Writers Reading: Bob Shacochis

The Education of the Terrorist Osman Aziz

Bob Shacochis

It was that day early in their courtship when they told each other their memories of growing up, first her, then him. She in Kenya and Hong Kong and Virginia and Rome, he in Istanbul. So, he said, and her stomach fluttered as she let him take her hand. You might think my love of books transformed me into an excellent student, but that was not the case.

Oh, crapola, she said, and he gave her a sad glance, his customary response when she contradicted him. Hello! You passed the entrance exam to Robert College.

Okay, did I say I wasn’t intelligent? I was essentially indifferent to expectations, requirements, academic ritual, competitions, schoolboy nonsense. My teachers mistook my standoffishness–they thought I was haughty, obedient but not with the proper subservient attitude, and their cure for this was to shake me roughly by the shoulders. They seemed to think I was asleep and wanted to wake me up. Perhaps they were right. The problem was, the books had made me a dreamer, an inhabitant of every world but my own, and because of this it is very clear to me the day my childhood ended, six years ago, when I was fourteen, and I began to see clearly and realistically the challenges of the world I would inherit, and how I would have to adapt or perish.

But childhood should end at fourteen, don’t you think? she said.

Yes, he agreed. Perhaps even sooner. I was very immature at fourteen. But at whatever age childhood ends, it does not end naturally, it ends with a blow.

They crossed the boulevard toward the bulldozed shoreline and she agreed with Osman’s theory–childhood’s demise was truly jarring–but did not say so. In an unsod grove of newly planted seedlings, mangy stray dogs sniffed the scraped soil.

Why do people call the dogs Arabs? she asked.

Ask your Mister Lawrence.

Sorry?

Mister T.E. Lawrence. And when she didn’t understand he laconically explained, We don’t like the Arabs.

They walked past a horde of boys playing soccer on the bare ground where not long ago had stood a dilapidated row of warehouses. She felt Osman’s mood shift and said, What’s wrong? and here was that strange blend of his, passion and gloom, fueling a smoldering rant about the popular mayor who did not give a shit about architectural treasures or historic legacies and she did not intend to argue when she said, But Osman, the pollution here was so gross. Listen, Dottie, he lectured her, the real pollution is the way the government runs this country, and she sighed, not wanting him to ruin everything with politics.

Far up the quay, a small white-hulled ferry had docked at the terminal below the iron church and she said, Come on, let’s run for it! and took off trotting before he could object, Osman catching up to her and then their brisk steps became a foot race, Dottie first to reach the ticket kiosk, declaring victory–I won! and Osman sucking air, I let you win–the two of them leaping from the dock to the boat as it pulled away into trash-swirled water, collapsing together onto a wide bench near the bow, breathless and laughing and Dottie tortured by the looming possibility of love.

Fourteen, she said. You promised.

I never promised.

Beginning a story is like a promise that you’ll finish it. Otherwise, it’s not fair.

Okay, he said. Trust me. I promise you when I finish, you will wish I never began.

How old do you have to be to be a terrorist? Someone whose very existence makes the devlet–the state–fear for its own survival. Is fourteen old enough? Twelve? Six? What about six months? The answer is yes, even babies are terrorists, if the devlet, in its obligation to preserve the nation, determines the existence of a baby is a threat to security and stability, if not today then certainly tomorrow. How does the devlet make this determination? Is it a reasoned process, or a caprice of the moment, a paranoid and arbitrary whim? How many mistakes are made? How many mistakes can the devlet afford? I don’t know the answer, he said. Perhaps we should ask

the Kurds or the Armenians.

Sorry, what am I saying, Dottie? Okay. Do you know what tevkifhane means? A house of detention, a prison. In the heart of Sultanahmet, there you will find Tevkifhane Sokak. Tourists pass by this place every day on the way to the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia but don’t see it. It’s nothing, an old Ottoman building, big, impressive, but not special for foreigners. Well, unless you’re a foreigner who ends up there, like the hippie in the movie–you know this famous movie, right? every foreigner knows this movie. The way I found out about Tevkifhane Sokak was by a simple mistake, and you can ask Whose mistake? but since the devlet is beyond reproach and does not make mistakes, and therefore cannot place itself in the absurd position where it must acknowledge mistakes it has not made, I find myself in the equally absurd position of acknowledging the mistake as my own.

What was my mistake? Two very serious, very dangerous acts of insurrection. The first?–the need to urinate. Please, no laughing. The second?–the very thing I rejected as a child: curiosity. To be more accurate, curiosity about loud, noisy, obnoxious people who had actual lives outside of my imagination. Maybe, as you said, I was just shy, but I had clearly been born with the instincts and habits of an introvert. What everyone else was doing didn’t interest me.

