[Forthcoming in You Don’t Look British]
I come from an island that is scared of the sea. Sliced in two like a juicy blood orange. Those who can claim the island for themselves make it clear that my being born there was an accident. I am neither Turkish Cypriot nor Greek Cypriot, and lived a grand total of 2.5 years on the island of which neither I, nor they have a memory.
From the faded photographs it looks like I was a happy child, with a head full of blond curls. My parents say I used to call myself “Dede,” which is the Turkish word for grandfather. People often thought I was a boy.
If I were to make a dictionary of this place, it would have the sea in it, and the fear of night, my first un-belonging, and rotting fruit.
1. Endless water, interrupted by land.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez says that it is possible to cross the Aegean Sea by jumping from island to island all the way to the port of Salonica. The word for sea is el mar, in Marquez’s language. Masculine.
- A proper name for Turkish girls and boys.
- Rotten. Of fruit and swollen skin. Suffering from decay.
On the North of the island, Cypriots do not pick their oranges or their grapes. They do not eat them or sell them. They miss the old days when there was no North or South. They dislike the Turks of the mainland, and the Greeks of the mainland. They simmer in nostalgia and let their fruit rot.
In the old days it made sense to pluck oranges out of trees, or to pick them from the ground once they were ripe. It made sense to share the fruit with strangers, or to eat it before it rot. But nothing ever stays the same, not even the past.
I do not remember taking a flight to my mother’s country, the flat, green lands up north. But I do remember carpets on dining tables, sausages hung out to dry in the pantry, a yellow parakeet, coffee with lunch-time sandwiches, ijslollies, my Oma and Opa. They tell me my Opa had such big hands that he could hold me in just one palm when I was born. But now I am older and he is no longer there.
It is just my Oma, with the blue white hair, and I am jealous of her because she has stolen my mother away. They talk and hug and laugh for hours. My father sits upstairs and works. He types on his typewriter and applies to a hundred jobs. I leave the island words behind and start to talk to him in Dutch, in this language of flat, green lands, and we lose a bridge. He looks at his daughter with uncomprehending eyes.
Oma en Opa: (Dutch)
1.Grandmother and grandfather.
I lose my grandparents early and don’t get to use the words often.
1.The word for foreigner, the root of which is strange.
My father in Holland.
We fly to Istanbul. My aunt, who is big and beautiful, is afraid to hug me because my curls are still blond and she is dark like caramel and this must mean that I will not like her. She smells of cigarettes and carries boxes of baklava at all times. When I push with my index finger her flesh bounces back like jelly and I fall in love with her.
We get on to a bus with my grandmother’s friends. My grandmother is a teacher, a feminist, a poet and larger than life. Nevertheless, I manage to overtalk her. I am fascinated that people smile at me and look lost. I talk louder so they can understand. They offer cuddles to my Dutch words. I leave the green flat lands behind and lose another language. I slowly find my way back to the Turkish words I had since forgotten, this time without the tilt of Cyprus. The tongue of the mainland.
- Key, amongst peasants.
- Heart, in old Turkish.
When I am older, I go to the island again, this time as an activist. There is a border where there shouldn’t be one, and I am young and believe people might fall in love if that border did not exist.
Still, I do not put mint into my ayran, do not elongate my vowels, do not tan from habit. But I know this land, I say. I know its barbed wires. The police have noted my name down because I have talked to the Greeks too much. I was born in the city that is now no man’s land, Famagusta. Its hotels still have bullet holes on their walls, untouched since 1974.
I want to say that I belong to that forgotten city as much as they do, those who claim the island for themselves, but my wish drizzles out like an ill-fated affair. I do not insist. For a place is not home if the people there want you to prove your lineage, your bond, your legitimacy. I was born on an island that is scared of the sea, and that is divided and sliced in two like a juicy blood orange. But that was an accident. I am not from there.
- Barrier, paling, railing, rail, bar, hurdle, enclosure; wall, hedge, hedgerow, windbreak, groyne.
- That through which you can see, but never touch.
Many, many years ago, the poet Rumi whom the Turks, the Persians and the Afghans all claim for themselves, wrote a poem:
‘The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all,
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows.’
