To Sevgi, Katherina and Ivan...
"If the world was only one country, Istanbul would be its capital"
Cured slabs of fatback or pork belly, that is what we used to eat at the monastery in the beginning of that last winter, not unusually colder but somewhat more transparent, as if made out of glass rather than water and rain. The friar would haunt the markets at the earliest hour after the sunset, hunting for the precious cured skins that used to be wrapped in old paper and hung for a few days at the basement, as a purification ritual of sorts, probably learnt from the Cossacks in the steppes of the Caucasus and brought to the Orient by the Christian travellers that settled there hundreds of years before our own time. Finding the skins at the market was also something for which much precaution was needed because in the Orient, anything can ignite the fire of a war, not only the worship of one God or another but also something simpler like the skin of an animal not thought as pure in the Scripture, in a stall at the market. God, he only watched silently, as the laws of men, argued each other, with a finger up, but also with a sword.
One might think that it would be possible at first sight to find the cured skins of the pig at the large open markets in Mahane Yehuda, in between Jaffa Road - Jerusalem's main road and the favourite scenario of prayers, revolutions and bombings, built in 1861 under the Ottoman Empire and that made it possible for Jerusalem to flourish outside the walls of the Old City, and some neighbourhoods that still exist today, the Russian Compound, Nahalat Shiva, Mahane Yehuda; at the time the traffic consisted originally of mules and camels but the road was eventually improved enough to allow for carriages drawn by horses. The German Templars, who were established there (and founded the German colony, their cemetery, along the Emek Rephaim Road, still stands there) began the first regular carriage service along the new Jaffa Road -, and Agripas Street, that surrounded the Bohemian quarters of Nachlaot and named in honor of Agrippa I, "King of the Jews" - a grandson of Herod the Great and son of Aristobulus IV; Agrippa was depicted by the New Testament as a cruel and heartless king that persecuted the Jerusalem church - "...Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some of the church in order to mistreat them. And he did away with James, the brother of John, with the sword..." (Acts 12:1-2).
Then it seems, that Jerusalem, has always been under the spell of one or another sword. "...Now he was furious with the Tyrians and the Sidonians. And they came to him with one accord; and having persuaded Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country was fed from the king's country. And on an appointed day Herod arrayed himself in royal clothing and sat on the judgment seat; and he delivered a public address to them. And the populace cried out, The voice of a God and not of a man! And instantly an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give the glory to God; and he was eaten by worms and expired..." (Acts 12:20-23). The Jews however, including the historian Josephus, had thought differently of Agrippa, who governed in Judea to the satisfaction of the Jews and who expressed a zeal for Judaism in private and in public.
The Mishna itself reads, in tractate Sotah 7:8 (the tractate dealing with the laws relating to the woman suspected of adultery) "...What was the procedure in connection with the portion (of the Torah) read by a King? At the conclusion of the first day of the festival of the Tabernacles in the eighth, i.e., the end of the seventh, they erect a wooden dais in the temple court, upon which, he sits; as it is said, at the end of every seven years, in the set time, etc. The synagogue-attendant takes a Torah scroll and hands it to the synagogue-president, and the synagogue-president hands it to the high priest deputy. He hands it to the king. The king stands and receives it, but reads sitting. King Agrippa stood and received it and read standing, for which act the sages praised him. When he reached, thou mayesy not put a foreigner over thee, his eyes ran with tears. They said to him, "Fear nor, Agrippa, thou are our brother!" The king reads from the beginning of Deuteronomy up to the "Shema", the Shema, and it shall come to pass if ye hearken, thou shalt surely tithe, when thou hast made an end of tithing, the portion of the king, and the blessings and curses, until he finishes all the section. The king pronounces the same benedictions as the high priest, except that he substitutes one for the festivals instead of one for the pardon of sin...".
