Where Were You When Darkness Fell
(A Novel Excerpt)
By Mario Levi
Translated from Turkish by Leyla Tonguç Basmaci
Entry into Hell
There was a dream that followed me ruthlessly for years. It took me a long time to come to terms with what I saw, or rather with what I was forced to reveal to myself. What’s more, I am not even sure that I have succeeded. All that is left within me is simply the echo of those voices and of that laughter. In my dream Lee Van Cleef, the unforgettable villain of westerns, dressed in that long black coat of his, looks at me with his eagle eyes and that smile that predicts terrible things and with his long-barreled gun he suddenly shoots my father, who is at a short distance from me, in the forehead. I can still see my father collapsing in pain and the red hole that appeared in the middle of his forehead. Where were we? Why were we there? What was it that was wanted or expected from me? The place where we were looked a lot like one of the beaches we went to in my childhood. But it was so quiet, it could have been a horror film. Maybe it was the early hours of the morning. There was no doubt that it was the right time for an execution. On the vast beach there were only a few people and they were far from each other. I remember that there was a man who looked at me with reproach, with contempt, and even with ridicule, and that an old woman whose skin was tight from too much sun, who looked very much like one of the women whom my grandmother met with on certain days of the week, to play cards, hastily got up from her place and said, “On l’a tué le pauvre!/They have killed the poor man!” about my father, who was lying on the ground. The woman wasn’t interested in me. It wasn’t clear whom she had said these words to, in that endless void. A little further away, three men were sitting together and laughing among themselves. They didn’t seem to have either seen or heard what had happened. But I was there. I was full of fear, but I was also trying to smile at Lee Van Cleef, who was continuing to laugh and to blow off the smoke coming from the barrel of his gun. That was all. Then I woke up.
I had this dream about ten years ago. My father had died a long time before. At first I couldn’t make any sense of why I had seen him like this at our first meeting after so many years. But then it dawned on me: it was actually I who had committed this murder. But because I hadn’t actually managed to do it, I made the worst villain in my memory kill my father, who breathed down my neck with his influence and presence in my later years, at every step I took, or wasn’t able to take. What’s more, when we watched those films together, in a very distant past, this villain was among the characters that affected us the most. It had been such a long time, so many people, feelings, words and images had gone by. All the deep feelings stirred up by those details mattered greatly to me. What that old woman said, the way she expressed it, the way that man who kept smiling stared at me, the distance and indifference of those other men, and the fact that I stood there without moving, without saying a word, with that evil feeling inside me that I couldn’t come to terms with. That fear… Yes, I was afraid, once again, I was afraid. I was afraid of showing and revealing “too much” of myself. I have inherited the ruins of a history that was full of deep threats that have instilled this fear in me, that have anticipated and nurtured my reticence. This history, whether I liked it or not, drew me inside, and it was also the history of my loneliness, which I outlined—which I couldn’t avoid outlining—with my own steps, out of my private moments of darkness, of my sexuality, of what my face—that I never liked seeing in the mirror—reminded me, and it was also the history of my languages that taught me who I was, of my country, of my ancient city. Was there no cause for why those men in the distance should have been indifferent to this murder? Had that woman, with that typical behavior as an “outsider,” shown that reaction for no reason at all? And that man, that man who looked at me so judgmentally? Who was that man? Was he one of those people whom I had to confront under different disguises, at different stages of my life, from that hell that I built out of those whom I alienated, one of those people who always managed to intercept me somewhere or other with their threats, whom I just couldn’t get rid of, whom I perceived as my enemies and couldn’t avoid? Or maybe... was I that man? These questions could lead me on to other questions and other probabilities. But I couldn’t go any further. That murder was more than enough for me. I had finally managed to kill my father…
The next morning I remembered him, not in the way he looked when he was in his shop, which was practically his temple, but through those words that I hadn’t been able to expel from the depths of my mind for so many years: You are going to be nothing but a scoundrel! When I thought of the values on which he had based his life, being considered a scoundrel by him shouldn’t have affected me very much. What’s more, in my view, being associated with a lifestyle of that kind could even have justified my rebelliousness. Both the words that would make me enjoy my rebellion to its full extent, and the feeling of rejection that would make me believe in myself even more were present. However, when I looked at the whole thing from another point of view, whatever I did, no matter how much I tried to convince myself, I always ended up being hurt because of that feeling of not being taken heed of, which I just couldn’t cope with. Not being taken heed of, that’s it. I think that that was what upset me the most for such a long, long time. After all, is there anybody who doesn’t want to be noticed in one way or another? Is there anybody who, after having felt the pain of striving to get noticed, can emerge unscathed from such a clash, such an internal struggle? I had only recently graduated and I was doing whatever I could to reject the life that was offered to me, or rather that was being imposed on me. Submitting to it in a sense would mean accepting death.
