The Villa in Acibadem

The villa in Acibadem left a clear mark on every stage of my life. It isn't just that it touched my tender years like all those miracles of childhood are bound to do. It influenced my way of thinking, my character. The house belonged to my mother's uncle. Sani Bey was of medium height and had a greying beard when I knew him; he was a wide-shouldered, well-built man with blue eyes. He had once served as captain in the navy. But was he a regular or a graduate of naval engineering? That I don't know. He was fond of reading and writing, curious about what was going on in the world, a man who believed in progress and was ready to serve its cause.

Life is strange; given the most ordinary circumstances it whips up a comic opera for you. In a district of Istanbul famed for its idyllic scenery, these kindly people, husband and wife--he married a rich relation--had set up, in accord with their truly remarkable personalities, the strangest, the most comical, and especially for a child, the most entertaining household in all Istanbul.

From the moment you entered this elegant villa, from the outside quite indistinguishable from the many villas of the reign of Abdülhamit the Second, freakish things would take place one after the other.

Nevertheless, as a child I wasn't much aware of this.

In those years when I went to stay with them, I tasted the first shivers of fear firing my imagination. These authentic fairy-tale-like moments took place in that villa, in its richly mirrored interiors with curtains half drawn, furniture gilded as in a palace and cordoned off. I used to spend days with Dervis, another remarkable character of the household. This one horse pulled my great-uncle's carriage, and it was a creature chagrined to have stopped midway in its development from horse to man-he had a human psyche imprisoned in a horse's body. He loved human conversation, and it saddened him to be far from human company. All house chores were done in his presence. In summer the cook cleaned the vegetables in the garden where he stayed, plucked the chicken there, and trusted the plucked chicken to his care should he go away for something; the ladies of the house would sew in his presence; guests would be entertained there; Raci, the only son of the house, would study for medical school exams in his company. As for me, he was my best friend. I stayed with him until evening. Then as Great-aunt's migraine took over I would go upstairs to one of the rooms, and in the strange silence entombing the house, would invent fairy tales, looking into the grand shadowy mirrors into whose depths would seep shadows trickling from the cypresses in Karacaahmet. From down below Dervis would now and then remember me, neighing docilely; me, upstairs, far richer for the memory of this friendship, would let myself drift into fancies that resembled a journey into one of the mirrors.

As I grew older and inevitably exchanged these vague shivers for the pleasure of knowing and learning, the role of this house in my life also changed. This was around the years 1907 and 1908. I started seeing the house in Acibadem with different eyes. Only now did I realize that there were free and so called prohibited zones in this house, mysterious doors and locks, exasperating complicatons with entrances and exits, and alas, by inconceivable contrast, all kinds of conveniences counterbalancing the difficulties.

So it was in and through that house that I met the why and how of things which form the basis of all thought. Consequently, my thought never loitered on metaphysical problems. Thanks to the house, I speculated on reality itself. Why, although great pains were taken in locking the doors, were fire escape windows--Uncle was one of the first people in Istanbul to use a fire escape--on each floor's hall always left ajar? Why, although he was afraid of everything that would come from the streets, did Uncle consider the garden side surrounded only by low walls so safe that he did not object to the kitchen door being left wide open day and night? How come, although my uncle was so interested in locks and bolts, none of the keys in the house would fit the locks? Evidently, my capacity for curiosity was absorbed with this house. But to count its oddities would really put me to task.

These did not just consist of additions arising from harmless experimentation. They were revealed even in the house's architecture. For instance, in this villa there was not one continuous staircase. For fear of robbers, my mother's uncle had each floor's staircase starting from a different point. Accordingly, entering the house from the main door and following straight on you would end up at the top floor; from the stairs to the right at the second floor; whereas the stairs to the left would take you to the basement. The unfortunate who might desire to go up to the third floor from the second had first to go down one floor, and then up. Still more puzzling, beside the carefully locked doors to each of these stairs there were three ornamented, gilded, highly polished closet doors identical with the stairway doors. The inhabitants would easily confuse these doors in the evening hours, particularly in those days sans electricity. Others would have a definitely difficult time of it.

