Love Story—Silver: Letter from Ortahisar

by Dulce Maria Gray

You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
Their hearts and their bones
And they won’t come undone

Here, in Turkey, the “cradle of civilizations” that nursed 13 successive societies spanning 10,000 years; here, far from everything that is familiar to me, where I am anonymous; here, in the midst of Cappadocian ruins (albeit in the comfort of my hilltop cave hotel as I listen to Aksu’s “Bahane”)roosters crowing heartily, the minaret resounding call to prayerhere, in the center of Ortahisar’s detritus, I awake. Out my window in the distance there is a whitewashed housecarved out of the rising mountain rubbles, open high arched windows framed by cobalt bluethat glistens in the early morning sun. A young black haired woman, her baby in her arms, steps out into the grape arbor, and walks toward the red and pink geraniums bordering the balcony. She points, perhaps simply entertaining her child. A man appears, his blue shirt contrasting starkly against the beige of slipping stones. He takes the baby and lifts him way above his head, then draws him close to his face, and nuzzles him. I imagine the baby gurgles in delight. The three sit for a while.

I turn my gaze toward the ruins of Ortahisar, the lives that must have been, the lives that still breathe among them. Bent covered women inch up and down the various inclines and declines; men walk briskly through the golden dried grass, short cuts, maybe, that lead to jobs and daily chores. Clusters of boys play against the honeycombed rock castle. In hole-riddled Ortahisar, Ürgüp, Göreme, Uchisar, Nevsehir, Avanos, Uchisar, Nevsehirin all of Cappadocia, and in all of Turkeythe physical remains of decay and destruction are clearly visible. Broken remnants of grandeur loom everywhere.

I think about my outing yesterday, descending the eight subterranean levels of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, cave shelters carved from soft volcanic stone by the Hittites around 1200 BCE when they were attacked by the Phrygians. They’re amazing cities expanded by the marauding armies that during subsequent centuries traversed Central Anatolia in search of captives and plunder. Christians attempting to escape Arab invasions during the 7th and 8th centuries expanded them even further. I marveled at the huge rolling stone doors used to prevent aggressors from entering these cave dwellings. Thousands of troglodytes lived ensconced for months at a time. In order to survive they built water wells, waste shafts, chimneys for ventilation, wine presses, storage for oil, livestock pens, kitchens and hundreds of churches elaborately decorated with bright color Medieval frescoes. Cappadocia has dozens of these underground cities. I remember how only fifteen years ago it would have been so very easy for me to hide in any of those dark caves. Sadly, I think now, back then it would have been truly effortless for me to crawl through tiny passages, and to exist in perpetual darkness.

It’s easy for me to understand the sadness that Ortahisar’s accretion can invoke. In his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City , Orhan Pamuk describes Turkish melancholyhürzün. He explains that there are two different Muslim traditions that help to define and clarify hürzün: one derives from the Koran and likens hürzün to deep spiritual loss (such as the one the Prophet Muhammad experienced the year he lost both his wife Hatice and his uncle Ebu Talip), and to agony and grief at having invested too much in the transitory material things that can and will be lost. The other tradition is rooted in Sufi mysticism: it likens hürzün with the gnawing awareness of our inadequacies, of how, for example, we can never fully understand or be close to God. Symbiotically, though, Pamuk writes, if we don’t experience hürzün we feel empty and derisory. Likewise, Sufism explains that “the failure to experience hürzün” leads to feeling hürzün; we suffer because we haven’t suffered enough. He writes that it is by following this logic that Islamic culture has come to hold hürzün in “high esteem.”

Hürzün is exacerbated by living in and with decomposing fragmentsby living in and with the ruins that are constant and concrete reminders that once there was a great Ottoman Empire, and that perhaps such grandeur can never again be reconstructed. Hürzün, Pamuk says, has evolved into a cultural concept that equates to an attuned awareness of worldly failure, and to listlessness and spiritual suffering often associated not just with the loss or death of a loved one, but also with other spiritual afflictions like anger, love, rancor, defeat and groundless fear.

Here in Ortahisar, the hole-riddled “middle fortress” of Cappadocia, it’s easy to understand hürzün. Here, in this distant ruin and time, I sit alone in my cave hotel and I think about you. This summer would have been our thirty-first wedding anniversary; our child would have been 27 years old; perhaps we would have been grandparents. Paul Simon’s lyrics echo in my soul: “Mountain passes slipping into stones… His hands rolling down her hair. Love like lightning shaking till it moans… their hearts and their bones.” I left you because…. There are, of course, no simple explanations, no tidy reasons, words or series of events. Nor am I sure that there is a phoenix rising out of the ashes, out of these ruins. I am deeply compelled (maybe because I am now closer to the end of my life, maybe because I am finally safe and loved faithfully) to say some things to you, even if I must repeatedly stop to wipe my tears. Yes, after all this time, after all the rubbles I have trudged and sifted, I still cry. I don’t yet have the ability to reconcile what I have now with what was and what could have been, with our hearts and our bones twirled into one. But, at last, I can mourn freely. It’s not that I long to have you again, because then I would forfeit the treasures I have reaped. And you, you have a wife and boys that you love. You joined her less than a year after my departure. She’s more twirled into you than I am.

