Aleppo Train — (concluded)

Originally posted by Gordon206 on 07/17/07

“History,” wrote A.N. Wilson, “does not eliminate grievances. It lays them down like landmines for those who follow.”*

[*quoted from memory]


Things changed when the Turks arrived.  By then it was late morning, and we had pulled across the border.  On an isolated siding the crew was doing whatever railroad people do when they want to shuffle cars and locomotives and add hours to the schedule. Outside  the train Turkish rail workers and a few locals, planted like fence posts in the dust, stared mute and unmoving at our group of passengers. The tall African girl was a special object of their attention.

This was official purgatory.  We hadn’t yet arrived at a normal Turkish railway stop, the kind where armies of young boys swarmed around the train screaming for cigarettes and old newspapers.  All of us were in the corridor savoring the lack of scenery: myself, the Armenian, and the African family next door.  The father of the Africans stood to my right, next to his son, and as we gazed into the dusty rail yard he engaged me in conversation.

They were from the Sudan, he said.  Enroute to Istanbul, then all the way across the continent to England by train.  He spoke English very well; a good deal better than the Syrian officer with the cigarette.  Was their trip for study?  For professional leave?  Something professorial in the man’s demeanor made me ask this.  He was almost certainly no stranger to books and learning.

“No,” he said, “I was in the government.”


He nodded.  A sad smile, a hint of resignation.

“Mr. Numeiri did not like me.”

Colonel Jaafar al-Numeiri.  The country’s military ruler.

“He kicked you out of the country?”

“No.”  The man paused.  “But I could not get a job.”

Like most people, I knew little of the Sudan. I knew that the Blue Nile and the White Nile joined at Khartoum; that the Sudan was the largest country in Africa, as big, in fact, as all of Western Europe put together. Colonel Numeiri, it turned out, had taken power just eight years before. In 1975 he had survived a coup attempt, and just the previous year he had defeated the exiled Opposition Front when that group tried to seize power.  In 1985 he would finally be deposed by a popular uprising followed by another military coup.  In 1977, however, his disapproval was sending this family into exile.

“What will you do?” I asked.

The man shrugged.

“I will find something,” he said.

The time-honored pursuits of the political exile, no doubt: teaching perhaps, some writing, a little hope and a lot of waiting around.  The classic exile picture came to mind: Leon Trotsky, hanging out in New York when news came of the February 1917 Revolution.  This man, however, was obviously no revolutionary.  He was an educated middle-class person, like myself, and I felt for him.

Our conversation was interrupted by the little boy, who tugged on his father’s hand and emitted a skein of high-pitched, complaining sounds.  To me, at least, they seemed like complaints, though of course I couldn’t understand any of them.  The father spoke gently to his son, but this only seemed to make the little boy worse.  More piercing complaints assaulted the ear, followed by soothing words.  The child was not happy; that was obvious. From her seat in the compartment, to which she had returned, the Sudanese girl called to her brother.  The gentleman had just pointed his son back toward the ministrations of his womenfolk when the door opened at the far end of the car and two Turkish customs officials came rolling in.

“Evet, beyler,” the younger-and taller-of them announced: “Pasaport!.”

This was done in a commanding voice: not loud, not unfriendly, but definitely meant to show who was in control. The Armenian returned to our compartment and his cache of packages.  The Sudanese, too, broke off conversation and went in search of his family’s travel documents.  Only I, secure behind my Yankee passport, remained in the corridor to watch the Turks take over.

By then the inhabitants of the first compartment, people we had scarcely seen, were playing host to the two officers.  Passports were gathered, visas checked, luggage inspected.  When the officers emerged, I got a closer look.

Two men made up the team, one of whom was visibly older-and shorter-than the other.  The senior officer, who seemed to have been born for a life of sinister ingratiation, never once stopped smiling. He looked maybe fifty-five, with thick hair and a mustache that had gone totally gray.  His blue uniform and hat, both old, had not quite descended into shabbiness, though in one place the piping on his jacket had worn to the threads. As he walked he stooped slightly, the result not of old age but of a single red rose, its stem stripped of thorns, that he held in his right hand and constantly leaned forward to sniff.

The two customs officers approached the Sudanese family’s compartment. Inside, despite the women’s efforts, the little boy was still whimpering. The older officer said little: his nostrils flared in the rose-laden air; his smile remained fixed.  The Sudanese man stood, then held out a stack of passports.  As he did so, I returned to my seat.

