The Caravan Moves On

Irfan Orga


The Caravan Moves On

Irfan Orga


Irfan Orga, author of Portrait of a Turkish Family, journeys to the centre of Turkey to stay with the Yürük nomads in the High Taurus mountains. He learns their lore, listens to their legends, and lives to feel that heroes dead a thousand years and abducted princesses turned mad by grief are still palpably alive.

Orga enters a world untouched by politics or the march of events. He reconnects us with a once-ubiquitous, emotional landscape – a visceral place underpinned by elemental values.

With an afterword by Ates Orga.

‘... reads as freshly as if it were written yesterday.’ - Condé Nast Traveller
‘... a travel book of the best sort.’ - The Times
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The Caravan Moves On: Three Weeks among Turkish Nomads
Afterword by: Ates Orga
ISBN: 978-0907871-97-2
Format: 176pp demi pb
Place: Turkey

Author Biography

Irfan Orga's official birthday was March 1st 1908, though even he did not know the actual date, once suggesting that it could be as late as 1909. He came to England in 1942 on a three year posting from the Turkish air force. While there he became romantically involved with a young Norman-Irish woman, Margaret Veronyca. Living with a foreign woman was a crime in Turkey at the time, and Orga was stripped of his rank, forced out of the air force and, eventually, forced out of the country, leaving for England in 1947 (he was convicted in absentia in 1949).

After Veronyca's divorce had been finalised in 1948, they married. While his wife began working her way up the hierarchy of publishing, Orga pursued several menial jobs. He also began writing, and published books on many areas of Turkish life; cookery, history, children's books and a controversial biography of Ataturk as well as the autobiographical story of his family (Portrait of a Turkish Family, 1950) and a work on the Yuruk nomads of the High Taurus mountains (The Caravan Moves On, 1958). Irfan Orga died in 1970.


Extract from Chapter One 

THE AEGEAN SEA sparkled and, from the shore, windows winked in the sun. Izmir came closer, a toy city of white houses and new concrete wharves. The boat heaved gently, creaking. The glare from the

noonday sun was intense, burning my eyes even behind dark glasses. There was a smell of salt in the air, and something tangyer, lemon trees perhaps. The seagulls swooped, cruel-beaked, low over the water. A gannet cruised on long wings, dazzlingly white where the sun caught the downy underbelly. It fell suddenly, like an arrowhead, sending up a tall

shower of spray as it plunged into the sea after fish. In the foreground the peak of Kadife Kale rose mistily, heat hazed,

the shifting shadows violet coloured and tenuous as spun sugar. Farther back, the undulating curves of Manisa Dag ̆i were like pale watered silk, their peaks growing less and less substantial as they climbed to the brazen sky.

Passengers began to crowd the rails, their suitcases, wicker baskets and other belongings dumped beside them, so that to step back was to be in danger of breaking one’s leg.

It was hot. We all complained of the heat, resenting its invisible presence. We mopped our steaming faces, loosened our too civilised ties, discarded our jackets and commiserated with each other’s discomfort. We sailed close inshore, the wake widening out behind us like quicksilver broken into little drops by the eddying waves. Sickened by the smell of sweat mixed with stale perfume, I took my small case and went under the captain’s bridge where it was shadier but just as hot. With the aid of binoculars I watched the city coming closer. On Inciraltı Plage a few people lay about in swimming suits. There was a casino with a bright striped awning. Shifting my gaze I saw the hangars of the old sea–planes, and felt a surge of nostalgia for my youth that was gone. I had once spent two feverish years there. I looked at Güzelyalı, where the villas and summer residences of the rich stood in large gardens and the sea washed their lower windows, so close were they built to the shore. On the opposite side was Kars ̧ıyaka, my destination. In Kars ̧ıyaka the houses stood well away from the sea, yet in summer the spray flung itself against the windows and in winter metal fastenings became brown with salt.

The boat was nearly in and I put away my binoculars, leaning over the rail as we turned before docking, the water foaming madly under the propellers. The harbour was full of fishing boats. Greek, American, Swedish and British flags hung limply in the heat, and on shore lorries were unloaded by sweating men in their vests.

A group of people had assembled to watch us dock. Greetings were called, handkerchiefs waved and I searched for my brother, Mehmet, catching sight of him at last seated on a crate of dried fruit. His eyes caught mine and we waved laconically. His first words after I had dis- embarked were: ‘My God, haven’t you got fat!’ to which I agreed sadly, noting his own slender elegance.

His young son, Kaya, was waiting for us in the car which was parked in the main street. In the back of the car lolled an enormous Afghan hound who bared his teeth when he saw me but fawned over Mehmet. I said very firmly that I would sit in the front and pushed Kaya into the back with the dog, who made a great fuss of the boy but growled every time he caught my eye.

