November 26, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Suleman Din

Before we left for our honeymoon a few months ago, I promised my wife that I would avoid all types of media-newspapers, television and the Internet.

We wanted our journey through Turkey to be an escape from the daily, depressing stories that we had seen as reporters. Both of us had suffered silently since 9/11 with the onslaught of reports on violence, economic woes and war.

Bad news has an awful ability of reaching you, though, even when you don't want it to.

On our first night in Istanbul, my wife and I walked into a lively restaurant scene near the city's famous Grand Bazaar.

It was a festival-like atmosphere, with lights, banners and flags strung from one old building to the next. We followed a cobblestone road downhill to a flowing court fountain and open-air cafes and restaurants, filled with people laughing, singing, drinking and dancing.

We were accosted from all sides by restaurateurs asking us in Turkish to have dinner in their establishments. They did so because they thought we were local.

One restaurateur picked up on this, after I declined his offer in English. "You're not Turkish?" he asked.

"No, we're from America," I replied. "But you look Turkish!" he insisted. "What is your background?"

"Indian and Pakistani," my wife replied.

"Ah, I see," he said. Then he approached us, to continue the conversation. "You know, what's going in Kashmir is very bad, brother," he said, with a sorrowful face. "Very bad."

I just nodded, a bit annoyed. This is my vacation, I thought. Everyone around me is having a great time, and yet I have to consider the Kashmir conflict.

The rest of our trip was marked by such incidents, as if my descent condemned me to being the authority on the ongoing conflict that seemed destined to ignite South Asia into a nuclear pyre.

"So, what do you think is going to happen out there between India and Pakistan?" asked Diana, a traveling companion of ours from Santa Fe, New Mexico. "Do you think they'll go to war?"

At that moment, we were on a bus, traveling along the Turkish countryside. It rushed by my window in a race between the blue sky, green hills, red poppy and yellow mustard fields, brown rocky cliffs, gray little houses and orange-specked orchards. I had seen similar terrain in my road trips through the subcontinent.

When I was in India, people asked me what Pakistan was like. In Pakistan, people asked me what India was like. There was no difference, in any way at all, I would tell them, except that all the signs were in different languages.

What I was trying to convey to them was my anguish, that in spite of the similarities between the two countries, there was such hate.

Often that anguish would turn bitter. I could taste that salty bitterness again, as it dripped from my mind onto my tongue.

"Ah…I think this will be it," I finally said.

"They are just going to turn all their lands into a smoking, radioactive crater. They've been wanting this so bad for 50 years. I wouldn't be surprised if they nuke each other into oblivion."

Diana looked a bit put off, a bit concerned. She couldn't tell if I was serious, and she turned back to her window. I felt bad about it afterwards. She didn't deserve to get such a cynical response.

But my patience had been exhausted by the nuclear brinkmanship playing out in the subcontinent. I didn't want to hear about it anymore, because I still had friends and family on both sides of the border, and had no way of contacting them.

My wife and I were constantly on the move, trekking in an air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz bus across the width of Turkey. We traveled with a tour group that was mostly made up of elderly Americans and Australians.

They were all successful people who had the money and the time to see the world. Many were continuing on to the Middle East and Europe after they had seen the country.

For us, this would be our only excursion. However, it was a comprehensive journey. We left the modern metropolis of Istanbul to see the dusty, moonlike landscape of Cappadocia, then onwards along the Silk Road to the sacred tomb of Rumi and the whirling dervishes, and finally to the crumbling marble ruins of the ancient Greeks overlooking the azure Mediterranean.

But throughout the tour, South Asia would step forward, as if hiding in the shadows, following us, reminding us of a past and possible future.

In the capital of Ankara, we traveled along a street named after Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, just like there is a road named for Kemal Ataturk in Karachi. The Turks admired Jinnah greatly, I was told.

It soon became obvious what view of South Asian history was being taught in Turkish schools. Sitting inside the awesome interior of the Suleimaniye Mosque in Istanbul, a group of college students began a conversation with me.

