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In a land of awe and wonder
It is 5.30 am in Istanbul and a cacophony of azans wakes me up. I have a mental picture of demons fleeing this magnificent old city at the sound, which starts from a distance and gets closer and louder until the air vibrates with the call to prayer. I am confused for a few seconds because it’s been so long since I’ve been woken up by an azan. For a confused moment I think that I am back in San Juan. But there is no accompanying chorus of kiskidees. The Hindu neighbour’s prayer conch does not sound soon after.
Istanbul is light years away from home. But not really. I understand no Turkish, but find a way between smiling and hand signals to get the tram. And the man in the bakery still gives me bread because through my embarrassed and frantic digging in my bag he understands that I’ve forgotten my money.
Thus far, I’ve only met one person who has ever heard of Trinidad and Tobago, furthermore the Caribbean, aside of course, from Bob Marley and Rihanna. I say Caribbean a few times and then settle on describing us as South America. They all presume that Trinidad is in Africa. And when I say, no we’re not just descendants of Africa, we have people from all over, from India and Syria and China their eyes widen in wonder.
They have never heard of such a place. The idea of Trinidad is as exotic to them as Istanbul is to me. The blend of Islam and Christianity seems to work. Mosques and cathedrals compete with each other for magnificence and the guided tours rhapsodise the confluence of civilisations and the even more ancient links to Greco-Roman civilizations.
I imagine it’s taken the Turkish centuries of destruction and fighting and rebuilding and negotiation to get to the point where, at least on the surface everything is okay. To my untrained Trini eyes, everything is “normal” here. There is some order, some poverty, some men who dress like women, some children who clean car windows at traffic lights, some women who are veiled, some women who wear shorts.
The story of Turkey is old, biblically so. Older than the Bible even, reveals my Kurdish friend, who whispers conspiratorially because to speak of the troubles that still exist is to attract unwanted attention to yourself. Out of the earshot of smiling locals I hear of this apartheid and a desire for an independent state.
I feel inadequate in this conversation. I can’t disagree that they deserve their own nation if they are tired of centuries of oppression. I watch pictures of protesting Trinbagonians online and wonder if we will ever feel so passionately about home and who has a right to claim it that we will start to kill each other.
When you go to a place so old, you kind of feel strange coming from a place so young. That thinks its story is 50 years’ worth. When you go to a place so ancient, where 20-something year-olds can rattle off their chronology with the poetic sincerity of a Midnight Robber, you feel a little bit of discomfort and nervousness for another generation of Trinbagonians who have never heard the name Hyarima.
A few weeks ago there was a little story that died a quick death about ancient Amerindian rock carvings being desecrated. It prompted no outrage or embarrassment and no promise to preserve what little is left of our indigenous history, erased as it is by those who tell us we have none.
Last month, word of the destruction of the McLeod House spread on the social media networks, prompting people who had never heard of the place to ask what was being done to preserve our architectural heritage. There is no commitment as part of our 50th anniversary to teach, protect, preserve what history we think we have and what stories we think are worth remembering.
But I guess it’s hard to focus on preserving anything when you’re trying to hold on to slipping power. When you are shovelling heaps of bacchanal like a Naipaulian night soil man, it’s hard not to be self-obsessed. And it’s hard to think about collapsing buildings and disappearing heritage when your cabinet is like a shack in a hurricane. In the everyday distraction of lying politicians our past gets eroded and we doom ourselves to repeating our history.
It is the sort of vicious cycle that will either bore us to tears or send us into the streets. I’m spending Republic Day wondering at the marvels of an old nation still coming to terms with itself. Thinking of the home that celebrates an idea it still does not fully understand. Our doubts are traitors
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