But it was not along the street of righteous King Agrippa where the skins would be found by the friars, and anyway there was no point in looking for anyone there, for it is said that Agrippa was no longer there, it had been said already in the Book of Acts that he had died eaten by worms, what might have been possibly Fournier's gangrene, the same disease that had killed his grandfather Herod the Great. At the market in Mahane Yehuda, the most strict dietary laws as prescribed by the rabbis were kept with zeal, and every day of the week, but particularly on Friday morning, it was possible to see herds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in all possible versions of black and grey shopping for the Holy Sabbath; "challes", the sweet and salty bread in the form of the braids of a maiden, all freshly baked, "beygelach" and "rugelach", simple pastries imported from the bitter cold of Eastern Europe, but magically turned into suculent delicious exotic delicacies from far away lands at the hands of the experienced and volatile-tempered bakers of Jerusalem; trays of chickens properly slaughtered according to the ancient ritual - livers, breasts, legs, wings, everything spotlessly clean from the inside and the outside, ready to jump into the caldron that boils for hours the traditional chicken soup that the Jews are also known for using to cure not only a bad cold but also the after effect of drunkenness after a Tisch - a night in which an Admor, the Rebbe of a Chassidic clan hosts a meal during which the soul is flooded with singing and dancing, sharing some pieces of food, most often potato kugel or simple cakes, while the bottles of vodka and prune liquor pass from hand to hand back and forth in between the ecstasic audience.
The market is also carpeted all along by rows of pickled herring, beets, peas and beans in manifold textures staring into the passers from a glass jar, waiting to be finally raptured by a hand, perhaps parfumed with garlic and thyme, that together with mint and rosemary and hibiscus and basil dance freely atop a shopping basket and gleefully blink an eye to the unknowing tourists and at last long then also the most colourful fruits coming directly from the Galilee and from the small green settlements along the Judean desert and southwards almost peeping into Egypt and Saint Catherine's Monastery in the Mount Sinai desert, whose real name is "The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai", known for possessing some of the world's oldest painted icons and being in itself perhaps the second oldest working Christian monastery in the world, consecrated as a place of pilgrimage after the remnants of Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr, were purported to have been transported there by the angels and found by the monks. In times of Muhammed, a Fatimid mosque was built inside the monastery walls but was never used because it seems to not have been correctly oriented towards Mecca, which happened at a time during which the monastery was empty after the isolated Christian anchorites of Sinai were murdered in the 7th century although ever since the First Crusade that reached Sinai in 1270, the monastery has been occupied by European Christians and is now under the autonomous control of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.
Our monastery, so small and modest, without any of the grandeur of Catherine of Alexandria, well-sited in a street named after a great modern rabbi, stood not far away from the Street of the Prophets along which one or another Chassidic Tisch might be found in more than one place, every Friday of the year at night, with the only exception of the rare cases in which the Day of the Atonement, the holiest in the Hebrew calendar after the Sabbath, falls on a Friday, the worlds that separated the Franciscan house of St. Simeon and Anna and the Chassidic palaces, loomed larger than twice the distance of the Equator, and I dare call them palaces because I was once invited for lunch of the Sabbath morning to the house of a stranger, in a Chassidic neighbourhood, that seemed not particularly beautiful or pleasing from the outside - it resembled more one of those large apartment blocks in which immigrants are crowded outside European capitals more than the beautiful Mediterranean houses whose balconies are full living rooms protruding with flowers, ashtrays, old chairs and fresh newspapers, but I was instead welcome in the inside by this old Jewish family from Vienna, that had brought along with them, into the scorching sun of the Orient, the dead elegance of the Imperial city, back from the times when the Romans founded the settlement of Vindobona on the banks on the Danube, in the year 15 BC, as a fortified city to guard the empire against the Germanic tribes from the north.
It was really so, that one might have the idea that nothing had changed since then and had been transported to Jerusalem without further ado, the ivory floors that resembled ancient palaces and the artful cornices of plaster that timidly imitated some of the eternity of Doric and Ionian capitals within the houses of the old nobility; then there were the elegant glass lamps hanging down from the imperial ceilings like a shy drizzle of crystal, so that one might have been then at the same time in one of those sumptuous classrooms at the Mozarteum that were at the same time libraries, music halls and galleries, what might have been also said of the old Talmudic academies in Vilnius and Riga, or closer to Vienna even, in Brisk and Slobodka, Novardok and Ponevech, all of which were destroyed in between the wars and some of which later were re-opened in rather shabby buildings in Jerusalem and Bnei Barak, with nothing else but the old spiritual grandeur; once I took a class at Slobodka with an American young "talmid chochom" (student of wisdom, the Hebrew term for a very devoted student of the Law), it was the first time I opened a tractate of Talmud, on a winter night, many summers ago; if I still remember correctly, it was the twenty-something page of tractate Bava Kamma, dealing with damages and torts, it might have been something about a fire extending into the property of a third person or something about a vessel that broke, I can't quite remember exactly.
