فصل 18

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فصل 18

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Don’t Fire, the Guns Are Loaded!

a revolution onstage

From this point on, things happened very quickly. Two “religious fanatics” sporting round beards and skullcaps appeared onstage. These actors carried ropes and knives and left no doubt that they were there to punish Funda Eser for burning her scarf and defying God’s law.

Once they’d captured her, Funda Eser writhed in a highly provocative manner as she struggled to break free. By now she had given up all pretense of being a heroine of the enlightenment; she had switched to that role she always found more comfortable, the woman about to be raped.

But her practiced self-abasing entreaties did not arouse the men in the audience as much as she expected. One of the bearded fanatics (rather clumsily made up, having played the father in the previous scene) yanked at her hair and threw her to the ground; the other laid a dagger on her throat in a manner suggesting a Renaissance tableau of the Sacrifice of Isaac; it illustrated perfectly the fears of a reactionary religious backlash felt in westernized circles in the early years of the Republic. The older officials in the front rows and the conservatives in the back were the first to become alarmed.

For exactly eighteen seconds, Funda Eser and the “fundamentalists” held their grand pose without moving a muscle, though quite a few of the people I interviewed were sure that the trio had remained immobile for much longer. The crowd was out of control. It was not just the play’s affront to covered women that bothered the religious high school boys, nor was it simply the caricature of fanatics as ugly, dirty dolts. They also suspected that the whole thing had been deliberately staged to provoke them. So every time they heckled the players, every time they threw half an orange or a cushion onto the stage, they were one step closer to a trap that had been laid just for them, and it was the knowledge of their helplessness that made them even angrier.

This was why the most politically astute member of the group, a short broad-shouldered boy named Abdurrahman Öz (in fact, his father, who came from Sivas to collect his body three days later, would give a different name), did everything he could to settle and quiet his companions, but to no avail. Egged on by the clapping and booing from other parts of the auditorium, the angry students assumed that there were others in the anxious crowd who felt as they did. Even more important, the young Islamists, who were weak and disorganized compared with their peers in the areas surrounding Kars, had found the courage for the first time ever to speak with one voice, and they were pleased to see how much they could scare the officials and army officers in the front rows. They were all the more heartened to know that their show of solidarity was being broadcast to the entire city. They were not just shouting and stamping, they were also enjoying themselves—this is one thing that everyone later forgot.

Having seen the video many times, I can also say that a number of the ordinary citizens were even laughing at times at the students’ slogans and curses, and if at other moments they also clapped and booed with the students, it was because they were just a bit bored, though still determined to make the most of a theatrical evening that had turned out to be rather puzzling. One witness even said later, “If the people in the front had not overreacted to this feeble commotion, it would have prevented everything that followed.” Others insisted, “The rich men and high-ranking officials in the front rows who panicked during those eighteen seconds already knew what was going to happen; otherwise they would not have gathered up their families and headed for the door. Ankara,” they said, “had planned the whole thing in advance.”

Fearful of losing the poem in his head, Ka also left the auditorium.

At the same moment, a man came onstage to rescue Funda Eser from

the two round-bearded reactionaries: this man was Sunay Zaim. He was wearing an army uniform from the thirties with a fur hat in the style of Atatürk and the heroes of the War for Independence. As he strode purposefully across the stage (no one could have known he had a slight limp), the two “fundamentalists” took fright and threw themselves at his feet. The brave old teacher stood up once more and applauded

Sunay’s heroism with all his might. One or two others shouted, “Bless you! Bravo!” Standing in the center of the spotlight, he seemed to all of Kars to be a wondrous creature from another planet.

Everyone noticed how handsome and enlightened he looked. The

long and punishing years spent touring Anatolia may have left him lame, but they had not diminished his attraction; he still had the hard, decisive, tragic air and faintly feminine good looks that had made him such a sensation among leftist students when he played Che Guevara, Robespierre, and the revolutionary Enver Pasha. Instead of bringing the index finger of his white-gloved hand to his lips, he rested it elegantly on his chin and said, “Quiet!”

There was no need for this line, which wasn’t in the script: everyone in the auditorium was already silent. Those who’d stood up were back in their seats.

“They’re in torment!”

