Istanbul, and the Early Signs You Should Get a Divorce by Hana Korneti
Updated: Jan 25
Opi is now nearing her 83rd birthday. She wasn’t always 82. I remember her 70s and 60s, and I have heard a great deal about the preceding decades of her life. When I asked her if she had been to Istanbul at any point of her travels, she said no, and then yes!, oh, it was awful.
I sat next to her bed. She doesn’t get out of it much on these cold days. Her head was poking out of a pile of blankets like an aged dandelion from a small, colourful mound of earth. She can’t write anymore, and has a tough time holding books as well, her fingers turned to stubs, can’t do anything with these things anymore. I suggested that it must be the blood pressure, or zinc, or something. She showed me some leg exercises. She asked for peach compote. She ate it alongside vegetable rice.
Her eating habits have always stunned me. Her cooking habits do that to me, as well. She’ll make the best stew (by accident, she’d claim), and then serve a dessert which also happens to contain a ridiculous ingredient like peppers, because she didn’t know what else to do with them. That’s why I developed this new technique when visiting over the years. She’d ask are you hungry? And I’d say, oh no, just ate, why, whatchu got? And then I’d decide, pressure-free and on the pretense of being full, whether I’m going to brave through what’s offered or not.
She started telling me about Istanbul. I am not able to give a fully faithful reconstruction, because she went off on a lot of tangents, about people (and it didn’t help that she has friends and family all over the Balkans), places, adjacent memories…
She had told me, anyway, that she lost interest in reading and television and conversations. She likes to dwell on the past, and reevaluate her life, situations, choices. I got a taste of that during these recollections. Still, where pertaining to the story, I will try to follow her train of thought as much as I can. It skips around chronologically, as stories that have transcended time and become bubbles of memory often do. The names are altered to preserve the privacy of any remaining descendants.
We were with Stanisha, his wife Nada, and their daughter, maybe? Was she born then…? No, she wasn’t, and Lukash , of course. He had stolen my identification card, I didn’t want to take a credit from the earthquake. Lukash was Opi’s ex-husband. In 1963, there was an earthquake in Skopje. Opi and Lukash had been living in Tetovo from 1960 to 1965, so they didn’t suffer any damages from the earthquake. However, she was registered on her ID as a resident of Skopje. Following the earthquake, residents of Skopje could apply for grants from the government for repairs. We didn’t suffer any damages, I didn’t want to take the free credit. He couldn’t convince her to do it, so he stole her ID to apply for a grant and buy a Škoda.
Somehow, he managed to get the credit and buy the car. It was about the time that they also decided to move back to Skopje. Lukash had been wanting to move, although the Tetovo courthouse that Opi worked at as a judge was sad to see her go. She had just finished initiating a large donation from the Tetovo courthouse employees for earthquake repairs (we all agreed to donate unanimously, but they badmouthed me afterwards, ha ha). Lukash wanted an executive position as a director, and his friends in Skopje had found him a job per those requirements.
He had been a very crafty man. For instance, although he had spent the entire month that he was drafted in the partisans ill and bed-ridden, he still managed to reap all the benefits of being in the army, such as getting an apartment, a job, and all the approving societal nods and flirty smiles that come with liberating a land from the Axis powers (specifically, German Nazis and Bulgarian fascists).
Once they were back in Skopje, Opi received a court summons for unrightfully claiming an earthquake grant. At the same time, she was invited to work in the Ministry of Justice. She had told them that there was a lawsuit against her, but they said, who doesn’t. So she went to the courthouse and told the officials, I am registered on my ID as a Skopje resident, so technically there was no legal breach. However, I harmed justice and the integrity of my duty as a ministry lawyer: it was not a legal but a moral mistake, I took a credit without suffering damages. She didn’t tell them about Lukash (no use, and besides, I could have stood up to him more vigorously!), and asked for the strictest punishment. The officials laughed bewildered, scratched their heads, now there’s something we’ve never heard before, reaffirmed that there was no legal breach, and bid her farewell.
So anyway – the Škoda (which was itself feeling uneasy about the circumstances of its purchase) is how they got to Istanbul in 1964. Lukash, always on the lookout for a lucrative opportunity, had heard that black pepper and tea were all the rage in Turkey. Him and Stanisha, his friend, packed bags this big, she shows me with arms spread wide open, of tea and black pepper in the trunk of the car, and took their wives on a “holiday” to Istanbul.
The car was stopped at the Greek border, where customs officers asked the young couples if they had any goods to report. Lukash and Stanisha claimed there was nothing. I’m assuming that customs officers from all over the world recognize something in the temper of hardened technically-not-but-probably-crooks like Lukash, because one raised eyebrow later, they were looking at the huge bags in the trunk.
The customs control asked is this nothing? But to balance things out, I’m also assuming that it’s within the temper of hardened technically-not-but-probably-crooks like Lukash to weasel out of situations just like this one. It’s all about mutual evolution.
That’s how Lukash convinced them that they were going to sell the stuff in Turkey, not Greece, would never do that, so the customs officers only sealed the bags, and gave them a piece of advice – if you have any trouble at the Turkish border, just give some tea to their customs officers. And so they did – by bribing the Turkish custom officers with some black tea, they managed to arrive in Istanbul right on schedule.