In the compartment sat the Armenian, surrounded by a barricade of packages, his Syrian passport at the ready.  His was a curious posture, at once defensive yet relaxed, serene but wary.  But like the Turkish officer, my traveling companion had fixed a look of pleasant amusement upon his face, and nothing was going to sweep it away.  My documents are in order, the gold-rimmed smile seemed to say.  I will take whatever you offer.  He looked down.  A fleck of pistachio husk clung to his trousers.  With a delicate flick of the hand, the imperfection disappeared.

“Evet, beyler.”

With these words, the junior officer announced their arrival.  “Gentlemen!” might be an adequate translation. I handed over my passport, which was taken and inspected. The senior officer looked at my bag, which lay zipped open beside me.

“Where are you going?” he asked.


“You speak Turkish?”

“A little.”  A modest smile; a self-deprecating nod of the head.

“Good.”  A sniff of the rose: the gold tooth, the unchanging, inscrutable smile.

For the sake of formality, the officer with the rose bent down and looked into my bag.  With a nod, he signaled that my underwear met with his approval.  After handing my passport to his assistant, who held a stack of them, he moved on.

At that time American passports looked cheap compared to those of other countries.  Perhaps they still do.  Maybe it’s because they’re so easy to obtain-at least, for those of us who were born here.  Or maybe they reflect the American style-“it’s just a government document, after all; let’s not spend too much on the thing.”  When they went abroad in the `70s Americans were given paperback passports, while virtually everyone else carried a hardback. The Syrian passport was one of those: green, hardbound, a tiny tome of identity and status. This, indeed, was an enduring artifact.

The senior officer accepted the Armenian’s passport with the same gracious acknowledgment that had greeted mine.  With the rose held in the crook of his index finger, he leafed with great interest through the pages.  Where was the traveler going? the Turk asked.  For how long?  Replies were produced.  More pages were inspected.

“You speak Turkish,” the senior officer observed. 
(A sniff of the rose, slowly twirled across his mustache.)

“Evet, effendim.”

“You live in Halep?”


“So you are Turk?”  (Another twirl, another sniff.)

The Armenian paused, smiled.

“Biz?Hristyan?z,” he said, with the same shrug, the same smiling nolo contendere fatalism that he had shown to me.

“You’re Christian,” repeated the officer.

The Turk’s gold tooth glinted; his cold courtesy and unfailing smile met that of the Armenian.  For a long second, amid the thunk and hiss of the train and the fussing of the Sudanese boy next door, dental gold and dueling mustaches faced off across the divide.  The Turk glanced at the packages heaped around the Armenian, hesitated, then looked away.  He gave the green passport to his assistant.  The rose came up to his nostrils; its scent was inhaled.  With a nod of thanks, he was gone.

La commedia é stupenda, I thought, suppressing a smirk.  Only with forbearance could I resist grabbing a scrap of paper and entering the Carmen of the Customs House in my catalog of personal history.  My compartment-mate seemed to share my amusement.  His smile widened, and then he shrugged.

“It’s always like this,” he said.  “What can we do?”

“But the rose?”

The head lifted, his eyebrows went up, in the Turkish style of negation.

“The rose,” he said, “is something new.”  And there again, those golden teeth.

And so we waited as the officers worked through the train questioning, peering into bags, gathering their stack of passports.  Somewhere the documents would be taken, somewhere inspected more closely, somewhere bludgeoned with a rubber stamp.  The Armenian looked through his window at a distant field; I sat by the corridor looking at scuffed brown linoleum and the bleak view in the other direction.  Next door the Nubians were still dealing with an unhappy son.

In my bag was a book, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, a singularly inappropriate title for a journey in the Middle East. Still, it was all I had. After covering all this ground I had managed to read only fifteen pages, but since when could Conrad compete with the landscape?  I decided to give it another try.

“Giving it another try” meant that I was going to stand up, take the book into the corridor, and pose by the open windows.  That way I could stretch my legs and make a creditable attempt at reading a serious work of literature, and if anything happened along that side of the train I would have an excuse to put it aside and watch.  Whenever I was traveling this was my standard way of dealing with unreadable books by classic authors; and I tended to bring along such books, books of substance that I could wear like a badge.  Crime novels, for example, such as those by Ross McDonald or Ed McBain, were simply too interesting and quickly consumed.  If I carried such books, I found, I ran the danger of actually enjoying them and possibly missing something important amidst the passing scene.

