Monday, March 29, 2010

A Sunday Painting, yani.

Sunday. A warm wind and the sun bright in the morning. I went down to the seaside to sketch the sailboats pouring out of the marina docks. Hundreds of them on the horizon, turned every which way. The Marmara looked like a page from a trigonometry book, triangle sails facing me, turned away, curved in the wind, slightly angled to the right and left, turning left and right, fluttering. Acute, obtuse, isosceles, equilateral, jigs and mainsails. White on dark sea blue. The sky was milky with haze. You could see the mountains near Izmit floating as vague gray shapes above the water. Even the freighters far out to sea looked like they were drifting on white cloud.
The park filled with flowers, pink cherry blossoms, bright yellow dandelions, blue clover blossoms.
At night, Delal and I went to Moda Teras, a fancy restaurant on a bluff with a sweeping view over the Marmara and her islands. A black storm was rolling off the European shores. We watched the shadow creep across sunset pink clouds, over the old Sultan's palace and Hagia Sophia before starting over the water. Lightning flashes. It looked like summer. And on the way home it rained furiously, big-drop warmish rain, not that winter drizzle that has depressed me for the past month. We took shelter under a bus stop and talked about the storms back home--me Florida storms and she Bingol storms, about how frightening the thunder is, like bombs. The football match between rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahce had just finished and cars were blaring their horns. Fener had won. Rain on the plastic roof. A huddle of men smoking and talking furiously about the game.

The Next Sunday

Sun. Fire. Flame. Heat. Scorch. Glare. White. Light.
Summer. May.
The tourists are here. A group of Germans took over a fish restaurant last night. There were Brits wandering the bars. Tourist sites make everything seem unreal, like a set. They take pictures by the old Ottoman wharf. "Old Ottoman". "Ancient Byzantine". Those words fly around here as thick as the gulls and crows.
Everyone's ready with a history lesson. There are ancient Byzanine walls, ancient Byzantine cemeteries, ancient Byzantine churches and towers, Old Ottoman fountains, Old Ottoman mosques, and graves, but the only thing real is me, longing for my imagined home, for my Florida swamps and fireflies. The air is still. The sky is white. The rooftops wrinkle with escaping heat. The junk peddler is calling up from the street. "Eskiiiiiiiiici." He's got a cartload of plastic toys, a vacuum cleaner and some books.
A hammer. Clank. A gull squawk. A dull traffic roar. The rumble of a truck going by. A neighbor beating her rug. Thump. The toddler next door squawling.
This is a moment, a frame, a piece of my mind--gone already.
I cut my fingernails out on the balcony. It seems like a did it yesterday, but here they are back again. Is this how time is marked off? Hair cuts and beard shaves and season after season. Tick tock tick tock, routine cycles rolling us toward the end of the show?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Aziz Nesin's "How Do I Write, You Ask?"

This story may mainly be of interest to writer friends, but I think it's funny for everyone, of course. I translated it for my roommate's birthday present. This is for you, The Michael!

How Do I Write, You Ask?
by Aziz Nesin
Translated by Jeff Gibbs

I got a letter; it wasn't only to me. It had been sent to several writers. It began something like this. "As you know, readers are curious about writers, about what lies beyond their works and words..."

The writer of the letter says "As you know" but to tell the truth, I don't know. Do readers really wonder about "what lies beyond the writings and works?"

Let's read the rest of the letter.

"One of the peculiarities readers are most curious about is what kind of surroundings writers work in."

Ah, now I think I'm starting to get what these readers are on about. To be frank, readers are curious because they expect the abnormal, the bizarre, the surprising, and the shocking. Or, to be more frank, that's how they desperately want it to be.

Now let's skip to the letter's list of questions and give our answers.

Question: "What sort of atmosphere do you write in?"

Answer: This atmosphere...well, it changes according to the genre I'm writing. Say if I'm writing something serious, I close tight all the doors and windows in my room. There's a skull on my desk, and I scoot my lamp over so that it lights up the eye sockets. In order to focus on the topic, I need the house to be as silent as death. And in this death-silence, I must have music continuously playing. Brahms. Bach. Beethoven. You know--I'll listen to any of the works by the big three with Bs at the beginning of their names. And to keep alert, I must not let the room's temperature rise above sixty degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, I can't write anything serious in the summer. Nothing. As soon as I start to write, the subject matter turns funny.

If I am writing something nationalistic, I write in the same sort of surroundings. Only, since I'm writing about the Turkish Republic, you will find a bottle of raki with ice and a bowl of roasted chickpeas--Turkey's quintessential combo. And if the writing hits a difficult spot, I just drink some raki and catch a buzz. To make whatever I'm writing more universal, I'll mix up some whiskey and vodka and drink a little brew I've dubbed "Kogistans."

If I write something lyrical and romantic, I seclude myself in a hotel on a mountain top or on the shore of some lake or sea. It's not for the quiet. I choose these places so I can peek through the key holes of the hotel rooms. This way, I can both research social life up close and personal, and get a rise out of what I see. Because writers are people who need a rise now and then.

For funny stories, I prefer a hamam or near an animal market, anywhere where there's lots of noise. To work up the urge to write, I go out and get mixed up in Istanbul's seediest places. At one time, I'd wander around the bars and betting joints, and with the inspiration I got there, head to one of the early morning cafes, or if the season was summer, down under the bridge to one of the barges and scribble away in my notebook. And sometimes, without telling a soul, I'd live the life of a vagrant for weeks at a time.

If I said this or some similar nonsense, it would really peak a reader's interest. If, on the other hand, I said I could not write if I didn't have some hot little blond on my lap while I sat at my writing table, well then, they would understand this to be a lie and not believe me. But if someone else secretly wrote it about me, they'd believe it and find it fascinating. It's not just writers. There's a tendency to see all artists as half mad or completely nuts. And some artists, in the most affected manner, scratch their readers' itches by becoming wannabe madmen.

I know a poet, who has rented himself a space in an office building that calls to mind the mildly luxurious digs of a real estate broker. You can always find a half empty bottle of booze on his desk as he wants to give the impression to visitors that he's a nonstop drinker. And though he never touches alcohol, as soon as he sees the door crack open, he immediately snatches up a glass.

Take the most beautiful poem of a poet. If she claimed that she had written it while standing on top of Beyazit tower about to hurl herself to her death below, her readers, would take much more interest in this mad desire than in her work. I think there are no more well-known painters on the face of the earth than Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Toulouse Lautrec. And its not solely for their work, this fame. Their insanity and crippled lives have taken precedence.

There are forty or fifty famous names in the history of world philosophy, art, and literature, and many people, though they have read not one of their works, know that so and so is homosexual and are more eager to find out whether they are a top or a bottom than to know anything about what they create.

And there are also those writers who try to tickle their readers' curiosity with shocking behaviors. Now if they have true value and artistic power, then purposely engaging in this sort of baloney merely helps get their works known. But if they have no value, they become a public laughing stock and the topic of ridicule. Orhan Veli got rid of his beard for this very reason. (At that time, people in Turkey were not accustomed to young men shaving their beards.) In a way, if nothing else, you could say this was his idea of rebelling against society's rules. One night, Veli, while staying at the house of a famous painter in Pendik (1), thought until morning about how in the world to ensure that his poems would be widely read. He decided to shower them down over Istanbul from a plane. But how would he find the money to rent a plane?

Two or three days later, in every magazine and newspaper, reporters were making fun of a line from one his poems that read, "If I were a fish in a bottle of raki." Now thanks to these jokes, there was no need for the plane. The media wisecracks had had the effect of not one, but a whole squadron of planes raining his poems over Istanbul. If Veli had not been a worthy poet, he would have simply become an object of ridicule for this crap, a buffoon. But later, once his status as a master poet was established, it was the ones who mocked him who were regarded as buffoons.(2)

When I explained this to a few Romanian writers in Bucharest, one of them told the following story. There was a young writer whose name I can't remember right now. He put out lots of books, but no one took an interest. In fact, not one review had been written about him. One day, the newspapers claimed that the young poet had killed himself. All the critics rolled up their sleeves and set to work, heaping praise on him in the media. His books were published one after the other. Two or three months later, one of the authors of all this praise saw the writer famed for his suicide in a pub and threw a fit. "You low, vile..." Okay, why were the writers so silent before his death? This Romanian poet, like Veli, was also quite talented and did not become a laughing stock at all.