To be defeated, to surrender, and worst of all, to compromise. At that time, neither my feelings, nor my political views would have permitted this. Because those days drew their strength from the spirit of change, and even from the spirit of change through destruction. When I went to London on the pretext of pursuing my education, with what little I obtained from turning into cash the gold coins that I was given at my bar mitzvah and that were diligently kept in a black velvet pouch in a drawer at home for “important occasions,” my lifestyle there was what my father expected of me: I loafed around and deluded myself with a number of daydreams, and this was part of that rebellion, it was one of its requirements. Both my parents had vehemently opposed the idea of turning those gold coins into cash. I felt provoked by their opposition. I wanted to hurt them, and I also wanted to experience the feeling of being able to get up and go without my father’s support. In other words, I had reasons that in my view were very valid, for telling them that that was the most “important occasion” for me. They therefore weren’t able to come up with any serious objections. It wasn’t such a huge amount of money anyway; in a city where not only reality but also illusions were expensive both to buy and to sell, I calculated that it would see me through only for six months. After that… After that all I needed to do was daydream and enjoy the exhilaration that would accompany those dreams. When I began to run out of money, I would throw myself into an adventure I couldn’t even imagine, and with the belief that I had to cling tightly to the conviction that I could save the day as I wished, I would earn my living working at a number of jobs, as a waiter, a dishwasher, a member of the cleaning staff at a hotel, as a cashier at supermarkets open all night, regardless of whether they belonged to Arabs. I would show people that I could survive even in foreign lands, and then, when the time was right, I would return with that feeling of victory that I needed so much. But I didn’t know when the time would be right. Maybe I wouldn’t return. Like many relatives of ours, I had become fascinated with the idea of rejecting values and I had fallen in love with the fight that this passion drew me into. But it took me only a few months to realize what a mistake I had made. The reality of the situation was very disheartening. The London School of Economics, where I attended a certificate program, was so full of right-wing lecturers that it turned me off completely. And the money that I could earn working in restaurants run by Cypriot Turks could never ensure that I exclude my father from my life for good. What’s more there were other disappointments, too. The England that I was forced to see wasn’t a country of houses with beautiful gardens. Moreover, everybody in this country was not fluent in English and the number of unhappy and bitter people was much higher than I thought. This could be seen clearly even in the London Underground. The West that I saw there was a weary, ruthless, very dark West hidden behind a layer of luster. A West that crushed foreigners and killed them in different ways.. That was one of the greatest breaking points of my life. And within that time I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to live without Istanbul. Anyway… This intense disappointment that revealed me to myself so openly that I couldn’t ignore it is now part of a very distant past. That was when I returned. I simply came back, or maybe I ran away once again. It was as if in London I had left behind a dream based only on lies. Maybe I had buried other possibilities, but I was unaware of what I had destroyed and how. Unaware of how dearly I would pay later on for this silent murder.. In those days I was so far away from that encounter and that conflict that would so deeply unsettle my life. My family had reacted happily, but in different ways, to my return. Of course I couldn’t in any way share any of that happiness. My mother believed she had to relentlessly repeat that her prayers that I marry a “local” girl, “one of us,” had been granted and as this adventure had finally come to an end with no great tragedy, she did whatever she could to pull me into her own world and into the settled life that she believed in and that was required by tradition. I don't doubt that she had no malicious intentions when she expressed her feelings. But because of my sense of not being visible enough and not being noticed as much as I wanted to, I often felt like slapping her with all my might, or, to put it bluntly, beating the hell out of her. Or maybe it was not her that I wanted to beat the hell out of, but those values that she just would not give up.. My father, on the other hand, contented himself with simply watching these scenes and smiling, without saying a word. Naturally he was enjoying this victory. I could not tell him what I had left behind. I myself didn’t know exactly what it was. But I felt a deep ache, a sense of resentment. But I couldn’t explain this feeling to him. We had never talked of any significant issues.. It was probably because of this that I persevered in my efforts to justify their idea of me as an “elegant” scoundrel. One morning, a short while after I had returned, I went to the shop and I told him that I wanted to open up a small restaurant. A small, warm, cozy restaurant. Just like the life that I dreamt of.. I no doubt hoped that he would help me financially. However, his father had produced cologne for years and years, and he himself had sold supplies such as freckle medication, sulfurous soap, talcum powder, depilatory wax, Chinese condoms, Brilliantine and shaving brushes. He was a merchant who had always kept his accounts in order and who prided himself that none of his promissory notes had ever been subject to protests, so it was not possible for him to understand such issues, let alone invest in them. So he had seized another occasion to strike me where I was most vulnerable. Instead of money I received advice, and instead of words of support, I listened to another of those sermons that I knew so well. I had wasted my time studying economy all those years. The streets were better than a university, to learn a trade. If I persevered like this, I would come to no good and I would always do my best to ruin him. What’s more he had said all of this in Ladino. In other words, both his anger and his concern were very genuine. Whenever he was very mad he would prefer this language. Just as when he was very happy and he was forced to share a secret.. He believed that the words of this language made him more sincere and effective. But I didn’t care. And I didn’t care that he had once again flung into my face that I was a scoundrel. What saddened me that morning when I left the shop was not what I had heard, but my own desperation. The fact that I was so desperate that I still needed him to fulfill my dreams..
I could have subjected myself to this conflict in other ways. I could have chosen a life where I had a higher price to pay. But every age and phase believes in its own truths. Nowadays I find it easier to accept this fact. Over time, like so many of my peers experiencing such rebellions, I too lay down my arms. It didn’t take me long to see the void before my quest. I began going to the shop, at first convincing myself that I could postpone my life and my hopes for a while. My father didn’t expect more than that from me anyway. He had this business that he had worked so hard to create from scratch and I was his only son.. It was as simple as that. In the frame of mind that I had managed to adopt, I began to believe that if I chose the alternative presented by my father, life would be much less problematic. Sometimes I had difficulties in recognizing myself and in living with myself. That was when solutions that I came up with due to my youth, in other words tranquilizers, came to my aid. The way I saw it, I had a long, long life before me and when the time came, I would feel stronger and be able to confront it. That’s when I would fulfill my dreams without asking for anybody’s help. I was at an age and time when I couldn’t understand the real significance of “now.” This meant that things could be postponed. Maybe this, too, was a sort of evasion. An evasion that I took refuge in knowingly, but that I wanted to believe would strengthen my ties with life. I was stuck between choices and obligations. Maybe I had lost the will to fight that I once had. Maybe… Maybe, it was because of this feeling of defeat that I wanted to build myself a safe haven where I could feel more secure. Sometimes despondency can act as a tranquillizer.