Centuries later in America, which was yet unconquered in Rumi’s time, a land where Rumi was a mere dream in some child’s mind or not even that, Rebecca Solnit wrote:
“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”
They both thought having a home had something to do with welcoming strangeness, and strangers. A space of your own meant, a space that could be shared.
- Stranger or one who lives abroad.
- Unattended, unfortunate.
- Chrysanthemum flower.
- A gypsy.
On a rainy evening in Istanbul, I meet Othman. He is a refugee from Syria.
I am also a stranger, I say to him. I have been away for 14 years. I also came to Istanbul in September, just like you. He smiles and nods. We both know his arrival was nothing like mine.
He places a photo of a palm tree between our coffee cups. He is from Palymira. “The dates we had there,” he says, “were a special kind. You don’t have dates like that in Turkey, or even in Saudi Arabia. The best soil. The best tree.”
I nod, wanting to know further, wanting to know more. Greedy for a story of departure, and then a story of arrival.
“But don’t ask me that question,” he says, “the one about home. Don’t ask any of us that.’”
- Iraq, a country bordering Turkey.
2.Very far. Out of reach.
When the Austrian born Stefan Zweig left his homeland for Brazil, he did not know he would commit suicide two years later. He wrote a love song to his new home titled: “Brazil: Land of the Future,” he wrote a poem of disappointment to Germany titled: “The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European.”
For the Jewish writer escaping the Second World War, Brazil was the country of hope and Germany the country of the past, but Zweig could not let go of his memories.
Zweig and his wife Lotte killed themselves at a fishing hut, on a sunny day in Petropolis, whilst his neighbours were making love on hammocks strung between sky and sand.
Memento mori: (Latin)
- Remember (that you have) to die.
Edward Said, the Palestinian critic and activist, believed that as a child the world was your home, as an adult you had a home, and as an old man you felt at home nowhere. This makes me think of a Persian saying: your thoughts make up your feelings, your feelings create your actions, and your actions produce your destiny. Both quotes remind me of walking. Of the experiments of Francis Alys in Israel, which he marked with paint as he followed the green line that severs Palestine from Israel.
Some of us are homeless from avoidable causes such as lack of laughter, lack of adventure, lack of forking paths.
Old gypsy caravans were decorated with light, with shiny mirrors, giving the illusion that your home contained the world, that the world and you were reflected in those mirrors, that you were inside of the world and inside of the mirror at once.
Some of us have dared imagine a better home and are homeless because of that.
1.Meaning, “look.” Root of the word “mirror.”
Some people lose themselves in a mirror, some people find themselves in a mirror. At times the mirror can be a portal too. Yet another door, but with a shiny surface.
At some point in the forking road, your old home is no longer yours: it outgrows you, you become accidental to it, and your new home is not yet a home either. At the beginning it may feel like you are in limbo, or on a bridge, uncertain which direction to take, backwards in time to something new or onwards in time to something new. For nothing ever stays the same, not even the past.
Snakes shed their skin two to four times a year. They live under the ground and on top of it. They have tongues cut in two, and a body that can survive its own transformations. Some snakes are venomous, most only pretend.
As the dust settles, as you make a habit of going to and fro, the bridge that you are on will disappear. The forking paths will disappear and you will wake up to realise you are not on a journey at all, you are in a labyrinth and both the old-new place, and the recent-new place feel equally distant. At that point, you begin to question yourself.
15 Temmuz Sehitler Koprusu: (Turkish)
1.The bridge that connects Asia to Europe. Formerly the “Bosphorus Bridge.”
Blocked to traffic by military tanks at the eve of a failed coup in 2016, on a hot July night. By the next morning, 248 are dead.
I take a journey back to the flat green lands. I move to Belgium, then to Holland. I eat raw fish from market stands. I go to Dutch courses. I find my way back to the words I had forgotten.
Linguists say those who forget a language when very young, will nevertheless preserve their accent. My words are shy and my vocabulary tiny but I sound like I am from the flat lands.
Nevertheless, my blond curls have by now turned chestnut, I have a nose ring, and wear gypsy clothes. My room is filled with mirrors. Those who claim the land for themselves do not think I am from there.
- The binoculars used by sailors to spot the land.
- The screen on which shadow theatre is played.
