Nektaria Anastasiadou: “Gold in Taksim Square”

15 June, 2022
Naz­mi Ziya Güran, the Repub­li­can Mon­u­ment in Tak­sim Square, 1935 (cour­tesy Sakıp Sabancı Muse­um).

 

“Gold in Tak­sim Square” is a trans­lat­ed extract from Nek­taria Anastasiadou’s new Greek nov­el: the sto­ry of Athena Arzuhaltzi, a sin­gle woman reflect­ing on life, dish­ing out wit­ty advice, and reimag­in­ing her future. Born in 1940s Istan­bul, Athena lived through the 1955 pogrom, var­i­ous engage­ments and affairs, the expul­sions of thou­sands of mem­bers of her Rum Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty in the 1960s, the death of her par­ents, child­less­ness, and a hand­ful of juntas.

She now lives alone in an Istan­bul build­ing that was once inhab­it­ed by Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish fam­i­lies and is now occu­pied by rent­ed offices. It’s 2016, the year that Athena promised, forty years pri­or, to meet at the Patis­serie Mark­iz with Rafael, an old lover from whom she has not heard since. While attempt­ing to find traces of Rafael on social media with the help of Nina, a Greek archi­tect who works in her build­ing, Athena repeat­ed­ly quar­rels with her Jew­ish neigh­bor Rita. As the meet­ing with Rafael approach­es, Athena is faced with a choice: reeval­u­ate her anti­se­mit­ic ten­den­cies or lose her younger friend Nina.

Scenes of past and present Istan­bul are infused with mus­ings on food, aging, lone­li­ness, and love, as well as vis­its from the ghost of Athena’s dead father. The nov­el is a nuanced and humor­ous sto­ry of friend­ship, the por­trait of a stub­born woman attempt­ing to break free from tired prej­u­dices, and a love let­ter to Istan­bul and sin­gle peo­ple everywhere.

 

Nektaria Anastasidou

 

Once upon a time a Kurd from a far­away vil­lage the East heard that the roads of Istan­bul were paved in gold. He sold his cows and sheep and hid in a cart on its way to the City. The morn­ing of his first day here, he found a gold sov­er­eign in a mud­dy street. “Am I going to start col­lect­ing them already, before I’ve even had a look at the place?” he said, kick­ing the sov­er­eign. “I’ll have holes in my pock­ets in no time!” Of course, he nev­er again saw a gold sov­er­eign in his life.

Some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pened to me when I was sev­en­teen and fresh as the fra­grant grass sur­round­ing the Repub­lic Mon­u­ment in Tak­sim Square. It was an after­noon in June 1961, the last day of class­es at Notre Dame de Sion. As soon as I entered the house, my father Avraam took my school bag, put mon­ey in my hand, and said, “Go get us a box of mas­tic loku­mia, Athena.”

My father had nev­er before sent me on an errand. When I was nine, Madame Olga from the flat oppo­site ours asked me to go to the green gro­cer for pota­toes. My father found me cry­ing in the street out­side the shop, for I had no idea how to choose pota­toes and I was ashamed to ask for help. He took me home, knocked on Olga’s door and said, “Nobody sends my daugh­ter out alone, Madame Olga, nobody! To think, a bite-sized girl all by her­self with a sack of pota­toes that she can’t even car­ry!” That was Avraam, always ready to pro­tect me, as if he had a trun­cheon in hand.

And so, when he sent me to buy bite-sized sweets in June 1961, it meant that I was no longer a bite-sized girl. I bought a box of mas­tic-fla­vored loku­mia from Hacı Bekir in the Grand Avenue and then, instead of going home, decid­ed to take a walk to cel­e­brate sum­mer insou­ciance and my new sta­tus. Wear­ing the smile that my father had for­bid­den when I was unac­com­pa­nied, I strolled into Tak­sim Square and lift­ed my gaze to the bronze stat­ue of Atatürk, who, dressed like a film star in a suit and trench coat, gazed eter­nal­ly toward the dome of Holy Trin­i­ty. His left fist, coquet­tish­ly placed on his hip, held a pair of gloves; his right palm was opened toward the church, as if he were say­ing “Now that’s nobil­i­ty.” Behind the fig­ure of Atatürk stood İsm­et İnönü, the states­man who nev­er liked us Rums; and behind İnönü stood two mys­te­ri­ous Russ­ian gen­er­als, envoys of Lenin.

