Paul Salopek’s (Twitter — do yourself a favor and follow along) latest post is, per usual, a gem; a brilliant-cut diamond of a piece:
Salopek is currently in Turkey. At Yelkovan Koyü, Turkey, 37°48’16” N, 38°32’28” E, to be accurate. He is at a bakal, an oasis. He writes of the man he meets there, and of the lives he encounters in this outpost that time forgot:
“We are poor here,” Karadoğan acknowledges. He is a kind man. He himself is poor. “Not everybody has money in their pockets all the time,” he says. “I buy the grain and resell it in Kâhta for a small profit.”
In exchange, the Kurdish farmers in the village obtain soap or salt. Batteries or cigarettes. Notebooks and other schools supplies. There is a brisk trade in candy—in sweets.
“It is the children’s job to clean the grain,” Karadoğan explains. “This is their reward.”
In this world that is part of our world and yet apart, one bucket of wheat = one bar of candy — the title of Salopek’s latest post. And as with much of his work, it is not the travelogue that strikes you, though his project is a travelogue spanning 21000 miles and seven years. What grips you and won’t let go is the stories he tells of the lives and of the peoples he encounters along the way. Stories that lift you out of your skin and put you inside another’s — and in doing that, both diminish you and enhances you at the same time.
Consider this lead-in to his previous post, Mother Rivers:
Coban Ali Ayhan sings like a human being in pain—like a man pouring salt into the open wound of his heart.
He bounces a wounded cry down into the canyons of the Tigris River: a blade of rusty water that saws its way through the bedrock of time. Ali’s song is a hymn to true love, which is to say, to love unrequited. It is the tale of a beautiful woman who remains blind to the longings of the singer. It is a lyric of loneliness. Of waiting. Of resignation—a form of acceptance. It is the perfect ballad for this antique river and this doomed, haunted town.
Through his posts I’ve met Coban Ali Ayhan. And Murat Yazar, who walked with Paul into what looked like certain death but turned out to be a shared cup of tea. Muhammed Sadiq Demir, the tailor who mourns a world where people no longer repair their clothes, preferring to just junk them and buy new. Ismail, who with gun in hand attempted to oppose the armoured tanks of the ISIS. Yuval Ben-Ami, Paul’s trekking partner through Israel, who would rather walk (and sing as he walked) than anything else, and who was not above leading Paul to Nazareth because there is a good hummus shop there.
“Strangers are friends you are yet to meet”
Each post in the series introduces me to strangers. And thanks to the art of the narrator, they become friends, people whose fate I am now invested in; people I care about.
There is something I print and hand out to journalism students during my infrequent lectures on narrative. It is from the introduction to The DC Comics Guide To Writing Comics. I tell the students it is the best definition there is of story, of why we write:
Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.
Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.
Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.
Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.
Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.
Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.
Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.
Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.
Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.
Above all, tell me a story.
Those words could have been written for, and about, Paul Salopek and his Out of Eden Walk.