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March 1, 2016 · Posted in Commentary 

Phyl van Ammers

Young Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven named her film Mustang “as a metaphor for beauty, freedom, energy and the untamable.”

The film opens with five beautiful girls taking leave of their beloved teacher at the end of the school semester.  The teacher comforts the smallest girl, softly calling her “kizim,” which means “my girl,” not as the translation in English says, “little one.”  This child’s name is Lale.   Her sisters are Nur, Ece, Selma and Sonay.  Their power is – another Erguven metaphor – drawn from their collectivity.  They are one: hydra-headed.

It is the beginning of summer, so they don’t walk straight home.  They walk along the coast of the Black Sea with young male students and then run into the water in their uniforms and play horse, a scene Erguven says is drawn from her childhood.  Erguven says she was humiliated by the incident in real life but she allows the sisters to play wildly, exulting in their youth and strength.

The landscape is familiar: it looks like California but it isn’t, not at all.

They enter an overgrown apple orchard and steal fruit.  The farmer is ferocious, so they go home to a large, mysterious house.   Their grandmother meets them and drags them one by one into a room and closes the door, apparently to beat them one by one, and the remaining sisters bang at the door and demand that she stop.  They think it must be because of the apples.   They don’t know it is because they played with such abandon with boys.   A neighbor woman told on them.

Little Lale runs after the woman, conservatively dressed in villager clothing, and asks how someone in shit colored clothing has the right to sit in judgment on them.

Their uncle accuses the grandmother of raising them badly, and all their somewhat modern technology is hidden from them, although Lale finds it and drags it out.  The technology is not contemporary.  It is about ten or fifteen years old.

The family women watch soap opera on the one small television set, and the story on the television is the usual one in films in Turkey, the story of a village girl that goes to Istanbul.  The men later watch a football match together around the same television set.

The uncle takes the girls to a hospital to be inspected for virginity.  They pass inspection, which softens the uncle’s frightening presence at night when he stealthily visits Ece.  The grandmother is aware of what is happening: it happened to her, and her family married her off when she was very young.

The grandmother sews up five shit-colored dresses with little ornamental waistbands, and other females teach them to cook in the Turkish style, carefully rolling out the dough for yufka, and to stuff a comforter with clean wool.   The grandmother turns the house into a prison, hiring men to put up iron bars over the windows.   Lale in a voice over tells us the house has been turned into a housewife factory.

The family women, and the women of the prospective bridegrooms, carry out polite pretenses.   After the girls arrange an escape from the prison of the house, the grandmother sees them on the television at a football match and blows out the house electricity.  The men say they will go somewhere else.  An aunt runs madly down the road and throws stones at the village generator until it explodes and the lights in the village go out.

Sonay happily marries the boy she loves.  Selma marries a young man she has only seen, never talked with, and she is unhappy.

Ece begins to behave dangerously.  Waiting in the family car for their uncle, all the girls but Ece leave the car.  Ece remains and invites a young stranger to have sex with her in the car.   After their return home, she shoots herself.   They bury her in the yard, wrapped in a white sheet.

The uncle visits Nur at night, and so she must be married.   The families drive to the house to fetch Nur.  Lale convinces her sister to lock the doors – and now the iron bars keep out the wedding party.  Lale looks through plastic bags with phone numbers until she finds the number for the deliveryman that taught her how to drive.  Frustrated at one point when she can’t find the car keys, the child shouts “Siktir,” which means, “Fuck it,” but the translation is “shit.”

They escape their raging uncle by climbing up a grape arbor, and then they steal their uncle’s car but crash it.   Lale has called a deliveryman she met – the one that taught her how to drive — on the phone that she dragged out of its hiding place, and he finds them on the road.   He drives the sisters to the bus station, and they board a bus that travels all night.

In the morning, the girls wake to brilliant light on the Bosporus.  The bus crosses the water over the bridge from the Anatolian side of Istanbul into a magical European city, and the girls follow directions from “Abla,” meaning “Older Sister,” to the apartment of their schoolteacher in Beshiktash, and Lale falls into her arms.

When I was twenty, I moved with my husband and two small girls – Olga, called Oya in Turkey – to Istanbul.   For one year, we lived in a village on the Gulf of Iznik.  Iznik was the Turkish name for Nicea.  We never got there, though, we lived in Degirmendire until Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and the next day left the village forever.  Kaymak was too distraught to stay.   She said that the murder of Kennedy was going to mean the end of all hope and that birds would fall from the sky.   Her brother, an engineer, was named Kennedy Gundogan.

