Table of Contents
(City of Two Continents, August 1939)
Mümtaz had not set out on a long walk since his paternal cousin İhsan, a brother to him, had succumbed to illness. Aside from tasks like summoning the physician, taking prescriptions to the pharmacist, and making calls from the neighbor’s telephone, he’d whiled away the measure of the week at his cousin’s sickbed or in his own room perusing books, reflecting, or attempting to console his niece and nephew. İhsan had complained of backaches, fever, and fatigue for about two days before pneumonia heralded its onset, sudden and sublime, establishing a sultanate over the household, a psychology of devastation through fear, dread, rue, and endless goodwill scarcely absent from lips or glances.
The entire household slept and woke with the remorse of İhsan’s affliction.
Mümtaz again rose to sorrow from sleep that train whistles had bloodied with altogether different anxieties. The hour approached nine. He sat at the edge of his bedstead, preoccupied. A host of errands awaited him. The physician had said he’d arrive at ten o’clock, but Mümtaz wasn’t obliged to wait. His first order of business was to hire a nurse. Given that neither İhsan’s wife, Macide, nor his mother, Sabire, ever stepped away from the sickbed, the children languished in ruin.
The elderly servant could easily handle Ahmet, but someone had to occupy his little sister, Sabiha. More than anything, she needed conversation. As Mümtaz mused, he smiled inwardly at the various postures of his young niece. His affections for her had taken on new proportions since he’d returned to the house:
Is it a matter of habit alone?
Do we always happen to love those in our midst?
To rid himself of such thoughts, he returned to the quandary of the nurse. Macide’s health wasn’t too stable. What’s more, he was astonished she could withstand such stress. Excessive worry or exhaustion would again reduce her to a shadow. He had to get hold of a nurse, yes. And in the afternoon he had to face that headache of a tenant.
While he dressed, he repeated to himself, “This reed stalk known as man.” Mümtaz, who’d been quite isolated during a formative period of his childhood, liked to talk to himself:
And that entirely separate thing called life.
Then his mind turned back to little Sabiha. The thought that he loved his little niece solely because he’d moved back into the house troubled him. In truth he’d been bound to her from the very first. Considering the circumstances of her birth, he was grateful even. Few children could so quickly fill a house with such ease and elation.
Mümtaz, having tried to engage a nurse for three days now, had collected a handful of addresses and made countless calls. But in this land, one’s aims simply receded into the distance. Doubtless, the East was the place to sit and wait. With a modicum of patience everything arrived at one’s feet. Six months after İhsan regained his health, for instance, a couple of nurses were certain to call seeking work. When one was genuinely needed, however ... This, then, was how the ordeal of the nurse went. As for that tenant ...
The tenant boded trouble of another sort. Since he’d let the small shop from İhsan’s mother, he’d been dissatisfied and complained, but for a spell of, say, a dozen years, he hadn’t once considered moving, and for a fortnight running, he’d been making inquiry upon inquiry requesting that one of the gentlemen of the house – or the good lady herself – honor him with a visit posthaste.
The entire household met this turn of events with disbelief. Even İhsan, squirming with fever and cramps, expressed amusement. They knew that the principal trait of the picaro was to keep out of sight, go into hiding, and if not being sought – or even while being sought – to respond as belatedly as possible and only after the greatest of griefs.
Mümtaz, having taken the responsibility of late for renewing the lease and collecting rent, knew how difficult it was to see the man even while standing right before him in his shop.
As soon as Mümtaz would step into the store, the shopkeeper would shade his eyes with a pair of black glasses as if they were a potent talisman and, for all intents and purposes, vanish behind a glass shield, from where he’d drone on about the stagnation of the market, the difficulty of eking out a living, and the blithe fortune of men who worked on fixed incomes, such as civil servants; consequently he’d grow livid, berating himself for having quit his job as a state employee and submitting to the
hadith – Muhammad, beloved “merchant of Allah.” Indeed, it was solely for this reason, to avoid consciously violating the example of the Prophet, that he’d started out in trade. At last, he’d cut to Hecuba:
“My good sir, you are
of what’s happening, it’s out of the question at present – all due respect to dearest Sabire. She’d do well by granting me a few days’ grace. She’s no landlord in our eyes, not at all, on the contrary, she’s been a benefactor, a fountainhead. If she’d be so good as to stop by in a fortnight, I’d be both deeply honored by her visit and, inshallah, able to offer her a little something.” And by so stating, he’d leave the matter hanging in the balance; nevertheless, as Mümtaz stepped back through the door, the shopkeeper, his voice quavering, would continue where he’d left off as if startled by the enormity of the promise he’d made: “But I’m not certain it’ll be possible in a fortnight, either.” Because he couldn’t possibly say, “She’d do well by not coming at all, really, the lot of you would do well by keeping your distance! For what purpose would you come anyway? As if it isn’t enough that I live in this decrepit building, am I also to pay you for it?” Instead, he’d request a delay of deliberations to another, distant time: “It’d be best if the good lady honored me with a visit toward the first of the month, or better still, midmonth.”
