Blesok no. 23, October-November, 2001
In Medias Res
Once upon a time there was a city in whose stores, whenever somebody would like to call somebody, and not with a letter with soft words, there was no way to find any postcards. Maybe it was because of this that tourists with cameras around their necks would visit the city less and less. After meters of film would be spent, they would first stop at the mosque door where the shop of the late uncle Arif was and they would buy postcards. Then they would write in several foreign languages things like “I’m OK”, “I’ve been thinking of you”, “I’m coming back the day after tomorrow”, or “Greetings from T.” As a matter of fact, even if one would find postcards, I’m not sure that he’d find the ones with a view of the old city ammam, whose round windows and stone walls have nested in my childhood memory as the main part of the city. I don’t know myself how many times I have asked the older who held me by the hand passing by the ammam what that strange, ununderstandable, stone building with corners closed with big locks was. The answer was short and simple: “Ammam”. This, just to tell me that I shouldn’t ask any further, all explanations finished. That was how they’d let me know such things are not discussed in front of children and that there were things that were kept quite in front of them. Leaning at the bridge stairs under which the river calmly ran, I often thought that it was it that knew the secrets of the old ammam. The older told that once the river water flew in some small springs through all the yards of the city houses. Passing in this way, the water should have collected with it all those stories of the houses, because there was not a house without a history of love, jealousy, evil or wisdom. There were stories and then when the gates and windows would close with locks, so that they do not get out to the markets as gossip. But those histories could not be hidden from the springs that abducted them from the thresholds of the houses and poured them in the river that flew by the old ammam.
The beautiful Aska often passed by the ammam to visit her aunt, who lived on the other side of the river, in a house at the first alley across from the mosque. In the town they said – blessed is the lucky guy who marries her. These talks that her mother listened from her neighbor sitting by the spring in the yard drinking coffee with sugar also reached Aska’s ears. So, Aska started looking at herself in the mirror more often. Her mother had noticed how she dressed and decorated herself for hours before visiting her sick aunt on the other side of the river. But she didn’t say a word about this to her husband Redzep Bey because men are not told things like this, because, God forbid, if they misunderstood, they’d turn the world upside-down. Still, she let her husband know that their daughter was at a marrying age, and Redzep Bey interrupted her with a Turkish expression from Istanbul: “rengi rengine, dengi dengine”, which meant “the color will color, the deng will take the deng, not a single bey house has asked for my daughter to be their bride yet”. She brought his coffee without sugar and that was how the discussion ended.
When Aska was to leave for the other side of the city, she braided her hair in a braid above her white neck, she put on her dress of flowery material and she would throw the cape of Italian silk. And before passing, she would look at the ammam, with a hope that the gate would be open and she would see something inside. Still not. Her female curiosity could not open the door of the ammam. And she could only pass the second part of the road, thinking of the building and imagining the things that were inside. She had heard many things, but without a doubt it looked much more differently on the inside. It was the place that divided the life of the women in the city, in the women’s part and girls’ part, where the girls were prepared for the first wedding night. Something mysterious happened that night. Next day, after that night something changed in the look of the young brides. Their eyes became dreamy and melancholic at the same time. They stopped being the babbling girls and only in a night became mute women who measured their words before they spoke them. Aska often spoke to her friends about what happened that night. Her faithful friends would promise her that they would tell her about the events of that night. But all, almost all would forget their word the next day and as if they wanted to hide behind their cold looks.
So, that night remained to be created in the fantasy of each of the girls separately. During her visits to her aunt, Aska had noticed the shop assistant in the clothing store. She had the thought of how the night would be with that tall boy with eyes like grapes but she would fast remove her thoughts from those things. She had the impression that the boy had also realized what role she had given him in that night of life and with his eyes he made the silk sheet fall from her head, revealing her hair as roasted chestnuts in November. But there was no use of the warm looks that stirred up the hope of various variants of building life. The life of the girls of this city was built much differently and it was not determined by the poured honey in the hidden looks.
It should be said that every day there were discussions on the marriages of the girls. Emine hanuma had been for a coffee at Aska’s mother’s over this for four times. And after much doubt and postponing, the fifth time she decided to tell her that Veli Bey was asking for her daughter for a wife. Aska’s mother, as a bey’s daughter, refrained. She said quietly that Veli bey is an older man and that he had been living with his hanuma for years. That they had no children is god’s will, and not human, said Redzep Bey’s hanuma and that was the end of the conversation. And that would be the end of this story if Redzep Bay had not become curious over the often visits of Emine Hanuma to their home. And one afternoon, as he drank his coffee without sugar and smoked his pipe with Dutch tobacco, he asked his wife without looking in her eyes, what the meaning was of the frequent visits of Emine hanuma to their home. “Women’s talks, Bey.” Answered his wife. “Our Aska was asked for Veli Bey. Is that sound? He is an old man, and a married one, to take a young girl like our Aska.” “What did you say?’ Redzep Bey jumped from hi seat. “What do you women know about these things? If you knew, you wouldn’t have long hairs.” He took our his ironed handkerchief from his pocket and started dancing in the middle of the room. “Rengi rengine, dengi dengine.” He said. “I’ve had my daughter engaged, because a bey’s house can only enter a bey’s house.”
