It was dreams that bothered Ömer these days, bothered him
like nothing else. In his dreams he tarried with Gail, roaming
the streets of unknown cities, passing by plazas with fountains,
houses that didn’t look like homes, unfamiliar faces hardened
with sourness, and here and there, marble statues with an arm,
hand, or head missing, effigies of mutilated bodies. Somewhere
in the dream sequels in a way incomprehensible to him each time,
Ömer would lose Gail, start searching for her, fear for
her, plowing back the streets they had walked together, alone
and terrified this time. It was dreams that bothered him during
the first two weeks of March, bothered him more than the term
papers he had to write, and even more than hearing Spivack’s
disagreement each time he failed him in some way. Gail, meanwhile,
did not seem to be taking much notice of Ömer’s nocturnal
troubles. She was exceedingly active and agile these days, full
of zip and buoyancy, far too loaded, far more than Ömer
could handle. In a week she had designed an entirely new set
of dark chocolate figurines from the entire Hindu pantheon.
She was also too busy with the details and arrangements of the
upcoming trip to Istanbul. Her indefatigability was tiring at
weeks before their flight, on a rainy Tuesday, Ömer made
a call to 8 Pearl Street. For some time he found comfort in
listening to Abed complain about the insipidness of the new
housemate –an industrious grad student in the School of
Management, with a thesis on “Stakeholder Management and
How to Increase Profits in the Digital Age.” Hearing that
the new housemate had not replaced him in any way gave some
solace to Ömer. What he needed was, however, a greater
solace; if not, he needed a drink.
I don’t feel well today . . . I feel like I’m thrown
into a well . . .”
the two met in Davis Square Abed knew for sure that Ömer
was out not for a walk but for a drink. Though it was hardly
news that he had been smoking cigarettes and some dubious stuff
from time to time, all in all he had managed to refrain from
alcohol, and amazingly from coffee, ever since the hell of a
night at the hospital. As they kept walking, Ömer tried
to convince Abed that unlike other spirits raki did not upset
the stomach, and Abed tried to convince Ömer not to start
drinking again. Both failed.
was the sixteenth of March, the night of The Laughing Magpie.
It was, Ömer would construe much later, an ominous threshold
after which Gail would softly yet inexorably ebb away from him.
many parts and pieces of that night would remain blurry in his
mind, and even more entirely erased. Of the walk back from the
bar he’d only remember scenes wherein Abed talked about
magpies, he about Gail, Abed about lost Muslims, he
about Gail, Abed about spiders, he about Gail . . . Likewise,
he wouldn’t remember how much time he had spent standing
in front of the mailboxes, after Abed had watched him enter
into his building safe and sound. Mailbox eighteen. There it
was, his surname, once so familiar, now turned into a pastel
of itself, with letters squeezed toward the end to make it fit
inside this narrow frame: OZSIPAHIOGLU**. A flimsy sense of
continuity in this life of sudden ruptures, a rickety facade
of identification he had been glued to at birth, and compelled
to carry around wherever he went all his life, and expected
to be proud of, and then even more proud of passing it to his
son, just because some great-great-grandfather of his or perhaps
an indolent clerk long-chewed and digested by the bureaucratic
machinery, had in a fuzzy past for some reason now utterly unknown,
favored this rather than any other combination of letters.
the diligent O wears his reading glasses, it becomes an Ö;
when the mischievous I goes out for a walk and wears a cap,
it becomes an İ;
when the gorgeous G lets her hair flutter in the wind, she becomes
a Ğ . . .
last time he had murmured this syrupy silly tune, he must have
been a seven-year-old in Istanbul secretly suffering at the
hands of a fortyish teacher whose idea of education was enjoyment,
which was fine, if only her sense of humor had been more mature.
