The good sister slid out of her cell into the dank obscurity of the long and hollow corridor of the abbey which led to the august wooden front doors. She lifted the heavy latch then penetrated the cold layers of thick night, carefully closing the doors behind her. A moonless and starless night it was : greyish clouds fringed with undulating black hung low in the cold air, an air filled with the scent of jonquils. The good sister crossed the tussock grass of the meadow, glistening with moisture, swiftly to the rhythm of the howling wolves, whose ululations seemed to make quiver the cloudlets, driving them galloping across the sullen skies, grazing ever so lightly the pinnacles of the friendless, fretted cliffs of Saint Martin. Those precipices stole furtive glances down at the hastening young sister, their hanging pines, minatory fingers pointing to the nocturnal interloper. And as the wind wailed like the melancholic notes of an organ, the fingers quietly lamented, shedding needles and cones of utter sorrow …
The holy sister, sandal-less, dressed only in a bleached white nightdress, seemed to waft on strings of mist like a phantom as she glided alongside the mighty abbey walls, rising high. She stole a glance at the soundless immured fountain of the abbey and the holy niche next to it housing the Virgin Mary. She lowered her eyes, crossed herself then sped on. Noiselessly she made her way upon the path which serpentined to the source of the Paillon streamlets. The exuding fragrance of jonquils caused her a moment of vertigo as she hied higher and higher towards the sacred source. Once she reached the source, she halted before the little cascade, silvery in the ill-lit sky, tinkling an odd tinkle amidst the whimpering of the groves of weeping willows that enshrined it. She took a furtive glance behind her … no one …
The good sister stepped into the rushing icy waters. Lifting her nightdress in a rather girlish manner, she let it drop, and there it spread in cadence to the precipitating flow like the opening of a lotus. The freezing waters seized her slender thighs in a vice-like grip. At that moment the wolves renewed their howl after a ritornello. She raised her head to the tune, such soothing music to her ears, and slowly opened her fist: a shard of glass lay in her tiny palm. Her hand trembled from the coldness at the source ; her body gradually became rigid like a marble statue, the turbulent waters sweeping round her.
The holy sister murmured several prayers then gazed alternatively at the deepening violet tinge of the sky and the deep blue of the veins of her wrists. In one rapid stroke she slid the shard of glass across those deep blue veins : as quickly as that ! Two sharp painless incisions and it was over, all accomplished in such cold-blooded precision. There she remained standing, her rich, red blood dripping down over her now steady hands, then into the pure waters of the source : drop, drop, drop …
Some time passed. The howling of the wolves had abated, the wind, too. The dreary clouds hung lower and lower over the paling sister, who wavered not once, adamantly erect, watching in the most unperturbable manner the blood desert her frail body into the moving waters. Her face, lovely like the fourteenth day of the moon, turned an ashen white.
Soon, however, her knees began to buckle, her slender body to sway, emptied of its life-giving fluid. She appeared to be lost in some dreamy plane of consciousness, her face, blank, expressionless. At length, like a icicle fallen from a frost-bitten tree, she tumbled gently into the churning white foam, and there floated listlessly down the streamlet, the traces of blood trailing behind her, until here and there they settled upon the smooth mossy stones and pebbles that lay at the bed. Her nightdress swelled with water and resembled a hoisted sail, yet mast-less, a vessel adrift, driven from one bank to the other.
Finally, the bloodless body got snagged onto several smooth, flat-surfaced mossy rocks, and there undulated to the rhythm of the current, eyes wide open, mouth agape, basking in the blackness of Eternal Night …
With the coming of dawn, the call to Matins brought the holy sisters of the Saint Pons Abbey scurrying to the chapel. All were accounted besides one : Where was Sister Theresa ? Had she not heard the tolling bell? The Abbess, somewhat worried by her absence (Theresa was never absent for service), rushed out to see whether the young girl had fallen ill and taken to bed. But her cell was empty ; her bed lay unmade, not a crease in the bedsheets. More startling still, her cornet and habit lay neatly placed and folded on the chair next to her writing-table. Had she left a note ? None …
The Abbess interrupted Matins and commanded that the sisters go in search for the young girl both in the cloister and outside in the meadow and wooded areas. Taking four or five sisters with her, the old Abbess hurried down the corridor to the great wooden doors : the latch had been displaced ! Seized with an emotional foreboding, she led the troop of sisters through the cold air of early morning, an air saturated with icy dew and a scent of spruce. They avoided the meadow for now, choosing to hug the great stone walls glistening with creeping and climbing plants, and search behind the abbey in the woods now painted in aurora freshness. “Theresa ! Theresa !” They all called, the name resounding sullenly in the lifting mist, its echo growing fainter and fainter only to disappear without a response. “Here ! Here !” cried a sister who had been searching near the sacred source. To her frantic cries the good sisters scrambled up the path, alive to the shouts and cries near the source ; they ran as fast as their aged legs could carry them, tucking up their habits under their hempen cords, clinging to the wings of their cornets as they flapped in the crisp, cold air.