I don't think readers really want to know the actual environment in which I write. But you asked, so I'll tell you. I don't really have an "environment". What does that mean anyway? No Turkish writer has been in a position to look for the ideal "writing environment" in order to work. Wherever and however we find ourselves, that's where we write. Only in recent years have they begun taking our screenplay writers and film producers to write in quiet hotels. They close themselves up in these luxury resorts and for fifteen or twenty days do nothing but eat, sleep, and work. Now these writers know that they aren't going to be able to write any better scripts in these comfy surroundings. But since filmmaking is rather costly, don't these writers deserve at least five or ten days rest in this mortal world. Not one of the screenplays written in these places have been seen as having any artistic value. If they had been written in Dolmabahçe Palace, would that somehow have made them better films?

I generally write most of my stuff at home in a room packed floor to ceiling with books. And my wife constantly berates me about it. "What Turkish writer has ever had a 'special writing room' like you, and still you complain!" When I start writing, the doorbell will ring. I'll wait for someone to open it, but no one will, and to save myself from the headache of a bell, I'll get up and go do it myself. The doorman will come sometimes, or the grocer's assistant, or the kid from the vegetable market, or the water guy, or the milkman, or the maid, or a beggar, or a shoe salesman, or some guy going from door to door collecting money with a voucher from a charitable foundation. And between all this ringing of doorbells and the opening of doors, I'll try to gather my thoughts and return to where I left off. Then I'll have breakfast. And again, I'll have to leave the writing room.

If it's a school day, my two boys will start raising a ruckus fighting each other, and I'll try all different ways to calm them down and make peace between them. Then the paperboy will come, and I'll get all worked up over the stories filled with murder, scandal and poverty. Then I'll try to write again. Then an acquaintance or two will come over. And because they are just like those people who either always need help or to borrow money that they will never pay back, they begin to spill all their problems and come to consult me about things I've never even given the first thought to. And though I'm having trouble publishing my own stuff, there are readers of novels and plays and poems and stories who'll leave things for me to read and find publishers for. And between all of these visits, you'd better believe my creditors come calling.

Now because everyone at my house tends to come and go at their own whim, I usually prepare my own lunch and eat alone. After lunch, people I barely know or can't even remember arrive. And they always say (as if I could have been doing anything else) "I bet you were working!" And then add, "And here we are keeping you from your job!" before babbling away for at least an hour. Then again the bell. People coming and going. And then the evening comes, and dinner, and more noise and chaos, and more people coming and going. After midnight, everything calms down. Since there's no one else to do it, I make my own tea. And then I retreat to the room that, as my wife is continuously driving into my head, no other Turkish writer has. And then, goddamnit, I get sleepy. This is how it is. If I can find time in between all this, I write.

Question: "How do you write?"
Answer: So readers are curious about this as well. Well, I write just like that, you know, just like I came out of my mother--stark naked. Curious, isn't it?

Unlike some famous writers, I don't write by pacing the room furiously, thrusting my feet in warm water, and lying down. I do hand stands instead, and once I pass my legs over the nape of my neck, I start working. Blood is something that really gets my heart pumping. And since I can't drink human blood, I've gotten into the habit of going to the refrigerator, pulling out a pitcher of chilled rabbit blood, and pouring myself a glass before I write. Until I've had that rabbit blood, of course, I just can't get into the right frame of mind.

Now' If it were really like this, readers would love it, I'm sure, but I write like any other normal person writes. And it's never entered my head to write in any other way. There's a paper in front of me, a pen in hand, and I start.

For the past seventeen years, I've gotten a disease called "writer's cramp" in my right hand from writing so much. And that hand, which can do any other job with ease, rebels against me when I work. Because of this, I prefer to type everything these days rather than write by hand.

Maybe it will be of interest to readers to know that I sit cross-legged on the chair when I write. It's a habit left over from when I was a child. In our destitute house, I always sat this way. I think this might be one reason I'm so short. When I sit in a chair, I can't find a good spot to rest my leg against, so I sit with my right leg under me. Maybe that could be considered rather weird.

Question: "How do you get yourself ready to write?"
Answer: Now look, this is important. Before I start writing, I launch into a furious tantrum. I scream at everyone in the house and call them over to make demands. Get me this! Get me that! I kick and stamp my feet in rage. I don't just gnaw on my fingernails, but on my pens, and I throw fragile things around the room just to see them shatter. And when I get into this state, they say, "My God, inspiration has come! He's going to write! Quiet everyone! Quiet!" And not a peep will be heard anywhere in the house.

Come on. I mean, where do you come up with this stuff? WHERE? That artists have these breakdowns before or while giving some great work to the world. Please!

Do you have any idea what one of my biggest fantasies in life is? I want play the part of the needy spoiled brat a little, and I mean just a little bit. I want to at least act like I'm throwing a tantrum and whine a little so that everyone waits on me, even if it's all just for show. In that moment before creation, I'll fall into my role, and as a favor to me, I want everyone around me to put up with this for a measly five minutes. But right, like this will ever happen! It's always them that throw the tantrums. And whenever I finally start to sit down to write something I consider important, they start making demands of me a hundred times anything I could come up with.

Question: "Do you find your topics, or do they find you?"
Answer: I wonder what sort of answers my curious readers are expecting? That my topic rings the doorbells and says, "Hi! Here I am!" Would they like that? Or if I said that, like those stupid whirling dervishes in the dark ages, I went wandering the mountains and steppes searching my topics out?

It's true, either of these methods would do. If I took all the notes collected on various topics that I have right now and added not one new one, I could never finish writing about them even if I worked nonstop for the next one hundred years. A writer's worst tragedy are the topics he leaves behind after his death, half of which no one else but he will be able to write.

I don't write about topics that I search out nor about topics that "come to me" for the simple reason that in both cases, you need time and money. Here's what I do, I sit down at my table and write about whatever will earn me the most money to pay for whichever of my expenses is in the most dire need of being paid.

Question: "Do writer's prepare their own suitable writing environment or do they wait for one to be born?"
Answer: What does "suitable writing environment" mean? I've never seen any such place in all my life and don't even know what it would look like. A lot of our writers work in prisons, and I myself have written in a prison cell.(3) I wonder if this is what you mean by "suitable writing space"? If so, then no, indeed I do not prepare my own writing environment. And if I waited for one to be born....come on, forget about our generation, the generation after us would also have to wait a long long time.

Question: "In order to write, which part of the day (evenings or daytime) or hours do you usually choose?"
Answer: Nights, towards morning. I especially prefer nights when the moon is out because in the dead hours of dark, the monsters awake. According to people who have seen it happen, the shape of my face begins to change, my hands turn into claws. In other words, man by day, beast by night!

What Turkish writer has the write to choose his own writing time? Night, day, whenever, if I get an opportunity, I write.

Question: "If you qualify the emergence of a work of art as a "birth", then how do you go about this "birth?"
Answer: There is no one specific way. Some of them, I birth by Caesarian, and sometimes I get very frantic and pop them out the old birth canal one after the other. Look, I've been well "fixed" and can't birth a thing. Oh, I really can't stand this whole idea of birthing, this business of calling writing a story "giving birth". What can we do? I'm considered a prolific writer, but it's not because I'm actually prolific. I'm not pushing myself to produce. I write as soon as someone asks me too, because my financial conditions are frightful enough that they help me make these babies; help me to lay eggs, even.

1 Pendik: A bedroom community on the outskirts of the Asian side of Istanbul

2 In 1947, writer Sait Faik asked Veli about his raki fish line, all the talk in the papers. Veli's answer was this, "This poem is explaining the life of an old junk collector, a man in poverty. A man like this wants a great many things, food, water, and of course, raki. This line can be understood as a way to exaggerate that desire." But his friend wrote this in 1950 (and this could be apocryphal, "One day I asked Orhan if he had written that line believing it to be a poetic. He said, 'Of course not." The bizarre lines simply got people to read him. He went on to say that if he had known it would work so well, he would have stuck such bullshit in other poems, too.

3 Aziz Nesin has been and out of prison many times as a political dissident. In the 40's, he created a magazine with another comic writer, Sabahattin Ali, called Marko Pasha that published political satires. They were arrested after the third issue, and Parliament specifically mentioned Marko Pasha as proof that martial law was necessary

Thursday, March 25, 2010

When fish drink raki...


