Friday, August 1, 2014

Ben

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.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Meryem: Minus one


She was not like the other Turkish female students. She was not recalcitrant, not defensive, not insecure, and she didn't oscillate disconcertingly between obsequiousness and arrogance. She had charisma, and her own sense of style. She wore a driver's cap, a vest, Converse sneakers, and the tightest stone-washed jeans I have ever seen. Her sense of style veered toward tomboy and in the pouting expression, she even echoed James Dean. Yes, there was something of the James Deanette about her -- especially in the pouting expression and the attitude.

"Do you find us aggressive?"

"We're used to being afraid. Our primary and secondary school teachers made us like this. We're afraid of the dark.

"I still sleep with my little brother, you know?"

I did not realize the fury with which they hated her, not until a few days before that afternoon when her detractors came to me, demanding that I fail her presentation for plagiarism, insisting that she had insulted them, and should be punished for this. Once again it had become clear to me that I was no longer teaching at an American university. Allegiances and antipathies ran deep and shunning fellow students publicly was not unusual. "Wasn't it too long?" one normally truant student had piped up when I had asked for questions at the end of her classmate's presentation. To me what was unacceptable hostility, to them was an innocent question related to length.

The previous semester, before I knew anything at all, she had waited until the last day of classes, timing it so that other deadlines might shrink the class size to four or five, to give her presentation. To build herself up, she had visited me every day in my office for a week to talk about the presentation. Yes, I had defended her against them, but that was because the noise levels grew and grew until she could no longer concentrate.

"What is a 'doofus'? What is 'obnoxious'?"

These were the words she tripped over when they asked for their meaning.

"Oh Miss, I will miss you so much. You don't know how much."

I wanted to talk to her about the students, about how they came to demand that I fail her and to tell her that I thought she was right to ask them to be quiet, but I also heard in the back of my mind the cynical words of her ex-boyfriend, now abandoned, now betrayed.

"10% chance she wants to see you just for the grade. She has to graduate, you know. How'd she do on the midterm?"

"She didn't write the essay questions. She answered all ten ID's and didn't write a single essay question. She didn't read the directions."

"Meryem, what is she doing? At least write the essay questions."

That was my feeling as well. She needed to graduate. She was taking anti-depressants and seeing a psychiatrist. More than that, she needed to get away from those who hated her and whose hate fed off each other. In John Stuart Mill's words, she constituted a majority of one, and they - they who would destroy her -- constituted everyone else. And did they really believe their rhetoric, at night when they closed their eyes and thought about their days, did they really believe they were right? "We're 100% right," this they had told me, and in saying so, they had proved that they had gained nothing from four years of studying literature. Theodor Adorno once called the mark of an authoritarian one who "could not accept ambiguity," but they were all terrible with ambiguity. Ralph Ellıson called the blues “an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others or by one's own human failing.” This art of ambiguity was lost on them as she was lost, and as I watched her drown and did nothing, I felt a tremendous sorrow for all that we had all lost in doing nothing.

Snow



Hakkan reassured me that he and the entire Beyoglu police would come immediately and protect me if the Big Bad Wolf came to attack me on the dark streets behind Kumbaraci Street. But before this happened: SNOW. It had snowed. The streets went empty, my internet connection was lost, and I had gone out in search of those pills. Yes, that was it.

No, that wasn't it exactly. The Swiss Turkish man with the scratches on his bald head, what had happened with him? I sat down at a table at the coffee shop and took the pills, and not long after that, he seated himself a few tables from me and asked for a pen and then he started talking and kept on talking, always in German, so that no one else in the coffee shop could understand. In German he had confessed to killing a man the night before and losing his passport.

If only his fingernails hadn't been quite so dirty.
If only he hadn't told me that he had beaten in the door of his sister's trailer
In the name of her honor
Because he had bought the trailor to keep her safe,
and now she held onto a man fifteen years her junior
by putting him up in her trailer.

Then, there was the talk of religion and the Holy Koran and its Suras and the unbelievable fabrications about his daughter at Oxford on scholarship.
In which program, he didn't know?
In which college, he didn't know that, either.

That was the day I found out about Mustafa's calls to Ayşe. He was in love with Ayşe, not me, despite her repeated rebuffs, or so she claimed, but could I trust her? Could I trust anyone in this place? But, yes, of course, it was true, it had to be true. Why would she tell me this if it wasn't true? She could push for him but apparently by her own words, they were not together. She didn't care for him. So it was true. That morning I had gone out in search of a pharmacy because even I was not stupid enough to have Mustafa's child. And with this conservative government in power, wouldn't I be humiliated or dressed down by the pharmacist? I had no ring on my finger and no man by my side and it was snowing and cold and there was no one on the street. But in Istanbul I could expect only and always to be surprised. Not even a flicker in the eyes when I asked for the pills, no moral condemnation, no price gauging of the embarrassed sinner.

