My hazardous memories from the Turkish earthquake zone.
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Whenever I go on a reporting trip, I take excess photos. What I mean by this is that I tend to snap a bunch of random shots as I’m leaving a source’s house, for instance, aiming at nothing in particular. These photos help me tremendously as I write later. An example: I knew months after visiting a suburb of Kyiv that there had been a six-foot-tall rust-colored wall around the garden at a Ukrainian couple’s house — a detail I was unsure of before I checked my photos.
After 20+ years in journalism I don’t necessarily trust memory anymore.
“Memory takes a lot of poetic license,” Tennessee Williams wrote in “The Glass Menagerie.” “It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.”
Which is why I’ve been so frustrated for the past week. During and after my trips, I do photo dumps onto my computer (although I rarely organize them, even though my Mac seems to randomly split up groupings of pictures in its library — don’t ask, I don’t understand), and I always keep the SD cards in a case.
When the earthquake struck Turkey and Syria last week, I was horrified to realize that it had hit hardest in places I’ve visited along the border: Gaziantep, Reyhanli, Kilis, Antakya and so on. Places where I’ve met dozens of Syrian refugees, all of whom were surviving on next to nothing.
I tried all week to find my notebooks and photos from that trip, which I went on 10 years ago, but couldn’t. I searched repeatedly. No luck. Fortunately, I realized that I have some notes I’d taken on my computer, and files downloaded from a Livescribe computerized pen. But the photos — where were they? Where are they?
I want to find them so I can accurately recall imagery from the region as I write about it. What the graffitied political cartoon I saw on a wall in Antakya said. What was the color scheme in the lobby of my hotel in Gaziantep?
I want to show you what I saw, even though photos are not a substitute for being somewhere. But I don’t have the photos.
So, in the end, all I can do is show you is what my memory — my very human, faulty memory — remembers.
When I landed at the Gaziantep airport in June 2013, I remember thinking that it reminded me of the Catania airport in Sicily, with its dusty remoteness (but while that is what I remember now, looking back at my notes reveals it was actually the other way around). It felt a bit like the edge of the world — that if the planet were flat, this brown landscape would be the point after which you’d fall off.
Gaziantep was the metropolitan city in the area. My hotel had gold finishes and lots of glass. But the buildings were all stuck in a time and genre, one I’m having trouble naming now. Seventies, trying-hard-to-be-glamourous, while also businesslike and slightly Middle Eastern? That’s what I thought until I saw an old man walking a donkey attached to a cart across the street. New but also ancient, is what I remember thinking.
Being from New York City makes nearly every city feel small. But Gaziantep, with its tiny versions of skyscrapers, felt minute, although a little bit urban. Urban-ish.
And hot. I was there in summer, and it was hot and dry. I remember feeling empathy for the donkey.
Gaziantep was where the refugee aid and nonprofit people worked. So it was a good first stop to get a lay of the land of where would be best to go to report on Syrian refugees, as I was. Like I wrote in my last Chills post, by 2019, Gaziantep had swelled by about 30 percent of its former population with such refugees.
One NGO staffer I met there greeted me along with a Syrian refugee, 38, who was in her office. After the woman left, the staffer told me that this refugee had been detained by Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers in Aleppo for eight days, during which time she was punched so severely in her abdomen that doctors had been forced to remove part of her stomach. But now, as a refugee, she was working in Gaziantep with Syrian women who’d been raped during the war.
In my travels along the borders of Syria (in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan), one of the hardest things to witness was the boredom — the sameness of every day: trying to get enough to eat and drink, to stay clean and, maybe, find something to do after that. I met women at Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert (at that point, the second-largest camp in the world, after Dadaab in Kenya) who had been hairdressers back in Syria. They longed to work again, but couldn’t afford scissors.
Everybody wants to feel useful.
The refugees I met suffered the pain of not knowing. Not knowing what is next: where they will live, how they will earn money, what will happen to their children. I’ve lost touch with nearly all the Syrians I talked to. I remember them as…trying. Trying not to despair, not to give up.
Now it must be infinitely harder to keep trying.
“Memory, the mind’s power of having present what is irrevocably past and thus absent from the senses, has always been the most plausible paradigmatic example of the mind’s power to make invisibles present. By virtue of this power, the mind seems to be even stronger than reality; it pits its strength against the inherent futility of everything that is subject to change; it collects and re-collects what otherwise would be doomed to ruin and oblivion.”
— Hannah Arendt in a 1973 lecture
One particularly strong memory from my trip to the Turkish border is from the beautiful city of Antakya, in southwestern Hatay Province. Its streets are laced with brick archways and flowering trees. Or were. Likely now were.
A young Syrian man named Omar was supposed to meet my fixer and me at noon. We’d stayed in the city an extra day so he could cross the border and speak with us. We’d been told that Omar knew a lot of awful things that had been happening in the war; he said he had friends who’d been raped.
He’d also crossed the border often enough to know when not to attempt it. So we waited, hoping it would be safe enough.
Sometime around when he was supposed to arrive, we got a call saying that the border was shut down — supposedly critical weapons for rebels were being pushed across into Syria that day. We waited another eight hours for Omar.
When he finally arrived that evening, we settled into my hotel’s restaurant because it was empty. I’ve found the name of the hotel in my notes — Hotel Liwan. But, while it may seem like a trivial detail, I can’t remember whether the walls of the restaurant were a deep red, which I think they were. They made for an ominous mood.
I hope they are still standing.
Omar spent hours with us, imparting so much of what he’d seen and heard. Yet I no longer remember what he looked like. I hope he is still alive.
I really hope everyone I met is still alive. As for most of them, I have no way of checking. And, while it’s all I have, living in my emotional, inadequate memory isn’t good enough.
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Lauren, this account of your heart’s memory was so poignant and I can’t help but wonder if it is, in a deeper way, truer than it might have been had you been able to locate your photos. The heart speaks in poetry, which is, after all, a distillation of the facts, the nucleus of what facts, however important they are, can only suggest.
By the way, to quote Tennessee Williams and Hannah Arendt (a brilliant alcoholic playwright, and a political philosopher, respectively) both of whom understood, with profundity, a thing or two about truth, was a kind of poetry in itself.
Thanks so much, love your writing. And the color of the flowers is such a stark contrast to the gray final photo.