Looking at Joan Eardley’s paintings of the sea and fields at Catterline, you can feel the weather. You sense the wind on your cheek and smell the salt air. Some of Eardley’s paintings and drawings made in this tiny fishing village on the north east coast of Scotland in the 1950s are on show at the Scottish National Gallery (Modern One) to celebrate the centenary of her birth in 1921. I find Eardley such an inspiring figure that I took the train up to Edinburgh to see the show.
Eardley was tough. After studying at Glasgow School of Art and working as a joiner’s labourer in a boat-building yard during WWII, she rented a studio in Townend, Glasgow, where she painted the children from the local tenements, paying them in buns to sit (or rather, stand) for their portraits. She had already begun to exhibit and was achieving recognition when she discovered Catterline; from the early 1950s she spent increasing periods of time there, renting and eventually buying a home in the row of two-room cottages that ran along the cliff top. The first place she stayed in had no electricity or running water.
Initially Eardley spent her days in the fields behind the village, drawing and painting again and again the sharply descending line of buildings and the wind-blown fields they look out over. The sea, she thought, was too difficult a subject. But after some time she began to take her easel and paints to the beach. A black and white photo taken in 1960 shows her standing in boots, trousers, kagoul and hat, facing a large board set up on the shingle a few yards from the water’s edge. Eardley’s motorbike is parked to one side.
One of her best known paintings, The Wave, forms the centre piece of the exhibition. I was mesmerized by the colour of the sky, an opaque yet energizing petrol blue with a tinge of something warmer. The wave itself is both terrifying and beautiful, stretching across the picture with a bizarre uniformity. A dark block of colour below it suggests the pier, although I found it hard to read and a bit distracting. In another painting, a hint of yellow and white suggests the presence of a fisherman in waterproofs among a group of boats that are only just discernible in a glowering light on the dark foreshore.
In the second room, Winter in Catterline held my attention for longer than any other work. This shows the row of cliff top cottages from a snow-dusted track below them on the landward side of the village, under a sky so earthily dark that I wondered if the painting was made at night. Again, the colour of the sky was extraordinarily rich and created a sense of calm at the core of the painting, against which the chaotic angle of the cottages and the rough ground of the fields were palpably convincing. Looking at the various small drawings, many of them worked on an assembly of two or three scraps of paper, I got the sense that Eardley drew that row of cottages again and again, becoming utterly familiar with the way the walls and the stones were held together.
As a writer, my life in Gloucestershire under lockdown is as pleasant as it gets. My student son is with me and when we’re not at our desks we’re digging the garden, planting veg, admiring the white blossom on our plum tree and going for walks. Birdsong is louder than usual, the few cars which pass our cottage move more slowly than before and the air is clean and crisp. I feel good.
Good, that is, until I turn on the news. Listening to the day’s death toll, my mood changes. Hearing about the young health-care workers who are dying and imagining the grief of their children fills me with anger towards our incompetent government. Most of us know that ten years of austerity have brought the NHS to its knees, though many commentators are too obedient to the national ‘wartime’ spirit to press the point. And the shortages of PPE leave me speechless. Which way were Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson looking, when the rest of us were watching medics in hazmat suits in Wuhan, back in January? I don’t have any loved-ones working for the NHS, but the unnecessary suffering enrages me. How do you explain to a child that she’ll never see her mum or dad again, because the government didn’t think to buy in PPE?
If you’ve lost your job due to the crisis and are living in a small flat in a British city, lockdown must be a considerable trial. If you can’t survive on £94 a week and decide to continue working, in unsafe conditions on a construction site or in a factory, the sense that you’re living on borrowed time must be highly stressful. The media hums with stories of how worried and disrespected our lowest-paid workers feel.