Last night, a few of the cave hotel guests and I walked up the hill to a wedding celebration that’d been going on for two days. This was the young groom’s party. (The women had had their main festivity the evening before.) Throngs lined the hill; live music blared. Everyone seemed jovial and intent on helping the groom to have a good time. In the center of someone’s courtyard, he and his “best man.” distinguished by the red ribbons around their right arms, were encircled by two rows of men, all of them dancing, their arms extended somewhat like that of dervishes as they twirl, their legs crossing and uncrossing to the rhythms played by a flutist and a drummer. The groom seemed elated, probably a bit drunk from too much Raki; he smiled broadly, his green eyes twinkling. Every time he was able to raise his arms higher, and to kick his legs a bit further, everyone around him cheered and laughed. I was misty-eyed thinking about the beginning of their lives, poignantly hoping that they would make it as a couple.

So very long ago, I was young and naïve, but I married you with a full heart, expecting to build a gratifying life together, have children, adventures, to grow old along with you until death parted usto be with you beyond death, since back then I believed in an afterlife. I remember the first time we attempted to make love. It was early spring and we arranged to meet at my apartment while my parents were at the factory and my siblings at school. I put a piece of my orange bed blanket out the window so you’d know it was okay to come up. We were clumsy, cautious, yet oh so very inquisitive. Your eager fingers ran down the length of my black hair, up my spine and neck, gently toward my cheeks, almost imperceptively holding my face as your lips softly, then passionately, electrifyingly, touched mine. It was the first time I shared my nakedness.

Nonetheless, I dressed completely in white for our wedding; so did you. I see one picture embedded in my psyche: your black eyes glimmering with contentment, your arm protectively around my shoulders, my veil tossed in the wind, my smile confident. I was gloriously happy and expectant. Six moths later, or so I recall, after a long and demanding day at work, arriving earlier than usual, I walked into our lovingly decorated home, and I curiously found your wedding band on top of the refrigerator. A sinking feeling gripped me, as if I’d been shoved into the deepest darkest narrowest tunnel in one of those Cappadocian cave cities. Why was your wedding band off your finger? Maybe you forgot it. Maybe. However inexperienced, I knew: I had already felt your very slight disconnection, and the beginning of my fear. And just a few months after that, I cunningly appeared at your job at lunch time, just as you and Anne turned the corner, your hand entwined in hers. It was the first time I felt hate.

There were others, I learned, other women you held and kissed. But I didn’t know what to do. I don’t remember ever fighting, or yelling, or exchanging mean wordsnot then. I remember working later and later at night, seeking approval from my boss, from the men who paid attention to me, from one particularly who liked to share a glass of wine at day’s end. I remember telling him I was sorry to be married and thus not able to be with him, though I desperately wanted him to hold me. I remember ironing your shirt then rushing up to the roof from where I could see you run to Anne, lift her up like in those “the closer you get the better you look” shampoo commercials, then wrap your arms around her and twirl-twirl until I could no longer swallow my scream. I remember the anger swelling in me as I read the letter announcing that, unbeknownst to me, you’d withdrawn from college. I remember the morning I went to the abortion clinic without you, and the afternoon and evening I bled without you.

I also remember intimacy, joy and shared wanderlust: the times we danced the Hustle in perfect synchrony, parasailing together then making love on a deserted beach in Cancun, driving up El Yunque and strolling old San Juan at dusk, bringing presents to my family in Santo Domingo, parenting my baby niece, nude sun bathing in Jamaica, being godparents to your nephew, walking arm in arm under a Caribbean moon, sauntering the Metropolitan Museum of Art and ancient sites in Mexico city, enjoying night picnics on the Hudson River as Zubin Mehta conducted Yo Yo Ma, crying together when your father died and when my mother was diagnosed with kidney diseaseand, during our last bittersweet vacation, walking the circumference of tiny Antigua island. I remember being frightened together, clinging to each other when I was hospitalized, scheming, dreaming, discovering, learning, working diligently to achieve our plan to one day own a house with a backyard where we could grow flowers. Humorously (maybe only to me), I also remember lying tightly wound in bed and then having to find you a doctor because my new orthodontic braces interfered with our passion.

The years went by. And then you found God, and I followed along in the same somnambulist manner I’d been living, but I was beginning to burst; a Monchian shrill was rising in me. I was already calling you names, criticizing the weight you had added to your beautiful body, feeling and spewing ugliness. Maybe you were miserable too and like me you did not know what to do. Certainly, my aim now is not to fault you. I contributed my share of dysfunction: poverty, war, emigration, psychological displacement, deracination and relentless crises throughout my childhood had surely taken their toll on my heart and mind. Notwithstanding (I know that everything is clearer with hind sight), you should not have been unfaithful and I should not have been verbally abusive.

