Aleppo Train — II

Originally posted by Gordon206 on 07/16/07

15 May 1977, continued:

And so, when my compartment-mate declared that he was “Christian” he left the details unexamined.  Was he Roman Catholic?  Syrian Jacobite?  Lebanese Maronite?  Protestant?  Greek Orthodox?  Greek Catholic?  Perhaps, he implied.  But undoubtedly not.  Language was the clue.  He spoke Turkish.  So do Armenians.  I know this: I’ve heard them speaking Armeno-Turkish on the bus in Seattle, at a shopping mall in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and everywhere in Glendale, California.  The generic religious label evaded reality but fooled no one.  And yes, I did understand.

And so, I asked, if he has no relatives in Turkey, where is he going?

To Kars.  In the east.  Then to the Soviet Union.  Yerevan.

By train?

Yes.

A long trip, I observed.  Does the train go through to Russia?

Yes, the train goes there.

This surprised me.  Like most thoroughly indoctrinated Americans, I thought that the Iron Curtain was truly impassable at that point.  After all, only two weeks before, I had secured a Turkish military pass to the ruins of Ani, the ancient Armenian capital, and there I had gazed across a gorge to the watchtowers and high fences on the Soviet side.  It wasn’t the kind of place where you dropped in for a visit.

We talked some more, and I tried in broken Turkish to describe my life and my current lack of occupation.  Above all, I did not say anything about literary pretensions or the novel I had recently finished.  My companion wouldn’t have believed this anyway, and even if he had it would only have caused trouble.  The truth is, I was unemployed.  My most recent job had been at a construction site in Mercer Island, Washington, where through that winter I worked for a series of minor villains as they siphoned blood from a bemused and credulous client.

The new island home was a modernist’s dream sheathed outside in vertical, gray-stained cedar and hung inside with huge oblongs of abstract art.  It had been sited, however, on a chunk of swampland masquerading as a buildable lot.  Groundwater seeped incessantly from the hillside behind.  Horse-tails, skunk cabbage, and other marsh plants choked the yard.  In this suburban wilderness we set to clearing stumps, logs, and debris.  We dug endless ditches and laid a system of plastic drain tile that soon clogged and ended up draining nothing.  We went shopping (on company time, of course) at a quarry and a rock yard, and I helped bring in huge boulders to create a Japanese garden that was overgrown with weeds two weeks after we finished it.

At the end of this job I sold one of my Turkish kilims, added the proceeds to my ill-gotten earnings, and bought a cheap charter ticket to Istanbul.  When I got back to Seattle I expected to be broke once again.

Very little of this, of course, could I explain to the Armenian.  I told him only that I used to be a teacher but was now a laborer.  When he heard the latter label, my companion did much the same thing as had an old Kurd, with whom I had shared a seat on the bus to Van.  He looked at my hands, so obviously those of  someone who was not a laborer, and basically called me a liar.

“The work was for three months,” I said weakly. 

(How could I explain “temporary job”?  Work gloves?  I couldn’t.)

“Of course,” he replied.  His lips crept upward in a smile, and through the gray thicket of his mustache I could see the glint of golden teeth.  It’s all right, he seemed to say: we both have our little disguises.

I shrugged and held out open palms, a gesture meant to convey befuddlement, but which surely came across as a confession of guilt.  For a moment, conversation halted.  We continued to munch our pistachios, whose tight shells rebuffed my delicate laborer’s fingers.  But personal embarrassment didn’t alter the fact that I felt far more comfortable about my own position than that of my companion. He was an Armenian from Aleppo traveling through Turkey to the Soviet Union-from one police state through another to a third, all of whom had a different reason for looking upon him with suspicion.  Of  course, he had no real reason to fear violence.  But behind the smile, deep in the creases of his face, the tension was palpable.

As we sat on that train in the spring of 1977, the campaign of bombing and murder waged by Armenian terrorist groups against Turkish diplomats and government offices was just beginning to hit full stride.  It began in the aftermath of a lone act, the murder of two Turkish diplomats in Santa Barbara, California, in 1973.  In January of that year Gourgen Yanikian, a 78-year-old Armenian who had lost family members in the Armenian massacres during World War I, arranged a meeting in a hotel room with the Turkish consul general and vice-consul from Los Angeles.  He had lured the consuls, Mehmet Baydar and Bahadir Demir, to his room with the promise of antiquities that he wanted to show them.  However, when the two men arrived the old man began shouting for vengeance, then pulled out a gun and shot both diplomats to death.  These murders, which were praised by at least one Armenian paper, were followed by more violence.  In January 1975 a group calling itself the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) bombed an office of the World Council of Churches in Beirut.  They were soon joined by another group, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG), who assassinated the Turkish ambassador to Austria on October 22 of the same year.  Two days later, on October 24, the JCAG murdered the Turkish ambassador to France and his driver on a Paris street.  Four months later, in February 1976, ASALA killed Oktay Cirit, first secretary of the Turkish Embassy in Beirut.  On May 2, 1977, just ten days before my aborted trip to Beirut with the Canadians, two cars belonging to staff members at the Turkish Embassy in that city were blown up, and only the day before I got on the train the Turkish Tourism Bureau’s office in Paris had been destroyed by a bomb.  This terrorist campaign would get a lot worse in the 1980s, and in the end scores of Turkish diplomats, their wives and children, and many innocent bystanders would end up dead.  But in May 1977 it was already bad enough.

