Our first view of the sea is from a hill. The road winds down through pines, opens up to thickets of oleander, a curving landscape of dusty green. Then we see it, shining, turning, bouncing. As if it’s on fire, flecked and scaled.
“The sea!” my mother says, like a congratulation. Happy first sighting! Happy reunion!
This is the beginning of the true summer, however late into the season it may be; it is the beginning of our Blue Voyage—our most cherished ritual, and proof of the persisting myth that we are a united family.
All along the Bodrum marina, captains chat side by side in their boats, occasionally shouting orders to harried cabin boys loading ice. Parents make last minute trips to the pharmacy, children buy snorkels and plastic balls.
On our boat, a few ambitious uncles are going through their fishing equipment for every possible occasion: the open sea and coves, for diving or casting. Their ambition is something of a joke because we already know that their efforts will yield nothing more than a few small fish, barely big enough for bait. They will complain of the weather, the season, the seas drying up.
One morning in my childhood, my father woke up very early, bought a giant grouper from a fisherman, and asked him to hook it to a gig. The fisherman rowed one of my father’s friends—completely illiterate in fishing and diving— far from the boat and left him in the water. When we were all assembled for breakfast, we saw the friend appear from around the bay, swimming towards the boat, triumphantly holding up the speared fish. The uncles were so upset that they didn’t talk to him the whole day.
“I’ll never forget their faces,” my father repeats each year. It is the repetition that has formed the myth of the Blue Voyage, told and retold to the newcomers on board.
We, the perpetuators of the myth, like to say that we’ve sailed the southern coast of Turkey as a family for the past twenty-two years, ignoring those years of fragile finances and family turmoil. Just like myths that contain a whole world within them, our blue voyage is the myth of a complete family. A Mediterranean family, with all the rowdiness and loveliness that brings to mind.
In 1925, two years after the declaration of the Turkish republic, the writer Cevat Şakir Kabaağaçlı was exiled to Bodrum for writing an article about the execution of three soldiers who had escaped military service. The most popular novels of the time were about patriotic Turks joining the War of Independence, or intellectuals leaving Istanbul to teach in Anatolia.
Bodrum was then a sleepy fishing village, far removed from the fiery stage of the young republic. Cevat Şakir’s sentence turned out to be a blessing. He fell in love with his place of exile and stayed on for twenty-five years. He adopted the penname Fisherman of Halicarnassus, Bodrum’s name in antiquity, and wrote the novels and short stories for which he is mostly known today, about divers, sponge hunters, fishermen, and his unchanging protagonist, the sea. He is credited with planting Bodrum’s palms and eucalyptus trees, and with bringing the grapefruit plant to Turkey. In black and white photographs, he wears a beret and has a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his smile as vivacious as the waves. His name is synonymous with eating fish and drinking the Turkish liquor rakı; with white-washed houses, olive trees, and bougainvillea—the whole package of the liberal Turkish-Mediterranean spirit.
In 1945, Cevat Şakir invited his friends to join him on a trip around the coves of Bodrum, with the octopus diver Paluko as their captain. For provisions they had cheese, crackers, tobacco, and rakı. Among the group were prominent intellectuals of the Republican era—the artist and poet Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu and the novelist Sabahattin Ali, who gave the trip its name. Mavi Yolculuk—Blue Voyage—is still the name used by tourism agencies all along the south-western Turkish coast.
The friends’ journey was repeated for many years, taking on legendary proportions. It was meant to be a return to nature, and to the antiquity of the Ionian shores. In 1962, the writer and archeologist Azra Erhat—who translated the Iliad and Odyssey into Turkish—wrote the book Mavi Yolculuk about her trips with the Fisherman, and about the proper way to conduct a Blue Voyage. It is a memoir, a manual for future voyagers, as well as a guidebook to the ancient civilizations they will encounter along the shores.