Their plan was to camp on the beach in Istanbul (that’s as specific as my Opi cared to be). At the camp, Opi found many friends from Macedonia – a director of a Tetovo textile factory, childhood friends, and this resulted in detailed accounts of each of their individual backgrounds several generations back and also laterally (from whence they came and also who they didn’t speak to for 15 years on account of unfairly divided inheritance/ideological spouts/ whose farmland the fence is wronging, etc.) which I will omit, for everyone’s sake.
They informed her that swimming was advised against, for it had been one of those periods where the sea was under the rule of a certain wind, and as anyone who has lived in Istanbul knows, some local folk love to attribute everything that goes wrong – from illness to heartbreak – to Lodos, the northern wind. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a shtick they do to perpetuate folklore and mysticism – but if that’s the case, I appreciate it more.
Without the welcoming bosom of the sea, the four travelers were forced to do what simple landlubbers do all the time, which is to go for a walk. But the walk didn’t quite have the same adrenaline appeal as swimming in uncertain waters, so the two men went to gamble to remedy the lack of excitement.
You may not be surprised to learn that Lukash was a bona fide gambler. Bona fide not so much in skill as in sheer determination. As in, he’ll gamble until he loses his money, his wife’s money, and maybe even his opponent’s money in an absurd twist of fate which occurs only when someone happens to be a financial black hole who stubbornly gambles nonetheless. Nada, Stanisha’s wife, decided to join them because she thought she could walk around while they gamble. Opi stayed in the camp to sunbathe, plant her toes in the sand, and spend time with her friends.
The afternoon passed, evening came, the night grew dark. The three of them hadn’t come back, and Opi was all alone, beginning to worry. And being all alone in the tent was disturbing, too. Where were they, I wondered, and I was still young, relatively, I was twenty-eight, and we married when I was twenty-six. They did not come back that night, and she told her friends at the camp, who were going back to Skopje the next morning, take me with you.
They did the same in Thessaloniki, you know. We spent one night in Thessaloniki on our way to Istanbul. Lukash and Stanisha found gamblers at the hotel where we stayed; they spent the whole night with them. I went to visit relatives in the city, came back to the hotel room angry, but there was nothing I could do.
The gamblers and their unwitting “hostage” came back early in the morning at the campsite. Nada had suffered the night worse than Opi did – Lukash and Stanisha had locked her in the car outside the casino and left her there alone the entire night. Vagabonds rocked the car and pounded on it on several occasions. Nada got the worst deal that night. After screaming at Lukash for some time, Opi told him that she is going back to Skopje with her friends. He told her go, but we will never see each other again.
At this point, Opi stopped and looked at my contorted expression. She looked a little guilty but at peace with her decision. I knew that no good could come out of that marriage (she actually said “I won’t see any hayir out of it,” using the word “hayir,” an Ottoman word that survived in modern day Macedonian, and means prosperity and fortune), but I wasn’t ready for a separation. She had decided to stay in Istanbul with her husband. It wasn’t until I found out that he is spending our money on other women that I left. We got divorced an entire thirteen years into the marriage. It was ‘75- or was it ‘76? I was forty. Haven’t I told you about our first New Year’s Eve?
The interjection that followed was basically a variation of the theme that crept into countless retellings of episodes belonging to her married life, except in a modified setting. A group of couples went to a mountain resort to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The women thought they would dance the night away. The men had other plans. They locked their wives and girlfriends up in a room and gambled the night away instead.
They stayed in Istanbul for a week. The wind lasts when it takes hold, we couldn’t swim at all, waves, you know. Opi’s classmates from Kochani (a Macedonian city famous for producing delicious rice) found out she was in Istanbul, and she was thrilled at the opportunity to see them – Meliha, Cezmi, and Ali. She spent the week sunbathing; they saw Kapali Carsi, Topkapi palace, and she found even more friends in the city. Some friends, a couple, asked her to watch their daughter as they sauntered around the Carsi all together: the daughter was a high school student, a little curvy, and oftentimes prey to vendors that would pinch her bare arms.
Well, what happened with the tea and the black pepper? I asked her. They managed to do something about the tea in Istanbul, but a lot of the black pepper was left in the trunk when we were going back. We went through Bulgaria to visit my relatives, and left them some of it. I could hear the distant sound of Lukash’s heart breaking at not being able to turn a profit from that left-over black pepper. Having to gift it to not even real relatives, but in-laws. Who knows though, maybe the relatives in Bulgaria were left scratching their heads over some missing silverware. Probably not, of course, but who knows.
Opi tells me, she has now been happily divorced for forty-three years. She sets down her emptied cup of Turkish coffee on the chair next to her bed (thank God you don’t fill up only half the cup like your mother, what is that, two sips!), leans back onto her pillow, smiles at the ceiling and shakes her head.
Hana Korneti is an award-winning author of short fiction based in Skopje. She lived and wrote in Istanbul for many years, earning an MA in Cultural Studies at Sabancı University. She is currently working on a short story collection, and hopes to one day write a novel bearing an uncanny resemblance to Rüya Kızılay’s debut.