Under the Aegean Moon

Selin Gokcesu


On the Aegean coast of Turkey, the sea casts rainbows at olive trees, and mountains stretch eagerly into the open water, creating sheltered coves. My American husband and I arrived in one of these inlets soon after our wedding in Istanbul—though we live in Brooklyn, we were married in Turkey where most of my family lives.

In Aspat, we found the makings of a proper—if not perfect—honeymoon.  Our bungalow, though too utilitarian to be romantic, was comfortable.  We had blue skies, palm trees, and a blazing sun tempered by a cool breeze.  Starting in the late mornings, the breeze blew westward, away from the coast, and kept the water impeccably clean by carrying away all undesirable things—seaweed, plastic cups, paper napkins, water bottles—toward Greece.  Because I had recently watched a video on Facebook of a plastic straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose, every time a plastic object flew past me, I begrudgingly left my chaise longue in pursuit of it. I was often too slow.  By the time I reached the water’s edge, most foreign objects were well on their way to the Greek island of Kos which beckoned them from an apple’s throw away.

In the early mornings, there was no breeze and the refuse accumulated on our side of the Aegean.  When my husband and I walked to the pier for our post-breakfast dip, I had a hard time ignoring the trash that littered the beach.  I picked up cigarette wrappers, plastic straws, water bottles, and soda cans.  I fished out two diapers using a plastic bag as a glove, and washed my hands with a bottle of turquoise liquid soap that had beached conveniently next to the diapers.  As I carried the bottle to a trashcan, I noticed that it had Arabic writing on it.  I dragged out two bright objects that proved to be brand new pumps for inflatable boats. I found a medicine box with a handwritten Arabic note.  A fanny pack containing a rusty needle and some thread coiled around cardboard.  There was also a list next to the needle and thread, written from right to left, from which some items had been crossed out.  I found a Tupperware box full of medicine.  A ripped passport issued by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan requesting protection for its holder.  A wallet holding 2500 Syrian pounds, a business card from a health and wellness center in Kobane, a letter, and the driver’s license of a very young man with a round face.

When large scale violence strikes, it’s a given that the victims suffer and die where they are; involvement of the nonvictims is usually optional.  The order of the things was disturbed this summer when Syrians fleeing the war in their country spread out into the world and started appearing on the Aegean coast—the affordable and sufficiently exotic vacation spot of choice for many Europeans.

I collected the residue of other people’s lives with the same calm with which I might have collected sea shells, keeping some and discarding others.  The tears that I so readily shed when I watched TV reports on the Syrian refugee’s plight were absent.  Even the shame I felt over my indifference was mild.  My mind and my body conspired to keep my honeymoon normal, one by being willfully unimaginative and the other by holding back the emotions that it so readily displays at home.  Just the act of standing under the sun, my feet resting on aquatic rainbows, kept war and death distant and surreal, despite the Syrian driver’s license I carried ashore.  The only things that felt urgent were luxurious dips in the most welcoming of seas, sunbathing, warm showers, and leisurely meals capped with a glass of black tea.

On our last night, the cove was tinted yellow by a full moon.  After dinner, we walked out to the sand.  “Look,” my husband whispered.  At the tip of his finger, a few hundred yards from us, an inflatable dinghy was gliding west.  I watched it for a few seconds until it disappeared in the darkness, with nothing but the utter fascination of having witnessed it, as if it were a solar eclipse.  The fate of the people in the boat was merely a passing thought—we had a lifetime to weep for the tragedies of the world.  The water was calm and black with silver drops.  Soon after the boat left, we stripped down to our underwear for a midnight swim.

Two days later, when we were back in Ankara, the body of a Syrian toddler washed ashore less than a mile from our honeymoon cove. We watched it on my parents’ TV and cried.


Selin Gökçesu is a Brooklyn-based writer and a recent graduate of Columbia University’s nonfiction program. She is also a translator from Turkish.