Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 - 1 comment

History vs. the Wrecking Ball

I can see my old bedroom window from here.

I used to lean out of it at dusk, between the call to prayer and the call for dinner, trying to gather up fresh energy for the night of “what-did-you-learn-today” and sunflower seeds and three-hour soap operas ahead. During those first months as a student of all things Turkish, it took all my energy to stay engaged in mealtime conversation with my host family and try to make sense of the unfamiliar culture I was attempting to fit into. I so often wanted to hide away in my room, but the fact that I shared it with my extroverted eighteen year old “sister” made it quite the opposite of a haven. When she wasn’t moaning about having nothing to wear or whispering into her cell phone until all hours, she was peering over the top of the bunk bed we shared, asking why I had to study so much.

Those moments with my head stuck out the window were my salvation. Even when the air was thick with coal, they were breaths of fresh air to me - momentary escapes that gave me what I needed to go back inside and “be Turkish.”

Mold and rent hikes have prompted my Turkish family to move twice in the six years since we all lived together in that tiny flat, and their current apartment is just one street over from the first one.  I relocated to a different city as soon as I finished language school, but I come back every chance I get.  I stay with them before and after flying in and out of the country, visit for religious holidays, come up for funerals, and let them take care of me after ear surgeries, like the one that brought me here this time.

I am standing in my Turkish mom's kitchen over a pot of bell peppers stuff with rice, dill, onions, currants and fragrant spices. The family is always curious to know what local dishes I’ve learned to make, and I’ve been promising them I’d make dolma ever since I arrived for a visit last week.

Looking across the street at the back of our old apartment building, I feel like a completely different person than that girl who used to have to lean out the window, staring at this same view from the other side, trying to avoid being suffocated by life in this country.  Now, being with them is like being home.  I wish they wouldn’t smoke and they don’t understand why I like so much alone time, but we’re used to each other.  Our nightly ritual of sunflower seeds and Turkish soaps are the most normal thing in the world to me. They even let me make the tea.

Whenever I arrive in town, I take some combination of train/ferry/bus/taxi from the airport to our neighbourhood, and as my suitcase wheels clatter over the uneven pavement, the sense of anticipation and belonging in my heart increases with every step towards home.   I weave my way through football games and smile at women carrying empty water bottles to fill up at the fountain.  I pass the veggie seller and the roasted nut guy, at least one eskici, with his cart full of salvagable “old things” and a handful of gypsies hauling their recyclables to the depot at the bottom of our old street. Men talk in huddles outside cafes as they puff away on cigarettes between games of backgammon and cups of çay. Just before turning onto our street, I particularly enjoy plowing right through the middle of the flock of pigeons that is always congregated in the square, sending wings scattering in all directions.

This is an old neighbourhood of blue collar workers, halfway between the slums and the suburbs, and while the number of headscarves is increasing, the number of piercings and laptop cases is as well. It’s close enough to the shopping-and-entertainment district of Kadıköy to enjoy it, but just far enough away so that the streets are still quiet at night, save for the occasional drunken fistfight. Neighbours still know each other by name, families can still run up a tab at the bakery, and judging by the number of keychains in the cash register at the corner store when I stop in to get the house key, trust has not yet been completely eroded in our corner of this city of 15 million.

On my last two visits I’ve noticed some disturbing new additions to the neighbourhood: signs posted on houses that have been sold to a developer planning to replace these humble homes with luxury high rise apartment buildings. There were just a few when I was here in November, but they’ve multiplied since then, and I was most saddened to see one on our own apartment building’s wall. In the end, the whole district is going to be bulldozed down anyway, so I suppose it was only a matter of time.

Progress and development and modernization are good for a city, I tell myself. Half of these houses are filled with mold and cockroaches anyway. And yet the sight of those signs - I can see four of them from our kitchen window - fills my heart with an aching sense of loss. Come Saturday, I will be on a bus home, and I hate knowing that this may be one of the last times I look out the window onto this street.

These are the streets along which three generations of my Turkish family have come home from work every day. My own family has lived in five different houses in this neighbourhood - three of them since I’ve known them. This is the neighbourhood where my dad smoked his first cigarette and my little sister said her first words. The neighbourhood where I ate my first Ramadan meal, learned to crack sunflower seeds and mastered past and future tense.

The neighbourhood where I first became a Turk.

I think I understand how the old man in "Up" must have felt, staring down the wrecking ball headed for his house, refusing to let his memories be demolished. I wonder how long it would take to blow up a couple million balloons.....