The Location of the Soul According to Benyamin Alhadeff

15 September, 2021
The Bosporus, normally cobalt blue, went electric turquoise
Istanbul Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn, Galata Tower and Cityscape (photo courtesy Selim Ali).

 

Nektaria Anastasiadou

 

The Bosporus, normally cobalt blue, went electric turquoise that weekend. Some thought there had been a pollution spill. Others said the change had something to do with the earthquake that had shaken the Aegean on Monday afternoon. The truth, Benyamin had written in a Ladino piece for Neşama News, was that there had been a surge in beneficial Emiliania huxleyi plankton across the Black Sea. Nevertheless, Benyamin couldn’t help wondering if the Bosporus had turned the same otherworldly color when, according to legend, the witch Medea had thrown poison into its waters.

The week before, Chloe had agreed to move in with him. He’d searched for piano transport companies, visited them personally, and settled on a firm based in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. Their rates were more than he could afford, but the safe transference of Chloe’s 1898 Bösendorfer grand piano forte to their new apartment was his knightly quest, the proof of his undying Amor. Madame Eva, her mother, hadn’t objected when Chloe announced that she was leaving, nor did she say a word when her daughter added that, apart from clothes, books, and personal items, she would also be taking the Bösendorfer.

Benyamin turned his back to the Bosporus quay and faced the crane. He watched the main hoist rotate. The telescope extended, and the boom reached over the high stone wall of the clapboard yalı mansion, where three brawny movers were rolling the dolly-perched, legless piano onto a balcony. What if something went wrong? What would happen if a strap broke, or if they moved the piano too fast and it slipped out of its hammock and through Chloe’s roof, or worse, through the roof and floors of the neighboring yalı? Benyamin would be to blame.

The hoist line lowered. The men wrapped the heavy-duty yellow straps around the sideways piano and attached them to the crane’s hook. Chloe stepped onto the balcony. The Etesian winds tangled her black hair. Benyamin was too far away to see the expression on her face, but he knew she was worried. He waved to reassure her.

 


 

The 1898 Bösendorfer grand piano with its hand-carved music stand.

When they met in September of their senior year at Istanbul University, Benyamin Alhadeff hadn’t understood that Chloe Stefanopoulos was on different footing in life than he was. The disparity in their religions might have been a red light half a century ago, but now, with so few Jews and Rum Orthodox Christians left, they could almost be lumped together into one group: non-Muslim. When Chloe said she lived in Tarabya, Benyamin didn’t guess that her family owned a vast Ottoman yalı built in 1869 as a dowry for Nurbanu Hanım, the daughter of Sultan Abdülaziz’s dentist. Nor did he think much when Chloe described her garden’s highlight, an ancient plane tree, because he wouldn’t learn until much later that it had been planted by Nurbanu Hanım herself. He didn’t even pay attention when Chloe raved about her flower beds, which hosted wisteria and tulips in spring, hydrangeas and roses in summer, and chrysanthemums in autumn. For Benyamin supposed that Chloe lived in one of the rundown shacks remaining from the time when Tarabya was a Rum fishing village. Besides, Benyamin’s late mother — alav ashalom, peace upon her — had also grown flowers on their back balcony, mostly geraniums on which the neighborhood tomcats tended to urinate. Benyamin didn’t understand that there was still a great divide between beds and pots, even if the gap between Jews and Christians had narrowed.

The following spring, while walking with his father in their working-class neighborhood of Kurtuluş, he said in Ladino, “Papa, will you disown me if I marry a Christian?”

It was Orthodox Easter Sunday, just two days after the end of Pesach. Across the avenue, the municipality had strung up banners that read “Happy Holidays to our Christian Brothers.” Bakeries still displayed sealed boxes of “Kosher for Pesach” matzah in their windows, and the warm mastic and mahleb perfume of tsoureki Easter bread sailed through every bakery door into the chilly street. That was what Benyamin loved about Kurtuluş: despite its graceless cement blocks and dodgy newcomers, it was the last interreligious neighborhood in Istanbul.

Sammy Alhadeff, sidestepping an Armenian woman’s pavement display of illegally imported vodka and Russian sausage, said, “Is the question theoretical or practical?”

“Practical,” said Benyamin.

“If it’s really amor,” said Sammy, “you shouldn’t be asking.”

Just then a man standing outside a semi-basement shop — in a confidential tone more suited to a bordello keeper pushing his whores than to a merchant trying to unload made-in-China tops — murmured to Benyamin in Turkish, “Everything on sale for ten liras.” The advertisement unsettled Benyamin: it was almost as if the man had intimated that even amor would sell for ten liras. But of course, he didn’t understand Ladino.

