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Writing Contest

"I will not eat a single hazelnut, unless you are by my side…" - a Black Sea folk song

Akçay and his wife Semra lived in the province of Giresun on the Turkish Black Sea Coast, in a landscape blessed with lakes and rivers, where forests and pastures cover the mountainous region.

When their hazelnut groves yielded less and less, and they were in danger of having to sell their land to the larger plantations, Akçay decided to take a job in Germany.

Semra was sad but it comforted her that he planned to stay there for only a year. There was a history of work migration in their wider family, with cousins who had worked in Frankfurt, Dortmund, or Ludwigshafen.

On the way to the airport in Ankara, in his cousin’s car, Akçay promised to write Semra a letter at least every month. Semra promised it too, even though she could hardly write. But cousin Feridun knew a letter writer in a neighbouring village, who could write a flawless and faultless letter either upon dictation or by using the information, facts, ideas, and news provided by his clients which he would put into a properly written, elegant, and appealing form. He knew what people want to read, how to edit and present it in a digestible form. Be it good news or bad news. He even had a typewriter, albeit a rickety one.

Akçay’s writing skills were limited, and so was his vocabulary, which was defined by and confined to the radius of his activities, namely herding, milking their goats, caring for their nut groves, working occasionally as a fitter in the workshop of his old uncle, or sitting on the forest slope dreaming and looking over the Anatolian countryside.

Akçay regretted his limited writing skills because it prevented him from competing in successful nut business.

He remembered that the apostle Paul had written letters to the Galatians. The Galatians had been at home in his part of the country, far away from their Celtic homeland. Paul was able to write letters long before Muhammad wrote the Quran, the Prophet be praised.

It was a long journey from Giresun to Ankara. More than a six-hour drive. They stayed silent during the journey. There was not a lot to be said. Akçay embraced the landscape which he would not see for a while. They crossed the clean, well-cared-for towns of Ordu, Ünye, Corum with their multitude of shops, using the wide good roads until they arrived at the modern airport in the outskirts of Ankara.

He had only a small cardboard suitcase that held the bare necessities. His wife and cousin wished him a safe journey before he went out of sight behind the security area.

* * *

The Corendon Airlines flight from Ankara to Düsseldorf landed on time. On board people wore faces in which he saw traces of melancholy, or which were full of tense expectation like his. Others, in dark suits, busily reaching for their mobile phones as soon as they had landed.

Ergün, a compatriot from a town neighbouring his village, who had gotten him the job, picked him up at the airport and drove him to the factory worker’s home. It was clean and tidy. Ergün had, as a welcome, prepared sheep's cheese and gözleme, stuffed flatbread, and dolmas.

Ergün had achieved something. He proudly reported that he had become a foreman in the factory and chairman of the IG Metall trade union in his district and wrote columns for the local Turkish newspaper.

His car was an upmarket Audi.

Akçay told Ergün about his promise to write a letter to his wife every month.

Downplaying his inability, he said: “Could you help me? I have no imagination. I have problems with composing a letter.”

“We will see, I will help you,” promised Ergün.

Weeks passed and Akçay scribbled words on a piece of paper:

Arrived well, good accommodation, good colleagues, good money. Good country. Cold.

He put the letter into an envelope, struggled with the writing of the address. He carefully copied the letters from a piece of paper, got a stamp and threw the letter into the yellow post box.

After two weeks, a neatly typed letter from Semra arrived:

Dearest Akçay,

How pleasant it was to hold the letter in my hand that you were also holding in yours. It was as if our hands were touching each other. I kissed the letter.

It made me happy, and I showed it to the seagulls that hover lonely over the coast and miss you too. As I do.

I love you with all my heart.

Akçay was amazed. He had never heard Semra expressing herself like that. He felt bad when he thought about the scanty words in his letter. He asked Ergün to write something appropriate as a response because, he repeated, he had no imagination, but his wife was very clever and poetic.