Hieing ever higher up the path, they followed the cries near the source, dipping into the hollows of the dingle, rushing as rapidly as their sandalled feet would carry them along the streamlet fringed with high reeds, tiny poppies and those pendent weeping willows. The old Abbess noted that the smooth mossy stones in the streamlet bed had been besprinkled with long streaks or large splotches of crimson red. Her emotion reached frightful peaks as she hurried onwards towards the cries …
And there, at the bank of the streamlet, the sister who had been calling and clamouring so wildly pointed a trembling finger at the lifeless, undulating body of their consœur, floating like a lotus amongst the sun-dappled babbling morning waters, her waxen cheeks bloodless, her limbs stiff, her stony eyes staring off into void. There arose from her watery presence an eerie peacefulness, serenity, quiescence, a presence far beyond that undulating corpse upon the sun-dappled waters of the Paillon.
All the holy sisters dropped to their knees at the banks of the streamlet and prayed. Then they dragged the water-logged body out of the stream and lay it upon the grassy bank. To their bewilderment, the moss which clung to the smooth stones and pebbles of the stream-bed, always a dull green or a rusty ochre-yellow, had become lacquer red ! Large patches of this red moss lay at the bottom of the shallow, foamy waters. The Abbess touched, pulled and scraped at the woolly crimson ; the satiny colour remained impressed in the moss. She hadn’t the faintest idea how the rusty red had not been washed away or dispersed by her fiddling with it. Was it Theresa’s blood ?
The very thought made her shudder … Daunted by this dreadful phenomena and by the death of their consœur, the Abbess ordered the holy sisters to kneel and lift their eyes to Heaven again.
The days that followed the tragic event throngs of priests, led by the Bishop of the region, inspected the place of death and the red moss. The Abbess was at a loss to explain Theresa’s act to them, but she truly believed that it was the innocent blood of the poor young sister that had ‘dyed’ the green moss red, this colour being the ‘consubstantial proof’ of the consummation of her marriage to Christ. And for this very ‘theological’ reason, her act, albeit a sinful one, the moss disavowed any attempt to be ‘washed off’ and become green again. The Abbess went on to expound that upon taking the veil, the girl had seemed so loyal to her vows, so happy to spend her life at the abbey in company with her consœurs, all the more so since her parents had died, and the aunt that had taken her in was too old to provide the orphan with a correct upbringing and education. No other enquiry followed after the Abbess’ account and the Bishop’s report …
Thus the suicide and the colouring of the moss remained a Mystery to the clergy and to the laymen of the region of Geminos until the closing of the abbey in 1427.
Centuries have gone by since the mysterious event, and the great walls and halls of the Saint Pons Abbey presently lay in quiet dormancy. However, little by little, hikers, nature-lovers, botanists, geologists and the curious-minded who reside in the area of Geminos began noticing this unusual moss, even snatching little pieces of it out of the water for scientific scrutiny. The scientists were indeed at loggerheads about this chromatic colouring, and obviously scoffed at the mediaeval clergy’s ridiculous ‘dark age’ inferences of suicide and consummation, although it must be said here that after months of examination in several laboratories, those scoffing rationally-minded scientists could make neither heads nor tails of how ‘normal green’ moss could ‘become’ satine crimson red overnight …
And so the Mystery still stands today as hikers, nature-lovers, scientists and members of the clergy come to inspect, admire or simply stare in wonder at the red moss of the Abbey of Saint Pons, undulating in stoic silence beneath the crystal clear waters of the Paillon streamlet. Many indeed believe in the tragic tale of Theresa, and in the good Abbess’ hypothesis, whilst others gibe and mock, believing the isolated sisters to have been possessed by some mediaeval demon, or taken to religious zealotry after so many fastings and privations.