Probably this is only half of what Sunay Zaim meant to say, because no one had the faintest idea of who was meant to be in torment. In the old days, this would have been a reference to the people or the nation, but his audience was not sure if this man was referring to them or to Funda Eser or to the entire Republic. Still, the feeling evoked by the remark was palpable. The entire audience fell into an uneasy hush.

“O honorable and beloved citizens of Turkey,” said Sunay Zaim.

“You’ve embarked on the road to enlightenment, and no one can keep you from this great and noble journey. Do not fear. The reactionaries who want to turn back time, those vile beasts with their cobwebbed minds, will never be allowed to crawl out of their hole. Those who seek to meddle with the Republic, with freedom, with enlightenment, will see their hands crushed.”

Everyone in the hall heard the taunt from the boy two seats away

from Necip. Again, a deep silence fell over the crowd; there was awe mixed with their fear. They all sat still as candles, as if hoping to hear one or two sweet nothings, a few clues to help them make sense of the evening when they went home, with perhaps a story or two.

At that moment, a detachment of soldiers appeared on either side of the stage. Three more came in through the main entrance and down the aisle to join them. The people of Kars, unaccustomed to the modern device of sending actors among the audience, were first alarmed and then amused.

A bespectacled messenger boy came running onto the stage, and

when they saw who it was, they all laughed. It was Glasses, the sweet and clever nephew of the city’s principal newspaper distributor; everyone knew him as a constant presence in the shop, which was just across the street from the National Theater. Glasses ran over to Sunay Zaim, who bent down so the boy could whisper into his ear.

All of Kars could see that the news made Sunay Zaim very sad.

“We have just learned that the director of the Institute of Education has passed away,” Sunay Zaim told the audience. “This lowly murder will be the last assault on the Republic and the secular future of Turkey!” Before the audience had had a chance to digest the news, the soldiers onstage cocked their rifles and took aim straight at the audience. They opened fire at once; the noise was thunderous.

It was unclear whether this was another theatrical ruse or an honor guard requested by the company to mark the sad news. A number

of Kars residents—out of touch as they were with modern theatrical conventions—took it for yet another bit of experimental staging.

A roar rose as a strong vibration was felt through the hall. Those frightened by the noise of the weapons thought the vibration had issued from the agitation in the audience. Just as one or two were standing up, the bearded “fundamentalists” onstage ducked for cover.

“No one move!” said Sunay Zaim.

Once again, the soldiers cocked their guns and took aim at the crowd.

At the exact same time, the short fearless boy two seats away from Necip stood up and shouted, “Damn the godless secularists! Damn the fascist infidels!”

Once again, the soldiers fired.

As the shots rang in the air, another strong vibration was felt through the hall.

Just then, those in the back rows saw the boy who had uttered the taunt collapse into his chair before rising up again, now with his arms and his legs jerking wildly. Among those who had been enjoying the antics of the religious high school students and laughing all evening at everything they couldn’t understand, several took this as yet another joke, and when the student’s jerking continued—violent as the throes of death— they laughed a bit more.

It was only with the third volley that some in the audience realized that the soldiers were firing live rounds; they could tell, just as one could on those evenings when soldiers rounded up terrorists in the streets, because these shots can be heard in one’s stomach as well as in one’s ears.

A strange noise came from the huge German-manufactured Bohemian stove that had been heating the hall for forty-four years; the stovepipe had been pierced and was now spewing smoke like an angry teapot at full boil. As someone from the back rows stood up and made straight for the stage with blood streaming from his head, there came the smell of gunpowder. The audience looked ready to erupt in panic, and yet everyone was sitting in silence, still as statues. As in a bad dream, everyone felt very alone. Even so, the literature teacher Nuriye Hanım, who attended the National Theater every time she visited Ankara and was full of admiration for the beauty of the theatrical effects, rose to her feet for the first time to applaud the actors. At precisely the same time, Necip rose to his feet, like an agitated student trying to catch his teacher’s attention.

The soldiers launched their fourth volley. According to the inspector colonel sent by Ankara to oversee the inquiry, who would spend many weeks in secrecy compiling his meticulous report, this fourth volley killed two people. He named one of them as Necip, adding that one bullet had entered his forehead and the other his eye, but having heard a number of rumors to the contrary, I can’t say for sure that this was when Necip died.

