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Ada Kaleh: The Story of an Island

When King Carol II of Romania set foot on the tiny Danubian island of Ada Kaleh on 4 May 1931, it was said among the islanders that his arrival had been foretold in a dream. The decisions he made after spending two hours there that summer evening were so momentous that his visit would later be marked with an annual festival.

 

About a year into his reign, the king was touring the area and had decided to drop in on this most unusual corner of his realm. The island lay in the region known as the Iron Gates, where the river passes through a series of gorges as it descends through the Carpathian Mountains. It was a perilous place for river traffic, and boats travelling upstream had to be towed from the bank in order to overcome the current. Just above the first set of rapids, on a bend in the river opposite the town of Orşova, stood Ada Kaleh. The island was little more than a narrow strip of sandy soil about a mile long and 400 metres wide at its broadest. The people on the river’s northern bank were Romanian and to the south Serbian, but the islanders themselves – who numbered about 680 at the time of the king’s visit – were Turks. Framed against the dark flanks of the mountains that rose on each side of the Danube, Ada Kaleh’s poplars and chestnuts, the cypresses of its cemetery and the minaret of its mosque, seemed to float like a mirage on the water’s surface.

 

The king – white military uniform dazzling in the sunshine – stepped from his boat at around five o’clock trailed by an entourage of more soberly clad bureaucrats, soldiers, and politicians. At that time, the island’s flowers were in bloom, tumbling over the ramparts of the old fortress from which it took its name (ada kale meaning ‘island castle’ in Turkish) and bursting from the whitewashed petrol tins that stood in its cobbled streets. The crumbling battlements glowed in the warm, sharp light of the late afternoon sun that broke through the scattered clouds, and from the flooded outworks swelled the voices of thousands of frogs.

 

Some months earlier, as the islanders later recounted to Gheorghe Lungulescu of Universul newspaper, the saint Miskin Baba, whose tomb stood in the little park at the island’s eastern end, had appeared to the simpleton Ibrahim Ali in his sleep, and spoke these words: ‘Go to your leaders and tell them to fix my shrine and cover my grave in a wooden structure like the vaulted dome of a mosque. Four months after the work is completed, the leader of the country will come to the island… Show him your houses and your lives and ask him to give back your privileges, without which you cannot live, and he shall give them back to you.’

 

These ‘privileges’ were tax and customs exemptions that the islanders had enjoyed when Ada Kaleh was an exclave of the Ottoman Empire and a popular destination for European tourists cruising the Danube. The First World War had brought about the collapse of both tourism and the Ottoman state, and when the new Republic of Turkey ceded the island to Romania in 1923 the old privileges were not restored, and its inhabitants sunk into poverty.

 

Ibrahim Ali had the same dream three times, and it was only after he threatened to drown himself in the river that the elders heeded him and the repairs were carried out.

 

When the king arrived, mayor Ibrahim Turhan and Ali Kadri – the owner of the cigarette factory that was the island’s main business enterprise – received him and conducted him on a tour of their home. The group proceeded through the ornate stone archway of the fortress’s main entrance and into the village, its narrow streets trellised with grapevines. They showed him the mosque with its huge carpet that had been a gift from Sultan Abdulhamid II and which weighed close to half a ton. Afterwards they visited the home of Niyazi Suleiman, whose life was presented as an example of the diligence and fortitude with which the islanders bore their poverty. At Niyazi’s house the island notables prevailed on the king to come to the Moka Café and listen further to their hardships. Carol drank coffee prepared in the traditional way with the pot brewed on a bed of hot sand, served to him in a cup from which his father King Ferdinand had once drunk. After hearing their pleas, he announced to them: ‘You may return to your homes in peace. From now on, you will have back your privileges, and all my care.’

 

They were not idle words. The following month a limited company, Musulmana, was set up with a license to import luxury goods including tobacco, coffee, sugar, alcohol and cigarettes, all tax-free. In an arrangement codified into Romanian law, half the company’s profits were assigned for the upkeep and modernisation of the island, with the other half divided out equally as a small subsidy to every one of its residents, equivalent to about £150 a year in today’s money. Within three years, the income was used to build a small electricity plant, and at around the same time a train station was built on the northern riverbank opposite the island, with tickets from Bucharest available at half price. Within four years, 40,000 to 50,000 tourists were visiting Ada Kaleh annually. Each 4 May, the islanders held a festival at which they distributed the company’s income.

 

And so, if we finished the story there, it would have been much as the saint had predicted when he told Ibrahim Ali that, in the end, ‘a chalice of gold will rise above your pains and all the citizens will receive happiness.’ But such endings only exist in fairy tales. 

View of Ada Kaleh, c. 1900.
View of Ada Kaleh, c. 1900.


In Utopia, Thomas More’s 1516 work that gave the concept its name, he tells how Utopus, after conquering the peninsula on which to build his ideal society, ordered the excavation of a channel 15 miles wide to sever it from the mainland. The resulting island was shaped like a crescent moon: 200 miles across at its midpoint, curving upon itself inside a circle 500 miles in circumference, with the two horns 11 miles apart forming the mouth of a natural harbour.

 

It is mathematically impossible to plot an island according to these dimensions, but that’s the point, of course: a utopia cannot be drawn on any map. It is a place of the mind, which in order to remain in its perpetual state of grace must be shorn off from the real world. That is something like what Ada Kaleh became in 1970, when the island disappeared beneath the rising waters of the Danube after the Communist governments of Yugoslavia and Romania finished construction of the Iron Gates hydroelectric dam. Today the island lies beneath 30 metres of mud and water, its minaret toppled, its cypresses and poplars felled, its buildings dynamited and bulldozed, and its surviving residents scattered across Romania and Turkey.

 

I first learned about the island and its fate from an article in a Turkish in-flight magazine, and decided to seek out its former inhabitants and write about their stories and memories. Over time, my interest acquired an obsessiveness that I would come to recognise among many of the people I met who had lived there, their descendants, and some like me who had no connection to it at all. It began to seem as if its inundation marked not just destruction, but a kind of apotheosis.

 

Long before it was ever submerged, the island had struck visitors as a place marooned in space and time. By the late nineteenth century it was far from any other Turkish settlement, and not only the culture but the climate was different from that of the surrounding lands. In the humidity of the river air magnolias, almonds, and figs thrived. The islanders produced delicacies unavailable on the mainland: rose jam, baklava, halva, Turkish delight. For boatloads of nineteenth-century Danube tourists bound for Istanbul, it was the appetiser in the Oriental banquet that awaited them; its people were so accustomed to playing up their exoticness that it had become a natural part of their lives.