I for one believe in the tale as told by the good Abbess, however steeped in ‘dark age superstition’ it may appear to the scientific-minded, modern layman. Indeed, according to the regional archives, a certain sister Theresa did take the veil and did live at the abbey in the XVth century, and after several years her bloodless body was found lifeless, floating in those rolling waters of the Paillon. This being said, several historians claim that Theresa had been abducted by bandits, whose presence in the dark wooded mountains had always caused great fright to the sisters. When Theresa attempted to escape from captivity, she was killed. Just as a matter of interest, it was because of those bands of roaming bandits that the holy sisters were obliged to leave the abbey by order and mandate of the constable of the region. The Abbey, thus, was closed down never to reopen …
Whatever the ‘rational’ or ‘romantic’ reason may be, the red moss at Saint Pons Abbey attracts a growing number of the curious-minded, and has become so ‘famous’ that the Forest Rangers have given strict orders to all and sundry not to pick it out of its hallow bed. I shall not attempt to debate whether this interdiction be due to any ‘scientific’ or ‘superstitious’ prompting …
 A short refrain or interlude in a musical performance
 The first prayer of the day in a monastery or convent.
 Bonnets worn by religious sisters until the 1960s.
 A community of Catholic sisters living in a convent or in a monastery. The word is of French origin.
 A small village twenty or thirty kilometres from Marseilles. The abbey is located about five or six kilometres from Geminos.
Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Narrative by Paul Mirabile with photographs by Françoise Mirabile.
To have sojourned on Burgaz Island was such a marvellous experience. This experience resulted from the fact that I worked twelve years in Istanbul and had rented a small flat on the island from an Armenian woman whose daughter had been a student of mine at University.
I rented the small, rooftop flat for about five or six years. Then I met one of the protagonists of my story, Abi Din Bey, a Turkish Alevite who had been living on Burgaz since the 1940s in his two room wooden dwelling on the beach, opposite Yassi (Flat) Island and Sivri ( Pointed ) Island in the Marmara Sea, which he and his brother had built. He sold coffee or tea with little cakes or grilled cheese sandwiches to infrequent visitors, hikers or swimmers who happened to stumble across his home on the beachhead. That was in fact how he made his living. We got to know one another well, and soon he offered to rent me the smaller room of his lodgings whenever I arrived on the island for week-ends or for the longer holidays at a much more advantageous price than my flat in the village. I took him up on it without a second thought …
Abi Din Bey’s front gardens, peppered with shady fruit trees, under which he had placed long or square tables with benches or chairs for the occasional visitors, touched the stony beach. From those gardens one had a wide open view of the Sea of Marmara. It was truly a place of magic ! In the mornings we would take our coffee or tea in the gardens and contemplate those placid waters lapping the pebbly strand, a slight breeze coming in from the North, the sky and the sea, enamel blue. Hikers or visitors would stop in after eleven, and he would serve them cold beverages and grilled cheese toast, which he prepared in his kitchenette. I would help him on the week-ends when students arrived with their tents to stay on for a day or two on in the wooded areas.
Burgaz, the second of the four Princes’ Islands of the Sea of Marmara, known to the Greeks as Antigone, was as popular if not more than the first island Kınalada (Prōtē), the third, Heybeliada (Halki) and the largest Büyükada (Prinkēpos). Their Greek names fell out of use after the Greek-Turkish War in 1921, and following the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Burgaz was a world of poetry, in rhythm wth the movements of steamers coming and going, lapping waves and rough winds … screaming seagulls, the long solitary walks up into the hilly woods and along the sandless beaches, by the evening strolls amongst the white-washed nineteenth century wooden Ottoman-era mansions of Burgaz village, whose fretted pitches mounted from the cornice to the high gabled roofs of the façade. Bougainvillaea and wisteria of bright blues, purples and whites overflowed from the cast-iron balconied façades. Neatly kept gardens hugged the quiet lanes and streets fringed with mimosas and pomegranate trees, pricked here and there with aging trees, one of which near the House of the Alevites, was said to be over six-hundred years of age.