On the other hand, most rooms had interconnecting stairs to the rooms directly above and below them from inside the linen closets. Therefore a thief who lost his way at the top floor could take the secret stairs inside the linen closet of Uncle's mother-in-law's room and easily descend into the room of Uncle's mother, who would always sleep with her face to the wall. Were he then to enter Raci's room right across the hall without being seen, he could descend from the closet there into Uncle's study, and from there to his workshop, where he could easily tiptoe into the garden from the window right under the nose of Uncle, who would stand there lost under the spell of some new idea. Besides, any person who could endure hunger could hide in the workshop for days on end.

I had first come into this forbidden zone of the house via this route, and stayed. Uncle and I almost always worked together. I didn't disturb him and he didn't ever take notice of me. The workshop was a very apocalypse of broken tools spilling out everywhere. Being a former captain of engineers, Uncle loved machines and inventions of every kind and would pick up every useful and useless machine part he found on the street or in peddlers' stalls, under builders' scaffolding, in workshops at Haydarpasa train station, at auction sales, or in waste iron shops, and bring them here. Pieces of broken steering wheels or propellers, wrecked molding, wheels, pipes, nuts, paddleboxes, studs, sheet iron, rusted pistons, boilers made of sheet iron, and many other things I don't know the names of were assembled here. In the center of the room there was Uncle's large working table, and around it other small tables with tools on them.

Can I say that I understood the child's expression on Uncle's face that used to attract and frighten us, when I first saw him in his workshop? Was I old enough? I don't know. But it took an effort to keep from laying my hand on his shoulder and asking, "Uncle, can I play with you?"

This could have proven a veritable catastrophe; I might have provoked one of Uncle's terrible furies that made the whole household tremble. No one except Uncle was allowed to enter the workshop. Except maybe Kerim A?a, servant, horse keeper and coachman rolled into one. Kerim A?a collaborated with Uncle on his work.

The second prohibited zone was the bathroom--or hammam--Uncle was busily trying to complete. This bathroom was located just under Uncle's bedroom and a passage separated it from the great courtyard on the ground floor. Besides a door that opened into the passage, it contained an inner staircase that descended from Uncle's bedroom. The hammam without a doubt was Uncle's masterpiece; or maybe his most important work next to the invention that was the crowning achievement of his life. Uncle was born with an authentic genius for invention, and his industrious life was really and truly crowned with a great, incomparable invention the fruition of which only he was destined to enjoy. But later of that; first, the hammam.

Let me tell you beforehand that the day this bathroom was opened to all of us in a most ceremonious manner, my mental life entered its third phase. If my friends don't find me serious enough, criticize me for making light of everything or complain that I am indifferent to issues that excite and fill them with great hopes, in short if I lack the virtue of being like everybody and keeping relatively sane along with everybody (as one must do in order to succeed in life)--for this I can only hold responsible my mother's uncle and his Invention, this masterpiece of a bathroom.

Uncle had given shape to his masterpiece in one year, but it took him another two years to perfect it. There will always be those who will find three years too long to wait for a bathroom. But this is not fair. An invention like this could rightfully claim thirty or forty years. God, what perfection. What a marvel it was! And the first time we set foot in it, how astonished we were! Then how I laughed when Uncle began to tell us how this perfection functioned! How we all laughed! We started with smiles. Then one by one, these smiles turned into laughter. At that point even my father began making strange faces. What we did not do to hide our laughter! Finally we all started to congratulate Uncle. Father fell on his neck, we grabbed his hands, we fell on our knees in front of him. And we laughed; we shook with laughter. Embracing each other, kissing Uncle's hands, falling on the floor, we laughed. Even Aunt, who paid the vast sums this bathroom required, laughed; she laughed deliriously. Although something like forty years has passed since then, the same delirious laughter swells in me as I write this. From that day on laughter never died out in that house. When any two of us came together, we laughed; whenever there was mention of water, washing, or soap, we laughed. Suddenly the gloomy atmosphere of the suburbia of old Istanbul vanished. Now everyone laughed at every opportunity; everyone laughed falling on each other's neck. Uncle joined in the laughter:

--You rascals . . . he would say. You would laugh, of course; from now on you will take better baths!

