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A Space Bounded by Shadows

Author: Emine Sevgi Özdamar
Translator: Yana Ellis

 

PROLOGUE

Suddenly, I was awake. Noises behind the wall, as if a truck was constantly trying to burst through the walls. Animals scuttling in the loft; animals next door tapping their feet against the wall. Someone weeping—maybe the blind woman who stands by her open door listening to the wind around 4 o’clock every morning. At those moments, she looks as if she could see. Every night the light stays on in her room. She sits on her bed; sometimes she sleeps sitting up with her eyes open and when she sleeps like that she looks as if she can see. When she dreams, she can see again because she had her eyesight until she was twelve. The images she saw for twelve years didn’t fade with her eyesight; they’ve just moved from the alleyways and rooms — now black and empty — into the blind woman’s dreams. Now all the noises were back as if a truck stood behind the wall, constantly edging forwards trying to push through the wall. After each noise, dust and scraps of decaying wood came down from the old ceiling where the beams had rotted with time and come loose.

I went down to the kitchen.

The first rays of dawn, one foot still in the night, had already sneaked through the window and settled on the table and chairs, their sad shadows separating the kitchen from this world, so they could return the place to the dead who had once lived here. Now small stones and sand trickled down from the fireplace, hitting the lids of the big pots, dispersing all around the kitchen with mechanical noises. Up in the chimney a pair of doves was cooing and perhaps beating their wings against the narrow chimney walls.

The sad light now crept from the chairs to the floor, enveloping the scattered sand and small stones that dispersed all around the kitchen from the chimney to reunite, in this half-night-half-day hour, with the hands of the dead who had once built this fireplace. The whole island was still asleep and only the blind woman stood awake by her open door and listened to the wind.

I walked towards the front door where the noises were coming from, as if a truck kept trying to burst through the wall. I opened the door; the narrow alleyway — too narrow for a car to drive through — stood empty, but a couple of heavy stones fell from the low broken wall opposite. A donkey stood there with a long rope around his neck, tied to the only tree in the overgrown garden. The donkey tried to escape from the rope, running again and again as far as the rope could reach, bashing at the low wall with his whole body and hooves. Behind the donkey lay the ruins of a Greek chapel and behind it, the Greek Orthodox church.

While I was straining my neck looking at the Orthodox church, the donkey too turned towards it and stood like this — quietly — straining his neck. Had the church whispered something to the donkey while I was still asleep and made it so restless, or had the church talked to itself and the donkey overheard it? Had the Orthodox church always talked to itself, or did it talk only last night to the donkey; both abandoned by their people, both tied firmly to a place they couldn’t run away from. The feet of all the people who walk down this alleyway to get to the harbour and then back up to their houses had vanished hours ago. These feet were now lying behind the doors of the houses in the form of shoes and had to wait for the morning. It won’t be for another hour that the shoes of the fishermen who go out to sea will be turned again towards the front door and put on again; some of the fishermen’s wives will feel strange in their nightgowns while lying in bed, their gaze fixed upon their departing husbands. When the men, with hurried steps, begin to walk through the dark, narrow, stone-paved alleyways towards the harbour, some will even knock on windows in passing, without interrupting their stride: ‘Memet, Memet, get up! It’s five o’clock – kayık kalkıyor, the boat is leaving.’ The water they quickly splash onto their faces will cling to their deep wrinkles and only hit the ground halfway to the harbour.

When these fishermen go to sea in their little boats, they’ll keep silent because it’s still night. But their boat motors, not built for boats but for field irrigation systems, get louder and louder until the whole hull starts trembling and some of the fishermen’s noses start to tickle because of it. Takatakatakatakatakatakatakatakatakataka. These noises, like sky-sized knives, will tear the night into pieces. When the pieces of night night’s pieces start to fall into the sea, thousands of crows will sit on the housetops or on the island’s telegraph posts and caw in chorus until the imam starts chanting the call to morning prayer in the distant mosque. Two loudspeakers are attached to the dome of the Orthodox church. From the church dome the imam’s voice will sneak through the closed windows and start tiptoeing around the rooms. The voice will stroke the hand towels, quietly hanging in the dark, turn the light switches on and off, ruffle the bedsheets and make every dog with half-opened eyes bark. Then next door’s cockerel will start crowing üüürürürü. Then it will fall quiet again until the light chased by shadows starts caressing the trees. At that moment a few peaches will fall from the tree.

