from “Twelve Grams of Happiness”

This World

An Invocation to God - I

He asked me to meet him at the Kreuzberger Café, promising to tell me a story I could use while still staying within the confines of propriety. His call came at an inconvenient time; it was my day off and I wanted to just sit at home and watch videos. But he refused to be put off. His cousin - that much he was ready to tell me - was "infatuated" with a decent young man, but as a devout Muslim she couldn't have a normal romantic relationship with him. The Holy Book enjoins abstinence on unmarried men and women. Without mincing words, I told him that I had never heard of male matchmakers. But he was taking the matter quite seriously, so I didn't want to turn him down. We made a date to meet early in the afternoon at a coffeehouse frequented by young Turks who have "made it." They take their girlfriends out and behave like recently graduated members of the educated class who have learned that when women are talking to you, you don't watch their lips but you gaze into their eyes. Some German couples also find their way into this enclave of good manners. Germans manage to relax remarkably fast in strange surroundings, and it will always remain a puzzle to me why the sight of an ordinary cold shepherd's salad can put them in such good spirits.

I get there early and sit at my usual table, not feeling much of anything. Waitresses in white aprons walk from table to table; they like to get involved in conversations with the customers. An extraordinarily beautiful woman sitting by the window is retouching her eyeliner, our eyes meet, but she laughs and turns to take a sip of tea into which she's dropped a cube of sugar. Maybe, I think, my mood will improve before the day is over, and just for kicks, I take a coin out of my pocket and balance it on my index finger. When I look up again, Osman is standing before me. He has a talent for coming up on you soundlessly and disappearing again just as suddenly. We greet each other with the traditional handshake and seal it with a brief embrace. I ask him how's business and has he made peace with the employees at his video store. The receipts have been lousy, he says, nobody is renting Turkish films anymore, and club membership in one of the big video rental stores offers more attractions. In return he asks me how my books are selling, and I promise that I'll talk the publisher into sending him some books. He thinks it would be an inspired business move to place my books next to the cash register in his shop - he's sure they would sell better than in a bookstore. A dog pads over to sniff at his pants leg and he kicks it in the flanks, ignoring the angry look from the woman who owns the café.

They're unclean, these animals, he says. Angels are not allowed to enter places where dogs live.

I don't think angels would let themselves be stopped by mongrels, I say.

Our Prophet, peace be unto him, instructs us to avoid coming in contact with dogs, Osman says. If a cur rubs himself against you, you have to repeat the ritual washing before prayer. A dog is a bag of fleas and can infect you with diseases.

You're living in the wrong country, Osman.

I have that same impression, he says.

The café is gradually filling up with young couples. It's the proverbial hour for exchanging vows of love. The man is supposed to be guided by the color of the shadows at dusk, for the hearts of women are particularly receptive to such appeals when it is difficult to differentiate between a white thread and a black one. Contemplating the faithless "Orientals," I am momentarily overcome by the feeling that we're all headed for a bad end. Maybe I'm just out of sorts because of this stubborn after-hours believer sitting across from me who thinks that dogs should be stoned for hygienic reasons.

Well now, so your cousin is in love; I'm happy for her. But what does she want me to do?

She wants you to ponder the appropriate words and compose a letter to this young man. She would like him to understand the kind of love she feels for him. Of course the letter must not encourage him to take certain liberties. That kind of love would come under an unlucky star.

What's that supposed to mean?

No sex. No physical intimacy. It's important to my cousin that you make one essential rule clear to the guy: She is untouchable until she meets the right man.

So he isn't necessarily her big love.

No, I think not.

Why didn't your cousin come herself, why did she send you?

She is not one of those girls who have no shame!

I didn't say she was, I quickly say, but you must admit that this puts us in a funny situation. Two men putting their heads together to compose a declaration of platonic love on behalf of a woman who will send it to a third man - the lover who isn't allowed to be one. That's what you call "Group Portrait Without Woman".

My cousin happens to be a respectable girl.

Of course, I say. It wouldn't occur to me to doubt it. But your cousin could have asked a girlfriend to act as her messenger of love.

Times are changing, Osman says. Women like to gossip, and rumors fly. She trusts me - and you too, my friend.

I'll observe the seal of the confessional, I say.

What I'd really like to do is to shout at him: I have no wish to intercede in such a matter on behalf of a woman I've seen only once, if I'm not completely mistaken. Osman had invited me to his home for the Feast of Sacrifice; he wanted his parents, both of them illiterate, to meet a real writer and to hear direct from me that you can make good money by being something other than a master automobile mechanic or an assembly line worker.