 

The travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who stopped by in 1934 during his walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, later described an ‘atmosphere of prehistoric survival’ as if the island were a ‘refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away’. Much of what he saw, from the ‘faded plum-coloured fezzes’ of the menfolk to the foot-wide scarlet sashes that gathered in their baggy trousers, was by that time extinguished in the country for which he was bound. In Turkey, Atatürk’s reforms had abolished the fez and other trappings of the Ottoman past. Ada Kaleh was like a far-flung herald as yet unaware that the monarch in whose name he speaks is dead.

 

What went through Carol’s mind when he so lavishly bestowed his patronage on that tiny spit of land? Did he succumb to the utopian pull that islands exert on the imagination? We can’t be sure: he kept no diaries at the time and his thoughts about the visit do not seem to have been recorded anywhere, other than in the testimony of the island’s imam, Ahmed Ali, who noted simply that the king seemed ‘exceedingly happy’.

 

A scion of Queen Victoria, Carol was from that Germanic rootstock to which many of the young Balkan nations chose to graft since to do so seemed less problematic than elevating any of their own native leaders. A notorious playboy, he had earlier been forced to renounce his right to the throne over an extramarital affair with the daughter of a Jewish pharmacist. Invited back in 1930 following a coup d’état, he apparently believed he was born to rule. ‘I became used to it almost at once,’ he would later write. ‘Possibly it was an atavistic instinct, something I carried in my blood.’

 

His dream, perhaps, was to be the beneficent ruler of a loving, grateful and contented people. He was eventually toppled from power by the military in 1938 (who had refused his orders to fire on unarmed demonstrators) as Romania was slowly crushed between the twin forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

 

He wouldn’t have been the first utopian to be inspired by the island. There was Mór Jókai, the Hungarian romantic writer who re-imagined it in his 1873 novel, The Golden Man. Ada Kaleh was the inspiration for ‘Nobody’s Island’, an Eden lying beyond national frontiers in which money did not exist and whose inhabitants lived in contentment and self-sufficiency by trading on the bounty of the soil. Its denizens, however, were not Turks: ‘What surprised me most agreeably,’ the novel’s narrator observes, ‘was to hear pure Hungarian spoken by the inhabitants.’

 

Later there was Béla Bicsérdy, a raw food evangelist before his time who commanded a mass following in Hungary and Romania in the early 1920s. He claimed that through a strict raw vegan diet, regular fasting, fresh air, and exercise, one could live for up to 600 years. He moved to Ada Kaleh with his family in 1925, and hoped to establish a commune there. A life of self-sufficiency was impossible on the island, however, and in his diary he lamented that the inhabitants relied heavily on markets in Orşova and Turnu-Severin, where the traders exploited their dependency by charging a 25 per cent mark-up. Bicsérdy eventually died in obscurity in Billings, Montana, in 1951, at the respectable but not extraordinary age of 79.

 

Turkish nationalist historians have naturally been among its most ardent enthusiasts. Unlike Jókai, they did not need to change the language of the islanders to invoke Ada Kaleh as a sanctuary for all the imagined national qualities that modernity had swept away elsewhere. ‘They have not mingled with outsiders, and remain unchanged and preserved,’ wrote Necmi Seren in the preface to his 1946 translation of Hungarian ethnologist Ignácz Kúnos’ study of the island’s folklore. ‘Even today, Ada Kaleh stands as a reminder of the Turkish imperial era.’

Early modern period map of Ada Kaleh.
Early modern period map of Ada Kaleh.


The road from Bucharest to the Danube runs for about five hours through the Wallachian Plain, which occupies most of the southern part of Romania. When I visited in March, it was a dreary landscape relieved here and there by well-kept broadleaf woodlands; the fields and pastures had a wasted yellowish tinge as if a huge flowerpot had just been lifted from the earth. The road ploughed through grey towns, their approaches littered with the corpses of dogs struck by cars. Plastic bags, bottles, and bin-liners of strewed rubbish collected like snowdrifts in ditches and in the narrow gullies of streams.

 

I wanted to see that expanse of water where Ada Kaleh once lay, and to meet the former inhabitants who still live nearby; but there was something else, more than either of these, that impelled me on the journey. The creation of the Iron Gates hydroelectric dam did not quite mark the end of Ada Kaleh. When the project moved forward in the early 1960s, Romania’s Communist government initiated a plan to relocate its population and monuments to the uninhabited island of Şimian, 14 miles downstream. The project was halfway complete when it was abandoned following the death of its main instigator. To this day about half of the reconstructed fortress remains, slowly sinking into ruin on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Danube, stuck between Romania and Serbia: Ada Kaleh’s ersatz facsimile, where even the traces of the past are not real. You can’t visit it without police permission. Şimian reminded me of the dreams I often used to have about the home where I grew up, believing for most of my life that I would never leave. In those dreams, I would return to find everything the same, except that where there had once been happiness and life there was now silence and emptiness.

 

It was dark by the time I and Paul Lungu, the Romanian translator and fixer who had accompanied me from Bucharest, checked into a hotel in Turnu-Severin just downstream of the Iron Gates. The following morning we met with Engur Ahmet, a former islander who now lived in New Orşova, which has replaced the old town that was largely inundated by the construction of the dam. Its long promenade looked onto a bay formed by the flooded river, in which several low-slung barges lay heaped with hillocks of coal. Engur lived on a pleasant, airy street on the hillside above the bay with his Romanian wife Mioara.

 

‘We could sit and talk to you all day about Ada Kaleh,’ Mioara told us as she placed a large bundle of photos and albums on the kitchen table, while Engur – with great fanfare – prepared us cups of Turkish coffee. Both wore sweatshirts and baggy sweatpants, and the humid closeness of their kitchen made it seem as if they had invited us not just into their home, but into their clothes. They would soon celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and they looked alike in the way that happy and long-habituated couples sometimes do.

 

Their memories of the island were tied up with those of their own love story. At the age of 17, Mioara had begun working in the textile factory built on the island during the Communist era. Engur did various jobs, at times making coffee for tourists, who he also ferried back and forth from the island in a rowboat on Sundays, as well as working as an administrator at the factory.

 

‘I saw some fresh meat, and was the first to jump on it!’ he explained, as she giggled and grinned. When she was at the factory, he would peek through the window to look at her, and after her shift ended at 3 p.m., they would spend the next two hours together before she got the boat home to Orşova. One photo showed them sitting on a bench together: a young, slim Mioara in a light sleeveless dress, arms folded demurely, with Engur beside her theatrically strumming a guitar.