Did they know who I was sleeping with? Could they see it in my eyes? No, the blonde hair and blue eyes protected me. A little fun between Europeans on holiday, no one would bat an eye to that, as long as they're dropping Euros in the country, who cares what they're getting up to in their hotel suites, right?

"The weather's nasty today, isn't it?" the pharmacist said, smiling.
"Yes, it's terrible," I answered. "Really cold and wet."
"You will take all of these pills at once. You will not take one now and one later, yes?"
"Yes," I answered.

I called Ayse to tell her the story about the Turkish Swiss man speaking in German about his capital crimes. The streets were crowded again, just like before, just like a normal holiday. I thought of calling Mustafa after talking to Ayse to tell him I had gotten the pills and it had gone well enough, but his line was cut and his work number had changed. Maybe she had his work number among her things - this was how it started. He was one who who set up our first meetings and she was the one who had been on the other end of the line when he had called for a translation of what I was trying to say that first day when I had needed the verification of residency.

"He doesn't know how to keep a distance, Mustafa. I told him to think of you, not me. I'm not talking to him anymore. Look to Natasha, I said."
"What exactly did he say about me?"
"Not much, he doesn't talk about you."
"No, I mean at first. How bad was it?"
"He doesn't say much. He's not right in the head -- it's not your fault. He's just not right."

Fifteen minutes later she called me again. "Jonathan's coming," she said. Jonathan was her English ex-boyfriend. "He's bringing Aysun. Hang on, he just texted me....they're there already," she said.
"Where?"
"In Taksim."

But what could they do? How could they help? This was an emotional, not a physical problem. If Mustafa did not love me, what could I do? Hiç bir sey. Nothıng. My only consolatıon was my rıght to moral indignatıon. When all else failed, I still had outrage. Yes, I had gained the privilege of shrewishness, the tired whining swan song of the unloved. I could break out my Tori Amos albums and holler into my Ipod about romantic injustice.

Those letters written in fits of anger, for whom are they written? My angriest letters were more pathetic lamentations to myself, expressions of disgust over how I could be so very stupid. And when I was in the presence of kind good people -- people like Devrim -- I felt ashamed that I had allowed my anger to control me. And what was I angry at myself for? For my sexuality. Yes, that was unacceptable. If I were a Turkish girl, I would have kept that out of the relationship completely. We European and Americans, we were promiscuous they said. But was it promiscuity still after nine months, a year, ten years. How long before one became legitimate? Without marrying, and thus implicitly becoming Turkish and Muslim, one was always a promiscuous infidel. I didn't like the terms anymore. Actually, I had never much liked them, but now I felt personally wounded by them. Mustafa wasn't even a Sunni, but an Alevi, a curious sect which mixed elements of Christianity and Islam, and believed in tolerance and universalism and equality between the sexes. Oh fuck it, he just didn't like me. This had nothing to do with being an infidel or an unbeliever or being promiscuous; this just had to do with me. I couldn't piece it together.

Ayşe, huh? Well, even I liked Ayşe. She had a great sense of humor and a funny way of telling stories and she was a feminist and did interesting photography projects for her degree. Yes, ok, she was in her thirties and still hadn't finished school and never worked and lived off, what? I could never really figure this out, how did she live? How did she make money? There was the two year relationship with an Englishman making heaps of money in graphics and advertising; maybe he had paid for her housing and other expenses. I took care of myself, I always took care of myself, and that got me precisely where exactly? Walking through the snow on the coldest day of the year on the way to the pharmacist, I thought of that joke about the pigs.

"Why are European women so promiscuous?"
"Because they eat pork, and pigs are promiscuous animals."

Yes, it was a funny one. I couldn't stop laughing as I walked through the snow on the coldest day of the year on the way to the pharmacist.

the end of an era

and I locked
the door then
put out the
lights
got myself a beer
and
sat there
in the dark
drinking
alone.

and
I liked that
so
much
that
that's the way
I continued to live
from then on.

there were no more
parties
and
after that
the writing got much
better

everything got much
better
because:

you've got to
get rid of
false friends and
bloodsuckers first
before they
destroy
you.

--Charles Bukowski's "The End of an Era" (lines 160-199)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Elegantly Dressed Wednesday: Christina Fallin of Pink Pony




Nurtan and Aida

Ben and I both were becoming more aware of the great chasm between appearance and reality in Istanbul.  First, I dated Hakkan, who was very likely gay and yet was introducing me around as if I were his girlfriend. Now, Ben was dating Nurtan, who claimed to be religious  and yet was dating an obviously married man. Even more surprising, Nurtan had an American ex-boyfriend that she had kept a secret from her parents for the last two years and she was apparently no longer a virgin.