Orhan Veli is one of Turkey's most loved poets, and a damn fine one in my own opinion, too. His poems are brisk and simple. He is a genius at creating startlingly fresh images out of ordinary things. Take this poem for example:

I buy old junk
And make it into stars
Music is food for the soul
I'm crazy for music.

I write poems.
I write poems and buy old junk
I sell the old junk and buy music

If I were a fish, swimming in a bottle of whiskey

Eskiler aliyorum
Alip yildiz yapiyorum
Musiki ruhun gidasidir
Musikiye bayiliyorum

Siir yaziyorum
Siir yazip eskiler aliyorum
Eskiler verip Musikiler aliyorum.

Bir de raki sisesinde balik olsam

I love that bit about "I buy old junk." Four short words (2 in Turkish), a very simple line about garbage turned magic with "And make it into stars." But take a gander at that last line, one of the most famous in Turkey. "If I were a fish in a bottle of whiskey." Veli, before he became well-known, was obsessed with getting read. And he gave all sorts of interviews in which he explained, for example, that this line was an exaggeration of the narrator's poverty, that a poor man, wanting food and shelter would naturally crave whiskey (Turkish raki) as well, fantasizing in this desperate manner about swimming inside the bottle. A friend asked him after he was established and stopped writing such obscure lines, "Is that really what you meant by the fish thing? That stuff about the guy and poverty?" "Of course not," Veli answered. "But it made people read me, didn't it?" He had put in this line merely to attract attention. (And it did. Every magazine and newspaper had a field day making fun of the fish in a bottle and gave Veli more publicity than he had ever dreamed of.) "I would have put this nonsense in other poems, too, if I had known how much noise it would make," he said. He even shaved his beard for publicity--this, at a time in Turkish history when no young man in his right mind shaved.

A bit about the translation. (This might fall into my Dad's favorite category: absolutely unimportant but nice to know) Translation is a funny thing. You're always making decisions...include this even though it doesn't make sense in English? Add a word or two to make it read more smoothly? Change the sentence structure so it doesn't sound so awkward? Blah blah blah. One of the English translations I found said this for the first two lines of Veli's poem, "I find old clothes and cut them into stars." I think this is even better than the original in terms of a solid, yet magical image. In fact, I like it better than mine, but that's the thing. It's not very accurate. And I think I owe Veli some accuracy even if this is only my private blog that no one else sees but me. Eskiler means "old stuff", junk in other words, not just clothes. The narrator of the poem is an "eskici", one of the poor men who wheel around an old cart through the streets and collect junk to fix and sell...a bit like a garage sale on wheels. You might see their cart loaded with broken dolls, radios, paintings, old textbooks, rabbit cages, pipes, and/or laundry baskets. They call out into the streets "eskiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiici!" so that folks know they're coming. And if they guy has a nice voice, it can be a very musical sound and as eerie as the ezan when that long "i" echoes. Supposedly these guys have been at it for centuries. And this brings up a last point. The verb almak means, "take, get, buy." The eskici doesn't buy anything. He just collects crap free off the street. In the poem, he almak's the junk and then almak's the music. In one case taking and in the other buying. But I think a repetition of the word "buy" sounds better in English rather than making that distinction clear--even though it deemphasizes his poverty, which is part of the poem's theme (he's at least able to buy junk in the poem, though that's not the case in real life.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I am trying (ozenmek or yeltenmek) to learn Turkish


I can be a big jackass sometimes, so stubborn about random principles that I drive everyone around me to scratching their eyes out in frustration.

Last night, I had a beer with some friends on a street in Kadıköy known as "The Boneyard." The Boneyard is a street chock full of cheap bars and pubs that cater to foreigners. (They also cater to Turks of course, but its a bit "spicy" here--a mafia style shooting happened last year, for example.) Most of the bars have been ruined. A friend of mine likens it to locusts. A group of us expats will discover one of these bars and occupy a table for the night. The next night, there are a million of us, screaming and belching and drunkenly shouting until we have devoured all the courtesy and patience the servers have, at which point the swarm moves on to another place. It's biblical.

Livane--a bar also famed for it's Turkish folk music--has long been harvested, but the occasional bug will light on a server or two. Like I and two friends did last night. As soon as the waiter at Livane saw the table of three hapless Americans, he scurried in alarm to the bar and had the bartender come ingratiatingly over, slightly bowed, his hands folded. "May I help you?" he says in English. This is where my inner donkey comes out. You see, I have little stomach for this. Okay, I admit it. Part of it is pride. I am not a tourist fresh off the cruise ship with my tour book in one hand, and sunscreen in the other. I have been learning Turkish for over two years--I have, in fact, been translating a few of Turkey's literary authors--and goddamn it, I don't need this guy to translate, "One beer" as if I were some toothy-grinned newbie.

Part of it is a kind of class disgust. As advantageous as the world's need for English is, on this personal scale it smells slightly of colonialism, especially service in English. Why does he come scuttling over with the lowered head to give the Raj their own private translation service? In America the waiter would mutter, "Live in my country, better damn well speak the language." And to hear a lot of my fellow expats talk--"it's a good restaurant, because their English is good." No, that only makes it a convenient restaurant. And I've even heard friends say, "She's a very nice person. You know her English is good." As if English is some kind of moral virtue rather than a skill.

My final reason is this: I hate being used. There are a legion of obsessive people who simply see me, and all foreigners, as tools--things to be used to improve their English. Another friend has named this particular treatment, "the language rape". A person runs up to you in the street, or in a restaurant, and starts harassing you when you clearly want to be left alone just so they can practice their present perfect.

"I feel sorry for you," a Turk told me once. "Everyone wants to learn English, everyone in the world. And not because they love your language. They just see it as something that can buy advantages. It makes it difficult for you to learn a language yourselves, and then, well, you miss out on so much."


One of the things I love about learning a different language is the way in which it changes your thinking--utterly--sometimes the way your very thoughts are structured. When the languages are different enough (like Turkish and English), certain words from one simply do not exist in the other. You end up needing a whole sentence to explain them. For example, in Japanese you have the famous noun aware (pronounced "a-wa-ray). Aware is the feeling of quiet sadness when you realize that nothing lasts forever. When you leave college, for example, and are driving out of the university campus for the last time and remembering all the friends you made there, feeling half-happy at the memory and half-grieved about its loss, this is aware.

Or take Turkish. There are umpteen words for "try". One is yeltenmek. The Turkish dictionary states the definition as follows: "To dare to embark upon something that you can't or shouldn't do. To have the intention of starting a task (you can't finish)." It's like the lovechild of "dare" and "hopelessly try". A good example is this: Fanatiklar Kadıköy'de Jimbomun bayrağını kaldırmaya yeltendiler "They had the balls to attempt raising our rival team's flag in our territory!" One dictionarily legit word in Turkish, and I had to use a vulgar slang expression and four extra words to explain it in English. Another word is for try is özenmek. It's a hybrid of the following two definitions: "To work hard at something, to want to bring any job to a good result," and "to imitate someone, be carried away with the desire to copy and look the same as another." So it comes out having, in English, two meanings at once--to both try very hard but at the same time to be imitative and fake because you're trying too hard. So you get this sentence from Aziz Nesim, "Kimi sanatçılar da yapmaçık yollarla deliliğe özenerek okurlarını ilgisini tırnaklarlar;" which means, "And some writers, in a totally affected manner, arouse their reader's interest by ozenmeking insanity." In other words, they try too hard to pose as crazy people and half-believe themselves.

