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A Turkish Bath

Turkey—one cannot begin with sequences of time.  Writing is a sequence—it has beginnings and endings—but life is complex.  Writing about life in Turkey requires another framework—one without beginning or end.  My beginning is on this page.  At the moment of this writing I am in a Turkish bath in Bursa, a Turkish town not far from Istanbul.  I came by boat and then by bus to be in this small cubicle with a massage table and hooks for clothes.  A door leads to another room with a long marble bath and a seat. There are two faucets:  one steaming hot, one cold.  I take off my clothes and soap myself, sitting with my feet in warm water.  Around me the sounds of Turkey, sounds both universal and particular—a baby crying.  The bathhouse is enclosed by a wall.  Outside, a garden with tables and a small bar selling soft drinks—Turkish coca cola.

I cannot separate the observer from the observed.  Turkey is me.  I am Turkey.  What I see—the only things I can see—are what I am and will be. 

The language rolls over me like a sea.  To understand everything is to leave it behind.  Tomorrow where will Turkey be? 

Before dawn the muezzin calls to prayer—but now I sleep right through it.  A record is broadcast, repeated all over the city.

Turkish sugar tastes as if it were made of honey.

The Black Sea—where it meets the Sea of Marmara.  Where did Byron swim?  Portugal is more beautiful—Turkey is older.  The countryside around Bursa is like California.

Istanbul—surrounded by a different world!  Last night moonlight at the end of a dark Turkish alley—men like cats moving about the street.  In the restaurant fat restaurant owners beaming at customers, shooing away the ragged men who poke their heads in the door.  How terrible to be a restaurant owner in a poor country!  The poor are like flies—a bother to others.  The poor—men, dogs, cats—cling to life, are allowed to survive.  Oh god only knows why his creatures must suffer so!

Man creates beauty—why must he also create so much ugliness, so much pollution.

Istanbul must be defined by centuries, by thousands of ciphers.  I know only myself.  How many ages am I and why do I remember nothing?  Perhaps to learn everything over and over, always from a new facet—but what does it add up to?  My character?

I must learn to feel—why did I feel so much and now I am like the memory of a flame—where is the flame itself?  Are we constantly dying in this life?  So many questions and I still have no answers except one—that life is always opening in two directions—to complexity and to simplicity.  I must, like Janus, face both.

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September 1983

Bodrum, Turkey

To understand an alien phenomenon requires an effort not only of the intellect but of the imagination.                                         George Orwell

Reason and emotion—One must feel Turkey first.  I arrive by small boat from Kos—almost in the wake of tradition, reversing the Western flow.  The cool sea breeze, the salt on ones lips, clear skies without dimension—the illusion of immobility and the changing sea, preluded the night before by the Turkish moon over Greece—a crescent with the planet (Mars?) within its curve. The dry hills of Turkey form shadows lining the horizon—gradually expanding into color.  Imagination peoples the crests with early Greeks—sentinels of the past—and then the Mongolian hordes, the Crusaders—the aggressive stance of conquerors and the apprehensive scan of prospective conquered.  The great fort piled high with stones from the mausoleum—tomb made into fort made into museum. 

Bodrum—in close perspective, quickly dispelling dream into a reality of dust, darting cats and dogs, pressing crowds, women in pantaloons and veils, women in shorts and halters (the past persevering for how long against the seductive onslaughts of the present?)  Sheep folded together—tomorrow’s slaughter—a religious festival.  Does God wash the blood from his hands?  Must his creatures all be part of an enormous cannibalism?  A cycle of devouring and being devoured?  When does one learn to accept this?  Only in the face of the reality of death—when today’s life is only a short postponement of tomorrow’s death—and in the reality of rebirth?  When the essence transcends its ephemeral forms?  When will God reveal this to us?  Why does He prolong our suffering?  Or is the message revealed everywhere and we have eyes but do not see?  (Christ to disciples—“they have eyes but see not.”)   One sees the external and suddenly a pattern forms from a series of sights—the eye (nazar) amulet bought in the market place; the floor of the pension—blue white and black, swirls of blue with black dots like nebula—a primordial eye; and across the street, on the white-washed walls of the house, again the eye, solidified and transfixed.  Chaos—movement towards form—form—and then dissipation.  But the cycle persists.

The simple pension rebuking a mode of life built on excess.  At first strange and quickly becoming natural.

