Sultan was staring at a ghost. He wore a paper cap and a white apron that was tied behind his neck and held a long carving knife in his right hand. The ghost was standing next to his son at the front of the kebap restaurant.
“Does your father give you as much hell as mine do?” Sultan asked Derya, who was slicing lamb meat off a roasting kebap.
Derya eyed Sultan, his knife never pausing. “What do you think?”
As if on cue, the ghost burst out impatiently, “Allah, Allah, how many times must I tell you to slice thin strips. Thin strips so that there is more of it. More room for lettuce. Here, let me show you.” The ghost attempted to hip-check Derya out from in front of the spinning pile of meat, but only passed right through him.
“Dad, I know how to slice kebap.”
“People do not want these big chunks of meat. They want little slices. Spread the flavor around. More surface area. More room for lettuce.”
“Maybe in your day that’s how it was,” Derya said. “But now people like big meat. Lots of meat.” He winked at Sultan.
Sultan would have laughed if Derya’s father didn’t remind him so much of his own ghosts, hovering phantasmally nearby.
“Yes,” the Fat Pasha said, licking his fat lips, “lots of meat! This boy knows how to do it.” He waddled to the spinning kebap and sniffed at it salaciously, catching his fez when it threatened to tumble off his bushy head.
“Get your nose out of my kebap,” the ghost of Derya’s father said, hip-checking the fat pasha who went bouncing down the counter. “Fat slices, bah! This is why your Ottoman Empire fell. Greed and excess and no moderation. You must slice thin slices. Very many kebaps this way.”
Sultan ignored the ghosts as they launched into an argument over the proper way to slice kebap. At least the two ghosts got along. It was a relief to Sultan, having at least one pasha occupied with something other than nagging him about his inferiority for a few minutes. Though the ghost of his great-grandfather was good-spirited in general, even he could be vicious when his blood was up. And the qualities of forefathers only degenerated from there. Surviving was hard enough for Sultan. When coupled with the pashas’ expectations for their lineage, the burden threatened to overwhelm him.
He cast about for the other pashas to ensure they were staying out of trouble. The Skinny Pasha and the Wolf lingered at a nearby table, drawing wary glances from a pair of uncovered girls who were scanning the restaurant for a place to sit.
“Derya, do you need any help? I mean here, at the restaurant,” Sultan asked with a sigh as the Wolf bared his teeth at the girls and they scrambled out of the kebap shop. Even before the Wolf drove away Derya’s customers, Sultan was ashamed of asking for help. But, desperate times.
“You want to slice kebap?” Derya said. “You know you have to slice it thin.” He turned and called to the girls out the window. “Come back, come back, I apologize for my friend’s ghosts. How do free fries sound?”
The girls watched him for a moment, then slowly returned to the street side of the window counter.
Sultan always envied Derya’s easy way with people, girls especially. But even if Sultan knew what to say, the pashas would drive anyone away. Well, almost anyone. Very few people received the pashas’ approval.
Sultan picked at the lamination peeling from a corner of a menu. “I need a job,” he said.
Derya shoveled lamb into a dürüm, stuffed lettuce and onions on top, and squirted it all with a yogurt sauce. “You want spicy?” he asked the girls, swapping the white yogurt bottle for a red one. He dumped some fries in, bundled the entire thing in tin foil and handed it through the window with a wink and a smile. The girls giggled when he returned their change.
“Look, big brother,” he said to Sultan, “I wish I could help, really, I do. But this is a one-man operation, you know? Besides…” he gestured to the pashas. The Wolf was licking his balls. “Not great for business, you know?”
“I know,” Sultan said, despair deepening. “Maybe a cousin or—”
“I’ll keep an ear out.” Derya sneered at the Skinny Pasha who was staring at a portrait of Atatürk. “He’s not coming back,” Derya yelled across the restaurant.
“Leave it,” Sultan said. “You’ll only make it worse.”
“You have to stand up to them,” Derya said. “Don’t let them push you around. It’s the only way to live with them.”
“Easy for you to say,” Sultan said, as the Skinny Pasha drifted towards them, “you’ve only got one. And all he cares about is kebap meat. I’ve got three and they all want to make my life as miserable as possible.”
“That’s not true,” the Skinny Pasha said. He was stalk thin, thinner even than Sultan, and looked as worn out as a field left at reaping. The elbows of his suit were threadbare and his collar yellow. He wore his hair slicked and his back had bent in the first hunch of age. Why his grandfather had chosen to return in the shape he was when he died was a mystery to Sultan.
“What do you want?” Sultan asked, letting his head collapse onto his arms.
“Why would you say that we only want to make your life miserable?” the Skinny Pasha asked. “We came back to help.”
“What help? Help how?”
