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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Guest Faces

Emine Sevgi Özdamar
Traduction de John Raynor

Texte intégral

Als junge Frau in der 68er-Bewegung in Istanbul hielt
ich auf den Schiffen zwischen Asien und Europa wieder
die europäischen Toten als Bücher in meinen Händen
und in meinem Herzen, und der Mond über Istanbul
schien in den Nächten auf diese Bücher
und beleuchtete sie.

1As a child in Istanbul the first European word I ever heard was: “Deux-Pièces.” Every Monday my parents used to go to a cinema called Teyyare Sinemasi. In English this means “airplane cinema.” The cinema only showed European films. My mother told me about the owner of the airplane cinema: he dressed like a film star and would stand at the entrance of his cinema and welcome the patrons. He knew that some of the European films featured would bring tears to the eyes of his audience. So he had handkerchiefs specially made from the finest textiles, which he handed out personally in front of the cinema when sad films were on the bill. My mother gave me one of the handkerchiefs that she used to wipe away her tears in the cinema. I placed this handkerchief, infused with the tears of my mother, between the pages of my school atlas depicting Europe.

2Every Monday my mother and father used to don their best clothes. “What are you going to wear?” they would always ask. And once my mother replied: “I am going to put on my ‘Deux-Pièces.’” I asked: “Mother, what does Deux-Pièces mean?” “Deux-Pièces is Deux-Pièces,” answered my mother.

3My grandmother was a superstitious woman. She was afraid that the shadows on the screen would spirit away the faces of my parents. One morning I inquired of my parents about the film they had seen at the cinema the previous evening. My father answered: “I’ve forgotten what the film was called, but the actor Jean Gabin smoked like this,” imitating Jean Gabin smoking a cigarette. The burning cigarette hung in the corner of his mouth until ashes fell to the floor. In the ensuing weeks my father continued to smoke like Jean Gabin, until one Monday when he went to the cinema and saw a film starring Rossano Brazzi. By Tuesday he had switched to Brazzi. Consequently, the first European guests to enter our wooden house in Istanbul were Jean Gabin and Rossano Brazzi. As a child I experienced difficulties pronouncing the names of our European guests. So I found the Turkish word can, which means “soul,” for Jean and the word biraz iyi, which means “a little better,” for Brazzi. Thus I had already become acquainted with “Soul Gabin” and “Rossano A Little-better” in the face of my father before I had the opportunity to see them in person at the cinema. My mother’s face also bought two European guests into our house: Silvana Mangano and Anna Magnani. I also found similar words in Turkish for their names: Silbana, “wash me up,” Mangano and Ana, “mother,” Magnani. The first faces exchanged between different countries were film faces.

4One day a hat with the name “Borsalino” turned up in our house in Istanbul. Every morning my father would stand in front of the mirror carefully adjusting his hat, casting a last glance at himself before unlocking the door and leaving. He considered the matter of having this hat perched properly on his head to be of vital importance, standing in front of the mirror for so long that I still saw his head and the Borsalino in it even after my father had left the house. Atatürk had introduced the hat as a part of his “Europeanization” drive. In photos Atatürk is seen either wearing a hat on his head or holding one in his hand. He always wore a hat as he traveled around Turkey greeting people as part of his endeavor to win popular support for his policy of Europeanization. In one small town on the Black Sea the men gathered to welcome Atatürk turned up wearing Western-style women’s hats. Having run out of men’s headwear, an astute trader began selling old-fashioned women’s hats to these men, who were not yet aware of the difference.