Oh, yes from now on we would take better baths! Everything in this bathroom promised us that.

As I have mentioned, Uncle was born with an authentic genius for invention. According to him, properly functioning human intelligence had mainly three objectives: invention, reform, and alteration.

Nevertheless, these were not necessarily clearly separate categories. As invention was possible through alteration and reform, alteration through reform and reform through alteration were also possible and advisable. In a small pamphlet he had written in old script in his youth--until recently it was possible to come across this twenty-page pamphlet consisting of a single sentence in secondhand bookstalls--Uncle had, so to say, philosophized on this Idea of his.

Starting from the monotheistic character of Islamic mysticism he proceeded to the basic unity of matter and form, and following a rather complicated theory of identity, explained the main tenets of an idea of progress that should underlie mechanics. According to him, everything in the universe could change function and character. This was necessary for the public good. One should go on inventing; that was the main thing. But one needn't despair when one couldn't invent. Humanity had already come up with a lot of inventions.

Now we had entered the phase where these inventions were to be reformed and altered. According to Uncle, to reshape a sewing machine into a knife grinding machine was an invention worthy of genius. A meat chopper and a coffee mill should be able to serve the same function. Unfortunately, in addition to this love--or genius, as my father would have it-for machines and invention, Uncle's personality bore two serious faults. First, he disliked the simple; furthermore, he was one of those people who easily lost sight of their objective. His imagination was of the runaway kind. Anything his eye met he could incorporate into his invention or "work in progress." Such an intellect would naturally lose its sense of true function.

Thus the bathroom was the fruit of not only his imagination but also of his faults. In all truth, with its stove and boiler which resembled a locomotive standing on its head, with all the paddlewheels, big screws, faucets, pipes and spiral pipes on its walls, all the gadgets jutting from its corners, it resembled, rather than a bathroom, a ship's brand-new engine room, or a central heating system burning some unknown fuel, or a place where all kinds of highly delectable and cruel tortures were being carried out. The last of these descriptions fit perfectly. Once a naked person was delivered to the ruthlessness of soap and water, the torture of swiftly forgetting everything previously learned, of not being able to see around, took over. First, the stove that was burning surreptitiously right up to the moment one had taken off one's clothes started whistling furiously. This strange whistling only heightened one's confusion, and as the heat became more intense and the water hotter, the confusion became a tangle beyond imagining and the person drowned under a deluge of steam, hot and cold water before rushing to the hand pump outside. The reason for this was that in the relaxation that came with taking one's ablutions it was not possible to operate the complex apparatus of this bathroom. Yet the matter was not as insurmountable as that. Once the stove was blazing hot, to make sure that water flowed into the boiler without interruption one had to wrench open the paddlewheel and most important, turn on the switch by the boiler. Later, the bather was simply to sit in front of the basin mounted to the wall further down from the miniature locomotive and fiddle with the hot, cold and warm water taps.

These taps did not function by themselves, however. Since this crucial operation took place under the supervision of various wheels and instruments embedded in the wall, one had first to turn a big wheel on the left wall, then lightly touch the pendulum on the same level, tighten the four screws on the boiler, and turn on its five faucets. So you could start making your ablutions when everything was ready but still face the consequence of catching pneumonia outside by the water pump or suffer from smarting eyes for days on end because of having to get dressed without washing the soap suds from your eyes.

