The author’s ancestral homeland turns out to be startlingly familiar and shockingly alien at the same time.
Was Homer blind? I hope not. Did he really live in Smyrna in the eighth or ninth century? If indeed he lived in the city now called Izmir, then his view, assuming he was not blind, was of the eastern shoreline of the Aegean Sea, the Gulf of Izmir, the same view my father had when he was growing up here in Turkey, the view I see from my park bench on the promenade overlooking the city.
It makes me feel like a part of history to think of this link: Homer, my father and me. It has a nice symmetry, like the holy Trinity, the three Graces, Aristotle’s three dramatic unities—time, place, action. All those classic patterns that are so satisfying. But my dad probably had no inkling of these connections. What did he know, a poor Sephardic kid who walked barefoot to school? I never mentioned Homer to him, though I did tell him that, according to Herodotus, Smyrna was the name of the Amazon warrior who founded the city. “A woman warrior, eh?” he said. “Women’s lib.” He looked at me craftily as though I was pulling a fast one on him.
I like to think of my father following in Homer’s footsteps, but only literally because I can’t imagine that he learned about the ancient Greeks, having left school at an early age. Let’s say he walked on the same roads or dirt paths as Homer. I do know he studied the French classics at the school founded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle and could quote Racine at the drop of a hat.
My dad’s neighborhood, Karatash, was at the top of the cliffs overlooking the bay, so if he was sent on an errand to the town below, he had to walk down a very steep path. If only he could have distracted himself while making that burdensome trek by reciting some verses from the Iliad, in Greek, which he spoke. Not ancient Greek, but rather the vernacular of his neighbors in multilingual Karatash. In 1907 when my father was eight, the Asansör--an elevator--was built by one of our Sephardic tribesmen to ease the strain of going up to the cliffs from the town below on the coast.
When you reached the top of the cliff, you still had to ascend a steep flight of stairs to get to certain streets. But think of the view of the Aegean, the hills ringing the bay. That hasn’t changed. I would like to call up the spirit of Homer and introduce him to my dad, but I don’t believe in spirits.
My family was very superstitious and I resisted their mad notions. As a child I was helpless against their ‘cures’ for the evil eye, for example, the spells and mumbo jumbo that miraculously seemed to work. A more drastic remedy called for molten lead to be poured into a pot of cold water held firmly over a sheet which hovered (assuming the four corners were being held by steady hands) above the ‘patient’ who lay on a table. The resultant crags and valleys in the pot would be interpreted by a wise woman, usually a neighbor—my mother would never presume to have that knowledge. There were cures for everything—melancholia, unrequited love, queasy stomachs, bad luck with money. There was nothing that couldn’t be cured. But one had to be vigilant because of the devil, or envious neighbors, or evil spirits. A happy occasion was especially dangerous and many precautions had to be taken to avoid stirring up the wrath of those malevolent forces.
If I don’t believe in spirits why am I here in Turkey where my family lived for more than 400 years? Is it the cliché lure of finding one’s roots or do I expect to find something else? Reality check: air fares were way down so how could I resist? I don’t want a tour guide reciting a probably erroneous history of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire. I don’t want to be seen choking up over the sight of decaying synagogues and crumbling rabbinical archives.
My father’s stories were about hardship and poverty, high jinks in the Hebrew school, milking the goats that came to the back door, roughhousing with his brothers or the Greek, Turkish and Armenian kids in the neighborhood. How they avoided conscription into the Turkish Army. Stories about the massacre of the Armenians in 1915—he saw the bodies on the beach when he was a teenager. Stories also about the soothsayer my grandmother consulted when her children were ill. But did my father ever mention Homer? Did he even know that the poet might have lived in the same town?
The Shock of the Old
The first word I heard when I stepped off the plane at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was ‘buyurun’—welcome--a word often spoken in my home in New York City where it was always open house, people dropping in day or night for a meal. Looking at these Turkish faces, I feel as though I’m surrounded by relatives. Dark eyed, dark hair, quick smiles. The flowery language, exaggerated gestures, the pseudo modesty, lavish hospitality—like my own family’s. So very familiar to me even though the language is impenetrable, except for the occasional words I recognize because they infiltrated our own Ladino language, the 15th-century Spanish my ancestors took with them to the Ottoman Empire after the expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition.
