BY Nazli Karabiyikoğlu
A thick layer of cloud hovers over the Bosphorus for days, gray as concrete. I shoved my hands through the layer and opened a window. Maybe for the first time, I wasn’t trying hard to bare the city, and I hadn’t uttered his name before acting – bismillahirrahmanirrahim, for the first time, surely, I was as free as a bird at heart. I took a deep breath, the salty boats filled my nostrils, and those thin foamy lines began drawing your almond eyes to me. But before I was able to finish your glance, prayer call echoed over the hills, and someone dear to me echoed in me, and I fell into deep blue waters.
During the mornings in our mansion overlooking the Marmara, you could see through a sweet mist, the forests of the neighboring coast, like the first lines of a mysterious tale, rustling their branches and leaves in the most inviting way, as if almost whispering what the day would bring…our grandfather was granted this mansion by the sultan, there was practically no one who could pass it by and not get stunned by its color. Meanwhile we would find it flattering to say, “We live in the red mansion over the Kanlıca hill,” when asked about our domicile. As if we were accountable for the birds tweeting through the woods behind the mansion, we always talked about the beauty of their songs at sunrise, among other topics about our home. Our family name didn’t mean much to us, but our mansion and its glory defined us, we made sure of that. It was a timeless structure, solemn, one that flames never reached. It stood tall and upright in the privacy of preserved altars of its garden, and it sheltered us. At times of war, the supplies in its barn tripled in stacks, it collected and offered rain waters to the animals around and grew the wildest of flowers, and this would never be our doing. Every spring, as baffled as we were in the previous year, we would lose our minds in the freakishly fruitful nursery we never took care of. We spent every hot summer in the cool shade of the giant plane tree and made it through the fall almost tipsy of the harmonious colors, ready to welcome even the harshest of winters. If our mansion had a face, its cheeks would always be cherry red, we were always warm in it. We were maybe the last descendants of carefree dwellers and lived as one with our mansion.
How do you find peace in the walls of a house? Who decides the fate of the rooms? Where do all the words said between the ceiling and the floor go? Most importantly, what makes cob walls painted red a home? We never thought of the answers, all we knew was to be of service to the grandeur of our mansion whilst we lived out our seasonal flow. I remember our walks in the countryside, where we’d come across other women. One would point to us and say something like, “Look, the women of the enchanted mansion!” to others. Though I would always forget that and never talk about it to a soul, because I was always blown away when we returned from our trip by the sight awaiting us. The same sight was the reason behind our continuous good night’s sleep in scented feather pillows.
After a while, we stopped going to the countryside and stayed in our mansion at Kanlıca. The roses and hyacinths in our garden and our plane tree were lovelier than any other plant in the countryside. During leisure time, women walked around the garden, and men rushed to get home after their obligatory duties outside, while children invented games to play on their own. Even the most curious odalisques stayed in the outer fences, and staff began planning the ways of going out the least and carried in the groceries in bulk and all at once. We couldn’t chat with our neighbors when or if they knocked, because frankly we didn’t have any stories to tell. Not wanting to talk about the majestic Bosphorus, the moon changing from thinnest to fullest, the tale of Istanbul as it traveled by wind always weighed more on us. We shut the doors, and ourselves, from others, since we knew that our mansion would see to our needs. Every morning, we grabbed some of the mist over the sea and shared it among us.
They had this name.
Cut out my tongue and its last syllable would still linger on
Deep states of sleep couldn’t cover it,
my eyelids would sing along with it.
Cut out my heart and their last glance would still pierce
They won’t ever leave me be, crush my peace with their heels
on the ground.
Yet their face is still behind shadows,
and I yearn for it through sleepless nights.
I had walked the road there, pondering over Hürrem and her steps that had been here. My grandest grandmother was one of those who found refuge in Hagia Sophia when Fatih invaded the city, with her baby girl in her arms. Fatih kissed the curly blonde locks around her tiny face, they say. As he gave the baby back to my grandest grandmother, Fatih’s eyes locked on her neck, and the cross hanging on her chest, the sultan reached to touch it, they say. Yet my grandest grandmother took a wide step back and pressed her baby’s head right on her cross and turned the other way. People who witnessed this talked about it, talked and talked, praised her courage and sang songs about how she chose not to give her freedom away to the sultan’s harem. Men walked past her house in Karaköy without looking, eyes straight ahead. For years no one even attempted to get with one of the girls of the fatherless house. It was my family’s luck that our men passed away young, while our women fought a righteous war in life and walked tall against the harem, despite their exquisite beauty. This became a legend told after generations, and every year head odalisque visited us, just to check. All women of our family, including my mother, consistently gave the answer that they would rather live a poor life and keep their virginity to the men they’d fall in love with. Occasionally, they sent letters to Venice, demanding refuge, but for a long time they were refused. Apparently, I was just a baby when my mother wrote a final letter to the archduke, before giving up, and said that she was being forced to turn Muslim. Eventually a clerk authorized by Saint Mark’s Basilica wanted to come and visit my mother in Istanbul. Even our oldest grandmother laughed out loud when she heard the news and talked for hours about how she would probably die in her ancestors’ soil. The clerk did come and promised to get the required permits for our family so that we could move and left. Some years after, my mother waited for a messenger to come in and give us the go. She wrote letters to Venice, with the fear that something might have happened to the messenger they sent on the way. Yet, it was all for nothing. No one returned her letters. I had turned seventeen when my oldest brother died, and that’s when I saw my mother drowning in despair. Her face had lines all over, and they looked ready to scream. We refused to look at Fatih, we didn’t accept this to be our fate.
