I would examine the black and white photographs of Alpullu’s golden age. In their shadows, I identified the vanished town.
Fikret Moualla, Untitled, n.d. Oil painting. © Fikret Moualla.
They seem like stills from a play, ducked behind curtains to escape the dissolving hand of time. In their black and white shadows, I am acquainted neither with my mother nor with the world around her. And now that my mother can no longer describe what is happening outside their frames, all I can do is imagine. Besides, why disturb the dead for such trivial curiosities? Perhaps I am even resentful of these elegant, modestly glamorous scenes, as all scenes are in old photographs.
My mother grew up in Alpullu, walking in a forest with Mitko Amca—“Uncle” Mitko—the Bulgarian neighbor. At that time, the sugar factory brought the town to life in the months when trucks, piled with beets, drove to Alpullu from all over Western Turkey. They slowed down as they entered the curving road lined with chestnut trees, heftily shifting gears by my grandparents’ yellow house at the town’s edge.
My mother was among the first of the town’s children to follow the trucks all the way to the factory gate, collecting the beets that fell on the road. Some children sold their modest harvest to the factory for a few kuruş—enough for a scoop of ice cream, or, if the truck had taken the curve too fast, spilling beets into the roadside ditch, a hand-fan or a pack of cards from my grandfather’s shop. Some children took the beets home to roast on coals. My mother brought hers to Mitko Amca’s garden, and balanced them on the mouths of glass bottles. Mitko Amca would bring out a rifle from the woodshed and watch, nodding, as she shot them one by one.
During its months of activity, when the air was thick with the smell of molasses, the factory hosted concerts, game nights, and lunches for Alpullu’s wealthy families. The season’s crowning event was the Sugar Ball, when the town women were taken by panic, unstitching old taffeta dresses to put together new models from sewing catalogs, in their best imitation of Istanbul’s high society. Invitations to the events, which I found in boxfuls in my mother’s apartment in Istanbul, fading in their handwritten envelopes, kindly asked guests not to bring children. My mother spent these evenings with Mitko Amca, even though my grandmother thought that he was an awkward influence.
Mitko Amca had never attended the town’s events, and after years of living in Alpullu he was no longer invited. Besides, his accent became stronger with the glasses of rakı he drank in his garden, when he began to tell his visitors, or whoever happened to be passing by, his outrageous stories. The neighbors smiled politely at the mention of places he claimed to have visited—Paris, Rome, London—and would scold their children who imitated the strange Bulgarian. “I walked down the Shanzelizee with my diva Semiha!” older boys shouted in drunken sing-song when they passed the overgrown garden after school.
Still, my grandmother thought that Mitko Amca was harmless, despite his stories and his cluttered house full of books and papers entirely different from the neat homes of Alpullu’s elite. Their living rooms were carpeted, crystalled, and porcelained by the factories of Europe: Limoges, Prague, Baden. These place names, unlike the floating locations of Mitko Amca’s tales, were stamped on sugar bowls, coffee trays, and thumb-sized villager girls carrying water pails marked their households with Western respectability.
As he named the forest—for my mother an entire world—shapes emerged distinctly from the pointing tip of Mitko Amca’s stick
At the sound of her parents’ exit from the wrought-iron gate, my mother jumped over the wall to Mitko Amca’s garden, and waited for him to fetch his walking stick from the shed. Badem, the Irish setter, was already waiting at the gate, alert, and the three of them set off for the forest in the last and golden light.
Instead of taking the main road, they walked along the creek and crossed the stone bridge where, according to town legend, a traveler had once seen a bride adorned with red ribbons and gold coins, and given Alpullu its cheerful name: Dappled-Crimson.
When they passed the sunflower fields, Mitko Amca stopped to cut a flower with his penknife, and they picked the seeds from its wide, black plate. My mother always offered some to Badem, who sniffed politely before running ahead.
