Migration – Emigration – Fleeing
The Loneliest Man in Istanbul

Correspondence | Photo: © Colourbox.de/Goethe Institut Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi

Dear Georg
One evening in May, I bumped into one of the loneliest men in Istanbul. I met Wasim Shamma on a park bench in Fatih, a neighbourhood where a large number of Syrian refugees have taken up residence.
Fatih is a series of sloping avenues arranged around a central square with small parks surrounded by concrete tracks, swings for children, and benches to sit on and watch the busy shops. In the last few years, the market has re-oriented itself around its transient, itinerant patrons with cybercafés to skype relatives scattered across the world; telephone booths to call both Europe and Syria, exchange shops, money-transfer centres, Syrian restaurants and cafes, and spice shops selling dry powdered ginger, coffee ground with cinnamon, and sugary concoctions of almonds and pistachios.
Shamma sat by himself, the light from a streetlamp bouncing off his bald head. He wore a white shirt, a dark tie tight at the neck, a dark suit shiny at the elbows.
“Can I offer you a cigarette?” he said, reaching into a black plastic bag stuffed with leaf tobacco, cylinders of cigarette paper, and fiddly plastic gadget for filling cigarettes.
“Are you here from Syria?”
“My mother is Syrian, my father was Turkish.
I was born in Jiddah, you know, in Saudi. Where my father was a lawyer. And then in 2000 we moved to Damascus, where my father, he had a heart attack and he died.”
Shamma was 24 at the time. He finished college, set up a shop, “We sold bread, and ice cream. It was very popular. Just bread and ice cream.” He married a Syrian woman, the couple had two children, “both girls,” his younger sister married an Uzbek man and moved to London. His sister had two children, “both girls.”
Then one day, he saw tanks, protestors, firing, rockets, “Just outside my house in Damascus.”
So in 2012, at the age of 36, for the first time in his life, Shamma – bearer of a Turkish passport, son of a Turkish father, but incapable of speaking even basic Turkish – arrived in Istanbul with his family.
Without the language, it was impossible to find any work. “I enrolled in military service (mandatory for all Turkish men) – it was good. But my wife hated life in Istanbul. Every day she would say, “I am going back to Damascus, I’m going back to Damascus.”
And then one day, she did – with the children. Back in Damascus, his wife married again. His mother sold the family home and moved to An.
“Then I am suffering too much. I cannot do anything.”
The military ordered a medical examination. “The doctor say, my psychology is not good. Not good at all. My commanders they try to help me. But I am suffering too much.
“Now I am stuck here in Turkey. I do not know anyone – not a single Turkish person. But I am not Syrian – so I cannot apply for asylum.”
“Every time I try to apply, Sorry, you are a Turkish person. You have a Turkish passport. There is no war in Turkey. You are safe in Turkey.”
“But I am from Syria.”
“Sorry, you are a Turkish person. You have a Turkish passport. There is no war in Turkey. You are safe in Turkey.”
“But my mother is Syrian. I have never lived in Turkey, I do not know language, I do not have job.”
“Sorry, you are a Turkish person. You have a Turkish passport. There is no war in Turkey. You are safe in Turkey.”
So now Shamma works 12-hour shifts (8 am to 8 pm – “This is not justice!”) as at maître d'hôtel of a Syrian restaurant, serving fellow Syrians displaced by the war. He earns 1700 lira a month, of which 700 goes in rent for single room a 20 min walk away.
“I wish I had a Syrian passport – my nationality is not helping me at all.”
In your last email, you ask:
What does that mean though, when the present becomes historic in itself?
I re-read your mail as I boarded my flight to Istanbul, and the question you asked, stayed with me.
In my recent sojourn through Istanbul, and eastern Germany, I sought out conversations with people, seeking answers to your question. In the next series of mail, I’ll try to introduce you to vignettes of this historic present. I offer these, not as answers to your question, but perhaps as corollaries to your inquiry.
Perhaps by drawing up a list of questions, and answering them with more questions, we can destabilize the narratives swirling about us, to the point when answers become self-evident.
In Wasim Shamma, I found a man literally trapped inside his own country, which – in a sense – was never his country at all.
It reminded me of Toba Tek Singh, a short story on the partition of India and Pakistan, by Sadat Hassan Manto – you can read a quick English translation here.
It begins, in Manto’s inimitable wry style:
Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.
And follows the fate of one lunatic, Bishan Singh, from the village of “Toba Tek Singh”, desperate to know if his village is now in India or Pakistan.
At the end of our conversation, we stopped by Shamma’s favourite Syrian café in Fatih for dinner. He pulled out his phone to show me his nieces in the UK, and found a photograph of two grinning girls standing beside the Queen of Hearts at a village fair somewhere in the English countryside.
The café wi-fi wasn’t working, so he tethered his phone to mine, and spoke briefly with his mother. After his call, we sat – tethered wirelessly, his phone filling up with news and photographs from friends and family around the world – eating an unending series of meats, sweets, and a mint and lime drink.
The waitress smiled at us – she was Syrian too, a man walked by and waved to Shamma – “He’s like me – Turkish passport, but grew up in Syria.” Istanbul’s loneliest Turk had built himself a world.
As we got up to leave, he shouldered me aside and insisted on paying the bill.
“Next time we meet, it will be your turn,’ he said with a smile.
In your email, you say:
The time we live in is so short and terse; it’s getting tight, especially for those who are squeezing in. Because time isn’t out there for everyone, it isn’t the same for everyone. Many live longer because they can; many don’t live longer because they can’t.
Which is true, but we can also “make time” – capture a moment when lives on different time scales can coexist and converse. We can make time for each other, make time for a coffee in Fatih, to talk Damascus and Delhi.
We can make time, for a next time – when we can return a gift of a generous meal offered amidst ungenerous times.
Because, as Shamma taught me, we cannot let war strip us of our humanity, and we cannot let our struggles make us ungenerous.
I look forward to hearing of your time in Idomeni
Yrs always

New Delhi, 4th June 2016