But anyway, that's how my idea of the palace conjured up, something between the Mozarteum and the yeshiva. There was something about the beautiful spotless red almost turned purple wig of the lady in the house, and about the moustache and fur hat -both of them carefully trimmed, of her son, the young Rabbi, about the portrait frames with the ageing black and white pictures on the sideboard and about the stunning China, adorned with lines of gold, something so perfectly clean and aesthetic that it already borders on melancholy and on the temptation of death. This something, with the smell of a Viennese dialect, all too recognizable not so much from the words as from the gestures of the hand and the shoulder, would infinitely contrast with the words of Torah spoken at the table, with the fresh air of the city, with the immortal breeze, with the kindness of these men. Almost across the street from their oasis of Roman eternity, lied the entrance to the markets inside the Old City, which had survived all of Jerusalem's suicide attempts, either through the Jaffa Gate or Damascus Gate, you would find yourself quickly after the churches, the Stations of the Cross, the German and Austrian hospices and some old Templar pilgrimage guest houses (now used for expensive clerical soirees and for accomodating the emissaries of the Kingdom of God while travelling through the Holy Land), inside the Arab market, where the Muslims and the Christians would amalgamate into one single bundle of stalls, colours and smells; baklavas and frankincense, souvenirs and chickpeas, keffyiehs and groceries imported from the Gulf countries.
But there inside the darkest passages, as if in the lost pieces of a mystery in the scriptures, written in extinct and forgotten languages, the friars could run all their shopping errands unmolested, unlike in Mahane Yehuda or the shops in the Armenian quarter, coming out of the Jewish neighbourhoods where they would be often spat on by the small children of the religious families. In some of these passages, above of which water leaked from the age-old stone concave ceilings, the trays of fish would look up into the whole bodies of calves and pigs hanging from a sharp hook, out of which the skin would be ripped with knives and placed again atop larger trays bedded with thawing ice. The felicitious sale of pork meat would immediately signal the ownership of the meatshop by a Christian or by an infidel Muslim, in an all too impopular business transaction. At least here, the status quo of the theological mischief would be maintained at the expense of threatening eyes and imprecations, rather than having the places burnt down as it had been the cases in many Jewish settlements, like in the mystical town of Safed, where the shop and the house of a Russian woman who had converted to Christianity, had been torched by zealous Chassidim. I heard there were other markets too, in Kurdish and Georgian neighbourhoods, where I had never been and whose language I didn't understand, but I did know full well that the slabs of fatback were to be found at least in those Christian meatshops at the Arab market.
Friar Ivan would bring the slabs to the monastery for preparing large supplies of "Salo", a typical Ukrainian food, that consisted of curing the slabs with salt and aged in a cold place, so that it would last for a year or more, adding thick layers of minced garlic, black pepper and a yellow paprika that in my ignorance, reminded me of an ochre-colored curry imported from Iraq that was often added to the meat slices roasting on the rotisserie, though it was not common, I had tried it before to much distaste at a famous shwarma stand along Jabotinsky Road, when I had lived in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, in a small place called Ramat Gan. As in the traditional way, we used to thin-slice the salo and eat it on rye-bread to accompany small glasses of vodka or sometimes the traditional Ukrainian horilka, a strong liquor made from distelling grain, potatoes and beets; although more often I would prefer the so-called "perzivka", which is nothing but horilka with chilli peppers. When Father Apolinare, the Polish priest and dean of the monastery would be on leave, we would invite in Sergei and Vlado, two friar friends from Russia and Croatia, who lived at the time in another monastery inside the walls of the Old City, where Ivan and me had been some years before. On the rest of the days when some silence and discipline was required in the house, we would go by with a few classes of red wine from Mount Tabor, that was made also by Christian monks and shipped to all the monasteries all over the country for everyday use.
