Between Continents | Miriam Vaswani

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Arrival

 

The Beyoğlu apartment is like a Glasgow tenement; tiled entryway, stone steps. I slide my palm along a worn banister. At the top, there are narrow doors and tall rooms. A damp patch, in the shape of Quebec, leaks through the cornice.

 

It’s the place we’d live if we really lived here.”

 

In the morning, at the downstairs market, I buy sheep’s cheese from a Syrian man who gives me pieces to taste on the end of a knife. I buy eggs and peppers and olives. The vegetables are alive; I want to tear off lettuce leaves and eat the onions like apples.

 

Secretly, in the kitchen, I bite into a bulb.

 

Fiction

 

The night opens, like theatre, on a hidden street. It grows into a courtyard café with a film of shisha smoke that quivers in lamplight. Voices are bold with discourse.

 

In the courtyard, there’s a tattoo shop whose name is a version of mine. Meryam. I buy a small ring, and incense wrapped in paper. I lift a book of Scottish Fiction from a shop table, and find the inscription

 

Haste ye back, dear and loved world traveller. Regards, yer auld granda.

 

Later, I try to find the street, and can’t. Walls appear where I am sure there was a passageway. Sometimes I see it, the corner, honey-coloured light and voices, a guitar, the smell of books and smoke; when I go there is nothing. I walk in a circle, end up at the bar from the night before. I ask market vendors, shopkeepers.

 

My ring vanishes, but incense continues to burn in the hallway, turning to dust before sunrise.

 

I believe the street was a mirage.

 

The Time Before Photography

 

I twist a silk scarf around my hair. When I stare up at the mihrab, I put my hand on my head to stop it slipping.

 

The tiled curves make me dizzy. I sit on the carpet and watch from behind a wooden beam. Boys imitate their fathers, small experts at standing and kneeling, raising little hands to little ears. Allah Akbar stretches across the city.

 

In the courtyard, a kitten twitches its nose against a marble arch. Quiet slips through the crowd.

If I had a god, maybe I would pray. Instead, I imagine a sailor standing on a wooden ship, coming in to dock, memorising the shape of Istanbul in the time before photography. Someone who knew sea ports the way I know airport terminals.

 

I Instagram the kitten.

 

Another mosque, visited by accident, in another part of the city. Children play hide and seek behind minarets; a girl in a crinoline dress circles me, appearing and disappearing behind pillars. I wave to her. She grins and runs away.

 

An elder describes the structure of the building and the books his wife, a retired math teacher from Ankara, reads in the evening. The only foreigners who come to this mosque, he says, are architects.

 

The sun is setting. There is a crescent moon high in the sky. I am cold and quiet.

 

Catstanbul

 

Cats are under tables, on motorcycle seats and unused food carts, behind stone moldings and neon lights, in mosque courtyards, bazaars. They weave around my ankles and sleep on stacked textiles.

 

They come and go from a feline dimension. Blink and they will surface, or vanish.

 

A blind kitten at a Sultanahmet restaurant sits, poised. Tenacious. He knows my language, but I don’t know his.

 

Two cats occupy a police car outside the Blue Mosque.

 

Beyoğlu

 

The elderly man at the corner shop sells me tampons and bottled water. He tries to explain, with his hands, the plot of the soap opera he watches on a small TV. He shows me the way to the wine shop.

 

The landlady sits at her desk. Her glasses rest on her nose. She orders tea from the café down the road. She smokes cigarettes with pleasure; she rewards herself for a hard day’s work.

 

The purple couch appears in the street every morning, propped on metal stilts. Every night, it’s gone.

 

A striped cat presides over a stone stairwell.

 

A street populated with sex workers and tea sellers is the way to Taksim, where I touch cement walls painted with animals and human faces, a language I don’t understand and another I do, women with cartoon breasts straddling trams, the Galata Tower, askew, slipping into the Golden Horn. I sit on wooden stools, tell stories with my hands and voice, stir sugar into tea. I listen to jazz until early morning and walk home, nodding to sex workers and tea sellers.

 

Earworm

An album from the first night.

 

With a tattooed tit, she would die for us all tonight.

I let it follow me around the city. I remember the time when it was new.

 

Sometime we fly from the covers, to the winter of the river.

 

There’s no danger in remembering, here.

 

Galata Bridge

 

I walk across the Golden Horn, past fisherman who stand along the bridge. They wear knitted cardigans that remind me of my first Atlantic coast. Lobster trappers on cold mornings, red-knuckled, bearded. Other things; ragged flags of another nation, and another, quotas, sour mortgages. Mouths to feed. I taste the salt of the place I left.

 

In Turkey, the fishermen buy tea from a mobile samovar. In Canada, they would have coffee in thermoses, carried from home.

 

Leaning over the metal railing, I watch two wooden boats move under the bridge, unsteady in the wake of something bigger, and I wonder if the red knuckles are a real memory. I’ve been gone so long.

 

But I remember the smell of coffee, the touch of a rough hand.

 

Istanbul Modern

 

In a wide white room, I stare at a house on fire. Six photographs of six women stare back at me.

