From the Turkish of Erendiz Atasü
Translated by Ruth Christie
The little girl was walking along Istiklal Street between her parents. Hermother wore a close-fitting cotton two-piece with padded shoulders, and no matter how hot it was she never removed her white gloves or her silk stockings, which were always straight with the back seam in the middle of her leg. Her white suede shoes were like new, clean and spotless. She walked erect. Her father wore a cotton suit and as always a felt hat. Occasionally he might not wear a tie.
Istiklal Street stretched on and on like a narrow corridor with high ceilings. In the city where the young girl lived buildings were lower and the sky closer. But here there was a ceremonious atmosphere, dignified and unusual. She took no interest in the display of clothes in the shops which her parents liked to look at. If only they would go immediately to Baylan or Hay Layf and eat chocolate cake! or reach the Tunnel and get on the train ... the Tunnel was such fun, one of the best treats on the visits to Istanbul. Those 'visits to Istanbul' were a ritual in themselves; the two highlights were going to Beyoglu and taking the ferryboat to Büyük Ada to eat fish in a restaurant on the beach, the little girl careful not to dirty her frilly dress, fearful of the blue lightning-flash behind her mother's glasses.
In Beyoglu and the Tunnel and on the Island, incomprehensible words flew about her. Looking into the shop-windows, white-haired ladies wrapped in black stood beside her or sat opposite on the Island ferryboat.
("In Atatürk's lifetime was it like this?"
"Your fellow-citizens advise you to speak Turkish ..."
"They live in the most beautiful parts of our country")
The little girl lived in her own world, secure in her familiar nooks, dreaming of chocolate cake and the excitement of the Tunnel.
The young girl was walking along istiklal Street with her friends. Its air of ceremony was gone. Satisfied with the familiar and not curious to learn about the unknown (the darkness that opened out into the street, the dank slopes mysterious but compulsive) she could not take her eyes off the cinema posters. Which one to visit? - Cinemas, cinemas . . . dream and reality, loneliness and crowds. Let's look in the shop-windows. I wonder if I've enough money . . . we mustn't forget the Flower-Passage. "To visit Istanbul without drinking beer in the Flower Passage or eating kokoreq1 is not at all the proper thing for a right-minded student from Ankara University."
This is the egocentric ebullience of youth. Who cares about any particular place ? . . . Baylan and Hay Layf are closed, there are no more pudding-shops and music: the non-Turkish ladies in black are dead and gone, and what's pouring out now at the shop-windows are Turkish words pronounced in various Anatolian accents. Who cares . .. Before darkness falls we must be away from istiklal Street which had lost its good name by now, before its pavements fill up with crowds of black-moustached, sinister-looking men. If they harrass the girls in our group of friends, our young men will lose their cool.
Quick, grasp hold of each other's hands, let's do our shopping and clear out of istiklal Street... spectre of the past... The loose woman exposing her messy make-up and washing her dirty linen in public. The left-overs of capitalism and imperialism.
The woman over forty was walking along Istiklal Street. She hadn't been there for twenty years. She'd come to Istanbul every year but had never revisited istiklal Street. For the first time she looked, not at the passing crowds, but at the buildings that followed their course from on high. Youth's blind vitality had given way to mid-life's bitter sensibilities . . . What melancholy the buildings had . . . aristocratic, distant... I love Istanbul for this ... In this city the stones acquire speech and talk with us ... "I have lived", they say, "I've seen great days and have suffered." The distant voice of time absorbed in the stones reached my ear . .. "We've seen good times", the buildings said, "We were beautiful, wealthy and invulnerable. Proudly we looked down from our superior wealth and beauty at the ill-lit streets of evening in the poor Moslem districts where they eat only bread and olives. But tell me, daughter of the people who never managed to escape the life of nomads and migrants, did we deserve the treatment we got from your kind?" "What did we do to you, oh, splendid walls of carved stone?" "You've forgotten. You weren't able to set us on fire like the old wooden houses. But you forgot us and let us fall into ruins." "You're wrong; look, I do remember. I'm looking for the Park Hotel. Can you tell me how to get there?"
"The Park Hotel?"
"The place where General Harrington used to drink five-o-clock tea during his occupation of Istanbul, where Atatürk danced and where my father and mother celebrated their wedding."2
"Oh, daughter of the Turkish Republic, are your father and mother still alive?"
"My father died long ago ... as for my mother, it's not clear if she's alive or dead."
"Daughter of the man who wore a summer suit and the woman in gloves, you come to Istanbul once a year; why weren't you curious till now to see the hotel where your parents celebrated their wedding?"
"It's difficult to explain that to you, oh elegant stone wall. We were a generation unwilling to look back to the past. We leapt over all that stood in our way to the future. We were so taken up with the masses that we forgot the immediate environment. Believe me, we meant well."
"Hmm - the Park Hotel - difficult - I wonder which of us that was?
Why don't you ask people in the street?"