I don't remember exactly how I ended up living in a monastery, being as godless as I had always been, but those days I remember with a certain glee of happiness; rising early in the morning to scrub the floors and tidy the small TV room, enjoying the breakfast prepared sometimes by Rimona, the house keeper, and other times, by ourselves; spending the day in the small library next to the chapel and oftentimes going into the city, hauntings the cafes and the thrills of people, only a few streets away from home. Oftentimes too we would stay for the Holy Mass and would prepare the chapel during the afternoon hours, tidying up everything, bringing each day fresh linen cloth for the altar and preparing everything so that sacraments could be delivered at the hour. For so long, I had been so not in control of my life and depended almost exclusively on the charity of other people, particularly on Christian charity because my soul was already too tired to pray to the Jewish God and I spent most of my hours walking through the Christian churches in the East, trying to find shelter from life in the renunciation of a contemplative stance for which I never had any loyalty whatsoever, being in such constant urgency to become one with the edges of risk. Not for one moment I thought of myself as a Christian, but I did feel constantly that whatever had held any power to subject me to the Law, had lost all its validity in the course of universal history, that there could be no solace, no relief, no atonement.
And I remember the monastery because it was there that I heard about Istanbul for the first time; on a certain afternoon of salo and horilka, I had heard together with Ivan a story told in Italian about a certain Roman lady, who had divorced a man and then fled to Istanbul, having felt at the moment of her arrival that so much had been wasted in her life, so much time, only in order to come at long last to the capital of the world, that has had more names in the past than religions in the present, and once in the city she had been the lover of a famous poet and the muse of many others, then later in life she bought a Hamam, a Turkish bath, and re-did it all by herself opening again to the public at a time when the Hamam was no longer fashionable, becoming an institution in itself with people coming from everywhere just to get a glimpse of Madam Anita, who was as eccentric as she was a mysterious character. After many years of illness, the Hamam closed down when Madam could no longer run the place, even though the stories were still heard from one end to another of the Bosphorous, and when she ultimately died, the Hamam was inherited by her nephew Francesco, a Roman architect trapped in a very simple little life of banality and pleasure.
Francesco then travels for the first time to Istanbul to try and sell the property quickly and return to run his business in Rome but after having experienced for the first time not only the secrets of the Hamam but also the sense of urgency and life that comes to all of those who come to Istanbul for the first time. He decides not to sell the Hamam and to invest in the difficult work of opening the Hamam again, developing a very close friendship with the Turkish family that took care of Madam during the long years of her exile in Istanbul (or it is true that perhaps she had been exiled in Rome and then free in Istanbul...) and a passionate Romance with Mehmet, the young son of the family. In the meanwhile his wife Martha in Rome, is known to have had a long Romantic affair with Paolo, their business associate and flies to Istanbul in order to get divorced from Francesco who is apparently set on his mind to stay behind the Hamam. To Martha's dismay, she encountered a totally different Francesco and realized how she was still in love with him until she discovered one night at the Hamam, the dreamland of love that flourished between Francesco and Mehmet. Eventually at the engagement party of Mehmet's sister, Fusun, she storms up the moment with an open confession of her infidelity and in the end of that tragic night, Francesco signs the papers for the divorce and Martha leaves for a hotel in the city in order to fly back to Rome the next day.
As the next day approaches, both Martha and Francesco are freed from each other and Martha sits on a cafe to read the letters that Madam had written and never sent to her sister, Francesco's mother, then she goes on to visit a friend of Madam Anita trying to find answers for herself in all what has happened, or perhaps not answers, but to enable herself to ask the right questions - An affair with Paolo, leaving Francesco, loving Francesco again, his turbulent love for Mehmet, and while she's visiting this old Italian man who like Anita, had exiled himself forever in the beautiful turned upside down skies of Istanbul, and while there, she learns that Francesco has been murdered by a gunman that the Turkish mafia that had wanted to buy his property had summoned, because they had wanted to turn the whole neighbourhood into a modern commercial complex and the refusal of Francesco to comply with the sales, had put the project to halt. That story I had heard during my last weeks at the monastery, as Ivan and I listened to attentively trying not to miss one single detail, even though we were still occupied with the chores of the house and the tasks given to us by the Kingdom of God on earth, but the story I never forgot.