 

Sea of Marmara

 

Cargo ships churn the Bosphorus. Children throw bread to seagulls who follow our boat. Tourists from Gulf states kiss behind wooden beams. A man with perfect balance carries tea on a tray.

 

There are people inside reading newspapers, on their way to work. Expensive laptop bags, like the one locked in my desk in Germany, lean against their legs. They’re unimpressed with the journey that for me is sun reflecting on small waves, distant tankers like children’s toys then, if I look away, like mountains. Hagia Sophia on the skyline. The meeting place between continents.

 

The wind strips warmth off my skin, but the sun is still here. I stand on deck with a shawl around my shoulders, drink tea from a glass, balance. I climb onto an oiled rope for a better view, one hand on metal and the other on wood. I lean into the wind, tasting the Sea of Marmara.

 

Cat Island

 

On the island, cats outnumber humans. They crawl under cars and over fences. They travel in groups, drink from bowls left outside houses.

 

Everything is slow today. I think of one thing at a time. The wind on the boat gave me a new smell, of water and industry. I lift my shawl to my mouth, I wrap my hair around my nose.

 

There won’t be a boat to the city until evening. At an empty café beside a harbour, I read like I did when I was a child. Wooden boats clank. The sun moves from Asia to Europe. A man in a Fair Isle jumper brings tea, and I wonder if he finds it strange, two silent people who read beside each other for hours. I wonder if he is also a person who lives inside pages. I imagine him staring at a book by lamplight, long after the last ferry has left his island.

 

Before sunset, old men appear. They gossip until the call to prayer, then leave a wake of tea glasses, crumbled sugar cubes.

 

Return

 

The ferry is cold, but I stay outside, watching night-lit land move past. Later, I stand under hot water, rub oil into my skin, wash the knots out of my hair. Become soft again.

 

Women

 

A woman’s eyes flicker and settle on the man beside me; a woman who looks like me, who wears knitted gloves like mine, the same shade of red, dark buttons at the wrists.

 

Istanbul women walk like me. Our tall boots tap the street; we stride but do not rush. Our clothes are urban, shades of coal, cranberry, pine, sapphire; we wear fabric cut to move with our hips and waists and breasts, our shapes that defy western fashion, our hair that rejects chemicals.

 

We are kind to each other, but we do not smile easily.

 

Fusion

 

A different street every night, is the agreement. It yields; a vegetarian restaurant, antique books, vintage clothes. A narrow bar with a narrow stage; a cello, a guitar. There is the sound of old Turkish music and of something new, the ska that rattled my teenage bedroom, the jazz that all the men I’ve loved have also loved.

 

The room is dark. Red-lit in corners and creaking with wood. I feel the rustle and heat of the crowd. I remember a sitar tabla in a wooden theatre, on a hot night beside the Arabian Sea, threading into my body. I remember a song in a Victorian cellar, beside a cold English canal, that I heard in my bones.

 

When out of a doorway the tentacles stretch.

 

Outside, mussels and lemons shine on street corners, late-night green grocers spray vegetables with water, cats curl under bar tables.

 

Seraglio

 

There’s a chair beside the bedroom window, where I drink tea in the morning. The sound of the market mixes with my book (which is not mine) so that, when I open it a week later in my bedroom in Germany, I expect to hear the creak of wood heavy with vegetables, olives, cheese.

 

Are you married?

 

“Are you married”, people ask us. For different reasons.

 

Resist Antarctica

 

The penguins appear and disappear every day. Resist Antarctica. Gas masks stencilled on walls, legion police, militarised, bored.

 

The rainbow steps are wide and high, a path between concrete giants. I expect them to slip back onto their own world, but they they are as solid as the people who walk on them.

 

A retired engineer painted them to make the neighbourhood beautiful. When municipal workers covered his steps in grey, neighbours came to make another rainbow. On my laptop screen, later, I see a photo of families and art students. Pots of paint, dripping brushes, stained hands.

 

Then I see it everywhere; rainbows in street art, behind grates, in alleys, around corners. Rainbow steps appear in Ankara, Izmir.

 

I wake up in a warm bed, from a dream of Antarctica.

 

Memory

 

I meet my friend from Bursa. She wears red lipstick and gives me a necklace she made for me, and talks about the music video she’s making. A jazz quartet in an apartment, cats lurking in windows. I tell her I love her city. I tell her I am alive. I tell her Istanbul is like Glasgow. I can’t explain why.

 

I meet my friend from Chicago. We trade gossip from Moscow, call each other by our Russian names. We move around the city like ordinary people. I hear The Cure in a bar and I am full of a thing I want to remember. I try to catch it; it’s like threading a needle in the dark.

 

Found myself alone alone, alone above a raging sea.

 

Later, I dream the smell of cheap red wine, a cat crying outside a tenement, a full moon on a freezing night.

 

Hello Sailor

 

I talk to an old man, who was a sailor. Who went to the Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Halifax, Montreal, Mumbai, the Straits of Malacca.

 

“Are you a sailor too”, he says. He laughs. “We have been everywhere together.

