Trans* Home is a shelter for trans individuals, LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees who need a safe place to stay in Istanbul. It was established by the LGBTI Solidarity Association in 2013.
Guest* House / Misafir* Hane was a collaboration between photographer Ömer Tevfik Erten and myself that aimed to bring awareness to this magical place through an interplay of images and words. Ömer photographed the shelter’s residents, and I wrote a magically real account of their journeys (in Turkish and English). You can find the story below.
The project was turned into a book with the kind support of the Dutch Consulate in Istanbul. Guest* House / Misafir* Hane was designed by Merve Deniz, published by Mas Matbaa, managed by Kübra Uzun and launched on the 17th of June 2019 in the Dutch Palace on Istiklal Street.
The residents. Image credit Ömer Tevfik Erten
The launch. Image credit Oğulcan Arslan.
On the Cusp of Sagittarius
By Defne Çizakça
For Hande Kader
My one and only friend Madam Blavatsky moved to Izmir and created a set of Tarot cards in the year 2001. From the city of Ankara, where she had grown up, she only missed the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. She wanted to take me there to see the tiny ancient sculpture of a woman with big breasts seated on a throne that had feline arm rests. “Because there was a time when women ruled the world,” Madam said, “women and cats.” We never made it to her East. Madam died by suicide. She had learned from somewhere that vertical was the way to go, not horizontal, and she bled to death in just a few minutes. When Kismet, the black cat, and I found her in the bath she had a smile on her face, as if to say she had not expected this ending either but that she had forgiven us, and the world, anyway.
But there is another way to start this story. My one and only friend Madam Blavatsky was born Selim Demirci and deemed a boy at birth. She moved to Izmir and created a set of Tarot cards because there was no other job available to her. She had been fired from the state office where she had worked for the past 10 years. They did not like her slowly changing face, mellowing from man to woman. In Ankara, where she had grown up, the family I would never meet had disowned her. “One day we will visit the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük,” Madam said to me, “because one must celebrate whatever remains of the Goddess Cybele.”
Madam loved archaeological digs, hills that were in fact layers of houses, dry land that had turned to water, lakes that had become mountains: that is to say, she was keen on transformations. Most of all, she believed hardly anything was how it seemed and that is what I miss most about her.
The war broke out in Syria on March 2011. I left my home on a warm autumn evening. I walked for days and nights. We were many people at the beginning. One by one, they swerved left and right. To Antep, and to Adana, to Konya and to Bursa. Most had Istanbul as destination.
When I began the journey, the days of walking did not scare me. Crossing the Turkish border did not scare me. Having no language to communicate with did not scare me. Having no money did not scare me. The only thing that did scare me was the water. I did not trust it. Nevertheless, just like the moth drawn to the fire, I wanted to be close to it.
There were so many of us drowning. Our offerings to the Aegean for a safe passage. The water had swallowed us whole, the way it had gulped down treasures, and ships for thousands of years. Mouthfuls of laughter, heirloom rings and watches, they all disappeared just as easily as our country had.
As I walked towards the sea, I was offered tea in narrow waisted glasses, I was offered food, new shoes, a clean shower, free or paid for sex. I worked at a hairdresser’s, a key maker’s, a bakery, as the apprentice of a carpenter, and as a porter for a supermarket.
I needed to know what else I could be. I needed a map. That is why I went to the fortune telling café the moment I arrived in Izmir. I had all the information that would be required of me: born on the 20th of November, at 5.35 in the morning, under the house of Scorpio, on the cusp of Sagittarius.
Madame Blavatsky was sitting on a chair outside the coffeehouse, smoking Marlboro Menthol Lights. She was fat, beautiful, and in full make up. Her metallic blue eye shadow matched her eyes, which matched her stubble, which matched the blue tint in her hair. She said that she was in training, meaning that she could not read my astrological chart yet, but she could read my coffee cup and Tarot cards. I was game, not because the offer was satisfactory, but because there was a feeling of destiny in the air. So we sat face to face. I would like to think we had prepared for this meeting for all of our lives.
To any onlooker, the similarities would have been apparent. A mother and a son, or perhaps, an aunt and a cousin. Madam was the bigger, the more generous, the more loving version of me.
She puffed out smoke and asked me to pick a card: the Fool. She did not seem surprised. I was to pick another: then came the Tower. “You have no home, am I right?” she asked, “Or perhaps a burning home. There shall be a fresh start.”
Madam was older than me, weaker, sickly under her fake eyelashes. I could have been a thief and stolen from her, I could have taken advantage of her body, I could have occupied her flat and never left. “But the cards told me everything I needed to know, Ahmet’ciğim,” she said, and gave me a spare set of keys and a room in her house.
The question one asks – the question the refugee asks, the question the trans asks – is always a variety of this particular riddle: How long will it take for me to become myself? How many sacrifices, how many trials, how many bumps in the road before I find my home?
