David Nightingale: Christmas in Turkey, 1961

Jan 2, 2014

Christmas in the Middle East, 1961. The Moslem headmaster had insisted we take the Christian holiday, although we hadn't asked for it.

It was dark, about 5 a.m. The bus was already loaded with sacks and baggage on its roof, and black-mustached men were standing around in the cold, many counting beads. There were already chickens and a goat inside, but we found places near to each other on the wooden seats.

The ill-sounding bus was soon outside the dark basalt wall that enclosed our town, the ancient town of Diyarbakir through which Tamurlane had passed, and we had crossed the river Tigris. The bus was ill from general rattles and randomly hesitating engine. I wondered whether it would survive the day-long journey to the Mediterranean. Wailing ululations of Middle Eastern music crackled from a loose loudspeaker dangling from wires at the back. The chickens squawked, escaped a couple of times down the aisle, tried to fly over passengers, but were retrieved by the black-mustached owner.

Every half hour or so of bumpy, icy, muddy roads, we would stop at small settlements, typically a few earth-colored huts in the snow and an occasional minaret. Men got off; others got on. Words and coins were exchanged with the driver. Then, with grinding gears and explosive muffler we would be rolling again.

About noon the engine gave out. We were in no-man's land. Passengers went outside, adjusted their cloth caps – and many knelt down to pray in the cold air. The driver opened up the hood.

A while later he got it going again. Elazig, Gaziantep, were passed, with long delays in their market places; then the forests of the Taurus Mountains. (check)

It was dusk when we emerged from the forests. We came slowly down the mountain, on slightly smoother roads, and soon glimpsed distant lights below and ahead. The air had become milder. Iskenderun, also called Alexandretta, nestled in a corner of the Mediterranean before us.

The next morning, the three of us strolled along the sea front. Eucalyptus, pine, white walls, breeze, the sea. Red roofs, a cactus sprinkled against the mountains, cloud whirls luffed up on the summits. Smells and drifts of kebabs and Turkish coffee, and a yard hammering under sunlight.

As young teachers we had just enough money for Christmas in a medium hotel, for the bus fare and some meals.

Date palms, banana trees, and a calm ocean. A young man was pulling at a net, brown legs heaving on the beach; sun high. Heavy peaks behind Iskenderun were snowed bright, surrounding and sheltering the town. A cat was watching the ropes of the net, licking furry lips in apprehension. A mother and girl were awaiting near the end of the line being pulled in.

Catch hauled; the check of nets for tears. Floating corks; nets and ropes laid back and coiled. A paltry number; cat processing silver jumping fish.

Roses and elysium, blue-violet lavender and orchid outside the shops.

We knew no-one. Diyarbakir's snows and icy mud were 300 miles away.

There was a note for us back in the sunny Oteli. The English consul would like to invite the three young foreigners to a Christmas Eve party at his house.

We went round to his white walled house to acknowledge, and to tell him we only had the clothes we came in.

“No matter!” he cried cheerfully, “we'll see you at eight!”

We drank too much, young men that we were. Free consular booze, and from the consul's balcony a glorious view of the bay, and twinkling lights of gently rocking ships. Still the warm Mediterranean air.

Thus, our Christmas in the Middle East, in 1961.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text,  A Short Course in General Relativity.

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