ON TWO WORDS THAT MEAN THE SAME THING:

AN ELEGY FOR MY PEOPLE

WITH AN INTIMATE EPILOGUE

Sébastien Bernard

ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019

1.

 

Güz: both fall and the first syllable of beauty

in my mother tongue. Socialism like honey

 

from the music of the tongue of a stranger—a Kurd

to be precise, whom I met online, a boy who survived

 

the rubble of a Turkish military operation, while still

inside the womb of his mother, who fled like a saint

 

holding her husband’s hand, who lied into her ear:

this is the last, evîna min, I paid the truck driver

 

for the journey all the way. Still the shoes to trade,

winter coat, winter boots, and grandpa’s inexplicable

 

ruby ring. Istanbul ne hostile, ne güzel—just mean,

rude, and poorer in its way: you build your own house

 

with your bare hands on a brown lot from the price

of fresh fruit and meat. Ferit speaks a Turkish like knife-

 

edge—loud, sibilant—because knives kill lovers like him

who speak their mother tongue. Sedat (21) just last week

 

bled to death, because six men at a bus stop heard him

speak Kurdish on his phone: Think whether those last

 

words were without issue, or a slip, or absolute necessity,

or daring to prove his father wrong, who had counseled

 

him not to: do what the quantal voice-box is meant:

lean into the only sounds that can beg, trip, forgive.

 

Ferit, too, counseled by his mother to be silent, leads the way

to a truck in a once-Greek neighborhood—abandoned

 

when fake news claimed the birth home of the deceased

first president of Turkey, his hometown in Greece, bombed,

 

causing a government-armed pogrom that killed dozens,

and displaced tens of thousands of Greeks. Oh, my hysterical

 

people. A neighborhood since squatted by Romani, Kurdish,

Iraqi, Syrian, and African immigrants now on the verge of eviction

 

for luxury apartments whose life-size digital illustrations bespeak

a futuristic nostalgia for empire, with some neo-classical molding

 

to hint that we’ve been following in the steps of our ex-colonizers

all along. For now, Leyla still sells her hand-sewn underwear

 

at the local bazaar, and watches her kids play soccer in the street,

and at night Ferit leads me through the endangered alleys to a food truck

 

that boasts an unused grill, because what’s really on sale inside

are the pills that come in blue and pink: ecstasy stamped

 

with Superman’s cheeky ‘S,’ and never—like poor Uncle Sam’s,

always cutting corners—a bad batch. Here he speaks

 

the language that finally ensures our trust, and our adrenaline

pumps as we walk past undercover cops, through that shining

 

hill of my city: the ghetto, where the same cops await, silently

a class war that has happened elsewhere, because here

 

we’re too close to capital. Then the club on the 5th floor

of a building off a street bustling with taverns and tourists,

 

my heart begins its birdsong—the lush curtains move to reveal

homosexuals, queens, trans sisters, queers of all stripes,

 

goths, sex workers, lovers, friends, fuck friends, writers,

activists, goddamn exchange students, and each day more

 

and more immigrants out of God’s good eye, who’ve made it

from Tehran, Damascus, Cairo, Sana'a, shaking off the

 

wolf, shedding skin, kissing, holding hands, sweating,

dancing, sitting in the plush velvet sofas in the back,

 

lips twisting, curling, caressing, jumping, confidently,

ecstatically, defensively, coyly—desiring, drifting,

 

declaring, affecting, giving, forgiving, scheming. A kind

of dream, I think, when Ferit presses his mouth

 

to mine, and I forget, for several minutes, that tomorrow

he will be in the east, the source of our visions, and I

 

the west, the source of our nightmares, as we hold

onto each other for dear life.




 

2.

 

Sonbahar: fall, or ‘last spring,’ in Turkish: 1 movie

following another survivor: rootless, impotent, alone

 

on the raging shore of the Black Sea where he was born,

after a military raid on the political prison where he lost

 

lost . . . 200 miles away skin melting off

the cheekbone of a hunger striker at Bayrampaşa

 

Closed Prison, December 19, 2000, where it was

easier to burn the 6o victims protesting solitary

 

confinement huddled in a space of 150 m2, autopsies

revealing toluene, xylene, and methanol in skin, hair,

 

and clothing fragments, as well as tear and nerve gas.

All poured down the ceiling as in a conscious reenactment

 

of Birkenau. Look at this still of her stoic cheekbones

that spell “No, sister,” or “Yes, kardeş, here I stand,”

 

in the real voice of muteness. Press ‘play’ and you’ll hear

her speak: “they burned us alive,” in a voice whose calm

 

will haunt you like a lethal mystery—strange fruit

of the still-living throat. She will appear on TV

 

to describe every detail, but what is etched forever

in the memory of those who watched: weapons of

 

war against a single soul, a single skull. Prayer

plucked out of total and abject disbelief.

 

A cousin moves to the US, for no good reason.

After all his poor uncle made it in and out of junta

 

prison in Istanbul after the Pentagon informed then-CIA

chief of Ankara that “the boys did it,” meaning Turkish generals,

 

soldiers, and paramilitaries who took over the country in 1980

to charge, imprison, or kill anyone aiming to change “the character

 

of the Republic,” “disappearing” over a thousand—517 officially,

299 unrecorded, the rest extrajudicial. ‘Yankee Go Home,’

 

ama beni de al, pero llévame contigo: but, gringo, take me

with you. Yellow highway lines of a DUI—the absurd (there,

 

in America) is given several names: oil, gun, and Blue Velvet.

