I AM BORN
A cold, drizzly night in early winter, about 9:30. In this outlying district (more rural than suburban) of the Aegean city of Manisa, Turkey, where electricity has not yet found its way, the lamps have long been lit. The elder daughter in the two-storey, fieldstone-and-red-brick vineyard house, four-year-old Muzehher (hereafter Muse for short) is fast asleep under the quilted satin covers of her bed. The bedroom door opens and her paternal grandmother Sidika enters with the newborn, tightly swaddled Nihal in her arms. Not that the infant is properly named yet. The proud father Halil Asim, upon witnessing the safe birth of his second child, his second daughter, has resorted to his Ottoman-Persian Dictionary and is leafing through the pages in the lamplight, searching for a name befitting his new daughter in this volume which also provided his firstborn’s name: Muzehher, meaning “flowering, bearing and/or bedecked with flowers.” In a few moments he will decide on “Nihal” — twig, sappling or young tree — and whisper it three times in the baby’s ear. Halil Asim Bey is obviously no supporter of the “Pure Turkish” movement now prevelant in the country — nor of the new preference among parents to give their children simple Turkish names rather than the old-fashioned and florid Arabic or Persian names.
“Muzehher, wake up!” says Grandma Sidika, prodding the sleeping child on the shoulder. “Wake up, you now have a sibling!”
Known for her dignified, serious, self-confident character even at the tender age of barely four, Muse stirs reluctantly under the covers; without turning her head or opening her eyes, simply inquires, “A boy or a girl?”
And upon hearing that it’s a girl, she burrows deeper in her covers and goes back to sleep without bothering even to peep at the baby.
The year is 1927; the date, November 16.
I grew up listening to this anecdote. In the Manisa of those days, with entertainment outside the home such as theater or cinema unknown, people’s main pastime was other people. Stories about family members, relatives, neighbours, and even total strangers were told and retold, passing from ear to ear until in time they became audial soap-operas.
The story of Muse’s welcoming me into this world was mainly repeated as an amusing example of her sophistication and cleverness. That hearing it time and time again might hurt my feelings never seems to have occurred to the grown-ups. Only years later in my readings would I come across “The Second Daughter Sendrome.” Yes, this was something I knew very well from my own experience – existence as “another girl-child,” somebody who brings no new excitement to the home; a poor, drab creature, expendable — even redundant — believing that she must struggle hard to glean just a little of the attention that the firstborn takes for granted; ever eager to be noticed, to please, hungering to be fussed over. “You walked at ten months and talked at ten months!” our grandmother Sidika used to say. “And neither your feet nor your tongue has been idle for a moment since!” Every time I heard this remark I longed to remind her that I was also toilet-trained at ten months, thereby saving them the trouble of changing, washing and drying nappies. Speaking of bodily functions unless absolutely necessary was forbidden, however, so I was obliged to remain silent on that issue, inwardly fuming or wallowing in self-pity according to my mood at the moment. And when, from time to time I’d heard my beloved mother Feride say, “Nihal’s being a perpetual motion machine at that young age left me so exhausted that I almost swore not to have another baby!” I would feel drowned in guilt and vow to do my utmost to be a good girl, minding my elders and winning their forgiveness. To remain still and quiet for long was nevertheless impossible for me, so it would be only a short while till I was scolded or punished once more for racing about or talking and laughing too loudly — which, of course, made me feel rejected and unwanted all over again.
All these emotions remained strong and active inside me. Why, then, five or six years later when my baby brother was born, did I play a typical, mealy-mouthed “second daughter’s role”? When they asked me, “Do you want a baby brother or baby sister?”, why didn’t I have the gumption to say, “I don’t mind either way. I know you all want a boy, but I’ll love it even if it’s a girl. Maybe even more, because a baby girl would be like a big, beautiful, live doll for me!” Or, do customs and opinions fed to us with our mother’s milk, slowly begin to infiltrate our very genes?