But my visits to the shop then were different from my visits when I was a student. Now I was able to see other people, and what’s more, I wanted to see them. I wanted to believe that I could perform new plays with other people and that I could acquire mastery in these plays. I had ended up severing, or rather having to sever, my ties with the characters of that play that I was gradually drawing away from, with my friends, those people who had enabled me to view those days with an exhilaration that seemed endless. Everybody had gone their own way. I had no choice but to believe that they too, like me, had followed the path of their new lives, and to hope that they at least found themselves on those paths. I hadn’t heard from them for such a long time. My evasion in those days required that there be a distance among us. What I was endeavoring to live with was a sorrow whose existence I had always felt, but that I could never come to terms with properly. I had no idea where my friends were, who they were with, what they were experiencing. To tell the truth, I didn’t even want to know. I had convinced myself that I could only survive by severing my ties like this. But it was difficult to explain this when I remembered what we had shared and what we had left behind. After all, everybody had made up their minds to choose themselves a path and to walk alone on that path. That’s what life required us to do at that time. I had no doubt that they too thought of me from time to time. But I also had no doubt that they would not call me. The protagonists of that wonderful troupe we called “Team of Artists,” whose stories I still carried inside, had to be the protagonists of an imaginary play that would not end, whose curtain would not come down for a very long time, maybe not until my very last breath. Just as I wanted to believe in my new play, I had to believe in their plays, too, wherever they were. That was why I felt both a bittersweet joy and the will to live when I imagined them experiencing all they could on the paths of their own lives.
In reality, it wasn’t easy to endure that feeling of defeat. The struggle was over. It was as if a truck had hit us. At least that’s how I felt. There was again talk of change. But this change was very different from what we once imagined. It was disappointing, it hurt. But we had to continue living. A new pack of hungry wolves had descended onto the city. Anybody who was still alive, who had survived, would see what they had to see. Anybody who had found themselves an exit would do what they had to do, they would take whatever they could from the struggles, the legacy and the ruins of the people they believed in and whom they had buried not only in the land of this country but also in their own emotional history. The wounds would then be dressed once again, of course. They would be dressed, but they would never heal, and anybody who chose not to forget would still feel their pain. I could see this even then…
It wasn’t easy to do the military service under these conditions. But there, too, I understood once again what a strong weapon keeping silent was. But that’s a time of my life that I’d rather not remember. I don’t want to remember it, although I learned that I need to solve some issues on my own and that at very difficult moments people are able to find an incredible power of endurance within themselves. My adventure as an “outsider” continued there, too. But it was a very painful adventure. And it forced me to come to terms with certain truths. Remembering even this much hurts me. Luckily that nightmare didn’t last too long. The law had enabled me to spend only a short time in the company of weapons, which were something that I could never approve of. When I came back, I felt as if I had returned from a completely different world.
Thus, in spite of all my resentment and my dreams, I was able to adapt more easily to the shop and to the shopkeepers in the neighborhood. Over time I managed not to stand out with my diversities. Watching the other players, I even learned to act like a good backgammon player and to put on different acts when with bank managers, porters or shopkeepers. More importantly, I even managed to play by the rules and manage that shop where I once was only a visitor and that I once was so foreign to. What’s more, I improved myself so much that sometimes I couldn’t even recognize myself. No trace was left of the old modest and shabby shop. Or of the old goods that were more and more incompatible with the needs of the time. Now we import perfume essences for industrial companies. I am the only owner and the manager of the shop. My father died of a heart attack a long time ago, sitting at his desk, when we least expected it. I didn’t cry that day. We had to organize his funeral in a hurry. It was a Thursday and the ceremony had to take place the following morning because the Sabbath began on Friday afternoon. We could have waited until Sunday, but for some reason my mother insisted on completing the whole thing as soon as possible. My father needed to rest in his last place of repose. I don't think that what she said had anything to do with religion or with traditions. I think that she didn’t really know what she was doing because she couldn’t bear his death. But to me it didn’t make much of a difference. All I could do was stand by as events unfolded. It was as if the person we were going to bury was not my father but somebody else. That’s how indifferent and distant I was to what was going on. The necessary procedures went more easily than I thought. I wasn’t sad, all I felt was a little bitterness. A bitterness that I would make sense of later on and that I would be able to place elsewhere in my life. Maybe that’s when I first thought of my own death, maybe I thought that we hadn’t settled our accounts, or maybe, although I couldn’t confess this even to myself, I felt the pain of growing a little older, of being forced to do so. I now was a man without a father. Whether I wanted it or not, I could feel a sense of bitterness. The ceremony was well attended in spite of the haste and worry. Seeing those people, I had to recognize that he had led a righteous life both in his eyes and in the eyes of others. Following the seven days of mourning I collected his stuff at the shop. It was that day… That was the day when I unexpectedly burst out sobbing. In one of the desk’s drawers there was the leather–covered, small, brown notebook where he meticulously wrote what he owed and what he was due. That’s where time had stopped. The notebook was like a summary of his life. I think that that was the day when I finally buried my father.
