Of Tales and Dreams by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar; Translated by Aysel K. Basc
Our school was a rudimentary rectangular building consisting of three classrooms. Each class had a teacher. The Tigris River passed close behind the school’s large yard, which had no trees and was adjacent to a graveyard. When the weather was good, our noises mixed in with those made by women doing laundry on the shores of the river as they used sticks to beat the dirt from their clothes spread out on large rocks. Sometimes, at the beginning of spring, the Tigris surged so high we feared it would enter the school. Clumps of daffodils soon sprang up, covering the entire muddy area left behind after the waters receded. The heavy and overpowering fragrance of the daffodils flooded our classrooms. Sometimes, immediately after heavy rains, the waters raged. The water level did not rise much, but the river’s surface was covered with weeds, broken branches, small trees, and orchard crops plucked from the mountains. Destitute folks swarmed the river banks trying to save what they found floating on the surface.
One of my biggest pleasures was to watch the Tigris when its waters surged really high and flowed over the bridge connecting Mosul to the other side after the bridge’s wooden parts were removed, skipping over large stones like a giant. During these times people crossed the river using crates. When the waters subsided, a small island would become visible again and turn emerald green within days. For me, separating from all this would be torture. Yet I wanted to go—leave everything behind and go!
In these lands, summer nights carry a special magic most probably due to the weather.
In the tales I listened to, which were full of amazing incidents that made me instantly forget everything else, there were men who glided into fountain pipes and disappeared with the help of some magical potion; animals that spoke; phoenixes that carried princes on their wings; girls imprisoned in underground palaces with jeweled ceilings and pure gold columns who cried pearls instead of tears and used those pearls in their embroideries; foolish looking Keloglans who were actually quite smart and came to the rescue of those girls; and coral-gazed snakes that coiled up in front of rooms full of treasures. They all lived their adventures, which were profoundly different than ours, in lands filled with incredible amount of action. As my nanny told me these tales, she would suddenly get sleepy and her last sentences would get mixed-up; when the grumpy horses, in the tale, traveling at night got startled and stopped, she would also stop. When I asked her, “What happened next?” she often responded with a shrilling grunt. In my child imagination, after playing with these incomplete tales a little longer, my eyes on the stars which in these lands shine with a completely different brilliance, I would dive into a new tale where the protagonists were my mother and I.
I do not remember my mother; I was too young when she died. But with the help of what I had heard from my nanny and others in our household, I had constructed a special face for her in my mind. These tales always revolved around that face. At times, I imagined her pale, anxious and crying in a marble underground palace, her brown-haired head leaning over a white embroidery hoop as I waited for the dervish who would teach me the magical spell which would help me save her from there and for the mysterious phoenix who would fly me to the opening of a well that led to that palace. At the bottom of that well, there were black and white sheep. I was supposed to get on the ugliest and grumpiest of the black sheep, but somehow, this was impossible and I always ended up encountering a white sheep. And finally, when I was on the black sheep, instead of the underground road that led to the palace where my mother was captive, I would find myself traveling with frightening speed in the exact opposite direction, crossing steep cliffs that separated the stars from one another with huge leaps of my black sheep, its mouth spluttering foams. Then, I would wake up shaking from my dream—which I could not tell when it started—anxious and exhausted worrying that because I had enjoyed that dizzying speed, I had forgotten about my mother. Then, again, but this time from a different angle, the same dream would begin. Again, I would see my mother in the lands of the tales, sleeping, looking paler than the white blouse she wore and desolate. In front of her, a large black snake gazing at her, its gaze glowing with a frozen glitter, and I too would fall asleep because once I encountered that frozen glitter in that gaze, it would never let go of me.
Ahh those dreams, which at an innocent age gave me the taste of torments impossible to escape… The warm and luminous nights of those lands that I knew I would never see again… The sultry, somber air that filled those nights with creepy sounds with slow rhythms and turned death into a garden filled with overpowering scents—on the one hand invisible to the eye, on the other, close enough to touch by hand… Then, the stars, which dove into my dreams with their large and small glitters, and the peculiar shape they formed in my orphan-child imagination every morning before I woke up…
Now that we were no longer in Mosul, I developed a huge longing, a deadly longing, for the past, for those things that—just two months ago—I had desperately wanted to leave behind. I missed our house. I remembered the pomegranate tree in the garden, by the small pool, which produced ruby-colored flowers every summer. I wanted to be under that tree again, daydreaming as I watched its reflection on the sheer surface of the pool. I even missed my tormenting, at times terrifying, dreams…
Extracted from Hikayeler (Short Stories / Evin Sahibi) by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, Dergah Yayinlari, Istanbul 1983.
© 2023 Translated by Aysel K. Basci
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901–1962) was a Turkish novelist, poet, literary scholar and essayist, widely regarded as one of the most important representatives of modernism in Turkish literature. He was a professor of aesthetics, mythology and literature at the University of Istanbul. Although he died sixty years ago, his writing and poetry remains very popular. His novel The Time Regulation Institute is considered one of the best novels in Turkish literature. With this novel, Tanpınar became one of the two Turkish novelists whose works are published by Penguin Classics.
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