Since my great uncle had lent to this bathroom not only his very complicated taste for mechanical invention but also his fanciful spirit, right after the first soaping the pranks of a very mischievous God of Coincidence would take over. Now the sweet water well that supplied the bathroom would suddenly dry up, now due to a wrong turn the water in the boiler would sprout out of a gyrating sprayhead three meters away and flood the bathroom with steam and hot water, as if watering a winter garden. At other times the water would refuse to warm or all the wheels, screws, cogs, little vents, pistons, all sorts of manometers on the walls, in short all the devices Uncle had collected from the ships on which he had served, from street stalls, from friends from the shipyard, and repaired, altered and rectified would somehow not be able to cope with the boiler. Or the faucet would just not stop or the taps over the basin would refuse to yield a drop of water, cold or hot. One would just sit there and watch the water that was supposed to wash you and take away the dirt and exhaustion streaming very aesthetically down the marble wall cascade Uncle had had built in imitation of the one in the Kuchuk Dag kiosk of the Beylerbeyi Palace.

Unfortunately our faculty of aesthetic appreciation is very closely related to a certain amount of mental preparation, to our attitudes and garments as well. Therefore when you were sitting stark naked by the basin this play of water did nothing to enhance your happiness but instead of a mystic meditation on water filled you with fury and impatience. Yet this wouldn't last; the fact that hot water was being transported to the wall cascade was a kind of silent alarm--it was the proof the same was storming the boiler. At such moments, should one be far too occupied with aesthetic appreciation and speculations on the architecture of the Villa and not run out of this exceedingly complex bathroom with each of its functions separately thought out, in eighty cases out of hundred one would be suffocated in steam. Carefully considering every possibility, Uncle had designed this heating and washing apparatus in such a way that a few minutes after the play of hot water began on the wall, the water in the boiler would attack the stove according to a mechanism no one knew anything about, and one would be lost in a horrid smell of smoke and steam. At that point the big whistle would sound, informing the household of the catastrophe and Uncle would, coming to the head of the stairs, order us to leave the place at once.

Common sense is the true estate of man. My aunt repaired the strange temper of the bathroom with her common sense. She too was interested in constructing things and had a fireplace built next to the bathroom. So, for those washing themselves in the doomed bathroom, water would be heated in this fireplace and carried inside in buckets. The members of the household could therefore take their baths in that very safe manner which has not changed a whit since the invention of the hammam bowl and soap, yet surrounded by the illusion of automatism and luxury supplied by the vast machinery.

Suffice it to say, I entered this bathroom only after I was eleven and only three times at that. On the first occasion I scalded a shoulder, the second time I caught pneumonia standing in front of the hand pump. The third time I entered was, alas, to pull the half-dead body of my Uncle from out of the place.

*

I had mentioned earlier on that my great uncle had made a discovery or invention other than this bathroom, something bigger, more capacious, the crowning achievement of his busy life, as it were. In fact, my uncle is the second-time inventor of the horse-drawn cart the second time around, an important invention the Mesopotamians were already familiar with six thousand years ago. Nevertheless, secondness does not matter at all here, and the honour of the invention lies solely with my uncle, since he arrived at the idea of the horse-drawn cart via improving and modifying the so-called bicycle. He arrived at it not through imitation but step by step by dint of his genius for invention.

It was around 1911. When Raci passed his exams in his fourth year at the School for Medicine, Uncle bought him a bicycle. For a long time Sani Bey remained indifferent to this instrument. Then all of a sudden he began going on about the Infidels' brilliance of mind, their genius for invention, and one day we saw him drop whatever he was doing, and sink into contemplation. Then one day I heard him mutter to my father something to the effect of : "A perfect invention, this bicycle, Hayri Bey, perfection itself! Only--one is out in the open under the rain, under the sun, and one tires one's arms and legs. . . . It needs improving!" From that day forward, the atmosphere in the house changed.The carriage and the horse were sent to be auctioned off; how much did they bring? We were never able to find out. They had simply disappeared! Sani Bey said to his wife: "I am going to take all of you for a ride on the bicycle of my own invention. Don't you worry!" Everybody mourned the loss of Dervis.

Uncle kept his promise. One day I saw a carriage with slightly inverted wheels standing in the center of the workshop . At night, preliminary experiments with Kerim A?a were being carried out. But as the experimentation progressed Uncle was losing his cheer, pulling more and more of a long face.

One night, at dinner, his wife had to ask:

--What is wrong with you, for God's sake?

--Nothing . . . he replied. It is just that I am thinking about this four-seater bicycle. It keeps the riders busy all the time. Some with the steering wheels, some with the gears. And on an uphill, Kerim A?a has to go down to give it a pull. I am looking for a way to improve it . . .

--Such as?

Sani Bey looked at my father as if to say, How can you not understand!

--Well, he said; just something to make it easier. The vehicle operates perfectly, but it tires you out. I was just thinking--in order to avoid the exhaustion, how about putting a horse in front of it, instead of making use of our bodies?

We were all dumbfounded, me looking at Raci, Raci at me and then at his mother.

--Well and good, dear, but why get rid of the perfectly good carriage then?

This was more than enough to make Uncle lose his head; throwing his napkin on the table, he stood up:

--How can a woman understand? he shouted.

Yet, the promissory note for two hundred gold coins he had persuaded Aunt to sign only the other day made him come to his senses.

--That is different, . . . he said. That is different. My idea is something else. The other already existed. I've arrived at this by improving, modifying and reinforcing something else. First I've turned the bicycle which has only two wheels into a carriage with four wheels. Then I've covered it, made it possible to sit in it comfortably. Now I am thinking of giving a rest to your arms and legs. That is what the horse is for!

Aunt was still skeptical:

--Well and good, dear . . . still, how is it different from a horse carriage?

Uncle slapped the table with his palms:

--They are the same . . . Only I have not arrived at it according to the same logic, the same mentality. The method is different, even though the result is the same. Therein lies the heart of the matter. You are condemning my work because the result is the same. You think I am a failure. I am not. I have given the world a new invention. I've altered the bicycle. Altered, improved, modified, reinforced it. Instead of thanking me--

There were tears in his eyes. He was about to break down. We all regretted having hurt his feelings, my aunt most of all. Father ventured an explanation:

--Your wife does not condemn your work at all, Sani Bey, he said. It is just something she has observed. Please calm down.

--No, he answered. It is not that, she doubts my work. . . .She thinks I've failed.

Yet it was my aunt who knew how to calm him down:

--Dear, she said, if you are worried about the horse, don't be. I didn't sell Dervis.

Uncle went through another stage of amazement:

--You didn't . . . defying my instructions? You didn't?

Aunt answered, perfectly cool:

--As you very well know, it falls to the wife to be circumspect, dear. Well, here you are . . .

--But where is he?. . .Where did you hide a whole horse?

--Here, in the house. In the upstairs room.

Suddenly I knew. That distant neighing I thought was coming from the neighbor's, the overpowering smell of horse dung, the phantom visage I had seen in the evening in the upstairs room window which had frightened me so . . .

We all rushed upstairs with my uncle.

Dervis received us in his room, full of joy.

That spring, my uncle went to Kadiköy with Dervis whenever he had to go on an errand there. On one of these outings, the carriage had an accident colliding with a motorcycle, a relatively new arrival. My father and Sani Bey were in it.

Sani Bey asked my father:

--What is this?

Father said:

--A motorcycle. An improved version of the bicycle.

Yet Sani Bey, who more or less knew about the automobile, disagreed:

--No! It can't be . . . This, if anything, could only be a miniature car. Not the same thing as a bicycle . . . The driving forces are different.

Sani Bey was the only person I've known who had mastered the trick of being happy and died very happy believing in his genius in spite of all his futile labors, his squanderings which brought the household economy to nought, his idiocies, his obstinate refusal to listen to advice. None of those attending the deathbed where he was lying half burned would, I think, seeing the deep serenity on his face, fail to compliment him silently:

--Now, here is a man who had no uncertainty whatsoever about having done his duty in life . .

From Summer Rain, published by Yapi Kredi Publishing. By arrangement with the publisher.