What the media seems to largely overlook, on the other hand, is what it’s like for those who were already under impossible stress before the onset of the crisis: the asylum seekers in camps on Europe’s borders. I’m thinking of the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Africans in Greece, because they’re the ones I know most about. This group of sixty to eighty thousand people must be among the most vulnerable in Europe to the ravages of Covid 19, due to appalling living conditions, immune systems debilitated by malnutrition and stress and the impossibility of following health advice.
In late February, President Erdogan of Turkey announced that his coastguard and border guards would no longer impede the movement of asylum seekers from western Turkey into Europe, abrogating an agreement which had held since 2016.  Infuriated, Greece swiftly surrounded the eastern Aegean islands with naval and coastguard boats. Lesbos, the largest of these islands, already had a refugee population of 27,000, whom its once-sympathetic Greek population had long since tired of hosting. When, in fine weather in early March, increased numbers arrived by boat, just as the first cases of corona virus were coming to light in mainland Greece, some of the locals reacted with violence. Their anger was exploited by ‘Nazi’ activists who travelled to the island from Germany and Austria, and by members of the Greek fascist party Golden Dawn who came from Athens. Asylum seekers, doctors, journalists and volunteers were attacked, and many refugee-supporting NGOs were forced to close their operations. Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) was forced to suspend its clinic outside Moria camp for two days. A school for refugee children run by volunteers was burned to the ground; the crew of a human rights observation ship, Mare Liberum, was attacked by a mob in Mytilene harbour.
The new centre-right Greek government was impressively swift in its response to the corona virus, closing down businesses and imposing a strict lockdown on the country in the early days of March. For refugees in Lesbos, although the lockdown put an end to the attacks, it was some time before they grasped the new, equally serious threat they were facing. Perhaps this was partly due to the ‘gallows humour’ which helps refugees to survive: many simply could not believe that, after all they had suffered in their war-torn countries, and were now suffering in the ‘safety’ of Europe, a mere virus was something to concern them. Some thought talk of the virus was a joke, or even a conspiracy dreamt up by Europeans living in luxury and freedom. A Syrian friend of mine who wore gloves to go shopping was laughed at. But news moves fast on social media and Lesbos refugees now live in fear of falling sick, particularly those confined to Moria.
Moria camp is a former military facility with capacity for 3,000 residents; but at present it houses 20,000 in conditions of appalling squalor. A family of five or six people has to live in a space of 3 metres square; social distancing is not an option. Approximately 1300 people share each water station, 160 share each toilet and soap is not available. Food is provided by the camp, but refugees are obliged to queue for several hours for each, inadequate, meal. Forty percent of the residents are under eighteen, some unaccompanied; more than half live in rough tents and shelters in the ‘olive grove’, a squalid area outside the camp’s walls, awash with mud and rubbish. Since the lockdown began, only one person from each family resident in the camp is permitted to go out briefly, in order to shop; the policy appears to be based on a fear that refugees are more likely to spread the virus than are members of the Greek population.
Although there are no known cases of corona virus in Moria at present, the words of a German MSF doctor who has worked there recently leave one in no doubt as to why Moria residents would be so very vulnerable to the virus:
‘There are very sick children there who are suffering from chronic diseases such as epilepsy or diabetes…
‘…we’re dealing with a crisis, especially a mental health crisis, that we’ve rarely seen before anywhere in the world. Children are committing self-harm, young children are talking about suicide. They stop eating, stop speaking. We can treat them for the moment at the hospital, but then they always have to go back to where they came from, and that makes them sick. That problem was there before the corona threat…’
MSF and other NGOs are calling on the Greek government to evacuate Moria and other camps, but to date this has not happened. Meanwhile, although Greece has notably less cases of Covid 19 than many wealthier European countries including the UK, the numbers are steadily increasing. On 6 April, Greece had 1,735 confirmed cases, with 76 deaths. Only five cases have been reported thus far in Lesbos, with a single death; but on the mainland, the picture is more bleak, with outbreaks in two refugee camps. In Ritsona, to the NE of Athens, 20 residents tested positive on 2 April and the camp has been quarantined. In Malakasa, also NE of Athens, there is a single case.