Indeed, life on Burgaz contrasts so starkly with that of Istanbul: no vehicles, no mass movements of people rushing to and from work, no tram, metro or train ; a world of enchantment and marvels, of monasteries, churches and cathedrals, of dancing boats at the piers, of leather-faced fisherman casting nets or having tea; of forested hills, rocky cliffs, of bougainvillea sagging in great clusters and copses of cypress … of crimson sunsets dipping into the Marmara. Truly, Burgaz is ideal for the painter’s palette …
How I inhaled and exhaled those wonderful visions as I made my way down upon the winding path towards Abidin Bey’s home — splashes of roses, honeysuckles and oleanders blazing orange and crimson through the deep forest greens. And as I did, the voice of my foremost protagonist, the hero of this story, Sait Faik Abasıyanık, would implore me to reanimate his presence on this island paradise, to hearken to and bring forth, as if snatched up in some dreamy reminiscence of poetic éclat, that forlorn, melancholic voice:
Yes, that Sait Faik voice, elliptic, forlorn and melancholic, as if he solicited an unaffected sincere souvenir of his masterful art: the Art of Poetics … of the short-story, a palatable keepsake of his short-lived grandeur :
The wind that bears the salt to the shore,
I hear the swimming of the fish
I listen to the seaweed talking amongst themselves,
So many journeys into the past borne by that doleful voice of the solitary poet and story-teller of fishermen, wood-choppers, street vendors, birds, steamers, cafés; of motley dressed street children, long, starry nights meditating the brushing waves of the Marmara Sea along the indented coasts of Burgaz … of insular Freedom …
What exactly is insular Freedom? A land free of noisome noise; the islanders hear only the laughing seagull in flight, the chants of fishermen repairing their nets, the brays of donkeys, the wheedling of jays and the coarse hawking of merchants on market days, the neighs and snorts of work-horses, the cock-a’doodle doos of roosters at the break of dawn.
A land where the naked eye embraces gold-gilded sunrises and dragon-red sunsets at the not so distant point where the azures of the sky touch those of the briny sea.
A land of a myriad flowery perfumed fragrances, free from the toxic fumes of vehicle emission, from chemical discharge and human waste. A land of powerful telluric forces where the islanders’ footfalls tread dirt tracks, sandy or stony beachheads, soft, leafy trails; where he or she communes with the trees, the sea, tastes the salty air free of pollution. Even the taste of Burgaz coffee smacks of that island brew, a nice commingling of robust richness and timeless tincture! Freedom which releases all the senses from their ensnared urban uniformity, their artificial, conventional urbanity of foot-shuffling routine and tiresome ennui …
So I descended and descended towards Abi Din Bey’s strand home, winding steeply in zig-zag fashion, alive to that distant but clear, impelling voice:
When reading or listening to these verses I experienced a veil of despondency, a dash of fury that underscores a struggle of consciousness, of surpassing vanity as the principal motivation of solitude within an island envelope. The consciousness may be called nostalgia; that is, suffering of and from a past, familiar lieu, a stead-sickness of some remote time within the fantastic unfolding of a man’s former existences. And yet, these former existences may not be as remote as I believed. So I continued to lend an ear as I approached the beachcomber’s humble abode:
Ah, Sait, you have been my faithful road companion ; the herald of the short story, of the furtive glimpse, of the snap-shot of possible realities which have been the ardent desire of our existential Way … the Flame of Life …
Here, at long last, Abi Din Bey has come to greet me at his welcoming gate — a hearty greeting indeed. Abi Din Bey towers over me in all his nobleness; he is a descendent of the great Ali, fourth Caliph of the Sunna, first Imam of the Shia. He took great pleasure and pride in showing me his genealogical tree finely printed out on vellum in triptych form as he had done in the past every time I visited him. He had it done by specialists at the Vatican for a meagre fee. He never fully explained why he had it done at the Vatican.
Noble, humble, ascetic and combative like his distant descendant, he stands erect for his advanced age (perhaps eighty), and remarkably lucid when discussing religious matters and Sufi poets. He was well versed in Ali’s conquests as well as Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s life and personality, whom he knew personally in his younger days. How many nights under a speckless sky did my friend and host narrate Saik’s life to me, abridged of course, and oftentimes modified to enfold the atmosphere of that night’s solicitude, the turbulence of the waves pounding the jutting rocks, the scrapings of the pines against the rising cliffs that arched over his diminutive home.
