My father's stories were about hardship and poverty, high jinks in the Hebrew school, milking the goats that came to the back door, roughhousing with his brothers or the Greek, Turkish and Armenian kids in the neighborhood. How they avoided conscription into the Turkish Army. Stories about the massacre of the Armenians in 1915—he saw the bodies on the beach when he was a teenager. Stories also about the soothsayer my grandmother consulted when her children were ill. But did my father ever mention Homer? Did he even know that the poet might have lived in the same town?
The Shock of the Old
The first word I heard when I stepped off the plane at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was "buyurun"—welcome—a word often spoken in my home in New York City where it was always open house, people dropping in day or night for a meal. Looking at these Turkish faces, I feel as though I'm surrounded by relatives. Dark eyes, dark hair, quick smiles. The flowery language, exaggerated gestures, the pseudo modesty, lavish hospitality—like my own family's. So very familiar to me even though the language is impenetrable, except for the occasional words I recognize because they infiltrated our own Ladino language, the 15th-century Spanish my ancestors took with them to the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition.
Food? I might as well be in my mother's kitchen with its overabundance of dishes, the dolmades, pilafs, "chipura"—porgy, but never so fresh as it is in Turkey, "imam bayeldi" ("The priest fainted," presumably because of the heavenly aroma). How can I feel so much at home while being totally shut out because of the language? It's a paradox. Hearing a word I understand gives gave me a shiver of delight. These verbal sparks are my link to the language around me and to the one I spoke as a child where these Turkish words are embedded. Even the summons of the muezzin, the call echoing from mosque to mosque feels familiar to me and even, it seems, embracing of me, a non-believer in any faith.
The Ultimate Dining Out Experience
On my last night in Turkey, in Izmir, my husband and I were lured into an empty restaurant. Empty, that is, except for three elderly male musicians, playing for the non-existent diners. When we sat down, they struck up a new song, one of those wailing, plaintive cris de coeur, probably about heartbreak and faithlessness (on the part of the woman no doubt). The tone—I can't say the tune because it slithered from one microtone to another—the tone was familiar. I've heard these instruments before, at home at family parties when I was growing up. An oud (like a short-necked mandolin), kanoun (a zitherlike instrument), and a violin, alternating with the pot-bellied mandolin they call a saz. Reedy, whiny, echoing, nostalgic, reminding me of all those relatives, now gone, who were exiles from Turkey.
Tonight, the oldest of the musicians, a gaunt, grizzled seventy-year-old is singing directly to me. His black eyes bore into mine as he sings. I can feel myself blushing. His words, which I don't understand, are berating me for leaving him to pine alone, finding relief only in drink, in raki. At home we had a bottle of that anise-flavored powerhouse of a drink. When poured into a glass it is a clear liquid. But when you add water it clouds up. What could be more mysterious?
The man keeps singing to me while his friends nod every so often, as though to confirm his emotion—and mine. "I know you," he's saying to me. "Even though you've been away I knew you would come back . . ." I can hardly restrain myself from leaping up and dancing. I find myself swaying and tapping on the table with my fingers, not daring to look at this seducer. Forget about the grilled fish (just caught in the Aegean?) that is turning cold on my plate. I need to move, to sway and bend to the music, to tell this man that I'm responding to his yearning with my heart and my body.
When our meal is finished it's difficult to face the end of the evening. To put on our jackets, pay the bill and walk out. We want to give the musicians something. Actually, I want to embrace the man who's been serenading me but don't dare meet his eyes as I pass him on the way to the door. My husband discreetly slips some bills to the waiter and gestures toward the musicians, making it clear that the money is for them. They've seen this exchange, and just before we walk out they nod gravely without interrupting their song. My last chance—I turn and gaze directly into those smoldering eyes.
To this day I retain the image of the man, guarding it secretly as though he is my demon lover. I may need to be cured. Sprinkle some salt on all the windowsills, thread one of my hairs in a needle and set it at my threshold. Draw water from four wells and mix with honey . . . I draw the line at molten lead.
Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer is the author of a novel, Amalie in Orbit (The Wessex Collective), and a story collection, Goodbye, Evil Eye (Holmes & Meier), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards. Her fiction has been published in The Antioch Review, Arts & Letters, Kansas Quarterly, New Letters, Cimarron Review, North American Review, and other magazines. Nonfiction has appeared in Music & Vision, Yale Journal for the Humanities in Medicine, and ELDR magazine where she was a contributing editor. She is also co-author of a nonfiction book, We Were So Beloved (University of Pittsburgh Press).
Photos by Manny Kirchheimer and Jamie B. Russell except for the last one, Flickr Creative Commons photo by Onerty.
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