My parents were delighted when I was accepted to Robert College–my brothers both failed the entrance exam–and naturally were disappointed I did not share their enthusiasm for the best secondary school in Istanbul. They didn’t understand my reluctance, my Saturday ferrying had given them the impression I was a precocious commuter, but I hate getting out of bed in the morning–not much of a problem when your school is only a short walk up the street, as mine had

been. But you know Robert College, yes? Way the hell up in Arnavutkoy. If I overslept I missed the ferry. If you miss the ferry, there’s nothing you can do but take a bus or dolmus. Don’t say taxi–who has money for that every day? Rush hour on a bus–have you tried it? Maybe it takes fifteen minutes, maybe an hour, who knows? I suffocated. The clouds of perfume would make me want to vomit. My days began and ended this way, a horrible slow-motion rush, your insides crying because it’s early in the morning or late in the day and you need a toilet–which, it embarrasses me to confess, was my first step on the road to becoming a terrorist. Apparently, my body understood my true nature before my mind had any idea.

Oh, it’s funny, is it? Yes, you’re probably right, but now you must stop laughing. Trust me, you will not want to laugh.

Do you know what happened in this country in 1980? Yes, of course you do because you see it everywhere still–the soldiers, the police, the fear. Military coup. One day in the autumn of 1980 I left school late and missed the ferry to the Golden Horn and took the bus instead but traffic was very bad and I had to piss so when we reached Taksim I jumped off and ran to a meyhane to use the toilet. When I came back outside the square was overflowing with students, mostly older kids, university students. Where had so many come from all of a sudden? I couldn’t believe the noise, the uproar, they made, shouting, chanting, drumming, whistling–the sensation was very much like a thunderstorm, the demonstration seemed able to create its own gusts of wind–and I had never seen anything like it. You could feel the city shake with the power of the mob. Instead of catching the tram to Galata, as I had intended, I began to walk toward the mass of students. Let me see what’s going on, I said to myself. Just for a minute, yes? Suddenly, I

heard glass breaking and the sound of sirens and people were telling me to run and then the police were everywhere, beating the students with batons and I began running too, it was like a stampede, but in a box–what’s the word in English…corral? No matter which way you ran there were the police. Somehow my shoes were no longer on my feet and I fell down or someone pushed me down and before I could get up they were beating me and there was nothing I could do. The blows came fast and furious, like being stung by a swarm of giant wasps. Then I was lifted into the air and tossed into a van atop a layer of bloody, moaning students and then more students were tossed in atop me, the door was shut and in the blackness it was easy to feel we had all been buried alive. Someone beneath me began convulsing and everyone was crying and groaning and I passed out and I don’t remember anything until I woke up freezing on the wet concrete of Tevkifhane Sokak, in the company of hundreds of students who were as bad off as me or worse. I sat up with my back against a stone wall and didn’t talk to anybody and closed my eyes and kept them closed, waiting to be rescued from my inexplicable persecution. My father will come, I kept telling myself. My father will come soon and I will go home. You see, at that moment I was still a child. I had no concept of true suffering, physically and even more so mentally, and no sense whatsoever of the pervasiveness of injustice.

Dottie, many people in Turkey can tell you this same story. It is part of our culture, our history, our system–the cliche of injustice–and I think sometimes we are almost bored by it. What did you expect? we say. From all directions, Turkey is besieged by enemies committed to ripping apart the nation. The devlet must respond to all threats with an iron fist and unforgiving heart. Too bad for you, we say, if you step in the way. Being in the way means you are either stupid, a

criminal, an anarchist, or a fanatic. If you are any of these things, you cannot also be a victim. You cannot be innocent, even if you are fourteen, even if you are a baby stupid enough to be born to the wrong parents. Yes, I’m sorry, that’s the way it is.

So, all night long and throughout the following morning, while I waited for my father to come to take me home, the guards marched back and forth and took the students one by one–the older ones first, especially those advertising their guilt with beards or long hair. Our police are very proud of their ability to produce confessions. They believe in the utility of torture, they guarantee its benefits to the state. The terrifying screams echoing from the depths of the building hour after hour seemed unreal to me and I could not quite imagine I would end up in one of those rooms, howling like an animal. My reaction was strange. Or normal, I don’t know. I felt dizzy, light-headed, the soreness of my body vanished along with hunger and thirst and I became simply hollow and numb, waiting.

Finally, a guard walked past me and stopped and turned on his heels, noticing me with annoyed disinterest, as if I had appeared in his consciousness as a bothersome afterthought. He grabbed my hair, which was not as long then as it is now, and yanked me to my feet and pushed me ahead of him, up a flight of bloodstained stairs to the second floor. I can still remember the feeling, stepping in a patch of fresh blood in my socks. I looked down and there were my own footprints in blood.