BABES IN THE BAG
I am in the first grade when my baby brother chooses to arrive. The season is bleak “black” winter, the date January the 4th. In the evening the midwife Meryem Hanim, the same who delivered me, is sent for and makes her way, over ice-bound roads to our vineyard home. In her hand is the expanding leather bag of purplish mahagony with a metal snap typical of all midwifes and doctors of that day. (She must have been a caring woman, relatively enlightened, and quite well-versed in child psychology.) Surmising that I might feel jealous of the expected baby (whereas the mature and dignified Muse was considered beyond such ordinary and unseemly emotions) Meryem Hanim takes me on her knees and says, pointing to the bag,
“Look, Nihal, I have two babies in here. One’s a boy, the other’s a girl. Which one do you want?”
“Yes!” chimes in Grandma Sidika. “YOU will choose, for this is going to be your special baby.”
My father, despite the stupefying cold, is chain-smoking out in the garden. From the inner room I do not hear a single moan from my mother. ( When did she ever moan or complain, anyway, until the very end of her life?)
Do I believe that there are actually two babies in Meryem’s mahagony-colored bag? Yes, I do — even though I also know that the expected baby is in my mother’s belly. In this pregnancy my mother has grown very thin, her belly very pointed and prominent. This I know and I have a very vague concept that the baby is going to come out of that belly by some mysterious process I do not understand and — if truth be told — have no great desire to understand. Perhaps I find no objection to the midwife’s pronouncement about the babes in the bag … Obviously I am still at that age when one’s mind is acutely receptive to any kind of fairy-tale or legend. Our grownups chose to leave our minds deliberately misty on certain subjects, anyway, since by so doing they save themselves the trouble of answering all kinds of thorny questions — with the result that we learned (!) the answers to these questions from the lips of our more “knowing” friends, sloppily and of course, so often, incorrectly.
That night, I answer the midwife’s question without a moment’s hesitation: “Let’s have the boy.” I then elaborate knowingly: “Wouldn’t it be a shame to have three girls in the same home?” What a shameless two-faced little turn-coat!
I have always wondered: If that night the baby had turned out to be another girl despite my choice, if “my” baby had not turned out to be so entrancing with a perfect rosy face and velvety black hair that I forgot all about asking any further questions, what story would the midwife and my grandmother have concocted about the other baby, that poor, innocent thing left high and dry in the mahagony-colored bag? Nevertheless, my comment was found very cute and clever and would become a classic, told and retold over the years. (You see, it’s still being told!)
There was no need that night to consult the Persian dictionary. The baby was named Asim, in keeping with tradition, after our father’s late father, Asim Molla, and a cycle in family history was completed.
THE SHAME WAS MINE
Here I want to take a moment to absolve my family and immediate childhood environment’ of my shameful remark of that night. The shame was all mine. For my family’s very real and perfectly logical wish for a male child, in effect, did not mean in the least that they did not value their female children. The male’s unchanging duty to continue the line, his position as “chief” in the home and in society in general was a belief and attitude that they, in turn, had imbibed with their own mother’s milk, an unquestionable fact of life, the command of our Prophet, even of God Himself. But this, in the eyes of my family and immediate environment, did not invest a man with automatic worth as a human being. Many of our elders knew and carefully articulated the difference of being a “man” and being “male.” Yes, they had agreed to accept, because of custom and tradition, the position of many a worthless male as their “chief” or superior, but this did not mean that they considered women worthless.
BEAUTY HIDDEN BY THE VEIL
Thus I know very well that the grown-ups, male and female, my family and our circle of acquaintances, endorsed every step taken in those early days of our Republic to bring freedom and respectability to Turkish women. Let me give a simple but telling example: our father Halil Asim, through personal inclination, education and social position (he was a university graduate at a time when it was so rare as to be practically non-existent, and had acted as mayor to a nearbye town before the War of Independence and was a man of property to boot) could be considered a typical, enlightened Ottoman gentleman with even royalistic leanings. But one day he said:
“In the days when our women wore the veil we thought the unveiled Greek women very beautiful.” I remember distinctly that as I listened to these words my heart contracted with jealousy on behalf of my beloved mother Feride. But then my father added: “When the veil and the charshaf were abolished we saw that our own women were even more beautiful!” And I let my breath out with relief and pleasure.
All this of course does not mean that our mother was a feminist and our father a “twenty-first-century man” believing in sexual equality. Our mother called our father, “master,” even to his face and our father had no objection to this, despite his superior education and his approval of the “modern” way of life. He called his wife simply “Feride”. This was typical of every couple around us. Even the most emancipated, educated women would not address their husbands without adding the word “Bey”.
