by Carl Boon
No doubt the people who inhabited this peninsula centuries ago, when it was called Knidos, also took the rock from the land, much of it laced with marble, to shelter themselves against summer and winter. In a time so distant I can’t imagine it, the mountains began to crumble, giving us all enough rock for walls and fortresses, footpaths and decoration. One can’t thrive here without its excavation. Nowadays we use gleaming yellow machines to minimize our work; back then their hands bore the labor, and the mules that pulled the wooden carts through uneven ways. They praised God for the beasts, and Christ centuries later—those Greeks who’d come south from Smyrna to fish the south Aegean and harvest clams and mussels, crabs and shrimp, to boil or haul to market for linen or flour, sugar or lumber. Today the sea gives little save its water: the tourists swim in it and laugh, knowing little of what it used to hold.
My wife and I decided to remodel a crumbling house in this place, now called Datça. The work, performed by local men, went on for two years, and we are here to have a look, wipe the construction dust from the floors, buy some furniture, and beautify it the best we can. The ride from İzmir was long; Datça lies way out on a peninsula that juts west into the Aegean Sea. The weather is hot, and I’m concerned about the sound the second-hand refrigerator makes.
In the few weeks I’ve spent here in Datça—the Knidos of old, in southwestern Türkiye—I’ve wondered how those ancients lived. Were they happy? Was happiness a thing to think of? As I approached the bay at Kargı for the first time a few weeks ago and gazed at the water, I placed my chair a few yards from an old man who’d probably been there since early morning. Unlike the others nearby—most likely vacationers from Ankara and Istanbul, their heads bowed to their mobile phones—this man was reading a book. He could’ve been a retired professor of archaeology, biology, or literature, and saluted me as I sat down. I had a book, too—David Stick’s history of the Outer Banks of North Carolina—and so immediately there arose between us a kinship. This is the way these days: those who hold phones and those who read books. I’m happy to be among the latter. I learned he was a retired architect from a wealthy Istanbul suburb who’d come south fifteen years before. “To read and think and be from people,” he told me in broken English. “And also to be far from buildings.” As we spoke, I thought about the rock that’s everywhere here. And how he, too, was rock—unforgiving, firm, but giving what he could. I let him read; I swam.
Once you get this far south in Türkiye, the Aegean Sea begins to mingle with the deeper, vaster Mediterranean. Fifty yards out, I could feel both seas: at my shoulders, the lukewarm Aegean, and at my ankles the colder Mediterranean. Out there floating, I thought of my boyhood vacations at the Outer Banks and their unique barrier island geography. As Stick will tell you, miles out from Cape Hatteras, the ocean becomes a vibrant mix of Arctic water and the Gulf Stream. The shoals are out there, too, making fishing superb but also posing great dangers to passing vessels. The deeps become the shallows in an instant. He calls that region the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” and legend tells that Blackbeard met his earthly fate in that water out past Ocracoke. The locals know better, of course, and if you’re the type that seeks the truth, find a local. I didn’t want to bother the architect, but back home one afternoon as I was edging our little sidewalk with stones, I came across my neighbor Ali, one of the men who worked on our house, who paused to talk on his way to the market. He was going for beer, and I asked him for one for myself. He didn’t mind, and when he returned he sat down with more than one and a sack of pistachios. “The woman who I thought would be my wife forever wasn’t. That was up in Ankara. So after the divorce, I came down here to build houses.” His hands displayed the scars of many houses built.
“What’s the story of this place?” I asked him. “Where did it come from? Where is it going?”
“I don’t know where it came from, but I know where it’s going. You might not know it, Carl, but you and your wife made the right decision to buy this place.” He looked at our modest duplex, still shrouded in construction dust, its little front not yet landscaped. “Like the people who came to Knidos, you are pioneers.” He gestured with his left arm. “Down there is the sea.” And gestured with his right. “Over there is Datça with its luxury hotels and seaside shops and fish restaurants. You chose the right place in between.” He wore his hair in a long silver braid in the back and rode a motorcycle; his tattoos were visible through his thin white shirt. We drank our beers and listened to the locusts in the chinar trees opposite the street. We listened for a long time in silence, and then he sped away. I looked at the dust that was everywhere, the dust that comes from rock, the rock that comes from history. History is a mountain, and I was afraid of what was on the other side. We had our summer house, finally, but what of winters in our absence? Would it also crumble, turn back to rock?
