Five years ago, almost to the day I left Istanbul for Denmark. I should never have left. I don’t have many regrets in life. I can count them on three fingers. One of them was leaving Istanbul on June 1, 2009. Early that spring I said this about Istanbul, “fuck it man, I’d wade through a river of shit ten times to see this place.” In many ways I’ve waded through several of those metaphorical rivers of shit over the last five years.
And then there was today. Clouds lowered over the city. It’s been pissing rain here for a week, flooding many parts of the city and more rain was expected.
“Fuck it,” I said, grabbed my backpack (the same one I bought here in 2009), hailed a cab and rode to Taksim. I had business to take care of. The cabbie left me at Babil Sokak, my old street. It hasn’t changed. I guess I haven’t, either.
My eyes puddled up and the whole crazy mess of city assaulted me at once. The old guy where I ate breakfast every morning recognized me. I stopped at Hasan’s, my old barber. He gave me a great shave, trimming the beard up nicely. Hasan said he had missed me, asked me, “where have you been my Texas friend? Please stay for tea.”
I did, choked up, holding back the tears.
What was it Horace said? “Jealous time flees.”
Jealous and fleeting, indeed.
I walked down Cumurriyet Caddesi, this time unable to hold back the tears.
How I so love this city: the filth, the crowds, the covered women, the women in miniskirts, the men in coats, the touts, the louts, the traffic and the smells: roasting chestnuts, roasting corn, steaming tea in tulip shaped glasses, musty bricks laid before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
I walked past the Galata Tower and turned the corner onto the Golden Horn Bridge and then a miracle happened, just for me.
The clouds evaporated. The Bosporus turned from sullen gray to green. Ferries cut cottony tails across the Sea of Marmara. Fishermen cast lines off the bridge and the whole city was just as golden and magnificent as I ever remembered it.
I was home.
It is 2013 and I still get emails about this post from February of 2009. It was an exceptionally harsh post on and about India. My main reason for writing it? I was sick and tired of all the bullshit in the Western press about the Indian economic miracle. I was also very sick of what Pankaj Mishra in this recent New York Review of Books essay calls, “day tripping columnists” from the West. This is clearly a jab at Tom “Flathead” Friedman, but could be a jab at many others too boot. I do wonder how many people have spent more than two weeks in India?
Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley certainly did, and he called India right way back in 2007. On a visit to Bombay he noted that the infrastructure was horrid and would at some point become a serious bottleneck to economic growth to the country. How did he come up with such a fanciful economic prediction? Did he run a quantitative model on the country? Did he look at its current account deficit and extrapolate out? Did investment banking friends of his tell him that at some point they’d simply stopped lending to India because of some hidden fundamentals they’d uncovered and didn’t like?
None of those actually–and probably all of them at a later date. At the time he made this prediction, however, based on a lot of his own personal experience in the developing world and one critical observation he had while on the trip. He was on India’s sole north to south superhighway (only four lanes total at the time) and his car almost his a cow.
Here were are in late 2013 and his prediction has pretty much come true. Economic growth in India has been cut in half–actually more than half from its peak after the “reforms” of the 1990s. The main problem is that there is no manufacturing–and if there were, as I clearly said back in 2009 it couldn’t get to port because of India’s shitty infrastructure. Therefore, there is very little employment growth. Yet, the extraction economy continues and India, by some measures, has actually gotten worse.
Let’s recount just where India now stands in 2013:
All of the following stats were gleaned from and/or directly quoted from the above-linked Mishra story, so read it.
One hundred people in India are worth $300 billion, 25% of the nation’s GDP.
Brazil grew by only 1% between 1993 and 2005 but reduced poverty twice as quickly as India.
Bangladesh, which is half as rich as India on a per capita basis, has a longer life expectancy, better child mortality and immunization rates than India.
The 2011 census of India revealed that half of Indian households practiced open defecation. For those of you who are daft, this statistic means that one of every two people in the country takes a shit in public. I don’t like to euphemize. No toilets, so men just unzip their trousers or women hike up their saris, squat down and shit. In public.
Good enough visual for you?
“Almost half of Indian children are underweight,” compared to 25% in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Calorie and protein intake among the poor has actually dropped” in India since the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 60s.
The man who very well may be the next Prime Minister of India—Narendra Modi—was barred from traveling in the United States for his alleged complicity in communal violence—also known as incitement to race or religion based mass murder—in Gujurat in 2002 that left 1,000 Muslims dead.
