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CHAPTER TWENTY

A Great Day for Our Nation!

while ka slept and when he

woke the next morning

Ka slept for exactly ten hours and twenty minutes without stirring once. In one of his dreams he watched the snow falling. Just before, through the gap in the half-drawn curtains, the snow had begun to fall again onto the white street below, and it looked exceptionally soft where the lamp lit the pink signpost of the Snow Palace Hotel; perhaps it was because this strange and magically soft snow absorbed the sound of the gunfights all over Kars that night that Ka was able to sleep so soundly.

Only two streets away, a tank and two army trucks attacked the religious high school dormitory. There was a skirmish—not in front of the main iron door, where the fine Armenian craftsmanship is visible to this day, but by the wooden door leading to the common rooms and the

senior dormitory; hoping to frighten the boys, the soldiers who gathered in the snow-covered garden fired straight up into the night sky. All the hardened political Islamists in the student body had attended the performance at the National Theater, and because they had been arrested on the spot, the only boys in the dormitory were either raw recruits or else had no interest in politics; but the scenes on television had made them rather giddy, and so—barricading the door with tables and desks and shouting slogans like “God is great!”—they’d holed up to wait. One or two of the crazy ones, having stolen a few knives and forks from the kitchen, decided to throw the utensils at the soldiers from the bathroom window and began to horse around with the sole gun in their possession; so the standoff ended in gunfire, with one beautiful slip of a boy— nothing but innocence in his face—falling to his death, a bullet in his forehead.

Most of the city was still awake, their eyes glued not to the windows and the streets below but to their television sets. The live broadcast had continued Sunay Zaim announced that this was not a play but a “revolution”; as the soldiers were rounding up the troublemakers and carrying out the dead and wounded, there appeared onstage a man well known to all of Kars. This was Umman Bey, the deputy governor; in a formal and uneasy voice that nevertheless inspired confidence, he expressed perhaps for the first time a certain impatience about this live broadcast and announced a curfew over all of Kars until noon the following day. When he left the stage, no one else appeared, and so for the next twenty minutes the only things the city’s people could see on their screens were the curtains of the National Theater; there was then a break in transmission, after which the same old curtains reappeared on everyone’s screen. Sometime later, the people of Kars would see the curtains were opening again, very slowly, as the whole performance was rebroadcast from the very beginning.

Seated in front of their sets, struggling to work out what was going on, most began to fear the worst. The very tired or half drunk found themselves revisiting earlier times of civic turmoil; others feared a return to death, disappearance, and the rule of night. Those with no interest in politics saw the rebroadcast as an opportunity to make some sense of what had happened that night—just as I would attempt to do many years later—and so they concentrated once more on watching the television.

As the people of Kars were watching Funda Eser’s rendition of the prime minister bowing tearfully to every dark desire of her American clientele, and later, as she concluded her spoof of a famous commercial with a riotous belly dance, a specially trained security team raided the branch headquarters of the People’s Freedom Party in the Halıl Pa¸ sa Arcade, arresting the Kurdish janitor (the only person there at that hour), searching the cabinets and the file drawers, and confiscating every bit of paper they could find. The same police unit rounded up the party’s executive committee—they knew from an earlier raid all the identities and addresses—and, charging them with subversion and Kurdish nationalism, took them all into custody.

These were not the only Kurdish nationalists in Kars. The three

corpses discovered early that morning in a burned-out Murat taxi not yet covered with snow on the road to Digor were—according to official reports—Kurdish nationalist guerillas. The police claimed that the three young men had been trying to infiltrate the city for months, but, panicked at events of the previous evening, they decided to jump into a taxi and escape into the mountains. When they discovered the road closed they lost hope; in an ensuing quarrel, one of them detonated a bomb, killing all three. The mother of one boy, a cleaner at the hospital, later submitted a petition alleging that unidentified armed agents had rung the doorbell and taken her son away, and the taxi driver’s older brother filed his own charge to the effect that his brother was no nationalist, not even a Kurd.

Both petitions, however, were ignored.

By this time, everyone in Kars had become aware of the coup under

way—if it wasn’t a coup, one look at the two tanks wandering the city like ponderous dark ghosts was enough to confirm that something very odd was happening—but as they were also watching the performance on their television screens, and as the snow continued to fall apparently without end, their windows like a scene from an old fairy tale, the tanks provoked little fear. Politically active people were the only ones who were at all anxious.