Every couple of days, I talk by WhatsApp with my friend who wears gloves to go shopping. She already has her refugee status in Greece and lives in a clean house in Mytilene; for her, the main worry is less her own health but more that of her parents, living as IDPs in Idlib, Syria. There, a population of two million live in ruined towns and villages without access to proper medical care, caught between the forces of Assad pressing on them from the south and east and Turkey from the north. At present a ceasefire allows the spring birdsong to be heard and the virus remains at bay. She holds her breath.
 Erdogan’s move was rooted in the complex politics of the war in Syria, and the failure of the EU and NATO to provide the support he was seeking in his battle against Assad. A ceasefire was agreed between Putin and Erdogan and came into force on 5 March 2020.
It’s Sunday lunchtime and I’m sitting on the back deck of a ferry that’s carrying me, everso slowly, to Athens. It’s the day time boat, the one that stops at six or seven islands on the way and takes 17 hours to Piraeus. I chose it because it’s hard to leave my new friends behind and I prefer to do so slowly. I will miss them a lot, particularly the young Syrian who’s been teaching me Arabic, and whose friendship has made all the difference to my time in Mytilene.
A handful of new passengers boarded the boat at Samos, where conditions for the refugee population are said to be much worse than in Lesbos. For the last 45 minutes a tall, thin young man has been pacing up and down the deck, with a large holdall slung across his shoulders, talking to somebody in Arabic on his mobile. I was watching him on and off, imagining that perhaps he’s talking to his mum or his brother in Iraq or Syria. Perhaps he’s just got his papers and is on his way to Athens. How incredibly brave, it seems to me, to stand on a ship which is taking you ever further from your family and the world in which you grew up, and to phone home and tell them that you’re fine. Which perhaps he is, in a way; but what a massive, challenging adventure he’s in the middle of. (I don’t think people tell their families in any detail about the difficulties of their journeys to asylum in Europe. They know that for the people they’ve left behind, life is also extremely difficult.)
This morning the ship left Lesbos at 6.45 am. I sat out on the top deck for a long while, watching the town recede and trying to pinpoint my landlady’s house, in the folds of the hills to the south of the town. When I went down to explore the lower decks, I found small groups of Roma stretched out on the floor on rugs, with pillows and blankets. Mum, dad and kids all cuddled up together, like a litter of kittens. In some places they were blocking the gangways, but nobody seemed to mind. This weekend, I’d heard, Roma from all over Greece gather on Lesbos to visit the shrine of a saint at Taxiarches, somewhere in the north of the island. The travel agent warned me to avoid the Sunday night boat, because it would be so crowded with returning pilgrims, and they would all be on the decks. ‘It won’t be pleasant’, he’d said with a grimace. Perhaps the Roma on this ship are ones who couldn’t get tickets for tonight’s boat.
A man in a stripey T shirt and shorts has been strutting around the deck for an hour with a selfie stick, taking photos, mostly of himself but occasionally including a fat woman in a red sun dress.
Now it’s nearly three pm and the ship is gliding slowly through a group of islands to the west (?) of Samos. From the sea the land appears rocky and barren, with few trees, uncultivable. There are steep rocky outcrops – small mountains, rising to perhaps 1400 metres but it’s hard to tell. Uninhabitable, I thought about the last island; but ten minutes further on I was picking out the line of a stone wall snaking up the hillside; and then we rounded a point and there was a small port, all white houses and orange roofs and lush sap green bushes among the grey-green foliage of olive trees. Cypresses, too, and a line of wooden telegraph poles climbing the steep hill behind the port. The ship backs towards the dock, and now a couple of dozen people have gathered at the railing.
