The sun was rising just beyond the cliffs along the sea coast. I was out for my early morning jog; nothing unusual about that. I was making my way along the harbor towards the docked sailboat Sofya. Although the man on deck had his back to me, I could tell from the ponytail and the cigarette smoke that it was him.
It was intriguing that I was able to smell something as specific as Turkish tobacco amongst all other olfactory stimuli at the harbor.
Without turning around Mehmet greeted me. “Salaam-Alaikum my friend”.
“Wahkiakum-Assalam. What are you up to?”
“I’m fixing her sails”. He said in a rather matter of fact manner.
“How long have you been sailing Mehmet?”
“As long as I can remember. At times, I think I might have been born on a ship.”
“Why do you think so?”
“That’s the narrative I prefer. I was born an orphan. I don’t know anything about my biological parents. I was found abandoned outside a small orphanage in Konya. After being adopted at the age of five, my foster parents raised me in Fethiye. It was they who instilled into me love of the sea. And of course, growing up with the Mediterranean in my backyard made up for the rest. What those parents also imparted was religion…”
Mehmet let that last bit trail off, lost in thought for words to articulate what he needed to say. That was unusual. In all my interactions with him thus far, I had not found him to be at a loss for words.
After a few moments, Mehmet continued his soliloquy.
“Being staunch believers in an organized, almost orthodox, form of religion, they ensured I was raised within the strictest of tenets. However, once I had joined the Turkish navy as a young adult, I felt that the more accustomed I got to the ritual of religion the further away I had moved from the essence of it. My travels on the high seas either for skirmishes while I captained the battleship Ottoturk or for more leisurely trips later, exposed me to diverse people, places and religions. I realized that religion was just one, somewhat limited, form of expression of one’s true identity. It was then that I felt connected to everyone for the first time in my life-regardless of age, social status, gender, or else. I was like a human magnet. They would flock to me no matter which port I docked at. And then they would reveal their problems. I attributed that to my tolerance and openness about differences in viewpoints.”
“Were you their in-house shrink? Did you charge them for being their problem solver? I bet you could’ve made big bucks that way!” I interjected.
“It doesn’t happen that way. It’s not about money, you silly man.” He said.
“Then was it about women? I bet you were able to attract several of them, and mighty pretty ones for sure – given you were a human magnet!” I wasn’t letting go of this line of inquiry anytime soon.
“Hah! That’s funny! No, it wasn’t even that. I was so into my own self, had some girl even indicated romantic inclinations, I would’ve been clueless. For me, it was never the sustained romantic kind of love for a precise individual. Although I did fall for one, albeit transiently. Sofya the firebrand, I called her, because of her temper. She impressed me enough, hence the sailboat’s name; the tattoo, however, was named after the sailboat. With the passage of time, my woman became bitter towards the part of my life that I dedicated to her namesake. Anyhow, I was good at solving problems of people who came to me, and as their miracle man, they dubbed me ‘messiah of the seas’. I soon grew bored of their never-ending problems that they were equally capable of fixing, if only they would choose to do so. I dealt with people infrequently after that.”
Somewhat wistfully, Mehmet ended: “Like my love for the ocean, I experienced love for a sea of humanity, although the latter occurred over a shorter period. In either case, I think the sea became my cosmos rather than the sky or heavens above.”
“That is allegorically beautiful, Mehmet.” I said.
“It must be the lifetime spent on the seas that is bringing out the poet in me!”
Mehmet’s perspective on religion, humanity and love reminded me of Jacob, a friend from decades ago. Jacob had been one of the most spiritual people I had come across during a phase of my life when I was seeking understanding in, or for, my own religion. It had been Jacob’s comfort in expressing himself through both Catholicism and mystic Islamic Sufiism, that had illuminated me immensely. He had been somewhat of a teacher too, albeit not a sustained mentor for all matters of life – or love.
As I was mulling about Jacob through Mehmet’s lens, he caught on, as expected.
