Photographs by Eslam Abd El Salam
Neslihan’s sister was in the bedroom, crying behind a closed door. It fell to the sister’s husband, a chef named Alibek, to tell Jimmy Malley he couldn’t stay. They sat in the small living room, made smaller by Alibek’s collection of antique drums. His hands shook, pouring tea. Not so much because of the message he had to deliver to the American but because of the plainclothes cop somewhere outside the apartment building. Shadows darkened the blue stubble on Alibek’s square chin, a trick not of the light but of apprehension.
“My wife is a wonderful person,” he said. “It’s just, Emel is not like Neslihan.”
“Nobody is like Nesli.”
For the Turks, calling somebody a lion was a tribute. Usually they meant a man. Neslihan was a female lion. Fearless. That was why she was in prison.
“I’d like to wait until it gets dark,” said Jimmy. “Is there some kind of service door I can go out?”
Alibek, grateful for how easy the American was making it on him, heaped his plate with pastries he had baked himself.
Two days earlier, Jimmy had gone out from the apartment in Bornova he shared with Neslihan to pick up a loaf of bread and a jar of cherry jam. Walking back, he dawdled at a newsstand, struggling with the headlines. To understand Turkish, you had to stand on your head and think backwards. As he turned the corner, Nesli was coming out of their building onto the street between two cops. Both of them were shorter than she. Her cuffed hands were held stiffly in front of her, her long dark hair was disheveled, her eyes defiant. She knew Jimmy was due back any minute and took care not to look for him. In the bright cold air of late February, as the police drove away with the woman he loved, he was sweating hard and could not catch his breath.
Neslihan Genç was a journalist. She had been writing about Sami Benbassa, a colleague and a Jew. In a piece on financial corruption, Sami had done the reportorial equivalent of flipping the bird at the government. He had been in jail two years. A month ago he had somehow managed to transmit a message in English to a cousin in Tel Aviv. The message, eloquent in its plainness, described an interrogation session he had undergone. The cousin gave Nesli permission to translate and publish the piece, and she posted it online.
The police put a guard on the Bornova apartment. No way Jimmy could go back to get his stuff. He had his phone, his passport, his fear. He took a cab to Emel’s. She broke down when he told her what had happened. She let him stay, but a foreign human rights guy in the apartment added more strain to a bad situation.
At dusk Emel stopped crying and Alibek led Jimmy down to the service entrance by the doorman’s apartment, half a story below ground level. No guarantee that they hadn’t stationed a cop there, too, but he couldn’t stay.
“What are you going to do, Jimmy?”
On his best days, Jimmy’s Turkish rose to the level of serviceable. He had learned to keep it short, avoiding ambiguity. “Not sure.”
Alibek handed him a wad of folded bills.
“I don’t need this.”
“Take it. We will feel better.”
He took it.
“They used to call our city Infidel İzmir. The most secular city in Turkey. But the zealots have taken over. People like us, regular people, we’re going to drown in their sea.”
They shook hands, and Jimmy stepped through the door into a dark alley. No cop, or not yet. Walk, he told his legs, and they took him up the alley.
Edna was going on about cat videos. They were talking on Whatsapp, but she was old school and took her security protocols seriously. Edna used to be a nun. Lived in Nicaragua. Despair over the possibility of making anything better robbed her not of her faith but her hope. Without hope, she felt she was shortchanging the Nicaraguans and God. She quit.
“So there’s this cute gray tabby on the keyboard of a player piano, and all of a sudden it starts playing. DISC people will pick you up at the airport in Bamako. All you have to do is give me the word, and we’ll make it happen.”
The İzmir office of the Democratic Initiative for Social Change was closed. Under the regime, it would not open any time soon. Because he could no longer work in Turkey, they wanted Jimmy to go to Mali, where the difficulties were different.
“I’m not leaving.”
Jimmy Malley was thirty-two years old, and his family tree was strung with bright lights. Malleys and Sheas had been fighting on history’s right side for generations. A Wobbly in the Pacific Northwest, a conscientious objector in Brooklyn, a motive force in Students for a Democratic Society in Berkeley. His mother’s father had marched with King and Lewis.
