Hatice Meryem

Excerpt from the novel: It Takes All Kinds
Meryem02_petit_medium
Hatice Meryem
Translated from the Turkish by Idil Aydogan and Amy Spangler.


The Mundane Tide of Life in Kozluk

Some think that only women who live in the upscale neighborhoods of Istanbul keep up with fashion trends; yet those who live in Kozluk and similar neighborhoods—those which fall a bit beyond, a bit before, a bit to the left, or a bit to the right of the same city, but never ever in the center of it—are fashion savvy too. Take the latest fashions in childbirth, for example. That’s right, childbirth fashion trends! It was only up until five-ten years ago that the women of Kozluk considered home-birthing a respectful and necessary act, a kind of performance exhibiting a woman’s strength and determination; now, however, faced with the onslaught of childbirth discounts offered by the private hospitals springing up like mushrooms on every corner, home-birthing has become a tradition on the brink of oblivion, and a rather degraded one at that. Even women of a certain age have reached a consensus on the dangers of home-birthing and have ceased to view the new custom as an act reserved for fussy daughters-in-law. Cesarian birth, however, has yet to gain their approval. Interfering in God’s business, that’s how they see it. Some find it blasphemous to expose a pregnant tummy just to learn the sex of the unborn, while others are put off by the apparatus known as ‘the ultrasound’ and the sticky substance slathered on the stomach in order to use it. However, there’s one thing firmly planted in the minds of all the women of Kozluk, something that the doctors stress with great importance, and that is breastfeeding, and plenty of it. And so they breastfeed, night and day, cooing, ‘Suckle up, little lamb.’ The little lambs of Kozluk guzzle milk from their mamas’ breasts, and when they take to their feet and start climbing the walls, the mamas of Kozluk release them from their laps and into the second safest place they know: the streets. That is of course after having amply warned them of the dangers they are likely to encounter there. The little lambs of Kozluk, who quickly learn to disregard their mamas’ warnings, head straight for the sewage streams, the treacherous irrigation canals, or the perilous waters of the Bosphorus where (despite the noisy rage, and even detestations, of Istanbulites, who travel aboard the city ferries and lead benign lives) become marvelous swimmers.

Those same mamas of Kozluk, convinced that their little lambs are prone to crime and that the fear of God might subdue their rage a bit, send them off to a Koran course, or perhaps a sewing class. Yet the little lambs remain tantalized by dreams of bodybuilding, judo, and tae kwan do classes and shiny shop windows at the mall.

Thanks to plenty of training chasing after wedding convoys and holding their hands out for the traditional tip, the little lambs of Kozluk get a head start on business life and exhibit astonishing success at occupations such as washing car windows at red lights, and servicing dry throats with cold water in the summer and runny noses with tissues in the winter.

Most of the little lambs aren’t able to get a proper education. Some of them find themselves behind bars for unheard of crimes; they become the bane of the prison system. Others wing their way through high school, and generally end up joining the ranks of those responsible for the homeland’s security, as cops or soldiers. And that’s when the clashes ensue! Those who rob the rich of their riches on the one side, and those who guard and protect the riches of the rich on the other.

Later, over the little lambs is cast the towering shadow of he who is considered the sole true representative of ‘the real world’ at home: their father. Thenceforth do the fathers of Kozluk, who up until then were acquainted only with the names of their wee ones, if that, undertake to set the lives of the little lambs in order, proclaiming that they want to see them promptly and properly hitched, and thus ordering for the immediate arrangement of a wedding.

Though some of the little lambs do their best to resist this first command, most suffer defeat in this first battle against the father. Sparing no expense, begging and stealing, the fathers of Kozluk go so far as to get invitations specially printed for the occasion. The household’s smallest little lamb with the best handwriting writes the names of the invitees on the white envelopes into which the invitations are placed, until her arm falls weary and her fingers start to twitch. The wedding inevitably falls upon a rainy day. The two little lambs of Kozluk, now referred to as ‘bride and groom,’ turn into drenched rats by the time they make it, at a sprint, from the wedding car to the wedding hall. And with this rain the bride’s ridiculously flamboyant hairdo, which took a whole afternoon to sculpt, the magic touch of each and every hairdresser employee making a unique contribution to the creative process, is ruined. Finally, all the friends and relatives gather together in stuffy, non-air conditioned basements and partake of wedding cake made with cheap margarine, down glass after glass of artificially colored lemonade, and inevitably circle up for a halay dance or line up to do the horon. Because each wedding is essentially a kind of ritual get-together for people to see each other, mingle, and catch up with loved ones, and because the gift-giving ceremony goes on for hours, the bride and groom look on absently from the table where they sit in exhaustion, watching their own wedding like two strangers.

In no time the mothers and fathers of Kozluk embrace their eagerly awaited grandchildren, at which point they begin to speak of the afterlife as if it were the next street over. So much so that heaven and hell become their veritable next-door neighbors. That’s why when they die, quietly, lying beneath heavy wool blankets, or in the dim hallways of state hospitals, not a soul takes notice.
This is their story.

Sweet Talking Zümrüt and Elmas,
Who Wished She Could Swallow her Tongue

“Girl, let’s make some yaprak sarma and gobble ’em up down by the shore tonight. You know how the saying goes: ‘When the girl’s ripe for marriage, with money and gold do grace ’er, put the sarmas on the table, take a seat and savor!’” Those were the first words out of Zümrüt’s mouth that morning. As soon as Elmas heard this, she knew in a snap that her sister had a bun in the oven, that she was bearing another load and that from then on, she would crave anything and everything that came to her mind, whether in or out of season, whether made of dirt or dough. She knew this because, during her former pregnancies, the woman had stuffed a handful of coal dust and a handful of fine earth from the garden into her cardigan pockets –saying that she’d gotten a craving– and devoured it down when no one was looking. Then, licking her lips loudly, she had said “mmm yumm-my, that coal is some sweet stuff, I’m telling you, not even sugar can compare!” At that moment, together with all the other neighborhood women crowding over Zümrüt, Elmas too lamented the days she spent fussing over trivial matters, and how she had therefore failed to discover the delicious taste of coal which she now felt tingling on her tongue, and as her sister added “I’m telling you, we’ve been using salt out of habit, we should sieve earth and sprinkle it on our salad and soup instead,” they almost swallowed their tongues in amazement.

Just like the other women who were all ears listening to Zümrüt, Elmas was surprised, but not that much. That was how her sister was; a brave orator. It was as if God had created all words so that her mouth might merrily speak them, as if he had created all sorrowful words so that they might wash away all their sorrows in her mouth, as if he had created Zümrüt herself to make up for Elmas’s muteness, her silence. There was no one in the family whom she might have taken after, nor did she stay up all night reading books. She was just a sweet talker by birth.

“I was like a gazelle, a big beefy woman, now I’ve withered away! Dip me in honey, a bear wouldn’t have me, drop me in barley, a mare wouldn’t have me.”
“Oh fate worse than death! I wouldn’t have wiped my arse on that Cavit.”
“Woe is me! My rosy life nipped in the bud, all because of that Cavit!”

The neighbors would try to memorize these colorful and lively sayings belonging to her circus-tongued, her carnival-tongued, her festival-tongued sister, who strung such words into sentences before you could say Jack Robinson, in order to use them should the right time and place come along. But alas, none could wield words like she did. In her mouth, words became shiny clinking beads, harmoniously strung together, and she didn’t have to put an extra ounce of effort into it. Especially when she saw Elmas’ clumsiness, her inability to handle certain tasks, or when pointing to the examples set by the other girls of Kozluk. As if freely flapping her wings as she glided over vast steppes, she would blabber:

“That Şükrü’s girl sees the sun through the window and the street though the doorway!”
“You know Zekiye, she can embroider the birds that fly in the sky!”
“So-and-so’s daughter can read the Koran like a twittering nightingale!”
“That Ayten, she’s a burning ball of fire, I tell ya!”

And Elmas would wait for the end of the conversation in vain. Words in her sister’s mouth would proliferate like a self-reproducing monster, going on and on. She’d talk and talk as if all her might and strength had gathered in her tongue, and in her mind the scenes would open up one after the other as the old and the new, as yesterday and the day before, as what happened and what should happen, words would spill out of her mouth like poisonous daggers, and then she’d finally take a breather, put her hands on her waist and take the stance of a big fat earthen jug, ask Elmas why she was so quiet, grow angry and shout, “Answer me girl!”

Elmas never said, “For God’s sake sister, perhaps if you just shut your gabby mouth once in a while…” She couldn’t. She just remained silent.
And Zümrüt, enraged by Elmas’s silence, like a determined, ferocious inquisitor, would ask, “Why don’t you answer me girl! Wasp sting your tongue?” and would even go so far as to say that she knew Elmas kept silent just to annoy her. Apparently, she kept silent just to drive Zümrüt mad. What, did Elmas think that keeping silent proved that she was right? That was impossible. Keeping silent never proved that one was right. Those who remained silent were always crushed down. One needed to stand up for one’s rights. But not other’s rights, one should only stand up for one’s own rights. Zümrüt had told her a thousand times the trouble it had caused her to stand up for someone else’s rights. Plus, since Elmas was silent, she obviously had nothing to stand up for… And so on, and so forth… Words would cascade from her mouth in a gush so mellifluous as to turn the most gifted orators of yore green with envy.

At times like this, when her sister’s chirpy voice trapped the whole universe in a gigantic cloud, Elmas would tuck up her tongue, which was of no use and which she believed would never be of any use as long as her sister was around, fold it in ten, squash it with her teeth, make it just fit to swallow, and without further delay, down it in a single gulp, thus creating a valid reason to make true her wish to keep silent forever. But because of this crazy mission she had embarked upon, her mind would snap, like a clock spring come loose.
Whereas Zümrüt would conclude that the reason Elmas didn’t respond to all these harsh words was because she was cold and reserved, as stubborn as a mule. Stupefied, and – since, according to her, there was nothing left to do – Zümrüt would morph her sweet talking tongue into an axe and swing it down in a mighty blow: “I know why you’re so damn quiet… Because you know that you have done wrong!”


Originally published in Turkish as: İnsan Kısım Kısım, Yer Damar Damar
by Hatice Meryem.
İstanbul: İletişim, 2008.
© Hatice Meryem, 2008







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