 

Their marriage was a scandal on the island. It was unusual for Muslims to marry non-Muslims, and both their families were strongly opposed. ‘Her people said, “You can’t marry a Turk!” and mine said, “You can’t marry a Romanian!”… So we had a big argument with everybody, and got married anyway.’ At first they lived in lodgings at the textile factory, but later rented a place of their own. ‘They got used to us only after we had children and they saw how well we were getting along,’ said Engur. A year after they married their first son was born on the island.

 

At around the same time they were embarking on married life, Durgut Husref was working as a stevedore and a boatman, rowing workers across from the mainland to the textile factory. We met him that afternoon at his home in Turnu-Severin. Still 6’3” at the age of 72, he must have been a giant on the island, although he and everyone else would tell us that his father had been even taller.

 

‘I could singlehandedly roll the barrels of petrol up the hill to the power station,’ he said. Now though, he looked hollowed out and tired, and complained of poor health. He slapped several bundles of old photographs and magazine cuttings on the table with the air of someone who was tired of these visits from writers and journalists. His wife, who greeted us at the door, left us and went outside to tend the garden.

 

‘Many evenings I just take out these photos and sit looking at them,’ he said as he spread them before us on the living room table. They were a jumble of old and new. There were grainy street scenes from the nineteenth century, with men standing awkwardly to attention, fezzes askew. Many showed Durgut and his friends as young men: group shots of them clowning for the camera, sometimes with bottles of beer and musical instruments in hand, sitting on the grass, always with the river somewhere in the background. There were others of the villagers watching a football game sometime in the 1950s. The island had its own team, which once played a match against Steaua Bucharest, whose players were on a training retreat at the nearby Baths of Hercules. They were beating the island team ten or eleven goals to nil before the ball was lost in the Danube. There was one shot of the island viewed from the mountains above, so low and narrow that it looked as if the water was already overwhelming it. ‘When I die,’ Durgut said, ‘I will have this photo framed to carry with me in my grave.’

 

There were newer pictures incongruously mixed in. One that he had taken the year before was shot from the highway when the river was at low ebb, and the margin of what had been the old coast road was visible on the shore. Another was of broken gravestones: local youths were vandalising the Muslim section of the cemetery nearby Durgut’s home. The combination of these images with the scenes of island life made it seem as if the happiness of those times could not be separated out from the pain that followed them.

 

Among the photographs was the last one taken of him on the island, when he returned in the winter of 1969, when it was already partially flooded, to collect firewood. Snow covers the ground and Durgut is hunched and grimacing against the cold under a heavy overcoat. The whiteness of the snow makes it seem as if the image itself is fading away.

 

What was it like growing up on Ada Kaleh? As small children, they would play in the woods and bushes on the island’s fringe. In a place sheltered from the river’s current there was a designated swimming spot, and one of Durgut’s earliest memories is of nearly being carried off by the Danube when he strayed too far from shore. There was a permanent posting of around twenty soldiers to stop would-be fugitives escaping to Yugoslavia, and they had set tripwires connected to flares around the island’s southern perimeter. The children would purposely trigger the wires to see the flares shoot into the sky, and then run off before the soldiers arrived to investigate. The damp vaults of the old fortress that encircled the core of the village formed the children’s private domain in the daytime, and a place of terror and ghost stories by night. Durgut and his friends continued to play hide and seek there even when they were grown up and married. ‘We were adults,’ he said, ‘but we were still really children.’

 

In spite of its tiny size the island had all the amenities of a small town. As well as the textile and cigarette factories, football pitch, small power plant, and school that taught up to fourth grade, there was a cinema with all the latest films. Natural resources were largely limited to the fruits that the villagers grew in their gardens. Ada Kaleh’s figs, pears, and its plum and rose jams were especially renowned, as well as its profusion of grape varieties, that rejoiced under a colourful array of Turkish names: ‘goat nipples’, ‘fox paws’, ‘women’s fingers’, ‘thief-can’t-steal’…

 

There was no crime, Victor Barbuti, the retired officer who served as the island’s chief of police for fourteen years, told a Romanian magazine in 2010. ‘For the time I was there I never gave a fine, and I only made one written report. It was about a young man who ate and drank in a food shop without paying.’

 

After the Communists took power following the Second World War, Ada Kaleh began to suffer from the same repression they imposed nationwide. The island’s elite, including factory owner Ali Kadri, fled and their property was confiscated. In 1949, they were forced to celebrate Christmas – an odd imposition by a regime that was in theory opposed to religion, and which was later renamed as the ‘Festival for the End of the Year’.

 

The worst blow came in the summer of 1952, when about sixty people – 12 per cent of the population – were forcibly deported to penal colonies in the Baragan, a windswept steppe region in the southeast of the country. The evictions were part of a campaign to ethnically cleanse minorities living near the Yugoslav border. Though principally aimed at Serbs, Czechs, and Swabians, anyone suspected of political dissent could be included. The deportations were reversed four years later and the islanders returned.

 

Ada Kaleh’s potential use as an escape route to Yugoslavia meant that there was a strong secret police presence. Everyone was being watched, and simply owning a boat was enough to attract the authorities’ suspicion. ‘They had spies there all the time,’ said Engur. ‘Sometimes they were going incognito, you didn’t know who they were. Each step of yours was followed.’ Still, he added, ‘the island was a privileged place compared to other parts of the country.’

Ada Kaleh in 1912.
Ada Kaleh in 1912.


When the project to dam the Iron Gates finally moved forward in the early 1960s, some of Romania’s top archaeologists convened with a view to recording and salvaging the various historical sites that would be submerged, the most important of which was Ada Kaleh. The man chosen to lead this effort was Professor Constantin Nicolaescu-Plopşor, who had successfully headed a similar project in the 1950s. Affable and charismatic, in his mid sixties, with wild swept-back hair and a thick beard, Nicolaescu-Plopşor was also an ethnographer and writer of children’s stories who had built an international reputation for his work on Romania’s Palaeolithic sites.

 

One of his collaborators, Lucian Roşu, then a lecturer at the University of Craiova, later recalled in a memoir how he, Nicolaescu-Plopşor, and another colleague were discussing the island in the street one evening outside the Romanian Academy’s building in Craiova, when the professor, ‘pulling and twisting his beard with his right hand’, said: ‘Hey, bosses, wouldn’t it be better to talk about this over a mug of beer?’

 

During the course of a session that continued into the early hours of the morning, Roşu proposed the idea of relocating Ada Kaleh’s entire population, its historical monuments, and its fortress to the uninhabited island of Şimian. ‘I was thinking about the climatic similarities between the two islands,’ he recalled, ‘the proximity of Şimian to the city of Turnu-Severin, the existence of the railway, and the possibility of organizing cruises from the harbour of Turnu-Severin to the island.’

