WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT TURKEY
by E. P. Tuazon
My colleague, Faruk Irgulu, was talking. Faruk was the head of our English Department at the school we taught at and sometimes that gave him the right.
The four of us were sitting around his backyard drinking tea. Sunlight colored the grass a golden green while the half that remained in the shadow of his home took on a cool, brittle blue. There were Lusin and I and his wife, Ayla, sitting on the dark side of the grass, while Faruk sat in the sun.
Somehow, we had fallen on the topic of Turkey because Faruk and Ayla and Lusin’s parents had come from there. Faruk loved the country just as much as he loved America, he said, but, if he had to choose between the two, he would’ve chosen Turkey, the one from his childhood. He tried to explain it to us, the tea spilling in his hand. He poured half a cup with tea from the pot and filled the rest with the water from the kettle. He said that they did that to make it easier to drink, less intense on the palette. It couldn’t be too strong, he said, or else you wouldn’t be able to taste anything.
All of it had come from the samovar that still steamed in the shade beside us. I had seen nothing like it before; a coal kettle that both heated water inside and heated a pot of tea outside, on top, simultaneously. It had three chimneys: one on the left for the water, one on the right to heat the pot of tea, and one in the middle for the coal.
I watched Faruk get it started. He took the coals from the grill he used for our lunch and dropped them in one of the samovar’s chimneys. He had picked the coals out of the ash with a pair of tongs; they glowed a faint orange when he blew on them to bring them back to life. I thought of his past making the same glow, his talking about it just the same as his blowing.
“I would read a book in one hand,” Faruk was saying now, holding up a cup of tea like it was Anna Karenina, “and, with the other, I’d steer my bicycle up and down the road, to and from school. My village is a beautiful place with the lake and the trees and the fresh air. I read everything riding my bike by the water; Tolstoy and Chekov, Updike and Cheever—they were my riding buddies. That’s what I love about my country. The rest, I guess, is in my blood. I learned to love the rest of the country like I learned to love everything else.”
His wife smirked at this. She didn’t touch any of her tea. It sat in her lap as she sat with her legs open, her long, red hair nearly touching the mouth of her cup. “Yes, where he’s from, it’s such an easy life. He used to borrow his father’s bike when he was a child. You know Faruk still rides all the time?”
I nodded as I held Lusin’s hand in her lap. By then, both of our cups were empty and at our feet. I thought of the time when Faruk asked me if it was worth it to spend a grand on a bicycle part. I told him that it was asking a lot for only a part of something.
“Yeah, I still ride,” Faruk said, looking down at our hands, “but, you know, not with the book in one hand anymore.”
We all laughed. Faruks eyes went back to his wife.
“He rides his bike all the time,” Ayla continued, “just like his father.”
“Yes,” he said, “My love for my country is just like my love for my bike.”
“Like what,” Ayla interjected, “borrowed from your father?”
We laughed again. Faruk gave his wife a look.
“Ayla doesn’t think well of him.”
“Now,” she said with mock surprise, “I never said that.”
“You meant to,” he said and then added, “You always say he’s lazy and wasteful.”
“He is. Like you. How much money do we spend on your bikes? How much money do we send your father every other month?”
“Not now,” he said to her and then turned to us, “Ayla doesn’t understand. He was someone who fixed things in our village, but everyone just buys new things now and don’t care for fixing things anymore. He needs the money.”
“Ok, I can understand that, but that doesn’t explain why we spend so much money on your bikes. I just don’t know,” Ayla sighed, “the more I allow this the more I feel like I’m encouraging you to waste more and more. You just do what you want and don’t think of the people suffering, like your daughter or me, our family. And look at your Turkey now.”
“What about it?”
“Exactly! You always have your head in the clouds, that’s why you’re fine with what Erdoğan’s doing to it.”
“That’s a different issue. I’m not fine with it. It’s just that the politics of it is useless to think about.”
“Useless?” Ayla lashed out, “Is it useless to think about all the religious persecution? The sexism? The censorship? The writers in prison?”
“You’re blowing it all out of proportion.” He said and exhaled. He drank his tea and looked at Lusin and I, “I’m sorry you’re seeing us fight.”
Ayla relaxed and picked up her tea but didn’t drink it. She looked at her husband. “We aren’t fighting, we are having a discussion.”
Faruk rolled his eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry, Balım, I spoke incorrectly.” He looked at us. “I’m sorry you’re seeing us ‘have a discussion.’”
