فصل 02

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فصل 02

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CHAPTER TWO

Our City Is a Peaceful Place

the outlying districts

Veiling as it did the dirt, the mud, and the darkness, the snow would continue to speak to Ka of purity, but after his first day in Kars it no longer promised innocence. The snow here was tiring, irritating, terrorizing. It had snowed all night. It continued snowing all morning, while Ka walked the streets playing the intrepid reporter—visiting coffeehouses packed with unemployed Kurds, interviewing voters, taking notes—and it was still snowing later, when he climbed the steep and frozen streets to interview the former mayor and the governor’s assistant and the families of the girls who had committed suicide. But it no longer took him back to the white-covered streets of his childhood; no longer did he think, as he had done as a child standing at the windows of the sturdy houses of Ni¸ santa¸ s, that he was peering into a fairy tale; no longer was he returned to a place where he could enjoy the middle-class life he missed too much even to visit in his dreams. Instead, the snow spoke to him of hopelessness and misery.

Early that morning, before the city woke up and before he had let the snow get the better of him, he took a brisk walk through the shantytown below Atatürk Boulevard to the poorest part of Kars, to the district known as Kalealtı. The scenes he saw as he hurried under the ice-covered branches of the plane trees and the oleanders—the old decrepit Russian buildings with stovepipes sticking out of every window, the thousand-year-old Armenian church towering over the wood depots and the electric generators, the pack of dogs barking at every passerby from a five-hundredyear-old stone bridge as snow fell into the half-frozen black waters of the river below, the thin ribbons of smoke rising out of the tiny shanty houses of Kalealtı sitting lifeless under their blanket of snow—made him feel so melancholy that tears welled in his eyes. On the opposite bank were two children, a girl and a boy who’d been sent out early to buy bread, and as they danced along, tossing the warm loaves back and forth or clutching them to their chests, they looked so happy that Ka could not help smiling. It wasn’t the poverty or the helplessness that disturbed him; it was the thing he would see again and again during the days to come—in the empty windows of photography shops, in the frozen windows of the crowded teahouses where the city’s unemployed passed the time playing cards, and in the city’s empty snow-covered squares. These sights spoke of a strange and powerful loneliness. It was as if he were in a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world.

Ka’s luck stayed with him all morning, and when people asked him who he was they wanted to shake his hand; they treated him like a famous journalist from Istanbul; all of them, from the governor’s assistant to the poorest man, opened their doors and spoke to him. He was introduced to the city by Serdar Bey, the publisher of Border City News (circulation three hundred and twenty), who sometimes sent local news items to the Republican in Istanbul (mostly they didn’t print them). Ka had been told to visit “our local correspondent” first thing in the morning, as soon as he left the hotel, and no sooner had he found this old journalist ensconced in his office than he realized this man knew everything there was to know in Kars. It was Serdar Bey who was the first to ask him the question he would hear again hundreds of times during his three-day stay.

“Welcome to our border city, sir. But what are you here for?”

Ka explained that he had come to cover the municipal elections and also perhaps to write about the suicide girls.

“As in Batman, the stories about the suicide girls have been exaggerated,” the journalist replied. “Let’s go over to meet Kasım Bey, the assistant chief of police. They should know you’ve arrived—just in case.” That all newcomers, even journalists, should pay a visit to the police was a provincial custom dating back to the forties. Because he was a political exile who had just returned to the country after an absence of many years, and because, even though no one had mentioned it, he sensed the presence of Kurdish separatist guerillas (PKK) in the city, Ka made no objection.

They set off into the blizzard, cutting through a fruit market and continuing past the stores of spare parts and hardware on Kâzım Karabekir Avenue, past teahouses where gloomy unemployed men sat watching television and the falling snow, past dairy shops displaying huge wheels of yellow cheese; it took them fifteen minutes to cut a diagonal across the city.

Along the way, Serdar Bey stopped to show Ka the place where the old mayor had been assassinated. According to one rumor, he’d been shot over a simple municipal dispute: the demolition of an illegal balcony.

