Authors: Selcuk Altun
What is to come will not cause us to mourn for what is gone, says my inner voice. Should I trust it? Does eluding death mean losing the will to live? Is it a reward or punishment? My inner voice warned me once too about my passion for music. It was when I was five and lost in a solo on that unearthly flute, the
. Turning to my aunt, I said, “It's Allah Baba talking, isn't it?”
Our neighborhood clung fiercely to the slope of Z. Cemetery. Maybe that's how we managed to dodge the city's wrathful whimsies. Out of respect for the cemetery's silhouette the crooked and careless but god-fearing buildings stood a mere three stories high. In return Z.'s resident winds refrained from harassing the L. neighborhood. Our bazaar consisted of little shops lining two sides of the sorry street, which was prone to flooding. The residents sighed for the lack of a bank or a bar whenever they saw one in one of those cowboy movies. The pharmacist considered himself the street's VIP, priding himself on living in a shanty house in neighboring Ã. As he faded away in the evenings on his motorbike, the factory workers spilled out of the coffeehouses to be replaced by the night shift of gravediggers. In that labyrinth of streets I knew so well I scarcely remember the echo of laughter. It was as if despair were a local disease. I even dreaded the gaze of the babies who crawled around outside their houses, and wondered whether a dream of being rescued from this pit could persist.
While the luckless L. was squeezed from on high by that high-society cemetery, a garbage dump nibbled away at it from below. It was on muddy Selvili Street, running between Z. and the main street, that I squandered my childhood. At the head of the street, on the top floor of Zevk Apartments, lived Aunt Ikbal, a retired matron, and her husband, Celal. She was the neighborhood's needle-jabber, my father's sweet-and-sour older sister, while her husband was its leader elect.
We lived on the middle floor of this woeful building. My aunt had been the go-between for my father, whom she called Humpty Hasan Ali, and my mother. When I heard that I'd come to earth in dire straits during the fifth year of their marriage, I thought it only right to apologize.
“If it hadn't been for me,” my aunt liked to say, “your name would have been Saint Yashar, my dear Kemal.”
My earliest childhood memory is of watching my father marching on the spot in front of the mirror while he shaved, while at the same time mimicking the sound of every instrument he could muster. At first I was embarrassed by his diva performances, but soon I'd memorized the essence of every instrument, from tuba to trumpet. He would break into a high-pitched whine as he washed his face and with that the show would come to an end. I'd walk away glowing with the satisfaction of having watched a clown and a magician at work. Before I was born, my father had played the tuba as a sergeant-major in the local Air Force band. He retired when he became paralyzed in his right arm. I could hardly believe the respect that people paid him as we walked through the bazaar, almost as if he were an imam. Despite the fact that he was a tall fellow, they never tagged him with the usual nicknames. I was disconcerted, in fact, at how well he wore the mantle of Assistant Cemetery Director of Z.
My mother was a fragile woman due to her orphanage upbringing. It infuriated me when people referred to her as “Servet the exotic beauty.” Before her marriage she'd interned as a nurse at the hospital where my aunt worked. It was only after two miscarriages that she managed to deliver, and because of her poor health she had to quit her job. I was at first annoyed by the way she continued to defer to my aunt as if she were still the boss. When she'd finished her housework she'd sit in front of the TV and, if there was nothing on worth watching, start knitting. She seldom interfered in my affairs, yet observed my aunt's and father's excessive fondness for me with some anxiety. The warmth of her distant smile was always enough for me.
The middle floor, with its boring curtain-washing rituals, was ours. The other two floors belonged to my aunt, who constantly looked for opportunities to say, “We had to work three jobs and were indebted to the mafia just to have a roof over our heads.” In my childhood nightmares the building grew angry with me before collapsing, leaving us homeless in the middle of winter. My retired uncle's office was in an alcove on the ground floor; every so often its door would open softly and benevolently. To the left of that, where the curtains remained resolutely shut, was the cubicle where my aunt administered injections and meted out pills to the neighbors. She ceremoniously handed over half of what she earned to my father to be put towards my education fund. This transaction, performed always in my presence, embarrassed me to the point where sometimes I had to fight off imaginary cramps. My aunt's son had died in childbirth, and she had disowned her daughter Iclal for marrying an Alevi classmate while a student at the College of Education, so I grew up as a nephew who meant more to her than a son.
My grandfather, who died thanks to the lack of a doctor in a village close to Mount Ararat, was apparently an enlightened teacher. My aunt mourned her father for days, then was shaken from her grief by my father bursting into prayer at the cemetery one day when his arm miraculously healed. With his arm whole, his work tempo became frightening. He gave flute and mandolin lessons to the untalented children of neighborhoods that took two bus transfers to reach, besides offering gilt-work courses to the rich women of Moda on the other side of the Bosphorus. On Saturdays I would go with him and attend English classes in the building where he taught. As far as my father was concerned, even waiting tables was too good for somebody who didn't have elementary English. I understood very well the importance of education to my surviving L., and therefore willingly accepted his fanatic supervision. I was subjected to culture-overload, assignment-checking and oral examinations. I did crossword puzzles, watched documentaries, and read the magazines my teachers recommended. In second grade I memorized the capital cities of innumerable countriesâno matter if I confused the Swedes with the Swiss. By third grade I knew the Taklamakan Desert as well as the Bursa Plain; by fourth grade I could discern the Arabic and Persian words that so bedeviled Turkish.
