Preview: Ayfer Simm’s ‘A Rumor In Üsküdar’ Part Three

May 22, 2019


Extracts from Ayfer Simms debut novel, ‘A Rumor In Üsküdar’




An integral part of the Monolith Cocktail team for the last six or more years, cosmopolitan writer Ayfer Simms has contributed countless music/film reviews (Ouzo Bazooka, Pale Honey, Gaye Su Akyol, Murder On The Orient Express, The Hateful Eight) and interviews (Sea + Air, The Magic Lantern) – and even appeared in the video of one of our featured artists (Blue Rose Code).

Taking time away from the blog to focus on her debut novel, Ayfer has spent the last 18 months busily working away at a story that encompasses not only the personal (including the death of her father) but the wider psychogeography and geopolitics of her native home of Istanbul.

Born in the outlier pastoral regions of Paris to Turkish parents, Ayfer spent her formative years in France dreaming about following in the travelling footsteps of her great literature love, Agatha Christie. After studying for a degree in literature (writing music reviews on the side), Ayfer moved to Ireland for six years before travelling aboard the famous Trans Siberian railway and settling in Japan. Initially visiting her sister, Ayfer not only stayed indefinitely but got married and had a daughter. Deciding to attempt a life in Turkey, where the family is originally from, they moved into Ayfer’s great-grandmother’s house in the Üsküdar district, on the Asian banks of the sprawling Istanbul metropolis.

A Rumor In Üsküdar is in so many ways autobiographical, the first chapter, which we previewed back in March 2019, and subsequent ones, including today’s chapter three extracts, are inspired by the death of Ayfer’s father a few years back. Part three, ‘The Old Man’, plays out a part soliloquy, part grieving monologue like imagined conversation between Ayfer and her late father, set to various Istanbul landmarks, one of which turns out to be a final resting place.

These familiar settings are given a slightly dystopian mystique and ominous threat by Ayfer, who reimagines the Üsküdar neighbourhood of the novel’s title being isolated and quarantined by the government, as they test out a piece of (propaganda orchestrated) news on the population.

That’s just the umbrella story though, within that framing we have the main character confronted by the country where she originated from imprisoned but ready to face it all and hoping for a wind of change.

Translated into English from the original French and Turkish language versions, an extract from chapter three, ‘An Old Man’, awaits.

CHAPTER 3 

An Old Man


I go up the stairs looking at the time. All I can do now is to take the boat to reach the European shore. An old man blocks my way. I feel my irritation rise, as since this morning there seem to be too many obstacles.

– Help me daughter.

He is old. Too old to hurt me but I do not want to be disturbed. I imagine shaking him and feel satisfied that he is no threat. I weigh him up like I do every other person who comes up against me, just in case. Could I neutralize him with a twist of an arm? What do my years of training in martial arts serve me if I can not let some steam off mentally, if I cannot stretch my limbs and let others rush to it, break their balance whilst keeping my center, what do I care if they fall on me like comets from the stars?

– Sir, I do not have time, I say.

He is so wrinkled that I feel remorse. I change my phrase.

– What can I do for you?

– I live near the quarters of Ayazma. Put me on the right path, will you. I’m lost.

– It’s near my house.

He is polite, haggard.

 

Around us the rumor swells that there is no boat, the bridge is blocked. Taxis do not take travelers. I am stuck. I warn my teacher. He must think my excuse is a bit phony. Excuses are the martial artists’ enemy and downfall. Train at all cost.

– Times have changed, but I do not see very clearly. Where are the fig trees…?

He turns to me, the crowd is pouring over us, and he is waiting for me to react. I do not answer, I’m stuck, frozen and the words as usual are heaped in my throat. Because taken by surprise my Turkish sometimes takes odd forms.

– I’m dead my daughter. That’s why you have to help me.

– Don’t say that! You are in good shape.

– I died 120 years ago.

– Sorry?

He is a poet or he is crazy. However complaining about one’s health is not unusual in Turkey, the idea of ​​old age settling early confers a vulnerability and respect that Turks bizarrely seem to enjoy. But already I believe him. He is a ghost.

 

There are helicopters in the sky. The titans are fighting and we hear the squeaky echoes of their metal armor. It is probably Veysel who tries to crush his opponents, they fight back, and it is their chase we hear in the starry sky. Or just patrols, special operations, special measures, a hunt for anything that moves, so called terrorists.

– I’m dead; I’m not any wiser though. I know nothing more than I knew in my lifetime. I realize it now that I am here. It’s a shame; death is useless in fact. A rest maybe, but since I woke up…

– Who woke you up?