The great English explorer Wilfred Thesiger was reported to carry with him always a well-thumbed copy of Kim, by Rudyard Kipling.  I’ve always admired Thesiger, and after hearing this I went and checked out a copy of Kim from the library. To my surprise, I didn’t “get it” at all. I found it to be quite boring, in fact. Very probably this proved what a philistine I was; or perhaps, I decided, the book’s tepid appeal was the point. After spending all day on the burning sands of the Empty Quarter, why would Thesiger want to read something riveting?  Good God, the man surely needed sleep more than distraction.  He had raiding parties to think about, waterholes to seek, camels to tether.  I came to suspect that the great Thesiger’s reading habits mirrored my own, that he only carried Kim, first, as a soporific, and, second, to impress the Arabs.

Thus was I standing in the corridor with my book when the Sudanese man, looking distressed, and his little boy, still complaining, came out of their compartment.  The father winced as he met my gaze.
“Not feeling well,” he told me, and, picking up his son in his arms, he started down the hall toward the lavatory.

It was at this point that his beautiful daughter emerged and, with short gliding steps, floated to the open window ten feet from my shoulder.  In a second I contemplated, then rejected, an attempt at speech. Not only was the girl Sudanese, and thus an unlikely candidate for casual acquaintance; she was also indescribably beautiful. And what would I have talked about? The true color of the White Nile?  The chances of our immediate elopement?  A sliver of midday sun touched the girl’s forearms and the silk of her blouse as she leaned upon the brass bar shielding the windows.  From the car’s undercarriage, an air valve breathed a sigh.  I returned to the Conrad and pretended to read.  Across the railyard, amid the rock ballast and the silver tracks, a gray figure carrying a shovel stood up and turned.  Another minute passed.  The paragraph I had focused my eyes upon turned into code, and then into Sanskrit.  Another man, who had been picking up debris, began to migrate toward our train.  Before we knew it, four men, the same workers who’d been staring at us before, had gathered beside the car.  Like all village Turks, these men were utterly open in their curiosity. And if this Blessed Damozel wasn’t a worthy object of curiosity, nothing would ever be.

The Armenian now emerged and stood on my left before the open window. He smiled, then brought out a cigarette and lit it. Another minute passed, as he smoked and I pretended to enjoy literature.  The Sudanese girl leaned upon the brass bar and surveyed the new country. The workers kept on staring. Sotto voce, his lips curling over gold teeth, the Armenian spoke.

“They all want her,” he said, “because she is siyah.”  The final word escaped with a hot, snarling hiss.  Again I was called upon to suppress a smirk.  Siyah in Turkish means `black.’

We looked up; a door opened at the end of the car.  A white shirt and gray slacks appeared, then two black faces.  The girl turned to greet her father as he returned, son in hand, from the lavatory.  When he saw her the little boy ran squealing to his sister, who scooped him up and disappeared into their compartment. The fantasy had ended.  The Blessed Damozel was only a beautiful human being with a loud, unhappy brother and a father who had lost his job.  The Sudanese man approached.  I put down my book.

“I think he is better,” he said.

“He was very unhappy.”

“Something that he ate, I think.”


He looked out the window at the men gathered below the train.  Even when the girl left, they scarcely moved.  Another silence stretched forth.

“I am tired of waiting,” he said.

I agreed. From the man’s compartment, his son’s complaints began anew. The Sudanese turned, shook his head in frustration. What now? But outside the train there was movement, and as I looked the two customs officers could be seen mounting the steps to our car. Without speaking, we returned to our seats.

This time we didn’t have to wait. Our compartment, in the middle of the car, was the first to be visited.  The senior officer’s hand appeared in the doorway with the the rose, and then came the gold tooth.  Nothing had changed: the floral amulet, the worn uniform, the cold, ceaseless smile.  He gave me my passport, and I found inside the stamp for the “Islahiye Hudut Kapisi.”  The Armenian’s green passport he also held-but first he had questions.

“Where are you going?”


“After that?”

“Rusya.  Yerevan.”

“Yes.”  The officer thought for a moment.  The tight petals of the rose caressed his mustache. “You have business?”

