“Growing up among the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.”
My mother, my father, my older brother, my father’s mother, my uncles, and my aunts—we all lived on different floors of the same five-story apartment house. Until the year before I was born, the different branches of the family had (like so many large Ottoman families) lived together in a large stone mansion. In 1951, they rented it out to a private elementary school and built the modern structure that became our home on the empty lot next door; on the façade, in keeping with the custom of the time, they proudly put up a plaque that said “Pamuk Apt.” We lived on the fourth floor, but I had the run of the entire building from the time I was old enough to climb off my mother’s lap. On each floor, there was at least one piano. When my last bachelor uncle put his newspaper down long enough to get married, and his new wife moved into the first-floor apartment, from which she would spend the next half century gazing out the window, she brought her piano with her. No one ever played this one or any of the others.
In each apartment, there was also a locked glass cabinet displaying Chinese porcelains, teacups, silver sets, sugar bowls, snuffboxes, crystal glasses, rosewater pitchers, plates, and censers, which no one ever touched, although among them I sometimes found hiding places for miniature cars. There were unused desks inlaid with mother-of-pearl, turban shelves on which there were no turbans, and Japanese and Art Nouveau screens behind which nothing was hidden. There, in the library, gathering dust behind the glass, were my uncle’s medical books: in the twenty years since he’d immigrated to America, no one had touched them. To my childish mind, these rooms were furnished not for the living but for the dead.
If my grandmother thought we weren’t sitting properly on her silver-threaded chairs, she would bring us to attention: “Sit up straight!” Sitting rooms were not places where you could hope to sit comfortably; they were little museums designed to demonstrate to a hypothetical visitor that the householders had been Westernized. A person who was not fasting during Ramadan would perhaps suffer fewer pangs of conscience among these glass cupboards and dead pianos than he would if he were still sitting cross-legged in a room full of cushions and divans. Although everyone knew that Westernization meant freedom from the laws of Islam, no one was quite sure what else it was good for. So it was not just in the affluent homes of Istanbul that you found these haphazard and gloomy (but sometimes also poetic) displays of Western influence; it was all over Turkey. Only with the arrival of television, in the nineteen-seventies, did they go out of fashion. Once people discovered how pleasurable it was to sit together to watch the evening news, their sitting rooms changed from little museums into little cinemas—although you still hear of old families that put their televisions in their central hallways, opening their sitting rooms only for holidays or special guests.
If anyone asked, my grandmother would say that she was in favor of Atatürk’s Westernizing project, but in fact—and in this she was like everyone else in the city—neither the East nor the West interested her. Now she seldom left the house, but, after becoming engaged to my grandfather, and before marrying him, she did something that was rather brave in Istanbul in 1917: she went out with him to a restaurant. Because they were sitting opposite each other at a table, and because they were served drinks, I like to imagine they were in a restaurant café in Pera, which, at that time, was a mostly Christian neighborhood. When my grandfather asked her what she’d like to drink (meaning tea or lemonade), she, thinking he was offering her something stronger, answered him harshly: “I’ll have you know, sir, that I never touch alcohol.”
Forty years later, if she got a bit merry on the glass of beer that she allowed herself at our family dinners on New Year’s Day, someone would always repeat this story, and she would let out a large, embarrassed laugh. If it was an ordinary day, and she was in her usual chair in her sitting room, she would laugh for a while and then shed a few tears for the early death of the “exceptional” man, whom I knew only from a collection of photographs. As she cried, I would try to picture my grandparents sauntering through the city streets, but it was hard to imagine this woman, a round, relaxed matron from a Renoir painting, as a tall, thin, nervous woman in a Modigliani tableau.
The tulle curtains in my grandmother’s sitting room were always drawn, but it made little difference, since the building next door was close enough to keep the room dark. There was not a single surface that wasn’t covered with frames. The most imposing contained two enormous portraits that hung above the never-used fireplace: one was a retouched photograph of my grandmother, the other of my grandfather. From the way the pictures were positioned on the wall and the way my grandparents had been posed (turned slightly toward each other, in the manner still favored by European kings and queens on stamps), anyone who met their haughty gaze would know at once that the story began with them.