Later that year when I had abandoned the monastery and also the city of Jerusalem, being too drunk on wine to cry at all, I received a letter from the painter Katherina, a belovedmost friend from another life, in an ancestral city of stone, a person different in every way from Catherina of Alexandria, even though they had both been in Istanbul, which is where Katherina's letter had been sent from. Since at the time I didn't have any stories to tell myself, or at least I thought I didn't - it is impossible not to be disciplined as an storyteller! I remember very well the letter, that also contained some train tickets and a box of Turkish cigarettes that traveled with me all the way to another continent, it was a letter about a journey, in which the painter had met a Turkish writer exiled in Switzerland and writing theatre in the German language; they had spent a beautiful night at a bar, which later I learnt, must be somewhere in the Taksim quarter, around the French street which now for political reasons has been renamed Algeria Street, or so I heard from Faruk, a Kurdish friend who still awaits for me somewhere around there and who has lived for over ten years in Istanbul waiting for a friend to arrive. Katherina had spent a beautiful night of truth and wonder with her Turkish friend, whose name I never learnt, after which they had agreed to meet at the airport before their flights back to Europe but out of some deceitful trick of the times, Katherina had been late and missed the writer for one a few moments, so that she had already crossed the gate that divided the world of those merely waiting from the world of those already departing.
She could only glimpse into her long beautiful hair and the motions of her shoulders, and was left there, in the other side, with this deep sense of abandonment, of having been stolen out of a crucial moment of life, glancing into a friend, into a network of moments of life, now lost forever and only a few meters ahead, yet already infinitely distant. Katherina made pictures of her through the glass but the airport security made her delete all the pictures and so she was left there, with nothing but a moment, a moment lost that could irreparably change the course of the hours and the years. I have felt this so many times, like that day when I was invited by a stranger to a party given in honor of a young writer I had never met, and in whose hands and eyes I encountered a certain fondness that has never abandoned me, whom I had described in my own writing as an "airport love", even though I saw him one next time, sitting in his room and staring into the Andean mountains, having one Last Supper, knowing full well that I should have met this person so many years before in life, and living with the burdensome awareness that it's now lost, for the day after our fateful encounter he was already on a plane that took him to the Siberian esteep, living next to a lake in a beautiful but shabby house, with students from Iran and Uzbekistan, not speaking one word of the language, writing me a poem, sometimes a shot letter that I never responded to, trying to ameliorate my sense of loss.
There was also a young man with a Biblical name, that I met during a journey, and who himself was a wayfarer exiled in a distant foreign land, a young man whose fullness of embodiment on earth I loved since the very first minute I encountered him, and who had told me once, in a letter, some weeks before I met his beautiful countenance, that one day we should meet at the local airport with a bottle of spirits and just sit around somewhere, looking into people, into coming, into going, trying to pierce through the leaks in the possible lost time. However, after one night of despair, when I had no choice but to show him my pain, my colourful and transient sorrow, he shun me off from his sight forever and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't come visit the shore of the palm of his hand ever again, no matter how much I had loved the space in which he existed, the words that he offered me and the fresh water of his fingertips. The day he was supposed to leave, I turned up at the airport with the long-promised bottle of spirits, trying to catch a glimpse of him, a last souvenir, something, anything, an image, a number on a napkin, a smell around the neck, and no matter how many hours, how many hours I wandered about, inspecting each and every face, every and every fingertip, each lover in a lonely table, every word of silent conversation between one traveler and another, I was left without the simplest tangible memory of having ever wrapped my arms around his broad shoulders, it could have been a lie, I could have imagined it all, there's absolutely no way I can prove it. That's why Katherina's letter has stayed fixed in my mind like a cross, even though on the first night of a certain journey, I was assaulted in the street and my handbag was lost with her letter and also with a small drawing of a garden we had both seen, that she had sent me with a friend from Vienna all the way to the fresh breezes of Tel Aviv. My sense of loss is so enormous, that I just can't let go of it.
