My Heart Gift today is one of my favorite letters from my father. It is a letter that he wrote to his step-father, from Turkey in 1953-63 years ago. Aged just 23 at the time of writing, his words are poetic, profound and as relevant today as they were in 1953. The letter was published in his book, The Unbeaten Track in 1970. I include his description before the letter as I think it is a beautiful example of my father’s word alchemy. I hope you enjoy it!
“A fortnight later, rucksack on my back, I had hitch-hiked right across Europe and into central Turkey. A letter from home awaited me in the little town of Kayseri, the Caesarea of antiquity. I stopped there for a couple of days, putting up, by invitation of the headmaster, at the local college, empty for the summer vacation. There I started a friendship with Orhan, a student who still remained in the college waiting for his parents to come from Istanbul before joining them in their native village close by. ‘Why don’t you come along with me?’ Orhan said, ‘and see life in a Turkish village?’
It was from that village that I re-read Tadeusz’s letter. ‘What in hell draws you to these countries?’ he wrote. ‘Are you still as keen about it, or have the poverty and primitive conditions cooled you off a bit by now?’ The evening light was failing, as I sat in the porch of my host’s modest cottage, and smiled to myself. The village square was deep in fine dust. Chickens scratched around in the animal droppings for food; a flock of ducks came wobbling across the square hustled home by a ten-year-old in baggy trousers with missing fly-buttons, his round chubby face in striking contrast to his oversized cap. He whistled sharply, raising his stick towards the laggards who were trying to dispute the droppings with the chicken, and shouted gaily ‘burda, burda!’ (‘this way!).
Now a herd of cattle ambled to their sheds, trailing dust, lowing softly, the resonance of their bells mingling with long- drawn shepherd calls which the hushed clear air seemed to hold for ever, so that they lingered lazily like the dancing dust that tarried over the square. Last of all the bullock-carts lumbered in, ponderous on their spokeless wheels of solid wood, their axles whining and complaining with a note of ever-changing pitch.
Lost in thought, I didn’t notice Orhan, who had brought a hurricane lamp and a dish of sour milk. ‘There!’ he smiled, ‘you can’t write home in the dark. The night falls fast here. Eat this soon, or it’ll be swimming with gnats.’ ‘Tashakur’ (‘thank you!’), I grinned back at him, ‘I wish my Turkish were half as good as your English!’
‘You ask me if I like it here,’ I wrote. ‘Oh yes, intensely, but how can I explain? It’s a bit like meeting a girl, when everything clicks, and you fall in love. I feel gloriously alive and very much at home, almost as if I were regaining a homeland. But probing more deeply what can I say? You have to feel it and to live it. These lands suckled the earliest civilizations, nurtured the first roots of man’s timid gropings towards the tree that we are now. Beneath the outward poverty, under the grime and the tatters there is a culture as time itself, infinitely complex and wise. These weathered lands hold out the corrective to our brave new world, of the sobriety of age and experience, of diversity in life’s options: especially to those seeking to apprehend the ultimates and the quiddity within the ebb and flow of appearance. To me this last is particularly appealing: the directness and immediacy between man and his natural environment.
At the same time there is so much need here, so much wretchedness that could be remedied. The challenge is enormous. The poverty is crushing, perhaps less so here in Turkey than in other parts of Asia, a poverty often aggravated by the former exploitation by European colonial powers. I believe everybody in the West should be aware of this and its profound consequences for all of us. Help and alleviation of this wretchedness can come essentially from a better understanding of its causes, nature and extent, and in this every one of us can help, can contribute his humble little brick.
I daresay this may not answer your questions very satisfactorily, for it is written in the heat of the moment, real no less than for it is figurative – 96°F in the shade!”
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