by Gaither Stewart
His dark face projected toward the rain-blurred windshield, Ibrahim’s body was unusually stiff and erect. The powerful windshield wipers slashed relentlessly but ineffectively at the unyielding rain while the constant splash from the intense traffic on the four-lane highway isolated the big car in a cloud of impenetrable muddy spray against the walls of which his headlights seemed to ricochet back into his eyes.
-Just what I needed—he thought—this blinding rain in this indecipherable land. It’s hard enough just finding my way into The Hague. But then, everything has gone wrong since they arrived, finally, for their first visit from the homeland.- The others had fallen silent, hypnotized by the night rain, the methodical slapping of the wipers, and now the regular flashing of the city lights in the distance.
“Sofia,” he asked, his voice louder than intended shattering the peculiar silence “do you remember where we have to turn right?” He recalled that the great Western hotel was someplace to their right, just after the Royal Palace which he hoped would be visible.
“You still don’t know, do you,” Sofia teased maliciously. “How many times have you been in The Hague anyway? What if it’s only twenty kilometers from home, you are lost once you leave the Schietbaanstraat”
In fact a big difference between Sofia and her husband was that he had never been aware of the wall around their life of home and their restaurant. Sofia, on the other hand, was stunned each time she emerged from the darkness of the caverns formed by the long narrow streets of Bajonetstraat and Adrianastraat into the lights and spaces of the Nieuwe Binnenweg. Even on stormy black days like today exit was like stepping across a forbidden threshold into a bright and magic world. Ibrahim usually responded to such frivolity: “Nieuwe Binnenweg might have more shops but it’s not so different even from home in Izmir.”
“Turn here, then to the left toward the hotel,” Sofia said and sighed purposefully loud so that Ibrahim’s parents registered her frustration.
“I know, I know, the French restaurant is in the street behind.” –What possessed me to want to bring them to this fancy restaurant anyway? Maybe it was more for Sofia than for them. Still, they can see that I was right to move to Europe. They can see that I am a respected man here. Our house in the city, a Mercedes, the children learning well in school.- But what seemed to really count for Ibrahim was his parents’ image of him as reflected through Sofia’s eyes.
Sofia was an exceptionally beautiful woman by any standards. And everyone knew that Turkish women are the most beautiful of all. She herself found that she had become more beautiful in the West, although she knew she was very attractive in both the East and the West. She recognized female beauty in all its forms. Dark and petite and sultry, she nonetheless admired without a trace of jealousy the tall blonde long-legged Nordic women. On the other hand, it had cost her no small quantity of self-recrimination and tears to realize that in the eyes of Ibrahim and some of his friends her flowering beauty was synonymous with the evils of westernization.
“You are only jealous,” she answered his frequent criticisms.
“I am not jealous in the Western sense. You are a Turkish woman. I am a Turkish man. We have our own traditions to follow,” Ibrahim preached to the unconvinced and partially emancipated Sofia. “And look at the children. They speak Turkish so poorly. You are ashamed of your own language. In my home, Turkish is the spoken language. Your language. My language and the language of my children. When we return home they will not be strangers!” Ibrahim had simply brought Turkey along with him on this extended stay in Rotterdam.
Sofia’s response to such talk had become unambiguous: “I have no intention of ever returning to live in Turkey, so why do I and the children need Turkish. We must learn English, like the Dutch people do, and also French.” In the mind of the disoriented Ibrahim such blasphemy stirred images of kidnappings and he didn’t know what other violence.
Their heads lowered, they leaned forward into the cutting icy rain and the hard wind blowing up the tunnel up Denneweg from the direction of the Mauritskade. Ibrahim held his father’s arm and stopped to peer into the window of the bodega-bar Sofia had once taken him to, just to get new ideas for their own bar, she had explained. Ibrahim shouted into the old man’s ear: “I wanted to show you a Dutch bar, with its candles and music, but the bad weather has chased everyone home. Anyway, our Turkish bar is much more interesting.”
“Hah!” exclaimed Sofia, she and Mother pressing against the men. “You just don’t understand such places, my husband.” She always saw sparkling white tablecloths and crystal chandeliers and silent black-suited waiters, and she danced to soft Western music. Ibrahim could never have understood that the Hotel des Indes would have pleased her more on this evening, although she had no concept that the very name of the famous hotel recalled the worst of Dutch colonialism in the East.
