James Tressler / Sunday, April 15 @ 7 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul
SILK ROAD PASSAGES: An Offer Along The Ishim
(More excerpts from the journal of Gökhan Yilmaz, aka “The Lord of the Sky”)
In last week’s installment, at James’ request I updated you on my situation in Astana, glorious capital of Kazakhstan. You’ll recall I had to take the train to the southern border city of Taraz to renew my residency. And I was supposed to meet this local guy to discuss transporting some weed back to Astana. That fell through, owing to the fact that he flaked at the last moment. Typical unreliable-ass weed dealers. So I just got the train back to Astana.
Moving on! I come often to the Ishim River in the evenings. Especially this time of year, with the weather getting warmer. In the evenings near sunset, the skies are clear mostly, the fading light bouncing off the bridge and the buildings. Along the river the light shimmers a meridian blue. The city is quiet at that hour, so I like to take my gee-tar out and busk for a while.
There aren’t that many people out, but that’s OK. I do it more for myself than for the money. I used to take a bottle of something along, whiskey or vodka, but one time I got busted and almost had to pay a fine. Fortunately this local girl helped me get an interpreter, who also intervened on my behalf at the court, so I got off with just a warning.
Anyway, nowadays, I don’t drink when I busk. It’s relaxing just to sit along the banks, strumming a bit of G n R, or Metallica, or some of my own stuff that I’ve written. Occasionally people stop and listen, but mostly it’s just me and the river. Solitude, bro: I’ve learned to embrace it more than I used to, back in my crazy Istanbul days, when almost every night I was prowling the bars in Taksim. I’m really over it, trust me.
So the other evening I met this guy Amir. He’s about my age, and he said he liked what I was playing. I offered him a cigarette and he sat down.
“Where are you from?” I asked, in English.
“I live in Dubai, but my mother lives here,” Amir answered. “I’m just visiting.”
We got to talking, and soon discovered we had a lot in common. His parents are also divorced, and living in different countries, just like my folks. His father is Arab and his mother Ukranian. They met years ago when he was in Moscow for a business trip. Moscow is like New York for Slavs, so that’s why the mother was there, in search of opportunities.
They married, had two sons, and settled in Dubai, where the father owns a bunch of construction and household appliance shops along Dubai’s Michigan Avenue. Everything was going great until Amir’s older brother got murdered over a second-hand car purchase.
“What the hell happened?” I asked.
“My brother bought a car from this second-hand dealership,” Amir said. “Then the dealer wanted an extra three grand. My brother refused to pay it, so they killed him. Then my father had the dealer and his cohorts wiped out. It was really fucked up. After that my parents separated.”
That was a few years ago. Since then, Amir’s mother has resettled in Astana. She’s not starving, bro. The ex-husband set her up with some property.
“Anyway, I come and spend summers with her,” Amir said. “The rest of the time I work with my father in Dubai. You ever thought of moving to Dubai?”
At one time, this question might have had me on my feet at once. But I know now that such a decision would be a disaster. No offense, bro, but I hate Arab bosses. I wouldn’t last long, trust me.
Out of courtesy for Amir, I just shook my head.
We talked for awhile about my parents, the details of which you are already familiar, about how my parents split up, Father bouncing back and forth between Moscow and Almaty, still chasing his delusions of great mining wealth, while Mother lives off of sympathetic relatives in Toronto. And of course, I filled him in on Yours Truly, The Lord of the Sky, about my past and present difficulties.
Amir listened, his eyes widening.
“Wow, so you just left your country? Because you didn’t want to go into the Army? That’s really – “ he broke off, looking out at the Ishim. It was starting to get dark out. “I don’t know what to say … So you have nobody here in Astana? No family I mean?”
“And do you ever miss your country? Turkey?”
“Sometimes.” As you know, bro, people always ask me that question. My answer depends on my mood.
It was nice talking with Amir. As I said, there was this easy understanding. Maybe it was the fact that we were both children of broken families, or that we both in a way felt like exiles, men without a country. There aren’t many benefits of being an exile (even if it is, in my case, self-exile), but one of them is that you soon find the world’s shiftless, or homeless, make ready company. We’re not that hard to find, bro.
“So do you consider yourself Arab or Kazak?” I asked.
Amir laughed. “Good question! Let me put it this way: When I am with my father I am fiercely Arab, and when I am with Mother, I bleed Kazak blood.”
“Let us say that I try to keep them both happy. When I am around one, I say nothing of the other. Sometimes in life it is best to know which side one’s bread is buttered, and to keep your mouth shut.”
“Yeah that’s my problem, bro. I can’t help but show my contempt for both of them. Neither one of them seems to have much use for me either.”
The talk after that descended (boy, did it ever!) into Syria, and what the world was supposed to do about that. Together, Amir and I, we both basically decided that there were too many cooks in the kitchen, that the world was being run by idiots, that no profit had been gained on either side, and that basically, Syria would be best served if the world’s major powers, and everybody else, fucked off and let the Syrians fight it out for themselves. Forgive us for our trespasses, bro. What do we know? We are just two dudes having a smoke by the Ishim, and enjoying ourselves besides. If anybody else has a clue, please let us know!
After a while, we talked about the new law that allows expats to return home and be exempted from military service, providing you pay a thousand euros and can provide sufficient documentation showing you have been working abroad.
“I got the paperwork part worked out,” I said. “It’s the money that’s the problem.”
“I might be able to help you. You ever been to Chu?”
“It’s a city down south near the Kyrgyszstan border. Dude, it’s basically the Amsterdam of Kazakhstan! The weed they produce there is much better than what you get here or in Taraz. And it’s cheap, too. We could take the train, hang out in Chu for a few hours, get the weed and sell it back here. We split the money, of course. Then you would have the money you need to pay off your military service.”
It was an interesting offer, for sure.
“I don’t know, bro,” I said. “What if we’re tracked somehow. I don’t want my Turkish ass to end up in a Kazak jail!”
“I don’t think that will be a problem. We could do a test run, with just a few bags, see how things go. You say you’ve got people here to sell it to, and I know some people too. Anyway, think about it. I have to go back to Dubai next week. But I’ll be back in June for the summer. So that gives you plenty of time to think things over.”
It all seemed to be happening really fast – remember, bro, I was just out busking, and suddenly this Chu offer is thrown in my lap. Things just seem to go that way for me sometimes.
“We’ll see,” I said. We had already friended each other on Facebook, so it was just a matter of staying in touch. Unreliables. I definitely didn’t need any more of those in my life. But Amir seemed to be a pretty straight up guy. Well-groomed, presentable. He definitely had things going for himself.
It was dark out, and the lights of the city reflected off the smooth waters of the Ishim. People were out walking along the footpaths. Not many Western tourists – or tourists of any kind – come here. Why would they? To see yet another refurbished Soviet town in Central Asia. My man James is always going on about this New Silk Road Project, the one that China is currently proposing. Part of it will one day pass through Kazakhstan, down in Almaty, and will lead up to Moscow and cross overland to Rotterdam. Imagine all the stuff that will be transported along those routes. You can bet a lot of weed will be unloaded too, bro.
“Yes, think about it,” Amir said, seeming to read my thoughts. “Wanna go and get a drink somewhere?”
“Yeah, I could use one,” I said, packing up my guitar. Yes, I sure could, bro.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.