To be true to yourself

“They’ve done a documentary about Chavela,” said my friend. We were both in love with Chavela Vargas (http://www.chavelavargasfilm.com/ ). La Llorana, Soledad were already an important part of our personal history, dotted by irregular visits, each marked by a particular theme, a verse, a song. So was Chavela.

And we had our famous conversations, or more precisely, her “interventions”. My friend, who has known me for 24 years, would begin with a situation analysis, comment on my problems and the way I experienced them and offer her suggestions without pulling any punches – she didn’t need to as we were so close to each other.

I shouldn’t be using the past tense however, for the tradition lives on. This time, too, we had an intervention, as always out of the blue, without any premonition.

She was Luca Can’s godmother in many ways, but she didn’t have a chance to meet him. That was also why she was among the very few I called when we found out that Luca was about to embark on a new journey. “You have to meet him,” I said. “I have to have memories with him,” she replied. She came to visit him for one day.

Luca was not the most sociable of kids of his age, but he had a tendency to pick out people who are special to mamma or baba so he treated her very warmly. He needed to lie down when he felt tired. He could not see her from where he lied, and asked, a few times, “baba, where is she?”. He shared his Lego with her. He wouldn’t share them even with his friends most of the time.

That one day passed by. Memories were collected, to the extent that one could in one day. Then other days have passed by. I couldn’t stay there any longer, so I came here. And the moment of reckoning I alluded to above has come.

My friend lit a cigarette and began her intervention. “When I came there to visit him, I was not only collecting memories, I was observing you too,” she said. “You weren’t only his father, at the same time, you were his big brother. You turned into a kid with him. Even your moves were synchronised,” she continued.

“Now, you have two choices. Either you see yourself as a victim and blame life, fate, whatever for what’s happened to you or you follow in his footsteps by remembering his passion for life, his joie de vivre that he didn’t give up until the last moment.”

I thought about this all day long. As soon as I went back home, I started looking for the documentary on Chavela. I wanted to watch it together with her – without knowing that we were going to go through “an experience” overlapping so much with what we talked about before.

The documentary kicks off with an interview made with Chavela in 1991 when she was 71-years-old. “Let’s start with where I am going. At my age, it’s more interesting for everyone to ask where I’m going, not where I’ve been,” she said.

This amazing documentary by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi blew off the dust of so many of our existential problems about love, life, and death for 90 minutes. We laughed, but mostly we cried. We were spellbound. When the “experience” was over, we had no strength to leave the couch.

Then I thought, why am I writing this? Why am I sharing what I have been going through with everyone? In the end, no matter what I do, I will be the one suffering. No one – or nothing – else could alleviate that pain. I won’t probably be able to find the proper words to express my suffering.

On the other hand, I don’t know what else I can do. I am not able to do anything other than write (even writing was alien to me for two months, longer than any time in my life); and when I sit down in front of the computer, I cannot write about anything else. In the documentary, Chavela said: “I offer my pain to people who come to see me. And it’s beautiful.”

I don’t know whether it is beautiful. I don’t know whether it’s right thing to do. Some suffer silently, in private only. I cannot live like that.

While I was thinking about all this, a message came from another friend: “I opened the window. It rained a little. It felt slightly cooler. Fresh air filled the room. Umut, if we manage to live, life is beautiful indeed. And I think, we can manage to live.”

I think so too. I just don’t know how to manage. But we should live, I guess. I should live.

* First published in Ahval News, https://ahvalnews.com/turkey/be-true-yourself

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Barcelona, Fred, Barcelona

I don’t remember when I first came to Barcelona. Was it before Fred decided to settle here in late 2000s, or was it after, to visit him? I do remember vividly the conversations we had in London though, which almost always ended with a discussion on where to settle after his retirement. He didn’t want to stay in London; he needed Mediterranean weather, good food and other delights of life – delights which he firmly believed London denied him.

“I have three choices”, he told me once. “Istanbul, Beirut or Barcelona”. Istanbul was out because he didn’t speak the language and as those who are lucky enough to get to know him a little would know, language was everything, the sine qua non of a cosmopolitan lifestyle he devoted himself to. He never believed one could do International Relations or Area Studies without being fluent in at least one of the languages spoken in one’s area of expertise. Beirut did fit the bill in that respect but, “it was too chaotic”, he said. “I am old now, I want some peace of mind.” Barcelona had it all: the sun, the beach, delicious food and more importantly exquisite wine, warm-hearted people, lots of Latin Americans for whom he always had a soft spot, and language (he could lecture in Spanish as he would in English and he had a private tutor to learn Catalan – in addition to 7-8 other languages he already spoke).

