One of the worst nights I’ve every spent as a travel writer: in a windowless bile-green room in Iskenderun (old Alexandretta), from my new travel memoir, Bright Sun, Strong Tea: (the previous excerpt was What’s In A Name?)
My bus south from Adana into Hatay passed right by Iskenderun, formerly Alexandretta. I didn’t stop to see it. I came back a few years later the historic, romantic way: by ship. So imagine this: I get off a comfortable Turkish steamer at Iskenderun, which is even more southerly and humid than Adana. I’m a young, underpaid travel writer looking for a cheap—and I mean cheap—hotel room. I look through the dismal collection of dives squatting miserably on the waterfront. Only one of them has a vacant room.
“I’m afraid it’s our worst room,” the desk clerk says.
He shows it to me and my heart sinks: it’s a box 12 feet square with glossy bile-green walls and no window. No window?
I didn’t expect a window to help much in the heat—a fan would be the thing—but this room in which I spent the night—oh yes I did!—was to teach me a lesson about windows, which is that you need at least one. It can be small, but you need it.
Jail cells have windows. Hospital rooms have windows. Principals’ offices have windows. Even dungeons have windows. They may be small, and barred, and high on the wall above where the neck irons are attached, but they’re there. They may look out onto vacant lots, or next-door walls, or pig farms—on second thought let’s not think about pig farms, they stink and this is a book about a Muslim country—but there’s got to be a window.
Only here there wasn’t.
Lest you jump to the conclusion that my problem is claustrophobia, let me assure you that my work has taken me to the center of the Great Pyramid at Giza, to the secret priestly tunnels beneath the Temple of Horus at Edfu on the Nile, to the windowless tomb of King Tut in the Valley of the Kings, to the stifling center of the Pyramid of Kukulcán at Chichén-Itzá at noonday, and I have not suffered unduly from claustrophobia.
In fact I did not suffer as much claustrophobia in these places as I do in your normal 32-inch-pitch economy-class airplane seat.
I have noted the absence of windows in the pyramids and temples, but it did not bother me much, probably because I was not about to lie down and try to sleep in any of those places.
This cheap hotel room on the waterfront in Iskenderun was certainly not the pharaoh’s burial chamber. For one thing, there was no thoroughly-trained, attentive team of svelte royal virgins standing by with heaven knows what spicy unguents—in the history books that stuff is usually referred to coyly as “unguents”—to rub all over me.
Had the pharaoh’s girls been there in the guts of the pyramid or down in the subterranean tunnels in Edfu I might have, ah, toughed it out and even, eventually, gotten some sleep. However, there were no lissome Egyptian maidens in this cheap hotel room in Iskenderun either, and I would’ve settled for a window.
Why should lack of a window matter when I’m asleep anyway?
I leave it at this: it does.
Look, I regularly stay in cave rooms in Cappadocia. In a Cappadocian cave room you are relentlessly surrounded by bedrock. The floor is rock, the ceiling is rock, the walls are rock, everything is rock. But every cave room has at least one tiny window, which transforms it from a tomb into a sanctuary.
(Excerpts from Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Teacopyright © 2004, 2005 by Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.)
(Next: Tears at Topkapi)