Igor Stravinsky sat upright at the Duo-Art studio piano in New York to pose for a photograph. The year was 1925. He was officially déraciné after signing with the Aeolian Company the year before. Aeolian acquired his talents from Gustave Lyon, the eminent Frenchman who, for decades, had led direction of the Salle Pleyel on Rochechouart in Paris. Stravinsky eyed the camera, resting his hands on the cold keyboard, as he contemplated his newest works, Sonata for Piano and Concert for Piano.
By then, he was twice outcast. First, hustling and scrambling over a composition table in Paris, where he received his first substantial commissions from Diaghilev, with the Ballet Russes, both of them exiled by the rumblings of the Bolshevik Revolution. Mother Russia had struggled to the effect of expatriating artists, who were seen as bourgeois sympathizers of the oppressive aristocracy, and all in the name of equality among the industrial workforce.
Now in America, Stravinsky lost himself in the eye of the camera at the Duo-Art Studio. There was a flash of a dissonant triad in his ear, as he heard the sound of Aeolian executives breathing down his neck about the latest in recording technology, the AudioGraphic roll, which could feature program notes and illustrations together with the sound of his music. He aspired to give them Firebird, Petrushka, Apollon Musagète, Baiser de le Fèe, and other mind-numbing aural impressions that swept through his emotional core like a windswept tide. He was now surveying the oceanic panorama of his creativity from the high society of interwar New York.
Meanwhile in Paris, Lyon was in the early stages of overseeing the reopening of Salle Pleyel from Rochechouart to the 8th Arrondissement, where the new theater was to welcome ten times as many art lovers, from a mere three hundred to a three-thousand strong capacity. Again, Stravinsky felt twice removed as he sat before the camera in New York under the starving eyes of Aeolian and the American theatergoing public.
On a calm Istanbul morning in the autumn of 2016, the Turkish people awoke to a startling headline. Every newspaper, from the seamiest tabloid to the worthiest broadsheet read: “Stravinsky To Conduct Turkish People”. It was a sensation on all fronts. Scientists and politicians met with shaken heads. Musicians and industrialists rallied in the streets. Islamists and communists exchanged numbers. Delegations were called from Paris, Moscow and New York. The family of Stravinsky immediately helicoptered in to Yenikapi Square.
Together with the teeming masses, every public personality expected Erdoğan to emerge on the speaker’s platform to dispel what, by mid-morning, was already globally famed as the finest media stunt in world history. Instead, Igor Stravinsky appeared, though not as from the grave, where he had lain since 1971. He looked exactly as he had for his 1925 photo op in Duo-Arts studio in New York, dressed in a neat black suit and loose-fitting tie.
Momentarily, the crowd thought it was Erdoğan, because, when transplanted in time directly from his 1925 photo shoot in New York, his lip-cropped mustache and facial features were peculiarly similar to Erdoğan, betraying any skeptic from thinking otherwise for a secondary glance. Stravinsky was only slightly slimmer, as expected for the typical artist as compared to the average politician.
He propped up both of his hands, and from the podium usually meant for speakers, he raised a thin baton. Everyone in Yenikapi Square tilted an ear upwards and forwards in the direction of the catastrophically absurd man standing before Turkish people, and the world. Then, an even stranger phenomenon began to occur. All of the Turkish citizenry, from Kars to Izmir heard a most delightful and exotic series of tones.
They were swept inward by a profound musical ecstasy. Soon, every Turk from Berlin to San Francisco was entranced, suddenly overwhelmed with eyes firmly shut, internally resounding with a symphonic masterpiece as only they could appreciate, not to mention hear at all. In the middle of every executive meeting, football match and romantic dinner, the Turkish people were moved by a spell of purely mental, sonic manifestations.
Stravinsky, with his musical wizardry, had succeeded in conducting the inner music of an entire people. It was what every great composer dreamed, he thought, from Mozart to Bartok, drawing inspiration from folkloric nationalism. And staring into the camera at Duo-Art studio, he saw his chance to conduct hearts and minds, to compose the beliefs and values of an entire nation. In the glass of the lens, Stravinsky saw his uncanny resemblance to a deeply empowered 21st century politician, the 12th Turkish president.
Ali was at rest after a morning of hard work at the foundering family vegetable farm he had always known. His earliest memory was the acrid flavor of salt tingling the inside of his nose, emanating from the over-fertilized soil by some mystery in the air he could never fathom. His father had once owned great swathes of arable land around Lake Tuz.
Now the family worked apart day and night in variously portioned areas they formerly owned. To remain above water, they endured the growing and harvesting seasons by holding onto the bottom link of a food chain that firmly pressed every farmer from horizon to horizon onto the flat, dry earth.
