The long exile to Turkiye

April 26, 2020

I always had the feeling that in some ancient texts of Turkey (Yasa), it had been predicted that a time would come when a person, named Mucizenin Aydinligi (meaning Ajaz Anwar), from the Land of the Pure would visit Anatolia. As the predicted time neared, I was offered a doctoral scholarship to study Islamic Art and Architecture in Istanbul.

— Image: Supplied

I always had the feeling that in some ancient texts of Turkey (Yasa), it had been predicted that a time would come when a person, named Mucizenin Aydinligi (meaning Ajaz Anwar), from the Land of the Pure would visit Anatolia. As the predicted time neared, I was offered a doctoral scholarship to study Islamic Art and Architecture in Istanbul.

Since I could not get the requisite study leave from the University of the Punjab, I decided to resign, which everybody advised against. Only my teacher Wali Ullah Khan told me to go ahead. “You are young and can endure hardships in a foreign land. Upon your return, employment will seek you, instead of you seeking it,” he told me. He was proved right.

Getting a passport was a difficult venture till the early 1970s. What I went through, in the process, merits a separate dispatch. While shuttling between various police stations, Special Branch, the Secretariat, and the Education Ministry in Islamabad, I had no time to communicate with my friends who thought I must have left the country already.

Still in Lahore, I got a thick overcoat, tailor-made from Shimla Cloth House in Anarkali that could effectively protect me against even the polar ice, and bought a big suitcase. Some of my friends spotted me shopping, and took me straight to the Plaza cinema which also has a theatre-stage.

Perhaps in anticipation of my long predicted visit, Turkey sent a troupe in the month of November in 1972, the gorgeous members of which performed explicitly in almost see-through apparel — Acik-Sacik, in Turkish lexicon, which my friends had witnessed a day earlier and wished I had seen it as a prelude before heading to the land where this performing arts piece had originated. So very generous of them!

Besieged, kidnapped, I was taken to the theatre and made to see the eye-popping whirlwinds. But my friends were greatly disappointed because a day earlier they had seen an ‘undiluted’ version of it. Alas, the censor people had used their dictatorial scissors, they said. Still, to me this was an introduction to the days to come, as if the artistes had been sent to escort me to the land of fairies i.e. Koh Qaaf.

Weeks later, while I was travelling from Tehran to Istanbul in a Mihan Tours bus, a Russian white dog (Samoyed) from behind my seat popped and seemed to say hello to me with its large pink tongue and sparkling white teeth. The couple who owned the dog were from the troupe that I had seen at the Plaza cinema stage, except that they were now fully draped.

While all the passengers crossing the borders were obliged to produce the various vaccination certificates and passports duly stamped with the requisite visas, this canine seemed to enjoy diplomatic immunity. He would even help the immigration staff by sniffing the accompanied baggage. While I knew no Persian or Turkish back then, the dog owners seemed to have picked up some Urdu during their stay in Lahore because Urdu itself is a Turkish word and a large number of words are common to the two languages.

During the almost 2,000-mile overland journey, whenever the bus stopped the man would take the canine out to answer the call of nature, or to feed him, while his partner sat back in a chair and issued the SOPs. Every time the dog refused to eat rice that had no meat, the man would exclaim, “Yemiyor!” (meaning “he is not eating”), and she would yell, “Yedir!” (make him eat). Seeing all this, the other passengers tossed pieces of meat and chicken bones which the dog would catch midair and devour without chewing them. Its attendant’s reddened face was worth clicking. And when the dog remained undecided about choosing a spot to relieve itself, the man had to hear the choicest titles not available even on the Rosetta-stone.

The man’s fortunes changed for the better when my Christian friend, a fellow traveller from India, and myself ordered meal for one and an extra empty plate to share. But the bill came for two meals. My friend asked the dog owner to intervene and arbitrate as he had witnessed it all. Returning after successfully pleading our case, he exclaimed in Urdu, “Dimagh kharaab ho gya hae inka!” (they are out of their mind). After this episode, I pleaded his case whenever he faced chaste Punjabi lexicon aimed at him by his partner.