Jimmy was something of a slacker and had been slow to take up the family business. He had gotten by, financially, gigging for companies that needed someone to translate numbers into meaningful English. Well, and he was seriously into poker. Made some money, lost some, made a little more; like that. His father’s brother Michael used to work for DISC. Uncle Mike’s call caught Jimmy between gigs, at loose ends, impatient with himself without knowing why. He interviewed, got the job, went to İzmir to channel support and provide low-key liaison to people opposing the government’s march to authoritarianism.
Two weeks. That was how long it took Neslihan to invite him to move in. Jimmy had been ready the day they met.
“There’s this other video,” Edna said.
“Forget the fucking cats, will you?”
“You can’t do your friend any good by hanging around, Jimmy. It won’t help her, won’t help you. Where are you staying?”
“With a family.”
They were Kurds, living in the bedraggled neighborhood on the hill just below the Velvet Castle, which had a killer view of the city and attracted disconsolate lovers, victims of what the Turks called kara aṣk. Black love. Nesli had brought him up to the castle once. As they drank tea at a small table with rickety legs under an elderly tree she told him about the black love legends. Evidently lovers who lost hope had been throwing themselves from the walls for hundreds of years. Turks are fatalists, Jimmy said; they always expect things to go bad. He was trying to goad her a little. It didn’t work. We’re not fatalists, she told him. Innocence blinds an American’s eyes. He does not see how dark the sun is.
The Rojan family, Jimmy’s landlords, were not political and did not criticize the government in his hearing. He slept in a back room on the second floor with a photograph of the Matterhorn on the wall. They were grateful for the rent money.
“Of course we can’t make you leave,” said Edna.
“Damn right you can’t.”
“Just do me a favor. Call me every day or so. I need to know what’s on your mind. We don’t want you to do something, what’s the word I’m searching for?”
Korkak. That was what was on his mind. It was the epithet Nesli reserved for the spineless, the accommodators, the people who kept their mouth shut when they ought to be denouncing evil shit. The word meant “coward.”
Jimmy thought he might be one.
He was in Kadifekale, a couple of blocks from the Rojans’. He went into a tea house, where the smoke from fifty cigarettes rose to a high ceiling with water stains in the plaster. Slow fans lazily pushed the smoke around. All men, only men, reading the paper, talking football, playing backgammon. Hard to distinguish between Turks and Kurds, but the short man in a white apron who took his order spoke Turkish with an accent. Jimmy ordered tea and a pack of Vigor. Neslihan thought it was a pose, him smoking Turkish cigs. Maybe it was, but he was used to the taste.
A fine small thing, one of the round thousand he had experienced since coming to Turkey: tea in a bulbous glass, two sugar cubes on the tiny saucer. He watched the steam rise. No Turkish tea in Mali. He loved the country in which he was living in direct proportion to the hate he felt for its antidemocratic government.
His phone rang. Mehmet Ali.
“We’ve located her.”
“Where is she?”
“Woman prison in Karagöz.”
The lawyer’s English was no better than Jimmy’s Turkish.
“Not far. Still in the Province of İzmir.”
“What else do you know?”
“Not much. I call you if I know something. Jimmy, you must leave Turkey.”
Mehmet Ali had been DISC’s lawyer. He was there the day the police closed down the office. Young, smart, adept. He knew when to push, and when to stop pushing. Jimmy wondered whether Mehmet Ali had seen how scared he was when seven bullet-headed cops tromped up the stairs and confiscated their computers, their files, the flash drives they thought they had cleverly hidden in the false bottom of a ceramic planter beneath a massive spider plant. One of them, a beefy man with black small eyes, studied his passport, took a photo of it with his phone, handed the document back with a taunting show of reluctance. Jimmy shat a brick.
Later, at home, Neslihan tried to console him.
“In such a situation only a fool would feel no fear,” she told him. “Turk, American, anyone.”
They were playing Okeh, a Turkish game, at the little table in the kitchen. They were smoking Vigors, drinking red wine, eating olives and white cheese. Because the game involved numbers, Jimmy was good at it. Neslihan wore red lipstick. From the red butts in the ashtray he could see she was smoking twice as much as he was.
“I want to write about your office,” she told him. “What they did to you.”
She shook her head. “I cannot say as much as ought to be said.”
She had developed the habit of speaking a sentence in Turkish, then repeating a simpler version for him in English. It worked, sort of. She stood up, came around the table, sat in his lap, put her arms around his neck.
