Mother Land is a minutely remembered description of a childhood on an Aegean island, marked by the furious opposition of hostile yet neighbouring cultures. A Greek boy born on a Turkish island tries to make sense of the escalating tensions between Greek and Turk and Muslim and Christian, between his cosmopolitan mother and his homeboy, fisherman of a father. It reveals with chilling clarity how violence begets violence, in even the most unexpected of people and how, despite anger and exile, reconciliation is possible.
Dmetri Kakmi has written a compulsive page-turner, something that is distinctive, original, humane and uplifting. It is also true.
‘A universal myth of loss ... beautiful, evocative and carefully crafted.’ - The Age, Melbourne
Format: 232pp demi pb
Place: Aegean, Turkey & Greece
Dmetri Kakmi was born in Turkey to Greek parents. His essays have been published around the globe. He compiled and edited the acclaimed children's anthology When We Were Young, and was co-recipient of The Peter Blazey Fellowship in 2007. He lives in Melbourne.
Extract from Chapter One
ISTAND at land’s end, gazing at the Aegean Sea. The day is stifling. There is not a breath of wind. Far beneath, waves lick the base of the cliffs. But there is no heart to their effort. They froth and dissipate. Even the gulls have given up and drift in wide, lazy circles against the pale sky. On the opposite shore of the Dardanelle Straits, the ruin of Troy is a pimple on the fertile plain.
‘Here, I brought these for you,’ says my friend Sinan, handing me a pair of binoculars. ‘I thought you might want to see the island from here.’
I take them, touched and grateful for his thoughtfulness. He is kind and sensitive, and I do not know if I would have ventured this far had it not been for him. I turn to face the open sea and adjust the binoculars until murky distance leaps into sharp focus. Sitting on the southwest horizon is an island. Its lavender hump trails a lumpy tail on the ultimate cliché: Homer’s ‘wine- dark sea’. All the same, there they are, the narrows that inspired the fabulist historian to such rapturous declamations; wine dark, indeed. There too is the place he wrote about when time still followed a pagan rhythm: Tenedos, or Bozcaada as it is known today. In the haze, it resembles a prehistoric beast stretched out and lazing in the setting sun. As my eyes linger on its curves and indentations, something else steps forward to claim the stage – something I have not seen or thought of in many years.
Three islets sit low on the water. I hold my breath. As a boy, I used to be captivated by their aloofness and solitude. When I’d had enough of people, I yearned to build a hut and live on one of them, alone, separate and untouched by a world that, even at that age, seemed capricious and delinquent beyond reckoning. Back then the islets seemed like sailors, braving the immense savagery of the sea that darkened and swelled in winter, battering, overwhelming everything, sending thick sheens of spray into the air and threatening to tear down the foundations of the land, and rake out to the depths the thin soil, the grasses and the yellow cat’s ear flowers that sprouted in warmer months. But that was in another time, another place. Before the tide of history and politics compelled my family to abandon our homeland and to settle in Australia, a voluminous, yet no less insular island on the other side of the world. And here am I now, gazing from across the water at Tenedos, the birthplace I have not set foot on for more than three decades. Strange how the line never really breaks; strange how one is reeled back, easy as fish.
When Greeks lived on Tenedos in greater numbers, they called the biggest islet Mavriya. At its centre stood a lighthouse. Beneath it sat a whitewashed chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas. For some reason, the villagers thought it a suitable place to graze their donkeys during the summer months, which accounts for why the more literal-minded Turks called it Donkey Island. Alongside is Snake Island, so called because it was said to be, and perhaps still is, teeming with serpents; and because of its crescent-moon shape, the third islet is known as Sickle Island. Though it could as easily have been named Goat Island, since the islanders used to bring their goats to fatten themselves on the lush grasses that sprouted after the spring rains. At least that’s how I remember it . . .
