This is not my final requiem it seems. As I conceded defeat from the Turkish Republic and mentally prepared myself for a few years of servitude with the Foreign Legion, a strange sequence of events has taken me to a place I did not have within my contemplation. Crossing borders is what I do evidently, and now I live between one, straddled between no man’s land, the demarcation between the two ethnicities of Cyprus. The city of Lefkosa and Nicosia is divided between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot respectively since 1963 and no peace plan or system of integration has been introduced for 50 years. Why I ask? Well it simply works better that way, corporate-types and the super-rich prefer it. Companies get incorporated with tax advantages, accounts are less scrutinized and the criminal underworld can simply duck away from Interpol. Our father, who art in tax haven, shallow be thy name.
I got recruited while frequenting my favourite bar and coffee house called Geyik in Cihangir, Istanbul. A loquacious Turkish-Cypriot accompanied by a good-looking but mute poker-faced lady struck up conversation with me. Barely anything was said apart from an interest in coffee, life and business. We arranged to meet a few hours later. We discussed a few more pleasantries and platitudes, but still no cigar. I was in Turkey illegally at this point due to my former employer’s attempt to traffic me in and out of the country to continue our Animal Farm Project (see later). I told my new friend to buy me a ticket so I could check out his outfit in Cyprus. Half a beer later, he pulled out his phone and booked me a flight. God damn that was quick I thought. ‘Life changes like the wind blows’, I thought.
Two more wistful days were well spent in Istanbul consuming food and drink, saying farewell to green grocers, baristas and street sellers. My final day in Istanbul was punctuated by a complementary five star Hamam experience, where I sauntered in under the pseudonym ‘Sebastien’ – a good French bon vivant name, so benign and foreign to the innocent bystander. During the steamy session, I dreamt and vividly pictured the decadence of the Byzantine emperors, their harems while drops of water coalesced on my city-stained skin. Is this the end of the line I thought? My mind harked back to the arduous hours of Turkish grammar class, the long road journeys across the Anatolian continent and Barudi…
I was in my element in the Barudi bar in Antakia, an ancient Ottoman or combined Byzantine structure where the swallows would scream to the clatter of social chatter. A few miles away from the Syrian border and the rebel headquarters – journalists and NGO’s would all descend on this resonant mezzanine liquor-house. Tired of the war stories, the ‘who are you’s’ and the ducking and diving staff journalists I decided to rest my head for a couple of hours with a bit of saucy writing. I took out the modern equivalent of a Tom Frost’s Mujahideen Arabic machine typewriter – similar to the one used in William Burrough’s ‘Naked Lunch’. This place looked a little bit like ‘Interzone’ in fact – an exotic faraway place. Maybe Tangiers, Jerusalem or Beirut – nobody knows where we are, with these beady-eyed faces darting about in this seedy little Casbah. Suspicion always in the air and discretion a priority when planning a bit of the old In And Out in some of the most dangerous territories in the world. Still, the journalists were still hungry for their stories and Miss-little-peace-corps was babbling about her unpaid internships – while others had logistical and contractual concerns about keeping the lifeblood flowing in the zone. War profiteerers, front-line junkies and I-wanna-help-people-types all bubbling in the Barudi bar like effervescence around a frothy rotten mouth.
While clacking away at my writing utensil, a burly and curly-haired man adjacent seemed to be perturbed by my presence. A young lady to my left seemed to be having a good time flicking through a furniture catalogue. I was in the middle again, sitting in Interzone while the strange characters pretended to read. The man’s face kept poking out of his book of Russian short stories so I had to say something:
“Is Gogol’s ‘The Coat’ in there?”
“Not sure mate”, he replied, wrinkling his face in the process and dumping the compendium of Russian literature on the table as an act of submission. His face turned to the dark-haired beauty again, she was teasing the waiters now – a real sport she was. I realized she was the object of the man’s desire, all alone and playful, and better still, not a word of English.
“Are we both thinking the same thing…”, I looked at him.
“I was until you sat in the middle you bastard”, he replied.
I took an unapologetic look of disdainful humour and laughed the old man off for his perverted ways.
“She comes in everyday, she has a friend, they’re going to Jamaica in two weeks”, he added.
“Interesting intelligence you’ve gathered double O seven”, I replied.
“What you do?”, my British acquaintance finally asked after all this deliberating.
“I’m an anti-journalist”, I finally replied.
“Yeah me too”, his red face illuminated, but still no bursts of laughter in Interzone. Shh… People are watching…
He pulled out another Dunhill cigarette and I reached over to get one when he winced with pain at the sight of its depletion.
“Okay… I’ll get some more”…
“That’s not the point… They’re all I smoke… and I’m going Inside very soon”, he said.
I asked when but he had a clear policy like everyone else about details about his forthcoming projects. In the same way, I told him of my bogus profession he blocked potential avenues of conversation with his ‘no questions rule’. This took a certain flair and enthusiasm to channel out and get to know the nitty-gritty. I had two weapons at my disposal, a woman he was attracted to and the alcohol. Both reduce inhibitions and are not mutually exclusive… A third wheel was attached to the table-tennis of conversation, me as an interpreter. Interpreter’s can totally obfuscate the real meaning with different facial expressions. Nothing was ascertained, apart from a love of Swedish-made furniture and kamikaze journalism. Turns out this man was an Emmy award-winning film maker with FBI cronies and links to Interzone. A few moments later, a shaggy-haired man came to our table, no introductions, no small-talk and even more evasive than I-smoke-only-dunhill in the trenches of Aleppo. A few more beers later, the Washington Post arrives, bubbly old soomka that mastered the art of saying ‘no’. Then another leading freelancing-authority of the war in Aleppo comes rolling in with her thick Italian accent:
“Ciao, ciao – did you finish editing my piece of the Gigolo of Amsterdam”.
“Not yet Francesca…”, I replied, took my hat and made my way through the narrow cobbled streets of Interzone. Woke up to find the party had gone, so I made my way across the border in search of some serious players. Welcome to Animal Farm…