Now my wife says the refrigerator’s dying. It’s 96 degrees outside and the refrigerator’s dying. Life will be difficult here, but I think of the denizens of Knidos again. What did they have? Were they happy? What mattered to them? We must find a man to fix the refrigerator because we want cold beer and frozen hamburgers and chicken wings. We want comfort. It’s not our fault.
Sometimes I can hear the refrigerator sputter and want to die, but then it starts to hum again. Sometimes I walk down to the market and wonder how they suffered, those ancients of Knidos who probably lived on this ground, who maybe touched these rocks. The documentaries I’ve watched all tell the same story: their never-ending search for food, their diseased teeth, their constant journeys from land to water, water to land. All of them had something to find; all of them burned in the sun and many froze, too. “They were fishermen,” Ali told me later. “Back then this sea teemed with what we call çipura, kalkan, and istavrit. It’s too bad the fish are gone now. Even anchovies and bluefish used to come down from the colder waters of the Black Sea. It’s a shame. The restaurants have them if you’re willing to pay.” The restaurants by the Datça marina, indeed, are beautiful. They feel like Greece, Ali says, and that’s true. Blue décor, blue crabs on the walls painted bluer than they ever were in life. Their owners motion with open arms: “Come in, come in…” My wife and I ask for plates of kalamari and Efes beer. We’re eating and drinking the cost of a new refrigerator, I tell her, but we’re happy. We’ll be here for a while, and the stars are beautiful. Those ancients saw the stars and also called them beautiful. We are not alone. We never were alone. We might have better teeth, but we have no flounder to broil. The waiter is kind. He says the chocolate cake is good.
Tomorrow I will have to work. The driveway is full of gravel and stone and clumps of grass to carry away. It will be terrible in the sun, but some things have to be done before others can be thought of. I tell myself I’m lucky: I own a house near the sea and can see the Milky Way at night. There’s leftover calamari on the kitchen counter and a couple of potato wedges. The woman who runs the little hotel next door waves at me in the morning while I retrieve the towels from the drying rack and wait for the coffee to brew. She’s got bangs like a girl I used to know but never touched, and the way she moves her hips is—how could I say?—absolute. Maybe one day she’ll give me a kiss. Maybe it doesn’t matter if she won’t.
The first forts they built were rough-hewn affairs, miniatures of the grand designs that would rise later to protect pivotal points on the handful of bays that surround Datça. One of those bays is called Kargı; that’s where we live now. Not as commercially developed as the bay downtown where the yacht club is nestled among all those fancy fish restaurants, Kargı nevertheless offers tourists and locals more than enough natural beauty and seaside sun for an afternoon. On the eastern edge of Kargı, where I met the architect from Istanbul, the shoreline’s a bit foreboding with low, craggy cliffs, scrubby vegetation, and a stony beach. Today I circled toward the west, where three or four hotels were built in the 1990s. One of them, the grandest, was built on the refurbished ruins of one of the region’s oldest fortresses. Restaurants dot the spaces between the hotels. For twenty dollars or so, you might reserve your space on the beach—with a lounge chair and umbrella—and also gain access to toilets, showers, docks for diving, and whatever the restaurant serves. Today I sat at the Paradise Restaurant and watched the people. An older couple from England sat at a table nearby. He was drinking seltzer water; she was knitting a yellow blanket for some baby not yet born to the world of Manchester or Liverpool. It seems a long way for the British to come for a holiday, but I’ve seen a good number of similar couples.
