Daring to Remember

Crimson

A short story by Murat Uyurkulak from Turkey, translated by Serhat Uyurkulak.

1

One lives in a vast land of bliss when he’s a child; he trots mindlessly all over the place and neighs with joy. Then he grows up, gets dumb, and gradually forgets that land of bliss as he becomes dumber, as a result he dies, so to speak. The period between childhood and old age is like a purgatory; there people lead torturous lives shadowed by a tombstone whose epitaph is written with toil, petty calculations, and chronic unhappiness. Grown-ups are like zombies…

But when one gets old he’s born anew, he’s resurrected, starts living again as he’s just a few steps away from the other side. When old people have completely forgotten that purgatory, it’s called senility. So wrong! In fact, they remember as they forget. Old people, even the most ill-tempered and edgiest of them, are very funny, poignant, and honest…

I had a grandfather named Hamza; he was my mother’s grandfather, to be precise. I was a little boy when I first met him. I hadn’t had the opportunity to familiarize with my mother’s side because of a fight that had taken place at my parents’ wedding ceremony. I was five or something when the families finally came together and made peace at a crowded dinner. They stood me up in front of him and said, “Look, this is your great-grandfather Hamza, kiss his hand.” Still vivid in my mind is the memory of the brown spots on his hand which hurt my lips for it was as dry and cracked as a sandpaper. I also remember that I wondered what the “great” of a grandfather might mean. But the most vivid of these memories is the huge sunglasses that covered almost half of his face…

As I was kissing his hand he raised his head and asked my father, “What’s his name?” When they replied “Murat,” he withdrew his hand from mine furiously and yelled: “Did you give him an Armenian name? What was wrong with Mehmet or Ahmet? You infidels! You’re doomed to fail in life, let me tell you this…”

Hamza was a gigantic man; it was as though his body had grown bigger and bigger instead of smaller as he aged. He would always have a thick cane with him when he wandered around. He didn’t like a bit the noise children made while playing in the street; how many times did I watch him through the window cursing and chasing after those kids with his sunglasses and cane pointed at them. I was a skinny, sickly child; they wouldn’t let me go out to play with others. When he was finished hunting kids, Hamza would return home short of breath and grumble things like, “No one is giving birth to well-behaved kids anymore. It’s only bastards popping out of each cunt…”, whereupon my mother would grab my arm and rush me out of the range of her grandfather swearing like a trooper…

Throughout WWI and the War of Independence that followed, for nine whole years, Hamza had served in the army, not even visiting his home once. Rumor has it that Hamza had gone slightly nuts during the war and after he’d been discharged, he retreated for a year into the darkest room of his house, didn’t exchange a word with another soul, and when he finally ended his voluntary domestic exile with his long hair and beard all tangled up, the first thing he did was ask his wife to cook lentil soup. Cheerfully thinking that Hamza entered the phase of recovery, his wife made the soup only to be hit with a spoon on the forehead once the soup bowl was on the table. Where I’m from, we put so much tomato paste and red pepper in the soup that it has a crimson color. The reason why Hamza hit his wife with a spoon was precisely that: “I swear to God I’ll kill you if you serve me a crimson dish ever again!” he yelled at my great-grandmother. However, people soon figured out the gist of the matter. Just like a bull Hamza couldn’t stand the color, he’d get furious and lose it altogether whenever he saw something crimson. One time, that gigantic man passed out when he noticed the thin strip of blood running down his arm because of a splinter from a log of wood he was cutting. In short, for a long time people ate watermelon secretly in Hamza’s house, dishes didn’t have tomatoes or tomato paste in them, all the crimson things around the house were either thrown out or given away. But one day the sunglasses arrived…

Those pitch-black glasses killing shiny colors were ordered from Istanbul by an educated relative who’d heard that Hamza wouldn’t go out to take a walk for fear of bumping into crimson and thus persecuted the household with his constant and ill-tempered presence. The story of the day the sunglasses arrived from Istanbul was told by family members like a cherished legend. Hamza rushed out of the house immediately after he’d put them on and a few hours later he came back with a rare joy. As the story ran, Hamza had gone straight to the mosque and asked the imam if it was a sinful deed to pray in glasses. He was happy as a lark to hear that, although inappropriate, it wasn’t sinful. At last Hamza would be able to do his Friday prayers in God’s house without being offended by the crimson color of the carpets on the floor, the verses on the wall, and the robe on the imam. And he would be able to sit in the coffeehouse and chat comfortably with a couple of friends his age without being repulsed by the crimson of the backgammon pieces, the flag on the wall, and the tea in the cup. Who could be happier!