– I would like to know … I feel like I have not learned anything since my death. The ignorant souls remain so too and that is a pity. A real pity. Disappointing in fact. Well, that does not stop me from being curious…and the absence of fig trees bothers me.

– They are around still.

– I do not know by what mystery I find myself here. God is great; I am the result of his miracle. The dead sleep peacefully in their bed. Their tomb says, “He was a person who loved kindness and justice”. At Karacahmet, Uskudar’s most treasured cemetery, we rest surrounded by trees in the breeze of the sea not far away; calm prevails. We are the permanent quiet residents under the hiss of the leaves, except at the time of visits, too numerous I should say, which force us to sink a little more in the ground, not to undergo the lamentations. The living pour out their anguish in the form of prayers. Yet already I am no longer. I am old, buried in the beautiful cemetery of Uskudar. I listen to the cry of the living, their desperate whispers, I see their patience rolling in their throats, they raise their hands to the sky to see something, because they find it difficult to bear. They have trouble breathing while me from my bed I feel the nature that lasts and the earth under my bones stretching to the center of the earth. I do not say that to defend death, I’m not crazy. I speak to the person that I was in my lifetime; I address the anxieties that I felt for years at the thought of silence and cold and especially the thought of loosing my loved ones. I fought day and night against those thoughts that sometimes made my life dreadful. But you must know that there is only peace later. Peace in the soul and in the body. The land feeds us. Good and evil blend in a nameless heap, the human veil spreads in the air so that it loses all meaning. It remains only shapeless hands underground, intertwined because the enemies of the past become our neighbours, in indifference.

So when our visitors arrive with their tears, the dead man turns in his hole, really.

He does not want to delve into the universe he has finally escaped. If the dead man is old, he does not have enough desire to remember wanting to live. If he clung to life, perhaps a young dead he probably worries about his loved ones, he does not want to see them in tears again. Why do we want to remember those whom our death has made suffer? Do we wish to stir painful emotions, to mop up the darkness or to see again sad faces, tears that bead in a wounded soul?

To revive these emotions means to revive a bygone era, to try to inject blood there, to release it from its natural pallor whereas when the ardours and the passions dry up it is not necessary to wake the dead.

 

The old man walks slowly forcing me to stand still. I begin to see it as the fruit of my unconscious still bereaved by the death of my father.

– Life is a constant unfolding of dramas. I was lucky despite everything, I will never pretend otherwise. But even the lucky ones have to say goodbye. There is no good way to die or to leave forever. To die is an enormous responsibility. I died without surprise. Old. A little tired. The mind does not always learn to cease to exist. My body could not take it anymore, but my soul? At the time of departure, I thought that my head no longer held. In my time I attended the departures of my family. I stayed in my neighborhood and faced their absence. They had vanished, yet still more alive than they were alive. On each wall I saw their face, or rather their “being” infused into the bricks. And for a long time I had the impression that their departure was only temporary. They would come back and we would laugh at those separate moments. How sad to say goodbye. It is better to hide the truth. Keep thinking vaguely that one day there will be a meeting.

– And sometimes it is possible?

– You are speaking to a dead person. Or…who am I? Why am I here? I do not know anyone, what’s the point of coming back? I do not feel in tune with anyone here. I do not even care about them. Those who have suffered from my absence are already underground. They shrug. The living have a great deal of trouble with the notion of death, and the dead are no longer living.

 

The old man does not speak anymore. The name of Karacahmet makes me shudder. My father often talked about death, joking about his own end, telling me “I’m going to finish in Karacahmet soon”. This cemetery, a terrible character, a monstrous beast between my French and Turkish village, remains like a suspension bridge. So is it any wonder that, finally on his deathbed, he refused to be buried there? He did not even pronounce its name again, he just said, “Do not burry me in Istanbul, they’ll lose me there.” He turned his back on me, doing me a favor without knowing it because I live near the Karacahmet cemetery. How did he understand? That he spared me, that I will not have to avoid this graveyard because of uncomfortable fits of sadness?

With this specter, I wander between the mosques of the sixteenth century, while it brews stories: century-old trees, Byzantine ruins, wells of another age…the ruins we brush against, under our steps, are tunnels and hot brick stones. He says “the well made of red lime under us leads to a buried archduke”. That the bizarre plant in my garden wriggling and breezing through the otherwise solid rock, its roots covered with small, seductive paws goes back his époque. This bizarre plant horrifies me in a way, I say.

 

With the ghost of this old man, my father seems far away whilst I am struck by the gap between them and us, the past and the present, the dead and the living, even if death does not mean anything, anything at all.


Words: Ayfer Simms

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