The Bastard of Istanbul

Elif Shafak

Whatever falls from the sky above, thou shall not curse it. That includes the rain.

No matter what might pour down, no matter how heavy the cloudburst or how icy the sleet, you should never utter profanities against whatever the heavens might have in store for us. Everybody knows this. And that includes Zeliha.

Yet, there she was on this first Friday of July, walking on a sidewalk next to hopelessly clogged traffic; rushing to an appointment she was now late for, swearing like a trooper at the broken pavements, at her high heels, at the man walking too closely behind her, at every driver who honked frantically when it was an urban fact that clamour had no effect on unclogging traffic, at the whole Ottoman dynasty for once upon a time conquering the city of Constantinople, and then sticking by its mistake, and yes, at the rain… This damn summer rain.

Rain is an agony here. In other parts of the world, a downpour comes as a boon for nearly everyone and everything—good for the crops, good for the fauna and the flora, good for lovers. Not so in Istanbul. Rain, for us, isn’t necessarily about getting wet. It’s not about getting dirty even. If anything, it’s about getting angry. It’s mud and chaos and rage, as if we didn’t have enough of each already. And struggle. It’s always about struggle. Like kittens thrown into a bucketful of water, all ten million of us put up a futile fight against the drops. It can’t be said that we are completely alone in this scuffle, for the streets too are in on it, with their antediluvian names stencilled on tin placards, and the tombstones of so many saints scattered in all directions, the piles of garbage that wait on almost every corner, the hideously huge construction pits soon to be turned into glitzy buildings, and the seagulls… It angers us all when the sky opens and spits on our heads.

But then, as the final drops reach the ground and many more perch unsteadily on the now dustless leaves, at that unprotected moment, when you are not quite sure that it has finally ceased raining, and neither is the rain itself, on that very interstice everything becomes serene. For one long minute, the sky seems to apologize for the mess she has left us in. And we, with driblets still in our hair, slush in our cuffs and dreariness in our gaze, stare back at the sky, now a lighter shade of cerulean and clearer than ever. We look up and can’t help smiling back. We forgive her; we always do.

At the moment, however, it was still pouring and Zeliha had little, if any, forgiveness in her heart. She did not have an umbrella, for she had promised herself that if she were enough of an imbecile to throw money to yet another street vendor for yet another umbrella, only to forget it as soon as the sun came back, then she deserved to be soaked to the bone. It was too late now anyway. She was already sopping wet. That was the one thing about the rain that likened it to sorrow: you did your best to remain untouched, safe and dry, but if and when you failed, there came a point at which you started seeing the problem less in terms of drops than as an incessant gush, and decided you might as well get drenched.

Rain dripped from her dark curls on to her broad shoulders. Like all the women in the Kazanci family, Zeliha had been born with raven-black, frizzy hair, but unlike the others, she preferred to keep it that way. From time to time her eyes of jade green, normally wide open and filled with fiery intelligence, squinted into two lines of untainted indifference inherent only to three groups of people: the hopelessly naive, the hopelessly withdrawn and the hopelessly full of hope. She being none of these, it was hard to make sense of this indifference, even if it were such a flickering one. One minute it was here, canopying her soul to drugged insensibility, the next minute it was gone, leaving her alone in her body.

Thus she felt on that first Friday of July desensitized as if anaesthetized, a powerfully corrosive mood for someone so zestful. Could this be why she had had absolutely no interest in fighting the city today, or the rain for that matter? While the yo-yo indifference went up and down with a rhythm all its own, the pendulum of her mood swayed between two opposite poles: from frozen to fuming.

As Zeliha rushed by, the street vendors selling umbrellas and raincoats and plastic scarves in glowing colours eyed her in amusement. She managed to ignore their gaze, just as she managed to ignore the gaze of all the men who stared at her body with hunger. The vendors looked disapprovingly at her shiny nose-ring too, as if it were a clue to her deviance from modesty, a sign of her lustfulness. She was especially proud of her piercing because she had done it herself. It had hurt, but the piercing was here to stay and so was her style. The harassment of men or the reproach of other women, the impossibility of walking on broken cobblestones or hopping into the ferryboats, and even her mother’s constant nagging… There was no power on earth that could prevent Zeliha, who was taller than most women in this city, from donning miniskirts of glaring colours, tight-fitting blouses that displayed her ample breasts, satiny nylon stockings, and yes, those towering high heels.