The apartment was full of relatives from both sides; children were romping around and were only half-heartedly told to behave. I extended my hand to Osman's cousin; she lowered her eyes, and it made me feel like dirt. Among observant Muslims it isn't customary to extend one's hand when greeting women. She explained that the animal nature of a man is easily aroused, and that is why, after a sinful life, she put on a veil and accepted a conditional renunciation of sex. She converted to orthodoxy because she wanted to get away from whorish settings and to decipher the messages of God.

At any rate it all sounded very poetic, back then. What she said left an impression on my mind, and since she could see that she had found a willing listener, she went on to say that she had even made a pilgrimage to see a holy man and made several knots in a scrap of fabric at his grave. Because the soul of man, enmeshed in sin, stinks like the mouth of a dog, and because she was no different, she made a radical change in her life: away from the flesh and closer to God.

So, will you do us this favor? Osman asked. I really don't want to rush you.

What can you tell me about the young man?

He lives on the same street as my cousin. He wants to make something of himself. He is registered as a college student and taking courses in business management*Š

An ambitious fellow, I say.

Not necessarily. He just doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. Or do you think it's particularly progressive to kill yourself working in a dammed assembly shop?

You have a point there. How did they meet?

They didn't. Perhaps they exchanged meaningful glances. My cousin is sure that he is also burning with love. He blushes whenever women speak to him.

Oh my goodness!

Besides, right now he doesn't have a girlfriend; I looked into that already.

You know, Osman, I think shy college students are square. With all due respect, can't your cousin, let's say, pick a more mature man?

She swears by romance*Š

Well, after all, we do too, I say.

But she just happened to fall for this novice. She says the man shouldn't lose his virginity with just any old slut. Concubines live in shame, whether they're men or women. It's all the same.

She is very quick to place blame - reproaching this or that person with being dissolute, I say.

The matter seems to be taking an unpleasant turn. What was the sense in all this anyway. I wished Osman's cousin were sitting across from me and I could yell at her that as a bigoted virgin she was more likely to be bathing in demon spit than following the Lord's bidding. That's the sort of language she would understand, and then maybe she could mentally run through her catalog of sins so that she could denounce me for being undecided between good and evil.

How does this sound: Your glances touch me to the quick. I know you love me, and I have similar feelings for you. Let's meet and look at each other, but I can't promise any more than that, not for now or later*Š.

That won't do, Osman says. You have to come up with words that will instantly bewitch him. And besides, the letter has to contain more harmonies.

Harmonies? We're setting a trap for the poor guy! She's asking him to cheerfully resign himself to the fate of a harem eunuch. I think your cousin simply wants to have somebody make goo-goo eyes at her.

She's read too many cheap romance novels.

You don't like her very much, do you?

Honestly, Osman. How would you react if you were faced with a hypocritical request like this? Love to be played by the rules, two untouchable bodies who recite poetry to each other, but who speak in code lest sinful thoughts occur to them. What would you do?

I'd have a nervous breakdown. And I told her as much.

And?

She said I wasn't inside her body, and it isn't women but men who have to be restrained. She said, I want to take my revenge on men for having to hide my hair and not being able to wear colorful nail polish.

This guy can't be blamed for that. The way you described him to me, he wouldn't object if she walked around bareheaded.

But that's how it's been decreed. She is afraid that reputable people will no longer respect her if she puts aside her veil. Their disapproval can kill.

I like writing love letters. Or petitions to the German authorities. But to do both with one stroke of the pen, that I cannot do.

Osman folds his hands on top of the table and seems to be pondering what I said. At last he comes to a decision.

I will tell my cousin that you want to get the details first hand. If she continues to insist on writing this strange letter, the three of us will meet. Maybe at my place - that's neutral territory, and her father won't get any mistaken ideas.

All right with me, I say.

I'm sure she'll have fallen out of love by then, Osman says, or realized that she ought to speak to him in person.

And what happens if there's no way out for the fellow?

Tough luck, Osman says. But bad luck makes you grow up, and his next girlfriend will benefit from that. Later he can boast that he was given the brush-off by a woman who had to choose between God and love. That will give him points with women and bring him good luck. He's actually in an enviable position.

From Zwölf Gramm Glück by Feridun Zaimoglu. ©2004 by Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch Köln. By arrangement with the publishers. Translation by arrangement with Litrix. All rights reserved.