Here is a link to an interview conducted with me by dear INO COHEN about literature, life, Greek-Turkish relationships, Smyrna, Istanbul and and my new book The Silence of Sehrazad (“Emanet Zaman” in Turkish)
Second part of the interview by Hamsa Journal
Here is an interview conducted with me by lovely Hamsa Journal:
Translated and edited by Elif Özizmir, Can Jarna Öztürk, Çağlayan Erendağ and Lale İnceoğlu.
Good morning Neighbor,
Never mind my “good morning”, I write these lines to you at daybreak, after a sleepless night. You know me, we’ve been living in this building for so many years. I am the quiet type, not many people come to visit me. I go to bed early and wake up even before the morning prayers. Yet, last night I didn’t sleep a wink. You slept soundly instead of me, dear neighbor. I know you did because I was out at the balcony so many times, banging pots and pans as my husband was turning the lights on and off… we tried everything to draw your attention.
You slept on, neighbor.
While we sat with our hands on the door knob, our hearts racing like mad, our eyes sore, you slept on. I am not angry with you. If I had relied on that box called television to find out about what’s going on in the world, in my country or even on the next street, I would also go to bed peacefully and sleep after having watched the evening news.
After all what was it they announced on TV? Gezi Park had been evacuated. And it was done with utter ease. Without causing any harm. “Our people started leaving the park on time, due to the announcements made half an hour in advance. The marginal, illegal terrorist groups who stayed behind were treated with pepper spray and water cannons.” On top of it our Mayor has made a speech, explaining that no harm was done to the people, children, Gezi Park was evacuated, the public workers were taking down the tents. We should be at peace. This story has come to an end.
You must have had a sigh of relief neighbor. I would have if I were you. I’m sure you were feeling anxious that while the marginal groups were targeted, innocent kids could have been harmed. Innocent ones must have left the park when the police told them to evacuate it. The rest who stayed have different agendas anyway…
Neighbor, let me tell you now my own version of what happened. I’ve lived in this building all my life, you know me. I hope you will believe me or at least listen to what I have to say.
I was also there at Gezi Park with my husband last night. You know my husband, you see him everyday. He has a walking disability. He uses a wheelchair. We’d gone to the park together. It was a little after seven and the park was really crowded. Children, parents, other people like us who’d come with their wheelchairs…A balmy summer’s night; music playing, people dancing, kids lying on the ground painting, all sorts of vendors selling food. Being the first Saturday of the summer holiday everyone was relaxed, cheerful and full of hope…The park was like a fairground.
My husband and I crossed the whole park and reached Taksim square. Again there was music and people were doing a circle dance, there. The cops were lined up in front of AKM, smoking cigarettes while watching the square. We posed for photos in front of them, making a victory sign.
It was exactly 8.15 p.m, I know for sure, because my phone shows the time on each shot. We decided it was time to head home. While we strolled up and down the park one last time, I ran across my students who were staying there, day in day out. Surely, you know my students, they’re the ones who always come and go to my place. They speak in low tones, kind young women with bright eyes. Got it, right? Yes, exactly. It was them who set up their tents in the park, it was them who had been patiently expecting respect for their rights to defend and protect a couple of trees, patiently waiting the authorities to hear their voices demanding the right to life, throwing back all kinds of slander coming their way, after transforming them into subtle humor… We were chatting with them. They had planted a little orchard at Gezi Park. In two weeks they had planted flowers, vegetables. On Tuesday night when TOMA’s threw water cannons into the park, apparently the orchard was all over the place. They put it back together in two days. They had built a library too. Tuesday night all of them were soaking wet. So some people brought in new books. My mom too donated books. You know my mom too, she lives in our building, the retired professor. On Friday evening, went to the park together. She had some student too, staying in their tents at the park. They had also remarked proudly how the library was rebuilt.
Long story short, neighbor, when you oppress hope at one end, it flourishes form another, just like weed.
As we were chatting away, a guy said to another, “they say there will be an intervention”. W e all laughed neighbor. We laughed because even the harshest dictator in the world would not plan an intervention to that park, not that particular evening. There were pregnant women, proud dads holding their children sitting on their shoulders. A blue-eyed granddad just said to me, “how would he ever hit me,”. We carried on talking. The music played on.
Nobody heard any announcements neighbor, just as nobody left the park. The moment the tear gas hit them, they were in the middle of their bites, their words, their dancing. We had parked our car right in front of Divan Hotel, people gave us a hand, I hurried to the car folding my husbands wheelchair into the trunk, as I sped away, I could see Taksim Square from my rear view window, under clouds of gas and dust.
We made it home. TV channels were talking about demonstrators fleeing towards Harbiye. And you were watching neighbor. I’m guessing, there must have been more than 10,000 people in the park. They had no choice but retreat towards the Divan Hotel after being tear-gassed, just like we just had. Then the Mayor appeared on the silver screen. “ Our people had left the park in accordance with our announcements, prior to the intervention and some marginal groups staying behind have clashed with the police” he said. My neighbor, I was there when the first tear gas was thrown, so was my husband, so were all those people.
