Regular readers may remember a piece I wrote a year or so ago about the Turkish dessert, ashure. My short essay won a competition on the website ‘Changing Turkey in Changing World‘. I attempted to retain my title in their second ‘Big Idea’ competition, but this time I could only manage runner-up. The topic was:
Border monuments are often designed to celebrate mobility and interconnectedness. According to the architect Cecil Balmond, “A border offers identity but one that is enriched by neighbours, so that it’s not so much a line of separation as a local set of interconnected values.”
And here’s my response . . .
Young men from New Zealand and Australia, loyal citizens of the British Empire, spent a month travelling by ship to Europe, to fight for King and Country in the Great War. Thousands of them never returned, but left their remains on foreign fields. One might expect that Turks, at least, would harbour some ill-feeling against people who travelled so far with aggressive intent – but it is not so. Inscribed on that monument near Wellington are the magnanimous words of the Turkish leader:
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives . . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours . . . You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
It was in recognition of this great-heartedness, that the government of New Zealand raised a memorial to Atatürk on the ridge above Tarakena Bay, and in acknowledgment of the Turkish government’s allowing the building of the NZ shrine at Chunuk Bair – commemorating the 850 Kiwi ‘Johnnies’ who ‘lie in the bosom’ of the Turkish Republic. These two monuments link the hearts and minds of two nations whose birth pangs can be traced to those bloody months on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. The words of a Turkish poet, Necmettin Halil Onan, are inscribed in huge letters on a hillside overlooking the Dardanelle Straits, and the lines could be as true for New Zealand as for Turkey:
Traveler, pause. An era ended
Where you heedless tread. Listen
And hear, in the silence of this
Mound, a nation’s beating heart. 
But there is more to this connection. A few years ago I was wandering along Raglan Beach, on the West Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, when I chanced upon three carved wooden sculptures, unmistakably Maori: a traditional tattooed male figure, a bird and a dolphin, all silver-grey and weathered by the winds and salt spray sweeping in from two thousand kilometres of one of the world’s wildest seas.
Aotearoa, as the indigenous Maori people call New Zealand, is a lonely, isolated land, bordered on all sides by vast oceans, and, it goes without saying, no contiguous neighbours. Anthropologists tell us that these islands were the last habitable landmass to be populated by humans, who made their landing less than a thousand years ago. Those first arrivals, the Maori, maintained their splendid isolation for perhaps five centuries before Europeans began to arrive from the late 1700s. For the next hundred years, immigrants from Europe faced a journey of four months on a sailing ship. And there we are to this day, descendants of those intrepid pioneers, inhabiting a cluster of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, far from our roots in the British Isles, speaking a language whose closest relations are half a world away. The carved figures are not of European origin, yet they speak eloquently of our isolation, and search for identity.
I have seen a lot of Turkey, but there is a line I have yet to travel – east from the capital Ankara through the Anatolian cities of Sivas, Erzincan and Erzurum, to Kars and the Armenian border. Out there, 1174 kilometres, and a universe away from the European metropolis of Istanbul, lies the town of Manzikert (Malazgirt in Turkish) in the province of Muş. As every Turkish school child will tell you, this was the site of a battle in 1071 CE, when the forces of the Seljuk Turkish Sultan Alparslan defeated the army of the Byzantine Emperor, Romanus Diogenes. His victory opened the way for Turks to sweep into Anatolia, where they remain today – in defiance of the feelings of many Western Europeans, who wish they would return to whence they came.
My fourth monument is there, in that remote East Anatolian town – erected in 1989 to commemorate a long ago battle. It may be debatable whether this edifice is in Europe, but the Turks indisputably are, as out of place with their language and traditions as we white New Zealanders are down there in the South Pacific. It’s a strange world we live in, and sources of conflict are easy to find. The borders we draw, on the ground and in our minds, are often lines of defence. Crossing them to make connections requires imagination and breadth of vision. My four monuments can be seen as unconnected and irrelevant – or as pointers to a new world where we seek the values we share, rather than the differences that divide us.
Word count (including Preamble) = 1495
1 My translation