Tracking the decline and fall of the Ottoman empire, Ahmet Altan’s Ottoman Quartet spans fifty years from the end of the nineteenth century to the post-WWI rise of Atatu¨rk as leader of the new Turkey. In Like a Sword Wound, a modern-day resident of Istanbul is visited by the ghosts of his ancestors, finally free to tell their stories “under the broad, dark wings of death.”
Among the characters who come to life are an Ottoman army officer; the Sultan’s personal doctor; a scion of the royal house whose Western education brings him into conflict with his family’s legacy; and a beguiling Turkish aristocrat who, while fond of her emancipated life in Paris, finds herself drawn to a conservative Muslim spiritual leader. As their stories of intimate desire and personal betrayal unfold, the society that spawned them is transforming and the sublime empire disintegrating.
Here is a Turkish saga reminiscent of War and Peace, written in lively, contemporary prose that traces not only the social currents of the time but also the erotic and emotional lives of its characters.
“An engrossing novel of obsessive love and oppressive tyranny, a tale of collapse that dramatizes the fateful moments of an empire and its subjects.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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All of those old and forgotten things; a cut crystal inkstand, yellowed paper covered with Arabic script that writhed like a dying animal, a leather armchair that was cracked here and there, a classical lute with a broken string, propped against the wall, a walnut table with missing drawers, fruits, made of soap, their dye flaking, sitting in a cracked porcelain bowl, a tin globe, dented on one side, its thin iron axis rusted, a silver sword and an ivory walking stick hanging side by side on the wall, old magazines piled in a corner of the room, morocco-bound books; all of it, the whole room, the whole house, perhaps even the whole city, was covered in dust; a thin layer of dust spread over everything, penetrated everything, wormed into things and killed them.
He remembered all of the things he had been told, he fixed them all in his memory one by one without omitting any of them; each one told a different story: Some said the cut crystal inkstand had been presented at Sheikh Efendi's circumcision, and others that it had been a wedding present for Rag?p Pasha; according to some, the ivory walking stick on the wall had belonged to Re?it Pasha, and according to others, Hikmet Bey had bought it at a secondhand store in Salonika. The history of this city, of this house, of this room, of these things, has been altered by each narrator, each time it has come to possess a different story, a different season, a different age, and each time it has lost its history and sunk further into oblivion.
He remembered everything, but wasn't quite sure when he'd begun conversing with the dead; had he begun conversing with them after he'd come to this house or had the dead he conversed with brought him to this house; time's crystal sphere had cracked at some unspecified moment, causing the dead outside the sphere and the living within it to mingle together. At first the crack was like a thin line, and as it widened, moving of its own accord and spreading out to break the whole sphere to pieces, Osman set out on his portentous journey during which death and life, sanity and insanity merged together, and that would continue until the sphere broke to pieces completely and vanished.
They were talking to him; telling him about cities, palaces, mansions, tekkes, wars, conflicts, murders, loves, jealousies, angers, betrayals, friendships, the human condition, and their stories always began on that strange day Sheikh Efendi's wedding was held:
Sulfur yellow clouds swarmed in the depths of a sky that was puffed up like a furry animal; the Golden Horn, which reached the edge of the cemetery near the tekke, had become bloated from sucking in the smell of death that seeped from the town; and the cypress trees on the ridges of Eyüp had become dark. Sadabad, where once they had raced giant tortoises that crawled to the flickering of the flames of the candles planted on their thick shells, was sliding into the Golden Horn in piles of mossy mud.
It was not at all an auspicious day for a wedding.
In the city there had been scattered outbreaks of fighting between Armenian partisans and the Muslim population for three days. The soldiers had withdrawn to their barracks, abandoning the streets to armed civilians. There were sounds of gunfire around Galata. The Armenians were said to have raided the Ottoman Bank.
Sheikh Yusuf Efendi, his eyes squinting as usual, looked out through the tombstones at the Golden Horn, waiting for the wedding procession that was soon to arrive.
Yesterday he'd seen the bride for the first time, and had confirmed with his own eyes the legend about the beauty of Customs Director Tevfik Bey's seventeen-year-old daughter. They were only left alone in the dim room for two minutes, and during that time Mehpare Hanim had lifted her veil and revealed her face.
As was the tradition, the bride was wearing four diamonds, one on her forehead, one in the hollow of each cheek, and one on her chin, and her large, gleaming, honey-colored eyes shone among the diamonds like two slippery animals. Sheikh Efendi was frightened; such beauty was not a good omen.
On the morning of the wedding he woke feeling uneasy, the terrible desire to enter the nuptial chamber with the new bride and the sinful lust concealed beneath his black robes augmenting the portents and the allure he had seen in the bride's eyes; he'd seen the signs everywhere: the sky becoming so green, the smell of death and gunpowder, the Golden Horn swelling like a dog's carcass; each of these was sufficient warning that the wedding should be cancelled.
