This week in the PEN/Guernica Flash series, we feature a short story by Selahattin Demirtaş, translated by Nicholas Glastonbury. Demirtas is co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and a member of Turkish Parliament. He has been imprisoned since early November 2016. In the current climate, as the Turkish Parliament recently voted to begin deliberations for a constitutional amendment to establish a single-leader presidency, Demirtas’s silencing appears to have been all the more premeditated.
“I was wrong, life is very long…”
Is there something strange going on? I don’t think so. It’s the Middle East as usual, bombs and suicide bombers exploding in one place or another, dozens of shredded bodies left in their wake, a down-and-out marketplace left in shambles.
The explosion three days ago took forty-three. I wonder if in reality death is altogether commonplace, normal, and we are the ones who exaggerated it, made it into something extraordinary. Still, people are dying—lots of them, besides. A bomb exploding at noon in Aleppo doesn’t seem to have had the same effect on the Australians gathering for dinner in Sydney’s restaurants at the same time. And in Toronto, people rushing to work still won’t have heard the news. They’ll hear it soon enough, but most of them will regard it as an “ordinary” explosion, not even worth reading about. The closest city to Aleppo is Hatay. In fact, the people of Hatay are so close to Aleppo that, if they paid close enough attention, they’d be able to hear the explosions with their own ears.
Hatay’s mezzes are famous, its dishes rich. Availing itself of the entire cultural heritage of this ancient region, Hatay’s cuisine is lacking in nothing. Whatever the Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Turkmen Kurds, Turks, Persians, and Greeks ate and drank over the course of history, the people of Hatay took note, in case they might need it one day. And of course, they need it every day. Whosoever happens to pass through Hatay without partaking of its exquisite flavors will have missed a great deal.
The best food made by the Arabs of Hatay, what we might even call a true work of art, is the Arab kebab. You must try the kebab at the shabby cafeteria in the Old Market. Hamdullah Usta, master chef, is almost a real-life version of the naive shopkeeper type often found in novels. As his name and fame grew, tourists began flocking to Hamdullah Usta. The situation must have made our hero a little anxious, since he bought a couple of plastic potted trees and put them around the shop to spruce it up a little. Sadrettin the barber, whose shop was across the street, had given him the idea. “How about you update the concept a bit, brother,” Sadrettin said to him, “since tourists have begun trickling down our street. If all the shopkeepers spruce up their shops, we’d become a tourist destination, trust me.” Hamdullah Usta took the idea to heart, which is how the plastic trees came to be. The food remained the same, but now you could eat among the greenery, enjoined by a forest ambience. Still, the artificial trees snickered a bit much—made, as you could tell, of cheap nylon. Once they began gathering dust, they ended up reversing the intended ambience, but regardless, the food is still wonderful.
Sixty-eight dead lives.
There is a single waiter in the restaurant. Managing all seven tables is not difficult for him. It turns out he’s Hamdullah Usta’s nephew. He’s been waiting tables here for a sum of nineteen years, ever since he was a child. His name, Bereket, means abundance. Bereket has two children; his wife died last year in a traffic accident. It was technically a traffic accident, though it isn’t as though she was speeding and her car flipped or something. A public bus hit her on the avenue, and the poor woman gave up her life then and there. In other words, a pauper’s accident that caused a pauper’s death. Bereket is dedicated to his job and to his usta. He works with gusto. Bereket serves each dish with aesthetic mastery, like it’s a work of art, just to see a hint of pleasure in the customers’ eyes. Everything tastes great, but the meat dishes are especially delicious.
Sixty-eight shredded bodies.
The prices are surprisingly inexpensive. Three of us ate and drank, trying the savory and the sweet, and we nearly sent the check back, thinking it had to be a mistake. What surprised me most about Hamdullah Usta was his composure. No matter how crowded his shop got, he remained unperturbed, filling up the plates with the orders and handing them to Bereket from behind the counter without the slightest change in his facial expression. Once I went to Hamdullah Usta’s three times in a week, and the scene hardly changed at all.