Now, as she stepped on another loose cobblestone and watched the puddle of sludge underneath splash dark stains on her lavender skirt, Zeliha unleashed another long chain of curses. She was the only woman in the whole family and one of the few among all Turkish women who used foul language so unreservedly, vociferously and knowledgeably; thus, whenever she started swearing, she kept going as if to compensate for all the rest. This time was no different. As she ran, Zeliha swore at the municipal administration, past and present, for never fixing these cobblestones. Before she was done swearing, however, she abruptly paused and lifted her chin, as if suspecting someone had called her name, but rather than looking around for an acquaintance, she instead pouted at the smoky sky. She squinted, sighed a conflicted sigh and then unleashed another profanity, only this time against the rain. Now, according to the unwritten and unbreakable rules of her grandmother Petite-Ma, that was sheer blasphemy. You might not like the rain, you certainly did not have to like it, but under no circumstances should you curse at anything that came from the skies, because nothing poured from above on its own. Behind it all there was Allah the Almighty.

Surely Zeliha knew the unwritten and unbreakable rules of Petite-Ma, but on this first Friday of July she felt spoiled enough not to care. Besides, whatever had been uttered had been uttered, just as whatever had been done in life had been done. Zeliha had no time for regrets. She was late for her appointment with the gynaecologist. Not a negligible risk, indeed, given that the moment you notice being late for an appointment with the gynaecologist, you might decide not to go there at all.

A yellow cab with bumper stickers all over its back fender pulled up short. The driver, a rough-looking, swarthy man with a Zapata moustache and a gold front tooth, had all the windows down and a local radio station blasting Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ full bore. He cocked his head out of the window, whistled at Zeliha and barked, ‘I’ll have some of that!’ His next words were muffled by Zeliha’s.

‘What’s wrong with you, creep? Can’t a woman walk in peace in this city?’

‘But why walk when I could give you a ride?’ the driver asked. ‘You wouldn’t want that sexy body to get wet, would you?’

As Madonna cried in the background ‘My fear is fading fast / Been saving it all for you,’ Zeliha began to swear, thus breaking another unwritten and unbreakable rule, this time not one of Petite-Ma’s but one of Female Prudence: never cuss at your harasser.

The Golden Rule of Prudence for an Istanbulite Woman: When harassed on the street, never respond, since a woman who responds, let alone swears at her harasser, shall only fire up the enthusiasm of the latter!

Zeliha knew better than to violate this rule, but this first Friday of July was like no other, and there was now another self unleashed in her, more carefree and brash, and frighteningly furious. It was this other Zeliha that took charge of things now, making decisions in the name of both. That must be why she continued to curse at the top of her voice. As she drowned out Madonna, pedestrians and umbrella vendors gathered to see what trouble was brewing. In the turmoil, the man behind her flinched, knowing better than to mess with a madwoman. But the cab driver was neither as prudent nor as timid, for he welcomed all the fuss with a grin. Zeliha noticed how white and flawless the man’s teeth were, and could not help wondering if they were porcelain-capped. Little by little, she once again felt that wave of adrenaline escalate in her belly, churning her stomach, accelerating her pulse, making her sense that she might someday kill a man.

Fortunately for Zeliha, the driver of a Toyota behind the cab lost patience and honked. As if awakened from a bad dream, Zeliha came to her senses and shivered at her grim situation. Her proclivity to violence scared her, as it always had. In an instant she veered aside, trying to inch her way through the crowd. Yet in her haste, Zeliha’s right heel became stuck under a loose cobblestone. Infuriated, she pulled her foot out of the puddle under the stone. While her foot and shoe came loose, the heel of her shoe broke, thus reminding her of another rule she should never have put out of her mind.

The Silver Rule of Prudence for an Istanbulite Woman: When harassed on the street, do not lose your nerve, since a woman who loses her nerve in the face of harassment and reacts excessively will only make matters worse for herself!