Every morning, since he began walking, Ali woke before dawn to sow new seeds, harvest ripe crops and till the infamously salt-ridden soil. It was his first day alone, as a boy of twelve. His father vaguely engaged him in conversation the night before about solitary work being an initiation into adulthood.
Casting out a recently acquired batch of sugar beet seeds, he recited the folkloric rite of agriculture passage known to Anatolia since the earliest settlement planted its arid steppes: “Wolf, bird and bread!”
Under the midday sunlight that spread throughout the saline heartland from Konya to Ankara, he rose mystified, and propped his head up in a most unusual fashion. His drifting mind was suddenly, although to a curiously pleasant effect, shaken from an unremembered dream.
He was spontaneously abuzz with a serious concentration of the most complex range of music as he had never heard in his life. The sensation left him at odds, wondering how his overworked and inexperienced mind had surged with such ingenious wonders of sound.
The doors of the kıraathane nearest to the farm where Ali worked slammed open that afternoon, as Ali broke into the dim smoky room of burnt tea and stale tobacco. His mind was racing, and everyone in the room seemed out of sorts too. They were struck in a daze, some frozen in the middle of throwing the backgammon dice, some stuttering exasperated failing to denounce the latest sports riot. Only Ali was exuberant, his poise magnified with a strength only known to those who live silently and whose labors are physical and self-reliant. That hour, he could not keep still, muttering an order for tea between his jangling teeth, as his brow tightened with ecstasy.
His tea was not the usual color of tradition, famously compared to the blood of a rabbit. Instead, it was more like the spit of a camel, the boiled water jaundiced to weakness under the misdirected introspection brought on by the peculiarity of the collectively subconscious music. To the patrons of the village kıraathane, the polyphonic racket rang like crackling split bells inside the hidebound aged. Every man about sat fixed, stuttering spasmodically, stupefied by an inexplicable and unsayable inner vacuum of sonic force.
The chief musician known to every town neighboring Lake Tuz was a man named Erdal, who sat across the room, almost flattened against the faded wall of the kıraathane where he whiled away most of his days and nights when not bent over his saz lute at home in the garden.
Most seasons, he tossed the backgammon dice with a rhythm that helped him to conceive powerful musical tapestries from his born talent for harmonic thought. He was an illiterate composer, as known to Anatolian oral tradition, who stood on a tree-stump pedestal to conduct humble orchestras of countrified men whose instrumental tones were as anticipated as the falling of leaves in autumn.
He was the only man in the room with a smile on his face that afternoon, as the air seethed with inner turmoil, the kıraathane vexed to the mental pitch of an insane asylum. Although shaking with anxious fascination, Ali eyed Erdal from the tea counter, as the old wooly man stared back with a wink and a grin, opening his palm and grasping the wooden chair next to him. Ali recognized the gesture, stood up, and sat beside Erdal. In that moment, the strange and inebriating current of musical absorption phased out. There had never been a silence in the kıraathane as in that moment.
“Are you thinking what I am thinking?” Erdal whispered to Ali, tilting his head forward with newfound, fatherly admiration. The two were kindred, empowered by the soul of the unspeakable phenomenon, intuitively delighted with mutual inspiration. What they felt was in stark contrast to the general befuddlement that shook every other adult man to the core, those who had always lived by rote tradition. Ali simply smiled at Erdal, shy with adolescent respect.
“We will meet here tomorrow evening, same time,” said Erdal, as he quickly reengaged the elderly man across from him in ebullient conversation, rolling a dice and slapping down shiny fired clay chips against the scratched wood of the backgammon board, calling for two strong teas and more sugar.
The next night, to the minute, Ali appeared behind the window of the kıraathane. He raised his hand to wave at Erdal and smile, embarrassed by his childlike greeting. Erdal smirked and jolted his head invitingly, smashing a backgammon chip down with a powerful grace, rising from his chair with an energy unseen by most men his age. He sat by the tea counter, ordered two of the largest glasses with grandiose heaps of sugar. Ali was all ears.
“First, we begin with a story. And then, if you listen well, I will teach you how to listen to sound itself my boy,” Erdal said happily, with a buoyant charm. “Not long ago, there was a curious climate in the village of Kuçuktepe, where a community of goatherds lived in peace on the open steppe in the heartland of our beloved Anatolia.
“Now the people of Kuçuktepe began to notice peculiar changes in the weather come late summer. It appeared to them that spring was on its way back, and that the seasons were reverting in the opposite direction of the seasonal round,” Erdal began, noticing the way Ali sipped his tea with bright, clear eyes as open as his ears, and as freely as his mind. “The leaves, instead of beginning to dry and fall and crack into shreds on the shadowy floors of the forest groves, were instead growing stronger on the branch and returning greener. The fruit trees, vegetable gardens and fields of wheat were not ripening for harvest. They were all firming up like they do when newly sprung. Every life form in sight appeared to be reproducing again, and in entirely uncharacteristic ways. The doe of the mythically-horned bezoar ibex acted like the mating buck, growing dark stripes of fur while ramming into each other skull-first. Every other creature with distinguishable sexes had switched opposite roles in the yearly ritual of reproduction.”
