Broken Sesame

December 23rd, 2019

The packing was done with an oscillating admixture of excitement and dread. What do you take on a road that might lead you straight to the Golden Horn, but which also might weave a few weeks' worth through the Dalmatian coast, to Greece, and in either case quite likely through Syria, and in Jordan, and Egypt, and further points unknown? For weeks, for months, you don't know, you've got one bag: go.


The unpacking takes a lot less time and is done under a veil of melancholy, the excitement all wrung out and left in pockets here and there along the way, where some investigation lead to nowhere, or a playful hope was laughed away, a desperate attempt condemned. I have stood at the gate of the Orient and been denied. My soul's been weighed, if not against a feather, perhaps against some paragon of quality; I've been centrifuged and found constituently lacking, sick without illness, an impotent item incapable of claiming either stake or asylum.

It sucks, and that's all I can really bring myself to say about the rime or reason of this cut-short trip, for now. Unpleasant as unfurling the corpse may be, there's yet the rank dissection to be done, and then who knows what rituals and rites to come. Let no one tell you failure is an easy route.

On then, instead, to assorted observations, which are the currency of the broken and approximate.

I. Belgrade, Serbia

Pain-in-the-ass "demonstrations" are weekly by now. Exactly as in Buenos Aires, the Look, ma! rilers are a lot more about volume than substance, and trudge through the downtown streets to block traffic and prevent sleep. Why are loudspeakers cheap? Why are the apparent leaders of the agitated universally tone-deaf?

A strange bedfellow of the foregoing is the shallow luxury of Belgrade. Like gold, but plating, a pleasant kiss with no desire, a suite of rooms in the town crown jewel kept for a week with spas and sweets and soft piano music is a dream for a day or two until you want something real, which is I guess to say, inadequate for practical, rather than constructed, reasons. You'll never fit in someone else's complex vision of "the best". If you don't bring something ample of your own, the cast will ache, and itch, and irritate.





II. Nis, Serbia

A fifteen year old waiter faced with well over a hundred patrons at half that many terrace tables tallied our bill in his head, on demand, a thing that makes most other servers shut down. He blushed and then offered a number. "Wouldn't it be terrible if he got it wrong, and was too shy to say anything about it, it's really like 70% of the actual cost, and now instead of a tip he has to dip into his check to cover it?" So we found a menu and checked him. It was right, a big thing in a small world.

Not incidentally, Nis keeps its oldness out in the daylight, and invites you to touch and trample.









III. Sofia, Bulgaria

There is literally nothing to recommend this place. I feel for the snow-tipped crags in the distance, that do not yet have what with to cover this shameful valley. I never saw a bird, or a breath of life, or a trace of thought, or a mote of grit. The most prominent advertisement (for some subsistence concern shop, naturally) is of Гeopги Эвpэшмyk in his mass-market "casual" polyesters high-fiving a beagle with inexpertly enlarged eyes.


IV. Edirne, Turkey

The cats began, and then the seagulls, the stray dogs, the genuine smiles beholding something different. The first Adhan, at dusk, washed over the loose stones and tiny shops, uneven pavement and sudden bursts of roses, making everything sparkle in the early winter mist. There is incompetence, but there is no pretense. In Edirne I feel myself a human among humans, and alien enough to appreciate it.










V. Istanbul

Driving in, the nothingness breaks open to give height and vibrance to modernity as only a place still excited about reaching it can render. Glistening cubes of glass, obsidian in the night, rise from the plain kilometers out, getting denser, their lights and quirks of design growing more and more beguiling. Then suddenly, the swelling stops and you're in the center of everything, cross of all crossings, testament of all times. You stop for fresh pomegranate juice and while someone hands you a napkin (for they've noticed the falling drop faster than you) you wonder why the simple joys of Istanbul must be so particular to the city itself, and so foreign outside it.

Seated two streets down from the Galata Tower, a tiny cross-street intersects with what serves as the main, narrow and precarious as it may be, a curled ribbon fraying under loving daily use. Cars pass, entering intricate negotiations for clearance; cats zig-zag on the cobbles now trustful, now terrified. A row of preschool chairs and tables line the alley, where large adults balance themselves over ubiquitous parabolas of tea. A short old man makes the turn, plank longer than himself across his shoulders, anchoring on one end a tin tun of tea, a plastic box of sweets and paraphenalia on the other, calling out the çay شاي чай. I tell myself to remember him when the work at hand seems tedious.

Moments later a blind woman robed in the pinks and purples of girlhood rounds the curve and starts to climb, her flailing stick miraculously hitting nothing on the busy street, as though the bustle paused for her ascent. She's followed by a fellow sweeping carefully with broom and pan, without any obvious sequence or plan.

Laleli's plazas and faculties are fully guarded, half with would-be red-tape heroes, half with mere observer posts that wouldn't dream of blocking access. The youth, the female youth, is conspicuously busy, overpainted, flushed beneath the powder somewhere, palpably. They are not doers, but reporters, reporting others' deeds. They say they study economics and worry about safety, and I worry if I'm too late, I wonder if I've lost out. It's a ridiculous thought in this faultless place. The other side of the balance rings true: I'm not ready.





The thought thus choked out, my head and heart and throat an aching tangle, I'll stop, except to note a simple irony: sesame is one of the hardiest crops on earth, resistant to just about everything.

Leave a Reply