It was when mothers, fathers, children fleeing to the streets in panic from acidy waters of TOMA’s and tear gases that the park was evacuated. Hundreds were wounded. Your much trusted TV channel, the one that you had been watching announced that only 29 were wounded, and that with only minor scratches. My friends who took refuge at the Divan sent photos of their burnt skins on their arms, necks. The announcements we received were asking to direct all the wounded and the children to Divan Hotel. So we spread the news. People asked for oxygen tanks, needles and threads to saw up the wounds. As I was searching for pharmacies on night duty on my computer, my husband was shrieking from his computer, “ the police have thrown pepper gas into Divan Hotel”. I did not believe, did not want to believe this. Uğru Dundar was broadcasting from the new TV channel “ +1”. Then that too was interrupted. Meanwhile, photos of my friends stranded at the Divan started coming in. Neighbor, I hate to bother you, but I am afraid no one will tell you, if I don’t. I have no intention of defending a cause in this lifetime. All I care about is the right for everyone to live in personal dignity. Anyway, let me cut it short, some photos of children started coming in from the Divan. Fainted, trying hard to breathe under an oxygen mask. I recognized one. He was sitting on his father’s shoulders, in the park. A baby with curly hair, just about two or three years old… He is crying as his dad holds him in his arms. At the background some very young people are spread out on a sofa, fainted, they were not even born when we were banging on pots and pans for “Susurluk”.
And the night went on, neighbor. While all the televisions showed a wet and empty Taksim square, my facebook friends rushed out of their homes and headed to Taksim in big groups. I guess meanwhile you got bored and went to sleep, because there was nothing new on TV. Sıraselviler Street, Istiklal Street, Cumhuriyet street all started to get packed. People from Bagdat Street met at Kadıkoy and walked . towards the Bosphorus Bridge. Thousands of people from Gazi neighbourhood rushed to the Tem motorway…Ankara, was exactly the same; people spread all over the streets. I have a cousin in Ankara. She is the one I get all the news from . Who else do we have but each other to trust?…I have an aunt in Ankara. She is 97 years old. You also know her, neighbor. She used to live with us in the past. She was quiet, calm and graceful. Do you remember? Yes neighbor, that old lady. She didn’t let her age stop her. She’s also been in Kugulu Park at 7pm every night for two weeks.
While the night was asleep in all it’s darkness, something very weird happened, neighbor. Police attacked the Hilton Hotel. Yes I am talking about that Hilton Hotel! There were friends there who just crouched down and were trying to breath. Many people were injured. All the medicines were put on a table in the middle of the lobby and the first thing the police did was to take the medicines away. Then we heard that they drove into the German Hospital with a TOMA tank and sprayed chemical water into the hospital. It is also rumoured that they went down to the emergency floor to arrest the injured people.
Neighbour, do you hear? There are people screaming downstairs. Go to the window and have a look. All these people are the people that you know. The grocery guy is clapping. Retired old people are beating pan and pots. There is nobody marginal, outside. It’s all just “us” neighbor. Nobody else…
Come on, please wake up!
Special thanks to Elif Chandra, Can Jarna, Lale and Çağlayan for their light-speed translation and for the editing!
This is a piece -her personal story- written by my dear friend Deniz Erkmen on the recent Social Protest Movement (Occupy Gezi). If you are still curious about what is happenning in Istanbul (well by now it is whole Turkey) please keep reading!
Thank you so much for your support!
WHEN THERE IS NO OTHER WAY BUT RESISTANCE!
A personal account of the early days of OccupyGezi
At home in Istanbul, grading student papers while trying to follow a continuous facebook updates of events, I am getting more and more anxious to leave. It is impossible to concentrate. I read few lines from the paper, stop and think “do I have vinegar at home”? I read a few more lines, stop and wonder “does the pharmacy sell gas masks?” Not able to sit any longer, I call, text and facebook message a few friends; a marine biologist first, a graduate student in history second, then a film director and an environmental engineer… Everyone is planning to head to the Taksim square. I pack some vinegar and a bandanna into my backpack; I make sure I wear sneakers so I can run fast and I leave home not quite sure what is ahead of me.
At the ferry terminal, I greet my friend who just walked there from a meditation workshop. Aslı and I originally met at a yoga class. A month ago, we were at a yoga retreat together, in a small peaceful green campground next to the Mediterrenean. We look at each other, half worry-half smile. Life is, indeed, strange. I notice that her friend has flip flops on; in my mind I go “who will wear flip flops to a demonstration like this?” But this is what happens when you have young writers, yoga teachers, and filmmakers in an uprising. We are not that experienced when it comes to fighting police on the streets; it has not really been our cup of tea until now. But in the next few days, we’ll get our training.
My generation – people born mid 70s to 90s in Turkey have been categorically defined by their apoliticalness. Born around and after the military coup where many activists have been jailed and tortured brutally, many of us, unless their families were activists, have been socialized to avoid “politics.” Demonstrations have been dangerous affairs in Turkey and we have been taught by our families to stay away as much as possible. While this has changed over time to a certain extent, that socialization is strong and has created certain political habits of avoidance. Combine that with the general distrust towards established political institutions that is the trademark of the postindustrial generations and an unresponsive system without many functioning channels for participation, you have people who are not very positive about the possibilities of change through participation.