"You think there will be war?" said one, placing a Turkish newspaper in front of me with a front-page story about Pakistan testing a new missile, even in the heated situation.

"We like Musharraf. And Jinnah."

"He brought independence for all those Indian Muslims," said the student, without a hint of irony. "And did you know, Musharraf studied in Turkey too?"

Fortunately, not all our experiences were so political. We discovered, in the resplendent Ottoman collections of jewels and gold inside the famed Topkapi Palace, the gifts from Indian rulers, Mughal jewel-encrusted items of exquisite quality.

It was hard not to recognize the Indian gold, thick and bunched, shiny and mustard, just as South Asian women like to have them adorned today.

The decadence of the gifts, meant to flatter the Ottoman rulers, outmatched anything that I had seen in New York's museums. For example, on display behind glass was a large, plush red velvet divan, encrusted with large and small rubies and emeralds, and floral lattices inlaid with pearls. The furniture piece itself was entirely plated with gold.

The most impressive treasure from India, though, was a small colorful figurine set of a boy and his elephant, made entirely of precious materials, including ivory, emeralds, sapphire, rubies, and diamonds. Its style and ingenuity reminded me of a Faberge Egg.

One of our traveling companions was an Indian doctor from New York, with a penchant for jewelry. She could barely contain her glee at the sight of the baubles. "I want it all!" she said to me, with a breath of exasperation.

The good doctor did get the chance to buy more contemporary (and less expensive) pieces and burn through her travel funds on a number of occasions, as our excursion also brought us to numerous markets-all in the sake of supporting Turkey's economy, we were told.

In the showroom of a Turkish carpet factory, I sipped tea and watched roll after roll of carpet laid out in front of me, each layer becoming of finer fabric, colors, designs and higher price as they were put down.

The suave salesman showed us how to spot the difference in quality of carpet, pulling it back to show its knots, letting us feel the difference between fine cotton and silk.

Some designs reminded me of the carpets I had seen in South Asia, like those sold by Afghan refugees along the roadsides near the border of Pakistan. I mentioned it to the salesman, and he too, like the restaurateur in Istanbul, moved closer to me to answer.

"Yes, they have such carpets there, and you might find cheaper prices, but you see in Turkey, we have laws against employing children," he said, speaking in a different tone than the one he used in his slick pitch. "None of our carpets are made by slave labor. We pay our workers well."

For a second, from the way the cut his eyes at me as he spoke, I wondered if I was being accused of child labor on behalf of the whole subcontinent. A smile then returned to his face, and he went to help a couple eyeing a miniature baby blue silk carpet the size of a sheet of paper. They bought it for $1,500.

We later got to stroll through the Grand Bazaar, which, in its contained noisiness, smoke and incenses, endless hallways, hawkish sellers and cluttered stalls offering everything from Mughal-style ceramic tiles to antiquities, competed with my memories of the markets by Chandi Chowk and Mohammadali Road.

Looking for a unique gift for my friend, I sought out a traditional Turkish fez. After half an hour of walking around, and getting thoroughly lost (which led to a heated argument with my wife) I came upon an old man who had a bench piled with supple ruby red fezzes that were topped by black tassels.

"Kaachpara?" I asked him (How much?), using up the extent of my Turkish-language bargaining skills. He called out to another stall owner, who was a white-bearded, tall man with thick glasses.

"Come to my store and buy a carpet," he said with a smile. "Oh no, thank you," I replied.

I explained to him that I wanted to get a fez for my friend, who loved wearing different topis.

"You are Muslim?" he asked. When I told him so, he laughed, shook my hand, and told me he was an Imam. We found the right size of hat, and then he asked me where I was from.

"America," I said, but he seemed to be confused. "But my parents were born in India."

The mention of India lightened his face. "India!" he exclaimed. "Yes, I have been there many times, to New Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad! Raj Kapoor, Nargis!" And then he proceeded to serenade my wife. "Awaara hoon, deh na na na," he sang, shaking his hands and moving his head like Nargis, much to our delight.