So he bought a small, sunny flat at the heart of Barcelona. And that was the beginning of our pilgrimages. I say “our”, because Fred’s students, spanning many generations, were a community of their own. No, definitely not a bunch of acolytes, or a cult of makeshift Fred Hallidays, since the first thing the “grand master” taught his students was to be critical, critical of evertyhing, not least of him and their own beliefs. “At my funeral”, he wrote in one of the aphorisms he composed in his favourite chiringuito in Barcelona, “the one thing no-one must ever say is that ‘Comrade Halliday never wavered, never changed his mind’”.

Each visit was memorable in its own way. It would start with a breakfast or lunch in his favourite local café, Tris Tras in Plaça Molina – a lousy café at that, but Fred had a thing for lousy cafés, restaurants and bars where he felt at home; the dreadful “so-called Cypriot” restaurant Yialousa in Russell Square was Tris Tras’ counterpart in London. After a siesta at his place, the day would continue with cocktails at the beach and end either at the local Argentinian steak house or again in his place, partying until the wee hours of the night accompanied by countless bottles of red wine. In fact, the only thing we were expected to do “as students” was to carry the boxes of empty bottles to the recycling bin the following morning.

Like Fred, most of us fell in love with Barcelona. In my case, I also fell in love with Fred’s friends, the “one of a kind” Carmen (the daughter of the famous Spanish communist historian Fernando Claudin), the omniscient sage Pere, the marvellous Julie Wark, and I am running out of adjectives now, the younger generation Eduard, Lucila, and so many others. If Fred was my second father, then Carmen was definitely my second mother. Using her wide wisdom to correct my mistakes, to remind the perfectionist in me that I am flawed like all others – all with an endless patience, motherly affection and care.

We were all worried about Fred’s health, but we weren’t expecting that he would be hit by his personal demon, depression, first. It was Julie who found him in his flat, in desolate shape (this time, the adjective is an understatement) and took him to hospital… where it was discovered, after some time, that he had a very advanced stomach cancer as well. We wanted to visit him, but he did not let us. He didn’t want his students to witness his frailty, his weakness. We had long been aware of it of course; but he chose blissful ignorance and we played along. Katerina (Dalacoura) and I have decided to “overrule” his wishes at some point and to go there for an extended weekend. I was in Sweden; she was in London. We had arranged our tickets to meet at the airport. Just a week before we could board our planes, on 26 April 2010, I woke up to a text message by Carmen. He was gone. He was 63, just like my father when he passed away five years before him.

I taught I could still visit Barcelona, if only to meet my friends, “my extended family” there. And I did a couple of months later, for a conference. But it wasn’t the same; maybe it was too early to go, maybe I wasn’t ready yet. I never dared to try again. I deleted Barcelona from my personal map. With a few exceptions, I didn’t stay in touch with my friends and family either.

Until three days ago that is. The twisted irony of what some call “fate”, I ended up here fighting for the survival of the most precious thing in my life – that “thing” that Carmen, Julie did not even know existed! But family is family. The love is unconditional, endless. It surrounded me – us – the moment I set foot in Barcelona. It was home after all. A long-forgotten one, Odysseus’ Ithaca, the end point of a long journey.

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours”, wrote Italo Calvino in his timeless classic Invisible Cities. And I have a question for Barcelona. Will she have an answer to it? I don’t know. And if she does, will I like the answer?

12

 

A London Story

There is no perfection only life”

― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

It was 1994. I had found myself in London, not entirely as a result of a conscious choice. I had applied to several universities upon graduation, all of them in the U.S., except one, the LSE. I had a very good grade point average, and would have probably managed to get the British Council scholarship to go to Britain, but I was so obsessed with U.S. that I have chosen to apply for another scholarship, that of Turkish Education Foundation (TEV), which was also funding studies in the U.S. I remember the official at the British Council who almost begged me to apply as she thought I had a good chance – as I couldn’t apply to both scholarships at the same time. But i didn’t listen to her. That was probably one of the worst decisions of my life. I got rejected by all universities in the U.S., and accepted by the LSE! The foundation allowed me to go there of course, but the money I got was less, and I had to repay it upon completion of my studies. The British Council scholarship? Well, there was no paying back! So I did my masters at the LSE, but paid 10.000 pounds back, over the course of five years, which made my life miserable in many ways.. But that’s another story.

