By: Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

The other day, eating dinner in my apartment, I fell into a conversation with a Turkish friend about black magic. I don’t remember how the conversation began, but she eventually told me about how every so often her mother would have liquid lead thrown into a pot of boiling water and held over her head to rid her of evil spirits.

My friend’s American boyfriend was understandably concerned about the steaming lead fumes that were supposed to be protecting his girlfriend from the evil eye, and even more concerned when he learned that she keeps a tiny piece of lead in her wallet as an extra precaution, rubbing up against every coin she touches. But I took note not because I was concerned about her health, but because I recognized the procedure from the book I had been reading, Dear Shameless Death, by Letife Tekin, in which a mother takes her daughter to have the very same treatment, hoping it will calm her demons and help her learn not to talk to water-pumps and stare at walls.

My friend’s family emigrated to Ankara and then Istanbul from Eastern Turkey some decades ago. Her family has something in common with the family in Dear Shameless Death, in which Tekin tells of a similar move from a village in central Anatolia to Istanbul and the traumatic transition that follows. Tekin draws back the curtain on a world of good and evil spirits, strange traditional healing practices, and animist beliefs that are a long standing element of culture in Turkey, but not immediately apparent, especially in Istanbul, where I have been living for the last three months.

* * *

Letife Tekin was born in the village of Karacafenk in central Turkey. Her family moved to Istanbul when she was young, in the late 1970s, and Dear Shameless Death is a semi-autobiographical account of this transition. It is the story of a family of seven: Atiye and Huvat, and their five children—Halit, Seyit, Nuğber, Dirmit, and Mahmut.

Dear Shameless Death took me by surprise. The narrative does not follow the build and climax of a typical story. Rather, it moves forward at a fast, steady pace, from anecdote to anecdote. Its drama is constant. Each event, whether tragic or comic, is followed quickly after by another, carrying equal weight. Objects are sentient, and there is very little difference in the way adults and children are portrayed. Tekin’s is a world where everything and everyone is equally conscious and alive.

Although the entire novel is imbued with magic, the magic comes from the way the characters interact with their environment, rather than unicorns or rabbit holes.  The surreal aspects of the story derive from the reaction of inanimate objects to the characters’ emotions. When Atiye or Huvat make pronouncements important to the future of the family, they say “mark my words!” and press a thumb against the wall, where the thumbprint glows as a physical representation of their declaration.

Before Dirmit, the central character, and her family are set to leave the village for Istanbul, she runs around the surrounding fields for the last time. Parting from her home is painful, but her pain is expressed through the reactions of objects to her distress—the mountains nod at her, a flower calls out to her. In this passage, she is in the truck, driving toward Istanbul:

Dirmit stuck her head out from between the mattresses and unblocked her ears. But as soon as she did, she heard the donkey’s crying “ninnisare, ninnisare!” and saw a whole heard of donkeys that was growing taller and shorter strewn out behind the truck. So she covered her ears once more, shut her eyes and dug her head into the bedding.

This is one of the more purely fantastic moments of the story. But the undulating donkeys serve to demonstrate a heightened emotional experience. Dirmit’s home is literally writhing in pain at her departure.

While everyone in the family shares the same animist attitudes towards the physical world, these beliefs are present to a greater degree in Dirmit, for whom objects are so alive that they are easier to relate to than people. After moving to Istanbul, Dirmit’s mother, Atiye becomes increasingly concerned about her daughter’s eccentricities. After Dirmit has been writing poetry, her mother confiscates her notebook, attempting to quash her latest obsession.  Later, when Dirmit runs into her brother-in-law in the hallway of their home, she fights with him when he tries to stop and talk to her. After Dirmit eventually loses the tussle, her brother-in-law gives her a new notebook, this one with a lock. It is a thoughtful and sweet gift, and Dirmit feels guilty for trying to fight him when he was trying to be kind, so she apologizes profusely. But she apologizes to the notebook, and never says a word to her brother-in-law.

Later in the novel, when Atiye is finally succumbing to vague health problems and is lying on her death bed, Huvat cuts off her hair, which is too heavy for her weak body to carry, in two thick, long braids. Dirmit, standing nearby, says “give me my mother’s hair.” She takes the braids and kisses each of them. She can only express her anguish at losing her mother through interaction with these braids, now separated from her mother’s head.  Dirmit’s emotional attachment to the inanimate makes her an outsider in an outsider family, working together through the havoc of their move to Istanbul.