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” she said.
He took it to mean she knew just how scared he had been.
Mehmet Ali promised to call him when he learned what Neslihan was being charged with.
“I want to see her,” said Jimmy.
“That will be difficult.”
“But you can make it happen, right?”
That was how you said you wanted something to happen, you invoked Allah, and Allah’s will. It was not a verbal tic, it was a demonstration of the fatalism to which Neslihan was as susceptible as anyone, never mind her determination to resist the evil shit that absolutely had to be resisted. How dark the sun.
Leaving the tea house, he had a sense of being followed so he walked downhill, in the opposite direction from the Rojans’. He would bring them no harm. It had rained. The stone sidewalk had a cleansed look, like a happy ending. He went past two boys coaxing a sheep to its doom. The sheep resisted. It was March 1st. The air was still wintry, but the Aegean spring was marshaling its forces. In April the roadsides became lush with red poppies. Another thing to love in this place. The prison holding Neslihan must have a few windows. Was she able, now and then, to get a look at the sky, the earth, trees?
Three blocks downhill he decided he had only imagined being followed. He hailed a taxi. He had a little money in his pocket, having been doing some jobs for a nonprofit, We Learn, headquartered in Boston. Because his computer was still at the apartment in Bornova, he worked from the library, which was where he told the driver to take him now.
He had been good at the DISC job. It involved a combination of social media agitation, some fund-raising, also online, and discreetly putting threatened Turks in touch with people in other countries who provided resources. The resources mostly meant solidarity, not to be discounted when a person was under siege. There was a small chance he could do Nesli some good, working that way, but not from Turkey. The government’s online goons were skilled, and efficient. The platforms that they didn’t close, they monitored for enemy activity. Mehmet Ali had warned him away from doing anything that would undercut his legal work on Nesli’s behalf.
So why didn’t he leave the country?
At the library, he worked on a report for We Learn through the afternoon. Neslihan was everywhere. In a woman with her same hair perusing the stacks, in the tapered nails of a help desk woman illuminated by the slant of sun through a window, in a patron’s stifled laugh. In the tips of his fingers, and in his cock. She was his sexual home, the locus of his equilibrium. Her laughter signified delight. When they heard her, the gods grinned.
A text from Edna. Call me. He didn’t.
Two choices. Leave Turkey, take the job in Bamako. Or do something for Neslihan. Here.
Leaving the library he took another cab to a police station. How rubbery his legs, walking up the steps, through the foyer. The legs of a coward.
At the desk, a cop with a round Anatolian face on which suspicion had found a home wanted to know his business. Keep it simple. Stand on your head, think backwards.
“My wife was arrested. I want to see her.”
“Who is your wife?”
The name meant nothing to the man, but it was enough to provoke an interview with a senior officer in an office with the traditional portrait of Atatürk on the wall. The major, crisply uniformed, studied Jimmy’s passport. He had a work visa, no small accomplishment. Somehow, Mehmet Ali had managed to make it happen.
There was a file on Jimmy, a file on DISC. The cop had access.
“This visa should be revoked,” the cop said. Gerçeker, the name on his uniform shirt, read. “Your organization is no longer in business.”
“I would like to visit Neslihan.”
“For what reason?”
“I love her.”
Gerçeker nodded. He took a note on a pad of paper. Without looking up, he asked Jimmy, “Do you wish to overthrow the government of the Republic of Turkey?”
“I wish to see my wife.”
The major frowned. Not so much in disapproval, Jimmy thought, as at a perplexity he would not share. There was great tension between the religious people in authority and the secularists, some of whom still had jobs in government. It had been going on so long that people kept their opinions to themselves, and most of their thoughts.
The cop recited a string of numbers. It was Jimmy’s phone number.
“You may be contacted.”
“To tell me about visiting Neslihan?”
But the man would not be pinned down. He told Jimmy a story about his time, as a young man, working at a bakery in Düsseldorf. If the story had a point, or a message, it was cloaked. He called the cop from the front desk, who escorted Jimmy from the station.
As dusk came down the call to prayer began. It came through loudspeakers from several different mosques. Because they did not start at exactly the same moment, the grand Arabic words were not in sync. It was a sound that touched Jimmy, who was taken every time by a beauty he had been unable to imagine, before Turkey.
