To Atlanta again, via Istanbul

I looked at my boarding pass and saw the words ‘saat’ and ‘tarihi’, Arabic words meaning time and date respectively, and chuckled as I always do when I see the stubborn residue of Arabic in the modern Turkish language. Starting from the 1930s the Turks, under the guidance of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had conducted the most far-reaching exercise in linguistic engineering in the history of humankind. Ottoman Turkish was purged of grammatical structures and lexical items with Arabic and Persian roots. New words and expressions were created, sometimes with bizarre or comic outcomes. The language changed so much during the course of the 20th century that the famous six-day speech given by Ataturk in 1927 has had to be progressively translated into Modern Turkish two times. The linguistic makeover was, in the words of Geoffrey Lewis, a catastrophic success.

Mustafa Kemal had held the Turk by the scruff of his neck and pulled him out of medieval Ottoman stupor, kicking and screaming, into Western modernity. Turkey had been derided for years as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. Kemal diagnosed the cause of illness as Turkey’s Islamic Arabo-Persian heritage. He believed that the surgical excision of the religious and linguistic signifiers of the pathologic Ottoman past was essential to national rebirth and progress. But many of the cancer cells were in the brain, the heart, the lungs and the liver and could not be removed without killing the patient. Maybe he believed that the Turkish nation had had a chronic overdose of Islam and now needed an overdose of secularism. A secularism that was anti-religion rather than one that protected freedom of worship and religious identity.

He banned the fez hat and turban, replacing them with the brimmed hat – jailing, even hanging defaulters – and replaced the Arabo-Persian Ottoman script with a modified Latin one.

Historians continue to examine the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Ataturk= father of the Turks). At the end of WWI, he defeated the allied forces at Gallipoli and saved his nation from the fate of Syria and Iraq. Right after Turkey’s military victory against the enemy, Ataturk conceded an unforced cultural defeat in his heart. He took over the leadership of his country, abolished the caliphate, launched his secularisation program and ruled as an autocrat for fifteen years so that Turkey could become a democracy after him. A democracy whose true custodians were the military rather than the people until, irony of ironies, the Islamist Party took power and banished the brass hats from interfering in the political process.

Today, Turkey is a relatively prosperous, developed and generally peaceful nation that is a major tourist destination. But before this trip I had never been to or passed through Turkey.

For some reason I had imagined that we would be landing at an airport by the city. So, I had chosen a window seat so that I could get a picturesque aerial view. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the Suleymaniye mosque or the Hagia Sophia or the Topkapi Palace or at least see the Bosporus with the metropolis of the defunct Ottoman Empire sprawling on its banks. To see as the water of the Bosporus flows into the Sea of Marmara and through the Dardanelles into the Aegean Sea.

The sheer illusion of familiarity with a country I’m yet to set foot on but which seems like an acquaintance  that I have known forever, first through religious books and then through history books and essays and articles. A country known only through watching from a distance. But can you truly know a people whose country you have never been to, whose language you don’t speak?

We approached Turkey from the southwestern end, but the new Istanbul International Airport is located several kilometers northwest of the city, and I had no chance of seeing anything of the city. Like approaching the Abuja airport from a western direction; you can’t see anything of the city centre. The Istanbul Airport is by the southern shores of the Black Sea on the European side of the Turkish Straits, in what was known in Antiquity as Thrace.

After touchdown, we got off the runway and taxied over a long distance before we got to the terminal building. We taxied on and on. The airport sprawled over such a massive area. But it was unfinished, a huge construction site with many cranes towering above growing structures of steel and concrete. A control tower fashioned after the tulip – Turkish national flower – stood in the distance. The whole project seems like a vast monument to Turkey’s status as an accomplished modern, if not European, state.

We disembarked into the extreme end of Concourse F and had to walk a great distance to the main terminal. Up the escalator to the first floor. A large white three-dimensional sign says, “1st anniversary”.  The airport was inaugurated on the 29th of October 2018. We had arrived a day late for the show.

The first floor of the main terminal is a capacious atrium that is at once a vast shopping mall and a food court. There’s even a mini Turkish Bazaar. At the Bazaar I saw a Turkish Delights stall with the Turkish word ‘lokum’ written on it. Lokum is another domesticated borrowing from Arabic – rahaatul hulqoom (‘throat comfort’). Some people say that, like the Hausa ‘loma’, it is from the Arabic ‘luqma’, meaning morsel.

I saw a number of Turkish women wearing headscarves. Years past, when headscarves were banned from government offices, hospitals, universities, and schools, Muslim women from conservative backgrounds who could afford it had to go to US and other countries that protected their right to wear hijab. Reminds me of a Hausa alliteration: Kafir-kafir, kai ba kafiri ba, amma kafi kafiri kafirci – literally, unbeliever wannabe, you are not an unbeliever, but you exceed the infidel in disbelief. More idiomatically, you can’t be more Catholic than the Pope. The ban was controversially lifted in 2013. And in 2016, even policewomen were allowed to wear a headscarf.

Airport Wi-Fi was available one hour at a time. One had to obtain a ticket from automated machines using one’s international passport. What could be the motive for such metered use of what is becoming as free as air everywhere? It seems everybody now uses every opportunity to collect data. Endless data collection. Big data.