 

Convinced by the proposal, Nicolaescu-Plopşor used his influence to put it into action. Over the next few years, with funding from Romania’s Ministry of Energy, Ada Kaleh’s fortress was taken apart stone by stone and began to be reassembled on Şimian. As it developed, the plan became yet more extensive. Not only the people and buildings would be moved, but even the Mediterranean vegetation, the fig trees and magnolias. An Olympic-standard swimming complex would be built to further enhance the economic and touristic prospects of the island.

 

‘[T]he work began well,’ wrote Roşu. ‘The great concentration of manpower and machinery created a continuous rhythm and inspired a kind of confidence in the completion of this project that was so difficult to begin and so often interrupted.’ The professor, Roşu recalled, was ‘completely preoccupied with the island’s destiny’. As well as closely following the work, he travelled the region to harangue public officials and interested parties whose co-operation was needed, skipping meals and sleeping only three or four hours a night. ‘Those of us around him asked ourselves how he kept going without exhaustion, and if he weren’t doing too much for one man.’

 

Then, in May 1968, Nicolaescu-Plopşor died after the swift onset of liver cancer. Within a few weeks, the project on Şimian was cancelled entirely, partly as a result of the professor’s death but also because it became clear that most of the islanders intended to accept an offer from the government of Turkey to move there, taking advantage of what was at that time a rare opportunity to escape the increasingly oppressive atmosphere of Ceauşescu’s Romania.

 

Neither Engur nor Durgut were happy at the way the regime handled the exodus from the island. Engur’s mother died before the project had been abandoned, and since Ada Kaleh’s graveyard was in the process of being moved, he buried her on Şimian in the belief that he would eventually join her. Her grave is still there; he and the other islanders have been campaigning unsuccessfully ever since to have all the human remains on the island relocated to the mainland.

 

After the Şimian project fell through, the Communist government promised Ada Kaleh’s inhabitants that they would be the first to benefit from the new dam, with free electricity and free housing, and compensation for their old homes. The islanders also had the opportunity to emigrate to capitalist, Western-aligned Turkey, so tempting them to stay would have been a propaganda coup for the Communist regime. In the end, Engur and Mioara remained because they feared that her brother, a policeman, would face persecution and lose his job if they left. They never got the free electricity the state promised, and they only got a small apartment from the government after Mioara wrote a letter of a complaint to a national newspaper.

 

Durgut moved to Eskişehir in central Turkey, where he worked as a waiter, but he didn’t like it and after about twenty months returned to Romania. He said the government only gave him ½ a lei per square metre for his property on the island, and he was forced to buy his new home for 2 ½ lei a square metre.

 

‘We were never given a shred of what we were promised,’ he said. ‘Throughout this time anyone who wants to steal from this country has stolen from it, but we who made this great sacrifice were never given anything.’ He has no interest in visiting Şimian, and seeing the reconstituted fortress in which he once played hide and seek. ‘It’s nothing,’ he said, ‘it’s a ruin.’

Street scene in Ada Kaleh, c. 1900.
Street scene in Ada Kaleh, c. 1900.


The history of Ada Kaleh was locked almost entirely within the walls of that sprawling fortress. Later encomiasts, perhaps seduced by the romance of the place, have endowed it with a fanciful history stretching back into myth. Some have identified it as Erythia, the place where Hercules performed his tenth labour by stealing the herd of cattle belonging to the monster Geryon; King Sigismund of Hungary is claimed to have encamped there on his way to fight the Turks, as well as Richard the Lionheart on his return from the Crusades. But no archaeological evidence has ever emerged to support these and other claims. In fact, it is likely that no community would have developed on Ada Kaleh at all were it not for the teams of labourers who began work in the autumn of 1717 on what was then an obscure and uninhabited island downstream of Orşova.

 

The force behind its construction was Austria’s Hapsburg monarchy, which initiated the work immediately after capturing that section of the Danube from the Ottoman Empire. It took twenty years to build. The surrounding region had been impoverished and depopulated by three decades of intermittent warfare, so skilled workers had to be brought in from as far away as Germany, in such numbers that they formed permanent settlements nearby. Their first task was to shore up the earthen embankments previously put in place by the Turks so that they would resist the annual spring floods that had already forced one garrison to abandon the site. A pontoon bridge was slung across the river from the northern bank and to the south a brick kiln was built. Finely carved masonry for the gateways and bastions was ferried from upstream. Toiling on the low, marshy island, the labourers endured food shortages, disease, and death; humid sweltering summers, and winters in which the icy wind barrelled through the Iron Gates.

 

Although the Turks had besieged Vienna in 1683 for the second time, they had ceased to be the terrifying and seemingly invincible force they had appeared to the Christian powers of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Hapsburgs inflicted a series of crushing defeats over the years following the failed siege, eventually capturing the Turks’ ‘Fortress of the Gate of Holy War’, the citadel of Belgrade, in 1717. As the struggle between the two empires shifted to the Middle Danube, both recognised the strategic importance of the steep pass over the river near Orşova with the narrow island at its centre which – in the words of Allen Z. Hertz, the foremost historian of Ada Kaleh’s early history – ‘curved like a beckoning finger’ just above the rapids of the Iron Gates. Fortifying the island and the neighbouring banks would allow a relatively small force to control river traffic and prevent its use as a supply line in any future Turkish attempt to retake Belgrade.

 

The fortress was shaped like a parallelogram with pointed bastions at each corner, and further fortifications projecting around them as outworks to create the shape of an elongated star. When completed, it would cover the island’s entire width and most of its length. The construction included a barracks, a house for the commandant, a hospital, magazines for arms and food, and a Franciscan church, as well as two smaller fortresses facing it on either bank of the Danube.

 

The Hapsburgs would accrue little profit from their work. Before the finishing touches had been completed, war erupted once again in 1737. Over the course of three years, a series of muddled Austrian offensives were met by better-planned Turkish counterattacks aimed at reclaiming Belgrade. The fortress at Ada Kaleh (variously known as New Orşova, Karlsfried, and La Carolina by the Austrians) was a key obstacle to realising that aim. After briefly blockading it in November 1737 before being forced to withdraw by the onset of winter, the Turks eventually captured it after a month-long siege the following August, laying the path for the successful recapture of Belgrade a year later. The island’s Franciscan church was converted into a mosque and religious officials appointed to it, and above the fortress’s main gate an inscription was placed dedicating its capture to the Sultan, Mahmud I. ‘His glory was doubled when he conquered this fortress,’ it proclaimed, ‘and the frontiers of his country were enlarged greatly as a powerfully running torrent.’