Consider, for example, Sadullah Bey. A journalist held in the highest esteem by the Kurds of Kars and a well-known collector of folklore, he’d seen his share of military takeovers, so the moment he heard of the curfew, he began to prepare for the days in prison he knew lay ahead. After packing his bag with essentials—the blue pajamas he couldn’t sleep without, the medicine for his prostate problem, his sleeping pills, his wool cap and socks, the photograph of his daughter in Istanbul (with his smiling grandson on her lap), and the painstaking notes he had taken for a book on Kurdish dirges—he sat down for a glass of tea with his wife, they watched Funda Eser do her second belly dance, and they waited. When the doorbell rang much later, in the middle of the night, he bade his wife farewell, picked up his suitcase, and headed for the door; seeing no one, he stepped out into the street—where in the sulfur light of the streetlamps he let his mind return to the glorious winters of his childhood, when he would skate across the frozen Kars River, when the silent streets were covered with this same beautiful snow—and as he stood there, someone pumped two bullets into his head and his chest, killing him on the spot.

Months later, when most of the snow had melted, the remains of a

number of others similarly murdered that night were discovered, but— like the Kars press in the wake of the coup—I don’t want to upset my readers any more than necessary, so I won’t go into details. As for the rumors that the unknown perpetrators were Z Demirkol and his friends, I can only say that—at least in respect to whatever may have occurred in the early hours of the evening—these allegations are untrue. Although it took longer than expected, they did manage to sever the phone lines and safeguard the Kars Border Television transmission in support of the revolution; by night’s end, all their energy was channeled into what had by then become their main obsession: finding a “deep-voiced folksinger to celebrate the heroes of the borderlands.” After all, this would never measure up as a real revolution until all the radio and television stations in the city were broadcasting celebratory folk songs.

After asking at the barracks, the hospitals, the science high school, and the teahouses, they finally found a folksinger among the firemen on duty at the fire station; he was sure they would either arrest him or riddle him with bullets, but they whisked him down to the television studio.

When Ka woke the next morning, it was the fireman’s sonorous voice he heard coming from the television in the lobby through the walls, the plaster partitions, and the half-drawn curtains. Through those same curtains also came an extraordinarily strong and wonderfully strange shaft of snow light. He’d slept soundly, even awoke relaxed, but he’d not risen from the bed before feeling a pang of guilt so strong it sapped all his strength and certainty. He rallied by pretending he was just an ordinary hotel guest, in another city and another bathroom; after he had washed, shaved, and changed, he picked up his door key by its heavy copper fob and went down to the lobby.

When he saw the folksinger on the screen and the other guests conversing in whispers as they watched, Ka had a measure of the silence that now engulfed the city; his mind returned to the previous evening, and only now did he begin to piece together all the things his mind had put away until this moment. He smiled coolly at the boy behind the reception desk; like a harried traveler vexed with the city’s violent political infighting and determined to leave at the first opportunity, he headed straight for the adjoining dining room and ordered breakfast. In the corner an enormous teapot was steaming above a samovar; on the serving table was a plate of Kars cheese sliced very thin and a bowl of olives that, having long since lost their shine, looked rather deadly.

Ka sat down at a table next to the window. Through the gaps in the tulle curtain he gazed out at the snow-covered scene in all its beauty. The peacefulness in the empty street took Ka back to the curfews of his childhood and his youth. The census days, the days devoted to checking the electoral roll, the days given over to hunting for enemies of the state, the days when the military marched in and everyone would gather around their televisions and radios—he recalled them all, one by one. As the other guests sat listening to the martial strains on the radio, as they listened to the news bulletins of martial law, the curfew, and the list of prohibitions, all Ka wanted was to go outside and play in the empty streets.

As a child he’d loved those martial-law days like holidays, when his aunts, his uncles, and his neighbors would come together in a common cause. It was perhaps to hide the fact that they felt happier and more secure during military coups that the middle- and upper-middle-class families of Ka’s childhood in Istanbul were in the habit of quietly ridiculing the silly actions that inevitably attended any military takeover—the whitewashing of the city’s cobblestones to make the whole city look like a barracks, or the rough-handed soldiers and policemen who’d seize anyone with long hair or a beard. While the Istanbul rich had a terrible fear of soldiers, they also knew the deprivations under which they lived—the harsh discipline and the low wages—and on this account they despised them.

