Meet me at the Baldwin Café tomorrow afternoon at 2 pm. It’s true that I knew your father. I leave Istanbul in a week. It’s tomorrow or never.
Keira looked up from the storyteller’s email as the ferry docked at Eminönü.
A month had passed since Keira confronted her at Ara Guler’s café in Galatasaray.
Before leaving that night, Keira had dropped one of her business cards on the storyteller’s table. Keira told Izzy, her best friend and translator in Istanbul, to ask the storyteller to email her at the address on the bottom of the card if she changed her mind about discussing Keira’s father. In the theatre of the moment—the forsaken daughter confronting the woman she believed had laid claim to her father’s heart—the storyteller was unwilling to reveal anything beyond these cryptic last words: the only thing waiting for you at the end of this story is disappointment.
Six months ago, Keira had told her friends in NYC and Oakland that she was moving to Istanbul to find out what happened to her father. According to the media in Turkey, he’d vanished without a trace. Depending on what was hiding beneath the stones she turned over, she would write something, a book of essays, a memoir, maybe even a novel. But this explanation was only partially true. Keira had other reasons for leaving her life in NYC behind, more than a few, in fact. What was Istanbul then? An escape? A place to finally write without interruption? A refutation of her mother’s decision to banish Keira’s father to the clandestine company of halftruths and omission? If you pressed her further, Keira would admit she didn’t fully understand what solidified her decision to leave NYC. However, there was one thing about which she was certain: the moment her flight to Istanbul was set in motion.
It happened on a warm, cloudy Friday afternoon. Keira was still a senior at NYU. She’d dropped by her advisor’s office to seek advice about the conclusion of her thesis. As he rattled on about the unique challenges Keira had set herself up for by pursuing such an ambitious undergraduate thesis, a book resting near the corner of his desk caught her attention. Really, it was the name inscribed on the book’s spine that widened her eyes: Arslan Bardakçı, her father’s name. Keira’s mother had never mentioned anything about her father being an author, nor had her father ever mentioned it during their periodic long-distance phone calls. Careful not to let her professor in on the shock and doubt and wonder of the moment, Keira removed an indigo Moleskine notebook and a sharpie from her backpack and hastily scribbled the book’s title. She’d never forget that afternoon: how insignificant her own thesis suddenly seemed; how hollow and performed her professor’s eloquence sounded now; how writing the title of her father’s book felt similar to how she imagined looking into his eyes for the first time might feel.
The book’s title led Keira to a 2,000-word interview she eventually dug up in NYU’s archive of microfiche records. Keira snapped a few photos of the article with her iPhone and sent them to her half-British, half-Turkish friend Izzy, who then translated it later that night. Thanks to Izzy’s translation, Keira learned that her father had written his first novel Bir Gözü Açık, Bir Gözü Kapalı while still an undergraduate at Istanbul Technical University. Though published to critical raves in Istanbul, it had been a commercial failure, selling less than 700 copies in Turkey. With numbers like that and no literary prizes feathering its hat, none of the publishing houses in London or Paris saw any sense in taking it on for translation.
The book spent the next 15 years banished to obscurity. However, as Çelik Akagündüz noted in the preface to his interview with Keira’s father, Bir Gözü Açık, Bir Gözü Kapalı, which his English translator would later translate as One Eye Open, One Eye Shut, was rediscovered by a small circle of Turkish literature professors spread out across Istanbul, Ankara, and West Berlin. Professor Gündüz Doğançay, in particular, began publishing a flurry of articles in English, French, Turkish, and German in which he argued that Bir Gözü Açık, Bir Gözü Kapalı was a towering work that “deserved a seat at the table of world literature.”
Çelik Akagündüz’s appraisal of Bir Gözü Açık, Bir Gözü Kapalı was highly indebted to what had already been written about the book, trotting out all the familiar platitudes that followed the book’s second life: A multi-generational family saga! A breathtaking evocation of the Ottoman Empire’s past coming home to roost! Written while the author was still just an undergraduate! Recycled as these points were, they were news to Keira. More importantly, she learned two things that would help cement her decision to move to Istanbul after her father went missing in 2010: first, he had been working on his second, still-unfinished novel since returning to Turkey in the late 80s; and second, that the woman whose portrait stood on her father’s desk in the photo beneath the byline of the article— Senay Reza, aka the storyteller—was something of a folk hero among the intelligentsia in Turkey. She also happened to be Keira’s father’s lover for more than a decade. As Izzy would later explain, the storyteller was like Levar Burton from Reading Rainbow and Patti Smith rolled into one, only Turkish and openly bi-sexual since the 1980s in a Muslim country.
