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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Into Asia: Turkey (Part One)

Into Asia

Curled in our bunks, movement became a sensation of noise and light, as the regular double-clunk of the wheels on the tracks was echoed by streaks of light brushing the thin curtains and we were rocked from side to side, gently as by a mother's hand. Only when the train slowed did we feel anything more severely physical, the tug of deceleration rolling us slightly to one side and then, as we stopped at some unknown station, a pull back into the sleeping position.

Of the stations at which we must have stopped en route, I can only remember the names of three or four, a strange alienation for one used to marking progress by aligning the names of towns and cities with the map. Only at one station, where we were hauled into the cold midnight of a deserted station to obtain our entry visas, was any such index allowed. The remainder were anonymous, at least to me. But to the people who joined or left our onward pull through Bulgaria, they were known as points of departure or arrival, where relatives, friends, (secret lovers), were separated or met; not unknown either to those living in track-side houses, their lives regularised by the timetabled batter on the tracks who now asleep, as the train rushed past, must have turned and muttered slightly, "There goes the night train to Istanbul, there goes the night train to Istanbul". Perhaps some insomniac sitting at one of the still lighted windows will have been awake, heard us coming and twitched the curtains to look, to satisfy himself of this clock of the night which passes regularly as a twenty-four hour chime, before he too could plunge into bed.

This is the romance of the midnight express; by voyaging on it we become, for an instant, a part of the landscape and its inhabitants we pass, famous and envied for a moment as the riders of the night. Not for us the anonymous, invisible, timeless cocoons of the aeroplane, detached from time and earth, no where, no one; not for us, for we are important, we travellers on the night train to Istanbul.

We slept through dawn, through Edirne and the northern countryside of Turkey, and woke at eight in its blue-bordered heart, drawing the curtains to view the Sea of Marmara, criss-crossed by the low pencil tankers which had spent the night stalled stationary outside the harbour, to be let through early in the morning to draw white lines across its surface and, like us, into its core. They, however, were the only things moving. On the sea road, no cars and on the pavements, no people; no trams, no metros; only one train, and the tankers. It is only when we passed a lone policeman, yawning against the side of his silently-flashing car, that I remembered that a stealthy apocalypse of security has netted this town, and locked people in their homes, and cars in their garages, because George Bush, US president, promoting himself as the new mate of Muslims, was here for a NATO conference.

His unwitting impact (a minor one on the global scale of Bush's other unwitting impacts), exercised through a thousand dark-suited obedient agents, was impressive, for when we stepped off the train, for the first time at any station in Eastern Europe, they had even managed to curtail the movements of those quick free-spirits of the city, the taxi drivers. No shouts of the word which, like other global lingo such as Big Mac or police, embodies dread and need greeted us, no rapid "Taxi. Taxi-taxi-rapid-cheap-hotel-rapid-quick-cheap" stattaco. In fact, we had to walk for fifteen minutes, up a steep hill, following the vague directions of a frustrated, bored policeman, before we encountered a cab to take us to the bus station.

Once packed in alongside a Swedish businessman and his two suitcases, normality resumed, and we drove fast and furious through the lighter than usual traffic, my eyes switching between the road in front and that behind, looking for a bouncing rucksack or two escaping from the lashed down boot. Somehow, despite the speed, taxi-taxi-rapid-cheap managed to take half an hour to cover the 10 km to Esenler bus station. Only quantum mechanics and taxi drivers can bend the laws of temporal physics in this way, although only the former can wrench and bend the law in as greasy-smiling a way as our taxi driver did. Somehow, without self-conscious irony, he had pointed at his chest saying "Honest, honest" at the same time as he extracted double the fare from our pockets and from our Swedish companion. Tired and suffering from the shock of entering a new country, by the time we had realised what had happened he was gone.

Wanting to curse each other, and therefore avoid admitting that we had been each equally fleeced, we concentrated on finding the nearest Bursa-bound bus company. As we were stood waiting, a middle-aged man came over and shook my hand, proudly introducing his four young children and his teenage son whom, he announced like a mild-mannered boxing promoter, could speak English and played basketball in the N.B.A.. The second comment was an innocent slip in translation, the first point, dubious, but regardless of his lack of fluency and, more tellingly my near complete lack of Turkish, we lapsed quickly into a universal language.