It was the month of May in the year 2006. The mimosas were in full bloom as we sat in his front gardens, breathing in the fresh balmy air of the calm, morning sea. The fragrance of rose attar mounted from the morning dew which clung to the garden trees like hoarfrost. The tea, too, had a fresh taste to it. Abi Din Bey looked out upon the cool blues of the late morning sky and waters :
“Sait was a rebel !” he began abruptly in his deep, coarse voice. “You know, he didn’t look to transform the world like some revolutionary, he wanted to be as useless as possible to the whims and caprices of our political and economic decision-makers, to the ideological escapades of social redeemers or misfits so as to accomplish his own destiny for the benefit of all Humanity.”
“Is that why he wrote ‘The Useless Man’?” I ventured, a lovely short story that I had translated several years back.
“Yes, for the whole of Humanity,” he continued excitedly as if not hearing my rhetorical question. “That may sound strange because he lived such a hermit’s life, a socially useless life, especially here on Burgaz. However, if you’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have noticed, he always wrote ‘on the road’ : at the docks waiting for the steamers, on the steamers, in cafés, whilst strolling about the island plunged in his world of creative imagination … even when fishing or rowing. He loved to stroll up the dirt tracks into the forested hills and visit the Greek priest on Hristo’s Hill in his chapel.
“Nothing revolutionary. No message to peddle or to plead, only the solemn and sober cheerfulness of his flamboyant and oftentimes eccentric character which he consciously or unconsciously weaved into his short stories and poetry. His voice was not the authoritative, pompous voice booming from above, but the unfettered voice of pure simplicity, describing simple gestures, simple acts, simple conversations, freed from conventional social and literary shackles. A rebel is neither serf nor master: he is absolutely free from social rank and class …”
Abi Din Bey paused to take a sip of tea. This man, too, lived an unfettered, unconventional life in his two-room cabin on the pebbly strand of Burgaz, alone, besides the occasional visitor. But he was no rebel ; his parents had long since been deceased, and since he had never married had no children. His only brother died many years ago of alcohol in middle age. And so there we sat, alone, the sun rising high on the wooded hills of the Kalpazankaya peninsula bay, Abi Din Bey spinning his own tale of Sait, a timeless reminiscence where story-telling reveals not only the pleasures of listening, of sharing, but more important still, the essence of identification with the Other of that story …
“You know, he hadn’t always lived on Burgaz; he had his schooling in Bursa, where he lodged at a boarding school for boys. His father wished him to be a merchant or a diplomat, but this lifestyle suited him not. Deep in his heart, Sait yearned to be a wandering, carefree writer who observes the details of life that wheel and whirl around him. It was in High School where he wrote his first story ‘The Silken Handkerchief‘ (Ipekli Mendil). It aroused much interest from his literature teacher who encouraged him to work harder to flesh out his ideas, rear in his galloping imagination. His father, on the other hand, disliked the route his son was taking, so he promptly sent him to Switzerland in 1931, I think, to study economics. Unstable as he was, the agitated student dropped his studies and left for France, exploring its towns and literature, especially those short stories of Maupassant, the finest of the French short-story writers, which he read in the original, as he developed a solid base in that language. Finally in 1935, he returned to Istanbul via Marseilles by ship, and there took up different employments, ignoring his father’s growing obsessions about lumber merchant opportunities. He even taught Turkish at an Armenian School for orphans …He translated, too. Since he excelled in French, he translated André Gide’s books for the literary journal Varlık (Existence). Translation served as an exercise in style and intellectual perspicacity for his own writings, which by the way, were gaining more and more attention within the small literary cliques of Istanbul.”
