When your father takes you to Istanbul but you really have no wish to go because you're dreaming of Paris. A trip to Turkey in the early 70s
The last epidemic of smallpox in Europe was in March 1972. A disease which was thought to have been eliminated in the preceding thirty years, reappeared in Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia. A thirty-five-year-old Kosovar on returning from his pilgrimage to Mecca had brought the virus. 175 people caught it, of whom 35 died.
The hospital where the first to be infected were housed was tightly sealed: the doors, windows and drains were closed off and it was cordoned off by police with orders to shoot anyone trying to escape. A state of emergency was declared throughout the country, compulsory quarantine instituted nationwide and all the inhabitants' movement strictly limited.
In a month and a half eighteen million Yugoslavians were vaccinated, out of a population of twenty- one million inhabitants. The World Health Organization praised the Yugoslavian authorities for how they overcame the infection.
After days of agitation everything calmed down, soon the event no longer made news and was lost to our attention.
We go to Turkey
I was getting ready for a summer at the seaside after my first year at University. But at the beginning of July comrade father countermanded: “we're going to Turkey”.
With my father we went on working excursions and educational journeys, to see and to learn; never for fun. Everyone in the family found excuses not to go. I also refused, pulling out various excuses, even the fact of the epidemic, saying it could be dangerous to go to Turkey. Yugoslavia was the only country where smallpox had appeared, but we still had the strange idea that it was the fault of others and the centre of the epidemic was elsewhere - “in the South or East”. But the danger of epidemic was over. I would have to go to Istanbul and the departure date was set for mid July. It was 1972.
We were a motley group with different interests: my father and I and a married couple who were his friends. The wife was going because she wanted to buy jewellery, or rather something gold and a pearl necklace and her husband was accompanying her; my father wanted to see a bit of the world and I had no choice.
Instead of going to Istanbul I would have preferred to be listening to “The Beatles” in London, mingling with film stars on Via Veneto in Rome or strolling down the Champs Elysées in Paris in a mini-skirt. The West, not the East, was the favourite destination of the youth of that time.
The car was driven by my father as he was the only one with a licence. It was a “Moskvich 408”, Russian, the pride of our family, the biggest in the neighbourhood. Other people, then, had a Fiat “500”, at least twice as small as ours.
My father was not a keen driver: he drove the car around from time to time “so the battery would not run down”, he said. In the garage he covered it up, “so it wouldn't catch cold” we joked. Before we left he told me my duties: to check that the tyres were pumped up, to keep the windows clean and keep an eye on the road signs. The latter rather puzzled me, having no driving licence or knowledge of the meaning of the road signs. But if father said so!
From Bosnia Herzegovina to Istanbul it is about 1,200 kilometres. The road passes through Serbia, crosses Bulgaria and enters Turkey at the town of Edirne. Today a good driver can, if he so wishes, do it in one day. We took two and a half.
We left Sarajevo at 4 a.m. “We're doing well”, declared my father towards 9 o'clock as we neared Belgrade on nearly empty roads. From Sarajevo there are two main routes to Serbia: one crosses eastern Bosnia going towards the River Drina and the other goes north towards the River Sava. We then went north in the direction of Belgrade. At Orasje we crossed the bridge over the Sava and then took the motorway known as “Bratstvo i Jedinstvo” (B&J) (of Brotherhood and Unity).
At that time the B&J motorway was the only modern road in Yugoslavia, with only two lanes, one in each direction. It was built in the 50s and 60s and linked the North to the South of Yugoslavia, from the border with Austria to the border with Greece. The construction of Highway B&J was an epic undertaking. More than three hundred thousand young volunteers from all over the country, and many foreigners, took part. For many it was a sort of school, of life or for life. After eight hours' work, various courses were offered, including literacy, and many got the diploma which then changed their life.
The motorway of Brotherhood and Unity is the shortest connection between Western Europe and the Middle East. In the 60s the great seasonal movement of the gastarbeiter (guest workers in German) began. In that period the most numerous gastarbeiter in Europe were Turks, Italians, Spaniards and Yugoslavians. In the summer months along the B&J highway thousands of cars passed in both directions. The Turkish gastarbeiter had few days' holiday and a long road to travel, so they drove night and day without stopping and many met their death there. Plane trees had been planted on either side of the road to break the monotony of the Pannonian plain, but were also involved in many deaths. In fact many years and many deaths passed before anyone decided to cut down the “deadly” trees lining the motorway.
