The Historian

The Friday plane to Budapest from Istanbul was far from full, and when we had settled in among the black-suited Turkish businessmen, the gray-jacketed Hungarian bureaucrats, the old women in blue coats and head shawls – were they going to cleaning job in Budapest, or had their daughters married Hungarian diplomats? – I had only a short flight in which to regret the train trip we might have taken.

That trip, with its tracks carved through mountain walls, its expanses of forest and cliff, river and feudal town, would have to wait for my later career, and as you know, I’ve taken it twice since then. There is something vastly mysterious for me about the shift one sees, along that route, from the Islamic world to the Christian, from the Ottoman to the Austro-Hungarian, from the Muslim to the Catholic and Protestant. It is a gradation of towns, of architecture, of gradually receding minarets blended with the advancing church domes, of the very look of forest and riverbank, so that little by little you begin to believe you can read in nature itself the signs of history. Does the shoulder of a Turkish hillside really look so different from the slope of a Hungarian meadow? Of course not, and yet the difference is so impossible to erase from the eye as the history that is behind it is from the mind. Later, travelling that route, I would also see it alternately as benign and bathed in blood – this is the other trick of historical sight, to be unrelentingly torn between good and evil, peace and war. Whether I was imagining an Ottoman raid across the Danube or the earlier invasion of the Huns toward it from the East, I was always plagued by conflicting images: a severed head brought into the encampment with cries of triumph and hatred, and then an old woman dressing her grandson in warmer clothes, with a pinch on his smooth Turkish cheek and a deft hand making sure her stew of wild game didn’t burn.


1. According to the text
A. the Istanbul – Budapest plane was overcrowded.
B. there were relatively few passengers on the Istanbul – Budapest flight.
C. most passengers on the Istanbul – Budapest flight were Hungarian bureaucrats.
D. most passengers on the Istanbul – Budapest flight were Turkish businessmen.

2. The text’s author
A. does not detect any substantial difference between Islamic and Christian civilization.
B. believes that the signs of nature are evident in history.
C. prefers church domes to Islamic minarets.
D. is mystified by the gradual change from Islamic to Christian civilization as the plane flies across South Eastern Europe.

3. The author’s glance into the historical past reveals
A. a mixed picture of peace and violence
B. an image of universal harmony.
C. Turkish hillsides and Hungarian meadows.
D. all of the above.

4. In the author’s vision, an old Turkish woman
A. carries a human head
B. beats up her grandson.
C. makes sure the meal she’s cooking doesn’t burn.
D. kills wild animals to cook a meal for her grandson.

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