The change in the appearance of the shop accelerated further from that point on. Nowadays there is only an image, a small corner, to remind people of those old days. That’s where the bell jars containing the lemon and lavender cologne my father enjoyed producing are kept. I’ve put the notebook next to those bell jars. Some people see them and remember him. I’ve never asked myself why I did so. If I had, I’m sure I would have had to face many unexpected answers. I may have wanted to remind myself that he is dead and that his life consisted only of those few small calculations. Which means that a need for revenge is also in question. On the other hand, after all this time, when I think that, like many of his peers, he lived in line with what he believed and he fulfilled his time on this earth with patience, fully aware of his destiny, I have to confess that my heart softens and even breaks a little. But whatever I do, that distance between us that always hurts me still doesn’t become any shorter. If that distance hadn’t been what it was, would I have been able to take another path in life? Who knows? It’s too late, far too late to ask this question. And it is too late to say that I now understand very well Uncle Seyfettin, who seemed so dejected at my father’s funeral and who strengthened my ties to the shop at that very difficult time when I was attempting to walk amidst ruins and find myself. What with his intellectual side and his many diversities, Uncle Seyfettin had always been a kindred spirit. He was probably the same age as my father. He had always succeeded at displaying sorrow and irony simultaneously. That’s how he was, whether he announced that he had been declared an irregular Freemason, or that he was a Bektashi1 elder, or that his wife hadn’t been on speaking terms with him for many years. His long story had now become very meaningful for me. Maybe one day I will manage to remember him and cherish him the way that he deserves. That day, at the funeral, when I asked him why he looked so dejected, his eyes filled and he said, “It’s you I’m worried about, rather than your father’s death.” At that moment I hadn’t been able to understand what he meant. I was bored. I wanted the ceremony to be over as soon as possible. I was thinking of the match with Beşiktaş that would take place that weekend and I was mad at my father because he had died at such a time and I wouldn’t be able to go to the match because of this sudden period of mourning. That is why it was only years later, when the time was right, that I was able to understand what Uncle Seyfettin meant. He was worried about me because, in spite of all my small victories, with this death I would have had to resign myself to this life, from which I would always feel alienated. Anyway… I’m used now to deferrals and to being too late. Otherwise how could I explain these silent murders that I have committed in different ways and in different places? How can I stand so close to that thin line between life and death? These questions belonged also to my play, to that play. I believed so fervently in that play…
Words, Colors, Shadows
My name is Isaac. I have always been proud not only of being from Istanbul—which provides a sense of belonging whose binding power I have expressed at every possible occasion and which is engraved deep down in my personality—but also of being a fan of Fenerbahçe,2 which has given me many moments of exhilaration up to now. Outwardly I never made any great efforts to choose or to obtain these identities. There is a reason why I say “outwardly.” It is true that people discover themselves within one existence or another or as a result of a coincidence. If my forefathers had not been expelled from Spain, if they had not chosen to come here, if they had not chosen to share their history and their destiny with the people of this city for five hundred years… If, during those days of my childhood, when I was trying to find myself, my father hadn’t told me that he was a fan of Fenerbahçe and he hadn’t told me of the goals scored by Lefter. But the real choice revealed itself years later, in the insistence on staying in the same place. Though you pay the price, you still can’t bring yourself to leave. Because in time you learn to love yourself more, you find yourself credible and you appreciate yourself because you stay on. As a person who experiences the unforgettable legacy of his history, who always opposes all types of racism and is open to all types of freedoms, I have always felt very angry to be forced to share the same language and borders of this country with people who choose to pursue nationalism by presenting anybody who is different from themselves with the choice of either loving this country or leaving, but especially when I lived abroad and I remembered that anti-imperialist struggle full of suffering, I was always proud of this land body and soul. Although I believed more in cultural climates and geographies than I did in homelands.. Although I knew that laying claim on a country was no different from getting bogged down in a hollow type of nationalism. Although I witnessed, or rather I was made to witness that I was not considered a real Turk simply because I was Jewish. In other words, in this country to which I’m attached primarily through my feelings, according to some I’m a Turk, and according to others I’m a Jew who bears the identity of the Turkish Republic. I now have so many memories and testimonies that have caused me to experience my being an “outsider” in different ways. I don’t need to make a special effort to use the word “outsider.” This is not a word that I use but that the law uses from time to time and therefore that I, too, whether I want it or not, end up having to use and to feel. Isn’t it very meaningful that real estate belonging to Minority Foundations are seen as “foreign property”? As for the fact that those who are born with these “diversities” are still considered “banned” by the state and “objectionable,” like political convicts, that’s something I don’t even want to think about. Because probing such issues may expose you to “undesirable” results, deriving from the fact that what you said was found “excessively” inquisitive or meddlesome, in a way that would confirm the saying that “sheep that stray are caught by wolves,” or would justify people who tell you “not to meddle in such things.” Our history is full of examples of people who paid very dearly for their “mistakes.” It is easier to walk on slippery ground as long as you remember these examples.
On the other hand, when I look back at my life, I see that I have established my closest friendships and even sentimental relations with people who did not care about such diversities and who, from where I stand, were born “more Turkish” than I. This is one of the most meaningful sides of my destiny in this geographical region where I am. Otherwise, considering all the probabilities and risks it involves, I wouldn’t have wanted to bring up my story after all these years. I had clung so tightly to it. The city too, which had enabled me to build myself, which held me through all binding power and did not let me evade it for another emotional climate, expected me to produce this story out of my experiences. Experiencing Istanbul is different from living in Istanbul. In order to experience and to feel Istanbul’s diversity, you need to be able to hear its different voices. That is the only way to preserve the city’s depth. The story I experienced was my history, my language. What’s more, I needed this story in order to save my life. The feeling of being an “outsider” that can’t be prevented, that you don’t choose but are made to choose, the threat of having to pack your stuff at any moment, with the belief that you will never be able to be part of the real center and that you will be stopped at a certain point, was also present within the shadows of this story. Although the resentment deriving from those diversities that could not always be expressed was much less painful than what could be experienced in some of those countries that claim to be civilized and have been attempting to export civilization to this land for so many centuries. I can see and understand the reality much better now. But I still don’t feel like forgetting completely what has happened or eliminating it from my life.