While I was con­sid­er­ing the stat­ue and think­ing what a fine fel­low our blue-eyed Mustafa Kemal Paşa was, I sud­den­ly heard my name in Turk­ish: “Ati­na! Wait for me if you don’t mind!”

I turned and beheld Fikret Aslanoğlu, the son of a high­ly regard­ed fam­i­ly that lived in Hayır­lı Palas, an aris­to­crat­ic apart­ment build­ing near our own. Ten years before, Fikret’s doc­tor father had picked me up when I fell off my bicy­cle in the park. Dr. Aslanoğlu, wear­ing a fine suit that felt like silk beneath my fin­gers, had exam­ined the bruise on my arm and said to me in a voice as com­fort­ing as sage tea, “Did you know, Ati­na, that we grow up only when we fall?”

Plen­ty of Greeks con­sid­er the Turks bar­bar­ians who “learned every­thing from us.” But that’s not the way it is. There are Ottomans so refined that they still smell of rose water and cloves, as if they left their palaces only five min­utes before. The Aslanoğlus were such a fam­i­ly, emi­nent — and I use that word lit­er­al­ly, not because I am oblig­ed to do so accord­ing to pro­to­col, as the Greeks do with their bishops.

I digress. We return to 1961.

If you have the great luck to find gold — wher­ev­er it is, in what­ev­er form, and when­ev­er — put it straight into your pock­et and for­get all the cities that you’ve seen loot­ed, stained, and desecrated.

Fikret took a fright­ened breath and said, “I would like to speak with you.”

Both his ele­gance and his use of the for­mal you impressed me. We hadn’t spo­ken before, but we were chil­dren of the same neigh­bor­hood. The infor­mal would have been fine, that is, but Fikret stuck to the respect­ful plur­al. I closed my eyes to the sun — I’d for­got­ten a hat — and said, “I’m listening.”

Fikret must have under­stood that the light both­ered my eyes because he said, “The sun is burn­ing you. Come this way.” With­out touch­ing me, he led me into the shade of the black locusts — trimmed like upside-down mops — that sur­round­ed the mon­u­ment. Per­haps he need­ed the shade as much as I did, because his fore­head was bead­ed with sweat. “I’ve seen you many times,” he said. “Although I’m just begin­ning uni­ver­si­ty … to become a doc­tor like my father…”

While wait­ing for Fikret to fin­ish his sen­tence, I dis­creet­ly observed him: his worn but fresh­ly shined shoes, his thin but well-trimmed mus­tache, the pim­ples around his mouth, which could also have been swollen shav­ing cuts.

“I like you,” he said final­ly, “and I would like to mar­ry you.”

I took a deep breath. He smelled of Arab soap, lemon cologne, and man. If I said yes, I would smell him every morn­ing. I imag­ined us, for a few sec­onds, walk­ing behind a bug­gy with our first baby. I imag­ined myself with­out fear, since no one would both­er me if I had a Mus­lim hus­band. I looked at Atatürk and the Russ­ian gen­er­als, then at Fikret with his big brown eyes, full of hope. He was only eigh­teen, but he stood before me in a noble way, with­out flir­ta­tion and silli­ness — a naked soul, exposed. I liked him. I want­ed to say yes.

And here, you must per­mit me anoth­er digres­sion so that I can explain why I didn’t say what I had in my heart. On the evening of Sep­tem­ber 6th, 1955, we closed up our sum­mer house on Büyüka­da island, passed a pleas­ant hour on the steam­boat, and debarked in Gala­ta with­out know­ing that a pogrom was going on in all the Rum neigh­bor­hoods of the City. There was so much noise in the har­bor — shout­ing, smash­ing of glass and wood — that my father said to mama, “Woman, the Rus­sians are invad­ing the City.” I was eleven years old then, and I believed that we were indeed hav­ing a Russ­ian invasion.

We took a taxi from Gala­ta to Kabataş, and from there we tried to ascend the hill to our build­ing on foot. The way, how­ev­er, was blocked by crowds, and the pan­de­mo­ni­um com­ing from the Grand Avenue was even more fright­en­ing than that of Gala­ta. It was impos­si­ble to reach our build­ing. We knocked at the door of the mer­chant Per­i­cles Athanasiadis in low­er Gümüş­suyu. As soon as we entered his flat on the sixth floor, my father said, “I’m with the wife and chil­dren, Per­i­cles, and I don’t know what to do.” This sen­tence fright­ened me more than the Rus­sians and the inva­sion. It was the first time ever that my father didn’t know what to do.