Then why are all my friends walking towards Taksim? What happened? Why would someone like me, someone who hates crowds, feels slightly awkward when she chants the slogans of the Turkish leftist parties, who flees the city whenever she can to rockclimb, would pack vinegar and a bandanna and walk towards a square where she is pretty sure she will get tear-gassed, maybe even worse?
At this point, I have already been part of the activities that have been going on to protect the small park, Gezi Parkı, at Taksim square, which is the social and political center of Istanbul. The park is, comparatively, tiny. Don’t think Central Park or Hyde Park; it is probably not even 1/10th of those. But it is the only green space in this very busy, very urban square. The Justice and Development party (JDP) government has decided unilaterally that they were to turn the park into a shopping mall in a replica of an Ottoman military barrack, even though there are multiple malls in walking distance or a few metro stops away. An association and a platform was formed around the issue and they started organizing and gathering signatures to protect the park.
This attempt to destroy the park was not an isolated case of transferring public property for private development. It was just one incident among the ongoing attacks from the JDP party directed towards public spaces, including not just historical buildings, city squares and neighborhoods, but also forests and national parks. We have been witnessing an ongoing destruction over the years. Just in the last few months, amidsts protests, a beloved pastry shop in a historical building was closed and a cherished movie theater was torn down because they were in a historical building that was sold to be turned into a shopping and entertainment complex. The groundbreaking for the third bridge over Bosphorus which is expected to cause enourmous environmental damage took place against opposition from citizen initiatives and professional bodies. The law to open up national parks to development was just waiting to be discussed at the parliament. We were sharing our concerns among friends and on social media, but were joking about how we couldn’t keep up with the speed of destruction.
Nor was the style new: pushing a big urban project that has no public support, that does not make sense from a public service or urban planning perspective, without any regard for objections coming from the civil society. Tayyip Erdoğan’s version of “democracy” meant that since he was elected and has majority in the parliament, he could do whatever he wanted, however he wanted it.
The governing style was indicative of an increasingly authoritarian and arrogant JDP party that was single-handedly pushing a conservative and neoliberal agenda. On the one hand, there were ongoing series of policies that were enacted that caused fear about state intervention in people’s lives and choices. There was the discussion about banning abortions and stories about women being mistreated in state-hospitals when they went in to get abortions; then the PM demanding families to have three kids. There was the overhaul of the education system with the goal of raising “a religious generation.” There was the ban on alcohol consumption between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am along with a ban on all alcohol advertisement. There was a growing sense that the government was trying to push a life-style and fit the public into a conservative mold.
On the other hand, the problem was not just about our fear for our life-styles. It also looked like the PM was using these interventions to distract everyone from major issues and to woo his followers by emphasizing the party’s conservativeness. In the meantime, democratic deficits of Turkey just continued to exacerbate. Turkey became the country with the highest number of imprisoned journalist in the world. The mainstream media was silenced and the judiciary became an ally for the executive. There was no way to oppose the JDP. Lastly, on May 11, there was a bombing in Reyhanlı, a town on Syrian border, already tense as a result of the civil war in Syria and Turkish government’s support for the opposition forces. 51 people were killed and the goverment reacted by banning the media from reporting on Reyhanlı. 51 people dead, 140 injured and we couldn’t even read about it in the papers.
While these were happening, people around me were getting more and more frustrated. We joked among our friends about how we couldn’t read the newspapers in the morning because we got too depressed to do work; and how we coudn’t read them at night because we lost our sleep. I felt like I was pushed into a corner by the increasingly conservative and authoritarian politics of the JDP, that I had no place to live and breathe in this country. I was feeling suffocated. Suffocated in this once majestic city where I was born and grew up, whose streets I have walked for years. Constantly afraid that any building, any street, and any nature area in other parts of the country that I loved and cherished was about to be destroyed. Voiceless, powerless; I felt helpless and I was angry not just at the government but at my helplessness. Gezi Parkı felt like a corner that we were pushed into. It was the last corner. It was small; but I could fight to save it.
So I followed the activities of the Taksim platform; I tried to spread the word over the social media. Then last week, on May 27, we got the news that the government sent bulldozers to start the construction. A small group stopped the bulldozers and on May 28 the police tried to push them out. The Gezi Parkı Watch was organized so some activists started sleeping at the park to fend off the bulldozers. People started to go to the park, including myself. The demonstrations were relatively small at first. In fact, I was not quite sure if they would ever get bigger. It was fun; people cheering, singing. A young, educated, colorful crowd, made mostly of anarchists, feminists, socialists, students, LGBT movement… Knowing that we are doing our best to show that we care about our right to this city felt good – but I also was not sure if we got any support beyond the park. And I was not sure what I would do if the police just kicked us out and tore the park down.