He ate at a small restaurant whose steamed-up utilitarian front window appealed to him. Spiced rice, eggplant, tightly rolled grape leaves. Drank a glass of beer listening to the conversations swirling around him, not trying to understand the words, just savoring the sound. He belonged here. With Nesli. On the way back to the Rojans’ he stopped for half a kilo of Turkish delight. The kids loved it.
Karagöz was a peninsula. Everywhere you looked, a heart-bending view of venerable olive orchards, windswept beach, stone fences, grazing sheep. The sea was turquoise, which Neslihan had told Jimmy was French and meant Turk-colored. But what color do you see?, he had asked her. Mavi mas mavi, she said. It meant the bluest blue; blue in a Turkish way that Jimmy was sure his American eyes did not see.
He took a bus. Mehmet Ali sounded puzzled when he called to tell Jimmy he had been authorized a visit with Neslihan. He had not expected success, and Jimmy wondered whether Gerçeker, the major with the picture of Atatürk on his wall, had had a hand in it.
The bus ride was long enough to solidify his fear. By the time he approached the building he was clumsy with it. A Turkish prison. Shit.
The Malleys told a story about Jimmy’s namesake, his great-grandfather, a recruiter for the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1922 the original Jimmy Malley had waded into a squad of cops who were using their truncheons breaking up a strike on the streets of Portland. Took a two-by-four with him and laid out half a dozen blue suits before they beat the living shit out of him. His body, in the telling, was never the same after that, and he lost an eye, but his spirit stayed strong.
Korkak değilmiş. Jimmy’s namesake had been no coward.
He had to surrender his phone and his passport at the prison. A boxy room. Ugly green walls with a table and two chairs, one at either end. A camera mounted in the ceiling, capable of swiveling its snout-eye should the need arise. The woman who brought Nesli into the room had a headmistress look, a headscarf, and forty extra pounds. She told them not to touch each other, took up her position in a corner, arms at her sides.
They spoke in English.
“I can’t believe they let you come.”
“I told them we were married.”
She laughed big, shoulders shaking. The gods, who were nondenominational, expressed their approval. The guard glowered.
“Is this a proposal?”
“It is if you’ll say yes.”
She raked him with understanding eyes. “I don’t want a marriage proposal that is a gesture of solidarity.”
“Do you know what they’re charging you with?”
“Mehmet Ali is working on it. They’re in no hurry.”
“Do they mistreat you?”
“Every day includes what I call the Theater of Intimidation. Act one. Act two, act fifty-seven.”
“But you’re not afraid.”
Her eyebrows arched. “I would like to make love with you, Jimmy.”
He nodded, did not trust himself to speak.
They were permitted thirty minutes. Halfway through, the guard left the room. They got up, embraced, kissed, touched. She perceived his fear.
“You should leave, Jimmy.”
“Not until Big Bertha tells me time’s up.”
“I mean Turkey. Our democracy has died. They can charge me with whatever bullshit they like. They can sentence me to a million years. I will feel . . . more at ease if you are somewhere else.”
He did not tell her about Bamako, the DISC job waiting for him there. He said he was staying. She knew why.
“You’re afraid. You believe if you stay, you must face your fear, and conquer it. It’s not worth it. You believe I am fearless, Jimmy, but I’m not. They make a korkak of me every day. In here. They fuck with my mind, they are very good at that. Go. Leave. What wants to happen, it will happen.”
“I get it. You’re throwing yourself from the Velvet Castle wall.”
Her laugh got inside him. It found a comfortable place to stay. She told him, “Black love is true love.”
The guard was back. She signaled subtly with face and arm that their time was up, and that there would be no penalty for a goodbye kiss.
“I know that you trust me, Jimmy,” Nesli said as she was led away. “Please do what I say.”
“He had to surrender his phone and his passport at the prison. A boxy room. Ugly green walls with a table and two chairs, one at either end. A camera mounted in the ceiling, capable of swiveling its snout-eye should the need arise. The woman who brought Nesli into the room had a headmistress look, a headscarf, and forty extra pounds. She told them not to touch each other, took up her position in a corner, arms at her sides. They spoke in English.”