Those in the front and middle rows would agree on one point: After the third volley, Necip saw the bullets flying through the air and, though realizing what was happening, utterly misjudged the soldiers. Two seconds before being hit, he had risen to his feet to speak the words heard by many though not registered on the tape.

“Stop! Don’t fire; the guns are loaded!”

His words gave utterance to what everyone in the hall knew in his heart but still could not bring his mind to accept. Of the five shots in the first volley, one hit the plaster laurel leaves above the box where, a quarter century earlier, the last Soviet consul in Kars had watched films in the company of his dog. This bullet went wide because the soldier who had fired the shot—a Kurd from Siirt—had no wish to kill anyone. Another shot fired with similar care, though somewhat less skillfully, had hit the ceiling, sending a cloud of 110-year-old lime and paint dust snowing down on the anxious crowd below. Another bullet flew over the nest where the TV camera was perched to hit the wooden balustrade that marked off the standing room from which poor romantic Armenian girls who could afford only the cheapest tickets had once watched theater troupes, acrobats, and chamber groups from Moscow. The fourth flew into the outer reaches of the hall, beyond range of the camera; through the back of a seat it went into the shoulder of a dealer in spare parts for tractor and agricultural equipment named Muhittin Bey, who was sitting with his wife and his widowed sister-in-law and, having seen the shower of lime dust, had stood up to see whether something had fallen from the ceiling. The fifth bullet hit a grandfather sitting just behind the Islamist students; he had come from Trabzon to see his grandson, who was doing his military service in Kars; after the bullet shattered the left lens of his spectacles, it entered his brain, but the old man, luckily asleep at the time, died silently, never knowing what had happened to him. The bullet then exited from his neck and, passing through the back of his seat, pierced a bag belonging to a twelve-year-old Kurdish egg and bread vendor. The boy had been passing between the seats to give a customer his change and so was not holding the bag at the time, and the bullet was recovered later inside one of his boiled eggs.

I am relating these details to explain why it was that most people in the audience stayed so still when the soldiers opened fire. When bullets from the second volley hit a student in the temple, the neck, and in the upper chest, just above the heart, most assumed that he was putting on another show, an encore to his terrifying but entertaining show of courage moments earlier. One of the two remaining bullets went into the chest of a relatively subdued religious high school student sitting in the back (it was later revealed that his aunt’s daughter was the city’s first suicide girl); the last struck two meters over the projection booth, hitting the face of the clock, which, having stopped working sixty years earlier, was now covered with dust and spiderwebs. According to the colonel in charge of the inquiry, the fact that one of the bullets from the second volley had hit the clock was proof that one of the marksmen chosen that evening at sunset for the assignment had violated the oath he’d sworn with his hand on the Koran: Clearly he had gone out of his way to avoid killing someone. As for the fiery Islamist student killed in the third volley, the colonel would mention in a parenthesis the careful consideration that had been given to the lawsuit that the family had brought against the state, in which it had been alleged that the lad had been not just a student but also a hardworking devoted employee of the Kars branch of MIT ˙ ; but in the end the colonel found insufficient grounds for the award of damages. Of the last two bullets in this same volley, one hit Reza Bey, who had built the fountain in the Kaleiçi district and who was much loved by all the conservatives and Islamists in the city; the other struck the servant he used as his walking stick.

And so it is finally not easy to explain how so many in the audience could have remained still, watching these two lifelong friends moaning and dying on the floor as the soldiers onstage cocked their rifles for the fourth time. Years later, a dairy owner who still refused to let me use his name explained it this way: “Those of us who were sitting in the back knew something terrible had happened. But we were afraid that if we moved from our seats to get a better look, the terror would find us, so we just sat there watching without making a sound.”

Even the colonel was unable to determine where all of the bullets from the fourth volley had gone. One had wounded a young salesman who had come to Kars from Ankara to sell parlor games and encyclopedias on the installment plan (he would bleed to death in the hospital two hours later). Another bullet had blown a huge hole in the lower facing wall of the private box where, in the first decade of the twentieth century, Kirkor Çizmeciyan, a wealthy leather manufacturer, had sat with his family, dressed from head to toe in fur. According to one tall tale, the bullet that hit one of Necip’s green eyes and the other that hit his wide smooth forehead did not kill him instantaneously; some eyewitnesses claimed that for a moment the teenager had looked at the stage and cried, “I can see!”

