Every summer during my childhood my parents put me on a plane and sent me to spend a few weeks with my grandmother, in the bourgeois seaside town of Yalova, whose long boardwalk was filled with bored families who littered the ground with the spat-out shells of sunflower seeds.
My grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment was a temple to widowhood. The doorbell still featured my grandfather’s name, and a morbid mechanical calendar was stopped on 5 May 1975 – the day he had died (before that, it was set to 10 November – the day Atatürk died). The curtains were always drawn against the glaring rays of the sun that might fade the fraying carpets – and against the staring eyes of nosy neighbours. Only guests used the front drawing room; her finest furniture was weighed down with crocheted doilies, ceramic Lladró knockoff knick-knacks and frowning photos of loved ones – most of them dead.
My grandmother barely left the house, spending most of her day on her front balcony covered in voluminous pink hydrangeas, smoking the occasional cigarette and watching life pass her by. She expected the same of me, and was baffled by my recurrent pleas to go outside to play. Whatever the time of day, she always had some excuse to keep me indoors: in the morning it was too early and I had only just had breakfast; in the afternoon it was too hot and I had only just had lunch; in the evening it was almost dark. . .
The nights stretched out interminably. After we had eaten, my grandmother forbade me to read, saying it would ruin my eyes and was antisocial. So we would watch hour after hour of Turkish TV on one of the national channels – usually the State Choir singing Turkish classical music or some imported Brazilian soap opera, to which she was addicted.
My only respite from the dreary tedium was when my grandmother told me a story.
The stories my grandmother, my anneanne, told me when I was a child are anything but children’s stories. They are folktales that have a common theme – the triumph of wily wives over evil husbands (jealous, repressive skinflints) through crafty subterfuge. My grandmother always launched into these torrid tales as if she were telling them for the first time, and the contradiction between her placid, proper widowhood and her clear delight in the salacious plots of her stories horrified yet fascinated me. I too delighted in these gory, grotesque tales, and reveled in their message of Old World female empowerment. Appropriately, her own marriage and that of her parents were also models of defiance – though here the couples together defied social conventions about virginity, remarriage, childbirth, female education, parenting, class and family planning.
My grandmother, Melahat, was born in 1919 in Istanbul. Now ninety-two, she still lives in the neighbourhood on the Bosphorus where she was born and raised. Her father was a Cretan Turk whose native tongue was Greek. He was sent to Istanbul as a young teenager to escape the inter-racial gang warfare that preceded the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Speaking no Turkish and with no family in Istanbul, he lived rough for a while before joining the nascent Turkish air force, becoming one of its first pilots. During the battle for Izmir, he disguised himself as a Greek priest and infiltrated the local population as a spy, but had to run for his life when he was exposed and nearly lynched.
At nineteen, my great-grandfather was introduced by a Greek seamstress-cum-matchmaker to one of her clients, a young Turkish widow who had lost both her husband and infant son. My grandmother was their first child. Unheard of at the time, he attended the birth, sitting behind his wife through the delivery. They went on to have nine children, three of whom survived past infancy – two girls and a boy. But the boy died at eighteen from TB, followed soon by his fiancée; the day he died, my great-grandmother was served her first drink – to help her sleep. She became an alcoholic, a secret shame hidden from future generations of the family.
As her parents were posted all over the country by the air force – and were seemingly more focused on their marriage than their children – my grandmother was raised by her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was a muezzin who sang the call to prayer at the local mosque; her grandmother was a healer and wise woman who reportedly dabbled in charms and potions – and is the likely source of the folktales my grandmother would weave into mesmerising stories. The contrasting influence of these two outlooks is palpable in my grandmother: she is superstitious, believing in the evil eye and the importance of pinning the baby’s umbilical cord to your bed, but she also prays perfunctorily after her weekly bath repeating a stream of Arabic words whose meaning she doesn’t know.
Unusually, my grandmother and her younger sister were educated at a private Italian girls’ school, but she was not the academic type, and dropped out after middle school. Besides, she had fallen in love with my grandfather, a local bad boy with a poet’s soul. She cut school, and they met on hillsides to share her packed lunch and ‘talk’. Her father forbade them to marry, so she fled the house in her nightgown one night, chased by her father wielding his shotgun.