What’s more, I experienced all of this even though in the eyes of many Jews I wasn’t a good Jew. For example I don’t respect Sabbath days. I haven’t seen anyone who truly respects them in this city. The Kiddush prayer is not recited at our home on Friday evenings. Of course I have no reason to criticize those who do. Seeing that some people believe in “something” that strengthen their ties to life and that they can refer to and experience as they wish makes me even happy, at times. But it is a bittersweet happiness. Because by now I am so resentful that I cannot experience such purity and innocence anymore. Having lost my larger family a long time ago, I still celebrate Pesach with friends of mine. But the choice to do so is based on the need to relive my childhood, rather than to fulfill a religious duty. And traditions are thus passed on to others. If such things matter anymore. Chela, my wife, with whom I have shared almost thirty years of my life, who has always adhered to traditions and who has even taken strength from them, and whom I sometimes see as a symbol of submission, has always cared more than I about these issues. That is why her struggle to raise the children in line with the values surrounding her and enabling her to exist, and with the expectations of history, has never surprised me. But has it served its purpose? Nowadays it is a little difficult for me to answer this question. Because following the recent events, my life is in great turmoil. A scene that is not in the text, that hasn’t been written and that I never thought would be written in those long, seemingly calm years, has completely changed the course of the play. A messenger came on stage at an unexpected point and said the line that invited me into this story. The journey could only begin as the consequence of such an encounter.
Once I used to believe that there was a destructive, deadly side to traditions. I can still feel hints of this belief. The difference in between derives no doubt from my having lost to a great degree my harshness and my will to fight as a result of what the years have imposed on me and what they have taken away. When and where did I lose my will to resist, to rebel? Who knows. Why should I even try to remember? I think that at some point I gave up playing the dissident. Maybe I was afraid of becoming even more of a minority. In the beginning I was very worried that this renunciation would be perceived as cowardice by some. This choice didn’t befit the role that I had chosen for myself, to strengthen my ties to life. But I don't care anymore. I don't care that the “rebel” of once has come to this or that he has imprisoned himself. Every life has its own truths, which are subject to change and to destruction at any moment. With the passing of time, truth can be seen and experienced in a different way. One can draw new and unsettling meanings from changes and from looking at things from a different perspective.
Over the course of these changes and in the belief that I was embracing the idea of being a “local,” like many of my peers who have chosen to experience their Jewishness together with a quest for freedom, I have learned to refer to the synagogue as hebrah, where I go only for weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and on Yom Kippur, to avoid a guilty conscience, rather than to have my sins absolved. To think that for years I avoided using this word. For years. As if I was evading a curse that I didn’t believe I deserved. The fact that I once avoided using the word Yahudi and preferred to hold on to the word Musevi, which seemed more “gentle” and “innocent,” could also be sought in this evasion. No doubt there were reasons for these internalizations. I can still remember words that were said a very long time ago, and what those words made me feel. The fact that I can still remember them is meaningful as it is. One such incident happened at school, at the state school that I attended. As in all other state schools, our class was very crowded and contained many students from many different parts of society. When I remember our teacher, I realize that she was one of those women who carried the many issues and resentments of her personal life into the classroom. By now I can feel more benevolence than anger in the face of such hurt. Circumstances annihilate different sides of different people. But my present perspective on my experiences is not sufficient to cover up or make me forget the mortification that I felt whenever we made a lot of noise and she shouted, “You’ve turned this place into a hebrah!” I can’t make up my mind whether she liked this sentence so much because she was ignorant and unaware of certain subtleties, because of her secret sense of discrimination, or because of her helplessness, because of the inability to find more suitable words to express her anger. Whatever the reason, those words were the first to make me feel in real terms that diversity that I didn’t want to carry or that I was forced to carry as if it was a secret illness, and that discrimination that has always been ignored. There were other Jewish children in our class. None of us ever ventured to react to these demeaning words; we wouldn’t even have dreamt of doing so and we preferred to join the others who were sniggering, but with a feeling of bitterness. That’s what we had been taught to do. We needed to keep silent and keep living. In reality it was a very painful experience. No matter what people may say, its impact lasted for years and years. It is that experience that lay behind my reasons for not using the word hebrah. But in that educational journey where time smoothens our rough edges, I learned to reconcile myself not only to the hurt, but also to the feelings that these words evoked. What’s more, over time I have got used to the attributes of cowardice and of stinginess that are associated with this identity that I was born with and that I have not chosen. As part of my daily life, I have met many people who wouldn’t dream of making such associations, who consider them shameful and who see them simply as a source of friendly and innocent jokes and banter. The better you get to know yourself and others, the better you can judge the appropriateness of leaving some people alone with their imperfections, dilemmas and predicaments. It’s like a sort of training for wisdom that seems unpretentious but that contains a secret assertion. Training for wisdom that anybody who is forced to walk on slippery ground has to undergo, whether they like it or not, and that within this struggle to maintain their existence they scrupulously pass on to their peers. I now know that this training is part of Jewish tradition. But of course it was impossible for me to be aware of this truth in my childhood. But lessons had already begun. For example, when I first heard that we were stingy, I was so surprised and dejected that I ran to my grandfather and asked him to “reveal the truth of the situation.” His response to my question, “They say that we are stingy, is that true?” was a warm, maybe slightly bitter smile and a simple but equally formidable sentence, that I can still remember so well, filtered through that fine tradition of irony: “No, we are not. We are simply a little frugal.” And when I asked him about his views on our cowardice, again he smiled at the association of this attribute, he shook his head slightly, he thought for a while and then he murmured, “Maybe a little prudent.” It has taken me a very long time to perceive the depth of irony and even of melancholy that these answers contained. This is the destiny of certain words. It’s only when the right time comes that we are confronted with their real impact and what they actually represent. You can’t expel them from your life because by now you have found your place on that perspective of life. It takes a lifetime for a legacy to achieve the value it deserves. That is why destroying or disregarding a language is akin to murder.
