It was not, initially, my intention to remain all but ignorant of the Turkish language. But the schools where I taught scheduled me for at least 45 classroom hours per week. Because the textbook material proved to be well over the students’ heads, not to mention deathly dull, I had no choice but to write lessons from scratch, which claimed an additional 25 to 30 hours. In a spirit that combined defiance with surrender, I thought, “Turkey, if you want me not to be an ugly American, cut me a damn break.”
In the event, ignorance turned out in many ways to be bliss. When a language is empty of meaning, it’s full of mystery. On a billboard stuck on a building facing one of Bursa’s Metro platforms was a white cartoon cat waving one of its anthropomorphic paws in greeting. Around his neck he wore a nazar boncuğu amulet, presumably to ward off the evil eye. In his expression was something wild and anxious, as though he’d done a big hit of speed in order to prepare for an exam and was just starting to crash. If I’d been able to read the caption, I’d have known who he was and what product he was flacking. As it was, I simply prayed for his wigged-out soul.
My occasional helplessness seemed to bring out all that was best in the Turkish people, namely, their near-superhuman patience. Applying for my first residency permit, I hit a catch-22: the local government wouldn’t issue me one unless I could prove I had 2,700 lira in a Turkish bank account, but no bank would open an account for me unless I could demonstrate legal residency. This was explained to me one sweltering June day in one of Bursa’s municipal offices by a woman who relied on Google Translate.
Excusing myself, I stepped around her desk and typed “ABSURD” in the English window. When the word “SAÇMA” appeared in the Turkish window, I pointed and crowed, “Evet! Bu saçma!” Yes, this is absurd! Nodding mournfully, the woman offered me a glass of tea. Later I learned that saçma also means “stupid.”
In fact, these helpless moments came few and far between. Numbers were easy to learn, so financial transactions went off without a hitch. Being disenabled from making chit-chat was no loss. Going around with no idea what anyone is saying or what headlines are screaming is a kind of living off the grid that requires no sacrifice of indoor plumbing.
This general rule broke itself a few days before Kurban Bayram – the Turkish name for Eid al-Adha, the holiday where Muslims commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. That week, the lobby of my apartment building took on the smell of a petting zoo. Keeping dogs was prohibited, owing to a cultural taboo that also has its roots in Islamic belief – man’s best friend is thought to keep God’s angels at bay. Yet overnight the air filled with the essence of earth and grass, of boots and jackets still on the hoof.
It did not take a genius to hazard a broad guess at what was happening. On Kurban Bayram, in imitation of Father Abraham himself, the faithful sacrifice animals. Normally, the unlucky victims are rams with curling horns – flyers bearing photos of such creatures had been posted on mosques around town. Pertev had informed me that some people preferred cattle, and that the very rich imported camels for the blade. (Here she wrinkled her nose, as though the practice were considered gauche in the manner of sipping Cristal in a Hummer.)
But knowing this raised other questions. Did people move livestock into their apartments for a pre-slaughter retreat? Or did they just march them through for a farewell banquet? What nagged me most was the question of where, exactly, these unseen beasts had come from.
Across the road from my apartment complex lay a commons where, almost every day and some evenings, a shepherd would graze his flock of about 30 head. The shepherd himself was one of the most picturesque sights in town. With his sunburned face, flat cap, and a canny look in his twinkling eye, he would have been ideal to play Zorba in a remake, even at the cost of another war with Greece.
But I had really grown to love those sheep. I am a city kid, so it had taken me a couple of sightings to determine they weren’t actually goats. But I never did stop marveling at their size, and even their grace. The ones who wandered over to pick from the dumpster at the side of the road had a gallant way of springing back over the curb at the approach of a motor scooter. Yes, they brought to life certain parables – following the shepherd homeward through the village, they really did give the impression of knowing the old rogue’s voice. But mostly, I loved them for their woolly selves, and wanted no harm to come to them.
Our apartment complex had a superintendent, a man named Hasan. I had liked him ever since he fixed my front door, which I’d kicked down after locking my keys inside and being stricken with runner’s diarrhea. The day before the sacrifices, I found him sitting at a table in the courtyard, sipping tea with some of his relatives.
“Hasan Bey!” I said. He looked up. I touched my nose and pointed in the direction of the door leading to the lobby.
Hasan said something to his guests, who chuckled. Turning to me and said, “Hayvan!” – the Turkish word for “animal” – and then, “Bayram!” Then he drew a finger across his throat.
As a narrative tool, pantomime is surprisingly potent. I learned this one evening when I was riding home on the Metro across from a group of hooligans who were acting out a street fight they’d seen or taken part in. As plainly as if Howard Cosell had been explaining it, I understood that someone had been head-butted, and someone else kneed in the nuts. To extract the piece of information I wanted, however, I had to dig deep into my store of Turkish.
“Koyun mu?” I asked? Sheep?
Solemnly, Hasan raised a finger to each temple. They looked more like cattle horns than sheep’s horns. An older man – maybe his father or uncle – clarified: “Moo.”
Questions remained. How in Sam Hill, for one, had a cow or steer been driven into my apartment building without my hearing anything? Where was it staying? Who was cleaning up after it? But these I was happy to let remain unanswered – more delightful mysteries of the language barrier. The important thing was, my sheep were safe.
Just to be sure, the next time I saw the flock, I did a head-count and found it not to have diminished. I also noticed for the first time – sheepishly, you might say – that nearly all of those head belonged to ewes, which made sense, since a flock full or rams would have turned into a mosh pit. In any case, learning that the victim was to be bovine, not ovine, gave me a little taste of Abraham’s relief.