Between here and the sea a steppe of flat roofs (like North Africa and Portugal) and chimneys like the Algarve—unfinished minarets.  Matching the sounds with the forms—children’s voices, high-pitched, sheep bleating, the grunt and growl of trucks straining up the hill, motorbikes, horns honking—modern and ancient sounds.  At night dogs and before dawn roosters.  Man’s voices guttural…

But what sound from the cyprus rising on the hill from behind a  broken stone wall?  That voice—would it be more beautiful, more poignant?  Part of the unheard, unsung music of the universe. 

So hot and dry and dusty—but the sea cools the eye.

We are born into consciousness to know that we must die before we learn that life is a greater pain than this first knowledge.  We deny this cycle—that everything feeds on everything else—imagining an alternative—Paradise—where nothing dies, where the lion lies down with the lamb…

The Black Sea—Today the sea is green  The sky is clear and blue.  The hills are shadows.  Without books,  without memories, the sea persists—a primeval occurrence—and everything else has disappeared, the antique ships all ephemeral phenomena.   Sinop—the birthplace of Diogenes—who already found the stone walls ancient.  What did his lamp reveal when the shadows fell away?  Was he caught in the net of his two eyes?  (The sun is the world’s eye).  Dazed by the light of his lamp?  Will I find a different truth from him?  That life is very short—that age and death defeats everything?  Life a brief succession of moments? 

Sinop—a quiet like the past.  Fishing boats, men repairing nets, houses crumbling, falling down the hills.  There is something I vaguely remember—some ancient conquest, some site.  Does my memory belong to everyone—universal memory—or is it a personal edifice? 

Dreams—symbolism very strange, so meaningful.  The snake, the black bull.  Consciously unthought, unspoken.   My heart is full of pain, my mouth full of lies, my mind full of illusions.  Self like the ocean—always the same, always changing, energy moving through form.  The moon’s energy moves through me, weaker and weaker.  Is there another force?

At night narrow unlit winding steep steps of stone, small shops open to the alleys.

Istanbul–-This alien world becomes less alien. The revulsions wane and return in tides.  The wind rustling knots of dirty plastic in the streets.  Soot etched centimeter by centimeter into stone.  Constricted alleys burdened with old buildings. Veiled women crouched on the stones amidst children, hanging out of balconies.  What movements, what gestures create the present?  What sounds?  Only the machine is the Present.  It overwhelms, destroys every vestige of the past.  Outside the hotel the rooster still crows. The phenomena of the present—Byzantine colonnades whipped by shreds of newspaper, enduring a climate of pollution.  Who remembers the future? 

Strolling along the street the constant beep of taxis—onslaught of trucks, buses, automobiles—waves of shadows.  Man who passes so quickly. 

The university amidst Moslem mosques, gravestones, pigeons, cats.  Huge portal—Arabic inscriptions.  Old libraries.  Bazaar leading into corridors, mazes.  Feelings—revulsion, fascination, numbness, acceptance, curiosity.  Where have I exhausted myself?  Not insanity because insanity derives from much emotion.

The Turks are kind people. The Greeks are bellicose—perhaps because they are free, and the Turks are not.  A politics of sensation—is no politics. 

Ferryboat to Uskudur, where the Golden Horn, Marmara and Bosporus meet. 

The ancient cities grew and grew and then—what is the future?  It can be dreamed.

In the hotel—people sitting blankly for hours in the lobby:  frenzied children, Egyptians, Libyans, Spaniards, Germans, Americans, English.  Turkish clerks.  Quibbles over checks.  Beautiful Libyan girls.  Everyone is waiting, standing around picking teeth.  Men greet each other with kisses on each cheek.  I am in the midst and yet I am not here—because I belong to so many pasts, so many places, so many worlds—but to what people?  My memory must not blank out.  Vision must not fade.  The world must not fade.  Music, sound, is a memory—many memories—the cries of street vendors.

The Turkish street is alive—cats, men, vendors, cars, shouts, arguments—much activity but little results, little effects. 

Mind must replace emotion…

Greece—Gray skies and seas, slow heaving movements, the clouds, the waves, the ferryboat.  The sun dim through a relentless haze.  November already—everything is heaviness.  Oil tanker moored on Athens bay, behind Piraeus, Athens in a dull retreat.  Inside the ferryboat Greeks with their meals of chicken, bread, spread out on sacks before them.  The faces etched by labor, pressed between closed spaces, clinging to the inside of the boat.  The young men on deck, breaking their energies over each other—already caught in the traps their past has constructed for them.

Where is the creativity, the beauty, the thought of Greece today?  Masculine energies, burnt up in speeding cars.  The illusions and masks of masculinity—an endless chain of cigarettes, the expanding paunch weighing down the man.  The woman—heavy with children, thickened waists, pendulous breasts—perhaps the only strength of Greece.  Finished—polarized politics,  polarized hates.

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