Food? I might as well be in my mother’s kitchen with its overabundance of dishes, the dolmades, pilafs, ‘chipura’—porgy, but never so fresh as it is in Turkey, ‘imam bayeldi’ [The priest fainted, presumably because of the heavenly aroma]. How can I feel so much at home while being totally shut out because of the language? It’s a paradox. Hearing a word I understand gives me a shiver of delight. These verbal sparks are my link to the language around me and to the one I spoke as a child where these Turkish words are embedded. The summons of the muezzin, the call echoing from mosque to mosque feels familiar to me and even, it seems, embracing of me, a Jew from New York.
The Ultimate Dining Out Experience
On my last night in Turkey, in Izmir, my husband and I were lured into an empty restaurant. Empty, that is, except for three elderly male musicians, playing for the non-existent diners. When we sat down, they struck up a new song, one of those wailing, plaintive cris de coeur, probably about heartbreak and faithlessness (on the part of the woman no doubt). The tone—I can’t say the tune because it slithered from one microtone to another—the tone was familiar. I’ve heard these instruments before, at home at family parties when I was growing up. An oud (like a short-necked mandolin), kanoun (a zitherlike instrument), and a violin, alternating with the pot-bellied mandolin they call a saz. Reedy, whiny, echoing, nostalgic, reminding me of all those relatives, now gone, who were exiles from Turkey.
Tonight, the oldest of the musicians, a gaunt, grizzled seventy-year-old is singing directly to me. His black eyes bore into mine as he sings. I can feel myself blushing. His words, which I don’t understand, are berating me for leaving him to pine alone, finding relief only in drink, in raki. At home we had a bottle of that anise-flavored powerhouse of a drink. When poured into a glass it is a clear liquid. But when you add water it clouds up. What could be more mysterious? The man keeps singing to me while his friends nod every so often, as though to confirm his emotion—and mine. “I know you,” he’s saying to me. “Even though you’ve been away I knew you would come back . . .” I can hardly restrain myself from leaping up and dancing. I find myself swaying and tapping on the table with my fingers, not daring to look at this seducer. Forget about the grilled fish (just caught in the Aegean?) that is turning cold on my plate. I need to move, to sway and bend to the music, to tell this man that I’m responding to his yearning with my heart and my body.
When our meal is finished it’s difficult to face the end of the evening. To put on our jackets, pay the bill and walk out. We want to give the musicians something. Actually, I want to embrace the man who’s been serenading me but don’t dare meet his eyes as I pass him on the way to the door. My husband discreetly slips some bills to the waiter and gestures toward the musicians, making it clear that the money is for them. They’ve seen this exchange, and just before we walk out they nod gravely without interrupting their song. My last chance—I turn and gaze directly into those smoldering eyes.
To this day I retain the image of the man, guarding it secretly as though he is my demon lover. I may need to be cured. Sprinkle some salt on all the windowsills, thread one of my hairs in a needle and set it at my threshold. Draw water from four wells and mix with honey . . . I draw the line at molten lead.
"Out of Smyrna" has received a Family Travel Solas "Silver" award as one of the best pieces of travel writing in 2011
1. This article originally appeared in Perceptive Travel and it is reproduced here by permission of the author (http://www.perceptivetravel.com), July 2011.
2. Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer is the author of a novel, Amalie in Orbit (The Wessex Collective, http://www.thewessexcollective), and a story collection based on Sephardic family life, Goodbye, Evil Eye (Holmes & Meier, http://www.holmes&meier.com), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards. Her work has been published in many magazines and heard on National Public Radio. Under the name, Gloria Levy, she made one of the earliest recordings of Sephardic folk songs in the United States (Folkways, http://www.folkways.si.edu). She is also co-author of a nonfiction book, We Were So Beloved (University of Pittsburgh Press, http://www.upress.pitt.edu).