We laughed. Ayla eyed him.
“OK,” she said, “Well, you may not like the president but you condone him like you do.”
Faruk spoke with his cup to his mouth before he sipped his tea. “Yeah, I condone him like I condone my wife not wearing a hijab.”
“Oh, Tatlım,” Ayla scoffed, “it reminds me of when we first met, you were so enamored with my hair.”
Faruk looked fondly at it. I wondered what the red looked like in the sun. “Where I was from, every woman wore a hijab. Imagine my surprise when I left to go to school in Istanbul. I was like, ‘wow, these women are beautiful!’”
“He was like a little boy who had never eaten ice cream before.”
The two of them shared a look with each other, as if they were holding each other in their eyes.
Ayla drank her tea and continued, “I was never one for the hijabs. It’s an unnecessary burden, especially here. People automatically judge you for it and you end up standing or not standing for something because of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love my faith and being a Muslim woman, but I don’t think I need to wear anything to empower me or showboat my faith. I’m too lazy for that.”
She looked at her husband again and they smiled at each other. “Lazy like you, Tatlım.”
“Speaking of lazy,” Ayla said, stretching her legs up, her tea going up with her arms, “did Faruk tell you that he did some time in the military in Turkey?”
“No,” I turned to Faruk. I tried to picture him in a uniform but I couldn’t, “you never mentioned that. For how long?”
Faruk finished off his tea and put the cup down under his chair as he began to speak. “If you went to college, you only had to do six months. Every man in Turkey has to do service.”
“And he did it so late! He waited until after college and right before he married me.” Ayla laughed.
Faruk laughed as well. “I wanted to get it out of the way before anything else.”
“By then, he’d put it off for so long. He was already thirty and mostly everyone else was nineteen or twenty!”
“Yes, I was the oldest soldier. I was the oldest lowest ranking soldier there was, I think.”
Ayla smiled and put down her tea, the rest of its contents spilling into the grass. “He became the torpilli of his higher ranking officers just because they were all the same age!”
“What’s a torpilli?” I asked.
Faruk thought of an answer but Lusin beat him to it.
“It means he was like their favorite. You know, like how teachers or parents have favorites.” Lusin said. She said it close to me and squeezed my hand.
“Yes!” Ayla said, her eyes shining at Lusin. “Like a child. So spoiled!”
“I was!” Faruk chuckled, “I can’t deny that!”
Ayla stayed on Lusin. “I didn’t know you spoke Turkish, Lusin.”
“I don’t. I just know a little.” She said, her right shoulder rubbing with mine, “My parents never taught me, but I picked it up. I can understand it just fine, I just don’t speak it. Same with Armenian.”
“You’re Armenian, too?” Ayla leaned forward. Her hair touched her knees. “A lot of my friends in Istanbul were Armenian!”
Faruk got up and walked to the samovar as he talked. “Oh, here we go.”
Ayla shushed him, “Tatlım, sus!”
Faruk shook his head at her and picked up the pot from off the top of the samovar. He turned back to us. “Would you all like more tea?”
“Yes, please.” I said. Lusin nodded.
“Great!” Faruk said, he took the pot inside the door to the kitchen while he talked. We could hear him from inside. “That’s why we get along. You love to drink tea!”
Ayla looked at me and smiled. “In Turkey, everybody’s crazy about tea. I think our country spends the most on tea in all of the world!”
“And guess what’s his favorite, Balım?” Faruk said from the kitchen. I could hear the water run from his sink. “Earl Grey! I’m making some!”
“Masallah!” Ayla exclaimed in mock enthusiasm and looked at me. “You’re a bergamot lover like him and his father?”
I smiled. “I’m pretty attached to it.”
Faruk came out with a pot of water and poured it into the samovar, then he returned to the kitchen.
“Are you sure you aren’t brothers?” Ayla asked and then turned toward the house and yelled after her husband. The water ran again. “Tatlım, are you sure your father never left your village? Are you sure he didn’t visit the Philippines?”
We could hear Faruk guffawed from the kitchen. “We are brothers in tea, not in blood.”
We all laughed. Ayla picked up her cup and spilled the rest in the grass. “I was not a fan of bergamot until I met Faruk. It’s something I’ve had to get used to.”
Lusin moved her arm away from me and bent down to pick up her own cup. “Same here. Actually, I never really drank tea at all until we started dating.”
“Yeah,” I said, reaching down for my own cup, the cold grass tickling my fingers, “imagine my surprise when I took her to a tea place in Pasadena.”