“Don’t try too hard to find that one teacher. There will be many. Jacob did his thing as he was meant to. He left an indelible mark upon you. As shall I. And so, will you upon others. It’s the cycle of life and love. Once you find a teacher or two then stick to him, her, or it, as long as need be. Only you can know who your teacher is. The best learning is experiential; trial and error initially, but then with increasing accuracy. Thus, your most sustainable teacher is yourself and your core beliefs that have been stripped of conditioning. But your best teachers are life and love…”
My eyes must have glossed over while listening about teaching and learning, regardless of poignancy, so he stopped.
He then abruptly stood up and pointed towards the sea.
“Care to join?”
That didn’t register at first, but when it did, I resisted for a moment because I was fully dressed.
“Don’t overthink, my friend!” He smiled, deftly raised his right hand in a crisp salute, and fully clothed, jumped over the side of the sailboat into the waters of the Mediterranean waiting below.
Right when Mehmet hit the water, I woke up to the rough swaying of the sailboat. It was early morning based on the light filtering through my cabin’s window. As I lay on the bed I was surprised to find myself naked – I couldn’t recall getting out of my clothes. Even if I had, why wasn’t I in pajamas, as was my nocturnal routine? Unusual as this was, enough oddities had already occurred during the trip for me to take this in stride.
Not fully awake, my mind still in a fugue, I felt the utmost urge to write Mehmet’s parting comments.
“Your most sustainable teacher is yourself and your core beliefs that have been stripped of conditioning… your best teachers are life and love….”
That seemed to be the crux of it all. Strangely enough, after several years of angst that could best be described as unrest, I felt content and contained; this feeling, although novel, was much welcomed. Even my nudity made sense then. It was like a new self-being born, without any layers between self and creator, vulnerable to the core. True submission.
Had someone walked into my cabin then and seen me sitting at the desk, furiously penning something on paper, in the nude, they would have surely raised a serious concern…
After jotting down the gist of the conversation with Mehmet, I quickly put on some clothes and went up on deck. I then went looking for him – neither knowing where exactly to look nor expecting to find him, but seeking him out all the same.
I came across the chef, who was busy supervising breakfast. Being the final meal of our watery sojourn, the kahvalti that morning on the deck was meant to be special: cuisine consisting of eggs and meat served in various Turkish styles. Trying not to get distracted by the food that I couldn’t really eat much of anyway (no thanks to Mehmet) I focused on the task at hand instead.
“Erhaan, I urgently need to talk to the Captain. Can you take me to him?”
“Sure sir. I shall take you to Captain Izmir”.
“No not that one. The other one. Mehmet”. I corrected him.
“Mehmet…?” The confusion on Erhaan’s face was apparent.
“Just take me to your Captain”.
Erhaan pointed me in the direction of the Captain’s lair below the deck. In the three days that I’d been on the sailboat, I must’ve passed by the Captain’s cabin multiple times on the way to my own. I had never realized what lay past that door, as the ‘do not enter’ sign on it precluded access to the room.
I knocked on the door.
There was no response.
I knocked again, a bit louder and with an urgency that was not difficult to muster.
Still no response.
I decided to enter, uninvited.
Despite the time of the day, the room was quite dark, except for a small table lamp on the nightstand that created a circular halo of light. The bed was unmade. I heard someone in the shower. Izmir, likely, had just woken up and was taking a bath, perhaps?
In the dark room, the minimal illumination highlighted a framed photograph on the bedside table. Curiosity got to me so, throwing both caution and decorum to the wind, I walked up to it. My plan was to take a quick look and then beat a hasty retreat before Izmir came out of the bathroom. By then, I felt less enthusiastic about conversing with the Captain and relating to him my ‘Mehmet conundrum and connection’.
The wooden photo frame was old and worn. The mostly black and white collage within, of many photos with frayed margins, seemed even older. The largest photo right in the center was of Sofya’s crew from years ago. Close to a dozen crew members were standing on deck, cheering at the cameraman, who had positioned himself on the dock for the photograph. Mehmet was a slam dunk in the middle of the boisterous crew. His central location aside, I couldn’t have missed his commanding presence anyway. He towered over quite a few of his crew by several inches. He was wearing the same red bandana and small fitted t-shirt, biceps bared enough so you could just catch a glimpse of the tattoos on his arms.