Ali almost piped in, he could barely contain himself feeling the heat of the brewed tea and the breath of the captivating storyteller move through his body like a serum of childhood wonder.
“What effect did such a biological revolution have on the people of the small, remote village of Kuçuktepe?” Erdal asked, pointing at Ali with a gentle, yet stern glance. “They who were landlocked and too poor for even the simplest grid, with only a prototypical Soviet radio with which to feel a part of the world which was all hearsay, fear-mongering and overwrought to them anyway?”
Intrigue poured from the eyes of Ali like the endless caffeine that steamed into the copper and tin vessels strewn about served at a regularly demanding pace.
“First, they convened. It was to be a meeting of all meetings, attended by every last townsman, an affair unheard of since the mythical establishment of the village became public lore, one espousing a direct blood-pact with Dede Korkut!” Erdal said, with emphasis that characterized the announcement, leaving Ali to wonder if the story was in fact true.
“‘I propose the formation of a hunting party,’ said Artun, who knew full-well the potentially endangering political force field in which he had flung himself with the statement. ‘We will unite the leaders from each party and band, hold common ceremony among the secret societies, accompanied by a single scout at the personal request of each leader,’ Erdal raised his pointed finger to the ceiling, impersonating the voice of the village leader with convincing enthusiasm. “Artun was the son of the second-most powerful family in Kuçuktepe, the Şehirites, who claimed to be descendants of Ur, and were rumored to practice the original order of Abrahamic monotheism. The Şehirites were an intimidating people who were the subject of many conspiracies to control what little power center existed in Kuçuktepe.”
Erdal was silent for a moment. He sipped his tea twice, taking a calm pause between sips that seemed to last much longer than the few seconds that had passed.
“The eldest elder of Kuçuktepe was more silent than usual that morning,” Erdal said, sipping his tea again, searching for a renewed spark of energy, such as he had known from his elder storytellers. “She spat wildflower seeds at an extraordinary pace, unseen since the last seed-eating contest of the previous harvest.”
“Everyone present glanced at the eldest elder occasionally, inconspicuously attempting to read her reactions for a hint of prophecy. They were all struck with fear-ridden eyes, empty of answers, at a loss for faith,” said Erdal, taking on a solemn air. “No one dared call out to her, as they were so often familiar doing under more settling and peaceful circumstances.”
“‘Başak!’ the children would shout to her, wildly happy, holding out a hand with smiling patience for a honey-covered seed, dried with special care and served with the generous soul of love from none other than the eldest elder could provide,” Erdal said, telling the story with a rhythm and volume that was visible and clear. “Now, she was at the end of her rope, in her body and on the hard ground of the living, as she witnessed changes in the life of the land that she had never seen in all of her long seasons, seemingly eternal to the youth.”
“What was worse, she had never even heard a story that could at least be told out to assuage the torrent of questions emerging from the village mind like sparks flying off the edge of a burning branch,” Erdal continued, telling the story with a pensive weight rolling off of his tongue with eloquent wisdom, as he exuded with a tireless strength of heart. “The catharsis of time was now reduced to a blaring confrontation with the present, the great rhythmic cycle of return that planted the human community in the field of universal creation and natural wisdom had ceased to a deafening silence.”
Erdal then paused again. He did not sip from his tea. Instead, he looked around him, eyeing the smoke-cast light that moved through the glass windows of the kıraathane, reflected in every tea glass, and ashtray, in every granule of sugar and blink of an eye.
“The uncle of Artun then spoke,” said Erdal, quieting his voice to a near whisper, surely preparing for the end of the story. “His voice was a lightning bolt charging the silent mystery of the land with optimistic wonder, as seen from the downcast eyes of every hunter, craftsman and elder. Even the priest of the wilderness picked up her lowly head on hearing the proud proclamation from afar on her lonely hill, the childless recluse who daily and nightly conjured the means of spiritual communion from every human soul to the spiritual hunting grounds that all who had ever lived in Kuçuktepe knew as the first and last place of rest since time immemorial.”
“‘I propose to send a single scout farther than the reaches of our village memory,’ cried Mertkan, the proud uncle of Artun. “’He will first be initiated in the traditional ways of every leaf and berry, all that seeds and fruits, and he will learn to move and see through every body and pair of eyes that shares our breath from beneath the soil to the highest branch,’”Erdal said, giving the voice of Mertkan a breathless intensity. “The townsmen first paused in a unison of contemplation with the whole of Kuçuktepe, from the convening men to the women busying children over water jugs and low fires in the village core. Within every dwelling, newly circled by patches of unseasonal, green wildflowers, everyone rested for a single moment of contemplation, returning to wakefulness in unison with eyes wide, all staring toward the horizon, as the nameless priest of the wild pointed afield and saw what no one else did.”
