Sometimes ghosts wander around the carpet shop
When I was in Turkey a few springs ago, a carpet seller in Selcuk hired me for a day to write love letters to the many American, British and Canadian women he had met in the nearby resort towns along the Aegean coast, and with whom he had lost contact because he could not write in English. His name was Ishmael, and he was stout and bald and had the face of a bulldog. On his behalf I wrote to a dozen women, and to each I apologized for having not written in so long and told her that I missed her and had enjoyed her company and could not wait to see her again, and then I signed each letter as Ishmael. When I had finished writing the letters and was of no further use to him, Ishmael told me his cousin worked nearby and he was my age and I could visit him, but I could not stay at his shop because he was late for dinner.
The cousin, Emin, also worked in a carpet shop. I thought he was at least twice my age because he had a fat black moustache and wore a suit. He said he’d been growing that moustache since he was a teenager, when he moved from east Turkey to Selcuk to sell carpets at his uncle’s shop. A few years later, Emin’s younger brother Ercan also came to Selcuk to sell carpets, and they moved into a two-bedroom apartment above the carpet shop, where the walls were made of grey concrete. The curtains were always drawn shut because Emin and Ercan sold carpets from the time the sun rose until long after it had set. The shop and the apartment stood on the most popular street in town, and all day the street was filled with tourists shopping for carpets and bags and postcards, tourists who had come to see the ruins of the ancient metropolis of Ephesus, three kilometres away, but somehow got sidetracked.
I told Emin I had just come from Kaya Koyu, a ghost town in southern Turkey, which the Greeks had abandoned in the 1920s population exchange and the Turks never settled. For hours I walked without seeing anyone on a hillside where the stone huts had begun to crumble and grass had grown in place of the floors. I have seen many ghosts, Emin said. During his military service he volunteered for night duty, and every night for nine months he sat in a hut in the eastern borderlands of Turkey, and through the scope mounted on his sniper rifle he followed shadows that roamed in the night. He fired his gun only in training. The only thing he almost shot was a dark figure that crawled in the dirt one night, but he waited long enough to see it was a boar. Then he said that sometimes ghosts from Ephesus wandered over to Selcuk. If you want proof, he said, you can stay with me and Ercan.
I was not sure if he was serious about the ghosts, but I stayed there for two weeks. In the mornings I helped set up the shop and bought bread at the bakery, and in afternoons I climbed up to the rooftop patio above Emin’s apartment, which looked over the town streets and the outlying areas, and there I waited for a ghost to show. To pass the time, I searched through plastic bags full of unmarked cassettes that Ercan brought up from the apartment. One of them was Cat Stevens’s Greatest Hits, which I played on an old stereo that spun tapes too quickly. Cat Stevens screeched through “Wild World” and other songs he recorded in the 1960s and ’70s, before he changed his name to Yusuf Islam.
One night, a group of American men and women who had just visited Ephesus stopped by the shop with their tour guide. It was hard to tell them apart because they all wore white shirts and tan pants, and the sun had scorched their white skins to the same shade of pink. The tour guide, an old friend of Emin and Ercan’s uncle, stopped in Selcuk every year and brought his tour group to the shop to buy carpets. He was American too, and he couldn’t stop talking about the apostle Paul. He told me Paul had spent a number of years at Ephesus and converted some Ephesians to Christianity. He preached against idolatry and convinced many Ephesians that the silver shrines of the Temple of Artemis handmade by the local silversmiths were unholy. Many people just stopped buying the shrines after that, and the silversmiths marched on the amphitheatre to confront Paul. They may have rioted and Paul may have been imprisoned, or he may simply have left Ephesus. It is this struggle between conviction and imposition that fascinates me, the tour guide said.
The uncle greeted the Americans, and Ercan brought out tea and Emin threw a carpet on the ground and picked at the threads and tugged at the edges so the Americans could see the carpet was handmade and double-knotted. With the uncle’s encouragement, the Americans ran their hands over the carpet and the uncle told them it was made in Van, a city in eastern Turkey where Emin and Ercan and most of the other Kurdish carpet sellers on the street were born. Emin traced the patterns woven into the carpet and said the blue threads represented Lake Van and the brown threads represented the mountains of eastern Turkey. Ercan lit up a water pipe and the Americans smoked the flavoured tobacco, and that is when the uncle told the Americans that good carpets were priceless. If you like the carpet you must buy it, he said; it will last for generations and it will become part of your family history. I had heard him say this many times in the past week and each time he sounded sincere and earnest, and few tourists could resist him. By the end of the evening the Americans had bought thirteen carpets. They filled out forms with the addresses where their carpets should be sent, while Emin wrapped each one in shipping paper and the uncle swiped credit cards. The Americans signed tiny pieces of paper worth five hundred, nine hundred, even fifteen hundred dollars each.
One afternoon I climbed down from the patio and walked to Ephesus to look for the ghosts Emin had talked about. I went into the library and the baths and found nothing, and then I clambered onto a step in the amphitheatre and waited for the apostle Paul and the silversmiths, but only tourists and tour guides milled about. Then one guide began to lecture on the founding of Ephesus. She said there were many myths, but the most popular was that of Androclus, who travelled to Anatolia to build a city and was advised by Anatolian sages that a fish and a fire and a boar would lead him to the spot where he would build his city. One day, Androclus grilled a fish over a fire. The fish jumped from the pan into a nearby bush and the sparks that flew set the bush alight, and a wild boar ran from the fire. Androclus killed the boar and founded Ephesus on that spot.
In the few weeks I stayed with Emin, I rarely saw Ishmael. Some evenings he slid out of his carpet shop and strode down the street with great purpose, but he never stopped to chat and he did not ask me to write any more letters. Emin was writing letters of his own, to women he had met at the shop. One of them was a Brazilian woman who had bought a carpet several years before, and Emin said he did not need any help with the letter because her English was as bad as his. He did ask me to look over a letter he was writing to an American woman—just so I don’t say something silly, he said.
One day a Swiss couple stopped in at the carpet shop, just as they had each year for the last ten years. Every spring they loaded up a cargo van with nets and jars and drove from their home in Switzerland to east Turkey, where they collected butterflies together. The man, Walter, had caught snakes in Africa and South America all his life and sold them to universities and private collectors, but that day he was turning seventy-five and, he said, it is not so wise at my age to play with snakes. We threw him a birthday party right there in the street. We set up a table and Ercan brought out tea and the water pipe, and Walter and his wife Bernadetta brought champagne and cake. Bernadetta told me that as a young woman she had wanted to be a nun and she even lived in a convent for some time, but because she told me all this in French, a language I had long forgotten, I do not know why she never became a nun.
After the cake and the champagne, Walter drove Bernadetta and Emin’s uncle and me to Mt. Nightingale to see his friend, a priest who lived in a stone building with a garden behind the house of St. Mary. The priest was tall and thin and old, just like Walter, and he invited us into his home, which he shared with an Italian priest who was short and young and who drank espresso all day and disappeared every so often without a word. Someone or something had ripped up their garden the night before, and the younger priest said it was a ghost. He had heard a loud crack in the night and from his window he had seen lights in the trees. The older priest said it was unlikely because in his many years in the house he had never seen a ghost, and the tracks in the garden were those of a boar. Then again, he said, I have never seen a boar here either.
Later, the younger priest poured himself an espresso and said he was going to study the boar tracks in the garden. Instead he went out behind the house, where the older priest could not see him, and drank his espresso and smoked cigarettes.