5After my parents had invited “Soul Gabin” and “Rossano A Little-better,” “Wash-me-up” Mangano” and “Mother Magnani” as guest faces into their own faces, and got on famously with them, I gained my first European friends. As a child I fell ill with tuberculosis. In our street there lived a mad woman. Sometimes she would invite me on to her balcony, whose floor was covered with fallen mulberries. Once she told me how I could enter paradise before I died: “If you cut a pomegranate into two halves and are able to eat one of them up without allowing a slice of the unpeeled pomegranate to fall to the floor, you will enter paradise.” The mad woman and I then ate a pomegranate. One half of the pomegranate lay in her hand, the other half in mine. The mad woman ate her half without allowing anything to fall to the floor. I had almost eaten my half successfully when, in my joyful anticipation, I hurriedly ate the last portion and dropped some on the floor. So I could not enter paradise. But I wanted to go there because I thought that my grandmother, whom I loved deeply and who told me fairytales every night, would also enter paradise. She had lost eight children and believed that everybody has two angels in life. Perched on one shoulder is the angel who documents your good deeds, on the other shoulder the angel who records your sins. After you die, these angels read out all your sins and your good deeds before they are put on a pair of scales to be weighed. You are then taken to a bridge, a bridge as thin as a length of hair and as sharp as a knife, over which you must run barefoot; if you reach the other side you will enter paradise — otherwise you fall into hell, which is located right under the bridge.

6My grandmother was convinced that she was full of sin because, in her grief over the death of her children, she had smoked many cigarettes. However, she believed that her eight children, who all died young and thus had committed no sins, would fly as angels to the bridge and carry her into paradise before she fell into hell on account of her smoking. “How can I enter paradise with you?” I asked. She replied that I should never forget the dead and must pray for their souls. Sometimes my grandmother took me to the cemetery. She would stand in front of each gravestone and pray for the unknown dead. Since she was illiterate, I used to read the names of the dead to her out loud, eventually learning them by heart. And at night I would pray, going through all the names, devoting my prayers to their souls. Soon I had a long roll call of the dead. Initially the list only contained the names of dead Turks, though later it was include dead Europeans as well. I used to read novels to my grandmother and her illiterate friends. My first dead European “guest” was Madame Bovary, who used to bring the old women to tears and whose name I added to my list of the dead at night. They were joined by another dead European — Robinson Crusoe. As I read Robinson Crusoe aloud to my grandmother, she would always ask me: “How did his parents endure it? What did his wife do? What did his children eat?” Grandmother was continually preoccupied with Robinson Crusoe’s children. In order to allay her concerns, I concocted lies about what the children ate: rice with lamb, maize, and chestnuts. And at night I prayed for Robinson Crusoe. My third dead European guest was Isadora Duncan. One day a neighbor, the actor, asked my mother if she could borrow a scarf because she was planning to take her convertible on a drive along the coast. My mother offered her a long scarf, which the actor refused, explaining that in France a very famous dancer got strangled with one like that. Her name was Isadora Duncan. She had been driving in her convertible, wind in her face, when her scarf became entangled in the car’s rear wheel and choked her to death. My fourth dead European guest was Molière. I was finally cured of tuberculosis and was performing at the State Theatre in a play by Molière. The older actors had informed me that Molière had died on stage, so I included him in my nighttime prayers as well. I prayed every night for dead Turks and for Madame Bovary, Robinson Crusoe, Isadora Duncan, and Molière — until one day I fell in love. After I fell in love I rather began to neglect the dead.

7It is not only film faces that people of different countries first exchange, but also their dead.

Istanbul, the Half-European, Half-Asian City

8In Istanbul one is unsure whether it is the sea that holds the city in its arms or the city the sea. If the sea holds the city in its arms, then it holds the European side in one arm and the Asian side in the other. And if the city holds the sea in its arms, then the European arm and the Asian arm hold the city together. Generally speaking, both arms are still. But sometimes the two arms will join together to stir the sea dividing Europe and Asia. When the arms of Europe and Asia begin to toss the sea to and fro it becomes dangerous to board the ships moored on either bank. The ships are dashed back and forth against the quay wall. One could be easily hurled into the sea and crushed by them. This is why mothers warn their children everyday: “Don’t jump onto the ship before the landing-stage has been extended. Whether from Europe or Asia, the power of the waves must be respected.”

9During my childhood my parents moved several times between the Asian and the European side of Istanbul because they had fallen in love with Istanbul and wanted to live in all areas of the city. When we lived on the Asian side, my father would look over to the European side and proclaim: “Europe is over there.” Then he fell silent. I used to gaze up at his face to see Europe there. Sometimes he would count the lights of the houses on the European side that shone across the hills towards Asia. The cars drove on the European side, resembling a trail of stars twinkling constantly in the direction of Asia. Some evenings my mother would say to my father, “If you can count the stars in the sky, you can also count the lights of the houses in Istanbul.” When my father announced to my mother that he had business to do on the European side of Istanbul the next morning, they would carefully choose his shirt and trousers and hang up them together that evening on a coat-hanger on the balcony. During the night the white of the shirt would shimmer before my eyes, and it seemed as if the trousers and the shirt were so excited about their forthcoming trip to Europe that they were unable to sleep. When the arms of the city were resting, one could travel from Asia to Europe in twenty minutes; but when the southwest wind stirred up the waves and began to rock the ships that crossed back and forth between the Asian and European sides, the passengers on board and the tea glasses in the bars below deck would slide around. And from the ship’s portholes it seemed as if the European bank rose up and crashed down with its houses, Byzantine walls, orthodox and Armenian churches, the Genoese Galata Tower, the Ottoman palaces, and mosques. On such days, when the turbulent seas tossed the ships to and fro, my father would return home from his trip saying that he would be rocking in his sleep that night. On such nights he always used to step out onto the balcony and gaze over toward Europe and say: “The sea has gone mad. I wonder if my shoes will see Europe tomorrow?”

10Both banks of Istanbul remind me of a fairytale my mother told me as a child. Once upon a time in a distant country, a young man was searching for the beautiful bird called Zümrüt-ü Anka, which was to fly him to Mount Ararat. There he wanted to meet a holy man who knew the answers to the three questions that the Sultan had posed to the young man. On his way to find the bird, he entered the house of a giant. Inside sat the giant’s mother, sharpening her teeth. Immediately the young man took hold of the breasts of the giant’s mother and began to suckle them. The giant’s mother said, “Child, child, I would have eaten you, but you have drunk my milk. Now my sons will come and eat you up. Here, take this mirror and make your escape. If my sons approach you, throw the mirror down behind you.” When the giant’s sons returned home, the mother concealed the young lad between her legs. The giant’s sons said: “Mother, it smells of human flesh here.” They drew air in through their nostrils and followed the trail that ended between their mother’s legs. “Run! Be off with you,” the giant’s mother commanded the young lad. So off he ran, with the giants following him in hot pursuit. The young boy turned around and saw them drawing nearer. He threw the mirror down behind him, creating a vast sea on whose opposite bank the giant’s sons remained.

11This also happens in Istanbul. If you throw a mirror behind you a sea will form between you and your dwelling. You are on another bank, on another continent, in another life. You can throw a mirror behind you every day in Istanbul. The sea is always there. Europe is there, Asia is there. The lights of Europe can be seen from Asia, and the lights of Asia from Europe. One day my mother and her girlfriends traveled to the European side of Istanbul in order to buy European textiles imported from Europe “proper.” Avrupa mali (European goods). In my youth I once sunbathed topless on one of the islands in Istanbul. I thought I was completely alone on the beach, when a boat with two couples suddenly motored past. One of the men stared at my breasts. His wife then said to him, “I am not speaking to you any more.” He responded, “Why not? Today is a fine day for looking at European goods.” He thought I was European.

12My mother’s powder tin from Paris was not thrown away after it became empty. It lay on the small table next to her bed, beside Dostoyevsky’s book The Idiot. As a child I used to surreptitiously sniff at both the tin and Dostoyevsky’s book. When one of my mother’s girlfriends was having problems with her husband, my mother would always suggest a trip to the European side: “Let’s go to Europe. There we will steal a day from the Angels of Fate and forget our troubles.” Or: “Let’s shake out our worms in Europe.” The problems of the Asian side were transported to Europe in ships and deposited there. When these women traveled to the European side, they said, “Let’s go up to Europe.” And when they returned to the Asian side they said, “Let’s go down to Asia.”

13My childhood neighbor, Madame Athena, an Istanbul Greek, once drew the folds of her aging cheeks back behind her ears and fastened them with adhesive tape. With the tape behind her ears, Madame Athena took me to the harbor. I was eight years old. She looked younger with her cheeks stretched back to behind her ears, so I walked quickly. She kept stumbling on the ground as she tried to keep up with me. She often said to me that she was neither Asian nor European, but Byzantine, and I accompanied her to the Hagia Sophia. I loved the Hagia Sophia. Its floor was uneven. And on the walls were frescos of Christ without the cross. And this Christ was a very handsome man. I tried to imitate the position of his fingers. The thumb lay across the little finger and the ring finger while the remaining two were stretched out. Madame Athena once told me a story about two mad men in Istanbul: one stood on the European bank and said, “From here Istanbul is mine”; the other stood on the Asian bank and shouted across to the European side, “From here Istanbul is mine.” Once as Madame Athena and I were returning to the Asian part of the city from the European side, she pointed out to me a small tower in the sea. “The Byzantine Emperor built this Leander Tower out in the sea, just off the banks of the Asian side, as a place to hide his daughter, who, it had been prophesied, would be bitten and killed by a snake. When his daughter developed a craving for dates, the emperor sent someone to take her a basket of the fruits from the European side. She was bitten and killed by a snake that had concealed itself in the basket.”

14I grew up in Istanbul between the Asian and European part of the city. Over both skies I saw rainbows, the moon, snow, the stars, and thunder and lightening. One night, when the skies of both Europe and Asia were aglow with the flashes of lightening, I sat on board a ship that was taking me from the European side to the Asian side. The tea vendors were plying their trade, the loose change ringing in their pockets. When we went aboard ship on the European side the thunder and lightening ceased and the moon appeared to bathe the harbor in light. Wherever one touched the ship one also touched the moon. That night everyone held a piece of the moon in his hands. As the ship departed a couple sat down beside me. The young man said, “So you have given the key of your house to another. I am leaving. Goodbye.” With that, he jumped from the ship’s deck into the sea, reemerging in the moonlight. The ship was located exactly between Europe and Asia. All the other passengers hurried to the ship’s railing, causing it to lurch to one side and the tea glasses, together with their saucers, to slide towards the railing. The tea vendors cried, “tea money, tea money!” The ship’s crew threw two buoys overboard to the young man, but he didn’t want one. The ship turned around and headed back toward the young man, toward Europe; and finally he was hauled from the sea in a lifeboat. The moon, which hung in the sky exactly between Asia and Europe, followed everything that happened. And after the young lad had been hauled back on board ship, his clothes and hair dripping wet, someone asked him, “Where were you fleeing to, brother?” “To Europe,” he answered. To Europe, to Europe. The ship then turned around and headed back toward Asia, the tea vendors found their customers and collected their money, and the moon illuminated the empty tea glasses. Then the ship suddenly turned around again, heading back toward the European side in order to retrieve the buoys, which had been left in the sea and were also drifting toward Europe. To Europe, to Europe.

15In both parts of Istanbul one often heard people discussing: Are we Europeans? Where does Europe begin? How European are we? To become genuine Europeans we must eat all the bread from two hundred bakeries. We’ll never belong to Europe. Where are we and where is Europe?

16European cars never caused accidents. European dogs had all studied at European universities. And European women were all natural blondes.