After making the move to the big city, Dirmit’s brothers struggle to find work, and fall in and out of the social and cultural currents of 1970s Turkey—a time of unrest preceding the 1980 military coup. Turkists and Islamists and Communists hold dueling protests on Istanbul streets, and the men in Dirmit’s family are at various points involved in all of these movements.  Dirmit’s sister Nuğber waits despondently for suitors, and Dirmit moves through a string of obscure obsessions. Whenever the matron Atiye feels her family slipping into true chaos, she takes to her bed, declares her death eminent, and gathers her children and her husband around her, telling each of them what she hopes they will accomplish, and what she fears will befall them.

It is not hard to understand why making such a significant transition is traumatic for Dirmit, a person so closely connected with the objects around her and the space that she occupies. Her whole family struggles in poverty to find a place in an often turbulent city.

* * *

I’ve been reading Turkish novels since I moved to Istanbul a few months ago in hopes that they will help me better understand Turkey.  Part of my original goal was to find books that would lead me to new parts of the city and teach me about the history of some of the neighborhoods. Dear Shameless Death turned out to be useless as an actual guide to the city. While two thirds of the book take place in Istanbul, neither the city nor any specific places are named, and very little physical description of space is at all employed.

But specific descriptions of locations were not necessary for the book to illuminate a corner of Istanbul life. My own neighborhood, Tophane, a small slice of Beyoğlu, in the center of European Istanbul, is full of families who, two or three decades ago, migrated from Eastern Turkey. In the introduction to Dear Shameless Death, Saliha Parker says that Tekin’s family and, presumably, Dirmit’s family lived in Beşiktaş, the area of the city immediately north of Beyoğlu. But they could just as easily have been my neighbors.

Tophane is different from most of the areas around it, at least at first glance. Most women on the street wear headscarves, and rather than coffee shops or restaurants, there are teahouses frequented only by men and grungy little lokantas, cafeteria-style cafes. One of my neighbors keeps a hen house, with a late-rising rooster who calls out all afternoon. Tophane is just a few minutes down a steep hill off of bustling Istiklal Cadessi—Istanbul’s crowded pedestrian thoroughfare and center for eating, drinking, and shopping—but it sometimes feels like another world. Tophane is the last little pocket of the area immediately surrounding Istiklal to gentrify. Laundry hangs between buildings, and old women lower baskets from their windows and yell at grocers to fill them with bread and eggs and vegetables. It feels as though it hasn’t changed for decades.

But the truth is Tophane is full of foreigners, and has also become home to many of Istanbul’s small art galleries in the past few years. It is being transformed by the minute. The longer I am here, the more foreigners I meet who live footsteps away from my apartment. We all shop at the same vegetable stands and listen to the same garlic sellers and junk collectors yell out their presence in the morning. Tophane seems like a neighborhood with its community intact, but it is already disappearing. It is not hard to imagine what it will look like in another five years. All but a few of the numerous vegetable stands will close, the coffee shops will be mixed-gender, and the real estate will be much more expensive.

Recently, on a very cold day, my boyfriend and I walked past a little Lokanta in our neighborhood that we had wanted to try. It was lunch hour, and the place was full of construction workers on their lunch break. I was the only woman in the room. We stood in front of the food—several stews and some rice and stuffed peppers being kept hot on steam plates—and pointed at a few different dishes, then took a seat at a little table. We ate quickly and whispered to each other, trying to keep a low profile. About ten minutes into our meal the place started to clear out, and pretty soon we were alone in the café. A few minutes later, a couple walked in, looking just as foreign as us.

The process of integration into Istanbul described in Dear Shameless Death is painful for every member of Dirmit’s family, and walking around Tophane, long occupied by migrants from the East, it seems clear that for some integration continues to be a struggle. Dear Shameless Death is a novel that shows how many deeply different, sometimes conflicting worlds exist side-by-side in a city like Istanbul. When I first began reading the novel, it seemed to open up an entirely separate segment of Turkish society from the one I was familiar with. That impression was correct but only in part. Within the novel is a world seemingly far removed from the shiny, fast paced, consumerist culture of Istiklal, but not so far removed from Tophane. And I didn’t even have time to finish the book before I found that a friend of mine shared something so seemingly strange as a penchant for boiling lead with Dirmit’s family. Though it is easy to imagine these worlds as separate, they nonetheless exist quite close together. They are not nearly as distinct as they seem.

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