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from the March 2009 issue

Nazif the Turk from Ioannina

The last car—let's call it the leader's—flashed its headlights, and the signal was relayed from car to car all the way to the first in line, which was then responsible for promptly finding an appropriate place to park.

The convoy of expensive cars slid purposefully off the tarmac, their wheels shuddering on the gravel until they came to a stop, arranged haphazardly on sparse intersecting shadows. The drivers emerged and made their way towards the last car to see what exactly was going on. One of them glanced with an exasperated grimace at the heavy, complicated watch—a diver's type of watch—weighing down his left arm.

It was just about an hour and a quarter since the Turkish immigrants had disembarked from the gigantic ferry, and without a second's delay they dashed off, leaving in Igoumenitsa only the exhaust fumes from their diesel-burning German engines. They were hell-bent on quickly overtaking as many eighteen-wheelers as possible because if they remained trapped behind them up the snaky ascent to Ioannina, they would lose as much as twenty minutes, to say nothing of the dangers to which their inevitable and illegal attempts at passing in the face of potential oncoming traffic would expose them. That abysmal road was strewn on each side with children's toys and all too often a clustered hail-fall of glass from shattered windshields and headlights could be spied.

This was the third summer in a row that the war in Yugoslavia had obliged them to catch the boat at Brindisi, disembark in Igoumenitsa, and cross the whole of north Yunanistan1 all the way to the Evros—this whole game plan taking up three entire days of their vacation. The word is that there's a certain big thoroughfare under construction, the so-called Egnatia Odos, so they've heard; each summer they believe that this will be their route—six hours from Igoumenitsa to the Evros—and each September they make their way back on that same murderous footpath. Every now and then they spy in the distance grumbling bulldozers playing in the hills' sandboxes. They've despaired of ever driving on such a highway, it's more likely that all the Yugoslavs will finish each other off and empty out their land so that a new road will be carved out—without protests from local inhabitants—which, passing through burnt-out cities and villages, will take them as the crow flies from Germany to Austria to Thrace to Istanbul.

Something serious must have provoked this extraordinary and time-consuming stop because the scheduled stop is after Metsovo, in the cool shade by the natural springs of the Katara Pass. In the tranquility of its grassy clearings they would unpack their food on blankets, and eat, smoke, and relieve themselves under the fir trees to gather their strength until their next stop at Xanthi.

A throng of passengers extricated themselves from the cars to stretch their legs; veiled women, little kids in colorful shorts, mustachioed men, old women, old men—where on earth did they all fit? Obviously the Turks are experts at packing people in, there's no other explanation.

They were situated across from Ioannina, on the road to Mitsikeli. From the last BMW 730, the leader's car, the middle-aged Nazif leapt out first and hotfooted it down the scrubby slope with a black plastic bag and a bottle of water in hand. All grasped the reason for this extraordinary stop: Nazif had the runs. Others took the opportunity to drift off. In an out-of-the-way spot, the veiled women peed, screened by a ring of other women as if they were giving birth—a headscarf diving in to take the place of the headscarf rising. A thin turbid stream poured out between their slippers and made its way down to mingle with the waters of Lake Pamvotidas.

They gazed across at the city. They could see the twin minarets and their hearts lifted somewhat for it made them feel at home, as if it were their city—and they realized the greatness of the Ottomans, who had, centuries ago, come to this very same corner of the world. They lived here until '22, when the tempest of the population exchange sent them off to Anatolia as refugees.

But enough is enough! They could not afford to lose any more precious minutes. Time was on the rampage in Güney's complicated watch, brandishing the hands like swords and threatening his vacation. It was about time that Nazif returned. After all that diarrhea his guts must be flushed completely clean, ready even for some kokoretsi.1 They kept peering with long faces at their watches, the children started games, but still no Nazif. The minutes were slipping away and time spent needlessly here was time taken from idling under the family mulberry tree back in the homeland; it was time lost from swimming along the shores of Ionia; from card games with the old men in the village. They started shouting in the direction where they supposed Nazif to be squatting. "Nazif! Gel, gel! You've shat enough on the Yunancalar. Gel!" they teased. But he did not appear. They tried their sheepherding whistles, insistent honking. The passengers had already packed themselves into the cars and all were expecting the departure signal any second. They started their engines to get the air-conditioning going.

The leader was concerned that perhaps something serious had happened to Nazif. "Go on," he told the others, "we'll catch up with you." He decided to start down the slope. He strode down intentionally noisily, with cautionary clearings of his throat, kicking up gravel with every step. Suddenly he saw Nazif shoot up nervously from between the bushes and hastily throw binoculars and something like blown-up photographs in the black plastic bag. He was completely dressed. Thoroughly beside himself, he stared at the leader. He stood as if turned to stone for a few seconds, and then with the speed of a wild beast he hurtled down towards the lake. The leader glanced across towards the minarets and yelled, "Aman, Allah, he's gone mad!" and followed him at full speed, because he realized that with the momentum Nazif had built up he was sure to end up in the water. He tried to stop him, but he didn't make it. Nazif buried himself up to the chest in the lake and was splashing about hysterically, like an injured wild goose. The cool waters brought him back to his senses somewhat. He started wading out as hesitantly as a water turtle. His clothes were dripping with algae and moss. The bag with the photographs and the maps sank into the mire. His chin was trembling. He was babbling incomprehensible phrases, raving to someone, apparently his grandfather, "Grandpa Nazif, where is our house? Where is our neighborhood? Where is our Bizani?3 Allah! Everything has changed, everything changed, except for the water!"

They helped him pull himself together. They would look into what had come over him later. They had to hurry to get out of this hostile land in eleven hours at most. To cross the Evros and descend Aeolia and Ionia; to follow the road's advance from Istanbul, Smyrna, Ephesus, Aydin and to end up in their villages in the Usak region on the evening of the 27th of July, at the very hour when high on the mountain tops, the bones of Greek soldiers exude the smell of cinnamon flowers grown stale with age.

1 Yunanistan is the Turkish word for Greece. 2 Pieces of lamb offal (liver, heart, lungs, spleen, kidney and fat) pierced on a spit and covered by washed small intestine wound around in a tube-like fashion. The kokoretsi is then roasted over coal fire. 3The Battle of Bizani (Feb. 1913) between the Hellenic and Ottoman armies led to the defeat of the Ottomans and the capture of Ioannina in Epirus.

Read more from the March 2009 issue
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