Driving out to Kars ̧ıyaka my first impression of changed Izmir was of light and too much open space. The main boulevard was too wide for the numerous small shops. There were public gardens everywhere, the bright flowers drooping wretchedly and only the lush palms revelling in the almost tropical heat. We passed a statue of Kemal Atatürk – something that was to become an inevitable part of one’s wanderings across the country, as familiar as a landmark. His memorial in Izmir showed him stern of face, implacable, his hands pointing seawards. Certainly the new wide white Izmir would have been after his own heart. A vast building, nearing completion, was, so Mehmet told me, a hotel which would house two hundred and fifty people. It was to be all chrome and plush, luscious introduction to the Aegean for rich Americans.

The heat was intense. The glare burned the eyes and the sea glittered like a gigantic sunburst of diamonds. The leaves of the city trees hung like green rags, weighed down by the intolerable burden of the heat. Mehmet opened all the windows, remarking: ‘In about an hour’s time it will be a little better. At one o’clock inbat will come’ – looking at me anxiously to see if after ten years I still remembered inbat, that westerly sea wind which is the breath of life to the people of Izmir.

We ran along the kordon and the sea seemed to shine like a vast mirror, reflecting light whitely, bleaching the pastel-tinted houses.

I think, that first morning, I was struck by the brightness of every- thing, by the cleanliness, the elegant little villas and the purple bougain- villaea that flung itself luxuriantly across garden walls, about public gardens and over the façades of old houses. The scene was un-Turkish. It had wit and gaiety. It was hot and Mediterranean. Furthermore, there was an absence of mosques. There was an air of sun-washed expectancy, and a flaunting lewdness that was enchanting and wholly Levantine. Reconstruction and demolition seemed to be going on in about equal proportions. Marble-faced blocks of flats stood eyeless, facing the sea. A new port was under construction, which would benefit the export trade. Here and there, villas stood raw and new in weedy gardens. In one street a whole row of old houses was being pulled down.

Used to living in the restricted space of a London flat, I found Mehmet’s house too large for me. It was all doors and windows, and immense balconies fretted the front of the house in fussy ornamentation.


Crossing what appeared to be an illimitable ocean of polished floor, I was met at about halfway point by my sister-in-law, Bedia, and meeting her again was like coming face to face with a ghost, for the girl I remembered was only palely discernible in her large blue eyes. I was horrified to see the streaks of grey in her hair, although I had long grown used to my own. I dare say I was as much of a shock to her, although she was far too cool to make a personal remark.

My seventeen-year-old niece, Oya, greeted me with a formality I found charming. Kissing my outstretched hand she seemed a stranger; offering me bon-bons and orange liqueur she stood before me with downcast eyes, betraying only by an upward flicker of her eyelids that my scrutiny was embarrassing her.

Lunch was served on a balcony filled with flowering plants. As the meal proceeded, and small talk petered out, I discovered I had nothing in common with them. This made me feel superior and self-conscious. They talked for the most part about times past, believing, I think, that this would please me. They resurrected the dead, or spoke of people I had never known. Despite their smattering of culture they knew nothing of life outside Turkey, except what the flaring banners of their newspapers told them. They were as superbly indifferent to world events, to world conferences, as any mountain tribe. The might of the hydrogen bomb passed them by. Time, save in such instances as getting the children off to school or Mehmet to the Naval Hospital, where he was a surgeon-commander, did not govern them. I was continually embarrassed in trying to find some subject of mutual interest. They were indifferent readers, and the books I saw in the house were either medical, printed in French and German, or earthy Turkish novels, products of newly literate Anatolian authors. I tried to talk about these, but it was obvious that they thought I was being rather precious and chi-chi. Bedia remarked distantly that she read for pleasure. It would bore her, she said, to dissect what she was reading while she was reading it and afterwards it usually wasn’t worth while. There were so many other things.

My brother’s strict Muslim habits forbade him to drink wines or spirits so we drank each other’s health in lime juice, freshly extracted from garden produce, and this had a depressive effect upon me. For although I am not what could be called a drinker, I have always found it very pleasant to drink a glass of wine with my meals.

My sister-in-law’s thickened figure reminded me of lost youth, and when the conversation turned to my niece’s recent betrothal, I wondered what future could be expected for an immature girl married to a young lawyer in a backwater like Izmir. Her serene face, however, and her pertinent remarks assured me she knew what she was doing. She brushed aside the greater freedom of European girls.

‘They will grow old and die just the same,’ she said contemptuously.

After I had unpacked my one small bag I wondered what to do next. Afternoon quiet invaded the house. Mehmet had returned to the hospital and time was my own for the first time for many years. I found I didn’t know what to do with such freedom. Once I peered through the window and saw Bedia sitting on the terrace talking in whispers to a woman who appeared to be wearing an extraordinary hat. Hovering on the edge of boredom, I took off most of my clothes and went to sleep. The sound of soft giggling awoke me, and I sat up to find Kaya huddled at the bottom of the bed regarding me intently.