My binoculars seek the once familiar sights of Mavriya. I work my fingers to sharpen the focus. For a moment the world refuses to be corralled inside the lens. It flies out in alarm on both sides. Then two different times, two worlds, waver and fight for supremacy before my eyes. Past and present, super- imposed over one another, merge, separate and melt. What I want to see, and what is actually there, grapple and fight a desperate battle. When the victor finally raises his arm, the ruins, lying close to the soil, reveal themselves. The lighthouse is a mottled stump. The chapel is no more than a low crumbling wall. I linger for a moment, searching for signs of life. Nothing stirs. Not even a blade of grass. My eyes fly across the island of snakes to settle on the westernmost peninsula. Where there was once nothing but wilderness, there now turns a regiment of wind turbines. They march across the strip of land in single file; their great white blades slice the air in ghostly silence, as if rock and soil were a fantastical vessel destined for unknown shores. It could not have been a more incongruous sight had a craft landed from outer space.
Modernity has obviously made inroads here as well. As late as 1971, there was no electricity or running water on Tenedos – at least not in most private homes. Automobiles were a rarity, perplexing and alarming symbols of a world beyond reach or even imagining. Islanders used to get about on horse, mule and donkey; kerosene lamps illuminated the majority of homes, and water was brought from the numerous fountains scattered about the village. Most of the inhabitants were peasants in every sense of that anachronistic term, and eked out a living by attempting to tame sea and soil.
As I watch, a ferryboat detaches itself from the Anatolian mainland, heading for the island. It is weighed down with vehicles. Once, Captain Yakar’s boat had taken passengers back and forth, and that only in calm weather. In winter, we were mostly cut off. Sometimes even the phone in the post office died and no news was to be had. Now technology has pulled the island closer to the world. Most inhabitants probably have cell phones and western-style flushing toilets – unheard-of luxuries in our day.
Sinan tells me that it is time to leave. I nod absent-mindedly. The sun licks the horizon, painting the sea a misty mauve on which sparkles an oily gold suffused with shades of oyster pink and bronze. Reluctant to let go the vision, I lift the seeing glasses again and train them on Tenedos. If only I could catch a glimpse of our house, the old neighbourhood, the church. If I could establish their veracity, I would sleep well tonight; but, in the profusion of dwellings, old and new, only a minaret stands out. As darkness falls, a gloom rolls from the foot of the hill. It stretches and enfolds the village. I imagine that my eyes can actually see, from this distance, a string of fairy lights flicker round the base of the fortress on the shore, knowing that the café will be about to open for the nightly trade. I thought I heard, coming from across the water, the evening call to prayer. Allahu ekber, God is great, surely the most piercing lullaby in the world. For a moment I glimpse a gangly boy with close- cropped hair running beneath the linden trees, heading with great urgency for the pier. For a second, he is almost real. For the blink of an eye, he looks across the wastes of time, straight into my eyes, and we almost recognise one another. Then he too falls into the obscurity that devours all, and Tenedos melts into darkness as if it had never existed.
Strange to think that Sinan and I will be on the island the next day; it feels as if I am returning to a place that is mythical, a figment of an overheated imagination.
In my breast pocket, I have a black-and-white photograph of my mother taken in the late 1950s. It shows a striking young woman, composed, self-assured, a Mona Lisa smile on her painted lips. She must have been sixteen, seventeen at most when the likeness was taken. Before flying out of Australia, I had vowed to bury the photograph on Tenedos. It is where the young girl ought to rest now that she is no more. Just as I hope that, when my time comes, someone will bring my ashes here, too.
Sinan rests a hand on my shoulder. ‘It is time to go back,’ he whispers. His thick eyebrows meet over the bridge of his nose, making him look like a prince out of an Ottoman miniature. I smile and nod, fighting back the urge to clasp his hand – a common enough Turkish affectation that does not meet with his approval.
As I stand at land’s end, two paths uncoil above me in the form of twined serpents. In their immense bodies are images of a lifetime. A great exhibition presents itself, and I wonder what it means and where it has come from. It tangles with the knotted roots of sea grasses, and gently rolls across the seabed forgotten amphorae, coins, bejewelled crowns, the empty shells of crabs and limpets and the skulls of soldiers. The serpents form a tendril song that links blood and tendon, bone and marrow, sky to earth, and to the many strata of rock, fossil, mud and clay, all the way down to the core of the earth. Here time does not exist. Life, death, creation, destruction, past, present, future have yet to find a name; and that which has been lost is still playing out its final act.