Encounter: A Conversation Between Two Converts
(Excerpt of a Novel)
By Gordana Kuic
Translated from Serbian by Chrstina Pribichevich
This excerpt from The Legend of Luna Levi is set in Istanbul, Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 16th century. Solomon is Luna's father who once was Jewish but his ancestors converted to Christianity and at this point he reconverts to his original religion, Judaism. Orlu-Pasha was forcefully converted from Christianity to Islam when he was a boy.
Late one evening, a loud, sharp rapping at the Saloms' door awakened Solomon and, as if expecting an unknown, uninvited guest, he leapt to his feet and rushed to open it. Contrary to his custom over the many years of their meetings, Orlu-Pasha stood at the door attended by only one courtier. Solomon gave a small bow and, without a word, swept open his arm, inviting them into his home. Having followed the turbulent political events rocking the capital, and the Porte, he was aware of the difficult position that his employer, whom he had long since thought of as a friend, found himself.
Solomon roused the servant women who immediately brought them halvah, mead and squeezed lemon, though Orlu-Pasha, broodingly preoccupied, which Solomon attributed to worry and distress, asked only for water.
After a lengthy silence, a further indication of the Pasha’s disquiet, he said softly, his voice hoarse:
“As you know, my dear Solomon, the city is seething with unrest. Turmoil is dangerous and Bayezid is no more.” He paused, as if to cross himself but stopped midway and whispered: “I myself don’t rightly know where I am. . . When the muezzin calls out the yatsi1 from the mosque, and the gentle voice of his prayer wafts over the streets, quarters and caravansaries, travelling like mist across the courtyards and town, slipping under my door and touching my soul as I prostrate myself in prayer, something chimes in my ears, my skin tingles and I hear the resonance of the metal clapper striking against the cap of the bell on the church tower... All these sounds mingle and clash, each caressing and assaulting me... The ebb and flow of these competing inner emotions has been going on for years, but it has intensified since Bayezid’s death. His passing has led me into the dusk…”
“Your feelings, Orlu-Pasha, are not unknown to me because I too have long felt them. In the early years I repeated the words Adonai eloenu Adonai ehad even in my sleep, as if needing to reinforce my own belief that the Lord is my God, and that there is but one Lord.”
Orlu-Pasha gave Solomon one of his strangely questioning but understanding looks. “Alahrahmeteile,” may God rest my Lord Bayezid’s soul. May he rest in peace, for he did not die in peace…”
“Peace be to his ashes, for he was good to the Jews.”
“I am sad, Solomon, very sad…Twice I have lost a father: one I was taken from, this other has been taken from me…His thirty years of rule brought us more unfortunate than fortunate wars,” the Pasha sighed, his stony face graced by a rare smile of sorrow and kindness. “He was a peaceful ruler who believed that after the rampages of Mehmed the Conqueror, the empire needed a time of peace. And he was right. As proven by the empire’s revenue which, my friend, amounts to five million ducats a year. We have twenty-four sanjaks2 in Asia, thirty-four in Europe. Do you know what power that represents?”
“Of course I know! They could provide every campaign with fifty thousand cavalry, seymens and timars, not to mention twenty thousand janissaries! Nobody in the world has that large a standing army!”
“No, nobody…” The Pasha’s heavy lids drooped, and Solomon thought that the weary man had dozed off or that, like so many other sultans and viziers, he had sniffed or chewed some opiate. But Solomon was wrong because behind his closed eyes the Pasha was following images of the grim events that had enveloped his master’s departure from the throne, tightening the ring around the stumbling ruler until at last he was spent in both mind and body. Finally the Pasha stirred. “Seventy galleys grace our navy!” he almost shouted. “Is our empire invincible and ever-lasting?”
“You are asking me?”
“Yes, Solomon, you,” replied Orlu-Pasha.
“You know my answer: No, it is not. No empire is invincible, still less ever-lasting…” Solomon thought the Pasha suddenly looked like a boy who, though he knew all the answers, wanted to hear them from his elder. “Why? Do you want to know the reason? Compare, for a moment, great states with the strong, seemingly indestructible human body and its life span, and you have your answer.”
The Pasha nodded slowly, sipped the sugared water with its slices of peeled lemon and, deep in thought, studied each manicured finger of his calm hands separately, as if laying them out and finding peace by just looking at them. “My sultan was a kind man,” he finally said, “though many condemn him for various wrongdoings…He was soft-hearted towards his sons, which is he why he ended up as he did …No one knows for certain whether he used El Fatih’s3 canon of fratricide as legal grounds to secure the throne for himself. I myself no longer know whether or not to believe the many claims that Bayezid ordered the murder of his brother Cem with a poisoned shaving razor and that of his son Mehmed just because he had come to Constantinople in disguise. I do not believe these stories, many do but no one has any proof. Because why would this same man be so kind towards Korkut, Ahmet and Selim?”