When I remember those incidents, a feeling of insecurity pervades me once again. Yes, a feeling of insecurity. Although I believe that I am more entitled than most other people to say that I am a local in this city, or rather its owner. How many people now living in Istanbul can pride themselves with a five hundred year old past in this city? But even when it comes to this truth, my past is still full of contradictions. I can remember the days when my grandmother spoke with her friends in Ladino, because she knew no other language, and she was ridiculed by many people. In those days I used to feel embarrassed to stand near her, I wanted to belong somewhere else, where I wouldn’t have to experience or reveal my diversities. How unfair I was. That’s what children are like. How could I have known that the real issue lay elsewhere? My grandmother and her friends hadn’t made a conscious choice. In the years when they were students it would have been out of question to attend a Turkish school. What’s more, they didn’t feel such a need in those restricted circles where they lived, in that language world that had been preserved for many centuries and within those self-sufficient communities. They didn’t even need to read that much, as part of that modest lifestyle where they were trained to become mothers only. Those were the days when people led a confined life and they experienced a different kind of alliance, solidarity, and mutual need, without being aware of other possibilities. Anyway… It’s all over and gone now.
Nowadays I only remember these things when somebody brings them up. And I keep telling myself that other issues and truths are of greater significance in life and in this country. In this land where we live, there are so many so many intricate questions that can’t be answered and can’t be spoken. We are trying to survive in such a difficult region. There are so many people who don't permit those they have alienated to survive. If we set all of this aside, I still think that regardless of which part of the world they live in, all Jews are bound to feel the worry of being ostracized, of being subject to attacks and even of being annihilated. Was this one of the consequences of that feeling of long exile that was engraved deeper than what was transmitted through our religion and prayers? Maybe. Maybe this concern, which was maintained in a variety of climates, shapes, and amounts and through a variety of deaths, but which also strengthened people’s ties to life, was a different form of the struggle to survive. I have never been able to eliminate this possibility from my life. That is why, deep inside, I have always shared the feeling of people who find themselves to be part of a minority, or are forced to see themselves as such. There is a threat; people built it or were made to build it. There are also the dark traces of civilizations built on ruins and on murders, right by an abyss that was always ignored. Those in exile survived in the depth of that darkness. I had seen both what I could see and what I didn’t want to see. Because that was what history taught us. History taught us this. I have never been able to forget those words. But then, what’s left over from all that happened? What’s left over? Everything is transient. Everything comes to an end. The graves are deep inside us. It’s very difficult to answer these questions. All I can say is that all communities that have lost their self-confidence, or are not able to come to terms with their sorrow, perceive as threats all the differences they encounter or that they are forced to feel by others. Just as most people who are not able to get rid of their predicaments and their feelings of defeat, or to reconcile with themselves, would perceive them. But when we think of the coexistence of these diversities, no one is actually threatening anybody else. Everybody wishes to live their own life. or what they consider as their truths. It’s as simple as that. What the protagonists of this long play, which I have been performing for such a long time and at times have been observing silently, have felt and experienced during the course of events amply confirms my belief. The real truth lay in those emotional contact points. Diversities merged within those emotional contact points. The art of marbling could only be created within that water and with those colors. Those colors existed only because they tinged each other and they couldn’t be separated from each other. When I want to believe in this probability, I remember that my grandmother, who was more devoted to her religion than any of us, shared so many things with her religious Muslim neighbors. This was my longest play and the one that I could never give up. Because I am Istanbul. Because my mother comes from a family that has lived in Istanbul for five hundred years. When I go on stage to tell this story, this is the history that lies behind me. My country and my emotional geography are engraved the deepest among the stones of history.
