I would like to share a very long email I sent to a few friends of mine in the States and the UK who know me well and allowed me to share my grief with them. We had experienced another death, a friend’s elderly grandmother the previous July, but the departed was very old, and the descendent of one of İstanbul’s very distinguished Ottoman families; the funeral, while sad, was sedate, orderly and very lovely. My Turkish family is not from an old Ottoman family, and our brother’s loss was unexpected, to say the least, with two daughters just married and three more at home. The whole experience made me realize again how much we don’t know about each other; events bring us closer together, even as they tear us permanently apart:
“I need to tell you guys the sad, strange story of the recent death of one of Lutfu’s brothers, Erkan, the Master Cağ Kebap Chef. (Cağ Kebap (JAW-KEH-BOP) is a wonderful Turkish way of preparing barbeque on a huge skewer, 50-100 pounds at a time, with the seasoned, layered meat roasted horizontally on a skewer.)
“Lute’s mom and dad were staying with us for an undisclosed period of time, and I’m afraid I vented to a couple of you about a little frustration I was feeling; my American mom didn’t do houseguests, so I sometimes don’t have the practice or the patience I should have. I like to DO stuff with my friends and TALK to them, you know me. It’s a culture thing. I wasn’t mad at them; I was just a little frustrated after three weeks and counting. But I didn’t want them to leave -- one doesn’t want one’s hospitality to lack. So I vented to you a little.
“So, one day right after the vent -- the 12th of March, just last week -- my mother-in-law has a great idea -- let’s walk over to the next town and have breakfast at brother Efkan’s house. He was at work, and his wife, Sebahat, doesn’t get out because she is caring for our disabled auntie, Sayda. It’s about a six-mile walk and as my sprained foot was much better, I thought this was a great idea. After another little frustrating moment for me when mother Sanye comes into my closet while I’m getting ready and seems to be rushing me, not her style at all, and certainly not welcomed by me; I hate to hurry, we all set out. She wanted me to take a different jacket, etc. I was so flustered I forgot my regular glasses and punished everyone by refusing to go back up two floors to get them. Boy, some punishment, huh? But I had my sunglasses, and the sun was out, so off we go.
That phone call
“So Lute, Sanye, father Alattin and I take off. It’s a lovely spring day, the fruit trees are coming into bloom, the street doggies are all friendly, and I get over my early morning moodiness in a flash. We’re all happy, walking, calling each other’s attention to new leaves, having a great time. Sanye somehow is not having problems with the shoes she is wearing; everything is just great, when her cell phone rings. She answers and almost immediately starts yelling at the receiver and shaking it -- it looked like she was going to spit at it before Lute took it from her and queried the caller. It turned out it was a strange man (hence Sanye’s spitting rejection of the call) who was calling to say that a man was unconscious on the dolmuş (DOHL-MOOSH, a mini-bus used for public transportation), and he, the caller, had taken his cell phone and called the number labeled “my mother.” He wanted us to know this man was unconscious, and what should he do? Lute asked for a description (I thought that showed presence of mind, in case the man was a prankster and had stolen the phone), and, alas, it matched that of his second oldest brother, who lives in the same building as Efkan, to whose very house we were going. Lute told him to please put his brother in a cab and take him to the so-and-so hospital in Gebze. “We never did find out who that man was, or who helped him get Erkan into a cab or even who the cabbie was, but apparently the stranger did as he was asked and also returned the cell phone to Erkan’s pocket.
“So there we are, walking up what is still a country road in the spring sunshine, and our brother and son is in serious trouble. Also, as it turns out, neither Sanye nor Lute has any air time left on their phones, so we can’t call anyone, and we just start to walk a little faster, not looking at each other, like it will be real if we do. Nobody else knows -- just us and the stranger in the dolmuş.
“We eventually got a cab; Lute left us on a street corner in the next town so he could hunt for one faster. While we were waiting for him to come with the cab, I bought a warm poppy seed loaf because none of us had eaten, and I had a bad feeling about this and didn’t think we’d be having breakfast any time soon; I wanted my little family to eat something before the day got much further, but of course nobody would eat anything, so there you go. I tried.
“After Lute came with the cab, he called his brother’s cell phone with his now-replenished air time, and a good thing he did because the cab hadn’t taken him to the so-and-so hospital, but to the such-and-such hospital, so we would have gone to the wrong place. We never knew who answered the phone that time either -- it was someone at the hospital, just like on TV when the victim’s cell phone rings.
Placing more calls
“We got to the hospital, and I stayed with Sanye, while the men went to see what was up. It wasn’t good; they were massaging Erkan’s heart, which seemed to have stopped. Lute called who he needed to, including poor Sebahat and Sayda, who were wondering where we were, because they were waiting for us to arrive for breakfast.
“Of all you guys, only Barbara, maybe, has seen a poor-people’s Turkish emergency hospital. I was over-all very impressed with the cleanliness and the patience of the staff. This in the face of literally hundreds of people -- both sick and waiting -- inside the building and out. VERY few wheelchairs -- injured people, women in advanced stages of labor, amputees -- all getting in and out of cars, cabs, motorcycle side cars, many moaning in pain but none complaining, work injuries, auto accidents, you name it: Old village ladies in their layers of leggings, skirts and scarves. Young school girls in their uniforms. Men in construction-trade jump-suits, carrying unconscious friends. Children of all ages, disabled and not, in pain and not, some bloody and others not visibly injured. The part of me that wasn’t trying to comfort a very restless Sanye, who was building herself up into a horrible state as time dragged on, wished my eyes were video cameras, just to record this amazing variety of suffering, un-complaining life.
“I didn’t understand the need for all the security guards -- unarmed but plentiful; I couldn’t figure out why they needed so many in this very un-prepossessing part of Gebze, our big town around here. As time wore on, I thought I began to see why. We arrived in the mid-morning, and our party grew from five, including the patient, to at least 11, maybe more. Sanye had been getting more and more agitated, and when the wife of the sick man and one of her daughters arrived, their combined anxiety grew geometrically, and we were only one family. You could tell who had really sick people there -- the families just kept arriving and massing together and working each other up into frenzy. Other people who were waiting for others fed this phenomenon by very boldly (to me) asking what the others’ loved ones were there for. They would then give multiple blessings to the sick person and the family, all very fatalistic as to the outcome. They even talked to me, when they couldn’t get close to one of the “real” family. Pretty soon things got very dramatic and, again to me, wildly violent, emotional. The closest I ever got to this level of drama was an Orthodox Jewish funeral I attended once back in ‘74 right before my son was born, only this was much more raw.”
*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.