It was long flight. An elderly man was seated next to me. As our eyes met he smiled . A smile a stranger flashes at you when you are stuck in a time and space not knowing what to do.
“Are you a Pakistani?” he finally asked after dinners were served.
“No. Indian, and You?” I asked just to reciprocate his question.
“Turk. Turkish” He said with a smile.
I popped up now with the word Turkish.
“ Oh .. I had been to Istanbul once and I feel deep connection to that land . I want to go to Istanbul again. ”.
“You should. You should. Turkey is beautiful country. With ancient history. You must go there to discover its mystery” He said patronizingly.
Strangely I felt longing in his words. As if he was talking about his land he knew. I waited for a while for him to speak more, but he seemed to be lost in some world. As sky outside as began to darken I buried myself in the screen before me .
This was 2010.
Arab spring had just started in Tunisia and Egypt. And Flotilla event was making news. Turkey was always in the international news headlines in someways.
We remained silent most of the journey
As the pilot announced the landing instructions passengers began to get restless. There was movement in the gangway and people began to rummage through their overhead luggage. Turkish gentleman who was lost in his own world, came back to life again and smiled. This is a familiar smile a stranger flashes at you as the journey comes to end.
After small talk on the tourists interests in Istanbul, he suddenly turned serious.
“I am worried man these days.” He said stressing every word but still holding his smile. I could see that. But just kept silent allowing him to speak. He was lost again.
“I worry for my Turkey. It is sitting on a political crisis. I pray lord. I pray lord..” suddenly he realized my presence sitting next to him. With an apologetic smile he wished me luck for my forward journey, and reminded me to visit Istanbul soon. We never exchanged our names and parted our ways on that airplane with a polite handshake.
There was nothing significant about this meeting.
Except his deep lost eyes and his longing for his land.
Why did he worry so much about Turkey?
I opened the package carefully before the cleaners to show the piece of kilim I wanted to get dry cleaned.
“Can you do the job with extra care without damaging this piece?” I asked the man on the counter who was trying to judge the age of the carpet.
'I will try. But it looks very old and fragile” he said his eyes still fixed on the kilim.
“ Yes It is very old. Perhaps 200 years old. And it carries so many memories.” as I said these words I shocked myself.
What ?!! did I say that? Did I say it is 200 years old ? And it carries so many memories? These were not my words. These were the exact words of the salesman who sold me the kilim in Istanbul's grand Bazar.
Like most of the tourists we landed in the grand bazar while visiting Istanbul.
It reminded me of the Crawfard market of Mumbai. But much better organized. Much bigger. and much cleaner market. But ethos was same. Crowded, colorful and buzzing with activities. I had nothing specific in my mind to buy but couldn't stop falling in love with the market. We moved past shops finally stopping at an old carpet shop.
As we gazed at the carpets and kilims spread before us, the man who sold me this kilim said he is making a cheap sale. Just because he believed that this kilim belonged to me. I could not stop smiling as I heard his desperate pitch to sell his wares.
The man was in his early thirties, young and charming and certainly knew his art of salesmanship . On his lean frame he carried a checked shirt and faded denim pants and a light leather jacket. I was determined not to fall for his glib talk. Just two days in Istanbul , we realized men in Istanbul had a ways with women. Be a taxi-man . A waiter- boy. Room boy. Men would never pass by without complimenting a woman. It was quite strange behavior for our Indian sensibilities . But we learned to take in our stride and accepted it as part of their cultural trait.
"200 hundred dollars is very cheap bargain for a 200 year old kilim.. But I am making this sale because I know this kilim belongs to you madame " Salesman carefully worded his statements with his wide open eyes peering straight at me. I was bit embarrassed .
"it is bit too small for my need" I told him still trying to make up my mind
"Madame", he said "I am not selling you a kilim ... but I am selling you memory"
"Memory? what memory?" I asked stunned at his words.
