My Grandmother’s Journey to Istanbul

The Istanbul of my childhood was the place to which my grandmother—the only person who gave me a nickname as a token of love—traveled but did not return. I didn’t know that Istanbul is a city, and the largest one in this country; I had never seen a place with so many houses all in one location. For me, the sea of the city by the sea did not exist then. I had never seen the sea and the sea, described as the place where all the waters of the world gathered, did not seem like the sea to me.
Before I turned seven, my grandmother went to Istanbul, the place with many houses and where all the waters of the world gathered, and never returned. At once, Istanbul—the Istanbul of my childhood—became the place where my grandmother was. Whoever from my tiny world traveled to and from Istanbul, happened to travel to and from the place where my grandmother was.
Soon after my grandmother departed from our house, but before news came of her never returning, I sat down to make a picture of my grandmother’s going off. The title of my picture was “My Grandmother’s Journey to Istanbul.” For some reason, I had thought that this going of hers was by boat, just like her coming from a distant land when she was a child.
My grandmother was sitting on top of a chest. The chest was suspended in air above a dark color. The dark color was the sea and the chest was the boat. I had never seen a boat and, for me, a boat was basically a chest. In her stories, my grandmother referred to Noah’s Ark as Noes Kidobani. In our house, the chest in which various foods were kept was also called kidobani. If Noah’s Ark was Noes Kidobani, the boat had to be a chest.
“Grandma! Why are you sitting on top of this chest?”
Early in the morning, alone in the room, she sat just like that, motionless, on the ornamented walnut chest. As if she did not hear my question, she leaned forward from the chest and took me to her lap.
“Come, Pavruk, come,” she said. “Let me tell you a story.”
She always did that. She would put me on her lap, and amid the naphthalene scent of her dress, she would tell me the same stories and always as though she was telling them for the first time.
“Iko da ara iko ra!”
She always began her story like this, “Once there was one, once there was none.” Every time she began like this, I listened as if I was listening for the first time. This must be why I found the talking goat in the story charming and not scary. A charming goat who said “Do my teeth look at all like goat’s teeth?” and opened its mouth to show its teeth…
“The story of the goat? I asked.
“No, not the goat story.”
“Mashin, Kari da Mze,” I said. I thought she would tell the story of “The Wind and the Sun.”
“Kari da Mze” was the story of a bet between the Wind and the Sun. The Wind wanted to use its force to remove the coat of the man walking on the road, but couldn’t do it. The Sun, on the other hand, became hotter and hotter and left the man no choice but to remove his coat. The Sun won the bet.
“No, this time I want to tell you the story of an old woman who sat on the chest,” she said.
I had been anticipating the goat story while she wanted to tell another story. This time, she didn’t have the mischievous, mocking and joking expression that she had when she told the goat story. She seemed pensive and melancholic. She knew that this story would be the last one she told me but I didn’t.
“There once was a very old woman, who came from far away and went far away…” That was the beginning of the story she told that morning, and then she left. According to the story, the old woman always kept her chest locked and her children, who thought it was filled with valuable things, fought over her. Yet, when the old woman dies, they realize the chest contains some children’s clothes and souvenirs. I always imagined the old woman as my grandmother because I had never seen open the ornamented chest that she sat on.
Seven years after my grandmother’s departure, I too departed for Istanbul. The trip began on foot and continued on the bus, and it was terribly long… And only then did I understand why my grandmother kept saying “Tavi gamiskda shvilo, tavi…” to her son who accompanied her. Indeed, this trembling trip was enough to make anyone’s head crack. My trip began by the sea and it ended by the sea.
It was Istanbul everywhere, as far as the eye could see. Houses and more houses… Cars and more cars… People and more people… And trains… Istanbul was a bit like a train. All the cars flowed to the sea, like a thirsty herd hurtling down to the river. And when they reached the shore, they got on a big “chest” and crossed to the other side. I wasn’t a child anymore. I knew the sea, the ship, the city, and I could imagine them without having seen them. Before seeing the sea, I had seen photographs of the sea in books, and before the ships, I had seen photographs of ships, and before Istanbul, I had seen Istanbul’s photographs. Even before I arrived in Istanbul, the Istanbul of my grandmother had ceased to be the Istanbul of my childhood.
