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Grammatical Errors *

Dreams. 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 these times.

Three 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.

“Abed, I don’t feel well today . . . I feel like I’m thrown into a well . . .”

When 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.

It 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.

Too 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.

When 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 . . .

The 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.

And 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.

He 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.

Back 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.

And 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.

If 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.

The 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.

Be 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.

Though 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.

Then 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!”

Sure 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.

More 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.

Life, 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.

Elif Shafak - Excerpt from "The Saint of Incipient Insanities"

• To attend a book reading/signing event by the author during Spring 2005 please click here.


* 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 writes;
"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!

Back in Turkey, he used to be ÖMER ÖZSİPAHİOĞLU.
Here in America, he had become an OMAR OZSIPAHIOGLU."