In a letter I wrote once to Jonathan, the man with the Biblical name, the man that vanished as swiftly as he had become an epiphany before, I explained it to the best of my knowledge, without knowing full well how important that best knowledge would become only shortly thereafter: "It is like the metaphor of loving someone at the airport, through the window panes that separate the different waiting rooms; imagining scenes of suffering from one to the next station of the Cross, out of the simplest glass of whiskey held by the hand, out of the watch missing from the wrist or the ring from the finger, thinking that maybe it was stolen by a lover or asked to be turned in after a sentimental disaster. This is a rather voyeuristic price to pay, that of the artist or the writer, the infinitely aesthetic pleasure of experiencing love and desire from the vantage point of the most absolute and impossible distance, there is no pity and no mercy in this loving contemplationm it is riddled by the most objective form of cruelty. The unwillingness to interfere in the slow lane of biological processes, avoiding the nearness of the lips with the only intention to avoid not a bad aftertaste but with the firm resolution to supress and surpass all guilt. Guilt must be supressed insofar as it is rememeberable."
And so I remembered always this letter from Istanbul, without going into the particular details of architectural importance, because it was to me more of a cycle of legends that had begun with Catherina of Alexandria, passing through the most intangible losses and winding up into the real Katherina, the evening painter, about fifteen centuries later. I never thought that I would see Istanbul again until that morning when out of my desperate need for conversation I went up the very steep hill into that balcony from which one could see a beautiful city far away in the distance, and though that city was not Istanbul, the balcony itself contained the city, with the stories of loss, spanning from the Christian martyr to the godless painter, and it was not because the balcony resembled the city in anyway but only because she, my muse, Sevgi, contained all the eyes of the city into her own two eyes - no more space was needed. That early morning, as we sat in the sun and devoured all the possibilities afforded by the language of human beings, I picked back the thread left somewhere in a boat along the Bosphorous those many years ago and retrieved its full power with the conviction that never again would I let go of such power to entice. It was as if a whole life could be crowded into one single day of happiness without losing one single moment, without losing one single moment of fidelity with the past and with the present. Any person who would have seen Sevgi that morning would make sure to think that she's perhaps the most beautiful of all women, or rather, the most beautiful female, the endless recognition of the instinct of life, the edges and the risk and the breeze and the oxygen and the air and the absence of the air, everything in one single creature.
I had been completely uncertain the night before whether I should in fact ascend that mountain in order to come to her like a prince is coming to the rescue of a maiden, and whether I had been truly asked to come to Istanbul in the middle of the sunny breeze of a deserted January; and it wasn't because I had no trust in the power that the words of truth have to give people power to move freely in the world and of their own accord, but it had to do with the endless sense of loss that I had grown into for a long time now in which the only firm resolution ever made possible to fight against the triviliaties of life and the lies of dead time was the solitude of the philosopher in his writing desk, having lost, along the biffurcating paths of the journey, all possible skills for living, having renounced the world even in spite of the consistent knowledge that there could be no better world than this, no better life than this, but for the others, as pieces in a puzzle, as characters in a novel, but yet nothing that could touch you so immediately and unmediatedly that you would lose yourself in somebody else only in order to find the clarity to offer a single moment of uninterested love. All my conversations were solitary, sollipsistic even, poorly poetical and though very loyal to myself, they were also in the highest level of inflicted self-damage. But when I arrived in Istanbul, looking into the foreign city, that though beautiful, resembled more a post card than a reality I had any wish to live in, because the beauty was not made out of the pressure of time against our chest but rather out of completely dead matter; bricks, banks, concrete, glass, crystal, metal, but not one single word, not one single story, not the slightest clue of what it means to build a world together; so Istanbul yes, upon my arrival, I was welcome with the freshest light that was ever casted on an eye human, and for several hours I couldn't let go of the feeling that I was dying or that I was going to die.
