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Fikret Korkmaz and His Sons


I. Hummus

Perhaps if he told someone how he felt, but there’s no one to talk to about things like this. He’d never admit it, but Fikret has the sneaking suspicion that when he stands still for long enough, it’s actually his disappointment catching up with him that makes him reach to clutch his chest, clench his teeth. It wells up acidic within him, but, like he says, there’s no one to talk to about things like this.

Of course he has friends at the café, but it’s not fitting, falling to pieces in a men’s café, and as the retired postmaster of Antakya he feels compelled to maintain a bit of decorum around town. At home? His father wouldn’t understand him any more than his sons would. Stranded between too old fashioned and too new fangled, Fikret Korkmaz wakes each day clutching for a middle ground that has vanished beneath him.

Fikret’s father is still alive, though his face is lined more deeply than the thread-thin künefe dough he whisks off the hot convex metal of the tepsi and twists elegantly into a braid to stack in the window, painting steam along the sneeze-guard. He’s a man frustrated with his work, and for a man raised to provide, this frustration runs deeper than the layers of history beneath his feet, beneath his small town. He was trained to make hummus. At the back of the small künefe shop hang four certificates: he is a master of hummus, a hummus master, not recognized once but four times. He should have stuck with hummus. He should have. This is his mantra: I should have stuck with hummus. Every time he unlocks his small shop Cumhuriyet Künefesi the key grinds and he thinks: I should have stuck with hummus. It punctuates his every twist of wrist and braids itself into every stolid stack of künefe he makes.

Fikret’s father was happy enough to stick with hummus, but in those heady times of shiny modernist intent, the chrome still glossy on the fenders of Republic, his son Fikret Osmano_lu traded his posh Ottoman name for the solid nationalism of Korkmaz, back when he married Alma from the Bayraklar family of Kemalists. In the rush to modern Fikret gave up his name and his father gave up hummus. For a man whose son shed his -o_lu, it was no time to argue mastery.

Hummus had not worked its way into the corridors of power at that time. No, hummus was a relic of an older age, not fitting for a republic: the bastard stepchild of a forgotten empire. Now there’s a guy across town who makes a hopping business in hummus. He has only three certificates of mastery but the crowds line up to carry kilos of hummus and bakla home in thin clear plastic bags. Even revolutions settle back to equilibrium eventually, even hummus comes back in style. “I should have stuck with hummus,” he mutters.

Fikret’s father went on vacation one time, in the ‘70s, when he went to Ankara with Fikret and Alma and the boys, and he felt a little better when he saw there was künefe in the nation’s capital, but no hummus to be found at all. When he got back he hung up another huge sign, hand painted with arabesques carefully outlined around the lettering Atatürk Hakkiki Türk Künefesi Yedi! Atatürk Ate Authentic Turkish Künefe! It was at least six days before anyone heard him stalking through the bazaar muttering “I should have stuck with hummus.”


II. Tea with Mint

Fikret sits in the same cafe almost every day. It’s the only café in town that his father refuses to sit in. He hears enough about hummus during the rest of his days. Every day Fikret sits at the third table with the same cluster of friends, and every day he announces his unrealized desires.

Fikret: “This was my great wish as a father: Hakan would be our lion, Gokhan would be our be our poet. Our nation needs lions to wrestle us forward. Our nation needs poets to chart the way, to envision who and what we can be. To perfect our gorgeous modern language!”

Each time he says this, his friends nod at his sage wish. They nod at each others’ stories because their wives are dead and their children have moved away.

When the shift is slow and there’s nothing to do but wipe all the clean counters clean again, the waiter watches Lebanese song competitions.

Fikret continues: “Hakan and Gokhan were bright boys, their teachers noticed it right away. My wife and I knew that, small as the ripples we make in this nation may be, these boys would be able to do anything. We just had to give them every opportunity we could. Every opportunity they needed.”

Fikret doesn’t order anymore. The waiter automatically brings him the fish lunch, whatever fish is in that day, usually around this point in the narrative. It cools until Fikret finishes the rest of his story, and then he eats it from the head toward the tail.

But that’s skipping ahead. No, at this point in the story Fikret only sips his tea, and his companions wait, knowing he will dab his moustache with a handkerchief and shake his head. “That I have failed as a father to pass on my vision of what is needed is clear. I wasn’t a dictator to my sons, they always had choices. But is it too much to ask for any concern for their country? Now one would rather be a Roman infidel, the other a caveman, Allah! They’ve both been stolen by the past, damn this backwater of a place they grew up in!” Fikret pounds the table with his fist.