The water was considerably warmer on the western side of the bay, and a bit murkier. As I floated on my back near the shadow of some wealthy Turkish fellow’s sailboat, I wondered what those first folks of Knidos thought about when they viewed the water. A danger? A source of possibility? Something to be overcome? I thought again of David Stick’s history of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, especially his chapters on the first English colonists and their interactions with the numerous Indian tribes that populated the coast in the 1500s. Back then, of course, fish and game were plentiful and a primary source of subsistence. The tribes also grew corn, sweet potatoes, and a variety of fruits. But they faced a danger we don’t face here in Datça: the weather. Summers are incredibly hot here, and humid stretches occur as well. Winters, according to Kemal (the man who oversaw construction on our little house), bring moderate amounts of rain and cool temperatures. But unlike those long-ago inhabitants of the Carolina coast (and those who remain today), we don’t have to worry about hurricanes or winter nor’easters, both of which rearrange the sand and make property investment a risky undertaking.
History is everywhere on the Outer Banks, and everywhere here too. I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s newest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, for the last few nights, and particularly a song called “Key West.” Narrative in structure and nostalgic in tone the lyrics tell of the Key West of old; Hemingway’s and Truman’s. I love Dylan’s depictions of hibiscus flowers and “bougainvillea bloomin’.” Here in Datça, the bougainvillea are intensely beautiful, draping gates and stone walls, and if a strong breeze comes from the north, their petals will fall upon your terrace (where I’m writing) and rapidly turn from hot pink to purple in the coming dark. What I like best about “Key West,” however, is Dylan’s capacity to mingle the before and the now. I wish I could sing to the woman with the bangs next door about what life really means. One song before she goes to sleep. One song.
Across the road that takes you to Kargı Bay, and ranch-flat among an expanse of pines, sits the local high school. I can see it from my writing table, its windows dark this time of year and its roof that slopes toward the mountain and the sea behind it. The woman who will take care of our place in winter teaches geography there. As we sit for coffee and an assortment of cookies I picked up on my way back from Paradise, she tells me there’ll be thirteen graduating students in the class of ’22, most of whom live nearby. Their mothers and fathers, she tells me, mostly work in construction or take seasonal jobs in the restaurants and hotels. “During the pandemic, when no one came here, these houses [she gestures to ours] seemed to go up overnight. My husband’s an electrician, and he had jobs lined up for months. While the country got sick, they built houses. They wired wires and installed air conditioners and drew vents and repaired refrigerators.” As she speaks—her name is Büşra—I wonder about our own refrigerator, but through the screen door I can still hear it humming in the kitchen. If that fridge never dies, I, too, will live forever. For now, it keeps the beer and milk cold, and doesn’t seem to menace me like it did before.
Today’s a holiday in Türkiye. July 15 is celebrated as “Democracy Day.” Five years have passed since the 2016 failed coup attempt, but when I was in downtown Datça this morning nobody seemed to care. The shops were open, and the bars were beginning to buzz. The only note of the holiday I saw was a group of teenagers passing out Turkish flags next to an old man selling sweet corn. Ten lira for two ears, so being a native of the Midwest where corn is king in late summer, I did the math. Sixty cents an ear. A dozen would be a little over seven dollars. Pretty steep, if you ask me. For all its abundance of fruits and vegetables, Turkish corn is subpar. It looks like corn and acts like corn, but it doesn’t taste like it. The lack of rain in the early summer in the south of Türkiye might have something to do with that. I think, however, that they pick it about a week too late. The kernels should be pale yellow or white at harvest. Former Ohioans like me take corn seriously. College football, Jesus, family, and corn. Any Midwesterner will tell you the same.
Notwithstanding their less-than-ideal corn, the folks here in Datça eat well. Breakfast means boiled eggs or an omelet, multiple varieties of cheese, trays of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, sesame rolls, toasted bread, honey, butter, jam, and black olives. Some folks prefer green olives, but I prefer black. When I lived in Ohio, I never thought about olives at all. An olive was something that floated in a martini, but here the olive is life. All along the Aegean coast from south of Istanbul to İzmir to Bodrum to Datça, olive trees stud the fields off the highway and penetrate the hills and valleys inland.
