فصل 15

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فصل 15

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

There’s One Thing We All Want out of Life

at the national theater

Exactly seven minutes after deciding that he and Ipek could live happily ever after in Kars, Ka was racing through the snow to the ˙ National Theater, his heart pounding as if he were heading alone into a war zone. Everything had changed during that seven-minute interval, with a speed possessed of its own logic.

It had begun when Turgut Bey switched back to the broadcast of the performance at the National Theater, where it was clear from the roar of the audience that something extraordinary had just happened. Although this awakened in them a longing for excitement, a desire to step outside their little provincial routines if only for one night, it also made them anxious that something might be very wrong. With the camera showing only part of the hall, they were all very curious to know what was going on. As they watched the restless audience clap and shout, they sensed a certain tension between the notables sitting in the front rows and the youths sitting at the back.

Onstage was a goalkeeper who had once been a household name all over Turkey, talking about a tragic match fifteen years earlier in which the English had managed to score eleven goals. He had barely finished the sad tale of the first goal when the emcee appeared on-screen; realizing that they were pausing for a commercial break, just as they did on national television, the goalkeeper stopped speaking. The emcee grabbed the microphone and after rattling off two advertisements (the Tadal Grocery Store on Fevzi Pas¸a Avenue was proud to announce that the spiced beef from Kayseri had finally arrived, and the Knowledge Study Center had opened registration for their university preparation course), he reminded the audience of the delights still to come; when he announced Ka’s name again he looked mournfully into the camera.

“Missing this chance to see our great poet, who traveled all the way from Frankfurt to visit our border city, is a great sadness.” “Well, that does it,” said Turgut Bey at once. “If you don’t go now, you’ll give terrible offense.”

“But they never even asked me if I’d like to take part,” said Ka.

“That’s the way things are done here,” said Turgut Bey. “If they’d invited you, you’d have declined. But now you will go, because you don’t want it to seem as if you look down on them.”

“We’ll watch you from here,” said Hande, with an enthusiasm that no one could have predicted.

At that moment, the door opened. It was the boy who was the night receptionist. “The director of the Institute of Education has just died in hospital.”

“Poor fool,” said Turgut Bey. Then he fixed his eyes on Ka. “The Islamists have embarked on a cleanup operation. They’re taking care of us one by one. If you want to save your skin, I would advise you to increase your faith in God at the earliest opportunity. It won’t be long, I fear, before a moderate belief in God will be insufficient to save the skin of an old atheist.”

“I think you’re right,” said Ka. “As it happens, I’ve already decided to answer the call that’s been coming from deep within me my whole long life and open my heart to God.”

They all caught his sarcastic tone—for what it was worth. Knowing he was very drunk, they all suspected that this witticism might well have been prepared in advance.

Then Zahide breezed in with a huge pot and an aluminum ladle that glistened in the lamplight. Smiling at the table like a proud mother, she said, “One more portion of soup left; let’s not waste it. Which girl would like it?”

Ipek had been advising Ka not to go to the National Theater for fear ˙ of what might happen there, but now she turned around to smile with Kadife and Hande at the Kurdish maid.

If Ipek says, “I do!” thought Ka, it means we’re getting married and ˙ going back together to Frankfurt. In that case, I’ll go to the National Theater and read “Snow.”

“I do!” said Ipek, holding out her bowl somewhat joylessly. ˙ As he hurried through the giant snowflakes, Ka remembered that he was an outsider in Kars, and for a moment he felt sure he’d forget this city just as soon as he left it—but the feeling didn’t last long. Now suddenly he had intimations of destiny. He could see that life had a secret geometry on which his rational mind had no purchase, but even as he was overcome with a desire to subdue his reason and find happiness, he also sensed that—for the moment, at least—his desire for happiness was not strong enough.

