Orestes Visits Istanbul and Palestine, 1998

Maybe it started the day, some years ago, when Nancy and I emerged from the underground exit from Waverly Station in Edinburgh. We did not look around the corner where we would have found the new visitor’s bureau that gave advice like, “The new Sheraton doesn’t open for a month, but they’re rehearsing the staff. So you can be a guinea pig there for £20.” No. Instead, we hearkened to the man in the slightly sour smelling parka who greeted us at the top of the ramp, who said something that sounded like “B & B,” who pointed to a station wagon with what should have been telltale farmyard straw peeking from the grooves in the tire tread, who took our suitcases, and who, mostly, spoke in such a beguilingly incomprehensible brogue that we could think of nothing better to do than to be whisked out of town to a farm somewhere east of Stirling.

Or maybe it started on the train from Berlin to Amsterdam this summer when we met an interesting woman who invited us home for dinner, an evening so pleasant that we returned the favor the next night, treating her and her husband to dinner and the Concertgebouw.

In any case, we have declared ourselves easy to pick up, and so we were immediately recognized by Selahattin Kartal as we emerged from our cab in the large parking lot which separates the Hagia Sophia from the lovely park that leads on to the Blue Mosque. Selahattin was, in his youth, a history major and so, though he does not know everything about the Hagia Sophia, he knows quite as much as we need. He would be glad, therefore, to show us around the mosque, explain what he could, point out features we might miss, generally speak favorably, indeed patriotically, about Turkey, tell us what else we might like to see in Istanbul. And then, if we all still liked each other’s company, he would very much enjoy showing us, and teaching us something about, Turkish carpets, many hundreds of which he happened to have on display in his shop just there, see, there? two doors beyond the ancient underground Byzantine Cistern with its three hundred intact columns.

Well, we intended to look at carpets anyway, and the Hagia Sophia, without a friendly guide, is rather empty and austere. And the carpets he showed us over the lunch he sent out for—“Chicken kabobs are all right?”—were wonderful. You should know, at this point, that inflation has been running rather high in Turkey these days. Flag-fall in the taxi is 120,000 lira. Dinner for two is about 30,000,000. Admission to all monuments is an even 1,000,000. And the digits and zeros on the invoice for carpets, if launched into US dollars, would buy a B-1 bomber. What fun.

A few days later, when we had been through the splendid mosques and the Topkapi Palace, we threw ourselves on the mercy of the marine engineer who designs tankers and cruise ships but who, during his vacation, makes some extra lira by luring tourists onto a noisy fishing boat for a ride up the Bosporus more intimate than the official cruise on a liner for 15,000 huddled passengers. We sat in the stern while he told us the violent pitching would have no serious effect on this tiny craft, that the water upstream was much calmer, that those enormous sea-going freighters would not swamp us. He also told us that we should be sure to eat fish from the Bosporus rather than from the Black Sea or the Mediterranean. The latter is too salty; the former has not enough salt. Ah, but the Bosporus, said Baby Bear from his just-right high chair. . . He also told us about the scandal that helps explain politics in Turkey, the politics that need a Kurdish threat to distract us. It seems that, not long before we arrived, a Mercedes collided with a truck on the highway outside Istanbul. When the rescue workers extracted the passengers they found: the Chief of the Istanbul police; the number one wanted felon in Turkey, a mobster who’s been on the lam for more than a decade; the mobster’s girl friend, Miss Turkey 1997; and a member of the majority party in the parliament. You write your own mini-series on that one.

But the point of this trip was not so much to see Istanbul, though that would have been a sufficient aim, but to go to Israel or, given the purpose of the visit, Palestine. I was invited by the Palestinian PEN group to attend the Fifth Palestinian International Poetry Festival. The theme of the festival was Literature and Exile, a particularly sensitive topic for Palestinian writers who have either suffered life in exile or who feel as if they live in exile in their own homeland. Indeed, our experience was so wholly Palestinian that it wasn’t until after the conference and our departure for Tel Aviv that we felt we were in Israel at all. Our five days in Jerusalem were entirely in East Jerusalem, and the only non-Palestinians we encountered were the omnipresent soldiers and people at prayer at the wailing wall.

