Saturday, December 13, 2014

Barbecue, pt. 1

Every one of Mustafa's siblings, except for his brother who lives in London, plans to attend the barbecue to celebrate their meeting Vera for the first time. All except the youngest of Mustafa's eight siblings are in their thirties or forties, married, with one child. Only one of the eight siblings, one brother, has had more than one child.

The first day I overhear Mustafa's grandmother lamenting the absence of grandchildren. My daughter Vera lives far away and will not grow up to be an Alevi child, she says. She repeats herself and talks of the burning of her village and the family members that were killed when the village was burned. Sometimes she cries remembering her forgotten dead. She speaks in Turkish and I understand much, but not all, of  what she says. Sometimes my responses clue her in to some incomprehension and she asks me again, "Do you speak Turkish?"

Mustafa's mother speaks primarily Kurdish and a little Turkish. I glean from the others that in raising her eight children, she has been mostly home bound and therefore hasn't had much contact with Turks or Turkish. Her situation as a linguistic outsider reminds me of my own and I feel that I am beginning to understand the powerful communication conveyed by her first hug. I understand the fear of being forgotten because one can not entertain through words, and I want Vera to kiss and love her in a simple way as my daughter too does not yet have a vocabulary to communicate powerful feelings through words.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Mustafa's relations in Izmir

To reach Izmir we had traveled by bus through the night for close to nine hours. Around midnight the bus boarded a ship. Mustafa and I, pushing Vera in her stroller, walked up and down the ship deck, admiring the moon's reflection on the water.

My purpose as I saw it was to be the middleman between Vera and Mustafa because she still refused to interact with him. She would not let him hold her. She would not respond to his questions. She simply did not acknowledge him. That broke my heart a little because I had once been on the receiving end of such non-acknowledgment from Vera. It was difficult to know what could be done to help him find his way into her emotional landscape. She was a fickle two-year-old and she acknowledged whomever she felt like acknowledging.

We arrived in Izmir early the next morning after driving through most of the night. The Turkish bus we took was far above our comparable American Greyhound busses. The seats were large and comfortable. Every passenger had his or her own television monitor with a choice of at least 40 feature length films to watch. At the bus terminals, there were nicely decorated and clean separate changing rooms, equipped with wipes, clean disposable paper cloths to cover the changing tables, and nice sturdy padded changing tables.

His youngest brother picked us up at the bus terminal. He was just 21 years old, and he drove his Hyundai Accent at a furious speed, tailgating and weaving on the highway. Vera was in my arms because that is how children are transported in Turkey. There are no car seat laws and I think that I have never seen Turks use one.  This brother of Mustafa's seemed alright, but I never trusted him after this. He had broken the cardinal rule: "Do not drive like an idiot with a toddler in the car."

We walked up a steeply inclined paved road to the first wrought iron gate on the left hand side that was open. Inside stood Mustafa's mother and grandmother holding bowls of black and green berries picked from the fruit tree shading their lovely garden. They both had beautiful, open faces. His mother had wide cheekbones, dark eyelashes, and beautiful green eyes. His grandmother had the same eyes but smaller cheekbones, and was at least a head shorter than his mother.

They kissed and hugged me and said how glad they were that Vera and I came.

I was very moved by this display of affection. Their warm embrace reminded me of the smile and wave from Mustafa on the balcony--acknowledgement that we were not alone, that we were loved.

Vera and I had not even said anything yet.  Love was conditional when I grew up. One had to perform. There were risks. We were first-generation immigrants. We only had what we had because we performed to the satisfaction of others--teachers, parents, employers, you name it.  But the embrace coming from these women was an embrace that came from a joy in your existence. It was unconditional and therefore moving to me as I had trained myself to view love as always strictly conditional and retractable.

The possibility of having Vera's father nearby

The first day back in Istanbul was a sunny, cheerful one. When Vera and I lost our way back, I pulled out the sheet of paper Mustafa had given me with our address and his phone number on it. A shopkeeper not far from Mustafa's place proceeded to call the number on the piece of paper. At about the same moment, I saw Mustafa leaning over the balcony, phone to his ear, waving at Vera and me and smiling. My heart soured at the prospect of how it could be, the possibility of having Vera's father nearby to write down directions and carry strollers and buy milk or formula if we needed it. I was exhaling after the last two years of tightening under a constant strain of worry and fear. Where had he been all this time when I had always loved him? And Minefe, what had happened to the girl he had always told me he preferred and truly loved? She sometimes spends the night, he said. You will get to see her before the end of your visit. There was a box of condoms by the bed that I suspected were there for Minefe's occasional visits.

I vowed that he and I would not have sex again, not until I got some sort of commitment. Besides, I was not even supposed to have sex after the abortion for another week and a half. I felt almost no pain anymore after the abortion. That fact enraged me too because the doctors at the abortion clinic had been required by Texas law to inform me that the risk of death and permanent infertility were high and I was risking an awful lot by undertaking this procedure. In reality, I had felt pretty much back to normal after just a few days. Recovering from childbirth had taken much longer, at least two or three months. "They will say anything, even things that are patently untrue, to achieve their political goal of ending abortion," I thought to myself and seethed all over again.