I remembered what Mustafa and Ayse had said about women's virginity in Turkish culture. Both agreed that religious Turkish women who were not virgins faced all manner of hardships if they wanted to live an independent life from their parents. Marriage was still the best alibi for a young woman who wanted to be free of her parents' watchful gaze. According to Ben, Nurtan did not want to marry her American boyfriend, and she also didn't want to marry a religious Turkish man who shared no interests with her, and then she met Ben, a married literature professor who wrote poetry and seemed the perfect candidate to understand her.

My sympathy for  Nurtan rose again once I saw her in a photograph of a Gokhan departmental picnic. She was wearing the headscarf and a thick pair of clunky glasses. She had olive skin, dark eyebrows and small features. She did not smile but rather she stared piercingly at the camera, looking desperately unhappy. As it turned out, Nurtan was just an interim girlfriend before the next one, a pretty young Kazan sociology student named Aida who was also infatuated with Ben.

She was a petite and young looking 24. She still spoke nostalgically of her summer in Orlando, Florida working for Disneyworld. Her parents were nominally Muslim but not overbearingly strict with her. She spoke contemptuously of Turkish men, said men on the street talked to her like she was a prostitute when they heard she was from the former Soviet republic. Many prostitutes in Istanbul were from the smaller republics of the former Soviet Union. In fact, they had a nickname for such women: "Natashas," as if everyone with this common Russian name sold her body for money.

When Aida lost her temper online, the solemn and dignified way in which she defended her personhood impressed upon me that she was a strong personality who would not stand by and be wronged without a fight.

This impression I had of her as someone not to be crossed was further bolstered when a year after my return to the States, she contacted me. She wanted to know what she could do to make Ben lose his job at Gokhan University. He had lived with her for seven or eight months and then out of the blue he had gone back to his wife. This second time around I opted not to get involved. I didn't want to make anyone lose his job and certainly not Ben. Even though we were no longer friends, there was nothing I wanted to do to harm Ben. At the same time, I never wanted to see him harm others, especially not young women living in a culture that adamantly did not accept women's premarital or extramarital sexuality.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Depending on the quality of exchange..."

 

My memories of that last year in Istanbul are still relatively clear. I can make out the emotions conveyed through faces, but I can't quite see their composition, how the parts fit the whole. My feelings about living in the city worsened in the winter when the tourists no longer came in such high numbers. The energy on the streets was more negative. It was in the winter when a cab driver refused to drop me at my apartment building. He stopped the taxi on a dead-end street in the early evening and demanded that I pay about twice the going rate for the 10 minute drive from Besiktas to Cihangir. If it had been late at night, I might have been scared, but as the incident occurred, I remember being surprised more than anything else, surprised that I had been unlucky because most of my cab drivers had been nice. I can't remember whether I paid him the extortionate sum he demanded. I think that I didn't since I recall hearing the screeching of tires as he drove off, furious that his demand had not been met.

The most frightening of these exchanges precipitated my decision to move back to the United States.I was about five or six months pregnant, not yet showing, although the pregnancy by then was longstanding to me. I had gone to my office on game day and wanted to walk a little from the university, along the Bosphorus towards Cihangir, before getting on the bus to go home. Besiktas game days were chaotic and there were often injuries. My office mate's sister broke an arm at a Besiktas game when she got caught in a chanting, moving crowd between the stands and the exit gates of the stadium.

Walking towards Dolmabahce Palace, I could hear the fans chanting. They chanted inside the stadium and outside on the nearby streets, traveling in packs of three and four. Their chants made them sound like meatheads, impersonating what they believed real men were supposed to sound like. They faked deep baritone voices and tried to sing like one another. If I were being charitable, I would say they came off as a little immature, but most of the time I thought of them as proles, reminiscent of the proles in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four who so enthusiastically participated in Two Minute Hate and Hate Week, where they could be whipped into a frenzy against the enemies of the state. Only for the Besiktas fans, the enemies of the state were the fans of other Istanbul soccer teams like Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Kasimpasa.

Mustafa never understood my disdain for these traveling packs of chanting idiots. He supported Besiktas and even bought Vera a Besiktas jersey, which she wore a few times during that last trip to Istanbul, but which she has never put on since that time.  The jersey was black and white stripes and reminded me of the old prison inmate shirts, except the stripes were vertical rather than horizontal. His unwavering support for Besiktas was intricately bound up with his working class, leftist identity. If I really wanted our own alliance to end permanently, I would have dug in my heels and said I favored Fenerbahce, the capitalist team that symbolized the enemy to him.

(To be continued, "Depending on the quality of exchange..." part 2)