Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ottoman Beachcomber: an Afterword

The following text is the afterword to my latest little ebook, Ottoman Beachcomber. Of course, in the ebook there are images, links, and jumps to other parts of the text, which I left out here. The original text was written in 1983, when I traveled from Beograd, Yugoslavia to Edirne, Turkey to meet my wife. We then traveled together for 4 months around Turkey. 

In the 29 years that have transpired since then...

Much has changed since these stories were written, in matters of appearances and accessibility, as well as in politics and cultural awareness.

Yugoslavia, the model conglomerate state, has been shattered into recriminating pieces. Turkey, seemingly content and proudly secular, looks longingly back to its religious past, with idylls of the caliphate and imperialism. Prizren, Skopje, Edirne, Bergama, Izmir – largely unknown when these stories were written, are now on the itineraries of all the hipster travel guides. Greece, once a magnet for hipsters and vagabonds, now implodes beneath the weight of its own political and social vagabondism. And yet, I wonder if I would still be followed by a gang of affectionate, laughing kids, walking around Tokat. I’m inclined to think I would.

I decided to embed the text with links, to help provide a little intellectual fill-in (eg, Wikipedia articles), and to enrich it with accessible public images (beyond Nancy’s photos). How often I laughed out loud, seeing exactly the object or building or valley that appeared before my eyes 25 years ago, unchanged, except by the embellishments of my, perhaps, over-active imagination. Or I would groan, or just sag back in my chair, seeing other places modernized into oblivion.

A few salient examples may help you appreciate how ephemeral both time and place may be. Often, all that remains are the descriptive and literary reconstructions of it, shaped by the author’s interests, sensitivities, and transient emotions.

My first epiphany was in II. Moving Fast, when I wondered if there were any images of Kraljevo online. HA! There was even a video put out by the Turist Hotel, featuring in its opening scene the “larger than life statue” I mentioned. Talk about a long, delightful chuckle with oneself!

In IV. Saloniki, Almost, I explored dozens of websites trying to find and verify images of the caravanserai I explored. In the process I hit upon a photo of the Ottoman bath cum art gallery, almost a perfect replica of the drawing I had done of that very place. I immediately scanned the drawing from my notebook, and embedded it and the link to its online counterpart into the chapter. That was really gratifying.

I also lucked out in V. A Typical Border in a Typical Daydream, and found a picture of the customs house and surrounding landscape just south of Gevgelija. You may not be able to see the  exotic people, party and sunrise in that picture, but it flooded my mind for over an hour with reveries.

In IX. Turkish Valleys and Yellow Brick Roads, I had little hope of finding a picture to illustrate the stunning hill of olive trees with retaining walls, but I literally jumped up and shouted jubilantly (startling my wife out of sleep with many a grumble) when I came across the one I linked to at “grove on the steep hillside”. It seems someone else has a sensibility similar to mine.

I experienced a few notable disappointments. Back in the early 80's the ferries that plowed the Bosporus genuinely belched smoke and sparks in thick abundance, but thanks to environmental concerns, all those ferries have been converted to cleaner fuel. Am I complaining? Nonetheless, I couldn’t find a single image of those cinder belchers. I’m sure they were widely photographed, and no doubt, they may be well documented in online archives (and more certainly, they languish and fade in boxes in a thousand households full of old, forgotten snapshots) but no such images are to be found in easily accessible sites. I had to settle for an unconvincing and uninspired shot (“belch from the smoke stacks” in X. Fishermen and Their Wharves) that doesn’t do justice to history.

Another disappointment occurred in XI. The Izmir Fish Market. It seems, the central fish market on the Izmir harbor pier doesn’t exist anymore. I had to settle for some “it was kinda like this” images. Tempus fugsus.

Finally, Turkey’s change over the last 25 years was, for me, most dramatically displayed as I searched for images of the town of Divrigi (XII. Oases and Caravanserais). When Nancy and I explored it, it was a mud brick village, which seemed almost prehistoric in our romanticism. I tried to convey that through a link to an historic photo, but that destitute town seems to have gotten a professional facelift. Looking at it now, you might think you were in some out of the way place in Tuscany. Not bad, but not my Divrigi.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the remarkable photo archives at, which I linked into the text a number of times. They will jump out at you as you come across them, and you may find yourself diverted from my little history for more time than I had intended.

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