Now he got an opportunity to make the final bid and he went on with his speech moment he realized he has got my full attention. "This kilim is very very old madame. I can say this from its weave. This craft is no longer seen these days. It is very detailed work which no one does it now....Istanbul is huge market and we receive goods all over from east Europe and Persia. I will not be able to tell you from which part of East or West this has come to my shop . But I know so much it is an authentic piece and very old handcrafted Kilim. My experience in the business tells me this was a large piece and with time it has been cut into smaller pieces to salvage its beauty. I can tell you this kilim has stood witness to time.... time that you and I cannot imagine. Touch this piece and you will know what I am talking about.....” He paused dramatically and suddenly mellowed his voice and requested last time “Take it Madame it is a good buy, I tell you” The man spoke in a broken English with thick turkish accent.
There was silence after his long speech.
Without saying a word, I pulled out two $100 bills and said “Shukran” the only Turkish word I had learned in last two days. With a broad smile on his face salesman then neatly packed the kilim in a brown paper cover. Looking back I still don't know what made me buy that Kilim. Was it his emotional sales pitch, his charming manners . or was it an impulsive act that felt right.
When I spread that kilim in my living room in Mumbai, a thought crossed my mind- now that the humble Kilim has traveled to a new destination, it would stand witness to my life here on. Adding one more layer of memory.
When I told the dry cleaners to handle the rug with extra care , did I mean, “don't clean the memories?”.
I am not sure.
For a long time I ignored the book by Orhan Pamuk- Museum of Innocence. Honestly, I am not too fond of Pamuk's writings. This 700+ pages, book was far too thick for my linking. Finally I gave up my resistance and ordered a copy .
For two reasons. One it was all about city of Istanbul ( albeit of 70s) and secondly it was a book about memory.
The book first published in 2008, is a novel, a love story set in Istanbul. Pamuk, etches out a fascinating socio cultural picture of Istanbul society of 70s. To quickly summarize the story for those who may not have read the book. Kemal, a wealthy heir of business family engaged to Sibel meets his distant cousin, a shopgirl -Fusun and falls in love. Kemal and Fusun are separated due to various circumstances. Unable to reconcile with the desire for his lover and obsessed by her memory Kemal goes on to construct a museum in her memory as he believes museum is an expression of “ collection of expressive of the soul of that 'experience'.
Every object that is either surrounded or touched by his lover becomes and object of nostalgia for Kemal. For instance when Kemal suggests “we can identify our happiest moment by selecting it in retrospect, as I am doing now..... but to designate this as my happiest moment is to acknowledge that it is far in the past, that it will never return and the awareness therefore, of that very moment is very painful. We can bear the pain only by possessing something that belongs to that instant”.
Here I want to ponder how an object becomes a conduit of a memory? A object by itself may not contain any specific emotions but what we project on to it and how we construct these memories defines the the significance of that object. In case of Kemal, whether it is Fusun's earring that got lost when they made love, or her tricycle on which she played as child, cigaret she smoked, clips, pins buttons shoes , dress so on and so forth become the objects of memory bank that constructs his idea of love. Every move, every action of hers transported him to a time where his real time froze and turned into a magical moment of 'happiness'- nothing besides her was more meaningful and thus the memory becomes the only point of reference of the 'meaningful time' of his life. Kemal goes on to justifies it “ the power of things inheres in memories they gather up inside them, and also in the vicissitudes of our imagination, and our memory...”
Today when Turkey is in turmoil, I remember the the Turk whom I met on the airplane in 2010. As I said he looked worried, I wonder, is this what he was foreseeing when he talked about his land back then? Resistance?
I don't know
We have got quiet used to media images of protest all over the world. Images more or less look so similar that one can hardly make out if the footage is from one country or other. Sea of people in an ant parade walking through roads , then stopped by police barricades, dispersed with water cannons and tear gassed. What remains is plethora of images as spectacle of human trauma,- sharply embedded in your memory.
Tahrir square, Taksim square, Frankfurt, Jantar Mantar, Dhaka...
Brown. Black. White. Yellow.....
You don't understand the language
You don't even understand the politics behind such protest.
But you do understand the INTENT
And you do feel their pain.
Egypt, Lybia, Syria were just images
You sympathized with the people and moved on.
But Turkey is different.
Today, it is more than a memory.