17An Istanbul artist who had studied in Paris once bought a nylon sex-doll for a friend, who also lived in Istanbul. When he returned home he gave it to his friend and said, “Here, your wife, from Paris.” The friend stared at the genitals of the nylon doll and shouted, “You bastard! You’ve already slept with my Parisienne. The seams are all open, her organs will have to be sewn up again.” Later when I lived in Europe — in Berlin, Munich, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, Madrid, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Florence, Venice, and Athens — the only friends I knew who, like the Turks of Istanbul, agonized over their European identity were those living in Barcelona under the Franco régime. At the time they often wondered: “Are we Europeans? Are our Pyrennees the backside of Europe or the frontside of Africa?”

18During my youth in the ‘60s I become a member of the student opposition movement and traveled on the ships back and forth between the Asian and the European side of Istanbul, clutching books, among them Kafka, Büchner, Hölderlin, Böll, Joyce, Conrad, and Borchert. And just as in my childhood, it seemed from the ship’s portholes as if the bank on the European side was rising up and crashing down, with its houses, Byzantine walls, orthodox and Armenian churches, the Genoese Galata Tower, Ottoman palaces, and mosques. As I read Büchner’s Woyzeck, rain beating down against the ship’s portholes, there appeared before me in the flashes of lightening the figure of a Turkish man who could have been Woyzeck. As a child my first European guests were dead people: Madame Bovary, Robinson Crusoe, Isadora Duncan, and Molière. As a young woman active within Istanbul’s student opposition movement, I once again held the dead Europeans as books in my hands and in my heart as I traveled on board the ships between Asia and Europe. And on these nights the moon shone over Istanbul, illuminating the books. When I subsequently emigrated to Berlin to work in the theatre, I never felt as if I had emigrated to Europe. At the Bochum Theatre we staged Büchner’s Woyzeck. I saw Woyzeck in the theatre, but no longer on the streets of Germany. Yet Woyzeck existed on streets of Turkey. There I saw men who touched your heart in the same way as Büchner’s character. I was in Europe, among my dead friends. And they did not leave me alone. Prince von Homburg, Woyzeck, Hamlet, Heinrich Böll’s Acquainted with the Night, Wolfgang Borchert’s Draußen vor der Tür, Brecht, Kafka — all reside in Europe’s sky, next to the moon, and touch the lives of people even if they are far away. The dead have created the European sky. I once sat in a Lufthansa airplane en route from Berlin to Istanbul. A Turkish woman rose suddenly from her seat, threw herself to the floor of the airplane and began to scream. Everyone jumped up: “What’s happening?” The woman’s children had all died in an accident in Istanbul and she was flying back for the funeral. Some of the passengers in the air-plane held her hand. The woman cried, “Open the doors. I want to search for my children in heaven!” She kept looking out of the window, as if she might see her dead children in the sky. “Open the door!” Then she turned and glared at the passengers behind her, as if imploring them to scour the European sky for her dead Turkish children. As the woman peered into the sky many passengers followed suit and looked out of the window. After our arrival, the doves of Istanbul suddenly flew into the airport building and landed on the suitcases belonging to the many European and Turkish travelers.


Further Reading:
Mother Tongue. Translated by Craig Thomas and Alberto Manguel. Coach House Press, 1994.
Life Is a Caravanserai, Has Two Doors, I Came in One, I Went Out the Other. Translated by Luise Von Flotow.
Middlesex University Press, 2000.

Table des illustrations

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Emine Sevgi Özdamar was born in Malatya, Turkey in 1946. After graduating from the Istanbul School of Dramatic Art, she had engagements at the People’s Theater of East Berlin, in Paris, and Avignon, and in the Bochum Theater under the directorship of Claus Peymann. Besides working on her own plays, she has been a free-lance writer since 1986. Her first volume of fiction Mother Tongue was chosen by the Times as International Book of the Year. She has received numerous other awards for her literary work, including the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1991.

John Raynor (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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