Daring to Remember

In which direction

  • Read in Turkish by the author
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  • An excerpt from In Which Direction by Cem Akaş
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A short story by Turkish author Cem Akaş.

Meltem woke up, feeling there was something wrong: the train had stopped.

For a moment, she couldn’t make out where she was.

She and Onur had gone on the Thessaloniki-Selanik train at the Sirkeci station in Istanbul, and after settling down in their comfortable and clean compartment, they had watched Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sliding Doors on Onur’s laptop.

They had slid down the window, closed the curtains, and started making love, which Meltem realized was something she had always wanted to do, for some reason; then they had read for a while and fallen asleep.

Meltem parted the curtains and looked out; there was a small station building with a Greek sign on it - they had apparently crossed the border; then she heard some men repeating the word “passport” and she decided this was the first station on the Greek side.

Her boyfriend woke up only barely enough to resemble his passport photograph; he was already asleep when the train started to move once again.

But still there was something wrong: when they had left Istanbul, the things she saw through the window were moving from right to left, but now, all the trees, small houses, electric poles and fields were entering the sight offered by the window from the left and going out on the right.

We can’t be going back, Meltem thought. Were they going back?

* * *

Necmiye couldn’t sleep, so she got up, looked for a place to stand on the overcrowded deck of the “İsmet Pasha” steamer, and squeezing in between some people she started watching the lights ahead.

She had left Kilkis-Kılkış, her village, and travelled to Thessaloniki-Selanik with only three bags, there getting on this old and worn down ship that would take her to her new homeland. 

When she arrived in Izmit in Turkey, she would do whatever an uprooted tree would do: she would start growing new roots so that one day her granddaughter’s daughter would travel to Greece many times, first to find out where her family had come from, and then with her boyfriend, because she loved the place so much and felt very good there.

The lights she now saw in the pitch darkness of the sea belonged either to the port of Thessaloniki-Selanik, bidding her farewell, or to her new land welcoming her.

* * *

It wasn’t even a lamp that hung down from the ceiling, just a bare light bulb, but its dim light, which didn’t begin to light up the coffee shop, was coming straight into Ali’s eye.

Decades later, his granddaughter Sevim would not be able to mention his name without a curse, but there was no place for such worries in Ali’s intoxicated mind: he was thinking about the crate of wine the Gypsy would bring in return for the last piece of land he had been given during the Population Exchange, and that buxom woman, the owner of a small pub in his neighborhood in Kavala-Kavala, which he used to frequent.

* * *

Osman, on the other hand, had never been to the tavern right across the building in Thessaloniki-Selanik where he used to work as a banker; but on certain nights he would walk past it and want to go in.

He had gone on the “İsmet Pasa” steamer with nineteen big canisters filled with gold; he had poured olive oil on top of the gold so that no one would see the coins if the canisters had to be opened. 

Now, in the garden of his house in Aksaray, Istanbul, he wasn’t thinking about that tavern during the circumcision ceremony he had organized for his three grandsons (one of whom was Mustafa, the future father of Onur) with the now quite diminished pile of these gold coins; no, he was thinking of the days when he was a kid trying to sell oranges at a counter in Thessaloniki-Selanik’s market place.

* * *

Meltem suddenly stopped while walking through a steep and narrow street in the Old Town, now known as the Turkish quarter, in Kavala-Kavala: a familiar smell – the smell of roasted pepper, made by her great grandmother Necmiye on Sunday mornings; a familiar sound – the Turkish rigmarole shouted by the kid counting off during a game of hide and seek, right before opening her eyes to look for her friends: “önüm arkam sağım solum sobe, saklanmayan ebe.”

* * *

Shortly after getting married, Necmiye had become pregnant, and before she knew she first had a son and then a daughter. Mehmet, her husband, didn’t know it at the time that this was to be his last round on the grounds of the Hereke Textile Factory by the sea, that he would never wake up from his sleep after going to bed in the wee hours of the morning, back home from his round, and that he would be forced to break the promise he had given Necmiye back in Kilkis-Kılkış, the promise that he would never leave her alone.

Had he known, he might have felt sorry that he would never again get the chance to yell at his children playing hide and seek at dinner time.

* * *

“You were going to drive slowly, you promised me,” sulked Meltem while she and Onur toured Xanti-Iskeçe in their car.

This time around they had decided to drive to Greece; the plan was to drive all the way down to Athina-Atina, cross to Kos-Istankoy taking a ferry, then to Bodrum, and drive up the Aegean coast all the way back to Istanbul.