They were both from a town near Manisa called Gördes, in southwestern Anatolia. My grandfather’s family was known as Pamuk (Cotton) because of their pale skin and light hair. My grandmother was Circassian. (Circassian girls, famous for being tall and beautiful, were very popular in Ottoman harems.) My grandmother’s father had immigrated to Anatolia during the Russian-Ottoman War (1877-78), and eventually settled in Istanbul. My grandfather was studying civil engineering there. In the early thirties, when the new Turkish Republic was investing heavily in railroads, my grandfather made a great deal of money, and then built a large factory that manufactured everything from rope to a sort of twine and dry tobacco; the factory was on the banks of the Goksu, a stream that fed into the Bosporus.
My grandfather died of leukemia in 1934, at the age of forty-six, and my grandmother became the “boss” of our large and prosperous family. That was the word her cook and lifelong friend, Bekir, used with light sarcasm when he tired of her never-ending commands and complaints: “Whatever you say, boss!” But my grandmother’s authority did not extend beyond the house, which she patrolled with a large set of keys. When my father and my uncle lost the factory they had inherited at a very young age from my grandfather, entered into costly construction projects, and made rash investments that ended in failure, forcing us to sell off the family assets one by one, my grandmother would just shed a few more tears and tell them to be a bit more careful next time.
In the library, photographs of the new generation were arranged in a careful symmetry along the walls. My prolonged study of them made me appreciate the importance of preserving certain moments for posterity, and I also saw what a powerful influence the scenes exerted over us as we went about our daily lives. To watch my uncle pose a math problem to my brother, and at the same time to see him in a picture taken thirty-two years earlier; to watch my father scanning the newspaper and trying, with a half smile, to catch the tail of a joke rippling across the crowded room, and at that very same moment to see a picture of him at five years old—with his hair as long as a girl’s—it seemed plain to me that my grandmother had frozen these memories so that we could weave them into the present. When, in the tones ordinarily preserved for discussing the founding of a nation, my grandmother, presiding over the dinner table, spoke of my grandfather who had died so young, and pointed at the frames on the tables and the walls, it seemed that she, too, was pulled in two directions, wanting to get on with life but also longing to capture the moment of perfection, savoring the ordinary but still honoring the ideal.
When I was little, I loved these long, festive meals. As the family played tombola and I watched my uncles laughing (under the influence of vodka or raki) and my grandmother smiling (under the influence of her tiny glass of beer), I could not help noticing how much more fun life was outside the picture frame. I felt the security of belonging to a large and happy family, and could bask in the illusion that we had been put on earth to take pleasure in it. By ourselves, in the privacy of our own apartment, my mother was always grousing to my brother and me about the cruelties of “your aunt,” “your uncle,” “your grandmother.” In the event of a disagreement over who owned what, or the division of shares of the rope factory, or who would live on which floor of the apartment building, the only certainty was that there would never be a resolution.
If I was too young to understand the underlying cause of these disputes—that my family, still living as it had done in the days of the Ottoman mansion, was slowly falling apart—I did begin to notice my father’s bankruptcies and his ever more frequent absences. I could hear in greater detail how bad things were whenever my mother took my brother and me to visit our other grandmother in her ghost-ridden house. While my brother and I played, my mother complained and her mother would counsel patience. This grandmother, worried, perhaps, that my mother would want to return to the dusty three-story house in which she now lived all alone, was endlessly bringing its many drawbacks to our attention.
Apart from the occasional show of temper, my father found little cause to complain in life; he took a childish delight in his looks, his brains, and his good fortune, which he never tried to hide. Inside the house, he was always whistling, inspecting his reflection in the mirror, rubbing a wedge of lemon like brilliantine on his hair. He loved jokes, word games, surprises, reciting poetry, showing off his cleverness, taking planes to faraway places. He was never a father to scold, forbid, or punish. When he took us out, we would wander all over the city, making friends wherever we went, and during these excursions I came to think of the world as a place made for taking pleasure. If a problem arose, my father’s response was to turn his back on it and remain silent. My mother, who set the rules, was the one to raise her eyebrows and instruct us about life’s darker side. But I depended on her love and affection, for she gave us far more time than our father, who seized every opportunity to escape from the house.