It might have shamed him but did not, her nailing his fear. Back in İzmir, he did the only thing he knew how to do. Working from the library, using the platforms and the sites that were available, he started a Free Neslihan Genç campaign. The only tricky part was not letting his emotion get out of control in what he posted. He experimented, looking for the right tone, eventually found it. Over three days, he coaxed the fire he had kindled. Some defense fund money began trickling in. Turks in exile were generous. There was enough of a blaze that Mehmet Ali saw it and called.
“You’re asking for trouble.”
“Will it hurt Neslihan?”
“I don’t think so. But you can be sure the police are looking for you.”
He was wrong about that. They didn’t need to look. They knew he was staying with the Rojans. Those times on the street he had felt he was being surveilled, he was.
Just three cops, one of them a corporal with a face that continuously twitched, were all that was needed to crystallize the fear that had been floating loose inside him. One of the cops shoved Mr. Rojan hard enough that he fell to the floor, and the kids began crying. Coming down the stairs from his room, Jimmy froze. Could not descend the last couple of steps so they had to drag him down and out to the police vehicle. No neighbors watched. The street, always busy, had gone still and silent.
The terror he felt, being driven away in handcuffs, shamed him. Korkak. He imagined the word on Neslihan’s lips and was grateful she could not see him. He had engineered this moment. A test, and he failed.
In the police station they knocked him around a little, but there was no real heat in it, which led him to think at first that the arrest was just for show. He was being intimidated on orders from above. Act one in his own Theater of Intimidation. They were fucking with him on principle, because they could. Then a sergeant walked into the room into which the three arresting officers had bundled Jimmy. He was licking an ice cream on a stick. He was balding and had a soft look as though accustomed to being pampered by a woman to whom he was close: a wife, a mother, a big sister. His teeth were perfect, his lips disconcertingly sensual. His black unblinking eyes saw enemies Jimmy would never perceive.
He gestured for the others to leave, then took a seat across from the American and studied him. Time, he seemed to suggest, was abundant. An endless loop, amenable to official purposes.
“The name is Bulut. They tell me you speak Turkish.”
“The spies are the ones who speak our language. That’s how we know them.”
“I’m not a spy.”
Bulut nodded. He finished his ice cream, tossed the stick into a trash basket in the corner. Wiped his hands on a paper napkin he drew from his pants pocket.
“Here is what you must know. Kimse bilmez, hiç kimse gelmez.”
Nobody knows, nobody is coming to rescue you.
Jimmy nodded. The walls of the room, he noticed now, were painted the same green as the walls of Nesli’s prison. No windows.
“Are you ready to sign your confession?” Bulut demanded.
Jimmy shook his head. “I did nothing wrong.”
“Hah! If only we could believe you.”
It was clear that the sergeant was enjoying the conversation. That made Jimmy reluctant to engage. Anyway his tongue still bled a little where he had bitten it when the corporal cuffed him with the back of his hand.
“You Americans are wrong about us,” said Bulut. His sense of grievance was swollen, tender as a sore tooth he could not resist poking with his tongue. “We Turks are not Arabs. In fact we ruled their lands for hundreds of years. Arab soap? For us, that meant the most inferior product on the market, soap for poor people. Without oil, they would still be riding camels.”
Jimmy nodded. “Right. The Turks are not Arabs.”
“When the Ottomans reigned over the civilized world, you Americans were living in houses of mud.”
Houses of mud?
“I want to speak to a lawyer.”
“No lawyer,” said Bulut. “Burası Türkiye. Our rules, not yours.”
Jimmy had no idea whether the man’s indignation was real. The sergeant got to his feet, barked an order, then strolled behind the grunt who led Jimmy back through a warren of hallways to a cell that stood by itself between two rooms with padlocked metal doors.
“You must think about your confession. That is your only hope.”
The cell in which they left him contained a pallet on the floor, a folding chair, a pitcher of water in a bowl, a chamber pot. The air was chilly and damp. Jimmy sat on the chair.
He wished he had stayed in better touch with Edna. Then, when she did not hear from him, she would have known something was wrong. She would have called the American consulate in Ankara. At the very least, questions would have been asked. Sometimes, questions kept a person alive.
He lost track of time. They had his phone, and he wore no watch. After what felt like half an hour, the bare light bulb in a wall fixture went out. So did the lights in the corridor. The darkness made Jimmy long to lie down on the pallet, but he stayed upright in the chair.
