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Monday, November 06, 2006

The Hope Chest

Ali Yildirim's mother
My mother used to have a wedding chest.

As a young girl planning for her future wedding she had begun collecting treasured items for this "hope chest" or çeyiz sandığı in Turkish, including hand-embroidered linens and delicate laces. It was also to be the place she kept her wedding dress to hand down to any future daughters or daughter-in-laws.

She showed me a picture of it once. A chest for a bridal trousseau or "small bundle" is a tradition that spans Western cultures and those from the East; it was a beautiful family heirloom. I immediately fell in love with it.

The photograph was a small black and white blurred print, with a little curious burn mark where some flame had eaten away at its edge. But I could make out the wooden chest, intricately carved with peacocks and tulips.

She told me how her grandmother, who had raised her, had spent many winter months making tablecloths patterned with birds and fauna, while she had helped. Christos, a kind old Greek neighbour who had always secretly been in love with my great-grandmother, had handcarved the chest for them using the favourite images of the little girl next door.

Not obvious from the grainy print, my mother described to me carvings of whirling dervishes on the back and sides of the box, with bits of small enamel, made from little pieces of white glass she had studiously collected on her way to school, carefully tapped by old Christos into the carvings to colour the white of their dresses.

My mother's name is Dervişe, the feminised version of dervish. She was given this name by her grandmother, who loved the whirling dancers. She recalls how once a month the woman she loved most in the world would take her to the now derelict Mevlevi tekke in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, to watch the dervishes dance. The carvings had been so lifelike that she sometimes imagined they came to life and twirled as dutifully as those at the religious lodge, when she fell asleep at bedtime.

And when she married my father, the eldest son of a wealthy Ottoman family, it was the only possession she brought with her to the big han or household of her husband's dynasty.

When I asked her what had happened to the beautiful box, she had fallen silent.

I hadn't wanted to pry further.

A Past Remembered

Returning from a party in the early hours of this morning, I was surprised to find the lights on at the family home. I walked in to find my mother sobbing quietly, alone. Those who know my mother will know she doesn't cry easily, so with some concern I asked what was wrong and where my father was.

She told me news had just broken that Bülent Ecevit had died and that my father had gone for a walk. My father is a gentleman with huge restraint, so it didn't surprise me he wanted to be alone. He doesn't cry easy, either.

Former Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit was the man who had ordered the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority, leading to the island's division which still exists today.

As Turkish Cypriots, my family do not speak easily about their experiences regarding those days to me; they have never filled me with anti-Greek sentiment. Growing up in England, I didn't even know of their ordeals until I had begun to independently research the Cyprus issue for my A level in Modern History. When my tutor asked me where the personal perspective in my research was, I suddenly began to realise that due to my family's reluctance to instil hatred in me, I had stifled personal bias at the expense of a human view.

In doing so I was able to see both sides of the argument, but not the human stories that had been affected by those arguments, and especially those people that meant so much to me.

So, I began to delve into my own family's history. It was a traumatic experience for them, and I began to understand that there had been other, less humanistic, reasons for their silence.

It was an episode in their lives they couldn't talk about, because it hurt too much.

During the events that spanned eleven years of turmoil, from 1963 culminating in Turkey's invasion of the island in 1974, Turkish Cypriots were rounded up into camps and refugee enclaves, with freedoms gradually restricted as the Athens government backed a junta for the Greek Cypriots to take complete control of Cyprus, which had got its independence from the British Empire in 1960 with both communities sharing power.

The "baby republic" lasted only three years, before it had collapsed in the bloodiest way possible. My family's life was to change forever.

Eventually I came to realise that as much as I decried the division of my home island - and I still do - I couldn't escape the fact that Ecevit's decision saved my father and two of brothers from being killed in the detention camps the Greeks had set up for Turkish Cypriots. It had indirectly saved my life, too, for without my parents, I would never have been born.

When my father and brothers were rescued, the family located to England soon after Turkey occupied the north of the island, cementing the division. In England, I always remember a happy household, constantly filled with friends of the family, many of them Greek, but I also remember that my father always carried a picture of Ecevit with him wherever he went.

For him, and many other Turkish Cypriots in those genocide camps, Ecevit will always be a saviour.

Not Ecevit's but a Mother's Legacy

Visably affected by Ecevit's death today, my mother did something else she rarely does. She suddenly began to tell me a memory of those dark times, one that she hadn't told me before.

With her husband and children imprisoned, and the rest of the family slaughtered in attacks akin to pogroms, she was left alone in the burnt out shell that used to be her home. It had been torched to the ground and ransacked by Greek Cypriot neighbours whom had once been her friends, but she continued to stay there, refusing the sanctuary of Turkish enclaves.

She also told me the reason for her survival. A Greek Cypriot boy had got in front of a Greek soldier who had been ready to shoot at my mother during the last days of the unrest, before Ecevit's soldiers came. When the boy had approached her, she had not recognised him, but he had recognised her.

He was the grandson of kind old Christos, who had carved her hope chest. I hope Ecevit comes for you soon, the boy had said to her, before walking away. She never saw him again.

As I heard this, I remembered the photograph of her hope chest. The fate of that family heirloom seemed to be clear now and it also suddenly clicked in me why we have so few family photographs or artefacts preceding 1974.

I stood there not sure what to say, until my mind went back to her old hope chest again.

I knelt beside her and smiled, because in all the years after 1974 she had accumulated so much more than she'd lost, and she had a greater hope chest than the one whose semi-burnt image she still keeps.

This one she carved herself, with tenderness and forgiveness for actions done against her in mad times. And in this chest she had placed her best creations to be handed down to future generations.

It was her son, I told her. I was her hope chest, and she would never lose me.

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