The road to Cappadocia

Lovers adrift in Turkey, a final strike of the match. Original fiction by Nadifa Mohamed, with photos by Kate Stanworth

Nadifa Mohamed is an award-winning British-Somali author. Her latest book, The Orchard of Lost Souls, was published in 2013. 

Kate Stanworth is a photographer based in London.

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Cappadocia is a historical region of Central Anatolia. Famous for its astonishing rock formations and natural beauty, its networks of underground caves were home to early Christians seeking to evade persecution. It is now a major hub of international tourism in Turkey.  

Country: Turkey
Major cities: Nevşehir, Kayseri Area: 100 km2 (38.6 sq mi) 
Time zone: GMT +2
Area code(s): +90

Pegasus Airlines flies to Kayseri and Nevşehir via Istanbul from London’s Stansted and Gatwick airports. From Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport, Pegasus offers connections to a further 59 international and domestic destinations. flypgs.com

Turkey _1

This was the last chance, the final strike of the match before we accepted that the fire of our love was extinguished. We needed heat and expanse, and a short flight so that we didn’t kill each other. He left it all to me: trawling websites, choosing a destination, booking the hotel and flights. His apathy was palpable, but I owed it to the oath we had made four short years before and swallowed my pride. I found a small, pretty hotel in Cappadocia, carved out of honeyed stone and hidden behind an old, carved wooden door. A place of sanctuary if nothing else.

We took a Pegasus flight out of Stansted, slumping into the seats after the labyrinth of security checks and long hallways. Immediately his face disappeared behind a broadsheet and I turned to face the window, sealing myself up in my loneliness. The sun set slowly as we crossed the Channel, over France and the Alps into the east, the river and lights of Budapest faintly visible beneath us. A family of North Cypriots caroused in the rows behind, passing whiskey from seat to seat; a walrus-moustached man repeatedly threw his arm over my seat, asking in broken English if I was from his village and then laughing to himself, masticated peanuts flying from his mouth.

“Do you want this?” Omar finally asked, offering the newspaper he had read from cover to cover. This was symptomatic of him recently; he only seemed to notice me belatedly, and then offer the crumbs of his attention, his affection, his life. “No,” I replied softly, in the petulant yet passive tone that I had mastered. I avoided his gaze and kept my eyes on the megacity glow around Istanbul as the plane descended. We had not shared a bed for months, my shifts at the hospital and his ever-lengthening hours at the bank turning us into those kind of new migrants that lease a bed for a few hours, sharing it with strangers whom they only know through their smells and stray hairs. The idea of sleeping beside him again racked my nerves in a way that meant I knew I wouldn’t sleep tonight.

The taxi from the distant airport to our rented apartment jerked from traffic jam to traffic jam, monumental bridges bringing us closer and closer to Taksim Square. Then began a surreal trip repeatedly through the same streets as the taxi driver spoke the address into his phone and a voice replied in robotic Turkish to turn left, then right, then left again. We repeated the process so many times that riding the peaks and troughs of the hilly neighbourhood felt like being on a rollercoaster. We passed a film crew filming around a grand house and in frustration I rolled down the window and barked out the address at them. They directed us in a new direction, away from the salubrious, sea-view apartment blocks to the busy, commercial streets. Street children, sex workers, young men loitering on corners: we passed them all before pulling up outside a shabby, modern house.

I woke up to bright sunlight burning through the flimsy red curtains, a pink glow against the walls and my skin, my head banging to let me know that I had fallen asleep too late. I had unpacked, showered and read until Omar had given up hope of anything and fallen asleep wrapped tightly in the sheets. I could hear him now in the kitchen, smell his coffee, feel his resentment. He had left a travel guide on the bedside table with certain pages turned down; I left it alone, I would give this day to him, let him decide how we used it. I just wanted the sun on my skin and for my cold, lizard blood to be warmed to the temperature it had once been.

We had a slow feast of a breakfast in the neighbouring cafe; walked through the Istiklal hullabaloo, into strains of saz and oud melodies on Music Street; waded through the crowds near Galata Bridge; watched a gang of ochre-skinned street children gather as two of their friends jumped from the bridge into the heavy, oily waters of the Bosporus, their bodies disappearing for many heart-stopping seconds before they scrambled onto the rocks and joined their younger, wild-haired siblings clapping and cheering. We sat for a shisha and mint tea in one of the cavernous restaurants beneath the bridge, waited on by an Iranian with sharp blue eyes the colour of Isfahan tiles and a smooth international patter. We continued past the neat New Mosque and into the warren of alleys spilling out from the Grand Bazaar. Fruits, shoes, children’s clothes, hijabs, leather jackets crammed around us as we stepped carefully between traders and customers, lean Senegalese men offering me fake watches and mobile-phone covers. I reached out to grab Omar’s shirt so I wouldn’t lose him, and he reached back to grab my hand instead. The first physical contact we’d had all month. We found the quiet streets where the market had already packed up and passed an old building with high brick walls and the air of an abandoned jail; in the darkening light we seemed the only people outside of the prison walls. We reached Çemberlitas Hamami, the 16th-century bathhouse Omar had picked from the guidebook, and went our separate ways into the humid gloom of the male and female steam rooms.