I did not have a place to stay in London. There was no room left at the dormitories, just a temporary place my father found through some friends. My first evening in London was horrible. The guy my father arranged came up with an excuse in the last minute and took me to another place, some kind of a shared flat with a number of “party boys”. It was quite crazy – partying, drugs, sex, everything. I didn’t blink my eyes that night (there were no pillows or bed linens, not to mention the “hardcore” noises next door). I ran away the following day. My resourceful father made a few phone calls and arranged another place, but this time I was lucky. An old couple from Turkey, with their own textile atelier, and they were treating me like I was their grandson. It felt good; I was feeling lonely anyway, and needed that kind of warmth. In the meantime, I was going to the LSE accommodation office twice a day and literally harassing the accommodation assistant who happened to be a Turkish woman. She was famous for not letting any students from Turkey without a roof on top of their head, but she was about to quit her job, and couldn’t find a place for me despite trying really hard. She had also started feeling sorry for me – this poor, naive guy, who was using any manipulation technique possible to make her feel bad.. Finally one morning, she mumbled something along the lines of “well, a friend of mine was thinking of renting a room in her flat, but she has not made up her mind yet; maybe I should send you to her, as a fait accompli. Who knows, she might say yes if she likes you.” There I was the next day, 69 Oakeshott Court near Euston Station (yes, I still remember the address), with a bouquet of flowers in one hand, a box of cookies in another, looking miserable and needy. The accommodation assistant was right.. and doubly so. Tijen, the owner of the flat, had not seriously considered the idea of renting the room, but she pitied me and said yes!

I was the happiest person on earth. Very nice flat, extremely central location, good price.. and a sweet landowner. Like a big sister. Well.. Appearances could be deceiving. When we started living together, I realized how difficult Tijen was, as a person. She had come to London 20 years ago, to do her masters, got involved in left-wing politics, lost her citizenship after the 1980 coup and couldn’t go back to Turkey until for a long time. She had also married a guy from the same political circle, but run away from him. As she wanted to avoid him, she was staying away from the Turkish-speaking community in London. She had even changed her name – actually, Tijen was her real name, but sometimes people were calling home and asking for “Nergis”, which was, I thought at that time, her code name in the organization. She was extremely private, sceptical and hypochondriac. I ended up asking for her permission for everything, even to use the kitchen, addressing her in the plural. Everything was so formal, and I was feeling quite uncomfortable, definitely not at “home”. During that period, she was particularly depressed because she was sueing the college she was teaching at, charging them with racism and sexism. Some days she was like a nightmare – aggressive, depressed. And frankly, knowing how conspiratorial she could be, I didn’t believe that the charges were correct.

In the meantime, I continued to see the LSE accommodation assistant, from time to time, and there was always talk of someone by the name of “Can” – a very common male name in Turkey. Can was a friend of Tijen’s, from the same political circle. I also found out that the accommodation assistant met Can through Tijen. Bascially I was thinking Can was her boyfriend, because they were living together. One day, the phone rang; I picked up, a woman asked for Nergis, I gave the usual answer – not home. She replied “could you please tell her Can called?”. So Can was a woman. I said, ah ok, she is the accommodation assistant’s flatmate. Until I realized, six months later when I visited them, that there was only one bedroom and one bed in the flat. I was naive after all!

As days went by, my relationship with Tijen started to improve. I was still addressing her in the plural but she was now seeing me like her nephew whose name was also Umut. Then I became her student. Informally of course. She started to talk to me about identity politics, a term I heard for the first time, and about gender and feminism. She taught me that a man could never have a woman’s point of view, put himself in her shoes so to speak. “Have you ever heard footsteps”, she asked me one day, “going back home alone, late in the night and got scared?”, scared of being followed, of being “raped”? I didn’t have an answer. She was also telling me that language is not innocent. Her doctoral dissertation was on discrimination anyway (she was writing it with Nira Yuval-Davis). I, on the other hand, still thought she was blowing things out of proportions sometimes.

Until the day, well, she won her court case! The college offered to settle and gave her a handsome compensation for the charge of sexism (denying allegations of racism). She knew that she could not survive there anymore, so she took the money and quit her job. And she started to spend her days at home, attending a painting class in the evenings.

….