Benyamin shook off the false impression and asked, “What would mama say if she were alive?”

Sammy turned the thin wedding band on his right pinky. “Deskoje mujer y vakas de tu civdad.” Choose a woman and cows from your city.

“She’s from my city, but . . .”

“In my opinion, Benya,” Sammy continued, “you should be announcing rather than asking for permission. Love means sending everything to hell with one kick.”

“But what would that make our children?”

Sammy stopped short. An Iraqi refugee — judging from the cross around his neck and the Arabic he was speaking into his phone — walked straight into Sammy. That was the problem in Kurtuluş Avenue. The sidewalks weren’t even a tenth of the width necessary for the neighborhood’s pedestrians, and everybody used the main avenue to avoid the steep up-and-down streets surrounding it.

When the Iraqi had passed, Sammy looked Benyamin in the eye and said, “Our ancestors came to Istanbul from Galicia in 1492. We stayed Jewish even though plenty of others converted. We gave you your grandfather’s name instead of a modern Turkish one, and we taught you Ladino even though everybody else stopped speaking it decades ago. But only you can decide what’s right for you. Haberes buenos.”

Good news. But did his father use the expression to confirm good news or to ward off bad news? That was the problem with haberes buenos: it could be used for both.

 


 

Chloe’s mother, Madame Eva, was another matter. During the week, Chloe was not allowed on dates with Benyamin. Madame Eva ostensibly knew he spent some weekends in her yalı, while she was absent at their summer house in Burgazada or traveling in Europe; during the week, however, she did everything in her power to keep the lovers apart. Nevertheless, Benyamin was determined. In freezing rain and snow, he had made the trip from Kurtuluş to Tarabya on his motorcycle — a BMW R65 that was older than he was — only to spend three minutes with Chloe beneath Nurbanu Hanım’s plane tree. Could he have had an accident? Or gotten frost bite while waiting for her late at night, in the heart of winter, when her mother delayed going to bed or tried to prevent Chloe from going to the minimarket for a magazine? Of course, he could have. But Benyamin didn’t even think about that.

One evening after graduation, while he was lying in bed with Chloe, he said the thing that he’d been avoiding for months: “It’s because I’m Jewish, isn’t it? That’s why your mother doesn’t want to meet me.” He spoke in Turkish, their common language.

“No,” said Chloe.

He nuzzled his face in her hair, which always smelled of sweet printing ink due to her habit of falling asleep with her head on an open book. “Rums fear assimilation, just like Jews. It’s understandable that your mother doesn’t want you to marry outside your community. She’s afraid you’ll lose your identity, your history.”

Chloe’s eyes half closed. “It’s because of numbers. My mother evaluates mathematically.”

“I’m 180cm,” said Benyamin, frustrated that Chloe was falling asleep. “And at least 17cm —”

Chloe’s eyes flashed open. “Salary, not size, Benya!”

“But if she met me, then maybe . . .”

“I love you because you’re a normal man. She doesn’t get that. It’s not personal.”

Benyamin rolled onto his back. Staring at the ceiling’s elaborate woodwork, he said, “Circumstances aren’t in our favor. One day you’ll leave me.”

“Give me your hand,” she said.

He did. She sat up and jabbed her nails into his skin. Her middle, ring, and pinky nails left red marks. Her index nail left a half moon of blood. “That wound will remain,” she said, “reminding you of what you said. If we’re together, I’ll remind you myself.”

 


 

View over the Bosporus (photo courtesy Michail Anastasiadis).

Benyamin eventually did meet Madame Eva by accident — or at least that’s what it was meant to look like — after he and Chloe had been dating for a full year. Eva returned to Tarabya unexpectedly on a Sunday morning in early October 2016, while Chloe was playing the Bösendorfer in preparation for a teaching interview. Benyamin was sitting beside Chloe, watching her pale hands dance over the yellowing keys: just from looking at them you could tell that she was a book and music person. Nobody who spent any time outdoors could have hands that white.

A warm breeze rushed into the yalı’s piano room. Because no furniture blocked their path, the curtains billowed like sails. That, he realized, was what it meant to be wealthy: one had enough space to dedicate an entire room to a piano. In Benyamin’s dark family flat in Kurtuluş, they pulled desks and sofas and tables as close as possible to the high windows with views of cement walls and satellite dishes. In Chloe’s piano room, one had windows to waste: three facing the water, one side-window looking up toward the Black Sea, another looking down toward the Sea of Marmara. Benyamin had even spotted dolphins — a whole school of them — from that window. Perhaps they’d come to listen to Chloe.

