I have recently undertaken a long-delayed commitment to seriously practice meditation, breathing exercises, and spirituality. Additionally, I have been reading some selected works of Goethe, which I will soon write about; for now, I will just say that a few of his lines about returning to nature as the ultimate source of poetry really resonated with me. These endeavors have led me to reflect on an experience I had several years ago while traveling in Turkey.
Hasankeyf is a small, ancient town straddling the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey. I’d arrived there from Van following my Malazgirt adventure. Hasankeyf is famous for its plethora of archaeological treasures, and when I visited in 2007, it was strongly assumed that the building of a nearby dam would soon flood the area, thus greatly increasing the urgency of my visit. (As of 2012, Hasankeyf has yet to be flooded, though I believe the dam project is still under development.)
I arrived in town, the August sun beating down mercilessly, and went to what was apparently the only hotel, which I was informed was completely full. I was incredulous; there weren’t that many foreign tourists knocking around this part of Turkey. I would only find out later that the hotel had been completely booked up by a fun-loving Italian tour group, on whose bus I had spent a couple days touring old Georgian churches around Erzurum earlier in my trip.
A young guy chilling in the hotel foyer stepped in and told me that he had a friend who had a restaurant down by the river, and that for a paltry sum (five lira) he would allow me to stay overnight at the restaurant. Since I was only staying in town one night, I was grateful to have anywhere to sleep. I followed my amateur tout down to the river, traipsing along with the straps of my large black army duffel digging into my shoulders.
The restaurant was an outdoor one, and looked like most of the others along the river bank: thatched roof, small kitchen, many plastic tables and chairs, and several raised platforms covered in cushions. The ground was stony, and the Tigris river, flowing nearby, looked tiny and pitifully unlike one of the great founding rivers of human civilization.
I was introduced to the restaurant’s proprietor, Bahattin. He was an affable Kurd, with short curly hair, a clean-shaven face, and dancing eyes. He ran the restaurant in the company of his two young sons: Mehmet, 12, and Evren, 8. Business appeared to be slow; I was the only customer all day. I wondered when the tourist high season was.
I spent most of the day relaxing at the cafe, talking with Bahattin and his sons. We talked about Mehmet and Evren’s future careers, about the Kurdish situation in Turkey, and about the potential flooding of Hasankeyf. I was extremely grateful that my limited Turkish allowed me to converse for several hours with my three hosts, though comprehension varied significantly from sentence to sentence.
In the late afternoon, little Evren took me on a tour of the rock face above the restaurant, which contained many well preserved ancient dwellings. He was an able and seemingly experienced tour guide, and I enjoyed following him as he scampered over rocks to show me each site. Along the way I had a brief, happy reunion with my former Italian traveling companions, to whom I was now grateful for having filled up the hotel.
Evren and I also passed a middle-aged Kurd with a grizzled salt-and-pepper beard and a torn suit jacket. He had wild eyes that darted feverishly over the ground in front of him, and he walked erratically, yet with some kind of mysterious determination, as though he were following a clear path visible only to his eyes. He reminded me of a big-city, mentally unbalanced homeless man. This assessment turned out to be fairly accurate. Evren informed me that he was called Amca (Uncle) by all the local kids, and that he was the village crazy man, roaming the hills and making people nervous.
We returned to the restaurant as darkness was falling to find Bahattin cooking up a sumptuous fish dinner. After eating our fill and talking a bit more over tea and ayran, we made ready to retire. Bahattin and sons would head to their nearby house, while I would sleep outside on one of the raised, cushioned platforms. This arrangement was just fine with me; the cushions were comfortable, and it was a lovely summer night. Bahattin gave me a blanket, and (puzzling to me at the time) placed my army duffel on top of the refrigerator.
Just before he shut off the lights of the restaurant, he called out to me: “Vincent! Hicbirden korkma!” Don’t be afraid of anything. Then I was plunged into utter blackness, and heard only the fading footsteps of my hosts on the stones and the ever-present gurgle of the passing river.
When I closed my eyes to sleep, I imagined Amca coming towards me in the darkness with a knife. American tourist stabbed to death in southeastern Turkey by local crazy homeless man. Read all about it!
I tossed and turned, hoping for fatigue to quickly overtake me.
The first thing I became conscious of was the morning sunlight, brightening the backs of my closed eyelids. As I half-opened my eyes, I recognized the sound of the river. Somehow it sounded stronger, more powerful than before. I fully opened my eyes and began to sit up, then snapped up at the waist.
The restaurant had been flooded. Water was everywhere. It was rushing through the little kitchen, swirling around the plastic legs of the tables and chairs. As I looked around me, I realized that the platform was completely surrounded by water, which rushed past only inches beneath me.
The river had risen dramatically during the night. I had gone to sleep next to a creek, and woken up riding a deluge.
I looked out over the engorged Tigris. The morning sunlight was streaming down upon the water, spreading a glittering golden sheen across its surface. The majestic rocky hills sloped above the river, and on the far bank a flock of sheep and goats grazed while a shepherd strolled nearby.
Even now I cannot describe precisely what I felt at that moment, though I can say I have never experienced anything quite like it before or since. The closest parallel I can think of is a passage from Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, when protagonist Larry Darrell experiences a momentary oneness with nature while on a hilltop in southern India.
I don’t know how transcendental my experience truly was. Undoubtedly, time and the trickery of memory have embellished and romanticized the event. Yet I will never forget that at that moment, I was sitting atop the mighty Tigris river. The waters flowing beneath me would continue on past Baghdad, and into the Persian Gulf. The magnificent scope of where those waters had been, and where they were going, awed me; at the same time, that glorious past and unknown future seemed supremely irrelevant to the natural beauty of the present moment.
I’m not sure how much time passed as I sat there, the bedcovers over my lap and my hair disheveled. Eventually Bahattin and his sons returned, wading through the water with their pant-legs rolled up to the knees. They dragged a table further up the bank, out of the water, and we enjoyed one last breakfast together before I collected my bag and headed off to the bus that would take me to Diyarbakir.
The five lira price that I had been quoted for the night’s lodgings had ballooned up to forty with all of the meals that Bahattin had cooked for me. But I hardly felt duped. Forty lira is an infinitesimally small price to pay for transcendental magic.