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Turkey Diary: Unwrapping 24 July 2008

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Culture, Politics, Travel.

Istanbul, July 20

Hazelnuts grow in twists of green from which they must be pried. To my left in the shade of the window frame, Hasibe’s fingers unwrap leaves. At her touch, they open; one by one, nuts are freed. Soon a handful roll on the white place mat. They are shaped like acorns and I wonder if they will be as bitter.

Cigdem, Serra, Zahra and I sit on mismatched chairs. It is Sunday, pajama day, and we are not dressed for going outside. Curls and freckles, nightgowns and slippers, we sit in our glasses, breakfasting. I have made an omelet for the girls, a puffy thing, encasing peppers and cheese. Sliced hot into wedges, it is inspected with wonder and eaten. “It is like a special pizza,” Serra is happy. “I have never seen such a thing.”

In an hour, we will scrub the apartment, in two hours, we will leave. One by one, with the coming ezan, we will disappear to pray. In three hours, Hasibe and I will pass, through Bogazici, down to the sea. Like green hazelnuts, we will be wrapped. We are better than hazelnuts, I decide, because we may cover, uncover, recover ourselves as we so please.

Somewhere between plates of apricots, olives, yogurt and cheese, Zahra starts a pile of shells. I watch her break the nuts open with her teeth. She is careful not to let her lips and their flesh touch. When she has measured out five white bodies, she hands them to me.

I have learned much in Turkey of the art of accepting. These nuts are not meant for distribution, these nuts are meant for me. The best way to acknowledge is to enjoy. I take the first into my mouth and light up my eyes, chewing. The taste is like green bean-almonds, like pecans soaked in milk. “Allah razi olsun, habeebti.” I rest my hand on her knee.

I cannot sit for a meal with the girls without remembering the Most Kind. In Arabic, I ask Allah to bless them; this, they do not understand. Smiles, then, become our currency when spoken language fails. Give gifts to one another, and you will love one another, the Prophet Muhammad (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said. I can tell in my heart that I love these girls, and that they also love me. But I wonder, as their guest, what I can do to deepen our bond. What else I can give.

Bogazici University tumbles down the hill to the Marmara Sea. Cigdem has gone to write papers, Serra and Zahra have tennis to play. This leaves Hasibe, wrapped in her scarf, to take care of me. At nineteen, she is slight. Still she winds her arm through mine, and proudly, she leads me.

A conversation passes in Turkish between the guards at the gate and my host. They would like us to remove our scarves; this we have no intention of doing. “She’s American,” Hasibe says. “She will laugh if I ask her to uncover herself.” She draws herself up to her full height of perhaps 5’3”. “She is my guest. We are passing through. We will not make trouble, please.”

Above his radio, the guard confers with his partner in crime. Perplexed, they study me. “As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullah!” I greet them, beaming. The guards do not know what to do. One throws up his hands, while the other returns, in a whisper, my greeting. Twenty good deeds, I think to myself. Barak Allahu feek. Hasibe’s hand tightens its grip, and through the gate she pulls me.

It is the first time in eight days that I have gone walking. The strength is beginning to return to my legs, but my stamina wanes. After five minutes, my sternum is glazed and aching. “Can we sit?” Hasibe measures my face with her eyes. She slows immediately.

A line of benches marks the beginning of the tumble to the sea. Students sit in groups of two, holding hands, or in groups of three, chatting. A confederacy of cats haunts the sidewalk. They are thin, generally, and with the slightly long noses which cats have in the East. I admire their matted white-orange fur, and watch them stalk, tiger-eyed, through leaves.

Among them, a war breaks out between a black kitten and a grown white feline. The kitten is a merciless thing, far too big for its britches, jumping at shadows and swatting at flies. A man down the path opens a bag of chips; both of the cats want his crumbs. The white cat hisses, the kitten darts; in the end, the elder wins.

Hasibe asks about American Muslim identity. While I am considering, the kitten backtracks to our bench. She jumps up on its far side, and lays down between its wooden arm and me. “Isn’t it hard?” Hasibe persists, “To live in a non-Muslim country?”

Half of my heart agrees. “It is hard, sometimes. We never, ever, in America, hear the ezan. I have heard it twice, outside in Boston, in all of my time…” my throat catches, and I am surprised to see that I feel like crying. “Here, Subhan Allah, you hear the ezan every time.”

“Alhamdulillah,” Hasibe answers. “Alhamdulillah,” I reply.

“And it is also hard, sometimes, because I cannot fit in.” I look down at the edge of my robe; my thumb worries the edge of the scarf. “Sometimes in America they point at me; sometimes they laugh or they swear. At times, their reactions are violent. At times, they have frightened me.”

Hasibe is confused. “But it should be better for you,” she says, “because you are both. The people should be able to look at you, and see both Muslim and American.” Her eyes ask what the problem is. I wish that I could answer.

“Insha’Allah,” I reply. “May Allah make it easy for all of us.” I sense that if I continue, I will dig a well of complaints. I shift the topic of conversation away from me. “What about you, canim? How is it to study here?”

Hasibe’s face grows dark, and her eyes harden. “It depends on your teachers,” she says. “I would like to change my department from education to history, to get away from them.” Her voice is calm and despondent; her cadence, close to Russian. “Some of them, they are very interested in my hair.”

She wear a white square scarf, folded into a triangle, tied around her neck. Her visage is pure, lovely and clean. “They make me take off my scarf sometimes in class. In front of everyone, so that they can see.” Her voice shakes. “I do not know if I can bear for it to happen again.”

My instinct is to touch. I run my hand along her shoulder. “May Allah forgive them, sweetheart.” Her eyes fill up, she sighs. I find myself ashamed when I begin to compare. In Boston, the adhan does not ring out into the streets, but I can listen to recordings. There is no muezzin at school, but I can teach the little boys to announce the prayer. In the streets, perhaps 1 in 500 people makes some sort of trouble for me. That leaves, by the power of subtraction, 499 who do not. When I weigh our suffering on my heart’s scales, I find Hasibe’s burden more heavy.

What comfort can I give her? In the Qur’an (33:59), we are taught to observe hijab, so that we might be recognized as believing women and so that we will not be annoyed. What has produced such a change in Turkey, that even in halls devoted to learning, this advice is forgotten? As Hasibe does not understand the American misrecognition of me, I find that I do not understand the Turkish treatment of her. I ache, considering.

It is at this moment that the kitten makes her move. She stands, she stretches, she begins her approach. Before I have time to consider inadvisability, she crawls into my lap. I shift my hips gently, to invite her to leave. “I don’t have any food for you, mama,” I try. At this, she begins to purr. She flings herself against me.

She burrows with nose and padded feet into the flat part of my stomach. She curls her body against me. Cautiously, I fold my arms around her, and she relaxes into them. She curls her tail against my wrist, and returns to sleep.

Every six or seven minutes, she is possessed with the need to rearrange herself. Within my arms, she sits up and looks around. She turns somersaults, so that her tail and her hind feet fly over her head. She trusts entirely that she will land safely against me.

Hasibe speaks quietly of the Kurds while the cat tries to melt into me. Shall I be embarrassed by her longing? Should I push her away, and keep my lap for myself, when there is no one else who needs it? It seems like a miracle then, that just when I searched for a way to comfort Hasibe, Allah sent this creature to me.

The kitten stands up from my lap and stretches her way onto Hasibe’s. I am glad that my friend will feel her warmth before we have to leave. I watch the girl play with the kitten, while the afternoon shadows change.

At last my legs have become pins and needles, and Hasibe’s gaze is wandering. We are the only two of our kind on the benches, surrounded by couples in love. Ignoring them, she turns to me. “Do you want to go see the sea?” I nod. “Sure, if you want to.” My answer is too wishy-washy, but she understands. I reach my hand up under my scarf, and tighten its loose, right edge. Hasibe stands up first, and circles the bench to my side.

I grasp the elbow she offers, and we start down the path to the sea.



1. Priscilla - 27 July 2008


I am thinking of you after reading of the bombings today and praying that you are safe—praying too for those who were killed and injured and praying for a time when there is no such violence.


2. Anna - 28 July 2008

Salaamu alaikum, dearest Priscilla.

Your kind words always lighten my heart.

I decided, in fact, that I had to leave Istanbul yesterday morning — I made my way by bus to the seaside city of Tekirdag, where I shall (insha’Allah) bide my time until, early Thursday, I come home.

Amen to all of your prayers, and may God’s Peace and Mercy be with you.


3. deep... - 28 July 2008

what is serra means?

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