A shadow obscured the sunlight flooding the room. Red fingernails tapped the piano’s round shoulder. Benyamin’s eyes travelled up the thick forearm, over the loose tricep, exposed shoulder and leathery neck to the expressionless face that he recognized from the photos in the living room — Madame Eva. She carried a folding chair, wooden and inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Chloe stopped playing mid-piece. She never did that. Benyamin called her his pit bull because she couldn’t let go of her music until she reached the proper end. “In summer,” said Madame Eva, her voice as melodious and clear as the Bösendorfer’s, “the Black Sea dolphins come all the way to Tarabya, but no further. They’re afraid of the lower Bosporus.”

“I’ve seen them,” said Benyamin, standing.

Eva set up her chair by the window. “I’ve counted three just this year.”

He approached her and extended his hand. “Benyamin Alhadeff. Pleased to—”

“I know.” Eva dropped his hand as quickly as she took it. “Have you gone swimming here?”

“No.”

“You should. The salt doesn’t burn your eyes, as it does in the Aegean. But the currents can be dangerous. Sometimes up to four knots.” Eva crossed one bare ankle over the other. Benyamin thought he could see sand on her tennis shoes. Chloe, who, just minutes ago, had been inhaling hypnotically at the music rests and exhaling just after the onsets, now seemed to be holding her breath. Eva opened her arms. “Come, yavri.” Chloe was twenty-four, but her mother still used the Turkish pet name yavri, baby.

Chloe crossed the room and sat on her mother’s lap. Eva sang the slow, tender beginning of a Rum folk song about a vest sewn with bitterness and trouble. She widened her eyes and then, with a strength that Benyamin did not expect from her chubby legs, bounced her daughter to the playful refrain about scolding the vest’s wearer — either a child or a lover — and afterward repenting. Chloe laughed like a toddler. Benyamin hadn’t suspected that she would be just as tender with her mother as she was with him.

Eva planted her lips on her daughter’s head and inhaled. Benyamin wondered what Chloe’s hair smelled like to her. Did she identify the printing ink? Or only the lavender shampoo with which she herself stocked Chloe’s shower?

“I need to get your lunch ready for tomorrow, yavri. And pick out your dress for tonight.”

“Tonight?” said Chloe.

“I didn’t tell you?” said Eva, switching from Turkish to Greek.

Having spent hundreds of hours playing ball with his Greek-speaking Rum friends, as well as endless afternoons sitting at their cramped kitchen tables beneath Blessed Mother icons, ever-burning oil lamps, photographs of dead forebearers, and bunches of dried flowers tied to gas pipes, Benyamin understood the language even though he didn’t speak it.

Eva continued: “The Athenian banker is taking you out.” She set Chloe on her feet and proceeded to the door without inviting Benyamin to tea, without saying that she was pleased to meet him, without even looking him in the eye.

Staring at the empty folding chair, he whispered to Chloe, “Are you going?”

She ran her fingertips over her name, which had been engraved into the gold-painted music stand. “It’s just to placate mama. Nothing more.”


The following February, after an intense altercation with her mother over her “superficiality” (that is, her attachment to Benyamin), Chloe called and asked him to meet her on the quay. He immediately turned off his laptop, hopped on his motorcycle, and sped to their favorite seaside bench in Tarabya; after all, it was a chilly, overcast day, and he didn’t want Chloe catching cold. As soon as he arrived, he tried to calm her, but she didn’t want comforting. They went for a walk along the Bosporus instead. When Chloe tired, they perched themselves on the edge of the quay. Across the strait were some of the last rolling green hills of the Asian side. In ten years, they, too, would probably be built up and covered with concrete.

“The Bösendorfer was made for a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest,” Chloe said.

Benyamin felt a sharp pain in his throat, as if he’d swallowed a fishhook. Was the announcement her way of forcing him to end things? Did she want him to reject the unacceptable and thereby spare her further confrontation with Madame Eva?

“So the Bösendorfer is Holocaust spoils?”

“Absolutely not. My grandmother’s family bought it for her in 1931, when she was a baby. I just wanted you to know its history . . . my history. The Bösendorfer is a part of me.”

Benyamin exhaled. The piano had nothing to do with the Shoah. Furthermore, Chloe wasn’t trying to cast him off. “That’s a relief, because I wouldn’t have been able to…”

“What?”