Without missing a beat, almost as part of the story, Erdal told Ali to meet him at the same time, only a week later. Ali was beside himself. He was awake nights. His mind captivated by that day when he heard such monumental resonances of foreign music as inexplicable as his meeting with Erdal. He imagined the village scout of Kuçuktepe traveling.
“What could he find?” Ali asked himself into the night. “And what if the scout never returned? How do people live with such change, left alone and without answers?”
The night before the week had finally passed in searing anticipation, as he was to meet Erdal the following day, his constant questioning until dawn had been resolved to a spontaneous peace of mind. The kıraathane was its usual self. Only, as Ali looked through the smoke-stained window glass, he could not see Erdal.
He asked everyone, from the gray-haired thirty-year-old, the burnt out middle-aged, the elderly sag. Each man appeared as a superficial carbon copy, all equally unresponsive, to his adolescent chagrin amid the din of addiction and testosterone. Even stranger, no one seemed to have heard from Erdal that day.
The next afternoon, Ali was resting for his usual daily break after outdoor morning chores were through, his shoes and hands caked with dirt, his brow cold with sweat, cooling in the northern breeze. He woke to the sound of a saz. He was convinced it was Erdal, shaken from his depression of futile interrogation. The presence was unmistakable. And yet, whipping his head back and forth as his eyes became sore, he surveyed the surroundings and saw nothing except the familiar, empty and distant horizon. The air was silent.
As the dusk light waned, his mind was at first subtly, and then swiftly crescendoing to a sonic peak with the same harmonies that had returned from that fated day when he was swept into an internal bewilderment of music that until then was not only unheard to him, it was unimaginable. He ran to the kıraathane, certain that Erdal was there, at least someone else who may have changed heart at hearing such music again, someone sensitive enough to be lured away from draining every last drop of lifeblood for the more artfully inspired life.
Erdal was not there. And the men were as usual. They were not in the least introspective, as at least they were when he had first heard the music. Now, they were all but hopelessly bored, stereotypically bearing teeth rotted out from overconsumption of white sugar, muttering inanities with unsmiling tea-stained tongues tangled in dense exhales of smoke and rumor.
The next morning he abandoned the farmland, neglecting his filial duty to await the opening of the nearest saz atelier two towns away on the edge of Lake Tuz in Eskibahçe, a town mainly built for wealthy outsiders, retired Turks from Istanbul and young Russian freeloaders looking for the soul of mystical Anatolian poetry behind glossy windows and neat cafes.
The atelier never opened that day. And as young Ali waited despondent in front of the unlit shop with night falling above him, a picturesque lakeside landscape before him, he drifted from daydream to a blank stare. Nudged back to alertness by a foreign hand, he heard Turkish in a thick Russian accent.
“Boy. What is name?” the Russian tourist called out in broken Turkish. Ali was too lost to answer. The Russian leaned in to Ali, who looked like he had recently escaped from an insane asylum, as his lips quivered with a curious series of tones.
“Where learn?” asked the Russian. Ali did not reply. The Russian began to smile wider and wider as he sat down on the dry, salty earth with Ali, listening intently. And then the Russian began to sing with Ali, who perked up immediately, his eyes clearing.
“No stop,” said the Russian, as Ali became breathless with wonder.
The Russian filled the silence by repeating the first series of tones that he had heard Ali uttering from his meek and defeated presence on the cold, bare ground.
“Please,” the Russian said, holding out his hand to Ali. He led Ali to a lakeside cottage, in which there were piles of ring-bound books printed with otherworldly symbols and shapes that looked something like a cross between Georgian and Arabic. The Russian had a looseness about him, an informality that was almost childlike.
“Books. To play!” he said, standing beside a piano with a triangular-shaped lute that was smaller than a saz lying on a chest near the baby grand in between what looked like flutes of various sizes, all made of differing materials, metal, wood, plastic, even clay and bone.
“He reads a wordless language,” Ali thought. “He speaks a language of pure sound, only meant to be played. He reads music.”
The Russian sat at the piano. He opened a white, untitled book, and placed it in front of other books at eye level above the keys. The pages were empty except for thin black lines running from side to side. The Russian played the first few notes of the series he had heard Ali singing to himself at the atelier. And then, he stopped after playing a very short phrase, and leaned into the empty book with a pencil. He made a few markings and waved his hand, gesturing Ali to look at what he had written. Starting from the beginning, he pointed with the tip of his pencil at each symbol as he played the tone on the piano keys. Again, and again, he showed Ali how to write the mysterious music that he was still hearing in his head.
