So, after two days in Istanbul – during which I discovered all the trains I wanted to take aren’t running – I’m packed and ready to fly to Diyarbakir tomorrow. This evening then, marks the end of the beginning of the first leg of my research trip to Kurdistan and Palestine. Does that make tonight the right ankle of my trip? Stick with me folks – I’ve had a little sun today, but I’m in a cool basement hotel room now, and the puns might get better… In the meantime, here’s a puzzle for you, the significance of which will hopefully, like a line of Arabic calligraphy, merge into the shape of a transcendent whole. (Or perhaps a pineapple, which according to one Turkish artist, is one and the same thing)
But on with the game. The day before I left England my friend Iain asked me to cite the only three words in English that begin with the letters ‘dw’. Oooh, ooh, I hear my friend Sarah say – I know! And probably the rest of you do too, or will do with a little thought, but I could only name one of them, possibly because the psychological circumstances were less than ideal. Iain and I were in a Morrison’s car park that smelled of petrol and spit-roast chicken, and I was fretting about the fact that my new hiking boots – which I was attempting to break in before my trip – were chafing my left heel. These were the second pair of hiking boots I had bought in a week – after returning the first because they felt certain to give my left little toe a blister – and I was inexorably descending into one of my regular existential funks about my feet. I can tell you there is a Divine Intelligence for the simple reason that, given the hundreds of thousands of shoe manufacturers there are in the world, it would not be possible for someone to possess feet that fit NO SHOE IN EXISTENCE unless those feet were the result of an idle little bet God had once had with a fallen Arch-Angel. (See – I told you the puns would improve.)
Surely I exaggerate? Well, perhaps by a toenail clipping. I do know, of course, that I am fortunate to be able to walk unaided by anything more than two orthotic inserts, and while my feet hurt if I don’t use these, in general I’ve learned to view my size 9 1/2 impediments as a minor inconvenience, rather than an affliction. I save money by not even entering high street shoe shops anymore, and buy women’s shoes on Chiltern St in London, where three specialist shops, despite being full of shiny overpriced pumps and tasselled loafers, usually have something I like on offer. But these shops never stock hiking boots or even decent trainers. So for sturdy walking gear I must hie me to the men’s footwear section of the high street, and then sit down on the carpet and weep. Because men’s hiking boots are inevitably too heavy and too wide, mostly in the heel. And because my feet, in addition to their outlandish length, are flipper-shaped, the rare narrow men’s boot will also pinch my toes.
Surely I could get a pair of trainers, the reasonable among you will suggest? No. Here the problem is not the Maker or the shoemaker, but the shops, who don’t stock half-sizes even when they exist. (And it’s no good getting shoes that are even half a size too big – they look ridiculous and you end up tripping over the toes.) It’s true that I did once own a pair of Adidas leather football boots that by some minor miracle fit me – they had a grippy sole, not studs, and were water-resistant, comfortable trail shoes: but I wore them until the leather uppers crumbled, and when I tried to replace them styles had changed. Though I found a pair of Nike footy boots that fit, my orthotic inserts made their air-cushioned soles squeak. Even I was floored.
The only size 9 ½ hiking boots I’ve ever managed to find are a pair of Salomons, which I bought ten years ago and still use: but they are winter boots, and I wanted a lightweight summer pair for those walks in inclement weather when my usual fall-back, Teva sandals, would not do. Walkers know – you need decent shoes for good long walks over rough or boggy terrain. Over a period of ten days I had visited every shoe shop in Brighton, and had honestly thought the pair of spongy lightweight GoreTex Clarks I’d ended up with were the answer to my prayers. To suspect now that I had failed in my quest, after spending hours in shops feeling like a unfeminine freak of nature, was triggering a woeful bloat of self-pity not best conducive to lightning-fast verbal reflexes of the sort Iain obviously expected of me. But though I only got one of the ‘dw’ words, he kindly told it was the most difficult one – ‘dwindle’. The easy ones, in case you haven’t yet identified them yourself, are ‘dwarf’ and ‘dwell’. And the point to this story (apart from allowing me the luxury of a good moan) is that despite continued concerns about my left boot, my research trip has got off on a good foot with a small ‘dw’-related epiphany on my first morning in Istanbul.
It was Saturday. I was sitting in the sunshine at a café in Sultanahmet, waiting for my Turkish breakfast of cheese, olives, peeled cucumber and tomato, bread and honey to arrive, and thinking about this blog. How am I going to structure it? What will be its themes? What, in essence, is my mission on this trip? Yes, what on earth am I doing here, nursing a tender heel and clutching a Lonely Planet and four badly pronounced words of Turkish? (I should note that I’d had a red-eye flight after catching two hours kip on the cold floor of Luton airport, and though the journey had been greatly eased by the ambient soundtrack of whistlers, looped dreams catalogues and world choirs my friend Rick had sweetly frothed up for me, even his sublime sounds had not fully cured my existential crisis.) To forestall outright panic and despair, I began jotting down a list of ‘things I want to think about on this trip’:
goddess worship in ancient Mesopotamia, and its relationship to Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
traditional building techniques in Kurdistan, from ancient Mesopotamia to today; in particular, the use of curvilinear structures.
the landscape, flora and fauna of Mesopotamia
the political aspirations and cultural identity of the Kurds, in particular Turkish Kurds, but also those in Iran, Syria (where they are participating in the revolt against Assad), and Iraq (where they have political autonomy).
the nature of modern travel – given economic injustices and ecological concerns, can travel still be a journey into the Self? Or is travel a way to escape the Self? Can I explore these questions in relation to encounters with people that I meet, and also to a more intimate world of sleep, dreams, depression and, perhaps, my feet?