In the evenings, when we gathered in my grandmother’s sitting room as a family, I often played a game wherein my grandmother’s apartment became the captain’s station of a large ship. This fantasy owed much to the traffic passing through the Bosporus; those mournful horns made their way into my dreams as I lay in bed. As I steered my imaginary ship through the storm, my crew and passengers ever more troubled by the rising waves, I took a captain’s pride in knowing that our ship, our family, our fate, was in my hands.
But as my father and my uncle stumbled from one bankruptcy to the next, as our fortune dwindled and our family disintegrated and the quarrels over money grew more intense, every visit to my grandmother’s apartment became a sorrow and a step closer to a realization: it was a long time coming, arriving by a circuitous route, but the cloud of gloom and loss that the fall of the Ottoman Empire had spread over Istanbul finally claimed my family, too.
The Pamuk Apartments were built in the hills above the city, at the edge of a large lot in Nisantasi that had once been the garden of a pasha’s mansion. The name Nisantasi (target stone) comes from the days of the reformist, Westernizing sultans of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, who practiced shooting and archery in the hills. When the Ottoman sultans, fearing tuberculosis and desiring Western comforts, as well as a change of scene, abandoned Topkapi Palace for new palaces outside the old town, their viziers and princes began to build themselves wooden mansions in the hills of Nisantasi.
Through the back windows of our building on Tesvikiye Avenue, beyond the cypress and linden trees, you could see the remains of the mansion of Tunisian Hayrettin Pasha, a Circassian from the Caucasus who served as Grand Vizier for a short while just after the Russian-Ottoman War. As a young boy, in the eighteen-thirties (a decade before Flaubert wrote that he wanted to move to Istanbul and buy a slave), he’d been brought to Istanbul and sold into slavery, eventually finding a place in the household of the governor of Tunis, where he was brought up speaking Arabic. He joined the Army, served as a Tunisian representative in France, and eventually worked at command headquarters, in the parliament, in the diplomatic corps, and was the president of a commission that was established to reform the country’s finances. After he left office, Sultan Abdülhamit summoned him to Istanbul.
The sultan engaged Tunisian Hayrettin Pasha as a financial adviser for a short time, and soon he made him Grand Vizier. The pasha thus became one in a long line of financial experts with international experience who were given the mandate to save Turkey from debt. As with many of his successors, people expected a great deal of this pasha, simply because he was seen as more of a Westerner than an Ottoman or a Turk. And, for precisely the same reason, he was later resented. The gossip was that Tunisian Hayrettin Pasha would make notes in Arabic when returning home in his horse-drawn carriage from his meetings in Turkish at the palace; later he would dictate these to his secretary in French. The coup de grâce was an informer’s report of rumors that the pasha’s Turkish was poor and that his secret aim was to establish an Arabic-speaking state; Abdülhamit knew these rumors were essentially baseless, but he nevertheless removed the pasha from his post. The disgraced pasha ended his days in the mansion whose garden would later be the site of our apartment.
The only stone mansion still standing in our neighborhood was a former home of grand viziers which had passed into the hands of the municipality after the Ottoman Empire fell and the capital moved to Ankara. I remember going for my smallpox vaccination to another old pasha’s mansion that had become the headquarters of the district council. The rest—those mansions where Ottoman officials had once entertained foreign emissaries, and those of Abdülhamit’s daughters—I remember only as dilapidated brick shells with gaping windows and broken staircases darkened by bracken and untended fig trees. By the late fifties, most of them had been burned down or demolished to make way for apartment buildings.
Watching the pashas’ mansions burn to the ground, my family maintained a stony equanimity—much as we had done in the face of all those stories about crazy princes, opium addicts in the palace harem, children locked in attics, treacherous sultans’ daughters, exiled or murdered pashas, and, ultimately, the decline of the empire itself. As we in Nisantasi saw it, the republic had done away with the pashas, princes, and high officials, so the empty mansions they had left behind were only decrepit anomalies. Still, the melancholy and mystery of this dying culture was all around us. In childhood, I felt this as a deadening tedium, which I identified with the alaturka music to which my grandmother tapped her slippered feet.
One escape was to go out with my mother. Because it was not yet the custom to take children to parks or gardens for their daily fresh air, the days on which we went out were momentous. “Tomorrow I’m going out with my mother!” I’d boast to my cousin who lived downstairs. After walking down the spiral staircase, my mother and I would pause before the little window facing the door, through which the caretaker could see everyone coming and going. I would inspect my clothes in the reflection, and my mother would make sure that all my buttons were fastened; once outside, I would exclaim in amazement, “The street!”