He looked ahead, at the line of waving campaign banners stretching as far as the National Theater: there wasn’t a soul beneath them anywhere on the wide snow-covered avenue. As he gazed at the grand old buildings on either side, admiring their handsome doors, their generously proportioned eaves, their beautiful friezes, and their dignified but timeworn facades, Ka had a strong sense of the people (Armenians who traded in Tiflis? Ottoman pashas who collected taxes from the dairies?) who had once led happy, peaceful, and even colorful lives here. Gone now were all the Armenians, Russians, Ottomans, and early Republican Turks who had made this city a modest center of civilization, and since no one had come to replace them the streets were deserted. But unlike those in most deserted cities, these empty streets did not inspire fear. Ka marveled at the snow-laden branches of the oleanders and the plane trees, at the icicles hanging down from the sides of the electric poles feeding the pale orange light of the streetlamps, and the dying neon bulbs behind the icy shop windows. The snow was falling into a magical, almost holy silence, and aside from his own almost silent footsteps and rapid breathing, Ka could hear nothing. Not a single dog was barking. He had arrived at the end of the earth; the whole world was apparently mesmerized by the falling snow. As he watched the snowflakes fall through the halo of light, he saw how some fell heavily earthward while others wheeled around to fly back up into the darkness.

Standing under the eaves of the Palace of Light Photo Studio, with the help of the red light from its ice-covered signboard, he studied a snowflake that had landed on the sleeve of his coat.

There was a gust of wind. Something moved; as the red light on the sign hanging over the Palace of Light Photo Studio went out, the oleander tree opposite seemed to go out with it. He looked toward the National Theater and saw crowds around the entrance; just beyond them he could see a police minibus. There were more crowds gathering outside the coffeehouses across the road.

The moment he stepped into the theater, the wave of noise and motion coming from the audience overwhelmed him. The air was thick with alcohol fumes, cigarette smoke, and exhaled breath. They were standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisles; in one corner was a tea stand selling sodas and sesame rolls. From the door to the toilets came the whiff of something like a corpse; Ka spotted a group of whispering youths. On one side he saw uniformed policemen in blue, and farther ahead he passed a few in plainclothes listening to their police radios. Holding her father’s hand, a child studied the dried chickpeas she’d dropped into his soda bottle, totally oblivious to the noise behind her.

Someone was waving vigorously from the side aisle, but Ka was not sure whether this person was waving at him.

“I recognized you from all the way over there—just by your coat!” When he saw Necip’s face emerge from the crowd, Ka felt his heart leap. They embraced warmly.

“I knew you would come,” said Necip. “I’m so glad to see you. Do you mind if I ask you one thing right now? I have two very important things on my mind.”

“So do you want to ask me one thing or two things?”

“You’re very intelligent, so intelligent you know that intelligence is not everything,” said Necip. He took Ka over to a corner where it was calmer. “Did you tell Hicran—Kadife—that I was in love with her, and that she was my whole life?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“You left the teahouse with her. Didn’t you mention me at all?” “I said you were a student at the religious high school.” “And then what? Didn’t she say anything?”

“No, she didn’t.”

There was a pause.

“I know the real reason why you didn’t mention me again,” said Necip, with some effort. He gulped. “Kadife is four years older than me, so she probably hasn’t even noticed me. Maybe you discussed private matters with her. Maybe even secret political matters. I’m not asking you to tell me one way or the other. I’m concerned about one thing only and this thing is extremely important for me. The answer you give will affect the rest of my life. Even if Kadife hasn’t yet noticed me—and it might take her years, and by then she could be married—your answer now could lead me to spend the rest of my life loving her or it could lead me to forget her from this moment on. So please, without hesitation, give me your answer now.”

“I’m still waiting for your question,” said Ka, sounding rather official.

“Did you talk about superficial things at all? Things like the nonsense on television, or little meaningless bits of gossip, or the little things money can buy? Do you know what I mean? Is Kadife the sort of serious person who has no time for such superficialities, or have I fallen in love with her for nothing?”

“No, we didn’t talk about anything superficial,” said Ka.

He could see that his answer was devastating; in the teenager’s face he could see evidence of a superhuman effort to recover his strength.

“But you did decide that she is an extraordinary person.” “Yes.”

“Could you yourself fall in love with her? She is very beautiful, after all. She’s beautiful and she’s independent—more than any other Turkish woman I’ve ever seen.”