They’d caught the assailant after three days in the village to which he’d escaped; when they found him hiding in a barn, he was still carrying the weapon. But there had been so much gossip during those three days before his capture, no one wanted to believe that this was indeed the culprit: the simplicity of the motivation was disappointing.

The Kars police headquarters was in a long three-story building on

Faikbey Avenue, where the old stone buildings that had once belonged to wealthy Russians and Armenians now housed mostly government offices. As they sat waiting for the assistant chief of police, Serdar Bey pointed out the high ornate ceilings and explained that between 1877 and 1918, during the Russian occupation of the city, this forty-room mansion was first home to a rich Armenian and later a Russian hospital.

Kasım Bey, the beer-bellied assistant chief of police, came into the corridor and ushered them into his room. Ka could see at once that they were in the company of a man who did not read national newspapers like the Republican, considering them left-wing, that he was not particularly impressed to see Serdar Bey praising anyone simply for being a poet, but that he feared and respected him as the owner of the leading local paper.

After Serdar Bey had finished speaking, the police chief turned to Ka.

“Do you want protection?”

“Pardon?”

“I’m only suggesting one plainclothes policeman. To set your mind at ease.”

“Do I really need it?” asked Ka, in the agitated voice of a man whose doctor has just told him he should start walking with a cane.

“Our city is a peaceful place. We’ve caught all the terrorists who were driving us apart. But I’d still recommend it, just in case.”

“If Kars is a peaceful place, then I don’t need protection,” said Ka.

He was secretly hoping that the assistant chief of police would take this opportunity to reassure him once again that Kars was a peaceful place, but Kasım Bey did not repeat his statement.

They headed north to Kalealtı and Bayrampa¸ sa, the poorest neigh borhoods. The houses here were shanties made of stone, brick, and corrugated aluminum siding. With the snow continuing to fall, they made their way from house to house: Serdar Bey would knock on a door, and if a woman answered he would ask to see the man of the house, and if Serdar Bey recognized him he would say in a voice inspiring confidence that his friend, a famous journalist, had come to Kars all the way from Istanbul to report on the elections and also to find out more about the city—to write, for example, about why so many women were committing suicide—and if these citizens could share their concerns, they would be doing a good thing for Kars. A few were very friendly, perhaps because they thought Ka and Serdar Bey might be candidates bearing tins of sunflower oil, boxes of soaps, or parcels full of cookies and pasta. If they decided to invite the two men in out of curiosity or simple hospitality, the next thing they did was to tell Ka not to be afraid of the dogs. Some opened their doors fearfully, assuming, after so many years of police intimidation, that this was yet another search, and even once they had realized that these men were not from the state, they would remain shrouded in silence. As for the families of the girls who had committed suicide (in a short time, Ka had heard about six incidents), they each insisted that their daughters had given them no cause for alarm, leaving them all shocked and grieved by what had happened.

They sat on old divans and crooked chairs in tiny icy rooms with earthen floors covered by machine-made carpets, and every time they moved from one house to the next, the number of dwellings seemed to have multiplied. Each time they went outside they had to make their way past children kicking broken plastic cars, one-armed dolls, or empty bottles and boxes of tea and medicine back and forth across the way. As they sat next to stoves that gave out no heat unless stirred continuously, and electric heaters that ran off illegal power lines, and silent television sets that no one ever turned off, they heard about the never-ending woes of Kars.

They listened to mothers who were in tears because their sons were out of work or in jail, and to bathhouse attendants who worked twelvehour shifts in the hamam without earning enough to support a family of eight, and to unemployed men who were no longer sure they could afford to go to the teahouse because of the high price of a glass of tea. These people complained and complained about the unemployment rate, their bad luck, the city council, and the government, tracing their every problem to the nation and the state. As they traveled from house to house, listening to these tales of hardship, a moment arrived when, in spite of the white light coming in through the windows, Ka came to feel as if they had entered a shadow world. The rooms were so dark he could barely make out the shape of the furniture, so when he was compelled to look at the snow outside, it blinded him—it was as if a curtain of tulle had fallen before his eyes, as if he had retreated into the silence of snow to escape from these stories of misery and poverty.