The geography, however thrilling, was overshadowed by the cast of characters. There was Hanan Awwad, President of Palestinian PEN, and one time suitor, we decided, of Yasar Arafat. An intrepid organizer and smooth spokeswoman and hard-edged negotiator, she is Arafat’s chosen person in the arts. From time to time she became wearisome because her cause is endless and her energy for it is unfathomed. She was only intolerable, however, when Gerald Szyszkowitz (Austrian novelist and TV/film person whose daughter married an Israeli and lives in Jerusalem) spoke of a Palestinian writer he’d interviewed about his prison days. “Yes, I threw bombs,” Gerald said he’d said, “and I’d do it again.” “No,” Hanan asserted, “No Palestinian writer is involved in violence.” Even her colleagues dropped their eyes. Then there was our favorite character, Riad Gibran, a journalist who spent some years in jail for violating censorship laws. Now he runs programs to ease prison-leavers back into domestic, social, and vocational life. He’s busy. He’s also charming, and mild, and ready, after two bars hummed by anyone, to begin singing the Egyptian love songs they all sang together to pass the incarcerated years. Why Egyptian? It seems there was an immensely popular chanteuse, recently deceased at 80, who spun out these love songs that, at four hours’ duration, filled four cassettes. And now, on the bus to Jericho, or over yet another Palestinian beer in the garden restaurant at the Al Zahra Hotel where we stayed without AC, TV, or radio but slept very well since the desert temperature fell into a handsome 50s overnight, someone would sing a stanza and the rest would pick it up directly. Like any language one knows not at all, the words all seemed to run together; and like any country’s unfamiliar music, the melodies sounded barely melodic. But the cheer of Riad’s singing was a delight—as was his jumping up on the bus to see if he could peer over the wall of the kindergarten we were passing so he could have a glimpse of his daughter, the girl who still calls him by his name rather than Papa because he was in jail when she should have learned who her father was. Others of us were craning our necks to look out over the stony hills at the prison compound we were approaching which now serves as Arafat’s headquarters.

The building has a wonderful air of the makeshift about it: there is the diplomatically necessary red carpet running up the stairs, but the fixtures holding the rug in place, being curtain rods rather than the heavy brass needed, had all popped free, and the carpet dribbled down the stairs. But never mind. Arafat entered the conference room, shook hands with everyone (it seemed that, as excited as our hosts were, most of them had probably met their leader before), sat, and looked over us. Then he spoke—not quite in political truisms, but more personally. He was just back from the US, and Albright was due in for their meeting in Jericho the next day. He seemed very tired, and tragically sad. Certainly his tone of voice was, and his eyes seconded his voice. Our French representative, a physicist who has translated some Palestinian poetry, asked Arafat something about having a partner in the peace process. He meant, I think, a sympathetic Israeli government or a powerful American presence. Arafat took it more personally and replied, referring to Rabin, “They killed my partner.” And that was the sadness in him neither he nor our meeting recovered from.

The next evening, in Bethlehem, we met a possible successor, Salah Tahmary, a Brigadier General in the PLA, a powerful orator, a poet, a skillful debater, an imposing physical presence, and husband of King Hussein’s former wife. When Gerald tried to draw what seemed like a fair distinction between the settler who killed 28 Palestinians while they prayed and Rabin’s assassin, Tahmary scoffed at him. “Which one should I invite to my house?” he said. I asked him, since he said he spends most of his time now devising programs for children, how children can be raised without sinking into violent responses to the provocations which, truth to say, reside at every roadblock. Tahmary said that one of the things he does is run summer camps. At one, in the early 90s, he trained two groups of children: one were there for anti-tank paramilitary training; the others he formed into a band. When the camp was invaded because of the military training the children were getting, the young soldiers survived and the band members were killed.

It may not much matter if the story is invented and self-serving, because, though he questions how right or wrong either program might have been, he is, in these new days, more interested in the band—unless this was all propaganda, as Hanan had been at her several worst moments.

