Last Train to Istanbul(5)

By: Ayse Kulin

“I’m going to cancel the call,” said Macit, rushing to the telephone.

“How can you do that? She’s my sister. Don’t you understand?”

Macit returned to the room. “Sabiha, I am working for the foreign ministry, the Germans are at our borders, war is on our doorstep, and you are booking a call to a Jew in France. You’re asking for trouble!”

“I’m fed up with your foreign ministry. I’m really fed up. I’m always imagining that I am being followed by spies.”

“It’s almost the school holidays. Then you and Hülya can go to your parents in Istanbul. I just wonder if your father will be as understanding as I am on the subject of your sister.”

Sabiha heard her husband walk to the end of the hall, dial the operator, cancel the call, and then go to the living room. Sabiha started to cry again, very quietly.

Macit went out onto the balcony. He lit a cigarette and looked at the midnight-blue horizon far, far away. Macit was happy with the cool Ankara nights, but tonight, for the first time, he felt cold and uncomfortable. He tried to warm his arms by rubbing them with his hands. It wasn’t just the weather that made him feel cold. They were living through days that—for those who understood what was going on—were dangerous enough to make one’s hair stand on end. Neither the man in the street nor his capricious wife whimpering indoors was aware just how close they were to the brink. They simply switched on the radio, listened to the news, then complained about the black market and how expensive everything was before pulling up a blanket and drifting off to sleep. They weren’t aware of anything. No one knew the extent of the disaster Turkey would face if she was dragged into the war by either side. How could anyone know the knife edge that Inönü and his colleagues trod? The government was trying its best not to alarm the public or cause a panic. Macit wondered whether it was better to disclose the truth so everybody could face the facts, or take on the role of a protective father, shielding the children from bad news.

Not long ago, just a few months in fact, the country had been sucked into the whirlpool of war. War…It was worse than that, it was a cesspit, a filthy cesspit! Macit threw his cigarette butt in anger. It fell somewhere in the pitch-darkness without a glimmer of light. He remembered the stories his war-hero father told about this darkness and the cigarette lights at night—one, two, three lights, five lights, ten lights—bodies without arms or legs, corpses without heads. People miserable, hungry, covered in lice, like wounded, skinny animals. Starving, abandoned children. Women who’d lost their humanity; men who had no money, no home, and no hope. He vaguely remembered his father in that state appearing at the garden gate, all skin and bones, covered in lice, his uniform in rags. He had staggered toward the edge of the pool and collapsed. This was a memory imprinted in Macit’s mind, but he wasn’t sure if he had actually witnessed it or was told about it later. What he did remember was that the gardener hadn’t recognized his master, and thought he was a beggar. It took some time before they realized who the man was. The tall, strong, sociable Ruhi had become a cadaver, a spiritless skeleton dragging one leg, without the usual gleam in his eye. Such was war! Macit was certain that victory was to be won around the table, not on the battlefield. He was working so hard to save the people of his nation from that dreadful fate again, but how could he explain that to his sobbing wife?

Slumping into a straw armchair and drifting into his memories, he realized he had gotten used to the coolness on the balcony. Macit had contributed a lot toward the signing of the agreement with England and France in 1939. According to that agreement, the French and the British would provide the Turkish army with its vital needs. In return, Turkey was to sell the chrome she produced to France throughout the war. The Turkish foreign minister himself had traveled to France with Macit to sign the agreement. They had gone to Paris with great expectations, but, unfortunately, the end result didn’t meet their hopes. France desperately needed the money they’d make selling the Turkish chrome, but despite Menemencio─člu’s insistence on supplying the chrome for the duration of the war, France would only sign for two years. Then Britain drastically reduced the quantity of arms, tanks, and antiaircraft guns it was willing to supply to Turkey.

The Turkish army needed 11 million bullets and 6,500 machine guns. The British were only prepared to supply two million bullets and 200 machine guns. With these pitiful supplies, how on earth could Turkey be expected to stop the Germans in the Balkans? One could understand a person fighting with his bare hands to save his own country, but to fight for the British, who had stirred up the Arabs against the Turks in the First World War when they had their eyes set on Musul and Kerkük, was too much to expect. At the same time, other European countries, for their own reasons, had supported various Middle Eastern tribes who were seeking independence.

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