Things I Didn’t Know

By Francisco Vilhena

‘Before familiarity can turn into awareness, the familiar must be stripped of its inconspicuousness.’

– Bertolt Brecht

1

When the news came in of tanks entering Turkish cities, army jets flying overhead, a president on Facetime exhorting people to take to the streets, my father was overjoyed. He followed closely, closely: his face pressed right up to the screen, peering at the newsreel, as he does now with his dimming sight. From time to time he would come find me wherever I was hiding out in the house, to deliver updates of the coup in Turkey with that mischievous small-boy smile of his, the one that crinkles his eyes up into half-moons.

My father is not Turkish. His only stake in Turkish politics is that his daughter moved to Istanbul two years ago. And now he was hoping that she – I – would not be able to go back.

It was 15 July 2016. I was in Cairo. I sought out my Istanbul friends online. One said that it was quiet in Kadiköy, but that nothing was clear yet; another posted panicked updates on Facebook, not knowing whether the sounds she could hear were low-flying jets or bombs.

I was relieved to find that Hazal was at home and calm, or trying to be. ‘I’m in bed and try to sleep and try to don’t let the fear in my body,’ she wrote. ‘It all sounds fire outside.’

Omer was in his house in the mountains. He had built it himself and called it Nefesköy, ‘breath village’, and was working on making it into a retreat for people who’d had enough of the city. I pictured the green expanse, his quiet eyes. A world away from where I now sat: Cairo, still pumping out its loopy medley of car horns and electro chaabi beats – this relentless, bleary-eyed city teetering on into the night.

I ventured a joke, trying to ease the tension as we waited. ‘Why is your coup taking so long?’ I wrote. ‘Ours was finished in a couple of hours.’

‘Because it’s not a coup!’ he burst out. ‘It’s theatre.’

I couldn’t get hold of Nilufer and Ercu. I know by now that the news tells you little about how things really are. I tried not to worry, assumed they were safe.

In the morning, it was over – whatever ‘it’ was, whatever ‘over’ means. There had been violence; people had died. I avoided the news.

I finally found Ercu online. He said they were safe at home in Burgazada, the island off the south coast of Istanbul where we live. ‘We’re with friends,’ he said, ‘which helps.’ They hadn’t slept. I pictured them in the garden, chain-smoking and drinking tea. I could almost feel the circles under their eyes.

Nilu came online. I just wanted to be there, silent with her, but how can you be silent together in a chat window? I wanted to know how she was, but I knew there were no questions or answers for that right now. Scrambling to type something, to hear something, I found the only safe question. I asked about their chickens, and about the newest addition to the family, a turkey chick that fancies itself human. ‘Baby turkey is very friendly walking in the room and playing with everybody,’ she replied, ‘but other Turkey is in a big shit.’

*

I first met Nilufer and Ercument two years earlier, shortly after arriving in Istanbul. They opened their cafe on the same day I moved into the neighbourhood: Kadiköy, an enclave on Istanbul’s Asian side – young and alternative, yet mellow and genteel, rimmed by the Bosphorus and the Marmara sea. Low-rise, pastel-coloured, with small quirky cafes, tea gardens overlooking the water and huge, gentle dogs snoozing on the pavements. Everywhere you looked there was a pampered Istanbul cat, the feline ideal of words like bask and preen. My house was all windows and golden light at sundown, and if you craned your neck from a side window you could catch a glimpse of the water; or, better yet, just walk down the road and in a minute you’ll be at Moda Sahil, the grassy seafront promenade, among picknickers and skateboarders, canoodling lovers and musicians strumming their tunes under the trees.

And so it was that I stumbled one day upon Naboo Café. I was walking down a backstreet – whose name, oddly, was Zuhal Sokak (‘Saturn Road’) – when I turned my head and saw a flash of green. I walked on, then retraced my steps: what was that? Down a flight of stairs, a long, narrow cafe, with a frame of green at the back. A bearded man sitting on a couch greeted me in near-perfect English, and the woman behind the counter, stirring something, gave me an almost conspiratorial wink. I walked through to the green: a garden courtyard, silent and secret, with trees and an old stone wall. I lay in a loveseat for hours, drinking sage tea, reading and writing. A few other customers came and went. Nilufer brought out slices of watermelon and passed them around.

I spent more time at the cafe over the coming days and weeks, and we became friends. Nilufer was a lawyer, Ercument a computer engineer; they had both, separately, quit their full-time jobs the previous year and started to explore what they wanted to do next. In this interim of wondering they met, fell in love and decided to open a cafe together. They found this old space, which had been an abandoned warehouse, the courtyard neglected and full of trash. They worked hard to clean it up, and slowly began to add furniture they had found in the generous dumpsters of Kadiköy.

The cafe had been open for a couple of weeks when I found it, and over the coming period, more and more pieces were added, shelves found and painted, lamps made, oddities hung. It was all a rather chaotic affair, with friends and customers helping behind the counter, dishes piling up and being washed by hand …read more

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