But there is still time.

Just for now though, the donkey, the Orthodox church, the blind woman sitting outside her open front door, and I are alone.

The night has pulled something from the darkest corners of its memory and has quietly shared this something between the Orthodox church, the donkey, the blind woman, and me.

 

THE ORTHODOX CHURCH SPEAKS

ISLAND

All houses on this island were related. The people too resembled each other. You could almost believe that behind their front doors, similar masks hung on doornails that they put on before leaving the house; even their hands looked as if they had put on the same hand-masks. Some were fishermen, others olive pickers.

This Turkish Island lies exactly opposite the Greek island of Lesbos.

The island people here had three winds: Imbat, Poyraz, Lodos. There was the Y?ld?z wind too, but it didn’t come by that often. Imbat, on the other hand, was a frequent visitor; Imbat blew from opposite, from Lesbos — first enveloping the houses of Lesbos in fog and haze, then galloping in on the backs of the flying horses across the Aegean that connected these two islands, blowing all the laundry that hung on the balconies or in the gardens backwards; incessantly punching the bellies of bedsheets, trousers, underpants, pillowcases, petticoats, and nylon stockings, flap-flap-flap. Imbat swept everything backwards: the fishermen’s hair, the fishermen’s wives’ hair, the children’s hair, the horses’ manes, and the donkeys’ ears. When Imbat blew, sheets of paper lying on the steep cobblestones flew backwards, away from the sea and up the alleyways. Imbat glued the women’s clothes to their bodies, outlining their breasts, bellies, and thighs, and what was between those thighs. Back in the days of the Ottoman Empire mothers went to the Turkish baths to look for a well-built girl for their sons: a bridal show in the Turkish bath. Imbat offered the same spectacle.

On the days when Imbat stopped blowing, Poyraz replaced it, doing the opposite. Poyraz blew from the mountains, sweeping everything forward towards the sea. The fishermen’s hair flew from back to front, and the fishermen’s wives’ clothes clung to their bodies, so that their bottoms and legs — as if sculpted by artists — could be seen in the alleyways. And so, visits from both winds — Imbat and Poyraz — immediately transformed this island into a Salon de Louvre where you could observe the statues of Venus now from the front, now from the back. Poyraz, which blew from the Turkish Kaz Mountains towards Lesbos, didn’t envelop Lesbos in haze and fog as Imbat did, but instead made the houses on Lesbos visible from afar.

The third important wind was Lodos, the hot southern wind. When it came, the first thing it did was slap all the islanders in the face. On Lodos days the women, men, children, donkeys, and goats looked sorrowfully at the ground like trolls from Peer Gynt, trudging along the steep narrow alleyways or around the harbour as though in a slow-motion film. Even the flies flew slowly, saying vee-vee-vee rather than wheeze-veez-wheeze-veez. On Lodos days, the sea looked like an impotent sky that had fallen to Earth. Amidst the heat, the windowpanes seemed to expand, breathing heavily as if about to burst. One of the older fishermen once said that when Hitler bombed Lesbos, the windowpanes had burst on this Turkish island, and the numerous shards of glass in the sunny alleyways stabbed the eye like a sharp knife, and the Greeks of Lesbos fled here in boats from Hitler.