 

By this time, however, the Ottomans were fighting against the current, and had begun their slow and terminal decline. The empire’s world had been one in which different religious and ethnic groups lived in a complex patchwork with different communities organised according to faith, in a way that allowed a relative degree of autonomy. Muslims, Jews, and Christians were each answerable to their own religious leaders, all of whom were in turn answerable to the Sultan.

 

By the nineteenth century the empire’s writ had weakened; its armies and governors were corrupt and often operated as autonomous despots or warlords, irksome to the central government and oppressive towards the increasingly restive populations on which they imposed themselves. The empire was ill-equipped to handle the new ideology of nationalism that was sweeping in from the west and which arrived first in the Balkans.

 

Orşova, the Ottomans’ last foothold on the Danube’s northern bank, fell to the Austrians in 1791. Without its port Ada Kaleh became useless as a naval installation, however it remained a military garrison manned by the Sultan’s Janissary corps. They brought with them the Bektashi dervish order that coloured the island’s cultural and religious life throughout its subsequent history. This movement fused elements of Sufism and Shia Islam, and its practitioners known for their iconoclastic humour and fondness for wine. The faith was personified in the figure of the island’s saint, Miskin Baba, a wandering prince from Bokhara (legend had it) who made his home on the island. ‘By drinking my end is getting near,’ the epitaph on his tomb proclaimed, ‘and with drink’s power I sleep in the grave, dazed, until the day of resurrection…’

 

As ethnic cleansing and banditry began to convulse the region, Ada Kaleh became both a lair for brigands and a place of refuge for Muslims fleeing persecution in nearby Serbia. The construction of the fortress had rendered the island secure from spring flooding, and now its labyrinth of cellars became the homes of refugees and, as time went by, the families of the soldiers stationed there.

 

The last century of the empire’s existence was marked by a series of disasters in the Balkans in which the nationalist aspirations of its subject peoples played a growing role. The events of one July night in 1804 illustrated the turmoil engulfing the region. A group of fugitives arrived on the island from Belgrade, which had just been captured by Serbian rebel forces. Among them were a group of four Janissary officers, known as the dahija, who for the past three years had ruled the city and much of Christian Serbia after rebelling and assassinating the Sultan’s appointed vizier. The Janissaries had been angered by the Ottoman central government’s attempt to placate the Serbs with self-rule after recently winning back the territory from Austria.

 

The dahija had enacted a reign of terror that included the slaughter of seventy-two Serbian nobles whose severed heads were publicly displayed in Belgrade, an atrocity that triggered the first major nationalist uprising in the Balkans. The Ottoman government at first supported the Serbian nationalists against its own rebellious soldiery, in the hope of later reining them in. When the ousted dahija arrived on Ada Kaleh, the island’s commander Regep Aga – who himself blurred the line between appointed military chief, warlord, and bandit –informed both the Serbs and the Ottoman authorities of their arrival. With Regep Aga’s assistance, the Serbian detachment that arrived on the island killed the dahija in a shootout, decapitated their corpses, and sent the heads to Belgrade, and then on to the Sultan in Istanbul.

 

The Serbian rebellion set the template for further nationalist uprisings that convulsed the Balkans over the following century. Ada Kaleh continued to play a bit role in the dramas of the nations surrounding it, acting as either the refuge or prison. In 1849, Lajos Kossuth – leader of the Hungarian nationalist movement – fled to the island to escape from the Austrians before finding safe harbour in Istanbul.

 

Stability arrived after Serbia and Romania both won independence at the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. The island was mysteriously omitted from the negotiations. In a separate treaty, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires agreed that it would fall under Austrian military control, with its civilian population remaining the responsibility of the Sultan.

The bazaar of Ada Kaleh, c. 1890
The bazaar of Ada Kaleh, c. 1890


At Istanbul’s state Ottoman archive I had met Yıldırım Ağanoğlu, a historian and researcher and the author of several books and articles about Ada Kaleh. (‘What a wonderful subject!’ he had exclaimed on the phone when I told him I was writing about the island.) The archives are housed in a brand new building near the top of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. In the palatial foyer a group of school children were being shown around an exhibition of manuscripts and panels detailing the history of the Ottomans’ dealings with Imperial China, and in a series of galleries, decrees of the sultans stood in softly lit display cases.

 

Turkey did not always lavish such attention on its imperial past. After Atatürk swept away the institutions of the Ottoman Empire – the sultanate and the caliphate and its 600-year-long accretion of custom and tradition – much of its legacy was buried amid the drive to build a radically new state. He and his contemporaries had witnessed the ‘national disaster’ of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when the upstart nation states of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro combined to swiftly defeat the Ottomans, expelling them from the Balkans and triggering an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. The territory lost included the old Ottoman capital Edirne.

 

Turkey is a nation formed in part by those refugees. Between 1878 and 1913 alone, as many as two million Muslims fled the Balkans, and another 480,000 arrived from Greece under a population exchange agreed soon after the Republic’s foundation. Much of the new Turkey’s elite – its politicians, intellectuals and writers – were Balkan émigrés, including Atatürk himself, a native of Salonica in present-day Greece.

 

‘Rumelia’ was the name given to the Balkans in Ottoman times. Along with Anatolia, this region formed the cultural and political core of the empire: the two appeared on the map as hemispheres of a single brain whose connection was at Istanbul. It was a part of the world more intimate and dear to many Turks than the far more extensive Arab lands that the empire also ruled.

 

‘The Balkans are the Turks’ ghost limb,’ one academic wrote to me. ‘We still can’t quite believe it’s not there.’ She mentioned a recent historical soap opera, Elveda Rumeli (‘Farewell, Rumelia’), about the multi-ethnic community of Skopje in present-day Macedonia on the eve of the empire’s collapse. Her father, who had no Balkan heritage, would not allow his family to watch it in the house. ‘He found it too tragic knowing how it would all end.’

 

The catastrophe of the Balkan Wars helped convince the young men who would go on to build a new Turkey of the bankruptcy of the old notion of empire and of the need to reinvent the state along nationalist lines. In particular, they viewed the multi-ethnic and multi–religious patchwork that characterised much of the empire as a mortal threat to the emergence of any ethnically Turkish state. At the same time, they emphasised the collapse of the empire as a crucial process in the Turks’ consolidation and rebirth in their true homeland of Anatolia. The Ottoman collapse in the Balkan Wars had marked ‘the end of a groundless dream,’ wrote the Kemalist intellectual and journalist Şevket Süreyya Aydemir in his 1959 autobiography, Man Seeking Water. ‘It was a complete downfall of a spirit and mentality. A tale, an imperial tale was coming to an end. Apparently, what we considered as grandeur was just a sleep of negligence.’