My grandfather was a forest ranger by day, but spent his nights writing postmodern novels, and chain-smoking. They were married for thirty-five years, until lung cancer killed my grandfather in 1975, a year before I was born. He wrote in Ottoman Turkish – first in Arabic script, which I cannot read, and then in Latin script, but using archaic vocabulary that makes it impossible for me to understand, even though less than half a century has passed. So although my grandfather was the writer in the family, it is my grandmother’s stories – and the Cretan delicacies that she served during our storytelling sessions – that nourished the writer in me.
A widow for thirty-five years, my grandmother has two children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. I recently gave birth to her fourth, which she correctly predicted to be a boy. As my son grows up, I will be entrusted to tell him these stories. I wonder if they will have any resonance for him. In a way, I hope they will not. That he will see them as archaic and irrelevant. But perhaps the message of these stories is more pertinent to boys than to girls: love and marriage can be a battleground for the sexes, and it is better for men to seek a truce than to wage a war that they will more than likely lose.
My great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and I have all married for love, and across social, cultural, religious and linguistic divides. These stories are a window on a time when women were not so lucky. When Scheherazade’s duty was to school her listeners on how to gain the upper hand if life had dealt you the bad hand of being a girl. I think of myself as a liberated, half-American, Oxford-educated feminist – or even that most nebulous of concepts, a post-feminist – but there is no doubt that these tales served their purpose in showing me that a woman can always get the better of a man. But not that that makes her a better woman.
And so I begin, as she always does, with the words, Bir varm, bir yokmu; Once there was, and once there wasn’t …
The Tale of Banu Cihan
Once there was, and once there wasn’t. In ancient times, when the riddle was filled with chaff, when the camel was the town crier, when the donkey was a seal bearer, when I rocked my mother and my father’s cradle back and forth, there was a famous jeweller, who had never married.
One day, the married men of the city, uncomfortable about sending their good wives to the unmarried jeweller to buy their rings, earrings and necklaces, gathered at the coffeehouse and decided to summon the jeweller to ask him why he would not marry.
The jeweller came to the coffeehouse, and they asked why he wasn’t married. He said, ‘I am a very jealous man. I will only marry a woman whom no other man or woman has ever seen.’
So the men of the town decided to find another solution. They asked him, ‘If a woman dies giving birth to a daughter, will you take that child, and raise her to be your wife?’
‘I will,’ said the jeweller.
One day, news came to the jeweller’s shop that a woman had died in childbirth and that she had left behind an orphan daughter. The jeweller agreed to take her into his home, and named her Banu Cihan – Queen of the World.
The jeweller gathered together all the finest craftsmen and builders in the town and had them build forty locked chambers nestled one within the other – and placed Banu Cihan in the innermost chamber. The house was entirely hidden, and had only one small frosted window in the domed roof to let in some light.
Every day, he brought the baby girl milk, cleaned and changed her. She grew into a child, and then a young woman, whom he planned soon to marry. Every day, he brought her food, and sat with her. When he left, he called her name, ‘Banu Cihan!’ as he locked each door and waited for her answer, to be certain that she was safely locked inside.
When the jeweller brought food to Banu Cihan, he was careful to remove any bones so that she would not ask questions about the world outside, about which she was completely ignorant, never having seen another living soul. Then one day, the jeweller brought Banu Cihan a piece of meat, but forgot to remove the bone. When she was left alone, Banu Cihan began to play with the bone, tossing it up into the air, where it suddenly shattered the glass window in the ceiling. For the first time, sunlight streamed into the room. At first, she was terrified. Then, curious, she piled all the furniture in the room, climbed to the top, and tried to peer out of the tiny window on to the world outside.
At that very moment, the sultan’s son, the young prince, was standing on the balcony of the nearby palace, and saw Banu Cihan. ‘If her eyes are this beautiful,’ he thought, ‘imagine just how beautiful the rest of her must be.’
Hearing that the young prince had fallen in love, his father the sultan summoned an old wise woman, telling her, ‘I will give you your heart’s desire if you can make a match between my son and that girl.’ The wise woman said, ‘How can I? I have never even seen her. She lives locked in a room nested in forty rooms.’ ‘If you do this for me,’ said the sultan, ‘I will give you half of my treasury.’
One day, the jeweller had visited Banu Cihan and safely locked all but the last door when he saw the wise woman sitting on the threshold. ‘What the devil are you doing here?’ he asked her.