Just like the winds Imbat, Poyraz, and Lodos, the animals also claim that it is they who live here on this island, rather than humans. Let the countless seagulls living on the twenty-five uninhabited islands surrounding this one teach their baby seagulls to fly whenever and however it suits them, the adult seagull choir encouraging the youngsters into flight scream with loud seagull voices sounding like a never-ending laugh, propelling the baby seagulls for hours from the rocks to the sky, from the sky to the sea, then back up into the sky. Let them use all the rocks on the low or high cliffs as their seagull toilet. Let them fly behind the fishing boats in groups, like a dragon’s tail, hovering motionless in the sky until the fishermen throw small unsaleable fish from their nets back into the sea. As soon as the small half-dead fish hit the water, then the seagulls, before carrying the fish off into the sky in their beaks snapping open and shut, screaming loudly again in chorus as only seagulls can, without tearing the sky into pieces, summon all the gulls from the twenty-five uninhabited islands to the feast. And come they do. But let’s leave the seagulls on their twenty-five islands still uninhabited by humans eating, shitting, and teaching their chicks to fly. Here, on our islands inhabited by humans, you might say that together with the winds Imbat, Poyraz and Lodos, it was the cats and crickets that occupied all the trees and gardens, roofs, and alleys. z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?-z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?z?.

Whenever the fishermen’s wives, feeling strange in their clothes, walked down the steep narrow alleyways towards the harbour, z?z?z?z?z?z? resounded above their heads, and down between their feet, meow, meow, meow, meow. Whenever the women tired of hearing these voices from the trees above and the earth below, they threatened the crickets, craning their necks with a ‘sus yeter giver — enough, be silent, die,’ and bowing their heads, they threatened to banish the cats to one of the twenty-five uninhabited islands.

I’ll take you to Naked Island.
I’ll take you to Melina Island.
I’ll take you to Fig Island.

Fig Island, one of the twenty-five uninhabited islands, once had four fig trees with really juicy figs. But six years ago, one of the fishermen hacked them down to burn in his winter stove. And all the other fishermen have been scolding him for six years because they could no longer find shade when they cast their nets in the bay of Fig Island and wanted to smoke a cigarette under a tree. The fishermen loved those trees because they were always on rocking boats and above them, whenever they raised their heads, they saw the sky also tossing like the sea with clouds always on the move — appearing at first like an animal, then like alleys in the sky transforming the animal into disembodied cotton wool. And from these sky-alleys seagulls fly, suddenly and purposefully, straight towards the fishing nets. Curses were hurled at the seagulls, but the seagulls carried only the fish into the sky and the fishermen’s curses fell into the water. The fishermen always had seagull stories; they gave the seagulls a female name: Aziza. ‘Aziza geldi, Aziza geldi, Aziza gitti. I just pulled in the net, what did I see? Aziza’s come and gone.’

The fishermen’s wives had no Aziza stories to tell; they didn’t scold the Azizas, they almost never saw them. But they had goats or horses and cats.

Ayşe hanım, for example. She lived at the top of the island’s hill. She had stopped going down to the harbour thirty years ago, she said. Ayşe was newlywed back then; she had come from a mountain village. Her husband wanted to take her to the harbour. They drank tea in one of the tea houses; the husband had a horse back at home and said to Ayşe , ‘Wait here, I’ll go to the restaurant to get some stale bread for the horse.’

Ayşe waited for a couple of hours, then walked the steep alleyway on her own, wanting to get home; the houses all looked alike though, and she couldn’t find her house at first. When she finally found it, she saw her husband feeding the horse and talking to him. She swore that she would never again go to the harbour. ‘Go and drink tea at the harbour with your horse,’ she’d said; she has upheld her oath for thirty years and still curses the horse.

One of the neighbours who never married had a sister who was also a spinster. She poked holes in the cats’ ears and adorned them with earrings made of silver threads. She did that when the cats started yowling for the tomcats’ attention. And she put walnut shells on the cats’ paws, for them to pull on as slippers when they entered the house.

