When looking out at the Aegean from Anatolia, the mountains of the Greek islands stand tall just before the horizon. The birds dance through the air and the waves crash against the coast with the simultaneous gentility and regal ferocity of a Machiavellian prince. Meanwhile, the people chatter among themselves in a language that has been blended, reworked, and revised for centuries – drawing French, Arabic, Hungarian together into a fascinating collaboration of sounds sketched over the historical backdrop of empires at war.
It was nearing five o’clock when the first speaker took the stage. There were about one hundred and fifty of us standing on the loggia of the Marmara Otel in Bodrum. One side of the loggia overlooked the sea while the other overlooked the hotel’s tennis courts and garden. The podium stood on the western edge of the loggia, locking the would-be speaker into a portrait of the ocean, the mountains, the crashing waves, and the distant boats sporting mesmerizing, deep-red Turkish flags. Anatolian waiters in tuxedos with distinctively kempt facial hair scurried between the different groups of polished guests to bring them bubbling aperitifs. I took the last gulp of my third and placed the glass on the nearest table.
The mayor of Bodrum, Mehmet Kocadon, strode to the podium, checked the microphone, and then began his greeting of the crowd. His charming yet imperfect usage of the English language told a story of a man who had picked up English colloquially at ritzy events in lieu of taking formal classes. It didn’t take long for him to shift to his native tongue of Turkish. I took this opportunity to grab another aperitif and go to explore the garden adjacent to the tennis courts. The garden was situated at the bottom of a steep gradient split by a trail of sizeable stepping stones of some geological sort or another. I took care not to spill my drink as I made my descent.
Once I was far enough into the garden, I stopped, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply through my nose. There is a remarkable bond between the human brain and one’s sense of smell. Taking time to absorb an environment through all of the senses, especially smell, has become a matter of habit for me upon entering a new place.
So, there I stood, with one hand cradling a glass of champagne, the other nestled snuggly in the pocket of my trousers, eyes closed, shoulders relaxed, smelling. For a brief second the absurdity of the situation interrupted my tranquil flow of thought. But I quickly banished it to the recesses of my mind. As I stood there a strong gust of sea-breeze passed, rustling the leaves and creating a private symphony of natural rustles and vibrations – reminding me all too nostalgically of the many breezy autumn days that were spent in the picturesque lake-town of Belgrade, Maine.
The brief meditation was interrupted by the sound of applause at the hotel. The mayor must have finished his speech. I opened my eyes and decided to head back up. As I scaled the rock-lined gradient back to the loggia I found that I was slightly more careless with my drink. Perhaps because it was now only a quarter filled, minimizing the likelihood of spillage. Or perhaps because it was now only a quarter filled, testifying that I had become tipsier. I momentarily lost my footing and a droplet of champagne splashed and sizzled into my shoe.
By the time that I reached the hotel, groups of people were dispersed throughout the loggia. There were multi-leveled apparatuses of assorted tapas on each of the elbow-high tables and I treated myself to a few olives. The sun was making its final descent, summoning the sleepy, old Poseidon to display his ancient marine light show. The Aegean exploded into a breathtaking assortment of refracted colors as people remarked on its beauty over bread, wine, and champagne.
The next speaker was a man that I recognized. We had crossed paths several times since arriving in Kos on the same inbound flight from London just a few days prior. Earlier in the evening, we had taken a photo together and shared light jokes about the setting. “So, what do you think of my home?” he asked as we held a prolonged smile with our arms wrapped around each other’s lower backs. “Eh, it could be worse.” I replied sarcastically. And we laughed as the clicking of the cameras sealed the moment into eternity.
On stage, he introduced himself as Umut Oran, a senior official in Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP). Standing at about 6’3”, he towered at the podium but his demeanor remained light and waggish – aided by the ownership of his imperfect but functional English. His dark black hair was streaked with gray, giving him an air of diplomacy; and his broad shoulders gave me the impression that he had once been a dominant athlete. He began his speech.
He spoke of the trying times that we find ourselves in but also of the nature of a history that is always curving upwards, towards truth. He spoke of the refugee crisis that had paralyzed Turkey’s institutions. He spoke of radical Islam that has been polarizing politics worldwide, but especially with respect to Turkey. He spoke of the impending disintegration of the European Union, marked by Britain’s exit just a few weeks previous. He spoke of a global community. He spoke of equity. He spoke of the responsibility of clarity and of politicians.
By the time he was finished, I was utterly impressed. He was followed by George Papandreou, the former Greek Prime Minister, also a charismatic speaker. After that, we took ourselves to the dining section, which was situated on a balcony that overhung the flashing city lights of Bodrum. We ate a lavish meal with bottomless glasses of red wine and worldly conversation.
At the end of the night, I boarded the ferry back to my hotel on the Greek island of Kos along with a number of other event-goers. The ferry was escorted by a nautical motorcade of police boats that streaked through the water, leaving a trail of white foam juxtaposed on the endless darkness of the deep sea below. The motorcade was led by Mr. Oran. As we crossed the imaginary line separating Turkish waters from Greek waters, Mr. Oran’s police boats peeled off and began their return towards Anatolia. He waved a friendly arm and exposed a beaming, toothy smile as he disappeared towards the Turkish shores.
The next morning, as I sleepily awaited my return flight to London from Kos, the televisions flashed with coverage of a coup d’état in Turkey. In the next few weeks, thousands of potential political opponents of the President, Tayyip Erdogan, would be detained in a brash grasp of power, raising questions in what was once the beacon of Middle Eastern secularism and progressivism. Under Erdogan, perceived political dissidents are being thrown in jail.
Where, in the world, is Mr. Oran?
- Yinka Ezekiel
Endnote: This short story documents real events experienced by the author.