And now its 7.27pm and the boat is reversing out of Schios, the rear deck crowded with at least a hundred teenagers who just boarded and have taken over all the chairs. They’ve got their music blaring and they’re huddled together at the circular tables, mostly boys, some in baseball caps, hormonal and anxious like British teenagers, spotty, determined to give the impression they’re having a good time. My good mood of the earlier part of the day is fading as I weary of the stink of cigarette smoke wafting under my nose regardless of where I choose to sit, the sound of plastic chairs being scraped across metal, the screeching of fishwives with topknots and the ceaseless juddering of the engines. I like the judder when I’m lying down on a bench in the fresh air, it lulls me to sleep; but when I’m sitting up on deck in a port, it makes me feel slightly sick.
The last few port stops have been executed with ever greater speed, as if the captain is determined to get us to Piraeus on time, come what may. Ten minutes before we dock a bossy woman’s voice announces, in Greek and English ‘We have now reached the port of X and passengers for X must please disembark.’ She says this at least three times, despite the fact that the ship is still moving and disembarkation would entail jumping overboard into the water. The first stop, this morning, at Xhios, was for an hour or more. This last one at Schios was no more than seven minutes.
And what a bizarre looking place Schios is. Three pointed hills crammed with box-like, pastel coloured buildings form the town above the docks. The central hill is like something in a children’s story book: shaped like an upside down V, it has a fairy tale quality (but not pretty, in fact almost spooky); and on the summit stands a large, imposing, primrose yellow church. So sugary and pale are the colours of the buildings that the town reminds me of an overly-decorated birthday cake. Unlike in the port towns in the northern Aegean, there is almost no greenery between the buildings. In fact, from my brief glimpse from the deck I would say there were no gaps between the buildings in which anything could grow. The blocks were rammed together tightly, in a pyramid formation, ten along the bottom, nine above, eight above and so on, till the solo church at the top rested on two houses.
Ramadan began last Monday. There had been talk at OHF of many less people attending the centre, as the forty minute walk to and fro, for those living in Moria, would be too much on an empty stomach. It was anticipated that the number of visiting refugees would drop from roughly 900 per day to 200. Those who came would be mainly Christians and a few Moslems who were either non-believers or had decided not to fast, for a variety of reasons. There is no requirement to fast if you’re pregnant or unwell; and some of the younger male refugees decided not to fast because they felt it would be too difficult given their demanding jobs.
I’d never really thought much about how hard it must be to fast during the hours of daylight for a whole month, particularly in summer, when the days are long. It’s merciful this year that the weather is relatively cool.
One friend who was planning to fast told me that the first week is by far the hardest. You get headaches and stomach cramps while your body adjusts to the new regime. You feel incredibly tired. But then it gets easier; and by the end of the month you feel an extraordinary sense of lightness and liberation. Your body and your mind and heart feel cleaned and refreshed.
When I saw this friend mid-week she was paler than usual and she seemed tired. That fitted with what I’ve heard elsewhere. At Bristol Refugee Rights, a quiet, pensive mood used to descend during Ramadan on what was during the rest of the year a noisy hall full of conversation and debate. By Saturday, my friend had visibly lost weight; but her spirits were rising again. It was all getting easier, she told me. I felt so much admiration for her strength and determination.
Of my three students, only one was fasting: the oldest of the three. When I arrived for an evening lesson mid-week, he was asleep on the balcony on a camp bed, covered from head to toe by a blanket. He’s not getting up for the lesson, the others told me: he’s exhausted. When we met again later in the week, I was a bit shocked to see how much thinner he looked, and how haggard. This is a man with a wiry frame, who works incredibly hard: the kind of person who never sits down. He’d spent Saturday morning scything a field for a friend, and had cut his finger quite badly. It was a warm day, and the exertion with no chance of drinking even a glass of water would have been tough on the body; then the shock of the accident. But he was uncomplaining, though in a hurry for our lesson to end, so that he could go and rest.