“For the very reason, perhaps, that he wanted to atone for the sins of his youth?”
“I wouldn’t say so… Bayezid was a man of ascetic austerity, deep melancholy and profound piety. He was learned in astrology and theology, but he also outshone any warrior with his bow…”
“It is often very difficult to assess rulers, even those closest to us,” Solomon replied. “I have had occasion to read several confidential descriptions of the great sultan by various foreign emissaries, among them Andrea Gritti, the Doge of Venice, who depicted him as a man with a fleshy, oily face, but in no way frightening, and he agreed with you that there was something wistfully mystical, yet hard about him. Others portray him as cruel and superstitious, and others still as generous and wild. And it is possible, my dear friend, that he was all of those things, because our nature is determined not by the poet’s pen but by God’s will, which no mortal can ever quite fathom. I mean that it is not penned by writers who incline towards logical associations and simplifications, unable to depict a person’s full character.”
“Yes, yes…We cannot completely distinguish even our own selves because we are too close, we are either too biased or too strict where we ourselves are concerned. And the people around us cannot do it either because we never completely reveal ourselves to others, we show each person only one of our faces… It is only before God that we stand naked.” The Pasha’s gaze again drifted off in a direction known only to him, and Solomon let him be until he was ready to return from wherever he had strayed. “At one point, Bayezid renounced drink and all manner of opiates and suddenly he became an old man… I remember how devastated he was when the news arrived, written in white ink on black paper, that his son, Prince Alemshah, had died. He threw his turban on the floor, had the tapestries in his room turned to face the wall and banned all music for three days. He distributed large amounts of charity: eight million, six hundred silver akce. He sent fourteen thousand ducats a year to Mecca alone. Did not all this atone for his sins? Could not all this have given him a more dignified death?”
“God’s intentions are inscrutable.”
“Allah’s or Jehovah’s?” the Pasha asked with a bitter smile.
“You would have to ask Mohammed that,” said Solomon.
“My God has yet to send a deputation to earth.”
“Perhaps we should both ask Jesus,” Orlu-Pasha replied softly. “For Jehovah does not accept questions. He merely gives answers.”
“And we then endeavour to interpret them.”
“I am tired, my friend,” the Pasha’s words came spilling out, but with great effort he stemmed the further flow of words that might have described how he felt. Instead he said wistfully: “Bayezid’s turban was neither the uskuf4 of the first six sultans, nor the urf5 worn by the seventh; he covered his brow with the mujevez...6 A man of few words, proud, sombre, scorched by his own flame hidden under the guise of untouchable aloofness, that was my master. Did such a ruler deserve such an end?” The Pasha stopped before finally saying: “Deposed, weary and sick, Bayezid was killed on the way to his last refuge by order of his son Selim. Ah, an empire steeped in so much blood!”
“Name me one that isn’t.”
“He, the most pious of pious,” the Pasha went on, absorbed, ignoring Solomon’s question, “he valued the merits of the jihad,7 and, like Islam’s two greatest rulers, Nuredin and Timur, he had the dust collected from his robes and boots in battle so that when the time came it could be placed under his cheek in his tomb, imbue the tomb with a good scent like the fragrance of musk, and thereby ward off the eternal fires…”
“Ashes to ashes, my honourable pasha.”
“Yes, yes…What he left behind were the buildings he had erected to the glory of Allah and for the use of the faithful. Glittering at the top of the third hill, the navel of the world, is his mosque with the academy for imams,8 muezzins, those who serve in places of worship and light their candles, with an alms house, kitchen, hospital, school of higher learning and baths, and mills on the six-arched bridge that spans the Tundja River… He also built dervish centres, religious schools and mosques in memory of shehu Semsedin Bukhari…”
“And it is this that will best and most enduringly reflect his beneficence,” Solomon interrupted him. “Yes, I too admired the sultan, and…”
“And I, having hated him, came to love him, though he wrested me away from my home, my faith and my environment, from those dense, dark Bosnian forests… Through all the squabbling and rivalry between his sons, I demonstrated my loyalty to my own detriment, but aware of what I was doing… Selim not only noticed but made it clear that he did so by giving me various signs of his disfavour. Still, he has not yet taken any action; I’ve still got my head on my shoulders, there is no pink gash on my neck. And the reason why is that the janissaries, those dangerous children before whom even sultans tremble, support me. The new sultan is simply afraid to order a silk cord for someone who is so popular with these slave-warriors.” The Pasha suddenly roused himself, as if coming out of a troubled dream, and it was only then that he confronted, and thus transcended, the challenges he had spoken of. Pulling himself up straight on the divan, he said, his voice clear and cold: “I now ask you as my adviser: Can I survive? If you think I can, then show me the way to achieve this goal.”