There is a Persian saying that ties character to destiny:
You must think good thoughts because your thoughts become words.
You must say good words for words become your acts.
You must act good deeds for deeds become your fate.
But there were times I was crowded by dark thoughts. I wished for another, easier body. A body that would not need hiding, a body that could be exposed, a body that would not betray me. I did not feel my hairy legs were mine. My beard, my prominent adam’s apple, my broad shoulders all seemed strange to me. On most days, I could not look at my sex. On some days, I taped it away. I avoided mirrors and shiny surfaces because they didn’t reflect who I really was. The man in the mirror scared me, even if he looked more frightened than I.
Madam B. was a homebody. She liked strolling around in her pyjamas, loved her soft house slippers, the comfy cushions, and was addicted to watching Turkish telenovelas whilst eating sunflower seeds. But despite her cozy nature, something in the house felt off.
“Sometimes I lose my cigarettes,” Madam B. said, “Sometimes I swear someone else is using my shampoo.” She had drawn her own conclusions. “We are not alone here, are we, Ahmet’ciğim?” she asked me after our first month together, “Tell me who else is here.”
Once in a while, at the thresholds, at dusk and dawn, I had come across the Greek man, perched like a bird on the windowsill, singing gloomy songs. The ghost of a sea captain. He loved talking to me in Arabic, which he had picked up during his many travels. Captain Christos was not too happy with the state of affairs now that Madam B. had moved into his primary residence. “It is just that my wife spent years decorating this house,” he said, “and then we had to leave when Izmir burned down, but as you can see, I refused. This is my home, and no one can kick me out of it. But look at my sorry state now. My heart is broken. I am forced to live with this woman whilst my wife is nowhere to be seen.”
“If you want Christos to leave, we have to offer him gifts,” I told Madam B. So we bought incense and sage, prayed prayers from the three religions of the book, and prepared a pot of yaprak sarma, stuffed grape leaves. We also offered Christos Marlboro Menthol Lights and strings in the colour red. And thus the old captain began to fade by the day. He waved us goodbye before disappearing all together.
Once in a while, I still miss him.
There were times I would wake up to a riddle in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, scared for my life. My heart would pound to the question: how do you change to the person you are? Over breakfast, over our Ayvalık green olives and sucuklu toast, I would ask Madam the very same question. “Sometimes it is through another person,” she would say, “sometimes through a door.”
After her suicide I left the city searching for that door. I took all the money she had kept in an old music box. The type where a ballerina pops up once you open the lid. Where to go on my pilgrimage but to Istanbul, I thought, to the city my one and only friend had talked about so lovingly, to the house where she had been a guest up to a year, to the apartment in Dolapdere where she had changed into the person she was.
But Madam had warned me: the hero’s journey is never easy. Just like in the old fairy tales, before you are granted a wish, you must overcome hurdles, slay a monster, and solve a riddle. Only after you prove yourself truly resilient will the house appear to you.
In Istanbul my first hurdle was this:
1) I had no place to sleep. I asked a key maker for an old key, “What must it open?” he asked, “It is only decorational,” I replied and sat by the closed gate of a deserted convent that faced Istiklal street. The shop owners said it had been bolted for years. I intuited there would be other homeless people living in the convent, locked away and forgotten, making do with the fig tree that bore heavy fruit in the midst of the garden, and the milk people left for the cats. It took me a week to unlatch the gate.
Once inside, I slayed not only one but three monsters:
2) In my new home I met a group of pickpocketing children, and a Romani girl who played the accordion to fall asleep. We each had a different fear.
I had two; one was the water, the other the shame inside of me, which even Madam B. had not been able to erode. In my worst moments, I thought I was an anomaly.
The Romani girl feared men, and she was also scared of spiders.
The pickpocketing children suffered from claustrophobia.
There was no fixing this unless we swapped our monsters. I could feed the spiders, the Romani girl could make music in closed quarters, the pickpockets could disorient the men. None of us had to walk alone ever again. Thus I was presented my gift of floaties to conquer the seas. And then was tickled and hugged, fed Turkish delight, and draped in lacy tablecloths. After a week, we buried my shame in the garden.
3) I met the fortune teller. As the best of us are, he was drifting on the edge of reality. He read cups at an Armenian arcade that used to be full, but was now filled with empty shops. Sometimes he advertised non-existing goods, and sometimes I bought from him with my non-existing money.
Once I had gained his trust, the fortune teller said: “Most people will not see the house you are looking for, because there is a protection spell on it. The witches of Istanbul are on our side. If the powerful ones had known there was a safe house in the midst of this city, they would have destroyed it a long time ago, for the women in there do not have wombs. It does not occur to the powerful ones, and it does not occur to most people, that there are many ways of mothering.” And with that he gave me a crumbled piece of paper. Warmed by his bulky hands, smudged with his sweat, blessed with the secret address.