“I have relatives.”

“Of course.”

The scent of forced courtesy, cloying and overripe, lingered in the room. The Syrian traveler had answered these questions before, and now he answered them again. In the compartment next door, the little boy was fussing anew.

“Open your case please.”

“Which one?”

“That one first.”  The customs officer pointed to a case on the overhead shelf.  The Armenian brought it down, placed it on the empty seat beside him, and popped the latches.  The world of personal clothing opened before us: underwear, shirts, ties, socks.  Many seemed new; none were in packages. When people visited relatives in the Soviet Union, they always took consumer goods, and the Armenian was no exception. The elder man nodded to his junior. That officer stepped forward and started digging.

It took about thirty seconds for the younger man to dissect the case and its contents.  He made no obvious effort at disruption; but he also did nothing to limit it. Clothing once neatly folded was tidy no more; the formerly flat surface now mounded upward, as if a mole had tunneled through it.

“The other one,” said the senior officer, pointing with his rose.  For an instant his smile faded as, with flapping shoes and a loud squeal, the Sudanese boy bolted past our compartment.  Down came the second; space was created on the seat by mashing the first case shut and shoving it to the side.  In the corridor, the Sudanese boy rushed past in the opposite direction from his first assault.  This case revealed more clothing, including women’s undergarments packaged in cellophane.

“For my sister,” the Armenian declared.

The customs officer turned up his smile a notch; his rose received another sniff.  The hands of the junior officer continued their deep reconnaissance.  More corners were explored, more items unearthed: a pair of pants, new shoes, a box of English chocolates, a feast of disarray.

“The bags, please.”

This meant that they would now move on to the smaller parcels, the multitude of items separately wrapped and assembled.  Here we entered the realm of food: bread, biscuits, crackers, fruit, cheese, gift food, sweets.  I saw boxes of  candy crafted of pistachios and honey; a box of sugar cubes, packets of tea and coffee, apricot preserves.  All were unwrapped, inspected, set aside.  The disordered heap rose toward the luggage rack.  The Turkish officer’s smile was almost gone by now.  That gluttony of the East, the congenital hunger for enemies, was nearly sated.

“Good,” said the senior officer.  “Thank you.”

Confusion, his masterpiece made a thousand times over, bowed and smiled.  The officer handed over the green passport, placed the red rose beneath his nostrils, and departed.

The Armenian and I shared a rueful smile. It was not one of the great moments in international relations; still, it was over. Nothing had been broken, nothing confiscated. My fellow traveler spread wide his hands again. He almost laughed.

“It’s always like this,” he said.  “What can I do?”

“Olan oldu,” I answered.  “What’s done is done.”

“By God, you are right.”

He set to work re-assembling his baggage.  No doubt he had done this before, perhaps even dealt with the same officer.  How often?  I attempted to help by picking up string and fallen wrappings from the floor.

In the hallway the little Sudanese boy streaked past again, bouncing against the customs officers as they made their way to his family’s compartment. Voices of admonishment, his father’s among them, rose in chorus. Just as quickly, the little boy returned to his family. More squeals spiked amid the sound of deep voices, official questions.  Then came the explosion.

My fellow traveler and I looked at each other.  It was a roar of anger, real adult anger, and it followed upon the initial outburst with a torrent of words, prominent among which was the name of the one true God.  More voices joined in, some high, some low, all alarmed.

I stepped into the corridor just as the senior customs officer emerged from the Sudanese family’s compartment. It was not a pretty sight. The fresh rose seemed to droop; his cold smile had been replaced by something darker. Down the front of his blue uniform and onto the pants, starting at the approximate height of a little boy’s mouth, there spread the smelly yellow-green drip of something that once had been food. The officer’s lips twisted in disgust; loud words of anger, shame, and admonishment came from the compartment.  The junior officer, all solicitude, was reaching for a handkerchief.

My face formed itself into a proper display of shock and sympathy, but the gesture went for nothing. In a second the two officers had turned and fled toward the lavatory. I turned to the Armenian, who had come out and seen it all. The look of surprise on his face was just beginning to fade. Our eyes met: the flesh on his long face began to crease; the corners of his mouth, unable to stop themselves, lifted slowly into a smile. Once again, below the mustache and the spreading lips, I could see the glint of those gold-rimmed, avenging teeth.


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