Saturday, 27 October 2007

Turkish Delight (Chapter 5, Erzurum, Turkey)

At a village half-way between Kayseri and Sivas, we went in search of petrol. From past experience, we knew we had to employ sleuth-like methods. A direct approach usually led nowhere. Suddenly no one spoke English. The first step was to stop at one of the little chai houses where the samovar was for ever ready, and get two glasses of the milkless sweet tea. Ironically, we never bought one glass ourselves all the time we were in Turkey; someone was always ready, indeed anxious, to act as host. It was probably a point of etiquette, but we liked to think it was because they found us good company. Once the tea glasses were in our hands then the business of locating fuel could, in a roundabout way, begin. First, from somewhere in the village, an interpreter, usually elderly, would come on the scene. The questions and answers would soon be flowing freely. After an hour or so of conversation, we might casually mention petrol.

'Oh, yes,' we would be told, 'there is a man in the village who keeps some in a forty-gallon drum; he's a butcher really, but quite likely you'd get some there.'

‘And oil too?'

'Yes, of course, and oil too; in fact, so-and-so would go with you to do the introducing.' So eventually we would manage to refuel. As time, within reason, was one of our more expendable items, this way of buying petrol and oil was pleasant, instructive and, ultimately, quite successful.

The Turk is a fine sort of man, tough, down to earth, with no illusions about himself or his country. He is very easy to talk to. It was nice to be able to say, 'Your roads are really bloody awful,' and know he would not take offence. On the contrary, he would heartily endorse such sentiment, but with a mischievous grin would retort, ‘Yes, they are terrible, but our donkeys and oxen don't seem to mind them.' Sometimes I would gladly have swapped our skittish machine for a couple of slow but sure-footed donkeys.

On our way through Turkey we must have sat in discussion dozens of times at the chai houses, the Turkish version of the local pub. Always, at some point, the question of Cyprus would crop up. Why, they said, were we messing about so ineffectually on that strategic island, like a lot of old hens? They felt very strongly about this enigma and every group with which we spoke put forward the same solution. Let the Turkish army take over and within one week there would be no more trouble. To them it was simply black and white. But, we retorted, those tactics are not in vogue any more; that method is as outdated as the Turkish harem. It might be outdated but still highly effective, they said; what had happened to Britain? In the old days no country dared incur her displeasure, yet now she practised appeasement.

We heard this frank opinion of Britain many times, either directly or through an interpreter. We have a staunch ally in these rugged, taciturn descendants of a Moslem empire, but they think we have turned soft. They themselves live on memories of the ruthless but highly successful Ataturk-Father of the Turks. He was the man, they said, who had lifted Turkey out of the rut of Moslem fatalistic resignation; but for him, Turkey today would be nothing more than a satellite of some other power. Westernization provided an answer for them. Now one of the most powerful countries they took as a model seemed to be paling into insignificance. Why? It was difficult to answer that one.

The infrequent villages, their mud-and-plaster walls fading into their surroundings as if camouflaged, merged with the view of ridge after ridge of hills and spurs of the lofty ranges. Someone had told us that only about twenty per cent of Turkey was cultivated. In this northern province there was nothing but endless desolation.

We reached Erzurum, high up in the north-eastern corner of Turkey, chief city of the province bordering on the Russian frontier. Not surprisingly it is here that one of the largest military camps is established. The Turks are not afraid of the Russians-at least not physically-for they are brave and tenacious soldiers; but ever since the Czar dubbed them the 'Poor Man of Europe' the Turks have been ready at least to demonstrate that the poor man is not necessarily a weak one. The constant maintenance of a large, fully mobile army is as much a strain on their resources as it is on ours. While half the young men of the country train in their tactical exercises in the barren country around Erzurum, the other half, still in the army, languish on the Bulgarian border. They have not forgotten the mass expulsion, with all its implications, of Bulgarian-settled Turks during the Korean War. Many of the people we spoke to said it was a miracle that the two nations didn't end up fighting. But bigger powers were at work behind the scenes; no war would ever again remain within the confines of the Balkans. Be that as may, it is a drain, a serious drain on their struggles to remain solvent. Lack of roads, technicians, communications, and modern farming methods, are all too obvious. There has been progress, a great deal in the cities, but more of the modern world needs to reach the small-holdings. We saw men using wooden ploughs in many districts; picturesque, but futile.