Today I was officially inducted into the inner circle of my Turkish neighbors. There is nothing like the need for solace that binds hearts which crosses nationalities, cultures and faiths and speaks from heart to heart. This was such a day.
I rang the bell, my knee ached from my old injury, with the exertion of walking and climbing the hills of Istanbul. I had found a unique herbal winter tea beautifully packaged that I wanted to share with her. She could sip it lying down even if she did not want to come into the living room.
A young woman opened the door, dressed in formal pants and tunic, her ash brown hair barely skirting her shoulders. What I could make out was that she said in Turkish that someone had died. I could not speak as I did not want to make a mistake. I pointed to her bedroom, the young girl took me there and the bed was pristine but she was missing. The mustard embossed bedcover adorning it was neat and tidy as if someone had left for good leaving behind a well-made bed for someone to inherit.
The girl walked on to door of the next room and came out to tell me that someone was sleeping. I still did not comprehend who she was speaking of. “ may I see her for a moment?” I said in broken Turkish where the genders are sometimes misplaced.
She opened the door and I saw him lying in bed, his body emaciated, cigarette smoke creating a haze in the room, a checkered blanket covering him, his body thin and frail under it. His facial bones stood out in his once debonair handsome face, his hollowed eyes looked back at me and grief and desperation spilled out of them. His mother was dead and he had no one to turn to………………
She had died while I was boarding the plane to Istanbul.
I could not say “ I know how you feel” as no human can comprehend or feel the depths of sorrow of another.
His world revolved around her. She, regal even in her last days ruled the roost.
“ Come this evening after adhan for Quran” said the girl who turned out to be the bride of her grandson.
It was three years ago when I first met her. I was new in Istanbul and had rented a first-floor apartment to live in while I did my fellowship. It was a new experience living in a place the size of which was miniscule compared my home, no family, no indoor plants, no garden, and no car. Needless to say, it was a huge adjustment.
After a long day of classes I would unlock the scrolled wrought iron door into the lobby of the apartment building. Unbeknownst to me she would be watching from her picture window overlooking the Bosphorus. She would open her door and shower me with blessings, and call me affectionate names in Turkish the only one of which I recognized because it resembles what we say in Urdu was “Canim benim” translated roughly to mean my dearest or my life. She would invite me in to tea and I would accept despite the fatigue and being overloaded with packages either grocery or books or both. Was I doing a favor to this 94 year old neighbor of mine by relieving her boredom or was she taking pity on the “yabanci” far away from home? it did not matter one bit.
We would sit at her picture window facing each other, a bistro table between us with the constant cup of Turkish tea. We would converse in the language of friendship as I knew no Turkish and she did not know English. I don’t know how I understood her but I got the gist of her life story and she some of mine. She showed me her photo from her youth and that of her husband who had won many awards in the theatre in Istanbul.
Looking out at the gracefully gliding boats on the Bosphorus I could see the two love birds living it up in the jet set in a brand-new apartment set high on the banks of the Bosphorus. He flying high in the fame and fortune of the theatre she a lovely woman by his side.
I would look at her painting from her young days, her glossy auburn hair set in the style of the sixties. She was probably seven when Ataturk had freed Turkey from the clutches of the British at a huge price, but freed nevertheless.
In the later months when she got to know me she would wait 15 minutes after I unlocked the door to the lobby, giving me enough time to go up one flight and to enter my apartment and put down my back pack and then I would hear her slippered feet slapping on the marble and my doorbell would ring. She would visit for a few minutes and then leave. I have always loved having someone waiting to receive me and here far away from home was someone who received me almost every day like a long-lost daughter.
As I sit in her living room this evening while the Hodja (Imam) recites Yasin and then other surahs of solace followed by the Quls, duas and copious requests to Allah to forgive her and us, and grant her Jannah, a serene feeling of solace engulfs me as the lights turn on at the Blue mosque and the Aya Sophia.
Her two sisters their head modestly covered with the Turkish scarf sit beside me reading Yasin silently along with the Hodja (Imam); her granddaughters dressed in the European mode, with slips of scarves to cover for Quran reading remind me of a family divided in its practice of covering the hair very similar to mine.
The evening of Quran reading and remembering and saying good things about her is like the lilt of a gentle rhythm, very much like the waves of the Bosphorus, to and fro, here for a moment there after wards. I have no way to discern the undercurrents if any, very much like the Bosphorus which has strong undercurrents that veer the path of the boats, such is this family at least in appearance very much like mine their paths have veered in different directions by the undercurrents.
What was beautiful was the adab (etiquette) of everyone present, the reverence towards the Quran, the reverence towards the Prophet (pbuh) and the gentle etiquette of comforting the living while remembering the dead.
I tried not to think of the tumultuous time when my mother had died followed shortly by the passing of my son. Neither of the deaths had this binding solace of hearts that crossed all boundaries. Here the undercurrents never surfaced to disturb the moments of solace that each heart needed, whereas in the two deaths in my family the undercurrents had overturned all etiquette to do with the dying and the living, unable to give solace to each other or to oneself. We were all on our own groping for stability in the desperate world of grief, occasionally reaching out but not for long enough to bring solace.
Today I felt a part of my Turkish neighbors both in life and in death…………….all of us in need of solace which came from one source for each of us.
As I listened to the Surah Yasin being recited sinking deep into our hearts one and all I realized with a certainty that solace can only come from the words of the Divine.
May Allah bless her and all our loved ones who have passed and
May The Quran be a solace to our hearts at all times.