The brothers, with their mother in the Pamuk Apartments, in 1954. Photograph courtesy Orhan Pamuk
Sun, fresh air, light. Our house was so dark that stepping out was like opening the curtains too abruptly on a summer day—the light hurt my eyes. Holding my mother’s hand, I gazed at the displays in shopwindows: through the steamy window of the florist’s, the cyclamens that looked like red wolves; in the window of the shoe shop, the barely visible wires that suspended the high-heeled shoes in midair; in the laundry (just as steamy as the florist’s), the sweating men who cleaned and ironed my father’s shirts. There was an old Greek lady who darned stockings and sold belts and buttons; she also sold “eggs from the village,” which she’d take out of a varnished chest one by one, like jewels. In her store was an aquarium where undulating red fish would try to bite my finger, pressed against the glass, with a stupid determination that never failed to amuse me. Next, there was a tobacconist cum stationery and newspaper shop, so small and crowded that most days we’d give up the moment we entered. There was a coffee shop called the “Arab shop.” (Just as Arabs in Latin America were often known as “Turks,” the handful of blacks in Istanbul were known as “Arabs.”) The shop’s enormous belted coffee grinder would begin to thunder like the washing machine at home and, as I moved away from it, the “Arab” would smile indulgently at my fear. When these shops closed, one by one, to make way for a string of more modern enterprises, my brother and I would play a game inspired less by nostalgia than by a desire to test our memories. One of us would say, “The shop next to the Girls’ Night School,” and the other would list its later incarnations: (1) the Greek lady’s pastry shop, (2) a florist’s, (3) a handbag store, (4) a watch shop, (5) a soccer bookie, (6) a gallery bookshop, (7) a pharmacy. But it was from the windows of the stationery store, in which I noticed the same school notebooks my brother used, that I learned an early lesson: our habits and possessions were not unique. There were other people outside our apartment who lived lives very similar to ours.
My father often went to faraway places. We would not see him for months on end. Strangely, we hardly noticed his absence until he’d already been gone for some time. By then, we were already accustomed to it—rather in the way you might realize belatedly that a seldom-used bicycle has been lost or stolen. No one ever explained why our father wasn’t with us, and neither did anyone tell us when to expect his return. It did not occur to us to press for information: because we lived in a big apartment building, surrounded by uncles, aunts, my grandmother, cooks, and maids, it was easy to pass lightly over his absence without stopping to question it.
When boredom loomed, I would push the bottles and brushes toward the center of my mother’s dressing table, along with a locked silver box with floral decorations which I had never once seen my mother open, and, bringing my head forward so that I could see it in the central panel of the mirror triptych, I would push the two wings of the mirror inward or outward until I saw thousands of Orhans shimmering in the deep, cold, glass-colored infinity. When I looked into the nearest reflections, the back of my head would shock me, as did my ears at first—they came to a rounded point at the back, and one of them stuck out more than the other, just like my father’s. Even more interesting was the back of my neck, which made me feel as if my body were a stranger I carried with me—the thought is still chilling. Caught between the three mirrors, the tens and hundreds of reflected Orhans changed every time I altered the panels’ positions even slightly, and, although each new succession was different from all the others, I was proud to see how slavishly each one aped my every gesture.
Losing myself inside my reflections came to be “the disappearing game,” and perhaps I played it in order to prepare myself for the thing I dreaded most: although I did not know what my mother was saying on the phone, or where my father was or when he would return, I knew that my mother was prone to disappear, too. But when she disappeared they’d give us a reason: something like “Your mother is ill and resting at Aunt Neriman’s.” I treated these explanations as I did the mirror reflections: knowing them to be illusions, I still accepted them, allowing myself to be fooled. A few days would pass before we’d be handed over to Bekir the cook or Ismail the caretaker. With them, we’d take boats and buses all the way across Istanbul—to relatives on the Asian side of the city, in Erenköy, or to other relatives in the Bosporus town of Istinye—to visit my mother. These were not sad visits: they felt like adventures. Because I had my older brother with me, I felt that I could count on him to meet all dangers first. The houses we visited were all inhabited by near and distant relations of my mother. When these compassionate old aunts and hairy uncles had finished kissing us and pinching our cheeks, after they had shown us whatever strange thing in their house had attracted our attention—a German barometer that I once thought was shared by all the Westernized houses of the city (a miniature man and wife in Bavarian dress would leave and reënter their home according to the weather); or a clock with a cuckoo that would turn on its axis and retreat sharply into its cage every half hour to announce the time; or a real canary warbling in response to its mechanical cousin—we would proceed to our mother’s room.