“I’m glad it was never mixed up in anything.” A passing ship blew its low horn. The seagulls screeched in reply. Chloe said nothing. Realizing it would be best to steer the conversation elsewhere, Benyamin said, “Wasn’t it presumptuous of your grandmother’s family to buy her a piano when she was just a baby? What if she didn’t want to play?”

Chloe stared at him as if he were speaking Chinese. “All girls learned piano.”

“My grandmothers didn’t.” He realized what he’d said as soon as it was out of his mouth. His maternal grandmother had been a seamstress. His paternal grandmother had given birth to her first child at the age of seventeen. Piano playing was a luxury.

“All girls from houses,” Chloe said.

“And my grandmothers were from stables?”

Chloe flinched. It felt, for a second, as if a tanker ship with a broken rudder or a drunken captain had crashed straight into a bicentenarian yalı, as too often happened on the Bosporus. “I didn’t mean that,” she said.

He put his finger to her lips. “I know you didn’t.”

“My parents will have left by now. Let’s go.” She stood, brushed dried sea weed and dust from her trousers and coat, and led him back toward the yalı. A stray dog — half Kangal and half Shepherd — struggled to its feet and followed them. That always happened with Chloe. Even the strays wanted to claim her. At the mansion’s gate she caressed the dog’s ears, called him canım, Turkish for “my soul,” and passed inside the yard without looking back.

They went straight to the piano room. She retook her seat at the Bösendorfer and began playing a slow and graceful piece that Benyamin had never heard before. It seemed to him, even before she revealed the name of the piece, that the music expressed not only her desire, but also her power to limit and conceal. He stood in his usual place, behind the Bösendorfer’s tail, legs spread, arms folded across his chest, declaring with his stance that he was determined to wait her out. “Title?” he asked.

Chloe played all the way to the end, which finished with a left-hand solo, just as it had begun. Without raising her eyes from the keys, she said, “Secret Engagements.”

 


 

In April 2017, Benyamin landed a job at Neşama News, Istanbul’s Jewish newspaper. The extra money — combined with what he already earned from pizza delivery, as well as Chloe’s salary as a piano teacher in an upscale conservatory — made it possible for them to think about living together. He tried to show her a few internet rental advertisements as they sat on the piano bench one Sunday. She looked at the photos on his phone while playing the introduction to one of her favorite pieces. Benyamin had the impression that she was both drawing him near and simultaneously prolonging the pauses, turning them into voids through which he might accidentally slip. Her left hand rose to join the right. Her pupils dilated. The piece’s tone changed from inquisitive to tense. Her hands began running, chasing each other. Her breath shortened. The tiny, chicken-like bones beneath her transparent skin and blue veins rose and fell as if they, too, were part of the instrument. The pads of her fingers slipped along the keys from top to bottom, sputtered between them, played deeply.

He had read that an American anesthesiologist and a British physicist had discovered the location of the soul: the microtubules of our brain cells. The Ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, had thought the soul could be found in the heart, whereas Leonardo da Vinci believed the soul resided in the center of the head. Da Vinci had even dissected a corpse to prove his theory. Watching Chloe play, Benyamin believed that he grasped what had escaped da Vinci, the Egyptians, and modern scientists alike: the soul couldn’t be found in the mind, nor in the heart, nor in some invisible aura or microtubules, but in the hands.

At the most intense moment of the chase, Chloe raised her wrists, bringing the piece to a seemingly premature finish. Her eyes — owlish green with a brown limbal ring — were always more beautiful when she sat at the piano. She said, “And the Bösendorfer?”

“We’ll take her with us.”

The Bosporus turned a muddy pond color beneath the clouds riding in on the back of the Etesians. The winds also carried pine pollen, which was the cause of the annoying surging in Benyamin’s nose. Chloe reached into her pocket, took a tissue for herself, and handed the packet to him. They said in unison, “Three, two, one.” Then they blew as hard and as noisily as they could.

“Winner!” said Benyamin, holding up his hands in victory.

“I give in,” said Chloe.

“I was obviously louder. Way more snot.”

“I mean I’ll move out of the house.”

It was the best thing he’d ever heard. Better, even, than I love you. It meant that Chloe’s mother’s efforts to arrange a match with a wealthy Athenian, or the son of a Rum council president, or the nephew of an archbishop were to come to an end. It meant that Chloe had finally decided not just to love him, but to claim him.

Benyamin picked up her hand and held it to his nose: the sandalwood oil that she wore had merged with the Bösendorfer’s spruce. Benyamin recalled the Orthodox rabbi who had arrived from Toronto a decade before. Istanbul’s liberal Jewish community — Benyamin included — had trouble digesting the rabbi’s hands-at-sides bow to women. But every time Benyamin touched Chloe’s hands, his understanding of the rabbi grew: handshaking could be an almost amatory act.

