There’s a kind of traveler who arrives one day in a new place and knows that this is where he was meant to be. Some crave the rush of New York. Others discover their inner Italian. Still others, with more watery blood perhaps, take a tourist trip to Holland and find that they have come home.
When the writer Halil Gür first came to Amsterdam from Istanbul in 1974, he tells me, what he felt was “déjà vu. I recognized the streets, the canals, the church spires. To me the walls of the old houses are like the pages of a novel. With this city, you can carry on a conversation.”
I had never met Gür, but when he described his street in interviews—with an old church at one end, a new mosque at the other—I knew he was talking about my street. “All Amsterdam is my house,” he told a reporter. “My own apartment is only my living room.” I was curious. I wanted to know whether he and I, writers, neighbors, foreigners, had anything in common. Two nationalities, American and Turkish, often reduced to clichés. Two groups that seldom have much contact. If we both felt at home in our street, what did that say about our idea of home?
Gür (1951) made his literary debut in 1984 with “Gekke Mustafa en andere verhalen” (“Mad Mustafa and Other Stories”). In that book he wrote about migrants living an impermanent and precarious existence. The sketches were brief, underlining the fragmented quality of the characters’ day-to-day lives. Many of his migrants were in the country illegally—as Gür himself once was. He was acclaimed as a writer who could interpret the immigrant experience.
But as Gür’s residence in the Netherlands became official and permanent, his writing changed. The more assimilated he became, the more he departed from literary convention. Instead of giving his readers a realistic account of the migrant experience, he turned to spiritual metaphors for travel and displacement. Immigration is not a condition of a class of people, he seems to insist, but an individual, even eccentric experience.
“Gekke Mustafa” was “direct, earthy, physical, straightforward,” he tells me now. For his latest collection of stories, he has drawn inspiration from a mysticism he claims is part of his Turkish heritage, and has attempted a more spiritual exploration of place and identity. In “De babykamer” (“The Baby’s Bedroom”), “riddles and magic play a central role.” The book’s title story, for example, describes an Iranian refugee who was imprisoned and tortured in his own country, and who now lives in “internal exile…in the shadow of his memories.” In therapy, during a series of visions, he sees angels who help him to heal his psychic wounds.
In his house down the street from mine, speaking Dutch, our common language, Gür tells me that his passage between two countries “was not only physical or material. It was an internal journey, a plunge into my own interior world.” The title of his latest book comes from an idea he’s repeated often in interviews: “When you enter an unknown country, you enter it as a newborn baby. In the Netherlands, I was reborn as a writer.”
Gür is a small man with intense, guarded dark eyes. The long hair and mustache of the handsome hippie who first came to the Netherlands have made way for a bookish seriousness as well as warmth. He is friendly and talkative—in the beginning I can hardly get a word in edgewise—but also formal and reserved. He wants to charm, but isn’t sure we will understand each other.
On my first visit to his apartment, he serves rosemary tea and Turkish pastries called “amulets,” a specialty of his hometown of Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey. On my second visit, he serves tea and “Deventer cake,” a specialty of that city and a gift from its public library, where he has just done a reading. Although it is the middle of the day, candles burn on the small table, between stacks of papers and letters. Gür doesn’t use e-mail.
He lives alone, in a narrow top-floor apartment. Our neighborhood dates from the 17th century, but much of our street consists of social housing, small apartments for single city-dwellers, constructed in the 1980s on and around the site of the old Bols gin factory. In Gür’s shoebox of a living room, the walls are lined with books, most of them in Turkish, carted back in suitcases from frequent visits home. I can’t read the titles but I can make out the names of the authors: Dante, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Woolf, Sartre, Susan Sontag, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain. Pride of place is given to a two-volume Dutch-Turkish dictionary, a book that when he first came to this country didn’t exist. Gür says a good translation dictionary was only published about ten years ago. He writes in Turkish, but is published only in Dutch translation.