Abi Din Bey stopped for a moment to gather his thoughts. This was not the first time he was narrating Sait Faik’s story to me (and assuredly to others), with of course the usual modifications. I noted, however, that his memory seemed to wane and to compensate for its loses and lapses, he filled in the gaps with judgemental remarks. Oddly enough, his attitude towards Sait became more and more distant, almost academic, as if Sait’s person, long since passed, betrayed Abi Din Bey’s own anguish of passing … His relation to Sait had been casual, not intimate ; yet, there were moments when recounting the events of Sait’s life that Abi Din Bey gave the impression that he was reliving his own past, concomitantly with Sait’s ! This might have explained the urgency in his voice, often broken, the lapses and chronological errors. Did he already know that he would be expropriated in the not so distant future? I cannot say …
“He never earned a great deal of money from his stories, although they were quickly catching the eye of important literary critics and publishing firms. It was his father’s money that provided his bread, tea … and alcohol. More and more collections of his narratives poured out from his energetic pen, written in every possible place on every possible situation that he experienced. How many I cannot say or remember … I haven’t read them all …”
I interrupted to refresh his memory, “Semaver (The Sarmovar), Lüzsüz Adam (The Useless Man), Alemdağ’da Var Bir Yılan (There’s a Snake on Alemdağ), Son Kuşlar (The Last Birds), Az Şekerli (A Wee bit of Sugar), Havuz Başı (At the Poolside), Mahalle Kahvesi (The Neighbourhood Café), Şahmedan (The Pile Driver).”
“Yes! Yes, so many stories in those collections!”
“There are twenty or so in each collection,” I added quickly.
“Have you read them all?”
The question posed so bluntly caught me off guard. I shook my head : “No, perhaps twenty or thirty. I’ve only translated seven or eight of them.”
“Yes, seven or eight,” he echoed in a flat voice, gazing dreamily out to sea beyond his front garden fence. A few young people were strolling amongst the smooth rocks jutting into the sea.
“You know, Abi Din Bey, his stories are not easy to translate,” I rejoined, observing that my loquacious host remained unusually silent. “His vocabulary jumps from Ottoman word-hoards to Burgaz jargon ; from street talk to poetic solipsism. His syntax, so elliptic at times, coils like a snake on the branch of a tree on others ; to follow this coiling I had to slither like a snake.” Abi Din Bey broke into a wide grin : he enjoyed simile and metaphor. “Saik Fait’s reasoning defies Cartesian logic with his uncanny sounding rhythms and odd visual associations ; he had such an eye for details.” I pursued after Abi Din Bey had withdrawn into his cabin to procure a few cakes and returned to our table. “I’m sure I have done violence to the English language with my translations. Then again, my approach to translation has always been a Poetics one ; that is, a unique adventure by which Sait’s enonciations and utterances, his ‘style’ of writing if you like, are ‘transferred’ to my poetic expression in English. Poetics in translation is not one of language to language, but discourse to discourse …” Abi Din Bey nodded kindly in my direction. He knew nothing about translation, but had been grateful to me for having translated his deceased brother’s poems, a marginal poet amongst the plethora of Turkish poetic writers. Yet, Abi Din Bey refused that I seek out a publisher for them; his brother’s tragic death would not be flaunted and besmirched publicly by the blood-thirsty horde of scandalmongers who called themselves literary critics. His poetry, whatever its worth, translated or not, would remain a ‘family affair’ … which it did … Abi Din Bey poured out some more tea, then resumed his reminiscing. He was drifting into his favourite souvenirs, those to which, I am sure, he identified himself: “Many so-called critics despised Sait. Not his stories but his way of living ! They trumped up intrigues against him, accused him of political incorrectness, of social disorder. But this man never advocated any political ideology, nor did he mingle with criminals, as some imbeciles claimed. How the mediocre can conjure up calamitous falsehoods through jealousy, malice and hate. He reacted badly to these accusations and insinuations, withdrawing from the world’s fair ; it was also then that he began to drink very heavily and lead a very unproductive life.
“His father died, and Sait, fed up with all that puerile scandal-mongering, left for Burgaz, where he inherited his mother’s lovely two-storey house near the Greek Cathedral of Saint John. A whole new existential vista opened up for him on his island retreat, far from vanity and pseudo-intellectualism. On Burgaz, he regained that the freedom of the beachcomber, that artful notion of being humane to all living creatures, confronting Nature’s formidable forces, interlacing his childhood dreams and fantasies with natural surroundings. He explored the psychic of individuals of meagre living and of strenuous trades. Sait Faik’s daily existence transpired on the pages of his stories : modest or tragic family events, streets filled with vendors or motley children, fishing expeditions, prawn catching at midnight, flocks of seagulls on the wing and shoals of fish frolicking in gay abandon. He recorded the voices that echoed off the walls of cafés filled with fisherman, spoons tinkling in their glasses, the crisp sounds of cards shuffled or dominoes tumbling. His was an unaffected world of banal circumstances acted out in harmony or disharmony with roaming wildlife, teeming vegetation or simple, working people.
