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:
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!
I looked over to the other side where Ruya, Mina and their brother were anxiously waiting for us to pass. Technically, they were already in “Club waters.” Behind them stretched the private beach with long chairs and striped cushions, matching umbrellas, sun bathing moms and swimming children. A few waiters in uniforms were walking among them refreshing their drinks. We were not supposed to be seen by them. No way. Especially not entering through a hole in the fence.
I handed the backpack to Mina through the hole and grabbed Esin by the hand. Her hand was shaking and she was already crying.
“C’mon” I said trying to smile, “we are going into the Club. The Club! Look, it is right there. Here, I will hold your hand and Mina will help you on the other side.”
She put her leg through the hole and then stopped.
“It is so rusty this wire” she cried, “We will have to get tetanus shots. I don’t want to go to the hospital again!”
I checked to see if any of the waiters were looking towards our direction. Suddenly I realized that I was not that crazy about swimming in Club waters. I was tired. It would have been more fun if we stayed back home and played the latest Dallas episode with the girls.
But Club was right there, on the other side of the fence! I was so close! So close to that place we were never allowed to go! It was in the Club that the popular kids of the island met…They hung out inside its gates while their parents dined and played cards in the fancy gardens. Among the island kids the ranking was so clear: you were either a member of the Club or you were a loser. We, the losers, played on the streets by the outer walls of the Club. We jumped to see what was on the other side of the walls, or sometimes climbed on each other’s shoulders to take a peek into this unknown land.
Club stretched over a large property of at least several blocks. It had several gardens, restaurants, cafes, a discotheque, a swimming pool, tennis courts, children’s playing grounds, and the beach. There were many gates to enter the Club all around our neighborhood. They were guarded by men in uniforms and a wire fence. Each gate had a golden color metal plate attached to its wall: Club Anatolia- Members Only.
My mom had told me that the Club is not for us. When I wanted to know for what kind of people Club was, she mumbled something like it was for people who have no books in their houses. I would not want to hang out with their children, would I? The public beach that we always went to, the one on the other side of the island was much better and cleaner anyway, no? Also the sewage pipes went under the Club beach and all those people were swimming in poop. Didn’t they know about it? Well, they probably did and most likely they were not swimming but just hanging out there to see and to be seen.
I looked to see if there was any poop floating around us and could not see any. My mom was correct in one thing though. Grown-ups were not swimming. I could see children in the water but no adults. That was good, no one would notice us among all these kids once we were in. I tried not to think how easy it was to tell our anxious faces from the joyful club children’s who were happily swimming and splashing water to each other just a few meters away.
“No way!” I grunted more at myself than at Esin. “Nothing can be more exciting than entering the Club. Right now we are entering. Now you pass through or I will push you through”.
To be continued…stay tuned.
They did not have swimming suits, so we brought an extra pair with us. They always wore our clothes anyway. They were so small compared to me and Esin, so when our clothes did not fit us anymore our moms gave them to Ruya and Mina. Every time they received a heap of t-shirts, shorts, skirts and shoes they knew the proper thank you words and how to show respect to the elderly. Behind their polite silence around the adults I could see how they were exhilarated to own the clothing that was once mine and Esin’s. I always felt like a heroine, a rock star when I was around them. They admired me and loved me so much! Maybe a little too much sometimes!
When it was time to change our clothes they got shy so we resigned to different corners of the garden to change. On their skinny bodies our swimming suits looked too large. The top part of the bikini was absolutely unnecessary. I was a bit concerned about the bottom part as well. What if it floated away once they were in the water? Their legs reminded me the branches of the sour-cherry tree Nene planted the year Esin and I were born. Until the moment I saw them in bikinis, I had not noticed how big their heads were compared to their bodies. Their black eyes looked larger than ever due to the excitement and fear they were feeling.
“Malnourishment” was Nene’s explanation for their size. “These girls can’t grow because they don’t eat proper food. They should eat with us more often”.
But they never did. At the end of the long mornings when we played in our garden when one of the adults called our names (and theirs too) from the upstairs window for lunch, they remembered that they needed to go back home and help mom to prepare lunch. They ate ice cream with us though. In the afternoon when we heard the bells of the ice cream car from the end of our street, mom gave me extra money so that I could treat the girls as well. They could not say no to ice cream. Or maybe they knew that their participation was necessary for me, for their dear heroine, to enjoy her own ice cream. They were right in a way. I could not and would not eat any if they were to stare at me with their big black eyes and empty hands.
They indeed knew so much!
We walked downhill in Old Lady’s garden towards the beach in one line. They followed me silently. Even the 3-year old brother was quiet. In my backpack I was carrying all the plastic swimming devices that I had sneaked out of my parent’s room earlier that day. My father was taking a nap when I tiptoed into the room. Life jackets, a pair of flippers, sleevelets and swimming suits for the 4 of us. I had carefully placed them in my backpack and quietly closed the door. Dad murmured something in his sleep.
When we arrived to the beach I let Mina lead the way. She knew where the hole in the barbed wire was. We followed her into the sea, which reached to the level of our thighs right away. Mina was right. The hole was there but it was too small for me and Esin to pass through. Plus, the wire separating the private beach of the “Club” from Old Lady’s property was rusty.
I watched the girls and their baby brother passing through it with no difficulty. I took a few steps further. The water has reached to the level of my groins and my short were getting wet. I looked at the other side of the barbed wire. Girls were waiting for me to do the move. They were probably expecting me to help Esin to pass through too because I always helped her. Plus this time she had this patch covering her right eye which made her look even more helpless than usual.
She had an eye operation ten days prior and she was not supposed to put her head in water. It was not like she was not supposed to go into the water at all or anything. I tried to reason with my mom and my aunt many times during the previous week. She could have kept her head above the water. We could still go to the beach right? It was ridiculous that we stayed at home the whole day because Esin had to avoid seawater.
How about we still go to the beach but she does not swim? “C’mon,” I begged them, “we always go to the beach. It is too hot to stay at home. And so BORING!!” They did not even listen to me. I cried and yelled at them for being mean and unreasonable. My mom stormed in to the room, grabbed me by my shoulders and hissed into my ear that it would be very, very bad for me at the end if I continued to act like a spoiled brat.
That is how my perfect plan began.
We did not need the adults to go swimming. That was my first point as I later explained to Esin. As long as she kept her head above the water, she was fine. We were not babies anymore. We always spent our time between breakfast and lunch on the street or at Old Lady’s garden anyway, so none of the adults would be concerned about our whereabouts. I thought about each and every possible way that we could be caught and blocked it strategically.
“Plus” I said and stopped to increase the power of my words,
“We will be swimming not just anywhere. Not in the public beach where our moms take us all the time. No. No.”
I watched the anxiety on her one eye slowly being replaced by curiosity and excitement. Just like the clouds in the sky.
“We will swimming at the… Club beach!”
This last one had the bomb effect that I was expecting. She jumped up to her feet! Swimming at the Club beach? Was I serious?
“Yes”, I said, “Now sit down and listen to me carefully!”