Hamza didn’t like a bit my leftist father who was a teacher. In his opinion, leftists were all godless people. That my father had been born to an immigrant family was the source of a major deficiency, too. Hamza would miss no opportunity to go on and on about how “Everything has been handed to these immigrants on a silver plate. We fought wars and everything has been handed to them on a plate! Besides, they don’t know how to keep their mouth shut and their belts tight. How could you marry your daughter to an immigrant! Even a Kurdish man would be better; at least they are reliable and honest. Let an immigrant into your house and watch your honor fly away…”. Grouching while smoking like a chimney was Hamza’s only way of talking anyway. With an unceasing faint movement on his lips which no one could tell whether because he was praying or cursing, Hamza would sit in the remotest corner of the living room packed with family members and keep watch on his surroundings with half-open eyes. Everybody knew full well that they shouldn’t talk about delicate subject matters when Hamza was around. They especially took care to avoid bringing up politics because no matter which side of the political spectrum you espoused, it was certain that he’d eventually beat the living daylight out of you. Hamza believed that the leftists and the rightists, the religious and the secularists, they were all the same shit. It was enough for someone to have the title politician before his name to be called a son of a bitch. Those politicians were competing with each other to sell out the motherland. Now, it was only a matter of who was going to be the buyer. Russia, America, Arabia, Europe… They all lined up to get a steal…

That was the very point where Hamza would lose his temper completely and start talking his head off with an endless train of war memories. It was mandatory to listen to those memories which Hamza told as energetically and fluently as would be unexpected from a man that old. No one could move an inch or even go to the restroom unless they wanted to be bombarded with utterly obscene words…

According to Hamza, they’d saved the motherland from all sorts of internal and external enemies by fighting a ferocious war. Once he got started, everyone in the country, living or dead, would take their share of wrath: Immigrants from the Balkans and the Caucasus were good for nothing, they were all immoral and undisciplined; given the chance, he would have sent them all back to where they came from. The Kurds were reliable, honest but traitorous, too. The Armenians had killed a lot of Muslims, if we hadn’t forced them to exile, they would have left no Muslim around. The Anatolian Greeks had collaborated with the occupying Greek Army with the ambition to reestablish the Byzantine Empire. After they’d failed, they tried to take their revenge by setting the lovely Izmir on fire. The Arabs had stabbed us in the back and offered our lands to the British infidels. That didn’t come as a surprise to him though because the Arabs were barbaric, ignorant, and unclean. The Persians were pretentious bastards who were good at nothing except reciting poetry and drinking wine. No wonder there was a saying like the Persian plot; they’d snatch your underpants without you being aware of it. The Gypsies were thieves, the Laz were stupid, the Jews were swindlers…

Had Hamza spared the Turks the delirious curses he rained on the peoples living inside the frontiers of the motherland, it could have been possible to leave him alone as though he was a madman, or perhaps one could have even regarded him with an understanding blended with pity. But as it happened, he’d throw the most indigestible insults at the Turks. Hamza maintained that the real enemies of Turkey were the Turks themselves. Because the Turks were lazy, the Turks were cowards, the Turks were dumb, the Turks were the greatest crooks ever. Their legends of heroism and the epic stories of their gallantry were only a bunch of lies. The Turks would beat it in a flash whenever their lives were at stake. The number of deserters during the War of Independence was higher than the number of those who fought, but no one knew that and those who actually did would never talk about it. The bad things that the Turks did during the war would have filled volumes had Hamza set out to pen them down. They were hiding the truth, they were making the nation believe that its ancestors were heroes. There was a single question that each family member was dying to ask yet no one could dare ask it: “Did you fight all by yourself, grandpa?”

