Was Homer blind? I hope not. Did he really live in Smyrna in the eighth or ninth century? If indeed he lived in the city now called Izmir, then his view, assuming he was not blind, was of the eastern shoreline of the Aegean Sea, the Gulf of Izmir, the same view my father had when he was growing up here in Turkey, the view I see from my park bench on the promenade overlooking the city.
It makes me feel like a part of history to think of this link: Homer, my father and me. It has a nice symmetry, like the holy Trinity, the three Graces, Aristotle's three dramatic unities: time, place, action. All those classic patterns that are so satisfying. But my dad probably had no inkling of these connections. What did he know, a poor Sephardic kid who walked barefoot to school? I never mentioned Homer to him, though I did tell him that, according to Herodotus, Smyrna was the name of the Amazon warrior who founded the city. "A woman warrior, eh?" he said. "Women's lib." He looked at me craftily as though I was pulling a fast one on him.
I like to think of my father following in Homer's footsteps, but only literally because I can't imagine that he learned about the ancient Greeks, having left school at an early age. Let's say he walked on the same roads or dirt paths as Homer. I do know he studied the French classics at the school founded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle and could quote Racine at the drop of a hat.
My dad's neighborhood, Karatash, was at the top of the cliffs overlooking the bay, so if he was sent on an errand to the town below, he had to walk down a very steep path. If only he could have distracted himself while making that burdensome trek by reciting some verses from the Iliad, in Greek, which he spoke. Not ancient Greek, but rather the vernacular of his neighbors in multilingual Karatash. In 1907 when my father was eight, the Asansör—an elevator—was built by one of our Sephardic tribesmen to ease the strain of going up to the cliffs from the town below on the coast.
When you reached the top of the cliff, you still had to ascend a steep flight of stairs to get to certain streets. But think of the view of the Aegean, the hills ringing the bay. That hasn't changed. I would like to call up the spirit of Homer and introduce him to my dad, but I don't believe in spirits.
My family was very superstitious and I resisted their mad notions. As a child I was helpless against their "cures" for the evil eye, for example, the spells and mumbo jumbo that miraculously seemed to work. A more drastic remedy called for molten lead to be poured into a pot of cold water held firmly over a sheet which hovered (assuming the four corners were being held by steady hands) above the "patient" who lay on a table. The resultant crags and valleys in the pot would be interpreted by a wise woman, usually a neighbor; my mother would never presume to have that knowledge. There were cures for everything: melancholia, unrequited love, queasy stomachs, bad luck with money. There was nothing that couldn't be cured. But one had to be vigilant because of the devil, or envious neighbors, or evil spirits. A happy occasion was especially dangerous and many precautions had to be taken to avoid stirring up the wrath of those malevolent forces.
If I don't believe in spirits why am I here in Turkey where my family lived for more than 400 years? Is it the cliché lure of finding one's roots or do I expect to find something else? Reality check: air fares were way down so how could I resist? I don't want a tour guide reciting a probably erroneous history of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire. I don't want to be seen choking up over the sight of decaying synagogues and crumbling rabbinical archives.
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