The cab driver laughed, the horn of the Toyota behind blared yet again, the rain hastened on and several pedestrians tsk-tsked in unison, though it was hard to tell what exactly they were reprimanding. Amid all the tumult, Zeliha caught sight of an iridescent bumper sticker glittering on the back of the cab: don’t call me wretched! As she stood blankly staring at these words, she felt tired beyond herself. Soon the cab and the Toyota left and the pedestrians went their separate ways, leaving Zeliha there, holding the broken heel of her shoe as tenderly and despondently as if she were carrying a dead bird.

Zeliha straightened up and did her awkward best to walk with one heel. Soon she was hurrying amid a crowd with umbrellas, exposing her stunning legs, limping her way like a note out of tune. She was a thread of lavender fallen into a tapestry of browns, greys, and more browns and greys. Though of a discordant colour, the crowd was cavernous enough to swallow her disharmony and bring her back into its cadence. The crowd was not a conglomeration of hundreds of breathing, sweating and aching bodies, but one single breathing, sweating and aching body under the rain. Rain or sun made little difference. Walking in Istanbul meant walking in tandem with the crowd.

As Zeliha passed by dozens of rough-looking fishermen silently standing side by side along the old Galata Bridge, each holding an umbrella in one hand and a spinning rod in the other, she envied them for their capacity for stillness, this ability to wait for hours for fish that did not exist, or if they did, the fish that turned out to be so tiny that they could only be used as bait for other fish that would never get caught. How amazing was this ability to achieve plenty by achieving little, to go home empty-handed yet still satisfied at the end of the day! In this world, serenity generated luck and luck generated felicity, or so Zeliha suspected. It was all she could do, for she had never before tasted that kind of serenity, and she didn’t think she ever could. At least not today.

Despite her hurry, Zeliha slowed down as she wound her way through the Grand Bazaar. She had no time for shopping but would go inside for just a quick glance, she assured herself as she surveyed the store fronts. She lit a cigarette and as the smoke curled from her mouth she felt better, almost relaxed. A woman who smoked on the streets was not highly regarded in Istanbul, but who cared? Hadn’t she already waged war against the entire society? With that thought she moved towards the older section of the bazaar.

There were vendors here who knew Zeliha on a first-name basis, especially the jewellers. She had a soft spot for glittery accessories. Crystal hairpins, rhinestone brooches, lustrous earrings, pearly boutonnières, zebra-stripe scarves, satin satchels, chiffon shawls, silk pom-poms and shoes, always with high heels. She had never passed this bazaar without ducking into several stores, bargaining with the vendors, and ending up paying far less than the amount proposed for things she had not planned to purchase in the first place. But today she drifted by a few stalls and peeped into some windows. That was it.

Zeliha lingered in front of a stand full of jars, pots and flasks full of herbs and spices. She remembered one of her three sisters asking her this morning to get some cinnamon, though she couldn’t remember which one had asked. Zeliha was the youngest of four girls who could not agree on anything but retained an identical conviction of always being right, and a feeling that each had nothing to learn from the others but lots to teach. It felt as bad as missing the lottery by a single number: however you considered the situation, you could not avoid feeling subjected to an injustice beyond correction.

All the same, Zeliha purchased some cinnamon, not the crushed powder, but sticks. The vendor offered her tea and a cigarette and a chat, and she rejected none. While she sat there talking, her eyes nonchalantly scanned the shelves until they locked on to a glass tea set. That too was among the list of the things she could not resist buying: tea glasses with gilded stars and thin, delicate spoons and brittle saucers with gilded belts around their rims. There were already at least thirty different glass tea sets at home, all bought by her. But there was no harm in buying another set, for they broke so easily. ‘So damn fragile…’ muttered Zeliha under her breath. She was the only one among the Kazanci females capable of getting infuriated at tea glasses when they broke. Seventy-seven-year-old Petite-Ma had a different approach: ‘There goes another evil eye!’ she exclaimed each time a tea glass broke. ‘Did you hear that ominous sound? Crack! Oh, it echoed in my heart! That was somebody’s evil eye, so jealous and malicious. May Allah protect us all!’ But Petite-Ma also heaved a sigh of relief when tea glasses broke. Given that you could not completely wipe out wicked people from the surface of this madly spinning world, it was far better to have their evil eye ram into a frontier of glass than penetrate deep inside God’s innocent souls and ruin their lives.

