Tuesday, 15 February 2011

this time a story

well some people have asked me when i'm going to add a new post to my blog.
but i've been completely caught up with writing a longer thing (not really sure what to call it, but it's now 150 pages of writing about the year i spent in fez, morocco)
so, i thought for those of you hungering for something new, i'd just copy and post a story of mine that appears in the anthology Mambo Poa.
happy reading.

                                                                                          The Guest

“They’re political,” said Ayse, my modern Turkish friend as she sipped her red wine and knocked the ash of her cigarette into the metal ashtray for emphasis.

Three Turkish women and myself, an American, sat at a stylish outdoor cafe in the westernized area of Beyoglu, Istanbul.  Turkish pop music blasted out the speakers, the ‘boom boom boom’ of the bass driving our conversation.  We were surrounded by tables of young Turks--males and females seated together drinking beer and wine, smoking cigarettes, dressed in fashionable jeans and t-shirts, discussing films, music, and politics.

“But I don’t see why a young woman should be denied a university education just because her religion dictates that she cover her head with a scarf,” I said.
The mention of allowing “covered” girls entrance to university in Turkey sent my secular Turkish friends into vitriolic spasms.

“It’s not about religion, Diana.  You don’t know these people, said Esra.  She leaned forward, pushed her face close to mine.  “They just want power.  The men all want women to be like donkeys.  These girls don’t want to be covered.  Their families force them.”

“You’ll see, Diana, no woman wants this for herself,” said Elif, waving her cigarette like a conductor urging his orchestra to its dramatic climax.

But power hungry, religious fanaticism was not my experience of my English student Nagihan and her family.  I had been to their home in a traditional area in the north of Istanbul twice.  My only fear on those visits was that I would be fed to death.  Dish after dish was pushed at me.  My small helpings elicited the typical Turkish tongue clucking.  My departure was an occasion for gift-giving.  The mother filling my arms with crocheted washcloths, embroidered doilies, hand-picked hazel nuts from their village in the Northeast of Turkey.  They begged me to stay the night and have breakfast with them in the morning.  They were solicitous of my every need.

On my second dinner with them, Nagihan, her sisters, cousins, aunt and mother plied me with invitations to join them at their summer retreat—their family home in the mountains above the Black Sea in the far northeastern corner of Turkey. I hesitated in accepting their request wondering if two weeks isolated with them in a remote mountain village was the way I wanted to spend my summer break.  It would be far more intense then an evening over a meal.  Would my independent feminist beliefs collide with their ways of life? 

The offer was an opportunity I couldn’t reject, a chance to see the real Turkey outside of Istanbul.  I had left the U.S. one year before to teach English abroad, filled with the desire to see how other cultures lived, to learn other ways of interacting.  A bit apprehensive, but open to sharing a new experience, I agreed to join them.

The nineteen hour bus ride from Istanbul to Trabzon seemed never-ending.  It was me and four traditional girls, their heads covered with scarves, layered in clothing from neck to wrist to toe.  Our entourage included Nagihan, one of her sisters, (one was already in the mountains with their mother) and two of Nagihan’s cousins: Esra and Emine.  The only flesh that could be seen on them was the pale oval of their faces peering out from their headscarves, and their white hands.  By their religious beliefs these were the only parts of a “mature” girl that were allowed to be glimpsed by men.  The rest lay in wait for the eyes of the future husband, and only he. As if to make up for their sequestered bodies, the girls sported a wardrobe of color.  Orange sweatshirts, red jackets, pink pullovers, purple skirts.  They looked like a busload of flowers. Munching chips and cookies, they laughed uproariously at my packed lunch of raw carrots, apples and nuts, offering all their treats to me.  Everything they had they shared seamlessly.  Their giving was as unconscious as a stream flowing into a river.  There was no “mine,” only “ours.”

As an American brought up in the land of “mine,” I marveled at their lack of ownership needs.

At every bus stop, while I walked laps around the parking lot trying to get blood circulating through my legs, the girls went to the mescit to pray.  Five times a day, regardless of where they were, these girls performed their ablutions, put on a fresh scarf, when possible a clean skirt, and performed namaz—the Muslim prayers.  They went to prayers as fluidly as they shared every bag of chips, every t-shirt, every article of clothing, every scrap of food.  They set their clocks and watches for first prayer at dawn’s light and never skipped a single one.

