Cemeteries of Exiles, Methodically Overgrown

There’s an Adam Zagajewski poem I’ve had floating about in my head for years, with a haunting line about the houses of exiles, methodically overgrown, and it came to mind suddenly and forcefully while wandering the back streets above Arnavutköy this afternoon. I’d been heading to try and find an ultimate frisbee game which turned out to be cancelled, but while working my way down the hill I noticed a few marble crosses peeking over the lip of a high wall. When I came to the gate in the wall, I saw that it was open and pushed through.

There was a small house at the top of the first flight of stairs; through the window I could barely glimpse a family, perhaps gathered around the television, perhaps not. A man came quickly to the front door. I tried to stumble out the question, Can I go in? I don’t think he understood me, but if nothing else, my failure at Turkish convinced him that I likely wasn’t anything to worry about. He waved me in.

The first thing that struck me about the cemetery was how different it was from some of the Muslim cemeteries I’ve been wandering through in some of my spare hours here. If those cemeteries have almost been overflowing, broken Ottoman headstones balanced in corners, new graves built upon, beside, and beyond the old, a kind of continual writing and rewriting of the past, this cemetery had space. Its central feature was a series of staircases leading up the hill, a kind of straight path between tall dark cypress trees with the blue sky beyond. To either side were graves, always in Greek. Expecting to find remnants of some long-distant past, I was struck by how many graves postdated the Turkish Republic. Were these Greeks who had returned to be buried? Were they Greeks who never left? Seeing some of the faded artificial flowers balanced in small cracked vases, I wondered at who came back to care for their dead.

Turning right on one path, and then left back up the hill, I found a plum tree laden with small fruit. The plums were ripe, some strewn on the warm concrete, some still hanging heavy from the branches. They tasted faintly sour, in the way that spring nights might feel faintly wintry, and I threw the pit in the tall weeds that grew in thick clumps beside the past.

Climbing the hill, I remembered both Sebald’s work (especially his essays on Corsica) and that of Zagajewski - and the thought of a cemetery so clearly intended to hold so many more, now overgrown with weeds and lavender seemed suddenly to speak of those houses of exiles, methodically overgrown.


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