Aska was told that she was married, but she wasn’t told any other details except that the wedding would be soon. And she didn’t ask further. Nobody explained the girls those things. The others knew the answer, they were expected to realize without being told and behave as the children of the respected houses in the city were expected to behave. That was why Aska didn’t ask anything. She was to realized all things herself and accept the philosophy of the family life in her new home herself, the philosophy defined with the words “I heard and I heard nothing”, “I saw and I saw nothing”. And Aska had heard that her fiancé was not a young guy. And not that she had not seen him, she had seen Veli Bey’s wife at some weddings, Mukades hanuma, who was a beautiful woman despite her age. And now she should behave as if she had seen or heard nothing.
Aska did not step over the threshold until the day of the wedding when she was waken up early in the morning saying and was told to get prepared for going to the ammam. She was told that the day she is married, the girl’s hands stiffen and she can not move them at all. Her cousins dressed her in the plain blue dress to get on the carriages covered with carpets, which would stand on the cobble stone street in front of the ammam. When the heavy gates of the ammam were opened, Aska felt as if in a dream. She thought how cold the ammam was from the outside, and how warm on the inside. The stone tiles she walked on were also warm and they released some special noise of women’s shoes’ heels. In the middle there was the fountain with crystal clear water, while in the little rooms around there were wooden benches where they were sitting by the warm water that steamed. Aska was undressed in one of those rooms. Her legs, her arms and the lower part of her belly were covered with a brown wax, whose pulling caused pain, especially from the top of her untouched Venus part with a milky white skin. They also “caressed” her on the face with a string, and the color of her skin, losing the dark soft hairs on the face became as fresh cheese sold on a market day. Then they unbraided her long braid of hair and put Arabia khana on it. After the washing, her hair became shiny as fire, as the glow of the sand from that country. In the end, they bathed her slim body, rubbing her on the hips and her straight back. Aska felt spoiled with so many hands of the women who moved aroudn her, up and down, and she wished for this ritual never to stop. It was a ritual she liked, accompanied with songs sang through the war water steam. There was so much noise that they even couldn’t take the hot stoves in their hands, to drink the tea from the small crystal glasses brought from Thessaloniki, and taste the dry apricots and hazelnuts from Adana. Then the older hanumas smoked their cigarettes they had taken secretly from their husbands’ boxes and which they had kept in the biggest care to smoke them in such an occasion.
Aska was dressed in her room by putting one piece on top of the other on her fragile body. They covered her head with a scarf made of silk, while her face was covered with a thick red veil. Her eyes were closed with a sticky thing that was called tutkal, not to open them while the wedding is taking place. They were doing all the things and there was no need for her to see them. From the whole procession, Aska assumed that the lunch was served in her house and then the wedding guests came with a song. Later, she greeted her family and in the end she was seated on the soft carpets in the carriage. She tried to imagine the house where she went as a bride, because she couldn’t see anything. Sitting in a room, she felt the looks of the people around her and she was curious to distinguish the colors of those looks, whether they were sitting or standing, whether they liked her or not.
After several hours, Aska felt the moment when the room started emptying. “This is my room” she told herself. “Now my night should start.” The night started indeed. The newly wed were usually accompanied by some woman of the family. The company of Veli Bey was his first wife, Mukades Hanuma. “Until today we were a husband and a wife, as of today we are a brother and a sister, be blessed and have an heir.” She told him and closed the door on her way out. Mukades hanuma left the door behind her and she felt as if the whole Shara was loaded on her back with all of its snow, as if she had the heated stove on which she used to bake pastry for St. Gorge’s day once. On the other side of the door she heard steps approaching.
She felt two hands revealing her face hidden under the red veil, as she held his right hand, touched it with her lips and forehead, telling him that he was her master as of that day. Holding the wall with her hands, she entered the small door of the amamdzik, to clean the tutkal from her eyes. When she left the room she saw that a man with gray hair, hunched, with a gray beard was waiting for her and she said to herself: “Oh Lord, why didn’t you make that when we get married our eyes are glued so that we never open them again.”
The next morning, almost half of the town came to see the young bride of Veli Bey. And there was something to be seen – unseen beauty from head to toes. But since then her eyes got a cold snowy glow. Aska realized why none of her friends told her about the first wedding night. Just as she would not speak about it. The words would stay in the snow in her eyes, that no spring of this city would melt.
I often stop at the stairs of the bridge which is close to the old ammam. Sometimes I light a cigarette although I know that the good girls of this city do not smoke on the street. Now there are no more springs in the house yards, people have dried them a long time ago. Only the river flows calmly carrying with itself the untold secrets. From the three bridges rounded as bows only one remained, as the other two were blown up a long time with dynamite, to build ugly ones of concrete and iron instead of them. The old ammam has opened its doors. Its owner had probably had in mind the Sheraton hotel chain. But working in the gray European cities, he never learned how to write the name, because he had never made so much money to have at least one cup of coffee for example in the Madrid Sheraton. With his machine bought in Italy, he makes a cappuccino the people drink fast while they wait for the taxis that take people to the near-by villages. Waiting for the taxis that have replaced the carriages that waited for the women for hours after they’d get out of the old ammam, the ammam that cut their lives in two halves.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska