Looking For God: A Turkish Travelogue
by Milton Schorr
It all started with a smile. ‘Come, come,’ the smile seemed to say, ‘you are welcome here.’
Ahead of me was a wall of cubicles, little boxes in which shoes should be stowed. The door to one of them was ajar.
‘Look,’ the man’s smile seemed to say, ‘this cubicle is for you.’
I placed my shoes inside the little box and then stepped into the Mevlidi Halil Cami Mosque, in the Turkish town of Sanliurfa, just near the Syrian border, at about 10pm on a summer’s night.
Inside the place was quiet, and breathtaking. I sat for many moments, staring up at the timeless ceiling, the ancient pathway. I thought about my time in Turkey so far.
My trip had not been planned. In fact I had been headed to Nigeria, in search of a story for a novel I want to write, but I didn’t have my yellow fever vaccine card and couldn’t board the plane. So I had enacted the fantasy — taking the next flight out. Instead of West Africa and its cradle of slavery I winged my way to the golden horn of Istanbul, where the Bosphoros strait splits the continents of Europe and Asia, and drains the Mediterranean into the Black Sea.
Fate or chance, it had taken a moment only to understand that Istanbul was the perfect choice for my research. I had told myself that I was looking for a port city, one with history, and more than that, one that could take me on a journey to the root of all things. I wanted my character to meet truth, you see, and ultimately to turn away because he was not ready.
In Istanbul’s ancient streets, built layer upon layer millennia deep, I could see a path taking me back, to the beginning.
‘What is the purpose of religion?’ I’ve written in my notebook. I’m staring at the question.
Inside the Mevlidi Halil Cami Mosque in Sanliurfa the dome rises above me. Around me a few residents sit, some simply relaxing, others praying quietly.
This Mosque was built around a cave where they say Abraham was born, and in its long history it has been a Synagogue and a Church too.
In 2019 I travelled to Egypt and spent time staring at the pyramids, and at the magnificent Temple Of Karnak, and the Temple Of Man. ‘Why did they build this?’ I asked myself then. The answer had seemed obvious:
Spiritually; monuments of religion define a pathway to the divine.
Economically; they provide employment and stimulate trade.
Socially; they create a shared focal point which brings unity, fostering pride and peace within the community.
Personally; they create meaning, not only explaining the unexplained nature of the world around us, but providing a place for each within it, so that our own lives become important.
Politically; they entrench hierarchy, for good or ill.
But as much as monuments are clear and rational, there’s something more, something that occurs at the point where language itself breaks down.
We are born screaming, astonished at the onslaught of this world, and out of that scream comes the necessity to calm ourselves. And so we raise these monuments up against the heaving sky, attempting to bring order to a chaos so profound that it would crush us with its planetary indifference. Because despite the unbelievable violence of creation itself, and by contrast our own incredible fragility within it, we are blessed with something with the power to match the churning.
We are awake.
We know, how incredibly fragile we are.
I follow the calligraphy spiralling across the walls, from the top of the dome back down to earth. I see that man with the smile walking across the carpet toward me in jeans and stockinged feet. He is holding his cellphone out.
‘Prayer will start in plus minus 15 minutes,’ I read on the screen, open to Google Translate. ‘Stay. You might feel strange but you are welcome.’
Moments in the Mevlidi Halil Cami Mosque stretch out, filling 15 minutes between now and somewhere else.
The people of the town come in slowly. I see a road worker wearing a reflective bib, a man with no legs who swings himself across the carpet on strong arms, a group of boys on their cellphones hurrying in late. Each take their place in the line. A man on a balcony takes up a microphone and his voice fills this place. The call begins, swirling out into the city, where it meets other voices out there, from other Mosques. I move to the back of the hall, sitting beside my smiling friend.
His google screen greets me. ‘What is your name?’ he asks with kind eyes. ‘Mine is Ramadan.’
‘Ramadan?’ I whisper, unsure if I’ve heard right. He nods, smiling wider, knowing why I am confused. ‘Ramadan,’ he confirms.
I whisper my own name in his ear. ‘Milton.’
‘Relax, and have fun,’ he tells me through his phone.
He moves off to join the line, and soon the repeating sequence starts.
‘Why do you love Islam?’
Two days previously I had visited the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque, and attended a presentation aimed at opening Islam up to non-Muslims. Afterward I had asked the main speaker the question above, during tea.
‘I love Islam because it is true.’
‘But what does truth do for you? How does it make you feel?’
She was confused.
‘We do things because they make us feel. You love Islam because it makes you feel a certain way.’
She cocks her head, looking at me with very kind eyes. ‘Okay, I see how you are thinking about it.’
‘Islam,’ she said, ‘makes me feel peace. Deep peace. Such peace, that I want to share it with others. I feel peace, because I know that it is true.’
I look down. In my notebook I have written:
‘Truth, brings peace, brings love.’
The prayer ahead of me continues. Round upon round to complete the long, hot day. I watch a little boy in his pyjamas with freshly combed hair from his shower, copying his dad. They make the movements together, standing apart from the rest. They raise their hands, they cross them at the navel. They kneel and touch their foreheads to the floor.
‘Do you drink Turkish coffee?’
The smiling Ramadan has returned with his incredibly useful phone. Now that the prayer is over the people of Sanliurfa are drifting away into the night, Ramadan and his friend Yunus want to take me out for coffee.
‘Yes!’ I say, nodding enthusiastically, and so we go.
We walk the streets of this ancient and friendly city. We stop for a bag of assorted nuts, our phones dancing between us, simple questions colouring the night.
‘What do you do?’
‘At the hospital.’
‘No. Paediatrics. We are the doctors of children.’
They show me a picture of the two of them at work and I see, I am in the presence of surgeons!
‘What do you do?’
‘I am a writer.’
They take me through the alleys of the now deserted bazaar, promising me ‘real Turkish coffee’.
I have been through these alleys during the day, a warren of craftsmen: carpet makers, carpenters, bakers, hardware merchants, clothing, spice, butchers, and boys running between them all with lunch orders, each tiny shop built on the life of the craftsman and his family before it, stretching back.
A blaze of light opens in the heart of the warren. We enter Barutçu Hanı, a tiered restaurant squaring an open courtyard.
‘This is for the locals,’ says Ramadan, guiding me to a table.
We sip exquisite coffee and eat perfectly salty nuts out of a bag, and we point to each other as a thought strikes, and then we point to our phones, and our questions.
‘If we were not working tomorrow, we would take you to Göbekli Tepe.’ Ramadan is sad at missing out. ‘But, we must heal the children!’ We all laugh, laughing at the simplicity of simple language, the lack of nuance, the strong strings that bind our hearts as layers of understanding dawn between us.
Soon we are strolling through the winding-down streets, happy that my hotel and their homes are in the same direction.
‘Do you always go to the Mosque at night?’ I type to him.
‘No. I mostly pray at home, but sometimes we are bored, and so we go out to enjoy.’
Our time to part comes, and it’s heartfelt. Each of us are astonished at the night we’ve had. It’s been miraculous, a new friendship out of nothing.
Hotel Urgur is in the centre of the little city. It’s inexpensive and clean and functional and friendly — my favourite kind of place. I have a two-bed room to myself, with air-con. I lie on my bed, letting the images of the night tumble back to me, and the feelings.
There is a reason I have come to Sanliurfa. Just near here is the ancient site of Göbekli Tepe, a place where vast structures have been unearthed that have been dated to perhaps 15,000 years ago. That is roughly 10,000 years before conservative dating of the Pyramids and Stonehenge, smack in the centre of a period of history where it was believed that humans did nothing but hunt and gather. Instead, Göbekli Tepe is a place of complicated temples and monolithic stones, holding vigil beneath the wheeling sky, defying understanding.
‘All dogma is false,’ said Jiddu Krishnamurti, ‘because the divine is immediately accessible.’ I believe these words, they bring peace to me.
And yet, our temples stand. Why do we build them?
It seems to me that monuments are a peace offering, to ourselves, from ourselves, a means of concretising and magnifying the only thing we can claim, and the only thing we need to claim, life itself.
Monuments allow us to worship.
I look outside my window. There is an alley there, some rubbish bins, some litter, and across the way another hotel, and another lighted room. Above it all, a shining moon. Fate or chance, it doesn’t matter. This window is mine, this view is mine, this moment.
was born in 1981 in Cape Town, South Africa. He attended the University of Cape Town as a student of theatre, thereafter creating theatre works across South Africa. As a writer and actor he has received the Imbewu Scriptwriting award for his play The Heroin Diaries, and both the ‘iDidTht Best of Reel for Direction Craft’ and ‘Vimeo Staff Pick’ award for the short film detailing his youth, Surrender. His MMA based screenplay ‘Fight!’ is currently in development with Ntibah Pictures, and he has appeared in blockbuster Hollywood productionssuch as Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Outlander, Tomb Raider, and Redeeming Love. He is a renowned travel and sports writer, with credits in many of South Africa’s major publications. He has published two novels;Strange Fish and A Man Of The Road, both available worldwide through www.pilgrimspressbooks.com. See his Amazon Author Page here.