As they learnt the alphabet, the kids were forced to sing and
expected to enjoy an idiotic song personifying every single
letter. That the alphabet contained twenty-nine letters had
indeed a painful discovery for him.
yet that night, twenty years later, and miles away from Istanbul,
he came home drunk and dog-tired, and beyond his mind’s
ouzo-intoxicated rim, suddenly found himself watching the dimpled
arms, meaty nose, and droopy mouth of his first teacher on this
planet. Teachers, especially those early ones, are mortals with
God-like tasks. Only they can destroy the yet-to-be-created.
had searched for his fountain pen in his pockets, without realizing
he had left it back at The Laughing Magpie, so that he could
put the dots of his name back in their place. But what difference
would it make anyhow? With or without the dots, such a surname
was nothing but a shackle on his feet, too much of a burden
for a nomad. It compelled one to belong somewhere, to settle
down, to have a traceable past there, a family and a future
worthy of the name. if given the chance, Ömer would rather
possess a short surname, light and genteel, flexible and portable,
one that you could easily carry along wherever you went, like
the one Mr. and Mrs. Brown had.
in Istanbul in his high school days, the very first book he
had read in the first English-language course he took prosaically
titled Learning English – I. That was the course
book of the first semester of the very first year. In the second
semester they had proceeded to another book, Learning English
– II, and so it went. It didn’t give the impression
of making much progress and in their fourth or fifth semester,
the kids were already making fun scribbling on the covers of
the prescribed books Still Learning English – XIV,
Desperately Learning English – XXXV. Their teacher
had told them basically the same series was being used all around
the world to teach kids English, and yet there were slight changes
here and there as each book was adopted for a different country.
Whatever the grandeur of the intentions of those who had planned
this series, the title and content of the books were not much
of a success. They depicted the English language like something
you could never really, fully learn but merely dabble in; a
slippery substance you could not take hold of but only lay a
hand on. It was a swift hare you could not possibly catch no
matter how hard you tried, an aspiration you could neither attain
nor be given the chance not to aspire for.
yet, despite the demoralizing elongation of their tittles, the
Learning English series could have been much more enjoyable
had their main protagonists been other than Mr. and Mrs. Brown.
high school kids back in Turkey spoke some sort of a crooked
English with maximum attention to grammar rules and minimum
competency in vocabulary, part of the blame could be put on
Mr. and Mrs. Brown, and rightly so. In the Learning English
– I-II-III . . . series, they roamed the pages doing
the most simple things in the most scrupulous ways, never realizing,
in the meantime, the extent of the damage to whatever creativity
and ingenuity might reside in their young readers.
couple had popped up in the very first pages of Learning
English – I, smiling from ear to ear in the kitchen
of their house. At that initial encounter, Mrs. Brown was standing
beside the counter with a mission to teach “plate,”
“cup,” and “a bowl of red apples,” while
Mr. Brown was sitting at the table, sipping coffee with no particular
mission. The following week, Mrs. Brown was portrayed in the
living room, still with the same smile and in the same dress,
to teach “armchair,” “curtain,” or,
to everyone’s shock, “television.” Mr. Brown
was nowhere in the picture. The couple’s teaching techniques
had, like their clothes and expressions, showed little change
in the weeks to follow. As each particular scene at their house,
Mr. and Mrs. Brown defined and taught everything around them
in terms of three fundamental criteria: color and size and age.
Thus, Mrs. Brown cleaned a green carpet while Mr. Brown
saw a small dog in the garden of Mrs. Brown made a
white birthday cake as Mr. Brown sat in his old
chair, and at those moments they decided time was ripe enough
to complicate matters, they ran the vacuum over small green
new carpets, or came across big old black dogs.
that as it may, it soon turned out that these indoor scenes
were a temporary tranquility, some sort of an intermediate stage,
in the couple’s life. Once that phase came to an end somewhere
in the middle of the book, Mr. and Mrs. Brown launched a series
of outdoor activities, never to be stopped again. They went
to the zoo to name the caged animals; climbed the mountains
to teach herbs and plants and flowers; spent a day at the beach
to wear “sunglasses,” eat “ice cream,”
and watch people “surf”; drove to local farms to
look for “celery,” “lettuce,” “cabbage,”
and to shopping malls to buy “gloves,” “belts,”
and “earrings,” though for some reason they’d
never wear them. One other activity they kept repeating every
now and then was going on long, languid, “it-was-a-nice-sunny-day”
picnics. There they taught “frog,” “kite,”
“grasshopper,” as they rested next to a “brook”
flowing through the “hills.” Though neither Mr.