The suicide stories he heard that day were the worst; they would haunt him for the rest of his life. It wasn’t the elements of poverty or helplessness that Ka found so shocking. Neither was it the constant beatings to which these girls were subjected, or the insensitivity of fathers who wouldn’t even let them go outside, or the constant surveillance of jealous husbands. The thing that shocked and frightened Ka was the way these girls had killed themselves: abruptly, without ritual or warning, in the midst of their everyday routines.

There was one sixteen-year-old girl, for example, who had been forced into an engagement with an elderly teahouse owner; she had eaten her evening meal with her mother, father, three siblings, and paternal grandmother, just as she had done every evening; after she and her sisters had cleared the table with the usual amount of giggling and tussling, she went from the kitchen into the garden to fetch the dessert, and from there she climbed through the window into her parents’ bedroom, where she shot herself with a hunting rifle. The grandmother, who heard the gunshot, ran upstairs to find the girl supposed to be in the kitchen lying dead on the floor in her parents’ bedroom in a pool of blood; this old woman could not understand how her girl had managed to get from the kitchen to the bedroom, let alone why she would have committed suicide.

There was another sixteen-year-old who, following the usual evening scuffle with her two siblings over what to watch on television and who would hold the remote control, and after her father came in to settle the matter by giving her two hard whacks, went straight to her room and, finding a big bottle of a veterinary medicine, Mortalin, knocked it back like a bottle of soda. Another girl, who had married happily at the age of fifteen, had given birth six months ago; now, terrorized by the beatings given her by her depressed and unemployed husband, she locked herself in the kitchen after the daily quarrel. Her husband guessed what she was up to, but she had already prepared the rope and the hook in the ceiling, so before he could break down the door she had hanged herself.

It fascinated Ka, the desperate speed with which these girls had plunged from life into death. The care they had taken—the hooks put into the ceiling, the loaded rifles, the medicine bottles transferred from pantry to bedroom—suggested suicidal thoughts they’d carried around with them for a long time.

The first such suicide had come from the city of Batman, a hundred

kilometers from Kars. All over the world, men are three or four times more likely to kill themselves than women; it was a young civil servant in the National Office of Statistics in Ankara who had first noticed that in Batman the number of female cases was three times greater than the number for males and four times greater than the world average for females. But when a friend of his at the Republican published this analysis in “News in Brief,” no one in Turkey took any notice. A number of correspondents for French and German newspapers, however, did pick up on the item, and only after they had gone to Batman and published stories in the European press did the Turkish press begin to take an interest: at this point, quite a few Turkish reporters paid visits to the city.

According to officials, the press interest had served only to push

more girls over the edge. The deputy governor of Kars, a squirrel-faced man with a brush mustache, told Ka that the local suicides had not reached the same statistical level as those in Batman, and he had no objection “at present” to Ka’s speaking to the families, but he asked Ka to refrain from using the word suicide too often when speaking to these people and to take care not to exaggerate the story when he wrote it up in the Republican. A committee of suicide experts—including psychologists, police officers, judges, and officials from the Department of Religious Affairs—was already preparing to decamp from Batman to Kars; as a preliminary measure the Department of Religious Affairs had plastered the city with its SUICIDE IS BLASPHEMY posters, and the governor’s office was to distribute a pamphlet with the slogan as its title. Still, the deputy governor worried that these measures might produce the result opposite from the one intended—not just because girls hearing of others committing suicide might be inspired to do the same, but also because quite a few might do it out of exasperation with the constant lecturing from husbands, fathers, preachers, and the state.

“What is certain is that these girls were driven to suicide because they were extremely unhappy. We’re not in any doubt about that,” the deputy governor told Ka. “But if unhappiness were a genuine reason for suicide, half the women in Turkey would be killing themselves.” He suggested that these women might be offended if they had to listen to a chorus of male voices remonstrating “Don’t commit suicide!” This, he told Ka proudly, was why he had written to Ankara asking that the antisuicide propaganda committee include at least one woman.

The idea that suicide might spread contagiously like the plague had first been suggested after a girl traveled all the way from Batman to Kars just to kill herself. Her family now refused to let Ka and Serdar Bey into the house, but the girl’s maternal uncle agreed to speak with them outside.