Another fisherman’s wife kept a goat, but the goat wouldn’t let her near because, according to the woman, the goat was in love with her husband. Whenever he walked over to the goat, she would lick his hand. If the wife was there, the goat would kick her in the shins and embrace the fisherman with her front legs on his shoulders. Another fisherman’s wife ran away with a shepherd and his herd of goats. Her husband stole the billy goat from the herd and hid it — the shepherd went crazy, ‘Where’s my billy-goat?’ It was autumn, mating season. ‘Give me my wife back, and I’ll give you your goat,’ said the husband. Three weeks later they exchanged woman for goat.

Everyone here has some sort of animal story. No one knows whether they are true or not. The men don’t talk about their wives, but about Azizas; and the women don’t talk about their husbands, but about goats and horses.

The neighbours’ voices can be heard until 9 o’clock at night. Amidst their voices the cats, sheep and birds are also conversing. Whenever two elderly neighbours talk to each other, it sounds like parrots chattering: half Greek, half Turkish. Ela bre Hasan. Kala bre pedakimu. At 9 o’clock people change into nice clothes and call to each other ‘Ela Hasan,’ ‘Ela Sevim’ and go to the coffee houses on the harbour. After 9 o’clock the houses empty of human voices. Only the animals next door tap their feet against the walls. All the feet that go down to the harbour must pass the Orthodox Church.

The first time I walked from the harbour to the Orthodox Church, a long time ago now, the sky still looked undecided after the heavy rain: should it reveal the moon or should it hide it, together with the stars, from the eyes of the world? The path to the church was dark; a few streetlamps flickered dimly; some were not on. The wind blew half-drawn curtains into the rooms, then sucked them back out into the street and showed me the rooms. In one room, a little old woman stood motionless, a cloth in her hand. In the next house, a man in pyjamas was sitting in an armchair, then a small child sat down with him. In the next one, the room was lit, but no one was inside. I saw a large, framed photo hanging on the wall: a man and a woman. From time to time people walked up the cobblestone alleyway in pairs, or a man and a woman walked down the alleyway towards the harbour. Everything — their bodies, their feet, their hair — knew every step of these paths. They were their childhood alleyways: up, down, down to the port, then up and back home.

‘Mama, I’m here.’

‘Son, go and buy salt and don’t forget the kerosene.’

‘Mama, I lost the money, had it in my hand but Poyraz took it away from me.’

‘When your father comes home, he’ll show you Poyraz!’ ‘Mama, I want to die before you.’

‘What are you saying, daughter?’

‘I love you very much, I cannot live without you, let me die before you.’ ‘And what am I to do then, daughter?’

‘Mama, I saw a white snake in the garden.’

‘What would a snake be doing there? You must’ve seen something else.’

‘Mama, I swear it was a snake. May I go blind if I’m lying.’

All these words surely had been spoken in the houses I saw on my way to the Orthodox Church. And like all childhood words they had been living for years with the now grown-up people — under the pillows or the beds or behind the picture frames. Some of those words also surely lived in the wells that endured their loneliness with dignity in the dark gardens of these houses and allowed people to lower buckets for water. And surely, every time, they found their childhood words in the water drawn from these wells.

‘Mama, the bucket fell into the well.’

‘You clumsy fool.’

‘Mama, the rain is coming into the house under the door.’

‘Mama, I have my period.’

And surely in these houses lived not only these Turkish sentences, but in the depths of the wells or in the foundations or in the ceilings or under the wooden stairs, far below, there were also Greek sentences — voices from back then, because from the time of Homer until 1922, Turkish Greeks had lived here on this island. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed after the First World War, the Germans allied with the Ottomans lost the war against the English, Italians, Greeks, and French, who divided the Ottoman Empire among themselves. Atatürk and his followers continued to fight the occupiers, won that war, and called the new republic the Republic of Turkey. And what did it mean to be a Turk back then? A Turk was a concept of the future. The demise of the Ottoman Empire had left behind fear, trauma, and uncertainty. All Turks were to gather under the umbrella of one nation so they would no longer be afraid, and those who were not Turks were a problem for the new nation. And so the Turkish Greeks had to leave Turkey and the remaining Turks were to gather under this one-nation-umbrella and had to practice becoming-one-nation again and again in order to give birth to this nation.

