Benjamin Arda Doty
The day before the secret police arrested him, Mustafa Kahraman sat with Ahmet Gül over glasses of tea and contemplated the many lies of his life at a small Istanbul café. Each lie was a secret that twisted the truth in the same way a black hole bent light. Each passed through Mustafa’s head as he sat with his old friend Ahmet. “What every man wants,” his father had said, “is to live his life so that he defeats its brevity.”
Mustafa and Ahmet had met during their military service in the late seventies, and the bustling street off of which they now sat had been filled once with army trucks and soldiers in heavy boots. As new recruits carrying out their military service, they had bunked together. When Mustafa got drunk for the first time at nineteen, Ahmet covered for his morning work in the barrack’s supply room. And when Ahmet’s mother passed away, it was Mustafa who concocted his own excuse to accompany Ahmet on the bus from Mersin to Bursa for the funeral. These first favors between them floated in Mustafa’s mind, as did what his father had once said.
A drop of rain fell on one of the hairs on the back of Mustafa’s hand. When he looked across the street, he thought he saw someone watching them. The man disappeared into an alley. Mustafa told himself it was nothing, and he looked at the overcast sky.
Ahmet folded his newspaper in half as drops mottled the newspaper’s pages. With lumbering movements, they rose and carried their tea glasses with them into the cramped café.
At a table by the window, Mustafa watched pedestrians quicken their pace and crowd under narrow awnings. Vendors sprung up with umbrellas to sell, as if they had always been there, waiting in the street corners.
“How are your apricots?” asked Mustafa.
“I’m going to have to hire extra people this year to pick them. You have to come.” Ahmet had bought a small orchard outside of Sivas after retiring from his position as a general from the Army.
“It surprised me that you never became a diabetic,” said Mustafa, eyeing the three sugar cubes turning and dissolving in Ahmet’s glass as he stirred.
“My toothaches send my dentist’s children to college,” said Ahmet.
Mustafa tried smiling.
Ahmet kept the newspaper folded on the table, which was just as well, because Mustafa didn’t want a reminder from the front page of why they were together now. Mustafa observed Ahmet’s face, his languid cheeks, the close shave, steely eyes, thick eyebrows and hair combed over the crown. The general’s fortitude—what he admired in Ahmet and seemed to lack in himself.
The downpour approached a steady pace. Mustafa’s palms rested on grains of sugar spilled from the receptacle of sugar cubes. The pitter-patter of the spring rain amplified the cacophony of street sounds through the open door. Fear gripped Mustafa. Memories fell like bullets between frightened armies in the night. There was his father’s memory, the women who could not forgive him, the precarious balance between means and ends.
A swarm of adolescents, drenched to the bone in blues and yellows, the colors of Galatasaray, their favorite soccer team, found refuge from the rain under the awning of the café. One covered his hands over his eyes and peered into the café window and then shrunk away when he saw the two old men staring at him. Mustafa could see his youngest child Kazim among them.
“Boys,” said Mustafa.
“You must come to the orchard soon,” said Ahmet.
A call to prayer rang out from a minaret.
The rain kept its steady pattern. The children ran down the sidewalk and disappeared. Every generation, thought Mustafa, saw its own flame extinguished.
“The rain will be good for the apricots,” said Mustafa, putting an envelope enclosed with routing numbers and nonexistent entities in front of Ahmet on the table.
Ahmet slipped the envelope into the folded newspaper.
Mustafa looked toward the alley for the man who had been there earlier, or for anything suspicious, but there was nothing.
“I will need more people to pick the trees this summer.” Ahmet smiled. “The rain, indeed, will be good for the apricots.”
“What I was thinking.” Mustafa took Ahmet’s words to mean that everything they were doing was just and right.
Ahmet kissed Mustafa on both cheeks and bid him good-bye.
Mustafa watched his old friend, black umbrella in one hand and folded newspaper in the other, cross the street.
“Anything else, uncle?” asked their waiter.
“No, son,” said Mustafa.
It surprised him how only a few people could overthrow an entire government.
After meeting Ahmet, Mustafa arrived from the Harbiye neighborhood on the European side of the Bosphorus strait to his home in Kadiköy on the Asian side of the strait. He kissed his wife’s forehead as she sat in front of their large plasma television. Mustafa sat down on the sofa across from his wife.
When the channel cut to commercials, he saw the face of the Islamic party’s mayoral candidate for Ankara flash on the quickly skipped news channel. Jale didn’t stop on any one channel for more than a second. She paid no attention to him. It had been nearly nine years since the words “I love you” had passed between them, almost to the day Jale had found out about Mustafa’s daughter.
The year had been 1975, and Mustafa fell in love with a woman who wasn’t going to be his wife. Her name was Elif, and she had shown Mustafa and Jale, his fiancée then, an apartment in Çiğdem that overlooked the Asian side of the Bosphorus strait. Elif wore gray business suits and white blouses. Her thighs and calves were thick, almost out of proportion with the rest of her body. Her nose was narrow and curved to a button point. They were features, though nothing special to them, Mustafa found attractive. Elif was Kurdish.