Smoking a cigarette, seated under the oleander trees of a snow-covered garden in the Atatürk district, he told her story. His niece had married two years earlier; forced to do housework from morning till night, she had also endured the incessant scolding of her mother-in-law for failing to conceive a child. But this alone would not have been enough to drive the girl to suicide; it was clear that she had got the idea from the other women killing themselves in Batman. Certainly the dear departed girl had seemed perfectly happy on visiting with her family here in Kars, so it was all the more shocking when—on the very morning she was due to return to Batman—they found a letter in her bed saying that she had taken two boxes of sleeping pills.

One month after the suicide idea had, as it were, infected Kars, this girl’s sixteen-year-old cousin committed the first copycat suicide. With the uncle’s coaxing, and having got Ka to promise that he would include the full story in his report, her tearful parents explained that the girl had been driven to suicide after her teacher accused her of not being a virgin.

Once the rumor had spread all over Kars, the girl’s fiancé called off the engagement, and the other young suitors—still coming to the house to ask for this beautiful girl’s hand despite the betrothal—stopped coming too. At that point, the girl’s maternal grandmother had started to say, “Oh, well, looks like you’re never going to find a husband.” Then one evening, as the whole family was watching a wedding scene on television and her father, drunk at the time, started crying, the girl stole her grandmother’s sleeping pills and, having swallowed them all, went to sleep (not only the idea of suicide but also the method having proved contagious).

When the autopsy revealed that the girl had actually been a virgin, her father blamed not just the teacher for spreading the lie but also his relative’s daughter for coming from Batman to kill herself. And so, out of a wish to dispel the baseless rumors about their child’s chastity and to expose the teacher who had started the malicious lie, the family decided to tell Ka the full story.

Ka thought it strangely depressing that the suicide girls had had to struggle to find a private moment to kill themselves. Even after swallowing their pills, even as they lay quietly dying, they’d had to share their rooms with others. Ka had grown up in Ni¸ santa¸ s reading Western literature, and in his own fantasies of suicide he had always thought it important to have a great deal of time and space; at the very least you needed a room you could stay in for days without any knocking on the door. In his fantasies, suicide was a solemn ceremony with sleeping pills and whiskey, a final act performed alone and of one’s own free will; in fact, every time he had ever imagined doing away with himself, it was the indispensable loneliness of it that scared him off. For that reason, he had to admit, he had never been seriously suicidal.

The only suicide who had delivered him back to that loneliness was the covered girl who had killed herself almost six weeks ago. This suicide was one of the famous “head-scarf girls.” When the authorities had outlawed the wearing of head scarves in educational institutions across the country, many women refused to comply; the noncompliant young women at the Institute of Education in Kars had been barred first from the classrooms and then, following an edict from Ankara, from the entire campus. Among the families Ka met, that of the head-scarf girl was the most well off; the distraught father owned a little grocery store. Offering Ka a Coca-Cola from the store refrigerator, he explained that his daughter had discussed her plans with both family and friends. As for the question of the head scarf, clearly her mother, who wore one, had set the example—with the blessing of the whole family—but the real pressure had come from those of her school friends running the campaign against the banishment of covered women from the Institute. Certainly it was they who taught her to think of the head scarf as a symbol of “political Islam.” And so despite her parents’ express wish that she remove her head scarf, the girl refused, thus ensuring that she herself would be removed, by the police and on many occasions, from the halls of the Institute of Education. When she saw some of her friends giving up and uncovering their heads, and others forgoing their head scarves to wear wigs instead, the girl began to tell her father and her friends that life had no meaning and she no longer wanted to live. But as the state-run

Department of Religious Affairs and the Islamists had joined forces by now to condemn suicide as one of the greatest sins, and there were posters and pamphlets all over Kars proclaiming the same truth, no one expected a girl of such piety to take her own life. It seems that the girl, Teslime, had spent her last evening silently watching the television show called Marianna. After making tea and serving it to her parents, she went to her room and readied herself for her prayers, washing her mouth, her feet, and her hands. When she had finished her ablutions, she knelt down on her prayer rug and lost herself for some time in thought, and then in prayer, before tying her head scarf to the lamp hook from which she hanged herself.

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