2.

The incident that revealed the first sign of Hamza’s senility involved me, and my mother.

One day, while we were in the living room, Hamza turned to my mother and asked, “Who is this kid hopping around? Where did you bring this bastard from, Leyla?”

He didn’t recognize me but that was the smallest of our worries; he addressed my mother with the name of his daughter who had died from measles when she was six months old. My mother, Ayla, must have felt shivers run down her spine when she was called “Leyla” for her disheveled face terrified me. I liked the fact that Hamza had forgotten all about me. Maybe I could cease to be the “Armenian Murat” and he would accept me with a brand new name. If I was lucky he might even hug and pet me. 

The signs kept coming. One day we found an outraged imam at our door and Hamza standing beside him. “In the middle of the prayer, while the congregation was prostrating, he jumped up and started cursing, yelling with his finger on a verse plate on the wall and shouted ‘This has been written incorrectly, correct it!’ We don’t approve of such improper actions in the presence of God. I urge you to take care of your grandfather. And if I were you, I’d take him to a doctor,” said the imam. That was the moment we first realized that Hamza knew how to read and write. He read and wrote in a language different from ours but he was literate alright; we were quite surprised and respected him.

The surest sign of his senility for me was that one Ramadan morning Hamza asked me to go up to him and handed me a bag full of candies. So he’d really forgotten my name. That must have been the case for he not only gave me candies but also hugged me and laid my head on his shoulder. I inhaled deeply the delicious smell of his sweat, it smelled like my father’s; my father was an immigrant, Hamza wasn’t but the smell of their sweat was almost the same. You would step into a big, blissful, and secure world just by smelling it…

I think that it was me who killed my grandfather Hamza.
I didn’t mean to, but I killed him.

That day when he got back from the coffeehouse, had I not been flying and running ecstatically after that paper kite in the house, had I not barreled into him as he opened the door and walked into the hallway, had Hamza not fallen onto the floor, had his glasses not sprung off his face and shattered, had we not eased on the censorship of crimson in the house because now he had those glasses, had random newspapers not been spread underneath the shoes by the door, had the content of one of the big, colored photographs on the front page of one of those newspapers not been the picture of terrorists captured dead, had the terrorists not bled that much, had the first thing Hamza saw as he opened his eyes moaning not been that picture, Hamza might have been alive today, and we might have been trying to get his name into the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest man in the world…

There I was trembling and waiting for him to stand up and scold me, or perhaps to give me a huge slap in the face. But he was transfixed by the picture. He straightened up a little, crossed his legs and leaned his back against the wall, reached out for the picture and tore it from the page, and then brought it closer to his eyes and examined it for a long time as meticulously as a jeweler. As time passed he breathed more heavily and one could see how the unchanging rough lines of his face strangely got softer and softer. At a certain point that softness established itself, took hold of his entire face, and I thought he’d smile momentarily but he didn’t. He put the picture into his pocket and slowly stood up, walked straight up to the darkest room of the house, entered the room, I heard the metallic sound of the key turned inside the lock and once, just once, I heard a deep sob…

He stayed in that room for four whole days, without paying heed to our pleas or endeavors to convince him from the other side of the door; he didn’t eat or drink, he didn’t even make a sound.

The night of the fourth day while we were all cheering for my elder uncle’s proposal to break the door down and cursing the optician in Istanbul who’d not yet posted us the new sunglasses (“May God punish him!” we kept shouting in frustration), Hamza emerged at the door of our living room. He was dead beat, reduced to skin and bones in four days, he’d lost almost half the volume of that monumental body of his. And he was soaking wet, the odor of urine on his clothes filled up the room. Hamza’s mind was someplace else when, in the heat of the moment, my aunts rushed to the large coffee table in a desperate attempt to move away the unceremonious figurine of a Bavarian peasant wearing a crimson vest. He just stood there at the door and stared at our faces one by one. When he looked at me his face quivered with compassion, or so I thought…

