written by Nazli Karabiyikoglu
Do you know what’s very wrong when death is so near? Looking at the mirror.
Barks and shouts and other sounds of daily life coming in from the window make me flinch. What scares me the most is the horizon, where the cloudy sky meets the steppes afar. I think about the streets that I’m about to head out to, to let my body go. This part of the city, where piles of trash fill the sidewalks and neighborhoods are stuffed together, hasn’t welcomed winter yet. Heating stoves aren’t lit, people are still merely chilly.
I squeeze my flesh under my ribs. As I hug myself, I think about how small I am; I could fit in my palms. And I still wear the cheap plastic slippers by the door to go and buy bread. Men leave the mosque in packs after the evening prayer. I hear them spinning beads with their fingers. I know them all, I know the number of beads and the color of imams they carry. I know them by heart, deep into the patched parts of their socks that cling to their wet feet after every ablution. I know very well what they don’t do for a month every year.
I put my middle finger, then my other fingers, into my mouth. I try to find and touch uvula behind my tongue and end up gagging. My tongue is longer and rougher than I remember. I recall trying to shove it into a boy’s mouth, against his will. My poor tongue was stuck between his teeth. Now it cannot intonate nor connect words. And my plate, oh, its condition is even worse.
I listen to the house, I hear the breathing behind closed bedroom doors, beyond the squeaking of wooden columns, orderly and worriless. There’s no more sexual activity in this household – an obsolete topic. All my attempts to focus and hear intermittent breathing fails. The bathroom door never opens in the middle of the night, ever, and never do I hear water splashing on tiles. Maybe it’s the potato and bulgur-filled bodies being exposed to television lights and sounds around the clock, I’m not sure, but bedtimes are never late here. So, I spend most nights watching the thin smoke dance over my cigarette, behind my own closed door.
I take the scarf on the bed and leave from the front gate, like a soul with no footprint. I quickly walk the road to Zafer Square; midnight is hours away, but the streets are dead anyway.
I remember my mother grabbing me by my armpits, I was around eight or nine years old, and taking me to the kitchen stove. She had lit the closest burner, took my hand, reached it forward. She had separated my right hand’s index finger from the others and hovered it over the fire and whispered that if I sinned, Allah would burn me with that very fire, with that very pain. My mother, in my ear, my breath stuck in my lungs, and my flesh, warming.
I grew up with the yearning to feel that fire on and under my skin, the smallest burner of the stove fed me. I despised Koran readings, funeral homes, and the tea and supper they served.
At the fortieths, at the sevenths of the departed, I was always dehydrated thinking who else must have drank from the glasses that came with lace under them. I kept drying and scorching from the inside.
A long street lies before me, my last one. My last time taking this path. My heels beating this very ground for the last time… Orange stones cover the mosque that the Seljuks left behind. Who were those people that got stuck between these stones and Khorasan as they merged together? Whose backs carried these stones? Who was the one to first climb its minaret? Or the first to cry in its yard, or the first kid to ever pee in its bath? How come we’re trapped in this city that history made sure it loved its massacres?
Jewelry shops that I see on my way have all empty displays. You have to hide the gold better. You have to cover it well, somewhere. People here give away Masnavis as presents but hide the gold at the end of the day. They pray in the same line at the mosque, and as they lock their doors at night, they fear at least someone from that line, murmuring surahs to protect them.
Allah, protect and hide us.
From this and that, from the evil and its misfits. Protect us from sudden accidents, probable cliffs in our route, fire, and weakness. Consider the couple of liras we’d given that one day to children, and forgive us, forgive us in the neighborhood hangout where we escaped them.
Traffic lights grow in number ahead of me, they start a fiery dance over my head.
You and I. Our hands touched when we had to stand up inside late and packed buses. Then we met again at the buffet around the corner, trying to pay for one cold bottle of water with quarters in our hands. Then in the minibus to Meram, our thighs touched too and we had moved so that they wouldn’t touch. I caught your eyes one day, looking sneakily over me from the first rows in the theatre. At the café, you crossed your legs in your chair that you turned towards me, and you played with your beads; I saw a portion of your hairy leg from the opening on your ankle, I had looked away. I needed change in Women’s Bazaar, you gave me some, then you gave me your seat in the tram. You stood over me the whole ride, staring at my breasts. You pleased yourself over my body, which you unintentionally hit while you were rushing somewhere; your eyes had quickly found mine, not to apologize, but to search for any signs of the same sensations. I had none. You were always there, in every street of the city, at the newly emerging college bars where freshmen and teenagers hung out, at hookah cafes… I remember, your beard stank of tobacco, and your of suit rakı. I ran out of streets to walk up and down because of you.
Here you are again, after me, lack of daylight gives you strength and justification. Your footsteps behind me don’t scare me, I’m focused solely on the voices of the city, its movements. But the dogs…
Wouldn’t a person seek purification when death is so near? To be purified of the sins that run in each family, of the limits of freedom outside their control, of their hair and thighs? Wouldn’t a person desire to self-judge, come to a fair decree, and be declared innocent? Maybe a few drops of alcohol did get into their system, maybe a couple of cigarettes were smoked, could be the youth, the naive, wouldn’t they look up to the sky and beg for forgiveness? Oh, and that moment full of audacious self-esteem… They get this certainly offered forgiveness and move on to think about all the good deeds they’ve done?! I had given this much money to that kid on the street, forgive me, oh, I had shared half of my sandwich with someone who needed it, have you forgiven me yet? Oh, and the clothes I no longer wear, I gave them to our janitor’s oldest daughter, yes, you forgave me. I don’t want to be purified. I’ll carry each and every imprint left by the hands that touched my body. I’ll divide into lines and won’t be held responsible for what my eyes have seen. I’ll be brutally judged for those that crossed my mind. I’m not en route to purification, since no dome or cupola can purify me.
