Honey Talks About The Secret Of The Waterwheel
(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)
Today I walked with other elderly women in Elysian Park. There was snow on the San Gabriel Mountains. The scent of green weeds was evocative and for a moment I was a child again, because I grew up not far from where we walked, on the other side of the Los Angeles River.
At one place, we descended a steep dirt path through the brush into a small valley. I was happy. The action of descent made me happier. I remembered June 6, 1968, when I was 22 years old, and I said out loud “I descend.”
In 1968, my husband Jalal-addin, our children, our servant Kaymak and I lived in the village of Degirmendire on the Gulf of Iznik in Anatolia. Degirmendire is a version of the word for mill.
There was no mill when I lived there, but a strong creek ran through the middle of the village – into which the Turks and gypsies threw everything — so there may have been a mill to grind grain there at one time, and the mill would have been run by a water wheel.
Iznik is the Turkish word for Nicea. Every child who goes to a Christian church school learns the Nicean Creed.
Nicea primarily known as the site of the First and Second Councils of Nicaea, the first and seventh Ecumenical councils in the early history of the Christian church, the Nicene Creed, and as the capital city of the Empire of Nicaea. It served as the interim capital city of the Byzantine Empire between 1204 and 1261, following the Fourth Crusade in 1204, until the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantines in 1261.
The Turkish word for Anatolia is “Anadolu.” It means full-of-mother. The first sedentary people, still hunter-gatherers, built an astonishing temple in a circular shape 4,000 years before Stonehenge at Gobekli Tepe (Belly-button Hill). The remaining first agricultural city, Catal Huyuk (“Forked Mound”) is in Anatolia.
I was from Los Angeles, where I had purchased clothing at department stores and bought food from supermarkets, and I was living in a very ancient place. A man on a donkey brought milk in metal containers, which I poured into a metal bowl and boiled for my children. We had no telephone. We had no television. I swept the apartment with a broom that had no handle, bending at the waist. My little girls gathered cherries in the spring by standing next to the gypsies’ ladders. The gypsies filled their aprons with fruit and hung strands of cherries over their ears. The children pretended they were earrings. We once drove past a road repair on the way to Degirmendire, and the workers were hoisting a head of a Roman emperor from the excavation.
We lived in a new cinder block apartment building, but I was so accustomed to having nothing go right or be simple that I had lived there for three months without realizing the landlord had just forgotten to have the water turned on, so I’d been without a bath for three months by the time he stopped by for the rent.
We lived in a marshy area, full of mosquitoes, and slept under netting on a wire coiled bed frame the coils of which unwound several times a night, so that my husband and I woke, fixed the springs, and fell asleep.
I took my daughters swimming in the Gulf of Iznik until an American officer from the Karamursel base nearby asked us to get out, didn’t we notice the toilet paper floating around us? There was no sewage system. I hadn’t known there was such a thing as a place without a sewage system. When the girls grew up and had tests before they had their own children, the tests revealed they were immune to everything because of exposure to everything. Cheliklenmish, the Turks say, turned to steel because of adversity.
My servant was Kaymak Gundogan. Kaymak is the word for the skin of cream on milk. She had white skin and blond hair. Gundogan means the day is born. She wore a head covering and shalvar pants under a cotton dress, and thick stockings.
Kaymak was my age. I loved her but she was often angry with me because I was an idiot. I didn’t understand a thing, she’d say. She was always right. I was a stupid young woman.
Kaymak was really a villager. She wasn’t a fake villager. Her hands were as rough as a cat’s tongue. She was also the most intelligent person I have ever met until recently. She came to me illiterate, and I taught her to read and write in two weeks. She learned arithmetic after that and as rapidly. We didn’t get to algebra or calculus, which had been my favorite subjects in high school. She had never seen faucets that turn on hot water but she learned how to figure out the electrical system in the apartment, which occasionally burst into flames. She learned how to tell time.
Winters were very cold. We huddled together in front of the wood burning stove. Our cat, Suleiyman Bey, got too close to the stove and ran out into the snow. It took Kaymak and me a week to find him.
In spring, I looked out my window and saw what I at first thought were snow flakes. They were blossoms from all the fruit trees in Degirmendire.
I saw the sheepherder in the fields near our apartment building, and kneel, head to the ground, cap brim turned to the back of his head.
The submariner was a drunk. You had to be a drunk to be a submariner. At his wife’s birthday party, he stood on the table and pissed all over the birthday cake. We sometimes found him in a ditch near the village – and sometimes that ditch was full of water — singing the Kazachok, which is the song that comes through the French as “Those were the days my friend. We thought they’d never end.”
All night long, every night, his wife sat on her balcony in our village and played the ancient songs on her oud, which was Orfeo’s instrument during ancient times, millennia before Turkish speaking people arrived in Anatolia, before their language supplanted the indigenous languages. She played until dawn. I stayed awake for her and never spoke to her. She knew I listened all night.
A woman sat on her porch with a waiting cat. She held a bird in her hands, a real bird, and she removed the bird’s feathers and gave the bird to her cat. An old woman dressed in black sat in a boat in the Gulf, and Charon took her to the other side.
On that June day, I took my string bag and walked to the village to buy groceries. The gypsies had set up stands. They sold the first cucumbers, the first parsley and purple eggplant. I bought vegetables and a bottle of Coca Cola. (“Her Shey ile Gider.” It Goes with Everything.”)
I had just translated Yunus Emre’s poem into English. Years later, a small magazine published it after we left Turkey.
My name is the suffering water wheel
My water flows “yalapyalap ”
Like this commanded:
I suffer. I descend.
I am cut from the branch of a tree
How sweet was my pain
I am the Mevlana’s prayer (Mevlana Jalaladdin-al-Rumi)
I suffer. I descend.
My arms were torn from a tree.
Violation is plain.
I am a tireless minstrel
I suffer. I descend.
Y Yunus (the poet’s name), those who come from here can’t laugh
A human being cannot attain desire
No one stays in the mortal world
I suffer. I descend.
I fell in love with descending
I fell in love with the Sufi way
My name is suffering
The water flows through me yalapyalap
God mandates the flow of water
For Him I descend
“yalapyalap” is typical Turkish. It’s the sound that’s important. Many Turkish words imitate what something sounds like. This is the sound of the water that drips from one level of the water wheel to the next. Think of the sound: yalap.
The baker ladeled out hot bread with its thick hard crust and its tender inside for us and handed it to me through a window in the firing door and said, “Health to your head,” which means that someone dear to you has died, and you are sorry. I ran as fast as I could along the water’s edge towards home.
Kaymak was hanging on the gate to our building like a fool, half on and half off the gate. Her head covering was undone and her hair was exposed.
“Bobby Kennedy is shot,” she said.
“What’s that to you?”
“You are an idiot. You understand nothing. You live in books.” I pulled her into my arms but it was like embracing a rock, she was so stiff with emotion.
“This time is turned to shit. Birds will fall from the sky. This place will be despoiled. The Kennedys meant we had hope for the world. We have no hope. The world is lost.”
We listened to the American radio station broadcast from Karamursel, the American base. I translated what the announcer, Johnny Grant from Hollywood, said. Bobby Kennedy died.
I drove Kaymak and the children back to Istanbul. I saw people throw their clothes in to the Golden Horn. I saw my husband on the old bridge. He threw his American jacket into the Golden Horn. Scarves and clothing ballooned with air.