“I seek a place that can never be destroyed, one that is pure, and that fadeth not away, and is laid up in heaven, and safe there, to be given, at the time appointed, to them that seek it with all their heart.”
– John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Our pilgrimage almost came to an end under the wheels of a 10-ton truck on the D650 from Istanbul to Eskişehir, on a summer night made darker by no highway illumination and no towns for miles around. The four-lane highway was flanked on one side by dry, empty country and on the other by two-hundred-feet-tall black crags, out of which the silhouettes of pine trees leered, high up.
“There’s no more road,” said my co-pilgrim, Ali, quietly. He never raised his voice. And he was right. We had tailed one articulated truck overtaking another, but when the rear truck finally signalled and pulled back in we were confronted by red and white bollards, each six feet tall with weak orange lamps that might as well have been powered by candles.
Six feet to stop in. I pumped the brakes. Gently but firmly. The first push to slow time, the second to brake.
We swerved in behind the second truck after it glided past like a phantom fish in a darkened aquarium and we missed the roadworks ditch ahead by a foot, no more. I felt pins and needles as blood drained from my clenched hands. Ali passed me a cigarette. The two lit ends bobbed around in the dark car like fireflies.
I had made the mistake of driving with dipped headlights, thinking, ever British and polite, that I might blind oncoming cars on the other side of the concrete divide. Windows closed on Anatolia and no air-con.
After my co-pilgrim and I had congratulated ourselves on not being dead, Ali said, “Would you like me to read Howl?” He read Ginsberg in Turkish, in an hypnotic poet’s voice. I wished I could see his lips moving but I had to peer ahead, beyond the edge of our headlamps. There were no cats’ eyes on these god-forsaken, pot-holed, pitch-black roads.
My co-pilgrim’s deep and resonant voice called out:
Molok! Molok! Kabus Molok! Sevgisiz Molok!
Zihinsel Molok! Molok ezici yargıcı insanların! *
We were on a pilgrimage to Eskişehir, the Amsterdam of Turkey, making the trip just two days after I’d already spent 12 hours getting there and back by bus to give a talk on Welsh-Turkish poetry translation. I’d been heckled by a very tall Kurdish poet with a cornflower blue cloth wrapped on top of his head. He’d stood up and said that I couldn’t compare Wales’s fourteenth century genius troubadour (and major tart), Dafydd ap Gwilym, to their local saint and disciple of Rumi, Yunus Emre. He had a point. I replied that I was not comparing an apple to an apple but contrasting the apple to a banana. Not the finest choice of words, I admit.
The return, so soon, to Eskişehir, was prompted by three things: it was our mutual friend, the poet and editor Şakir’s birthday, Ali wanted to visit a sweet former love, and I was determined to go to Yazılı Kaya, the monumental, inscribed wall at the top of the Phrygian highlands.
We partied – and the next day, four of us made it to the holy site.
Was it a pilgrimage? Yes. It involved a long journey with a purpose. And I put myself in a state to ‘feel it’. I did this by opening my imagination, slipping through the chain link fence of the present and looking out for echoes of my predecessors. I’d heard that Celtic peoples had lived in this area from the first to the fourthth century. The letters of St. Paul to the Galatians at Gordion, near Ankara? Yes, those guys. They had inhabited these forested mountains many centuries after the Phrygians, of course.
And did Yazılı Kaya deliver up spiritual reward? Yes, it did. A one hundred-foot high and sixty feet wide stone doorway stands on a high peak, looking like a gateway both to heaven and to the low-lying country beyond. Topped by the emblem of eternity, the flower of life (which has been hacked out on one side), it is carved with a hypnotic geometric pattern. All around are shrines, crumbling. Turks and tourists scramble over the white, powdery stone. I couldn’t decide if this was anarchic interaction with a former elitist holy site, or just plain destruction.
Further behind the monumental doorway there are three springs. Pure mountain water fed through tangy iron pipes. I took a few handfuls and mouthfuls at the three points and made a wish. It was a tall-order kind of wish. A few steps later along the path, there was a dead fox. Belly open. Flies circling, drunken, above it. I made the wish again and a bequest. I felt a coolness. Like water being poured through all my cells from the right side of my body to the left. Expansion. Elevation. A blessing, I guess, of peace.
Ah, pilgrimage: it’s not the destination that is important but the listening along the way. The asking of questions and the art of learning how to ask the right ones.
A pilgrim is a wanderer. A wonderer. Less of a ‘bucket list’ Santiago de Compostellite and more of a quiet, peripatetic seeker. Pilgrim means ‘one who walks across the fields’ – ready to receive the hospitality of strangers, a migrant, taking refuge from the mundane in walking and a search for meaning. So, walk. And ask. Ask a question as if you were throwing a fishing hook up into the sky.
* To read more about the translation of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl into Turkish, download Eric Mortenson’s paper here: https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol18/iss5/25/
Caroline Stockford is a translator of Turkish literature, poet and linguistic rights campaigner for Kurmanji Kurdish. A board member of Wales PEN Cymru, she currently works as Turkey Advocacy Coordinator at the International Press Institute in Vienna.