Ibrahim’s father turned and looked hard at his daughter-in-law. “Your wife has become very talkative,” the old man said, again embarrassing his son.
-But she is right in a way,- Ibrahim thought. -The ISTANBUL is like a home. Just being there at ease behind my desk facing the bar, the boys running things smoothly, the snack bar in the back, the tables in neat rows, even the pinball machines she hates. Then the real Turkish restaurant in the other room. The best in all of Rotterdam. Certainly the only one with Turkish brass tables and fur-covered puffs and couches and water-pipes. Didn’t they write about it in the newspapers, and now it’s full of foreigners every evening. And the guilders pour in! But still, the afternoons are the best time, when there are no foreigners, and we just talk. Almost like we weren’t even abroad. We can talk about our businesses and I settle my accounts, and … and if it just weren’t for that vulture Turan … Turan! Turan! Now they were gossiping about him and Sofia. Not to me, but I’ve heard the talk. Turan in your Italian clothes, and your big cars, and your grand manners, and that entourage following you all the time. Some night someone will meet you alone …. I know how you rob our own countrymen. I’ve heard the stories. And the money you lent me when I bought the ISTANBUL. I’m still paying you, and I’ll never finish paying. So now you want Sofia as part of the interest.-
The French restaurant was worse than Ibrahim could have even imagined, and more splendid than Sofia expected. Turan must have recommended it to her. She now entered like a queen and felt immediately at home. Ibrahim helped his nonplussed and unimpressed parents to the discreet table near the rear that Sofia had reserved, Ibrahim had agreed to come to The Hague and the French place in the hope of making a bella figura with his parents. Now he was instead chagrined that he couldn’t understand a word of the menu; and then, suddenly, in all the elegance, and bewildered by the waiter who began speaking to them in French, even his rudimentary Nederlands failed him.
“May we have a Dutch language menu?” Sofia said easily to the haughty waiter in her good Dutch.
“You just keep quiet,” Ibrahim reprimanded her. “I will do the ordering here.”
“Je suis vraiment desolé. Nous n’avons que le menu français,” the waiter said indignantly. “But, uh, may I advise you?” he added in Dutch.
“Well, yes …” Sofia started to say.
“Sofia is very talkative now,” Father said again, looking at Ibrahim who was still fumbling with the useless French menu.
His parents had never been more Turkish. Father’s slick head reflected the candlelight. His heavy eyes were impassive as he pulled and smoothed his long mustache. Mother, dressed elegantly in her eternal black, stared steadily into the flickering light.
Sofia was embarrassed as Ibrahim struggled through the ordeal of selecting a few quasi understandable dishes. The impatient waiter said then to Sofia in Dutch as if doubtful about the order: “Well, Madame, I hope the dinner will be satisfactory.” In her embarrassment unable to even look at Ibrahim and his parents, Sofia continued to stare toward the hors-d’oeuvres and sea food display table.
“You probably would have preferred to stay in the ISTANBUL tonight,” she finally spat out.
“You might have liked it better also,” Ibrahim couldn’t resist saying. “Some of your friends are surely there tonight.”
“I don’t have any real friends in the ISTANBUL,” she said coldly.
“That is not what I have been hearing,” Ibrahim,” said, committing himself for the first time. He knew he had gone too far. It was because of the rain, the highways, the snotty restaurant, the menu, and the unintelligible French waiter. And then his wife insulting him in front of his parents. One long insult. All day, only semi-consciously he had been recalling certain details and putting them together.