"Where do you live?", he asked.
"Manchester", I replied, this being the closest city to home, although sixty miles north.
"Ah!" - an instant flash of recognition - "Manchester United, yes?". He jabbed at his chest, "Besiktas! Besiktas!"
"Fenerbache" - I replied, trying to shake my head with an appropriate look of disgust, knowing Fenerbache to be their arch-rivals.
"Galatasary!" - He shook his head with a greater look of disgust, Galatasary, like Manchester United, being the team Turks either love or hate, and love to hate.
"Hakan Suker!" - I searched my memory of Turkish footballers.
"Gary Lineker!" - stretching his knowledge of English.
"Muzzy Izzet!"
"Who he?"

As our inspirations ran dry, the bus pulled out and I left my new friend waving furiously on the platform. This, then, was our introduction to two forms of Turkish hospitality: the one selfish, deceptive, mocked up in tones of helpfulness, for whom foreigners mean naivete and easy cash; the other genuine, bashful, interested in foreigners for the simple fact of our being foreign and having clearly just entered this new and thrilling country.

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Green Bursa

We had barely marked the surface on our first day in Turkey, as we skimmed through, bypassing Istanbul and crossing the plains and water of the Marmara region in a windowed whirl of speedlines. Only by tracing a line on our tourist map – its bright, primary colours and cartoonish architectural icons over-simplifying the unique complexities of each terrain and region – with a finger did we get a physical feeling of having passed into a new continent. In fact, though, it was chronologically appropriate that we should first firmly touch Turkish soil in Bursa, for this, not Istanbul, was the first capital of the Ottoman empire, established as such in 1335. It is today a sprawling industrial area, covering the plains which lie beneath the mountains of Uludag with spikes of chimneys, tower blocks and minarets. It is only when one reaches the centre, the historical core, that one begins to see why this is known to locals as Green Bursa.

Photograph of an intricately carved window
Window of the Green Mosque
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The centrepiece of the town is the Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque), built in 1399. Its courtyard creates a space of slow meetings and movements, as the soft light-red brick, and the trickles of water from the foot-baths around the sides of the square, and the two minarets standing like gateposts in the sky, set up a net of silence which seems to catch those spilling out from the hustle of the bazaar to the north, or from the main street to the south. It is the preparations for entering a mosque, the removal of shoes, the rolling down of trousers and the donning of shirts, so simply significant, which makes the building something to become involved with, an experience of faith and action as much as architecture. By these small acts, not in the least embarrassing but more like a handshake at the door, we two too, agnostics from the Christian West, were able to partake in some of the mystery of Islam. It seems obvious, something to be taken for granted, that entering a religious building ought to be a spiritual – even if in a religious rather than Religious dimension of feeling – experience. However, it seems often that we – historians in an age of popular irreligion, increasingly alienated from the practice of the faith which, more than any other movement, fashioned and sculpted British and European history – admire stones for their stony bulk, windows for the colour, gold for its glitter without ever being moved by what they signify. Entering this mosque was, however, something rare, even in comparison with the inspirational creativity of the Christian architects: a religious experience.

Inside, a minimal design created maximum space, a huge chamber broken evenly by twelve pillars supporting its twenty domes; in the centre, reflecting the love of water held by the horticulturally-minded citizens of the city, a fountain. This, the constant and current music of water, was the only noise, the echoes of speech and footfall being deadened by thick carpet. It was as if the air itself had taken off its shoes at the door, and we were breathing an atmosphere centuries old but not stale, filled with the vital and daily thoughts and prayers and vocabularies of generations of believers. I imagined this was what it would be like to be partially deaf, in which thought becomes the only audible speech and in which the imagination whispers louder to itself than in the chatter of the crowd. In sight, too, there was a new clarity, one in which corners became dim, white shadows, with the only visible area around one’s person, and the circle of light cast by the light falling vertically through the central glass dome, and reflecting back off the water of the fountain.