We got off the bus in a town called Of, just east of Trabzon, then walked down to the churning Black Sea.  At a clearing on the roadside we waited at a mini-bus stop while massive charcoal-colored clouds hovered over the sea threatening a downpour.  A wizened old woman draped in the traditional red and brown shawl bemoaned the recent floods.  The dolmush (little mini-bus) arrived and the driver leaped out opening his arms and shouting a welcome to my friends.  When introduced to me, he called out: “Welcome Diane Boodjee,” a respectful local term for a cousin.  We boarded the dolmush for the final lap of our journey.

As we left the coast and headed toward the mountains, the world turned more shades of green than found in a box of sixty-four Crayola crayons. A deep forest green etched with swaths of yellow-green verdure, blue-green depth, and purple-green accents.  A land of oxygen and rain, rolling hills, with mist-shaded mountains looming in the background.  A lawless land of rumored Black Sea wild men and women known for their irascible dispositions and famous twitching line dances. 

I was the first non-Turk to honor their village.  Men strained their necks to look at me, staring openly at this uncovered women, as we made our way through the two-cafe, two grocery-store town of Tashan.  We crossed a foot bridge and climbed a steep mountain path, rutted with mud puddles.

“There it is,” said Nagihan pointing to a crude two-story wood house sitting in the middle of rolling tea fields.

Hos geldiniz!  Hos geldiniz!”  Welcome! Welcome! Sang out the cries from Nagihan’s mother, eldest sister and aunt, as they kissed both our cheeks, hugged us, and led us up the old stairs into the kilim-covered salon.

Immediately tiny tulip-shaped glasses of local black tea were distributed as sisters and cousins recounted the trip. Bowls of sunflower seeds were placed around the room and everyone sat leaning up against one another, stroking one another, playing with each other’s hair.

When I stood to take my glass to the kitchen, I was admonished by Nagihan’s mother.

Misafir!” You are a guest.  As Muslims we are taught that every guest is special, to be treated as if she were the prophet himself visiting.  For three days you are Misafir, our esteemed guest and we cannot allow you to do any work.

The ban was removed for the hazel nut picking the next day.  After my pleading, I was allowed to accompany them and help with the harvesting.  At my request the girls dressed me in their clothes, and we all tromped through the woods in black rubber boots, long shapeless, elastic-waisted skirts, long-sleeved t-shirts--red, orange, purple, apricot, and pink, covered by sweatshirts of green, blue, tangerine, and scarlet.  A procession of exotic fruits plodded through the thick forest. And in order to feel a part of this group, I covered my head in a green cotton scarf, as much to keep the leaves and dust from the trees out of my hair as to be united with my hosts.

We yanked down tree branches, grabbed green-cocooned nuts and tossed them into our aprons.  When our aprons were full we emptied them into rough-hewn baskets, laughed and laughed, and finally picnicked in a meadow by a stream.

My Turkish was basic.   I had been living in Istanbul one year, teaching English.  Yet I understood Fatma’s tale.  Fatma, Nagihan’s mother, had lost her own mother as a young child.  She was handed over to an aunt and uncle, her father being unable to cope.  Fatma was a daughter of the Black Sea, of a people who came many decades ago from Georgia and the Circassus.  Her eyes were a pale sky-blue, her complexion peaches and cream.  And like so many Turkish women her shape was now that of an oblong bowling ball.  She leaned back on one elbow on the blanket on the ground, dipped her bread into yogurt, wiped her mouth on her shawl and told her story. 

“I was such a romantic.  Oh Diana, I dreamed of marrying a tall, handsome man, a romantic man.  I dreamed of how my life would be different once I was married and had my own home.  From the time I can remember, all I did was work.  I was like a slave to my aunt and uncle.  But I knew one day a wonderful man would come into my life and rescue me.”

“Then I met him.  The man my uncle had arranged for me to marry.  He was short.  Much shorter than me.  He was cold and mean, Diana.  I cried and cried.  What could I do.?”

The girls scooped up the remains of the four different kinds of cheese, the tomatoes and cucumbers, the bread and olives and jam that had been our lunch and placed them in bags.  They strolled in all their colors back toward the hazel nut trees.

“Don’t be lazy! You always pick much less than our neighbors.”  Fatma called after her daughters and nieces, laughing as she teased them.

“Don’t worry Anne (mother), we won’t shame you.” They all laughed. Laughs like calliopes and wind chimes filled the air as they disappeared into the forest.

Fatma turned back to me, patted my hand, pulled a stray leaf from a strand of my hair that had escaped from under my scarf.

