The Watchers Of The Water

A song about Gallipoli, sung by a Turkish soldier

Back in the last century, before ANZAC Day became the secular Christmas that it has become, before marketing people and populist politicians saw its commercial and political potential, before the fatal shore became a crowded place of annual pilgrimage, my Turkish friend, the late Naim Mehmet Turfan, gave me a grainy picture of a Turkish soldier at Gelibolu carrying a large howitzer shell on his back. Then there was this great film by Australian director Peter Weir, starring young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. There were these images of small boats approaching a dark and alien shore, of Lighthorsemen sadly farewelling their Walers as they embarked as infantry, and of the doomed Colonel Barton humming along to a gramophone recording of Bizet’s beautiful duet from The Pearl Fishers, ‘Au fond du temple saint’ before joining his men in the forlorn hope of The Nek.

There were other melodies I could never quite get out of my head. One I first heard in a musical in Beirut before that magical city entered its Dark Ages  –  Al Mahatta, written by the famous Rabbani Brothers and starring the Lebanese diva Fayrouz. And The Foggy Dew, one of the most lyrical and poignant of the Irish rebel songs:

Right proudly high over Dublin town, they hung out the flag of war. ‘Twas better to die ‘neath that Irish sky than at Suvla or at Sud el Bar…Twas England bade our Wild Geese go that small nations might be free,  But their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves or the fringe of the grey North Sea.

Over three thousand Irishmen died at Gallipoli.

The song grew out of these many inspirations.

It was first performed in public by HuldreFolk in the closing concert of Coffs Harbour Folk Festival at the RSL on Australia Day 1984. When we had finished, there was absolutely silence in the hall. Then a voice cried out “the sky didn’t fall down!”, and the hall erupted with applause.

Some Notes on Gallipoli and the Anzacs for readers unfamiliar with the history. 

Monday 25th April is Australia and New Zealand’s national day of remembrance for all Anzac solders killed and wounded in their nation’s wars, and to honour servicemen and women past and present. At first, the Anzacs fought in the British Empire’s Wars, beginning with the Boer War, and then through two World Wars. From the mid -twentieth century, they have fought and died in what could ostensibly be called America’s wars even though these were waged under UN, EU or western alliance auspices: Korea, Gulf Wars II and III, Afghanistan, and the current interventions in Syria and Iraq. Incidentally, Australian veterans are presently commanding mercenary forces hired by the Gulf coalition that is laying waste to towns and villages in Yemen (with the help of American and British weaponry).

At the heart of the Anzac Day remembrance is the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ role the Dardanelles campaign of 1915-16, Winston Churchill’s grandiose and ill-conceived plan to take the Ottoman Empire out of the war by seizing the strategic strait between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, thereby threatening Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. It was a military failure. From the initial seaborne assault to the evacuation, it lasted eight months and cost 114,000 lives with 230,000 wounded.

Gallipoli is cited as the crucible of Australian nationhood, but the Anzacs’ part in the doomed campaign was but a sideshow of the wider campaign. Although it is celebrated in Australian song and story, it was the Ottomans’ most significant victory in the war that was to destroy the seven hundred year old Ottoman Empire secure the reputation of its most successful general Mustafa Kemal, who as Ataturk, became the founder of modern Turkey.

Some thirty four thousand British soldiers died on the peninsula, including 3,400 Irishmen, and ten thousand Frenchmen – many of these latter being “colonial” troops from West and North Africa. Australia lost near on ten thousand and NZ three. Some 1,400 Indian soldiers perished for the King Emperor. Fifty seven thousand allied soldiers died, and seventy five thousand were wounded. The Ottoman army lost fifty seven thousand men, and one hundred and seven thousand were wounded (although these figures are probably much higher). An overlooked fact is that some two thirds of the “Turkish” solders in Kemal’s division were actually Arabs from present day Syrian and Palestine. Gallipoli was indeed a multicultural microcosm of a world at war.

Whilst the flower of antipodean youth is said to have perished on Gallipoli’s fatal shore, this was just the overture. Anzac troops were despatched to the Western Front, and between 1919 and 1918, 45,000 Aussies died there and 124,000 were wounded.

There are abundant primary and secondary sources relating to the Dardanelles campaign and the Anzacs, but here is a wiki primer: Gallipoli Campaign

And here is HukdreFolk’s rendering of Russian poet Yevtushenko’s account of the parade of German prisoners of war through the streets of Moscow in 1941, juxtaposed with The Watchers of the Water.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


Cha … Cha … Changes

There would be later times (1965, 67, 69…) but I remember the first time. 1962. Having hitched through Europe and arriving in Istanbul. That special feeling. From Sultan Ahmed looking across the Bosporus towards the East, unknown roads and places and in the far distance a very vague idea of India…. Istanbul as a gateway to other worlds and new adventures….I was a young man drifting and dreaming, there were no guidebooks and I had not met anybody who had done the journey or heard stories from the road ahead….. The world was open, and I was ready….
Torben Huss, photographer

Haydarpasha Gan, late November 1972.

The last station on the line, and the end of Asia, after a twenty four hour train journey across Anatolia, from Teheran, including a wintry ferry ride across Lake Van, in the East, in the company of an idiosyncratic and proselytizing German pastor and a Pakistani student. The student and I quickly converted to Lutheranism just to shut him up.

There were no bridges across the Bosphorus in those days. Just the ferry that met the train to take us across to the Golden Horn to Eminou. And thence, a walk up to Sultanahmet, with the address of a doss house given to me by someone I’d met in Meshad near the Persian-Afghani border. A space on a floor for a few lira a night.

And then several weeks in Istanbul on two dollars a day, sleeping on the floor at what today would be called a backpacker’s hostel, broke and waiting for money to be sent from England. Weeks spent wandering the streets, wondering at the mosques and markets, getting stoned (dangerously in those days – remember ‘Midnight Express’?) in the Hippodrome, and dining cheaply morning, noon and night at the Pudding Shop.

Forty years on, and naturally, things have changed in many ways. Haydarpasha is closed for renovations and a rail link crosses the Bosphorus by undersea tunnel. There are now are two impressive suspension bridges.

Asian Istanbul, more of a sleepy suburb then, with some fine buildings scattered along the shore, is now a metropolis in its own right. And Istanbul is a city of thirteen million people.

The Pudding Shop is now world-famous on account of its hippie credentials and sells all kinds of good Turkish tucker, but a shadow of its former simplicity. Where once there thronged ragged and rangey adventurers on their journey east or west, tourists of all nations gather en masse.

Turkey in general, and Istanbul in particular, is now the place to be and the town to see – in these troubles times, it is a safe ‘Middle Eastern’ holiday destination, and a big cross on the cruise map. Almost every day, a fleet of giant liners ties up on the Yesilkoy quay. And their cargo soon materializes in Sultanahmet to view the BIg Four: the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Seray, and the Grand Bazaar. No time for the simple grandeur of the Sulaymaniyah Mosque, the other-worldliness of Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s vast underground cistern, or the aromatic gorgeousness of the Spice Bazaar down by the quays of Eminou.

Though no longer the exotic, half-east-half-west departure lounge for the old hippie trail, Istanbul is still a contradiction of past and present, trash and treasure, modernity and medaevilism. The dialectic is still evident, and maybe more so, between the ever changing now and the ever-present then, in the forever magical monuments and mosques, in the contrast between the modern young Turks in their western gaberdine and the many muhajibiin and well-covered conservatives.

Scratch Istanbul’s surface, and you will find a tangle of medieval streets and 21st Century traffic jams, bad drivers, and worse pavements. Walkers watch out!

And there is a poorer, working class, and even rural Istanbul. Suburbs just off the tourist map, where old men gather outside chai shops smoking, chatting and playing cards, and where women are rarely seen – when they do, most are covered.

Many Turks have come in from rural areas, and are still clad in traditional garb. There are now hundreds, maybe thousands of Syrian refugees in Istanbul now, seeking shelter from the storm in their sad and devastated homeland, and other Arabs fleeing the bitter winter that has followed the Arab Spring. Some rent apartments for their families, others beg in the streets.

As we walked along the highway that boarders the ancient walls and the Bosphorus, a speeding car hit an elderly Syria as he was crossing the dangerous road. We and his distraught family rushed to his aid, and mercifully he was unharmed but in shock, and did not want an ambulance. We placed him in a the comfortable position and I advised the young men with him in Arabic to keep a watch over him and to watch his eyes.

In contrast to these wandering souls, well-heeled Gulf Arabs arrive with too much money and too little taste. Istanbul is viewed as more stable, cosmopolitan, and naughty than tense and tenuous Beirut, and these wealthy visitors often seek to buy property here.

All the contrasts and contradictions are presently being played out in the politics and economics of this modern Turkey, and in the street protests, tear gas, and riot gear across the Golden Horn, up the hill around Taksim and Gezi Park, and across the suspension bridge. Partisans of Prime Minister (now presiden) Erdogan bump up against the Gulenists, followers of an exiled but influential dissident, and against the ever-ardent bearers of Kemal Ataturk’s torch. Folks still revere him as the Father of The Turks, but times change, some say, and so then must Ataturk, although the old man must spin some in his revered grave.

People say that Turkey is a divided nation right now. And this is manifested in accusations of creeping Islamization, counter-accusations of occidental decadence and depravity, allegations of corruption and cronyism, and street violence and police brutality. Back into November 1972, Military Rule was the norm, and dissent was silenced. Turkey was Asian, and Middle Eastern. Now the country still straddles east and west, coughing the European Union with much leas enthusiasms than hitherto or and presenting as the go-between ‘twixt The West and and Iran, and with the volatile lands to the south.

For better or ill, how things have changed.

© Paul Hemphill 2014.  All rights reserved

Torben Huss, Eminonu 1965

For other posts about Turkey in In That Howling Infinite, see: People watching in Sultanahmet, Sailing to Byzantium, Ottoman Redux – an alternative history and The Watchers of the Water  

People Watching In Sultanahmet

‘If you know your history, then you know where you coming from. Then you wouldn’t have to ask me who the ‘eck do I think I am’. Bob Marley, Buffalo Soldiers.


People watching in Sultanahmet on a wet Saturday afternoon in Spring.

It’s very like people watching in Newtown, Sydney.

The history of Istanbul, of Turkey, of the Turkish people, is written in the faces of the passersby. There is no pure Turk, just as there is no pure Arab, Jew, Slav, Celt, or Caucasian. Indeed, you see them all passing by. And it has been raining these past two days. The umbrella sellers are making a killing with their see-through parapluies. Everyone, tourists and locals alike are sporting them.

The weekend is promenade time. Families parade up and down, past the pastry and kebab shops, the hawkers and the hustlers. Young men sidle by with their girls, girls walk out with their honeys. Groups of girlfriends, and boy-groups gather and gaggle and gossip. Western folk and eastern folk. This is where east and west meet, literally, figuratively, ethnically, and yes, geographically. And it is written on the faces and in the garb of the perambulating populace.

Muhajibabes in beautiful scarves (the Great Bazaar is chocka with wonderful day cashmeres and pashminas – there is no excuse for drabness). “Mandy, Mother of Brian” in vast and bulbous black. Ladies in full cover, some dark and exotic, and mysteriously alluring, and others that make me think that they are doing us all a favour (non-PC, but there you go). I just saw a clown with green hair and a red nose. Fashionistas and paysans. And the many, many ordinary folk, old, young, and babes in arms, enjoying the weekend. All oblivious to the feral dogs and cats that roam through these parts.

There are no pubs on every corner. There are no rows of wine bars. There are no ice-cream and yoghurt shops (though we did find a good bar just across from the square in front of Hagia Sophia).

Oh, it makes you wonder.

For other posts about Turkey in In That Howling Infinite, see: Sailing to Byzantium, Ottoman Redux – an alternative history and The Watchers of the Water