Korkmaz and His Sons
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Tea with Mint
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.
“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
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.
the shift is slow and there’s nothing to do but wipe all
the clean counters clean again, the waiter watches Lebanese
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.”
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
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.
is the end of the story, and whoever is present knows to dutifully
protest: “What else can a father do?”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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!”
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.
eat this one, but this one is just for me to study.”
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.
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.
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.
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
nation is the blink of an eye.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
will never tell Fikret what he wants to know.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.