Overall, says Pankaj Mishra, “India’s economy grew at about 5% in the 80s, ran up to nearly 10% and recently has slowed to less than half that rate in recent months.”
Yes, there is a middle class in India with pent up consumer demand, which likes Western and global brands. They are gobbling up as much as they can. This middle class finds its incomes in real estate, IT, telecom and banking. When the offshoring play runs out IT and telecom will go bust. That will leave banking and real estate to pick up the slack, because there is little to no manufacturing in India. In fact, there is more in next door Bangladesh.
Then again, because of global warming Bangladesh will be underwater, so maybe India can help the Bangladeshis move their manufacturing base uphill.
Oh, and on my pet infrastructure project: the railways? Absolutely no money has been put into them to modernize them. Yes, you can buy a ticket online now, but tell me, how does a farmer who has to shit in public afford the internet?
One personal goal this year has been to read more of what scholars and academics would call, “primary sources;” what laymen call “books that make up books.” Some can be fascinating for their own sake, like Herodotus (my all time favorite) or Thucydides (my bête noire). Portions of Lucian are worth reading today for sheer irony and humor and then there is the whole sprawling magnificence of the ancient Greek playwrights. Later writers sound fascinating but prove a touch on the disappointing side, like Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Genealogy of the Pagan Gods.” I’m still reading this and have hopes for it. The book is full of hard to find but thought provoking stories; I mean, where and when did the Greco-Roman gods really emerge? It’s a question not likely to stimulate many, unless they’ve read their Hesiod. Other primary sources this year have included “The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite,” which is a brief (mercifully so) history of the war between Byzantium and Persia from the perspective of an Edessene at the beginning of the 6th century. And most recently I’ve been quite taken by “Cyriac of Ancona, Later Travels.”
The volume in question is part of the i Tatti Renaissance Library published by Harvard University and covers his letters and diaries from 1443-49. As a 15th century Italian Cyriac was no doubt engaged in commerce. And he spent most of his life sailing around the tatterdemalion scraps of the Byzantine empire, setting up trade posts for the Genoese in the Black, Marmara and Aegean seas. It was with a certain relish and anticipation that I picked up his book. Some of it was good—like when he met the future Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in Adrianople during an audience with his father Sultan Murad II. If only Cyriac had taken a moment to look more closely at little Çelebi, as Mehmet was then called, one wonders what he looked like at ten? Was he brooding and intense like he seems in the later histories, or gentle and serene as depicted in the miniature by Nakkaş Sinan Bey?
There are other missed opportunities, like when Cyriac goes hunting with Constantine Dragases—the last Constantine, he who died on the Theodosian Walls like a proper Roman and last Emperor. What was he like, there in the wilds of the Peloponnese? Did he foresee his doom even then? The end of his empire and the end of his line? If only Cyriac’s letters told us more about these men than his trade arrangements. Alas, the recording of history is nothing if not grief over missed opportunities like these.
Cyriac is mostly remembered today, if he is remembered at all, because he urged the preservation of the antique remains that littered and illumined his world. Rare is he who sees the treasure that has always stared him in the face. At one point Cyriac sounds like a cantankerous citizen at a city hall meeting fulminating against the lack of preservation and decay all around him. “One needs a more expansive genre in which to cry out against, despise, condemn and thoroughly curse such great negligence, slothfulness and lack of human culture on the part of our contemporaries,” he writes near the beginning of his letters. We owe a lot, as a culture, to Cyriac’s imprecations. That we value the past as we do, and have preserved much of it, we learned during the Renaissance, and it remains Cyriac’s forgotten legacy.
In July of 1444 Cyriac made his way from Constantinople to Perinthus (the modern Marmara Ereğlisi). Two thirds of the way there he stopped in Selymbria, now Silivri, to document the many inscriptions lying around. What must this have looked like? Cracked marble plinths, perhaps an architrave and columns lying higgledy-piggledy, used as a quarry for the more industrious of subjects and ignored by all the rest. The blue luciferase waters of the Marmara behind them. Here Cyriac found treasure.
Some inscriptions date back to the reign of Trajan—or at least this is my semi-educated guess, my Latin being rusty and my Greek practically oxidized out of existence. What struck me was the span of human existence there—as I had seen when I visited the region in 2008-2009—and how much their desire to leave something behind is still so very alive. It’s one of those qualities that binds us as humans, even if we don’t realize it.