Once inside the forest, when the shapes took on different lives, Mitko Amca began his list. Chestnut, linden, pine, beech. Milk thistle, globe thistle, devil’s trumpet, belladonna. Poppy, woodrose, dandelion, waterleaf. As he named the forest—for my mother an entire world—shapes emerged distinctly from the pointing tip of Mitko Amca’s stick. Stems were thick and thin, weedy, milky, hollow. Bark was smooth, rough, and mossy. Leaves were round, leaves were sharp. They floated or fluttered, they fell spinning to the ground.
Even when my mother had learned the names, had worn them out on her tongue—chestnut, linden, pine, beech—she continued to say them, pointing with her finger, following her guide deeper into the forest.
As my mother grew older, Mitko Amca’s lists of trees, flowers, and weeds gave way to others. He named the poets he admired, and the verses whose words he had treaded his entire life. On some walks, he tapped his stick to the meter of these verses, all of them about Istanbul, where he had come for university. Then, the soft leaves beneath their feet became the leaves of the Asiyan Cemetery on the hills of the Bosphorus, where the great poet Orhan Veli (“and a great drinker,” Mitko Amca said) was buried.
My mother joined the recitation, in step to Mitko Amca’s stick, enjoying the lines like a chant:
I’m listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed;
At first there blows a gentle breeze
And the leaves on the trees
Softly flutter or sway…
Other days, following the quick steps of the purposeful Badem, the forest became the narrow, braided streets of Üsküdar (“empire of the poor,” Mitko Amca called it) that turned into gold for a few minutes each evening, before the sun set. The poet Yahya Kemal had watched Üsküdar from a hill, and saw the slums turn into palaces.
Later, when my mother began circling around the topics that embarrassed and confused her, Mitko Amca began his list of the talismanic names of girls, preserved in the glowing amber of his stories, and the forest became Mitko Amca’s Bulgarian village.
Dana appeared in other stories too, with different names, but always with her dark, mistrusting eyes.
In one story, a dark-eyed gypsy girl, Dana, taught him the trick to making a bear dance. “You tickle his belly,” Mitko Amca confided in my mother, in the exaggerated accent that washed over him at these high tides of storytelling. When my mother was older, he revealed the real secret: that you had to tickle “a more sensitive spot.”
Dana appeared in other stories too, with different names, but always with her dark, mistrusting eyes. She was Katya the neighbor’s daughter, or Toni from the adjacent village who marveled at Mitko Amca’s motorbike. He took her for a ride one afternoon and she held tightly to his waist, thrilled, when they raced down the hill. So thrilled, in fact, that the seat was wet by the time he brought her back. Other times the heroine was Dara (“my first love,” Mitko Amca said), but even her name was not sufficiently cloaked to conceal the dark eyes of Dana, whom he always cast in the lead role.
One summer, he had traveled with Dara and her parents to the Yugoslavian seaside. The month was June, and the town’s prized green figs were still too small to pick. “Like Dara’s breasts,” Mitko Amca said, with a wink. They spent most of their days talking and reading to each other in a tent they pitched in the front yard of the parents’ datcha. Dara’s mother appeared often at the threshold, checking to see that the tent flap was open. One afternoon, they were sent to town to buy fruits. Instead of returning home after the shopping was completed, they walked past the market and the main road, past the shanty houses outside town (“just like Alpullu,” Mitko Amca said) to the monastery on the hill where they found a fig tree in full view of the sun. Dara picked one fig, to see if it was ripe. It unfastened from the branch with a single twist, shedding a drop of milk. They ate until they felt sick, then filled the skirts of their shirts to bring to Dara’s parents. Next morning, they were sent once again to gather fruit. As they ate and gathered, gathered and ate, a voice parted the sky like thunder: “Who is eating my figs?”
They were so terrified that they dropped all the fruit and rushed down the hill. Only when they were back at the silent road with chickens picking lazily in the dust did they see the cripple squatting on the hill with a stick, surveying his tree.
“And that,” Mitko Amca told his delighted audience among the trees, “was my first taste of the forbidden fruit.”