Twenty minutes later, when Zeliha rushed into a chic office in one of the most well-off quarters of the city, she had a broken heel in one hand and a new set of tea glasses in the other. Once inside the door, she was dismayed to remember that she had left the wrapped cinnamon sticks at the Grand Bazaar.

In the waiting room there were three women, each with terrible hair, and a man with almost none. Zeliha instantly noted and cynically deduced from the way they sat that the youngest was the least worried of all; she was languidly leafing through the pictures in a women’s magazine, too lazy to read the articles, probably here to renew her prescription for birth control pills. The plump blonde next to the window, who seemed to be in her early thirties and whose black roots begged to be dyed, was swaying on her feet nervously, her mind apparently elsewhere; she was probably here for a routine check-up and annual Pap test. The third one, who was wearing a headscarf and had come along with her husband, seemed to be the least composed, the corners of her mouth turned down, her eyebrows knitted. Zeliha guessed she was having trouble getting pregnant. Now that, Zeliha assumed, could be bothersome, depending on one’s perspective. She personally did not see infertility as the worst thing that could happen to a woman.

‘Hellooo, you!’ chirped the receptionist, forcing herself into a goofy, phoney smile so well practised it looked neither goofy nor phoney. ‘Are you our three o’clock appointment?’

The receptionist seemed to be having a hard time pronouncing the letter r and, as if to compensate for the problem, she went to extraordinary lengths by accentuating the sound, raising her voice, and offering an extra smile whenever her tongue bumped into that ominous letter. To save her the bother, Zeliha nodded instantly and perhaps too heartily.

‘And what exactly are you here for, Miss Three-o’clock-Appointment?’

Zeliha managed to ignore the absurdity of the question. By now she knew too well that it was precisely this unconditional and all-embracing female cheerfulness that she sorely lacked. Some women were devoted smilers; they smiled with a Spartan sense of duty. How could one ever learn to do so naturally something so unnatural, Zeliha wondered. But leaving aside the question that tugged at the edges of her mind, she responded, ‘An abortion.’

The word hovered in the air, and they all waited for it to sink. The receptionist’s eyes grew small, then large, while the smile on her face disappeared. Zeliha couldn’t help feeling relieved. After all, unconditional and all-embracing female cheerfulness brought out a vindictive streak in her.

‘I have an appointment,’ Zeliha said, tucking a ringlet behind her ears while letting the rest of her hair fall around her face and over her shoulders like a thick, black burka. She lifted her chin, accentuating her aquiline nose, and felt the need to repeat, a notch louder than she had intended, or maybe not. ‘Because I need to have an abortion.’

Torn between impartially registering the new patient and giving a scolding eye, the receptionist stood still, a huge, leather-covered notebook lying open in front of her. A few more seconds passed before she started scribbling. In the meantime Zeliha muttered, ‘I’m sorry that I’m late’—the clock on the wall indicated that she was forty-six minutes late and as her gaze rested on it, for a second, she looked as if she were drifting away—’It’s because of the rain…’

That was a little unfair to the rain, since the traffic, the broken cobblestones, the municipality, the stalker and the cab driver, not to mention the stop for shopping, should also have been held accountable for her delay. But Zeliha decided to bring up none of those. She might have violated the Golden Rule of Prudence for an Istanbulite Woman, she might also have violated the Silver Rule of Prudence for an Istanbulite Woman, but she held her ground to abide by the Copper Rule.

The Copper Rule of Prudence for an Istanbulite Woman: When harassed on the street, you’d better forget about the incident as soon as you are on your way again, since to recall the incident all day long will only further rack your nerves!

Zeliha knew that if she had brought up the harassment now, the other women, far from being supportive, would have the tendency to pass judgement on a harassed sister in cases like these. So she kept her answer short.