Brown nor Mrs. Brown seemed to be interested in what was happening
in other parts of the world, on one occasion they went to Mexico
to teach “airport,” “customs,” “luggage,”
and “sombrero.” To many a student’s dismay,
they quickly came back, and were detected at their house once
again, giving the flamboyant party to show friends and relatives
their holiday pictures (each with a sombrero), while they taught
the past perfect tense.
they seemed to be in restless motion all the time, there were
certain places Mr. and Mrs. Brown would never set their foot
in. they never went to graveyards, for instance; and nowhere
in their habitat could you come across sanatoriums, rehabilitation
clinics, mental asylums, let alone brothels, where most boys
in the classroom had made a visit by this time but none had
yet dared to go inside. Not that they expected to see Mr. Brown
smiling from ear to ear in the penthouse, teaching words everyone
craved learning, or Mrs. Brown recalling that she could do other
things with her body than point at ducks or decorate big white
cakes. But at least they could take a walk, be on the streets;
this Ömer remembered expecting from them. As the world
they depicted was so unreal and vague, too, making it all the
more difficult to speak English even when you knew what you
were supposed to say theoretically –that is, grammatically.
preposterously, that ominous moment would come when the bad
facsimile of a happy life taught in Learning English –
I-II-III . . . series would be grimly, glaringly tested
by the unhappily real life, with its really unhappy people.
Hearing their children talk in English was a mountainous pride
for middle-class Turkish parents. They would miss no opportunity.
Out of the blue, in front of relatives and friends, they could
force their children to speak English, to say something, anything,
as long as it was, it sounded, English enough. The parents’
urge to hear their children speak English, even if with no definite
content, for no definite purpose, was agonizing enough, and
yet, how much more agonizing it could get would be unveiled
the moment these parents bumped into a couple of tourists. “Why
don’t you speak,” they would say, and elbow their
children, “go and speak with the tourists, ask if they
need anything. You have been taking English courses for two
semesters now. You can talk!”
they could. They could talk, even chitchat with those tourists,
if only the scene had been little different if rather than being
accidentally located in the midst of horns, ambulance sirens,
street vendors, and angst-ridden pedestrians scurrying on the
broken pavements in this tumultuous city of Istanbul, they had
been gently escorted to a-nice-sunny-Sunday picnic near a brook
to fatten conjunctions and interjections, while watching frogs
croak and lilies blossom, and they had been asked to connect
two independent clauses with conjunctive adverbs rather than
answer the chillingly simple question of “how to go to
the Grand Bazaar.” Sure they could talk, but not now,
not under these circumstances. By the time summer came to an
end, kids would already hate their English teachers, hating
Mr. and Mrs. Brown all the more. The next semester would commence
upon this shaky basis of solid detestation, offering such little
motivation to go on Learning English – III.
than all the things they purported to teach, it was one simple
they declined to acknowledge that made these books so ossified:
that all their instructions were correct on paper and yet perfectly
falsifiable in life. So deep was the deleteriousness of these
books that Ömer could still be struggling with their side
effects, if it weren’t for his deep affection for cinema
and music. It was cinema—low-budget, independent, and
unpretentious American/British/Australian movies—as well
as a multitude of punk/rock/postpunk lyrics that had taught
him far beyond all advanced English books he was made to study.
real life of blood and flesh, did abide by grammatical rules
and yet, incessantly, systematically, and luckily manage to
deviate from those. Life did construct sentences as grammar
required but then also punched holes here and there from which
the gist of the language seeped out to find its own way. It
was precisely this distortion, and the matchless pleasure residing
there, that Learning English books forgot to teach.
Shafak - Excerpt from "The
Saint of Incipient Insanities"
To attend a book reading/signing event by the author during
Spring 2005 please click
Chapter from Elif Shafak’s The Saint of Incipient
Insanities is included here with the permission of the
author and the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
published in New York in 2004 (Pp. 312-318).
In the fifth page of The Saint of Incipient Insanities, Shafak
"When you leave your homeland behind, they say, you have
to renounce at least one part of you. If that was the case,
Ömer knew exactly what he had left behind: his dots!
in Turkey, he used to be ÖMER ÖZSİPAHİOĞLU.
Here in America, he had become an OMAR OZSIPAHIOGLU."