 

‘That first Republican era was all about trying to make the Turkish people forget about all the other lands they lived in,’ Ağanoğlu told me as we drank tea in the archive cafeteria. He himself is of Balkan heritage, his father from Serbia and his mother from Skopje. Most of these Balkan refugees had been indifferent to the ideological discussion surrounding them, and few regarded themselves as ‘Turks’ in the modern sense. ‘For most people, [Anatolia] was just the last standing fortress they could take shelter in.’ A need to fit into their new homeland, a fear of its autocratic rulers, and a desire to put a painful past behind them meant this first generation of refugees were willing to bury their memories of Rumelia.

 

In the past fifteen years, however, interest both in Turkey’s imperial past and in its old Balkan provinces has erupted into full-blown ‘Ottomania’, both in popular culture as well as in the rhetoric and policies of the country’s rulers. Between 2004 and 2012, Turkey gave more than $560m in official development aid to Balkan countries, including projects to rebuild old Ottoman monuments damaged in the preceding years of war. The anniversaries of imperial military victories are now marked with ever more extravagant commemorations, at which officials eulogise the empire, at once trumpeting its supposed tolerance, its ethnic and religious diversity, and its fundamentally Islamic underpinnings.

 

‘Books or libraries would not be enough to tell the richness of the history of [our] country,’ intoned President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the recent commemoration of an Ottoman victory against the British in Iraq during the First World War. He complained that his nation had hitherto ‘tried to cover up with a black cloth’ the glory of the Ottoman past.

 

For Ağanoğlu, Ada Kaleh and its fate occupy a special place in this revival. ‘If the island had not been lost it would have been the place that retained the purest Ottoman culture, the highest number of Ottoman customs,’ he said. ‘The Ottoman Empire was hundreds of miles away, but there was a little Ottoman Empire there.’

 

He also believes that a ‘belated longing’ for the Balkan past is driving public interest, helped in part by the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the fresh influx of refugees that arrived after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Bosnian war in the 1990s.

 

‘When people started migrating from Yugoslavia, from Bulgaria, from the Bosnian war, the Turkish memory of Rumelia was reawakened and the public started to remember it.’ More open borders also meant that the descendants of Balkan migrants could more easily visit the birthplaces of their parents and grandparents. ‘My father never returned to Serbia as long as he lived. My mother only returned to Skopje once. Now I can go there three times a year.’

View of Ada Kaleh, c. 1900.
View of Ada Kaleh, c. 1900.


For the first descendants of those who left Ada Kaleh, the legacy of the past is still painful to bear. Necmi Hastürk was still in the womb when his family left the island and moved to Istanbul in 1968. When he was 6 years old, they returned with a group of former islanders to visit relatives who had stayed in Romania. He remembers the moment when the train from Bucharest approached the bend in the Danube where the island had stood. Everyone crowded to the carriage window; some gasped and wept. Necmi peered out and, seeing for the first time that curving expanse of empty water, he too felt an emptiness inside him.

 

We met at his office in Istanbul’s state radio building, a hulk of 1940s Turkish officialdom with long corridors that smelled of stationery cupboards, lined with narrow rooms like upturned shoeboxes. Necmi worked as a television cameraman, a burly man in a room full of other burly men sitting among piles of hardware. He had a broad, open face and bulging blue eyes, and as a colleague listened in, he talked about the pain of losing the place where he was not quite born.

 

Necmi’s mother, seven-and-a-half months pregnant, was determined that her child be born in Turkey. The family were settled along with other islanders into an Istanbul apartment block provided by the Turkish government. They had imagined that they would be clasped like lost children into the bosom of what they had always seen as their motherland. At school, however, Necmi was teased for being a gavur – a foreigner or infidel. ‘It made me very angry because I knew what my parents had sacrificed to move to Turkey. As an immigrant you pay a high price to come to a new place. You start with nothing, you are considered nothing, you have left everything behind.’

 

His family had been forced to abandon property in Constanța, and his father, who had been a schoolteacher as well as Ada Kaleh’s imam, was for some time unable to get his teaching qualifications recognised and had to work as a security guard. After finally being hired as a state teacher, only twelve of his twenty-five years service counted towards his retirement and pension. ‘He worked until the day he died,’ said Necmi.

 

The islanders had different customs and spoke differently from the Istanbul Turks amongst whom they lived, and the shift between the quiet intimacy of Ada Kaleh and the bustling aggressiveness of the big city was jarring. Necmi’s father was used to greeting neighbours in the street, but when he hailed local women they turned their faces away in shock. Queuing for water, his mother was appalled at being slapped in the face by a woman who she had accosted for cutting the line.

 

Ada Kaleh hovered over his childhood. In the building where he grew up, ten extended families from the island were spread across twenty apartments. While his parents worked, his grandmother looked after him and would sit for hours reminiscing about the past with her friends.

 

‘My entire childhood was spent in the Ada Kaleh community and there was almost nothing outside of it,’ he told me. ‘When you listen to stories about a place that no longer exists, it fuels your imagination. You’re able to see it in your mind’s eye and you can place all the stories into a kind of theatre set.’ When first I asked him how he imagined the island, without missing a beat he answered: ‘Paradise.’

 

When he was older Necmi married the daughter of another Ada Kaleh family. Today he helps organise exhibitions and documentary screenings about the island at Istanbul’s Romanian Cultural Institute and runs a Facebook page dedicated to it: Adakalem Yaşıyor! (‘My Ada Kaleh Lives!’). He returns every summer to visit his wife’s family in Turnu-Severin. In his father-in-law’s garden are fruit trees planted as cuttings from Ada Kaleh’s orchards, and stacks of bricks from the old fortress that the emigrants took as a memento. There he gathers surviving islanders; they talk, look at photos, sing island songs, and the women make boza – a traditional fermented drink, while Necmi probes them about the past.

 

As we talked, a colleague of his sat behind his desk, listening intently, puffing on a cigarette.

 

‘Necmi,’ the man ventured, ‘Maybe you’re so into this place because you never saw it? It’s like a fantasy land to you.’

 

‘I’m the only person in my family who wasn’t born on the island,’ Necmi replied. ‘I never saw it and for that reason I feel a great sense of loss… All of my obsession, my collecting things and memories, is to make up for this emptiness I feel. Sometimes I get angry because I feel that many of the people who lived on Ada Kaleh don’t care about documenting it. I ask them to write articles and correct mistakes and help me out on the story and they’re lazy about it. On the other hand I get it, because they themselves feel a great sense of loss and don’t want to go back there. It’s too painful for them to remember, and of course I can understand that.’