Istanbul had neither a right nor a left; it had no up and no down, nor a north, south, east or west. I felt lost in a place with so many roads, so many signs and so many people. The city in my grandmother’s stories was a story city and it did not swallow up people. Istanbul was also a story city but it had escaped its story and had nearly swallowed me whole.
Now, as I smile at the games played on my mind by the passing years, I look at a photograph of me taken one year, many years ago. Behind me are the boat piers… It is either early in the morning or early in the evening… Street vendors and pedestrians cast long shadows. Shadows of people who are not visible… My face in the photograph now seems to me like the face of the grandchild my grandmother loved, a childishly sad child’s face. This was a black-and-white photograph taken by a Lubitel camera. I know that the Istanbul of those years is also a black-and-white photograph: a black-and-white city with its boats, Judas trees, mosques, towers; its Bosphorus and Golden Horn; its islands, beaches, seaside houses and hills… And its cemeteries.
A few days later, I was by my grandmother’s grave. It did not even have a gravestone; its gravestone was a temporary wooden marker. Her name was written on a metal sheet nailed to the wooden marker. Followed by birth and death dates… From the grave one could see the hospital where she spent her last days. A hospital with an odd name… My grandmother’s grave had a view of the hospital.
It seems my grandmother could also see this cemetery from her hospital room.
“Modi shvilo,” she said to her son, beckoning him to her side. “Do you see that cemetery over there? That’s where I want to be buried. Death must have drawn me to Istanbul. To this city where my father died…”
“Don’t say that, mother,” her son said. “We’ll go back together, to where we came from…”
My grandmother continued from where she left off.
“My father was an officer in the Ottoman army. His barracks must be near here. He, too, could see this cemetery from the top floor of the barracks. Here, they used to call him “Shakir Bey from Dandalo”. And he died here, in this hospital, from the cholera.”
Suddenly, my grandmother became quiet. As if she forgot her words. Then, tears streamed down from her eyes. These were the last tears she shed, perhaps for her father or perhaps for herself. They say humans can weep for themselves for the last time, before their death. It could be that my grandmother also wept for herself for the last time. Then she continued her words with a smile.
“Shvilo!” she called to her son. “I cannot travel all that distance one more time, I have no strength left for that. Most of all, I would hate to disturb people by stinking on the road. That’s why I want to rest in eternity in that cemetery over there, beneath the tall cypresses…”
Once upon a time, tall cypresses were everywhere in Istanbul, and those people who left this world could rest beneath them to eternity. One of those places was near Taksim Square. When my grandmother made contact with me, I imagined that she knew all of the cypressed places of Istanbul. They say that those who die without seeing their loved ones for the last time return to this world one last time and, having seen the loved one, they depart again. The neighborhood where I lived was the same neighborhood where my grandmother’s daughter lived both before and after my grandmother’s death. When my grandmother came to Istanbul but before she was hospitalized, she must have come to this neighborhood to be with her daughter. This neighborhood is where the second bridge now spans the Bosphorus, but, back then, it had only a few houses and the goats roamed its hills. If my grandmother had seen those goats, she would have certainly remembered the goat story she used to tell me.
“Pavruk, my plane lands early in the morning. First, I’ll settle into a hotel, then we’ll meet up. Shall we meet at Taksim?”
Did my grandmother really speak like this, I couldn’t be sure. This manner of speech was not familiar to me and it seemed as though my grandmother was not my grandmother.
“Yes, wonderful. I really want to see you,” I replied.
“Shall we meet by the monument?”
My grandmother was waiting for me by the monument in Taksim, at the agreed time. She had come before me. She was young. She was barely thirty years old. Her hair was a fiery red, as if it had been dyed with henna. She was wearing a brick-colored long skirt. One of her hands was decorated with patterns in henna, from her wrist to her fingertips. A light green scarf was wrapped around her neck. And she had sandals on her feet…
“You,” I said, “look like an Indian.”
“Really?” she said with a smile and extended her right hand. “I got this done in Delhi. Actually, I was going to get both hands done but I changed my mind at the last minute.”