Early that morning, courtiers from the palace had come to the tekke gate with His Majesty the Sultan's greetings and a huge sacrificial ram as a wedding present. The ram, whose horns had been gilded, around whose neck a small silver bell and an evil-eye talisman had been hung, and whose white, curly wool had been washed and rubbed with musk, stood looking at the sky after entering the tekke garden, then went behind the tekke of its own accord, lay next to the grooved stone that had been prepared for the sacrifice, then laid its head on the stone and waited for its throat to be cut. Although his dervishes greeted the ram laying its head on the sacrificial stone of its own accord with prayers and cries of "mashallah, mashallah," believing once again in the Sheikh Efendi's greatness, Sheikh Efendi found this too to be a bad omen.
The blackness of the rows of bubbling soup cauldrons in the garden, the smell of wood rising from the fires beneath the cauldrons, and the urgency of his dervishes caused uneasiness to seep into the Sheikh's heart; any preparation for this wedding embarrassed and frightened him as he was reminded of the irresistible desire within him. After the dervishes stroked the ram's neck three times and recited "Allah is almighty," one of the elders of the tekke, Father Butcher, struck the animal's artery with his knife, and blood rushed out to the height of a minaret, and was said to have poured down like rain from the sky, covering the dervishes in red blood, except the Sheikh, who was untouched by even a single drop. The Malta stones in the courtyard were covered in bright red blood, and then a sudden downpour washed away the blood in the garden.
The Sheikh waited for the bridal boat by the bank at the edge of the cemetery where the tekke's former sheikhs lay; the graves were well tended and neat; rambling roses had been planted between the tombstones; the head of each tombstone was shaped like a large quilted turban. Many years later when the tekke was closed and the building started to collapse, the cemetery too fell into neglect: the tombstones of the dead, among whom the Sheikh was now present, had fallen over, some had been stolen and sold, graves had been trampled, and it had become a refuse heap of those few fallen tombstones that had not been stolen. As for the old tekke, part of the kitchen and two upper rooms were undamaged, and Osman's father's blind wet nurse and her son had settled there. The tekke's roof had been blown off, the balustrades had been destroyed, and the steps had caved in. The blind woman made her way through the ruin by holding a rope that had been stretched from the kitchen on the ground floor to the upper room, from this room to the kitchen, through howling winds that wandered among the toppled walls, fallen cornices, and broken glass. When the wet nurse's ne'er-do-well son rented the cemetery to a cinema operator, they turned it into an open-air cinema, surrounding it with hedges and putting up a white screen, and started to show dirty movies. The audience sat on wooden chairs, and when it was very crowded some perched on the edges of the toppled tombstones of sheikhs, watching the moaning love-making of men and women on the screen. Once, the wet nurse's son brought Osman, and Osman, sitting on the tombstone of a sheikh whose name he didn't know, watched a woman with large breasts make love, and after that day the black, double-oared bridal boat Sheikh Efendi awaited always arrived covered in dust between that woman's large breasts.
Mehpare Hanim, who emerged from the black wooden bridal boat, was wearing an üçetek caftan heavily adorned with silver thread, shalvar detailed with pearls, and white, washed-leather shoes embroidered with silver. Her tulle blouse, decorated with little golden spangles, was tucked into her shalvar, and a thick belt of thin, braided gold chains was tied around her waist. She was wearing a rose-shaped diamond crown, pendant earrings, and a diamond necklace; her hair was cut short above her ears, and braided in back with finger-thick golden cords, with the braids held together by diamond bands. Her face was covered by a red crepe-silk bridal veil with silver threads.
When she got out of the boat, Customs Director Tevfik Bey, who would die two months after the wedding, made his daughter kiss his hand, tied a sash around her waist, made her jump over a silver sword, and said, "Raise sons and grandsons who will use this sword well, as your forefathers did." When the bride stepped ashore, the dervishes saw a leaping school of dolphins that had entered the Golden Horn.
The members of the bridal procession, two abreast, bowed their heads as they entered the tekke through the rows of dervishes lined up in the garden. As the bride passed, the fires under the black cauldrons suddenly flared up, the flames twisting like dancers whose painted fingers caressed the cauldrons, once again sharply reminding the Sheikh of hell and his dervishes of the "miracle of the Sheikh's power." The sheikhs and dervishes from neighboring tekkes, guild members, and guests from the palace all sat together in a circle for the meal, and food was served to the women inside in large, deep copper dishes.
As they ate the wedding soup, the sound of gunfire from the city grew louder. Then fried wedding meat, böreks, dolma, ri ce, zerde, and ho?af were served. After they drank their coffee on silk cushions arranged around large copper trays, a spirit of complete silence descended upon the already quiet garden. A strong smell of gunpowder from the city drifted into the garden through the green sky, from the Golden Horn, mixing with the smell of woodsmoke.
The marriage ceremony was performed by the Sheikh of the Edirnekap? tekke, who the Sheikh respected highly. After the wedding ceremony, the crowd moved to the large hall and the zikir began.