My servant was Kaymak Gundogan.  Kaymak means, cream.  She was very fair and very fierce, and my age.   I taught her how to read and write, do sums, and to use hot water.  She had come from the village of Kirimet.   Her friends took me to their house above the district of Arnavutkoy, where we lived, and my children and theirs played together.

Their house above Arnavutkoy looked down at the beautiful Bosporus and beyond it was Anatolia, with tiny cars and tiny minarets – made small by the perspective.

The young women came to our apartment on their day off, and they told me stories of their village.  There were no men.  The men were all either in Germany working or in prison for crimes of honor.

My “Abla” was Nurhan Hanim, and she lived down the street in an ancient building.  Nurhan was 34, and she had two sons, Selim and Sedat.  Our children played together, and I told her that perhaps one day our children would marry, and then we could be real sisters.   It was winter.  We stood in the stairwell and the lights went off.  We stood in the dark.  In the dark, I heard her say, “Inshallah,” if God Wills.

Nurhan’s husband had left them, so she lived with her mother, who was fourteen years older than Nurhan, a woman I rarely saw, almost always at prayer.

She was self-educated.  Her father had been very old, a gentleman who grew up in the Ottoman Empire, and she had not been allowed to go to school although schools by the time Nurhan was born were open to girls.

One day, I made tea and started to the front door of our apartment in Arnavutkoy but my heart became very heavy.   With feet so heavy it was as if they were weighted with concrete, I went to the door and picked up the newspaper.  It was so heavy.

To live there was sometimes like a novel written in the magic realism style.  Improbable things happened, things that, as a young American from Los Angeles, I could only accept as real, and yet the climate was like California’s.  The colors were Mediterranean, as they were in the place I had come from.  A gypsy in the park once spread the contents of a chamois bag on a park table in the Belgrade Forest, where our samovar steamed.   The woman had a hoarse voice.  She said I had come from across a great body of water, and that my mother waited for me there and that I would go back.  I told her I was from Germany.  She told me I lied.  It was another country but she didn’t know its name.  She said something terrible was about to happen and for another lira, she would tell me what it was.  I refused her.

I took the newspaper into the bathroom and locked the door and put towels in the crack beneath the window.  I closed the lid to the toilet and sat on it and opened the newspaper.  Nurhan had killed Selim and Sedat, and then she killed herself.

Kaymak broke down the door to the bathroom.   My screams – they cracked glass, the sea birds rose in alarm from the surface of the Bosporus.   She was very short.  I fell to my knees and held her, and then I do not remember much.  “Abla, Abla,” she said over and over.

Then a day passed, two, I don’t know.  The village women came to the door.

Nurhan gently held my hand, and the women ululated “Allah Allah Allah.”

Then I was in the children’s park, where Nurhan and I had met so many times.  Her teeth were bad.  She hid them with one hand when she talked.  It was winter.  I had no coat.  I was wearing a housedress.   I saw Nurhan walking, her red hair shining in the bright cold light, holding the hands of Selim and Sedat.

A taxi pulled up.  My tiny father-in-law Sadik Bey emerged from it and sat next to me on the bench.  He said, “Kizim.  You have children.  You must go home.”  He removed his wool scarf and wrapped it around my neck.   He draped his coat over my shoulders.   He sat there shivering in his white shirt and dark trousers, and then I agreed.

We left Istanbul in the spring.   It is painful to leave Istanbul in the spring when the mulberry trees are in bloom.   We took a bus, and a tree fell in the road.  The men left the bus and cried, “Allah!  Allah!” and lifted the enormous tree out of the way.

In the morning, I was walking towards the bus and then I was in the back of the bus and someone said, “You fainted.”

Years later, I was in Hollywood at a McDonald’s with my little girls.  The owner had inserted newspaper clippings under the plastic on the tabletop.  I saw a short article in the New York Times under the plastic.   The police had gone to the houses of villagers, the gecekondu on the hill above Arnavutkoy, to evict the village women, but I had heard from Kaymak.  She was not among the dead women.

On television several months ago, I saw a Turkish man carrying a drowned refuge child from Syria.  On the radio last week, I heard that one of the refuge boats had sunk in the Mediterranean.   A father had saved his little boy.  The father had swum for six hours holding his son’s clothing in his teeth.

Mustang is a myth.   It is meant as a myth.  I knew fierce and brave village women.  Very likely, educated modern Turkish women however will say, “That’s not what our country is like,” if they see the film.   Perhaps it isn’t like that, not for those who are lucky.   The myth of Mustang pierces ignorance.


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