And yet, sometimes when I am back here in the suburban post-modernity of the New World, thinking about or reading history I feel I live in a facsimile of reality and it’s only when I am back over there, when I can touch a two thousand year old marble inscription that I know the past is real, not green lights tumbling down a black screen.
Such was my state of mind a few weeks ago when I sat down in my favorite chair and began reading the inscriptions Cyriac noted in his diary between the 25th of July and 12th of August 1444. Some were interesting and in Latin:
Good fortune. Emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus,son of the divine Trajan, victor over the Parthians, grandson of the divine Nerva, consul for the third time.
Others anodyne (and in Greek) in their attempt to honor a citizen ad aeternam:
Good fortune. The Council and the People honored Poplios Ailios Harpokration, also called Proklos who built the shrine of Tyche; the Alexandrians who do business in Perinthos set up a statue in his honor.
But then I read this:
As I was leaving my eighteenth year and just beginning the study of rhetoric, a grievous illness overcame me in well-wooded Lesbos, and I had not yet reached the pleasant land of Ephesus. My brother, by a great deal of work, gave this sadness to be borne to my parents on a swift ship. I dwell in the holy houses of heroes, not in Acheron—for such is the end of life for the wise.
Seven lines carved on a marble plinth gut punched me. They shouted and smiled down at me while I lay on the floor collecting the questions after a knock-out blow.
When was it written? Where was it found? Where is it now?
Who composed the lines? What did he die of? Did it take him quickly? Or was it a wasting disease? And just how did a dying eighteen year-old find the composure to write with such simple and powerful elegance?
Slaver the Greek word that begins the inscription around on your tongue for a moment and listen to its alien beauty: ohkto-kai-deka-toy.
Eight and ten. Eighteen.
If the rest of Cyriac is dull, uninteresting and lifeless like the two former inscriptions, so be it, I thought in that moment, this inscription makes the entire book worth reading. It’s why I love the study of history and why I have disciplined myself to read primary sources this year instead of wasting time on Facebook or Twitter. The sources are like mines of gold or silver, but the veins of metal are rare and hard to find. And to mix metaphors a little, sometimes the poetry of the past, as in these seven lines of Greek, cuts me down to size.
I’m forty two years-old now. What’s forty two minus eighteen? It’s twenty four. I’ve had twenty four more years of living than this eloquent young man who, but for a loving brother, would have vanished, would have been wiped clean by the forgetful waters of River Lethe, and instead found himself in Elysium.
What have I done with my extra twenty four years? I’m human and wasted much of the time whining and groaning about lost opportunities (I really don’t have any to be honest, because I took most of them, wisely or unwisely) and pissing and moaning about stupid mistakes (we all have those, me included, but most aren’t that stupid, although there have been a lot).
Let us add more to the scales. He was eighteen years-old and died. And here am I with a (thus far) well-lead life: fifty five countries visited, one great love and two ex-wives, a career in finance (long), a career in software sales (short), a career as a writer (even shorter), and a stint as a stay-at-home step-father (the shortest). I’ve had more huge chunks of plain old-fashioned obscene good luck than 99.9 percent of humanity and I have the gall to complain?
And then I read what this young man—no, this boy—composed while dying and I know any story I tell will never have the impact of his seven lines of poetry.
On the Arabian Sea-side of Mumbai sits a white jewel of a shrine in the midst of the sapphire waters. The causeway out to the shrine is about three-fourths of a kilometer long. I visited it one day in 2005. What I saw will haunt me forever. Even now, seven years in remove, it brings tears to my eyes and a choking rage at the way some people treat their fellow humans. In the words of Virgil, “if I had a hundred mouths and a hundred tongues and a throat of iron, I could not rehearse their crimes or name their punishments.”
One of the reasons I dislike India so much is the myth making, the lie that it is a nation living up to its Gandhian inspiration, when in reality it hides behind it, a nation of a few powerful feeding off the many who are weak.
Is this a harsh judgment? Then read this.
I’ve had a lot of time to ponder Göbekli Tepe in the two years since I visited. The photos I took of the place will soon find their way to the History Channel, as it seems as if there is an embargo of sorts on photos from the site currently–or this is what I was told when negotiating the use of my photos–and producers are desperate to get their hands on something before the embargo ends and the results of this years excavations are published.
I offer these two older posts on Göbekli Tepe (here and here) before submitting this story by Charles C. Mann in National Geographic on the temple complex. The photo essay accompanying the story is here. Do read it, damned interesting. My photos of the site begin here.