Photograph of a narrow and winding side street
Street winding up to Yesil Cami (Green Mosque)
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Leaving the mosque, we walked through the ancient walled Hisar, a citadel within which the town was originally contained and from which it has radiated outwards in modern shoots of concrete. Following the line of the ruin, we clambered down narrow streets lined with battered carpets hanging to dry in the sun and entered the Muradiye district. Suddenly, unconsciously following two men pushing a cart, we breached through a wall of smells, colours, shapes, textures, shadow, shine and surface cluttering a narrow street. At this weekly street market, tomatoes grew in pyramids alongside cabbages, bananas, dimpled lemons and oranges, apples as large as a man’s fist; to prove the quality of the food, watermelons were split open to reveal their fresh pink flesh and even eggs were cracked, spilling saliva over the neatly stacked, flesh-toned ovals beneath. Young girls in saris hung on the arms of their mothers, uniquely powerful in this environment where money speaks louder than gender, able to reduce men to passivity by aggressively hammering a bargain to its hardest minimum.

It still being early in the morning, stalls were still being set up, and the full press of people driving for their weekly shopping had not yet begun. Even so, at the top end of the street, we entered the gardens in which rest the tombs of Sultan Murat II (1426), Cem and Sehzade Mustafa, to a relieving hush, as if the slim bars of the iron gates shut out the calls as well as the movement from the market in the street below. Shadows of leaves fell like blankets onto the close-cut turf. At the front of the complex, sitting on a stool, an ancient gardener sipped tea, with his secateurs giving an occasional, idle pinch to the rose bush beside him. A large bunch of iron keys on a ring dangled from his belt. I imagine he had been here for centuries, there to open the gates five hundred as the first Ottoman sultan entered in his box, the gaoler of the dead, locked forever in this timeless garden, pruning, pruning, pruning and waiting for his next inmate. Like one of the Japanese soldiers still on guard on a remote island after the war, someone had forgotten to tell him that the Empire had since crumbled and so he was here still, keeping the slabs clear of weeds long after the last coffin had been laid, dutifully outliving lines of kings who would never be crowned.

As we wandered round, he came up with his keys and one by one unlocked each tomb, trying, in broken English, to convey some of the history of the place. Sadly, his most interpretable speech was when he pointed at the areas of the walls where the intricate and priceless Iznik tiles, normally faded from their original bright blue over hundreds of years, were replaced by newer, brighter imitations. Thieves had reached their fingers even to the walls of this sacred place, but I couldn't help feeling that, with the flash of my camera, I was stealing something too, shaving the intensity from the paint.

The next day, we descended into the covered bazaar, descend being the right verb for it was a netherworld, a twilight land where time was locked in a cycle of buy and sell and, imitating the cycle of shouts and trade, the roads twisted into a spiralling maze of apparently endless shops selling identical goods which, quite suddenly, would switch to a different row. Lines of shoes hung on string suddenly morph into fruit which become dangling pans, become ironware, become jewellery, shirts, cigarettes, silver. And these lines of texture and colour all lead to one hub: Koza Hani, the silk hall. If Bursa was the home seat of an Empire, it became so partly because it was the final stop on a road from it Oriental other in China, as across 4000 miles of desert, trains of camels laboured to reach this single square building, on two levels with collonades above and below and a small mosque in the centre. Here, in every late June for more years and with infinite exchanges and handshakes and cries, the silk cocoons are traded, later to hatch into hawk-eye winged moths who, now in July, fluttered around the upper storeys, battering their hand-wings with a quiet "Hello, hello". Touch their drapes of silk, and you too will be wound into their new and permanent shop-cocoons, dizzyed by their displays of colour, wealth and "genuine articles". In their unique and delicate way, they picked our pockets twice and we emerged, slightly unsure of how it had happened, with two beautiful scarves.

We walked through taking photographs, endless photographs, because there were never enough ways to look, and we needed that single, lucky shot to capture the essence of an atmosphere utterly alien to us, although as benign as a supermarket to those who shop here weekly. I paused in front of a photogenic force, sparks flying from sharpening wheels and furnaces, hoping to catch the workers in their intense concentration. Then, as the shutter clicked, with the deceptively quick eyes and ears of a busily eating animal, an older blacksmith turned, looked straight at me, and lumbered out.

I dropped the camera back in the bag, poised between embarrassment and fear as he opened his giant arms, his threatening bear-hug arms, and his yellowing mouth, about to issue forth a vitriolic condemnation of my rudeness in a strange language. He frowned, and bellowed, "Bradford!", in a simultaneously authoritative and incredulous voice, like Mr. Bumble dismissing Oliver Twist’s request for more in the seminal David Lean film. "Bradford? You know Bradford?"