Mustafa and I were friends. I had given birth to his daughter, but he had not been able to love me. Why were we here? Vera followed me everywhere. She would not leave my side. She talked to Mustafa very little. She seemed to be piecing it all together and Mustafa watched her constantly--with a pride that he could not contain and that also filled me with pride.

She had a beautiful blonde curly head of hair, the biggest and bluest eyes, an impish smile and mischievous character. She attracted attention wherever she went, and in her shy, watchful way, she fed off this attention. In Taksim Square, Turkish men in particular commented on her beauty. She startled me with her beauty too because Mustafa and I both had large, unconventional faces and big noses--how could we together have created so much beauty? this astonished me.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Simple needs

I think that I have simple needs. Why had Mustafa brought us back to Turkey and then as usual, he was not there to help us? We waited at the airport, and waited and waited, and he did not come.

My two year old and I flew from Dallas to Istanbul via Paris and Zurich, Vera cried all the way from Zurich to Istanbul because I left the formula on the Paris-Zurich plane. A gay couple shot catty glances back at us. "She's hungry, okay!" They said nothing but shot another angry look back. A gray-haired Korean woman offered gummies for me to give to her and those seemed to distract her a little. Mustafa will be there when we arrive. He will pick us up in a car and drive us to his apartment, which will be stocked with delicious Turkish food. 

At the airport there was no sign of Mustafa. Over the airport loudspeaker I would not dare to call him by his real name for fear of getting him in more trouble with the Turkish government. They announced his  fake screen name repeatedly and he was nowhere. Would he not come? Should we turn back around and go back to Dallas, having seen only the airport and nothing more.

I pushed all the luggage and Vera in the stroller back and forth between the sliding doors outside of customs and the information desk for lost persons. I needed to open Skype to find his number and borrow someone's phone, but we had no Turkish lira and would need to exchange money. With the stroller, the two year old, the luggage, the backpack and the laptop, in the search or an ATM to exchange money, the tears began to roll down my cheeks. 

"Is everything alright?" said the attractive woman. "Please, you're scaring your child. Would you like to use my phone?"
"I don't know the number. I have to look it up on Skype."
"Please come with me," she said.

The woman was wearing a navy suit and a Lufthansa name tag. We were taken to a Lufthansa office and Vera was given a big piece of a cake with pink icing and bright blue lettering. Lufthansa personnel came in to talk to her and to talk about themselves, their nieces or grandchildren or daughters who were also toddlers or thereabouts.

"Hello," Mustafa answered.
"Where are you?"
"At work."
"We have been waiting for two hours."
"I'll meet you at Cafe Mocha on the first floor. I'll leave right now."

I was speaking in Turkish to Mustafa. The Lufthansa personnel now knew I could speak Turkish and they all switched immediately to the first language in which they were more comfortable. A short, smiling older man said he would help us carry the luggage to Caffe Mocha. By the time we arrived at the cafe, Vera had fallen asleep. I thanked him repeatedly and then he was gone. Left alone again, I thought to myself, "Christ, this was why you made absolutely the right decision in leaving Turkey because you could never rely on Mustafa for anything."

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The abortion

I had the abortion at 39 years of age. Even at 39, the sense of escaping a relationship with someone I had never loved filled me with an ecstasy of relief. I wanted to kiss all the nurses and doctors who had gotten me out of jail. They were my heroes because they had saved me from a mistake that would have destroyed me financially, emotionally and otherwise. There would have been no explaining away the boyfriend's political affiliations, the racist apologias translated into eleven languages. I knew any day the College would find the white supremacist treatises published under his own name and fire him just as he had been fired from at least three other institutions of higher learning for the same inflammatory rhetoric.

I cleared my calendar, drove myself to the appointments in Dallas, and seethed inwardly at the religious zealots who tried to stop me from having this abortion. They said, fragile flower that I was, I could not know my own mind. Bullshit! I would rather throw myself off a bridge than give birth to that baby. How dare they project standard, conventional feelings onto me that I absolutely did not feel. How dare they impose poverty and servitude and disaster on me shrouded in their rhetoric of moral rectitude. I wanted to spit in their faces for their judgment and condemnation. I vowed that the church had lost me for good because of their crazed, fanatical followers who invaded my sexuality and my body and imposed themselves with generalities that did not apply to me.

The students wrote research papers about abortions which I marked up with comments like "Textual support?" and "Specific examples?" but which forced me to remove my body and mind from the grading. They would like for us to become mindless zombies. They would like for us to grow larger and larger families and remove ourselves from our pregnancies completely like the handmaids in A Handmaid's Tale, forgetting the particulars of love and equating all sex as only good in so far as it is procreative. They are worse than the fundamentalists in Turkey because they impose themselves more fanatically into your life even though they don't know you and don't really care for you.

If I saw Peter at faculty meetings, I looked away. I had betrayed him but I had had to betray him to save myself, and if the doctor had not done the abortion that day, then I would have had to go to a late term abortion clinic at great expense and with even more politics to batter through in order to get my damned abortion and go home.

The day of the abortion marks the moment the church died to me and I began to live for myself and my happiness. I had ventured too far away from the church of my youth and I would never venture back again.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ben, AKP, Istanbul and me

The Gulenists had built beautiful, well-functioning hospitals and schools on the Asian side. AKP, Erdogan's (pronounced "Ehr-do-ahn") party had financed the canal projects along the Bosphorus for hundreds of millions of lira.

In the summer of 2011, when Vera and I came back to Turkey, there was so much money in Turkey. Every sector was growing, from tourism, to commercial businesses, to education, and a better educated, more multilingual workforce was changing the impression of Turkey in Europe and in other nearby parts of the world.

So why was there also so much uneasiness? Many of the smartest, the best, in the country had left or were planning on leaving. The police officer Hakkan had passed his foreign service exam and was now working at the Turkish embassy in Cuba. Begum, one of my best former students, was doing everything she could to go abroad. "The way things are going, there's no place for us," she had said.

I thought about that after she left. Who was "us"? I knew she was an adamant supporter of CHP, the opposition party to AKP, as were most of my literature students. I also knew she had spent a year in the Midwest and her English was impeccable. 95% of my students, when asked who their biggest hero was, in a survey I distributed, answered Ataturk. But Ataturk, with his pro-European stance on Turkey and his alleged drinking, was becoming another AKP target (even if they couldn't directly attack him because of the laws set up after the founding of the Republic.).

The Mavi Marmara incident the summer before had polarized relations between Israel and Turkey, and AKP had done nothing to stop this polarization. They had even agreed to put money behind a museum to memorialize those who died on the Mavi Marmara. Nine Muslims were killed when Israeli soldiers boarded the Turkish ship on its way to Gaza. A PR disaster followed when Israelis found only humanitarian aid on the ship. It was a staged event and a provocation, but it had dampened relations between Turkey and Israel to such a degree that apparently in the year that followed almost one-third of the Turkish Jews remaining in Turkey left for Israel.

A map of the results of the referendum the previous August showed a country as politically divided as the red and blue states in the United States. Only AKP was steadily gaining and there was no viable opposition to control their power.

The Erdogans behaved more and more like untouchable royalty. Tayyip's daughter even demanded that a theater performance be halted because she claimed one of the actors tried to flirt with her. She also objected to a scene in which two actors on stage, a man and a woman, kissed. The performance was stopped so that she and her entourage of security escorts could leave the theater.

(to be continued)

Friday, August 1, 2014


Ben: I lost his friendship for good when I became a mother. I had not anticipated that that experience of being a mother would change my perceptions as much as it did. After the birth, I viewed everything through the lens of this tiny creature. What if the future came, Vera were 24 instead of 3 months, and what if she were dating Ben? Would I want her happiness to be entrusted to such a person?

Ever since graduate school, I have had at least one close friend who wrote. It comforted me to occupy a private writing space and to know that someone else I was close to was engaged in the same kind of enterprise. Ben wrote constantly. He wrote poems while teaching, at committee meetings, at bars. He was more prolific than any other writer I knew. In his poetry he was precise, engaging, whimsical, and romantic. In his real life I never quite trusted him. He seemed to be playing a great cat and mouse game with his wife that had turned him into a cynical and even somewhat dangerous person. He once likened his social machinations to those of George W. Bush's campaign strategist Karl Rove. He could employ "scorched earth" policies with those he no longer needed or trusted.

There were frequent purges of his Facebook friends (he rarely had more than 130), purges of the most innocuous people, students, some of whom had re-friended him after being purged once before. Who goes to such lengths to purge students? A drastic kind of person does such dramatic and final things with people who are younger and who are in a weaker position. But Ben did such things frequently. His behavior baffled me.

We had a completely platonic relationship. We sent each other our work, we lamented our disappointments --writing, romantic and otherwise--and we were like family. In a foreign country, having family nearby is like having one's sanity within arm's reach. Speaking the same language, growing up in the same culture, with the same cultural references, he reminded me of a familiar old friend, the kind of friend with whom too much time has passed to ever become romantic. "If we had wanted to hook up, we would have done so by now" would have been our response to the prospect.

Yet I was a witness to his unraveling private life. Aida followed Nurtan: Nurtan followed Meryem. Aida was petite, like Meryem, but she did not quite have Meryem's mischievous sense of humor. Aida took life more seriously. For one thing her father was not a prominent judge in Istanbul, and she did not quite have the sexy, playful hair and body that Meryem had. Meryem had magnificent, voluminous hair.

Everyone, including his wife, knew he was madly in love with Meryem. In fact, he had lost his job teaching literature at Izmitkabasa after someone sent photographs of Meryem sitting on her professor's lap on a park bench in Moda. There were photos of them kissing and laughing, and they were sent out to the department head, the judge (Meryem's father), and Ben's wife. I think it was right about then that Ben and Meryem disappeared and everyone said that they had driven to the border to elope. I never did ask why they needed to marry in another country. Perhaps because Ben was already married and there was already documentation in the Turkish records office indicating as much.