"And she can type, all respect," Ergün said.

Ergün drafted a letter. He noticed that Akçay had difficulty reading and read the letter to him:

Your words sent the fragrance of the pine trees of our mountains and when you mention the seagulls, I see the blue sea in front of me......

"Very nice, I couldn't have said it better myself," Akçay smiled and said: "Please add that there's a Turkish supermarket here and a meeting place where I can play cards with the countrymen. And that I go to the mosque every Friday and pray for her. It's cold for September, but the accommodation is warm."

Ergün said, "All right, but it sounds so matter-of-fact. I will write that you enjoy the strong Turkish coffee here, .... my body withers if I don't drink coffee, just as my soul withers being without you...

Weeks later, another letter waited for him which the postman left in the caretaker’s office in the worker’s home.

Dearest Akçay,

I see you are in good hands. Thanks be to Allah.

I send to you the warmth of my hands and the mildness of our coast, and the rays of the sun that ripened our hazelnuts. For the first time after many years we have a good harvest. We missed you at harvest time, but Feridun and his wife Güzel helped me.

The hazelnuts are round and brown. You did right to drive the goats into the grove, they eat the weeds and fertilise the ground.

It is so peaceful,

the mountain slopes fall gently,

my heart is full of joy,

the paths

take my steps lightly.

On the water, wild geese, and ducks.

In the sky, black kites, and sparrow hawks.

The sun shines on the hazel trees

which sway in the mild breeze.

The market is full and lively,

loaded with fruits in all colours

offers in abundance,

yellow butter

with its grassy, rich taste,

sweet cicely,

bread, round and heavy

spread with pepper paste.

I know I ignite homesickness.

but the time to your return gets less.

Akçay met Ergün in a coffee house near the factory. It was autumnal, foggy, and grey dominated by a metallic stench and a strong smell of fumes.

He was surrounded by the sound of cars, the humming crowds in the streets, the grinding of heavy equipment, church bell chimes that cut through the mist. An environment far removed from the one he was accustomed to.

He sighed and showed Ergün Semra’s letter. Erdün smiled.

A tram drove by with squealing wheels and an ambulance with blue lights.

Akçay felt lonely. The early darkness hit his mind. He had night shifts and slept during the day. This never-ending darkness gripped his heart.

Ergün invited him to join him with friends on Sunday. “When the stomach is full of things from home, the world looks different,” Ergün said with an encouraging smile and promised that there would be Etli Ekmek, a thin, crispy flatbread topped with ground beef and finely chopped onions, tomatoes, and peppers and lamb stew and baklava as dessert. And, of course, raki to help the digestion.

A factory siren sounded nearby, and the container crane signals of the Duisburg inland port could be heard from afar.

Ergün offered to write a few lines to Semra and to post the letter himself, to save Akçay the trip to the post office.

Akçay gave Ergün a photo which showed him with his colleagues in front of modern tool machines in a factory hall and a photo with friends at a meal and asked Ergün to put them in the envelope with the letter.

Ergün wrote:

I would like to take the brush

and dip it into the blueness of the sea

into the fields of carnations and asters

to paint the dark walls in light colours

to brighten the greyness of a cold land,

and ease my pain

with the wild-growing mint,

lavender and lemon balm leaves.

I smell the fragrance, perceive it

when I think of it.

I hear the music of the tambour lute,

fiddle, zither, violin, flute,

and küdüm drum and harp,

to forget the pounding sound of the machinery,

the metallic cacophonous noise of the industry.

Two weeks later a letter arrived with some colourful stamps artistically arranged on a blue envelope:

Dearest Akçay,

The harvest has brought good coin

for the hazelnuts so brown.

First cranes and storks arrived,

the farmers plough their land,

winter raises its hand

beckons from afar.

A nightingale sings

and spreads joy and lore,

yet the days grow shorter

and my patience even more.

The leaves change colour

as if taken from a paint box,

with chestnut and beech

pomegranates in big number.

Soon the leaves will fall again

and the wind will churn.

The year is ending

next year will bring your return.

I stick coloured stamps

like autumn leaves,

the fifteen Kuruş stamp in pink,

thirty Kuruş stamp in forget-me-not blue

sixty Kuruş stamps in pistachio green

on my sea-blue envelope

and send you the expanse of the Black Sea,

the flapping wings of herons and flamingos.

Ergün and Çalışkan wrote prose and poetry and it turned out to be a competition between two writers who had never met. But everybody was happy and enjoyed it. The couple with the alleged talent and profundity of each other, the well wrapped-up news, the tradition of presentation of stories and poetry.

* * *

Soon it turned August and with it the approaching nut harvest. Akçay prepared his return journey.

He had earned good money. He said goodbye to his colleagues, and a weight fell from his heart when he left the austere area, the frightening buildings, the town, and walls behind, the monotonous noise day and night, the roar and stench of the factories and the port.

Semra and Feridun picked him up at Ankara Esenboğa Airport.

He had a lot to tell. Semra noticed that his stories had become prose, contained more and new words that he had never used before. Semra gave her report on everyday things that had happened in the family, in their mountain village.

The familiar landscape whizzed past them. They stopped at a small grocery to drink an ayran, drove through busy streets lined with shops which sold copper pitchers and carpets, passed a row of taxi minibuses, the stands of orange sellers, saw old men drinking tea and having a chat or idling outside the coffee shops. They passed fish stalls selling mackerel, lamprey eel, and turbot. He was home again.

Semra mentioned the poems Akçay had sent her, and she laughed.

“And I thought you had gone among the poets despite your back-breaking work. But I have learned something, I realised what kind of world I missed if you can't read and write well. It's a challenge. I heard of emigrants whose fate forced them to write in another language, practically from one day to the other, how they struggled but finally succeeded.

“I read the short stories by Rafik Schami. He fled from Syria to Germany and now he writes successfully in German.…. and I started writing poetry.”

“What?” Akçay looked at her with wide eyes.

“Here, listen”, she said:

On the terrace by the sea

I spread the blossoms of jasmine

to dry.

The day is ending

and with it the harvesting

I bring the yield home.

The night rises, is reborn.”

Akçay had tears in his eyes.

“It reminds me of classes in our village school,” he said, “when the teacher read the poems of the Turkic peoples. I still remember the rhyme and rhythm. I admit, I got textbooks, or rather Ergün gave me some after he realized my struggle with the language, and I learned in my free time. Ergün wrote poetry, created pleasant letters in my stead, I would only have written about the greyness and the monotony of the work and the everyday loneliness and boredom, but the books opened a new world for me, spurred me on.”

Their village appeared on the horizon. Friends and relatives were waiting when he arrived and welcomed him. He was served coffee and bread and İmam bayıldı, stuffed eggplant.

The next morning Akçay took his baskets and went to the hazelnut grove to greet his hazelnut bushes and to start the harvest.

A poem arose in his mind:

Beige-brown is the hazelnut,

green-brown the mountain range.

Homely, high growing bushes

with roundish, rough leaves,

the dust of your yellow catkins

powders the air,

a bee pasture in spring.

Eduard Schmidt-Zorner is a translator and writer of poetry, haibun, haiku, and short stories. He writes in four languages: English, French, Spanish, and German and holds workshops on Japanese and Chinese style poetry and prose and experimental poetry. He is a member of four writer groups in Ireland where he has lived in County Kerry, Ireland, for more than 30 years and is a proud Irish citizen, born in Germany. He has been published in over 200 anthologies, literary journals, and broadsheets in USA, UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Japan, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Austria, France, Bangladesh, India, Mauritius, Nepal, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Some of his poems and haibun have been published in French (own translation), Romanian, and Russian language. He also writes under his penname Eadbhard McGowan.

Photo credit: Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney and Photoshop AI

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