At the time, the idea of sailing the undeveloped coast was so unusual that the friends had to convince captains to undertake the journey; they adapted fishing vessels for their trips, fitting them with stoves, turning storage rooms into cabins; they even brought sofas to have a place to sit on deck.
Today, the two-masted, wooden gulets, which began to be built in Bodrum in the 1970’s for Blue Voyages—leave ports in hundreds all along the coast, even if the origins of the voyage are mostly unknown to tourists.
The day begins at sunrise. From our mattresses spread side by side on deck, we hear the rattling of the anchor, the slash of ropes, footsteps. We bury ourselves under our blankets and sleep a while longer as the boat makes its way to the next bay. As soon as we arrive, we hear someone descending into the water, listen to the soft swishing of their wading. Then, up and down the deck there is whispered good mornings. We sit up, one by one. Some of us wonder whether it’s worth going for a swim before breakfast.
“The water looks cold.”
“Where are we? It’s beautiful.”
“Captain, what’s this place called?”
From the sea, someone calls out the unconvincing assurance that, once you’re past the first shock, the water actually feels quite warm.
But the color is what we remember afterwards, when we are back in the city. We will wonder whether we could really have seen it—blue and green, purple and white. Like glass of a hundred depths. We will long to be back, to take in the sight properly, just once more.
Erhat writes that the core principle of the Blue Voyage is humanism, in its original connotation of humanitas and classical learning. In her telling, the voyage is not simply a holiday but an identity; a late Turkish Romanticism of dreamy, curious minds wandering around ruins, clearing out an unspoiled place of inspiration amidst competing voices trying to establish a national literature.
“To our love of embodied learning,” she says (meaning visiting ancient sites), “is added a desire inherited from the Romantic ages: to free ourselves of our era’s habitual ways of life and to spend time, if for a moment, in a fantastical world. It is an immeasurable pleasure to banish the threshold between dream and reality. And does it not amount to what I mentioned earlier—of overcoming our mortality?”
Myths, Claude Lévi-Strauss famously proposed, are structures that mediate cosmic contradictions—of life and death; divine creation and mortality.
“We are really the heirs of that—classic—civilization,” Erhat continues, “because that culture was born and flourished in Anatolia, from where it passed on to Greece.”
She and Cevat Şakir repeatedly trace the roots of humanism and Western literature to the gods and legends of Anatolia which, they say, were later replaced by those of Mount Olympus and mainland Greece.
But even before the first Blue Voyagers’ attempts to reclaim the classical past, the poet Yahya Kemal, one of the greatest poets of Turkish literature, had made a similar attempt, at a time when Young Turks were returning to the Ottoman Empire from Europe with Western ideas.
To a poet living in the same lands as Troy and Mount Ida, finding inspiration in antiquity might seem obvious. Yet, the names of the classical writers and gods meant little to Ottoman intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century. It was not until 1957 that the Iliad and Odyssey were translated into Turkish, save for a few incomplete and unfaithful attempts translated second-hand from French.
When Yahya Kemal returned to Istanbul from Paris in 1910 he was full of enthusiasm for a literature that would turn away from courtly Persian poetry towards the purer forms of the Mediterranean and its “white language,” which he’d encountered in the French Neoclassicists. For two years, Kemal wrote poems and essays about joyful people discussing philosophy among pine trees, about Sicilian girls and sculptors of antiquity. But his project was cut short with the Balkan wars, and his passion for Mediterranean civilizations was frowned upon in the increasingly nationalist atmosphere of the empire.
There is no genesis in Turkish literature—no epic from which we trace our way forward, even if Odysseus and Aeneas both start their blue voyages from the shores of present-day Turkey. In school, we learn about the arrival of Turkic tribes from Central Asia, their adoption of Islam, their gradual move westward. There is always the sense that things are about to take off: the first written tablets in Mongolia, the first work of Turkish Islamic literature; the first examples of court poetry. Most of these works—linguistically incomprehensible to us—are taught as names and dates, emblematic of a particular era.