‘Islam’s hard,’ I remarked, meaning ‘Islam demands a lot of its adherents’.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘it’s not hard. People misunderstand it, all the time.’ He went on to say that very few people follow Islam correctly. For those who do, it’s a wonderful path. As to the impact of fasting, yes it’s hard, but by the end of the month, he knew from experience he would feel an intense happiness.
I felt moved by his courage. This man’s life in Lesbos is full of insecurity. He’s living in poverty, with only just enough to eat when he’s not fasting, and no money in his pocket. The future is full of risk. But he has the strength of character to hang onto what has always been important to him, and to know that he’ll come through the short term suffering.
This morning it was so cold that I struggled to keep the door open onto the patio. Thirteen degrees, according to my phone. I worked on my laptop all morning and by lunchtime I was feeling chilled.
But this afternoon I went out with my paints, climbed the very steep concrete road at the back of the house, and sat on a low parapet wall, comfortably, with one foot on the road, the other dangling down the rocky hill and a flat area for my palette. The rock is a kind of shale, laid down in fine layers, ready to splinter. From this position I had a fabulous view back down the hill and into a cluster of red roofed houses and a chapel, with the sea behind and the blue-green silhouette of the Turkish coast on the horizon. Very paintable. The sun came out from behind a dense cloud and began to warm the left side of my neck. After a while I was able to take off my fleece. Within an hour my left leg was getting so hot inside my black jeans that I thought I was burning. Not very clever. But this is an isolated spot, where the concrete road peters out and is replaced by a dirt track that winds around the contour through the unending olive groves. I’d not seen anybody up here, ever; all the occasional comings and goings of cars and mopeds are to the group of houses at the foot of the hill. So I got up, hid behind a bush, pulled down my jeans and slapped a lot of suncream onto my leg, which was bright red. When I came back out, to my astonishment, the bearded figure of an old man, bent almost double under the weight of a sack, was advancing up the hill in the shade. He was raggedly dressed and leaning on a big wooden stick; he looked like a figure out of the past, unlike anybody I’ve seen in Mytilene. I sat back down astride my wall and waited for him to get closer. Then I called out the only greetings I know in Greek and held out my painting, so that he could see what I was up to.
The old man replied with a stream of friendly words, and seemed pleased when I tried to say how beautiful the landscape is. He sat down on the low concrete wall on the opposite side of the road – in the shade, which is where I should have been. I went on painting, but was thinking about the history of modern Greece which I’ve been reading when I wake in the middle of the night. It talks about the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth century and the long slow process by which the nation was formed. Much of the territory which became modern Greece was peopled by illiterate peasant farmers, and my companion seemed to belong more to that nineteenth century world than to the twenty first. After a few minutes he started speaking again and gesturing with his hands. The language sounded amazing and I wished I could understand. Eventually I realized that he was asking where I was from, so I tried saying Britain and England, first in Arabic then in English. ‘England!’ he cried, pleased to recognize a word.
At that moment a much younger man drove up the hill on a moped and dismounted beside my friend. After a brief conversation and waving goodbye to me, the pair set off together along the dirt road.
After three days of work, my painter’s eye is beginning to focus. I’m sitting over my supper at the outdoor tressle table, studying the milky blue line which divides the twilight sea from the twilight hills of the Turkish coast. It just dawned on me that above the milky blue line, which is the edge of the sea, there’s an inky, dark line. It’s very subtle, but it’s there allright. This evening the cloud’s very low. A few moments ago the colour of the Turkish hills, which are only visible in silhouette, was identical to the colour of the sea. But now the sea has grown lighter and the milky blue line has changed to milky turquoise. However anybody succeeds in painting at twilight, god knows. You have to work at lightning speed.
In the middle of the expanse of pale blue sea a dazzlingly white boat drifts slowly towards Lesbos. It won’t be a refugee boat, more like a pleasure cruiser. The refugees come in rubber dinghies.