Dazzled by the bright expanse of sea that showed through the window, and by the beauty of the light (perhaps this is why I’ve always loved Matisse’s south-facing window views), we would remember, sadly, that our mother had left us for this odd and beautiful place, but we were reassured by the familiar things that we saw on her dressing table—the same tweezers and perfume bottles, the same hairbrush with its lacquered back half-peeled away, and, wafting through the air, her incomparably sweet smell. I remember how she would take each of us on her lap, in turn, and embrace us warmly; how she would give my brother detailed instructions about what he was to say, how he was to behave, and where to find the things he was to bring her the next time we came. My mother had always been fond of giving instructions. While she did all this, I’d look out the window, paying them no attention until it was my turn to sit on her lap.
One day, when my mother was staying with Aunt Neriman, my father came back to the house with a nanny. She was short, with very pale skin, far from beautiful, round, and always smiling; when she took charge of us she said that we were to behave just as she did. The nannies we knew were mostly Germans, with Protestant souls; this one was Turkish and held no authority for us. When we fought, she’d say, “Nice and quiet, please, nice and quiet,” and when we imitated her in front of my father he laughed. Before long, she, too, disappeared. Years later, when my mother really lost her temper she would say things like “I’m leaving!” or “I’m going to throw myself out the window!” (once going so far as to dangle one of her beautiful legs over the windowsill). But whenever she said, “And then your father will marry that other woman!,” the candidate for new mother I’d imagine was not one of the women whose names she sometimes blurted out in a moment of anger but that pale, round, well-meaning, and bewildered nanny.
Because these dramas all took place on the same small stage, and because we almost always talked about the same things, and ate the same things, even arguments could be deadly dull. But there was one fight in the early years that had a deeper effect on me. One evening, during supper in our summer home on the island of Heybeli, not far from Istanbul, my mother and father both left the table. For a while, my brother and I sat staring at our plates as we listened to them shouting at each other on the top floor, and then, almost by instinct, we went upstairs. When my mother saw us trying to join the scuffle, she pushed us into the next room and shut the door. The room was dark, but a strong light shone through the Art Nouveau designs on the frosted glass of the two large French doors. My brother and I watched as our mother’s and father’s shadows approached each other and pulled apart, then moved forward again to touch each other, shouting as they blended into a single shadow. From time to time, this shadow play became so violent that the frosted glass trembled—just as it did when we went to the Karagöz shadow theatre and everything was black and white.
My grandmother passed her mornings in bed, under heavy quilts, propped up against a pile of huge down pillows. Every morning, Bekir served her soft-boiled eggs, olives, goat cheese, and toast on a tray that he placed carefully on a pillow (it would have spoiled the ambience to put an old newspaper between the flower-embroidered pillow and the silver tray, as practicality would have dictated); my grandmother would linger over her breakfast, reading the paper and receiving her first guests of the day. (It was from her that I learned the joy of drinking sweet tea with a piece of hard goat cheese in my mouth.) My uncle, who never left for work without first embracing his mother, paid his visit early every morning. After my aunt had sent him off, she, too, would stop in, clutching her handbag. For a short period before beginning school, when it had been decided that it was time I learned to read, I did as my brother had done: every morning, I arrived with a notebook in hand, established myself on my grandmother’s quilt, and tried to learn the alphabet from her. As I would discover when I began school, it bored me to learn things from someone else, and when I saw a blank piece of paper my first impulse was not to write something but to blacken the page with drawings.
In the middle of these reading and writing lessons, Bekir would come in and ask the same question, using the same words: “What are we going to serve these people today?”
He asked this question with enormous gravity, as if he were charged with running the kitchen of a large hospital or an army barracks. He and my grandmother would discuss who was coming from which apartment for lunch and supper, and what should be cooked for them, and then my grandmother would take out her great almanac, which was full of mysterious information and pictures of clocks; they would look for inspiration at the “menu of the day” as I watched a crow flying among the branches of the cypress tree in the back garden.