But when on the morning of May 31st the police raided the park at 5am, teargassed the demonstrators and burnt their tents down; when they continued to brutally teargas and spray people with water, even during the press release at the Taksim square couple of hours later, when a young woman was shot by tear-gas cannisters in her head, I instictively knew that there was no going back. To protest or not to protest was not a question anymore. The brutality, the arrogance, the sense of injustice was so strong and so in our faces that at last it boiled over. You push people back into a corner, and you keep on attacking, they would have to push back. There is a point where political protest is a defense as much as voice.
What has transpired after that has just been incredible. That night, on the ferry, we could already smell the teargas blowing in the wind from Taksim. We were afraid but we knew what we had to do. We joined others who were coming from all directions as we walked up Cihangir to Sıraselviler with thousands of people, people who looked, how should I put it, very regular. They have finished their work day, walked off their offices and met their friends. They were frustrated with the brutality, with the sense that their lives, their choices, their voices did not matter. They were frustrated about the arrogance of the primeminister. They were tired of feeling helpless. They wanted to breathe, live in freedom.
So they walked and chanted, in solidarity. I had friends who were walking from different directions towards Taksim Square that night and we all had similar stories to tell. Stories of cooperation and kindness amidst chaos. It was scary but incredibly uplifting. Are all street uprisings against police this friendly? These demonstrators were saying “sorry” when they bumped into each other while running away from a tear-gas cannisters. They were sharing their food and water, spraying each others’ teary burning faces with homemade antihistamine-water mixtures, carying one another, shouting “do not panic” while trying to remain calm under tear- gas fire, building barricades together. People were opening their doors and letting strangers in. Older people were shouting words of support from windows and giving protestors lemon, milk and vinegar (to help with the effects of the teargas). It felt like the people of Istanbul, who normally grunt and grind their teeth at each other in public, who elbow their way in and out of public transportation have realized that they actually live in the same city, that they can actually help each other and cooperate… That was the feeling – a moment of enlightenment: Yes, we live in the same city. Yes, we have the right to live like dignified human beings. And yes, we can.
I am pretty sure that this is a turning-point in Turkish political history. A game-changer. Not because of what will come out of it as a result. I have no idea what will come out of these protests. I know that the aftermath of any uprising is chaotic; those that are the most organized have a way of hijacking the process; and established practices and habits do not disappear quickly. Moreover, a lot depends on the primeminister, whose reaction until this point has just been unbelievably, infuriatingly uncompromising. He is transforming himself into a dictator in front of our eyes and provoking his supporters in a very dangerous and irresponsible manner. So, who knows what will happen? I cannot claim to be overly hopeful – if things go downhill from here, there can also be a lot of disappointment.
But I believe that what we have witnessed in the past week was a break of political tradition in Turkey. There has been nothing similar in recent Turkish history, where so many people of different stripes came out on the streets voluntarily, spontenously, and have cooperated, coexisted and resisted together. This was a huge learning experience for all these “apolitical” professionals and youth who saw and experienced first-hand that if they act in solidarity – and they acted in solidarity; the socialists, the secularists, the soccer fans, the feminists, the Kurds – they can achieve something. That there is joy in solidarity and cooperation when you are fighting against injustice. That they can, in fact, use their strongests assets – their wit, creativity and love – against police brutality. Finally, we took to the streets and finally we are not afraid or helpless anymore. Now even my three year old niece says she wants to go out and join the resistance. That gives me some hope.
To my friends who live outside of Turkey:
I am writing to let you know what is going on in Istanbul for the last five days. I personally have to write this because at the time of my writing most of the media sources are shut down by the government and the word of mouth and the internet are the only ways left for us to explain ourselves and call for help and support.
Last week of May 2013 a group of people most of whom did not belong to any specific organization or ideology got together in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Among them there were many of my friends and yoga students. Their reason was simple: To prevent and protest the upcoming demolishing of the park for the sake of building yet another shopping mall at very center of the city. There are numerous shopping malls in Istanbul, at least one in every neighborhood! The tearing down of the trees was supposed to begin early Thursday morning. People went to the park with their blankets, books and children. They put their tents down and spent the night under the trees. Early in the morning when the bulldozers started to pull the hundred-year-old trees out of the ground, they stood up against them to stop the operation.
They did nothing other than standing in front of the machines.
No newspaper, no television channel was there to report the protest. It was a complete media black out.
But the police arrived with water cannon vehicles and pepper spray. They chased the crowds out of the park.
In the evening of May 31st the number of protesters multiplied. So did the number of police forces around the park. Meanwhile local government of Istanbul shut down all the ways leading up to Taksim square where the Gezi Park is located. The metro was shut down, ferries were cancelled, roads were blocked.
Yet more and more people made their way up to the center of the city by walking.
They came from all around Istanbul. They came from all different backgrounds, different ideologies, different religions. They all gathered to prevent the demolition of something bigger than the park:
The right to live as honorable citizens of this country.
They gathered and continued sitting in the park. The riot police set fire to the demonstrators’ tents and attacked them with pressurized water, pepper and tear gas during a night raid. Two young people were run over by the vehicles and were killed. Another young woman, a friend of mine, was hit in the head by one of the incoming tear gas canisters. The police were shooting them straight into the crowd. After a three hour operation she is still in Intensive Care Unit and in very critical condition. As I write this we don’t know if she is going to make it. This blog is dedicated to her.