When you knock on the door of the Trans Home, it opens onto a pink corridor. Every room in it heals a different disease. A bellboy dressed to the nines greeted me, as if I were entering a hotel in a distant destination – Paris in the 19th century, New York in the 20th. He gave me a big notebook where I wrote my name; many had come before me, and there would be many more to follow. I filled in my date of birth and passport number. “Real or fake, it doesn’t matter,” the bellboy said. Then he began asking me questions and ticking off boxes.
Had I hurt myself in the last 6 months? Had I suffered trauma? Had I entertained suicidal thoughts? Had they ever prayed over me so that I would be fixed? Had they expelled me from school? Had they sent me to a healer, to an imam, to a matchmaker? Had I starved myself, had I stuffed myself, had I tried to disappear? Had they ever taken me into a forest to beat me up? Had they ever thrown stones at me, or knifed me? Had I ever been raped? “Secrets are safe here,” the bellboy said, “take deep, melancholy breaths.”
From in between my tears and behind the bellboy, I could see into a room from which Eda smiled at me from her downward dog, Mert wore suspenders and a disappointed look on his face, and Ayça was busy cutting paper into ever smaller triangles. There were 9 people in that room, all 9 of them would save me.
Our rooms are named after famous people. Zeki Müren and Bülent Ersoy. There are also mystical names. Jonah, because he was tested a lot, Erzulie Dantor, the voodoo protector of lesbians, and John of the Cross, because the Christians always thought he was gay.
Other rooms include: Esra Ateş, Simge Sezer, Eylül Cansın, Çağla Joker. To me, these are just names. Perhaps they are not famous people, but friends. When I ask the bellboy, he tells me that they are all dead. Killed, burnt, raped. They had danced, prayed, sworn, and looked for new names so that they could change their destinies, but nothing quite fit and nothing quite worked. “We remember them here,” he says, “Bless their hearts.”
The Trans Home is a bit more crowded than our house in Izmir. Many of the residents get uneasy at night, but do not know why. I see them. The flamboyance, the drama, the peacock quills. How beautiful they all were, how beautiful they all are.
I guess that these are the older residents. One by one I ask them what they want. They each tell me different things. Perfume. Oralet. A fan in this horrid heat. One complains there is no sex in the after world. The other is grateful that there is no sex. They love it that I chat with them. They are frustrated that the rest don’t.
The rest think that I am mentally ill. “The only thing missing here was a nutcase,” they say. We have the trans, the gay, the occasional beaten wife, the refugee, and now some mad hatter. God help us. I do not bother to explain my predisposition because I am busy changing into the person that I am.
I pinpoint the threat on my first day: what depresses the residents most is boredom. Some of the girls hardly go out. They say that there is evil outside. Just the other day, someone threw a rock at them, they barely escaped into the house, bleeding. Others do go out, but under the cloak of the night. The most common hobby is fortune telling, cards, television, dating apps, gossip, melancholy.
It is one of the ghosts who gives me the idea of the fashion show. “Look,” she says, “When we died we left all our clothes here. They might as well make use of it.” So it falls upon me to relay the message. As they think I am crazy, I tell them Prophet Hızır entered my dream, and suggested that we walk on a podium to pay our bills.
“Nothing in this life comes for free,” I say, “and Istanbulites will always want to buy clothes.” Öykü nods and opens the wardrobe, Ayça begins texting all her friends. We begin talking all at once. New life bursts open at the shelter.
To organise a fashion show, one needs a team. There will be those who choose the clothes, those who style the jewellery and make up, those who clean and sweep the venue, and those who finally take on the catwalk. We fill our quota with the gays, the lesbians, the trans, the drag queens, but no one knows if we will have an audience. Just before the show, I peek from behind the curtains, and lo and behold, we have a full house, and that full house purchases all of our diva clothes.
What the audience does not know is that, we are wearing the clothes of the dead, we are wearing the clothes of our sisters. I am wearing Madam B.’s shawl, her skirts. The amulet she gave me upon our meeting. The bracelet that hung over her cut veins. What they do not know, but intuit, is that we are walking with the dead and for the dead and that we are walking so that we don’t die, so that we are not beaten and burned, so that we are not raped, so that we are not killed. And the audience looks at us, and they smile, and they cheer, and they shout slogans so that we may be free, and for that one night, we are famous and beloved.
With the money we earn from the trans fashion show, we start renting the second floor. We turn it into a dormitory, the downstairs area becomes our living space. We pay the rent of both flats for a year. We have enough in our pockets for electricity and heating and gas. We pay to bring one of our dead back from Vienna. We organize the funerals no one was willing to pay for.
The Hero’s journey is never easy. Madam B. had said as much. One must overcome hurdles, slay a monster, answer a riddle. The question the refugee asks, the question the trans asks, is always a version of this particular riddle: how do you change to the person you are?
The answer is: slowly. The answer is: a little bit every day. The answer is inside of you. The answer is you are already there.