- Without a Word
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.Without her you would not have set out.She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.—"Ithaka," C.P Cavafy
He—let us call him Odysseus—begins his journey around the mountains of the Hindu Kush, known to the Ancient Greeks as the Paropamisadae. He cannot point to his village on a map but knows it, as surely as Greek Odysseus has rocky Ithaca etched deeply in his mind. The sight of his home never leaves him; he never reveals the sight. To authorities, he says he is from Afghanistan. He understands that for them, such classifications are important.
Like Odysseus, polytropos, he is resourceful, making his way steadily past obstacles. He travels across the continent, then pauses his journey in my hometown, Istanbul, where he learns Turkish from a man who gives him small jobs. During the one year he lives in Istanbul, he learns the language with its many twists and turns of phrase and speaks it with delight, like setting sail on a windy day.
He lists the names of Istanbul's neighborhoods to me as if revealing treasures.
"I went to Beşiktaş, to Kadıköy, to Taksim," he says. "I saw everything on both shores of the city."
He tells me about the suburb where he lived, one I have never been to. It's closer to Bulgaria, I think, than to the city center. His odd jobs would take him to the coast of the Bosphorus lined with Ottoman mansions, and to the financial district with its frightening high rises. When we meet each other in Paris, he asks me why I moved away from my home. Istanbul is the world's most beautiful city, he says; Paris is nothing in comparison.
"All they have is that thing. What do they call it?" His small, coarse hands outline the triangular shape of the Eiffel Tower.
After Istanbul, he travels through Europe and reaches France. Once again, there are no maps to trace his route, only the memory of a long and dark passage. But Odysseus, polytlemon, is much enduring. For seven months, he lives in a park outside Paris. He doesn't know the name of this place. He waves his hand in the air to tell me it's out there, somewhere. It's the same gesture he makes when I ask him how he found out about the organization which will help him apply for asylum. [End Page 129]
And Odysseus is tactful, politic. He does not wish to offend or renounce hospitality. During our first meeting, I translate the resources available to him for obtaining restaurant tickets. He tells me he does not need them; he will figure out a way to buy food with his small allowance.
"You understand," he says. "You and I can't eat these foods."
For him, we belong to the same group—Muslims, foreigners—but he asks me immediately afterwards not to translate his words that may offend the strangers in the room.
On this same meeting, he is asked whether he has ever worked and he says, yes, all his life.
"What kind of work?" the social worker asks him.
He says that work is work.
"What a strange question," he says to me. Again with a sign of his hand, he tells me not to translate.
Then he lists the work for his slow-witted audience—chopping wood, sweeping, fetching water, carrying boxes. Everything that work consists of.
He is given brochure upon brochure and he takes them without a glance at their content. He folds the papers in half and puts them inside his jacket. For the entire time that I know him, he will never take off his jacket, ready to leave at a moment's notice.
I am a volunteer at the organization and have been asked to translate for him, in the absence of Pashto translators. I also offer to teach him some...