“You sure that email was from her?” Izzy asked Keira as the two former roommates at NYU hopped off the ferry and made their way arm and arm down Ankara St.
“Who else could it be?” Keira responded.
“What if one of those Turkish poets took your card after we left the cafe?”
“I bet you wish, don’t you? Izzy loves her some Turkish men,” Keira teased.
They crossed Yerebatan St. and headed south, walking through throngs of Saudi Arabian, Iranian, German, Japanese, and British tourists. The street smelled of car exhaust, the sea, and sweat clinging to bodies. Lines snaked around the food carts a block away from the Blue Mosque. Impatient crowds, freshly caught fish sizzling on the grills, the anxiety of the entire country present even here on one of the most neutral streets in Istanbul. Keira stepped toward a pocket that opened on the sidewalk. A Saudi Arabian family darted ahead and cut her off. The mother was leading her three-year-old son by the hand. They seemed agitated, in a rush, trying to keep pace with a much older-looking man who walked with his arms folded sternly behind his back.
Keira checked the time and realized they were already seven minutes late to their meeting with the storyteller. They fell into a half-jog, half-walk the last four blocks, only to find that at 12 minutes past the appointed hour, the storyteller had yet to show up. They decided to order coffee and sandwiches stuffed with prosciutto and figs and brie and then found a small tea-stained table near the hallway leading to the bathrooms at the back of the café.
Half an hour later and the storyteller was nowhere to be found.
“Look at the bark,” Keira said to Izzy, nodding toward an old Katil Çınar—in English, a murderer plane tree—swaying on the sidewalk in front of the café. “It’s like the skin of an old man. It shows how hard he fought to live.”
Izzy released two trails of smoke through her pierced nostrils and laughed.
“Someone’s been reading too much Eduardo Galeano again.”
“At least I still read books. When was the last time you read something other than your Twitter feed?”
“I’m a director, not a writer, thank you very much. I don’t have time to read books. That’s what NYU was for.”
“Okay, dum dum,” Keira said.
“Anyways,” Izzy said while playfully rolling her eyes. “Hey, before I forget, are you still down to roll with me to Taksim Square when we’re done here? I need to pick up some more coverage for that piece on Gezi Park I’m working on.”
“For Vice? Or the other one? Le Monde, right?”
“Vice. It’s due in a week.”
“Sure,” Keira agreed. “I don’t mind being your PA for a day.”
Silky streams of grey and gunmetal blue smoke clung to the poets and writers huddled around the tables inside the café, coiling up to the ceiling in ghostly rivers. A blind man had taken a seat on the small stage at the back of the café. He was playing a seven-stringed Bağlama, singing songs aching with the blood and fire of Homer’s descendants, heroic tales of failure and empire, expeditions lost in desert sands and insatiable seas. He’d arrived at the café an hour ago, smiling behind his dark, impenetrable glasses as he tapped past ankles and chairs with the walking stick he called “grandson.” His singing carried over shoulders, conversations, smoke, reaching the Kurdish line cook in the back of the kitchen who grew up bouncing in her grandmother’s lap as she sang these same songs. A few people began singing along once the troubadour shifted gears from the epic to the intimate. He began by belting a song about a love deepened by separation, a woman with green eyes flecked with gold walking the streets of Istanbul yearning for the man she’d left behind in her family’s village facing the Black Sea.
When he’d finished his short set, the singer had someone who worked at the café guide him to Keira and Izzy’s table.
“Are you here to meet Ms. Reza?” the singer asked Keira and Izzy in Turkish.
Once Izzy had translated the man’s question, the two friends exchanged a fraught, confused glance. Still waiting for someone to respond, the singer began tapping out a private rhythm on the floor with his walking stick.