“Her sister’s even more beautiful,” said Ka, “if beauty’s what we’re talking about.”

“What are we really talking about, then?” asked Necip. “What does God in his wisdom intend by making me think so much about Kadife?” With a childishness that amazed Ka, he opened his large green eyes, one of which would be shattered in fifty-one minutes.

“I don’t know,” said Ka.

“Yes, you do, you’re just not telling me.”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, a writer should be able to talk about everything that’s important,” said Necip, in a nudging voice. “If I were a writer, I’d want to talk about everything that people didn’t talk about. Can’t you tell me everything, just this once?” “So ask.”

“There’s one thing we all want out of life, one main thing, isn’t there?” “That’s right.”

“So what is it, would you say?”

Ka smiled and said nothing.

“For me, it’s very simple,” Necip said with pride. “I want to marry Kadife, live in Istanbul, and become the world’s first Islamist sciencefiction writer. I know none of these things are possible, but I still want them. If you can’t tell me what you want, it’s OK, because I understand you. You are my future. And my instinct also tells me this: When you look at me, you see your own youth, and that’s why you like me.” A happy, cunning smile began to take shape on his lips, which made Ka uneasy. “So are you supposed to be like the person I was twenty years ago?” he asked.

“Yes. There’s going to be a scene exactly like this in the sciencefiction novel I’m going to write one day. Excuse me, may I put my hand on your forehead?” Ka tilted his head slightly forward. With the ease of a well-practiced gesture, Necip put his palm on Ka’s forehead.

“Now I’m going to tell you what you were thinking twenty years ago.” “Is this what you were doing with Fazıl?”

“We think the same thing at the same time. But with you and me, there’s a time difference. Now listen to me, please: On a winter day, when you were a lycée student, it was snowing, and you were lost in thought.

You could hear God inside you, and you were trying to forget him. You could see that the world was one, but you thought that if you could close your eyes to this vision, you could be more unhappy and also more intelligent. And you were right. Only people who are very intelligent and very unhappy can write good poems. So you heroically undertook to endure the pains of faithlessness, just to be able to write good poems. But you didn’t realize then that when you lost that voice inside you, you’d end up all alone in an empty universe.”

“All right. You’re right, I was thinking this,” said Ka. “So tell me, Is this what you’re thinking right now?”

“I knew you were going to ask me this,” said Necip in an uneasy voice. “Don’t you want to believe in God? You do, don’t you?” His hand was so cold it was making Ka shiver, but now Necip took it off Ka’s forehead. “I could tell you a lot more about this. There’s another voice inside me that tells me, ‘Don’t believe in God.’ Because when you devote so much of your heart to believing something exists, you can’t help having a little suspicion, a little voice that asks, ‘What if it doesn’t?’ You understand, don’t you? Just at those times when I realized my belief in my beautiful God sustained me, I would sometimes ask myself, just as a child would wonder what would happen if his parents died, ‘What if God didn’t exist, what would happen then?’ At those times a vision would appear before my eyes: a landscape. Because I knew this landscape was made by God’s love, I felt no fear and looked at it; I wanted to look at it carefully.”

“Tell me about this landscape.”

“Are you going to put it into a poem? If you do, you don’t need to mention my name. I only want one thing from you in exchange.” “Yes?”

“In the last six months, I’ve written Kadife three letters. I couldn’t bring myself to mail any of them. It’s not because I’m ashamed: I didn’t send them because I knew they would be opened and read at the post office. Half the people of Kars are working as undercover policemen.

Half the people in this hall are too. They follow us everywhere we go.

Even our people are following us.”

“Who are our people?”

“All the young Islamists of Kars. They were very curious to know what I was going to say to you. They came here to make trouble, because they knew the military and the secularists were going to turn this evening into a public demonstration. They’re going to put on that old play we’ve heard so much about; it’s called Head Scarf. And we hear they’re going to use it to belittle our head-scarf girls. To tell you the truth, I can’t stand politics, but my friends are right to be enraged by this. But they’re suspicious of me, because I’m not as fired up as they are. I can’t give you those letters. I mean, not right now, with everyone watching. But I want you to give them to Kadife.”