Chloe tried to pull her hand away. “We just blew our noses.”

“I’d dry my face with a towel you’d used on dirty feet,” said Benyamin. He put her fingers into his mouth one by one, sucking from base to knuckle to fingernail. She shivered. He lifted her off the piano bench and set her down beside one of the massive hexagonal legs, on the Ushak carpet, which was surely worth more than he would make in five years as a newspaper columnist.

 


 

Standing outside the yalı on moving day, Benyamin took a deep breath: the Bosporus smelled more sharply than usual, probably because of the Emiliania huxleyi. He’d read that the plankton was a coccolithopore: a seed that bore rock. Apparently, the mosaic cages of microscopic calcium carbonate plates enclosing the single-celled organism were not only responsible for the Bosporus’s unusual color, but, as the plankton lived and died in millions, the same plates would settle on the strait’s floor and form rocks above the shipwrecks, rubbish, and bits of yalı mansions destroyed by renegade cargo vessels.

The crane’s hoist line tightened and began to reel in, pulling the piano up. Benyamin would have liked to be with Chloe, comforting her while she watched Old Lady Bösendorfer dancing on corde lisse. But Chloe would be down soon enough. He’d take her into his arms. The piano would be placed safely in the truck, and they would start their life together.

The yellow straps rose above the balcony railing, followed by the piano’s tail, covered in padded blankets. The crane hoisted higher and higher, first to clear the railings, then the gutters. The main hoist rotated again, ever so slowly, flying the Bösendorfer between Chloe’s mansion and the neighbor’s to reduce damages in case of accident. Finally, the telescope retracted. The piano had made half its exodus.

The movers, each carrying a swaddled piano leg, descended the mansion’s front steps. Chloe pushed past them to Benyamin. She wrapped her arms around his neck, planted her wet cheek against his. He kissed her tears. They were saltier than the Bosporus. If he and Chloe were to have a snot-blowing competition now, she would win.

“The hardest part is done,” he said.

“It’s not that.” She pushed out her lips. Her expression was childish, imploring. He knew that look. She was asking for a solution. Benyamin pulled away. Chloe turned toward the mansion. Sandwiched between the sheer curtains and the window above the main door stood Madame Eva. Perhaps she was counting dolphins. Or deciding where to throw her poison.

“You can visit her whenever you want,” said Benyamin.

Chloe covered her eyes with her hands. “She won’t let me.”

He again looked up at the window. Now Madame Eva was staring straight at him. He thought he could make out a sneer, an expression that said, I win.

“She threatened you,” he said.

Chloe remained silent. He could have solved any problem but this one. Why was she telling him now? Couldn’t she have waited until they had moved the piano into the new flat? If she was telling him now, then … he embraced Chloe as tightly as he could without hurting her.

She said, her voice muffled in his chest, “Every romance has an expiration date.”

“Who would dare put an expiration date on love?” he said.

Chloe didn’t reply. This had to be the reason her father was always “working.” Eva’s maternal devotion left no place for him. No place for anyone.

“Stop!” Benyamin yelled to the crane operator. He jogged to the hoist, waving both hands overhead like malfunctioning windshield wipers.

The machine paused. The operator poked his head out of the window. “What happened?”

“Stop,” he said.

“But it’s going well.”

“I need a minute.”

Benyamin sat on the slate stones surrounding Nurbanu Hanım’s plane tree. He’d faced Chloe’s hesitation before. The first time they’d been intimate: it had taken all night because she had been so afraid of the pain. He didn’t want to force her. They had held each other, cried together, grasped at each other, slipped away, returned, until finally, exhausted, he decided to spare them both the frustration of defeat. Benyamin remembered his father’s words. “If it’s really love, you shouldn’t be asking. You should be announcing.” He saw the calcium carbonate cages of the Emiliania huxleyi falling to the Bosporus floor, the anchovies devouring as many as they could.

Chloe sat beside him. He sensed that she was looking into his eyes, but he avoided her gaze. She reached for his hand. He pulled it away, stood, and called out, “Put it back!”

“Excuse me?” returned the crane operator.

“I’ll pay what we agreed. Have them set it up exactly as it was.”

“She changed her idea?”

Benyamin held his right hand to the sunlight peeking through the plane tree’s leaves. The pink half-moon scar was still there, a year after she’d carved it into his hand. In his head, he heard his father say haberes buenos. Out loud, Benyamin said to the crane operator, “No. I changed my mind.”

 

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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