Above the dictionary, on top of a low bookshelf, stands a framed snapshot, taken recently in Amsterdam, of the author with a university classmate, Orhan Pamuk. They studied architecture together in Istanbul, Gür tells me, though they didn’t know each other well: Pamuk was from a well-off family in the capital, while Gür was one of nine children of a country doctor who often couldn’t pay the rent. Pamuk eventually switched to journalism school, while lack of money forced Gür to abandon his studies entirely.
Writing and traveling are similar vocations, and both are often the product of a restless, rootless childhood. Gür’s family moved “a thousand times” in and around Gaziantep. On summer nights, when the whole family slept on the roof to escape the heat, he used to gaze up at the stars and dream of other worlds. “I always wanted to be where I wasn’t. I felt lonely, like an extraterrestrial being. Longing and homesickness give meaning to life. Homesickness isn’t only a migrant problem—it’s a universal condition.”
In the 1960s, when Gür was a teenager, Western hippies discovered the Silk Road, with Gaziantep as one of its stops. Gür spent as much time with the European visitors as he could. “One time the neighbors told my mother that they’d seen me with two blonde girls. My mother was horrified. I had to explain to her that they weren’t girls, they were boys. The stories they told me made me long even more to see the rest of the world.” Later, after he left university, he worked as a guide on Sultan Ahmet Square in Istanbul, leading tourists around the famous Blue Mosque.
Though it’s Amsterdam’s architecture that he speaks of when he says he loves the city, he first came to Amsterdam for the people. He liked the Dutch tourists he’d met in Turkey: they had an openness and curiosity that appealed to him. As a guide he had picked up enough English to get by, and in his first few months here he hitchhiked all around the countryside to get to know his new home. “Everywhere I went I was welcomed as a guest,” he says. “People invited me into their houses, asked me to stay the night. They told me, ‘Halil, our country is small, but we have four big windows that are always open to the outside world.’”
If homesickness, that endemic state of the person between two cultures, is the fabric of Gür’s life, then coincidences and unexpected meetings are the pattern on that fabric. He tells a story: “When I first arrived in the Netherlands, a customs officer pulled me out of the line at Schiphol airport and started asking me all kinds of strange questions. I had only 50 guilders in my pocket, and he didn’t trust me.
But I recognized him. A week before, I had seen him walking around in the courtyard of the Blue Mosque. It was a warm day in April, and he was leaning against a pillar with his face turned up toward the sun. I went up to him and we had a friendly chat. When I reminded him, he recognized me and let me go through.”
In the middle of our conversation, the phone rings and Gür answers. On the line, out of the blue, is a woman who came to one of his readings 15 years ago in Alkmaar, and to whom he hadn’t spoken since. At the time he gave her some advice that proved useful, and now she had found his number and was calling to ask for his help. Apparently her new question is about loneliness: he advises her to go out and seek the answer among other people. He tells her he’s speaking to an interviewer from Trouw, and she says her nephew is an editor there. It must be a sign.
A few years ago, Gür had a revelation about his feelings for Amsterdam, an experience he describes in the last story in “De babykamer.” Plagued by nightmares and feeling lost, the narrator, through a series of chance meetings, encounters a fortune-teller. She reveals to him that in a past life he was a rich spice merchant, son of a founder of the Dutch East India Company, with a mansion on the stately Herengracht. To do penance for his previous life of colonial exploitation, it was his fate to return to Amsterdam as a dark-skinned migrant.
Gür still wants to be a guide, but no longer to historic architecture or the multicultural experience. He wants to help people discover the spiritual world. “I have become more aware of my own role in society,” he says, showing me a picture of Spinoza that hangs on the wall above Pamuk. “Spinoza was a bringer of light, and that’s how I see myself. As a writer and poet I’m like a lighthouse: I guide people, like ships, through bad weather to a safe haven.”
The whole wall is covered with a gallery of his heroes, some—Gandhi, Harry Mulisch—familiar to me and some unknown. Gür feels strongly connected to the Dutch literary world: “Thea Beckmann wrote a foreword for one of my books. I’ve met Jan Wolkers for coffee, sat next to Mulisch at a literary event.” [The columnist] Simon Carmiggelt is there, because Gür is sometimes referred to as the Turkish Carmiggelt.