‘Last night I saw Banu Cihan in my dream,’ said the wise woman. ‘I have to tell Banu Cihan what I saw.’ ‘Never!’ said the jeweller. ‘No one has ever seen her. You cannot see her either.’ ‘Of course, you know best,’ said the wise woman. ‘But I was told in the dream that your wife will die unless I reveal its secrets to her.’ The wise woman got up to leave. ‘So, farewell, it is up to you.’ The jeweller sent the old woman away, locked the last door fast, and went home.
A few days later, the wise woman was back outside Banu Cihan’s door, waiting for the jeweller to come out. ‘Why have you come back?’ he cried when he saw the wise woman. ‘I told you – no one sees Banu Cihan.’ ‘Ever since I came here, I have seen the same dream every night. I have to tell Banu Cihan my dream,’ said the wise woman. ‘Tell it to me, and I will tell Banu Cihan,’ replied the jeweller. ‘No, that is impossible. I have to tell her myself,’ said the wise woman. ‘Damnation!’ said the jeweller. ‘Then come with me and we will go in together.’ ‘No,’ said the wise woman. ‘I must see her alone. You wait here. Give me your keys, and I will go inside and tell Banu Cihan what I saw in my dream, or else she is sure to die.’ Again, she got up to leave. ‘So, farewell, it is up to you.’
Believing the wise woman’s tale and terrified that his beloved Banu Cihan would die, the jeweller reluctantly gave her his keys.
The wise woman opened the forty locked doors, and went inside to Banu Cihan. ‘You know nothing of the world outside, you stupid girl,’ she said. ‘There is a wonderful world outside; there are trees, rivers, birds, flowers, houses, people. Are you an idiot, living here all alone with one man? Don’t you want to leave this room and see the world? You give me your consent, and I will do what has to be done.’ Banu Cihan gave her consent, and the wise woman locked her back inside, one door at a time. ‘Here are your keys,’ she said to the jeweller, who was waiting by the last door. ‘I have told Banu Cihan my dream, and she is safe now.’
The wise woman went to the sultan and told him to dig a tunnel from his son’s room in the palace to her room. Soon, the prince and Banu Cihan were meeting in secret, and fell deeply in love. When he asked her to marry him, Banu Cihan accepted gladly.
News spread that the prince was to marry. Drums were beaten, and the whole city rang with the sound of jubilation. The sultan sent for the jeweller and said to him, ‘I want you to make the most beautiful jewellery you have every made for my son’s bride-to-be.’ ‘It would be an honour,’ said the jeweller, and used his finest diamonds to make a beautiful bracelet, earrings and necklace.
The young prince and his bride-to-be were to travel to a nearby principality where they would marry, and which he would then rule. The prince summoned the jeweller to the palace, and said, ‘I am so impressed with the jewellery you have made for my bride that I am beholden to you. Therefore, I would like to express my gratitude by asking you to join us for part of our journey to my new principality. When we are halfway there, a carriage will take you back to your home.’
The day of the journey came. The prince, his bride-to-be, and the jeweller rode together in a carriage. The girl was veiled, but the jeweller was mesmerized, and kept thinking to himself, ‘How like Banu Cihan are her movements!’ He asked the prince permission to return to his home and check on his young bride-to-be, but the prince said, ‘You promised to stay with us until we were halfway on our journey. You must wait.’ The girl spoke to the prince, and the jeweller thought to himself, ‘How like Banu Cihan is her voice!’ He begged the prince to let him return, but the prince refused him again.
When the party reached the halfway point of their journey, the prince excused the jeweller, who rushed back home, beset by jealous suspicions. Collecting his keys, he went to check on Banu Cihan. As he unlocked the first door, he called out, ‘Banu Cihan!’ He was met with silence. As he unlocked then second door, he called out, ‘Banu Cihan!’ Again, silence. As he unlocked the third door, he called out, ‘Banu Cihan!’ Silence. ‘Banu Cihan!’ Silence. He reached the fortieth and last door. As he entered the chamber, what should he see but Banu Cihan’s slippers and clothing piled by the hidden entrance to a trap door. ‘O woe is me! I married off my own bride!’ thought the jeweller, whereupon he fell on the floor, stone cold dead.
And that is the end of our story.
Three apples fell from the sky,
One for the listener,
One for the storyteller,
And one for the poor and needy.
The prince and Banu Cihan were happily wed,
So now must we to bed.