Once Upon a Time in Antioch
By Stuart Mitchner
Watching the HBO series The Last of Us, viewers saw computer generated images of a devastated Boston. Last Sunday night it was the shell of Kansas City. So it goes in February 2023, with ruined cities and a fungus-among-us plague conceived during a real world pandemic that killed millions, and now an earthquake with a death toll rising to 37,000 and counting has struck northwestern Syria and southeastern Turkey, where Antakya, formerly Antioch, was among the stricken cities.
According to Friday’s New York Times (“ ‘No More Antakya’: Turks Say Quake Wiped Out a City, and a Civilization”), Antioch was founded in 300 B.C., the modern city “built atop layers and layers of the ruins of long-gone civilizations.” Which inadvertently echoes Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” where “All things fall apart and are built again.” Meanwhile I’m rebuilding a memory that begins in the back of a pickup truck with a Turkish kid from the Antayka region who had spent the previous year in Kokomo, Indiana. Since I was from Indiana, we had a lot to talk about.
As soon as the Indiana connection had been made, the boy talked his surly uncle into driving 20 miles out of the way so they could drop me off in “ancient Antioch,” as he continued calling Antakya. He promised to “show me around.”
It was one of those out-of-nowhere delights of the road, to be in the back of a pickup truck talking about high school life in Indiana, the sock hops at the gym after basketball games, “Hoosier hysteria,” and Elvis. At first I thought “Kokomo” looked more American than I did (he said he liked being called Kokomo). Hindsight says he actually looked more like someone who had been an exchange student in Indiana and was still wearing the clothes that had set him apart among his less welcoming classmates: a buttoned-down short-sleeved shirt, neatly pleated slacks, and serious shoes. He also had a 1950s crew cut. His uncle wasn’t happy about driving out of his way for the likes of me (my hair was long and I had two week’s growth of beard), flooring the pickup on bumpy, dusty roads, which made talking a challenge, but soon we were singing songs he knew from his time in the States like “Town Without Pity” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.”
There are no details in my leaky ballpoint pen journal about anything I actually saw in Antakya, nothing to match against the wreckage of the city that was savaged last week, where there may be relatives of his or maybe he himself buried in the ruins of Antakya or Gazientep. Or he might be one of the shivering, shell-shocked old men videos show wandering through a landscape of smoking ruins.
Rebuilding a Memory
But now, as happens when putting together images and impressions that were already fragmented, I begin to think I know why he kept repeating ancient Antioch. There was an exchange student from Egypt at my school who had been given a crude nickname based on Alexandria. I can imagine Kokomo sitting in his neat shirt and slacks and shoes in a classroom while some history teacher droned on about “ancient Antioch” with all eyes on the blushing outsider who for all I know had to live through a school year tagged with an insulting variation on those two words. Perhaps this explains why he picked “Town Without Pity” to sing. Of course he never showed me around “ancient Antioch,” his uncle being anxious to get back on the road. Anyway, I was lugging a pack and hoping to reach Aleppo by evening. And it was hot. That’s what I remember more vividly than anything else — the weight of the late August heat.
Antioch, the College
An older friend did his best to convince me to apply to Antioch College but I followed the cheapest, nearest route to a degree by attending the university where my father was on the faculty. A couple of years after graduating, I learned that Antioch was the alma mater of two people who changed my life: the girl from New York, who opened the door to literature, and the Bay Area filmmaker who introduced me to my wife and for whom our son is named.
A River of Images
After rhapsodizing on the work-study benefits of spending half the year living in New York, my filmmaker friend gave me an anecdotal impression of Antioch’s politics (“On my first day, a pretty girl hefting a pail of water in my direction yelled Would you have fought in Spain?”). When he and I were discussing life-changing encounters on New Year’s Eve of the year I went to Antakya, I told him about the girl from New York and found that he’d known her at Antioch.
In an October 2017 interview, a year before he died, my old friend recalled being told by a film instructor that “what you should never, ever do is multiple exposures in the camera because you’re liable to get something weird and confusing. When he said that, a light bulb went off in my head. ‘Weird and confusing’ sounded just like my life itself; it was exactly what I wanted to express in my films. So with the films and the light show, that’s what I was trying to do.” Referring to a passage in Hermann Hesse’s novel “where Siddhartha looked into the river and saw a river of images from his life,” he said, “That was what I was trying to express.”
The Girl from New York
Looking online, I find that she’s an artist, like her more famous father, an abtract expressionist legend. In an interview on her website, I can see traces of the smiling dimpled dark-haired girl who had a photo of herself taken mailing me a letter in an East 23rd Street mailbox, a photo I carried with me through two trips up and down and all across Turkey, the last one on the way to India. She kept me company during long waits by the road, at least when I could find a shady spot and smile on the smiling face of someone I hadn’t seen since the summer I was 17 and she was 16.
She has a quote on her website that, like the words of her filmmaker Antioch classmate, aligns with the thoughts and feelings stirred up by the earthquake news and my fractured memory of Antakya: “We make objects of all sizes, buildings, art. Then they get old, sometimes are torn down, even made to disappear, by water, wind, war, volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, or fire. Or they fall down from their own weight, or are pushed over, stepped on, shot at, blown up, smashed. Yet, the pure material remains. The materials are reused down through the ages.”
Bonding with Turkey
While most of the New York Times’ images of the ruins of Antakya have a newsworthy magnitude, there were others in Thursday’s online story that already had the look of timeless art contrary to the idea of “no more Antakya.” I’m thinking in particular of the Istanbul photographer Tolga Ildun’s video loop of a Mona Lisa of the ruins and 2016 co-Pulitzer Prize-winner Sergey Ponomarev’s haunting photograph of “buildings leaning perilously in the dusk.”
The power of those visions of the “pure material” to be found within the destruction of Antakya reminds me of a roadside scene I’ve written about before, most recently in a piece about an art exhibit in which I referred to two female artists whose birthplaces figured in the geography of a week that began in Izmir, where Ebru Özseçen was born. The scene took place some 200 kilometers south of Kirsehir, the birthplace of Nezaket Ekici. What moved me about Atalette and Gül (or Jewel), the two little girls I shared that dusk-hazed moment with, was that both were alive with the “pure material” of the creative spirit. It was in their eyes, their expressions, the sense of a natural intelligence in their movements, as they danced shouting and laughing down the dusty road, passing my old straw hat between them, until it seemed to take flight on its own, glowing golden in the sunset light.
Of all my memories of Turkey, the most haunting is the last look they gave me as I rode away waving from the back of a truck: a look hinting at an awareness of the wider world at the other end of the road.
Choice calls Christine Kondoleon’s multi-author exhibition catalogue Antioch: The Lost Ancient City (Princeton University Press 2000) “a handsomely illustrated memoir of ancient Antioch, once lost and now found again.” The quote from filmmaker Ben Van Meter is from an October 2017 interview with Andy Ditzler and Gregory Zinman on brooklynrail.org. The full quote from artist Hermine Ford can be found at hermineford.com/biography.