It seemed like Mehmet was mighty pleased with himself (or his life), judging by the way he was foolishly grinning into the camera lens. His eyes looked right at and through me. The caption stated: Crew of the sailboat Sofya at her inaugural Mediterranean journey led by Captain Mehmet Mustafa, May 1990.
On the bottom left of the collage was a black and white headshot of a young Mehmet with the caption: Mehmet Mustafa, b.??– 1990, Beloved Captain & Messiah of the Seas. On the bottom right of the collage was one of the few color photos, also a headshot, of someone who resembled a younger Mehmet. The caption read Captain Izmir Mustafa, b. 1990.
I had seen enough.
I ran out of the room, careful not to slam the door behind me. Luckily, no one had seen me enter the room, nor exit.
My heart was hammering against my chest, shaking to my core. I headed straight for my cabin. Once there, I realized I was hyperventilating, so I tried my best to calm down.
The first order of business then was to confirm what I had learnt in Captain Izmir’s cabin. Google came to my rescue as I searched for Mehmet and Izmir Mustafa. The top hit was the website of Fethiye Blue Cruise – the travel company through which I had arranged my three-day trip. Mehmet had been the first captain of Sofya in 1990, the year her construction was completed and she set sail on her maiden journey. The website mentioned the mysterious circumstances under which Mehmet had gone missing during that trip within the first few days of sailing. It was presumed that he had drowned, although, for such an experienced mariner and skipper to succumb to a watery grave seemed odd. The sea at that time had been rough, so perhaps it was just an unfortunate occurrence.
The website also revealed that he had left behind a pregnant wife – Ayse Mustafa. Interestingly, he had alluded to a general lack of sustained romantic inclinations and biological ties, during my interactions with him. Within a few months of the tragedy, Mehmet’s wife gave birth to a son. As I had suspected, Izmir was Mehmet’s son. Izmir became Captain of Sofya in 2015, when both sailboat and he turned 25, 25 years to the date of Mehmet’s presumed death. In his pursuit of a career as a sailor, Izmir had taken after his father.
The website shed no light on Mehmet’s maritime adventures, likes and dislikes, religious, political or other views, and so on. Sofya the firebrand’s name never showed up in that account, too. Hence, I figured what he had revealed of himself to me, he had not made common knowledge.
Why hadn’t I met with Captain Izmir to tell him about my encounters with Mehmet and what I had learnt subsequently, I wondered. Other than the fact that I didn’t really feel like meeting Captain Izmir or anyone else from the crew (or passengers, for that matter), I decided that what I had experienced could not be spoken about to anyone. Not because I was afraid that no one would believe me, but because I felt there had to be some purpose to all that had happened, which was best not shared willy-nilly. I had to explain it to myself first in a manner of my own understanding.
Sailing back to Fethiye was generally subdued and uneventful for me.
From Fethiye, I made my way to Istanbul and then caught my flight to Karachi later that evening. Once there I returned to my routine – life happened – and I never mentioned him to anyone at home or work.
Over time I forgot about him.
A few years have passed since that fateful trip.
Last night, while cleaning my laptop bag I came across a handwritten note, long forgotten in one of the inside crevices.
The following was scrawled on it:
Your most sustainable teacher is yourself… your best teachers are life and love…. [Mehmet]
In a rush of recollection of those three days spent at sea, I realized how much I had learnt from him. He, indeed, was the teacher I had been seeking. Yes, I might have forgotten about him, but his guidance could not be overlooked. In a subtle manner, all he had taught became incorporated in me. And the best part was that he had taught without even realizing that he was doing so. Perhaps that is why he had such impact?
Mehmet left his mark on me like he said he would, and that in itself was reason enough to share his story with you.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This short story, written in 3 parts, was inspired by Richard Bach’s “Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah”, as well as an actual sailing trip across the Mediterranean.
Although I am a pediatrician, ER physician, and researcher by profession, at the Aga Khan University, my proclivity to writing is my means of creative exploration and expression. My articles on health, education, children, humor and popular culture have appeared in newspapers in the US and in Pakistan. Other than the Biloongra series of bilingual books for children, I have authored 'an itinerant observer' a book of short stories/essays first published in the US in 2014 that was updated and then reprinted by Bookgroup in Pakistan in June 2020.