Review: The Caravan Moves On, Irfan Orga

By Luke Frostick



“They were not eager to hear about life outside their tents, and when Hikmet Bey spoke of water that came from taps, in houses they lived in all their lives, they sighed commiserating, and one old woman said: 'Ah God help them, everyone has their troubles.'”  

The Yürüks are a nomadic Turkish people living near the Taurus Mountains and for three weeks, in the mid 20th century, the writer Irfan Orga lived amongst them. The Caravan Moves On is both a travel log and an account of those times, their way of life, feuds, stories, superstitions and more.

The story starts with Orga arriving in Izmir and then taking the train to meet up with a friend in Konya, where he travels around the farms of the local countryside seeing the implementation of the new agricultural polices of the republic. From Konya they put together a traveling party to go up the slopes of mount Karadağ to meet with the Yürük people and stay with them for three weeks.

In the January edition of the Bosphorus Review, Melinda Reyes wrote about another of Orga’s books, Portrait of a Turkish Family. In a similar vein, this is a book about Turkey and the people who lived here in the tumultuous early Republic. What is different about this book is that unlike Portrait of a Turkish Family, where Orga is writing with great authority on a topic that he knew intimately, The Caravan Moves On is a journey into relatively unknown territory. Although, it is apparent that he had some connections in the south of Turkey. According to Ateş Orga, his daughter [Correction 24/07/2018: Ateş is Irfan's son not daughter], in the afterword to Portrait of a Turkish Family he had friends with Kurds and Armenians in that region that he made when he was working in Diyarbakır. Despite this, it is interesting to note that as a sophisticated Istanbulite who’d lived in England, he is out of his depth even in Konya, and when he gets up on the slopes of Mount Karadağ he is in a completely different world.

As a writer, Orga is in a position slightly different to other Turkish writers. He can’t be compared to Yaşar Kemal because Kemal, the most famous writer of Turkish mountain epics, was writing for Turkish people in Turkish, whereas Orga was published by Secker and Warburg and writing for English readers in English. As Ateş Orga points out again in the afterword of Portrait of a Turkish Family,  Orga first wrote in Turkish, and then his wife and he would translate it into literary English for publication. I should point out that the writing is excellent, filled with elegance.

This is where reviewing a book like The Caravan Moves On becomes quite tricky; there are a lot of mysteries in Irfan Orga’s life. With regards to this book, the big one is the fact that we don't know when Orga took this journey. The version of the book that I read, published by Eland, doesn't state exactly when the journey was made. According to the afterword of The Caravan Moves On, again by Ateş Orga, the original text of the journey was made in 1955 (172). However, as Ateş points out, this is impossible as he was living in London and was penniless in 1955 (172). Ateş speculates that the real journey was made in 1930 while he was stationed in Diyarbakir, adding that, honestly, she [Correction: he] doesn't know.

This ties in with the problem of it being a book for westerners about Turkey, because it’s very hard to say what emphasis has been shifted, what events and descriptions he writes about have been exaggerated or fabricated to fit in with the expectations of his English readers. For example, the book has sections describing his host Hikmet Bey’s attraction to a young beautiful boy and another one describing said boys erotically dancing for other men at a rakı drinking party (49-62). This raises the question of whether these sections were included or emphasised because they happened or because the English-reading population expected pederasty to be part of a travelogue in the Middle East. A similar but more extreme version is the attempted rape that Colonel Lawrence describes in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom; the veracity of that incident has been the cause of much spilled ink.

The factual accuracy problems are not just limited to emphasis. They also come up in the way he discusses the Yürüks and their lives. For instance, he segues from a conversation between observing the way Yürük people deal with an injured man brought to their tents into a long section about their medical practices without much in the way of citation: “Even less Orthodox is the practice of breathing upon an open wound wounds, inscribing with the figures Arabic symbols spelling the name of the prophet” (123).

Note that he doesn't say here, “I saw,” or “I was told about,” he just states a fact about the Yürük lifestyle without any reference to where that knowledge came from. Did he learn it up on the mountain? From the way he mixes together the events of his journey implies that he did; but who knows? He is clearly knowledgeable and able to speak with them, so it is possible that it is all true or learned from other sources. My problem with the book's credibility is compounded by the fact that, as I mentioned above, we don't even know when these events took place. I would be very interested to read some scholarship on this book to help solve some of these problems. However, little if any, seems to exist.

But like with Lawrence, despite the possible problems of accuracy, the book is still worth a read and the overall narrative is exciting and crammed with information about these people who so rarely get the spotlight.

 Orga is broadly sympathetic to the Yürüks and seems to have made a genuine effort to understand their culture that is quite different from that lived by the Turks living round Konya. If anything, he seems to prefer the simple lives of the Yürüks to those being lived down on the newly mechanised farms in the lower lands. It could be argued that he romanticises them in a way that he isn’t able to do with the people round Konya, particularly when it comes to women: “The [nomadic] women are as wild and free as birds and have never known the restriction of the veil” (64).  

The Caravan Moves On, despite my reservations, is still a fascinating account of a world that has long gone. It speaks to the plurality of Turkey that can never be over emphasised and the beautiful prose makes it a joy to read.




You can find this book here