فصل 06

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فصل 06

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He Kissed My Hand

love, religion, and poetry: muhtar’s sad story

After Ipek left him at the entrance to Halıl Pa¸ ˙ sa Arcade and returned to the hotel, Ka waited before climbing the stairs to the second-floor branch headquarters of the Prosperity Party; he spent some time mingling with the apprentices, the unemployed, and the idle poor who were loitering in the corridors on the ground floor. In his mind’s eye he kept seeing the director of the Institute of Education lying on the floor in his death agony; racked by remorse and guilt, he told himself that he should be phoning some of the contacts he’d made that morning: the assistant chief of police, perhaps, or someone in Istanbul, or the news office of the Republican, or someone else he knew. But even though the building was teeming with teahouses and barbershops, he couldn’t find a single place with a telephone.

Still searching, he went into an establishment whose door read THE SOCIETY OF ANIMAL ENTHUSIASTS. There was a telephone here but someone was using it. And by now he was no longer sure he wanted to make a call after all. Going through the half-open door on the other side of the front office, he found a hall whose walls were decorated with pictures of roosters; in the middle of the hall was a small fighting ring. Suddenly Ka realized he was in love with Ipek. And realizing that this love would ˙ determine the rest of his life, he was filled with dread.

Among the rich animal enthusiasts who enjoyed cockfights, there was one man who would remember very well how Ka came into the hall that day, sat down on one of the empty benches in the viewing area, and appeared to lose himself in thought. He drank a glass of tea as he read the list of sporting rules posted in big letters on the wall:

No rooster touched without permission of its owner.

A rooster that goes down 3 times in a row and doesn’t peck its beak will be declared a loser.

Owners may take 3 minutes to treat a wounded spur and 1 minute to dress a broken claw.

In the event a rooster falls down and his rival steps on his neck, the fallen rooster will be brought back to his feet and the fight will continue.

In the event of electricity outage there will be a 15-minute time-out, by which time—if power is not restored—the match will be canceled.

When he left the Society of Animal Enthusiasts at a quarter past two, Ka was trying to figure out how he might induce Ipek to escape with him ˙ from Kars. The lights were out now in the old lawyer Muzaffer Bey’s People’s Party office, which Ka now noticed was only three doors down from Muhtar’s Prosperity Party—separated by the Friends’ Teahouse and the Green Tailor. So much had happened to Ka since his visit to the lawyer that morning that, even as he entered the branch headquarters of the Prosperity Party, Ka could scarcely believe he was back on the same floor.

Ka had not seen Muhtar for twelve years. After embracing him and kissing him on both cheeks, Ka noticed that he now had a large belly and his hair was thinning and turning gray, but this was more or less what Ka had expected. Even in university days, there had been nothing special about Muhtar. Now, as then, one of those cigarettes he chain-smoked was hanging from the corner of his mouth.

“They’ve killed the director of the Institute of Education,” Ka said.

“He didn’t die; they just said so on the radio,” said Muhtar. “How do you know this?”

“He was sitting at the other end of the place Ipek called you from,” ˙ said Ka. “The New Life Pastry Shop.” He told Muhtar what they’d seen.

“Have you called the police?” asked Muhtar. “What did you do next?”

Ka told him that Ipek had gone back to the hotel and he had come ˙ straight here.

“There are only five days until the election, and everyone knows we’re going to win, so the state is knitting a sock to pull over our heads.

It’s prepared to say anything to bring us down,” said Muhtar. “All across Turkey, our support of the covered girls is the key expression of our political vision. Now someone’s tried to assassinate the wretch who refused to let those girls past the entrance of the Institute of Education, and a man who was at the scene of the crime comes straight to our party headquarters without even stopping to call the police.” Muhtar paused to compose himself and then added, with some delicacy, “I’d appreciate it if you called the police right now. Please tell them everything.” He passed him the receiver as a proud host might offer a refreshment. Once Ka had taken it, Muhtar looked up and dialed the number.

“I’ve already met the assistant chief of police. His name’s Kasım Bey,” Ka said.

“Where do you know him from?” Muhtar asked, in a suspicious voice that irritated Ka.

