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from the October 2008 issue

The Train

Some weekends my parents and I went from Mardin to Syria and stayed in Kamışlı, the town nearest to the Turkish border. Although it was a town, I compared Kamışlı, with its wide, well-kept roads, its big buildings and hotels, to the great cities I'd seen in films and come across illustrated in atlases and encyclopaedias. I remember we stayed in the Semiramis Hotel, then a night club ... it was the first time in my life I'd seen a nightclub. I think it was the hotel nightclub: the "Matar," which means "rain" in Arabic. I liked it very much. It confirmed what I'd seen in films: colored lights twinkling off and on, a crystal ball continually revolving and reflecting broken light on the surroundings, shining columns to lean against with head slightly bent like a film actor, an orchestra playing lively music and a silvery sparkling dance floor. Everything I saw had excited me. Some photographs from those days are in the family album but I can't find a trace on anyone's face of the miracle I'd experienced. I am like someone who has discovered paradise. It seems I took many photographs one after the other; how pathetic are my poses copied from magazines, how clear it is that even in those days I suffered a profound emptiness that no miracle could fill . . ." looking at me are the innocent eyes of a country child preparing himself for the big cities with dreams provoked by the silver screen. I can't resolve the mystery of the eyes that look from those old photographs taken in a nightclub in Kamışlı; I don't even know if it still exists, but those eyes still look with hope at my whole life.

We carry within us the greatest secret in life.

We want to confirm the secret with the world in one day.

But either our secret radiates no signal, or the world has no place for it.

Then there were the great toyshops in Kamışlı . . . I lost myself in them. I wanted to possess all the toys, I almost couldn't tear myself away. Every time he went, Father brought me back boxes and bags full of toys; already when I was little, in my curiosity to know how the toys worked there wasn't a single toy left that I hadn't broken or opened up and taken apart to peer inside. Most of the toys were unusable even before their boxes were worn out. Then, when I was a little older, I chose my toys myself. Even my father said I was old enough to choose. In those days I thought I was like the happy children in American films. I loved Syria. A branch of our family had remained there and when we visited our relations they convinced me I was really a prince, that dreams could come true, and that I had a whole future ahead of me. Undoubtedly the richest part of childhood is not its supreme lack of responsibility, nor its unfailing trust in the maternal embrace, nor all the similar ideas associated with the condition we call childhood; in my opinion its greatest gift is the ability to believe in the future. Only a child who manages to survive a loss of confidence will find his own persona. To grow into someone else is to grow up.

Most people who look at my childhood photographs always say the same thing:"" ""Your eyes haven't changed …"

From the day my father brought it from Syria, my favorite toy was a huge train set consisting of a railway line in the shape of a figure 8 formed by short sections of rail linked together and a row of carriages. When it was assembled the train, which was remote-controlled, stopped at any station we chose, then went on its way to explore the world again. We set up the train on a big, wide table on the veranda of our house, and somehow as though under a spell I spent the whole day with my dreams beside the railway, the train and the stations where it stopped.

Soon I took my train to school to show my friends, I wanted to play at trains with them; naturally my mother strongly opposed this wish of mine; but when I insisted she agreed, with any number of warnings that I should take a bit at a time and take care to follow all her precautions. My mother was afraid that the rough crowd at school would destroy the valuable toy or would steal one of the colored carriages; they might each be tempted by something different. Our frequent arguments ended finally in her giving me a light-colored covering as thick as a military blanket to spread under the base of the train set. She warned me when I collected the carriages to count them one by one. The remote control was for my own use only; I must never hand it over to anyone else. Showing my train to my friends wasn't just because I wanted to boast, "Look what I've got!" It stemmed from the need to share the many good things in my life more than from a childish desire to show off. Like everyone who learns early in life how to trust his heart, I was ready to share. That's the way it was and the way it is still and perhaps that's why I've so often been vulnerable.

Nearly all my schoolmates were seeing a toy like this for the first time in their lives. Somehow assembling the train at school became a ritual; both my mother and teacher were equally careful to supervise the ceremony; the blanket spread underneath made the separate pieces more visible: everybody watched spellbound when the train was set up and ran. My dreams now are different from the dreams I saw in those days by the train. We were all very excited. We ran past stations, stopped, started and continued our journey. This would last a whole afternoon, then we'd dismantle the stations. I'd count every coach, one by one, and check that the remote control was working. We put the train in its box along with the rails and I went home happy and content and full of confidence.

Perhaps it was my first experience of pure evil.

Next day, emptying out the parts to reassemble the train at home, we saw that all the carriages were in order, but that one of the rails that joined to form the railway's figure 8 had been stolen. That one missing part brought the whole train system to a halt. Certainly that one missing rail could never be of any use to the thief, but made it impossible for me to play with my train. If only one carriage was stolen you might imagine the motive was to use it like a car, which might have seemed a more innocent theft; for me a train with one carriage missing was not a big deal. But when the thief deliberately stole the basic component that would bring everything to a standstill, the train was rendered useless. The train had been assembled in full view of everyone and everyone saw at the same time how it worked and was made to work.

Evidently while we were all spellbound and deep in dreams watching the departures, stops and starts, that person gave all his attention to figuring out the mechanism and solving the secret of how it worked. Here was an example of an attentive intelligence bent on evil.

I was overcome with grief.

My mother had been right after all.

As for my heart, all the others had been right too.

In the days that followed I kept looking in all my classmates' faces for a shadow of the lost railway section. Nothing was revealed in any face or object, particularly not the thief.

I had thought if I looked closely I would recognize the thief, but my intense concentration finally tired me.

I told the story to my neighbor in class. He was like a tiny sheep; they used to call him Keme haruf, which in Arabic means "like a sheep," slow moving, and when he listened to you he blinked at the end of your sentences as though he was punctuating them. He listened to me very attentively. I was very curious to know what he would think—for he was quite a thinker. Even at that age he had an adult knowledge of how to check his emotions. He puzzled me. But contrary to my expectations, he warned me to say nothing to anyone and to behave as though nothing had happened. I was surprised and thought at first that this was a subtle stratagem, a trick to catch the thief. But not so. He told me I wouldn't find the perpetrator whatever happened, that it was no use telling my teacher, who couldn't find him either even if he wanted to. The single piece would be of no use for anything: you can't play a game with a single piece. "Perhaps he threw it away long ago, or smashed it," he said. He told me all this in a calm unemotional voice. "Evidently someone wanted to upset you, and the best thing you can do is to behave as if nothing happened. The only way you can upset him," he said, "and make him think he can't harm you is to continue playing trains at home. Perhaps then he'll give you an opening. That's the only way you'll catch him."

In my friend's voice was a calmness, a wisdom that belonged to far older adults. Much of what he said affected me, as though he talked from a wealth of experience.

We three must have been about seven or eight years old at the time.

My friend, myself, and the thief.

My class neighbor and the thief understood each other. But I understood nothing; for years I kept regretting this and similar failures to understand. Then I gave up and learned to pay the price for self-protection, to be content with the aspects of broken dreams, deceptions and errors of judgment that enrich a personality.

As I looked out of the window of the train traveling from Diyarbakır to Edremit I was thinking of the railway piece lost some months ago like an unlucky fate. Whoever stole that piece seemed now to have grown into those who had handcuffed my father.

I have lost many things in my life but nothing hurt me more than the theft of that rail. I never discovered the thief. Even as a child, my mind must have intuited that the lost part was a metaphor for my life.

And that's why, years later, I'm on the train.

Read more from the October 2008 issue
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