In high-school literature classes, I often had the bottomless feeling that I had nothing to hold on to, to call my own and cherish. The novels we finally read, from the time of the late empire and early republic, bored me with their clear morals and caricature vices, without characters I could relate to.
The first Turkish writer I loved was the poet Orhan Veli, a close friend of the founders of the Blue Voyage. I was not only relieved that I could understand the language of Veli’s poems, but that I could simply delight in their sounds without coming away with a moral. Most of all, I was encouraged by their simple beauty and playfulness (I buy rags/and turn them into stars). These poems gave me the feeling that I, too, could have written them. This is perhaps the deepest (and most misleading) feeling I have regarding the writers I love. It is a feeling akin to myth, not just in its illusion, but because it lays the groundwork for imagination and shows how the disarray of life can be ordered and shaped.
Lévi-Strauss writes that anthropologists have been preoccupied with determining the “original” version of a myth, of finding the authentic one among all its variations. But all versions of a myth are true, he continues, insofar as they grapple with the same contradictions in each re-telling.
Our first Blue Voyage, when I was 10 years old, was on the boat Barbarossa, named after the sixteenth-century admiral Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, who secured Ottoman rule in the Mediterranean for a short period. (To the Ottomans, not a seafaring people, the Mediterranean had none of the connotations of classical antiquity but was a place to wage war.)
We still remember the boat’s name with reverence. We recount the bays, participants, and memorable moments of our founding trip. In a video recording at the beginning of our journey, my young father—then 35 years old—is sitting at a long wooden table. In front of him are playing cards, whiskey glasses, bowls of nuts.
“Friends,” he begins. “For many years we’ve dreamt of this vacation. But time and money were always against us. Earlier, we had time but no money. Later, we had some money and therefore no time. Finally, the two foes have reconciled.”
Everyone laughs heartily. I remember the naïveté of that world, and the enthusiasm. What surprises me most is my father’s own eagerness. He has always been the organizer of the voyage. Every year he arranges the boat and sets the dates. He arrives early from Istanbul to shop for the ingredients in his hand-written menus, then goes over each meal with the patient cook.
But as the years pass, he has become increasingly absent. He still entertains the group, plays his accordion and gathers children at the table for magic tricks, but I have the sense that these performances are part of his duties, which he performs dutifully, and wearily. And yet, he remains the strongest proponent of the Blue Voyage—its practice and wholehearted reverence. He loves to tell acquaintances of our tradition of sailing each summer as a family, despite our family’s growing fractures. Because while the tellers of a myth may not believe in its factual truth, they still take part in keeping its structures intact, and strengthen them by telling and retelling.
Our first captain was the green-eyed Memed Ali. He listened to Mozart while we sailed; kept his long hair tied back with a red bandana. On that first trip, I would make up excuses to go to the helm, where he’d be looking out, barefoot, in his cutoff jean shorts.
We call Memed Ali “our” captain, even if we only sailed with him once. This, too, is a function of myth: the world continuing to exist as we have named it. “On the one hand,” Lévi-Strauss writes, “a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time: before the world was created, or during its first stages—anyway, long ago. But what gives the myth an operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting; it explains the present and the past as well as the future.”
Some years after our first trip, Memed Ali fell off a mast and was paralyzed from the waist down. On most voyages, we spend a night at his village and have dinner with him on the beach. We stay up late into the night (after the newcomers—who did not know Captain “then”—go back to the boat) and reminisce about the Barbarossa trip. I don’t know whether he minds that we still call him Captain, whether he would prefer that we acknowledge who he is now.
Each year, we find him a bit more sullen, notice that his cheeks have sunk deeper, even though he’s been spared the fate of faces at sea—the shiny, thickened skin like cherry bark, obscuring age.
It’s hard to say whether the captain, cook, and cabin boys take any pleasure in our enchanted summers, with barely a moment of rest. And yet, on the first day when we’re in the marina, they are also impatient to leave the crowds and noise.