In a kind of movie-mode now, trying to think of a snappy one liner to cool the situation, that line from Casablanca slipped through my head: of all the forges in all the bazaars in all the world, we had to photograph this one, in which the owner speaks English. English, it turned out, learned during an extended sabbatical with a friend in Bradford. He beamed with delight when we replied – with a level of enthusiasm exaggerated from our more objective assessment of one of Britain’s less attractive industrial cities – that we knew it very well. Immediately, stools were produced, orders barked at his young apprentice, who looked unsure whether to be cross at this distraction from his work, or bemused by the incongruity of a pair of young English people paying a visit to a forge in Bursa, and tea delivered into our hands. We sat and watched as the pair finished working on a set of drill bits, hammering and twisting the translucent gold metal with a machine like co-ordination and then, once the last bit had steamed into the bucket of water, we were ushered in and fresh rounds of tea were ordered.

Now began our conversation in the flickering, disjointed range of topics that is the natural mechanism of strangers seeking a common line in a foreign language. Ibrahim (he’s not Jewish, he joked, awkwardly) remembered with nostalgia sitting in a Bradford pub drinking Guinness and watching pretty ladies get chatted up and one by one leave with strange men to strange beds in strange rooms.

"It's wrong. You go, you talk for two minutes. You get into bed. Are you married?" he comments and asks, pointedly, at the same time.

Conscious that we don’t want to offend, we say no, and then tell the white lie that we are merely friends.

"Girlfriend-boyfriend?"

We can’t lie now, and both nod.

"Is OK, you know."

He studied economics at university and he asked about the state of England and we cannot do other than say that it is booming. I asked his opinion about Turkey’s proposed entry into the E.U., arguably the next decade’s most searching ethnic and ethical challenge for the Union, with the significant rise of extreme right-wing political groups across France, Germany, Austria and Britain. Visualising what the headlines of The Daily Mail would look like were a Muslim country to attempt to join, and how those headlines, which reflect a wider public attitude, would shame me, I was relieved, therefore, when Ibrahim took a defiant and independent line. Asserting Turkey’s vast and diverse natural resources – minerals, agriculture and oil – and its unique strategic geographical position which should give it a bargaining platform to encourage the West to provide financial support and investment, Ibrahim suggested that Turkey could stand on its own two feet, independent of a wider hegemony. Indeed, for Turkey to join would risk the exploitation of natural resources will be exploited with little to gain except for a new capital and moral liberalism – which would pose a threat even in a country of popular religion, religion tending to be a natural conservative and preserve of tradition. The primary objection of almost all contemporary E.U. countries to further involvement is that it risks subsuming the symbols and attitudes of national culture and heritage into a wider whole. But even though Turkey’s religious majority would be unique in the E.U., and its culture would therefore need to be treated with greater delicacy and protection than others to prevent accusations of racism, still, as Ibrahim sees it, it is the cultural threat, not the economic barriers, which block expansion.

Most significantly, he suggested, the European Union would encourage a new streak of individualism, traditionally alien to the Turks with their emphasis on hospitality, a generosity which Ibrahim has demonstrated toward us. For this gentleman, this huge-handed Joe Gargary who invited us for tea expecting nothing in return save for company and humour, the capitalist ideology of possession (a surplus of possessions) as being the index to happiness and satisfaction would be a remarkably alien one. When he visited Bradford, and sat in the English pub – that uniquely British location for warm friendship – he saw fathers from the same extended families go to the bar and buy drinks for themselves, or if buying a round, a collective scrabble in pockets by the recipients to pay back the purchaser. For the Turks, in the context of friends and family, as Ibrahim put it, "What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is yours". If Turkey does become a member of the European Union, it must learn to act in an unnatural way, to unevolve its unselfish gene, for it will find the Western community a neighbourhood where pockets are tightly guarded with one hand, whilst the other is prepared to reach out and dip into that of a stranger. Turkey could be horribly, and detrimentally, exploited.

After an hour, we left Ibrahim with his address and an open promise of a bed, meal and the chance to meet his wife and children should we return to Bursa. Humbled and privileged by his act of kindness, not random but entirely natural, we hoped mutually, without any hint of cliché, one day to meet again.