The Skinny Pasha had an unnerving habit of standing so still that it almost seemed he wasn’t there at all.“By helping you become what you could truly be. What you’re meant to be.”
“And what’s that?”
“A service to your country.”
Derya laughed. “What, like the Wolf?” Hearing his name, the third pasha barked.
“Not like my son, no,” the Skinny Pasha said. “But there is still hope for you, Sultan. You can join the army, protect the republic—”
“I already did my service, don’t you remember?”
“I remember!” Derya said, slicing kebap for a new customer. “I remember the way you looked at that first stripper in the mess hall when she came in.” Derya laughed. “Or, should I say, didn’t look at her.”
Sultan’s head sank deeper into his hands.
“You should have known what they’d do to religious boys like you,” Derya continued. “But they straightened you out by the end? Couldn’t have no ignorant country hicks, could they?”
“My grandson is not an ignorant country hick,” the Skinny Pasha said. “He comes from a mighty line of—”
Derya waved his knife, cutting him off. “I know, I know. Pashas and all that. I wasn’t saying Sultan is ignorant. I’m saying the army isn’t some grand ‘protector of the people.’ Not all the people anyway.”
“The army is what keeps this country safe,” the Skinny Pasha said. He had taken out his pocket watch and was flipping it open and closed. “Safe from yabancı. Safe from ‘ignorant country hicks’,” he said, clearly intimating he was referring to Derya.
“What about safe from people like your son?” Derya asked, pointing the knife at the Wolf, who barked again.
“Enough,” Sultan said.
The pocket watch flipped open/closed faster and faster. “He did what he thought was right,” the Skinny Pasha said “He protected our way of life better than you ever could.”
Derya laughed. “This is what I mean. The will of the people is always right just as long as it is the same as the will of the state.”
“The state will not be questioned by small-minded kebapçı.”
Sultan had rarely seen the Skinny Pasha lose his temper. When he did get angry, however, his entire body trembled like some great eruption was building inside of him. Hoping he could distract the Skinny Pasha before that happened, Sultan asked Derya, “Why do you keep the Great Father’s portrait if you don’t believe in him?”
Derya pointed at the portrait with his knife, and then pointed at the Skinny Pasha. “That man and this man have nothing to do with one another.”
“How dare you talk about the Great Father that way,” the Skinny Pasha said, stepping toward Derya.
“The Great Father? No, I’m talking about you,” Derya said, holding his knife at his waist so that if the ghost continued advancing, he would impale himself on it. Or would have, if he were flesh. “You think this is what he wanted?”
“We govern for the people because they cannot be trusted to know what is best for themselves.”
“No,” Derya said. He pointed his knife at the Fat Pasha who was laughing at something Derya’s father said. The two ghosts had, apparently, set aside their differences. “He couldn’t be trusted to know what was best for himself. We,” he waved the knife between himself and Sultan, “are not a country-less and derelict empire. We know how to write and read and don’t treat women like they are meat.”
“And you can thank the Great Father for that.”
“Exactly!” Derya said.
“If he were here today—”
“If he were here today, he’d want us to make up our own minds. He wanted Turkey to progress, not stay stuck in the past, which is where it would be if it were up to you and your ‘mighty’ family—not you, of course, Sultan.”
Sultan saw the first trembles ripple across the Skinny Pasha’s skin. “Maybe I should go,” Sultan suggested.
Derya shrugged and returned to slicing meat.
“If you hear of any work—”
“Yea,” Derya said. “Hey, hold up.” He sliced off a double mixed meat kebap, wrapped it up, and handed it to Sultan. “You know I can’t let you work here, right?”
Sultan knew. It was yet another way that the pashas made his life miserable.
The pashas trailed out of the shop after Sultan when he left, bobbing up the street in his wake. Sultan had been angry with them so long that it metastasized into despair. They were why he didn’t have work, couldn’t keep friends, had no girlfriend.
At least Aysu stood up to them. He thought about texting her. Maybe she would meet him to share a kebap.
“You’d better not be thinking about talking to that whore again,” the Wolf said, trotting behind Sultan.
“Go away, go away,” the Wolf mocked. “This is all I ever hear from you. Bah, you really are a waste. Maybe I will find someone else to haunt. Maybe Aysu then. She could use a straightening out.”
Sultan spun on his father. “Don’t you dare.” His voice dripped with fury and fear.
The Wolf grinned, his teeth stained and broken. “Or what?” he said and trotted further up the street to piss on a lamppost.
Sultan couldn’t move. If the Wolf touched Asyu, he didn’t know what he’d do, but it would be ugly.
“Go to hell,” he called at his father’s back.
“You should not curse,” the Fat Pasha said, appearing next to Sultan where the Wolf had been just moments earlier. He lifted his fez, scratched his head, and replaced the fez. “You should especially not curse your own family.”
