October 1, 2001
by April Thompson
hen I set out to circle the globe alone, my family was certain I'd return in a coffin. Their only hope was that I'd pick up a man along the way. My mother in particular was very keen to see me matched up. 'Girl, why don't you find some nice, strong guy along the way to help you carry that big ol' bag?' she said.
I rolled my eyes, but secretly I hoped - was sure - I would, actually. I knew God had already marked the spot where I would bump into a Rugged, Sensitive, Intelligent and Handsome Wayfarer who would take one look at me and say, 'At last.' And then, oblivious to the flies landing on our faces, we'd walk hand in hand through the dusty Arabic market, shopkeepers peering out from their fruit stalls to proclaim, 'Ill'hamdu l'illah! Thanks be to God!'
Shaggy, boozy boys in Tevas and the same shirts they'd worn since the overland journey from India didn't figure into my Hollywood fantasy. I can't respect a man who bargains down the price of a fifty-cent beer. They didn't seem to notice me much either, being in need of a haircut myself and always hunched over tea and a journal.
My blue eyes drew the lusty brown locals to me like a magnet, however, especially in the Middle East. 'Ishta! (Cream!), I love you!,' they'd yell, hissing and clicking their tongues as I crossed the street. Sometimes they'd even snatch my breast or worse - I was told that racy American movies were to blame. The walls around my heart quickly hardened. 'No, no, no; imshee, gidiniz, go away,' became my relentless mantras through the Middle East and Mediterranean, especially in Turkey, where the boys are clingier than sweaty clothes on a sweltering day.
Then I met Cemal.
Tired of the bikinied beaches and liquored discos of the Mediterranean, I had journeyed to Turkey's far east, to Kurdistan. The guidebooks warned me that PKK terrorists were known to nab tourists there and make them eat raw snake and hedgehog, and that women should never travel to Eastern Turkey, especially alone.
So I expected to land in cultural outer space. Instead I made instant friends who took me into their homes, schools, villages, businesses and lives. When I refused to stay any longer, they passed me on to acquaintances in my next destinations, their lavish hospitality making me feel like a queen visiting from the West. I had never felt safer.
Two middle-aged Dutch women I met along the way gave me a card for the Buyuk Asur Oteli hotel, and told me to ask for Cemal, the hotel manager. 'Say hello for us,' they said as I boarded a bus for Van, a historic city near Turkey's Iranian border.
The women didn't know my type or even that I was on the look-out, but Cemal fit the script. Kind, witty and expressive. Hazelnut eyes, almond skin and raspberry lips. Cemal took me into his office, we bargained on a room, and sealed the deal over dinner.
Cemal swept me into his life so quickly that I didn't have a chance to say no or even know what I was saying yes to. My second day there, Cemal took me out for lunch and a tour of Van, gestures I marked up to brotherly Kurdish hospitality.
That night I got violently ill from the cold cucumber soup his sisters made with unpasteurized yogurt. Cemal sent me up toast, cherry jam and peaches with pink carnations on the side - 'roses,' as he called them. The courtship was on.
While my stomach recovered, Cemal took me to lakeside restaurants, abandoned islands and tea gardens. We watched sunsets, laughing at the big orange as it slipped into Lake Van, and darkness left us huddling against the wind. Cemal introduced me to the famous cats of Van, snowy Persians with one blue and one green eye. At his family's apartment, Cemal's sisters served tea to us and his widowed mother, who had welcomed me in a voice gruff from hand-rolled cigarettes. Back in his office, Cemal strummed jangly chords on the saz, a long-necked, four-stringed lute, serenading me with mountain legends in a booming cowboy tenor. A week became a century.
One evening we climbed to a crumbled hilltop castle a thousand-some years old. I gasped at the pale green of Lake Van crisp against the violet sky and zebra-striped mountains. Sitting at the bluff's edge, we peered down at goats, mosques and merry makers tiny and innocent beneath us.
In such open spaces Cemal unfurled his life for me. Stealing eggs from baby birds, being frightened by the big talking box when the village got its first TV, struggling with school because he spoke no Turkish. To fulfill his military duty in Ankara, Cemal flipped burgers and played in the army band. Working for his family's hotel, Cemal learned English and gentility. Now he dreamed of opening his own tour company and traveling to 'Indiana Jones' places like Africa and Arizona.
I also learned about Cemal's culture, how it's been pushed undercover by Turkish nationalism. I was as fascinated as I was horrified by his stories about Kurdish life. Until the last decade Kurdish culture was outlawed; speaking the language or listening to bootleg cassettes meant a trip to jail. Politics is still a taboo subject for fear that the wrong someone might hear. Cemal could rarely visit his home village because the military closes the roads off at sundown. Even when they're open, the passport checks and pat-downs every mile often keep people from their destinations.
At night we slipped out onto the hotel terrace and swayed our bodies together under the stars. We promised to look at the night sky once we parted, and to remember we'd be seeing the same moon. 'Seni seviyorum! Iloveyousomuch!' he'd say. He interpreted my silence as not 'feeling free with my feelings.'
Cemal was a welcoming oasis for a lonely wanderer. But with each hour, I fell deeper into his heart, an awkward place I couldn't quite seem to leave. Beyond the deep voice and broad shoulders, Cemal was still a boy, too delicate for my rough, fickle hands.
That didn't stop me from enjoying Cemal's bed, our bodies heating up like the arid plains surrounding Lake Van. But though Cemal got so aroused the veins on his forehead bulged, I refused to take my pants off. It had all gone too far already. Instead I let him escort me back to my room and kiss me good night, hearts and groins thumping.
Every day I tried to leave, Cemal gave me spaniel eyes and I gave in for another day. 'Thank you, thank you!' he said, twirling me in the air. He thanked me again with gifts I didn't want but couldn't turn down, including his Nazar Boncuk, the blue-eyed, anti-evil-eye charm that stared out from his bedroom wall. Cemal said the talisman would protect me from unwanted attention.
I had to pluck the stars from his eyes eventually, moving on to the green meadows of Romania, the sandy beaches of Thailand, the snowy heights of Tibet, every day falling for a new corner of the world. When I left, Cemal was in such bitter despair that I swore off travel romance for the rest of my trip. 'You drank me like a cup of tea,' he said when we parted, literally hitting his head against the wall.
He was right. I devoured his life story, his culture, and his love mainly to satiate my curiosity. Three years later, Cemal's phone calls still haunt me here, back in my San Francisco apartment, reminding me to be careful what I wish for. The azure eye looks out from my wall, now watching over my solitary sleep. In spite of my mother's continued prayers, I've yet to find a man. Cemal's cursed kiss was the last to cross my lips.
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