And, almost as cool, other languages use words that we almost never use in our own and thus make not just the words, but the ideas and emotions themselves take on a new importance. In Japanese, everyone says they are natsukashii at least five billion times a day. The best English translation is "nostalgiac"--a rather fancyish word that you simply don't toss around willy-nilly. An American, for example, me, when he sees a favorite cartoon from his childhood such as The Dungeons and Dragons Hour, will mostly likely say in a wistful voice, "Hey, I remember that show!" A Japanese person would say, "Natsukashii!" Or when I ate Japanese rice crackers for the first time in 8 years this past fall on a trip to Japan, I said "Natsukashii" at the first hint of this flavor long forgotten, but I can't imagine eating a cracker and saying "I feel nostalgic for these" in English--maybe simply "I've missed these!" When speaking Japanese, you start saying natsukashii so much, that the feeling itself becomes more noticeable and more valued. Suddenly, it's something you let register in your head instead of glossing over with words like "miss" or "remember". In Turkish there is the famous miş past tense when you are reporting things you have heard but haven't witnessed yourself. If your mom tells you that your sister bought a Harley, you'd say "Harley almış" instead of the regular past tense aldı. You could qualify this in English by saying, "Apparently my sister bought a Harley" or "It seems my sister bought a Harley" but most of the time we'd just say, "My sister bought a Harley." But with the miş tense in Turkish, I find myself much more aware, even in English, of when I've just heard something and when I have witnessed the event myself. My brain works at distinguishing them much more carefully. In other words, at almost 40, my thoughts are restructuring themselves in a way English doesn't need them to do. And that's cool. Every time my brain performs some new linguistic acrobatics, I get a little high. It's like that feeling little kids get when they learn something completely new "Eggs come out of a chickens butt?"

And finally of course, other languages give us words for ideas that are always on the tip of our tongues, but which have no equivalent in English. Take the Turkish kolay gelsin--literally, "May your work come easy." You can say this to anyone who is working at any time, and it means "Dude, your working like a dog, and I'm not going to help you, but I'd like to at least recognize the fact." It's a way to say something in appreciation of their labor. You enter a store with kolay gelsin, pass someone cleaning the stairs with kolay gelsin, ask the guy in the copy room for two hundred copies with kolay gelsin. I remember in Boston watching my boss scream in frustration over a new operating system on our school's computers. She had been wrestling with it for hours. I wanted to say something, I don't know, anything to let her know I had watched all this struggle and sympathized and so I said "Wow, that looks annoying." But I couldn't help feeling that there should have been a word for what I wanted to say, something more precise. Well there is, in Turkish. Kolay gelsin, Emily!

So no thank you Mr. English speaking Boneyard bartender, it's "bir tane ellilik bira lütfen" and you can shove your "one beer please" up your kıç.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Work Like a Dog

WORK LIKE A DOG (See endnote 1)

Every morning, I walk down the same highway to the service bus that will take me to the zoo where I work. (Zoo, school, whatever. They both have a double o, like two open mouths forever crying out in horror). In the afternoons, the road is so chock full of cars that they run up on the sidewalk in a desperate race to get around each other--everyone honking horns, and screaming, and revving their engines hysterically. (See endnote 2)
At 6:30 in the morning, there is hardly a car in sight. One will race by once every two minutes or so, but on the whole it is blessedly quiet. Every morning, on the median, a scruffy gray dog lies on the grass with his paws crossed delicately in front of him. He is by no means cute. He's missing several teeth, has ratty ears and a tail broken so many times it makes a perfect zig zag. I think he also has the mange. He waits just down from the traffic light. He may dig himself a little hole or gnaw on the blossoms, but for the most part he simply relaxes, regarding the highway with the look of a rich widow watching her servants doing something inexplicable out on the lawn. "How strange the amusements of peasants are!" A car will come up the hill and stop at the light. The dog might yawn or shift his paws.
Then the light turns green.
The transformation is sudden and profound. The little dog leaps to his feet, a snarling, hysterical ball of rage that tears off after the car as if he were a starving wolf and the car a plump, crippled buffalo. Halfway down the bridge, the car will be forced to the curb and the driver will crack the window and shout "shut up! shut up!" while of course honking his or her horn. But the dog is satisfied with having treed his prey, and trots back to his spot on the median--his long dog nails tap tap tapping over the pavement. He resumes his spot on the median and awaits the next hapless car or truck at which point the whole process starts all over again.
He comes at sunrise and stays until the number of cars become unmanageable, and is so dilligent and single minded that I find myself wishing I could trade him for one or all of my students. I could put twenty of my ninth graders in the middle of the road where they might chase cars and scratch fleas. Being a sports school full of athletes, I should think they'd be quite successful at it. Of course, they would probably be too lazy to do any of these things, and that's fine. They could simply relax and chew some flowers and lick their crotches clean, occasionally trotting across the road to poop on the sidewalk. And the dog! He could sit in my class, paws crossed, and yawn or regard me arrogantly like he does the cars, and probably end up learning a lot more than any of my students could. I could teach him to sit, stand on his hind legs, speak, and even shake hands (Most of the tenth graders have mastered shaking hands). I am not suggesting that a half-rabid street dog is smarter than the human beings I teach. Its more like I am saying it directly. But in any case, that little dog's antics are one thing that brightens my workdays before I descend into the darkness of a private Turkish high school.

1 Apparently the Turks say "work like a donkey" and don't get why we think dogs work so hard. I think the Japanese say "work like a horse". Nobody is saying "Work like a Turkish high school student

2 By the way, the solution to every Istanbulite's problem, no matter what it is, is a good horn honk. Someone stop in front of you and turn their flashers on? Don't go around them, honk your horn! Did you have a bad day at work? Honk your horn! Are you concerned about global warming? Honk your horn. Get cancer? Honk. Find out your five year old daughter started smoking, honk honk honk honk honk. Honk till your deaf. Honk till your hand breaks off from the strain--then honk in a rage about that. If you think I'm crazy, honk. If you know what I'm talking about, honk again

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Don't may kill you.

THE DEADLIEST OF KILLERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What is the deadliest thing in Turkey? Devastating earthquakes in the Northwest? Bombs in the Southeast? Landslides in the mountains? Minibus and taxi driver's freshly escaped from Istanbul's Mental Facility for the Deaf and Blind? No! The answer is something far more sinister, and even more sinister than that for its pervasiveness. It's on every street corner, in every restaurant, running freely from every tap. It is in the very air you breathe. It is the air you breathe! That's right, air and water are Turkey's greatest killers. And I am not talking about any climate related disasters, my child. No, no, no. Those are far too fey, too poofy. No, I'm talking about the everyday air and water we breathe, drink, and bathe with. The so-called "essentials" of life.
For millennia man has longed to destroy air in a tooth and nail struggle that has claimed billions of lives, and yet air (and its satanic sister "water") like the indomitable cock roach, still prevail. All this week, at my school in the Anatolian outskirts of Istanbul, one of my fellow teachers has been floored by severe chest pains. She can't sleep at night from the excruciating tightness in her throat. At times, her left arm goes numb. She's only twenty-eight, so the likelihood of a heart attack is slim, yet something is clearly amiss. I ventured a guess that it had something to do with the amount of coffee and tea she drinks. (By noon today, with five hours still to go, she's already pounded five cups of coffee, and one of tea). Or possibly stress. (She handles seventeen different classes of raving, wild, chimp-like creatures a week, for a grand total of thirty classroom hours--anyone who has every taught before knows that this is an insane amount of hours. She cries at the teacher's table on a daily basis from sheer frustration with some of these students.) Or, I said, it could be a combination of caffeine and stress.
I am so naive.
No, it turns out, it's simply the fact that some teachers leave the window open in the teacher's room. "You see," she says as her jittering hand brings her mug of Nescafe up to her lips, "There's a draft that runs from the window to the door and it brushes right over me." A breeze passing over three or four layers of cloth has the power to devastate the heart muscles and sever the nerves to the left arm. God only knows what other damage it causes unnoticed. Ebola? Leprosy? Look no further than sweet O2, friends.
A more famous and therefore more important person was victim to a different element. When in his late seventies, Aziz Nesin, Turkey's beloved (once he was dead at least) comic writer, was plagued by weeks and weeks of colds. Is this because his immune system had been ravaged by age and heart disease? Ha, only a simpleton "doctor" would suggest such bollocks. A wise friend had the answer. "Aziz," he said. "You wash your clothes too much." And so Mr. Nesin simply stopped doing so. Then one New Year's Night, while preparing gifts for the orphans in the orphanage he managed, he was floored by a deadly heart attack. He was sure that it was the big one, and lay clutching his heart preparing to die (undoubtedly there was an open window somewhere, ah the folly of man!) His only regret was that whoever found his body would discover him sitting in underwear that had not been washed for weeks. (But hey, he was blessedly free of colds.) Water, even the memory of water on cloth is nearly as fatal as a breeze, and thought by some to be deadlier than radiation poisoning. It's far healthier to roll around in hydrogen bomb fallout than to allow yourself or anything you touch to get wet. Much damage that has been attributed to radiation sickness may actually be due to open windows in hospitals.
One day our scientists will be able to destroy our age-old enemies, air and water. But until that golden morn, we must continue to spin in this macabre dance with death and pray for salvation.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Loving Tulsu...Third and Final Part