 

Uncensored

 

My calves ache from walking. At night, I stretch and curl in strange sheets that are more familiar than my own, and I talk, and I am quiet. I am uncensored. I do not censor myself. I am certain, but of what I’m not sure.

 

Garlic Leaves

 

In a narrow market, an opaque line of water slides down the street, past pomegranate carts and shops selling electrical wires and velour dressing gowns.

 

The garlic is piled against the walls of a small room, tied in bundles as big as me. The elderly shopkeeper brings me to a loose heap and tells me to take what I need. I choose three big cloves. I lift them out of papery leaves and they smell familiar, like a type of wildflower I almost remember. Something that doesn’t grow where I live.

 

The garlic is mild; I use it to make bruschetta, with lemons and tomatoes, and something like coriander, and the stale end of a wheel of bread soaked in oil. I am hungrier than I’ve been in months.

 

Europe to Asia

 

The boat to Asia docks in a crowd. Away from the water, I sift through a suitcase of old photographs and slide my fingers over the edge of a gramophone.

 

Inside a bookshop, there’s a small penguin in a gas mask, framed.

 

An engineer who spent his life collecting, then opened an antique shop as a retirement project, talks about Lebanon, Scotland, Portugal, the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of St Lawrence. I buy a photograph of a laundry scene developed in cheap ink. Smudged with fingerprints. There’s a faceless women in the foreground, a baby on her cotton-wrapped hip. Turkey, maybe. Greece, or Italy. Between wars.

 

On the porch of a wooden house, a needle falls on vinyl. The family plays backgammon. It’s a street like my hometown; sky blue cladding, attic windows.

 

Let’s stay in Asia.”

I want to live above that shop. The flat with the balcony.”

 

Outside the spice shop, a baby dances to accordion music.

 

Non-Fiction

 

Dawn is clawing at the window; I wake up from a dream of a song.

 

That long black cloud is coming down.

 

I remember every word and note, on a radio in a long-gone house. I remember inexpert guitar strings on a Canadian island. I remember laughing in a Glasgow kitchen, the taste of vomit in a Stuttgart cellar, a long kiss in a London street.

 

I am awake in Istanbul, crushed by my small history. The song from my dream ends. In the distance the call to prayer begins. If I had a god, maybe I would pray. Instead, I write this memory before it vanishes, shivering in the kitchen, tapping a painted toenail against a table leg. I will not wonder if it was real.

 

Departure

 

Three minute’s silence in the airport. Everyone stands; Turkish, Libyan, Canadian, Indian, French, Algerian. We are descendants of the same war.

 

I wonder what the dead would see, if they could look into this world.

 

At the check-in desk, the woman touches the spine of my book (which is not mine). We lean close and look into each others eyes, like we know each other well.

 

We know each other well. There is a fine red thread woven into her headscarf, patterned like the one around my neck. Her eyes are warm and they warm mine.

 

“Should I read it?

 

“Yes. You should.”

 

Preservation

 

In Germany, I unpack my green nightdress. It smells like the Beyoğlu apartment; sandalwood, garlic leaves, city air, the flesh-warmed hollow of the rented bed. My scarves smell like the Sea of Marmara.

 

Later

 

Three months later, amongst boxed possessions, I find the ring. I put it in my pocket as I leave two sets of keys on a kitchen counter that is no longer mine. Then, unwilling to let it out of my sight, I listen to it fall into airport security trays on a journey to North Africa, where it will stay for now, with me. A thing as solid as the person who wears it.

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

I’d like to acknowledge some of the very real things I mentioned in this non-fiction story:

 

The fusion band in the Taksim bar was http://www.evyapimiisler.com. The songs I listened to or remembered listening to were The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, Elbow’s The Bones of You and Bob Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door. The album that was my earworm for the week was Suede’s Dog Man Star. The art I described in Istanbul Modern was Ramazan Bayrakoglu’s painting Fire, and a photograph from the Gaze exhibition.

http://www.istanbulmodern.org/en/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/gaze-changing-face-of-portrait-photography_948.html. The book that wasn’t mine was Nick Cohen’s You Can’t Read This Book. Finally, you can read more about Istanbul’s distinctive protest art here:

http://www.vam.ac.uk/b/blog/posters-stories-va-collection/occupygezi-gezi-protests-turkey

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/10/turkey-rainbow-stairs_n_3895082.html

 

Miriam Vaswani writes for international publications, and has lived and worked in Canada, Scotland, Russia, England, Myanmar and Germany. She’s travelled extensively and despite dodging bullets, charming irate border guards and climbing the highest peaks in Sri Lanka and Scotland, her greatest travel moments involve people inviting her into their homes for tea. When she’s not writing fiction she’s writing and editing technical documents and miscellaneous corporate texts, along with a bit of journalism, a bit of teaching and a bit of voice work. Before that, she was researching abuse prevention legislation and helping to reshape homelessness services in Glasgow. A long time before that, she was self-publishing bad teenage poetry in her Canadian hometown. Miriam is interested in original, subversive narratives that fuel discourse, and telling you about the thing she just found at the fleamarket. She blogs at http://miriam-littlebones.blogspot.com/ and tweets at@miriamvaswani

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