Short story by S.A. Dastan
A couple of days ago, I dropped in a bank branch to withdraw $20 transferred from the UK. It was the money I had earned from a freelance job taking a few hours. I got a service order number from a machine inside the bank. The bank office was quite crowded. Some people might have escaped from the cold weather outside and were pretending to be bank customers to get warm shelter. Anyway, the machine gave me the number 432 while the notice board with flashing red LEDs was saying that the 398th customer was being served at that moment. That means I am the 34th in line and have to wait for an hour or so to be helped. It was unlucky because the waiting time (starting from when I left home to when I withdrew the money) was likely to be the same as the time it took for the freelancer work.
I sat next to a man my age. The service order print in his hand was partly visible: 4 and 3 were the first two digits, the last digit was under his finger. It had to be 430 or 431. I checked my telephone to do some surfing online during this time. Oh, my God! The battery is dying and I can’t let it drain completely. I wrote the Western Union tracking number on a piece of paper and put my phone back into my coat pocket. Suddenly, I hear the voice of the man sitting next to me:
“Are you also unemployed”, he asked. I was not sure he was speaking to me and didn’t reply for second. Then I looked at him. He was staring at me. Yes, he was asking me.
“No”, I said, “I am working freelance.”
“Good! Same as me. But, do you believe you can have a stable life with a job like that, considering you have to wait an hour for a small payment?”
“Stability may not play any role with the money I earn,” I replied.
“It is not the amount of money you earn, it is the job you are doing which you have no other option to do. You can’t earn money in Turkey, can’t live without fear of government intervention, can’t walk on the streets freely as you would do anywhere else in the world!”
“Anywhere?” I said with an open mouth, “Can’t you see Syrians in Turkey who barely survived from a civil war and immigrated here. 3 million alone in Turkey and millions in other countries.”
“Could you let me relate some of my personal experiences here?” he asked.
“Sure”, I replied, realizing that this may be Forrest Gump on the Bank bench with a beautiful story to follow.
“My grandfather was an officer at the train station in Ankara.” Suddenly in my mind, his grandfather appeared with an image of the same person sitting next to me plus a tiny mustache on his face, a green uniform which railroad officers have and a hat. It was a black and white scene. He was blowing a whistle and making a sign to the driver as people rushed to catch the train; a lady dressed in white with a Victorian style hat and a small wooden suitcase; a soldier hugging his fiancé; two men with suits and some children around. I feel the smoke of the train, hear the sound of the horn. Oh, I should stop here, this should not be a steam engine train and there was no horn like that. There also shouldn’t be a lady dressed in white or the others as you might see at a station in Chicago. I should let the guy keep talking.
“My grandfather was a decent man. He was glad to settle down in the city, receive a continuous monthly wage from the state, an apartment for his family, and stability. He tried to make no mistakes, conformed to the rules and avoided harsh politics. Nevertheless, he had a political opinion, as almost everybody in our country. His only mistake was letting others know his stance. Through the late 1950s when the political situation got tense and polarized, he found himself to be a man in the spotlight of his co-workers as he voted for the rival party. The rival was the main opposition. When you oppose the government, then you are automatically said to be ‘opposing your country’. After some time, he was ostracized and trained for a mission to a border town in Turkey, somewhere close to Syria. This was challenging for my grandfather with his 4 children and home in the center of Anatolia. Although he had sought stability all his life, he had to face instability or istikrarsızlık in the middle of his life. During his training period, something unexpected happened! A military coup toppled the government, and my grandfather’s deployment was changed. While Turkey was sailing into the choppy waters of istikrarsızlık, my grandfather survived a possible forced exodus and was able to protect his small bit of stability.”
“Could a person’s life in stability be free from the stability of the country?” I asked.
“Depending on the level of the country’s istikrarsızlık. At some point, politics becomes a part of ordinary people’s lives. My father remembers my grandfather’s joy after the military coup very well. My father, a mail carrier, also lived on the borders of stability.” I imagined his father was this guy as well. This time the imagery is colored. He was wearing a post office uniform and cycling through the streets. “He was not political. But if society is polarized, there is nowhere to escape. You are either with them or on the other side. If you are apolitical, then you are the enemy of both. In the morning of September 1980, when he left his home, he saw a slogan painted on the wall of the house.”
“What was the slogan?” I asked.
“Kahrolsun Faşizm! (Down with Fascism) The same as the slogan in Elton John’s Nikita music video. You will see the same slogan behind Nikita. My father did not want others to use his house wall as a political notice board and erased it. A few days later, a guy with a beard and black clothes appeared at his gate. This guy was probably the one who wrote the words on my father’s wall. He threatened my father and ordered him to write it again in 24 hours.” This house had passed down from my grandfather, so my father decided not to rewrite it, but he was not sure what would follow?
“A military coup and a curfew! The coup probably saved my father’s life as well as the wall of the house. While Turkey remained unstable, my father manage to protect his small personal bit of stability just as my grandfather had two decades before.”
“The stability of instability”
“Or living in Turkey… The thing is you should somehow protect your own stability if istikrarsızlık is the default mode. So far I have not been as lucky as my father and grandfather. The recent failed coup in July ruined my life even if I had no single involvement in the event. I was guilty of not being on the government’s side. And I lost my job and had to move somewhere cheap and safe to live.”
“Is that why you are now working as a freelancer for foreign companies?”
“Yes. This is the only way to earn money if you are politically punished. Everybody stays away from you. You write to earn money. Every word counts.”
“My friend, you should not be sad about it. Do you know why the Brothers Karamazov is 997 pages? Because Dostoevsky was a bad gambler and he had to write as much as possible to pay his gambling debts. He was sending the chapters to the publisher part by part. Every word counted. This is why we are now able to read a magnificent novel.”
“You are optimistic my friend. My case could be relevant to Dostoevsky in terms his punishment on the charge of plotting a coup. He was sentenced to death which was converted to imprisonment after the Tsar’s clemency. I am now planning to escape from a similar fate.”
“Are you worried about being criminally charged on political grounds?”
“Yes, my friend”.
“So, how do you plan to evade this?”
“Ok, I will tell you something. But you should not share it with anybody else. Promise?”
“Yes, I promise”.
“I will escape to Syria.”
“Syria? My friend, I said, millions of Syrians are now in Turkey. They barely survived the war there.”
“Yes, but they are more credible than I am in Turkey. Because they love the Turkish government, the Turkish government loves them. They are freer than I am. My plan is not to stay in Syria. I will obtain a Syrian passport, pretend to be a Syrian citizen and escape back to Turkey! I will have a new identity.”
“This is crazy man, this is crazy!”
“Do you know why my grandfather was so obsessed with preventing istikrarsızlık? Because his father has escaped to Turkey during the World War I, leaving everything they had behind. From where? From Syria! I have to find the stability in the pendulum of instability between these two adjacent territories around the Eastern Mediterranean. I have a 4 month old baby now, this will be the first lesson I will teach him.”
“You have an amazing story and amazing plan. Sounds like a story.”
“No, my friend. How do I know that you are a freelancer?”
“See my bank service order number.”
Oh, my God! It was 432. The same as mine. He was me. I can then be sure that the story and the plan are true. But I also have to stick to my promise not to tell the plan to others even if it was a promise to myself. While realizing the truth, my turn came in the bank. I saw the red 432 flashing on the screen. I went to the desk. The lady at the desk asked me the name of the sender. I didn’t note it on the paper. It should be on the phone. I checked the phone. But its battery was dead.