I had looked at my reflection on a faraway shore of the Bosphorus. When I got out all my clothes I saw that I was ready to grab whatever it was that flew out of me. If I could break the cycle, if my breasts, this chest, this body could be of use, I would give all of those, I told myself. I had lifted my arms all the way up and bent them down, made a mask over my face with my fingers. I had a mission. I wanted to give my still fresh flesh to the harem. I wanted to wear soft velvet, and not thick, coarse cloths. I wanted an arm to wrap around my neck otherwise covered with silky hair. My lips, full enough to make the men yearn for them, so were my hips, the hills of my armpits. That wetness before sleep, it could flow inward and not out. I had pressed one hand between my legs and one in my mouth and couldn’t help but let out a moan.
At the gates of Topkapı, standing not so tall next to the head odalisque, one of us, the first of us, on her way to be a slave to the sultan.
That was me, and it was insulting to present myself. It was dishonoring to my family and our legacy, but at least I was never going to have to face them. That was the deal, and I sent the gold equal to my flesh’s worth to my precious mama.
I had walked the road here, pondering over Hürrem and her steps that had been here, now my steps. Blood under my feet. My neck tilted down. Am I wasted? Will this be for nothing? No, I’m here to play the game.
Both my back and thighs got acquainted with gold-flake silk
and my hair braided with shiny strains,
I entered the harem, with almost exploiting enthusiasm,
I bottled up what I felt when
the head odalisque smiled and said, “There you are, finally at our door.”
In fact, my urges had gotten the better of me,
as I told myself I was on a quest of saving my house.
Almighty peace and quiet guided me, and I fell to the vast ocean of word art. I noted down every single sound that my handler uttered. I learned how to write poems in dark corners of the night. I had come to the palace because of my body I watched and liked on the water, but I ended up chasing after a lingual love affair.
I asked the treasurers, keepers, and other odalisques to get me books with the first few coins I earned. Beautiful covers and pages were piling up in my chest, surrounding the room with that odd scent when I opened the books. I wasn’t in a hurry to get into sultan’s bed, I thought I could do that later. Instead I was getting lost in a poem, a song, historical anecdotes, Şehname, and, oh, that Homeros. Half an hour of sweeping the steps, I was anxious to get right back into my bed. My thirst got me going. I got my hands on the Divine Comedy, ate it up. I was making a name for myself, which I found quite pleasant: Lady Philosophy. I said no to playing baglama, I asked if I could and thankfully they agreed, which got me some manuscripts and they were…magnificent. The head odalisque told me that I could be given more of those if I turn towards Islam, and so I did. But not to lay with an emperor whose seed could get me power, have it evolve into a baby. But to get more, in writing, and I explained that nicely to Jesus Christ. There was an animal in me, always hungry for more, and sometimes I sacrificed it with a poem.
When heart demands, tongue utters long sentences.
My poor heart found love in books
and went on ruthless, shed blood with every arrow that hit it.
Love is nuisance to the tongue, and words pour out of its wounds.
A unique story,
slave to the sky, desperate to evolve,
I almost gave up an eye
to carry on.
I sighed, I moaned,
but I ended up in this gold-ornamented road.
No desires, no nothing,
I’m a slave to your papers
that feed my soul.
My lust kept scorching me from within. That image on the water changed in time, and I knew it because I read the lines of my body. A new me had emerged. Every time I touched myself I either took myself to hell or wondered if I was in heaven. I think I found it nicer to use up my flesh on my own rather than offering it to a ruler in this place, which I couldn’t even describe with the words they thought of me. I knew the times when the bath was the most quiet, when waters gushed out of golden valves rather than trailed down in thin streams. There, in the peculiar mist of the bath, above everyone, taller than anyone on my wooden slippers, I cherished silence. The fire in me lit for me, neither Muhammad nor Jesus could get to me anymore. I was worshipping the two holes below my navel.
It had been two years since I entered the harem, and I wasn’t getting any younger. I gave up silk dresses, crowns, and headdresses. My roots had become my tongue and the magic of the writing I discovered became my kiraman katibin. The head odalisque was trying to encourage me to be a teacher, but I was isolating myself more and more. I prayed by reading alone. I wrote poems praising the sultan because I had to.
Gold-ornamented volumes were gifts from the head keeper of the sultan’s chambers, who began to show an interest in me. I no longer wore golden bracelets but rather carried the gold as books. One day, the sultan appeared next to me and noticed the poem I’d slipped in my collar. “Read!” he ordered. I was no longer in silence, I got scared, shivered, then thought not being able to act upon request could cost me my head, so I got scared even more. But then, he took the poem and read it himself:
My sultan in silence, this subject of yours yearns for your love,
even without a head.
