Turkey near Karaman,” he says. “We are Alevi. We believe in strong education and kindness. Maybe this is why the Kurds do not have education—they do not care to learn.” Hours later, my belly full and my head swimming, I walk down to the beach. The night is clear. I listen to the breaking waves, trace the moonlight across the water, watch the red blinking lights of a cargo ship in the distance headed for Syria, Israel, or Lebanon, and see the steeple of St. Mark’s Cathedral bathed in florescent light. The French Crusaders’ church was turned into a mosque by the Ottomans. A young partygoer whose name I don’t know joins me on the beach. He too watches the light playing on the waves.

“Nothing is as good like silence,” he says.

——

The brothers Sadik and Mücahit from the cinema were Sufists. When they learned I had been to the Mevlana Museum and a dervish ceremony in Konya, they began, first in Arabic, then in Turkish, Kurdish, and once in English, to quote the teachings of Jalluladin Rumi.

“Either exist as you are, or be as you look,” they said to me. The same words had been written at the Rumi museum in Konya. They were among the only words at the site written in English.

The brothers were readers, and when we found authors we mutually admired they would pronounce, kissing their fingers, “Dostoyevsky! Beautiful! Magnifique!”

We wrote words on a scrap of notebook and used sign language to translate until we had a shared vocabulary with which to discuss literature and politics.

“Steinbeck…beautiful!” they proclaimed. I would write a title in English for them to translate. They would write a title in Kurdish for me to decode. The brothers had a prodigious library: Whitman and Rushdie and Pablo Neruda, and they wrote down for me the names of storytellers and poets they loved—Yashar Kemal and Mehmed Uzun, Nazim Hikmet and Ali-Shir Nava’i, the Uzbek poet.

It was late when I left the brothers and returned to the sleazy hotel and the international channel. I didn’t see where Sadik and Mücahit lived, only that they departed toward outskirts of the city, far from the brightly lit businesses and techno-lounges near my hotel, far from the cool breezes of the waterfront. I had walked through those neighborhoods in the daylight, seen the garbage and rubble piled high, counted hundreds of emaciated stray cats lurking along the alley walls, noticed apartments with broken windows, and watched old men and women pushing enormous wheelbarrows piled with kindling through the dusty streets.

——

The concierge in the Mersin brothel was also Kurdish, and one day, after another failed attempt at conversation, he remembered that he had a friend who spoke English. The friend, however, did not live in Mersin, and because I didn’t understand what the concierge wanted me to do, I became paranoid when he handed me the phone. Was I being set up in some sort of strange government plot? I found myself standing at the hotel desk for all the tea drinkers to hear me, talking to the friend of the concierge.

The man lived in a war zone. His name was Nejdet Dogan.

“It is two hours later here,” he said to me after we had introduced ourselves.

“You aren’t in Turkey?” I asked.

“No, no, I am not Turkish, I am Kyrgyz.”

This confused me, because it sounded as if he were saying “Kurdish,” but I knew he was not.

He continued, “My country is Kyrgyzstan. You know about our civil war?”

“Yes, I know about it,” I told him. But I was thinking: where the hell is Kyrgyzstan?

“It is very bad here,” he said, “I am very worried about my family. It is not safe in my city.” The phone crackled, and I heard loud, explosive noises in the background. Gunfire, I wondered? A pipe bomb?

“Where did you learn English?” I asked.

“I studied at university in Persia.” The phone crackled again, staccato bursts that could be a bad connection, or something else.

Later, when I looked at Al Jazeera and BBC news releases, I learned that Kyrgyzstan was Central Asia’s center for black market sales of illegally exported Chinese goods, and its capital, Bishkek, remained trapped in an arrested Soviet mentality. I learned that Afghani drug lords and a weak government battled for power, and that Uzbek and Kyrgyz civilians were massacring each other in the city of Osh.

Civil war?

The BBC used words like “ethnic clashes” and “civil unrest” to describe homes looted and burned, armored vehicles that spat bullets into the streets, masses of people camped along the borders, trying to escape. This from the only article to mention Kyrgyzstan at all. The handful of eyewitness accounts posted to the BBC website were buried in archives, unread.

Civil war?

The hundreds of dead and decapitated described by eyewitnesses didn’t, for some reason, warrant using the term civil war in international news media. The fear in the voice of Nejdet Dogan would in the end become the voice of one more displaced  citizen. With 100,000 people fleeing their homes, his voice would not be heard.

“Were you in Tehran?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “You are American?”

“I am.”

“That is very good. I want to go to America, but I have no money.”

“What is your job?”

“I am teacher. But now I have no job, because the school…” He paused, a long silence. “Because the school is not there anymore.”

“Oh.”

In the lobby, the tea drinkers smiled and nodded on the plastic couch.

In Kyrgyzstan, the static snapping and violent background noises continued. I felt crushed by pleasantries; my motivations for wandering trivialized by the sudden awareness of my ignorance.

“I want to talk with you more, my friend,” Nejdet said.

“And I want to talk more with you,” I told him.

“It is very hard here, my friend. My wife, now she is pregnant. But I have no job, and every day maybe the war will come to my doorway.”

“I understand,” I told him, but of course I didn’t. “But what can you do?” I asked.

“I pray. And I hope one day to leave my country. It is not a good country,” he said.

The crackling on the telephone grew louder. I heard shouts in the distance.

“Can we talk tomorrow? At a better time?” I said.

“Yes, Yes!” He told me. “Tomorrow is very good for me. We will talk tomorrow, God willing. Let us say four o’clock?”

“I will call you,” I said.

Insh’Allah, my friend,” Nejdet said.

Shukram, and you as well,” and I hung up.

I thanked the desk clerk. The tea drinkers smiled, nodded, crossed and uncrossed their legs. One of the men picked up a tea tray and offered me a tulip glass.

I refused. I walked up the stairs, bowed my head as I passed a descending prostitute, and entered my room. I turned off the distorted cries of porn stars spewing from the failing sound system and screen, packed my bags, and didn’t once look back at the hotel.

I left the city, went directly to the ferry port, and, impulsively, bought a ticket for Cyprus.

Inside the ferry’s cabin, a soldier in camo green smiled and offered me a cup of tea. I declined and found a seat near the television. A Turkish news agency flashed a story on the “increasing violence in Kyrgyzstan.” The brief image showed a statue of the Uzbek poet, Ali-Shir Nava’i, in a town square in the city of Osh, face smashed by a hammer, a noose draped around his neck.

On the ferry, I couldn’t sleep. Thinking about that phone call, listening to the engine’s slow drone, feeling the lap of waves, I knew this escape to Cyprus could not sort out my confusion, just as I knew that tomorrow Nejdet Dogan would not answer when I called.

*Image: “Landaus” by V.A. Smith

John Messick

John Messick is a graduate of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks MFA program, and a 2013 recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Project award. His work has appeared in Tampa Review, Cirque, Rock & Sling, and others. He currently lives in Homer, Alaska, where he works as a sled dog handler and freelance journalist.

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