A story not to be told
Sunday, July 6. Ali Hasan. A little boy who does not know yet that his father will tow him around the world for some more years to come strides the deck of the ship that will take him, me and his favorite playmate, cousin Sheyma, to one of the Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea some miles south of downtown Istanbul. What a relief to feel the head wind brushing your hair on this hot and awfully humid summer day. The wind is neither cool nor fresh; yet, it blows briskly, drying our trickling sweat, cooling our scalded skin.
Busy looking down on the whirling shapes of the waves Ali Hasan now stands calmly clutching with his little hands the thickly painted bars of the balustrade. Now and then he looks over to me and smiles broadly.
As we have spontaneously and very stupidly chosen a Sunday for our trip the ship is packed with people and since we arrived very late we do not get any seats. Somewhere I grab sheets of a newspaper, spread it on the ground and invite Sheyma to sit down together with me. Sheyma, however, whose mother brings her up with perfectly aseptic care has become such an overly hygienic little lady that she declines politely. I know her mother and her zooming eyes. With microscopic and deadly precision they detect and eliminate every single bacillus that tries to creep on the skin of her daughter unless it solemnly forswears perpetrating any pernicious acts. Since Sheyma was born and kept in an incubator for some weeks after her birth her mother enshrines her in a protective bubble, a world of freshly squeezed fruit juices, carefully prepared healthy meals, regular toothbrushings, a squeaky clean bathroom, tidy bedspreads â€“ well, everything the insignificant income of a father who works as a street vendor allows. It is no surprise to me that she does not want to sit down on the newspaper that I have laid out on the ground although I have exerted myself to make it look as cushy as a princess‘ litter.
Ostensibly I order one of those terribly hot teas served in thin bellied glasses that untrained fingers cannot touch without burning themselves. Next, I get myself a water pipe, cross my legs, lean my back on the lower end of the balustrade, inhale the cool smoke and grin smugly like Sindbad himself. With feigned guiltiness I squint every now and then over to Sheyma beckoning her to join me, luring her with the oriental flute that accompanies me everywhere. No avail, she merely observes me with a disapproving yet affectionate glance and shakes her head.
Ali Hasan does not even think of sitting down, he saunters back and forth on the wooden planks. As always he has a little toy car with him making roaring sounds as he guides it through the maze of planks, arm rests, balustrades.
The sight of Sheyma in her immaculate white T-shirt makes some people move together on a row near to us so she can take a seat. I know that she strongly dislikes the smell of sweat. It is no surprise that she does not sit down there. Well, not that I like discouragingly odorous bodies in particular, yet the prospect of a comfortable wooden seat turns out to be undeniably persuasive to me and I gratefully usurp the kind proposal. Settling in on my new premises I affectionately wink at Sheyma. She turns her head away pretending to watch a big freighter that gears itself to cross the Bosphorus. Eventually, everyone moves together a bit more and now Sheyma deigns to sit down next to me (what a compliment!) to one side and touching the closing armrest on the other side. She takes out something like an English phrasebook as she is about to enter high school. Avidly she ingurgitates all kinds of words and phrases that she deems utterly necessary to communicate in that new language. I try to recall if I started learning English like that. I don’t know if she is as crazy about learning languages as I have become or if she does it only to be the bright pupil that she has always been at the next stage of her education. She is best of class and she will certainly get a very good result in the high school admission exams. But the thing I like most about her is her unflinching will to do what she wants to do. And she has such wonderful ideas on photography. I will give her a swell camera as a present once I have enough money to make gifts of that size. She is so skilled in working with Photoshop that I use to sit behind her for hours watching in awe how her fingers fly deftly over the keyboard, how she manipulates the mouse at vertiginous speeds clicking away on its buttons.
Even though the wind is still a great relief the sun relentlessly scorches our heads. Poor Ali Hasan has not got his cap on. I am afraid that he will get sunstroke. What can I do? — Why not make a hat out of that newspaper that still lies there where I have spread it? But how?
– Sheyma, do you know how to fold this newspaper so that it takes the shape of a hat at the end? Aghast she stares at me.
– But this newspaper lies on the floor. It’s dirty. Don’t think that I will touch it not to mention put it on Ali Hasan’s head!
– Hey, what do you prefer? Having a scruffy newspaper hat on your head or getting heavy sunstroke? Ok, never mind …
Honestly, sometimes I get exasperated at her excessive cleanliness. In the years to come she will walk past so many things that may be well worth experiencing even if the threatening sword of “contamination” is poised over her head. Look, I give you one example: she likes ice-cream, no, she dies for it, most of the time her mother won’t allow her to eat any but as a matter of principle I use to break that rule by bringing ice-cream with me every time I visit their apartment; yet, the ice-cream she eats has to be sealed, untouched. Now she won’t ever try those famous and delicious Marash-style mastic ice-creams that are sold all over Istanbul.