And there is no doubt we were there for that particular form of consciousness raising. Indeed, Hanan presented us with a kind of declaration, already in English, already with our names attached, declaring our support for a national homeland that cannot exist except with Jerusalem as its capital. Gerald, Roland Lombard the French physicist, and our two Taiwanese colleagues discussed this for quite some time. Because I was the only native English speaker and because I voiced the strongest objections to being maneuvered into Hanan’s required statement (after all, there could very well be a Palestinian national homeland with Ramallah as its capital), I was appointed re-writer and negotiator. “Why?” she said over and over, sweeping away my objections.

It was as if she was asking if I had not noticed the number of soldiers, if I had not seen the implicit, innate, inescapable degradation of passing through check points, if I had not heard her daily recitations of the number of Palestinian writers who would not join us that day because they had not been able to get out of Gaza. Because it was high holy days, the Israelis expected trouble and so closed down the occupied territories. Having reason or need to leave does not matter.

We had no difficulty imagining something of the humiliation and discomfort and fury levied against the Palestinians essentially as a matter of policy. The human complaints certainly seemed more palpably real than the theocratic justifications of settlers whose claims to certain parcels of land seem more concerned with strategically separating Palestinian towns than fulfilling God’s word. No paucity of that in Jerusalem.

In the end, we signed a more moderate declaration and, I think, lost more than a little of Hanan’s good regard. I could not persuade her that there is an end to propaganda and proselytizing, even when the cause is solid and pledges have been gained. She was not content. It was like that, too, in the few moments we actually spent with poetry and the literature of exile. We all read aloud, and the Palestinians distinguished themselves, for the most part, with powerfully rhetorical declamations that had the audio technician diving for the volume control. I suspect this broad oratorical style, mostly humorless, angry, insistent is the house style of the time, even when the poems, as many did, drew fulsome comparisons between the lover and the homeland. Love for one is love for the other. “I could not love thee so much, loved I not my country more . .” That school of verse. More charitably, theirs is a poetry unashamedly committed; it’s poetry of and for a cause. Its politics are epaulettes, not badges pinned to the sleeves. And since the commitment is all, and the cause is real, and the writers have all been in prison, and because the very geography of Jerusalem and the West Bank demands constant attention, the poetry and its performance drew a kind of sameness that ended up being bland.
Except for Anisa Darwish. Anisa was the only other woman member of Palestinian PEN in attendance. Anisa, perhaps 60, began writing 11 years ago when she was confined to her sick bed. She’s now published 13 books and is among the most popular writers in the region. Her male colleagues are not impressed; they talk among themselves when she reads and sings, and they laugh derisively. She writes poetic bodice rippers, according to the overly elegantly dressed blond (!) poet, former prisoner, father of seven, husband to the woman, he tells Nancy, who is not the love of his life; her he sees only once every few months and then love with her is far better than with any of his other women, his international henhouse of Danes, English, Germans, French, but ah, but oh [now with penetrating intimacy of the eyes], no Americans, Nancy, none. Alas.

Perhaps this explains why Anisa Darwish finally made her way to our table on the last night, at the farewell dinner, found an empty chair next to me, ignored Nancy who sat opposite, and told me her story. “I love men and sex,” she said. Her father was a lawyer, a sheik, and a conservative man, so she knew the only way she was going to have her twin desires was to marry early—18. Since then she has had dozens of lovers, “but all in the Arab way.” That was not altogether clear, but her story made a curiosity out of this Arab way. There was, for instance, the Norwegian who “came to make love to me for four hours. The next day he phoned to ask if he might return that night. Of course. This was all a little awkward because he spoke no English or Arabic. But he did speak French, so my husband was able to translate everything.” Now that you’ve finished writing your Turkish car accident movie, you might turn your imagination to this scene.

To crown the evening, Hanan Awwad read the joint declaration of the Palestinian and the international writers, the paper that she and I had negotiated for so long. Would she drop the sentence in which the foreign guests agree that there is no Palestine without Jerusalem as its eternal capital? Would she include our conviction that mutual respect and tolerance were required?

Hanan read with a gusto and commitment worthy of her colleagues’ most patriotic poems. The audience applauded wildly, and smiles beamed from every face. Hanan placed medals around our necks; the ribbons sported the colors of the Palestinian flag.
But did she accede to our amendments, or pleas for compromise?

We’ll never know. The declaration now appeared in an Arabic calligraphy far too elegant to be besmirched by translation.

Hong Kong
October, 1998

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