Sheikh Efendi, in his black robe and black conical hat, with his black beard, sat as still as an ebony statue on his bloodred lambskin; the fear of sin that burned like gunpowder and the uncontrollable desire that roamed within him were not reflected on his face; he was like a large iron stove that contained the flames within it. The lively red glow of the candles that were lit after dark moved the souls of those in the hall as it was carried from one corner to another by secret draughts.
The women behind the wooden lattice screen all knelt, with the bride in front, as they waited for the zikir to begin. As they rocked on their knees the dervishes began chanting softly; the pace of their prayers and of the drums increased slowly and steadily with the pace of their rocking. All of them closed their eyes and tilted their necks; the syllables "hu, hu" mingled with cries of "Allah, Allah" as one by one they left themselves and the world behind, passing through the gate of another world and losing themselves in it. They smelled the fragrance of heaven: rose, pine and Indian aloe, and more and more of them cried out, and fainted.
In the women's enclosure, they rocked until they were beside themselves, some of them embracing each other; as they felt a physical release, a pleasant sensation in their groins, their faces reddened, and they were refreshed by the warm fragrant water released within them; flesh touched the spirit and they felt the most glorious peace and comfort. By the time the zikir ended, Mehpare Hanim had experienced this exactly three times, something within her was released and came out again and again, probably because of the excitement of youth, her legs trembled and grew weak, she had nothing left to give in the nuptial chamber but her body; Sheikh Efendi's flesh remained in his body, he entered the nuptial chamber in great excitement.
As one of them was soaring with wild joy and the other consumed by fervent worship, Sheikh Efendi filled with lust and Mehpare Hanim wrung out like kneaded dough, the wedding night passed inharmoniously; the groom was embarrassed by his lust and the bride got bored.
They didn't speak at all that night, they never spoke again, they didn't know each other's voices; their marriage continued until the end without them hearing each other's voices. Sheikh Efendi made love with the same lust, Mehpare Hanim with the same fatigue, for a year and a half the bride's only pleasure was the zikir nights; she waited excitedly not for her husband but for worship. The fruit of the first night was their daughter, who was born exactly nine months and ten days later. They named her Rukiye.
Years later when Mehpare Hanim came to Osman's room in her wedding dress, she said, in the hoarse voice Sheikh Efendi had never heard, "Your grandfather the sainted Sheikh left me not because I betrayed him, but because he was frightened and ashamed of his own lust."
As for Sheikh Efendi, telling Osman about the ex-wife whose name he never mentioned, he'd said, "That woman betrayed me with Arab merchants who sell atlas satin, taffeta, and velvet in the Grand Bazaar."
A year and a half later, leaving behind gossip that would spread in whispers through the tekkes of Istanbul for years, they separated.CHAPTER 2
Mehpare Hanim's second wedding was much more ostentatious and glamorous; her new husband, Hüseyin Hikmet Bey, was the son of Re?it Pasha, one of the palace physicians. His mother, who was a close relative of the Khedive of Egypt, had left Re?it Pasha and moved to Paris when Hikmet was only three years old.
Hüseyin Hikmet spent his childhood going back and forth between Paris and Istanbul. In Paris, in winter, he went to school, attended soirees with French writers, poets, singers, and aristocrats, met sarcastic women and sharp, witty intelligent men, became accustomed to being kissed by the most beautiful women and to drinking wine with his friends at sidewalk cafés; he walked along the Seine, plunging into youth-inflamed discussions about love, literature, and philosophy; in summer at his father's waterfront mansion he went from the embrace of one concubine or female servant to another; in a garden shaded by magnolia trees, as he wandered among geraniums, wallflowers, lilies, and roses he learned to distinguish the scent of each flower; in the evening he listened to the traditional musicians who came to the waterfront mansion. In winter he read Baudelaire, Hugo, and Balzac; in summer he memorized the poems of Sheikh Galip, Nedim, and Fuzuli.
After graduating from law school in Paris, obeying his father's admonition that "for you the future is in Istanbul," he settled down in the capital of the Empire and became a palace clerk.
The duality in which he had lived his childhood and youth didn't bother him, he accepted these two different ways of life, these dissimilar cultures, as inseparable from each other, placed them in each other's arms like brothers in his free spirit; however, when he settled permanently in Istanbul and was cut off from one of these twin cultures, the lameness in his soul became apparent and he started limping. Never joking about anything, not going to restaurants with a woman to drink wine, not commenting about the latest plays; breaking his ties to the lights of Paris and becoming imprisoned in the heavily oppressive darkness of Istanbul, full of detectives, informants, threats, where a single wrong word could destroy one's entire life, he became depressed and anxious.
In spite of his father's important position in the Sultan's court, and in spite of the great privileges of his job at the palace, he felt the oppression just like everyone else, and moreover, because he knew what a free life was, he felt more uneasy than anyone. Slowly, he sank into the loneliness of a person who lives a solitary life in a foreign land; everything around him, streets, carriages, people, and houses seemed foreign to him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Like a Sword Wound"
Copyright © 1997 Ahmet Altan.
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