“He was the first person Serdar Bey, the newspaper publisher, took me to meet this morning,” Ka said, but before he could continue, the girl at the switchboard had connected him to the assistant chief of police. Ka told him exactly what he had seen at the New Life Pastry Shop. Muhtar lurched toward him and, with a clumsy gesture that was faintly flirtatious, pressed his ear up next to Ka’s and tried to listen in. To help him hear better, Ka lifted the receiver and held it closer to Muhtar’s ear. Now they were so close they could feel each other’s breath on their faces. Although Ka had no idea why Muhtar would want to be part of his conversation with the assistant chief of police, instinct told him to go along. He explained that he had not seen the assailant’s face but described his build as tiny, and then he took care to repeat these facts.

“We’d like you to come right over so we can take your statement,” the police chief said, in a friendly voice.

“I’m at the headquarters of the Prosperity Party,” Ka said. “It won’t take me long to reach you.”

There was a silence at the other end of the line.

“Just a moment,” said the police chief.

Ka and Muhtar could hear him covering the phone and whispering to

his colleagues.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve ordered a patrol car for you,” the police chief said. “This snow just isn’t letting up. We will send a car in a few minutes to pick you up from the party headquarters.”

“It’s good you told them you were here,” Muhtar said, when Ka had hung up. “In any case, they already knew. They have surveillance every where. And I don’t want them to get the wrong idea about the possibly suspicious things I just said to you.”

A wave of anger swept over Ka; this dated back to his first political encounters during his bourgeois days in Ni¸ santa¸ s. When he was a lycée student, men like this used to turn people against each other by pinching their butts and trying to push them into the passive position. Later on this turned into a game; the object was to get people to denounce one another, particularly their political enemies, as police informers. It was the fear of police cars and the fear of being caught in a situation in which he’d be obliged to inform—forced to tell the police which houses to raid—that had put Ka off politics for good. Now here was Muhtar, running on the Islamist fundamentalist ticket, something he would have found despicable ten years earlier, and here was Ka, still making excuses for this and so much else.

The phone rang. Muhtar resumed a respectable pose and set about bargaining with someone from Kars Border Television over the price for a commercial for Muhtar’s family’s appliance dealership that was to run during that evening’s live transmission.

After he had hung up the phone, the two men were silent, like two peeved children with nothing to say to each other, and as they sat there Ka imagined their discussing all the things that had happened to them during the twelve years since they’d last met.

First he imagined each describing what was on his mind: Now that we’ve both been forced into exile, without having managed to achieve much or succeed at anything, or even find happiness, we can at least agree that life’s been hard! It isn’t enough even to be a poet . . . that’s why politics still casts such a shadow over our lives. But even having said this, neither would find it in him to add what he could not admit even to himself: It’s because we failed to find happiness in poetry that we find ourselves longing for the shadow of politics.

Ka despised Muhtar more than ever. But then he reminded himself that Muhtar might have found a bit of happiness in having brought himself to the brink of an election victory, just as he, Ka, had found a little in having gained a middling reputation as a poet—better than no reputation at all. But as neither man was ever going to admit to happiness at these things, they could not broach the big subject, the bitter truth that stood between them: They had both inured themselves to defeat and to the pitiless unfairness of life. Ka feared that both of them longed for Ipek as a ˙ symbol of escape from this defeatist state of mind.

“I hear you’re going to be reading your latest poem at the performance this evening,” said Muhtar, with a barely perceptible smile.

For a few moments Ka stared fiercely into the beautiful hazel eyes of this man who had once been married to Ipek. He could not detect even ˙ the trace of a smile in them.

“Did you see Fahir while you were in Istanbul?” asked Muhtar, this time with something closer to a grin.

Now Ka was able to smile with him, and not disingenuously: the man Muhtar named was someone for whom he had some respect. Fahir was a contemporary of theirs, for twenty years a staunch defender of Western modernist poetry. He’d studied at St. Joseph, the French lycée; once a year he would dip into the inheritance from his crazy but rich grandmother— who was said to have come from the palace—and off he would go to Paris, where he would fill his suitcase with poetry collections from the booksellers of Saint-Germain. Back in Istanbul, he would translate them into Turkish, for publication either in the magazines he’d founded or as volumes for the poetry lists of foundering publishing houses; he secured the same accommodations for his own poems and those of several other Turkish poets in the modernist camp. But while everyone respected him for these efforts, Fahir’s own poetry—written as it was under the influence of the poems he’d translated into affected “pure Turkish”—was generally found to be, at best, devoid of inspiration and, at worst, incomprehensible.

Ka told Muhtar that he had been unable to see Fahir in Istanbul.

“There was a time when I really wanted Fahir to like my poetry,” said Muhtar. “Sadly, he despised poets like me, who were interested not in pure poetry but in folklore and the beauties of our country. Years went by, the military took over and we all went to prison, and like everyone else, when I was released I drifted like an idiot. The people I had once tried to imitate had changed, those whose approval I once wanted had disappeared, and none of my dreams had come true, not in poetry or in life. Rather than continue my abject, penniless frenzy in Istanbul, I came back to Kars and took over my father’s shop, which had once caused me such shame, but even with all these changes I was not happy. I couldn’t take the people here seriously, and when I saw them I did just as Fahir had done when he saw my poems: I turned up my nose. The city of Kars and the people in it—it was as if they weren’t real. Everyone wanted to die or to leave. But I had nowhere left to go. It was as if I’d been erased from history, banished from civilization. The civilized world seemed far away and I couldn’t imitate it. God wouldn’t even give me a child who might do all the things I had not done, who might release me from my misery by becoming the westernized, modern, self-possessed individual I had always dreamed of becoming.”

Ka was impressed by the way Muhtar could occasionally mock himself; his faint smile seemed to radiate from within.

“In the evenings I would drink, and to avoid arguing with my beautiful Ipek, I would come home late. Once, very late, on one of those Kars ˙ nights when everything, even the birds in the sky, seems to have frozen, I was the last patron to leave the Green Pastures Café. I was walking toward Army Avenue, where Ipek and I were living, not more than a ten- ˙ minute walk away but a long distance by Kars standards. The raki had gone to my head, and I hadn’t gone more than two blocks before I lost my way. There wasn’t a soul on the streets. Kars looked like an abandoned city, as it always does on such cold nights; even when I knocked on a door there was no answer, either because it was one of those Armenian houses no one’s lived in for eighty years, or else because the people inside were buried under many quilts and, like hibernating animals, unwilling to leave the warmth of their holes.

“It pleased me, in a way, to see the whole city looking abandoned and unpopulated. Soon a sweet drowsiness was spreading through my body, thanks to the drink and the cold. I decided to leave this life, so I took three or maybe five more steps before stretching out on the frozen pavement under a tree to wait for sleep and death to take me. In a drunken stupor, you can withstand that sort of cold for four or five minutes before freezing to death. As the soft drowsiness spread through my veins, I saw before me the child I never had. What a joy it was to see this child, a boy, already grown, and wearing a tie, his manner nothing like that of our tiewearing bureaucrats—no, this son of mine was a true European. Just as he was about to tell me something, he stopped and kissed the hand of an old man. Light radiated from this good-hearted old man in all directions.

At the same moment, a shaft of light pierced the place where I lay; shining right into my eyes, it went straight through me and woke me up.

“Feeling shame and hope in equal measure, I rose to my feet. I looked and there, just across from me, I saw light pouring through an open door as people came and went. The voice inside me told me to follow them in.

The new arrivals accepted me into their group and took me into the bright and warm little house. They were nothing like the hopeless and downtrodden folk who populate the city of Kars; these were happy people and, even more amazing, they were all from Kars; I even knew some of them. I realized now that this was the secret lodge of His Excellency Saadettin Efendi, the Kurdish sheikh I had heard so many rumors about.

I’d been told he had many disciples in the civil service and also among the rich, that their number was growing daily, and that, at their invitation, he had come down from his village in the mountains to perform his rites for the city’s poor, unemployed, and disconsolate, but knowing the police would never permit such an antirepublican display I had paid little attention to the rumors.

“Now here I was, climbing the sheikh’s staircase step by step, tears streaming from my eyes. Something was happening that I had secretly dreaded for a long time and that in my atheist years I would have

denounced as weakness and backwardness: I was returning to Islam.

Those caricatures you see of sheikhs with their long robes and their round-trimmed beards—the truth is, I found them frightening, and so even as I climbed those stairs of my own free will I began to cry. The sheikh was kind. He asked me why I was crying. Of course, I was not about to say, I’m crying because I’ve fallen among reactionary sheikhs and their disciples. Anyway, I was also deeply ashamed of the raki fumes pouring from my mouth like smoke from a chimney. So I said I’d lost my key. This must have occurred to me because I had in fact let my key ring drop in the place where I’d stretched out to die. My declaration launched his sycophant followers into a discussion of the possible metaphorical meanings of the key, but the sheikh soon sent them all out to look for the real one. Once we were alone, he smiled sweetly. I realized that he was the good-hearted old man in my dream, so I relaxed.

