March 1 2016
It was a dreary, dusty Turkish town a few miles from the sea, surrounded by exquisite fjords that make Norway look a trifle dull. I took up residence in the only hotel willing to accept a woman — there were two of them, grubby places where sheets were changed once a month. And, in a tiny café snuggled into a complication of market stalls, I became acquainted with the owner, Aşcan, and his cousin Necmettin.
Necmettin, a serious young lad of twenty-five with thick glasses and a head of false teeth said he wanted to brush up on his English; he worked in a bank, dreamt of promotion, an oversees posting and escape. He invited me to his house for lunch, and I soon became a constant visitor, fascinated by the residents.
The long, low, L-shaped structure was set right in the town centre, and surrounded by a high wall. A forbidding iron gate opened into a luxurious garden of vegetables, fruits, out houses and odd twists and turns; the house itself was a series of rooms, each a separate unit and occupied by a relative. Strange relatives.
Auntie a woman of enormous boils and goiters dominated all, and her husband, a bandy-legged character was involved (as far as I could tell) in buying up and shifting out assorted contraband. One cousin, a friendly, backward chap, came and went, giggling and eager, off in his own mysterious world. Another, tricky, legless, sat on a wheeled wooden plank in the open doorway of his cubicle, selling contraband cigarettes. He was surrounded by six little mirrors, and through them could survey customers slinking through the tricky garden, be forewarned of police intrusion. A female cousin, thin, dark-haired, with an impressive grin of gold teeth, liked to talk about her fiancé, a man who worked in Istanbul. Giggly, obviously in love, hopeful, she was a satisfied woman.
“But,” Necmettin later said, “her fiancé left town nine years ago. He hasn’t been heard of since.”
The most intriguing resident was Leyla, and she occupied the most luxurious room, that closest to the gate and forming the bottom of the L, a dwelling space always dark, with drawn curtains, one low light. Blond, very beautiful, with a voluptuous figure, Leyla claimed she was too ill to leave her bed. To prove this, she would, from time to time, cough, spit into the bucket always on hand.
“I took her to Antalya two years ago, just so she could consult a specialist,” said Necmettin to me in English. “She was fine the whole time we were there. She was like a young child. Skipping around. Laughing. The doctors said there was nothing wrong with her;”
Leyla looked sourly at Necmittin. She had understood every word. She turned to me: “There’s no reason for me to get up or be healthy. I’m the eldest daughter in the family, and my parents have decided I’m never to marry. I have to be the family slave, the one who cooks and cleans. I speak four languages — Arabic, Turkish, German and English — and I’m condemned to this house for life. Without my parent’s permission, I can’t leave, work, get a passport. I want to marry, have children like other women, but since I’m forbidden this, I’m waiting for death.”
Necemettin lived with his father and older brother at the far end of the house, in one stinking room. A leaking coal stove provided meager warmth but it was just enough to animate other, more complicated odours: rotting food on the many dirty on plates lying on the floor, unwashed clothing. There was no female to carry out chores, so things were left to be. Only occasionally did one daughter, a harassed woman with many children, who brought over meals, have time to take things in hand.
The brother, with impossibly long fingernails, curling, twisting, returning hand-ward, belonged to some obscure sect, and his rare utterings were punctuated with Koranic citation. The fingernails hindered useful employment.
The father, a dying man, choking, coughing, spitting on the cement floor, was pleased to meet me, have a visitor — a foreign visitor, no less. His eyes shone, and always forced himself to stand when I arrived. And, of course I always had to drink something. A little glass of raki?
There was only one glass, a dirty, smudged thing, obviously never washed, always shared, but couldn’t offend the man. Surely cheap alcoholic raki was strong enough to murder any ambitious virus.
“Aşcan and I need your help,” Necmettin said to me one day. “Aşcan’s youngest sister is very intelligent. She wants to go to university, become a teacher, but her father has arranged a marriage for her. Marriage to an ignorant, old man. He wants to punish her, you see, because she’s too intelligent. You must try to help her before it’s too late.”
How could I help?
“Just come with me and Aşcan to his father’s house tonight. You have to speak on his sister’s behalf.”
“Why would her father listen to me?”
“Because you are educated. Because you are foreign and speak Turkish.”
Aşcan’s father had called together a quorum, male tribal support, to ward off the foreigner and her threatening new ideas. They were all sitting in a circle on the floor waiting for our arrival. None looked at me, and all were hostile. Only the young woman who dreamt of being a teacher greeted my arrival with something like hope. But she was also cowed and desperately unhappy.
Uninvited, I nevertheless joined the circle, explained the world is changing, Turkey is changing and education is important.
“A woman should stay home. Take care of her husband and have many children.”
“An educated woman, a teacher, will be the best mother. Will bring honor to the family.”
“A woman who works brings shame upon the family.”
I was given fifteen minutes to state my case, and I saw that the men were unmoved. Necmettin, Aşcan and I went back out into the dark street.
“Perhaps if you spoke to my aunt and uncle,” said Necmettin, “then you could help Leyla. She’s too young to die, to stay in bed for the rest of her life.”
“Why not? I’ve nothing to lose.” Probably nothing to gain either.
Necmettin and I sat down to drink tea with auntie and bandy-legged uncle. Both listened to me plead for Leyla; both nodded sympathetically. Both found my argument, that Leyla be allowed to marry, ridiculous.
“We have two sons. One has no legs, one is backward. Neither will bring back a wife. Our youngest daughter has been engaged to be married for over twelve years now. Who will take care of us when we are old? Who will do the household chores? No, Leyla cannot leave this house.”