The street where I live doesn’t know it is not yet another snaky street in Istanbul but in truth some kind of a vessel. We the fortuitous passengers keep this as a secret, divulging it to no one, not even to our children. We don’t talk about it. Never have we been told about it. We just happen to know-like the ones before us did and the ones after us will some day.
At night, even in deepest sleep we listen to the splashes the street-boat unleashes as it floats on the ghostly, smelly seawater, ready to sail anytime, sail anywhere. When darkness canopies us all, we hear the fish beneath our feet gnaw the ropes fastened to myriad moorings in the mainland-a ground that encapsulates less a definite homeland than an elusive homesickness.
“Did you know there was a particular type of fish deemed to be as deadly as a scorpion,” Ayzen, my neighbor next door, asks in a tense, almost ratty voice when she shows up at my door early in the morning with baggy eyes, dour face, and an issue of The Deep Ocean, some popular science magazine she got from God knows where. “The scorpionfish they call it. Look at it!”
She hands me a stupendously vivid, almost dazzling picture of a teeny weeny fish, red as hell. When the scorpionfish, declares the article, spot their prey, they first create a vacuum with their mouths, then whirl concentric circles by sucking the air in and thus, in no more than a split second, manage to gulp down the hapless prey shoved toward them. Their habitat is said to be the deep waters of the Red Sea, Hawaii and Australia. There is no mention of the Bosphorus. I give the magazine back.
“Yeah, but they can swim, can’t they? Are there any borders deep under the sea?”
Ayzen fears hordes of scorpionfish may all of a sudden decide to abandon their habitat and start swimming upward in the Red Sea from where they will stray toward the Mediterranean, pass through the Aegean, head to the coasts of Istanbul and once here in the city, once beneath our street-boat, simultaneously open their bloodthirsty mouths to create a vacuum strong enough to engulf us all into their bottomless void.
“Don’t worry,” I force myself into a benign smile. “Those little devils can never make it this far. Until the day a scorpionfish pops up in the shoreline of our tranquil lives, we are safe and sound here.”
Ayzen plucks the tinge of sarcasm in my voice. “You don’t really care, all you do is mock,” she grumbles as she scampers back, and slams her door shut. From my living room I hear the sound of water running into her bathtub until it is filled to the brim. She will now take a hot bath. Sorrow is a dirt for her, the moment she notices a speck of it smeared on her body, she scrubs it off her skin.
Late in the evening Ayzen knocks on my door with a huge bowl of ashure. The dress she wears is pure white and carefully ironed, unlike her skin, which is as red as scorpionfish and badly callused from so much scouring. I invite her in. We are friends again. During the days to follow, whenever she mentions the looming peril of scorpionfish, I listen to her attentively, meekly, having no further objections to raise.
The scorpionfish is a master of disguise, warns the magazine, as it camouflages itself until it decides to attack. By the look on her face I can tell that, like the overwhelming majority of the denizens of the street-boat, Ayzen too is afraid more of the camouflage part than the attack part. Although we’re unable to make any substantive changes in our lives, we’re cursed with the anticipatory dread of a drastic transformation and thus live in constant anguish and fear. Every night we go to sleep fearing that the very next morning we might wake up detached from the mainland, drifted miles away, and even worse, landed in some strange country from which we might never want to return.
At the first glance there is nothing extraordinary about the place where we live. Just one other narrow, filthy, winding street in Istanbul-only this one sharply slopes down as if slanted upon a hill, or perhaps the carcass of a once grandiose pirate galley shipwrecked at our shores. Whatever the reason behind, it is so damned steep here that when it rains-not necessarily a downpour, even a drizzle would do-the water accumulating in the vicinity gushes all the way down into our street, and in next to no time the cobblestone road turns into this muddy, rowdy river that we the residents surreptitiously watch from behind drawn curtains. Apart from the steepness there is one other thing about our street-boat that needs to be said: its reputation.
Once this street was populated by many minorities. In 1955, on the day throngs of Turkish nationalists bunched up here chanting slogans and anthems before they razed each and every store operated by Jews, Armenians, Greeks, or any store with a name alien enough, the day when there was so much shattered glass all around that the whole neighborhood glittered like a mirror in the sun, it has been reported that some among the mob dragged out the newly introduced, pasty white, rounded refrigerators sold at a few luxurious shops and then rolled them one by one all the way down our street, cheering with the loud fall and ultimate crash of each machine. Once in a while in my dreams I see refrigerators spinning down our street, only these make no noise, do not tumble, instead they float light as a feather wafted along a serene river of rain.
Thus the minorities moved out. They left our street-boat never to come back. But still some did remain, a handful of non-Muslims continued to lodge here like residues of the past. During the 1970s the surge of urbanization brought here quite a different group of people. Back then the street-boat was notorious for its seamy verve and seamier residents-a motley cluster of malcontents of all kinds, transvestites, drug dealers, pimps and their many whores, and the many many customers of these. They used to live here, all of them, in the flats where we dwell today.
This used to be their street-vessel. But then they vanished, as if touched by a magic stick. If truth be told, of magic there was none, of sticks plenty. The ex-residents were long demonized by the press, hassled by the municipality, condemned by middle-class housewives while being secretly visited by the husbands of these, targeted in a rapacious political campaign by a woman deputy, pitied by philanthropists, scandalized by the hoi polloi, and eventually, inexorably, systematically swept out by the police. Leading the latter was a senior officer so skilled in his techniques of torture that he had worked out the ways in which to inflict maximum pain with no visible mark. Thus the lewd cluster moved out. All of a sudden this city belched them, like a volcano vomiting the inferno it had for ages heaped up inside.
Still, I rather believe they had simply disembarked . . . after which others embarked . . .
There are remnants from them, though, like relics commemorating the past. The bawdy drawings and vulgar writings on the walls of the apartment buildings, for instance, some of which can still be deciphered despite all the layers and layers of white paint applied afterward. There are also a few other walking relics, in flesh and blood. The ones who were too old or too crippled to join the mass evacuation of the debauched, and had thereby leaked out like blood oozing from a wound.
“History books are full of lies. No matter what those bearded professors claim, this city is still a kid,” Ayzen lifts her chin, narrowed her fawn eyes as if to hint at the magnitude of what she was about to say. “Istanbul . . . Constantinople . . . whatever you call her, she is still a small child and you know what, we are the ones living on a sagging loose tooth of hers. Sooner or later, the tooth will fall out. Then, we’ll all be gone.”
In my dreams Ayzen soaps her hands and lips and then with a kitchen knife she cuts herself in half, pulls out her lungs and washes them too. I envision her in a long, pasty dress hanging newly washed organs on a rope, waiting patiently as her heart, her kidney, her womb dry in the sun.
Ayzen prays like she does her washing. As often as she can, as long as she can, as hurtfully as she can.
“I was a sinner once, casting my pearls before swine, but I repented,” she declares, her soft voice lilting with confidence. “And He forgave me!”
We are not embarrassed to reveal our innermost secrets to one another. That indeed is one good thing about life in a vessel. At some stage along their trajectory, vessels turn fortuitous passengers into closest companions. If we navigate, we’ll navigate together. If we sink, we’ll sink together.
Still oftentimes we don’t talk, preferring to remain silent.
When we remain silent, we can better hear the uproar of the city outside-the horns of cars stuck in the traffic, the curses, the swears, the prayers, the rumors pouring from every pore. And yet now and again amid this pandemonium I can also hear the captivating call of the sister tides dancing deliriously underneath. There are two tides, the younger one near the sea surface and the other, deep deep below. Both desire to drift the street-boat along, both pull us gingerly, yearningly but in opposite directions. As the elder sister happens to be slightly stronger, we are smoothly inclined to move toward the South. If and when these cords are devoured by ravenous fish and the anchor hoisted by the wind, that will presumably be the direction toward which we will sail.
Next day, late in the afternoon, minutes after a bomb explodes in front of the synagogue steps away from our building, Ayzen knocks on my door. She says she had gone out to get some fresh air and also the new issue of The Deep Ocean, and on her way back passed by the synagogue, eight minutes before the explosion. We spend the whole evening sitting on the sofa side by side, watching the news. We watch what is left of the bodies, of Muslims and Jews alike, blood mixing with blood. We could as easily go out and see it with our own eyes, but we would rather watch it on screen. “Historically this neighborhood has always been the most cosmopolitan part of the city,” announces the college-age, elegant reporter, looking nervous, almost nauseous, not because of the scene she is in but because it is her first day on the job. She then heaves a sigh as if revealing this last statement has tired her.
When the news is over Ayzen turns off the TV and places on my lap the new issue of The Deep Ocean. Without a word we leaf through the pages until we come across a bright picture of piranhas crammed in a water tank.
“Those fish are said to be very dangerous,” she says.
“Don’t worry,” I murmur as I hold her beet-red hands covered with threadlike paths bleeding to nowhere. “Piranhas can be lethal indeed, but they are not good swimmers. They can never make it all the way here. We are safe.”
“Really!” I assure her.
She shuts her eyes as if in need of blindness in order to be convinced, but her face lightens up with a serene smile. Before she heads to her flat, she pauses to ask:
“Madam, why didn’t you leave back then with your people? You didn’t go with the other Jews, why?”
“I discovered a secret,” I say. “I found out that this street was not a real street but a street-boat, and all I needed to do to take a trip was to stay put.”
Ayzen gives me a puzzled smile. Now it is my turn to ask. “How about you? Why didn’t you leave with your kind?”
But I already know the answer. She too knows the secret.
As soon as Ayzen leaves, I turn on the TV again. During the rest of the evening I eat ashure, eat all of it, watch the dead being carried in stretchers from the synagogue, and try not to pray, remain faithful to an oath made decades before not to pronounce Thy Name, not to beg help or protection ever again. There on the sofa, as my senile mind wavers between sleeping and waking, I start to hear splashes. Perhaps it is an old, sad refrigerator swimming in the rain. Perhaps it is a scorpionfish at long last nibbling the moorings that still tie us to Istanbul. Or else, it is my ex-whore neighbor sponging her hands, scrubbing her womb in a bathtub on the deck of a street-boat that can sail anytime, can sail anywhere.