‘Your age, miss?’ the receptionist wanted to know.

Now that was an annoying question, and utterly unnecessary. Zeliha squinted at the receptionist as if she were some sort of semi-darkness one needed to adjust one’s eyes to see better. All of a sudden, she had remembered the sad truth about herself: her age. Like too many women used to acting above and beyond their years, she was disturbed by the fact that she was far younger than she’d like to be.

‘I am,’ she conceded, ‘nineteen years old.’ As soon as the words came out of her mouth, she blushed, as if caught naked in front of all these people.

‘We’d need the consent of your husband, of course,’ the receptionist continued, no longer in a chirpy voice, and wasted no time in proceeding to another question, the answer of which she already suspected. ‘May I ask you, are you married, miss?’

From the corner of her eye Zeliha noticed the plump blonde on her right and the headscarved woman on her left wriggle uncomfortably. As the inquisitive gaze of every person in the room weighed heavier upon her, Zeliha’s grimace evolved into a beatific smile. Not that she was enjoying the tortuous moment, but the indifference deep underneath had just whispered to her not to mind other people’s opinions since they would make no difference at the end of the day. Lately she had decided to purge certain words from her vocabulary and now that she recalled that decision, why not start with the word shame. Still, she didn’t have the nerve to utter aloud what by now everyone in the room had fully understood. There was no husband to consent to this abortion.

Fortunately for Zeliha, the fact that there was no husband turned out to be an advantage in formalities. Apparently she didn’t need to get anyone’s written approval. The bureaucratic regulations were less keen to rescue babies born out of wedlock than those born to married couples. A fatherless baby in Istanbul was just another bastard, and a bastard just another sagging tooth in the city’s jaw, ready to fall out at any time.

‘Your birthplace?’ the receptionist continued drearily.

‘Istanbul!’

‘Istanbul?’

Zeliha shrugged as if to say, where else could it be? Where else on earth but here? She belonged to this city! Wasn’t that visible on her face? After all, Zeliha considered herself a true Istanbulite, and as if to reprimand the receptionist for failing to see such an apparent fact, she turned back on her broken heel and invited herself to the chair next to the headscarved woman. It was only then that she took notice of the latter’s husband, who was sitting still, almost paralysed with embarrassment. Rather than passing judgement on Zeliha, the man seemed to be wallowing in the discomfort of being the only male in such a blatantly feminine zone. For a second Zeliha felt sorry for him. It occurred to her to ask the man to step out on to the balcony and have a smoke with her, for she was sure he smoked. But that could be misinterpreted. An unmarried woman could not ask such questions of married men, and a married man would display hostility towards another woman when next to his wife. Why was it difficult to become friends with men? Why did it always have to be like that? Why couldn’t you just step out on to the balcony and have a smoke and exchange a few words, and then go your separate ways? Zeliha sat there silently for one long moment, not because she was exhausted, which she was, or because she was fed up with all the attention, which she was as well, but because she wanted to be next to the open window; she was hungry for the sounds of the street. A street vendor’s husky voice infiltrated the room: ‘Tangerines… Fragrant, fresh tangerines…’

‘Good, keep shouting,’ Zeliha muttered to herself. She didn’t like silence. As a matter of fact, she abhorred silence. It was okay that people stared at her on the street, in the bazaar, in the doctor’s waiting room, here and there, day and night; it was all right that they watched and gawked and eyeballed at length again as if seeing her for the first time. One way or another she could always fight against their gaze. What she could not possibly fight against was their silence. ‘Tangerinist, tangerinist… How much does a kilo cost?’ a woman yelled from an open window on the upper floors of a building across the street. It had always amused Zeliha to see how easily, almost effortlessly, the denizens of this city were capable of inventing unlikely names for ordinary professions. You could add an -ist to almost everything sold in the market, and the next thing you knew, you had yet another name to be included in the list of urban professions. One could easily be called a ‘tangerinist’, a ‘waterist’, a ‘bagelist’. Or…an ‘abortionist’.