“Tell him we are…but ask him who he is,” Keira said to Izzy.
“He says the storyteller sent him.”
The man took a seat at their table and began speaking with greater urgency.
“What’s he saying?” Keira asked Izzy.
“He says he knew your father…that he knows how he died…and that’s why the storyteller sent him here to meet with you.”
Within a few minutes, the blind man had settled into the rhythm of his story about Keira’s father. From the moment he began talking about what he referred to as “that cold, cold night in central Anatolia,” Keira had been resisting the urge to interrupt him or to ask Izzy to stop translating for a minute so that Keira could get a few things straight. Until now, however, she’d bit her tongue and listened.
“So if I remember right,” Izzy continued interpreting, scribbling translation notes in her yellow legal pad, “it was dusk when we set out, a peach and purple sky. We were in three cars, two white Renaults and a military jeep. Who was there that night? Good question. Let’s see, the police chief, Arab—sorry, that’s the chief’s name for his right-hand man—who else…the doctor, the prosecutor, some military personnel, the two suspects, a few local villagers the chief had hired to carry the shovels to dig up the…well, you know…oh, and myself too, of course.
“Before the sun had fully set we arrived at the spot where the murderers said your father’s body was buried, next to a single olive tree. Two of the police bring him—by him I mean the main suspect, or at least the less stupid of the two suspects. The chief leads him around some before he says ‘No, this isn’t it.’ They ask him how he knows this isn’t it. He says there was a field…a field and a round tree.
“One of the officers says to the prosecutor from Ankara who was riding along with us that there’s a similar spring farther ahead. So then we arrive at the second place, near the spring where the main suspect claims your father was buried. The chief takes him by the arm, says ‘Okay, we’re here, show us where it is.’ The suspect—what was that? I don’t remember his name, sorry. If it comes to me I’ll let you know. Anyways, the suspect starts hesitating again, ‘Well…ummmm…you know,’ and so on and so forth. The chief starts to get really pissed, starts to raise his voice. “Tell me where it is!’ he says. The guy says he can’t remember…says how he’d been drinking that night.”
It was at this point that Keira’s credulity broke. “Ask him how.”
“How what?” Izzy said.
“How he knows any of these details—”
“When he’s blind?”
“Exactly. Go ahead, ask him. I don’t care if it’s impolite or not.”
After Izzy had posed the question as delicately as possible, the blind man smiled for the first time since he’d sat down at their table and said “We all see only what we’re capable of seeing, don’t we? We don’t know each other yet, young ladies, so who’s to say which of us sees and which of us walks in darkness?”
Keira didn’t know how to respond. “Alright…just…just tell him to get to the point. Tell him to tell me what happened to my father.”
“So then the chief walks over to the second suspect,” the blind man continued in his worldly, smoke-stained Turkish, “Ramazan I think his name was, who’d they’d kept in a different car from the smart suspect ever since leaving the station earlier that evening. They take Ramazan out of the military jeep. He was a real timid fellow, had a voice almost like a little boy, I mean, the son of a bitch seemed like if we didn’t offer him a sweet to suck on soon he might piss his pants and start crying for mommy. He couldn’t even look the chief in the face, says he was sleeping and that he doesn’t know nothing.
“The chief walks back over to the smart suspect, the cunning-looking one who seems like he could carry out a plan from A to Z, and leads him through the dark about 10 or 15 yards ahead to the old stone spring. The sun had set by now, so the soldiers had to swing their jeep around for the chief to even see anything. Have you been to Anatolia?”
“Me? Or is he talking you?” Keira asked Izzy, who then translated Keira’s question into Turkish.
“You,” Izzy said.
“No. I’ve never been.”
“The steppes are as black as the bottom of the Marmara Sea at night in Anatolia,” the blind man continued. “So after the chief leads the suspect through the jeep’s headlights, he starts acting unsure again, says there was a ploughed-up field where they’d buried the body…The chief gives the signal and a few villagers come running through the tall grass with their shovels. ‘Look for any newly dug holes. Hurry up you idiots!’ the chief shouts out them. I tell you, his patience was running thin by now.