"Forgive me," I said. "But how exactly do you get by? Do you have property, or some kind of revenue?"
"I have nothing," he said.
"How do you live then?"
"By doing something that doesn't interfere for even a moment in thinking of and loving and searching for Tulsu. Rather the opposite. My loving Tulsu is important, okay, but it's not enough. I must let the whole world know that I love her. Everyone must know that I love Tulsu. If I can't make this understood, then my life will have no meaning. Every human being who exists in this world, must find their own way and then prove it to others. Otherwise, their lives will become an absurdity that has no meaning."
I couldn't quite get this. To get him to go into it a little more, I said, "What do you mean?"
"People aren't alone. It's not enough for a person to live only to know themselves. Other people must know that he lives, that he exists in this world. And the more people who know, the more he exists. The reason everyone exists is different, very different. Mine is loving Tulsu. Maybe I am in this world to love Tulsu, and to let everyone know I love her."
"And how are you doing this?"
"I'm telling people, of course. For example, tonight I told you. Now you know--I love Tulsu. Because of this, I exist for you now. You know that I am alive. I am trying to tell everyone. In the past, I would go to the mountains and the country and the forests and shout as loud as I could, "Tulsu, I love you!!"
"I would listen to the echoes of my voice. Because it wasn't good to always shout in exactly the same way, I sometimes changed my words and location, or started shouting in a higher or lower voice, changing always changing."
Then, as if he were screaming in a forest out in the country, but screaming in a low, thin voice so that the other tables couldn't hear, he said:
"Tulsu, I love you!"
"I love you, Tulsu!"
"It's you I love, Tulsu!"
"You! Tulsu! I love you!"
"You! I love you! Tulsu!"
"By spreading my voice to the whole world, I want everyone to learn I love Tulsu, and in learning this, to know that I am alive! That I exist! So I have started, like a song, saying it on the roads and fields and in the crowds, 'Tulsu, I love you."
"Do you have a nice voice?"
"No. It's ugly, and on top of that, I am tone deaf. And yours?"
"I'm the same."
"Because I'm tone deaf and have an ugly voice, every time I say it, it's with a different voice and in a different style. And I am wandering the world this way. From every post office of every place I go I send a telegram that says, 'I love you, Tulsu.' It depends on money, but sometimes I send five or six telegrams."
"So you know Tulsu's address!"
"No. How could I? I just make up an address and send it."
"And if they can't find it, don't they send it back?"
"I guess so. But not to me, because I make up my address, too. And since a lot of the post offices in some of the towns I have stayed in already know me and make fun of me, I send my telegrams from different post offices. Let them laugh, but they will learn that I am loving Tulsu. The more that's known, the more I am."
The tables in the bar had started to empty. We, too, had stayed past midnight. We may have staggered when we walked, but we weren't so drunk that we didn't understand what we were saying or know what we were talking about.
"For about four days now," he said. "In the afternoons for about an hour or two, I'm at the Culture Palace Parade Ground. Come there tomorrow."
"What are you doing there?" I asked.
"I'm shouting 'I love you, Tulsu' until my voice gives out."
"Look, you asked what job I do. Well, that's it. Let me explain how I started. I had sent my last telegram that day to Tulsu. I had no money. I wandered here and there and came upon the Culture Palace Parade Ground. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's a fun place. Everyone there is showing off each their own skills and artistry and talents. Some of them have dog acrobats, and they make three or four little dogs do the most incredible feats. One guy plays three or four instruments all by himself, and one can draw a caricature right there on demand. There’s a girl and a boy who do pantomime, and a man who swallows swords and then yanks them back out again. There’s a man who draws colorful pictures on the sidewalk with chalk. One guy who makes four or five monkeys do gymnastics gets a lot of applause. One woman does a puppet show on this tiny little stage. And there’s more and more, show after show. I watched crowds gather around these people. The most interesting ones had the bigger crowds. And when everyone finished their tricks and shows, those in the crowd who felt like it threw money into their box and on the ground in front of them. They amassed quite a bit of change.”
“It’s an extraordinary place, especially for me. In fact, it’s the ideal place for me to advertise my love for Tulsu. I, too, found a spot on the edge of all the others and began shouting. I told them, screaming and screaming, how much I loved Tulsu. I will never forget when they started to gather in front of me. And I mean a lot of people. Some of them made fun of me, some of them shouted, some of them listened. I shouted until I tired out, and then I fell quiet, and they started throwing money. And so much! I ran to the post office and sent a telegram to Tulsu. And from that day on, I’ve gone to the parade ground in the afternoons. If you’d like, why don’t you come tomorrow?”
I do recall getting in the taxi together and telling the driver the address of my hotel, but I don’t know anything about what happened after that. In other words, I had been drunker than I thought.
The next day, I woke up late, and I remembered the previous night as if it had been a dream. In the afternoon, I went to the Culture Palace's Parade Grounds. And just like the man had said, it was really a place of strange and extraordinary entertainments. Fire swallowers and snake charmers, and a guy making pigeons do flying somersaults inside a huge cage, the five minute portrait artist. I wandered through them all and finally found him. He was in a place on the edge of everything, and if I had not heard him shouting "I love you Tulsu!", then it would have not been easy for me to find him. He was surrounded on all sides by an incredibly huge crowd. I don't think there was any possibility of him seeing me because when I arrived, he was shouting with his eyes closed. But then, I don't think I can simply call this shouting, and it wasn't a song either. His voice was indeed ugly, but he was shouting and screaming and moaning like someone whose soul was burning, who was suffering terribly. There were people from all walks of life in the crowd, men, women, old people, and young people. Some had brought tapes and were recording his shouts. And just like he himself had said, there were some making fun of him, and some cheering, and even some throwing rocks at him. But there were others stopping the rock throwers.
I bitterly regretted that I myself had not a tape recorder on me to record his shouts. But the next day I would come with one. A few people were writing down what he was shouting, and then it dawned on me a moment later, I could do the same! And so I started scribbling. Here are bits and pieces of what I wrote down:
"Hey, listen already, listen and learn how I love Tulsu. Don't let there be even one person who doesn't hear. Let even the deaf hear, and learn, and know. Let nursing mothers with breasts full of milk hear, let the boiling blood of people making love and the fresh blood rushing through the veins of newborns hear. Let the fingers of lovers touching each other for the first time hear. Let the lips with their first kiss still on them hear. Let all those with the ache of frustration in their groins hear. Let them listen and learn geography and history and time, I love Tulsu!"
His screams were like a cave in which there were all kinds of human agonies that had never before been put into words. People born a hundred thousand years ago, and people born a hundred thousand years from now will surely shout in the same way with the same pain that he felt. In that crowd, there were a lot of people who did not know his language, but who were listening carefully anyway. For them, it wasn't the meaning they were listening to, but the voice; they were listening to the agony of it, to its passion and longing. Sometimes it was grating on the ears, sometimes it wrenched the heart. Sometimes he seemed about to laugh, sometimes it was with a voice gruff and weak from crying, and when even that weak voice would not come, he whispered, and when he couldn't whisper his lips trembled the words out, still telling them all, "I love you, Tulsu."
I thought about why so many people took such interest in this man's primitive screams. Did they, unable to summon enough courage on their own, put themselves in this screaming man's place? Did they all want to scream "I love you Tulsu!" whether man or woman or child or adult? Maybe this man, by crying and moaning and screaming, is proclaiming that he loves Tulsu on behalf of us all.
He crumpled to the ground and stayed there. They left money in front of him. The crowd broke up. He remained there a while. I wondered if this had been some sort of play. Was he, like everyone else on the parade grounds, just playing a part? After a bit, he gathered himself up. He saw me. We said hello. He collected the money off the ground.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get to the post office and send a telegram."
I asked if he was going to repeat the same show. No, he could only do it a few times.
"Do you say the same thing every day?" I asked.
"No," he said. "I'm not some kind of actor. Every moment, life is changing, and my voice and words change with it."
We went to a post office. He leapt up the stairs with vigorous steps I never would have expected from a man his age. He looked for an empty table in the huge lobby where he could write his telegram.
I stood at his side and saw him write, "I love you Tulsu." And then the fake address. I saw him take it up to the window and I saw the postal worker there show it to the worker next to him and make some snide comment. In other words, they already knew him, but nevertheless they accepted the telegram.
We left the post office.
"Now I'll send a telegram from a different post office in town and leave this city."
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"How should I know?" he said. "Any place where I have a hope of finding her."
We shook hands and parted. After a moment, I looked back. And it was like he had understood, after going a ways, that I was watching him. He, too, turned and looked back at me. He waved, and then I waved.
Then I returned to the post office. I took a paper from the window and wrote, "I love you, Tulsu." Who could I send such a telegram to?
Then, my dear V.D., you came to mind. I wrote your address, and gave the telegram to the officer at the window.
"I love you, Tulsu!"
There is something you will not be able to understand in my telegram, I'm sure, but who knows? How surprised you must have been!

