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In my maternal grandmother’s village in Adana, Turkey, the term ‘girl’ was kneaded and compressed like dough. Its weight made my great grandmother tighten her grip on my grandmother’s world, her fear wedging between them. It was the fifties and neighbours weaved in and out of each other’s yards and lives, their mud-cement homes conjoined like a family. “Ayıp!” neighbours would say if a girl ventured too far from home. “A young girl has no business on the streets!” Ayıp was shame, and fear of the word hardened my great grandmother, a woman who walked home from the cotton field when her contractions started, to give birth alone on her lounge room floor.

grandmas-sewing-machine

My nene’s sewing machine.

My great grandmother’s fears knotted my grandmother’s tongue, made her curl inward. She left school after completing grade three to the dismay of her illiterate mother who wanted her to study. “Why study, Sevim? Go learn to sew, it’s better for a girl!” neighbours said. A girl’s hands were for stitching, not reading and their collective voice was enough to steer my quiet grandmother away from the classroom and into a sewing course. By eighteen, my grandmother was a seamstress and a wife and she set up a small business in her marital home where she made her five daughters sleeveless dresses that defied the modest dress code.

As a girl, Mum dreamed of wearing pretty frilly dresses that the actresses wore in the movies. She grew up in the seventies when Turkey’s Yesilçam “Green Pine” film industry flooded cinemas with hundreds of movies a year. It gathered the masses to the big screen like a seductive lover. The doe-eyed heroines mesmerised with sultry lips, while tall, dark and handsome men protected, fought and conquered. Yesilçam was a patriarch with firm ideas on a woman’s role in society. Women were sisters, wives, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. Men were husbands, breadwinners, brothers and fathers who protected a woman’s honour and virginity. If women were rich, money was an invincible guard. It quashed the poor, broke poverty’s bony fingers, taught the public life lessons while cementing their place in society. Mum watched these movies at a local open-air cinema sipping lemon gazoz with her siblings. They sat on wooden chairs as the stars on the big screen fell in love and lit up Mum’s romantic dreams. She was seduced by the romance; humoured by the goofy comedies and angered by the injustices when star-crossed lovers were separated by strict fathers or evil uncles.

When Mum migrated to Australia, she hired Yesilçam movies from Turkish video shops in Melbourne’s north. Yesilçam was familiarity in a foreign world and thick, black videotapes piled on top of each other in our Footscray lounge room. It was in this room that Yesilçam showed me where I’d come from. My roots were dusty and poor, macho and romantic. The men were strong; they were leaders, they saved and married women and conquered evil. Women were good or bad. The good woman cooked, loved, nurtured, mothered within the sanctity of marriage. The bad woman had sex out of wedlock and tarnished her name and honour. The movies lectured like a wise aunty. ‘Hee! See the girl who ran away with that boy? Tsk! She brings her family great shame! No one will want to marry her when they get caught!’ These warnings registered early on and I learned that ayıp was a word reserved for girls, a word that lowered a father’s head and laid the blame on the mother. Fear of the word shadowed me as a teenager in the nineties where gossip could spread like wildfire in our predominantly Turkish neighbourhood.

“Don’t worry about what people say or think,” Mum said often. “Shame is on those who talk! Good or bad is not about what you wear, who you talk to. It’s what you say and how you act.” Mum, a primary school graduate, was educated by novelists and their stories taught her about humanity and new ways of seeing. Her strong voice buffered me and my sisters from the judgements of the outside world. “Trust yourself,” she told me, “like I trust you.”

With Mum’s conviction, shame lost its potency. Shame became a reaction to my team’s loss at the football. Shame was a theme in Yesilçam movies that no longer mirrored a changing culture and society. Honour and virtue were not scripted values, they were mine to define.

 

First published in The Big Issue #517 edition.

 

 

 

 

The room wasn’t big enough for eight bodies yet each night my mum and her seven siblings crammed grimy limbs around each other on a makeshift bed on the floor. They’d bring the day with them, the dirt from marbles matches on dusty streets, sore fingers from work on the cotton field, restless stomachs ringing with hunger. As Mum explained, she would toss into someone’s back and turn into someone’s stinky feet and cry from frustration. It was in this room with the iron barred windows where the children fought, laughed and went through puberty that I was born a few years later. In Adana, Turkey, where roads are rocky, men are tall, dark and hairy, and streets are cramped with tattered kids and vendors who showcase their goods on wooden carts.

Mum delivered me into the hands of a local midwife at fifteen. I received a sticky initiation to life. My mum’s aunt sprinkled sugar all over my naked new flesh so I’d be sweet and not resemble her mother-in-law whose wide nose I’d inherited. She got to work on my nostrils, squeezed and squeezed them until my nose shrunk to her liking. I was welcomed into the world with a body scrub and a nose job. Try getting that at a maternity ward!

“We never had dolls,” said my aunt Esin on my last visit, “we had you to play with. Your aunt Pervin would crack your toes one by one until you’d scream.” No wonder they’re a little skewed. Mum would breastfeed me, wash my cloth nappies, and hand me back to her eager family. By fifteen, she’d worked on a cotton field, learned to sew, become a wife, a mother. At fifteen I was figuring out how to tame the brown, wiry shrub on my head and how much work I’d need to do to scrape through high school. Mum had a head start in life but it came with many losses.

I owe my name to the girl at the birth registry office who advised my indecisive dad that Hatice, my grandmother’s name, was archaic and Demet was more modern. Don’t get me wrong, Hatice is lovely but it’s a name that works in Turkey where every letter is pronounced. In Australia, however, I would have been lost in pronunciation and found on the tongues of many children who’d nickname me Hat-Ice. ‘Damn it, Demet’, was more than enough thank you.

Two months after my birth, my mum turned sixteen. In a few months she’d be old enough to go to Australia, leave the backyard with the small cement well my grandfather used to fill up on hot days for his kids to cool off. Leave the street where her and her sisters used to board the tractor to the cotton field, laughing and singing with the rest of the workers. Leave her home with poverty etched into her hands and memories that I’d watch resurface years later. She was leaving for a new country, with fear, excitement and a new family in her lap.