I couldn’t ask what she was doing in Delhi. Why had Delhi and Indian style clothes come between us, instead of sweet words and stories? In her stories, the daughter of the Emperor of Wind would often travel to India, but she wasn’t an Indian.
“Where shall we go?” I asked simply.
“Wherever you want,” she said, “I’m free till the evening.”
We began to walk along Istiklal Avenue. Because it was a Saturday the avenue was very crowded and we had a hard time just walking. I turned to my grandmother who did not seem like my grandmother and said, “It’s always crowded here on the weekends, it’s like all of Istanbul flows here.”
“If you could see Delhi,” she said, “you would not call this a crowd. Old Delhi, especially, is a dreadful place. The narrowest streets, people lying on the ground, sellers, push carts, bikers…”
“Really?” I asked with empty eyes.
“The whole of Old Delhi sleeps on the streets. Here you see a mattress with two kids and a husband and wife. Over there, someone lying alone, on the cement… Further down, another family… Whoever needs to go to the toilet, just gets up and relieves himself there. So, are there also people who sleep on the streets here at night?
“No, no. No such things in Istanbul.”
As the two of us walked down Istiklal Avenue, my grandmother seemed like an old Istanbulite who had her love affairs in Pera, who frequented the cinemas and theater companies there, who spent time in esteemed venues afterwards, and who had her fashionable clothes sewn by tailors there. Now, she seemed happy like someone who had returned after a long absence from this city and had seen it one more time, and her eyes shined like clear water.
When we reached Tünel, she said, “So, the tram is working today.” I glanced at the back of the tram going from Tünel to Taksim, clanging its bell all along Istiklal Avenue. But, all of a sudden, my grandmother, who was barely thirty, whose hair was a fiery red henna color, who wore a long brick-colored skirt, who had henna patterns on her hand and who wore a light green scarf on her neck and sandals on her feet, was no longer with me. All at once, I was engulfed in the mists which rendered invisible the hills in my grandmother’s stories, and the tram disappeared into the mist.
My grandmother and I are in front of Galata Tower but I don’t recall how we got here. She is a rather old woman, her hair is completely white and draped halfway with a white head veil. I take her arm and we slowly ascend the steps leading to the tower’s entrance. On the first floor of the tower, a souvenir shop is located to the left and the ticket booth to the right.
“Two nationals,” I say to purchase tickets, but then I hesitate. “Sorry,” I correct myself. “One should be foreigner.”
Ticket prices for nationals and foreigners are different, that I know; but why my grandmother should be a foreigner, why I purchase a foreigner ticket for her, that I don’t know.
“Pavruk! Shvilo! Meti davighale,” says my grandmother. I, too, have noticed that she is tired, she can barely stand up. I take her arm more firmly and let her lean on me even more. We go up several floors on the elevator. Then we have to go up more levels by stairs.
But my grandmother is no longer tired, she is a young woman and she runs up the stairs. I walk behind her and am wearied by the stairs. Finally, we are on the summit of Galata Tower. We go out to the balcony surrounding the tower. I know that it is possible to show all of Istanbul from here to a foreigner and that, in order to impress anyone visiting Istanbul, they should be brought here. I also want my grandmother to see Istanbul from here. My grandmother who is now a young woman is very excited and her eyes shine with happiness. We slowly circle around the tower. I launch on the same narrative that I relate every time I bring a foreigner here.
I explain that the water inlet to our right is the Golden Horn, that it has four bridges, two visible, two further away. As if she is not listening to me, my grandmother utters a sentence which escapes from her inner world at that very moment.
“Istanbul beneath my feet… I never imagined it could be like this.”
I don’t respond to her words, instead I keep telling her about Istanbul. I say that the place across from where the Golden Horn begins is Eminönü and that the mosque there is the Yeni Valide Mosque. Then I talk about the Süleymaniye Mosque visible from this tower and about Beyazıt Tower which was once a watchtower for fire. I explain that the low buildings at the tip of the peninsula belong to Topkapı Palace, that the four minarets belong to the Hagia Sophia and the six minarets to the Sultanahmet Mosque.
Then I move on to a legend about the construction of the Sultanahmet Mosque. I narrate how Sultan Ahmed I asked his architect to build a mosque with a golden minaret, and how the architect, knowing this was impossible, instead built a mosque with six minarets. When the sultan asked why the minarets were not golden, the architect replied that he understood the request as “altı,” or six, not “altın,” golden.