Neither the Armenian nor I, however, said a word about it.  All these events lay in the background, banished somewhere beyond the poplar trees or below the railbed, buried and unacknowledged.  “We’re Christian,” he had said: “You understand.”  Yes, and I also understood that very soon we would arrive at the Turkish border.

We were half  an hour out of Aleppo when the train halted at a village on the plain.  I remember a grassy verge beside the track, something growing in a field, and perhaps a hundred yards away a beige, official-looking cottage built of stucco with a tile roof.  Beyond the cottage stood a green line of poplars sparkling in the breeze.  While my companion kept watch beside his heap of packages, I stepped into the corridor to check out the scenery.

Other passengers had emerged as well, and for the first time I had a chance to observe them.  A short man and a boy were looking out the windows and talking.  Their heads were round, their skin flawless and black.  East African, I guessed, or Nilotic Arabs. Somewhere around there.  The man wore gray slacks and a white shirt, and his black oxfords were polished to perfection.  The boy, who appeared restless and cranky, could not have been much more than five or six years old.  To my left, before an open window, stood an erect figure clad in the khaki uniform of some official service.  He was smoking a cigarette whose ashes he occasionally flicked into the breeze.  A brown beret adorned his head; his hair was neatly-clipped, gray at the temples.  He looked to be about fifty years old, clean-shaven, and handsome: a classic Mediterranean face, I thought.  In different clothes, with the right sunglasses and loafers, he could have been mistaken for an Italian count.  Either he was military or he was the police-or perhaps he was both.  As I came out into the corridor he nodded and said hello.

American?

Yes.

He spoke simple but good English, and through that medium the usual questions followed.  I told him where I had gone and where I was going, how long I had stayed, and how I liked Syria.  My replies were punctuated, as always, by coughs and trips to the handkerchief for relief.  Outside our window the air brakes hissed.  Was I ill? he asked.  Yes, I was ill.  This he seemed to regard as a sign of weakness, and actually, so did I.  He asked my occupation in America.  I wasn’t going to make a third mistake on this score, so I kept my delicate hands in view and told him I was a teacher.  But why aren’t you in school now? he asked.  This, I decided, was getting ridiculous.  I told him I was on vacation from school: and, I wanted to say, could you please give me a break with the questions?  He responded by asking what subjects I taught.  English, I said.  This wasn’t a total lie.  I had been an English teacher in Turkey, West Africa, and Wisconsin, though for the good of America’s youth, and my own sanity, I had sworn off ever doing it again.  I didn’t tell him that I was burdened with literary pretensions, that I had just published a novel, had spent all of my meager advance, and had financed this trip with three months’ burrowing in the muck of Mercer Island, Washington.  The police officer seemed on the verge of asking another question when his eyes focused on something beyond my shoulder.

A girl had just emerged from the compartment next to ours and was speaking in some alien tongue to the black man and the boy.  Another family member, it seemed.  Besides this girl, another woman clad in the raiment of  the East-white scarf, loosened from her head, a flowing dress of satiny blue fabric-lurked in the adjoining compartment.  I tried not to stare, but it wasn’t easy.  The girl was as black as the man and his son, but a lot taller and far more beautiful and voluptuous.  Her forehead was high, her nose small and perfect, her lips full.  Ropes of glossy black hair fell past her shoulder blades and nestled against the paisley silk of her blouse.  Billowy trousers in a lightweight black fabric completed the picture.  Feet?  Shoes?  She must have had them, but no one would have wasted time looking down there.

With looks of feigned indifference, both the Syrian officer and I turned away.  Behind my back I retained the feeling that something stately and unattainable, an Everest of carnality, was towering above me and my petty sniffles.  How soon, I asked the officer, will we get to the border?  It was the only question I could come up with.

“Soon,” the Syrian officer said.  “Are your papers good?”

I thought so.  I brought out my passport and gazed at it idly.  I showed him the stamp from Qamichli.

“Money?  Currency?”

Yes, I had money and currency.

“No.  Foreign exchange.  Customs declaration.”

A feeling invaded my stomach, and it wasn’t from stale pistachios.

“You mean a foreign exchange declaration?”

“Yes.  You have it?”

I cursed silently: the clown in the striped pajamas and rubber flip-flops; the sleeveless T-shirt, the thick head and the round belly.  “No paper: don’t worry about paper.”

