Tuesday, 15 March 2011

My Flat Mates

My Flat Mates

I live with a Turkish couple in an old conservative neighborhood called Tepebasi, where the women all cover their heads.  The rents here are cheap and it’s a real neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else, gossips about everyone else, but also will go to great lengths to help everyone else.  I’m the Yabanci (foreigner).  In the summer, the old lady from across the street is always asking me when I’m going to sit on the yellow traffic barrier with her and eat sunflower seeds and pass the time
Actually it’s wrong to say I live with a “Turkish” couple.  The woman, Nefle (which means four-leaf-clover) is not Turkish, but hails from the south, an area on the border with Syria called “Antakya,” or the “Hatay.” Her people are Arabic.  And they are Shi’a Muslims, while Turks are Sunni.  

Photos of her family hang on the wall of the apartment.  Her father, an Iman or reverend, is shown in a long white beard hanging down his chest, a white skull cap, and a severe expression.  Her mother, who I met when she came to Istanbul for the wedding of Nefle’s youngest brother, wears a white scarf with little embroidered balls dangling over her forehead.  The mother doesn’t smile.  After a lifetime in which celebration was considered “sin,” a lifetime of being continually commanded by her husband, “There’s work to do, woman!” she gazes out of sad blue eyes. 

Nefle tells me women are like donkeys in Antakia.  Only there to serve men.  Men come first in the South.  “It’s in the Koran,” they say.  They sit twirling their prayer beads, shouting to their wives, “I’m thirsty.  Where’s my tea?  I’m hungry.  Where’s my food?”  The women wait on the men and eat the leftovers. 
Nefle comes from a family of nine siblings.  Every morning she awoke to the yells of her father:  “Get up you lazy good-for-nothings!  There’s work to be done in the garden!”
Meanwhile her mother retreated further and further into a land in which no tyrants ordered her around.  When she retreated too far, they sent her at different intervals to the “special” hospital.

Nefle kneading dough for manti
Nefle was lucky.  One of her older brothers, a documentary film maker, moved to Istanbul and the family allowed her to come and visit.  She was initiated into the bohemian life of Istanbul.  She never moved back.  Because she loved to cook, knew how to make the regional specialties of her area, she found work cooking at the restaurant of some crazy Black Sea sisters.  It was there she met Mustapha.

A one hundred and eighty degree opposite of Nefle’s father, Mustapha was a shy, soft-spoken, modern Turk who believed in equality of sexes.  Mustapha’s mother left his mean-spirited father (a rash and uncommon act in those days) and Mustapha’s father refused to allow him to ever see her.  The father put the young child in the care of his Aunt and Uncle who treated him more like an indentured servant than a son.  When he came of age, Mustapha ran off and joined the Merchant Marines.  For ten years he sailed the seas and worked in the steaming hulls of ships.  Spending docked time in Angola, China, New Orleans, he savored new experiences and glimpses of other worlds and cultures. And as sailors tend to do, drank himself senseless at every port.

Mustapha once told me: “Outside of Nefle, I have never loved another woman.”  He said this when I asked for an example of how to use the Turkish word disharda (outside.)
An unusual couple, they cook together, clean together, opened a restaurant and ran it together until the stress became too great.
Now Musti (as his close friends call him) plays the part of Gepetto in the children’s play Pinochio, and tours all over Turkey. Nefle makes manti Turkish ravioli and sells it to various restaurants.  At home, Musti and I watch Slavas Snow Show, clowns from Poland, whose video he found, and then for days afterward we go around repeating their miming and comic routines. Sometimes he asks if I want to watch a Beckett play he’s downloaded from the internet.  Nefle and I bellydance to classic Turkish music, and we all stoop and peer into the spinning washing machine, then turn to each other and say: “Wow!” Repeating this several times until we tire of the game.   


  1. Oh my goodness. I'm here via Marianne, and can tell you that I'll be coming back regularly. That was so beautifully written. I love the contrast between old and new, tradition and modernity, and sadness and happiness.

  2. Diane...this is Debbie, Jamie's Mom. I loved reading this, and was fortunate enough to visit Istanbul a few years ago.