“The sultan is aware of your intelligence, your youth, your popularity with the masses and, above all, your honesty. He will want new wars, for which you are essential to him; he will want popularity, for which he needs you; he will want your agility and youthful strength, for he is surrounded by old men. Most important of all, he will want loyalty, not the obsequious kind that he encounters at every turn, with its inherent intrigues and conspiracies, but true devotion, which is so rare at the Porte, the kind that does not depend on power struggles or fear. And it is you who offers him all this. One more thing. It is because you demonstrated your loyalty to his father Bayezid until the very end that Selim saw how one can defend a master when there is every opportunity not to do so, either because it would be in one’s interest or because it would mean risking one’s own position, and even life. Your devotion to Bayezid showed him your deep-rooted respect for law and order, and from this he will deduce that you will now be just as loyal to him, your new master, because your respect for order, combined with your honesty, so dictate. In my opinion, he will not harm a hair on your head. You can sleep peacefully. He has no one like you in his circle. For now, he needs you, and what better guarantee of survival is there than to be of use?... Selim is wise…”
“But, Solomon, did you not see how he got rid of not only all his brothers but all their male offspring as well? It has to be said that he made sure his son Prince Suleiman would accede to the throne with unsullied hands…”
“That is exactly what I am saying, dear friend: Selim is a wise man.”
“And a bloodthirsty one.”
“Which successful ruler isn’t?”
“And unjust, because he did not have to kill the children.”
“Absolute power sees justice in its own way. Your justice and mine is not the sultan’s justice. And it has nothing to do with justice anyway,” Solomon added almost angrily. “Selim’s holy aim, its holiness giving him the justification, was to ensure that his son inherited the throne. For him, there was no other justice.”
“And yet, when Sultan Selim arrived in Constantinople and invited all the sheiks to come to him, Sheik Seid Vilayet Huseini, the most respected of them all, refused…”
Orlu-Pasha’s voice carried above the continuing banging, crying and shouting at Solomon’s gate, which the two men, absorbed in their conversation, had ignored. Now, however, they looked at each other and Solomon, making his apologies, departed to see what was happening. Orlu-Pasha, concerned that the commotion might have been caused by his visit to Solomon’s house, followed him.
Half-dressed and still groggy with sleep, the servants rushed across the garden. Blanca, wrapped in a cloak, ran down the steps with Leon, in a narrow night-shirt, trotting awkwardly behind her. Luna stood calmly by the fountain, as if her mind were elsewhere. She lifted her loose luxuriant hair with one hand, let the water trickle through her fingers on the other and then patted it onto her wild, curly tresses.
Raising her eyes to the star-studded sky, Luna caught sight of Orlu-Pasha in the semi-darkness of the anteroom, his girth filling the doorframe. She felt a faint chill. Turning abruptly, she looked straight at him to see whether he was the cause of her chill or if it was simply a reaction to the fresh evening breeze. She immediately realized who her father’s guest was; despite the darkness she saw how handsome he was, she recognized the trembling she had dreamt of but never felt in the presence of her husband Leon or anyone else, and she wanted to move closer to him. But rather than do so, she reluctantly shifted her gaze to the gate which Solomon was finally opening, and as he did so Sumbula Asher threw herself into his arms, screaming, crying out for help, waving her arms as if defending herself against a thousand assaults, all in an attempt to avoid the heavy hand of her crazed husband.
“Save me, honourable Solomon!” Sumbula shouted. “Save me from this brute! He’s imagining all sorts of things! He’s accusing me! He’s accusing me of adultery! I’m done for! Oh, woe is me! He’s lost his mind! And so have I beside him!”
Meanwhile, her husband Yehuda, beads of sweat glistening on his brow, his grey beard straggly, panted: “Cursed woman! Why did you go to him? You ran to your lover, did you?!” Finally, now completely out of breath, he dropped to his knees and began to tear at the little hair he had left, all in front of the gathering crowd of neighbours who watched the embarrassing scene in astonishment.