There is no explaining how delight grows rusty with time. In telling me about Mitko Amca, my mother might have said that she repeated the story of the figs at school and that her classmates laughed at her. She may have remembered the stumbling old man one evening when her friends were over for tea, him singing for them across the garden wall, keeping unsteady rhythm with his rifle against the shed door. But it was clear that she did not believe her own stories, that she could find no real explanation for ingratitude.
Later, when my mother was in university and came back to Alpullu with increasing uninterest, Mitko Amca introduced her to the names of writers and artists in his golden forest. He had known them in his youth, and followed them from Istanbul to Europe. He said that they were a good group, a group with spirit. He took pride in his own inclusion among them, though their names meant nothing to my mother. “In Paris, we always gathered at La Palette,” he said. “We loved when Semiha Berksoy got up on a table and sang for us, teasing up her skirt. She was no diva then.”
He talked with childish enthusiasm, repeating his stories like spells, as if their utterance would bear witness to the vanished acquaintances. He showed my mother photographs of people assembled around tables and at doorsteps, naïve and elegant, like all faces in faded pictures. To my mother, they were strangers, each face indistinguishable from the other.
On one of her visits, when she was back in Alpullu to pack her belongings before going to Paris, he gave her his album of photographs and several notebooks. Perhaps he was hoping for his enthusiastic audience to return and be delighted by him once again.
“What will I do with these?” my mother asked, bored and discomforted by the gift.
“Those were special times,” Mitko Amca said. “These people knew a thing or two. They lived a full life.” He repeated the story of the painter Fikret Mualla, who had sold a Picasso drawing for the price of a glass of rakı.
“Am I remembering this correctly?” my mother used to say, stitching together the dates, names, and cities of Mitko Amca’s stories, trying to match their seams, perhaps hoping to account for her old friend. The official biographies did not always align with her recollections. But Mitko Amca used to tell her that he had known these people before their names turned to myth.
Mitko Amca had followed Baldwin to the kitchen and offered him a Maltepe cigarette.
He had even met the writer James Baldwin in Istanbul, when Baldwin showed up tired and disheveled at a wedding party, and fell asleep on the lap of a startled guest. When he woke, after the toasts, he had gone to the kitchen to write amid harried maids arranging platters of fruit and sweets.
Mitko Amca remembered that some people called him “the young Arab,” in the remnants of old-world ignorance, when Ethipoian nannies to the city’s wealthy families—the only blacks known to Istanbullus—were called “Arab sisters.”
Mitko Amca had followed Baldwin to the kitchen and offered him a Maltepe cigarette. They took their teas to the balcony and stood watching the Bosphorus from the hills. “Just like Yahya Kemal,” Mitko Amca reminded my mother. “Do you remember his Üsküdar poem?” He remembered, too, that Baldwin liked the bitter black tea and refilled his glass several times. He raised it slowly to his lips, blowing at the steam, his eyes darting around restlessly, as if he were looking at another world, even though Mitko Amca was eager for him to praise the splendid city before him.
Years later, I wondered whether the description of Baldwin drinking tea was not inspired by the iconic photo taken by Sedat Pakay. I had seen it in a book at the house of our family friend Neriman during my first weeks of studying in Paris. The image of the frail writer with the narrow-waisted cup, so specific in its details, was somewhat out of place in Mitko Amca’s story. I did not know, however, whether this addition belonged to Mitko Amca, or whether my mother, in retelling the story, had imagined the balcony scene in fresh colors, having missed her chance to ask questions. (In this she was no different from me, as I colored in the shadows of the past with details from my mother’s photographs.)
Perhaps this picture was a still from the film about Baldwin in Istanbul. In one scene, Baldwin had his shoes shined in front of the Suleymaniye mosque among staring crowds of mustachioed men and capped boys; he rode a motorboat past the rococo Kucuksu Palace and the Anatolian fortress hidden by judas trees. The city was still in an age of innocence then, before the hills exploded with cement. In the film, Baldwin made frequent stops to have tea. He would bring the glass close to his lips and blow, looking around him with darting eyes.