"They don't know, they don't recognize it or remember it. The seller of bread-rolls at the corner, the kebab-man on this side - neither of them knows anything about it."
"We can't remember either: you know, when memories get cloudy, buildings decay: we are only the echo of people's memories. If no one can recall it, maybe the Park Hotel was destroyed too."
"No, my friend! It was a historic building."
"Look, if you're talking about Pera Palace, go right on to Tarlabasi."
"No. What would I be doing with Pera Palace? It's the Park Hotel I want. Don't you see? My parents were married there; there was a magnificent wedding-party; my mother wore a long silk bridal dress with a train; she was wrapped in a cloudy veil. My father, so handsome in his black swallow-tail coat. My whole existence is involved with the Park Hotel, do you see?"
"All right, why haven't you asked your mother?" " She can't remember anything now." "Why didn't you ask when she could remember?" "I don't know. You're making me contused -- I never thought of it." "Girl of the people without a past, you are a bit late." The earth had opened and swallowed up the Park Hotel. There was no one I didn't ask - every travel-agent, every pedlar of lottery tickets, stockings, underwear, Marlborough cigarettes, condoms, lighter-fuel. I entered every kebab-shop in the place -the pudding-shops had been closed down - and there were no more pubs. Even the police didn't know. Perhaps that woman knows, standing there like a rejected baby-doll thrown away in the attic: her wrinkled face concealed under dark makeup and her threadbare clothes a faded reflection of former chic." "Excuse me, Madame, how can I get to the Park Hotel?" Madame looks with vacant eyes: she's not living in this world. Eventually somebody knew of the Park Hotel.
"On the way to Gümüşsuyu," he said, "by the German Consulate. Ask for the German Consulate, everyone knows it." Everybody knew the German Consulate, they had waited for ever in a queue for visas, hadn't they? The German Consulate was in its place all right. But there was no sign of a splendid historical building beside it! "This is the Park Hotel", someone said.
"Where is it? There's nothing there but wooden fences round a building-site."
"Yes, it's the Park Hotel Construction Site. They're going to build a new Five-star Park Hotel here, a skyscraper. The excavation work's going on."
"The Park Hotel? What happened to the old one?"
"Ooo - they knocked it down. Are you looking for the old Park Hotel? Heavens! It went as long ago as '78."
"They knocked it down!"
The woman sat down under the fence as though she had been felled; she was exhausted from looking for the Park Hotel which had not been in existence since '78. She looked at the great pit through the wooden railings. In place of the demolished Park Hotel stood an empty hole like a tooth extracted from the giant mouth of the city, as its people and buildings were ground to dust. Istanbul looked at the woman from the hole, grinning with its ugly toothless mouth. In recent years the woman had followed up certain things. She had walked around museums and old buildings, tracing the past in search of the s of today, but she had failed to find them. She was always divided from them by a slight break in her dream. The traces of the past left on the historical objects displayed in museums had been swept away with the dust. Was that all? What else was there, apart from the timber houses abandoned to their fates in the old unkempt street, consisting of nothing but rotting materials that could not withstand time and the damp? There was not even a trace of life as it had once been lived. In her great broken dream of the Park Hotel a clear sense of the past had been indisputably planted before the woman. In this 'past', which was invisible, impassable, sharp as glass and life-embittering, the woman saw projections of the future, daydreaming with her weary body, her eyes and her perceptions.
First, images to do with the past came and went on the past's authentic screen. The smart rooms of the Park Hotel had collapsed and were no more. Elegant porcelain teasets hit the screen and smashed into smithereens. The gaping grab snatched up her parents and scattered them to the sky. Her mother's silk wedding-dress tore with a rending shriek, caught in the grab's jagged teeth; clouds of dust smothered the smell of mothballs and lavender. Suits, felt hats, silk stockings with straight seams, padded shoulders, the straight and narrow slope of duty and responsibility, unswerving faith in the Republic, questions of nation and the family, suppressed and never discussed, parental authority and the blue lightning eyes that turned to pale grey mists --- all of these the grab ground to dust and sand, to building-dust and sand that was spreading to Taksim, to Istanbul, and gradually to all of Turkey. Then, images of the present crowded into the hollow; the hamburger advertisements at Taksim, English and Arabic words, Arab tourists in their cloaks, women swathed in black, unemployed Turks wandering aimlessly. Everything rapidly mingled with the dust and began to define the future.
Skyscrapers rose up within the hollow. A strange language flew between the skyscrapers. Illuminated tapes written in strange letters wound among the buildings. The woman asked,
"Is this Turkish?"
"Yes," said a voice.
"So what has become of the 'hats' above the soft 'g', and the dots above the 'ö's' and 'ü's'? Where's the vowel harmony, where's the cedilla?
"The computer has swallowed the dots. Why are you interested in such an old-fashioned language?"
"Does it need a reason? I'm a writer of Turkish. Must I watch my language being massacred?"
"Oh, is Turkish the first language to be forgotten in the history of the world?"