What’s most fascinating about this place is how it is upending what we previously thought we knew about the neolithic revolution–or what most of us call the agricultural revolution. What came first? Settlements? Or farming and then permanent settlements? Or maybe as Göbekli Tepe and other excavations in the Fertile Crescent are telling us is that it was a thin concatenation of events, strategies, ideas all thrown around in the same general vicinity–the mythical Garden of Eden–and that it was ultimately a thousand or so years of trial and error. As Mann sums it up in his story:
It is more as if the occupants of various archaeological sites were all playing with the building blocks of civilization, looking for combinations that worked. In one place agriculture may have been the foundation; in another, art and religion; and over there, population pressures or social organization and hierarchy. Eventually they all ended up in the same place. Perhaps there is no single path to civilization; instead it was arrived at by different means in different places.
That feels about right to me.
For the record, and certainly not for the last time, let me spell something out. Of course I write from a Westernist perspective. I’ve never denied this. Nor should Mr. Morris. He is, after all, a creature of the West, just as I am. I’m sure he could argue that his Westernist perspective is softened due to the presence of Maoris in New Zealand life, just as sure as I could argue that my Westernist perspective is ameliorated by the presence of Native Americans in mine. But that would be a dubious argument.
That I am Western and that every single observation and judgment I make is inherently biased by my education and cultural upbringing has never been in doubt. It is precisely because I have such biases that I have traveled so widely. It’s what compelled me to live in South Korea in the early nineties. It’s what compelled me to travel from Istanbul to Bombay overland in 2003. It’s what compelled me to visit China almost a dozen times. It’s what compelled me to stay in a Mayan Indian village in Belize. It’s what compelled me to travel to Iran in 2006 and Ethiopia later that year. It’s what compelled me to travel in 2008 through 2009 from Singapore, across South East Asia, India and the Middle East as well.
Sometimes, in my quiet moments, I fear I am never going to be able to rid myself of my inherent biases that I may never be able to see the world through the eyes of coffee farmer in the Sumatran highlands, or a rice farmer in deepest China. Would that I were able to do so the stories I could tell, the ideas I could communicate and the humanity I could convey.
All of that being said, in his post, Morris offers up not one substantive disagreement with the core of my critique that India is plagued by the following: debilitating infrastructure issues, massive direct and observable pollution–one reason pollution is a curse in India is that Hindus find value in ritual purity, which is very different from hygiene–and a terribly corrupt bureaucratic and business class. He disagrees with the tone but not the substance and then accuses me of trying to “otherize” Indians. My only reply to this would be to take a look at the full body of my work before accusing me of such a thing. In my opinion that is an extremely ugly accusation to make without a vast arsenal of evidence to back it up. I’m not Flaubert and I’m not Lord Macaulay.
Now, to Morris’ credit, he does dink me about portraying Kerala as a place of “unicorns and rainbows.” Those aren’t my words–they are his–but he’s correct: I should have noted in the post that my view of Kerala is a relative view. (This has been corrected in the book, however.) Kerala is a terribly filthy place, just no where near as filthy as the Gangetic Plain. The point in singling out Kerala was to note that it was significantly better than the rest of India for several reasons that were beyond the scope of my post. Kerala has a very different history than that of the rest of India. Kerala from the very earliest of times was linked to the global ecumene by the Spice Trade, a subject I discuss at length in my book and one of the major reasons I visited Kerala. But again, this was far, far beyond the scope of a single blog post.
Morris then accuses me of “a lack of genuine interest in why things are as they are, or what the people he writes about represent historically, philosophically, emotionally.” I could just as easily accuse Morris as lacking a genuine interest in the rest of India, because, as he says himself, “I haven’t travelled extensively in India.” Why not? You’ve been there for two years? Is such behavior not indicative of someone uninterested in why all of India is the way it is, or what the people of India represent historically, philosophically and emotionally?
You see how easy it is to set up such a silly argument? I can’t divine his motives because I haven’t investigated any of his other writings on Kerala, or India for that matter. But I seriously doubt he is uninterested. If he looked a little deeper he might notice the same in me, but he didn’t.
Here’s what I think: Morris isn’t disagreeing with me, per se, he’s just arguing from authority: because he lives there only he is capable of making such judgments, judgments that are identical to mine. There is also a need as a blogger to simply comment. It’s almost compulsive at times, the need to say something about something you know, even if you agree, but disagree on the margins. Look, I’ve done all this myself–and will no doubt do it again–so no harm, no foul. And, of course, not all arguments from authority are wrong, especially in a post-modern, super relative world, but Morris’ attempt in this case falls flat.