When I arrive to Rumi’s shrine, I see a couple of stray dogs snarling far ahead. They’re not barking, but I’m scared. Coming along this far and giving up because of the dogs… Illuminated with yellow lights, gigantic green dome rises before my eyes. It looks like it’s welcoming me, in spite of me. This is all thanks to that saying “come, come, whoever you are…” The illusion that I can approach the dome stems from the possibility of achieving infinity. I reassure myself; I didn’t steal, I didn’t kill. I’m the most innocent amongst whoever they are…
I’m about to jump over the turnstiles leading to the garden, but I see that the dogs’ bodies lock together. They weren’t fighting, it turns out. That was primitive courtship at play. Although I move forward, I do that slowly enough to watch them as I just cannot look away. A fair plea.
The shrine I’m about to break into jumping over its turnstiles for the thousandth time consoles me but doesn’t forgive me. Of that I’m sure.
Me. I’ve been touching myself since I was five, getting caught by my mother and repeating parts of surah Al Ikhlas and coming back here. I was touched by others in the streets, then in time, others touched me too. But I came here again and again, always here, sneaking in with the floats of tourists. Waiting for salvation, weak, before the green broadcloth and gold-ornamented sarcophagus. You pass this on, you tell them, I didn’t do bad actually. I didn’t…
For a moment everything seems and feels so pathetic to me. The place where I sought forgiveness for years can’t be the place where I die. The holiness of my death place won’t give me any light.
I move my leg back from the turnstile, my grip on the steel weakens.
I know where I should go. I should find an outsider, someone cast away like me, for years. One that’s been left behind, burnt with fire. Left in an alley, in shadows, under a paragraph as a mere quote. One with a message wrapped around and hidden behind someone else’s. Some one, settled with staying in the undernotes, someone decapitated.
I walk all the way back from the street I came from. There, at the back alley that slits through this street. There, I spoke of everything in me, in the language that was put in me. My hands, eyes, and legs. What I kept hidden. My dog nose finds again the scent of wool carpets covering the floors in mosques, mixed with feet. I want to unite with those carpets, on which prayers lay their faces, but only in these couple of decades. No one visited this place for centuries before.
How similar I am to this shrine. The way we both are pushed aside feels like a side note explaining the main idea on paper. That pure patience developed with distance in the face of silent respect, when one longs for finding, achieving reason. Even after death, we exist to be patient.
I swallow what felt like accumulated heartbeats in my throat. There’s a well in the shrine’s garden, it’s sealed shut. Is that head in there? Who threw the head in there in the first place?
As a dedication to that moment of surrender, reality hits me. His image shatters, the man to whom I had presented my robe of flesh at its finest condition; I choose not to get my hands burnt on the stove, I will shake off my robe here instead, into this well. I enter Shams-e Tabrizi’s door covered with thick plastic. I look for my face in the windows, and my short history around the mihrab.
Inside the shrine, the filthy scent of dirt from the steppes resonates. On the ground, a thin layer of the same filth. I cannot just hand over my death to them, but the filth covers my feet. Look at all this pus that leaked from the prayers here! I run outside to the garden. I pull the scarf wrapping my head, the knot untangles. I kneel by the well and look at its mouth. Heavy stones close it. If I push them with all that I have, would Allah send strength to my veins and would the stones move? Could I be sent, as a whole, next to the head?
“You, the subjects, the end hasn’t come for you yet. There’s no point in flapping your wings before death.”
You shutting yourselves in here to find purification, and shelter, or pure love, doesn’t cleanse me. As harvesters plough through Konya’s blond steppes, I cannot burn and scrape of my parts that people touched. While you sit there, and purify every day for five times a day, I cannot come near you. Even after the thousandth time I read your five-volume teachings, you are not as real in me, for me, as much as that moment when my mother took my hand over the stove. You don’t burn me, whereas my purification will take place when I’m burned. As my flesh turns to ash, particles of what was once me will fall from tobacco-smelling beards. I will shove my hand through the head in the well, where it will find an eternal chill.
I stand up and look at the still cover of the well. A sealed mouth will not ever give a drop of water to someone in need, no waterfalls will ever gush out of it. The well no longer wants me there, I’m cast out. I rush to the Mahkeme Bath close by.
I push the wooden door of the bath forward, and the flames coming out of the gas tank on which a teapot sizzles soothe me. If you cannot die, bathe. If you cannot die, let your filth out to the soil.
Natır Nebahat, young and beautiful, reaches for the teapot and refills her glass. I catch my breath and say that I’m here to take a bath. “Okay,” she says, surprised to see me coming into the bath at this hour. I hurry to take off my clothes and tie the thin bath cloth under my armpits. Wooden bath slippers I wear click and clack on the marble floors. We move into the heat.
I lie on the center stone. Natır comes closer. “I cannot die, so you can at least scrape off a layer of my flesh,” I say.
As she runs her loofah up and down my body, my cells first travel to the gold-flaked dome, then they leak in from its tiny holes and make their way down to Shams’ well.
Nazli Karabiyikoglu is a Turkish author, now full-time resident in Georgia, who recently escaped from the political, cultural, and gender oppression in Turkey. She helped create the #MeToo movement within the Turkish publishing industry, from which she was then excommunicated. With an M.A. in Turkish Language and Literature from Bogazici University, Karabıyıkoglu has five published books in Turkish and has recently completed translations of two new books for international publication. Having won six literary awards in her country, she has been actively writing for magazines since 2009.