‘You look funny when you sleep, amca,’ he said, ‘your mouth blows in and out like a fish.’

‘You’re too old to get away with that sort of remark,’ I said. ‘You’re just being rude.’

His shoulders heaved with laughter. ‘And your legs,’ he said, then slid round the door hastily as he saw me leap out of bed, ‘I only came to tell you baba is home,’ he said in an injured voice, ‘and, anyway, it’s true – you did look like a fish.’

I felt a good deal better after showering, and the faint wind from the sea was agreeable. Down in the harbour sails were silhouetted against the last blaze of the sun. In the slant of evening light outlines were blurred and softened and shadows lay in drifts of blue and purple in the folds of the distant hills. It was a peaceful scene.

I was touched to discover that for dinner a bottle of rakı had been put beside my place.

‘I haven’t tasted it for years,’ I said to Mehmet. ‘Will I get drunk, I wonder?’

Neighbours joined us for coffee. They questioned me about London and asked if I had ever been to America. They complained steadily and monotonously about the cost of living and envied Bedia the coffee I had brought as a present. Coffee, they said, was very difficult to get nowadays since the government had reduced imports, and in any case it was a terrible price.

The women were thirtyish, perhaps older. They dressed better than women of their class in London, but their faces were more lined. They all had painted fingernails and masses of chinking gold bracelets. Their husbands were doctors or engineers or army officers. Most of them belonged to the new professional class in Turkey. One of them, a staff captain with a command of three languages, was the son of a Kurdish tribesman; a middle-aged engineer was the son of an Ottoman general. They were charmingly provincial. They had mostly seen service in Ankara, were leaders of public opinion or society in their own milieu and rented summer villas for their holidays. Their children attended the same lycées and university, and the daughters married young. On Saturday nights they danced at the Officers’ Club, celebrated the Cumhuriyet Bayram each year with fireworks, and disliked foreigners. They were literate but lacked polish. They all read at least one daily newspaper, the women liked looking at the American glossy magazines, and none of them cared what went on in the rest of the world. They spoke with amused contempt of the rich peasants who had invaded the city, occupying all the best houses. Their manner implied they were sophisticates marooned among barbarians.

Before turning in to sleep, Mehmet and I went for a walk along the front. From the opposite shore the lights reflected in the harbour water like beads on a string. A little coolness had come with night, but not enough to summon sleep. The heat of the vanished sun still oozed up from cobblestones and out of the walls of houses that had borne its weight all day. The burning stars looked enormous, and very near.

The cafés were open all night long. They were filled with bright- eyed, restless people in light suits who chattered and shouted to each other with the vivacity of daylight, and who all seemed to be eating ice- cream. We turned into a waterfront casino, whose lights sent out a pathway of gilt to the black water beyond. A tinny radio played national music against a background of talk. The music, in a distracted minor key, was tormenting, ruined by the terrible radio. We sipped iced coffee and talked, Mehmet diffident, anxious not to attract attention.

He was rectitude itself, and only mildly curious about my proposed wanderings. He was very dapper and gentlemanly, adjectives which would have pleased him, for he saw nothing derogatory in acting the part of the man of good breeding. He had changed little since schooldays, either in manner or appearance, and although he was far too polite to say so, I knew that he felt rather sorry for me. A brother who earned his living by writing was too precarious an asset to talk about; on seeing me, his air of surprise at my well-being was genuine, for he had no doubt expected to find me abjectly poor. He would have liked to see me in some settled occupation and had always regretted my decision to resign my commission as a regular officer in the Turkish Air Force. A writer in the family was rather hard luck, really, for they could never be sure what disgrace I would bring upon them. Furthermore, he was sceptical as to whether writing could ever make one rich.

‘But I don’t want to be rich,’ I said. ‘I want to be free.’ His only answer was a look of infinite pity. An old friend of mine, recognising me from afar, shouted my name

over the heads of the crowd. We beckoned him to join us and he threaded his way through the defeated-looking waiters and a group of men who were calling for a tric-trac set and sat down at our table.

‘Well, by God,’ he said, ‘you’re the last person I’d have expected to see here! I thought you’d have joined Nazıim Hikmet in Moscow long ago.’

Nazım Hikmet is a brilliant Turkish poet who spent over ten years in Turkish prisons during the Halk Partisi regime. He was released soon after the Menderes party came to power, and promptly escaped to Moscow where his too acute wit has since got him into trouble.

Mehmet, conscious of his position as a respectable member of democratic society, blenched and looked around him to see if there was anyone listening.