Saturday, March 13, 2010


By the way, go to and buy David Joiner's Like Smoke. He's a friend, and a good writer, and it's a shame he has to publish like this instead of properly, but then again, screw the big companies. Read it. I want tell you the prose crackles, or the dialog is surreal (like every other stupid book advertised) but he sets his story in Vietnam, and his mastery of the landscape, the country, and the culture are magic. GO.

Interlude between translations...Marmara Porn

Every Turkish theater interrupts their movies with an "intermission" so here is one for the story I'm trying to translate.

This was the first sunny day in a week so I went down to the esplanade along the Marmara and sat on the rocks. While watching the sailboats, I noticed some music coming from inside the rocks. I stood up, peeked over, and saw a spiky moussed head, a brief glimpse of a neck, and a hand squeezing the neck. Two kids making out. Standing over them was a chubby moustachioed man in a green suit. He had a huge moustache, like a black mop stuck onto his nose, and he was leaning over watching them go at it. At one point, he even called the tea man over to give him a cup. He paid, took the tea, put sugar in, and stirred, all without budging an inch from the free porn movie going on beneath him.

Down the rocks was another couple sitting right by the water (they were invisible from the sidewalk above). The woman was in full-on burkha, only she had yanked down the cover from her face so she could puff on the cigarette the spiky haired boy in black jacket offered her. I am told this area down by the water is a notorious cruising spot for gay men, but I have never seen the first sign--everyone making out today are male-female. And they are everywhere, behind trees, bushes, under the rocks, on top of the rocks, next to sheds, between cars, on benches. I just want some where to sit down, but there is not one sexless spot.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Loving Tulsu...Part 2

Here is part 2...I forgot to mention that this is from a section of the book called "Stories that shouldn't be laughed at"

"It was on a hill with a broken sidewalk, this store. A girl passed in front of us, or so I'm told. A girl with long hair, about fourteen or fifteen, or so I'm told. I said suddenly, "I am going to marry that girl!" or again, so I'm told. You see, my father repeated this story so much that just from his explanation, it took on a reality in my eyes, and this girl became something solid and concrete. My father told it and told it, and this thing I didn't remember became like something I had actually lived. Tulsu was the girl I saw that day."
"If that's the case, then she must be passed eighty by now."
"Well, considering that when you were five she was fourteen or fifteen..."
"But Tulsu doesn't get old!"
"You mean, I guess, you saw her after that?"
"I am always in search of her. What other reason could I have for being in this city? Tulsu is a woman I don't know waiting for me, living in a city I don't know, someplace in the world I don't know about. I believe I will find her and am always looking. This is why I am wandering the world!"
"Have you never seen her since that first time?"
"I've seen her! I was thirty years old then. And again, I was in the big capital city of some country, looking for her. I was going down the escalator in a subway station when suddenly, beside me on the escalator going up, I saw her. Tulsu. But she was twenty years old. She had brown hair, cut very short. She went right by me. My voice cried out from deep inside me, "Tulsu!!!" But the escalator I was on had already gone down."
"Have you seen her any other times."
"I saw her. A few more times. On the banks of the Danube river, the first time I went to a city there. I was forty then. I had just gotten off a train. The station was very crowded. People were getting on and off, talking hurriedly. And there, in that confusion, I ran right into her. When I lifted my head and looked up, I saw a girl of about twenty five with big blue eyes and blond hair...Tulsu. We looked at each other a moment. She had dropped a package when we collided. I picked up my suitcase off the floor, then her package, and gave it to her. "Excuse me," I said. She thanked me. Then she took the arm of a young man standing next to her and got on the train.
After this meeting of ours, it was about five or six years. I saw her on a bus in a city in the far east. We were together on the same bus for four stops."
"You didn't speak to her?" I asked.
"How could I? We didn't even know the same language! One time I saw her at an international gathering in a small northern country. My Tulsu. We sat across from each other for a short time at the same table. Next to her was her black husband."
"Her husband was black?"
"Yes. Tulsu was black, too. An extraordinarily beautiful black woman."
"And again, you didn't talk to her?"
"Would you happen to have three extra bulletins," she asked me. I didn't have any extras, but I gave her mine and thanked her. The years passed, and I was constantly searching for her.
"But you were finding her, too."
"Finding, yes, but how? Just for a moment. It was like seeing a flash of lightning. Like a flame that suddenly flared up and died away. As soon as I found her, I lost her again. This is no reunion. To reunite with her, I have wandered circles around this world. I saw her in the palace of one of the Balkan capitals. Tulsu. She wasn't even thirty yet. I was already past sixty. She was sitting, leaning against the wide rail of a marble balustrade, between two men. In her hand was a fat-bellied glass filled with a bright red cocktail. The more she laughed at the bantering of the two men, the more she sloshed around her red drink. Her hair was red, her eyes a dark black.
"Five or six years ago, in a place completely unexpected...but then, it's always in a place and at a time I don't expect that I see her--my Tulsu. I had entered a country bank, took one look around, and saw her a little on the other side of the bank talking to one of the tellers. Her eyes were green, her hair in a bun. She immediately left the bank, got in a car waiting at the door, and drove away.
"And for the last time, I saw her last year, at a motel on the shore of the Mediterranean. She wasn't even twenty, a slender little thing. I was reading a book in the shade of an arbor in front of my room. "Excuse me, what time do you have?" When I raised my head at the sound of that voice, I found myself facing Tulsu. Next to her was a young man. They must have just come from the sea, their bodies were freckled with drops of water. I told her the time. She thanked me. I thought my heart would stop. They left, and I never saw them again at that hotel."
Again, we finished our wine.
"Shall we drink one more?" I asked.
"Let's do it," he said.
The dark Mediterranean woman brought one more bottle.
"When I explain my passion for Tulsu to someone, they always make fun of me. Tulsu was hear or there, they say, and send me from running from place to place. They look down on me, think I'm crazy. The first person to ever hear about my passion for Tulsu and not make fun of you."
With great pity, I asked, "Why do you love Tulsu so much?"
"I have many reasons," he said. "These few times I have searched and been unable to find her, or else have found her but have been unable to be with her, my passion for her has grown all the greater. It is such a passion that, as I move through life, I am in flames, a raging inferno, and it burns. My insides are hot coals! coals! I know that one day, after not ever coming together with her, this fire inside will consume me and everything will turn to ash. But Tulsu is that good, so good that....Why so good? Because she never fights me like the other women I have been with when I have been wrong and mistaken them for Tulsu. She has not created a reason to fight. She has not used her relations with me to nourish her own self interest, nor had a gluttonous appetite, never satisfied no matter what I gave her, nor tricked me nor herself with the words "I love you". Was never two-faced, nor kept hidden grudges. Because we never shared any time together to make any of these things possible. Tulsu remains a momentary life for me, without a third dimension. I can live her in the flash of a lightning bolt. For this reason, I love her and will always love her. I have no other job but loving her. And I never will."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Aziz Nesin, "Loving Tulsu" Part 1

My first full story.....