The rest of the year, Tijen survived on social security money and the compensation she got from her former college, and continued painting. I was, in the meantime, struggling with the masters. It was not an easy year. One morning, I found a two-sentence letter from my then girlfriend who said she could not take it any more. I tried to call her; she told me she didn’t have a concrete reason. She had just decided that she didn’t love me any more. I was feeling down, didn’t want to be alone, so jumped on the next plane to Istanbul. My father picked me up from the airport and told me that they have separated with my mother, that he has moved to a new flat. They had kept me uninformed since I was abroad, far away! Two days later, my grandmother (my mother’s mother whom I loved very much) died, suddenly! All in four days – a break-up, a divorce and a death! It surely was not the best week of my life.. When I got back to London, Tijen was my greatest source of support. She was the older sister I never had. She introduced me to Nira Yuval-Davis, to her classmates, and I started to socialize with them. I had never liked the people at the LSE anyway who were all too competitive for my taste, so Tijen’s friends were a life-saver. In the end, that flat, which did not feel like home at first, “became” a home – my refuge, my safe haven. Chatting with Tijen abla (that’s how I was calling her now, sister Tijen), having tea with milk the English way together was my favourite passtime. We were still disagreeing on many issues, but I was learning a lot from her, from our disagreements. Possibly with the influence of my parents’ breakup, I started to see her as my family, in fact the only family I had. I even thought that she physically resembled my mother in some old pictures.

I went back to Turkey after I finished my masters. I did not think I was going to miss London that much, but apparently the London “bug” was inside me, and I felt that I could never do a PhD if I stayed in Turkey. So I enrolled in a PhD programme in Istanbul to dodge the military service – like so many others in Turkey do – and in the meantime struck a deal with Nira, to do a second PhD at Greenwich (where she was working back then), under her supervisio. Soon, realizing that I did not want to specialize on gender, I switched to Portsmouth University where there was a group working on nationalism and met Spyros in 1997. These are side stories.

Obviously, this time there were no dramas about accommodation and I directly went to Tijen’s place. Tijen, this time, was complaining about having pains, but we (mostly Can and myself), knowing her hypochondria, were not taking her that seriously. She must be making up something, we thought. And yet we were wrong again. When she finally managed to get an appointment from the doctor – the ridiculously inefficient NHS in the U.K. had taken months to give her an appointment – it was discovered that she had ovary cancer! That is something mostly curable of course, but in her case, because of late diagnosis, the cancer had reached an advanced stage and the tumor was as big as an orange. Still, she was lucky. One of the most famous oncologists of the world, in London, accepted her to his trial programme for a new drug cocktail, and within 3 months, the tumor shrunk miraculously! I was back to Istanbul, but was commuting to London, staying either with Tijen or Can (she and the accommodation assistant had broken up). A year later, Tijen’s pain got back; there was metasthasis to the bones. Before starting chemotherapy, she finished her PhD and became a “doctor”. She also came to Istanbul to see her father. We met in Taksim Square; she wanted to meet my mother (after so many years of speaking over the phone), and we were there with Can’s mother, Mucella, and my then girlfriend. She had her head shaved, in preparation for the treatment. She looked all right, but there was something.. Something difficult to describe. It was as if she knew this was her last time in Istanbul. Still, we made a promise to meet me two months later. It was june, I was going to London in August.

I couldnt make it.. The treatment didn’t work. Tijen died ten days before I went to London. It was sudden, I didn’t know, we didn’t know. Otherwise I could have changed my ticket.

I did make it to the memorial at Greenwich University though. Can who, besides being a social worker, was into shooting documentaries, had prepared a documentary based on the pictures and footage she had of Tijen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaxTom38JAU). Some friends had composed songs for her; which were also used in the documentary and played alive at the memorial. We cried.. a lot. I think I had never cried so much in public in my life – not even at my father’s funeral (that was to change from 2014 onwards). Then we shared Tijen’s belongings, stuff. I took the cd she liked most and the first painting she did after joining the painting classes. Then we gathered some money and had Ashgate publish her thesis.

The story ends here.. or actually it never ends. The accommodation assistant got married and had a son. Can became my best friend on the face of this earth. We have always believed we had to take care of each other, that that was Tijen’s last will – or so we believed. It has been more than 23 years now, since we first met, and I still stay with her in Camden Town every time I go to London, which is at least three times a year. Sometimes for no reason. Just because I feel good in her company. Camden is my new refuge now, the only place I would go to if I am too depressed. And vice versa. I helped her through her career; she did not even have a bachelor’s degree when we met.. In two years, she will have a PhD in urban geography at King’s College, London! She still works as a forensic social worker. Oh and, there is a reason why Luca’s middle name is CAN.

And no, I never learned to be afraid of footsteps in the dark. Or, more properly, to feel how a woman would feel when she heard those footsteps. I did learn that I could never really understand a woman’s perspective, the way she perceives reality.

Kundera was right after all.. “there is no perfection only life”..

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(From left to right, yours truly, Tijen, Can)