Despite such friendliness, there was a bit of a defensiveness in the Turkish zeitgeist, whether it was in the insinuations of a carpet salesman, or the apologetic explanations of a tour guide trying to explain the Muslim world to a Western audience.

"From there, the call to prayer goes out five times a day, in Arabic, a language I cannot understand," said our Blue Mosque guide, as he pointed to its six towering minarets. He was bulbous, garrulous, unshaven and aptly named Attila.

"Please remember, we are not Arabs, we are Turks," he continued, a theme he continued in his explanation of Turkey's Islamic heritage. "Islam is an Arabic religion."

This subtle shift of blame (for the events of 9/11, in particular) was interesting, and I thought it possibly could explain why a turkey in Turkey was not called a turkey.

"We call it Hind," explained our Turkish friend, Toplum. "Which means India."

How so, I asked?

"We got the bird from India, so we called it India, but then we sold it to the British, and they named it Turkey," he continued, grimacing a bit. I had read that the Brits had named them turkey as an insult to the Turks.

Of course, I thought. Who would willingly name themselves after fowl? Better to follow the Punjabi lead, and be named Sher. But what about coconuts in Turkey, which they call hindistan cevizi? Bad enough they would name a grotesque bird after India. Yet, nuts as well?

Near the end of our trip, we made a solemn journey to Gallipoli, the site of intense World War One battles between the Turkish and the Allied forces of British, French and Australians that left over 200,000 dead on both sides.

We took a bus ride, then a ferry across the Dardenelles, then another bus to reach the battlegrounds. On our way, the driver handed me a Turkish newspaper, with more news on India and Pakistan.

Now covered in dense foliage, one can still see the battle scars of craters and trenches lining the hills that make up the Gallipoli peninsula. We walked along the Turkish trenches still in place, which seemed to extend for miles.

Standing alone in a dug-out trench, it all seemed so beautiful, so quiet: the undulating waves of the Aegean Sea below, the blue sky and swishing green trees. It was hard to imagine war there.

We reached the bottom of the cliffs, by the water, where most of the Allied forces remained pinned down under heavy Turkish gunfire. Anzac cove, as it has become known, where Australian and New Zealander soldiers were without cover and ripped to shreds.

I walked along the shore, kicking washed up stones and seashells, hoping to find a relic. There was nothing one could have here, I thought. The land, with its stony cliffs, seemed worthless.

By the sea was a small graveyard for Allied soldiers, some of the hundreds who died when they landed on the beach. We walked along the graves, reading tearful eulogies carved in small tombstones. One was for an Australian boy of 17. "He left a boy, and died a man," it said.

Three graves were set apart from the rest, and I went over to inspect them. To my surprise, they were Indians, all Muslims, brought along with the British forces as mule drivers.

An Ahmed, a Shah, a Mohammed. Not even soldiers. They were set apart because they were buried facing Mecca.

I tried to imagine them, probably yelling at each other in Hindi in the darkness, scared out of their minds, being shot at in a foreign land they would see once and never leave, taking orders from gora sahib, dying painfully on this beautiful shore.

All these people, all these young men, young fools, they did their duty bravely, and died. And we South Asians march on to the same fate with weapons that wouldn't leave even a trace of us.

Possibly there was a lesson to be learned from this old battlefield, I thought. Possibly South Asian leaders would like to visit Gallipoli, and consider an alternative to war, an alternative to turning their beautiful lands into blood-soaked killing fields.

Not that the lesson I learned from that last visit in Gallipoli was war is hell, or some other cliché.

Standing there, at once I realized that borders, cliffs, peninsulas, territories, provinces, they are all worthless, they are simply land. Land that we can tear down, destroy, bloody, and then leave vacant, like Gallipoli, or Kashmir.

Eventually, the land heals itself, and it becomes beautiful again, and our stupidity and violence is erased, long after the fight is over, and we are gone.

I gave my salaam to all the young boys buried beneath me, left there to listen to the lapping of waves on stones and the whispers of prayers.

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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