“Sometimes I met him at his favourite café, which no longer exists. There we chatted and chatted for hours; I know he was using me as his first reader, narrating details of his day’s activities, and those of the islanders.
“You know at that time very little Turkish was spoken on Burgaz ; many of the inhabitants spoke Greek, Armenian or Jewish-Spanish. Sait savoured these foreign sounds, so exotic to his ears since he none of these languages. But he listened as if he understood them perfectly. Anyway, we would meet every now and then, stroll about or just have tea or coffee in the village. He led a simple, hermit’s life.”
“Like yours?” I put in slyly.
He turned a bit red, the limpidity of his eyes losing their usual sunset softness. He rubbed his arching nose: “Perhaps. But I never wrote a sentence or verse in my life ; that was my brother’s destiny. And please, don’t publish those poems of his that you translated,” he admonished me in a colourless voice.
I promised not to do so for the hundredth time. Abi Din Bey, relieved for the hundredth time, resumed rather pedantically: “Sait rubbed shoulders with people of whom he had ignored the very existence, whether in Bursa or in Istanbul, and by all this rubbing, however awkward or uncouth, he came to realise that his Destiny was one of Freedom, a philosophy of Life, an Art of Existence that he gradually cultivated here on Burgaz, and which blossomed out into the most beautiful bouquet of literary flowers.”
“Yes, Abi Din Bey,” I began slowly, pleased at my host’s sudden poetic élan. “A Destiny of a sovereign being who regards each and every being as equal in value. An equality of value that can be gauged not particularly by choice of theme, but rather in the glimpses of detail that strikes the ear and eye: a miaowing cat, a reduplicated adjective or noun, the howling wind or soft breeze, a bright scarf on a darkening day, a bird hopping among the trees or on the wing ; details that play not a major role in the setting of his stories but should not be regarded as mere rhetorical artifice. They produce not a ‘local atmosphere’ but generate an intensity to his oftentimes plotless narratives or actionless plots. In fact, they rhythm the levels of narrative threads that weave the dramaless narrations no matter how insignificant or banal. I have never experienced a climax or a ‘dénouement‘ in any of his stories.”
Abi Din Bey agreed, then added: “Unlike most Turkish writing, Saik’s stories are written in plain language, they carry no overweening pomposity.” (Here I refrained from objecting : Orhan Pamuk does not write in any overweening, bombastic language !). “They are unburdened by bloated images. His choice of vocabulary captures the accents of Greek, Armenian, Jew and Turk of Burgaz and Istanbul at that time. You noticed, of course, that there are no proverbs in his writings, so salient in Turkish literature ?” I of course had noted. And it is true that Sait shied away from the Persian and Arabic influences in Turkish literature, still read in modern or contemporary Turkish writers. “You know why?” I did, but shrugged my shoulders ; I preferred to hear his opinion on the subject. “Because proverbs are associated now with the Ottoman aristocratic literati, the çelebi we call them, now with the folk sayings of the Anatolian Turkish villagers. Sait created a new form of writing in Turkish …”
“On the road writing or insular writing?” I chanced. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the perspiration from his large forehead. I wasn’t sure whether he subscribed to my viewpoint or simply ignored it. “Sait was not a writer who sought desperately to compose a great œuvre, but one who arranged movement by movement the myriad glimpses of human reality. There lies his universality!”
There followed a profound silence between us. The waves broke against the rocks. The pines scraped against the flat roof of his abode. The seagulls screamed. Abi Din Bey scratched the remaining white bristles on his round head then spoke in a half whisper:“He was such a mild-mannered man, so gentle, so attentive to others, never intrusive, only curious of life’s gifts to mankind.” He shook his big head sadly: “Can you imagine, the literati of Istanbul dared call him a tramp and a vagrant!”