After spending the night in Belgrade, on the second day we continued South towards the Bulgarian border. The road follows the River Morava through the districts of Šumadija and Pomoravlje, their beautiful countryside resembling Tuscany, very green with low hills and fertile soil. Further South the landscape changes, the rolling hills giving way to the Sićevo Ravine [Sićevačka Klisura].
About 250 kilometres further on to the South is the town of Niš. Under the Ottoman Empire its name was Naissus [“town of the waterlilies”]. The Roman Emperor Constantine, who was born there in 271 B.C., built his new imperial residence at Byzantium, calling it New Rome. In his honour the Romans named the city Constantinople, today Istanbul and our destination.
At Niš we wanted to see a unique monument: the Tower of Skulls [Ćele kula] with human skulls incorporated into it. It was built in the Ottoman period with 950 skulls of Serbian rebels as a warning to those who thought of opposing the occupation. Today only about fifty skulls remain set in the stone, but that macabre monument still makes quite an impression.
The last Serbian town before Bulgaria is Pirot, a five-hundred-year-old centre of carpet production: the kilim of Pirot, known for their beauty, variety of colours and patterns, are made of wool and are very light and strong. We were going to Turkey to buy jewellery and cheap clothes, while the Turkish antique dealers were travelling to Yugoslavia to buy cheaply the ancient carpets made in Pirot which we sold happily as we preferred modern fitted carpets.
The border between Serbia and Bulgaria is not only administrative. From one side of the border to the other the landscape changes as if it had been cut with a knife. In Serbia up to the border the road splits the mountains, laboriously zig zagging and tunnelling its way through the rocky ground - it's dangerous and a moment's distraction can be fatal.
In Bulgaria the road crosses the plain, straight and easy. Either side of the road there are apple trees, orderly with white painted trunks which give a sense of order and cleanliness. Behind the trees fields of wheat and maize stretch into the distance and in one of these we slept on our second night.
We stopped at the side of the road to eat. My father said he was tired and didn't feel like going on. We didn't know how far we were from the nearest town. Our lady passenger complained in an undertone, her husband remained in silence looking straight ahead, I spotted an apple in a tree and was about to grab it. But my father sensed my intention and, without looking at me, ordered “Don't you dare!” He still respected the orders of the partisans who were said to be so keen on their discipline that they would shoot anyone taking somebody else's fruit.
The next morning, the third day of the journey, we woke up early, all with backache, tired and grumpy with our clothes crumpled. None of us looked at each other or uttered a word.
From there we were soon over the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. At Edirne, the first Turkish town we came to, we stopped for a coffee. In the centre we found a bar with a terrace and got out of the car.
I looked at the tyres, as I had been instructed, kicked the rubber (as I had seen others do, even if I didn't know why or what to expect), and realised something was wrong. Raising my eyes I saw all the bar regulars, the men, leaning on the railings watching us. Confused, we also studied them for a moment, then our lady passenger understood what it was: I, in the fashion of the time, was wearing a pair of tight shorts, “hot pants”, which was why the male customers of the bar were gazing intently at the bare legs of a girl scantily clothed by local standards.
“Get in, we're leaving”, my father ordered.
The Turks were surprised at the legs on show, while I was surprised to see armoured vehicles at the entrance to Istanbul, their guns pointed at the road ( the year before the Turkish army had taken power with a military coup). I was amazed to see the country women dressed in a sort of double wide black skirt which also worked as head cover by pulling up one of the two layers from behind, to see the Turks drinking tea rather than Turkish coffee as we Bosnians did and to see the numerous imposing monuments which made me understand how small and insignificant my country was.