The street outside looked as if it had been abandoned for centuries, so when Ka looked down to see an army truck turning into it, this sight too took him back to his childhood; like the boy he’d once been, he sat there transfixed.

A man who looked like a cattle dealer entered the room, came over to Ka, threw his arms around him, and kissed him on both cheeks.

“Congratulations! This is a great day for our nation!”

Ka remembered how the grown-ups in his life would congratulate

each other after military coups, in much the same way that they congratulated one another during the old religious holidays. He returned the compliment, muttering a few words.

The door to the kitchen swung open and Ka felt all the blood in his body rise to his head: Ipek was ˙ walking into the room. They came eye to ˙ eye, and for a moment Ka had no idea what to do. He decided he should stand up, but just then Ipek smiled at him and turned to the man who had ˙ just sat down. She was carrying a tray with a cup and a plate.

Now Ipek was setting the cup and the plate on the man’s table, like a ˙ waitress.

Ka’s spirits sank. He hated himself for failing to greet Ipek as he ˙ should have done, but there was something going on here, and he knew at once that he wouldn’t be able to hide from it. Everything he’d done the day before was all wrong. He hated himself for abruptly proposing to a woman he hardly knew; he hated himself for kissing her (as fine as that had been), and for losing control, and for holding her hand at the supper table; and most of all, he hated himself for behaving like a common Turkish man and getting drunk and without the slightest shame letting everyone know that he was sexually attracted to her. He had no idea what to say; his only hope was that Ipek would keep playing the waitress forever ˙ and ever.

The man who looked like a cattle dealer shouted, “Tea!” in a coarse voice. Ipek turned smoothly toward the samovar, the empty tray in her ˙ hand. After she had given the man his tea, she approached Ka’s table; Ka felt the pulse of his heartbeat even in his nose.

“So what happened?” Ipek asked, with a smile. “Did you sleep well?” ˙ This reference to the night before, to yesterday’s happiness, made Ka uneasy. “It looks like this snow isn’t going to stop,” he said haltingly.

They observed each other in silence. Ka knew he had nothing to say; anything he might come up with right now would be false. So, staring into her big, hazel, slightly cast eyes, he told her wordlessly that he had no choice but to remain silent. Ipek sensed now that Ka’s frame of mind was ˙ very different than the day before; he had, in fact, become a very different person. Ka could tell Ipek sensed a darkness inside him and accepted ˙ it. This, he thought, would bind him to her for life.

“This snow is going to last for some time,” she said carefully.

“There’s no bread,” said Ka.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” She went straight over to the table next to the samovar, put down the tray, and began slicing bread.

Ka had asked for bread because he couldn’t bear the tension. Now, as he gazed at her back, he assumed a pensive pose. “Actually, I could have sliced that bread myself.”

Ipek was wearing a white pullover, a long brown skirt, and a thick belt ˙ of a type Ka remembered as being fashionable in the seventies; he hadn’t seen such a belt since. Her waist was slim, her hips were perfect. She was just the right height for him. He even liked her ankles, and he knew that if he ended up returning to Germany without her, he would dwell for the rest of his life on painful memories of how happy he’d been here, holding hands, exchanging half-playful, half-serious kisses, and telling jokes.

Ka saw Ipek’s bread-slicing arm fall still, and before she turned around, he looked away. “Shall I put cheese and olives on your plate?” she asked. Her tone was formal, Ka realized, because she wanted to remind him there were people watching them.

“Yes, please,” Ka answered, and as he spoke he looked around the room. When their eyes met again, her expression was enough to tell him that she knew he’d been staring at her the whole time her back was turned. Ka was unnerved by Ipek’s familiarity with the subtleties of ˙ male–female relations, that diplomacy at which he had always felt himself clumsy. And he was already worried that she might be his only chance for happiness.

“The bread came in on an army truck just a few minutes ago,” Ipek ˙ said, giving Ka a smile that broke his heart. “I’m looking after the kitchen; Zahide Hanım couldn’t make it here this morning because of the curfew. . . . I was worried when I saw the soldiers.”

Because the soldiers could have been coming for Kadife or Hande.

Or even her father.