By now Zeliha had no doubt. Not that she needed one to know what she already was sure about, but she had also had a test done at the newly opened clinic in their vicinity. On the day of the ‘grand opening’ the people at the clinic had given a showy reception for a bunch of selected guests, and had lined up all the bouquets and garlands right outside at the entrance so that the passers-by on the street could be informed about the occasion as well. When Zeliha had visited the clinic the next day, most of these flowers had already faded, but the flyers were as colourful as before, free pregnancy test with each blood sugar test they said in phosphorescent capital letters. The correlation between the two was unknown to Zeliha, but she had taken the test all the same. When the results arrived her blood sugar turned out to be normal and she turned out to be pregnant.

‘Miss, you can come in now!’ called the receptionist as she stood in the doorway, fighting another r, this time one that was hard to avoid in her profession. ‘The doctor…he is waiting for you.’

Grabbing her box of tea glasses and the broken heel, Zeliha jumped to her feet. She felt all the heads in the room turn towards her, recording her every gesture. Normally, she would have walked as rapidly as she could. At the moment, however, her moves were visibly slow, almost languorous. Just when she was about to leave the room, she paused and turned around, knowing exactly whom to look at. There, at the centre of her gaze, was a most embittered face. The headscarved woman grimaced, her brown eyes shadowed by resentment, her lips moving and cursing the doctor and this nineteen-year-old about to abort the child Allah should have bestowed not on a slapdash girl, but on her.

The doctor was a burly man who communicated strength through his erect posture. Unlike his receptionist, there was no judgement in his stare, no unwise questions on his tongue. He seemed to welcome Zeliha in every way. He made her sign some papers, and then more papers in case anything went wrong during or after the procedure. Next to him, Zeliha felt her nerve slacken and her skin thin out, which was too bad because whenever her nerves slackened and her skin thinned out, she became as fragile as a tea glass, and whenever she became as fragile as a tea glass, she couldn’t help but come close to tears. And that was one thing she truly hated. Harbouring profound contempt for weepy women ever since she was a little girl, Zeliha had promised herself never to turn into one of those walking miseries who scattered tears and nit-picky complaints everywhere they went. She had forbidden herself to cry. To this day, she had on the whole managed pretty well to stick to her promise. When and if tears welled up in her eyes, she simply held her breath and remembered her promise. So on this first Friday of July she once again did what she had always done to stifle the tears: she took a deep breath and thrust her chin upward as an indication of strength. This time, however, something went wrong and the breath she had held came out as a sob.

The doctor did not look surprised. He was used to it. The women always cried.

‘There, there,’ he said, trying to console Zeliha while putting on a pair of surgical gloves. ‘It’s going to be all right, don’t you worry. It’s only a slumber. You’ll sleep, you’ll dream, and before you finish your dream, we’ll wake you up and you’ll go home. After that, you’ll remember nothing.’ The doctor patted her shoulder, handed her a tissue, and then handed her the whole box. He always had a spare box of tissues ready by his desk. Drug companies distributed these tissue boxes free of charge. Along with pens and notebooks and other things that carried their company name, they made tissues for women patients who could not stop crying.

‘Figs… Delicious figs… Good ripe figs!’

Was it the same vendor or a new one? What did his customers call him…? Figist? Zeliha thought to herself, as she laid still on a table in a room unnervingly white and immaculate. Neither the accoutrements nor even the knives scared her as much as this absolute whiteness. There was something in the colour white that resembled silence. Both were emptied of life.

Zeliha grew distracted by a black spot on the ceiling. The more she fixed her stare on it, the more the spot resembled a black spider. First it was still, but then it started to crawl. The spider grew bigger as the injection started to spread in Zeliha’s veins. In a few seconds she was so heavy she could not move a finger. As she tried to resist being carried away by the anaesthetized slumber, she started to sob again.

‘Are you sure this is what you want? Perhaps you would like to mull it over,’ said the doctor in a velvety voice, as if Zeliha was a pile of dust and he was afraid of brushing her away with the wind of his words if he spoke louder. ‘If you’d like to reconsider this decision, it is not too late.’

But it was. Zeliha knew it had to be done now, on this first Friday of July. Today or never. ‘There is nothing to consider. I cannot have her,’ she heard herself blurt out.