Mitko Amca gave my mother names of acquaintances in Paris. He told her again and again the books she must read, the places she must visit. But she was already eager to tread her own path and perhaps already in disbelief of the stories that had enchanted her in the imaginary cities of a disappeared forest.
I spent every summer of my childhood with my grandparents in Alpullu. In the afternoons, I lay under the mulberry tree, looking at the stone house behind the low wall that separated my grandmother’s rose bushes from a forest of weeds and glass bottles. The house had gone up for sale, without buyers, when I was in middle school. I had been inside only one time, when I was five or six, and remembered the smell of old skin and cologne, and the silent man who had watched me curiously from the sofa. My mother had taken me to kiss his hand one hot afternoon and present him a box of candied chestnuts from Istanbul.
After lunch—he insisted that we stay, and my mother, despite my silent pleas, accepted—he disappeared to the bedroom and came back with a box of objects that I took politely. To my dismay, the box contained nothing but a rusty penknife, a folding walking stick, and a crumbling flower wreath.
My grandparents always humored my requests to take down suitcases and boxes stuffed with old dresses, purses, cigarette holders, and hats.
I was restless to be back at the yellow house, filled with treasures of which I was the sole pirate: the sewing machine, the tin kitchen with a blue oven, the electrical train, the twin dolls with checkered dresses, the accordion, and the leather-encased camera. I was allowed to investigate all the cupboards and drawers, the attic and the dark basement. My grandparents always humored my requests to take down suitcases and boxes stuffed with old dresses, purses, cigarette holders, and hats. They patiently assembled swings and kites that had been my mother’s.
In the evenings, while my grandmother prepared dinner from a list of my favorite dishes, I walked to my grandfather’s shop. I arrived in the golden evening light, just as he was closing up. He would lock the till and turn off the lights, and ask me whether there was anything I wanted. I already owned every color of hand-fan and notebook, packets of stickers and scented erasers, but I often chose something, anyway, just to please him—a calendar with photographs of Bavarian forests or a set of hairbands. Afterwards, we walked down the street to get ice cream.
On weekends, I followed my grandfather to the forest where he hunted for rabbits; I was never allowed to shoot. We carried the rabbits home in canvas bags and soaked them in water for days to clean their thin, weedy blood. When she cooked rabbit, my grandmother would also bake my favourite spinach börek, layered with dough and cheese, because I did not like stew.
By then, Alpullu was long past the days of the factory’s Sugar Balls and taffeta dresses. The modest flavor of European civilization had dispersed like mist. My grandparents did not make their yearly trips to Yugoslavia, returning with unusual toys and porcelain. The Bulgarian families had moved back and Hungarian engineers no longer came to inspect the factory, which was privatized and functioned rarely. Still, my grandparents lived in the elegant shadows of the past, entirely different from my suburban life in Istanbul. Lunches were accompanied by mulberry sherbet, served in a crystal pitcher. On Eid mornings, children were given embroidered handkerchiefs; adults were served almond liqueur on a silver tray.
Later still, when the factory shut down for good and the houses were abandoned, when I had left Istanbul and my grandparents had arrived, settling in a carpeted apartment to spend their days mailing newspaper coupons for encyclopedia sets or alarm clocks, I would examine the black and white photographs of Alpullu’s golden age. In their shadows, I identified the vanished town I had glimpsed as a child—its tables set in sparkling crystal, its modest fur coats, its hats and walking sticks, its wrought-iron gate, its mulberry tree, and its curving road of chestnut trees that led past the lethargic summer afternoons of my childhood to another, brighter town, dappled crimson.
And in the deepest shadows of these photographs—too dark for me to see, so that I could only imagine them and repeat the familiar names like a chant—were the ruins of other towns my mother had seen with Mitko Amca, as they walked among the linden, the chestnut, the pine, and the beech.
Aysegul Savas grew up in Istanbul and Copenhagen. She received her undergraduate degree from Middlebury College and an MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco. She lives in Paris and is working on her first novel. An excerpt of her novel was shortlisted for the Graywolf Prize for emerging writers.