You must remember that this is the soil Paul the Apostle trod, that old pilgrim beneath the olive trees, assuming their shade when the weather was hot and consuming their fruit come November. I like to think of Paul as a great eater of olives, spitting the pits between his sermons on the risen One to strangers in the villages. Paul bore the best and worst of this land, saw the best and worst of it, but battled on. You don’t have to be a Christian to think of Paul as a hero; even the Turks like him and the Virgin too. Not far from here, near a peach orchard, there’s a village called Meryem that features a nunnery and a little stone structure that’s a monument to her. I visited there many years ago, when my wife and I were young and my daughter wasn’t yet born. We didn’t have much to worry about then. Maybe no one did.
Datça’s a deceptively large little city. I discovered that today when I walked downtown. What seemed an instant in a taxi took me nearly a half hour on foot. Walking, of course, means that you see things you wouldn’t from the car. The rock-strewn hills rise almost immediately from the road, and the vegetation this time of year is forced to survive on very little water. No measurable rain falls on this part of Türkiye from March until October, so all’s covered with a layer of dust for half the year. The primary feature on the road that leads into town is the military base with its foreboding red signs in four languages: Giriş Kesinlikle Yasaktır; Betreten Strengstens Verboten; Entrée Strictement Interdite; Entry Strictly Prohibited.
Seeing those signs recalled to me the coup attempt of 2016, a Friday evening when I happened to be in Istanbul with my brother-in-law. By 8:00 p.m. the pair of bridges that span the Bosphorus were teeming with soldiers loyal to some cause that to this day remains blurry. By 10:00 p.m., we could hear fighter jets of the Turkish Air Force soaring low above the Istanbul skyline. By the wee hours, as we stood glued to the TV drinking can-after-can of Efes beer, it appeared the coup would not succeed. The President was safe, and though hundreds of Turkish citizens were either killed or injured in the violence, calm had been restored by Saturday morning. Türkiye is a nation with a history of coups, the previous having occurred in 1980 when General Kenan Evren wrested power after many months of ideological street warfare and assassinations. Today I learned that Evren used to own a house in Datça. He died a couple of years ago, and when he did he was still revered by many hardline secular Turks. Datça sits in one of the most secular regions of the country, a region steeped in the culture of rakı.
To the average Turk, drinking means rakı and the rakı table. It’s the national drink here, as endemic to the land as bourbon is to Kentucky or wine to France or northern California. The subject of folklore, rakı here is synonymous with secularism, friendship, and history. The founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was himself a renowned rakı drinker, and there’s even a brand of the drink with his likeness on the label. Distilled from grapes, its taste resembles the Greek ouzo (more popular in America), though many Turks will tell you that ouzo’s an imitation of the real stuff. “Lion’s milk,” as it’s typically called, is high in alcohol so many folks cut it with water and have a glass of ice water on the side. Doing so extends the drinking pleasure and the night. The rakı table usually consists of the drink and what the Turks call meze (or appetizers): toasted bread, eggplant dip, salted fish, şak-şuka (which is something like our American salsa with eggplant), a yogurt-garlic concoction with bits of cucumber called cacık, white cheese, and melon. Turks will spend several hours in the evening sipping their rakı and nibbling at their meze until finally digging into the main course, usually fish. Anchovies, finger mackerel, bluefish, flounder, or sea bass, depending on what’s in season. In downtown Datça, around the marina, fish restaurants abound, and diners are usually given the option to bring their own raki should they opt to partake in the “fixed menu,” which usually consists of five types of meze: bread, salad, the fish entrée, and tea or Turkish coffee. If you’re lucky enough to come across an authentic meyhane restaurant in Istanbul, İzmir, or Datça, you might be graced with live music as well.
There are two Datças: the Old and the New. The Old, “Eski Datça”—as one might expect—features winding cobblestone roads, gardens, and comfortable stone houses which look like miniature museums. One of Türkiye’s greatest poets, Can Yücel, used to live in one of those houses. A simple sign on the entranceway announces to visitors, yes, a man of letters lived here, drank his rakı in the evening, and wrote his poems.
Yücel’s words direct Turkish readers to what they’re used to: sad love, unrequited love, abandonment, heartache. I cannot reproduce his colloquial use of Turkish in translation, but the original would make Turks feel at home along the edges of his stone house with the modest sign. The speaker “dives into” memory only, a thought of the past that maybe was or maybe wasn’t—we can’t be sure. The loved one’s very existence is ephemeral: we can only measure her effects, her echoes, her remains. The only real thing is the tears; all else in the poem is always-already vanishing. Even sorrow vanishes eventually, perhaps to remain in Eski Datça bound by pine and bougainvillea. To be carried for a while by a child who dreams of being a poet someday.