On being told my marks, Aunt Ikbal would remark, “Blue-eyed like your mother, tall like your father, but smart like your aunt, my Kemal.”
My father bought my underwear and administered my baths until I finished primary school. When the time came for the soapy torture of my hair and head, he would whisper, “Close your eyes and imagine you're a pilot flying a fighter jet at twice the speed of sound.” For him there was no calling more noble than that of the military, no rank higher than a pilot's. I'd keep my eyes carefully shut and visualize myself in one of those shark-like vehicles until the command came to open them again. He combed my hair with a comb dipped in lemon juice to make it shine. Each time it raked through my hair I felt the pressure of a new expectation: my son will become a fighter pilot; my smart Kemal will become an officer; Kemal Kuray, by the grace of God, will rise to the rank of general â¦
Isn't it wonderfully ironic for a sign to proclaim that cemetery administration is the job of the Ministry of Health? My father shared his office, which was next to the ground-floor entrance of that soulless building, with two assistants. I never tired of sitting there watching people pass by. Most of the women workers covered their heads. Their shapeless garments and sullen faces were inseparable from the funereal setting. The men's constant quarreling irritated me, but if I had a good reason not to go back home I could visit the gravediggers' shed and drink tea. By and by I got used to the graves all lined up in orderly rows. Respectful of my marble environment, I wandered among them as if they were an exhibition of sculptures.
The most colorful children of the neighborhood were the wildest ones. I was forbidden to go near them. And they never came near me, out of fear of my aunt. The most exciting activity of the group I finally managed to socialize with was playing five-a-side football for a Coke. One day, when they assigned me to the lowly position of goalie, I stormed off the field and, saying a
under my breath, that prayer to mark an auspicious beginning, I slipped into the cemetery through the back gate. I stopped to catch my breath at the top, feeling as satisfactorily thrilled as the older boys did when they were admitted to the amusement park. For a talented kid who talked to himself in the mirror and built cowboy towns out of old house slippers, inventing solitary games in a cemetery was easy.
There I arranged quests to find, first, the most majestic cypress, then the most grandiose charitable monument, and finally, growing really excited, the most elegant tombstone and epitaph. Eliminating the losers one by one, I picked those that registered the longest and the shortest lives and bore the prettiest and the funniest names. I disliked graves that marked the birth date by the lunar calendar and the death date by the solar calendar more than those that flaunted unrhymed and unintelligible verse. I worried thatâGod forbid!âan infidel might see those dates and laugh at the idea of 650-year-old people. I can't remember now why I abandoned my project to write to the children of famous businessmen and artists on the matter of their fathers' untended graves.
A marble block as white as a sugar cube attracted my attention one day. At the top left corner of a slab resembling a thin pillow was written, simply, “ASLI.” A tender but irresistible force seemed to embrace me, and I shivered. My head ached in a pleasant way. I felt tired. With a murmured
I sat down at the foot of AslÄ±'s grave. As I did, the
rose up from the city's 3,000 mosques. I bowed my head until it was finished. When I plucked up the courage to face those four letters again my heart beat faster and I glowed inwardly. The size of the grave told me that it belonged to someone my own age. I stood up with the satisfaction of having found my first sweetheart.
I knew that AslÄ± would enter my dreams that night in her long snow-white gown. I didn't mind the halo of light obscuring her face like a veil. It would be enough for her to say, “Wait patiently for me, Kemal.” When I awoke in the morning to the
, an angel named AslÄ± had come into my life and I vowed to remain forever faithful to her, my sweetheart, the AslÄ± of my soul. We popular boys of the fourth grade were all in love with our teacher, Miss Nimet. I broke the happy news to them that I was now removed from the competition. I didn't mind that they doubted the existence of their future sister-in-law AslÄ±, whom they would never be able to see in any case.
My hero was the Pied Piper. If I happened to hear the sound of a flute or a zither I would freeze as if bewitched. For some time I believed that if I observed the sky carefully I would actually see the notes fly by. So as not to waste the slightest fragment of music, I would close my eyes and put all the cells of my body on high alert. Baritones, sopranos, the peddlers' cries, the
, the twittering of birds, the droning of bees, all moved me, even the rhythmical braying of donkeys. My childhood dream was to own a real transistor radio, but alas I had only toys and my imagination. If my father, who was also my homework inspector, ever let me touch his clunky radio, he would observe that “the best music is what a person himself composes.” And “no music is more profound than the sky-shattering roar of a plane flying at 15,000 feet at twice the speed of sound.” I found this nonsense poetic for quite a time.