A strange day to remember

'Today, thousands of Aussies and Kiwis will be peacefully invading the battlefield to celebrate what was a staggering defeat for the Allies'
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The Independent Online

I think I mentioned yesterday that I had been to Istanbul at the weekend. On business, it was. I was there for the specific purpose of not buying a carpet. I didn't know that that was what I was going for – I thought I was going for a long weekend with friends – but that's the way it turned out. Everyone I met in Istanbul had a carpet shop, into which they tried to lure me and then give me apple tea until I begged for mercy and promised to buy a carpet. If any of our party spent more than 10 minutes inside a carpet shop, the rest of us had instructions to burst in and kidnap him. The pressure to buy is so strong that it is not unknown for travellers to look down at their hands, and find they are carrying back to the hotel a carpet they cannot even remember buying.

I think I mentioned yesterday that I had been to Istanbul at the weekend. On business, it was. I was there for the specific purpose of not buying a carpet. I didn't know that that was what I was going for – I thought I was going for a long weekend with friends – but that's the way it turned out. Everyone I met in Istanbul had a carpet shop, into which they tried to lure me and then give me apple tea until I begged for mercy and promised to buy a carpet. If any of our party spent more than 10 minutes inside a carpet shop, the rest of us had instructions to burst in and kidnap him. The pressure to buy is so strong that it is not unknown for travellers to look down at their hands, and find they are carrying back to the hotel a carpet they cannot even remember buying.

John Walsh was reporting yesterday on the hardships of haggling in a Moroccan souk. The Turks are so good at this process that most of the time you don't even realise you are haggling till it is too late.

Yes, it is a full-time job not buying a carpet in Turkey. People in Istanbul are so carpet-conscious that when I was walking past the very fine Museum of Islamic Art in the Hippodrome, opposite the Blue Mosque, the director of the museum sidled up to me on the pavement and said: "Where are you from? England? Would you like to come in and see my carpets?"

I am exaggerating, of course. Not everyone in Istanbul wants to sell you a carpet. That's ridiculous. Quite a lot of them of them want to sell you a leather jacket instead. It is part of the national costume of Turkey. Almost all the males in Istanbul wear a black leather jacket and blue jeans. And a moustache. Somewhere in Istanbul, I am sure, there is a National Museum of Leather Jackets, Jeans and Moustaches, tracing the evolution of the ancient flowing beard down through the ages into the trim, though slightly hawklike moustache of the post-Ataturk era.

But if someone asked me what my immediate impression of this splendid place was, I would have to say that I was struck more than anything else by the sheer quantity of Australians and New Zealanders in the place. Mosques and bazaars I was expecting. Hordes of Antipodeans I was not.

Everyone staying in our hotel last weekend, apart from us, was from New Zealand, and when I ventured to ask one of them what had brought him here, he said it was Anzac Day on 25 April. Of course! Dim, half-formed memories came back to me of the Dardanelles campaign, that disastrous adventure dreamt up by Winston Churchill to break the stalemate of the bloody trench warfare in eastern France. The swashbuckling plan to use the Royal Navy to blast the Turkish guns ashore and then to land hordes of British, French, Australian and New Zealanders to overrun Johnny Turk. The way that the Royal Navy had failed to blast the Turkish guns, despite which the men had been landed (on 25 April 1916) to face months of horror, disease, shelling, and foul food...

The only person I ever heard making fun of the whole thing was the great Australian cultural icon, Sir Les Patterson, who always claimed that the Australian film industry was riddled with pooftahs. "I went to them with a great idea for a film called Piss-Up at Hanging Rock, but of course it was all watered down when they made it. Then I urged them to make a film about Gallipoli, but when it came out it was all about two boys going off to war together... Gayllipoli, I call it."

The visitors to Istanbul this week were taking it a lot more seriously. "There are 20,000 people from Down Under coming on the trip this year," one of them said. "It's not just old people – young people come as well. Even people who have no relatives lost in the fighting are coming. We're going on to Crete afterwards to see where my husband's uncle was killed in May 1941, but we had to come here first."

And today, as you read this, all those thousands of Aussies and Kiwis will be peacefully invading the battlefield for a dawn service to celebrate what was a staggering defeat for the Allies and a triumph for the Turks. (Strange that there is no British presence – we normally love great defeats, such as Dunkirk, and the Charge of the Light Brigade.) And then they will be coming back to Istanbul before the next stage of their journey, and if enough of them then take rugs or carpets with them when they leave, the Turks will have chalked up another great victory.

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