Last night one of my students told me that his father and grandmother have six thousand olive trees on their land in Syria. The olive oil they make is out of this world delicious, but they don’t sell it, they use it all. I imagine that means for the whole extended family. He thought the average yield was four hundred litres, but I suspect it’s much more. At least one litre per tree – possibly a lot more. He’s the third Syrian I’ve met who’s told me about their family’s olive trees. I remember when I was in Syria in 1992, at Christmas time, a friend and I took a bus out of Aleppo to explore the countryside. After a bumpy ride of more than an hour, we were dropped on the edge of a village, among low, scrubby hills planted with olives. It was sleeting but we were well wrapped up. We walked freely between the trees: there were no fences and we didn’t meet anybody until we got back on the next bus to return to the city.
While I was writing that, the Turkish hills melted into the sky and a very faint chain of pale yellow began to show above the dark blue line: the lights of the coast.
This morning I climbed the steep hill behind my place, looking for a place to sit and paint. It’s not always easy to find somewhere I can sit reasonably comfortably for a couple of hours, with a view which I want to work from. I went a little way along the dirt road which begins where the concrete one ends. Over to the south between two olive trees I saw, for the first time, an orange-roofed village high up on the shoulder of a small mountain. A road zig zagged down the hill out of the village; the sky was an intense blue above the roofs. The land fell away steeply into a deep valley between the dirt track and the village, so I was able to perch on the edge of the track with my legs comfortably below me. I sat there all morning, driven a bit mad by a strong wind which kept trying to blow my palette away. For the first twenty minutes, a dog barked aggressively somewhere below me in the valley. It wasn’t worryingly close, but the sound is never very pleasant. Then, over towards the village, a donkey started to bray. I have a thing about donkeys, so I liked that. And all the while, a couple of birds were calling their sweet, plaintive song, a bit like the sound a peewith makes.
Now the sea has turned a uniform pink, reflecting the pink clouds up above. I’m getting cold.
I’ve now quit OHF, for reasons I won’t go into. I spend my evenings teaching English, very happily, to two Syrians and an Iraqi. We sit out on a balcony under the stars, wrapped in coats because it’s not that warm. Last night we were discussing lentil soup, which is a staple here among refugees, for obvious reasons. One of the Syrians told me that on his family’s land, in Syria, they grow lentils. I told him I’ve never seen the lentil plant, because it’s too cold for it in England. Then I asked what else he grows.
‘Olives, we’ve got twenty trees at least. Our olive oil’s the best in Syria!’
‘Twenty!’ I pictured a grove of gnarled and ancient trunks, and branches groaning with green olives. ‘What else?’
‘Almonds, walnuts, apples, oranges… vegetables. Our land’s fantastic, it produces the best of everything.’
Conversations like this bring home to me just how hard it is to be driven out of your country by a murderous regime; and then be obliged to live in poverty in Greece.
On Easter Monday I hitch hiked with a friend to Plomari, a seaside village twenty five kilometers from Mytilene. The first driver to pick us up was a Greek in his sixties. He was here on holiday with his daughter, he told us; he’d lived in France for the last forty years and spoke fluent French. When I told him we were working with refugees, he replied very firmly:
‘There aren’t any Syrians left on Lesvos. Just Moroccans and other North Africans pretending to be Syrian.’
I knew for a fact that he was wrong, and was wondering whether to point out that I can tell from a person’s accent if somebody’s from Syria or not. There’s no way a Moroccan can successfully fake a Syrian accent – or for that matter the dialect of Arabic that Syrians speak. But the guy was driving and I decided to keep my mouth shut.
‘Where in France do you live?’ I enquired.
‘Marseille! Which is all-Arab these days. Not a French man left.’ Again, I was tempted to argue, but held my tongue. By now I was curious about the guy’s attitudes. Surely as a Greek migrant worker he must have had some experience of French xenophobia?
‘They’re all traitors, the Arabs who live in France,’ the man went on, as he accelerated. ‘They pose a great danger to the country.’