Ali smiled in a way that showed genuine gratitude to the Russian. He now knew what to do with himself. Under the influence of the music, a sudden torrent of emotional genius had stamped his adolescence with the mark of an artist.
“This day. One time a week,” the Russian said, and gently walked from the piano to his door, to kindly show Ali out.
On his way back home, Ali felt a rush that was similar, though weaker, to when he met Erdal and listened to his storytelling. Only now, the feeling had returned, and specially for him he thought. And more, the soft implosions of creative awe were not fading away with time. He had grasped a lifeline of bliss, and felt, for the first time in his life, that he knew where to go on his own, and even without direction, without an order. He was free.
Merve thought herself the first to realize that every envelope sent and received, every note inscribed and read, held the secrets of lives led and followed. Her townsfolk and kin loved her for her soft voice and despite the way she stared into space, as into the void beyond life through her olive-green eyes that at times seemed irretrievably out of focus.
She was not entirely mad, thought the neighborhood. Everyone, from her family to her neighbors and even the local councilmen debated her mental condition. She was well liked, often tempting smiles from passersby who caught her most unusual eye in the marketplace, where her name was sometimes whispered in question.
She sold silk ribbons dyed in warm tones that could accessorize the clothing of anyone, rich and poor, and with all of the reserved and nostalgic taste of her long-lost village aesthetic. There was a very distinct style, thought Merve, that the people of her village expressed altogether, quite different from the way she imagined other villages to express color and form, and worlds apart from the rusty metal and cracked stone of the ancient metropolis she now called home.
In her mind, she saw through the eyes of her mother Ayşe, and her mother’s mother, and her grandmother’s grandmother, and with time she imagined herself seeing through the eyes of her entire village and every last one of its ancestors, as she sat and admired her ribbons under the morning sunlight. By afternoon cloud cover spelled a day of poor sale. The weather shifted moods like the business of the marketplace.
Fortunately, she was optimistic as ever now, living by the Golden Horn where the sun was legendary for its generosity. She understood how aesthetic taste could differ from place to place while observing how people from all over chose from her ribbons. In Istanbul, a new face could mean the world.
Every time a new patron greeted her for a sale, she imagined all of the choices they could have made and all of the practically infinite uses for a ribbon that they would never consider. Her ribbons were raw and original, she thought, closer to the source than any other type of garment for sale at the market. She felt each ribbon in her hand, admiring the unwoven and unstitched fabrics, how they were shredded and cut from the beautiful, living beings that she once adored in the fields and mountains near her bygone home in the village. Every day she watched as postmen and scholars walked through the market, always in a hurry, and never buying a thing. One afternoon, a very important scholar of music, known and respected throughout the city as a world-famous composer, stood in front of her ribbon basket.
“Selam, peace be with you,” he began. “One ribbon, please. Any color.” She looked up in silence with her characteristic eye, that half-stare that mystified her family into wondering if she had left her mind in the womb when she was born. Immediately, she grabbed a ribbon without looking and presented it to him. He paid.
About an hour later, clouds formed densely in the sky. A soft rain fell at first, and as the dirt at her feet became slightly muddy, the sky darkened into a downpour. The market was a fury of bustle, as she clamped down on her ribbon baskets and ran home. Just a few steps beyond the market, a postman dropped an envelope in his hurry. She stood in the rain, eyeing the envelope.
The people who saw her confirmed the worst suspicions about the marketplace neighborhood as she seemed to freeze by some imperceivable absorption within her, so easily entranced at nothing, they thought, fearing for her wellbeing. She stared at the muddy, rain-soaked envelope for an indefinite spell. The rain stopped. The market cleared, and there she was, simply fascinated at wondering how that envelope could have appeared, seemingly for her interest alone. She picked up the envelope, placed it in her torn basket of ruined ribbons and walked home.
Her mother was livid as the family sat around an empty table, everyone already fed and wearing a new change of clothes after the storm. That night was the first time she had thrown her terlik slippers at her daughter as she entered home through the front door. Her father said nothing, downcast. And her brothers and sisters did all they could to hold in a burst of laughter. “Go to bed!” the mother fumed, pointing to her room.
She threw her basket of ribbons at the foot of her bed, feeling nothing but pure elation at having scored the neglected envelope. She was wet as a dog after a swim in her storm-tossed clothes, though she fell asleep almost immediately in smiling satisfaction, not worried in the least about the condition of the envelope in her basket, well hid under all of the colorful ribbons.
The next day, her mother made her stay home to weave as many new baskets as she could, to sell all but one in order to restock her store of ribbons with the money she would make to buy more fabric. At the market by sunup, without a single ribbon, she sold every last basket. “The envelope must be a charm of luck,” she thought.