See full size image
Aziz Nesin is a comic writer. He was born in 1915 on Istanbul's Heybeli Island (where I swim in the summer) and died in 1995. There are a few interesting stories about him--he was in the hotel that religious fanatics tried to burn down in Sivas where an Alevi cultural festival was being held (my girlfriend is Alevi). He also requested that no one be told where he was buried. His body lies in an unknown location on his foundation lands, a foundation he started in the seventies to educate, feed, and shelter poor kids. He was also a loud critic of the military government after the 1980s coup and translated the Satanic Verses. Delal compares him to Flanner O'Connor, though he is much kinder toward his characters. There is the same cartoonishness, the same sense of humor, and, as she says, you generally know where the story is going to end, but its fun getting there. Here's part 1 of "Loving Tulsu"

Loving Tulsu
By Aziz Nesin
Translated by Jeff Gibbs

Dear V.D.
When you got my telegram saying "I love you, Tulsu," you must have been really shocked. What did it mean, and who was Tulsu?
It's true, it's not something someone in their right mind would have done. But I can't say that when I wrote that telegram, I was entirely in my right mind. I was like a sleepwalker that day. I sent that telegram to you almost against my will.
That night was the first in a week that I had been left alone in this city considered one of the most crowded in the world, a city in which I was a stranger. A stranger's solitude is more magnified when he's in a strange city. And because of this loneliness, it was like the air I found myself in had thickened and turned into a syrupy paste, and I was struggling to budge even an inch inside that past. In this mood, I had no other hope but to drown my consciousness in booze and lose myself. I did not want to go to the expensive restaurants and casinos around the hotel where I was staying. Their starched people, starched table cloths, and starched conversations were not what I was looking for. I just wanted to be left alone among wrinkled people, wrinkled table clothes, and wrinkled conversations.
I ducked in an out of side streets, so much so that after a time, I had lost myself inside that big city. I love abandoning myself and getting lost inside the flow of a crowd in a big city in which I am a stranger. Even if worse came to worse, I could always hop in a taxi and return to the hotel.
I found a few watering holes to my liking. I went through the doors of a few of them, and at a few of them I just looked inside the smoky window pane. I found a place with an empty table where I could be left to myself. Only one empty table remained. It had been left empty because it was on the path to the cloakroom. Even the buzzing of conversations stank of alcohol. There was nothing there to break my strangerhood. There were three women serving. One of them was a dark Mediterranean woman who came to my table to take my order. I told her I wanted white wine, a salad, and a mixed cheese plate. This dark Mediterranean also showed me the kindness of bringing a single red carnation in a small glass vase. That single carnation was not one of the huge eye-catching ones, but one of the small ones with a slightly burnt smell. I smelled it as if I wanted to take every last bit of its scent into me until there was nothing left. I drank, and slowly, gradually I began to feel like myself again. I was facing the door. I didn't see it open, but I did see the man standing at the entrance. He was about my age. He stood erect, eyes searching the room for an empty place to sit. He came up to me as if he had found what he was looking for.
"If it's not too much bother, may I sit here, too?" he said.
"Sure, go ahead," I said without much enthusiasm.
I didn't want to share my solitude, and certainly not with someone like this. I was annoyed. He thanked me and sat across from me. And just like me, he ordered a mixed cheese plate, salad, and white wine from the dark Mediterranean woman. Just like I had done, he took a long deep smell of the carnation.
"I like this this tiny, fragrant carnation much better than one of those big stuck-up ones that have all the showy display, but no scent. Although, these are like all modest things, they don't tout themselves, and how they smell! That scent--burning burning."
He raised a full glass of wine. "Cheers," he said.
I clicked his glass and said, "Cheers."
And so the conversation had opened. He told me he was a stranger here and had been here a week.
"Me, too," I said.
And because I felt the need to bring it up in the interest of getting to know one another, I asked what line of work he was in.
"I love Tulsu," he answered.
He must have misunderstood the question.
"I was asking about your job," I said.
"And I answered," he said. "My job is loving Tulsu."
He felt a need to clarify, somewhat put off by my surprise.
"Is there a job more important in this world than loving? I have loved Tulsu until this very moment, and I will love her until I die. The greatest happiness is when people do the job of loving. Yet, the majority of people are doing the job of not-loving."
When I'd asked what job he did, I had wanted to know how he made his living.
"What does it mean to say you love your job?" he asked and then again answered the question himself. "Every day, twenty four hours a day, even in sleep, I think of the thing I love."
We finished our wine and had her bring another bottle each.
The lover of a man that age! Imagine! Who could she be?
"May I ask your age?" I said.
"Like everybody, you find it peculiar that someone my age could count loving someone as his only job," he said. "I am seventy."
"That means we're the same age."
"Of course, you're curious about Tulsu, right? Everyone is curious, because a man's lover, at the age of seventy..."
"It's true. I am curious about this fortunate woman you have dedicated your life to."
We clicked our glasses together again, said "cheers" and drank.
"My first glimpse of Tulsu was like something between reality and a dream, because I only remember that first glimpse from what my father told me. I must have been four or five years old, or round about. It was late one evening, and I was sitting with my father in front of one of his friend's stores..."

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Wind Gods

Yesterday was an odd Sunday. I spent two hours doing something I never do--chatting online, but it was with two old friends I haven't spoken to in ages, and I came out of the rather harrowing conversations (at least in the case of one of them) feeling a deep sense of relief. I needed to walk, and so I left my apartment and headed down to the sea. On the way is an old graveyard next to the parking lot of Fenerbahce's giant soccer stadium. When you walk by at night, you can see a green light (the color of Islam) glowing from a tomb right by the fence. There is always a night watchman there. But this was during the day, and though I have walked by this cemetery a million times, I have never stepped inside.

The glowing green grave is apparently the final resting place for a local minor saint. You find this sort of thing more often in rural Anatolia, but they are in Istanbul, too--dervishes and holy men revered for their wisdom during life, and now seen as protectors in death. An old man in an army green jacket was outside the fence praying when I came. Inside the cemetery walls is all leaf and grass and ground gnarled by tree roots. Most of the grave markers are written in Ottoman--using Arabic letters. A small black and white kitten ran up to me as soon as I passed through the entrance and walked with me through the cemetery, at one point trying to reach my head by scaling my legs and trunk. A monolith at the entrance was to a man called simply "Milli Sehit Kemal Bey". National Martyr Kemal. He had fought at Gallipoli and been some sort of governor at Izmir, but was driven out of power by the postwar occupiers, their political "lackeys", and "Armenian agitators." In light of the recent turmoil over the genocide recognition in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it makes me wonder just what it was he was involved in.

The path to the sea takes you past many relics of the past. Next to the train tracks is an old crumbling hamam that used to belong to an Ottoman millionaire. It is covered in graffiti and still surrounded by apple and cherry trees, blooming now in our unseasonably warm weather (survivors of the millionaire's garden?). Old Japanese poems used to compare the flowers on these trees to snow, and with all the other trees bare of any leaf whatsoever, they do indeed look like remnants of a fresh snowfall. There is also a creek once named Turtle Creek, but not referred to mostly as Shit River because of the smell (my high school students had no idea it had a different name). It winds from the Asian hills down past the stadium to the Marmara Sea.

The sea has been gorgeous recently. The colors on its surface like thick oil paints--today it's silver and cobalt blue. Last week, when I was jogging, it was a heavy purple. A storm is coming in. The weather is so strange here. On the European side it might be sunny, while on our side its pouring down rain. On the south side of the European shore there might be no wind, while on the north it's blowing hard. It's like this today. This makes the rain falling on the opposite side do odd things. To the West, where the sun is setting, the rain is coming straight down out of the clouds. And its a deep, black-red on orange sky. More easterly, toward the palace museum, the wind has bent the rain severely to the right--nearly at a 45 degree angle--and its dark gray on purple. Yet it's still clear blue sky above me on the Asian shore. The water is filled with black moorhens and white gulls. Cormorants are diving for fish. The seaweed is an electric green (though this color is made possible by the 'nutrients' flowing out of Shit River). Piles of it grow around orange rusting pilings.

The winds in Istanbul are fierce, stronger than Boston's even. They each have a name. Poyraz is the Northeast wind. Lodos is the Southwest. There are others, but these are the main ones. Both are responsible for ramming ships against the shore. You can see several wrecks from Kadikoy all the way down to the entrance of the Bosporous. According to legend, there was once a king on the Asian shore who fell afoul of the gods somehow and was tormented daily by the Harpies. One day, the wind gods' ship landed in the kingdom and the king begged them to help him get rid of the Harpies. To this day, Boreas (Poyraz) and Lodos chase the Harpies around the Marmara sea and when you feel the wind hurling rain and waves against you as you walk the shore it is from the power spilling out of their battle.