These people are my friends. They are my students, my relatives. They have no «hidden agenda» as the state likes to say. Their agenda is out there. It is very clear. The whole country is being sold to corporations by the government, for the construction of malls, luxury condominiums, freeways, dams and nuclear plants. The government is looking for (and creating when necessary) any excuse to attack Syria against Turkish people’s will.
On top of all that, the government control over its people’s personal lives has become unbearable as of late. The state, under its conservative agenda passed many laws and regulations concerning abortion, cesarean birth, sale and use of alcohol and even the color of lipstick worn by the airline stewardesses.
People who are marching to the center of Istanbul are demanding their right to live freely and receive justice, protection and respect from the State. They demand to be involved in the decision-making processes about the city they live in.
What they have received instead is excessive force and enormous amounts of tear gas shot straight into their faces. Three people lost their eyes.
Yet they still march. Hundreds and thousands of citizens from all walks of life then joined them to support for the protestors. Couple of more thousand passed the Bosporus Bridge on foot to support the people of Taksim. They were met with more water cannons and more pepper spray, more hostility. Four people died, thousands of people were injured.
No newspaper or TV channel was there to report the events. They were busy with broadcasting news about Miss Turkey and “the strangest cat of the world”.
Police kept chasing people and spraying them with pepper spray to an extent that stray dogs and cats were poisoned and died by it.
Schools, hospitals and even 5 star hotels around Taksim Square opened their doors to the injured. Doctors filled the classrooms and hotel rooms to provide first aid. Some police officers refused to spray innocent people with tear gas and quit their jobs. Around the square they placed jammers to prevent internet connection and 3g networks were blocked. Residents and businesses in the area provided free wireless network for the people on the streets. Restaurants offered food and water for free.
People in Ankara and İzmir gathered on the streets to support the resistance in Istanbul. Demonstations spread to other cities where citizens were faced more brutality and hostiliy from police. Hundred of thousands kept joining.
Mainstream media kept showing Miss Turkey and “the strangest cat of the world”.
I am writing this letter so that you know what is going on in Istanbul. Mass media will not tell you any of this. Not in my country at least. Please post as many as articles as you see on the Internet and spread the word.
I do not belong to a political party. I don’t believe in politics. I don’t defend any ideology and I am not on the side of any regime. Like many others in Turkey I am tired and frustrated from the polarization between Kemalist seculars and the Islamists. I don’t belong to any of them. I believe in moving away from polarization and towards a new way of relating. I know many people who are out on the streets of Istanbul share the way I think and I know we are not the only ones. We just want to live our lives with human dignity.
As I was posting articles that explained what is happening in Istanbul on my Facebook page last night someone asked me the following question:
«What are you hoping to gain by complaining about our country to foreigners?»
This blog is my answer to her.
By so called «complaining» about my country I am hoping to gain:
Freedom of expression and speech,
Respect for human rights,
Control over the decisions I make concerning my on my body,
The right to legally congregate in any part of the city without being considered a terrorist.
But most of all by spreading the word to you, my friends who live in other parts of the world, I am hoping to get your awareness, support and help!
Please spread the word and share this blog.
For futher info and things you can do for help please see Amnesty International’s Call for Urgent Help
So we buried my father.
In the past I always thought that when people go through such emotional traumas, their minds would be so clouded that they couldn’t be aware of anything that was happening around them. A haze, I thought, would have surrounded them and they wouldn’t remember a thing once it is all over.
I was mistaken.
Now I know how the memory of every single word, and each and every hug remains in the mind crystal-clear. In the past when I went to funerals I used to think that my presence could not make a difference in the midst of the crowd. There was always this long line of people in front of the family of the deceased, everyone shaking hands and hugging them and saying how sorry they are. Most of the time I didn’t stay on that line and instead watched the family receive the condolences from a safe distance. I thought my presence would not make a difference.
Now I know that I was wrong.
My father’s funeral at Istanbul’s Tesvikiye Mosque was so crowded. It was crammed with people. Hundreds of friends came to say goodbye from all around the country. My dear father-in-law traveled from Athens early in the morning to be by our side. As I stood under the old chestnut tree to receive condolences, I saw so many old faces, some of them I have not seen since my childhood. In the eyes of them I saw my own grief. My friends from every stage of life were there in the courtyard of the mosque and I saw my dear students who always stand by me gathered in some corner. There I met for the first time many friends and acquaintances of my dad whom I didn’t know. They shook my hand and offered their condolences. I wanted them, all of them, to come and hug me. If they didn’t I searched for familiar faces of students and friends in the crowd so that I can have them next to me and give them a hug.
In the future when I go to a funeral I will know that my presence does matter. I will go to the front of the line and give a big hug to those who are in grief. Then I will say the words. Because now I know words do matter. They matter A LOT.
I will say:
May he Rest in Peace,
May he rest in Light,
May God bless his Soul.
My God, I never knew how these words were important! I knew never the power behind them. How they can make you feel better!