By the time the shouting and screaming had stopped, almost

everyone—including those rushing for the door—crumpled. Even the TV cameraman was forced to throw himself against a back wall: His camera, which had been panning right and left all evening, now stood still.

The only thing the viewers at home could see was the crowd on the stage and the silent respectable notables in the front rows. Even so, most city residents had heard enough shouting, screaming, and gunfire to realize that something very strange was going on at the National Theater. As for those who had grown bored with the play toward midnight and begun to doze off in front of their televisions, by the last eighteen seconds of the gun battle even their eyes were glued to the screen—and to Sunay Zaim.

“O heroic soldiers, you have done your duty,” he said. Then, with an elegant gesture, he turned to Funda Eser, still lying on the floor, and made an exaggerated bow. Taking the hand of her savior, the woman rose.

A retired civil servant in the front row stood up to applaud. A few others sitting nearby joined in. There was scattered applause from the back, from people presumably in the habit of clapping at anything—or perhaps they were scared. The rest of the hall was silent as ice. Like someone waking up following a long bender, a few even seemed relaxed and allowed themselves weak smiles. It was as if they’d decided that the dead bodies before their eyes belonged to the dream world of the stage; a num ber of those who had ducked for cover now had their heads in the air but then cowered again at the sound of Sunay’s voice.

“This is not a play; it is the beginning of a revolution,” he said reproachfully. “We are prepared to go to any lengths to protect our fatherland. Put your faith in the great and honorable Turkish army! Soldiers!

Bring them over.”

Two soldiers escorted the two round-bearded “fundamentalists.” As the other soldiers cocked their guns and descended into the auditorium, a strange man rushed forward onto the stage. It was clear from the unbecoming speed of his approach and his awkward body language that he was neither a soldier nor an actor. But he still had everyone’s attention.

Quite a few people were hoping he would reveal that it was all one great big joke.

“Long live the Republic!” he cried. “Long live the army! Long live the Turkish people! Long live Atatürk!” Slowly, very slowly, the curtains began to close. He took two steps forward, as did Sunay Zaim; the curtain closed behind them. The strange man was carrying a gun manufactured in Kırıkkale; he was wearing civilian clothes with military boots.

“To hell with the fundamentalists!” he cried, as he walked down the steps into the auditorium. Two armed guards appeared to follow him. But the three strangers did not head to the back of the hall (where the soldiers were busy arresting the boys from the religious high school); without paying any attention to their terrified audience, they kept shouting slogans as they rushed for the exits and disappeared into the night.

The three men were in tremendously high spirits. Only at the very last minute, after lengthy discussion and bargaining, had it been agreed that they too could take part in the performance that was to begin “the little revolution of Kars.” They’d met with Sunay Zaim on the night of his arrival, and he had resisted the proposal for an entire day, fearing that the involvement of shady armed adventurers would ruin the artistic integrity of his play; but in the end he could not resist the argument that he might need a man experienced with guns to control any lowlifes in the audience who were unlikely to appreciate the nuances of “modern art.” It was later said that he felt great remorse at his decision during the hours that followed, and great pangs of passion in the face of the bloodshed caused by this band in tramp’s clothing; but as is so often the case, most of this was only rumor.

When I visited Kars years later, I had a tour of what had once been the National Theater. Half the building had been torn down; the other half had been turned into a warehouse for the Arçelik dealership. The owner, Muhtar Bey, was my guide; and it was, I think, to deflect my questions about the evening of the performance and the ensuing terror that he told me how Kars had been witness to an endless string of murders, massacres, and other evils dating all the way back to the time of the Armenians. If I wanted to bring some happiness to the people of Kars, he said, I should, upon returning to Istanbul, ignore the sins of the city’s past and write instead about the beautiful clean air and the inhabitants’ kind hearts. As we stood in the dark and mildewy auditorium-turnedwarehouse surrounded by the ghostlike forms of refrigerators, stoves, and washing machines, he pointed out the sole remaining trace of that last performance: the huge gaping hole made by the bullet that had hit the outside wall of Kirkor Çizmeciyan’s private box.

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