No, I admitted, I did not have the document the officer was referring to.  I can’t confirm this-a mirror was unavailable at the time-but I assume that by now my lips were pale and my skin a shade of oatmeal-gray.  My mouth, I know, had become a wadi in August.  The officer looked grim.

“You change money, yes?”

“Yes.”

“In the bank?”

Yes.  Thank heaven for that.  At no time in the Syrian Arab Republic did any anti-social or Zionist elements offer me a black-market deal, and I probably wouldn’t have taken it anyway.  I had receipts; they were stuffed into my wallet.

“You took a paper?”  He drew a small rectangle in the air with his fingers.

Yes!  Yes!  I began searching frantically among my remaining Syrian notes.

“Good.”  The officer took a drag on his cigarette. 

I waved a bank receipt at him.  He seemed reassured.

So: did this mean that I was O.K.?

He tossed his head, like a horse refusing moldy oats.  His lips formed an O as another puff of cigarette smoke sullied the Syrian air.

“No,” he said, “you have to get the form.”

By this time I was feeling very uneasy.  The train, after all, had stopped in the middle of nowhere.

“How can I possibly get a currency form now?” I asked.

A twinge of panic lifted my voice into its upper register.  The officer sucked again on his cigarette.  With the remainder smoldering in his right hand, he pointed past the irrigation ditch and the grassy verge, toward the line of poplars and the beige cottage with the tile roof.

“Go there,” he said.  “Talk to the police.”

I looked at him.

“There?”

“Yes.”

“When?”  The train hissed again.  I looked for signs of movement.

The officer flicked his spent fag into the grass. 

“Now,”  he said.

Fifteen minutes later, back in the compartment, the Armenian was laughing.  He had been laughing for at least a minute.  Not an open guffaw; not a raucous, side-splitting wheeze of merriment, but a gentle chuckle, low and persistent.  It was a laugh at my expense.

“You went fast!” he said.  “Çabuk-çabuk!”  The gold-rimmed teeth flashed beneath his mustache.  He offered me another pistachio.

I was still breathing hard.  This wasn’t necessarily because of  the sprint between the police office and the train, though the blast from the engine’s wind horn had done a great job of jolting me into a final burst of speed.  No, mostly I was panting out of relief and anger.  Also, there was a good physical reason.  When air can’t pass through crud clogging the human nose, panting is the only option left.

I had decided that either, a) Syria’s customs officials were a tribe of misfits exiled to the outer regions because they were too dreamy to succeed as regular police, or, b) I was extremely lucky.  The grim, beret-wearing officer who sent me scurrying after official sanction must have been an aberration, a lone cactus amid palms, a perverse power-reveler bent on humiliation.

At the beige cottage by the poplars, the portrait of President Hafez al-Assad was the sternest thing in the place, and even Assad, notoriously ruthless when it came to dealing with opposition, always looked in his pictures like the bashful, geeky father of someone you knew in junior high school. 

Inside, the light was dim, the floor bare concrete, the walls a pale yellow smudged by tobacco smoke.  Two mustachioed men in uniform sat at a long table and dispensed whatever they thought the government would want them to dispense.  Mostly this was words, accompanied by an occasional paper or a rubber stamp.  In the case of the man ahead of me, it was all words, and he shuffled off clutching his passport like a totem.  When my turn came, the officers could not have been more helpful.

Yes!  Paper!  We know.  Fo-den ex-chentch.  You have bank ticket?  Good, good.  You give me, please.

Ease and accomodation were the order of the day.  These men were shaven; their uniforms were in order.  Pajamas were not in evidence.  They wore not rubber sandals but polished black shoes.  As one of them filled out the form for me, the other sipped a glass of tea and looked longingly out the window at the green leaves and blue sky.  He caught me looking at him and smiled.  Perhaps, I thought, he was thinking of his children; or perhaps he was a poet, chained to this outpost, day-dreaming some delicate nosegay of verse for the delectation of other exiled aesthetes.  I could not fail to contrast this scene with that in Israeli customs six years before, when a thick, glowering man with a full beard and a yarmulke bobby-pinned to his hair looked at my passport and my fresh middle-American face and acted as if I had just offered him a pork tenderloin for lunch.
I thought to myself: I rather like Syria.  The next time I come here, I decided, I won’t be sick.

Back at the train I didn’t see the Syrian officer who had been so insistent about the foreign exchange form.  Perhaps he was in his compartment; perhaps he was phoning in a report to his superiors.  I was glad, however, for his insistence when, half an hour and many curves later, the train was boarded by officials from Syrian customs.  Down the corridor they came, another parade of casual affability, two forty-ish officers taking an afternoon stroll to meet new people and look at their passports.  After all, what international criminal or dealer in contraband would choose this boondocks choo-choo to make a run?  Hundreds of miles of desert and mountain lay to the east, west, and south.  For those who knew the terrain, the Turkish border was a sieve.  With a cursory inspection of his baggage, the Armenian was cleared for transit.  To my currency form, so eagerly grabbed at the last minute, the Syrians scarcely gave a glance.

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