Now I as stand in the shady courtyard of the mosque under the chestnut tree, I am looking at the lips of people, with my eyes begging them. Please say the words. Not that I care about the meaning so much. The words become symbols for something. At least for me. Now they mean something like Namaste.
“I recognize the suffering in you. My condolences.”
Then I want all of them to say: “May God Bless His Soul”.
What if one of them forgets to say it? I am scared. The more I hear people saying it, the easier would be my father’s passage. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. It doesn’t matter much. All I need is to hear it.
In the future, in every funeral I will go to, I will generously speak of those words. I will say as often as I can “my condolences”, “may God bless his soul”, “may he rest in peace.”
Then from the mosque we are going to the cemetery. They will bury my father. No, it is not my father who they are going to bury. It is my father’s earthly body which he decided to leave behind. He left it behind and I don’t know where he went to. Nobody does. This is the biggest mystery of humanity. No science, no religion, no mystical system can answer my question. We the living, we are not supposed to know the answer anyway. That is how we are designed. Destined NOT to know.
Where is my father now? I don’t know.
Before we arrive to the cemetery they already dug a pit, which will become the grave. Now they are bringing the coffin nearby. They will open the coffin and lower the body into the pit. I hear someone is saying, “The son should go down the grave, send his son down the grave!” There are men in front of me. I am moving them aside. I should be by the side of the den. They don’t want me to come close to the grave. It is not appropriate for women to see the dead body being lowered to the grave.
But I have to look at it.
I have to see it!
I have to make sure it is not my father who they are about to bury under the earth. For he never wanted to go under the earth. “When I die, please cremate me,” he said to us. “Then throw my ashes over to the Bosporus, over to the Aegean sea from Halicarnassus.”
That is not your body, Baba. We could not cremate it anyway. We stick with the traditional. Forgive us. For I needed the traditional Baba. For I needed to hear the words of condolences, I needed to stand next to bright faced Imam and pray, I needed a tombstone that I could visit in the future. I needed the mosque, the prayer, the cemetery….everything that is traditional about the funerals. Call me selfish Baba. I needed them all.
Anyway, like I told you Baba, that thing they are burying under the earth, it is not you. You know, I walked to the edge of the den and looked carefully to make sure. They wrapped it with a white cloth. Head to toe all covered. It is actually a sack with strings on both ends. One above the head and the other around the ankles. That white bag has nothing to do with you Baba. It could be a flour sack or something. So don’t worry. They are now lowering it from the coffin down to the den. It is a chaos down there, you should see. Are you watching? Everybody is saying something diferent. They are all shouting. They all have their own opinion about how to lower the body down to the grave. Now more people are saying, “his son, his son should go down.”
They are pushing Selim forward. Selim, my dear brother, is a young man now. He is still as beautiful as a little boy. He is too young, he is too unprepared for all this. I should go down to the den, not Selim, but me. I am the one who is supposed to place the body in the grave, not Selim. He is too little. Too young. Too pretty for all that .
But now before I know it, Selim is already there, deep down in the grave.
Then my dear Baba, I don’t know if you can laugh up where you are, but if you can and if you were watching us I am sure you had a good laugh! Then two cousins of ours, second cousins but I don’t know them, they jumped into the den. You know that the grave is too narrow for a body plus three men. One should go apperantly. So for a while they argued about who is going to stay and who is going to leave. They argued like two boys, they pulled and pushed each other to win over. They wanted to bury their dear Dayi (uncle) together.
Selim is standing by head and these two are standing by the feet and all the hustle bustle is taking place next to your earthly body which you decided to leave behind! I want to pull both of those cousins out of the grave and jump in myself. I should be there by the feet. Not them. Selim should be by the head and I should be by the feet. Yes, that feels like the most appropriate way.
But I am not moving. I am not going anywhere. I don’t want to intimidate the bright-faced Imam. He is already tolerating my presence among men, watching the burial scene from the edge of the pit. But I so want to touch the body. I want to touch and make sure, one more time, that white flour sack is not containing anything similar to you.
But I am not going anywhere. I can’t The tradition is holding me back, keeping me on the edge of the grave.
Later when I asked my brother, “how did the body feel inside the bag Selim? Anything similar to our Baba?” he replied “No”. “It was hard and cold. Nothing like our Baba.”
You were always warm and soft Baba and your flexible ankles moved in their joints with such ease and softness. There was nothing hard and cold about you. Everybody knows that.
The sun is burning our skin in the quiet cemetery. Bosporus is ahead of us, down the hill. Its waters are summer blue and I can see the boats go by, I can feel the northern breeze coming from Black Sea. My silk headscarf is blowing with the Northern winds. Now they are throwing earth over the body. I am not watching anymore. I am standing next to bright-faced Imam. He has a beautiful voice. He is chanting in Arabic. My hands are open to the summer-blue sky, I am praying. I am not crying. If I don’t know where his soul went to, how can I cry for him? I can only cry for myself and at that instance I don’t feel like crying for myself.
We invited the Imam to our house for more prayers. It is right before sunset. Days are long. Now I remember how beautiful the summer nights in Istanbul were. The winds bring the smell of seaweed and salt from Black Sea. Venus is on the horizon, moon is ready to take stage.
