Burning Forests, Burning Nations

15 November, 2021
Lyt­ton, British Colum­bia burned to the ground dur­ing the wild­fires of 2021, with the hottest tem­per­a­tures ever record­ed in Cana­da (pho­to Cana­di­an Press/Darrel Dyck).


Hadani Ditmars


It is hot, like most morn­ings this month, as I awak­en to the smell of burn­ing forests.

I look out my win­dow at the freighters in the har­bor, and head to the sea to escape the heat and acrid air. On the rocky Pacif­ic beach where I’ve swum since child­hood, I meet an old man, ocean bathing with his friends. His face looks kind and some­how famil­iar as he smiles at me.

“Hel­lo,” he says and I return the greet­ing. We intro­duce our­selves. His name is Yusuf, and he is from Istan­bul. He comes here dai­ly, he says, just like he used to swim “at home in the Bosporus.” He came here in the ‘60s, he tells me, to work in the cher­ry orchards of the Okana­gan, in the arid inte­ri­or of my province with rolling ochre hills, cur­rent­ly plagued by wild­fires, that looks just like parts of Turkey and Syr­ia. He stayed, and nev­er went back. Now he is one of over 100,000 Turks liv­ing in Cana­da, and almost 10,000 in British Colum­bia, with most liv­ing near Van­cou­ver, where Turk­ish Air­lines has just start­ed direct flights to Istan­bul. Now both of our nations are burn­ing, with for­est fires devour­ing land, homes, and memories.

“Your face,” he smiles, ges­tur­ing with his wiz­ened hands at the cheek­bones and olive skin I inher­it­ed from my Syr­i­an Chris­t­ian ances­tors who fled Ottoman rule in what is now Lebanon for safer shores, set­tling in Cana­da in 1906. “Where are you from?”

He asks in a friend­ly way, as if we could be kin, not in the way pale strangers ask me at bus stops on cold win­ter morn­ings, unsmil­ing, or the way bor­der guards ques­tion me almost every­where. He asks because even though, accord­ing to the DNA police at 23 and Me, I am only “30% Lev­an­tine” and “40% Anglo-Irish,” it’s the Mid­dle East­ern genes that have tri­umphed. Although, I muse as I sink into the brac­ing Pacif­ic salt water, per­haps it’s those oth­er ances­tors that make me have a low tol­er­ance for heat and the abil­i­ty to swim in cold water for hours.

So, I tell him the sto­ry, there in the sea. The one about the ances­tors mak­ing their way from their vil­lage of Qaraoun, with rolling ochre hills and cher­ry orchards and Ottoman police, to Port Said in Egypt; the one about the women and chil­dren being on the freighter to Amer­i­ca already, and the young men row­ing out under the cov­er of dark­ness, and only one of them mak­ing it to the top of the rope lad­der, before the Turk­ish gun­boat came by. I tell the tale of the ship­ping strike in Mar­seilles and the three months they were strand­ed there, tak­ing time for a pil­grim­age to Lour­des before head­ing out to sea again and land­ing on Ellis Island, where their Turk­ish pass­port was stamped “Asi­at­ic.” A few years lat­er, as rela­tions soured between the British and Ottoman empires, anti-Asian exclu­sion laws would have pre­vent­ed them from enter­ing North America.

The author’s great grand­par­ents, the Mus­salem fam­i­ly, in Win­nipeg, Cana­da, 1906 (cour­tesy Hadani Ditmars).

I show Yusuf on my phone the fam­i­ly pho­to from 1906 in Win­nipeg, where my great grand­par­ents, young new­ly­weds,  hold hands, and their first-born son George, wears a toddler’s fez and holds a toy gun. I recount how they even­tu­al­ly arrived in a North­west Coast Cana­di­an fish­ing vil­lage called Prince Rupert. I tell Yusuf about the store they opened and their kind­ness to the First Nations peo­ple, at a time when apartheid-like con­di­tions reigned, with “whites only” signs hang­ing out­side of shops and movie the­atres, and how they were adopt­ed by a Hai­da Indi­an chief.

I tell him all this quick­ly, eas­i­ly, the sto­ry spilling out as Yusuf and his friends lis­ten intent­ly, exchang­ing glances and words in their native lan­guage, before Yusuf says, “Nice sto­ry. You have Turk­ish face.” His friends all agree. I remem­ber an old boyfriend, now lost in some oth­er sea, some oth­er life, who once vis­it­ed Istan­bul with anoth­er woman, but brought me back gifts: a cop­per bowl and a white linen cloth from a ham­mam that I still trea­sure. He couldn’t help it, he said. “Your face was everywhere.”