Despite a heavy workload, Bekir never lost his sense of humor and had nicknames for everyone in the household, from my grandmother to her youngest grandchild. Mine was Crow. Years later, he told me that it was because I was always watching the crows on the roof next door, and also because I was thin. My brother was very much attached to his Teddy bear and wouldn’t go anywhere without it, so to Bekir he was Nurse. One cousin, who had narrow eyes, was Japan; another, who was stubborn, was Goat. A cousin born prematurely was called Six-Month. For years, he called us by these names, his gentle mockery softened by compassion.
In my grandmother’s room, as in my mother’s, there was a dressing table with a winged mirror; I would have liked to open its panels and lose myself in the reflections, but this mirror I was not allowed to touch. My grandmother, who never made herself up, had positioned the table in such a way that she could see all the way down the long corridor, past the service entrance and the vestibule, and right across the sitting room to the windows that looked out onto the street, thus allowing her to supervise everything that happened in the house—the comings and goings, the conversations in corners, and the quarrelling grandchildren beyond—without getting out of bed. Because the house was always so dark, the reflection of a particular maneuver was often too faint to see, so my grandmother would have to shout in order to ask what was going on, and Bekir would rush in to report who was doing what.
When she wasn’t reading the paper or embroidering flowers on pillowcases, my grandmother spent her afternoons with other Nisantasi ladies, mostly of her age, smoking cigarettes and playing bezique, and also, on occasion, poker. Among the poker chips, which she kept in a soft, blood-red velvet pouch, were old perforated Ottoman coins, some with scalloped edges and others inscribed with imperial monograms, and I liked to take these into the corner and play with them.
One of the ladies at the game table was from the sultan’s harem; after the fall of the empire, when the Ottomans were forced to leave Istanbul, they closed the harem, and this lady married one of my grandfather’s colleagues. My brother and I made fun of her overly polite way of speaking: despite the fact that she and my grandmother were friends, they would address each other as “Madam” while falling happily upon the oily crescent rolls and cheese toasts that Bekir had brought them straight from the oven. Both were fat, but, because they lived at a time and in a culture in which this was not stigmatized, they were at ease about it. If—as happened once every forty years—my grandmother had to go out, the preparations would go on for days, until my grandmother shouted for Kamer Hanim, the janitor’s wife, to come up and pull with all her strength on the strings of her corset. I would watch nervously as the corseting scene progressed behind the screen with much pushing and pulling, and cries of “Easy, girl, easy!” I was bewitched, too, by the manicurist, who would have paid my grandmother a visit some days earlier. This woman sat there for hours, with bowls of soapy water, and many strange instruments assembled all around her; I stood transfixed as she painted my revered grandmother’s toenails firehouse-red, and the sight of her placing cotton balls between my grandmother’s plump toes evoked in me a combination of fascination and revulsion.
Twenty years later, when we were living in other houses in other parts of Istanbul, I often visited my grandmother in the Pamuk Apartments, and if I arrived in the morning I would find her in the same bed, surrounded by the same bags, newspapers, pillows, and shadows. The smell in the room—a mixture of soap, cologne, dust, and wood—never varied, either. My grandmother always kept with her a slim leather-bound notebook, in which, every day, she recorded bills, memories, meals, expenses, schedules, and meteorological developments. Perhaps because she’d studied history, she liked to follow “official etiquette” on occasion—though there was always a note of sarcasm in her voice when she did—and each of her five grandsons was named after a victorious sultan. Every time I saw her, I kissed her hand; then she would give me some money, which I shamefacedly but gladly slipped into my pocket. After I had told her what my mother, father, and brother were up to, she would sometimes read me what she’d written in her notebook: “My grandson Orhan came to visit. He’s very intelligent, very sweet. He’s studying architecture at university. I gave him ten liras. With God’s will, one day he’ll be very successful and the Pamuk family name will once again be spoken of with respect, as it was when his grandfather was alive.”
After reading this, she would peer at me through her glasses, which made her cataracts look even more disconcerting, and give me a strange, mocking smile. As I wondered whether she was laughing at herself or laughing because she knew by now that life was nonsense, I tried to smile in the same way. ♦
(Translated, from the Turkish, by Maureen Freely.)