Maybe it was the fear of getting married. Maybe it was that he wasn’t sure anymore about Jale. Maybe it was the challenge of it. Many other men had extra-marital affairs.
Jale was trying on bridals in another part of the city. Elif and Mustafa had had lunch. Mustafa had listened and directed his questions to her personal life the entire time. He had complimented her on her clothes, her hair, in preparation for what he contemplated next.
Elif was opening the blinds of the third place she had taken him to that day. As one hand of Elif’s reached over the other on a rope to open up tall blinds, Mustafa put one arm around her waist and the other on her arm. He buried his head into her nape. She resisted.
“Please,” he had said. “I think I love you.”
Handan, the child he had with his mistress, was born six years later.
When he had taken four-year-old Handan to Taksim Square to feed the pigeons, Mustafa made eye contact with Jale. She had been out shopping for maternity clothes. She was two months pregnant with Kazim. Mustafa watched Jale’s eyes fall on Handan and then himself. In those few seconds, he knew his wife had put together everything.
Mustafa’s thoughts came back to the present, to the living room where he sat across from his despondent wife. A scene on the television blew up everyone on the screen to life-sized proportions. Sitting across from Jale, he wondered whether it was insecurity or indifference that had prevented her from leaving him.
Mustafa rose and sat next to his wife, but when he put his arm around her, she handed him the remote control before rising.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the kitchen.”
Mustafa watched his wife’s back as she walked away. He then heard the television turn on in the kitchen.
From the frame of Kazim’s bedroom door, Mustafa watched a tuft of brown hair resting on slouched shoulders in front of the computer he had bought his son six months earlier.
“What are you doing, son?” he asked.
“Playing King’s Game.”
Mustafa knew nothing about the software games that were his son’s obsession.
When he had seen Handan two weeks ago, her hair was cut to just below her shoulders. There were streaks of blue in it. She wore black. Her T-shirt carried the name of a band that glorified death in its images. All of it was rebellion, Mustafa had thought. Elif couldn’t control her anymore. Handan was hardly four anymore. She was a teenager.
Each time he tried to act like a father, Handan reminded him quickly how much he wasn’t. “How’s your other family, Uncle?” she would ask. She spoke like an adult. Often, she spoke down to him.
Kazim knew nothing about his older half sister.
Mustafa went to his own bedroom without turning on any lights, and he lay down on the bed. He rose after a few minutes and pulled back one of the curtains. The street below them was empty, but across the Bosphorus, he could see the twinkling lights on the opposite shore. He looked about the street again. It was still empty, and Mustafa tried to relax.
The loose organization, of which Mustafa and Ahmet were members, was known as the Deep State. Its members came from military and organized crime and worked above the rule of law. Since the 1950s, they had extinguished threats to the secular direction of the Turkish state. Thousands of civilians who advocated for Kurdish rights disappeared. One day they’d step into a car and never again appear. The Deep State’s dirty war extended to Communists, Armenians, intellectuals, businessmen, and now, to the growing threat of the Islamists, whose power couldn’t be curved by the ballot. Mustafa Kahraman was the good Turk, the Atatürk kind of Turk.
More than thirty years ago, he and Ahmet had been soldiers who were asked to dispose of a problem. All they had known about the young man was that his name was Suat. He was a university student, a Kurd, probably Mustafa’s own age. Both of the young man’s eyes were swollen shut so that Ahmet had to guide him by his upper arm around boulders over a desolate part of the mountain range south of Şırnak. Mustafa carried two shovels over both of his shoulders. It was evening, the sun slowly turning duty over to night. They walked until they found soft ground.
Suat cried. He pled for his life, made mention of his family. Ahmet ordered him to his knees and offered him a moment to direct his pleas to God. Ahmet apologized when he put the muzzle up to the young man’s temple.
“We follow orders,” he had said. Neither Ahmet nor Mustafa knew what the young man had done.
Three shots had cracked the valley in half.
They had dug the entire night so as not to leave a shallow grave.
Shots rang several blocks from Mustafa’s home. Not far away, there was a party to send off another young man into the military. Mustafa could envision them, twenty young men tossing the recruit up and down on a large Turkish flag. The guns aimed and fired into the air were part of the celebration.
“Father,” yelled his son when he heard the gunshots. Mustafa rose from his bed and went back to Kazim’s room.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Just a party. You know, when there are soccer games.”
Kazim looked at his father and seemed embarrassed by his own fear. The computer screen illuminated Kazim’s face.
“Nothing to worry about,” said Mustafa. “Are you going to sleep?”
“Soon,” said Kazim.
Mustafa closed his son’s bedroom door. He wondered what kind of man his son would become. A better man, or worse man than he?
