In search of the lost tracks

June 28, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar recounts his journey from Damascus to Mosul

Divrigi i Great Mosque, Turkey. — Image: Supplied

I had wanted to visit Jordan to see Petra and the wall paintings in Qusayr ‘Amra, but I was advised against it in view of the uneasiness prevailing there. I, therefore, boarded the train to Iraq, which originally had been part of the Baghdad Demiryolu.

The train from Damascus to Mosul does not follow the modern political borders, for it was laid out during the Ottoman times. As I boarded it, I was still in Syria, according to the stamp on my passport. Soon my document was stamped with a “Left”. Then the Turkish officers marked it “Entered.”

As the train stopped at some small station, my fellow Arab travellers alighted and started enjoying Coca-Cola (which was banned in Arab countries). A few more miles later, I was marked “Left Turkey.” I was welcomed and seen off several times. My passport pages soon got filled up. Yet, thanks to the generosity of Syrian and Lebanese embassies, there were some pages spared for Saddam Hussein’s men.

By the time the train neared the Iraqi border, my fellow travellers had become my buddies. An Italian lady with Medici-like hair squeezed in, was soon trying to learn Arabic from me. She also had a Teach-Yourself book on her. (To me she appeared to be on a Cynthia Ritchie-like mission.) A stout man in white Arab overalls entered the compartment and offered his services to change money at dubious rates. The Iraqi dinar was most expensive in the region. While the Italian signora was marvelling at my (then) dark black curly hair, a jealous-looking Iraqi passport officer came in and asked for my visa, which no one country I had visited thus far had demanded.

Offering to get me one, he told me to come along with my luggage. There was a very small border-post station. He told me to wait there. After a while I heard the Hejaz Railway of my fantasy steam away. It was past midnight. There were few staff and passengers around. I did not curse the man for the treachery. In fact, I thanked him for not having made off with my briefcase and the painting equipment.

I have always found a way to thank all mischief makers and thieves alike. I even wished my Hejaz Train to be protected from the bombs left unexploded during the Great War, more so for the Italian damsel.

As I had sent letters enclosed in aerogrammes to my friends in Pakistan about my travel itinerary, which would take me to Basra and back, my friends must have spent sleepless nights back home over the events unfolding in Iraq and Pakistan. It so happened that on that fateful day, as a very shrewd politician, Bhutto had gathered the ambassadors from various countries and taken them to the Embassy of Iraq in Islamabad where alot of ammunition catches were discovered to be dished for subversive activities in Pakistan. In retaliation, Iraq expelled all Pakistanis working or visiting there. I would have been sent packing via Basra had that Iraqi passport officer stamped me “Entered.”

My friends in Pakistan were expecting me to alight from a train in Lahore as a destitute. With one stroke of luck I was spared the multi-pronged agony. All this ‘blessing in disguise’ was revealed to me upon my return to Istanbul where many postal envelopes had been gathering dust.

After having spent the night at the deserted outpost, at daybreak, I tried to enquire as to which country I was in. Given Turkey is the land of Koh Qaaf, with fairies and genies, here I was facing most unlikely and unpleasant episodes.

Border areas are generally multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. In sign language they pointed out an image in low-resolution far away, what appeared to be a border post manned by paramilitary carrying light guns in threatening postures (guns are held pointed downwards when the bullet is in its chamber, my rifle instructor Gulistan Khan had told me).

In spite of my light-weight luggage it was quite a task to walk through that virgin territory. Soon, ferocious wild dogs never having smelled a homo sapien for generations, were sniffing me all around in most friendly postures. They knew I had two leftover bread pieces on me, which came handy. After finishing quickly, they again came after me, wagging tails for more. But by that time I had already left their territory. Now their adversaries from the adjoining area were waiting for me, expecting their share. Luckily, some staff in that most unfrequented outpost, came to my rescue. I may have crossed the border but the language barrier remained.

It was quite cold out there. They offered me tea without milk. I used the small glass container to instead warm my hands. They were kind enough to have sent for someone from a far-off village who knew some Urdu. As the grand old man arrived, he said, “Tum Hindi hai?” (are you Hindi-speaking?) It was a remark that I did not appreciate, because I knew that Turks call the bird turkey a “hindi,” which I was not.

That man had fought off the soldiers from Hindustan during the First World War. He had a large scar left by a bullet on his cheek. From then on he was my translator. As he translated my predicament into Turkish which I had by then got accustomed to, I corrected him on some points.

The border men were really mad at me for having taken so much trouble in summoning that translator. They were Kurdish tribesmen persecuted by the Arabs, Turks and Iranians alike. A fiercely independent people; yet friendly to travellers and visitors. Smuggling is their mainstay. They arranged a taxi that took me to a small town named Kamishli that straddles Syria and Turkey. As I dropped that grand old man off at his village, I deemed it fit to slip some coins into his pocket, which he accepted and said, “Allah Hafiz!” with teary eyes. I did not find it appropriate to ask as to how he had got that bullet mark on his cheek. Some unpleasant memories are best left unvisited.

The Turkish border guards were really surprised when I spoke in their mother tongue. “Hosh geldiniz!” they said, meaning “Welcome.” “Hosh bulduk,” I replied, meaning I’ve found happiness.

After having been marooned in a no man’s land, in the middle of the night, and chased by wild dogs, it was a great solace. But they would not buy my story, wondering as to what I was doing in that territory. All male Turks have to undergo military service. I impressed a military officer by showing my student card from Istanbul Technical University, but he advised me against declaring any foreign currency which the wild dogs had failed to sniff.

After checking into a small hotel, I had a most nutritious yet cost-effective lunch — Ishkembe corbasi i.e. soup made out of cow’s stomach. It was more like small pieces of towel floating in gravy.

Soon I was roaming in the small Turkish town along the border. Some of the houses had gates/doors painted green. I was told that these were houses of Hajis. They all must have died long ago when Hejaz Railway was operative, I thought. But I was introduced to some young Hajis. Turkey sends only the young for pilgrimage, I learnt. As I ascended the spiral staircase of a minaret of a dilapidated mosque, a flamingo nestling there was disturbed. I retraced my steps. In Turkish, it is called leylek. Haji Lak Lak, a journalist of ours from olden times, came to my mind. This migratory bird comes from Russia to spend winters in Turkey and stays in Kush Cenneti meaning birds’ paradise and is never hunted down as is unfortunately the case in Pakistan.

I found it more convenient to visit the hilly summit where some Ottoman veterans followed me and were pleasantly surprised to see me writing my daily diary in Urdu the alphabets of which they could read but not comprehend. After a couple of days, the same group waved me goodbye as I boarded a bus to Diyarbakir. During our conversations they had told me that their village folk in the Ottoman army had died proudly defending the Masjid e Nabvi and the Holy Ka’aba instead of retreating. This city was quite cold as it was covered in snow. While roaming like a vagabond, I visited their main mosque called Ulu Cami, just in time to attend a funeral for which the bereaved were especially grateful.

I saw a plaque at a bus announcing departure for Istanbul. Having boarded it, I paid the full fare. But at another city, Sivas, they shifted me to another bus. Thus I had been ‘sold’ as a transit passenger, for which I had to pay another five Turkish liras.

The deal was repeated at Ankara and other cities. I was finally dropped at my starting point i.e. the same Hyderpasha from where I had to cross the Bosphorus on a boat. Istanbul was surprisingly warm at that time of the year because the Lodos had traced my steps all the way from the Middle East. It, thus, did not come full circle; Iraq, the cradle of civilisations remained a distant dream.

(This dispatch is dedicated to an old Arab who spoke Urdu)

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

In search of the lost tracks