We arrived in Istanbul in the early afternoon. My father pulled over to the kerb to ask the whereabouts of the small hotel we had booked. He asked the first passer-by in German, but was not understood, so he tried French – to no avail. Frustrated my father turned to us and said, in Serbo-Croatian: “He doesn't understand anything.” At that point the Turk started laughing and in our language, Serbo-Croatian, asked if we were Yugoslavs. He was descended from Bosnians who had emigrated to Turkey at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Today in Turkey there are at least two million people of Bosnian origin. Muslims fled from Bosnia Herzegovina after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Bosnia Herzegovina became a protectorate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The first Bosnians left because they didn't want to remain under a non-Muslim government, others feared for their lives or hoped to hang on to their own personal wealth in Turkey.
After the Balkan wars Muslims from Sangiaccato, Kosovo and Macedonia emigrated. The exodus continued for a hundred years, though not all left of their own free will. Migration of Muslims was encouraged in state policy, with force, threats and administrative measures which, according to official documents, would make Muslims' life impossible and so emigration would be seen as the only solution.
In Turkey they were supposed to change their surname, but many kept their Bosnian surname too, along with the language and habits. There are some villages in Turkey, mainly populated by Bosnian descendents, where, a century after their arrival, they still speak Serbo-Croatian.
A Bosnian Turk
Our Bosnian Turk belonged to the third generation of Bosnian expatriates, coming from a northern town, Banja Luka. Though born in Istanbul he spoke our language extremely well, with a strong accent and using the odd archaic word. He was enthusiastic about this unexpected meeting, kind and welcoming, giving us pats on the back and inviting us to his house.
My father, suspicious of this, for him disproportionate, enthusiasm, became rigid and very formal, uttering a series of resolute Nos: “No, not even to be considered”, “No, thank you”, “No, we have already booked”, “No, we'll see”, “No, no, no maybe”.
That poor fellow, disappointed, looked at us like a child who doesn't understand why he's being forbidden to do something harmless. He took us to the hotel, left a piece of paper with his address and telephone number and renewed his invitation to his house, “at least for a dinner” and said goodbye.
In the hotel bedroom the first thing my father did was throw the paper with the Turk's address in the bin then wash his hands as if they were contaminated, saying, “you never know with strangers. . .who knows who he was. . .better to keep your distance from people you don't know. . .there are frauds and thieves. . .” etc.
My father took me round the historical sights and museums of Istanbul, holding me by the arm above the elbow like policemen do with those they have arrested. In the evening in the hotel we met our travelling companions, the wife showed me what she had bought and I described the wonders I had seen. But it was useless – apart from her purchases everything else bored her.
The third day in Istanbul on the way back to the hotel we found ourselves in front of “our Turk”. I was happy to see him, as were the couple. But my father was as cold as ice, waiting in silence, I presume for explanations. “Our Turk” wanted to invite us back to his house for a meal. “Yes” we three answered in unison. At that point my father could no longer object, but it was clear the idea did not please him.
Edhem, as “our Turk” was called, lived with his parents and siblings in a beautiful house overlooking the Bosphorous. They all welcomed us affectionately and we ate in the garden with a wonderful view of the sea. Men and women together, speaking our language. The whole evening they plied us with questions on how things were in Yugoslavia, were we free to travel, could we own a private car, house and telephone, what the work situation was, if the communist regime was dangerous, if they could visit Yugoslavia and then get back home. Were there mosques? Religion, was it prohibited?
Their questions amused us. They seemed like the ones children ask about obvious facts. “Of course you can visit. . . of course we have a telephone . . of course no one stops you by force. . .what regime? We live, work and travel freely”, we answered.
Towards the end of the evening Edhem timidly asked: “Can I come with you? I'd like to visit Yugoslavia. I've heard so much about it but never been there”. We all, including our hosts, looked at my father for his verdict. A moment's silence followed – too long in my opinion. I liked “our Turk” and the idea of taking him to Yugoslavia with us, showing him our country and way of life. I stared at my father, or rather, begged him with my gaze.
“But of course”, said my father smiling, as if he had never had a moment's doubt about “our Turk”.
After five days in Istanbul, we were heading home. “Our Turk” sat in the back between the couple, smiling, content, enthusiastic, singing to himself. And he sang all the way, tirelessly, for the whole two days of our return trip. Sung by him, I heard for the first time the ancient popular Bosnian song “Put putuje Latif-aga”, which describes how an inhabitant of Banja Luka sets off on a long journey, saying goodbye to everyone, not knowing if he'll ever come back.
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