For many years, each time I return to Istanbul, I want to stay. Istanbul is a short- lived love affair. The taste, the hope, the images linger. It is just out of reach. I daydream of it constantly, until I reach Scotland.
There, something unexpected happens. I gain a home without any warning, even if I have no dictionary for this place. Despite all expectations I understand its cab drivers and the Neds because they roll their r’s the way Turks do and I support both Celtic and Rangers depending on who is asking and also because I do not care.
4.5 years later, I leave this city crying. I cry as I pack my suitcase. As I call the cab. At the bus station. On the bus to the airport. At the airport. On the plane as I land in Turkey. I am no longer interested in Istanbul. I want to stay in Glasgow but my plans have fallen through the cracks and I have no job and no money and one goes back when one has neither.
I text my mother from my aunt’s, where I am spending my first night, “welcome to the jungle,” she says. For we are 15 million crowded in beauty, in streets ripe with ambition and heartache and sheer anger, panting, pushing, rushing, kicking, shoulders clicking, struggling, honking above all else. Everybody is in an extreme rush to get somewhere that is extremely important and life changing and this pace is exhausting after the slowness and dreariness of rainy day in, and rainy day out, after broken umbrellas in gutters and lady grey tea with milk.
I must speed up if I want to keep pace.
I do not want to keep pace and hide in my flat for a year.
A long time ago, in the old days when Turks lived on horses, they wore turquoise stones that symbolized the sky. That way, they could travel anywhere and still keep the heavens with them. They were nomads and did not own any land. Only the clouds and the stars mattered.
1.A stone that is blue, because CuAl6(PO4)4(OH)8.5H2O.
When the bridge that used to be called the Bosphorus Bridge turned into the 15th of July Martyrs Bridge, I was dancing at a ceilidh in Edinburgh. My telephone kept on ringing. We watched the telly until the morning hours and smoked cigarettes with whiskey. Strangers hugged me.
I was away for 14 years but returned to Istanbul in the year of the bombs. 21 exploded in one year. We met inside our flats, and avoided the metro if we could. We were 15 million in beauty, in heartache and sheer anger, panting, pushing, rushing, kicking, shoulders clicking, struggling, and we were scared.
Each small demonstration, each loud mention of dictatorship, each tweet against Erdogan felt both like winning and losing a war.
- Virtual Private Network
What Turks use when Twitter and Facebook are banned or slowed down to incur silence. Pretending to be non-Turkish whilst online, or pretending to be live somewhere else.
So, I make a habit of escaping, of going back to Glasgow. I order the one drink that does not make me sleepy – gin and tonic – and situate myself across from windows that could one day be mine, and begin to reflect that, at least, I know what home is not.
It is not scared of the sea. It doesn’t have a forking tongue. It does shed its skin. I would like it to posses a hammock.
It is the places that I dream of as much as the places I remember.
A summer in Buenos Aires in dresses I have not yet bought, with books that I cannot yet read, in a language that I am learning but do no yet speak.
It is when someone, without really knowing you, tells you exactly what you need to hear. Majella telling me to leave that man who doesn’t know my worth, the missionary in the basement bathroom telling me God thought I was so very pretty. The Polish cab driver saying “do not buy that house.” My father coming down the stairs in the afternoon, from a dream of my grandmother telling him: “do buy that house, we will come and visit.”
It is not the man who likes me very much but just not enough. It is not a man.
It may be a woman. It may be several women. A commune, a list of e-mails. A WhatsApp group of beginner belly dancers who adore their gay teacher. A five minute conversation about Marquez and the salt lakes in Bolivia in a shared taxi in Tel Aviv with a backpacker I shall never meet again. It may also be a place, yes. It may be a flat with a fishpond in its courtyard, or one that overlooks a train rail. It may be a country I have never seen, and it may be coming back to Istanbul or Glasgow from that very country.
It may be when I stop, and give everything else time to fall into place.
But here is a disconcerting thought: species disappear once their natural terrain disappears. Solnit writes of a friend who goes about photographing dying species in rainforests. He pictures them against black velvet. If this is the case with humans too, I may already be a lost species. Away from Cyprus, away from Holland, away from Turkey for so long. Maybe when people look at me they see a disappearing habitat and then grow afraid.
 The title of this essay is from a sentence by Solnit. Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, (Canongate: Edinburgh, 2006), p.20.