She kept the cold, wet paper under her bed all day, and when she returned home that evening without a basket, to the joy of her forgiving mother, she immediately felt the paper, and nearly split open her head with the widest of smiles. That night, she could not sleep, for her happiness filled her with wakeful dreams that could only be fulfilled in daylight and with open eyes.
She stared and stared into the absolute dark of night, breathing in the sweet wooden frame of her bed and the sheltering walls of the home, she thought, inshallah, where she might grow into a woman. That day at the market, yawning with bright eyes that radiated with her happiness, she saw the composer. He walked slow then, and she did not know how anyone could be so glum while all she felt was a mystic bliss.
The composer stopped in front of her, looking into her startlingly unfocused eyes with an interrogative frown. “What is that?” he asked, pointing at the envelope she had laid on the stump next to where she sat on a frayed, upturned basket, which was hard from drying after the rain. He did not even notice her basket of newly and brilliantly dyed ribbons. He bent forward almost unnoticeably peering at the envelope at her side, as she simply kept up her uninhibited smile. “Why, there it is!” he exclaimed, jolting with an outstretched hand for the envelope. Her smile had never changed so abruptly into such embittered intensity, with facial muscles tightened. She bit her first stiff upper lip and made a dash. She got away.
That evening, over tavla and çay at the cafe, the local councilmen did not know what to make of the most upstanding local composer chasing the “mute stare” as they regretfully titled her. They were at once proud of her transformation into her own, and perplexed by the behavior of the gentleman.
The interaction was confounding and caused a near uproar at the market. Everyone knew that the neighborhood would talk about the incident for months, years, perhaps generations, as the affair met a long-unsatisfied local demand for public drama.
Merve did not return home that night for fear that her mother would take the envelope from her by force if necessary. And yet, at dawn, after drifting between Balat and Eminönü under stark, inner-city moonlight, she felt dutiful as ever, and went to sit at her place in the market, where she was simply proud of her new ribbons, not wishing to draw attention to the envelope.
Gradually, and then all of a sudden, at seeing her, the whole market and every regular face on the street crowded around her, to see her basket of new ribbons she thought, until she saw that they were all led by her mother, the postman, and the extended, open-palmed hand of the composer.
She returned the envelope to the composer with a meek grin, without a fight, although the idea of dashing again did cross her mind for an instant. With a warm, forgiving smile, the composer turned to Ayşe and spoke with a low, calm voice, introducing himself by his first name. “I’m Ali, and I’m happy to meet you,” he said, with a familiar accent that she immediately identified as central Anatolian, from a village, perhaps near Lake Tuz. All the lighter for realizing his humble origins, Ayşe held her palm to her heart and lowered her head.
Merve was simply in awe. She was not defeated in the least, and without the slightest feeling of emptiness in her heart. Instead, she was grateful beyond belief for having been in possession of the envelope. Its mere presence changed her life for the inspired.
As the small crowd of merchants and street kids around her ribbon basket dissipated, Ayşe decided to help Merve sell her beloved ribbons for the rest of the the day. She was overcome with a quiet pride, although stern. She was happy with her daughter.
“It seems you have done something of note, Merve,” said her mother, as they walked home, elated by a most unexpected surprise. “The man is very important. He writes music for the biggest theater in Istanbul. And he has invited us there to a new performance, he says, which will be of music written in that envelope of yours.”
Ayşe readied herself for the gün of a lifetime. The week had passed. Husband and home were finally a second thought. The long-awaited reunion of her best friends finally returned after an extraordinary weekend at the market. She was confident that she had the news that would make every teyze from Istanbul to Adana as jealous as a fenced canine.
“The one day set apart for a little old teyze like me to be herself,” she thought, as she left home with no one behind her, nervously holding her bag over her hip, self-conscious of her makeup. “They don’t call me teyze for nothing.”
This gün, she would not only remain the teyze she had always been, the unabashed auntie, the unflagging role-keeper of a domestic personality, she would be more teyze than ever. After all, gün is a day set to reaffirm, and more importantly, to disinhibit the social boundaries that keep teyzes over-sheltered everywhere.
She was eager to let herself go, to gossip more flamboyantly than ever, to eat with a gluttony comparable only to the harem of Osman Bey, to sip her çay and Türk kahvesi gregariously, and to leave her teyzes in reputable fashion after blissfully flaunting her latest pride as a confident teyze in the modern world.
She walked into the over-lit foyer of the Emirgan home owned by her friend Zeynep, whose husband was away that Sunday afternoon. The air smelled of potpourri and ammonia. Behind a glossed set of pearly teeth, Ayşe opened a box of airy cakes, a colorful set of powdered creams, sporting her best coat of mock wool buttoned with fool’s gold.
“Allow me to take your coat,” said Zeynep, noticing the unusually wide smile that Ayşe wore as she entered the home, which from every corner had the ambiance of a furniture showroom for the highest daydreamers of the Turkish middle class. “Aslı and Melek are here waiting in the sitting room.”