"Well, which language is valid now?"
"American, Arabic, Japanese - whatever suits the computer."
"Is this the language now spoken in my country?"
"Yes, only the poor and the destitute who don't have computers are still talking Turkish."
"American, Arabic, Japanese - so the fashion for European languages has completely gone. People in my time, and probably before me, used to race off to Beyoglu if they wanted to have a taste of European diversity: what happens now?"
"Now there's the Galleria. When people yearn for the American Dream they go to the Galleria, walk along the wide, well-lit streets and look in the shop windows. They gobble down American food as they walk and feel themselves to be thoroughly 'New World'."
"I really don't like those great spaces that reflect the American lack of experience."
"What's happened to Beyoglu?"
"It's an open-air museum."
"And the train?"
"Part of the museum."
"Have the ruins stood?"
"Who walks around this museum?"
"Foreign tourists who know some history. They're on the island, too. They go there by helicopter. The sea of Marmara is so polluted that even the ferryboats can't get through."
"My God! Have things got so bad? - Has domestic tourism died? Where are the local tourists?"
"Of course - nostalgia - has that died too like the sea of Marmara?"
"Now nostalgia's doing big business in the Galleria: you have to realize that the Galleria belongs to the past. The shopping-market is far away. Nowadays transportation is by helicopter, nourishment is by pills. As for nostalgia, it's in the raw kofte taken with whisky and in bellydance music played on electric guitars."
"What! - all these trivial vulgarities - the arabesque life lived according to American fashion. Has nostalgia fallen so low, so far from the heartbreaking beauty of Beyoglu?"
"Beyoglu was a dream that no one could live. Neither your mother nor father . .. Beyoglu had nothing to do with reality: it was a fragile web of dreams, composed of abundance, tolerance, going beyond one's limits, uniting with others in friendship - and most important of all - of being accepted. The basic longings of dreams never change, even if the symbols that embody them alter. The Beyoglu dream was wine and caviare, Aida and cabaret songs, the gold jingling in the harbours of the Mediterranean.
The Galleria is a dream too: the builders over the Bosphorus becoming wealthy, the whisky and raw kofte, Madonna - all became beautiful as they became part of the past; memory always covers up the ugly things. This is a small mistake made by both the individual and the collective memory, which renders life endurable -"
"What has my country come to?" the woman asked, tearfully, "has some calamity befallen the Republic?"
"The sea can't calm down if it isn't rough. And no sea can keep calm for very long."
"What does that mean, I wonder?"
"They call it history. The storms in your country are all the same."
"Have you forgotten you are the daughter of a country without a memory, of a weary, senile people, and of a nation trying to grow out of its childhood in an age when western civilization has worn out?"
"Who are you?" asked the woman of the voice that came from everywhere but clearly from nowhere.
"Time", groaned the grab.
"Time", whispered the flying grains of sand.
"Time", sighed the water sucked down by the earth.
"Time, I can't touch you or catch you."
"Sure you can't catch me, I'm the one who passes through your cells."
The old woman walked along istiklal Avenue, deep in the past. She had found it at last, the past she had never been able to reach. Now the boundary was dissolved that had separated her from the Avenue with its fine old buildings stretching along it. The stone and cement of the buildings and her flesh and bones, all now belonged to the past. She could not tell which part of her was a dream of the past, and which belonged to the actual 'now'.
"Now." Was there such a thing? Must she learn this strange ugly language in order to translate her books into the Anjaparap tongue? She still had the life energy to confront such an enterprise. Was it worth it? If only she knew whether it was or not. Or should she leave it and let the dreams she poured out on paper be forgotten along with the language, like all lost languages, and all the dreams described in them?
Would she pass away, clinging to the secret hope - a dream of the future - that perhaps one day her own past work might be rediscovered by a dream-interpreter and restored to the light of day?
The woman rose from beside a building-pit by which she had collapsed. Like someone waking from a deep sleep she tried to shake off the exhaustion that embraced her body. She rubbed her eyes and looked about her. Everywhere was cloudy with dust. Her hands filthy, her clothes stained and spotty. How noisy and ugly everything was. Hooting horns, exhaust fumes, pushing crowds, treeless pavements and in her heart a strange peace of mind. She felt wealthy as though all Beyoglu had been given her as a present. The real owner of the past and present was herself. Most of the rushing people did not see her, those who did, looked strangely at this woman covered in dust. They swarmed like grains of sand, or ants. They were running after the sand and dust and something that did not exist, the present. "The present has vanished," said the woman to herself.
With her knowledge of the past she hews the stone
perhaps it will be the future,
she smells the stone,
the sculpture crumbles.3
1kokoreq: roasted sheep's intestines.
2General Harrington, commander of the Allied Forces who invaded Istanbul after WW1, used to take five-o-clock tea at the Park Hotel.
3 Lines from the poet Nilgün Marmara, who wrote in the 70s and committed suicide at a very young age.