Old Turk, Young Turk
Moris Farhi and his Journey to the Fountain of Youth
I hope he will not be offended by the title. It is not to suggest that Moris Farhi is old, which he is not, or that he is particularly young, on which matter I'll hold my tongue, but that in him, as in most writers, the imagination, a promiscuous creature, is no polite observer of age. There, in the country which it explores, young and old entwine. Moris, or 'Musa' as his friends call him, after four decades of projecting himself onto the geographies of elsewhere, has at last revisited, with startling effect, the land of his youth or, more specifically, Ankara when it was still a fledgling capital ― 'a small town of no importance' according to the Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the time. Young Turk (Saqi, 2004), which here serves as a template for my enquiries, is 'a novel in thirteen positions', a description that not only reflects the different perspectives from which it is told ― some of whose narrators are the author, or, rather, bits of him in various guises ― but also the fact that for Musa the road to Paradise runs through women's bodies. (He is also the author of some erotic verses.) When asked about the images dearest to him the one he returns to is Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde, a painting whose overt eroticism even today rarely fails to shock.
Curiously, for all his sexual gung-ho, he was a bit thrown by my first question.
'Musa, how is it the women in your stories are always so willing?'
There is something of the pasha about him, a corona of whitish beard and swept hair, a boyish twinkle in the eyes, a mellifluousness in his voice that allows one to feel the red carpet to the deepest chamber of the heart has been unrolled especially for this and for no other occasion. Are those ladies willing? Indeed, indeed. The thing about fiction, of course, is that in it one can get one's women to do as one likes.
'I think, when speaking of Turkey's eroticism, one finds a great awareness of sexuality despite the pressures from Islam. The atmosphere there is so imbued with masculine sexual thoughts that the contagion spreads to women as well. They do not, of course, have the freedom we have. Women are sacred whereas it is expected for husbands to go to bars and be unfaithful. The great tragedy of fundamentalism is that it insists on suppressing women's sexuality. It can be only detrimental and, I think, unnatural. The boldness with which a man and a woman will look at each other in Turkey is registered in some bubble, its import being that in other circumstances, in a different world perhaps, he and she would be lovers. There is always that initial assessment as to whether the two could conjoin. Certainly no one expects an easy victory but sex, or, rather, the hope of it, is in the air one breathes. Whenever I am in Turkey and looking back on my youth there, the idea of a sexual paradise strikes me as being of Sufi heritage, the becoming as one with somebody or with the godhead. Certainly the Turkish hamam about which I wrote was a paradise, the women there totally unselfconscious about their bodies. They walked about as if in a dream, so comfortable in themselves.'
But, of course, above all, you note the bathing women, the cornucopia of breasts of every shape and size. Those for whom modesty is a virtue at all times wear pestamals, transparent aprons which, rather than veil the glories of their flesh, emphasize them saliently. The rest are completely naked, except for bracelets and earrings, and look as if they have been sprinkled with gold. Tall or short, young or old, they are invariably Rubenesque.
So maybe those Orientalist artists were right, after all, only how did they ever gain admittance to the hamam? The answer, quite simply, is that they didn't. They relied on reportage, or, better still, imagination. Musa was able to get inside only because, as a young boy, his precociousness was not yet visible, or, to put it more bluntly, his testicles had not yet dropped.
At the beginning of Young Turk is the ghostly figure of Gül, a Jewish girl described as a pîr, a designation normally applicable to a Sufi elder or shaykh. She initiates Rifat, the figure who may be the closest Musa comes to the directly autobiographical, to the mysteries of sex: she shows him hers and he shows her his. The world of carnality, though, is one through which she merely glides. She is made for something else, something terrible. Somewhere between child and woman, holy fool and clairvoyant, Gül is empowered to see when and where death strikes, and the terror of her situation, from which only her own death will release her ('God be praised! I know how to stop seeing'), is that what she sees ahead of her is human carnage on a hitherto unimaginable scale. Was Gül based on an actual figure? And if so, what did she look like? Was her death as Musa describes it?
'You are asking me about matters from sixty-five years ago! Gül means "rose" as in Gulistan. I can't say I knew her well. There is a kernel of truth in just about every story in Young Turk, based either on things I saw or was told. Otherwise I had to invent much of her story. All girls of one's early youth are attractive to start with but she had something others did not have. This may be hindsight, of course, but she had a quality, which I can only call an aura, that appealed to, and engaged, people. This was also true of the adults amongst us in that they, too, found her special in one way or another. I wouldn't know if she was pretty ― I can't now bring up her features ― she was certainly taller than me, slimmer, very athletic, and I think she had beautiful hair of a sort certain young people have, which undulates as they walk. Maybe that was part of her appeal. From what little I can remember of our conversations one minute we'd be talking about mundane things, maybe about the soup her mother made, and the next she'd be very quiet and pensive although without in any way excluding you. Still you felt she was thinking about something that did not concern you. I probably did ask her "What is the matter?" or make some remark like "Look at that bird flying!" and although I don't remember what her verbal responses were, she would then snap out of wherever she was and come back to quotidian things.
'We are talking about memory here. What one preserves is perhaps only partly true or else embellished. There is, for example, one strange childhood memory I have of something I did not actually experience but which has never stopped haunting me. One day my father ― I must have been about three or four at the time ― came home with a huge bloody bandage across his head. I remember freaking out. He had a jalopy which he loved to drive and earlier that day a plane flew very low over his car, making him lose control of it. Strangely I have always imagined I was in the car with him. I can see this plane coming straight at us and yet I wasn't there.