Those Faces Now Smile Inside Me
In that shop at Bahçekapı we used to talk about things that people who are bored with their work or with their lives talk about. We used to talk about politics, football and—as if we were very knowledgeable about it—women, but to tell the truth, the walls that some people built because of religious diversities never occurred to any of us. Like most of his Jewish contemporaries, my father adhered to the Democratic Party with all his heart and soul. In his opinion, the hanging of Menderes3 was the biggest political murder and source of shame in this country’s history. In later years he voted for Demirel and for the Justice Party. He absolutely hated İnönü. His hate, of course, derived from İnönü’s policies concerning the minorities. That was a time when people were forced to acknowledge and to accept that in spite of all their good faith they were not considered true citizens of this country. But it wasn’t possible to either forget or forgive what happened. Over the course of the years I have felt this resentment deep down inside me. I couldn’t help feeling sorry about what they had to experience. Over the course of the years I have seen that this dark period, the time of the “National Chief”4 that some people take pride in remembering and in reminding others, is the most ruthless and fascist period of this country’s history. So many mistakes were made that resulted in the people becoming alienated from the state. And we too had to join in at some point of this course of events, of this struggle for a more righteous country, that we believed in with our heart and soul. What a period that was. I now remember what happened with a bitter smile. A bitter smile. Partly because I can view from another perspective the child who experienced those days with such excitement, and partly because over the years I have realized that that excitement was real and that that rebellion was very pure and honest when compared with that filthiness. Because from time to time I feel sad about that child. Because I’m also proud of him. Because I miss that purity, that defenselessness and vulnerability. Because I can’t explain anymore to anybody that the protagonists of that play are the real protagonists of my country. I was a sophomore then. I had worked hard to organize the shop staff against my father, the fascist boss! What a comedy. That shop had a total staff of four! One can therefore remember the play as a drama, or rather a tragedy. But now, after all these losses and after having had to come to terms with reality, I enjoy sitting among the audience and watching this comedy again.
The comedy had in part been written by the protagonists of the play, of which I was unwillingly a part. Kemalettin Bey of Findikzade was my father’s driver and he did not cease working although he was close to his seventies. Let alone giving up working, he said that he saw work as a kind of religious ritual, but I think that he pursued this life because he had no other life, or because he was continuously evading something that I couldn’t understand or name. Kemalettin Bey, with his meticulously clean but very frayed white shirts, his ties that were out of fashion and old but extremely tasteful, his dark suits, the lunchboxes that he brought from home, and his way of speaking that made me think that he had jumped out of one of those old photographs of Istanbul, was as right-wing as my father. He had worked for many years in the Justice Party’s Istanbul office and at every opportunity he would feel the need to say that all left-wing people were traitors who received financial aid “from abroad.” As far as I knew, he too had practiced commerce in the past and after having gone bankrupt he had begun to earn a living working as a driver for my father. Where and how had they met? Through which circumstances had he come to the shop? I never knew much about such details. My father didn’t seem very keen to tell. My father tended to keep to himself the secrets of people whom he cared about and I respected him for this. That’s why I didn’t probe the subject too much, besides which there was no need to do so. All I knew was that their association, or rather their friendship, dated back to a long time before. I was little, I can barely remember those days. There was no shop yet at that time. All we had, to enable us to view the future with some hope, was a small room in one of those decaying commercial buildings in Eminönü which was used partly for storage and partly as a shop. My father bought a van to sell perfumery goods to pharmacies in Anatolia around the same time when Kemalettin Bey came into our lives. My father said that he began to work with him because he didn’t want to be on his own during those long trips. For some reason I never forgot those words. What he said could have been interpreted in many different ways. Who knows what they had shared on those roads, what and who they had talked about. Whenever I think about how close they were, I feel that they must have seen that van as a mobile room that held their secrets. That room played an important role in my life, too. In my relationship with my father, it was as if many things—which I wanted to remember under different names at different times—began and ended there. The story of that ending still saddens me. But for them it was different. They had reached a point where, after all those roads and those journeys, they couldn’t even think of going their separate ways. Ultimately, in spite of all the changes that took place, they didn’t split up, they didn’t go their separate ways. When my father opened the shop in Bahçekapı, the Anatolian phase of his life came to an end. And there was no need any more for that tired old van that had covered thousands of kilometers. That was the time when our financial situation began to improve. On my mother’s urging, we even bought the flat in Şişli where we lived as tenants. Had it been up to my father, he would have never made that “stable investment.” In his view, money needed always to be in cash, it needed to be invested in commercial activities and, most importantly, it needed to be movable. You never knew what the state might want to seize and when. I don’t blame him for these thoughts. The legacy of our collective memory amply justified his concern. All of this aside, he never liked to be flashy. He would resent people who lived in this way and he would say that they chose this lifestyle because of their inability to cope with their predicaments. I think that many people from his generation thought the same way and they felt so throughout their lives. Behind these efforts not to exhibit oneself too much lay the threat of history. Although we were wealthy enough to easily buy one of the better models of Mercedes, we had to make do with a Peugeot 504, which for some reason was known as the “Jewish Mercedes.” With the purchase of a car, the issue regarding Kemalettin Bey was solved. My father claimed that his own irascibility, caused by his diabetes, would not permit him to drive, and he asked Kemalettin Bey to be his personal driver. Thus began a new stage in their association and in a way that befitted their friendship. I understood this subtlety better over time. What I saw now was a man who did his best not to treat his long distance driving partner as a conventional driver, who took pains to sit always in the front seat and who didn’t let him open his door. In this relationship, it was as if my father sought a brother, whose absence he felt from time to time.
