Bruno Cooke

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A Midnight Visit

—Gaziantep Province, Turkey, early June

 

This evening I am nestled on a craggy hill, among outcroppings of limestone scattered like sprouting nettles. It is quite moonlike, but not so much as before. I have been climbing through surreal landscapes, past naked trees and whitish spotted boulders, among herds of rattling sheep and goats managed by herdsmen and their ample repertoire of hoots, ticks and whipples, in their cyan-striped clothes, who pop up as meerkats to turn the flock. I am 3km north of the Euphrates, not far from Pistachio Mountain.

The sky is that dark pale blue which comes just before sunset, when objects’ outlines blend together, nuzzled by the approaching night. It is cooler than it has been. I am perhaps 200m west up the hill from the straight road which cuts through the low mountains, the road which brought me here. In the distance lies a hunchback of houses on a perpendicular lane. Past these dwellings, down a steep bank, the Göksu, or “blue water”, flows softly into the Euphrates, the longest river of western Asia. This water which slips past me here will eventually reach Syria and Iraq, where it will combine with the Tigris and flow into the Persian Gulf. No one will ask it questions. This water will house the mangar, or ‘Tigris salmon’; soft-shelled turtles will plosh on its banks in the company of golden jackals, Syrian brown bears and the ghosts of Arabian ostriches.

But here it is just me, and some goats. Perched on a crag overlooking its valley, I am cooking pasta (again) and listening to Barbara Acklin. The bubbling water and the sweet sharpness of Acklin’s voice send me into that reverie I know well, that cosy inner warmth which is something like meditation, or a result of meditation, or of fitness and finding a rhythm, a peace which takes time to reach but lasts when you do… “After laughter, comes—”, but I am interrupted.

A pair of headlights has left the road and is jouncing over the uneven ground towards me, making its steady unstable way through and among the protruding bits of mountain. It stops about a stone’s throw away. It is a white saloon, a rattler. After a short pause, a man steps out. He is stocky, hairy-faced, in military camouflage from head to toe. He wields a large gun, a two-hander, which I assume is the real deal. He is followed by another man, leaner and sullen-eyed. I think of Sponge and Spike, but also of Laurel and Hardy, Cook and Moore. Retrospectively I think of Dostoevsky’s Polish soldiers in The Brothers Karamazov. They have a dynamic, yet each one walks as if he is alone. They march in my direction, expressions as yet unreadable in the dimness of dusk, the shorter one slightly in front. I switch off the gas burner, take a deep breath and put on the most inoffensive face I can. When we are only a metre or two from each other, I extend my hand and smile.

(At this point I am thinking that I could, if necessary, shift camp, though I’d rather not. I’m not here to step on toes—especially toes with guns.)

My fingers (and toes) are crossed. A smile goes a long way. Yes, in this case, it is reciprocated. They are burningly curious, which is understandable. Of all places, why here? Here. One laughs, the other smirks. They think I am a silly sausage. There is a strange feeling. It’s jovial but I’m hungry and waiting for them to say something like I have to leave. I don’t know. I show them my map: where I’ve been, where I plan to go. It’s all terribly amusing. They recommend a particular route to Adıyaman and ask repeatedly if I like çay. Yes I do. You like? Yes, I still like. Eventually, at the first twinkling of stars, they get back into their car and exit loudly. I carry on with my pasta. Night happens.

My evening routine at this point is to eat food, wash pans, listen to ‘Hooked On A Feeling’ by Blue Suede, pack and arrange my things, smoke a roll-up and drink something hot before finally bedding down with The Pale King for around half an hour, switching off the lamp and curling up. So, I do this. This, I do, and drift off into a primal snooze.

At some unknown hour, from the deep recesses of sleep, I hear a rumble, a car engine sounding off, a door opening and Turkish words. Am I dreaming? No, alas. Here are my gendarmes, back for more. A flashlight is on.

—Salaam alaykűm.

—Alaykűm salaam.

I can just make out his features past the steady beam he’s shining into my face. It’s the same dude, the squat one, the more talkative of the two. There is always a leader.

—Çay?

—What?

Is it not bedtime? I have been asleep and you have me, what, snapping to attention? He’s already got a bundle of sticks under his arm which he throws (the sticks, not his arm) to the ground. He gathers rocks and fashions two joists, across which he places a beam. He has clearly done this before. The fire takes quickly and laps at the kettle.

Look at the stars, see how they shine for—

Kettle boiled, the tea goes in the top. Two heaps. Let that simmer, let that hang. The talkative man slinks off and I hear the sound of a car boot opening. I see for the first time how close the car is. It is practically on top of the tent, and as the flashlight dances over its insides I see the sullen man, tall, arched, watching me from the front seat, folded like a shadow puppet. The first man returns with a BIM plastic bag containing torn pieces of flatbread and a çokokrem tub full of halloumi, or a similar salty cheese. I taste it, it is good. These are for me, he motions. He pours tea, and some more into a second cup for me for later. At last, we take a breath of silence. Stars beam down on us. We sip our tea.

Suddenly the taller man speaks, and somehow he is standing right by the tent. How did he—? His words are a call to arms, and they snap into action. It is military. Fire and ice, ice and fire. Two shakes of a goat’s tail and they are departing, trundling noisily over the uneven surface, honking their farewells. As quickly as it started. One more piece of cheese and I’m back in the tent, snuggled in the dark and cosy.

I rise at quarter past six and shortly have breakfast on the go. Porridge oats with dates, chia gel and apricots, a bit of sugar. Reheated tea, which I enjoy immensely. Peace and quet. Peace and—what? My boys, really? Have they slept? Do they sleep? Are they on duty? Is this their duty? We exchange a few words but don’t really have anything to talk about. They loiter for a few minutes, smile at my tea and then bid me a final farewell. I wave after them, and look forward to a day’s cycling, to Adıyaman, to Nemrut.

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