On my way back from the sea, I pass by the fishing shacks along Shit River. One man, a jazz looking dude who wears a beret, sports coat, and has a goatee, has a pet rooster and duck that sit next to him like dogs as he listens to the radio and reads. A few men are tending to their boats. And Lodos is raging, making the masts tilt left and right and the duck croak in annoyance.

Friday, March 5, 2010

My First Tiny Translation--this is a good story.

I've been hoping to use this blog to put up a few translations of Turkish writers, but somehow the task has been daunting, and I haven't done it. So today I'm starting with a very short exerpt from a book of essays by Sunay Akin, called "Onlar Hep Oradaydi"--They Were Always There. Akin is a poet, and each piece compares some aspect of Native American history with Turkish history. (Interestingly, he is also a major television host and owner of Istanbul's toy museum and has a personal collection of over 7000 toys dating back some 200 years!)

First, a prelude before I get to the meat of the story. In one essay, called "The Indians Who Sent a Message to the Moon," he spends the first half talking about the Apollo astronauts training in the Arizona desert in Navajo Nation. Apparently, an old Navajo asked what in hell they were doing in their funny outfits and when they explained it to him, he wrote a message in Navajo and asked them to take it to the moon. The curious astronauts had it translated. "Beware of these people!" it said, "They'll take your land!" Akin goes on to talk about the Navajo code talkers in World War 2 (a story I'll abbreviate here as American readers should know already). Basically, for years speaking in Navajo was forbidden. Navajo children were forced into missionary schools and if caught speaking their own language, severely punished. During WW2, however, the Japanese were breaking all of our codes and so the top brass got the idea of using the notoriously difficult Navajo language to transmit messages and suddenly, this language that had been outlawed for years upon years, its speakers tortured, became a necessity.

Akin then switches locales to Turkey and has this to say.

"Some teachers were trying, in the same way, to control language in our schools in Anatolia. One teacher even told the children that if they spoke their native language (Kurdish) at home then it would leave a mark in their mouths. So every morning, he had the students stand across from him and open their mouths so he could inspect them. All of them stood with their tongues sticking a little out of their mouths. In their hearts was the fear that he would see the Kurdish that they were speaking in their homes.

Kamber Atesh, having been convicted by military tribunal after the coup of September 12, found himself in Mamak Prison. Since the government intended to keep him in prison all his life, they put him in an isolation cell in B Block. One day, a guard gave a letter to Kamber as he languished in the middle of those four walls. The letter said they were going to bring his mother to him for a visit. She was sick and had written, "Let me see my son one last time before I die!"

Later that week, Kamber Atesh, when he heard his name called over the loud speaker, emerged as if he were a caterpillar that had turned into a butterly fluttering its wings to the bright world. Behind the barbwire fence stood his brother, and of course, his mother as well.

Waving was forbidden. Speaking in a soft voice was forbidden. The old woman, on this day of her first and only visit after months and months of not seeing her son, asked him, "How are you today, Kamber Atesh?"

Kamber Atesh said, "I'm fine, Mom. I'm fine." And as soon as he answered her, she asked again, "How are you today, Kamber Atesh?"

"I'm fine," he answered. "Very good. How are you all doing?" After a short silence, the woman said in a broken voice, "How are you today, Kamber Atesh?"

At that moment, his brother explained that this was the only Turkish sentence that his mother had been able to memorize on the way to the prison. She could say nothing else.

"How are you today, Kamber Atesh?"

This old woman had raised her son with lullabies in a language forbidden now to speak with him. On the wall behind her was written in giant letters, "Speak Turkish! Speak It Alot!"

Here are two lines from an Anatolian bard.

Dil bir anadır
kucağinda çocuğu

"Language is a mother,
And her children are in her embrace."

Note: The military coup of September 12, 1980 swept all sorts of people into jail--from leftists to Kurds to any sort of political opposition, real or imagined. My Turkish teachers brother died in prison, suspected of being a leftist. Unlike, Kamber Atesh, he never got even one visit from his mother or sister. Kurds suffered perhaps more than others. Their language was outlawed. Even possessing a book in Kurdish could land you years in jail. It was a time of unprecedented cruelty, but to this day, many people insist that it was necessary to prevent the country from following into the hands of "the Islamicists", a boogeyman dangled in front of the people's eyes whenever the army needs to seize control.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A bright light in all the 'bok'

I assigned my students to do a travel report from an imaginary planet. One of my kids in 9th grade wrote 'On my planet, the most intelligent beings are cows. They can sing and make speeches. They are pink and have wings and fly all over the world. Sometimes it rains milk.'
Better than bird milk on the shoulder I say.

It's all a load of.....a Turkish lesson!

In teaching one of my language classes in this elite private high school on Istanbul’s Asian hills, I have oft been tempted to compare the lamblings of my tenth grade language class to zoo animals and the task of teaching them to zoo keeping. I might even compare them to farm animals (although they are far less useful than your average mule or chicken—I won’t get in trouble for eating a chicken—and nowhere near as docile as cows). However, to do this here, now, in this blog would imply a lack of respect for their basic humanity, so I will refrain from the jokes I was about to make regarding their grooming habits and egg laying abilities. In fact, to protect them as much as possible, I will even use pseudonyms.


One of the most difficult students is Elsie. Elsie often plays on her phone in class and sometimes attempts to sleep, laying her huge head down on her desk and staring at me with those uncomprehending bovine eyes of hers as if she had just been struck in the head with a hammer or perhaps been ‘treated’ too much with a large electrical baton. Bonzo is the worst of the male students. He leaps about the class, is never in his seat, and makes loud hooting noises from his perch by the lockers as I attempt to speak over him. Bonzo drives me absolutely bananas and if some sort of disease or poacher were to put him down, I would not shed a tear. Even Bossie, a fairly bright girl generally stares dully at the floor and I have to milk her for even the shortest of answers.

These kids have taught me a lot about shit. That is, words and various synonyms to express poop and all its various permutations. First, you have the word bok. I might say ‘Bonzo bok bir oğrenci’ 'Bonzo is a shit student', or ‘her seninyaptığı şey bok olur, Bonzo’ 'Everything you do is shit'. Another word is dışkı or ‘feces’. For example, ‘Bonzo, sınıfta dışkını atma!’ 'Bonzo, don’t throw your feces in class!' Gübre means ‘manure’. I might tell my colleague, ‘Elsie’nin gübresi tarlaya koyup, çapalarsak, ekinler daha çabuk büyüyor’ 'If we take Elsie’s manure and hoe it into the fields, the crops will grow faster.’ Children use the word kaka, just as Spanish speakers do. I have more than once had to say, Yine mi bezinin içinde kaka var? ‘Do you have doo doo in your diaper again?’ Finally, there is tezek, dried manure for burning in the winter. After sweeping up after a day of classes, the janitor might say to me, ‘Oğrencilerin gübresini toplayıp kışlık tezek yapalım.’ Let’s gather up the students' manure and turn it into fuel for our winter fires.’

Thank you my students. What crap I would not know if not for you!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Random Monday Stuff

Stumbling out of the house at 7 this morning to catch the service bus to school, there's a red Volkswagen bug parked half on the curb in front of the entrance. It was completely covered in dust, and someone had written on the back windshield, "Beni yika"--"Wash me!"

Every Monday morning, the zoo animals gather in front of the Turkish flag and are shouted into silence for a rousing rendition of the Turkish national anthem. I have to stand there, too, but of course, I don't sing or anything. Instead, this morning, I ran my eyes over the Vice Principal's office and counted how many pictures of Ataturk she had. There were thirteen in all. To be fair, three or four of them were on advertisements or posters of some sort, but that leaves quite a lot, which means she purposely put nine pictures of the man around her office. Now back home I can see having one picture of George Washington or someone along those lines lurking about a school official's office, but nine? Delal suggested that I file a complaint--namely, that the Vice Principal is not patriotic enough and should have even more photos. Apparently 31 more people were arrested on Friday for a "coup plot" against the government. I'm sure I could get fingers pointing her way.

Apparently, in the city of Tekirdag, in Thrace, the local people cannot pronounce H. So the name Hakan is pronounced, "Akan". While words that normally don't have an H, suddenly get one. So the name Aylin, becomes "Haylin." This is a lot like the famous New England R, where "mother" becomes "mothah" and "data" becomes "dater".