THE MALE-DOMINANT LULLABY
I was, of course, aware that not everyone around us had the same tolerant attitude towards this subject. Neither did I need to read history to know that women in our country had always been considered second – if not third or fifth-class citizens. There was an old rhyme, for instance, that our Grandma Sidika, a lively, woman young-at-heart who enjoyed an occasional naughty joke, sometimes sang to our baby brother Asim. This rhyme, I think, is worthy of a thousand lessons on male dominance and female subjugation in society:
He is a boy, a little boy
Wants neither pendant nor beads
Whereas girl-child, the little bitch
Wants both a pendant and beads.
I could never make out why women sniggered when Grandma Sidika sang this little ditty. Wasn’t it silly to look down on girls just because they liked wearing jewelry? What was wrong with this? I myself loved playing with the few lenghts of mother-of-pearl and coral beads that had survived the Greek Fire. I know my mother felt sad sometimes because she had no occasion to wear them nowadays. She would reminisce with gentle nostalgia about “my emeralds…my pearls” which had been plundered by Greek soldiers as they torched her husband’s palatial home during the War of Independence from which my family had escaped at the last moment with just their lives. Those jewels I had never seen were a part of my life and my inner world, too, and I secretly regretted their loss maybe even more than my mother herself did. When I was three I had so wished to wear earrings that my grandmother had pierced my ears — first kneading the lobes with butter, then piercing them with a big needle heated to incandescence over the fire. She had threaded short loops of buttered string through my ears at first. A few days later, to my ecstatic delight, she removed the strings to put in small golden earrings shaped like the caps of the Mevlevi dervishes. So why shouldn’t boys also wear jewelry? If there had to be equality between the sexes in this respect, boys, too, should be able to wear pendants and rings and beads. It was perfectly alright with me. I wouldn’t think of looking down on boys because of this. As a matter of fact I have always considered men (modern or ancient) who have the courage and flair to wear jewelry, dress flamboyantly and let their hair grow attractive — whether or not these are in fashion.
The revulsion I felt towards this odiously coy rhyme did not diminish even later when I had deciphered what the pendant and beads really represented. So that was why women always sniggered! Much later, when I came across the term “penis envy” in Freud, I would immediately recall this rhyme, concluding that if there really is such an envy, its origins must be cultural, not sexual: an envy of the social hegemony of males, symbolized by the one organ females do not possess.
I wonder who had made up the words for these rhymes and lullabies sung to countless generations of baby boys over the centuries? Could it perhaps have been men? But obviously those who sang them were, and still are, women. How degraded the lullaby singer must have felt then, if she could, even as a mother, so degrade the girl she had given birth to, the girl-child that she herself had once been!
SHOE ON THE ROOF
One last anecdote there’s about my baby brother’s birth and my problems of being “the second daughter”. That year, even though I was under age, I had started school as a result of the single-minded and often tempestuous campaign I had waged to this purpose. When I went to school on the morning of my brother’s birth, my dearly beloved and revered teacher Memnune Hanim said, smiling, “Nihal, I hear you have a new baby at home. So your shoe’s has been thrown onto the roof now!”
My heart gave a lurch, for I had a new pair of shoes at home! Dear readers, in that gutted, wrecked town which had barely survived the War of Independence and the Greek Fire, in those years when there was a scarcity of everything except basic food stuff (Manisa being an agricultural town) we got new shoes (IF we got them) only once or twice a year. So, that morning at school, as yet unaware that the saying, “shoes on the roof” meant I had fallen from favor, I could not understand why my precious new shoes should be thrown on the roof just because I had a new sibling! So, during lunch break I sneaked out without any of the teachers or the janitor seing me and ran all the way home. It was only then that I discovered that my adored teacher was merely “jesting” with me.
Strangely enough, this “jest” did not render my teacher more accessible to me. The cool, young, fair- haired Memnune who reigned over her class without raising her voice, who has never sullen even if she smiled rarely, had taught me a lesson in the mystery and power of language with her playfulness: I had discovered a clue to the secret life of words!
Republic’s Child (1999). Istanbul: Can Yayinlari