National Geographic Accident

When I was a Freshman or Sophomore in high school, some time around 1993, I had to write a project concerning something anthropological, I reckon, although I don't remember for what class. History? English? "Social Studies"? Was Social Studies a class in high school? I can't remember any of this. In fact I don't remember much of high school at all, even though I was the most sober straight-A kid ever... for the most part. What I do remember is a mix of greasy gross cheese bread with a burp of ketchup at the midmorning break for breakfast, women's chorus at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. before school started, rabid note passing, foggy bits of the GHS LitMag meetings, and somehow--repeatedly--losing my key to the house.

But this isn't about any of that. It's about west African cultures, yellow magazines and serendipity. When I was a Freshman or Sophomore in high school, I wrote a report on the Dogon peoples of Mali. Most--if not all--of my research came at the last minute from an article I found in National Geographic, October 1990 edition. The little I'd remembered about the Dogon from this article had to do with their treatment of women: a "crazy" young girl living with her ankles shackled; and menstruating women cast away during their periods to a house adorned with vile depictions of females with huge genitals. This took up only sentences in the hefty article, and maybe didn't even make it into my school report. But it makes sense that I remember the woman parts, because of the tenuous space in womanhood that I was pubescing into, first with a deteriorating mother and then motherless among men. If I did write about the tribe's women in my report it marks the beginning of the slew of women-issue essays that I would write well into my university years.

More than the article, however, I remember my dad and brother teasing me about doing a report on a wacky culture. It was gentle teasing, the kind that might actually make you laugh, in retrospect at least. (I probably cracked only half a smile at the time.) It was the kind of teasing that occurs when there is nothing else to say. The same way that little boys and girls may flirt by hitting or making fun of each other to feel close for a moment in each others' presence. Teasing as an alternative to uncomfortable silence, which sometimes pervades whole households.

But this isn't about that either. It's about serendipity. Defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident." Horace Walpole first coined the term serendipity in a letter of January 28, 1754, where he discusses a discovery, which '"is of that kind which [he] call[s] Serendipity, a very expressive word." Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of "a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of...."' (

I can't say that I remembered that report was on the Dogon culture or that the info came out of a NatGeo mag. And I certainly wouldn't have known which year the article appeared. Memory is a fickle flimsy thing after all.

A week ago, the forgotten facts resurfaced. I was sitting in an office, waiting for Serkan while he filled out some work forms. A waiting room of sorts with a view to the Ankara skyline, the noisy streets below and Turkish conversations out of my reach on the couch across from me. I started browsing the collection of National Geographics, scanning their spines from new to old, from Turkish to English. The discomfort of waiting, not understanding my surroundings, trying to look cool and absorbed, brought me easily to Elizabeth Bishop's poem In the Waiting Room--though her little girl was 8 and I am 31. (Someday when I retell this 'story' I'll have been less than 10 years old too.)

Only about 10 NGs were in English. I wondered, in the quiet space of the thoughts beneath thoughts: What was happening in the the world while Mom was dying? And wouldn't it be crazy if I found the article I used for that report? I wouldn't be able to wait to tell Dad. He'll remember this article too and we'll share a moment. I picked out one with rainbow fishes under the sea on the cover and put it back. I skipped over the one with a Cappadocia article in it, even though we had just visited there. Then I took the collection's oldest National Geographic off the shelf and sat down with it. The feature articles were about global warming ("Under the Sun--Is Our World Warming?") and an amazing civilization of climbers with an impressive funeral culture ("Mali's Dogon People").

I read the Dogon article straight through in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion, jumping ahead at the beginning of each new paragraph to see if something in it seemed familiar. Had I read this before? Is this the fodder of that decade-old report? What are the chances of that? This article here in Turkey? I'm so close, I could go there! To Mali. To the Bandigara Cliffs. Back in time.

Ercan, Serkan's friend, asks me what I am reading so intently; is it in English? I tell him the story, maybe my voice even cracks. So much bundled inside these 27 pages, more than the article itself or its rediscovery. Briefly a parallel universe unfolded itself, unpacking distance and space and time. But what makes a discovery serendipitous anyway? Can my second encounter with the Dogon still be considered a happy accident if at some very hidden level I thought I might actually reunite with the article? Before last week, the story had meant nothing to me, not even a blip on the old radar. Now I'm not sure what the connections and reconnections mean, if anything, but I write about them anyway.

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