On a lacquered wood table decorated with delicate china, the familiarly appetizing börek, dolma, and kısır teased beside dark tea the color of blood dye. Gossip, rumor, hearsay and anecdote after anecdote streamed from the mouths of Aslı, Melek, Ayşe and Zeynep. When the lightly frothed, steaming Turkish coffee was poured, eyes lit up with renewed fervor, as the blackened tongues of the women gobbled cakes and cookies in between half-formed sentences, full of incomprehensible grandmother’s proverbs and inherited Anatolian recipes.
“I have something to say,” said Ayşe, bloated with anticipation, ready to boast to her heart’s content. Everyone could tell that she seemed the highest tezye of that particular gün, the one who would break hearts with envy. “No. I have something to show,” she said with a pretentious smile.
Ayşe reached into her well-hidden brassiere, to reveal a pair of tickets to the Opera House, for the concert event of the year. And more, they were special reservations meant for the elite society, who sit up above ground floor, eyeing the artists behind posh binoculars, reclining on velvet armrests. Her smile turned smug.
“Well, who do you think you are?” belted Melek, as she sat, nearly furious with misplaced excitement, long having greatly overstepped her daily dosages of caffeine and sugar. “How on earth did you acquire those? Thief!”
“From my daughter,” Ayşe said, proud as the wearer of silver buttons sewn into luxury satin. “We are going together. She, my little Merve, she introduced me to the composer, and at the market no less! I’ve already chosen what we will wear. I’m borrowing a one-of-a-kind dress from my sister-in-law, and what she will wear, well, that is a secret that I have allowed her to keep to herself.”
The teyzes were nearly drooling with wonder. Melek nearly fell off of her seat. She had always imagined herself specially as the most enviable tezye of every gün, who everyone admired and cherished for her classy and refined airs. Now it was clear. She was not.
On the night of the concert, armed bodyguards stood around the perimeter of Süreyya Opera House, at times eyeing the much-publicized marquee, which read, “New Music: Anatolia.” Through a winding underground passageway that led directly to a specially partitioned presidential balcony, Stravinsky emerged stealthily onto his seat in the theater seconds before the performance began. He was pale, as he placed a handkerchief to his brow, covered in cold sweat. His eyes were nearly crossed with dizziness from the helicopters and limousines that he had not yet acclimated to as acting head of state.
Despite the Turkish government having at once called snap elections at Parliament to reclaim executive power from the hands of the alleged time traveler, the image of President Stravinsky of Turkey simply generated an overwhelming amount of greatly-needed positive international media, miraculously normalizing Russian and European relations with Turkey, and revitalizing cultural tourism in the terror-besieged state.
Since the debut of his inner-conducted psychic symphony for the nation, the Prime Minister had issued a protocol state of emergency, yet one with an explanation that left villagers from Thrace to the Upper Euphrates speechless with an unprecedented disdain for the cultural elitism of urban rule. Fortunately, most citizens merely carried on with an unchanged sense of indifference and sarcasm as they had always learned to adopt in a nation known to trade heads of state like currency.
More, this was a coup won by a musician who apparently transcended physical time, and who in the seeking of his masterpiece had become a revolutionary armed with nothing heavier than a baton, so the international press echoed with heavy doses of mockery and stupefaction. The newly caricatured political representation at the head of state only bolstered the widespread cynicism and disbelief that had always been basic to the everyman social commentary that was as omnipresent as tea in Turkey.
In the midst of nationwide fervor, the new music concert by Ali Usta had become an epochal turning point in the cultural politics of the contemporary Turkish self-image. It wasn’t a secret that Ali Usta grew up on a village farm. And, coincidentally enough, from the day Stravinsky assumed office, he had begun teaching himself classical composition. The story appeared in the playbill as part of his impressive biography.
With his concert, “New Music: Anatolia,” he had expressly aspired to reclaim the integrity of the Turkish musical voice in the public sphere, not as indrawn by the hypnotisms of the state and the world, but as the living triumph of native Anatolian heritage.
Everyone wanted to hear the sound that could bridge the entire nation from the ground to the heavens, all classes united by a joyful and harmonious solidarity. They desperately needed a proud national affirmation, living as a majority of Turks under the wholly undemocratic rise of President Stravinsky.
Immediately following the unfounded substitution of Erdoğan, as the last chord of the enigma that came to be known as Symphony for Türkiye in C# faded into the silent disbelief of the world, Stravinsky fled to the presidential palace in Ankara. For nearly a decade, he had spent his time as a feral and reclusive artist, moving his composition table with his nightly belongings between the 1,150 rooms every morning, noon, sundown and night. The gargantuan residential complex had become his asylum, and his groundless, anachronistic eccentricities seemed uncannily suited to its unworldly retreat.