“They’ve sent hospital janitors to wipe up the blood in the National Theater,” Ipek whispered. She sat down at the table. “They’ve raided the ˙ university hostels, the religious high school, and the party headquarters.” In the course of these raids, there’d been more deaths, she said. Hundreds had been arrested, although some were already released that morning. She told him all this in the particular hushed tone people save for political emergencies. It took Ka back twenty years; he remembered how he and his friends would sit in the university canteen exchanging tales of torture and brutality in whispers that were angry and woeful but also strangely proud. At times like these he had felt most guilty; all he’d wanted was to forget about Turkey and everything in it and go home and read books.

Now, to help Ipek close the subject, he felt the impulse to say some- ˙ thing like “This is terrible, absolutely terrible!” but though the words were in his mouth, he refrained from comment, knowing he would sound pretentious no matter how hard he tried; instead, he sat there, sheepishly eating his bread and cheese.

While he ate, Ipek continued whispering—they’d loaded the dead ˙ boys from the religious high school onto army trucks and sent them out to the Kurdish villages for their relatives to identify them, but the trucks had got stuck in the snow; the authorities had granted a daylong amnesty for everyone to surrender all weapons; Koran instruction had been suspended and so had all political activity—and as she told him all this he looked at her arms, he looked into her eyes, he admired the fine color of her long neck, and he admired the way her brown hair brushed against her nape. Did he love her? He tried to imagine them together in Frankfurt, walking down the Kaiserstrasse, going home after an evening at the cinema. But dark thoughts were taking over his soul. All he could see was that this woman had cut the bread into thick slices just as they did in the poorest houses, and, even worse, that she had arranged these thick slices in a pyramid, in the manner of fishermen’s soup kitchens.

“Please, talk to me about something else now,” Ka said carefully.

Ipek had been telling him about a man two houses down who’d been ˙ arrested on his way through the back gardens after someone denounced him, but now she gave him a knowing look and stopped. Ka saw fear in her eyes.

“I was very happy yesterday, you know. For the first time in years I was writing poems,” he explained. “But I can’t bear to hear these stories now.”

“The poem you wrote yesterday was very beautiful,” said Ipek. ˙ “Can I ask you to do something for me, before this despair overtakes me?” “Tell me what I can do.”

“I’m going up to my room now,” said Ka. “Come up in a little while and hold my head between your hands? Just for a while—no more than that.”

Before he had even finished speaking, he could tell from Ipek’s ˙ frightened eyes that she wasn’t going to oblige, so he got up to leave.

She was a provincial, a stranger to him, and he had asked her for something no stranger could understand. He could have spared himself this woman’s uncomprehending look; he ought to have known better than to make this asinine request. As he ran up the stairs, he was full of selfreproach for having made himself believe he loved her. Throwing himself on the bed, he mused about what a fool he’d been to leave Istanbul for Kars in the first place, and then he concluded it had been a mistake even to leave Germany and return to Turkey. He thought of his mother, who had so wanted him to have a normal life and tried so hard to keep him away from poetry and literature; if she could have known his happiness depended on a woman from Kars who helped out in the kitchen and cut bread in thick slices, what would she have said? What would his father have said to learn that Ka had knelt before a village sheikh and talked with tears in his eyes about his faith in God? Outside, the snow had started falling again; the snowflakes he could see from his window were large and dreary.

There was a knock and he rushed to the door, suddenly full of hope.

It was Ipek, but wearing a very different expression: An army truck had ˙ just arrived with two men, one of them a soldier, and they’d asked for Ka.

She’d told them he was here and that she would let him know they were waiting for him.

“All right,” said Ka.

“If you want, I can give you that two-minute massage you wanted,” Ipek said. ˙

Ka pulled her inside, closed the door, kissed her once, and sat her down at the head of the bed. He lay down, putting his head on her lap.

They stayed like this for a time, saying nothing as they gazed out the window at the crows walking over the snow on the roof of the 110-year-old building that now housed the police headquarters.

“That’s fine, I’ve had enough now, thank you,” said Ka. Carefully lifting his charcoal-gray coat off the hook on the door, he left the room. As he went down the stairs, he smelled the coat to remind himself of Frankfurt; for a few minutes he could see the city in full color and wished he were there. The day he bought the coat at the Kaufhof, he’d been helped by a fellow whom he saw again two days later when he came to collect the coat, which had to be shortened. His name was Hans Hansen. It may have been because his name sounded so German and because he had blond hair that Ka also remembered thinking about him when he woke up in the middle of the night

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