Our companion’s name was Osman. He was a disreputable looking, devil-may-care journalist on an Izmir paper which was in constant trouble with the authorities and had been closed down at least once. It was a harmless foible with him to pretend that every writer was a Communist, or at least a fellow traveller. He was a man of fire, quoted passages from Shakespeare (in Turkish) for the confoundment of lesser mortals and had an unrelenting hatred for the Americans.

I had known him for a number of years. In his youth he had spent a good deal of time writing up the harrowing life stories of prostitutes in the Izmir bars. This lucrative period of his career had come to an end, however, when one of the prostitutes, objecting to being called ‘a poor, misguided woman, dragged through the depths by man’s degrading passions’, attacked him with a breadknife and mutilated his face. The scars were still there. They pulled the left side of his face into a permanent leer and were the cause of his wife’s throwing him over for another man.

He was as embittered as ever, insulting the government and the Americans at every opportunity. It was surely only a matter of time before he was clapped into prison for good. I could see that Mehmet was becoming restive, and to tell the truth I wasn’t very comfortable either. Osman’s violence was increasingly embarrassing. It seemed that at any moment he might start throwing glasses.

As we were leaving he said to me: ‘If you’re really going into Anatolia, you’d better leave that suit and that gold watch behind you or, by God, you’ll not be a day’s journey from Izmir before you find yourself without a stitch on you! Our peasants are no respecters of human life.’

The streets were still thronged with people. Water lapped gently against the harbour wall. A nearly full moon rode high, brilliant and remote. It was so bright that gardens were silvered, trees showed up bronze-green and on the nearer hills details of woods and crags stood out clearly. A few fishing-boats returning to shore were silhouetted in the silver path the moon threw over the sea. Kadife Kale lifted itself into the night, sombre as a pall. I could have walked all night.

During the day Mehmet was at the hospital, and I went out alone, eating lunch in little restaurants along the waterfront. I ran into Osman a few times, more by accident than design, although when he was sober he was a merry enough companion. He would have been a misfit in any society, chafing against restraint violently. He was so angry and bitter! He despised the masses because they had no learning and, unlike Mehmet, would have preferred to see me in rags.

‘You can’t earn money by telling the truth,’ he said to me once, and almost in the same breath asked me how much I had paid for my shirt.

For the most part I went everywhere alone; sometimes, however, I was accompanied by the Afghan hound, who had made up his mind to put up with me, if not to love me.

Izmir by day is dull and nondescript. Only in the little side streets is there a breath of a more romantic past. Here, there is perpetual twilight in the cool sheltered houses with their closely grilled windows and deep stone arches. The streets are still cobbled, with weeds growing up between the stones. Lemon trees bloom in every garden.

The Izmir of the Ionian period was destroyed by the King of Sardis in 600BC, but Alexander the Great, inspired in a dream by the goddess Nemesis, built a new city on the slopes of Kadife Kale. Successively it was occupied by the Greeks and the Romans who crowned it with gymnasia, markets, theatres, houses, fountains and monuments. But little of the classical glory remains – part of the Golden Road only and the Sacred Way, traces of the agora on the hillside, sculptures of Poseidon and Demeter, and a network of underground shops. In the middle of an old burying ground is the mausoleum of Tantalus, whom Jupiter condemned to the torture of constant thirst while putting him within sight and sound of running water.

It has been a city since ancient times and recent excavations by Turkish archaeologists show evidence of a civilisation dating back to 2000BC. In fact, some of the urns unearthed are said to resemble Hittite urns dug up in central Anatolia, thus supposing cultural exchanges.

My most potent memory of Izmir had nothing to do with its changed appearance or with its new generation of stolid citizens. I had been that morning to the great new Kültür Park, where I paused for a time beside the figure of a bearded Roman god, whose marble hair is wreathed with flowers, and in whose arms is a cornucopia filled with the fruits of the Aegean region. Perhaps my head was filled with thoughts of classical Izmir, perhaps I was in a receptive enough mood to see gods walking in the streets. At any rate, I certainly caught sight of a young god in a garden. He was kneeling on the grass when I saw him, staring up at an old woman who seemed to be scolding him. It was a garden surrounded by trees, holding in its heart an old stone house with hooded, secret windows. It was a garden where anything might happen. At any moment the pipes of Pan himself might pierce the air. I halted beside the tall grilled gate, staring at the boy and the old woman, captivated by that smooth old- young olive face. What sensuality it expressed, what rapaciousness! He couldn’t have been Turkish, for no Turkish face was ever carved with such delicacy, or such weakness. His beauty was in his weakness. He was Antinous, thwarted by the old woman of some trivial desire. He was Beauty and Evil. He was the Youth of Smyrna.

Like a figure on some Etruscan vase, he knelt there in the warm grass, his frozen gaiety, his quiescent passion, epitomising a grander era than this.