I don't want to be misunderstood, this is not because I felt unhappy, but rather because never before, since I had lived once so fully and so intensely, it hadn't been possible to feel so many things at once, and so overwhelmed I was that every second I went through the most unbearable fear that the moments that bound together the seconds and the minutes and the hours would come to an end; I inspected my body carefully, inspected it searching for blotches in the skin or for any possibly lethal bleeding or mortal wounds, because that would explain the terrible unease caused by the recognition of being yet so far away, the Angst and the fear, the fear of yet losing her once again, like Katherina's friend was lost at the airport, like I lost the writer and Jonathan as well, like Catherine of Alexandria lost her body atop Mount Sinai in the hands of the sand, I wasn't sure that I would be able to cope with this loss once I had reached Istanbul inside an Andean forest. Being at home is too strong an expression for someone who's declared himself a nomad in the world, even within the same city and for someone for whom direction is not an established guideline in life, but perhaps that is what it was, irrespective of the actual geography, being at home in the sense of having understood the same way that the other has understood and the fact of becoming completely electrified by this. I never thought this could happen to me unless I would go to Istanbul, but not counting with the miraculous deed that one day, in the most somber moment of my life, Istanbul would come to me, with praise and song, with faith and love. It was not death perhaps, what I fret with so much anguish about, but rather the fear of being alive again, a fear that is difficult to let go of, not because it makes you afraid but because you've fallen in love with the fear - for there's no courage without fear.
But as my boat landed on the Bosphorous that settled in between one glass and another, I made sure to throw my anchor so that I could never again be dispossessed, so that I wouldn't have to begin writing letters that I would ultimately never send insofar as they would have to be sent on this today and not in any other today, because otherwise I would be already forgotten and estranged. I began to daydream as I spoke at the same time, and the sun changed into rain, I saw the postcard city ahead of us disappear into nothingness and become replaced by the imagery of something that while it is not eternal, it couldn't be ransacked by fools. So many letters I wrote that day! I wrote with my hands in the air and with the smoke that came out of my mouth, with the movement of my legs and with the songs that I whispered to myself, with every pulsation of the heart and each blinking of the eye. I had traveled through so many places, some of them cruel and shameful, the countries of birth, far away from the spaces of desire, the intellectual mercilessness of reasoning about things that have to do with the human heart and with again, the sense of loss, while other places were beautiful and singular, pictoresque, possible, timely, and necessary. I wonder if I can ever lose Istanbul after having sunk so deep into the river that contained Sevgi's beauty with the sadness and the joy, the abandonment and the liveliness!
So different it looks now to be in Istanbul than I did when I lived in the monastery trying to take shelter from the failures of my life, which are no longer failures but loyal evidence to not having betrayed one's dreams as a child, of walking along untrodden paths that couldn't have been walked before, unless the visionary, without the self-confidence of the genius, would have cut through the haze of ivies without hesitation of expectation even. That day, at night, as Sevgi's millions of words resounded in my head over and over, haunting me not like nightmares but like the sudden and unexpected arrival of dreams of purest white beauty, in between the dizziness of the wine and the pasta, the intoxication of empathy, the inability to let go of the moment, my own surrender to the merciless passage of time, I thought that there was a part of the Hamam's story that I hadn't listened to carefully and I could do so only now after I had been back to the streets of Istanbul in the eyes of Sevgi and that I couldn't do with Ivan anymore because after his journey to Moscow he converted to Orthodox Judaism and is now called Yochanan rather than Ivan and is locked up in one of those Talmudic academies that I fled from when I entered the monastery: After the death of Francesco, Martha was taken in again by the Turkish family that had hosted Francesco, as she was heart-broken and unable to return to Rome, but eventually as it had been the case with Francesco, they became her own family and the purest realization of sense in life, so that she ended up staying in Istanbul and finishing the work of the Hamam that Francesco had begun, becoming in turn, herself, a new Madam Anita, forever anchored in the Bosphorous and running the Hamam by herself. This is the last letter that she sent to Mehmet:
Yesterday we finally got a letter from you. I'm happy to hear you're doing fine. But if that's not true, if you want to talk, I am here. Since you left the neighbourhood has changed a lot. I convinced Fusun not to get married, to your mother's great joy, last week Yildiz had her baby and they've decided to call him Francesco, of course, Perran, Fusun and I had a good cry over the news. Almost every afternoon I go down to the Hamam, we're done with the work now. Sometimes at sunset I get sad, but then the cold breeze blows, all of a sudden, and takes my sadness far away. It's a strange breeze, like no other. It's a light breeze, and it loves me".