 

Necmi, however, returns every year to that curve in the river to look out at the place where the island once lay, and takes a photograph that he sends to his family and friends, as if to confirm again that it is still gone. ‘I’m expecting something to happen: for a miracle, maybe, for a piece of the island to suddenly appear before me.’

Painting of Ada Kaleh, c. 1980.
Painting of Ada Kaleh, c. 1980.


Behind the grey face of the Iron Gates dam, the Danube appears as a long slug of swollen water. Its surface, a muddy yellow that ripples into silver in the wind, hardly seems to flow at all. We drove two hours up the river on our way to meet another islander, Kadri Omer. Even as we reached our destination, the town of Moldova Noua, the river still looked like a turgid lake. Kadri had seemed very excited about our visit, and had urged us to hurry when we called him in the morning to say we were setting off. He lived in a block of flats on the edge of town that overlooked ochre hills of fields and woods. Two tiny, friendly dogs – ‘my children’, he said – mobbed us at the doorway. In his living room, a clock with a picture of Marilyn Monroe on its face hung above some Ottoman calligraphy, and Turkish arabesk music played on the television.

 

For the past ten years, Kadri has devoted his life to Ada Kaleh. ‘There are so many things to tell you! Where do you want to start?’ He was 8 years old when it was flooded, and it was only years later, in 2006, that he had the epiphany that launched his obsession. He was watching a documentary in which he saw an interview with one of his uncles. ‘This is all that’s left of Ada Kaleh,’ he said, pointing at a photograph of the island.

 

Kadri was so struck by those words that he sold his car to buy a computer and he started researching. Since then he estimates he has read more than 7,000 documents from local and state archives, collected 2,000 photographs, and written more than 2,500 pages of notes relating to the island, breaking three printers while churning out material. He stores his research on a computer that he never connects to the internet, out of fear that someone might steal it. He has created maps, graphs, detailed animations showing the topography of the island and its various buildings, and dozens of short documentaries focusing on various aspects of island life and notable people from its history.

 

‘I could have completed a college degree twice with the amount of research I’ve done,’ he told us. He was dismissive of others who had written about Ada Kaleh, especially the outsiders who never lived there or saw it. ‘When you haven’t lived there you don’t even know what to ask, and many people write things without properly documenting it,’ he complained. ‘I use documents, not stories or memories to explain how good the island was. Memories can be exaggerated.’

 

When I asked Kadri about his own memories, however, he took me through them as if they were an itemised list. There were the traumas of his early childhood: the time another boy cut Kadri’s finger with an axe when they were trying to cut down a tree; the time when he was four or five and swallowed a needle, and an x-ray at the hospital failed to reveal it. There were the trips to the island cinema, where his parents would send him in the evenings when they went to visit his aunt. After the movie finished he would go to his aunt’s house and breathlessly recount what he’d seen, and they would tease him by feigning disbelief; ‘It’s not true! You’re lying! You’re lying!’ his aunt would insist in the face of his wide-eyed protestations of honesty.

 

On the subject of his current life, Kadri was more reticent. ‘It’s a secret,’ he told me when I asked what he did for a living. I suspected that he wouldn’t say because he didn’t want to be cast as an amateur; in truth, Ada Kaleh was his profession. When we turned to the history and broader life of the island, he would often respond to my questions by switching on one of his many short documentaries, which were mainly comprised of sequences of still photos with subtitles and set to dramatic music. Sometimes he was impatient, as if my questions were so basic and broad, and betrayed such ignorance, that the distance needed to bring me up to speed was too great to be worth the effort.

 

Kadri and his family left Ada Kaleh on Wednesday, 21 August 1968, and took a fourteen-hour train journey to Constanța, on the Black Sea coast, where there was a significant Turkish minority. They moved into an apartment there, and Kadri was amazed to find that they had electricity twenty-four hours a day, whereas on the island it was switched off between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Kadri is ashamed, in retrospect, that as a child he was excited to leave the island – it was only later that he understood what he was losing.

 

‘Do you know what it means to live without the places you loved in your childhood?’ he asked. ‘I would give ten years of my life to be able to spend one day on that island. Sometimes I dream about this. I dream about talking to the old people, about talking to my mother and my father and finding out more about the island. I wasn’t smart enough to write everything down when they were telling me about it. That’s why I live in a parallel reality. I have my own island in my head.’

 

Sometimes he has dreams that the island is being rebuilt in the present day, exactly as it was, and with all its old inhabitants returning. ‘I would like to touch every brick, see everything I missed,’ he said. ‘When I have these dreams I’m happier than I can describe.’ Like Durgut, he had no interest in visiting Şimian. ‘I can see it from shore, so why should I go there? It has no connection to Ada Kaleh.’

 

One day, he hopes to write a book – the book – about the island. He conceives of it as a virtual trip experienced through the eyes of a visitor in the year 1965, just before its evacuation began, with every detail meticulously backed up and authenticated by his years of research. He spoke vaguely about the project, however, as if it were too monumental an undertaking to every actually be achieved.

 

When we eventually told him we had to return to Turnu-Severin, his enthusiasm immediately dissipated. He had hoped that we would stay in a hotel nearby and spend at least two days with him. ‘You haven’t even begun to learn anything,’ he said. I left with the feeling of having disappointed him.

 

Night fell as we drove back along the Danube, and as we arrived at the dam the lights of the hydroelectric complex seemed to give out an extraordinary brightness. They were the colour of flames, ominous as a gathering of cultists, and beneath each point of light an inverted candle flickered on the water. Their orange glow lit up the clouds, as if the whole converted energy of the river was thrown out in that blaze.

Postcard view of Ada Kaleh.
Postcard view of Ada Kaleh.


Getting permission to go to Şimian Island the following morning proved to be easier than we had expected. After we found a fisherman who agreed to ferry us over, we went to the office of the local border police, who took down our and the fisherman’s details and issued us a written permission to visit. Engur Ahmet had also agreed to accompany us there.

 

The little wooden boat motored out towards the strip of bare trees and brush behind which rose the low brick walls of the fortress. It was the kind of still, grey day on which I had always imagined this visit, and as we approached I felt conscious of the expectations I had invested in it – expectations that were not entirely clear to me and which, I felt sure, would only be disappointed.

 

Engur seemed cheerful and excited. He had told me earlier that the Danube had a special smell that reminded him of his old home. As the boat chugged through the water there was a heavy dampness in the air and a putrid odour of fish and rotting vegetation.

