Hatay - Antakya - Antiochia... There’s quite a lot one can say about this city. First of all, lots about Christian history, because after all it was here that Peter and Paul gave Christianity its name and its initial structure. Today you can still see the places where this happened, the cave and the church built just in front of it. You can also see the escape route through the cliffs that the two founding fathers of Christianity could use to flee to the mountains in case of danger. Very impressive. Behiç Bey, the good man who insisted on showing me the cave, was extremely regretful that the Pope has not yet visited this place, the first site of the church of which he is the head.
Behiç Bey also took me on a tour of the mosaic museum, on whose walls and floors visitors can see outstanding examples of this art form. These are traces of Roman culture from the second to the fifth centuries AD. Behiç Bey, who knows a lot about mosaics, told me about the flowering of this genre of art and fine handicrafts, but also about the start of its decline at the beginning of the Middle Ages. It all started with bumpy fragments that became increasingly smooth and elaborate over time, until they once again became cruder and less artful - these small square stones which could be put together to form such wonderful pictures. Behic Bey also showed me his favourite mosaic, which shows the drunken god of wine, Dionysos, who has to be held upright by a slave.
The city itself lies in a valley, with mountains on one side and open fields on the other. You hear a lot of Arabic spoken, and even the Turks say “Salam aleikum” by way of greeting. It must be a very fruitful valley with several harvests every year. This is very clear to see from the cuisine of this region, which I was able to get used to immediately.
The two readings I gave, one at the local university and the other one together with my colleague Anja Tuckermann in the city’s small theatre, resulted in intense discussions. That’s a good sign! That’s the only way you can find out what impression people had of you and whether they actually listened to what you were saying. I read from, or someone read from the Turkish translation of my novel “Die Schrift des Freundes” and I presented for debate the contrast between writing as a pure source of information (as in a computer) and writing as art (as, for instance, in Islamic calligraphy). I also asked the audience to consider, by means of some characters in the novel, the Alevite minority in Austria (according to the statistics, it still accounts for 25 to 30% of the Turkish population).
At the university, the first person to ask a question was a student who voiced his opinion that the Turkish guest workers probably had better things to do than occupy themselves with calligraphy. That sparked a broad-ranging debate about Turkish culture and the extent to which people are responsible for keeping it alive. The course of the debate was very exciting for me as well, and it showed me how much the Turkish students’ interest in their past as a whole had grown. After the event, the student who had asked the question that sparked the debate asked me to write something for him in his diary.
At the reading in the small theatre, people also asked Anja and me lots of questions, and we were of course happy to answer them. After all, this showed us that the people of Antakya are in fact just as open and curious as people say they are.
The few days I was able to spend in the city gave me an appetite for more. I hope I will be able to return to Antakya someday.