That is the end of the story, and whoever is present knows to dutifully protest: “What else can a father do?”

The cafe is frosted with tiles, their elaborate patterns icing every surface. Fikret absentmindedly traces the geometric design of one of these wall tiles with his fingertip while he speaks. He doesn’t look at it; he’s sat at this table so often that his finger follows the intricate maze of green and blue lines on its own. The waiter watches. Fikret’s fingertip never falls into the white spaces between.


III. Fish

Fikret lives in a modern apartment in a block of identically constructed cement blocks. They’re all decaying, modernity having lost some of its gloss after the late 80s.

There is a parlor with plastic-covered couches, excessively ornate lamps and chandeliers. The curtains are massive and heavily engineered, with multiple layers of fabric disguising formidable control mechanisms. They hide the square of glass that rests in a drab metal window frame that looks out onto another concrete apartment building. Small serving tables stack, nest, jockey for floor space, hover at armchairs, ready to be of service. All the tabletops are doilied.

Fikret never sits in the parlor. He makes a sandwich or unwraps a lahmacun and eats it standing over the sink. He’s not often home. He walks down a hall cluttered with family pictures, straightens a frame here and there, knocks softly before entering Gokhan’s room.

The only light is the dim green glow of the fish tank. The light falls on the side of Gokhan’s face and after all this time Fikret still expects him to turn and smile, talk about his day’s work at the Antakya mosaic museum. Gokhan hasn’t turned, hasn’t responded in months.

Fikret needs to get more fish for the tank. They’ve died, every last one of them. He’s done something wrong, he doesn’t know how to adjust the aquarium, and maybe it’s too salty or not salty enough. It bubbles, but the water must be all wrong. Fikret’s let it stand empty for weeks now and still Gokhan stares at it, lost. Fikret watches him starting at the still, wrong water.


IV. Gokhan’s Fish

Gokhan specialized in fish when he was a boy, squatting on the shore where the eastern Mediterranean crashed upon it. Face the sea and the present city falls away like a restless dream; face the sea and this could still be the shore of Roman Antioch. Modernity’s touch was light here.

Today a small outpost of dejected buildings huddles on the coast, cafes that close tight all winter. This is the modern incarnation of Selucia, the great port of the greater Antioch. Hakan would kick cola cans into the surf and Gokhan would follow behind, fishing them out. If the sea were smooth and dull in the low light of early morning, Fikret’s father would accost lone passersby, “Look! Would you look at that – a whole sea, smooth as hummus!”

Gokhan would fish with Fikret all morning until Fikret sat down and read a newspaper and Hakan wandered about looking at rocks and mountains. When Gokhan finally tired he’d leave a huge bucket with his father, full of thrashing groupers and stiff, stunned wrasses. “This one here is a yellow mouth barracuda,” he’d say. “This is a gobiid fish and it’s one of the invaders from the Indo-Pacific. It wriggled through the Suez Canal.

We’ll eat this one, but this one is just for me to study.”

Then the boys— they were boys then— would clamber up the Tüneli that Titus and Vespasian built. The massive stone walls hedged them in on either side, leading them up to the cliff faces where they’d skip rocks along the heavy tombs carved into the stone, hear them clink into the open bottoms. They’d skirt along the narrow edges of the tombs, lithe as tightrope walkers.


V. Hakan’s Fish


The first vertebrate known is the fossil Anaspis, over 500 million years old. It was presumably an armored jawless fish, but its fossils are fragments, and little is known about what it actually looked like. By the middle Silurian, about 400 million years ago, armored jawless fish were diverse. The first definite jawed fish had also appeared. The Silurian is sometimes called the Age of Fishes.

The time my body inhabits here on earth is not of my choosing. I was taught this as a child at the unpopular and nearly-secular-anyway madrassa. But the period of time that my mind wanders has changed since I’ve started my studies. I describe Antarctic ice streams flowing very fast – one kilometer per year – and an old friend laughs at my definition of fast. He is training for a government job in Ankara. It’s not just my father, it’s not just Ankara. There’s a passion for modernism throughout our country that hasn’t relented in the years since the rocket ship of western-style development ran out of petrol (and exhausted the second butane tank even the astronauts of development must keep in the trunk just in case), and crashed and crashed and crashed again.

My father wanted me to go into this great project of modernism, to hold my head up high for our nation and fix all of the problems his generation managed to exacerbate. My father heard the word biogeochemistry and imagined I would be perched in a corporate laboratory creating a glossy polymer modernity for our nation’s good.

Our nation is the blink of an eye.