“I was taken to my husband’s family’s house.”  The house we stay in now, here in this village.  His mother woke me up at sunrise.  From sunrise to sunset I worked like a donkey.  I cleared fields and carried wood on my back.  I cut tea, pulled hazel nuts.  I cooked and cleaned.  At night I cried my self to sleep wondering what my life would have been like if my mother hadn’t died when I was so young.”

Tears filled Fatma’s heavenly-blue eyes and ran down her cheeks.  She wiped them with the corner of her blue and gold scarf.  “Finally my husband went to Istanbul with his brother and opened a restaurant.  Later he sent for me and I came.  Then I had my three daughters and my son, my little pasha,” Fatma’s face lit up as she talked about her son, the light of every Turkish women’s eye.  “I was so happy that at last I had my own family.  I was the head of my own home.”

The leaves in the altar of branches above us rustled like whispers of gossiping sisters.  A cool breeze blew off the stream that one month ago was a raging river of flood water.

I blinked away my own tears as Fatma continued.  “But he was never romantic.  I tried so many times, so many things.  I dyed my hair and had it cut and put on new earrings. When he came home I smiled at him and put his favorite dish in front of him and all he did was push me aside so he could watch some TV show.  I bought him a wedding ring for our anniversary and he threw it on the floor saying ‘What am I going to do with this? I work in a restaurant cooking. I don’t want anything on my fingers.’”

Fatma heaved her bulk up off the blanket.  When we stood she pulled me to her in a bear hug, then kissed my cheeks.  We folded the picnic blanket and walked through the woods together, joining the others.

When all the nuts had been harvested we sat on the roof—a circle of twelve women, family and neighbors—shucking the brown nuts from their rough green husks.  My thumb and fingers became torn and inflamed, my city hands unused to such harsh work.  The younger girls kept an endless supply of tea flowing as we sat shelling nuts, laughing, chatting, seated cross-legged in our circle of womanhood.  The sweat ran down our faces and necks.  I had abandoned my head scarf in the stifling heat, taken off my outer covering as I sat on the roof, but they sat uncomplaining, scarved, covered in two layers of clothing so as not to reveal any part of their bodies.

Every neighbor in the small village of ten families invited me to their home for tea and sunflower seeds and homemade pastries.  Every family greeted me with smiles and kisses on both cheeks, hospitality like I had never known.  They showed me their prize cows and green beans growing like weeds up the trellises on the sides of their old wooden houses.

And when one day I told Nagihan that I needed to take a walk by myself, nobody said one word against it, although I knew that no woman of this region would ever do such a thing.  They honored my differences, my need for independence, and never tried to persuade me to be like them—to cover my head, or only walk arm and arm in the company of other females.

After three days I was no longer on the ban of helping and had become one of the family.  In the morning, I would ask Fatma along with her daughters: “This morning what is my job?”  Then together we would prepare the breakfast and sit around the wooden table on the floor, knees overlapping, eating from common dishes and bowls.  We’d clean the house, mend torn items, cut tea, gather firewood in the forest, and heat water on the wood stove for bathing.  In the evenings we’d sit out on the terrace looking over rolling hills of ever-deepening hues of green.

Finally it was time for me to go.  “Gitme!  Gitme!” Don’t go.  Don’t go. They begged. Then one by one, sisters, cousins, mother, aunts, neighbors, came with gifts for me.  Nothing came from a store.  There was no store in the area.  They came with their own items for me: scarves with edgings of hand-crocheted flowers; a skirt I had admired on one of them; a scarlet t-shirt I had complimented; a silver bracelet; a pair of earrings; and finally the little girl I had taught a paddy-cake, hand-clapping game, handed me her beloved stuffed bear.  Tears poured out of my eyes and theirs.

Bak bak!  Look look!” Fatma said.  A deep smile of approval warmed her face as tears flooded her eyes.  “She’s crying too.  That’s good.  You will come back next summer.”

Nagihan, her sisters and cousins walked me down the mountain and waited with me at the dolmush stop in Tashan.

“Ah Diana Boodjee, welcome,” said the dolmush driver. 

Nagihan and I hugged and kissed.  Sisters and cousins and I hugged and kissed. Tears streaming down my cheeks I entered the dolmush and headed back to Istanbul.

                       *                                     *                                     *                                    

Emails from friends in America awaited me.  “Weren’t you afraid as a western woman traveling in the east of Turkey?”

My answer: “As a guest in that area the only thing I feared was being loved to death.”


  1. I have a tear rolling down my cheek as I write this. What a beautiful story. It brings the adventurer in me to the surface. Thank you.

  2. What a wonderful experience where we cannnot buy