Our second lift was with a young French couple who work at an independent refugee camp. They dropped us on the beach in Plomari. It was a windy, sunny, warm day and big waves were rolling onto the shore. Immediately beside the beach, tables were set for an Easter Monday feast on the outdoor seating area of a taverna. On the far side of the road, a sheep was roasting on a spit.
Arriving home just now at 9.30pm, the smell of jasmine surrounded me as I stepped out of the taxi. The lights of the Turkish coastline were bright in the distance; immediately below the road, the dense foliage of the citrus grove rustled in the darkness. And then, as the taxi driver slowly turned his vehicle round, under the spreading branches of the platanos tree which is the landmark I’ve been told to ask for when I take a cab, my landlady’s little dog started to bark in greeting. This dog is both annoying and endearing by turns. He’s utterly harmless and so desperate for attention that when he runs towards me in the dark, barking, he then throws himself on the ground and rolls on his back, in the hope that I’m going to tickle his tummy. I never do. I tell him firmly in my best Greek to shut up, as given half a chance he would follow me into my living room. He disappears into the darkness, I feel guilty, but a moment later he’s barking at some insignificant rustle and I’m cursing him.
Today I went to Ayvalik in Turkey, on the car ferry, with a German volunteer who speaks fluent Turkish. It was an overcast, cloudy day, not very hot, but lovely sitting on the deck this morning watching Mytilene disappear and the irregular Turkish coastline taking shape before my eyes. I find the idea that by crossing five miles of sea you make the transition from Europe to Asia Minor both bizarre and astonishing. It’s thirteen years since I was last in the Middle East proper and I was quietly excited.
The ferry moored beside an ancient, wrecked schooner lying on its side, half submerged – quite a sight. Above it on the outskirts of the town stood a square, solid building in terracotta pink, with peeling paintwork, rows of officious-looking windows and a couple of short, stout palm trees. I’d expected Ayvalik to look quite like Mytilene but on the contrary, this building immediately reminded me of government buildings in Iraqi Kurdistan.
There was a bit of confusion at passport control – did I need a visa for a one-day visit or not – and then we were out on the street, making for a nearby mosque. The minaret was tall and slender, beside a bulbous dome. Probably the building was originally a church, in the days before 1923 when this was Greek territory. We took off our shoes in the lobby and I found a headscarf in my bag. Inside was a simple, square room with a red patterned carpet, Arabic calligraphy painted near the top of the walls and a wooden spiral staircase in one corner leading up to the platform where the women sit. The place was empty except for an old man. He sat propped against the wall, with his stockinged feet stretched out in front of him and a lectern resting on his knees, incanting prayers in Arabic. He sang slowly and with intense focus and it was easy to pick out some of the words. The atmosphere was utterly peaceful and we both wanted to linger. I thought of my dad, who is ninety seven, and till recently used to lie in bed meditating in a rather similar position.
When we came out of the mosque we turned up a narrow residential street of uneven cobbles that led further up hill. A stream of water ran down the middle, from a burst pipe. Weeds grew between the stones. There was absolutely no traffic – such a change from Mytilene, where mopeds terrorise pedestrians on every alleyway. It was Labour Day today, a public holiday.
The houses were small and tatty, painted in pale colours, and we passed more than one collapsed building behind a broken-down wooden fence. Very large dogs lay snoozing on their sides in doorways. Funny how the Greeks generally keep small, lap-dog size dogs, that bark fiercely as you pass, whereas in Ayvalik these huge dogs were passive and gentle.
After ten or fifteen minutes we came to the main square. Everything was open: there were mobile phone shops and underwear and opticians and shops selling plastic handbags and suitcases. We sat down in a pavement café beside a bronze sculpture of a horse. Tea was brought, first in glass cups, by a man who responded with great friendliness to my friend’s Turkish; but the second round came in tiny tea glasses. These reminded me so much of Iraqi Kurdistan that my eyes filled with tears.