After crossing into Turkey, the language barrier became severer. Instead of aab it was now su. The bread was ekmek.

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Mihan Tours was a very efficient bus service. It stopped during the night for stays at affordable hotels. Gradually, the topography changed. Visiting different cities along the highways like Erzerum, Dogu Beyazit, Tigrit, Van, and Ankara, finally it reached Istanbul, the fabled Constantinople.

Here, I found men and women who were strongly supportive of each other, holding each other tight. They seemed to be performing Tango in the parks and along the roads wherever the bus passed, till it reached the terminal at Aksaray.

I was lost in the scenic views of the city that comprised a Roman-era aqua duct, and many mosques with lofty minarets and big domes supported by half-domes that I had seen previously only in books and on postcards.

After the bus dropped us off, we were left to fend for ourselves on a foreign land with an exotic language and strange customs. A number of taxis lined up in front of us. Dolmus, as the taxis are called, means ‘full’ (even when they are empty!). A very smart young driver, conversant in rudimentary English, picked my heavy suitcase and took us to a reasonable, centrally located hotel in Sultan Ahmet, and even negotiated the price for us, which was a great help because the couple with the dog had vanished already just like that character in the novel Margaret after 2,000 years (a Russian classic, rendered into Urdu by Dr Najmus Sehar Butt). Now I was left to myself.

At the Turkish embassy in Islamabad, an official named Kahraman Marasoglu had told me to contact in Istanbul a certain ‘Mudurlugu’ which I took to mean Education Directorate. The following morning I went out looking for the ‘Mudurlugu’, and there were a plenty of them around. I was supposed to apply to one of them. ‘To apply’ in Turkish language means bas vurmak (i.e. to break head against), indeed it turned out to be akin to that. ‘Mudurlugu means directorate, and there was a health directorate, a sports directorate, a welfare directorate, a social directorate, and so on and so forth, but no directorate for education.

An old man focusing on me seemed to have come to the conclusion that this was the man pre-destined to come from the Land of Pure. He asked me to sit down and offered a small cup of Turkish black coffee. As I finished it, he took the cup and inverted it over the accompanying plate. After a while, he picked the cup upside up and began looking inquisitively inside it. While I wondered about what he was doing, he muttered some words unintelligible to me. This is the Turkish way of deciphering faal (omen) from the impressions formed by the residue of consumed coffee on walls of the cup, I learnt much later.

Though this did not help much, someone with a little command over English stopped by to help me out and finally took me to the right directorate i.e. the Egitim Mudurlugu or Education Directorate.

I was extended a state guest’s welcome by a dazzling damsel in a dress expertly tailored with right anatomical contours that defied censorship. I knew no Turkish back then, but I so wished I could convey my compliments to her. All that I had memorised previously was Zubaan e yaar e man Turki, ve man Turki na mi daanam. The other part of it, however, would be more exciting: Che khush budi agar budi, Zubaanish dar dahaan e man (Amir Khusroe), which means how pleasant would it have been if her tongue were in my mouth.

Thus, there was no question of Turki ba Turki.

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In Turkish, dil means language or tongue. My scholarship file had arrived from Ankara and I was paid the first installment of my monthly bourse; to which I responded with “tesekkur ederim” (meaning I thank you), to which she responded, “Bir sey sdegil”, meaning mention not.

I was directed to go to Guzel Sanatlar Akademisi, in Findikli, (State Academy of Fine Arts) where Professor Dr Nermin Sinemoglo ordered a cup of Turkish coffee for me and one for herself. As soon we finished, I took her emptied cup and put it upside down, her face turned pale out of apprehension that it might reveal something personal about her.

(This dispatch is dedicated by the author to “my teacher, Wali Ullah Khan”)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists’ Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

The long exile to Turkiye