Well save one brand: Mado. This is the only Marash type ice-cream brand that she eats. On Büyük Ada, our final destination, there is a Mado store.
Her father rings her up. Not the first time he calls her today and certainly not the last. He wants to make sure that she is well. Now, she really is and seems very happy judging by her smile. Judge by yourself:
I am not sure, though, if she is happy with me as a listener because I am not able to follow her hastily spoken cascades of phrases that seem to cut short in the middle sometimes. To make things worse – my thoughts wander off from time to time or I feel the urgent need to look at the stupid things Ali Hasan may do. It is as if her brain is competing with her mouth. Many times her mouth wins the race I fear. She seems to be in a permanent hurry as if time is running out; her breathless, toneless way of speaking makes her one-of-a-kind. She is very bright and lively, her eyes are vivid, awake although her eyelids are almost always half-closed so that you may think she is in a state of constant somnambulism.
Once we arrive at Büyük Ada we walk around a little. Ali Hasan wants to go to the beach. He claims his right loudly, waves his arms in protest and literally throws all his 44 pounds against me trying to convince me that the beach is the best place to be in that sweltering heat. Well he probably is right about the beach but we haven’t got anything with us and the beach is quite far away as well.
Finally we make it to Mado. The mastic ice-cream is quite peculiar – sticky, even elastic. The one we order consists of three slices that you eat with knife and fork. What a treat for Sheyma! Gladly she savors her vanilla and pistachio flavored ice-cream looking up once in a while and observing the tourists who come from everywhere in the world, especially from the Arab countries and Iran. I am the happiest man on earth because nothing in the world is more enjoyable than making children happy. Her father calls her again.
Sunday, July 27, 9.35 pm. A bomb explodes on Menderes Street, in the middle of a lively buzzing pedestrian zone in Güngören, Istanbul. At that time on a Sunday evening many people stroll around. They want to get out of their houses that have been heated up by a heavy sun during daytime. Many people rush to the spot where the bomb has gone off. Sheyma who is experimenting with new tools on Photoshop jumps up from her computer and runs to the balcony of their flat on the fourth floor to see what happened. Having watched the commotion for some minutes her father tells her to come back in with him. While she is about to turn around a second bomb detonates. Red was the color she liked most.
I wanted to create something, reflecting on what happened, recounting it somewhat artfully, giving details on her, keeping her alive for some minutes in these lines, with these photos that are the last that exist of her. Many people who lose their beloved ones act like this. A long time I was uncertain whether I should keep everything as I wrote it down. Or not publish it at all. After all, art is not what is called for here. Life tells stories that nobody can ever conceive.
Is it important to know who perpetrated this crime? The only thing that is of importance: Her death should not result in more violence, in more bloodshed. She was a very conciliatory character, full of hope. She was a child. As every child she was the hope of her country. A country of which she had seen all the clashes and contradictions, the clashes that Turkey has lived through to this day. She embodied her country. Although she was born in a religious family with limited means their parents educated her and her sister well. Sheyma’s elder sister (27) graduated from one of the best universities in Turkey and works now on her own 1,000 miles away from her family. Their difference in age is 15 years but they were born on the same day, February 24. 12 years they celebrated that day together. Now her sister will not celebrate her birthday anymore.
July 28, 1-6 am. Today is my birthday. I cannot sleep.
July 28, 1 pm. No sooner had I come out of the airport I rushed to the funeral. The taxi driver who took me there realized that I was a relative of one of the victims. He began to vociferate words of hate. No! She did not die to bring about more hate. Stop it.
Running up the hill that leads to the mosque I see tens of thousands of people gathered around 18 coffins. “Hakkinizi helal ediyor musunuz?” a question the imam asks at funerals “Do you forgo any rights that you may claim against the deceased?” The crowd answers in a single wailing scream: “Helal olsun!” “We do!”
At the end of the ceremony nationalists begin shouting slogans of vengeance and retribution while the coffins are being loaded on green hearses that take the dead to their graves.
July 28, 3 pm, Kocasinan Graveyard, Istanbul. A plank with her name and the day of burial sticks out of the damp earth. July 28 used to be my birthday. It won’t be anymore. I haven’t been born to see the light of this world for there is no light.
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- 8.6.08 / 1pm