Is that a postcard of Brigitte Bardot? No, it’s her Turkish counterpart, the actress Filiz Akın. Another shows artist Sylvia Willink in her studio: the day after Gür won the first E. du Perron Prize in 1986, she told him she wanted to sculpt a bust of him, “but you must grow old first.” The bust hasn’t yet been made, but the two are still friends.
A statuette: the Halewijn Literature Prize from the city of Roermond, awarded to Gür in 1991. A photo of Gür’s nephew, who was murdered on the street in Istanbul for his mobile phone—he inspired one of the stories in “De Babykamer.” And in a place of honor on the table in the center of the room, two framed pictures. One is of Rumi, the Persian-Turkish Sufi mystic who is associated with the Whirling Dervishes (“a dancing dervish, that’s what I am”). The other—“don’t you recognize her?”—is Maria, portrayed as Our Lady of All Nations.
Gür’s fans often feel a personal connection to the writer, and their letters and calls mean a great deal to him. Also on his wall is a hand-drawn card he received years ago. After he read from his poetry collection “Wakker het vuur niet aan” (“Don’t Fan the Flames”), a woman wrote to him to say, “Yet after all you have lit something in my heart.”
Halfway through our second conversation he stands to read one of his poems aloud. The act transforms him. His voice deepens and fills the room, imbuing the simple words with emotion, commanding attention. I can see why people come to talk to him after readings, send him letters, call him up years after they’ve met. He has a calm but magnetic presence.
For a long time, he says, he didn’t see himself as a storyteller. He was a writer, working on paper, often carrying his “office” with him in a leather satchel and working in cafés. Discovering oral storytelling traditions, both European and Eastern, he says, “opened up a whole new world for me.”
He began going to the Iranian teahouse and cultural center Mezrab, a few doors down from his house. The young storyteller Sahand Sahebdivani, whom Gür knew from literary events, had begun organizing storytelling nights there, at first in Dutch, later in English as well. Mezrab became a meeting place for a motley group of talkers and performers—and a second home for Gür.
One night, he tells me, he was walking home from the Leidseplein. “I had gone to Café Americain to work on a new story. But inspiration just wouldn’t come, and I decided to go home. It was late, almost midnight. When I walked past Mezrab I saw it was packed. I was wearing a cap, everyone thought I was a tourist, and they called to me to come inside. I didn’t see how I could fit, but I squeezed myself in.” A young man, blond-haired and blue-eyed, was already in the middle of a story about a writer he had met once as a boy and who had made a deep impression made on him. “And,” he finished, “that writer just came through the door.”
Gür’s writing has been difficult for him in recent years. He has departed from the “typical” immigrant experience, and his new, more spiritual stories haven’t reached the audience he would like. While he was working on “De babykamer,” he says, his confidence in his work nearly deserted him. “I would walk around thinking, ‘Does anyone hear me? Does what I am doing have any use?’”
After one of those lonely walks he came home to a message on his answering machine. A friend had called him from a wood near Nunspeet to tell him he had seen a plaque there, hanging in a tree, part of a project by the Dutch forest service. On it were two lines from a poem by Gür. His friend said, “Halil, your words are being heard.”
At the end of our talk, Halil and I stand together at the window, looking out at the little Turkish pizzeria that acts as the living room of our street. The owners are Gür’s friends; they keep an eye on his apartment while he’s away. He knows the nuns who share an apartment upstairs. The artist on the ground floor around the corner has a poster of Gür’s new book hanging in his front window.
I’m not a novelist; I’m not a mystic. As a European-American, I don’t generally have to struggle against prejudice or assumptions about what foreigners are supposed to write. We are very different people, Halil Gür and I. But looking out of his window at our street, our city, where we live by the grace of all our neighbors going back to the 17th century, I felt that we recognized each other, both of us homesick and yet at home.
Trouw, October 6, 2012.