The doctor nodded. As if waiting for this gesture, all of a sudden the Friday prayer poured into the room from the nearby mosque. In seconds another mosque joined in and then another and another. Zeliha’s face contorted in discomfort. She hated it when a prayer originally designed to be called out in the pureness of the human voice was dehumanized into an electro-voice roaring over the city from microphones and cabinet speakers. Soon the clamour was so deafening she suspected there was something wrong with the loudspeaker system of each and every mosque in the vicinity. Either that or her ears had become extremely sensitive.

‘It will be over in a minute. Don’t worry.’

It was the doctor speaking. Zeliha looked at him quizzically. Was her contempt for the electro-prayer so obvious on her face? Not that she minded. Among all the Kazanci women she was the only one who was openly irreligious. As a child it used to please her to imagine Allah as her best friend, which was not a bad thing, except that her other best friend was a garrulous, freckled girl who had made smoking a habit at the age of eight. The girl happened to be the daughter of their cleaning lady, a chubby Kurdish woman with a moustache she did not always bother to shave. Back in those days, the cleaning lady used to come to their house twice a week, bringing her daughter along on each visit. Zeliha and the girl became good friends after a while, even cutting their index fingers to mix their blood and become lifelong blood-sisters. For a week the two girls went around with bloody bandages wrapped around their fingers as a sign of their sisterhood. Back in those days whenever Zeliha prayed it would be this bloody bandage she’d be thinking about—if only Allah, too, could become a blood-sister…her blood-sister.

Pardon me, she would apologize, and then repeat again and again—because whenever you apologized to Allah you had to do it thrice: pardon me, pardon me, pardon me.

It was wrong, she knew. Allah could not and should not be personified. Allah did not have fingers, or blood for that matter. One had to refrain from attributing human qualities to him—that’s to say, Him—which was not easy since every one of his—that’s to say, His—ninety-nine names happened to be qualities also pertinent to human beings. He could see it all but had no eyes; He could hear it all but had no ears; He could reach out everywhere but had no hands… Out of all this information eight-year-old Zeliha had drawn the conclusion that Allah could resemble us, but we could not resemble Him. Or was it vice versa? Anyway, one had to learn to think about him—that’s to say, Him—without thinking of Him as him.

The chances are she would not have minded this as much if one afternoon she had not spotted a bloody bandage around her older sister Feride’s index finger. It looked like the Kurdish girl had made her a blood-sister too. Zeliha felt betrayed. Only then it dawned on her that her real objection to Allah was not his—His—not having any blood but rather having too many blood-sisters, too many to care for so as to end up not caring for anyone.

The episode of friendship had not lasted long after that. Since the house was so big and dilapidated and her mother so grumpy and mulish, the cleaning lady quit after a while, taking her daughter away. Having been left without a best friend, Zeliha felt a subtle resentment, but she hadn’t quite known towards whom—to the cleaning lady for quitting, to her mother for making her quit, to her best friend for playing two sides, to her older sister for stealing her blood-sister, or to Allah. The others being utterly out of her reach, she chose Allah. Having felt like an infidel at such an early age, she saw no reason why she shouldn’t do so as an adult.

Another call to prayer from another mosque joined in. The prayers multiplied in echoes, as if drawing circles within circles. Oddly enough, at this moment in the doctor’s office, she worried about being late for dinner. She wondered what would be served at the table this evening, and which one of her three sisters had done the cooking. Each of her sisters was good with a particular recipe, so depending on the cook of the day she could pray for a different dish. She craved stuffed green peppers—a tricky dish to pray for, since every one of her sisters made it so differently. Stuffed…green…peppers. Her breathing slowed while the spider started to descend. Still trying to stare at the ceiling, Zeliha felt as if she and the people in the room were not occupying the same space.

It was too bright here, almost glossy. Slowly and cautiously, she walked along a bridge teeming with cars and pedestrians, and motionless fishermen with worms wiggling at the end of their spinning rods. As she navigated among them, every cobblestone she stepped on turned out to be loose and, to her awe, there was only a void underneath. Soon she’d realize in horror that what was below was also above, and it was raining cobblestones from the blue skies. When a cobblestone fell from the sky, a cobblestone disappeared from the pavement below. Above the sky and under the ground, there was the same thing: a void.