In the end I believe the reception the article has received in India speaks for itself. It was written nearly two years ago. I still get close to ten emails a week about it, of which nine out of ten Indians agree with the substance. Was I roundly negative? Sure. That was the whole point of the post. It wasn’t an unkind post. It wasn’t a message of insults or name calling. I did not imply or say outright that Indians were somehow inferior than me, or the West. My criticisms were based on empirical observation and a desire to see India live up to her own high aspirations and honor her own values, values the rest of the world could learn from. What it said was, if India wants to modernize–a choice entirely up to Indians, I hasten to add–India will have to face some hard truths. Facts are inconvenient, but never irresponsible.
And sometimes the most responsible (and kind) thing is to deliver harsh truths without sugar coating.
A harsh, dry February wind blew up from Kanyakumari, over the Wayanands.
“Master,” Aurangzeb said, “I have conquered the Deccan and sent the infidel fleeing in the four directions.”
Aurangzeb’s men had slaughtered a hundred thousand souls.
To this Baba lifted his gray gaze.
“But you have not conquered yourself.”
Gouge my fucking eyeballs out, please. I hate this orientalist tripe dressed up as modern anthropological-cum-travel writing observation:
The Turks, as everyone knows, are insane and deceitful. I say this affectionately. I live in Turkey. On good days, I love Turkey. But I have long since learned that its people are apt to go berserk on you for no reason whatsoever, and you just can’t trust a word they say. As one Turkish friend put it (a man who has spent many years in America, and thus grasps the depth of the cultural chasm), “It’s not that they’re bad. They don’t even know they’re lying.”
Affectionately? Do you have any idea how horribly insulting a Turk would find this? And for good reason, too. It’s an ugly, untrue stereotype. This kind of crap just reinforces orientalism and, considering the source, is a set-up for a kind of ‘Wogs begin at Calais’ trope that delegitimizes anything the Turks might do. It’s also just plain wrong. How about this for a little thought experiment:
My friend is right, and his comment suggests a point about American culture that I doubt many Easterners grasp. People here—and, I would guess, throughout the South and the Mountain States, though Texas is the only state I know well—see “truth” as something plastic, connected more to emotions than to facts or logic. If it feels true, it is true. What’s more, feelings here tend to change very quickly—and with them, the truth.
The above paragraph can be used to describe every Fox TV-watching, Sarah Palin-loving person in America. Now go read the original. The whole essay is full of really, really odious stuff that proves a singluar point about human nature: we see what we want to see. Take me for example: when I first discussed hejab in Turkey with three girls who were wearing it, I saw what I wanted to see. Only later would I learn that it was much, much more complicated than my first, oversimplified impression.
Look, the Turks do have unique characteristics. They love practical jokes. Have a very different and wonderful sense of humor. They are supremely hospitable and kind. But this idea that the truth, to Turks alone, is plastic, malleable and that ‘orientals’ are deceitful and insane is an old Orientalist trope. It’s also complete bullshit.
Human beings lie. Human beings tell you what they think you want to hear. We all do it. Why? Because we don’t like hurting people’s feelings. It’s human nature.
I can’t believe it’s 2010 and I have to fucking point this out.
Please, shoot me.
A correspondent from India chimes in on my criticisms of the rail system in India. Full disclosure he writes on more topics than this, but I want to address his one idea on the trains in India specifically, as it is a meme I encounter about the online booking system in India that is, well, rather infuriating. He writes:
a) I travel regularly by train and it never takes more than 5 minutes to book a confirmed ticket online.
This is all fine and well. I applaud the ease with which middle class Indians, all 120 million of them, can use the internet to make online reservations.
But really, we’re forgetting the other 880 million Indians who do not have internet access, much less know what it is. This is a bogus excuse.
Does the farmer in Orissa who needs travel 300 miles to go to a family wedding, or somesuch, have access to the internet?
Does the woman who lives in a small Kerala town, with several children, and no internet access, have the whereabouts to visit her son in the army halfway across the country?
Or do they both have to stand in interminably long lines at the train station, fighting off huge crowds for a day or longer, just to get their tickets?
If you have ever traveled in India you know the answer to this, even if you life in a middle class cocoon of privilege and servants.