In the darkness, after an unmeasured while, a speaker began playing. It seemed to come from one of the padlocked rooms. A kind of chanting was what it sounded like, not quite Turkish, not quite anything else.
After the chanting stopped, he dozed sitting up for an indefinite period of time. He woke when the lights came back on, and the sergeant appeared just outside the bars of his cell. Bulut was eating a sandwich of grilled lamb in pita bread. He finished it before speaking.
“We were discussing your confession,” he said, fastidiously cleaning his fingers one by one with a moist wipe.
“I did nothing wrong.”
“Of course every spy in the history of espionage has said the same thing.”
“I want to speak to a lawyer. I can give you his name and telephone number.”
The sergeant dismissed the request with an irritated wave of the hand.
“Turkey is regaining the strength we once had. Already we are a force to be reckoned with in our region. Even you must see how confidently we are asserting our rights in the Aegean. The American government can do nothing to stop the march of history. Shall I call someone to take down your confession?”
“What is it that you think I’ve done?”
Bulut shook his head slowly, suggesting that the question was not just inappropriate, it was all the evidence of the American’s guilt he needed.
“This is your last chance to help yourself. You must explain.”
With a show of impatience Bulut shook his head. “Kimse bilmez, kimse gelmez.”
He turned and left, taking the lights with him. The speaker began playing again. This time, the chant seemed to come from the other locked room.
More time passed, and Jimmy lost it. He lay on the pallet, hugging himself, trying with no success to stop the convulsions of his body. He understood that even if somebody decided to look for him–Mehmet Ali was the likely person–he was unfindable.
He slept. Woke. Slept. There was so much time that it ceased to exist.
He woke again. Thought he heard the chanting, but the volume was so low, it might be in his head. As he lay on the pallet, he understood with etched clarity that this was how it worked. Knocking you around was just the beginning. What came afterward was more effective: locking you in the dark, pumping in mystic gibberish you could not tune out. They isolated you. They controlled you, and your environment. They wore you down, they wore you out. Light, when it came, brought only the unreason of a policeman eating lamb.
He thought about Neslihan. Aslan. She was a lion. She had misread him at Karagöz Prison. Wanting to marry her was no gesture.
This was what it came down to. If they chose to make him disappear, he would disappear.
Eventually, the door down the dark hall opened again. Jimmy’s gut clenched. But when the lights were switched on it was not Sergeant Bulut, it was Major Gerçeker. Standing in front of Jimmy’s cell, he gestured to the grunt who had escorted him to unlock the door.
Jimmy stood. The grunt went back up the hall, and Gerçeker came in smelling of clove. The Turks chewed clove petals to freshen their breath. He was past fifty now and would climb no higher on the career ladder. He was overworked, tired, alert.
“I did not finish my Düsseldorf story.”
“At the bakery, I fell in love. She was a German Jew. Our families were horrified.”
“What did you do?”
The slightest of shrugs. “Rachel was brave. She was ready for anything. But I was a coward. I let her go.”
“I knew, by the way, that you were not married to Neslihan Genç.”
“What will they do to me?”
“The government is not interested in using you as a bargaining chip. You are not worth trading to the American government in exchange for something they want. They have come to believe there are no winners when they play that game.”
“What am I charged with?”
“Your offenses,” he began. Stopped. “You will come with me. We will drive to the airport. Later tonight a flight to Athens departs. You will be on it.”
“I don’t want to go.”
It was bravado, and it made Gerçeker impatient. “Your fear.”
“What about it?”
“You will learn to live with it.”
It was not a prediction, it was a sentence.
He followed Gerçeker down the hall and out the station to a car and driver idling on the street. Night in Infidel İzmir. The smell of meat roasting on a spit. The horns of taxis changing lanes in restless traffic. Unstable pigeon clouds. Well-traveled gulls in from the Gulf. Two young women in headscarves holding hands on the sidewalk; their secret conversation as they strolled. You could feel the Aegean spring like a visitor on your doorstep who would not be turned away.
The driver jumped out. He opened the back door, pointed Jimmy to his seat. Jimmy got in. The car smelled of cigarette smoke. His cowardice, now entrenched, had to make room for something just as big that was traveling with them. The next flight to Athens. Crowding his fear as the driver pulled away from the curb was the fresh immensity of loss.