We put tables out on the lawn. Family and friends are all sitting together. I want more people to come. More more more. If more people pray for my father’s soul, he will find peace faster. I am worried that my dad’s soul has not found the peace yet. I can’t keep my eyes off the gate. Why didn’t I invite more people? Why didn’t I insist? Still many of them are there. The more friends I have on our table, happier I am. I am also happy that nobody is crying. I want to say our goodbyes in peace and quiet. My mother and Mete babam is sitting on another table acroos from us, Selim is sitting with his friends. Where is Selva? Oh, how I wish Kokia was here with us tonight.
As the chanting starts I am moving into a comfortable position so that I can stay still during the chanting. If I sit still, people around me will calm down as well. I know that from my classes.
Then we all surrender to the prayer. Bright-faced imam is chanting Yasin. He says during the chanting of Yasin, whatever we pray for, God grants it to us. I pray for an easy transition for my father and wisdom and insight for us the living so that we can differentiate reality from illusion. I want us to chant all together. I wish he chanted the simple prayers that we all know so that we can all chant together. He is doing only a few of them. We are chanting with him.
Hak la ilahe illallah, illallah
La ilahe illallah, illallah
Aylin is sitting next to me. She knows the Arabic prayers by heart. She knows not only the words but also the melody. Listening to her reciting the prayer next to me is so soothing, so relaxing. I hope she chants and makes us chant these prayers when it is 40th day of my father’s death.
After the prayer, it is time to break of the fast (we are in Ramadan month). We are offering food to our young Imam and then eating all together. On our table we are chatting and laughing. We are eating sweet Halva. We all know life still goes on long as it goes on. My mom is wrapping her arms behind me and kissing me as I chew the sweet halva. Halva of my father. Who would have known? I am looking at Selva, my father’s dear wife for 30 years, his soul mate. There is acceptance in her big brown eyes. Selim is smiling at something that his friends are telling him.
It is dark now. The moon is hanging above us, some kittens running around to eat the food we left on our plates. The lights are turned on around the swimming pool. Imam is gone. It is just us now. Minus my father.
Ah, if only we were able to differentiate reality from illusion! For now all we have to do is to keep on walking while thinking dream we are living is the reality. That is what we the living is designed for at the first place. To live in a dream.
For the next couple of days I am living as an addict. I am addicted to my phone and to my laptop. I am thirsty for every single message, email, any comment under my blog-post, phone calls. Anything would take my thirst away. My phone keeps ringing. I have no energy to answer neither to speak but seeing the names of friends flashing on the screen of the phone is enough to make me happy and strong. I want my inbox to be overloaded with messages, my blog-post to be read by the entire world.
That is how I am feeling.
If the father of a friend dies in the future I will overwhelm her with my messages, that is for sure!
And slowly I am realizing the death around me. So many of my friends had lost their fathers and mothers and siblings and other loved ones. There is not a single household where death has not paid a visit. I am realizing this slowly. Now I want everyone to tell me his or her story. How did you father die? How old were you? What did you do? Tell me. I need to hear, over and over, that this pain is not mine, it is shared by the entire humanity. Tell me how your father died. And they do tell. They say it is like losing your ground, they say it is the like being an orphan, they say there is so much to learn, they say that I will feel him next to you the more than ever, they say it is the biggest gift he can give to me…They know. They are the daugthers, they are the sons of the fathers who died.
But on the other hand, I know and they know that my pain is my pain. I am alone in my grief. My father was my father. The bond I lost is one and only in the universe. It was between him and I only. Now in the absence of that special bond and I am lonelier than ever. We are all alone when we suffer for our unique losses. That is why I want to stay on my own at nights. I lay on my bed in darkness. I am hung loose in space. Then I am crying. Only when it is night.
Now I am back in Portland. I am sitting in my favorite coffee shop as I write you this. Earlier this morning I did the usual things. First I did my own practice, then I taught my class, then I came for coffee and I am writing. Things I do are the same but life is not. I know that life will not continue in the same track anymore.
Tracks are switched.
I will not get used to it.
I should not get used it.
It is time to start all over. A brand new life. Clean and fresh. Softeneby the loss . Colored by the grief.
Now I know how much I need other people…
A new life with more love in it.
My father is dead.
I am staring at this sentence that I have just typed.
My father is dead.
This is my own father whom I am taking about. Not the father of a character from my novel.
“Come on,” says a voice in me. “There is NO way!”
The voice in me has been telling this since yesterday.
My brother, my mom, my friends, newspapers, they all claim the opposite but the voice in me does not stop.
“Come on, there is no way. There must be a mistake. My father, the Arab Kemal, who is always active, funny, social, who is always full of life… How can you think of him and death together in one sentence?”
No, the more I write the more I lose the connection with reality. These lines that I am typing must be from a story that I am writing. Soon I will send him the story and he will make one of his comments,
“Oh, you are so mean again Defnosh, you killed the poor father at the end of the story.”
My father is waiting for me at the airport right now. He is wearing a dark blue Lacoste t-shirt which is showing his belly a bit and underneath he has his loose jeans with side pockets. He is sweating and hating it. He is huffing and puffing as he dries his forehead with a tissue.