Even my friends have to suppress their smiles. They all know about it. Laughing at me behind my back. And Turan sitting there so suavely on his bar stool, surrounded by his henchmen, taking that fat yellow envelope out of his breast pocket and receiving and paying out in 1000 guilder notes. Everybody laughing at his jokes, holding onto his every word. Sofia also! Turn the handsome, his long black hair and sweeping mustache. A North Caucasian he says. The son of a Prince! Those stupid faded pictures of him in the tribal costume, waving a kinzhal as he whirls and lifts high one leg. All those white teeth and the black mustache. Just Sofia’s type too-
He looked at himself in the mirror on the opposite wall: thin hair slicked down, tan skin, and the gaping white scar running like an accusation from behind his left ear down under his chin. –Why they were just kids, stupid kids, breaking in like that late in the night, and if … if that Turan and his men hadn’t arrived in that moment, they would have finished me off … all for the few guilders I had in the cash drawer in those days.-
Father was silent. Mother’s very posture was a criticism. Haughty Sofia launched dangerous glances around the dining room. “Easy, my son.” Father said gently. “Those words are unimportant. The Frenchman was upset because he couldn’t understand what food we wanted. After all, we’re his guests. Now it will be all right, now that the misunderstanding has been cleared up.”
So that’s it. All of this is just a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding when she arrived from the airport with them in the back seat, blowing the horn so loud outside the ISTANBUL. Why didn’t she wait for me to get in with them instead of driving slowly and making me follow behind on foot, all the way to our house? What did Father think about my walking along behind like a donkey? Just a misunderstanding, eh?-
Ibrahim had been too agitated. Too confused about his own identity. Father was always calm; he had that quality, something from the earth he had always worked. He knew who he was. Mother was passive, like always … and tired. Neither parent showed any reaction to their duplex upper house so richly furnished but overdone with the bizarre mixture of their Turkish with the Dutch influences Sofia had added. Father had ignored the plants and flowers but examined with an expert eye the Turkish carpets, after which he stared unseeing and without comment through the huge and never covered front windows through which passing strangers on the street could see right into their house, as if there was never anything to hide in this house! Bewilderment then filled Father’s eyes when the children, straining to comprehend his speech, could find no Turkish words to answer their strange grandparents from the East. “They are of your blood, Father,” Ibrahim said. “Yes, my son, of my blood, but today blood counts for less, for much less in your world.” “What do you mean, in my world? My world is your world, and that of your father, and your father’s father. And there are tens of thousands of your sons right here in Rotterdam, Father … we are still your sons.” “I wonder about that,” Father had said.
When the waiter slammed down the desert plates, father and son both frowned. “It’s because we are foreigners, Father. That’s the way things are here. This waiter has become more and more insolent. Better to stay with your own people than be subjected to such humiliation. Things are more genteel at the ISTANBUL. Our waiters don’t slam down plates under the noses of foreigners.”
“That is what I mean to say,” Father said, and languidly and with punctilious precision dipped his fingers into the glass of water and dried each one separately with the white linen napkin. Sofia watched the procedure and frowned. She started to say something until she caught Ibrahim’s unspoken warning. Ibrahim caught the waiter’s ugly smile and wondered what it was all about. “Now he’s openly laughing at us!” he said anyway.
“Waiter, bring us the check,” he squeezed out in Dutch, while Father smiled warmly toward the tall, very thin waiter.
“The old gentleman is very charming, the waiter said in perfect Dutch when he presented the check.
Ibrahim didn’t deign him a glance. “He’s mocking us,” he repeated to no one in particular.
“Son, I think he is a nice man … now that he has served us and we have eaten. He was nervous at first. I think because he does not speak our language.”
-Now my own father is contradicting me, and in front of the women. It’s even obvious to that smirking waiter. My people do all their dirty work, and they laugh at us.-
His was an oriental rage, he felt, trembling just below the surface of skin and demeanor. He was gravely stiff, humiliated and furious as he helped Mother into her coat and then walked out the door without a glance at anyone. The rain had stopped, the wind had stopped, and the only thing Ibrahim felt, physical or emotional, was a great, thick expectancy in the air. Expectancy and incompleteness, after a day and a half of humiliations. There were few cars now on the autoroute back to Rotterdam. The lights of the night traffic were soft and matted. He was aware of the last slice of a declining moon and almost summer stars high over the flat fields. After the rugged Turkish coasts and the hill country of Anatolya, he had never appreciated these wide fields divided in such a regular way by the straight canals. The old man slumbered in the seat beside him, and he knew Mother was staring at the back of his head.