'And so it is with Gül in that I can't be absolutely sure about my memories of her. She might have been a tomboy, which she was to some extent, but it is her remarkableness, the fact that she could see into the future and into pain, that stays with me. I remember her being instrumental in somebody's recovery from illness, although it was not, as I have it in the book, my brother's. She may have been instrumental in bringing the gypsy who healed my brother of severe jaundice, who did so by making a cut in the shape of a plus sign on his forehead. My mother was horrified but he was withering away and all other treatment had failed. She insisted that the blade be sterilized. A couple of days later he was completely cured. Although Gül was very different she was never excluded as a stranger or an alien other. We lived in a society where any supernatural gift ― the gift of prophecy, for example, or the reading of coffee dregs or broad beans thrown onto a zodiac ― was much admired. The mad were considered wise. She may have had problems I was not aware of. She might have been excluded from certain communities, perhaps the bourgeois ones, but in the early forties, apart from a nucleus of government people, some intellectuals and commercial people, and the young who had to go to primary school, much of the population was still illiterate, particularly in the newly-introduced Latin alphabet, and so, in this atmosphere, these superstitions prevailed. I always liked that, not that I was superstitious myself, but I was fond of people who did not conduct witch hunts. Gül was a person who made an impact. Ah yes, and she had beautiful legs.'
'Did she really undress for you?'
'No, she didn't.'
I detected a tremor of disappointment in Musa's voice.
'That was a boyhood wish. I telescope many things in order to make a story, but what I can say is that I remember to this day how when I went to bed it would usually take me quite a while to get to sleep, and it was then I would fantasise about saving Gül from something or somebody. I was the great hero of all those fantasies.'
'You speak of her as having predicted the Holocaust.'
'I think it may have been a memory of people telling me she foresaw it. I don't know if she herself ever told me. I may even have heard different things, which I have now conflated into one.'
'Do you have any recollection of how you heard about her death?'
'No but I remember going to her house after she died, which is described in the book. Ankara was a small place back then and word got around so quickly, so the news could have come from anywhere. She really did freeze to death. This was not uncommon. I had to walk about two or three kilometres to school and the shortest path was through a park. In those days the winters were severe, minus 30 degrees sometimes, and you would occasionally find homeless people sleeping on benches, who'd salute you or ask you to bring cigarettes, which we would then pinch from our parents and take to them the next day. Occasionally one or two of them disappeared and you learned later they had frozen to death. Certainly I did not find her body in the park nor did I see it at any other time. The fact she froze to death really shook me, though, and probably the awfulness of her fate still gnaws at some part of my unconscious. That she should have died like that I find quite unbearable.'
'It sounds as if she didn't know enough to come out of the cold. After all, she did have a home to go to.'
'Again people say she knew of the Holocaust about to take place, which is the story I use, but nobody knows for sure what happened. There may have been some looming tragedy in her family. It's all so very dark now. I think the family moved away. Maybe it was some domestic strife she could not endure.'
The reasoning world, which has little time for the fool who is wise, will consider Gül insane. The philosopher Jacques Maritain speaks of 'the finality of the useful', a deliberately chilling phrase, and the painter Cecil Collins, in his great essay The Vision of the Fool, writes: 'Our society has rejected the Fool. Not only because he cannot be exploited, not only because they judge everything by its usefulness; but they are frightened and disturbed by the Fool, because he is the child of life, and not of abstract virtue.' Gül is most certainly a child of life, the pity of it being she is born into the wrong time. She who sees so deeply into the future must also bear the immediate suffering of her age. The date of her death in the book is given as February 3rd 1940, and, although the author alone knows why he chose this date, on that day in Gostynin, Poland, the Nazis murdered the inmates of a mental home, who, according to them, were worth only as much as the food they ate.
'What sort of family background did you have?'
'In many ways it is a sad story of two wonderful people who just couldn't get on. My grandfather was a customs officer in Ruschuk on the Danube, in Bulgaria, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. After he got ill, he came back to Turkey and settled in Izmir where my father was born. When my grandfather died my father left school, aged twelve, and with a mother, a younger brother and sister to look after he was forced to work. He was a remarkable man who, with no formal education, spoke eleven languages and wrote in seven alphabets. English he picked up when he came to visit me in England. Greek he knew because my mother was from Salonica. Their marriage was arranged by their respective uncles. My mother who was also Jewish came from a wealthy family. Her father was a solicitor, a violent man who used to beat my grandmother. Once he threw her down a balcony as a result of which she had a broken hip and was lame for the rest of her life. Another time my mother pulled out her father's hunting rifle and said, "If you touch her again, I'll kill you." My mother went to the conservatory and could play the piano and sing as well. I think she felt she had married beneath herself and often she would reprimand my father for lacking in culture, my father who could speak several languages, but really it was because he was working class and my mother was bourgeois. Actually my brother and I think she became, after the Holocaust, somewhat unstable of mind. She had lost nearly all her family in Salonica, nineteen members, including her father and her sister and children, all of whom were sent to Auschwitz. She was always waiting for letters from them, her sister in particular, and eventually they came to an end. The chapters in my book, "The Sky-Blue Monkey" and part of "A Tale of Two Cities", are very much based on what my mother went through at that time. The final letter she wrote describes how the house had been taken over by the Germans. They had to go up to the castle and live in tiny shelters.'
Fortuna's letter was like that of a dying person, without a trace of the billowing fury with which she normally faced adversity. Her husband, Zaharya, one of those impressed for road construction, had suffered a heart attack and died. Viktorya and Süzan, her daughters, aged eight and ten, had become the family's breadwinners. Every morning before dawn, they would leave home ― which, these days, was a corner in a disused warehouse ― and climb to the lower slopes of Mount Hortiatis where they would collect wild flowers. They would then run back, at breakneck speed, to reach the city by noon and sell the flowers, often in competition with equally destitute Gypsy children, to German officers relaxing at the waterfront tavernas.
'They didn't dare send the boy out because he was circumcised. That was the last letter my mother received. In 1946, we moved from Ankara to Istanbul. My childhood friend, Asher, had moved there the year before. His father who worked for the Ottoman Bank was a member of the Jewish Agency, and was always in danger to some extent, transporting Jewish refugees from Europe, through Turkey to the Syrian border where from there somebody else took them to Palestine. The Turks shut their eyes to this for a while. Asher's family had a small flat in the Taksim area. The day after we moved to Istanbul, we went out for a walk, and, passing their house, we decided to pop in and say hello as one does in Turkey. Because they weren't expecting us, Asher's father had all these photographs of Auschwitz on his desk. Asher and I were playing ball outside when we heard an awful scream, such I had never heard before, and we rushed inside. There was my mother holding a picture of corpses piled high, only their skulls visible. She was screaming and pointing at a head in the middle of this pile, saying it was her sister. This became one of the peripheral wounds in my parents' relationship. They both died sad people.'
Perhaps it is a little too tempting to see the Erzincan earthquake of December 27, 1939, one of the worst in the country's history, as a portent, especially when the Nazis themselves, or at least some of them, saw it as divine retribution for Turkey not joining the Axis forces. Portents are what we choose to make of them. One survivor, whom Musa cites in his book, described the earthquake 'as the Devil shaking the earth as if it were a die in a heated game of backgammon.' The initial shock claimed 8000 lives, but with successive earthquakes and floods the death toll reached well over 30,000. Although its epicentre was in the east of the country, the tremors could be felt hundreds of kilometres miles away, in Ankara, where a father stood in the doorway of his four-year-old son's bedroom, telling him not to move, which was all very well given the cot was rolling from wall to wall, its laughing occupant thinking this was all a game. Musa, most oddly, turns that boy into a distant relative and, odder still, he buries his mother in that earthquake.
Admittedly I have had a prejudice against Turks for their treatment of minorities, the Armenians in particular, and yet a reading of Stanford J. Shaw's Turkey and the Holocaust (Macmillan, 1979) forces me to concede that Turkey's behaviour with regard to the Jews was one of the most heroic of any country in existence. From their side, Jewish Turks responded positively to Atatürk's insistence that Turks be proud of their Turkishness and even went so far as to avoid (willingly) speaking Judeo-Spanish in order not to offend native Turks.
When Atatürk gave refuge to Jews from Nazi Germany, who had been thrown out of their jobs in 1935, among them was a doctor who would play a heroic role in the country's future and, more specifically, in Musa's life. Albert Eckstein was a communist and World War One hero. Between the years 1935 and 1950, while working at the Numune State Hospital in Ankara, he revolutionised paediatrics in Turkey. All hospitals in Turkey are based on his. During the summers of 1937 and 1938, at a time when the infant mortality rate was about 50%, he and his wife travelled throughout Anatolia in order to report on health and the living conditions of Turkish children. Also he was a gifted photographer. One of his images, a group of women in the village of Bürnük in the northwest of Anatolia, in 1942 was reproduced on the ten lira banknote. This was the first time women appeared on a Turkish banknote.
'My mother spoke of him as if he were a god. I had had diphtheria. After recovering from it I went back to school, was inoculated there and then got it again. The second time, in 1941, was apparently touch and go. My mother went to Dr Eckstein. I remember lying in bed and there being this oxygen cylinder which stood from floor to ceiling ― it must have weighed a ton ― which Eckstein brought in somehow, and also I recall my mother and father saying that if I survived the night I'd be okay. Eckstein saved my life.'
The tolerance, which was the hallmark of Atatürk's rule, suffered a tragic set-back after his death. In 1942, the new Turkish president, Ismet Inönü, who ought perhaps to be remembered not so much for this as for his part in saving European Jews, introduced the Varlik Vegisi, a 'wealth tax' designed to raise funds for the country's defence in the event of it being drawn into the war. Although aimed at the wealthy in general, it had the effect of targeting non-Muslims in particular, in short the Jews, Greeks and Armenians who controlled much of the economy. Unable to pay the exorbitant tax, about 2000 men were sent to forced labour camps such as Askale in eastern Turkey. One person who could not pay the tax was Musa's father who was sent to Sinop on the Black Sea but not before the bailiffs removed everything or just about everything ― the law stipulated that families so punished be allowed to keep a single mattress. The bailiffs, perhaps a shade kinder than others, allowed them to keep the stove as well.
'I remember my father just before he was taken away coming in with a single apple, saying "This is all we have" and then giving it to me. When the men were taken away we were in great fear because for six months we didn't know what had happened to them. We didn't even know where they were. There were rumours that with the men gone the woman and children would be unsafe, but I never really felt in danger. This was true of my non-Muslim friends as well. All we were told was that my father was going into the army and in a way that actually was the case. As labouring soldiers they were given uniforms. My father was alright because he could read and write in several languages. While the others were taken for labour, the camp commandant made him a secretary. Meanwhile, we stayed in the flat where we were, which was a rented place. And yet, despite it being a difficult time for everyone, it being the middle of a war, I never went hungry. I still went to school although one had to pay to go and my little canteen was full every day. We were helped by freemasons on the one hand and by our Turkish Muslim neighbours on the other. They agreed they would now have to feed these Jewish families. It was not so much a question of honour as of doing the right thing according to Islamic tenets, that is, you did not abandon people who sought help or refuge. We had a staple diet of bread, cheese, onions and olives. That was lunch, dinner and breakfast. And it's still my favourite meal. We survived.
'One day my father came home on leave, quite emaciated. The way my mother describes it is that she had to wash his uniform ten times because it stank so badly. The great thing about my father is that I got my love of books from him. When he returned from the labour camp and got back his job in a textile shop, one day he came home, saying, "Go downstairs, there is a parcel for you." It was a ten-volume encyclopaedia for children, which he bought with his very first wages. That was my dad all over. I kept it until 1986 by which time, of course, it was quite out of date. That year my mother broke her pubic bone in Istanbul so my brother who lived in Paris and I took turns to be with her and in the meantime a neighbour found her a wonderful woman to look after her, who did the cooking and the cleaning and she had a young son, so I gave it to him. There were always some books in the house, the early works of Nâzim Hikmet for example.'
'Would I be right in thinking that being a Jew in Turkey in a way made you a double exile?'
'This was a dark period in Turkish history. On the other hand only twenty-eight Jews died, mostly old men breaking stones in Askale, who were exposed to the cold or else had heart attacks. This, when compared to what was going on in Europe, was a tiny number of casualties. After the Varlik caused a great scandal in America, with articles appearing in the Herald Tribune, they rescinded it and pardoned everyone. Most of the people were able to go back to their old jobs because the Turks who had taken them over kept them for their friends' return. My father was a great lover of Atatürk and of the poet Hikmet too, both of whom were from Salonica, and he would not say a word against Turkey. At the primary school, which I went to from 1941 to 1946, we were called "Atatürk's children". We were committed to turning the country around, beating poverty and disease, and making it a model for all countries. We were very idealistic. When I went to college in Istanbul the college dormitories were full of Greeks, Armenians and Kurds. Nobody ever said "Dirty Jew" to me or whatever. After the state of Israel was created, one or two people would ask questions like, "If Israel and Turkey went to war, whose side would you be on?" But it was question that came out of ignorance. They didn't know which was more important, religion or the place where you were born. Apart from that I never actually experienced any anti-Semitism. I have a huge number of Turkish Muslim friends who, fifty-three years on, are still bosom friends, so I can't say I ever suffered as a Jew in Turkey. With the Varlik one felt there was a discrimination against minorities, but in a way it was like the tortured who comes to blame himself rather than the torturer. We thought we were culpable and weren't doing enough to be true Turks and that we had other traditions. We knew Ladino, the Spanish-Judeo language, but didn't speak it because it would mean not being sufficiently proud of being a Turk. Still the Varlik did leave one with a scar because at some level one was discriminated against, but then you can say anti-Semitism was everywhere.
'There's something in the Turkish psychology that is used to having minorities and in a way there is great respect for their cultures. Muslim friends of mine would go to an Orthodox mass or to an Armenian wedding, so they were accustomed to a life where minorities lived among them rather than in ghettos. In the neighbourhood you might have the fishmonger who was Greek and the baker who was Armenian. I remember the sugar festival at the end of Ramadan when we'd go around to Muslim friends, taking sweets, and it was the same at Jewish New Year when they came to wish us well. Maybe it is a romantic thought but I have a belief that somewhere within the Turkish nature there lies a greater tolerance of other cultures than in many other countries, perhaps something even more than tolerance, a respect and appreciation of other people's art and culture.'
Do people, especially those in exile, seek to rewrite not just their own, but also their countries' histories? It's not a question that can ever be fully answered, and to even attempt to do so would be to wield a yardstick where nothing is measurable, and yet it seems to me the exile or émigré, more so than the people among whom he lives, is prone to this desire, and quite often he enters a realm where things of the past are set right. A novelist has carte blanche to do as he likes, of course, but I wonder if in Young Turk, when Musa projects himself into an old scene, he does so as some kind of corrective. There are two linked stories in Young Turk, which would seem to do just that, which involves some boys and their bid to rescue members of their Jewish family in Salonica, which, as we already know, ends in failure.
Salonica "the Pearl of the Mediterranean" (actually the Aegean) was one of the great Jewish cities and for centuries was part of the Ottoman Empire. Although there was a Jewish population there since the third century BC, it was not until the 15th century that it became predominately Jewish. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, Sultan Bayezid II remarked: 'They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.' Of the 56,000 Jews living there in 1941, 45,000 died at Auschwitz.
'I had a cousin a few years older than me, Mordecai, who was a dwarf. He was just like a djinn, an absolutely wonderful figure, and he used to work part-time, running errands between shops. One day Mordecai came to me, saying he'd found a man, a Levantine owner of a fish restaurant and a small fishing fleet, who could smuggle my relatives out of Salonica. We went to see him. It was morning, the restaurant was not yet open, and we asked the waiters whether we could see him. This man saw us and said, "Come, boys". There he was, this powerful figure seated between three chairs. He said, "What do you want?" We told him. "How many are there?" "Nineteen." "Come next week, they will all be here." Mordi and I were just stunned. We couldn't speak and then I said we didn't have much money. "Don't worry about that. Give me a bottle of raki, that'll be enough." We found ourselves dancing in the street, saying, "Could it be so easy?" We believed him hook, line and sinker. The following week we found him sitting in the same position. "Sorry, boys, I have been very busy and just haven't had time. Come next week." This went on for five or six weeks and at the end we realised he was just humouring us. One of our national traits is that we can never say no. We realised this, so we stopped. My story evolves from the premise: what if he were serious. As I said, there is always a kernel of truth somewhere in my stories. The business about the boys going to Salonica is imaginary, but the boy who dies has elements of me in him because after the war I would put myself in his situation, this cousin my own age who died in Auschwitz. What separated us was only the comparatively short distance between Salonica and Istanbul.'
Another figure in Young Turk who fascinates me is Saadet, the mysterious woman whom the boy Yusuf, yet another of Musa's fictional disguises, meets on a ship going to France. She is on a journey to discover whether someone whose identity I will not reveal here had survived the war. On the way, the ship stops in Naples where Saadet takes Yusuf to see Pompeii. There she screams at the sight of a figure preserved in ash in the museum. This may be a fiction, but it is one powerful enough to be, where such matters circulate in the soul, true.
'Saadet means "happiness", ironically enough. Here again, hers is a mixture of several stories. My father's brother and sister went to France in the late 1920s because there was no work in Turkey. They made a good living there and then the war came and there was no further news of them. After the war, in 1946, my parents received word they had both survived along with their families. My aunt and her children had gone into a nunnery as Catholics; my uncle had been hidden by a farmer. When my father learned this he said we would have to save up money to go to see them. By 1947 they had saved enough but because I was at school I was not allowed to leave with them. My father arranged I would join them as soon as school finished. In 1947, he booked me a berth in the dormitory of the hold of a Turkish ship, a huge space one side of which was for women and the other for men. I set out from Istanbul, aged thirteen, to Marseilles where my uncle would meet me. On the journey we stopped in Piraeus and Naples. At both harbours there were sunken ships all over the place. I was the only child on my own. The others were all families, mostly Armenians and Jews, going to see whether their relatives had survived. Because I was on my own I became a sort of mascot both for the sailors who would take me to the first class section and give me food there and for the people who were in the dormitories. There was one matronly lady ― actually she was only thirty-five or so, which at the time seemed old ― and she became motherly towards me. She would ask the sailors to give me more food and then she took me on an excursion to the Acropolis. When we arrived in Naples she told me to buy as many packs of cigarettes as possible from the ship's store. I think I bought four, which was all I could afford. We went to Pompeii and on our return from there, at the harbour, were all these poor people selling bags made of straw. I was able to buy some as presents for my aunt and cousins, all on four packets of cigarettes. This woman whose name I can't remember was going to look for a relative. I suspect she may have been Armenian.
'That was the first story. The second story, which in my book I linked with this one, relates to when my parents returned to France about three years later. A distant cousin of my father's called Ner came to my father, saying, "I have a son in France, named Salvator, who I'm told has survived. He is in an asylum near Lyon. Could you please visit him." On that trip we drove. As I said, my father was a great driving enthusiast and so we drove right through Greece and Yugoslavia. When we arrived in Yugoslavia it was the day before the Turkish Prime Minister was due and the whole place was full of Turkish flags. Thinking we were an early arrival from the Turkish government they immediately received us as royalty and gave us an amazing suite. The roads were ghastly and on the way there we had two punctures. That evening we went walking. I remember it was some kind of ritual, all these people walking and not saying anything, and then we sat down at a café where this man appeared at our table. He lifted his arm and there were numbers tattooed on it from Auschwitz. He said to my father in Ladino, "I need to live so if there is anything I can do for you I'm ready to help in any way." In those days a Yugoslav transit visa meant you could only stay in one place for a single night. You had to move on. So my father replied, "Well, it's a good thing I bumped into you because I've got two punctures that need repair." The man asked if my father had anything other than money with which to pay him. Fortunately my father had a spare can of engine oil. With that can of oil we bought a new tyre to replace the one that had been torn to shreds and we fixed the other one.
'We got to France and my father said, "I have to see someone." So I went with him. We came to this asylum place where we did manage to see Salvator, a very handsome man but totally out of his mind. He had been in some camp ― I can't remember which one ― and he was just blathering away. The whole ward was full of disturbed people. Very few times have I ever seen my father cry. He was in many ways an intrepid man and a great optimist, but when we came out of the hospital and got into the car I saw tears running down his face. The other times I saw him cry were when he and my mother quarrelled and things got a bit too much, and when Atatürk died. There is yet another element in this story in that there was this Turkish woman who had gone to Paris with a Jew who became successful as a trader. If I am not mistaken they were taken to Drancy and all I heard was that she managed to come back from there because she was Turkish. Whether or not the Nazis actually got her husband I don't know. The Turks rescued quite a number of Turkish Jews from France, eighteen transports which went through war-torn Europe from Paris to Istanbul.'
Another chapter in Young Turk, "When a Writer is Killed", is about the planned rescue of the great Turkish poet, Nâzim Hikmet, another literary fantasy in which the author projects himself onto the rescue bid and, once there, somehow misses the opportunity. When the Democratic Party came to power in 1950, writers and intellectuals petitioned the government to include Hikmet in the political amnesty list. After his release from prison in 1950, alarmed by threats against his life he fled on a freighter bound for Romania and from there he went to Russia where he remained for the rest of his life. There is still considerable contention with respect to his politics and to this day, even though he is widely revered, the government will not allow his remains to be brought back to Turkey and buried.
'I did see Hikmet once. It was in 1951, in that very brief period of about a year, between when he came out of prison and just before he escaped to Russia. One of our teachers said Hikmet was going to read his poetry at a wealthy friend's house. We got very excited but of course we couldn't get inside. We did go to the house, which I remember as having a large garden and orchard, and from behind iron bars I saw him at a distance, a tall man with reddish hair. He looked like a god! We couldn't even hear him. I have listened to recordings of him. He was not such a great reader of his own poetry and he didn't have what I would call a strong voice, such as Atatürk had, but he was such a beautiful poet. I left Turkey at a troubled time. I had become involved with the distribution of Hikmet's poetry. We printed them out on a Gestetner machine and took them to nearby schools. Often we went to this meyhane or wine tavern where poets would congregate and swear at each other in verses. Those poems which were composed impromptu were invariably crude, sometimes brutal, and, as the Turks would have it, served to insult his antagonist's sexuality. Anyway, thinking we were safe there, the police found us and took us to the police station. They asked us what we were doing and we said we were distributing poems. "Are they legal?" they asked. We said we didn't know, so they gave us a couple of smacks, told us not to do it again, and sent us on our way. My father got very frightened about this. When I left I think it was already in my mind not to return because in terms of freedom of expression the situation in Turkey was getting worse and worse.'