“It was cute!” Lusin laughed. “To be fair, he had told me where we were going and I just didn’t mention it.”
Ayla smiled at me. “She must have liked you a lot then!” She winked.
Lusin leaned into me, her cup in her lap. “Well, I’m still thinking about it.” She said, grinning.
Ayla turned her gaze back at Lusin. “You two remind me of Faruk and I when we were younger,” She turned to the house, “isn’t that right, Tatlım?”
Inside, it was quiet. Ayla shrugged. “Must have put the pot on the stove and gone to check on Sumayya. She’s taking a nap.”
“How old is she now?” Lusin asked.
Ayla continued to look at the house. She smiled. “She just turned two now! Oh, she’s a lot of energy.”
Lusin gave me a look. She put her cup in one hand and reached for my hand with the other. I did the same and took hers in mine.
I turned from Lusin to Ayla and caught her watching us. She didn’t look away. “So, Lusin. Your parents were Armenians living in Turkey?”
“Yes,” Lusin said, “several generations, but they moved before they had me.”
“Have you been back?”
“No,” Lusin said uneasily, “only my mother goes back for my grandmother, but, other than that, there hasn’t been any reason to.”
Ayla tapped her cup with her index fingers. “I haven’t been there very much since I left, myself. Most of my family and friends have moved here anyway. I wasn’t very partial to how things were going over there, if you could tell by the way I am.”
“I have to admit, you’re not what I expected.” Lusin said and looked at Ayla’s red hair.
Ayla smiled. “Yes, well, my husband is very conservative, but I am the exact opposite. You should have seen his father! Oh, he was not very happy!”
Lusin and I laughed. Ayla kept going. “You should have seen me when I was in college. Rally after rally. Most of my friends: Armenian women. Everyone in Istanbul protesting for Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide!”
Midway through Ayla’s last two words, Faruk groaned from the doorway of the kitchen. He came out with a pot of Earl Grey in one hand while the other secured their daughter slung across his chest, her chin resting on his shoulder. “Basima agrilar girdi senin yuzunden!” He said and put their child in Ayla’s arms. Ayla took her with annoyance. The little girl was still asleep.
Faruk moved to the Samovar and put the pot on it. “You give me a headache with that kind of talk!” He said and walked over to his seat. He bent down to pick up his cup but did not sit down.
Ayla rubbed her daughter’s back and ignored her husband. “Sum-Sum, my anoush!” Ayla kissed her head and smelled her hair. It was short and black and soft. “I picked that up from an old Armenian friend of mine. She used to call me Anoush, and now we call our daughter Anoush.”
“Does it mean anything?” I asked.
Faruk chuckled and put a hand on his chair. “It means ‘sweet’ like Americans call others ‘sweetie’.”
“Yes,” Lusin said. She squeezed my hand and looked at me, “maybe I’ll start calling you Anoush.”
“Oh they’re sweet, Tatlım.” Ayla said to her husband then turned back to us. “Tatlım means ‘sweet’ too, ‘my sweet’.”
Faruk smiled, “Yes, I’m your sweet, like you’re my honey. Balım. That’s what I call her, Balım. Can I take your cups?”
Lusin and I extended our cups and Faruk took them, putting his and mine together, mine inside his. He then went to Ayla and he put Lusin’s in hers and took it out of his wife’s hand.
“Thank you.” We said and Faruk went back into the kitchen and started the water again to rinse them.
Ayla gently ran the back of her hand up and down her daughter’s back. “So how do you feel about it?”
“What?” I asked but I noticed she was looking at Lusin.
“The Armenian Genocide. How do you feel about America and Turkey not acknowledging it?”
I expected to hear another groan from the kitchen but all I could hear was the water running.
“Well,” Lusin started, “I definitely had a lot of Armenian friends in college who were pretty vocal about it. They would be in the Armenian Club and try to get me to come to events and things. But, sometimes, I thought they were just fighting just to fight, you know? They put down Turkey because of it and it turned into a general hate for all Turkish people. I couldn’t get behind that. Being both Armenian and Turkish always put me in the middle about it.”
Ayla looked like she was about to respond but Faruk emerged from the kitchen with our cups. “Yes, I totally agree with you.” He took the cups to the samovar and put them down except for one. He picked up the pot and began to pour tea into the cup, and then the water. “I’ve never been a part of any of it, and, all of a sudden, I have strangers blaming me for what others have decided.” He said, and, after pouring a second cup, he picked them up and walked them to Lusin and I. “On top of that, I never had any issue with it until I came to America. Armenians seem to only hate us here in America!” He handed Lusin hers first. Ayla looked at this in surprise. “It is supposed to be the oldest who drinks first, but I like you, so let’s make an exception.” He said and winked.
The two laughed at this and Lusin took her cup. Faruk handed the other one to me and returned to the samovar.
Ayla looked back at her. I couldn’t see her face. “That’s because we were in Turkey! You can’t hate Turkish people there! Here, in America, you can hate whoever you want as long as its justified.”
Faruk poured two more cups and carried them over to his seat. “Justified? Now, come on.” He handed his wife her tea and she took it and put it down in the grass, her daughter dangling from her like hanging fruit. I watched her tea tip a little, half of it spilling in the grass.
“More than a million lives, Tatlım. A million. There are pictures, witnesses, victims! The genocide did exist!”
“Balım.” He said, calm, unlike his wife. He took a sip of his tea and smacked his lips before he continued. “I’m not saying that it didn’t exist. No one’s saying that. It’s just very political. The word ‘genocide’ is being thrown around too easily. It was war. It was not genocide. People are just using that word because they want to use it as a platform to hurt Turkey for selfish reasons.”
“So justice is selfish?”
“Balım.” Faruk said, pointing his cup at their daughter.
Ayla repeated herself with a softer voice. “So justice is selfish?”
“There is no justice if there was no injustice in the first place. This has all been manufactured for years by people trying to ruin Turkey’s way of life. People who are for dissent rather than disagreement. They don’t want to change things. There is nothing that really needs changing. They only want to hurt Turkey, hurt our home.”
Ayla’s lips grew smaller. They tightened more and more into a frown. “Then why are there so many people like me there? Why is there so much outrage against the president and against the government?”
I felt Lusin’s grasp tighten. She stared at the samovar behind them. It steamed.
Faruk drank more of his tea. “Like I said before, it’s because all the problems people are saying about Turkey are all exaggerated. People are allowed to say and believe whatever they want. The government is merely trying to keep the peace. They are not trying to oppress or censor the people. On the contrary, Balım, they are trying to keep everyone’s freedom intact, everyone’s way of life, everyone’s peace. They are merely protecting Turkey.”
We all waited for Ayla to respond but she remained quiet. She looked at the grass, the light of the day almost upon us.
Faruk drank more of his tea and then continued. “To use the word “genocide” so lightly is diminishing its actual weight. When we think of the word, we think of something unforgivable. We think of Hitler, and the Nazis, and an evil plaguing the world with a demented ideology. Turkey would be comparing themselves to the Nazis if they ever used the word. I wouldn’t disgrace our entire country by calling all us Nazis just like I wouldn’t disgrace all Muslims by calling all of us terrorists.”
I felt my throat dry. I drank all of my tea and there weren’t any words in me I could say.
Lusin continued to look at the samovar. Her face looked relaxed but there was something in her face. In her hands her tea had gone untouched.
Ayla continued to look down at the sun, and, before anyone else could speak again, she exhaled and finally spoke. “You know, it’s easy for you to say this because you’re not a victim. You’re so far removed from everything and everyone.”
Faruk laughed. “We’re all removed! All of this, it really has nothing to do with us, these are all somebody else’s problem. We look like fools thinking we know what we talk about when we talk about Genocide.”
Ayla looked to Lusin. “And you, what do you think about this? Do you think it’s not your problem as well?”
Lusin’s eyes went from the samovar and back to her tea. She looked into the black liquid. “I’ve never really thought about it. My parents are from Turkey and their parents were from Armenia, but they never really concerned themselves with the politics there. And it wasn’t like they left because of political reasons either. My father worked in film doing set design and he jumped at the very first opportunity he got to live out his dream of working in Hollywood. He dragged my mother here, they had me, and that was it. My parents were never really political until 9/11, actually. No one here really was until then, not about things like this.”
Ayla looked at her husband again. “And that’s another thing.”
Faruk drank his tea and sighed. “Can we talk about something else, something lighter? I don’t want to disturb Sumayya with our talk.”
Ayla looked at her daughter still asleep in her arms. She caressed her little feet. “She’s asleep, Tatlım. Besides, it’s not wrong to talk about 9/11. She needs to know about it. You can’t hide it and things like this from her.”
Faruk then said something to his wife in Turkish I did not catch. It was quick but I could tell it wasn’t anything nice. Ayla responded in kind and the two narrowed their eyes at each other. Faruk got up and tossed the rest of his tea in the grass beside him. He turned to the samovar.
“The coals were not enough. The heat is dying.” He said.
Ayla rocked their daughter in her arms. “Let it, nobody’s going to drink anymore tea.”
Faruk ignored his wife and poured himself more tea. He took a sip. “It’s still warm for now. Anybody want more tea?”
I looked at my empty cup. “I will.” I said and got up. I started walking over to him and the samovar.
Faruk walked towards me. “No, sit. I can get it for you.”
“Oh no, that’s alright.” I said, walking passed him and in front of the samovar. “I want to try doing it myself.”
“You know how?”
“Yeah, from watching you.” I said and picked up the pot and poured half of my cup. Then I put it under the spout for the water. I pushed down the tab and filled the rest.
“You’re making real tea now!” He laughed and sat back at his seat.
I took my tea back to mine. Lusin smiled at me and took back my hand. I drank my tea.
Their daughter made a sound and woke up. Ayla smiled at her. “Hello Anoush! Did you have a good nap. Do you want to say hello to our friends?”
Sumayya did not lift her head. She groaned, gripping at her mother’s shirt.
Ayla kissed her head. “She’s shy! Aren’t you, Sum-Sum?” She said and kissed her head again. The little girl giggled.
Faruk shifted his seat closer to his wife and daughter. He rubbed his daughters back. “Anoush, do you want to hear daddy’s story about how he lived in a castle?”
Ayla put on a face of annoyance. “Fine, tell your story, Balım.”
Faruk looked at his daughter. “Huh? You want to hear the story about how your father lived in a castle and called mommy every day?” Faruk winked at Ayla. Ayla frowned, unaffected by his crooning and looked away from him.
Their daughter didn’t respond. She only laughed at his touch.
Faruk turned to us and drank his tea. He smiled as he talked. “When I was in the military, I was stationed at a castle near Ardahan, this small farming village close to the boarder of Armenia. It was the castle of Suleiman the Magnificent. It was built when Suleiman owned most of Africa and Asia. The soldiers stationed there were more like tour guides. There wasn’t any fighting there so all they had to do was tell visitors about the history of the castle. Besides that, it was very carefree and relaxing. And, because my captains and commanders liked me, they let me have my own phone, keep books for me to read, and use my own samovar.”
Ayla jeered and brushed her husband’s arm with her hand very quickly. “So spoiled, Tatlım!”
. “Like I said before, I agree. I was,” Faruk scoffed, “but the higher ranking officers were always trying to give us soldiers something to do. One of those things was Ot Yolmak. Every solider hated it. It was everyone’s least favorite thing to do at the castle.”
“What’s ‘Ot Yolmak’?” I asked. I drank my tea and it was then that I noticed the sun on my hand, its reflection in my cup.
“Ot Yolmak,” Faruk explained, “is pulling grass. There was a lot of tall grass around the castle and the officers would have us pull it out and burn it. It was an annoying, useless job. But I only had to do it once after I figured something out. I had made friends with some of the farmers in Ardahan and they often fed their cows the grass, so it gave me a really good idea. I went to my captains and commanders and said, hey, why don’t we invite the farmers to collect the grass and sell it to them. We wouldn’t have to pay them for the work, in fact they would pay us!
“The higher-ups were so happy! I mean, this was money for them. So they said yes and I told my friends and the whole village came with their trucks and pulled all the grass. The villagers were so happy as well; we sold it to them for cheap! It was a win-win situation.
“After that, everyone saw me as a hero and no one ever asked me to do work. The rest of my days were peaceful. That was happiness. Of course, I have happiness now, here, but the happiness there, still,”
Faruk didn’t continue. He looked at his wife and daughter and what was behind them, but I could tell he was looking at something else, something moving further in the distance. In the sun, it was glowing.
Lusin and I, in turn, looked at each other. We were all completely in the sun now, but it was hard to adjust our sights to the brightness of everything before us. What else could we do, I thought, but to shade our view from the sun?
About the Author:
E. P. Tuazon is a writer from Los Angeles. His fiction and poetry have been published in several publications. He is the author of several books, including two poetry collections, ANIMALS and LOVE WILL TEAR US APART, and a short story collection, THE SUPERLATIVE HORSE AND THE LAST OF THE LUPINS: NINE STORIES. For more information, visit https://ericptuazon.wixsite.com/happybivouac