Nancy Knudsen, extracts from Accidentally Istanbul
‘Turkish eyes are always made of glass and always blue. We often heard tourists ask for the ‘Evil Eye’. One old bazaar vendor watched me fingering one, loving the smooth, cool feel of the glass, the pureness of the blue. He leant forward conspiratorially.
“In the olden days in Turkey…” he began, launching into surprisingly good English, “when wolves were still a threat, the people feared them because they were always hungry in winter. They would creep into the houses and carry away small children.”
My eyes were wide with disbelief.
“They were very dangerous and everyone was frightened of them. “
I remembered Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks, the bloodthirsty stories of my childhood. Maybe they weren’t so far-fetched. But in my own childhood in Far North Queensland, taipans and crocodiles were the real danger. It seemed ironic that all the scary fairy tales had been about wolves and bears.
The old man was still talking, still leaning forward, interrupting my reverie. “Wolves have very good eyesight, you see, so if they saw an adult in the window they would be too frightened to enter a house. So the people started to paint big eyes on their windows, to make them think a very big person was watching them. The Nazar Boncuk, the Turkish Eye, was originally for this purpose.”
“Really!” Now I was fascinated.
He straightened up, laughing. “But don’t worry—today there are only wolves in the far regions of Turkey and the houses are built more strongly. So now it’s just a good luck charm to keep away evil.”
I started to thank him and prepare to buy some Turkish Eyes. But he hadn’t finished.
“You must buy these for your friends, not for you. It’s always better when an Eye is given as a gift; the charm works better. So let someone else buy a Turkish Eye and give it to you.”
By now I was entranced. I started to open my wallet—but he started speaking again.
“When you have this Turkish Eye, you must put it at the entrance to your house, nowhere else. In this way all evil, not just the evil of wolves, will be kept from your door. Even better, set it in the stone of the doorstep so that to enter the house you must walk over it.” ’
(from Chapter 17, Turkish Eyes)
‘ “Did you ever hear the story of the Princess who was kept in a tower and grew her hair long so that her lover could use it to climb up to her?”
Of course I remembered. I had mooned over the illustrations of the maiden whose hair fell hundreds of metres from her tall head-dress to the grass of the tiny island where she was captive in her tower. It was as much part of my tropical childhood as a snow-filled Christmas, in temperatures that sometimes reached 40 degrees on Christmas Day.
There were different versions of the story. One said she was so beautiful that her captivity was to deter possible lovers. Another told of her father hearing from a soothsayer that his daughter would be killed by a snake, so he locked her in the tower in a desperate attempt to avoid the curse.
Now, swishing through the waters as the engines purred, I stared fascinated at the Maiden’s Tower, a small stand of rock in the middle of the Bosphorus, stark white in the morning sun. A shining haze of salt mist surrounded it, with seagulls and cormorants vying for space on the rocks below. The surf swirled and lunged roughly against the rocks. Truly, it would have to be a valiant lover to brave swimming the Bosphorus to reach his princess.
As a dreamer of a child, such stories had seemed more real than the small life of my Mum and Grandma and Grandad, and infinitely more alluring. At night my father would read me stories of a world which was somehow more perfect than ours, where life was always, after an adventure, lived happily ever after.
There was something unnerving about my dreams being exposed to the hard reality, as we drew closer, of white paint flaking and dripping with traces of rust, with flotsam of oil scum and plastic bottles mixed up in the foaming salt water.’
(Chapter 13, The Bosphorus)
‘The day came when an Iranian student of mine, 13-year-old Kimiyah and her 16-year-old brother were leaving. They had found a sponsor in Canada. At a small farewell ceremony at the school, the girl’s father was jubilant, if nervous. “When we left Iran we didn’t know what a pit we were falling into,” he told me. He had been a 747 airline captain in Iran. Suddenly, his wife was under suspicion of being a covert Christian: “the wrong person saw a book she was reading, which had been in her grandfather’s library”. Its theme was comparative religions. Twenty-four hours later he and his family took a flight to Turkey.
“We knew right away that we had to act quickly. We had seen what had happened to other families. We collected the children from school, took no clothes, what little money we could get together without drawing attention to ourselves, and raced to the airport.”
His face showed the pain of leaving his parents and siblings behind. Four difficult years had ensued, with no recognition of their claim by the UNHCR.
“We need a country,” he confided earnestly. “We have to have something for our children, a good life without fear.”
I was overjoyed for them, if very sad to see Kimiyah leave. She had been a keen student, intelligent, loving her schooling, always doing more homework than she was given. We hugged continually on that last day. As they were leaving, she ran back for just one more hug. I knew, and I think she knew too, that we would probably never see one another again.
But the thing that touched me most, that still stays with me today, was the reaction of Talya. While we all stood watching and waving on the church porch, and I stood at the back, trying to smile, but swallowing and holding my breath a little, the family walked out the church gate for the last time. At that moment I felt a rush of small arms around my waist. It was Talya, trying to share comfort with her own small embrace.
Kimiyah was immediately replaced by another student (there was a long waiting list) and I began another small relationship. And so it went on. Talya and others like her cheerfully took what they could get at the refugee school, because there was nothing else. And they waited.
Every story was different. One afternoon, I had reason to pass through a pleasant courtyard in central Istanbul. Here I found a scattered crowd of Africans, their parted and braided hair gleaming in the sunshine. They were waiting for medical attention. The doctors were refugees themselves. The Somali translator was the father of another former student. His smile was generous in his big face, he laughed often, and his eyes shone with quick intelligence.
“We had to leave Somalia,” he told me as he waited to be called to interpret. “It was too dangerous.” He explained that he’d witnessed a murder and was frightened for his life, as well as for his family’s wellbeing. He had paid US$4500 to smugglers for a trip to Italy by ship. It took the family to a beach in the middle of the night. “This is Italy,” they had said, dropping his family and others in shallow water.
But it was Turkey. And here they remained, having been turned down for refugee status. He said he had twice paid smugglers to take his family overland into Greece. Both attempts had been unsuccessful. “So we stay here. Eight years now, and a new baby. But what can we do?”
(Chapter 14, Refugees of Turkey)