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Cappadocia

If Turkey is skinned by the sea, and has its buzzing mind at the head of the country in Istanbul, then Cappadocia is its soft belly. The region is defined by a triangle of volcanoes – Konya, Erciyes and Hasan – which stand and glare at each other. They are old and extinct now, snow capping their heat and anger like grey hair on a once-powerful king, but over the millenia they have poured their wealth onto the plains inside their watch, leaving a fertile ash into which, as the local saying goes, one could throw a stick and it would grow.

Indeed, driving through the area, the environment looks arid, a cement-coloured palette, strewn with boulders like a giant building site, unfinished and wasted. Suddenly, though, one passes a field of gold wheat, then vines and olive trees, followed by fields of green cabbage-like leaves, out of which would soon be plucked watermelons larger than footballs, soft, wet and swollen. A sexual, fertile land this, only grey in parts because there are not enough people to farm all the ground that could be planted, watered and blended to colour.

Photograph of a tall eroded rock face
Rock cathedrals
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As the backdrop to these small growths, huge mounds of volcanic tuff spring from the soil, giant mushrooms of hardened volcanic ash capped with black basalt; occasionally, gorges rip across the plains, their sides formed strange pigeon breasts of wind-eroded rock, or sharp and jagged crumbles where rock falls and rain had worked. Where the ash had not fallen to make a silty silk surface, then, it had instead piled up to create lumps of raw, soft stone dough, which winds have stroked over the millenia to form alien shapes. It is difficult to appreciate much modern art (an exploded shed, an unmade bed) without first working out how it was made, for it is partially in the making that the message, the emotion lies; so in this landscape, someone new to the environment could not be comfortable in defining the place as beautiful. One was conscious that it was too alive still, moving, windswept, cracking in the sun. There was a secret here, a history of turbulent explosions and erosions, one which had to be known and imagined; on every excursion into the landscape, it was only by taking also a walk back through the geological eras, the minute and massive moments which have cumulated to build it, that one could finally appreciate it as magnificent.

Yet walking through the hills, one is aware that in human terms the landscape is more still than it was in the past. Pressed like black thumbprints into the sides of the mounds and valleys are caves formed centuries ago by the settlers who scraped away with their fingers to make a home in this, Turkey’s soft and accommodating core. Wandering through the landscape was like exploring some vast archaeological dig. Five hundred years ago, Christians settled here, and found natural citadels and sanctuaries in the rocks of Cappadocia. Three thousand churches were scattered around, each carved roughly from the rock with shapes distorted but recognisable symbols of religious worship: an altar and pews, recesses in the walls for candles or relics and, often only revealed when one stood in it, graves. In some caves, the rudimentary frescoes daubed using saffron or ochre still remained, their representations of faces or crosses distorted and peeling but still colourful, remarkably preserved from light. In a few locations, the equivalents of cathedrals, the frescoes were more advanced, a Technicolor of dyes and brushes rather than fingers have done the work of artists. And as we walked and scrambled over the rocks, who could be sure that under our feet were not labyrinthine underground cities, the refuges of the local tribes in times of war. The largest city, at Derinkuyu, could hold 20 000 people, and it was still in use during World War. They lived half-dead, existing without natural light, but in complete safety and isolation from the extended bombardments and sieges above ground. The only entrances having been blocked off by enormous stone rollers, they could survive for months at a time, with stables for cattle, wine presses, underground wells, kitchens, schoolrooms and dormitories.

It is apt, then, that it was towards nightfall that this eerie landscape – with its hazy sense of human history lived in dark isolation – seemed at its most beautiful. Hiring horses, we moved in a wide circle around Goreme. The sun’s heat had begun to fade, and a gentle breeze span up eddies of dust from the silty floor. As the shadows lengthened, the alien rocks became more defined, each crack and cave illuminated by their added contrast with the grainy sweeps of white rock.

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As we descended into Rose Valley, the gentle pigeon-breasted folds were foregrounded against the sheer face of the gorge, a wide artery of peach-pale blood, splitting it half way up. In the bottom of the valley, we trotted past gently waving fields of wheat, at the edge of which, gently waving, smiling children got distracted by our horses, and detached themselves from the hunched adult forms following in the spinning grain-wake of a battered tractor, hauling the last loads of wheat before the sun gave to night.

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This page was published on September 20, 2005 | Keywords: Bursa, Istanbul, Turkey, travel journal

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