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All Their Yesterdays: The Caravan Moves On

Portrait of a Turkish Family
by Irfan Orga
Eland Books

The Caravan Moves On
by Irfan Orga
Eland Books

Irfan Orga was born and raised in Istanbul, and he served for many years in the Turkish Army. He was forced out of the army and the country because he defied the authorities to marry a non-Turk. He moved to London, where he lived on the edge of poverty with his Irish wife.

He began writing because no one would give him a proper job. Although he wrote in many different genres, he was always returning to the murky questions raised by his own history. The Caravan Moves On, first published in 1958, is very much in this vein. It purports to be the story of a trip he took to the south of Turkey in search of the Yürüks, the nomadic tribe that was still living in significant numbers in the Karadag Mountains at that time. But there are clear and early hints that this is a means to an end, and that what he is really writing is a meditation on Atatürk and his legacy. In the foreground is a rapidly modernising country in which all good citizens praise progress. And, hanging high above them, nestled in an almost inaccessible plateau near the top of the Karadag Mountains, are the only Anatolians who would be recognisable to their ancestors of a thousand years ago, and the only Turks who can still call themselves free.

So at what price freedom?

As he acquaints himself with the nomads and their way of life, he constantly returns to that question. He is still in two minds when he leaves them. The reader is left feeling just as uneasy. But his subjects remain magnificently impervious to doubt. The most memorable passages are the ones in which Orga forgets his modern angsts long enough to see these people almost as they see themselves. But, as beautiful and as haunting as these visions are, he never quite believes them, never quite connects. It is, he confesses, as if he is seeing them through glass. His admission takes on new significance once you have read the new afterward by his son.

If The Caravan Moves On reads like an ingeniously constructed, unreliably narrated jewel of a novel, it may well be because this is exactly what it is. It is hard to imagine why Irfan Orga might have wanted to be so tricky, but it becomes slightly easier if you return to the splendid autobiography that made his name. Portrait of a Turkish Family was first published in 1950. It is mostly about his childhood, which began in late Ottoman affluence and descended into the most appalling poverty during the First World War. More than any book I can think of, it describes how ordinary women and children closed the door on the Ottoman Empire to embrace the new Republic – and what they lost along the way.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 27
  • Drama in the Round

    Robert Ousterhout, who fell in love with the Kariye Camii, the Church of the Chora, 25 years ago. Here he makes an impassioned case for preserving this 14th-century masterpiece.

  • Travels with Turhan

    Brian Mathew pays tribute to the late Turhan Baytop, Turkey’s pre-eminent botanist

  • Fine fast food

    Most fast food is heavy, greasy and bad for your health. Güllaç pancakes, by contrast, are beautiful organza-thin leaves, light as a feather and made from the simplest ingredients. What’s more, they keep for an age. Berrin Torolsan sees the best gullaç in the making

  • Parallel Lives

    Both were ambitious men with a penchant for poetry who suffered extremes of fortune. David Barchard charts the ties between two dominant figures in nineteenth-century Turkey, the British Ambassador Stratford Canning, and the Ottoman sultan Mahmut II

  • Grape Expectations

    Wine is now the most popukar alcoholic drink on the planet, says Esat Ayhan, ‘and we in Turkey are benefitting from this positive wind.’ Owner for the past twenty-two years of a fashionable Cihangir şarküteri, stocking everything from De Cecco pasta to bacon and paté, Esat Bey took the opportunity to expand its renowned La Cave wine section into an entire floor devoted to the grape.

  • Beaufort’s Hunt

    Francis Beaufort’s epic 1812 survey of Turkey’s southern coast and its classical sites sparked a European treasure hunt. It also very nearly cost him his life. By Nicholas Courtney with photgraphs by Kate Clow and James Mortimer

  • Wish you were here

    Max Fruchtermann (1852 –1918) was the publisher who took the postcard to Turkey and thereby took Turkey to the world. His cards sold by the million. Mert Sandalcı – historian, archivist and librettist – has assembled thousands of these cards into three mammoth volumes. Elizabeth Meath Baker leafs through their pages.

  • The Birth of the Big Apple

    Wild apples, with their pink or white blossom in spring, are still a common sight in Turkey. They are collected in the autumn, when they ripen, and preserved for winter.
    More cookery features

  • The Platonic Bowl

    The pots of Alev Ebuzziya Siesbye have an ideal serenity and timeless beauty, as visitors to her retrospective in Istanbul have discovered. But their cool simplicity belies the passion that goes into creating them. Alistair McAlpine met the artist in Paris.

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Issue 27, 2002 Sublime Simplicity
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