He had passed like a ghost through the underground and hidden hallways of the Opera House on Bahariye Avenue in Kadıköy, where outside, throngs of seasoned theatergoers mingled with the youth of the city in its latest cultural center, as Turkish and foreign alike resuscitated the meaning of life in Istanbul with newfound freedom.
Nearly blinded with wonder and curiosity by the bustling nightlife of Kadıköy, little Merve clasped tightly onto the hand of her mother, until she recognized Ali Usta himself as he entered the Opera House. She was more confident than her mother, wearing a dress for the first time in her life, a cerulean velvet gown fitted with the very first silk ribbon that she had ever made on her own.
She let go of her mother’s hand. Ayşe gasped, then smiled more brightly than she had ever felt in her life in that precious moment, as she watched her daughter gift that first of her ribbons to Ali Usta. When he accepted, and lifted her up slightly off the ground with a comforting hug, Ayşe cried. Her quiet laughter moved her eyes to dry as she held out her hand to Ali Usta, inflated with pride and gratitude, noticing that she and Merve were the very first on the evening to greet the honored guest.
Snow fell heavily outside, which was strange for Istanbul. It was a winter like something they had seen out of a foreign movie, ambient with holiday sentiment. The gold-hued bulbs reflected off the bejeweled glitterati as they donned the elegant fashions of the day. Ayşe took a hefty tome of mental notes for her next gün, imagining Melek in a near-rage with jealousy. Though, something happened when she looked down at her daughter, whose rosy cheeks warmed surrounded by so many beautiful people in such a clean, and inviting hall, meant for one purpose, to enliven and raise the human spirit to the call of music. She forgot about being covetous, and simply relaxed, enjoying herself, feeling weightless.
Mother and daughter were perplexed and petrified with contentment, as they watched everyone move about in humdrum conversation, buying alcoholic drinks, and checking coats. Merve looked up at her mother, who reached into her purse for the tickets. She enjoyed placing her thinly gloved hands inside her purse, which had a soft felt lining. “I’m a part of this now,” she thought, busying herself with private matters amid the social frenzy. Not since her first gün as a young mother had she been so light-headed with gaiety.
Ayşe gave one ticket to her daughter, who was now holding her hand tight. In the other hand, the ticket was bending under the pressure of her excitement, which they both held with throbbing hearts, while remaining still as manikins on a weekday morning. They faced the doorway to the theater. A vast chandelier hung above them. They dared not look at its gleaming crystals, fearing that to stare too long at a feature of such gaudy proportions would expose them as underclass impostors. The carpeted walls were enlightening enough, as were the riveting artworks and polished marble that welcomed them to stay for the evening.
Then, seating began. They walked straight forward. The usher on the right-hand side of the double doorway smiled warmly at Merve as she walked through into a once-in-a-lifetime experience, bearing her teeth upwards with abandon, not worrying in the least about her missing incisor behind her widest of grins. The theater was otherworldly to her, as she felt she had crossed into a passageway fit for the prophets. The gilded sculptures and painted ceiling invited her into a fairyland of djinns and huris.
They sat in the first row, easing into the plush seats like comforted kittens. There was nothing between them and the orchestra. Ali Usta raised his hands when the tuning fell silent. He turned his head around and winked at Merve, who shuddered with a feeling that left her almost ashamed to feel it beside her mother, as then and there she realized the possibility of knowing someone closer.
The music rose. From the first note, there was confusion. The entire audience reeled back mystified. Many were hypnotized in an uncannily familiar way, as they had been when Turkey changed hands with the tap of Stravinsky’s baton. Even Ayşe became restless, as the music was, to her unanticipated horror, strangely unbearable. Her face soon contorted with disgust as she listened. A voice cried, “Agitprop!” Restless hecklers stood up from the stunned crowd and jeered, throwing the playbill onstage in gaining frustration.
And then, as the first chair violinist mutinied, and the orchestra of musicians soon followed, the theater heard a loud crack. Someone had fallen from an upper-level balcony onto a seat on the ground floor. In a fit more dramatic than the music, the man emerged from the splintered seat frame, and crawled onstage, his body dripping with blood and sweat as he grabbed Ali Usta by the ankle. “Erdoğan returns!” one theatergoing observer shouted. “To save us from this musical imperialism,” another audience member laughed, as a deafening euphoria spread once the music stopped.
The sight of the long-lost president, who had mysteriously vanished to the same music as was heard at the concert that night, caused people to freeze. Everyone watched with a mixture of satisfaction and contempt, as Erdoğan and Ali wrestled on the empty stage. In a few moments, Ali Usta had freed himself and ran off behind the curtains. Erdoğan stood to the cheer and praise of his faithful below. Merve and Ayşe left in tears before the fight began, just catching a glimpse of Erdoğan as he hurled himself over the conductor’s podium.