“They search for a while, but there’s nothing, so the chief runs over to explain to the prosecutor why they still haven’t found anything. Just like the rest of us, the prosecutor was growing impatient. I’d even say he was an impatient man. He had to be in Ankara in the morning, and he’d already told the chief that. ‘I know that, but everything looks the same out here,’ the chief says.
“‘We all came out here counting on you,’ the prosecutor says to the chief. Oh, if you could have seen the look on the chief’s face when he said that! The look of a man not used to being challenged, that’s what it was.
“Before long we were back on that winding dirt road. The longer we drove, it just kept getting darker and darker. Just the headlights of our three cars…like we were the only light left out there. Anyways, I don’t remember how long we’d been driving, but the first car in the caravan suddenly stopped. The driver waves the chief’s car ahead. They pull up next to the stopped car and the driver admits he always gets lost on this road. As dark as it was that night, could you blame him? So, if I remember right, the chief’s driver, Arab, pulls ahead into the lead at that point.
“Some time later, we pull over at the end of a long, sloping bend in the road. ‘Where’s the round tree?’ the chief asks once everyone’s emptied out of the cars for the third time. ‘Up here? Or down below?’
“‘It’s down there,” the smart suspect says.
The chief has the soldiers train the jeep’s lights down below the road again. First fields, then round trees, now hillsides. We were beginning to think they were just trying to get a rise out of us.”
“Yeah, I know the feeling,” Keira said once Izzy had translated this last sentence.
“Ne dedi?” the blind man asked.
“I think she wants to know where this is going,” Izzy responded in Turkish.
“Yes, yes, of course. But for you to understand what I am going to tell you about your father, we must retrace our steps that night. As I was saying, half an hour later the crew comes back up the hillside through the grass. Everyone was short of breath. The chief walks over to the prosecutor, who by now is half asleep in the car.
“‘We know for sure where it is now,’ the chief says while he’s panting like an old dog. ‘It’s not here. It’s at the next bend. He’s sure now.’
“Well, as you might’ve guessed, the next bend was definitely not the next bend. Maybe three or four bends, I don’t remember exactly. When we got the suspect out of the car at the bend, he says, ‘It could be across here.’
“‘Across that slope?’ the chief asks.
“‘Across that slope,’ the suspect says.
“They all go running down the slope and jump across the small creek at the bottom, the diggers, Arab, the chief, the suspect. Only the chief stepped in the water, poor bastard. It was cold as a whale’s belly that night. The doctor and the prosecutor stayed behind though. If I remember correctly, it was the first time they’d spoken all night. Just as the prosecutor was finishing a story about a woman he once knew who had predicted her own death down to the very day, a high wind picked up in the steppes—all the trees started shaking and talking like it was their last night on earth. You’d swear it was something straight out of the movies, all the dead leaves on the ground jumping up and dancing down the slope the moment the prosecutor finishes his story.”
“What’s he saying now?” Keira asked Izzy after a full minute had passed without any simultaneous translation, the broad smile never leaving the man’s face as he spoke in a muscular voice toned by Istanbul’s streets and village politics.
“I didn’t think it seemed relevant because he— sadece ne dedin?” Izzy asked the man mid-sentence. “So…he said it was an important aside, but he was just curious if we watch a lot of movies…or if we’ve seen any good Turkish movies before.”
“What does that have to do with anything? Tell him again I don’t need to know every time he or one of his friends scratched their balls that night. I just want to know what he knows about my father, and I am starting to really lose my—”
“Well,” the blind man interrupted Keira in Turkish, “I’m guessing you’ve been trained to understand stories by watching Hollywood movies—fast edits, blurry action, stock characters, one-dot explanations, black and white worlds…but that’s beside the point. Where was I? Right, right, the wind, thanks for reminding me. So once that wind passed, the doctor asks the prosecutor what the woman’s cause of death was, but before he can answer, down at the bottom of the slope the chief starts beating the crap out of the main suspect. Knocks him to the ground, kicks him while he’s down. He roughed him up real good. ‘Am I your toy?’ the chief screams at him. You can imagine how fed up the chief was by now. Can you blame him?