Eventually the guard deposited me in the passageway at the end of a line of other wretched detainees waiting to go into a room to be interrogated. No one spoke or met each other’s eyes but a group of guards stood nearby laughing and joking and talking about football

and at intervals the door would open and out would come a cringing student, one of the guards would slowly pull himself from the group to escort him away, and in would go another student, shitting his pants. No, not really, but you understand.

Now, after an eternity, my turn. The room was grey or green, I don’t remember, and nothing on the walls except of course Ataturk. I sat in a chair facing the investigator behind a metal desk, a bald-headed man who had loosened his necktie and opened his collar and for a moment I had the surreal impression a tarantula was crawling out of his shirt onto his throat, I swear, but it was just tufts of hair, his chest must have been matted with hair. Perhaps he wasn’t bald at all but had shaved his head to appear more menacing. He sat at the desk, writing, as if I wasn’t there. After a while he sighed and put his pen down and closed the folder he had written in and opened a new one and at last he looked at me with weary exasperation, such tired, bloodshot eyes, and picked up his pen and looked back down at the new folder and then came the questions. Name, father’s name, age, residence, occupation. Student, I said. School? Robert College. He tapped with his pen on the desk before raising his head to truly look at me and I could see from his expression that I had become a waste of his time. Why were you in Taksim with the extremist troublemakers? he asked. As I told him, he rubbed his eyes and yawned. Are you a Marxist? he asked. Sir, I said, what is a Marxist exactly? Is your father a leftist? Sir, I said, what are leftists? Are you trying to be impudent? he said. The questions were ridiculous, but he asked them anyway, as if reciting from a note card. Are you a trade union member? Do you believe in theocracy? Are you an activist? A radical? An agitator? Are you a Kurdish sympathizer? Are you hostile to the general interests of the country? Why do you hate the army?

Are you this, are you that, are you determined to overthrow the state? Would you like to confess or should I send you back downstairs with your comrades? Okay, I said, I confess that I’m a worthless flea–fourteen, inexcusably ignorant, unable to hold my piss.

No, I didn’t say that. A guard entered the room with a glass of tea for the investigator. He stood up to stretch his legs while he sipped his tea and smoked a cigarette, paying me no attention. I wondered why there was no pistol on his belt–perhaps he kept one in his desk. My mouth was parched and I cleared my throat and he stopped pacing and looked at me surprised, as if he had forgotten I was there, and he smiled teasingly and said, Ready to confess? and I was bewildered by the playfulness in his voice. Sir, may I go home now, I said, but before he could answer there was a knock on the door and another guard poked his head in and gestured to the investigator to speak in private. They whispered, the door closed, the investigator came back and leaned against the front of his desk, looking at me with…how should I describe it? Ironic respect? As if I had managed to trick him, and he admired the cleverness of my trick.

That guard was searching for somebody, he explained. He had a name on a piece of paper. Want to guess whose name?

I don’t know.

Your name, of course. Why are the guards looking for you, do you think?

Sir, I don’t know.

Your father is here, he said to me, cocking an eyebrow as if to say, The game is over. Your father seems to be friends with every fucker in my chain of command.

You can imagine my relief–life came surging back into me, my thirst and hunger returned

in an instant, and I began to obsess about what the cook was preparing for dinner. The investigator came over and clapped me on the back and said, Kid, why didn’t you tell me that your father was such a big shot in the party, eh?

He plays tennis very well, I said foolishly, as if that explained anything–who knows, maybe it explained everything. I regretted immediately that I sounded pompous, that I was exploiting the change in my position, my elevation. But now, Dottie, nothing I have told you so far amounts to much but now you shall hear the worst of it.

The door opened. There stood my father, a big man in shoes shined every morning by the same old man on the same street corner by the university and a custom-tailored business suit and carefully trimmed hair and mustache. His face looked boiled, crimson, and his eyes were insane. He paused for a moment and glared at the inspector and then looked at me and charged as if he were entering a boxing ring. Who was his opponent? To my astonishment, me. With both hands flying he began slapping me on the face and head and shoulders. A cut on my ear from the day before reopened and blood sprayed onto his suit and the inspector’s white shirt. I was so stunned I made no attempt to protect myself. The inspector, thank God, jumped between us or I think my father might not have been able to stop–clearly, he had lost his mind. The inspector dragged him back and my father was breathing so violently it took him a minute to catch his breath. He pointed at me, shaking his finger in my face, his breathing slowed, and I knew he was going to start shouting but when he finally spoke his voice was quiet and restrained and he said to me, I wish I was dead rather than to have spawned a son like you.