As cobblestones rained from above, enlarging further the cavity underneath, she panicked, afraid of being swallowed by the hungry abyss. ‘Stop!’ she cried out as the stones kept rolling under her feet. ‘Stop!’ she commanded the vehicles speeding towards her and then running her over. ‘Stop!’ she begged the pedestrians shouldering her aside. ‘Please stop!’

When Zeliha woke up she was alone, nauseous, and in an unfamiliar room. How on earth she could have walked here was a puzzle she had no desire to solve. She felt nothing, neither pain nor sorrow. So, she concluded, in the end the indifference must have won the race. It wasn’t only her baby but her senses too that had been aborted on that pure white table in the next room. Perhaps there was a silver lining somewhere. Perhaps now she could go fishing, and finally manage to stand still for hours on end without feeling frustrated or left behind, as if life was a swift hare she could only watch from a distance but never catch.

‘There you are, finally back!’ The receptionist was standing by the door, arms akimbo. ‘Goodness gracious! What a fright! How you scared us! Do you have any idea how you shrieked? It was so awful!’

Zeliha lay still, without blinking.

‘The pedestrians on the street must have thought we were slaughtering you or something… I only wonder why the police did not show up at our door!’

Because it is the Istanbul police you are talking about, not some brawny cop in an American movie, Zeliha thought to herself as she finally allowed herself a blink. Still not quite understanding why she had annoyed the receptionist but seeing no point in annoying her any further, she offered the first excuse that came to her mind: ‘Maybe I screamed because it hurt…’

‘It could not possibly, miss, for the doctor…has not performed the operation. We have not even laid a hand on you!’

‘What do you mean… ?’ Zeliha faltered, trying less to find out the answer than to comprehend the weight of her own question. ‘You mean… You have not—’

‘No, we haven’t.’ The receptionist sighed, holding her head as if at the onset of a migraine. ‘There was absolutely no way the doctor could do anything with you screaming at the top of your voice. You did not pass out, woman, no way. First you were blathering, and then you started yelling and cursing. I’ve never seen anything like it in fifteen years. It must have taken the morphine twice as long to take effect on you.’

Zeliha suspected some exaggeration behind this statement but did not feel like arguing. Two hours into her visit to the gynaecologist she had come to realize that a patient was expected to talk only when asked to.

‘And when you finally blacked out it was hard to believe that you wouldn’t start shrieking again. So the doctor said, let’s wait till her mind is clear. If she wants to have this abortion for sure, she can still go for it afterwards. We brought you here and let you sleep. And sleep indeed you did!’

‘You mean there was no…’ The word she had so daringly uttered in front of strangers just this afternoon felt unutterable now. Zeliha touched her belly while her eyes appealed for a consolation the receptionist was the last person on earth to offer. ‘So she is still here…’

‘Well, you do not know yet if it is a she!’ the receptionist said, her voice matter-of-fact.

But Zeliha knew.

Out on the street, despite the gathering darkness, it felt like early morning. The rain had ceased and life looked beautiful, almost manageable. Though the traffic was still a mess and the streets full of sludge, the crisp smell of the after-rain gave the whole city a sacred air. Here and there children stomped in mud puddles, taking delight in committing simple sins. If there ever was a right time to sin, it must have been at this fleeting instant. One of those rare moments when it felt like Allah not only watched over us but also cared for us; one of those moments when He felt close.

It almost felt as if Istanbul had become a blissful metropolis, romantically picturesque, just like Paris, thought Zeliha, though she had never been there. A seagull flew close, crying a coded message she was almost on the verge of deciphering. For half a minute Zeliha believed she was on the edge of a new beginning. ‘Why did you not let me do it, Allah?’ she heard herself mutter, but as soon as the words came out of her mouth, she apologized in panic to the atheist in herself.

Pardon me, pardon me, pardon me.

Tokyo Year Zero
Trident