It is so cold in Istanbul that it cramps my spine. Hiding my face from the cutting air, I see an old lady chopping painted doorframes small enough for a stove or a fireplace, bracing herself for winter. She is too poor to have the choice of not breathing toxic fumes until spring.
Childhood memories, from before I was five, of a pulsating jasmine scent and sweat-glazed skin made me leave my jackets at home. Now, it’s not only the seasons that are different. In squares that throw space between mosques sit army tanks, there to deter riots and protests – to the government, Daesh is only one problem.
Mere days ago, a prim voice on the phone had asked, “Are you sure you want to go to Turkey? 159 people died there last year (2016).”
I cut her off: “My family is from there.”
Palpable embarrassment lay in between a stuttered apology before she gave me what I called for – a quote for my tickets.
Returning to Turkey divides all my half-siblings differently. We are four: two boys bookended by me and another girl. By accident, I have become the oldest child and an abla: the oldest sister. My brother, Bahar, now that he is beyond 20 years old, cannot enter the country for fear of conscription. His exile will last another 20 years at least unless he pays $11,841AUD, a legal bribe that is hard to accept with our shared principles.
Our other brother Aslan, or Abi (oldest brother), for it can also be used as a name, refuses to return to mounting lethal statistics and a dwindling secular culture in exchange for European liberties. Only my sister and my own mother will join me. Somewhere between naivety and an acknowledgement of life’s impermanence, we have agreed that we cannot be afraid of the wrong place at the wrong time. Each one of us yearns to go back, but have different weights of shame, pride and love for our Fatherland.
We are all struggling for more freedom. My brothers’ manhood lies in the soil between Edirne and Van, and their quandary is in deciding which traditions to inherit: should their sisters’ bare shoulders be considered provocative, or should they keep encouraging our youngest to prioritise university before boyfriends? For my sister and I, we wrestle to be heard as we champion feminist liberations. Being the oldest automatically earns respect, but there are opinions I suspect my brothers are tempted to counter.
Our father died four years ago: the man responsible for my Turkish blood. He left no instructions for my heritage. Yet, in my return to Istanbul, he is suddenly everywhere. His name hides in shop signs and his thick, tarred beard passes me every minute. Then it becomes more than that. I begin to see myself, instead.
Strangers don’t dare question my ancestry. Words start to make sense. Without realising it, I have been collecting my culture over the years: how to tuck the silent ğ at the back of my throat here, how to say beş for 5 sugars in my tea there – until I could reveal a full flush of my identity.
The Turkish hospitality is revered and renowned. What existed as a childhood myth becomes a delightful reality: strangers embrace me with crushing hugs and rough kisses on both of my cheeks without hesitation, the welcome even warmer when they recognise the arrangement of my features. It is common, even natural, to be invited into homes to drink çay, even if you only bought a 1-lira gift from their shop.
However, I am guilty of romanticising. Once, a family friend told me my father would have disowned my association with people who are black. She went on to say that she wants her son to bring home “a Turkish girl from a good family”, despite him being third-generation diaspora. Discovering for myself that the Turkish are nationalist, racist and classist, and that I am on the “right” side of the fence, is a shock that curdles in my stomach like sour kefir.
Everyone also talks about how Turkey straddles two continents: literally and metaphorically. Yet, our magnetised needle is often deflected, even in ourselves, and no one can ever quite tell you why. I also discover conflict is closer to home.
In a European club, my sister and I dance wildly to uninspiring music with our shoulders on show, celebrating her birthday. We ignore the men as they draw in with preying gazes. Suddenly, my brother is here. Delighted, I grab his arm to dance with us but he twists away, his brow furiously furrowed. You shouldn’t dance here.
When I refuse to move, he walks away, the years between us choking him with respect. We snarl around each other all of the next morning, harsh daylight displaying our differences wordlessly for the first time. The bond that tethers us is suddenly wrenched taut, tense with polar views on the world.
On my last day in Istanbul, I venture out on my own. For the first time here, I am not being led or ushered. The pressing crowd squeezes me into a bottleneck as we enter the most famous bazaar in Turkey. Sunlight disappears as everything is thrust under lights from domed vaults instead. Leather bags, stained glass lamps, lokum and countless chunks of gold shimmer between calls of vendors inviting me in – but I am looking for something else. The labyrinth refuses to end as I scan insignificant doorways for a sign above them – Han. A man tells me where I can find one: sağ, sol, sol.
Finally, daylight breaks through again, and I see the arches sitting atop steps that bend my knee almost to my hips. A terrace housing quiet men in their workshops overlooks the hidden courtyard and silence settles as I try the local delicacy of butter melted Turkish kahve, found in only covert corners of the city. They study me gently as I take it all in. The thrilling taste of finding a secret ensconces me and helps me feel as if I belong here – at last.
It is a hard thing to explain: returning to a home that you never knew. Building a relationship with a ghost. Feeling an eternal bond with siblings you did not meet until you were 21 years old. The startling hospitality balanced with an unmatched snobbery of the Turks, sometimes housed in the same person. Too much is left unsaid, even behind closed doors. At the end of texts, we will say seni seviyorum – I love you, but never reveal disagreements.
As a nation, Turkey is the front-runner for jailing in the name of free press, with 73 journalists serving time in 2017. Free speech is fragile everywhere but that is nothing new.
These things are inexplicable, but I shall keep trying to put them into words, for they must be remembered and must be said. We have a phrase: olur tabi – of course it’s possible. Somehow, I have inherited all this and often I do not know what to do with it, such is its expanse. For all that my father lacks in presence, by giving us our land and each other, we have inherited unlimited opportunities to be part of something bigger. We will lend and borrow from each other, for we are all we have. There is no doubt that we shall reclaim our free speech as brothers and sisters. Olur tabi. My family; my people.
Cover by yns plt