I return from my revery to these home shores as Yusuf tells me to be “safe out there in the sea,” from what­ev­er hid­den dan­gers might lurk beneath its gleam­ing green surface.

I bid Yusuf good­bye, and put my phone in a spe­cial sealed con­tain­er, rolled up into my “swim bud­dy,” the inflat­able buoy attached to my waist meant to shield me from aquat­ic harm, and dive in.

As I swim a few hun­dred meters from freighters in the Pacif­ic har­bor town of my birth, I think of that night in Port Said and how a few sec­onds tim­ing can mean the dif­fer­ence between drown­ing or sur­fac­ing; on how the whims of bor­der guards can dic­tate being allowed entry or turned back to sea; on how a few min­utes and a strong wind can blow your whole life off course or engulf your vil­lage in flames.

I remem­ber the TV news­cast from last night, with images of a man in a Turk­ish vil­lage weep­ing for his lost land and ani­mals, while he clutched a baby goat he found wan­der­ing in the ash­es, named “Mir­a­cle.” They fuse with oth­er images of Cana­di­an farm­ers flee­ing prairies, whole towns in British Colum­bia destroyed in a sin­gle day, sto­ries of evac­u­a­tions by sea for tourists in Oren and anoth­er boat­load of migrants drowned in the Mediter­ranean Sea. How quick­ly home can become a dan­ger­ous place one must flee.

I raise my arm for anoth­er stroke, dip­ping down into the cold Pacif­ic waters, gasp­ing slight­ly for oxy­gen in the smoky air, and remem­ber the ances­tral jour­ney. There were fires then too, of a dif­fer­ent kind. Empires crum­bling, wars loom­ing, smoke, and mur­der in the air. And still today, fam­i­lies are flee­ing that heat­ed place. I write this, a year after the ter­ri­ble explo­sion in the port of Beirut killed hun­dreds and wound­ed thou­sands, exac­er­bat­ing the ongo­ing eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal crises in my grand­par­ents’ home­land. Now there is anoth­er con­flict at the Israeli bor­der and IDF planes are car­ry­ing out airstrikes in South­ern Lebanon, not far from my ances­tral vil­lage and the Litani Riv­er.

A hun­dred Israeli strikes have trig­gered mul­ti­ple brush fires in tin­der-dry conditions.

I think of my great-grandfather’s pass­port, labelled “Asi­at­ic” upon arrival. I won­der what became of it, that old worn trav­el doc­u­ment with an Ottoman stamp. By chance, just at the same time as I began to write for TRT, exchang­ing mid­night emails with edi­tors in anoth­er time zone, ten hours ahead of Pacif­ic time, I met a neigh­bor across the street who was also from Istan­bul. Trapped togeth­er in yet anoth­er Covid lock­down, we met out­side his gar­den while I was hill-walk­ing — a good neigh­bor­hood pan­dem­ic gym sub­sti­tute. “If you find that doc­u­ment,” he told me, after I’d recount­ed my ances­tral sto­ry, “you can apply for Turk­ish citizenship.”

I briefly fan­ta­sized about retir­ing to a beach house in south­ern Turkey, in a place that is now engulfed in flames. My neigh­bor and I still chat every week, but now, as Ana­to­lian orchards burn, the pave­ment out­side his house is full of squashed cher­ries from his tree. He had to let most of them go to waste, he says, because the cost of get­ting some­one to come and pick them is too high. “In Turkey,” he sighs long­ing­ly, “ it could be arranged eas­i­ly in an afternoon.”

I turn and swim back to shore with images of burn­ing trees in my head, and a strange crav­ing for cherries.

Mirac­u­lous­ly, I meet a group of young Turk­ish friends, hav­ing a pic­nic on the grassy banks. I emerge from the water like a strange sea crea­ture, but they say hel­lo and take me in, invit­ing me to feast on kebabs and sal­ads that remind me of my grandmother’s kitchen. There is a huge bowl of cher­ries too, and I remem­ber the crushed cher­ry pits need­ed for my grandmother’s recipes that I searched for in vain in new world super­mar­kets.  The annu­al Van­cou­ver Turk­ish Fes­ti­val has been can­celled again due to the pan­dem­ic, but this seems like a good sub­sti­tute. Amaz­ing­ly, we learn that we have been neigh­bors for years.

I think of my great-grand­par­ents who left their vil­lage and nev­er returned, decid­ing per­haps in a few min­utes, that it was too dan­ger­ous to stay. I think of every­one who has lost their land, had their vil­lage bombed or burned down, escaped to sea. There is still smoke in the air, and the fires still rage. But for now, this food, this ances­tral feast, tastes like home.



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