And while the unpleasant confrontation unfolded, Orlu-Pasha felt that he was no longer in command of his own movements; as if in a trance, guided by some higher power, he slowly moved towards Luna, uttered her name in a deep, dark voice and stood motionless beside her. He barely restrained himself from taking the stunning woman into his arms and whisking her away with him; it was an urge so new to him, so at variance with his usual measured, prudent behaviour, that it only shocked him all the more. He felt the dangerous rush of unbridled passion course through his body; it was so strong that he could not compare it with any emotion he had ever felt before. Though women were a permanent presence in the Pasha’s world and he had a certain respect for them stemming from his awareness that they were, after all, somebody’s daughters, mothers and sisters, they did not occupy an important place in his day-to-day life, nor did the Pasha ever pay them much mind. For all his mistresses, he himself always remained alone and aloof.
But now, observing Luna, he realized both rationally and with every beat of his pulse that he wanted to give her all his attention, all his strength, all his time. He had never seen such beauty before, though he had not been without a wide choice of beautiful women. Because of his wealth, position and good looks, he could pick whichever one he wanted. And he had wanted many of them; he had either taken them into his harem, or, with appropriate gifts, tried them out to his heart’s content. Orlu-Pasha had caressed fair Greek women, wild Tatars and lithe Circassians, dark Arab, refined Armenian and soft Turkish beauties, velvety Venetians, proud Dubrovnik, Bulgarian and Latin lovelies, Bohemians, Nurgians, Hindus and Bretons, slave girls and their mistresses, women white as snow and sweet as honey, black as night and cuddly as kittens, slender as fir trees and plump as dates, fragrant as wallflowers, smooth as silk, enigmatic as a riddle, shimmering as a star and dazzling as a diamond, attentive as a nursemaid, generous as water and hot as a flame, tender and rough, clever and silly, skilled and awkward. And the Pasha felt that he had seen and tried them all, until, that is, he laid eyes on Luna. She seemed to him to be as unique as she was universal. She was like the embodiment of them all; like ebb and flow, like hill and dale, like water and fire, like beast and lamb, like mercy and the whip. For probably the first time that he could remember, the Pasha was almost flustered by all these confused, muddled, conflicting impressions, he was stunned and at a loss for words; not knowing what to do he simply stood there quite still, admiring this miracle of nature.
The instant that she laid eyes on him and trembled, Luna saw a similarity between Orlu-Pasha and her father, one that she had sensed even before. He was tall of stature but taller than her father, slim but sturdier, serious but with an even more suppressed passion. He gave the impression of a man preoccupied with thoughts that no one would ever fully know, a man with a secret, a man carrying a multitude of truths, his own and others’. They weighed upon him and made him silent. He looked to her like a mountain, grey and still, beneath which lay the unimaginable deposits of the earth’s womb which at any moment could erupt into torrents of red-hot rocks and lava. Her eyes aglow, Luna studied him carefully and found the answers to many of her questions. Suddenly she understood why she had not worried, indeed had often been glad that she had not conceived with Leon, that her body had refused to accept his seed; why she had always felt as if she were living in expectation of a stranger who was yet to appear; why she was constantly searching for something, striving towards something and hoping; why, torn by so many questions with no answers, she would often lay her head in her mother’s lap, waiting like a child for her to sing “Adio querida” and soothe away her cares; why she loved Leon quietly and serenely, not with fire and passion; why the two of them caressed less and increasingly talked more; why she often wondered whether she had found what she was looking for, telling herself that she hadn’t, but that she had found what she had lost—the need to continue waiting. It was only now, seeing Orlu-Pasha, that she knew why she had been born, why she lived and why she was made the way she was. Everything became clear to her, logical and comprehensible, laid out before her eyes which were otherwise wont to stray and mist over. All the events of her life, from her birth until this very evening, had been building up to her encounter with this man of grey eyes, stony countenance and strong build, her counterpoint, her other half who would finally make her complete.
To Luna, Orlu-Pasha was neither handsome nor ugly, neither attractive nor repulsive, neither dangerous nor docile, neither a Turk nor a Jew, neither a pasha nor a haham,9 neither an illusion nor a reality. He was simply hers, her counterpart, the completion of herself. What more was there to be said? That he was her destiny, and she his? That everything faded into nothingness compared to knowing him? No, there was nothing more to be said.
She felt as if her subconscious was entering her conscious, because she had known all this for a long time, but had not realized that she knew. Now there is nothing more to be added or subtracted, Luna thought. She did not regret not having met him before, she did not regret that she had married Leon, she did not regret that she was Jewish and he a Turk. She was certain that so it had to be because so it had been written.
While the Pasha’s mind was beset by unanswered questions, Luna, in those few minutes that they stood there gazing at each other, recognized their destiny and whispered boldly:
“We shall certainly see each other again. When and where?”
The Pasha stepped back, barely uttering: “I shall let you know.” He fell silent for a moment, as if thinking about the possibilities open to him, and then added, more clearly: “You must know many languages because I hear that you speak perfect Turkish.”