“They were devoured by jealousy, Abi Din Bey. The majority of those critics hardly ever wrote one sentence that could rival with Sait’s whimsical seizing of gestures and conversations, his alacrity and precision in story-plot and transition. Had any one of them ever traced a vision of the world where animals commingle with humans, children with adults, elders with youngsters? Ostriches and seagulls are compared to human beings; he even compares himself to an ostrich! Had any one of them ever composed homespun characters who express their inner world of trials and tribulations without the narrator meddling in their affairs, however tragic or exuberant? Had any one of them ever experienced the insular life as a source of narrative inspiration, then externalise it, touching the sensitive notes on the scale of universality? His was the open, horizonless, borderless life, in spite of an existence as a ‘recluse’. Instead of sentences written at a desk and smelling of the oil lamp, his literary creations exude the aroma of cypress and spruce, the fragrance of the salty sea, of the fisherman’s catch and the common man’s labouring moils. The rusticity of his new life on Burgaz was in no way condescending, nor the parenthetical plunge of a dilettante.” I concluded.
“Sait never caroused with the literary lackeys and scribblers during his short life.” Abi Din Bey stated emphatically with a bit of harshness in his tone. “He told me that he had found comfort and inspiration here on Burgaz, and that we were all children of a timeless present … of a past fallen into oblivion.”
“So true,” I rejoined immediately. “The writer explores the many levels of reality which diverge and converge as silently and indiscreetly as dreams, phantasies and musings cohere with daily mundane events. Does this not mark the novelty of the modern short story, of which Sait was one of the initiators, artisans and masters ?”
“I shall not object to that!” he laughed. “He even won a prize for his stories, but I have forgotten the name.”
“The Mark Twain Prize,” I reminded him. “In 1953. I remember it because it was the year of my birth.”
“Mark Twain … an American short-story writer, I think? Yes. How tragic, he died a year later of cirrohis, like my brother … They both drank too much rakı… Horrible stuff ! It has killed off many excellent Turkish poets. His doctor, the good Selahatin Hanın, warned him about his heavy drinking, but the doctor, too, would indulge in bouts of boozing with Sait! What a shame … You know, we would sometimes meet. He would chat about the events of the island, his writing, or this or that. Then he would just get up and leave, stroll slowly along the beach, stop to converse with a visitor or an islander. He was not a man who impressed you by his stature or knowledge or personality; he would just carry on a conversation whilst dreamily looking out to sea, or follow the flight of the seagulls. He never invited me to his home, although I visited it when it became a museum. What a shame …”
With those words said in a broken voice lacking in resonance, Abi Din Bey stood and with a half smile trudged languidly into his lodging to retire for an afternoon nap ; the heat was becoming unbearable. I observed him disappear into his room. I noted that his footfalls had lost that former blithe spring to them, and his hunched back seemed more and more enshrouded in a halo of solitude … of quiet resignation. I turned my attention to the sheen of the sea growing bluer and bluer, the seagulls plunging downwards to fetch their silvery prey. Tonight would be my last night on Burgaz. The next afternoon I had classes at the university …
In fact, it would be my last night spent with Abi Din Bey. For little did I know that in a few months I would begin a three-year teaching sojourn in Siberia. And when I did return to Istanbul, take the boat to Burgaz and amble down that old and winding path to my friend’s humble home nothing appeared to have changed : the steep path, the dense, leafy vegetation, the briny fragrance of the sea, the laughing seagulls. Yet upon reaching the welcoming gate it had been sealed shut by order of the municipality! The shutters of his home were closed. The tables and chairs in his garden overturned and strewn about. The plants and trees unattended … lifeless. The barefoot islander who, for some unknown reason, would pile up the stones on the beachhead every day into huge cairns here and there, strolled over and informed me that the authorities had expropriated the ‘old man’s’ property, which forced him to leave Burgaz. Apparently he died of loneliness and of a broken heart. So said the bare-footed stone cairn piler of Burgaz …
Abi Din Bey was the last descendant of the great Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the last person to have personally known Sait Faik Abasıyanık, one of the finest short story writers of the twentieth century …
 Alevites are a branch of Muslim Shias who settled in Anatolia Turkey during the Middle Ages.
 Turkish writer, 18 November 1906 – 11 May 1954
 Ali ibn Abi Talib was Mohammad’s son-in-law, having married Fatima, the Prophet’s only daughter.
 Ali Ekbar Aksu, and his collection of poems ‘Bir Göz Orda Bir Göz Burda‘ (A Glance There A Glance Here) and ‘YaArif Kul Ya BoşÇul‘ ( Ether a Wise Servant Or an Empty Moneybags).
 Turkish novel writer who won the Nobel Price for literature in 2006.
 A strong alcoholic beverage commonly referred to as arrack in English.
Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.
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