'When I first came to England, in 1954, aged nineteen, I might have landed on Mars. At 6.30 the streets were deserted, most men went to the pub, and nobody would invite you to his home. I was in a different universe. There were good sides as well ― the tolerance, for example. You could say whatever you liked, which was what made me fall in love with this country in the first place. I had really wanted to do drama at Yale. There was a scholarship floating about, but somehow I missed the deadline. Also, my father didn't want me to go to America and it was then that he decided I should stay in England and study his business, which was textiles. So he took me to the technical college in Bradford and there put me on a wool scouring course. You took a fleece and fed it into a machine almost a hundred yards long and it came out at the other end, absolutely clean. It was so boring sitting there, watching this fleece. Bradford had these funny orangey lights, and also, with all the cotton mills there, it was terribly polluted. I had gone from sunny Turkey straight into this pea soup. Within six weeks I ran away from there. My friend Asher who, alas, is dead now, was studying medicine in London and it was he who arranged for me to get an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.'
Asher, Musa's boyhood friend from Istanbul, was one vital element in keeping alive for him, in foggy climes, the Turkish flame.
'Asher was a deeply sensitive boy. His mother had a heart condition dating from when she was first married. The doctors advised her never to have children but after thirteen years she couldn't bear it any more and said that even if it killed her she would have one. As I mentioned earlier, Asher's father worked with the Jewish agency but later, towards the end of the war, when Turkey joined the Allies and the British began to exert pressure on the matter of Jewish refugees going to Palestine, he was arrested and put in prison. Some of the men who had come back from their imprisonment or forced labour somehow managed to collect enough money to get him released. He returned to his job at the Ottoman Bank. Meanwhile, doubtless brought on by her husband's imprisonment, Asher's mother's health had deteriorated to the degree that by 1946 she was too ill to leave the house. By the late 1940s Asher and I met every day after school and our first task was to make his mother a meal which usually was just boiled fish, unsalted rice and potatoes. We would settle her down on the sofa, cover her with blankets and give her a book. I loved her. Sometimes I think I loved her more than my mother. One Saturday morning the telephone rang and my mother answered it. It was exam time and the arrangement was that during the exam period Asher would stay at our house. We were in my room. Asher announced, "I have to go home now." I said I'd go with him. When we got there we discovered his mother had died. He had known when he heard the telephone. It could have been anyone because the telephone rang all the time. Soon after, Asher developed a spot on his lung and was sent to Switzerland for nine months. We wrote each other letters every day and he told me how much he enjoyed the sanatorium because he made friends there with the doctors who told him all about tuberculosis and heart disease. The treatment worked and he decided he would be a heart specialist.
'Asher came to England a year before me. The reason I went to London was because of him. We led something of a dissolute life. Asher because he was studying medicine had access to countless nurses. He would say to me, "I'll bring you five." We had a flat, with only two rooms, which had a special lighting system, a red and a green light. When it was green you could go in and when it was red you couldn't. There was this one funny episode. Asher said, "Look, we'll have an orgy. I'll bring nurses from all parts of the world, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America. Choose your colour and enjoy yourself but on one condition: you have to cook." The party started and there were maybe twenty girls. I looked at them and said I didn't mind which one I slept with. So I went into the kitchen to cook spaghetti. The problem was we had just one just one pot and I could make enough for only two people at a time. I began at eight o'clock and by eleven I was still serving spaghetti. When finally I served the last person, Asher's girlfriend, everyone else had gone. No orgy!
'Asher completed his studies, got good marks, and then had to find a place in a hospital as a medical student. In 1954, priority was given to Commonwealth students. Once they were placed for those who remained it went alphabetically by country and of course Asher was way down the list. When his father retired at the end of 1956 he said he couldn't support him anymore. I think that broke Asher inside. The whole idea of being a heart specialist was something he felt he owed his mother. Later he became the director of a successful travel business but there was always this immense sadness in him that somewhere along the line he had missed what he had come to earth for. He would have been a wonderful doctor. I have always seen Asher as a beautiful soul. It may be the romantic streak in me but I am a sucker for unsung heroes, those people who do good things and never boast about them.'
Asher who died on May 8th, 2004, the day before his 70th birthday, still haunts Musa's dreams. It remains to be seen whether he ghosts the pages of some future work.
Musa's great passion was for the stage, and the idea was that he would go back to Turkey and be involved in the theatre there, but when he graduated in 1956 it was a time of cultural suppression at home. A theatre director had been arrested and tortured and playwrights and actors who had always been in the avant-garde were now denied free expression. Musa's father wrote him a letter advising him to stay in England a bit longer.
'So this, then, is what kept you here?'
'No, it is what prevented me from going back. It was, to a major extent, cowardice on my part because of what was happening over there. I was scared. The choice was either to stay here or to join my father's textile business in Istanbul and give up theatre altogether. It would have been an easy life. Although to begin with my father was against my studying drama, in the end he respected my wishes and said, "It is good you are learning English and maybe you will start writing." So he was very liberal although he was always concerned for my welfare because of the erratic earnings of a writer. He helped me. Cheques would arrive. He was a wonderful person. He would say to me, "What happens when I go?" "Don't worry," I'd tell him, "I will survive somehow." So I stayed and got married to my first wife who didn't want to go to Turkey, which meant I had to make my place here. I tried to work as an actor and wasn't very successful at it and of course I had this atrocious accent. You had to be able to speak the Queen's English. The worst thing was when you were made to recite Shakespeare's iambic pentameter because ― it's the most uncanny thing ― your accent comes right back. Even I could hear it. They offered to let me carry a spear for a season.'
I reminded Musa that Victor Mature's definition of acting was to be able to hold a spear and look devout. I could see, though, that we had come to a critical point in our talk, a crossing over which for nearly everybody I'd meet on my world journey through London would bring a catch in the throat or a glistening to the eyes.
'My not going back was, in a sense, a quadruple betrayal ― a betrayal of my father because he wanted me there, a betrayal of my mother because I might have been of some positive influence in a bad marriage, a betrayal of my brother who was only eight years old at the time and so had to take the brunt of the conflict at home, and, of course, a betrayal of Turkey because as a child of Atatürk I should have gone back and battled things out. After all, we were the ones who were going to make it a light unto nations. We had been taught that we were the inheritors of so many cultures, so many beautiful things, ideas and poetry, and so my not going back was a betrayal of that vision. Also there's the guilt of having lost a culture that I greatly admire. I don't think that sense of guilt will ever leave me although in some ways it fuels my writing. Somehow it always gets in there, so that my themes are very much involved with betrayal and abandonment. Like any writer I'm trying to work this out for myself, and although I will never succeed I do think it brings something to my work, which is a consolation. Sometimes, though, the guilt is terrible, particularly when I go to Turkey, especially these days when the country is so precariously balanced between the two evils of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.'
After Musa decided he wasn't cut out to be an actor, or at least not in England, not with its iambic pentameter tripping up an oriental tongue, he wrote screenplays, including a series for Doctor Who, that were never produced, and several novels, the fourth of which, Children of the Rainbow (Saqi, 1999) touched on a theme dear to him, the plight of the gypsies.
'I have a great love for gypsies and spent my childhood with them. We lived on the outskirts of Ankara, and beyond us was a brewery and behind that were fields with trenches where the gypsies lived. We used to play in these shelters, which were almost like World War One trenches. The great thing about these children ― again we are talking about poor times ― they would say, "Come to our place", which would turn out to be a shack with an aluminium roof or sometimes just a tent. There would always be a piece of cheese or something given to us by their mothers. When I first suggested to my mother that I should invite some of those boys she was horrified. "Gypsies in my house!" she cried. That was another source of guilt for me, that I could never bring them home. Then, of course, when details about the Holocaust came out we learned how the gypsies had suffered equally. They called the Holocaust Porajmos, which means "the devouring". Some years before her death, my mother asked me what I was going to write next and I told her I was working on Children of the Rainbow which was about gypsies. She replied, "I am very glad." She told me that she had been in a hospital in Paris and was sitting next to a gypsy woman who had been an inmate in Auschwitz. She had been experimented on. She told my mother about these twins she had looked after. By then my mother had completely turned around so the gypsies were our brothers and sisters.'
Most gratifyingly for him, Musa was awarded the Amico Rom ("Gypsy Friend") and the "Special" prize from the Roma Academy of Culture and Sciences. That he should have fixed upon outsiders is hardly surprising. A good part of his life has been devoted to people in distress. He has campaigned for many writers who have been imprisoned for their writings, and in November 2001 he was elected Vice President of International P.E.N., a year that would also see him appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to literature. Among the shorter works he has produced is an essay that provides a key to his thought, "All History is the History of Migration", which was first published in Index on Censorship.
Many years ago, whilst collecting material in Ethiopia for a novel, I met an Italian septuagenarian in the Eritrean port of Assab. Tio, "Uncle", as everybody lovingly called him, declared himself an insabbiati. The term refers to people 'caught in the sand', like fish, and was coined for those Italians who, having participated in Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, chose to stay on after Italy's defeat at the end of the Second World War … Tio kept offering the image of the insabbiati, those 'caught in the sand', as the perfect representation of this caste. He said we were creatures facing death with a much greater awareness of the frailty of life and thus with an enhanced compulsion to survive; creatures that could not ― or did not get the chance to ― live in their native matrix and, consequently, desperately sought to make a new life in unknown lands and under harsh conditions; creatures that often became fodder for the people in power in their new environments, thus providing the hosts with good nourishment. Since then, the image of the insabbiati has served me both as a guide and as a metaphor. As a guide, it has helped me to struggle against the depression of the exilic condition, the harsh realities of exclusion, the longings for my native land, and the free-floating angst of feeling worthless because of the difficulties of integration and acceptance. As a metaphor, it has given me a perspective on history by recognising that displacement ― or, to use the gentler word, migration ― is not only a condition that rules much of the animal kingdom but also much of humanity, that, as the title of this paper brashly declares, all history is the history of migration.
This seminal work explores the predicament of the other ― the exiles, refugees, immigrants, displaced people, outsiders, outcasts, strangers, untouchables ― and, of course, artists and writers, who, according to Musa, chronicle true history.
'What am I leading to is this question of otherness,' I ventured. 'I am not sure I can fully subscribe to the psychoanalytic interpretation you give it later on in the essay. I would always opt for Rimbaud's "Je suis un autre". Would you care to expand on this? Your experiences with gypsies must have given you at an early age a sense of otherness. It is what makes us artists in that we identify with these people.'
'There are good sides to otherness, but strangely enough I have become more aware of the other in Europe than in Turkey. Let me put it this way: being the other in Turkey was quite an open matter. You were a Jew. Your name was different. As soon as you said your name it meant you were a Jew or Armenian or Greek. Your otherness was almost like a Star of David on your chest, whereas here it was so much more underground, so much more hypocritical. In Turkey you could be the other, and somehow you integrated but here, in certain parts of Europe, France especially, although nobody says it outright, they would stop you from joining them. The other can be used as a scapegoat. There are good sides to being an individual ― we are all others because we are all individuals ― but to actually categorise people, whether either by race or religion, it is that idea of otherness I'm so very much against. If you push it far enough then even the Holocaust becomes justifiable. And it is happening again with all this Islamophobia. All Muslims are being labelled as "terrorists". There is an element of good in otherness, but then something about this really scares me. You might go to a poetry reading that fills a stadium and you will see all these big men, real macho types, crying their eyes out because the poetry is so beautiful and then a minute later somebody comes along and says all the problems that you have heard about today are caused by Jews, gypsies, Armenians, Greeks, whatever, and suddenly you see that same delicate, deeply sensitive, mob suddenly turn to brutality. My fear is that the other or otherness is used in a demonic way by politicians. And coming back to Turkishness and Atatürk's notion of what it should be, it was arrived at with the very best of intentions. Here was this newly truncated Turkey, and when Atatürk said, "We don't want any other territory, we just want this area", what he needed to do in order to unite the various peoples living there was to invent this idea of Turkishness. This is what all nationalists do. You may start with good intentions but when put in the wrong hands they become lethal. We can learn a great deal if we can accept otherness and if others accepted our otherness. There would be an enormous exchange of cultures and ideas but it is hardly ever applied in that way, certainly not in my experience.'
'Not even in the literary forum? Wouldn't there be an automatic understanding of otherness?'
'I would like to think they'd understand, but remember, England is to some extent a more sophisticated country than Turkey in that it distinguishes between different forms of otherness, but this is not the case in a Muslim country where any non-Muslim is considered the other. Islam was at its most clement during the Ottoman Empire, but this evolved from political necessity because they had to keep all these different peoples in some sort of harmony within the empire. They became autonomies of various sorts, but the way a mob can turn at the least provocation, especially in the Middle East ― and I would include Israel in this ― really frightens me. Yet in the main these are decent people. They don't mean to harm anyone, but if a faith or a people are to survive then the other becomes something that needs to be exterminated. According to their thinking, they are right. That begs the question: does religion really help the people? I am inclined to say, "God save us from religion" because there are too many ills, not just in Islam but also in Judaism and Christianity. Too many injustices have come through religion. On a simple level, the subjugation of women, the inequality that women have suffered in the western world and continue to suffer in the eastern, all have come through religious dictums, the tenets of a patriarchal society. I am sympathetic because there are some wonderful as well as awful aspects in any religion, but parts of the Old Testament I find almost obscene. Apart from certain sections, like Isaiah, it is all about war and conquest and extermination. And then they exhort you to continue with this sort of destruction.'
In the penultimate chapter of Young Turk, "He Who Returns Never Left", which takes its title from a line by Pablo Neruda, a woman who might or might not have become the speaker's lover says to him:
One other thing. Even crueller because it concerns your soul. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you'll find you've stayed here. You'll realize you've never left our soil ― neither our country's nor mine. Or if by chance you manage to transplant a limb here and there, your mind will always return. Your conscience will be more unforgiving than my body.
'Was that based on a real conversation?'
'No, that's my judgement of myself, that's the guilt showing. I suppose it also reflects my guilt about the girl I promised to marry and didn't partly because in London I got a taste of the dissolute life and also because I wasn't ready to get married. My first marriage, when I was twenty-three, was a disaster for that very reason. Something else, though: Turkey, the country itself, has always been feminine in my mind. Anavatan means "motherland" in Turkey as opposed to "fatherland". Ana is the Turkish word for "mother" and vatan the Arabic for "country". This notion of Turkey is in some respects oedipal and then there is Hikmet's wonderful poem Kuvai Milliye (The Epic of the War of Independence) in which he describes how the women carried cannon shells and were just as heroic as the men, fighting side by side with them. They had posters similar to those of the Communist regime of big-bosomed women representing the heroism of the people. What I realise more and more is that the resources women have, their determination and their diligence in whatever they do, whether at home or at the office, makes them, if not physically so, stronger than men. I am always amazed at the resilience of women and even more so at the fragility of men. The latter is like mica: you press it and it cracks. All these factors have perhaps unconsciously depicted Turkey for me as a woman. I can't say that about England. There is something about the Turkish psyche and it may well be that the stoicism I have seen in Turkish peasant women, such as one sees on that banknote, their hard labour and how they uncomplainingly maintain family, farm or husband, are the very epitome of human endeavour and survival. I imagine, too, one has a very early, even pre-natal, erotic impression of the soil where one was born, as it being a place of fertility where everything grows. I think it may be part of the collective unconscious about the earth. My idea of God, if I were a believer, would be God as a female. The woman I left behind or, rather, could never leave behind, is the country in a metaphorical sense. My vision of Turkey has always been this boyish dream of saving your loved one, of being a man and strong and saving the weaker sex. As the days go by, I think I become more Turkish.'
Musa's story ends as it begins and as it will continue, with a woman or, rather, with an idea of womanhood that for him finds its most succinct expression in Courbet's painting.
'I really do think God is inside the vagina,' he concludes. 'Certainly woman's soul is. When it is freed, it's Paradise.'