Two nights ago I bought a chilled bottle of Durasan Cappadocia wine and hiked to Kizilcukur, a hill where people gather to watch the sun set and slowly envelop the arid moonscape and sensuous folds of Hallaçdere’s fairy chimneys in glorious shades of red and pink. Even in the summer you can see panoramic Mount Erciyes, the snow-capped volcano, in the far distance. Despite its unique beauty, it’s difficult to imagine that deceptively inhospitable terrain also being one of Turkey’s prime agricultural areas, a region rich in mineral soil that produces savory vegetables, fruits and excellent grapes used, for millennia, to make crisp wines. And then, as I sipped my second glass, I felt reassured: some things do indeed thrive out of ruins. In this moonscape, as the sun’s final glint hid behind the horizon, I was affirmed by how vineyards, wineries, farms, hotels, and travel agents have become the lifeblood of tourism, one of the main ways people in Cappadocia make a living today. The open-air museum in Göreme is a prime example of how that regeneration occurred. So are the many cave dwellings that now serve as natural air-conditioned storage rooms used to prolong the life of lemons, oranges, apples, potatoes, onions and quinces. The crumbling old stone houses and narrow streets are now also charming destinations for crowds of tourists willing to spend their money. As I sipped my wine, and began to feel the cool night air, it became lucidly obvious that Cappadocia’s ruins are not simply camouflaged; they have been transformed by real change and growth.

After ten years of marriage, I left you and the home and history we had builtdespite the vows I took that sunny summer day. Back then I saw no other option. I did not leave you for another man. I know that’s what you’ve believed. Yes, at the end, in the midst of our turmoil I wrongly busied myself; I found solace in a college mate who paid too much attention to me, the one with whom (long after you’d had your first child) I eventually became pregnant, the one who promised we’d marry and create a fairytale, IF I aborted our fetusthe one I later found with Tammy. I now see how all of that looks embarrassingly stupidincrediblebut that’s what happened. When I left you, I truly believed that it’d be for just a little while, that we’d come back together as better people. I wanted to breathe, to run from the asphyxiating church life you’d created for us, from the anger and resentment I had buried, from the slow death I thought I was living. I wanted time away, an opportunity to finish university, to explore the world, but then when I returned from Spain, less that a year after leaving you, I found out that you already had a girlfriend, a younger woman you met in your office. In a seeming instant you were engaged, married, with children, and I thought a Pitbull had mauled me yet again. And so, I gladly accepted and even sought that college mate’s physical interest in me. He was my only lover after leaving you, and he turned out to hurt me more than I probably hurt younot that such pain can or should be compared or measured.

I know you must have a different understanding, but the way I see it now, in the beginning of our marriage you were absent because you were with other women; then you were absent because you found God and lost yourself in churcheven if consequently you were newly respectful and more dependable. I see now that the frailties I brought to our union were fed by your betrayal and inattention, and so I turned into a hateful, bitter and confused little girl who did not know what to do. Aside from leaving you, given the skills I had then and despite mourning the consequences of my choice, I don’t know what else I could have done. Perhaps that’s why now I’m prone to be kind to you, to me, to us.

I have desired a conversation with you these 30 years, but I wasn’t sure of what to say. You went on with your life so readilyeven dismissively it feels to me. What could I say? One night last summer, while traveling through the Maya ruins, I was suddenly awakened by your image, your face as we said goodbye in Madrid, and then your face when you grabbed my shoulders and hurled me across the stair landing in our apartment building, the only time you were physically violent, the last time I saw you. All day you were present in my every thought, and I worried that something had happened to you, that I was sensing horror, that I would never have an opportunity to touch you again. A week later, looking at the calendar I suddenly realized that day had been our 30th wedding anniversary. A month after, my husband soothed me, even suggested that I find you. But what would I say to you? Now, a year later and one failed attempt to share coffee with you, I want to say that I’m sorry for the pain I caused you, that you are in my psyche, in my innermost beingthat I loved you. I loved you.

Now that the pain is less strident, I am free to remember our tender courting days: dining at A Quiet Little Table in the Corner, your hand extending to mine when the performer began to sing “What are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” ; mulling grand ideas; attending birthday parties when already my parents thought of you as their second son; strolling the Grand Concourse entwined in each other; stealing breathless kisses; shopping for the things we’d need once married. I still have that delicate sun-orange glass lamp we found off Jerome Avenue; it’s one of the very few items I’ve carried through a coupling made legal because I was pregnant and painfully dissolved when he chose his lover, through subsequent relationships with all the wrong men, through years and years of healing and (re)construction, and then through the final late arrival at a peaceful harbor and a solid anchor: my third husband. That seemingly fragile well-traveled lamp turned out to be robust, like the ruins here in Ortahisar, Türkiye.


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