“I, mother, am,” the boy writes, “worried about my other.

 

My other is living on classes, mother, not a girl looks at him

who does not see in his features the hot-blooded Arab

 

of her mother’s nightmares, while I stand looking at her,

and I swear, from that position all Americans are monkeys.

 

They couldn’t tell their tails apart from that president

if they ended up at a bonfire off this college town in upstate

 

New York. I am a hanged man here, mother, I fill a hole

with damages. I look forward to being profiled, Tased,

 

and searched. Did you find anything? Me, me, that’s

all you’ll find in this body. My privileges. What would

 

my elders think of it all, if I cared for such things?

I’d gladly cut their faces from high school yearbooks

 

and stage a history of my country’s horrors. Halls

where you must pick your nationality, your ethnicity,

 

your party—are you a Turk or a bastard? There’s one

good answer. No, my ancestors can go re-bite the big one.

 

There is a poison inside me—inside my stubbornness—

that tears holes at the roots of my very dreams,

 

the dreams of my people. A violence that pulls them

down into the dirt, into nightmares a hundred times

 

darker than any Dante imagined. Now I choose to live

in this country where I’m a foreigner, where most people

 

hate their emotions, and are as afraid of love as

kindergarteners are afraid of being stuck inside the gate

 

to either their captivity or their freedom. Here we are,

mother, running from the gravity of our own shadows,

 

our own misgivings, our own best impulses on a day

to day basis. But at least, Heart, here I am not forced

 

into military service, and, maybe, killing my other. To hate

the fullness of my own mind. These are luxuries

 

in New York: ones that don’t get you far,

but luxuries, nevertheless. I enjoy my poverty.”



 

3.

 

Your survival: an empty seat on the bus

to Ankara Central railway station, 5:25 am,

 

October 10, 2015: where hundreds will gather

to ask for peace between the Turkish government

 

and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK,

when a double explosion will char the halay

 

practiced by entwining one’s arms or pinkies

and kicking in a line or circle, performed at wedding

 

ceremonies and political rallies—into a bloodbath.

No room for survivor’s guilt. Police are tailing you

 

for going to a protest to protest that. I know this Middle

Eastern Kafkaesque is not lost on you, because it never is,

 

but that you’re genuinely scared. Scared that they might

show up at your home. They know too much about you.

 

That you are gay, they would use against you, out you

to your family so you have nowhere to live. This is real.

 

It happened to a friend of yours. He moved in

with your classmates at the university, where you visit

 

often. Kurdish blood has never weighed the same

as Turkish blood. The blood of a Turkish soldier who died

 

a hundred years ago safeguarding the republic—killing

minorities like us—weighs more than the blood

 

of a Kurdish boy who dies this minute. Now the military

carries out its bloodiest offensives against southeastern

 

Kurdish villages since Ferit’s mother left her home

when she was pregnant with him. Now the city

 

of Cizre is under lockdown and more parents are

afraid to leave their houses for water and food

 

because snipers prowl every street. Ferit’s mother

remembers this possibility like it was yesterday

 

so she will never appreciate her son’s daring, the fact

that he wears the colors of Kurdistan in a wristband.

 

“The noose around your arteries,” she tells him, “your

suicide, boy.” She says it for his benefit, though he curses

 

her lack of political will. He says his father does better:

takes him to the village of his birth and eviction, where

 

a missile sits—undetonated—in what used to be his school:

a concrete rectangle. Ferit can’t believe it, but his father smiles

 

like a ghost. “We made it out, I guess,” he says, “most of us

fled, and the rest, well, they had a mind to join the rebels,

 

or hold on.” And Ferit squeezes his shoulder, who raised

him selling odd items at one of those Turkish bazaars

 

where you can buy everything, from olives to pajamas.

And he remembers the day his father accompanied him

 

to the bookstore where he’d fill his bag up to become

the writer he is now, from which he sometimes stole,

 

and his father asked if there was a discount for students,

when 17-yr-old Ferit—before he could even think—said: this

 

is not a bazaar, dad. A father’s rejection is insoluble, claustrophobic,

blue with anxiety and guilt, often anger—not this father. How

 

Ferit realized he could suddenly create a rupture between them,

which he did not understand yet, regretted with every bone. Broken,

 

he hugged him. Now. Now father and son on the edge of all

things past: the future an overwhelming caress, he said:

 

“I’m sorry.” “For what, son?” “For not understanding. For all

of it.” “But, none . . . I . . . in fact, it’s sometimes, I . . .”

 

He felt his son’s hand squeeze his shoulder, again, understood

he could be quiet. And Ferit understood this was one way he could

 

hold his father. No will necessary in that gesture, that ablution,

not even the old familiar hatred of these destroyed and sunburnt

 

images, not even hope. The sense simply that all was there:

the shape of history: ginormous, quiet—something to best,

 

beat, bury. And that there was a time for fists, for banners,

and a time for tears. For watching one’s father cry.

Sébastien Bernard is a Turkish poet and fiction writer based in Istanbul. He was a 2018 Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow, and his fiction appears in Evergreen Review and DIAGRAM; his poetry in SUSAN/The Journal, DIAGRAM, KGB Bar Lit, Prelude, and Queen Mob's Teahouse. Sébastien completed his BA in Philosophy at Vassar College, and his MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. He edits for Brooklyn Poets’ the Bridge remotely, and has called Istanbul, Poughkeepsie, NYC, and Maputo home.

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