We slept without covers that night, with the window slightly open and the sounds of nearby restaurants and bars filtering up. Both exhausted by the long day, we slept in the foetal position, backs turned to each but touching.

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Turkey _2
Serinn House, in Ürgüp, is a traditional Cappadocian cave house run as a hotel, with just five rooms. serinnhouse.com

A rush back to the airport to catch our domestic flight to Kayseri; our pace had already lost its London briskness and we arrived too close to departure time. The flight was short and we were disgorged from the plane onto a small runway surrounded by mountains. Waiting for the pick-up to Serinn House, we watched as a fellow passenger collapsed into the embrace of the people who had come to collect him, family members presumably, and sobbed freely against a man’s shoulder, a small child put into his arms as a comfort. A private moment so heavy with emotion it felt like watching actors perform a scene. I wished that Omar and I could emote like that still, could fall weeping against each other, shouting declarations of love and forgiveness. I looked to him and smiled and he returned an unsure but hopeful smile. The young driver bounded up to collect us, his smile fixed and a telephone ringing in his hand breaking the mood. We followed him as he led us and our bags to the car and then we sank into our seats in silence. We passed an immaculate and completely empty housing development marooned within rolling grasslands almost as vast as the steppes, past sunflower farms with sad, wire-framed scarecrows, and ascended into the limestone mountains where Ürgüp lay huddled. 

On arrival at the blue doors of Serinn House, I felt something lighten, the thin mountain air filling my lungs and making me slightly giddy. I kicked off my sandals and walked barefoot across the stone courtyard and up the steps to our room. The room looked chapel-like with its vaulted ceiling and golden light, a candle burned in a sconce and incense scented the room. A modern four-poster bed added romance and reminded me of the hotel  we had spent our honeymoon in. If we couldn’t salvage our marriage here, then it was irretrievable. 

Turkey _4

Sitting on the bed, I finally felt ready to look Omar in the eye and ask him what he wanted. He looked blinkingly at me, fearfully, and said that he wanted whatever would make me happy. I told him that was just an evasion and that I wanted to hear his own needs, his own dissatisfactions and desires.

I don’t know, he said, I really don’t know.

What don’t you know?

Anything. I didn’t think we would end up like this.

We could split up.

I know, he said. Almost absentmindedly.

Or not split up. At least pretend to care which, I said, raising my voice.

I’m going to have a shower, he muttered, running from my words.

I fled too, away from the room and from the hotel. On foot I realised just how stunning the landscape was; it reminded me of a Western, so stark and sprawling, a place of lonely riders and duels. I kicked my feet hard against the ground and thought bitterly of how he would leave it to me to tell our family and friends that our marriage had failed. How so quickly my wedding ring and the wedding dress still hanging in my wardrobe would become emblems of failure rather than love. With hate in my heart I reached the row of boutiques and restaurants at the town centre, and would have walked further – to the horizon even – if an old woman hadn’t grabbed my arm and pulled me to look at her stall. It was covered in multicoloured clay lamps modelled to resemble the fairy chimneys we had seen from the taxi: little troglodyte dwellings with an electric bulb inside. With an earnest yet forceful smile she put one after another into my hands, encouraging the sale with a grab of my arm and a rub of my back. I acquiesced and the strange lamp was enough to break the dark clouds of my thoughts. I walked a little further and reached a restaurant named Ziggy’s with a terrace on its upper levels. I climbed up and decided to make this the redoubt from my marital grief. At the Maghrib prayer, with the full moon illuminating the plain, the azan echoed against the mountains and was then joined by competing voices from different mosques, the whole cacophony alarming the town’s dogs who began to howl simultaneously. I hadn’t drowned my sorrows at Ziggy’s, but rather eaten them, ordering dish after exquisite dish of mezze, and the sight of them covering the table, while happy, tourist families passed morsels from plate to plate, made me see into a bleak future.

I returned to an empty room bathed in cold, clean moonlight, the sheets on the bed rumpled as if Omar had tried to sleep and then abandoned the attempt. Nothing could look more desolate than the little gift box he had placed on a pillow. I approached it expecting to find his wedding ring inside, but instead I found a ruby ring with a note attached: “It was my mother’s, she told me to give it to you.” Holding the ring in my hand, I read the note repeatedly, looking for another layer of meaning, but it was all there in those 12 words: my mother died and I need your love. I had read his grief as rejection and pulled away even further. I pulled the ring on top of my wedding ring and then opened the door, searching the blue-tinted courtyard. I saw a figure slumped over the outdoor sofa and walked quietly down the steps towards him. Omar barely stirred as I lay down beside him, apart from when he wrapped his arms tight around me. We slept there, our chests rising in unison until the sun began to rise and we returned to the sacred quiet of our room. §

Turkey _3