Onur wasn’t driving that fast, actually, but ever since they got married, and especially since the pregnancy, Meltem began to be easily scared, and Onur was trying not to push her hard; and anyway, he didn’t like to drive fast on unfamiliar roads, because he might have to make a sudden u-turn when he realized he was headed in the wrong direction.

Case in point: the driver of the car right behind them yelled “Eşek Istanbullu!”1 in Turkish, and Meltem, feeling like driving through a town in Anatolia, couldn’t help but laugh.

* * *

Mustafa Kemal wasn’t yet named Atatürk,”the father of the Turks,” but had been treated like Atatürk for quite a while now, and had certainly been acting the part. When Nimet was presented to him, she began to cry so loud that Ali, her father, panicked, worrying that the Great Leader would scold him on account of his daughter.

Mustafa Kemal asked the little girl, who hailed from his hometown, why she was crying, and Nimet told him she wanted to go to school but that her father wouldn’t send her; a newspaper was brought to her she was very good at reading it, proving she easily qualified for going to school.

Mustafa Kemal asked for the chief of education to be summoned, and while he ordered him to enroll Nimet as a second grader, everyone was casting occasional glances at Ali to see what his reaction would be, but Ali was busy staring down at his shoes he had bought for his wedding in Thessaloniki-Selanik and had been wearing ever since.

* * *

It was pouring, but still they kept walking – the streets of Thessaloniki-Selanik smelled like Erenköy, Istanbul.

Turning a corner, they stumbled upon a scene straight out of a movie set: light and mirth was flowing out from the open doors of a church, and right at that moment a bride, all in whites, walked past them with her entourage, walking up the stairs of the church as fast as she could, where a sizeable crowd was waiting for her.

This was the one surprise that gave Meltem the greatest joy on the whole journey, this and the orange tree, with fruits still hanging from its branches, in the middle of a street lined with apartment buildings  in Kavala-Kavala.

* * *

Looking down at the lights of the Textile Factory in Hereke, after a fire had turned her house to ashes in a matter of a few hours, Necmiye remembered how Thessaloniki-Selanik was burned down by the French and the Bulgarians, and how zeppelins poured down gasoline on the burning city. She wondered when she would tell her two children about this, and then she remembered something else: the mansion that belonged to a Turkish banker and stood right next to the burning court house, had somehow managed to escape unscathed the fire that burned down the entire city in a day.

* * *

This time around there were three of them in the compartment on the “Train of Friendship” on their way from Thessaloniki-Selanik to Istanbul – Meltem and Onur had taken their son with them. He had just started talking in sentences, and when asked his name he said “Kaaniko.”

Both he and Onur were asleep, softly snoring; they were tired after the trip.

Meltem felt tired, too, but she resisted falling asleep; she was determined to find out this time when and why the train changed directions, or seemed it did, or whether it actually did or not.

“Asshole Istanbulite!”


Cem Akaş © Esra Ozdogan
Cem Akas from Turkey
Cem Akaş, born in 1968 in Mannheim, Germany, lives in Istanbul, Turkey. He studied chemical engineering at the Bogazici University in Istanbul, as well as political sciences at Columbia University in New York, earning his PhD in history at the Bogazici University. From 1992 to 2004, Cem Akas worked for one of the largest publishing houses in Turkey, “Yapi Kredi Yayinlari”, and in 2005, he founded an own publishers’ group. He is a free-lance author (of novels, short stories and essays), who has published numerous books, most recently: Guarding the State, political sciences (Charleston, SC, 2010), 19, a novel, (Istanbul, 2009), Gitmeyecekler için Urbino, a novel (Istanbul, 2007), Selected Short Stories, published by Öykü Seçkisi (Istanbul, 2002), Olgunluk Çağı Üçlemesi, a novel (Istanbul, 2001). One of his short stories, Wo ist der Teppich (Where is the Carpet) has appeared in German in: Unser Istanbul (Berlin 2008).


Translation by Christoph K. Neumann
Christoph K. Neumann was born in 1962 and has taught and researched at various Institutes and Universities, in Prag and mainly in Istanbul. Today, he is a professor of Turkology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Alongside numerous academic publications on the cultural and social history of the Ottoman Empire, he and Klaus Kreiser are also the authors of Die Kleine Geschichte der Turkei (A Short History of Turkey), published by Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart, 2nd edition, 2008. Moreover, he translates works of literature (by Orhan Pamuk, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar and Şebnem İşigüzel, among others) from Turkish into German.