When I went down the escalator to the Turkish Airlines desk to obtain a lunch voucher, I ran into Starbucks. Why hide such an important thing downstairs? But then it commands such a large and strategic lounging area towards the departure gates of concourse F.

I ran into an D&R bookshop. See books! Mouthwatering. A booklover’s paradise. Considering the state of my pocket and the limit of what I could carry in my computer bag, I finally chose four books after much indecision – two Orhan Pamuk books, Greta Thunberg’s book little, Norman Stone’s Turkey: A Short History.

I also bought a fragile-looking reading lamp that can be clipped onto a book. You see, beyond buying and reading books in their different forms, some people also like to collect the appurtenances of the physical act of decoding written texts, the paraphernalia of perusing codices. OK, I mean things like reading lamps, bookmarks, book stands, book holders, book clips, book thongs, protective book cover cloths etc. Some of these seem like mere antiquated gewgaws in the age of Kindle and other eReaders, but old-fashioned booklovers have a different opinion. I am the owner of a bookmark that is also a reading glass and a ruler. Imagine. It is a ritualistic habit that I suspect many bibliolaters are guilty of. And they keep buying books that they may never have the time to read. They can’t be saved.

Later, I found two branches of the same bookshop. Possible there are other branches. Several bookshops in one airport?

After the six-hour layover during which I had gathered several thousand steps, exceeding my daily goal, it was time to move closer to the boarding gate.

We departed for Atlanta through a gate along concourse B.

Onboard, I picked up No One is too Small to Make a Difference, a collection of speeches by Greta Thunberg. The Swedish teenager with Asperger Syndrome clearly sees what adults can’t see. Or what adults pretend not to see. She speaks uncomfortable truths to adults, sees through their lies.  Through school strikes, marches, Facebook posts, and rallies she drives home her urgent message to reduce greenhouse emissions and save the planet. She addressed parliaments in London and Europe, spoke to the World Economic Forum at Davos, and addressed participants at UN Climate Change Conference in Poland, Climate March in Stockholm, crowds at Parliament Square London. Her call is strident and urgent: we need to save the planet by acting now before it’s too late.

I slept. I woke up.

I watched a movie on the on-board menu.

Youmeddine is the story of Beshay who makes a living by scavenging stuff from a refuse dump in the Egyptian desert. Cured of his leprosy but terribly scarred, disfigured. His only friend is a little orphan called ‘Obama’, from the nearby orphanage. After the death of his wife, he sets out on his donkey cart to find his family who abandoned him at the gates of the lepers’ colony as a child. As he journeys south under the scrutinizing gaze of the Egyptian society, he succeeds in hiding his Christian faith but not his leprosy. He even has to pretend to pray in a mosque in order not to be discovered. He eventually finds his father. The boy also discovers the story of his family. Sentimental story. Moving at times but not great cinematography.

I slept. I woke up.

And another movie.

If Beale Street Could Talk, a romance set in the Harlem of the seventies, is based on James Baldwin’s Book of the same title. It is narrated by a young black woman whose fiancé, for whom she’s pregnant, is in jail. Detested by the guy’s self-righteous mother but loved and supported by her family, she fights to clear his innocent name. Her Ebony Gorgeousness carries on with dignity and grit as she goes through the struggle to get him out of jail. An inspiring and deeply moving love story that captures a page in African American history riding on a timeless theme.

This is a great movie. But films based on novels are usually limited or one-dimensional interpretations of the novel. They pick and choose. They leave many parts of a complex narrative unstaged, unperformed. They pass over many unplumbed depths. They rarely do justice to the book. And with a master like James Baldwin, one needs to get hold of the book. But a great director sometimes works magic with a novel’s storyline, elevating it to a higher pedestal. Like what Francis Ford Coppola did to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

I paced up and down to make the blood in my veins flow.

We finally landed at Atlanta.

At the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, it was really free Wi-Fi, unfettered; unlike what obtains at the Istanbul airport.

As happens at every international airport, we were separated into two groups – American citizens and green card holders on one side and visitors with a visa on the other.

An Afghan and his family – his wife and four children – were behind us in the queue. He was wearing a black Chitrali cap and had a long pointed sable beard. He looked fortyish. The oldest child was a girl wearing a blue dress and a blue headscarf. She looked like a ten-year old. The youngest was a little boy carried by the mother. The others were girls. One of the younger girls bent forward as she carried a backpack too big for her size. The family gave off a strong smell that made many people touch their noses, squeeze their noses, cover their noses and mouths with their hands like face masks. The smell was pungent and went straight into one’s throat. Like the smell of unwashed dogs. Humans who have not showered or bathed for days smell like fellow animals. I was chewing gum and couldn’t swallow my saliva. I tried to imagine the ordeal that their fellow passengers went through on the plane. What if they had been on our plane through the 11 hours flight from Istanbul? They probably came straight from a camp in Kabul or Qandahar through long layovers on Europe or Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

The airport workers were nice to them. They offered to provide seats to the young ones while the parents proceeded in the queue. The queue was a long chain of humans folded several times on itself. As we moved slowly along the tight sinuous queue, we were hit by waves of the offensive smell that intermittently reminded us of the presence of the Afghan family.

Tired and with a cramp in my right arm from the half-day spent on the plane, I could no longer carry my laptop bag on my left shoulder. The bag was okay until I succumbed to a compulsion and filled it with books from the bookshop at the Istanbul airport. I held the sling and dragged it on the floor with my left hand. With my right hand, I managed to keep the pages of a book open to read and be oblivious to the pain.

Then I looked up and suddenly saw them at the immigrations desk. How did they get there? They had been made to by-pass the queue. Nobody complained. It was a win-win for them and for us. It is possible that they were given the privilege on account of the little children. This night they can have a hot bath to melt away the grime and wash away the smell of a miserable past. The misery of living in a broken country. A failed country. A blood-soaked country. A country torn apart by intolerance, ignorance, extremism. A country destroyed by foreign interference, including America’s.

This family will have a new lease on life. Like many who have come to this great country in ships and planes every day for half a millennium. This country that has been providing succor to the persecuted, the refugees, the asylum seekers. Never mind that this is not a narrative shared by millions of African Americans. But one that recent African immigrants can probably identify with. The American story is complex like that. America’s narrative of nationhood comprises many storylines.

America’s narrative is a tapestry of many colors in which the weft is white, the other colors hidden in the warp. Barely visible. But the only white-majority country in which an Obama has happened.

This family will become Americans. The parents will probably always speak with an accent. It will not take long before the children forget Pashto, Tajik, Showar of whatever language they used to speak in their war-torn former country. Maybe the girl in a blue dress will one day become famous like the Afghan-born physician-turned-novelist Khalid Husseini who wrote the bestselling Kite Flyer, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed. Or like Maryam Mahboob in Canada who writes about Afghan immigrants, patriarchy, and marginalization of women. Or become a lawyer, a professor or a congresswoman.

In America, if you don’t die in a shooting in Texas or elsewhere in the vast country, you can become anything you like. You can be the best at anything. Once you have become the best in anything in America, America will say you are the best in the world. And the rest of the world will agree. America is magical like that.

Next, please!

I was at the end of the queue. Reverie broken off, I moved to the next vacant spot in front of an immigrations staff. I spent my shortest time ever at passport control and moved into the baggage claim area. As I was looking to identify the carousel bearing my luggage, an airport staff came forward and asked, “Which flight?”. Turkish. Over there. My luggage just turned the corner. I picked it up. I turned to leave, and the guy came up again with his bespectacled face carrying a friendly smile.

– What food do you have in there?
– Peanuts, two bottles.
– No egusi?
– No.
– No kilishi?
– No.
– Why just peanuts?
– For a friend who prefers fresh Nigerian peanuts. Tasty, and no preservatives.
– OK, enjoy your stay.
– Thanks, bye.

Taxi driver was Somali – Muhyiddeen. Last time it was an Ethiopian. It is always Ethiopian or Somali. I typed the hotel address on his Google map, and we zoomed off.

This time, I tarried in Atlanta for a week.

Just before sunset on the last day of the conference I went up the Stone Mountain by cable car. Halfway up the Summit Skyride, I had a clear view of the low relief figure of the three Confederate leaders – Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis and Thomas J ‘Stonewall’ Jackson – with their horses half done, blending into the uncut grey stone; as if the figures were just riding out of the rock.

When will the movement against Confederate icons and symbols in the country reach the grandest monument to slavery and white supremacy in the world? I know not everybody will want it blasted away, either for artistic or historical reasons. But can’t it be removed and put in a museum like the figures of historical villains dismounted from squares, fountains and parks all over the world? For merely daring to be bigger than the faces on Mount Rushmore, situated at a higher altitude, and associated with Klansmen, this massive carving on granite deserves to be brought down and banished to the oblivion of a museum. The proposed Freedom Bell in honor of Martin Luther King could be mounted in the resultant rectangular void to ‘let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia’. Otherwise, the void on the face of the mountain should serve as a new memorial to the myth of the Lost Cause.

We explored the generally flat summit and peeked through the mounted telescopes. A few minutes later, the sun dropped off the western horizon, splashing the sky with an intense orange glow against which the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta appeared like miniature figures in the great distance.

For us to pass once again through the Istanbul Airport, the plane first flew north over the ashen greenish-black waters of the Black Sea for some distance. Then it turned back towards the airport. Then the sea became turquoise blue, rippling thinly over the beach, frothing as it kissed the sands.

After a much shorter layover, it was time for the final segment of the trip.

Later in the evening, as the plane was taking off, I nodded off.

When I opened my eyes, we were flying above the Mediterranean fringes of Thrace. I turned and looked through the window and saw a most magical spectacle: a glittering finely wrought golden needlework sprinkled with sparkling diamonds against the blackest velvet. Uncountable yellow lights had formed incredibly elaborate patterns describing the outlines of buildings, roads and bridges with occasional white lights, the diamonds in the embroidery. It’s a shame I didn’t have my camera.

One day I will visit these places.

Insha Allah.


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