We slept in the liv­ing room of Mis­ter Per­i­cles, with a view of the Bosporus and the flames burn­ing the Rum church­es on the Asian side. Sev­en church­es to be exact. I count­ed them. The Rus­sians burned sev­en of our church­es. In my heart, I despised the mur­der­ers of the Romanov fam­i­ly … until I learned, the fol­low­ing day, that we weren’t hav­ing a Russ­ian inva­sion at all. The per­pe­tra­tors, most­ly crim­i­nals and vil­lagers, but also some of our neigh­bors, were the oth­ers. They burned our church­es, destroyed Rum shops, and opened holes in our hearts. After a numb break­fast, we left Mis­ter Pericles’s flat and walked home through streets cov­ered with papers, pas­tries, cloth, flour, and cast-off shoes, pressed down on the heel caps; the pogromists had aban­doned them after loot­ing new shoes from Rum stores. Mus­lim neigh­bors offered to hide us in their hous­es, but my father wouldn’t lis­ten. He said, “We will live or die in our own home.” As soon as we made it to our flat, he locked the door, filled his hunt­ing rifle with bul­lets, and slept in the arm­chair of the foy­er, wait­ing for an attack that nev­er came.

I won’t tell you that our opin­ion of fam­i­lies like the Aslanoğlus — who didn’t have any­thing to do with those events — changed in 1955. But even before the pogrom it wasn’t easy for a Rum fam­i­ly to accept an Ottoman son-in-law; after the Sep­tem­ber 1955 events, how­ev­er, things became even more dif­fi­cult. The pogromists smashed all the porce­lain in our shop and stole the sil­ver. My father had to res­ur­rect his busi­ness from ash­es at the age of fifty-one. The girls at my school, when some­one men­tioned the Sep­tem­ber pogrom, would say “mama told us not to speak of those events.” That’s how afraid we were. So it wasn’t pos­si­ble for me to speak to my father about Fikret, how­ev­er gold­en-heart­ed the boy was. I had to cut the sub­ject at the root.

With a tight knot in my chest, I said, “Thank you, Fikret, but I’m still a stu­dent. My school doesn’t allow us to become engaged.”

“I’ll wait for you,” he said.

Wait, I want­ed to say. Wait.

Out loud I said, “I’m sor­ry, but I haven’t yet thought of marriage.”

“Would you like time to think about it?”

If I thought about it, my fam­i­ly would cut me into thin slices like pastirma.

“No,” I said. “Thank you.”

Fikret low­ered his gaze. “For­give me. I dis­turbed you.” He said good­bye and left. I remem­ber the back of his cor­duroy sport jack­et, which seemed too warm for that sum­mer weath­er. Per­haps he need­ed it to face my cool­ness. I want­ed to call him back. Instead, I remained silent beneath the shade of the pruned black locust. Part of me may still be stand­ing beneath that tree, despite the fact that it was cut down and burnt decades ago. There is no lost oppor­tu­ni­ty that I regret more than Fikret’s pro­pos­al, the most plain­spo­ken, pure ges­ture that I received in my entire life. He was only eigh­teen, but hon­or­able and brave — trun­cheon in hand, just like my father Avraam.

Fifty-five years have passed. There’s noth­ing I can do to turn back time and change that mis­take. But you, dear, can take the les­son. You must be just as ready with your yes as you are with your no. No road is paved with gold sov­er­eigns. If you have the great luck to find gold — wher­ev­er it is, in what­ev­er form, and when­ev­er — put it straight into your pock­et and for­get all the cities that you’ve seen loot­ed, stained, and desecrated.

 

fictionGreeksIstanbulKurdsRumTurkeyTurkish JewsTurks

Nektaria Anastasiadou is the 2019 winner of the Zografeios Agon, a Greek-language literary award founded in 19th-century Constantinople. Her debut novel, A Recipe for Daphne (Hoopoe Fiction/AUCPress), was shortlisted for the 2022 Runciman Award and longlisted for the 2022 Dublin Literary Award. It was also a finalist (with an Honorable Mention) in the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Award and a 2021 Women’s National Book Association (US) Great Group Read. Anastasiadou speaks Greek, Turkish, English, French, Spanish, and Italian. She lives in Istanbul, where she is currently finishing a novel written in the Istanbul Greek dialect.

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