One rule of the Blue Voyage is that it does not begin until we’ve lost sight of the buildings—a harder task each year as constructions take over barren hills, protected lands turn overnight into holiday resorts. But we set our sights on the unspoiled views and try to ignore all that doesn’t fit into the frame.
It wasn’t until I went to university in the United States that I finally learned the stories of the Iliad and Odyssey, and later still that I read them. At university, I was always a bit puzzled by my classmates’ proficiency in Greek myths. I could not understand their interest in these childish and improbable tales, with such complicated genealogies.
And yet, I could boast that I embodied these myths I’d never known, being a Mediterranean through and through. I sometimes say that my father’s side of the family is from the Mediterranean region, aware that this probably creates a certain picture. My paternal hometown Adana, renowned for its kebabs and macho culture, is inland from the sea and entirely foreign to the world of the Blue Voyage.
But no matter. Here’s a photograph of my mustachioed grandfather on the boat, wearing his white shirt and cap. The perfect portrait of an old captain. Here’s my mother in a linen dress with a plate of figs. My father and brother playing backgammon…all of us, as I say, the picture of a Mediterranean family.
“The idea of the Mediterranean as a single entity is artificial,” Orhan Pamuk writes, “and the single Mediterranean character that derives from it is, likewise, a thing that had to be invented and elaborated before it was discovered.”
In his essay “A Guide to Being Mediterranean,” he goes on to list the rules one must follow in order to become a true native of “the sea.”
In myths, the world is created with its seas, lands, and creatures. There is the rain and the winds; the forests, rivers, sun and moon. The world is so complete in its telling that we don’t think to ask: what about the stars? The lakes? Where are the insects?
In the story of our voyage, we all live and sleep on the boat for ten days. We are surrounded by rocky hills, laurel trees, and goats. It is an unchanging landscape, far from turmoil; from the uncertainty spreading everywhere else in the country.
The story also conceals all that’s missing within it, so that we don’t think to ask about the rest of the family members who, at one time, used to be part of the myth.
In the trips following the first Blue Voyage in 1945, Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu filled more than a dozen sketchbooks with watercolor landscapes, portraits, and poems of their explorations of the Bodrum peninsula. There are drawings of fish, boats, mermaids, and deities, as if they saw all this, all at once, during their journey.
When my aunt, uncle, and cousins used to join the voyages (the golden years of our journey; the earliest days of the mythical world) I imitated Bedri Rahmi’s notebooks, compiling my own with lists of daily events, menus, sketches, and sailing routes. I have not made a journal in their absence; that would be shameful, like rewriting history, or disregarding it.
But we continue to set sail each summer, with a growing sadness for which there is no story, only absence. The founding characters of the myth have left the boat. And this, perhaps, is ever more reason to take refuge in the Blue Voyage.
What is so compelling about the idea of a complete family, what makes it mythical, is that it is, like the unified Mediterranean character, an illusion. Even at the golden time of the Blue Voyage, the story was told at the expense of those who were left out. Perhaps this is the origin of the myth itself, born of rupture, as the Iliad was, from a world in crisis.
Myths, Lévi-Strauss writes, are perpetuated in an attempt to come to terms with the world. This is why they multiply in their many plot variations: “Since the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement, as it happens, if the contradiction is real), a theoretically infinite number of [plots] will be generated, each one slightly different from the others. Thus, myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse which has originated it is exhausted.”
As an example of this spiraling structure, he provides the Oedipus myth, and breaks it down into columns of repeated plots. Thus, one column lists the instances when the myth overrates family relations. Its opposite column lists those that underrate family relations, such as Oedipus killing his father Laios.
Before his exile to Bodrum, the Fisherman of Halicarnassus had been convicted once before, for killing his father.
Without this terrible fate, I wonder whether he would have taken such wholehearted refuge in the sea, and believed so desperately in the myth of the vast blue.