I am all alone on a plane and travelling across the north pole.
My father is waiting for me at Istanbul airport.
While he is a waiting he is chatting with a friend whom he ran into at the airport. When I come out of the sliding doors he will stop the conversation and will look at me with a smile on his face. I will worry about the smile. Is he laughing at my hair, my eyebrows or at something I’m wearing? He is going to wrap his arm around me and we will walk outside. As if I have been there the whole time, as if we have been chatting for the last couple of hours, he will say,
“I am building this new bike Defnosh. It is turning out something magnificent. Wait until you see it. You are going to lose your mind!”
Then all of a sudden he will stop and ask in a serious tone,
“You did bring my lemon peppers didn’t you?”
As if Lawry’s lemon peppers are the most original thing one can receive as a gift from America.
“So how is your Greek now? Are you able to translate the lyrics of my favorite songs? You know I have been waiting to sing with my dear Eleftheria in the car.”
How on earth will I land at an airport where my father is not waiting for me?
May this flight never end.
May it roam over the poles until the time I am ready to land into a world in which my father does not exist anymore.
-“Do you remember I once brought you a bicycle from Greece? Nobody else had bikes back then. Only you had one.”
-“Remember I was teaching you how to ride it in the garden. As you were riding it I was holding you from behind so that you don’t fall.”
-“Then one day I let you go. You did not notice, you just kept on pedalling. I watched you as you pedaled along. Do you remember? It is going to be just like that my dear daugther. You will keep on going without noticing. I will alway watch you from afar. Okay?”
-“Good girl. Now get out of that plane and carry on. You’ll see that you won’t fall. Trust your dear father.”
I landed and my dad were right, I did not fall.
I will carry on Baba. With your voice in my ears telling me that happiness is hidden in the funny, little, sweet moments of life, I will push the pedals forward.
This world will always be missing something without you but don’t worry about us.
In the path you took may you walk smoothly in peace and may you arrive to the heavens.
We are fine here.
May you travel well my dear Babish.
My plan worked out pretty well: Esin and I came back home for lunch unnoticed. In the hustle and bustle of lunch preparation, I easily sneaked back to the master bedroom and unloaded the contents of my backpack back in the closet.
During lunch, Esin was quieter than usual but no one else noticed because she did not talk very much anyway. I was almost ready to relax and enjoy the meatballs and French fries on my plate when Jamila’s half-covered head appeared at our steps. Obviously she had left home in a hurry, her long black hair showing under the thin cotton scarf. Murad was sitting on her left hip sucking his thumb. He smiled when he saw me. He, for sure, had some good time swimming with us!
We all jumped when we heard the anger in her scream:
“Do you know what they did?” And then, extending a finger at me, “Are you aware of what she did this morning? Oh! Of course you don’t know! This is a three year-old baby! They took my 3-year old baby swimming! He could have drowned! He could have died! Can you believe that they sneaked into the Club beach with my baby boy? Oh my God!”
My father took his time to finish lunch. He asked for a second serving and chewed very slowly. After Jamila left, nobody spoke. The silence was painful. Esin left all the French fries on her plate. My grandmother served her more meatballs. She didn’t eat them either. I cleaned my plate thoroughly with a piece of bread. My mom brought the watermelon from the kitchen and Turkish coffee. As I tried to capture the watermelon seeds under my fork, I listened to the sound of their coffee sipping. It sounded like they were inhaling the top foam layer into their lungs.
The silence was so loaded that at some point I thought I could actually hear their thoughts. My grandmother was preparing a speech that she would probably voice out in her advice tone: “In the villages girls your age are already married and doing all the housework.” My mom was fighting in her head but not with me, with my dad: “I can’t discipline her all by myself, obviously. She is out of control. How about for once you do something about her, heh?” My aunt’s head was down and she was smoking. Normally she didn’t smoke in front of her father. “How embarrassing…I should take some presents to Jamila tomorrow and apologize. What would be a good present? Something the girls can use as well. My sister should come with me as well. My dear niece why are you such a little monster?”
The only person who was enjoying the whole scene was my grandfather. First he looked like he didn’t fully grasp what had just happened. He was drinking his coffee with a pleasant smile on his face. But then, when I focused on hearing his thoughts I was surprised to find out that he was enjoying himself with the emotional confusion of the adults at the table.
Finally my father stood up, stretched and walked towards the steps. My mom, my aunt and grandma started to collect the plates and the silverware. It could have been because of that particular sad look on their faces, for a split second they all looked the same to me. Maybe they really did not care about us. Was it a good thing?
Half way up the stairs my dad broke the silence:
“I am going to take a nap now. When I get up, I want both of you here in the garden. Understood?”
The coldness in his voice was worse than anger. After he went upstairs I intentionally stepped on some ants and disappeared into the tall grass.
From far away I heard Esin’s voice. She was telling the moms my perfect plan and all.
This story is written for the Jump Start your Writing class I took at PCC.
Much gratitude to our teacher Nancy Woods and all the awesome class mates who encouraged and guided me by listening the very first draft!