Hamdullah Usta’s roots were in Aleppo. His grandfather settled in Hatay, where they have been for over sixty years. From grandfather to father, they’ve come to be known in Hatay as food sellers. Their uncle has a fabrics shop in the historic Aleppo market. Before the war, they would come and go, visiting each other quite regularly. When the war broke out, they fled, like many others, to their relatives in Hatay. Hamdullah Usta set up a tent in the yard of his two-story house, and forty-eight people in total began living there. Under these circumstances, Hamdullah Usta had to plead with the tenant on the first story to move out, after which they were a little more comfortable. Hamdullah never married. When he used to visit Aleppo as a kid with his father, he came to know his cousin Rukiye, and fell crazy in love with her. After she was married to someone else at sixteen, he never loved anyone else. Now Rukiye stays in a room on the ground floor of Hamdullah’s house, along with her two children and her husband. He practically sprints out of the house in the morning so as not to run into her. Rukiye hasn’t forgotten him either, but nothing can be done about it. She’s still beautiful. He can neither bring himself to look at her nor can he see enough of her. What we call “seeing,” though, was really nothing more than stealing glances for a few seconds on their fortuitous encounters every few days. Hamdullah is anxious, as if they might run away and leave everything behind, as if they’d made this plan together and were hiding it from everyone.
Sixty-eight dead, man!
This is why, apart from coming home quietly and sneaking into bed after everyone had fallen asleep, he all but cut ties with the house. He’s terrified that one of them will be able to tell what he’s been thinking to himself. Afraid that the flames of his love for Rukiye, rekindled after so many years, were readily apparent, he even put an end to his already scant conversations with Bereket.
Let no one notice, but may those glances fleetingly exchanged, may the room right below his, grow with every passing night and envelop his mute world and carry him off to sleep. Is it tribulation or joy to know that she is breathing in this beehive of forty-eight people? But this question has no answer. It’s like they say; what has fallen from the sky that the earth has refused? So here they are: under the same roof so many years later. Try as you may, you won’t be able to silence the bird of hope roosting on that roof. It’s easy to chase away that chatty bird during the day. But the moment you climb in bed alone and close your eyes, just try and silence it then. Even sleep is no escape. That bird is even more intrepid, even more shameless in dreams. The worst of it is being obligated to wake up and start a new day. What if he were to stall. Maybe a few seconds this morning…
The marketplace in Aleppo, where they sell nothing but melancholy on the stands—like a scene from a movie. Ever since the war started, the markets have no joy, no color, no smell. Now they’re places where scraps of food are bought and sold, to eat or to feed, out of necessity; shop after shop like soulless hospital wards. Sixty-eight shredded human bodies. Rukiye’s among them. Two days ago she and her husband had left their kids in Hatay and returned to their home in Aleppo to gather a few more belongings. They had gone to the market to buy some things for dinner. Hatay’s künefe is famous as well.
Allahu akbar! the marketplace murderer who blew himself up had screamed. While Rukiye’s body was being torn to pieces in Aleppo, Hamdullah Usta was praying on his wooden prayer mat behind his shop. He had just uttered Allahu akbar and knelt down when he felt a twinge of pain in his chest; he brushed it off, assuming it was just old age.
Künefe’s flavor depends on the cheese. And of course, they cook it differently in Hatay. When his customers order it, Hamdullah Usta has the künefe brought over from Cemil Usta, master künefe maker in the shop next door. Hamdullah is quite the künefe master himself, but, lest they say he’s greedy for the fortune of others, he’s given up making his own künefe ever since the künefe shop opened next door. But if you say, No, I’m going to eat the best künefe in Hatay, then you can eat your rightful due at the famous Hatay Künefe Shop in the market.
Rukiye’s husband had been able to recognize and gather what remained of her body because pieces of her dress had stuck to it. Hamdullah Usta couldn’t bear to go to her funeral or to her grave. A day after she was buried, Hamdullah locked the shop’s door from the inside and swallowed all the potions and pills from the medicine cabinet. The shop remained closed, in mourning, for three days.
Nowadays, Bereket runs the shop. Rukiye’s husband, Cuma, works as a waiter for Bereket Usta. Rukiye’s two children run about, keeping the shop clean. If you happen to pass through, do visit Bereket Usta’s, and if you can eat, do—the Arab kebab is still delicious.
After all, Aleppo’s cuisine is very ancient.