“So then the prosecutor runs down the slope, trench coat and all, steps right in, pulls the chief aside, scolds him and then calms him down. While they’re off to the side, Arab starts jumping up and swiping at the branches of an apple tree. Other than the little butter cookies the soldiers had offered the prosecutor, none of us had eaten a damn thing that night. We’d been on the road for hours in the cold, our empty stomachs almost as lonely as those dark Anatolian steppes. So Arab, being Arab, starts jumping up toward the apple tree like a schoolboy. He finally gets hold of one of the branches, starts shaking it, and wouldn’t you know, five or six apples broke loose.
(…)they need money to build a morgue because the bodies have started to stink in the summer, and that he was always having trouble finding people strong enough to carry the coffins during funeral processions since all the young men had left for Istanbul to look for work.
“And then, my young friends, we were all blessed with a moment of poetry, though I doubt anyone else there appreciated it as much as I did. One of those juicy red apples that broke free just kept rolling down the slope over a few bumps and straight toward the little creek the chief had stepped in earlier. Like it had a mind of its own…who’s to say it didn’t? Into the creek it went, and then it was off, carried away into the night by the water. The poetry of the steppes, my young friends, the poetry of the steppes…Did I try one of the apples? That’s an excellent question. I didn’t, though maybe I should have, huh?
“In any case, the prosecutor rejoins us after calming the chief down and says that it’s time for a break. At that point, it was a matter of keeping morale up. He decides that we are all gonna stop by Ceceli, Arab’s wife’s village, to get a bite to eat and put ourselves back together before resuming the search. But then Arab pipes up and suggests that we should go to another village instead, says something vague about it being closer and cleaner, and then one of the diggers starts arguing with him and insists that Ceceli is definitely much closer, so in the end we decide on Ceceli. The prosecutor asks the grave digger to call the mayor of Ceceli to let him know that we’re on our way.
“So we show up, our headlights flooding the crumbling wooden gates of that poor village in the middle of the night. The dogs are barking like bloody murder. They seemed just as surprised as the mayor to have visitors at this hour.
“‘So the only way we can get you to visit our village is a murder, Mr. Prosecutor?’ the mayor asks as soon as we start eating dinner. He’s smiling, but you can see the truth in his eyes. The food was better than you might expect in such a poor village in the middle of the country. Good as the food was though, it was kind of hard to enjoy it fully because the mayor’s going on and on about how they need money to build a morgue because the bodies have started to stink in the summer, and that he was always having trouble finding people strong enough to carry the coffins during funeral processions since all the young men had left for Istanbul to look for work. I swear to you, just as he’s explaining how rough it is for the villagers, the electricity cuts off. It was the wind. I tell you, the wind was wild that night…kind of like it was a character in its own right.
“By the time we get back on the road, the sun had already risen. It was a dreary morning: cold, rainy, grey fog low in the steppes. Well, the next stop would prove to be our last, my young friends. Thank you for bearing with me until now. Just like the first few places we’d stopped there was a small spring. But you know what tipped off the chief this time? There was a dog out there in the middle of the field, maybe 70 or 80 yards off from where we’d parked. The chief picks up a stone and throws it at the poor thing. That’s how the chief knew the search was over. He walks over kind of slow-like, brings the main suspect with him. You could kind of tell by the way he’s walking that he senses we’re all gonna get to go home soon. He stops right where the dog had been. And then…” the man paused, slowly pulling his chair away from the table.
“And then what?” Izzy asked in Turkish.
“What’s he saying?” Keira asked Izzy.
“He asked us to excuse him while he goes to the restroom,” Izzy translated.
Several minutes had passed and the blind man still had not returned. The two friends were soon lost in their phones, Izzy exhausted from interpreting and Keira exasperated from listening without understanding.
“Excuse me,” a young woman said from the table directly opposite Keira and Izzy’s. She had short black hair, Brooklyn glasses, and Mongolian ancestors inhabiting her features. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I couldn’t help but overhearing your conversation.”
Keira and Izzy traded glances, and then Keira said, “Okay….and?”
“And I’m pretty sure the story that guy just told you is pretty much the exact same plot as the movie Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Have you seen it?”
Keira’s mouth opened wide.
“Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan?” the young woman continued. “It’s an amazing Turkish movie…but, yeah…everything he told you happened more or less the same in the movie. I didn’t interrupt sooner because I thought it wasn’t my place…but…yeah I guess that I just thought I should say something
Keira and Izzy flagged a cab in front of the café. Their driver drove through back alleys like he wouldn’t earn his fare unless he brought his passengers within a hairsbreath of death at least twice before arriving at their destination. Izzy screamed at the driver more than once. Keira might as well have been in a different universe. Her mind wouldn’t let go of the liar’s face. Had the storyteller put him up to it? Was he screening Keira to make sure she could be trusted? Izzy said the storyteller had spent 16 months in jail for a newspaper column she’d written in the mid-nineties. She had more than a few reasons to be cautious. Or was she just fucking with Keira, making a joke of her naiveté to think Istanbul was willing to reveal what had become of her father?
Fifteen minutes later, the cab screeched to a halt at the bottom of a long, uneven staircase that wound its way up through the hills of Beyoğlu. The sun was setting. “Let’s go this way,” Izzy said several flights of stairs later. “I’m pretty sure if we keep going this way we’ll end up in Beşiktaş”
Forty-five minutes later they were weaving through the crowded streets of Beşiktaş. Izzy heard someone shouting above other voices that his white van—one of those forms of transportation in Istanbul that lives in the murky grey between private taxi and public transportation—would be leaving for Kadıköy soon. Keira and Izzy wove through the long lines queued up at the bus terminal and piled into the van. Another two passengers joined them and then they were darting through traffic, the shimmering Bosporus coming in and out of view as the topography changed. It wasn’t until they’d crossed the Bosporus Bridge spanning Europe and Asia that the driver finally asked where each passenger needed to go, arranging his course through Istanbul’s streets according to their requests. Keira’s apartment in İdealtepe was thirty minutes out of his way, but he insisted it was no trouble at all.
“Keira,” Izzy said.
“Never mind,” Izzy said, retreating back into her own mind.
Keira struggled on the ride home to muscle through a deep current of foreboding, of bad luck as old as the city passing by her open window, a sense that coming here to discover what became of her father had been an excuse to escape her life in America. She watched Izzy interacting with the driver. Keira would say later that the long ride home in the white van that night was like watching a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film without subtitles.
After he pulled in front of her apartment building, Keira tried to tip the driver more than the agreed-upon rate from Beşiktaş to Kadıköy where he’d dropped off two-thirds of the passengers, but he politely refused to accept.
“Tell him that I said he went out of his way and lost an hour to drop me off,” Keira said to Izzy, who then translated the gist of her message to the driver.
“He says that while you Americans may have nice watches, we Turks have time,” Izzy translated.
Too exhausted to wonder how he knew she was American, Keira thanked the driver and hugged Izzy before leaving the van and dragging her ancient bones up four flights of stairs. She unlocked both bolts on her apartment door and then fell into bed without changing her clothes. Keira felt like she’d lived five years since they crossed the Bosporus on their way to the Baldwin Café earlier that afternoon. A minute or an hour later, she kicked off her shoes. Dead tired as she was, Keira could not sleep. The dark screen behind her eyes was flashing with bursts of chaos as everything she’d seen and heard since leaving her building that morning unreeled in fast-forward. Whenever the frame occasionally paused, it always stopped on the eyes. She’d met so many eyes. Faces with eyes she expected to know and understand—at the end of every alley another face she hoped to see herself in.
At some point during that restless night, she remembered a trick her mother had taught her when she was a girl. It was not uncommon for Keira to be unable to sleep in elementary school. As her older sister Kumiko’s television painted the ceiling of their shared bedroom in soft whites and blues, Keira would stay up reading library books until her mind was spinning too fast to sleep.
“Count backwards from 100 to 0,” her mother Mayumi had told her. “With each number, imagine you’re walking backwards down a big, winding staircase.”
One hundred . The first step did not appear. Ninety-nine. Nor did the second. Ninety-eight. Keira focused on her breathing. Ninety-seven. The stairs came up and met her weary feet. Ninety-six…ninety-five…ninety-four…ninety-three…ninety-two…ninety-one…ninety…
And so it was that Keira approached sleep and the world of dreams that night the only way she knew how—with great caution, one eye open, one eye shut. ✪