In 1923 the Turkish Greeks were transported from here to Lesbos and Crete and the Greek Turks, who had lived for centuries in Greece, on Lesbos and Crete, were brought here to this island. They called this the population exchange. But the dead in the graves could not be exchanged, the cemeteries remained, and the languages could not be exchanged. The Greek Turks, who were brought here from Lesbos and Crete, have spoken Greek as well as Turkish for generations, and the Turkish Greeks who were chased from here to Greece — on Lesbos and Crete — have continued to speak Turkish, as well as Greek amongst themselves for generations.

And from both coasts, every evening people see the lights on the other shore where their grandparents lived, and when a Greek drowns off Lesbos the corpse appears here on this Turkish island, and when a Turk drowns here, the corpse washes up on the shores of Lesbos. The winds and the sea exchange the dead and return them to their places of origin. The Orthodox church, which had to stay behind on this island, has been an orphan since 1923: no candles, no mass, no Greeks opening and closing the door. What did the church see back then when the people fled? A wicker chair overturned by the wind, pegs left behind on the clotheslines, leftovers in the cooking pots, a departing person dragging behind a branch of ripe lemons to the ship, a person who regrets not having seen all the corners of the island he has to leave, people apologizing to their dead in the cemeteries before they go, hairs from the skins of the slaughtered animals that accompany the people gliding over the sea, jasmine scent in the air, thousands of unpicked tomatoes in the fields, three pairs of broken glasses in an abandoned house, pillows, mattresses, armchairs — with sleeping abandoned cats and dogs — in the alleyways, a pigeon with a hanging head, cigarette smoke over the Aegean, a padlock on the door of a house to which no-one is ever going to return, the olive trees covered with dust rustling in the wind, the waiting of bewildered, unpicked olives, water still flowing from a tap left on, a glass tea cup left untouched on a table, the table wobbling in the wind, tea trickling into the saucer, figs unpicked, burst or half-eaten by birds on the trees, pomegranates split open on the trees, an abandoned truck full of picked cotton, tufts of cotton blown by the wind into the railing of the loading bay and sticking there, a ladder leaning against a garden wall, a lost left shoe lying on the road, the priest’s fishing equipment forgotten in the church, telegraph poles on the main road, the telegraph’s incessant ticking filling the air; clay jugs for olive oil buried in the soil, without lids, unharvested grapes swarmed with flies, blood from slaughtered animals, two stray horses swimming behind the ships on which their owners sail.
They’re going on a long journey
Looking back at those who stay
From the ship’s upper deck
They won’t come back
They won’t return
They stand as if rooted
As if rooted they stand side by side
Casting a knowing look
at every single one who stayed behind
You cannot stop them
Even if you fall to your knees
Stay, stay here
Would anyone ever stay
The ship sets sail
The journey begins
The ship sets sail, unerring
And then, at some point, deep inside you
Your heart opens — bleeding
The dead will enter
A place they know
From now on you are the burden bearer for the dead.

The Greeks who lit the candles in the Orthodox Church board the ship; the candles are still burning; the dogs wander around the cemetery; fluttering tablecloths in a coffee house by the sea, decapitated heads in the well, the lonesome dog sees his owner’s head and howls. In which phase of the moon and by what wind — Poyraz, Imbat, Lodos or Meltem — did they leave? If ships carried the Turkish Greeks from here to Lesbos and, then the Greek Turks from Lesbos to this island on the same day, the hairs of one would have fluttered backwards and the hairs of the other forwards. Wells full of words. Whispering houses empty of people.

 

From Emine Sevgi Özdamar,  Ein von Schatten begrenzter Raum, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2021