To be “lost in waiting” reminds me of the praying mantis; they’re everywhere here, colored on a spectrum of sandy brown to lime-green. These creatures define stillness: from morning till late afternoon you’ll notice the same one in the same place, shade or sun. They wait for food, I suppose, the errant insect, the meandering ant. Perhaps, like the speaker of “Only One Gift,” they wait to mate. The praying mantis might just be the ideal symbol for this place, for the only way to deal with the heat—if you don’t have the luxury of air conditioning—is to be still. Very little happens until the sun goes down, and even then any kind of outdoor labor is nearly intolerable.
I spent twenty minutes outside this afternoon doing light work in the yard—watering our lawn and fledgling lemon tree, the tiny bougainvillea, the begonias, and the two-foot pine bushes that in a year or three will triple in size—and came inside soaked with sweat. This should be the land of siestas; in practice, it probably is. I’ve lived in hot climates much of my life: Athens, Ohio and Gainesville, Florida, southern Ukraine, and İzmir, which is five hours to the north. In none of those places, however, was the combined heat and humidity as taxing as it is here in Datça. Temperatures in July and August routinely soar above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity readings approaching 60%. That’s tropical heat. The kind of heat where you have to drink water even if you’re not thirsty, even if you can’t stand the thought of it. I grew up near Cleveland, where snow’s possible from October to May. Heat waves are common in that part of Ohio, but usually subside after three or four days, after a big line of thunderstorms rolls in from the northwest. There’s no chance of such relief here.
Even with the heat, however, the tourists roll in, eager for their week on the Aegean. They rent hotel rooms, duplexes like ours, or whole houses, have their breakfasts early, then depart for the sea. As is the case with America, beach life’s desirable here, especially for the twenty-somethings (I’ve observed) who want to meet other twenty-somethings and hope the sparks will fly. I used to love the beach too, and still enjoy swimming, but as I grow older I prefer the shade, the thought of a book in hand, and the quiet. I’m not looking for anything anymore save privacy and time—time to write and think, time to look at people and imagine their lives.
The rock facades of the homes and buildings intensify one’s sense of privacy and provide substance to the notion of time. These rocks have always been here, and now they give us shelter; now they belong to us, in a way. The rock that I touch—here’s a copper-colored one edged in beige—perhaps was touched by another Carl twenty years ago, a Mehmet 200 years ago, a citizen of Knidos 2,000 years ago. The rocks stitch the land together, and also stitch together this community. Up and down the blocks and along the Kargı Bay Road, every building features those rocks in some capacity. In Eski Datça or the Yeni Datça, the same rocks, bronze, and sometimes pink if the sun is right. To live here, you must grow to love them. They somehow make all places and everybody equal.
In a few weeks, we’ll pack our summer bags and go away. We have another kind of life in İzmir, other concerns: books and classes, bustle and cement, the thousand streets whose names I still have to learn. We’ll have to leave behind Ali and Kemal and Hasan, the British tourists wandering among the downtown fish restaurants, the suntanned teenagers, the retired architect, the rocks and praying mantises and, most of all, at least for me, the idea of this place (I daresay its spirit), its history as an early Christian enclave and what it’s become. Leaving a place is difficult, but its idea always remains…somewhere.
Let T.S. Eliot write, in “Burnt Norton”/Four Quartets:
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Reality: leaving and rock. But the rock stays. Our little house of rock remains. Its infant garden edged with rock remains. Ali remains, and Can Yücel in memory, and his unfinished poems. In five hours, we’ll be back in İzmir, but they say the fall is beautiful in Knidos.
Carl Boon is the author of the full-length collection Places & Names: Poems (The Nasiona Press, 2019). His writing has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Posit, and The Maine Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007, and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American literature at Dokuz Eylül University.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 9 • May 2023
Header image by Jorge Franganillo.