At the height of the Cold War, the push to drive Communism from Turkey preceded the arrival of American aid, which only increased this push. Communist and Socialist parties opened, were shut down and reconstituted under different names. The arrests and disappearances of intellectual and activist leadership succeeded, even though those born of these ideals grew faster than those who were targeting their silence.
Mustafa’s father once had boasted of knowing Nobel Laureate Nazim Hikmet when they were both in prison in the 1940s.
After the end of his father’s five-year prison term for illegal publications he had written at night when he was a journalist, Mustafa had watched his father get rejected from one job after another. The family lacked money. The shame his father’s disgrace brought had limited Mustafa’s choice of school, friends, even the neighborhoods they could live in around Ankara. Mustafa—whose age didn’t give him the intellectual prowess to understand ideologies—had asked his father why they were always in trouble.
“People don’t understand you when you do the right thing,” his father had said. “You must make the world right, son. That’s what matters. Not what other people think. What you think.” His father had said many things.
Children at school taunted Mustafa. They had said he was a traitor, a Kurd, that he wasn’t a Turk.
When his mother had taken him and his younger sister to start a new life in the Istanbul neighborhood of Aksaray, one that was absent his father’s past in Turkey, Mustafa blamed all the previous hardships and the difficulties that followed on the decisions his father had made. Mustafa became a staunch disciple of the founder of the Turkish Republic, whose portrait was on display in every government office and place of business.
Mustafa lay down on his bed and tried to sleep again, but the noise from the party sending the soldier off to die made it hard to sleep. The same panic that had visited him earlier in the day asserted itself, as if a vacuum cleaner hose had been thrust in his chest to empty everything inside of him.
The mission was not to kill the Islamist candidate even though this had been considered. The intent was to assassinate a centrist candidate in Ankara’s mayoral election and connect the blood money to the Islamist party. Mustafa was responsible for the paper trail, the flow of money between accounts. If they could damage the integrity of the Islamist party, they could turn the election and discredit the party at a national level. The centrist mayoral candidate would be giving a speech before the statue of Atatürk on a horse in one of the main squares of the capital. It would be over some time after three o’clock the next day.
Jale came into the bedroom, but didn’t turn on any lights. She weighed more than Mustafa now. Maybe it was due to the stress of so many years in a false marriage, he thought. When she sat down on the bed, it lifted him from the impression his body made into the mattress. The last time he checked the clock before he fell asleep, it was two hours past midnight.
Before the first morning call to prayer, the secret police came. The sun had not risen yet. The doorbell startled everyone, much as the celebratory gunshots hours earlier had. The doorbell chirped eerily like a songbird in the dark morning. The help wouldn’t be in until six-thirty. Mustafa put on his robe and took heavy steps down the stairs. He went barefoot. His soles slapped the marble.
“Who is it?” he asked through the door. Somehow, he knew who it was in the interminably long time before anyone answered. He let them come inside.
“What’s going on?” His wife stood at the top of the stairs.
Mustafa pictured Jale, who appeared as an outline in the dark, tying the belt around her night robe.
“Mustafa?” It was the first time she’d called his name since he had come home the prior evening.
Five men encircled him, their shadows long on the floor from the light of the street lamps outside. One of the men stated the charges of conspiracy and another handcuffed him.
“Mustafa,” said his wife, “I’m sorry.” She made no attempt to go down the balustrade or turn on any lights.
“It’s my fault,” said Mustafa.
The five men and Mustafa disappeared in the dark. As he took the steps away from his house, the hard concrete reminded him that he had forgotten to put on shoes. Instead of protesting or pointing this out, he let them take him away as quickly as they had come in.
In the back seat of the black Mercedes, Mustafa watched the old imperial city pass by. His wife’s apology echoed in his mind’s empty chambers. She knew he had spent the previous night with Elif. She had known all of his secrets. Some of those, she had shared.
The Bosphorus left a dense shadow between the continents. The lampposts with their dull yellow lights looked like hunched over men, ashamed to bring their eyes up to him. All the windows of the buildings and apartments were closed like sleeping eyelids. But for the two workers replacing a billboard with a new movie announcement, the entire city seemed to bow and fall into silence, in mourning and shame.
The constricting sensation took hold of Mustafa’s dry throat again. What they would convict him for, he knew, would never again let him see any part of his Istanbul, the city where his mother had taken him to escape his father’s past and where he had made a home with Jale. It would never let him see Kazim, Handan, Jale or Elif again. He would disappear, even though his name and face, along with Ahmet’s, would appear the next morning, fresh off the printing presses at the same time he was now cruising toward his fate.
Benjamin Arda Doty is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. His fiction has appeared in the Colorado Review and is forthcoming in an issue of The Stinging Fly in Dublin, Ireland. He has finished a novel that is looking for a home.
“My aunt’s front porch in Seferhisar, Turkey looks onto the Aegean Sea. There’s something mesmerizing about trying to find the line of the horizon as the reflection of the sun off the many little waves cuts your vision on a summer afternoon. It has to be my favorite porch. The view from it is beautiful. You can’t stop looking out of yourself.”