 

‘Is this the smell?’ I asked doubtfully, imagining that perhaps it was due to pollution or else an unpleasant side effect of the dam just upstream.

 

‘Yes,’ he said, inhaling deeply and grinning. ‘This is the smell.’

 

We pulled up and the fisherman accompanied us as Engur led the way to the fortress. The island was larger than Ada Kaleh had been, and was covered in long grass, scrubby bushes and bare trees. About a third of it was rebuilt on Şimian before the project was abandoned. Its ornate gateways were taken apart and re-assembled stone by stone at their new location, but the walls themselves were largely made up of new bricks. The section facing Turnu-Severin was almost complete, including a long strip of vaulted chambers that, in their original incarnation, had served as the makeshift homes of nineteenth century Muslim refugees fleeing the collapsing world of the Ottoman Balkans. Engur’s own grandparents had been such refugees – had fled the nearby Serbian town of Kladovo after one of his grandfather’s brothers was strangled there.

 

The ornate gateways of the fortress were covered in graffiti, most of it dating from the late nineteenth century: names of Romanians, Hungarians and Slavs. Almost all were either too faded to read, or else the masonry’s reassembly had left them jumbled and indecipherable. ‘Petrovi 1908/93K’ was one, now upside down. The only complete and legible inscription I could find was ‘FILIPESKU NIKOLAE 1895’. Later I found a Romanian politician of that name, who finished his term as mayor of Bucharest in October of that year. Perhaps he visited after leaving office? These inscriptions were among the few things on the island that evoked any trace of life, and yet even they seemed unhinged and meaningless, evidence of visits that never took place, or not here at least.

 

Engur led us up a staircase to show us the place that corresponded to where his own childhood home had stood on top of the fortress wall, and which had looked towards old Orşova.

 

‘This is it,’ he said as we stood there, stretching out his hands in front of him as if trying to pin the scene still with his fingertips. ‘The water, the smell, the shoreline – this reminds me of my home.’

 

‘Do you like coming here?’ I asked.

 

‘Yes, I like it… I would stand here with binoculars, looking out and watching people on the shore, at the train station, watching people arrive.’

 

We stood silent for a moment. I was awkwardly aware that this was a point at which, for the sake of the story, he ought to say something deep.

 

‘And I’d watch the girls,’ he went on. ‘Even an old man still likes to see some pussy.’ Standing behind him, the fisherman cracked a brief, wry smile.

 

We continued around the island until we reached the relocated graveyard of Ada Kaleh, which lay near an elegant two-storey building, now derelict, which had once housed a small garrison of soldiers who were Şimian’s most recent inhabitants. An ossuary was sunk into the ground; its lid had been removed and inside we could see bones, parts of skulls, femurs, a shoulder blade – all green with lichen. Engur approached the handful of ornate Ottoman tombstones and briefly prayed, head bowed, palms to the sky.

 

He told us about the time when he had buried his mother. He had dug her grave himself, with a shovel borrowed from the soldiers stationed nearby, who had refused to help him. When I asked where her grave was, he gestured vaguely into the undergrowth, but made no effort to show me or to visit it himself. ‘It’s very overgrown now,’ he explained. I wondered if his reticence was out of a desire for privacy.

 

Returning from Şimian, we again passed the concrete battlements of the hydroelectric complex, and I asked him how he felt about the dam. ‘It’s brought nothing good for us,’ he replied. He didn’t seem bitter, though.

 

‘Yes, I got over it. I’ve forgiven the ones that wronged me and the other inhabitants. When the television crews come and interview me they never broadcast that bit – that I’ve forgiven them. They’ve compensated different people around the country for different things, but they never compensated us. But I’m over it.’

The bazaar of Ada Kaleh.
The bazaar of Ada Kaleh.


Driving back to Bucharest the following day, on the outskirts of a town we saw an old man on the side of the highway. He was lying across the white line that marked the edge of the road as trucks and cars screamed past, barely slowing to swerve around him. He was stretching one arm out into the road, struggling to grasp at a walking stick that lay just beyond his reach.

 

We stopped, and I approached him while Paul parked the car. He was dressed in a beaten up suit, and looked at me with a blank expression. Speaking no Romanian, I said nothing, but tried to give him my hand. He ignored it and carried on reaching for his walking stick. With difficulty, I gripped him under his shoulders and pulled him to his feet. Holding him up with one arm, I reached for his cane and gave it to him, and he stood there, balanced precariously between the stick and his two weak legs. Paul arrived and asked him if we could take him home or to the hospital. He gestured to his throat, apparently indicating that he was mute. Did he want to go home? He shook his head. Did he want to go to the hospital? He shook his head. A small bead of blood stood out on his brow. We asked again, and he shook his head impatiently and waved us away.

 

Uncertain what to do, we returned to the car as he walked on unsteadily. After turning around we passed him again, and saw that he had again fallen down. We pulled up across from him on the other side of the road and Paul shouted, can we help you? He was lying on his back, propped up on his shoulder. We had pulled up directly across from him, and watched with dread as a truck approached. A car pulled out to overtake, just as another approached from the opposite direction. They seemed not to have noticed him, and for a moment it looked as if the three vehicles would pass each other where he was lying, and the truck would be forced onto the hard shoulder and run him over. But they squeezed by, and looking through the roar of the passing truck, I saw him staring blankly back at me. Blood was now flowing all down the right side of his face. Paul shouted to him again, and again he vaguely gestured us away.

 

We continued on towards Bucharest, and as we drew further away I felt a deepening sense of guilt. I wanted to tell Paul to turn around and go back, but as each minute passed it seemed less and less reasonable to ask him to do so. Could we not at least have pulled him to the side of the road? Paul said the man must have been drunk, and probably did this every day, and I tried to comfort myself with this thought, but the more I considered it the more unlikely it seemed. Surely an old man doesn’t get himself in that kind of deadly situation every day? Was he really drunk? Was he trying to kill himself? Could he have been disoriented or concussed from his fall?

 

As we drove on I wondered about all the other people that old man had once been: the child, the young man, then the husband maybe, the father, the grandfather. I thought of the decades of life that lay behind him, and wondered whether in fact they had any reality at all if that was how they finished: in that awful scene on the road, witnessed by indifferent and uncomprehending strangers, who passed it by in a moment and soon put it from their minds, or else pocketed it as a story to tell one day.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

ALEXANDER CHRISTIE-MILLER  is a writer and journalist based in Istanbul. His writing about Turkish politics and culture has been published in Newsweek, the Times, the Atlantic, and other publications. He is a regular contributor to The White Review.


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