What happens in the blink of an eye? My mother dies, I am born, my mother is born. The nation is formed, centuries of Ottomans ebb and flow in one ripple against this shore, the map is redrawn again. Rome decays, Rome is born and extends its long fingers here. Language emerges and is made irrelevant by images, humans enter this earth system. The planet heats and cools, heats and cools. There is no planet.

My father hates it when I say this nation was created in a moment, that this nation was formed on paper and constructed by men who needed a nation. He hates it when I argue that if the Ministry of Culture didn’t tell people the Roman piles of rock around here were very important they’d cart the stones off to use in their homes as they’ve been doing for centuries. It’s politically correct now to voice approval about taking care of Roman ruins, but we’re not balancing on a tightrope of the present that stretches back to the Romans and beyond. We are alone here in the present, and when my father and I are honest we both agree: the skeletons of Rome that litter Antakya are unimportant. They’re unimportant to my father’s generation because they’re wreckage of an infidel past unconnected to our society, our nation. They’re unimportant to me because they came and went in a geological blink, a flutter of earth’s eyelash.

They are very important to Gokhan, who grew up with an different sense of time than the scientist in me and the bureaucrat in my father. He was passionate about all of it while he worked at the mosaic museum, before he got sick, but he ended up getting bogged down in the fish.

Gokhan wrote to me frequently, when I was studying in Britain and he could still write. He said the house seemed too quiet, too lonely, too full of our wandering, hyperactive Dad when I was gone. He missed having someone to talk to, and tracked the length of time since I had gone: “Since you have seen me you’ve seen three new countries. I brush off dusty volumes in the back room of the museum and look at what archaeologists find in the places you visit. Or, more often, what things from here have turned up in their museums. Since we’ve seen each other you’ve learned a new language well enough to write academic papers, ones I probably wouldn’t understand even if you translated them for me. I’m at the museum all the time now because the house is a tomb. I’m working on a new restoration – a huge mosaic, but I’ll never be the famous fingers breathing life back into Neptune. As always I’m stuck with the border because it’s got all the fish. I should never have specialized in fish.”

I don’t know much about history; I know more about the rocks themselves than the debris of cultures they suspend – all those palaces and hovels, treasures and cast-offs. I tried to understand Gokhan’s fascination with the Romans, tried to listen with interest to the stories he pieced together. I do think he was right about one thing: we are surrounded by the castoffs cities more powerful and dynamic than this small backwater of the present will ever be.

I study the plaster hypothesis of what Anaspis may have looked like, frozen in a long gasp for water on the wall of my laboratory, and think: we should all have eyes in the backs of our heads.


VI. Bitter Orange

Will Gokhan recover?

Fikret wakes with this question; it dries last on his lips each night. It infuriates him, not knowing, but there’s nothing to do with rage in a town this small except mull it over silently. Sons should not pass before fathers, Fikret feels like screaming, sons should not fall into the white gaps of nothingness conspicuous in blue and green tiles.

Doctors will never tell Fikret what he wants to know.

Fikret: “Why can’t you fix him? How long will he be like this? It started while he was working at the museum – does it have anything to do with that? Working in that dusty old rubble of those Romans? If it’s the past that caught hold of him you’d better tell me now – I have another son in the same trouble. Maybe he’d listen to you.”

The doctors will chuckle at the suggestion and shake their heads no, bandy about foreign words like catatonic schizophrenia without explaining them, drop malignant hints that all might not have been right with Fikret’s wife. Fikret will holler: “What’s the good of modern medicine?” But the doctors will leap to its defense. He’ll murmur to himself on the way to the same old café, “It’s the past, isn’t it? The past took him, damn this backwater of a place.”

As Gokhan bathes in the glow of the green aquarium, Fikret’s days will begin to pass more and more slowly, until each day forms its own eternity. Fikret will sense the tectonic shifts beneath him, will begin to see the slow erosion of life bit by bit – as it happens, and not simply in retrospect.

Fikret will wander the Roman debris scattered about the town and search for something, anything, that explains why this old litter would have been so compelling to his son. He will catch himself staring at rocks and mountains, wondering when his other son will be consumed by ice ages. He will call Hakan weekly, and then monthly, and then when he remembers. He is hard to reach, he is never home. He will forget to pay the phone bill and Hakan won’t be able to reach him.

But this morning he waits on the shore, alone, without his boys, without his father, in the silence of unkicked soda cans. He stops and stares at the long low-slung horizon of sea pressed down upon by sky, and notices when he faces away from the city that he could just as well be standing in Rome, too, for all the sea will confide in him. He brought the bucket today, and the net, the rod. The extra coil of line, since they break so often. He’s not sure whether he should fish.

Kim Brauer