“What has my family ever done for me?”
“Everything,” the Fat Pasha said. “Your father is a bit of a donkey, true, but everything he ever did, he did because he believed it would protect you. And your grandfather—
“My grandfather should go back to his own time.”
“Your grandfather cares for you.”
“More than he cares for ‘progress’?”
The Fat Pasha clasped his hands behind his back and strolled up the street. “Your grandfather is from a complicated time. He is doing what he believes is best, for both you and the world.”
“No,” Sultan said, following the Fat Pasha. “You’re the reason he is the way he is. You taught him how to hate. You and your compatriots.”
“Hate?” the Fat Pasha said. A frown settled on his cheeks. “No, no, your father does not hate. Quite the opposite. It is love that drives your father. Love for his country.”
“If he loved his country, he would love its people.”
“Ah, I see.” The road crowned the hill and the Fat Pasha paused. Below them, the Golden Horn emptied into the Bosphorus, cutting Istanbul in three. On the opposite shore, past the squat shoreline buildings with their red roofs, rose the skyscrapers of Taksim.
Across the Bosphorus, Anatolia stretched out to the embryonic capital at Ankara and, past that, flowed with the Eurphrates and the Tigris into Syria and Iraq and Babylon; it rose up to the snow-capped peaks of Mount Ararat before drifting down into Christian Armenia and Georgia; it rode with the silk traders into Samarkand, Rey, even as far as Xanadu.
And on the hills under Sultan’s own feet, the exposed bones of ancient Byzantium and Constantinople were hastened in their unsteady decay by a shoddy patchwork of masonry and hüzün.
Sultan and the Fat Pasha looked out over all of this, feeling it, but not recognizing what they were feeling. “The Turkish people,” the Fat Pasha said, “they are children. They do not know what is best for them. Women’s rights, secularism, education, these are good things, right? Even I know this. Do you think Turkey could have advanced so quickly if left up to the will of the people?” The Fat Pasha licked his lips. “Even the Ottomans knew this. Look what happened to us when we gave the people too much power.”
“That had nothing to do with the people,” Sultan said. “Just your own arrogant pride.”
“You’re wrong,” the pasha said. “We were proud, yes, excessive, greedy. But that is not why we fell. It was the people, merchants, foreigners, who gained more money, more power. Christians. And so we fell.”
“Giving way to a modern republic.”
“Ah, but a republic that you blame your father for helping to create.”
“You see, my little Sultan, everyone fights for what they believe in. Me and my compatriots were trying to preserve our culture, our lifestyle. We were fighting for our nation, our very identity. In his own way, your grandfather was too. There could only be one Turkey and you were either Turk or you were not, and if you were not, well…”
“I suppose you’d say the same for my father.”
The pasha nodded. “Your father fought for what he believed in.”
Sultan didn’t need him to finish. It had been the same for a hundred years. You were either Turk or you were dead. It had been the same at the beginning of the century, when the first pasha and the Ottomans tried to annihilate the Armenians, it had been the same during the new republic, when his grandfather and the new modern government drove off the Greeks and cleansed the Kurds, and it had been the same later and later, again and again, when his father had attempted to purge the country of the Kurds and the Alevi and nearly everyone else. Sultan’s education had come through whispers and gossip at the Grand Bazaar before he lost his job. Kurd, Kazleri, Jew, Alevi, and a dozen others, Sultan had sold to them all, and the foreigners besides. But when the Wolf came back, all of that changed. Then it was you should not sell to Kurds and you see her nose, she is surely Kazleri, I spit on Kazleri. Soon the Skinny Pasha showed up and then the Fat Pasha and it was all Sultan could do to suppress the voices in his head instructing him how to be a Good Turk and how to make his forefathers proud.
“We want what is best for Turkey,” the Fat Pasha said, drawing Sultan back to the present, “and that means what is best for you. You are a strong Turk, good blood, the right religion, from my strong line,” he pounded his chest, “you have all the advantages, you just have to take them.”
Sultan and the Fat Pasha stood on top of the hill next to the mosque. The street buzzed with beat-up mopeds bombing up and down, delivering food, delivering people, delivering news. Sultan felt the weight of a hundred years of struggle weighing down on him. Fighting against that, pushing back…how could he? Maybe that was what had made him miserable all this time. Maybe his great-grandfather was right. It would be easy, after all, to accept who he was, who the pashas wanted him to be. To stop struggling.
But at that moment, the speakers on the minaret of the mosque cut into life and the iman’s voice shattered the air.
And Sultan felt his mind being torn apart with it.
Edward Mack received a Fulbright Grant to Turkey in 2010 and taught at Erzincan University. Soon after, he earned his master’s degree in creative writing from Complutense University of Madrid. He has written for various small publications and published his first novel in 2016.