Such love, all I need is a pen and a sheet of paper from your house.
Such love, greatest of fires blazes in me, even I can’t grasp why.
If only I could pour this passion from the domes of Ayasofya.
My dear, gracious sultan, I only hope for love to rule.
Such love, all I want is words and rhymes in your house.
Such love, I ask for forgiveness of the angels, even I can’t grasp why.
Such love, all I want is one line, and your pen name.
I could throw my womanhood from the domes of your palace.
My dream-eyed sultan, my avid heart asks to be absolved, with love.
Such love, all I want is one line, and your pen name.
Muhammed listens to prayers, but not mine, I can’t grasp why.
I could be one with a three of your garden
and let an arrow of yours to pass through me, my strong warrior,
He must have been free, he grabbed me by the ankles, and I can’t remember how he moved past his helpers, but the next thing I knew we were in his chambers. There, I found myself in a failing endeavour to apply what I had been trained for, pathetically kissing his skirts. I was first introduced to his long beard. My voice cracked, I couldn’t read the lines that I’d written myself out loud, so instead I shivered. My day had come, and it was thrilling. My own sensations were scaring me. And in my head, my conscience was screaming, your mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother. Your great grandmothers. Hagia Sophia. And you let him in your…
There he was, the sultan, he had pulled me up and untangled me from the chaos of fabric and hair down below. He was unlike any other men, unexpectedly respectful towards me with my meekly manners. He said:
“We show the respect an artist deserves around here! Get up woman!”
Power of love blossomed in me. I looked into his eyes, and my family’s story starting from the first encounter in Hagia Sophia poured out of my mouth. Not an eye, not an eyebrow, moved to stop me, and I kept talking, and talking, so that I wouldn’t even hear the cough of his head keeper. They set up a table for us, wine poured in me. I vaguely remember seeing the sultan waving his hand, sending off his helpers and the head keeper. We were alone, this much of him had made me dizzy. He kept telling me to go on, go on my love, my eye, my soul. And so I did:
A piece of me is missing, my sultan, come in through there.
I had a limb, and they cut it, come in.
And my heart, it can’t take any more, let alone love.
My bloodline is cut, my sultan, come in through there.
I don’t care for my head, nor my body, I’m incomplete.
Break into as many pieces as I am, and come in.
There must be more, your lips are bleeding. Don’t bite them, don’t. Speak. When pain is in a poem it resonates in others, in us, I shoot my game regardless, speak my dear.
I told him that I couldn’t speak anymore, he didn’t listen.
I lowered my head, waiting for his decree. I had been way out of line. He let out a laugh, looked like he stopped resisting a barrier, and shoved his hand inside my collar. In my twenty years of age, I was touched by a man for the first time. I derobed that touch from the power he possessed. It wasn’t similar to my touch either, the pleasure it provided didn’t last for long. I kept looking into his eyes and reached satisfaction with my own hand, again. Oh, he was outraged and commanded:
“Throw this one out! And send her disgrace of a family back to the docks!”
Your desire wasn’t as strong as my finger, I would still be me where you send me, my sultan.
My skill set had them try to match me with a governor first. They threw me into the pool of eligibles and waited for someone to come and pick me. “Used by the emperor, advanced vocabulary.” My name was uttered to every provincial treasurer, and their assistants. In the end, the grand spice merchant of the palace, Mahbut Efendi, agreed to have me. But then his wife didn’t want me in the house, she said that I was reading weird stuff. They packed me and my books and escorted me out of the gates.
I had no choice but to return to our mansion in Kanlıca.
I walked there, everything seemed the same, but no one came to open the gates. I jumped over the outer walls. Passed through the splendid garden with the rotted roses. Saw the plane tree, shivers went down my spine before its beauty. I knocked and knocked on the door, the sun set, the night brought embarrassment with it. Yet again, I took my thickest book and jammed at the knob with its back. It took a while, but it broke.
I pushed the door and saw the staircase covered in spider webs. The book dropped on the floor, so did what I had eaten that morning. They had commingled on the couch, all members of my family, once alive. Dried flesh, bugs, ooze. Everyone I had ever loved, the servants and keepers of the house too. My mother, her mother, and her grandmother. As much as anything, the scene was eerily beautiful. Flowers that I had never seen before had gushed out from their remains.
A thick layer of cloud hovered over the Bosphorus for days, gray as concrete. I shoved my hands through the layer and opened a window. I wasn’t trying hard to bare the city, and I hadn’t uttered his name before acting – bismillahi…for the first time, surely, I was as free as a bird at heart. I took a deep breath, the salty boats filled my nostrils, and those thin foamy lines began drawing my almond eyes. But before I was able to finish your glance, prayer call echoed over the hills, and someone dear to me echoed in me, and I fell into deep blue waters. I’m in exile. From now on, I’m the lady of the mansion in Kanlıca. No one hears my poems anymore, but I wrote this anyway. I kept writing and never left this mansion, ever.