“I felt such awe before this august man with his saintly expression that I kissed his hand. Then he did something that shocked me greatly: He kissed my hand too. A feeling of peace spread through me; I had not felt this way for years. I immediately understood that I could talk to him about anything, tell him all about my life, and he would bring me back to the path I had always believed in, deep down inside, even as an atheist: the road to God Almighty. I was joyous at the mere expectation of this salvation. Meanwhile, they had found my key.

“I went home and slept, and in the morning I remembered what had happened and felt ashamed. My memories were vague, not least because I didn’t want to remember any of it. I promised myself I would never return to the sheikh’s lodge. But I was worried about what might happen if I were to run into one of the disciples who’d seen me there. Then one night, again on my way home from the Green Pastures Café, my feet took me back there. Despite my nightly crises of shame, this kept happening, evening after evening. The sheikh would seat me right beside him; as he listened to my sorrows, he filled my heart with God’s love. I kept crying, and this made me feel at peace. By day, I would keep the secrets of the lodge by carrying around the Republican, the most secular newspaper in Turkey, and railing against the religious revivalists who were taking over the country as enemies of the Republic; I’d ask why the Atatürk Thought Association didn’t have meetings here anymore.

“My double life went on until the night Ipek asked me if there was ˙ another woman. I burst into tears and told her everything. She cried too.

‘Now that you’ve gone religious, are you going to wrap a scarf around my head?’ I promised her I would make no such demand. And as I was worried that she might think my change might be due to economic reasons, I was quick to assure her that everything was going well at the store and that in spite of all the electricity outages the new Arçelik stoves were selling well—I said all this to calm her down. To tell the truth, I was happy that I would now be able to pray at home and bought myself a how-topray manual at the bookseller’s. My new life stretched out before me.

“After I had pulled myself together, a bolt of inspiration came to me one night and I wrote an important poem. In this poem I described the entire crisis: my shame, the love of God growing inside me, the peace, the first time I climbed the sheikh’s staircase, even the real and metaphorical meanings of my key. As a poem it was flawless. I swear to you, it was as good as those fashionable Western poems Fahir translated into Turkish. I posted it to him with a letter at once. I waited six months, but the poem never appeared in Achilles Ink, his magazine at the time.

By now I had written three more poems. Every two months, I would send them to him. For a year I waited impatiently, but he didn’t publish a single one.

“My unhappiness at this time had nothing to do with our remaining childless, or with Ipek’s continuing resistance to the teachings of Islam, ˙ or even the taunts of my old secular and leftist friends who knew of my turn to religion. So many were turning to religion with equal ardor that they scarcely had time to pay much attention to me. No, the most upsetting thing was the fact that the poems I’d sent to Istanbul weren’t being published. At the beginning of every month, with the appearance of the new issue of Achilles Ink, time stood still. I would take comfort every time by telling myself that this month, at last, they would publish a poem. The truths in these poems deserved to stand alongside the truths in Western poetry. In my view, the only person in Turkey who could make this happen was Fahir.

“The injustice of his continuing indifference began to anger me and to poison the happiness I had found through Islam. It got so that I was thinking about Fahir even when I was praying in the mosque; once again, I was miserable. One night I decided to disclose my sorrow to the sheikh but he knew nothing of modernist poetry, René Char, the broken sentence, Mallarmé, Joubert, the silence of an empty line.

“This undermined my confidence in my sheikh. After all, he hadn’t been offering me anything new for some time, just Keep your heart clean, and God’s love will deliver you from oppression and eight or ten other lines like that.

I don’t want to be unfair, he is not a simple man; it’s just that he had a simple education. It was at this point that some devil within—half utilitarian, half rationalist, a remnant of my atheist days—began to goad me.

People like me find peace only when fighting for a cause in a political party with like-minded people. This is why I joined the Prosperity Party; I knew it would give me a deeper and more meaningful spiritual life than I had found with the men in the lodge. This is, after all, a religious party, a party that values the spiritual side. My experience as a party member during my Marxist years prepared me well.” “In what ways?” Ka asked.

The lights went out. There was a long silence.

“The electricity’s gone off,” Muhtar said finally, in a mysterious voice.

Ka did not answer him; he sat in the darkness, perfectly still.

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