In Turkey, it’s impossible to believe a father would say this to his own child. Family is

everything. I was devastated. Even the investigator was shocked. Tears began to roll from my eyes. I tried very hard not to add to my humiliation by crying but I could not stop myself. It was several years before I was able to comprehend why my father had expressed himself in this manner. His impulse, I am convinced, was to brand and cripple my conscience with the crime of patricide. He wasn’t going to kill me–I was going to kill him. Baba, devlet baba–these are the same organism, you see. They perceive threats through the same pair of eyes. The failing of one automatically catalyzes the failure of the other.

Come on now, Professor, said the inspector to my father, don’t be so hard on the boy. He’s not a bad kid. He’s free to go–no charges. Take your son and go home.

But my father would have none of it. He stared at me as if I repulsed him and said, You have done me a great wrong, stay out of my sight, and then he left me there in Tevkifhane Sokak.

She was about to speak and Osman said, Wait, gently barring her lips with his index finger. Don’t say anything yet. I’m almost finished.

Incredibly, the inspector was deeply affected by my rejection and abandonment. He did his best to comfort me and perhaps to ease his guilt for his complicity in my situation he personally assumed responsibility for my welfare. By now it was late in the day and the city was about to be placed under curfew. He sent for a guard to take me to the police canteen where I was given tea and something to eat and after awhile the inspector himself came and escorted me out of the building and drove me home through the deserted streets. I looked out the window at the police car’s flash of blue light through the emptiness and felt nostalgia for the silence of my

innocence. The inspector tried to talk to me in a sincere way. What are you studying at school? What they tell me to, I answered sullenly. What’s your goal? he asked. What do you want to make of yourself? I had never really thought about it and I said I want to write books. Ah, he said, very good. What kind of books? When I said poetry he seemed disappointed, when I said science fictions he seemed to think this was an excellent idea. Don’t worry, he said as he dropped me off in front of our building. Your father will have calmed down by now and realized his mistake. You’ll see. Everything will be fine.

I was very grateful for the inspector’s sympathy but he was wrong. Despite my mother’s pleading, my father refused to allow me to return to our flat. I was banished to my grandparents’ apartment, one floor below, and permitted to finish the semester at Robert College but then sent away to school in London after Ramazan, London wasn’t so bad but compared to life in Istanbul the city seemed to lack energy and joy. I rode the ferry once to Calais and back but couldn’t even read The Guardian I had bought at the terminal and the water was ugly. After I matriculated, I was allowed to return to Istanbul to enter university. Like every other student from the city, I live at home, but home still means my grandparent’s flat. The difference is, now it’s my choice to stay with my grandparents. I will never live with my father again. It’s very strange of course. I see my mother and brothers and sisters all the time and our relationship is normal. I see my father too, but only in passing. We do not speak. We have never reconciled. Does he forgive me? What am I to think? Do I forgive him? You understand–I cannot. But I can tell you, your world fills with pain and then with anger when you find it impossible to forgive your father, your worst suspicions about life confirmed.

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Bob ShacochisBob Shacochis is a novelist, essayist, journalist and educator. His work has received a National Book Award for First Fiction, the Rome Prize in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He graduated from the University of Missouri Journalism School in 1973, and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1982. A former Peace Corps volunteer in the Eastern Caribbean, Mr. Shacochis currently teaches in the graduate writing programs at Bennington College and Florida State. The author of two short story collections (Easy In The Islands, The Next New World), a novel (Swimming in the Volcano, a finalist for the National Book Award), and  acollection of essays about food and love Domesticity), his book, The Immaculate Invasion, about the 1994 military intervention in Haiti, was a finalist for the New Yorker Magazine Literary Awards for best non-fiction book of the year, and named a Notable Book of 1999 by the New York Times. A former contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine and Outside Magazine, Mr. Shacochis’s op-ed commentaries on the US military, Haiti, and Florida politics have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. His travel memoir of his journeys in the Himalaya, Between Heaven and Hell, was published by Byliner in 2012. His most recent work, the novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, will be published by The Atlantic Monthly Press in September, 2013.He lives in Florida and New Mexico.

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9780802119827Check out Bob’s new novel–from Grove/Atlantic in September! 

http://www.groveatlantic.com/?title=The+Woman+Who+Lost+Her+Soul

“Renowned for his gritty and revelatory visions of the Caribbean, the National Book Award–winning Bob Shacochis returns to occupied Haiti with The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. In riveting prose, Shacochis builds a complex and disturbing story about the coming of age of America in a pre-9/11 world….”

 

 

 

 

More from Bob Shacochis:

https://www.byliner.com/bob-shacochis

http://www.consequencemagazine.org/