“Yes, I know many,” Luna replied seriously. “But I do not know yours.”
The Pasha was surprised though he did not show it. Rather he asked: “And what is my language if not Turkish?”
“Serbian,” Luna responded with a smile.
“Your honourable father told you.”
“No, but I realized immediately why you mentioned my knowledge of languages,” said Luna, her dark unruly tresses again spilling onto her shoulders as she shook her head. “Tomorrow I shall express the wish to learn it, is that not so?”
“Yes… And I, through your father, shall send you a teacher.”
“A trustworthy one of few words,” pronounced Luna, and the Pasha simply nodded.
It seemed to them both as if this brief conversation had taken place in their minds rather than been spoken aloud. Both wondered whether they had actually said anything or whether their coinciding desires had instantly created an exchange of questions and answers that the one and the other understood. Neither questioned whether it would even be possible for them to see each other, and if so whether that was acceptable to their conscience, religion, justice and the rules of proper behaviour. Nor did they wonder whom they might hurt, shame or sadden by seeing each other.
“The next time I speak to you,” said Luna, now able to hear her own voice, “it shall be in Serbian.”
On the other side of the garden, people were trying, with only occasional success, to calm the hysterical woman who had hurled herself into Solomon’s embrace and literally hung herself around his neck, screaming: “This brute, this beast, this monster thinks you and I are having an affair! Have you ever heard such nonsense!? I am innocent! I simply admire your abilities, my honourable Señor Solomon!”
Shouting hoarsely at his wife, Yehuda Yahiel ben Mordechai Asher turned to the crowd: “Whatever I do is no good! Whatever I say is stupid! How I dress is no good! How I drink water irritates her! And she keeps holding up the Saloms as an example! It’s unbearable!”
Sumbula moved awkwardly towards her husband, tripped and fell. Instead of getting up and rushing over to him, she rolled over and kicked him hard, without mercy and without compassion, emotions which the poor old man aroused in all the other observers, because Yehuda Yahiel ben Mordechai Asher was still on his knees, pale and wretched, consumed by the demons of jealousy and shame.
Just when everyone thought that she had calmed down, Sumbula suddenly screamed and her voice carried above the commotion of the stunned and agitated observers: “I want to go to court! I want a divorce! I’ve had enough! Enough! I’ve tried everything, but this petty little man doesn’t understand me! I am innocent! Tell him, señor cham-Solomon, tell him! Make this bloodsucking ogre see! Explain it to him!”
After this outburst, Sumbula collapsed prostrate onto the ground, tired and spent, and began to sob inconsolably.
Then Blanca stepped in. Realizing that the husband and wife were both so exhausted that they were ready to cease hostilities, she led Sumbula into the house, gave her a soothing herbal tea and then asked Leon, whose sideburns were trembling with distress from the unpleasantness of such a public marital fight, to accompany the unfortunate Yehuda home.
Turning back to the other side of the garden, Solomon saw his daughter Luna and Orlu-Pasha standing motionless, face to face by the fountain, as if framed by a ring of silence beknownst to them alone. He walked straight over to them, introduced them to one another, though they had recognized each other at first sight, and then walked the Pasha to the gate.
1 Yatsi: Moslem evening prayer, the fifth of the day.
2 Sanjak: region or district in the Ottoman Empire (Turkish).
3 El Fatih: Mehmed II, the Conqueror.
4 Uskuf: golden cap (Turkish).
5 Urf: head wrap worn by ulemas (religious scholars) (Turkish).
6 Mudjevez high cylindrical muslin-covered headdress.
7 Jihad: holy war.
8 Imam: head, main priest in Islamic places of worship (Arabic).
9 Haham: wise man (Hebrew).
Copyright © Gordana Kuic 2011
Gordana Kuic (1942) was born in Belgrade, Serbia. She graduated in English Language and Literature from the University of Belgrade and Hunter College in New York. She published seven bestselling novels: "The Scent of Rain in the Balkans" (1986), "The Blossom of Linden in the Balkans" (1992), "Twilight in the Balkans" (1995), "Ghosts Over the Balkans" (1997), "The Legend of Luna Levi" (1999), "The Fairy Tale of Benjamin Baruh" (2002), and "The Ballad of Bohoreta" (2006) as well as a book of short stories entitled "Remnants" (2008). She won five Golden Bestseller Awards, two "Hit Libris", and "A Golden Pen" award for "The Ballad of Bohoreta" as the best novel in 2006. Based on her first novel "The Scent of Rain in the Balkans" a ballet, a play, TV series and a movie were made. She lives and works in Belgrade, Serbia.