Crazy Ali of Turkey: “The Village Poet,” by Marcelline Burns
Marcelline (Marcy) Burns is an author-friend I made through her response to "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" and continued penpal correspondence with both my father and myself. She is one of my role models I use when answering the question, "What kind of old woman do I want to be?" This was a question posed to me in the 1990s by a close West African friend and I find it has much resonance for me. I visited Marcy in Oxnard on my latest trip to Southern California. We shared a good meal, even better conversations, and a walk on the beach near her home. Clearly, she's a globe-trotting mama---er, grandmama. ---JGR
Outside a small shop, we stopped when we saw a speaker for an ancient record player. Somehow it had survived many years in remarkably good shape, and we amused ourselves by wondering aloud whether Buster Brown and his dog Tighe might be nearby. We were ready to move along when the shopkeeper emerged and spoke to us in English.
---Marcelline Burns' "The Village Poet"
It is a small village of no particular note. Perhaps we were told the name, but it is now forgotten. The year was 2007, and the month was September. We were traveling through southeastern Turkey, a driver, a guide and 19 American tourists in a large coach. Our cameras had been idle on this afternoon, and we had drifted off into silence and into our private thoughts as we traveled in a dusty, rocky landscape.
Now and then there were small ancient stone houses, brown weeds crowning their flat rooftops. The neatly stacked piles near the houses---what on earth were they? “Dung”, we were told. “The dung is fuel to heat their houses and cook their food.”
There were no trees, nothing green, but lively goats led flocks of sheep and somewhere in the distance a shepherd followed. We murmured one to the other, “What do the sheep eat? Or drink…and the shepherd…where does he live?” We were looking with the eyes of urban America. We of an abundant lifestyle were puzzled by this barren place.
The bus lumbered slowly along a single lane. When the dirt road ended at a cluster of small buildings, the driver slowed and stopped the bus, and the guide said, “Time to stretch. Walk around. The villagers are friendly.”
The nice lady from Milwaukee asked, “Anything special here?” On another day in a distant city she had purchased two large, beautiful, costly Kulim carpets. She frowned just a little when the guide said, “No, just a village.” There would be no shopping on this stop.
When I stepped down from the bus, a small boy blocked my way. All in a breath, he said, “My name is Muhammed. I am nine years old. What’s your name?” His dark hair was neatly combed, his clothes were clean, and his eyes were mischievous in the way of little boys. He spoke clearly with barely a trace of an accent.
When I answered his question and asked him how he had learned English, his smile grew bigger, but he stared at me without a trace of recognition. He was pleased to have my attention, but he understood none of my words. He had spoken all the English he knew, and he couldn’t tell me how he had learned those few words.
We meandered along the one street. It was equal to two city blocks in length, maybe a little more, and at the end there was a boulder as big as a house in American suburbia. It was far bigger than any structure in the village. We marveled at its size, and admired one of the many handsome cats that lolled about everywhere. We nodded and smiled at a few men who squatted around a game, and then we began to retrace our steps to the bus.
Outside a small shop, we stopped when we saw a speaker for an ancient record player. Somehow it had survived many years in remarkably good shape, and we amused ourselves by wondering aloud whether Buster Brown and his dog Tighe might be nearby. We were ready to move along when the shopkeeper emerged and spoke to us in English. Excuses quickly formed on our lips as he invited us to enter his shop. Of course, he wanted to lure the tourists inside where he might make a sale. How wrong we were! He introduced himself as “Crazy Ali”, and he wasn’t thinking about selling something to us. He wanted to share.
I asked, “Who gave you that name?” to which he responded with obvious pride, “I gave it to myself more than a quarter century ago. I am Crazy Ali, the poet.” In my mind, I scoffed, “A poet! In this poor and remote place?” Exactly, and what Ali wanted to share was his poetry. Three American women had wandered near his shop, and he wanted us to come inside his shop. Politely, he begged our permission to recite one of his poems. I shall be forever grateful that we entered and that we listened.
On that day, Crazy Ali was a handsome man with kind eyes and lines that bespoke many years of joys and sorrows. His recitation was memorable, intensely and beautifully spoken. As we stood amid ancient wares in his dim shop, he recited these lines in a rich, emotion-laden voice.
DO YOU KNOW?
Do you understand how large the world is?
Do you know what things are inside?
People, people, people
What they have done, what they will do…
They haven’t loved each other,
They said your color is different, your shape is different,
They said your religion is different, your rituals are different,
They fought and fought.
Do you know what’s going to happen?
The world is so large, how can I know?
Millions, millions of people,
But small minds can think bigger thoughts.
I see a small village,
Cats with dogs, chickens with foxes,
They live together.
How can people learn to do the same?
The world is large inside your mind,
The small village is there,
Whatever is in your mind, if you wish it
Even the sun will rise there.
The experience was unexpectedly, profoundly moving, and when he finished the four of stood for a long moment in a kind of reverential silence. Finally, I quietly said, “Ali, the world needs more men like you.” He nodded and then rather timidly showed us a thick ring binder. “Four hundred poems. I wrote all of them.”
It was past time for us to return to the bus. As we made our way out of the shop, Ali quickly took a postcard from a display, wrote on it, and placed it in my hand. I reached for coins to pay him, but he stopped my hand. There was a harsh edge to his voice when he said, “No! You gave me pleasure. Don’t spoil it.” Chastened, I bid him goodbye, and we walked away. Back on the bus, I looked at what he had written on the postcard. His words were an expression of gratitude for the moments of friendship.
“Crazy Ali, I often think of you, a good man in a small village in Turkey.”
Copyright 2008 by Marcelline Burns
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