The ironmonger folded his arms. He threw his head back and batted languid eyelids, which eventually reopened to reveal an elsewhere gaze, all interest drained, almost to the point of insult. It was the graphic Turkish negative, but sufficiently aggravated to express something more spirited than a shortage of stock; that the ironmonger was not minded, in fact, to sell me a trowel. On principle. He took me for a treasure hunter.
A travel book, nostalgia trip, history lesson and epic love letter to a country that has seeped into his soul, Jeremy Seal’s Meander is all of these and by the end, as his canoe bobs out of the rivers mouth, you feel like you have been sitting with him the entire way, just the sound of running water and the occasional splash of an oar.
It is fair to say that Seal’s history of the Meander, the land and the people is deeper than the river itself, indeed, by the end I can’t quite work out if he has actually walked more of the river than he has canoed on, so many times he is forced to beach the canoe and follow the river on foot.
But for all it’s depth, the book wears it’s history lightly, as each stretch reveals a fascinating or in some cases horrific past. From the earliest recordings of the river, we learn that Xerxes, Xenaphon and Alexander the great all passed through Dinar (then Celaenae) at the head of the Meander, to the more recent and there is just enough information to understand and interest, without bogging it down into tedium.
Back in the present, Seal’s respect and affection for the Turkish people is plain to see, he meets many people who help him out, offer hospitality, and of course a cup of tea, even if they don’t always understand what he is doing.
‘You’re going to Dinar on foot?’ he eventually asked. The man had survived flood and arrest, divorce, alcoholism and earthquake, but the prospect of a four-hour walk apparently floored him.
The Turk’s attitude to their own river is mixed along it’s entire course, the state water company exhorting people to keep the river clean while simultaneously polluting it and damming it to the point where it actually stops flowing or reduced to a pitiful trickle, the seasonal flooding has all but disappeared as the water is siphoned off to irrigate crops and fields along it’s length. Still Seal is undaunted, and the history is still there to dig up along the river bed, and the lack of an actual river doesn’t stop the pilgrimage along it’s course.
In contrast to Orhan Pamuk’s severely melancholic and serious Istanbul, Meander is shot through with Seal’s dry sense of humour, gently aimed at the people he meets as well as himself and it adds to the atmosphere of the book, a rolling saunter along a river that famously winds it’s course to the sea. It lacks drama, but is all the better for it, a simple idea that is evocatively narrated by Seal and serves as both a travelogue and a rich description of the Meander, Turkey and it’s people.
One such Dinar village, the supposed site of King Xerxes’ pleasure palace, had in more recent centuries been named after a muslim holy man called Sheikh Arab Sultan. The village was duly renamed Bulucalani; Mehmet had no idea why ‘Place of small chickens’, as the replacement translated, should have been chosen.