Istanbul 3.6 - Deranged Collector: Ender Baskan, Hot Desk Fellowships 2014

The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. This week, we’ll continue to publish a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Ender Baskan’s Welcome Home is a memoir about growing up in today’s Australia, and his journey to Turkey, as the only child of Turkish migrants, ‘to try to explain myself to myself’. It’s part travel story, part meditation on migrant life. In this extract, he arrives in Istanbul, where the Gezi Park Protest movement has swelled from a small sit-in to a nationwide crisis.

I’d fallen into a strange cave dripping with bric-a-brac stalactites. The faint sound of my steps echoed damply through the air. I sensed I was being watched. There were blow-up sex dolls with startled expressions — mouths wide open and big red lips and arms at right-angles. There were naked mannequins, pinup-girl posters, ventriloquist dolls, a garden gnome, gas masks and military helmets. Everything was obsessively arranged, creating the sense that each item had materialised in position. Feeling more cramped than I probably was, I kept my elbows tucked into my sides as I shuffled through the space, starting to sweat. I didn’t feel like I could touch anything, wake anything up. Even though I’d never liked rings — this probably stemmed from Dad having never allowed me to wear jewellery, men don’t wear jewellery, but also from an irrational fear that they’d get stuck on my fingers — I picked one up and tried it quickly on my little finger before putting it back down. In one corner there were all these beautiful empty tins and boxes flecked with rust — washing powders, soaps, shaving creams, hair creams, face powders. There was brylcream and brilliantine. Turkish adjectives for cleanliness flew into my head. I whispered them under my breath. Piril piril. Tertemiz. Mis gibi.

There was a sign informing me that the store was aimed at ‘the slightly deranged collector seeking identifiable memories.’

Derange (verb) – To throw (something) into confusion; cause to act irregularly.

Deranged (adj) – Insane. ‘A loss of contact with reality.’

I wondered when the mind responsible for this swamp of memory would appear and felt compelled to break the quiet, announce myself — I know you’re here, I have nothing to hide. This was a learnt behaviour, I had been conditioned to assume that my appearance would cause shopkeepers, amongst others, to treat me with suspicion. They’d be glued to their CCTV screens or otherwise would shuffle over from behind the counter and peek at me from the edge of grocery aisles as I stared at the ice-cream freezer or the bread shelf. This self-consciousness was something I struggled to shake. The context: having come from a family that had wrenched itself from a safe but poor place to become, as almost all migrants become, richer and more isolated, but also acutely aware that each human animal has within them something fundamental that acts like a risk meter and commands each choice, each reflex. Even in Melbourne’s northern suburbs where there were people around who were bigger, darker, more hairy, more deranged; I’d always felt like my presence would spike someone’s risk meter toward the darker shades of red — high, very high, severe, extreme. Whenever I’d enter a store such as this, I’d offer up my bag just to liberate myself from the sense of suspicion. In fitting rooms I’d feel relieved when clothing had security tags. In other words, I tried in vain to belong.

I pushed some keys on a typewriter. Shmp-tack. Shmp-tack. Shmp-tack. The friction of each stroke elicited a shard of tactile euphoria at the collision of ink and paper. Shmp-tack, Shmp-tack. Still no sign of anyone; I kept wading through these unfamiliar memories. There was a lobster and we locked eyes, it reared back, life-like but stiff, plastic but alive, its eyes smooth and black like olives from a jar. I winked at it as a sign of non-aggression, but lobsters have no eyelids, so unable to wink back, the tension between us escalated until I retreated slowly, eyes still locked, before hearing a voice from behind me.

—Please be careful with your bag.

I was ready but feigned surprise as my gaze swivelled from the lobster with a delayed jolt and to the man.

—Oh, merhaba, you scared me.

—Merhaba.

—I was… you really came out of nowhere.

Eyes like bowling balls, he seemed to have emerged from a Fritz Lang film, tall, broad shoulders, widow’s peak, offering a quarter-smile that lingered too long for my liking. I looked away and shifted my backpack around to my front but that seemed stupid in his presence. I placed it on the ground somewhat too carefully.

—Do you have any old Hayat magazines? It’s the only thing I was asked to take back… It’s for my Grandma.

Hayat? Of course, I have over here.

Slow and lopsided, as if dragging a ball and chain, he led me past a row of dolls with poker machine eyes and toward these old magazines. There was a pile of Hayat, faded and creased, mostly from the 50s and 60s, Western glamour on the covers. Claudia Cardinale leaning against a tree. Brigitte Bardot head tilted, pulling a clip from her hair, about to shake it out. Jackie Kennedy. Jayne Mansfield, excellent posture. Footballer Can Bartu, forced smile, posing in a turtleneck. The Iranian Royal Wedding. Natalie Wood, I’d never heard of you, but I love you.

Hayat means life. Once a portal to the West, now these faded pages were an exercise in time; back then the Turks imported hopes and dreams. The imminent future was irresistible — in the West. Though most Turks left for Germany where jobs were abundant and home was close, the allure of the new world signed another desire. Having worked for an airline, Grandpa had seen parts of Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands. Something pushed him and Grandma further, to newer frontiers. I can see them driving out of their two-car garage and through the northern suburbs of Melbourne with the windows down, or even better, a shiny convertible, full tank of petrol, my Grandma’s scarf fluttering around her neck, big sunglasses, red lipstick. My Grandpa behind the wheel: moustache, aviators, Sunday best, arm around the passenger seat, chin up. Viva Australia!

Though I’d later regret hauling ballast around Turkey, I settled on a 1962 Hayat yearbook — thick as a Yellow Pages — and was pleased with myself for over-delivering on Grandma’s request. In the sandwich that is a migrant grandkid’s life, duty is bread. Swivelling to find the man and talk Lira, I knocked over a vacuum cleaner, and bending to pick it up, heard a rattle come from above. I turned around to the sight of a complete set of organs tumbling from the torso of a mannequin and onto the floor. I began placing the liver and the stomach and the intestines back into place, when he appeared again.

—Sorry, I…

—It’s ok, don’t worry.

—So how much for this Hayat.

—Fifty Lira.

Fifty seemed excessive, but then again, how much should it cost? In any case, I was in no position to bargain as I picked up guts off the floor, I had a liver in my hand. I decided to take the magazine at that price.

As it turned out he’d been to Australia, and was able to pick me from my accent. When I told him I was from Melbourne, his stillness ceased and his arms, his whole body came to life, as he painted the air with cliff faces, waves rolling in, a winding road.

—I love this road, near the big rock towers in the sea.

—Yeah, the Great Ocean Road.

—Aha, yes, this one. I look at the water, breathe the cold air, waves breaking the rock a little bit at a time for million years. You have a good country. This beautiful nature, everybody have car but no traffic, respect for ideas and difference. You have quiet in Australia. Space. I make my big mistake going to America. Thirteen years in New York then I come back here — my second big mistake. If I have my time again, I go to Australia.

—And you think it’s too late now?

—I don’t have unlimited chances. Sometimes you must stop moving and accept. This is my place.

A lung in one hand, he held out his other hand, into which I placed the liver. The liver fit in nicely over the stomach, and the operation was finally complete with the placement of the lungs, though I wondered if we’d lost the pancreas somewhere under the table.

—How do you feel here in Istanbul?

—Of course this is my home but things are getting very bad, very bad.

—You mean the government and the protests?

—You must understand, there is no future for someone like you here. Everybody is on the street, fighting for the things you already have in your country. Listen to me, don’t fall in love with this place. Istanbul is like, let me say, Sharon Stone. Beautiful woman, very seductive but very dangerous. Trouble.