“No one’s looking now. Give them to me quickly, and then tell me about that landscape.”

“The letters are here, but I don’t have them on me. I was afraid they’d search me at the door. My friends might have searched me too. If you go through that door next to the stage, you’ll see a toilet at the far end of the corridor. Meet me there in exactly twenty minutes.”

“Is that when you’ll tell me about the landscape?”

“One of them is coming toward us now,” said Necip, looking away. “I know him. Don’t look in his direction, just act like we’re having a normal casual conversation.”

“All right.”

“Everyone in Kars is very curious to know why you’ve come here.

They think you’re on a secret government mission or else you’ve been sent here by the Western powers. My friends sent me over to ask you if these things are true. Are the rumors true?”

“No, they’re not.”

“What shall I tell them? Why have you come?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do know, but once again you’re too ashamed to admit it.” There was a silence. “You came here because you were unhappy,” said Necip.

“How can you tell?”

“From your eyes; I’ve never seen anyone look so unhappy. . . . I’m not at all happy right now either, but at least I’m young. Unhappiness gives me strength. At my age, I’d rather be unhappy than happy. The only people who can be happy in Kars are the idiots and the villains. But by the time I’m your age, I want to be able to wrap my life in happiness.” “My unhappiness protects me from life,” said Ka. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Oh. You’re not angry at me for what I said, are you? There’s something so nice in your face I feel I can tell you whatever comes into my head, even if it’s really stupid. If I said things like this to my friends, they’d mock me without mercy.”

“Even Fazıl?”

“Fazıl’s different. If someone does something bad to me, he goes after them, and he always knows what I’m thinking. Now you say something. Someone’s watching us.” “Who’s watching us?” Ka asked. He looked at the crowds milling behind the seating area: a man with a pear-shaped head, two pimply youths, beetle-browed teenagers in ragged clothes; they were all facing the stage now, and some were swaying like drunks.

“Looks like I’m not the only one who’s had too much to drink tonight,” Ka muttered.

“They drink because they’re unhappy,” said Necip. “But you got drunk so you could resist the hidden happiness rising inside you.” As he uttered these words, he plunged back into the crowd. Ka wasn’t sure he’d heard him correctly. But despite the noise and commotion around him, his mind was still; he felt relaxed, as if he were listening to his favorite music. Someone waved at him, drawing his eye to a few empty seats reserved for the performing artists; someone from the theater troop—a well-mannered but rather rough-looking stagehand—showed him where to sit.

Years later, in a video I found in the archives of Kars Border Television, I was able to see what Ka then saw onstage. It was a send-up of a well known bank advertisement, but as it had been years since Ka had watched Turkish television, he could not tell whether they were making fun or just imitating. Even so, he could tell that the man who had gone into the bank to make a deposit was an outrageous dandy, a parody of a Westerner. When it performed in towns even smaller and more remote than Kars, in teahouses never frequented by women or government officials, Sunay Zaim’s Brechtian and Bakhtinian theater company made this piece much more obscene, with the bank-card-carrying dandy played as a raving queen who reduced audiences to helpless laughter. In the next sketch, featuring a mustachioed man dressed up as a woman pouring Kelidor shampoo and conditioner onto her hair, it took Ka some time to work out that the actor was Sunay Zaim himself. Just as he did in those remote teahouses when he decided to bring some relief to his poor and angry all-male audiences with an “anticapitalist catharsis,” he treated tonight’s audience to a string of obscenities as he pretended to stick the long shampoo bottle into his back passage. Later still, Sunay’s wife, Funda Eser, did a spoof of a much-loved sausage advertisement. Weighing a coil of sausages in her hand in a decidedly lewd fashion, she asked, “Is it a horse or a donkey?” and then she ran offstage before taking things further.

Vural, the famous goalkeeper from the sixties, returned to the stage to continue his account of the infamous soccer match in Istanbul when the English got eleven goals past him, as well as the details of various allegations of match-fixing and of the love affairs he’d had with famous film stars during the same period. It was a rich assortment of masochistic pleasures that his stories gave the audience, and everyone had a chance to smile at the misery of the Turk.

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