Monsieur David, who dealt with the bookkeeping, was another hopeless case. He too was a Jew who led a modest life and learned to make do with what he had. He had never earned great amounts of money but he had always considered wealth as the most unwavering indicator of success. This was a very sad contradiction. It was as if throughout his life he had been drawn by the prestige deriving from wealth that he himself had conceived, rather than by money itself. Is that why he voted for the Justice Party? Who knows? He had managed to save a little money and after work he acted as a moneylender. My father, who always considered this a dangerous, cursed profession that was practiced by people who lacked commercial skills and moral principles, frequently expressed his disapproval, but as he paid him a very small salary he would overlook the fact that he inflated some expenses and pocketed some money, and that he committed this “crime” which actually enabled him to stay on. They had reached an agreement on a small, innocent type of complicity that shopkeepers knew so well about. They had established a system. No one could complain about the situation. My father knew that he could trust him completely regarding some open accounts. Moreover, moneylending increased Monsieur David’s self-confidence. But to tell the truth, no one ever thought that this profession would slowly prepare the grounds for his death. One day he lost a considerable amount of money because of the son of Monsieur Daniel from Izmir, a producer and wholesaler of shaving brushes, who suddenly went bankrupt; Monsieur David went into a diabetic coma and, to our surprise and dismay, a short while later died of a cerebral hemorrhage. My father, without thinking of how much Monsieur David had wanted to succeed in this field and how much he cared about those small amounts of money, said, “Izmirli bueno no ay/No person from Izmir can be good,” referring to the man who had been the cause of his death. This was another way of saying, “Nothing good can come out of Izmir.” I don’t know whether he had meant Jews from Izmir or all people from Izmir. It wasn’t worth asking him or trying to find out why he had developed such a fervent view. When I tried to understand this death, what interested me more was the tragedy of this man who had made himself such a prisoner of money. This incident aside, I have always loved Izmir because of my memories of it and the people I met there. And now, after this long story I experienced, I love it even more. Anyway. Over the course of events, you learn to leave the people around you -- those who in some way touch you -- alone with their obsessions. It is enough to remember that there is bound to be a valid reason behind every word and behavior - it enables you to endure certain disappointments more easily.
My father’s cousin, Mordo, who as far as I know was four or five years older than him, was a man with a poetic soul who was afraid of his own shadow and who, same as Kemalettin Bey, had landed, or rather taken refuge, in the shop after having gone bankrupt. Whenever we talked about political issues, he would look around with fear in his eyes and tell me to lower my voice. He believed that walls had ears and that the most unexpected people could turn out to be members of the secret police. The story of his bankruptcy was very sad, it was yet another case of somebody who got caught up. That’s all I was able to find out. Because he used to tell us over and over again, sometimes with the addition of a few small lies, what had happened to him, the event that had caused him to become so destitute. I would of course eliminate the lies from his story. At times it was the places that changed, at times what was said, at times the clothes worn, and at times those “private moments.” He had a very rich imagination. Judging from what my father said, that’s what he was best at in life. This was a disparaging statement, if not humiliating. But I have to confess that it was this side of Mordo that I loved the most. From time to time his story would be embellished with small lies, but the main structure never changed.
My memories regarding that period of the shop consisted of these voices, faces, hopes and expectations from life. Truths or fallacies. Intimacy or loneliness. Realities or illusions. Of course it was a comedy that I should try to get the protagonists of this play to side with me. A comedy that ruthlessly revealed how life passed me by. But this was what I was going to do. Like everybody else, I too was in search for myself. I didn’t know what I would encounter. But it couldn’t have been any other way. The ability to continue to walk required not to know. Isn’t that why darkness seemed deeper than light? Isn’t that why nights were more bewitching than daytime? In those days I couldn’t have known that those voices and those faces that I endeavoured to leave behind me were inadvertently preparing me for another play. Some peace treaties are said to prepare the way for new wars and the path that I had undertaken was just like that. The breaking point that took place inside me was just like that.
1 Bektashi elder: Bektashism is an Islamic sufi order founded in the 13th century.
2 Fenerbahçe: a Turkish professional football club based in Istanbul.
3 Menderes: Adnan Menderes (1899-1961) First democratically elected Turkish Prime Minister between 1950-1960, he was executed in 1961 by the military junta.
4 İnönü: İsmet İnönü (1884-1973) Prime Minister and President of Turkey, known as “National Chief.” His party lost the first free elections in the republic’s history.
Copyright © by Mario Levi/ Kalem Agency. English translation copyright © by Leyla Tonguç Basmacı. This novel was published in Turkish in 2009 by Dogan Kitap.
Mario Levi was born in 1957. He graduated from Saint Michel High School in 1975, and in 1980 from Istanbul University's Faculty of Literature (the French Language and Literature Department). His first articles were published in the newspaper Şalom. These were followed by his other articles in other national publications: Cumhuriyet, Studyo Imge, Milliyet Sanat, Gosteri, Argos, Gergedan, and Varlik. His first published book is called Jacques Brel: A Lonely Man (1986). This book is a novelized version of his university graduation thesis. Mario Levi, in addition to being a writer, has worked as a French teacher, an importer, a journalist, a radio programmer, and a copywriter. He lectures at Yeditepe University and also teaches Creative Writing. His works have been translated into many languages: English, Italian, German, French, Arabic, Albanian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Portuguese, Spanish, Croation, Korean, Chinese, Hungarian, Greek, Polish, Romanian, and Macedonian. He won the Haldun Taner Story Award for his story collection (1990), Not Being Able to Go to a City (Bir Şehre Gidememek). He has published another collection of stories, Madame Floridis May Not Return, as well as five novels: Our Best Love Story (1992), Istanbul Was A Fairy Tale (1999), Funfair Closed (2005), Where Were You When Darkness Fell (2009), and My Istanbul Photographs (2010).
Leyla Tonguç Basmacı (the translator) was born in Istanbul. After completing her studies at the Italian High School, she graduated from the English Language and Literature Department, Bogazici University in Istanbul, and received her MA in Comparative Literature, at the Pennsylvania State University. She has taught Italian at the Italian Cultural Centre in Istanbul, and worked as copywriter and translator at the Dünya Publishing House and as an Arts Manager at the British Council, Istanbul. She currently works as a translator in Turkish, English and Italian.