We go a little further on the balcony of the Galata Tower, and turn to face the city’s Asian side. I repeat the sentences that are familiar to me.
“The Marmara Sea begins just beyond the Topkapı Palace. The Bosphorus also begins here and continues until the Black Sea.” With this last sentence, sadness overcomes my grandmother’s face.
“Pavruk, which way is the Black Sea? When I was a child they used to tell me that my father would be coming home from there. ‘Mamasheni, ai am zghvidan chamova,’ they used to say and I, believing that my father would really be returning home from this sea, would keep my eyes on its wavy waters.”
“The Black Sea is over that way,” I say, pointing my index finger in the direction of the Bosphorus bridges.
From the tower’s high balcony affording a view of nearly every corner of Old Istanbul, I stand side by side with an old woman who covers her white hair with a white veil, and together we look across to the Asian side, to the area between the neighborhoods of Üsküdar and Kadıköy. We are both silent, lips shut tight. That famous fog which, more often than not, sinks down to the Bosphorus making it impossible to cross the sea by boat, now descends to our eyes and that humid air, upon reaching our warm eyes, turns to drops and tears. Across the Bosphorus, the barracks immediately opposite us stand as they stood when my grandmother’s father was there. Next to it, the hospital where my grandmother and her father felt their lives coming to an end… And behind them, the cemetery of my grandmother’s grave, which I cannot help but look at every time I go up to Galata Tower.
“Is Galata Tower the tower of intersecting thoughts of life and death?” I want to ask. Yet, I am with no one, I am not alone but I don’t know anyone, no one from among the people enjoying the view of Istanbul from the tower’s balcony… Then, someone with red hair and freckles on her face appears before my eyes. With arms outstretched like a seagull’s wings, she floats in the air, facing Galata Tower. She calls me Pavruk, and I know who she is.
“Do you know how, when I was little girl with red hair and freckles on my face, I emigrated from Dandalo? I told you so many stories, but did I ever tell you how I came from that faraway place?”
She had not.
“I was just a little girl. The old men whose beards reached down to their bellies were telling us that we had to leave our homes right there and then. If we didn’t leave right away, they said, some people coming from somewhere would cut our throats like sacrificial sheep. Everyone, all of us, fell on the road, some riding their horses and carts, some had neither horse nor cart. Quickly we reached a hill, on this side of the hill we were safe from becoming sacrificial sheep; if we stayed on that side, our end would be as told, according to what the old men with beards down to their bellies said.
The red-haired and freckled girl is swaying back and forth in the air. “Are you asking what happened next?” she says in my stead.
“I stood at the top of the hill and, when I took a step forward, our house and the sea, from which my father was to return, disappeared. When I took a step back, I could once again see our house and the sea. I kept stepping back and forth on that hill, for what seemed like long hours to me. I didn’t want to leave that place. I had just stepped back again, looking at our house and the sea. Then, a rider who I thought would swiftly pass me by, caught me by the arm and threw me behind his saddle, and the sea from which my father would return and the house of my childhood remained behind and became forever invisible to me.”
Then the red-haired and freckled girl floated a little higher and slowly began to break away. With her retreated her voice.
“Now, Istanbul is beneath my wings and beautiful like paradise; but I don’t belong here, I am not part of the story of Istanbul. I want to once again see from that hill my house and the sea from which my father would return.”
I don’t know how long the telephone has been ringing. To me, it seems like ages. Lying face down, I reach out to pick up the phone and accept the call.
“This is Angelina,” says the voice on the phone, “I wonder, if you have finished your story, could you submit it today?”
“I, I… I’m sorry but I don’t think can submit this story,” I reply.
Only the sound of Angelina’s breathing can be heard on the phone and it is clear she waiting for an explanation.
“My grandmother left Istanbul, she is no longer here,” I say and end the call.
I release myself to the magical arms of sleep so that I may see for myself whether my grandmother had arrived on the hill where she, as a child, took one step forward and one step back.

By Parna-Beka Chilashvili
Translated by Oya Pancaroğlu


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