I’ve decided that since this came to me so close to the ten year anniversary of the event, that I’m going to share my first draft. Talking to my mother on the phone, I realize we don’t remember everything the same way, but this is close enough to the truth for me to accept it as a poem.
Istanbul, 17 August 1999
A clutch of drunk young men stumble
laughing down the cobblestone hill,
arms around each other’s waists.
We are sitting on the curb
Istanbul is dark tonight.
One of the young men tells my father
they were in a disco, drinking raki
when suddenly everyone on the dance floor
started doing this new dance they’d never seen before.
Arms out, he laughs, gesturing
knees shaking back and forth,
like they were riding a surf board in a bad 50s movie.
My family had tumbled out of Hotel Ates
and into the streets. All around us were Russian tourists
and urban Turks, calling out to each other in the darkness.
Dersaadet, door to happiness, there is nothing behind this door tonight
no phones ring, no televisions glow with late night futbol games,
there is no music, but somewhere in the distance we hear sirens.
My sister fantasizes about the cakes
we saw in the window of a shop yesterday.
Collapsed in my mother’s lap, wanting only
to go back to bed, or to eat cakes and cakes and cakes,
she is too tired to understand
why everyone is sitting in the streets.
The Russian women are going to walk down to the Bosphorus
and sleep on the beach, they shake and cry
in each other’s arms. My father says, there’s no reason
to sleep next to the water- it’s superstition,
an old wives’ tale. I look at their pale faces under headscarves and moonlight.
It can’t hurt. These are old wives.
An hour ago, I woke up, running to my sister’s bed
on the seventh floor of Hotel Ates.
I don’t remember getting out of bed,
I don’t remember shaking, only grabbing her
bony fifteen year old body in my arms
and running for the doorway.
“What are you doing?” she grumbled.
Tomorrow we will wander the streets of Istanbul
on foot. Millions of us, on the sidewalks, walking,
searching each others’ faces.
The cake shop will not be open, but we will see the cakes
melting behind the window, the lights in the shop off.
We will find Sevim, my aunt, there on the streets
amongst millions. My face in thirty years, but with very little English.
The bazaar will be closed.
The phones will still not work, the sirens will still echo.
We will go down to the Bosphorus and ride a small tourist boat.
We will see the navy ships on the other side of the Bosphorus
piled high with bodies.
Tonight in Ismit, Ali and his wife lost everything but each other.
They will tell us later, they escaped from a first floor window,
as their home slipped into the sea.
We will see the gecekondu, a few days later, from our departing plane.
The cement slabs of the illegal slums on the edge of the city slumped,
stacked one on top of each other,
there will be no signs of the poor Turks who were flattened
between floors tumbling like dominos.
We are crushed like grapes, we do not pour like wine.
They will find us. Ethnic Turk, Kurd, Russian, Muslim, Christian, Jew, all of us poor,
and regardless of our ethnicity, all of us Turkish, all of us Istanbul.
My family will eventually go back into the tall, narrow Hotel Ates
sleep in a booth of the restaurant on the second floor,
wake to an aftershock that we count like a thunderstorm.
There are no flashes of lightning. Istanbul is dark tonight.