Now then, this pismire, annoyed at being sought and sounded out, had sent repeated messages asking after them and requesting that the fine lady, or in her absence, one of the fine gentlemen, appear at their earliest convenience to negotiate the status of the abandoned outbuilding of the old estate, including its two second-floor rooms, and to attend to the fact that his lease had expired. They had every cause for bewilderment.
Come afternoon Mümtaz would trudge, as he did each month, to the shop he was loath to visit because he knew by heart the responses awaiting him. Yet this occasion was different. Last night when his aunt goaded him with, “Mümtaz, go pay a visit to that tenant,” from behind her back, İhsan wasn’t able to gesture and mime, “No use tiring yourself out for nothing, you know what he’ll say, just go out for a stroll, take in the air, and come back!” İhsan lay as if spiked to his bed; his chest rose and fell with labor.
İhsan’s philosophy toward this bête noire rested in the wisdom that it was senseless to make futile attempts when the outcome was apparent. Mümtaz, all the same, wanted to avoid disappointing his aunt, who was quite incapable of forgetting about the rent that amounted to an inheritance from her beloved pater. Furthermore, in the lives of this family living cheek by jowl, as Mümtaz would have it, on the “Island of İhsan,” the saga of rent provided fodder for a multitude of puns and witticisms.
Most amusing, mirabile dictu, was how after Mümtaz returned and shared with his elderly aunt the range of responses he’d received, her initial anger, “I hope the bum dies, the geezer,” would gradually and by shades turn toward compassion, “Poor soul, he’s helpless, the dear man’s afflicted anyway,” or how she would then grow heavyhearted and say, “Maybe he really doesn’t earn a profit,” and subsequently attempt to resolve the situation over and again; or how she declared, “That’s all that’s left of that great manor, or else I’d have sold it and been done with it long ago,” indicating that the rent, which she never received in a timely fashion, was a source of genuine remorse. One day, however, Aunt Sabire would resolve to make her customary visit to the tenant, and since this daughter of the lamented Selim Pasha wouldn’t deign to go out onto the streets unaccompanied, word would be sent to Arife, the maid in Üsküdar, who would arrive on the appointed day, after which the following three or four days would be spent in deliberation, “Let’s go pay a visit to that man tomorrow,” and frustrated attempts to do so would be made while visiting the neighbors or at the Grand Bazaar; but finally, one fine day, she’d return triumphantly in a taxi heaped with presents.
Doubtless, her visit to the tenant was never made in vain; she’d at least get a portion of the rent, regardless. Her temerity astonished both Mümtaz and İhsan, though, all things considered, it wasn’t that surprising.
Though İhsan’s mother cherished Arife, she couldn’t stand her chatter. As Arife the gossip’s visit to the house dragged on, Sabire’s rage, which Arife had known since childhood, mounted. When it finally peaked, a taxi was summoned, and they would set out together, Arife not in the least bit wise to where she was being taken; first the elderly, faithful maidservant would be dropped off at the Üsküdar-bound ferry landing with a “Farewell, my dear Arife, I’ll have them call for you again, won’t that do?” before İhsan’s mother would head straightaway to the shop.
As might be expected, snubbing the landlady when she appeared in such a state of mind constituted something of a challenge. The pitiful man had attempted to do so a few times by complaining of stomach pains and whatnot. On the instance of the first occasion, Sabire suggested he brew mint leaves, and on the second, she advised him to try a more complex remedy, but on the third visit, when she again was met with complaints of ill health, she asked, “Have you taken my cures?” In response to his negative reply, she snapped, “In that case, don’t ever mention such ailments to me again, is that clear?” During this third visit the shopkeeper realized he couldn’t evade the old matron whose temperament fluctuated between fury and guilt. On her arrival he ordered her a customary coffee, feigned one or two calculations at his desk, and as soon as she’d finished her demitasse, he shuffled her off while stuffing an envelope into her obliging hands. Afterward she roamed from shop to shop, a taxi to sport her about, hunting for gifts appropriate for all, only to return home after spending every last penny. İhsan and Mümtaz considered this store, its rent, and the tenant, along with Arife, who might even be considered part of the old manse herself, the lady’s sole amusement and diversion, the single greatest entertainment with which she filled her spare time; and because she was heartened by it all, they did nothing but indulge her.