Sofia’s eyes followed dreamily the white wafts of clouds drifting close behind the spires of Delft’s New Church and then the Old Church. She imagined herself again at the sidewalk café on the Marktplein facing the Stadhuis, the gay and boisterous European tourists, the crowds of students, the Delft Blue shop on the corner where she had timidly bought four square tiles before he bought for her the elephant earrings, the handsome young American who spoke to her, and then her dark and dangerous companion lifting his eyes lazily from his beads and looking the youth so intently in the eyes that he just stammered something and walked away. She had blushed in embarrassment.
The knuckles of Ibrahim’s hands were white as he clenched and unclenched the wooden steering wheel, one of the things he most loved in his car. His lips worked and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed nervously. From time to time he exhaled an audible sigh.
-I’ll take them upstairs. Father is tired, and Mother will follow him to bed. Sofia can … well, tonight, we’ll see. This can’t go on any longer. Turan is a big and powerful man, but he has gone too far this time. A man can’t live in fear all the time. A debt is a debt. But my wife, the stupid little whore she has become, he wants her too. He wants my hotel. He could never bear it that I have the only Turkish hotel in Rotterdam, the only restaurant. That’s why all his airs, sitting at the bar, taking in his money, pulling at his beads while dressed in those fancy Italian clothes, telling his stupid stories and all his debtors laughing. They have lost their dignity. He’s not even a good Turk anymore. He’s like a desert jackal waiting on a dune, a great hungry buzzard circling over us, waiting. Now he wants Sofia.-
Ibrahim sat quietly behind his desk, and waited. He checked the receipts for the evening, took the cash from the bar and from the waiters while the last customers left. He kept an eye on Turan holding court at his usual corner of the high bar, a strong young man on his right, a fat, bald-headed intellectual type on his left, and the two bodyguards standing just behind him. At a table in the back, a chubby, older man with rosy cheeks and wearing a dark, beaked Dutch cap was finishing a plate of beans and a glass of Pils, and reading a Turkish newspaper. The foreigners, first those who had come for good Turkish food, and then later, the slummers, had all deserted the Turkish room and the lights there were extinguished.
Ibrahim was like cold steel. The habitué’s looked at him strangely. He waited. Then he began to stare fixedly at Turan, whose eyes met his at regular intervals. Turan’s eyes said nothing but Ibrahim saw that his mouth was twisted and his smile sardonic and humiliating.
-He wants it all. He wants to take all this. What can Father think of my life? Of me? Of the way she talked to me tonight. I should have beaten her. That smirking waiter and all their fancy manners. Sofia and her Western ways, speaking Dutch to my children and never satisfied anymore.
-Our family’s honor is at stake, I can’t even face my friends as long as that Turan is here. No, this can not go on any longer. Our village is better. Izmir is better. I’ll take the children, take Sofia too. But Turan … the blood-sucker Turan, the … seducer of married women, he must go. Turan must die.
The bright young bartender, five years in Holland and on his way up after two years in swank Swiss resorts, was the only person not surprised by Ibrahim’s attack. It was part of his job to watch people and anticipate them. Ibrahim was a taut wire.
When he suddenly ran toward the bar with his thin kinzhal pointed at waist level, Omar, without hesitation threw himself across the bar, yelling “No! No! No!” and partially blocking the maddened Ibrahim with his body. Turan’s bodyguards made short work of the mute assailant.
Turan recovered his sangfroid immediately and before sliding off the high stool, he pressed Omar’s hands in his.
“What about the guy at the table back there?” someone asked.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s no problem. He didn’t see anything,” Turan said, gazing at the man in the cap who didn’t even look up.
At the door, Turan stopped theatrically and said to Omar: “I’ll see you in a few days. I think you will be needing a better situation.”
Then he hesitated, frowned as he looked down at the pale blue beads wound around the fingers of both his hands and then at the small crumbled figure lying at the foot of the bar, and said in a voice louder than usual: “Actually, he only made two mistakes. He married the wrong woman and he should have stayed at home. But … any of us can make the same mistakes.”
Gaither Stewart writes fiction and journalism. He is a senior editor for the American online publications, The Greanville Post and Cyrano's Journal Today. His works are published in venues throughout the world. His latest novel, The Fifth Sun and a collection of political essays, Recollection of Things Learned--Remembering Socialism are published by Punto Press, New York. He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy.