A Turkish Vignette
My friend Ö. is a tiny little man: perfect little hands, perfect feet, perfectly dressed. His hair is light brown, he is clean-shaven. In my opinion, he was also a wonderful translator of Turkish poetry into English, a brilliant, thoughtful man, eloquent about “modernism,” “desire,” and other things that literary people use to discuss the books they like. In Istanbul, we would sit up late and hold long conversations about writing, life, literature, music, art…. Oh, we talked! Over Nescafé—that abomination Turks drank since losing the Ottoman coffee-growing territories—or over varying fractions of a liter of our favorite cheap red Turkish wine. He loved Melville, Jack London, and e.e. cummings. He loved Scarlatti and an English woman who sings French chansons: he and another friend once called me on the spur of the moment to come over and watch a videotape of her concert in Istanbul. She was thin, sexy, and forty-ish. I don’t remember her name.
Ö. had two sound systems, each very compact, that he had put together. One was for his videos and one was exclusively for music. He bought additional parts here and there and the basics from the same appliance store where we both made monthly payments for items we could neither live without nor pay for in one fell swoop—space heaters, a new stove, electric samovars, even pots and pans.
I remember when he and I were still working together at Kuçuk Kent Universitesi, far, far from the neighborhood where we lived—a destination requiring a two hour commute each way and two changes from bus to subway to metro. (Ö. complained bitterly there and back the whole time.) The place where we changed from bus to subway was an open square; and on Fridays men would spread used electric gadgets and tools, for sale, on a low table. Among them I found a foreshortened hammer for a doorstop, and Ö. found two “tweee-ters” that he bought to increase the fidelity of his speaker system. On our return, I watched him install his find. His small, eloquent hands twisted the wires together and very carefully threaded them into metal plates, wrapping them around protruding screws to make contact. Then he balanced them on the shelf behind the speakers. (I guess if you have a gift for languages, you inherently have sensitive hearing; for anything less than a perfect system must grate upon a fine-tuned ear.) The sound, I admit, was richer.
A decade ago, Ö. spent some time as a graduate student in Scandinavia. He hated it. The weather was cold, the nights were long, the fish was raw, people were distant and depressed. “I felt humiliated,” he said, “by the clannish, right-leaning Aryans I met.” As a foreigner he had neither the privileged status of an outsider, nor the welcome of a wayfaring stranger: “I was not human. Really.” His study was an esoteric combination of anthropology and something unlikely (perhaps psychiatry, as he talked about Freudian theory a lot). In the frozen social ambiance of Scandinavia he got progressively gloomier and gloomier. By some terrible mistake, he had taken up residence in his own private antipodes: “You know, one of the typical replies to a comment someone might make—like you Americans’ ‘uh huh’—in Turkish is ‘hhnn!’ said with a kind of nasal aha’d huff.” In Scandinavia, Ö. explained, they gave a sharp intake of breath, as if someone slapped a bag of ice on the back of their necks. “Norwegians inhale; Turks exhale.”
The fjords, he continued, “were deep wounds through the forest;” and the forest, “hostile, pointed and furred.” At one point was the city and, abruptly, the savage evergreens. While he had a few friends—other expatriates—I believe he also had several unsuccessful intimate relationships. But, he said, men of his “type,” as he put it, and even much more beautiful, “dark Middle Eastern boys,” were not desired. At the bar they went home, desperate, with the old, the alcoholic, the rejected.
And so, one day, Ö. walked away from his graduate committee, his professors, his PhD, his dissertation, that awful place where the sun hardly shone. He wandered aimlessly southward, into Portugal; and though I do not believe he deliberately chose it as such, it was an antidote to his Northern experience. He smiled a wan, perfect smile: “The streets wind up and down in Lisbon, they are cobbled and dusty, the sea is always whispering in your ear.” I’d like to think that whisper bound up some of his wounds—perhaps it didn’t exactly heal him, but it was a little like his native Turkey—Bursa, Konya, even old Stamboul. Portugese has “shh” sounds, like the Turkish tailed “s”; on the other hand, it has dipthongs, which confound the Turks because, in their language, no vowel goes unpronounced. But the music—if any music approaches the sorrow of the Turkish arabesk or the Anatolian lament, it is fado, that choke-voiced wail of unresolved passion.
One night in Lisboa, Ö. went into a fado bar. He went in late, to take shelter from cold, damp weather. The place was darker than the grave; and inside sitting at a table, he saw an older man eating a lovely fish soup. The music was rising to a wail. The singer was only practicing, so the music would stop now and then, unexpectedly, in the midst of an anguished cry. Wanting to strike up a conversation, Ö. sat down next to the old man.
“Boa tah-jay,” Ö. said, using a Brazilian “h” for an “r.” The old man took a spoonful of fish swimming in broth. Then set down his spoon. Started another mouthful. Put down his spoon. Boa Tar-day, he said, correcting Ö.’s pronunciation. He turned back to his soup.
“I didn’t know what to do—I was desperate,” Ö. told me. The fado singer had stopped practicing, the place was quiet, but for the slurry of the old man and his soup.
Finally, Ö. turned to him and said, with great dignity, “I am a Turk.”
Perhaps the sheer and precious rarity of my friend’s beginnings got the better of the old Lusophone. For they began to converse.
Bronwyn Mills’s books include Night of the Luna Moths and a fabulist novel, Beastly’s Tale. Her work appears in Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetic_s, and she guest-edited the Turkish issue of Absinthe: New European Writing (#19). From time to time she publishes work on African vodou. The prose editor of both Tupelo Quarterly and The Wall, a new international journal,_ she has lived in Paris, New York City, Istanbul, West Africa, and Latin America. (updated 8/2017)