It was the first time I saw him without the sunglasses, I remember being overwhelmed by the beauty of his large blue eyes and the power of his gaze. I guess even as a child I immediately realized that those piercing eyes left an indelible mark on my soul, and that I would lose that newfound gaze pretty soon. I burst into tears. I was unable to stop, the more I wept the severer my weeping got, I was sobbing ever more acutely, then I let out a wail. My mother took me and my tears out of the living room as Hamza crept to his armchair…

I would hear what happened in the living room that night from my younger uncle years later in a tavern we both sat drunk as a skunk. I suppose my uncle could talk about it only when he was drunk, and I could listen to that story only in the same mood.

But right now I don’t have the strength to tell you all of it…

Hamza tried to save girls and young women from rapists; he left those he could with Muslim families, those he couldn’t, he also raped them…

Hamza tied men together like sardines and killed them all sparingly with one bullet later to throw their bodies into the river…
His commanding officer had appointed Hamza to count the dead bodies in a village, Hamza fulfilled the duty, then the same officer ordered him to kill five times as many people in another village inhabited by the kith and kin of those who’d committed the earlier massacre. When he finished telling about that incident, Hamza wiped off his tears and, “If I’d counted one less, at least five people would have remained alive,” he said…

Hamza held in his own hands the bottle which contained the gasoline that started the fire that burned an entire neighborhood to ashes…

Hamza crossed like Moses a deep stream at a place north of Dersim called Kocgiri because it was full of dead bodies…

While the starving soldiers, his brothers in arms were fighting over a thin slice of bread Hamza tried to capture the silky desert sand rising up to the sky to no avail, whereupon he got furious, grabbed his rifle and killed four POWs and two soldiers…

Hamza didn’t like crimson because death and atrocity were its siblings. Hamza didn’t like white either because it would splash around when a bullet entered the head. He didn’t like yellow either because it would spill out of the purulent wounds.

Hamza hated every color that had a gloss.
Colors and human beings were all liars…

My grandfather Hamza died in a month after that night.

The letters on the scrap of paper where he wrote his will were curved and smooth like the waves in the sea.
There were dots scattered around like gulls and cormorants.
We took the will to the imam, he didn’t understand anything.
Later we took it to the Directorate of National Education, no one there could decipher it.
Finally a university professor could tell us what it said.

Hamza’s will was as follows:

“Give my tobacco case to my comrade, brother in arms Fahri the Arab from Hatay…
Give my lighter to Cemal the Kurd from Amed who saved me from an ambush…
Give my twenty liras in the bank to Seher the Armenian from Cermik (her real name is Heranush)…
There’s a gold coin in my glasses case. Give it to my son-in-law Hasan the immigrant. Let him spend it on Murat’s education. And let him excuse me…”

 

© Alexandra Klunsmann
Murat Uyurkulak from Turkey
Murat Uyurkulak, born in 1972 in Aydin, Turkey, studied law and then art history in Izmir, only to break off both and finally move to Istanbul, where he worked as a waiter, a translator, a journalist and publisher. Today he is a free-lance author and translator. He has translated the work of Edward Said and Mikhail Bakunin, among others, into Turkish. His first novel, Tol appeared in 2002 in İstanbul and attracted attention immediately. Since then, Murat Uyurkulak has been recognized as an important literary voice in contemporary Turkish literature. Further publications include, Har, a novel (İstanbul 2006), which was also received enthusiastically by literary critics. In German, he has published Zorn (Anger), and stage adaptions have been created based on his novel Tol (Zürich, 2008).

 

Translation by Gerhard Meier
Gerhard Meier was born in 1957, and completed his University Degree in Translation (French and Italian) in 1986 at the University of Mainz in Germersheim. In 1982, he began to teach himself Turkish. He has been living in France, near Lyon, since 1986, and works as a literary translator from French and Turkish into German. He has translated books by Amin Maalouf, Henri Troyat, Jules Verne, Jacques Attali and Paco Rabanne from French as well as works by Hasan Ali Toptaş, Orhan Pamuk, Murat Uyurkulak, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar and Murathan Mungan from Turkish.