A Turkish Walden

A free man longs for his jail days

I had been walking for twelve days along the Lycian coast of Turkey when I came across Salih’s hut. It was a hundred yards from the Mediterranean sea in an unnamed bay, concealed between an outcrop of conifer trees. We settled down to lunch beneath the canopy while his cats climbed on his back. There were four of them, all semi-wild. He said, ‘The girls I call My Daughter. The boys I call My Son.’ He also had a rabbit somewhere, which he hadn’t seen for a few days. He worried it was dead.

The years he spent in prison, he said, were the best of his life. In the 90s he had shared a Greek jail cell for twenty two months with a Londoner named Geoff Nixon. Salih loved Geoff Nixon; he was a good English teacher and learned Turkish faster than any man he had ever met. The Englishman, released a few months before his cellmate, left Salih a tentative South London address where he might be reached. Once free and back in Turkey, Salih wrote letters asking after Geoff’s new life, but no reply arrived. He never saw his friend again.

The speed with which he shared the intimate details of life suggested loneliness, as if he might, through force of will, bypass the first stages of a nascent friendship and skip at once to the camaraderie of old schoolmates. Already I knew that as a teenager he had worked in the greenhouses that span the Lycian coast, that he had picked half a million tomatoes before his eighteenth birthday, and then found work on the fishing boats. He had been married and was the father of two children, both adults now. He mentioned something vague about court, about his wife’s religious beliefs and her new life in a town farther inland. These days his daughter very rarely came to see him; his son never did.

After lunch he invited me to stay for the night. Tomorrow we would go fishing, he said. We would collect his nets in the river system behind the beach. It was too early in the day for me to stop. When I hesitated he said, ‘Why not?’ as if he knew those two words were all it really took to persuade a man like me. So I moved my pack inside. Sure enough he had met my kind before; his hut was littered with little notes of thanks from other walkers. A Frenchman named Arnaud. A Russian named Vassily. Each note full of gratitude and praise.

That evening we walked the arc of the bay to the harbor. It was late November, the offseason, and every storefront and café was boarded up, waiting for next year’s tourists. A half moon lit the way and Salih rolled a joint as we walked. Smoking together we passed between the ships resting hip to hip on their winter stilts, a sleeping armada back from battle. When we got to Taji Baba’s Cafe everyone there was already drunk. In the middle of the road was a large and growing fire with flames a meter high that warmed the men sat drinking around it. I introduced myself to each in turn and among them was Taji Baba himself. He was the drunkest of them all and he welcomed me with a glass of Raki. There was something wild in his look and I liked him instantly. Every so often he would howl like a wolf and drink with his eyes to the sky as if lamenting something or someone lost long ago beyond the mountains.

The other men were just as friendly. One man asked if I was Muslim. Another man, sipping on his whiskey, said: ‘We are all good Muslims here,’ and they laughed. They took an interest in my travels and my walk along the coast. I told them I had walked nearly a thousand kilometers across Europe that summer and when they asked me why, I looked at Salih and said, ‘Why not?’

Soon we were all dancing, a wild dance that was all about the shoulders, and they duly mocked my attempts to emulate their Turkish exuberance. Taji Baba was so drunk he began to feed his furniture chair by chair into the fire. He punched through the fragile wicker base of the chairs and tore them limb from limb like meat from a bone and threw them to the flames. Within minutes they was gone. We only stopped him when he returned to the road with his desk over his head, struggling beneath the weight. Then we said, No, Taji Baba, that’s enough. Sometimes, when I think of that night, I wonder why we didn’t stop him sooner. Maybe we needed the firewood. Maybe it heartened us to witness an act so bold in its resistance to the future. Maybe that’s how we would all live if we could. At least once in our lives, brave enough to be so foolish.

An hour later Salih and I stumbled back to the hut, drunk and high and laughing about nothing, crushing the pine cones underfoot, marveling at the high beams of the cars lighting up the cliff face on the mountain road. Beside me Salih gripped my arm to stop from swaying.
 ‘Do you love life?’ he said.
 ‘Me too. I think we have same blood. We go hospital tomorrow. We check it.’

The next morning we went fishing in the river that flanked the beach. Salih wore an old wetsuit pocked with holes and carried with him a pair of archaic flippers in one hand and a spring-loaded spear of some kind in the other. Out on the river my job was to direct the blue rowing boat through the narrow delta channels while Salih checked the nets he had set the day before. Hoping for a large haul, he was going to sell the fish at the market or exchange them for canned food. But when we reached the nets we found just four or five eels and one small fish.

‘I will go in,’ Salih said. ‘We need food for dinner.’ He put on his flippers and snorkel and slid feet first into the green water. He swam ahead with spear in hand, kicking rhythmically, while I rowed behind. The eels wriggled in a black puddle under my feet as he dipped and dived beneath the boat and through the reeds. I was struck then by a sharp worry for him. Not for his immediate safety — he looked sleek and comfortable in the water — but for what came next. Last night’s care-free magic, a snapshot fantasy of his hermitic life, had been replaced by the reality of his daily subsistence. He was weeks shy of his 60th birthday and I wondered for how much longer he would be able to hunt for his nightly meal, how much patience he had left for such hardship. After twenty minutes he had speared four small fish, and I rowed us back towards the beach. On the way home we stopped to collect firewood from the brush, and for nearly an hour in the heat we hacked and sawed at the roots and branches of small trees. In two days, perhaps even tomorrow, he would have do this all over again.

Salih’s hut

I spent the afternoon in the hammock writing in my notebook while Salih smoked joint after joint at the table, staring out to sea and the sun in the south. He suddenly looked very old. That evening we gutted two of the fish and one of the eels and grilled them over the embers. He went inside his hut and emerged again with a lemon and a vile of salt — essentials, especially for the eel, which had still been moving ten minutes after we cut off its head. It was cold away from the fire, close to freezing, and I wore all the layers I had. I was feeling guilty because, after all of Salih’s hard work, the cats had stolen two of the fish while I was supposed to be guarding them. But he was kind about it and assured me it was nothing; he didn’t feed them enough anyway. As we ate he spoke to me as if I wasn’t leaving the next day, as if we would know each other for years. He mentioned things we would do next week, and reflected on Taji Baba’s antics with the nostalgia typically reserved for the memories of childhood. At times it felt like he wasn’t talking to me at all but to Geoff Nixon or his wife, a familiar face, a friend of his life gone missing. After dinner he slumped his shoulders and exhaled deeply.
 ‘You must be tired, Salih.’
 He laughed. ‘In prison, you don’t have to cook. They make everything for you.’

How to tell a lonely man you are just a ghost passing through, a travelling apparition? When I said I would continue walking in the morning, he tried the magic words just once: ‘Stay. Why not?’ But I thanked him and insisted. He picked up one of the cats and petted it on his lap. ‘I love animals,’ he said. ‘Animals understand. People not understand.’ That night, I couldn’t sleep, and I listened to the owls and the distant engines of speeding motorcycles and the sea against the shore. It was all out of tune. Close by, Salih slept with one of the cats cradled in the nook of his arm. I wondered if he was dreaming of his prison cell.

I rose with the sun and packed my few things. I left Salih some money and we said a muted goodbye. From the harbor I hitched a ride to the town of Demre and then took a bus to Finike further east along the coast, skipping a large section of the trail. I was ashamed of it but I wanted to put as much distance between us as I could. These days, when I think of Salih, I struggle to remember what he looks like. I remember his white hair, his thin sinewy frame, the way he peeled oranges like my father, only slower. But it’s his face I can’t recall. In every photo I have of him he is either looking at the ground or staring wistfully at some far off thing, his features never quite in focus.

I walked for two weeks more until I reached the sprawling outskirts of Antalya, but the night after I left Salih’s place I set up camp alone beside a remote and abandoned lighthouse overlooking a stretch of the Mediterranean notorious for shipwrecks, a result of dangerously unpredictable currents. I looked out over that seamless sea and it felt to me much too calm to be a place of death. A sign warned that scorpions were abundant here, and I thought about what would happen to me if I was stung. It wasn’t a frightening thought; it was just a thought. Once the sun went down in the west I ate my dinner beside a meager fire and for a moment I missed all the things at home that I had hated. That night I was woken up by the sound of bells. I unzipped my tent just enough to see a flock of sheep surrounding me, white and spectral, moving through that fevered night without their shepherd.

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