Of Tesbih and Testes: Then It Got Personal
As I wrote this one, I realized my complaints about Turkish men got revved up on a day when I felt defensive and angry on behalf of a friend.Now that I’ve written the post, however, I have to concede that the vagaries of relationships aren’t always culture specific. Money and disappointment are the bedrock of many a break-up, no matter the citizenship of those involved. What’s more, as Depeche Mode so succinctly sang in 1984, “people are people,” no matter where they live or how they cook their chicken.
Wait: those last are my lyrics.
It took me a minute of digging through my bag–nope, that’s a gum wrapper; nope, that’s a bandaid; nope, that’s a bottle of keyfir; nope, that’s a slimy mass the origin of which I don’t want to contemplate–to unearth the ringing cell phone. Fortunately, bleating cell phones are standard collateral noise in an Internet cafe, so none of the 22 adolescent Turkish boys around me so much as glanced up from their first-person shooting as I scrambled to hit “talk” and gulp out a breathless, “Hello?”
“Hi,” said a muffled voice. “How are you?”
It was my excellent pal, Jessica, an American woman originally from Pennsylvania, a woman who had fallen in love her first year at university with the sole Turk on campus. In short measure, she was taking private Turkish lessons, they were engaged, then married (with ceremonies both in the U.S. and in Turkey), with her racing through her studies to graduate before they went to live in Germany where he had gotten a job. There, while he worked, she took Turkish classes taught in German, which meant every assignment was completed with her tiny 4′ 10″ frame surrounded by a stack of dictionaries. First, she would look up the instructions in German and translate them to English. Only then could she apply herself to deciphering the Turkish. After more than a year in Germany, Jessica and her husband moved to Turkey and had a baby.
It was on the baby’s first birthday that Jessica finally allowed the accrued disappointments of her marriage to find purchase. She spent the day of the party hustling around Istanbul, baby in tow, buying gifts and favors, picking up a cake from the bakery her socialite mother-in-law insisted upon, and as she returned home and opened the front door while juggling baby, collapsed stroller, bags of presents, and cake, her phone rang. It was her husband, calling to let her know he wouldn’t be home to help set up for the party. To let her know he wouldn’t be at the party. He just didn’t feel like it–even though the guests were all his relatives. Jessica should just entertain them all properly and “do the woman thing,” and he’d be home later.
The sound of his phone hanging up was the sound of the marriage ending.
Roughly a year later, the single mother of a toddler, Jessica started playing tavla (backgammon) online in a Yahoo game room used by Turkish players. She found the table chat a good way to practice her Turkish, and the company of other adults, even faceless, cyber adults, felt like a social life. After a while, she and one other player began communicating outside of the game room; eventually, she agreed to meet him. As is the case with most hopeless romantics, love happened fast. They dated. He loved Jessica’s daughter. He told her he loved her. They got married.
Approximately six months later, Jessica was hunting through their apartment, looking for a piece of paperwork she needed. What she found were documents indicating that the name she’d been calling her husband wasn’t–as the Turks would say–otantik. His real name was something else entirely. Why would he lie? Why would he live under a pseudonym? Why this out-of-nowhere deception?
Because, as came tumbling out shortly thereafter, he was a member of the Turkish mafia.
It took months for Jessica to extract herself from the marriage, months when she had to call upon her own powers for deception, strategizing, and lies. When she tried to leave her husband, to get a divorce, he reacted with frightening anger, intimidation, threats; he was not only possessive, he was dangerous. Thus, once she realized he was having her followed, she changed her appearance and started living as a “covered” woman, wearing headscarves and trench coats, changing which hand she wrote with, confiding in the director at the elite school where she worked, who then arranged for her to live on the closed campus patrolled by security guards (tangentially, the guards gushed every day to Jessica Hanim that she had never looked more beautiful than when she was covered).
Managing to keep tabs on her, Mafia Husband became increasingly demanding and threatening and unhinged, and even as Jessica tried to dodge the people tailing her but failed to elude him completely, she came up with a plan to obtain the divorce. In Turkey, if a court case is called in front of a judge, and one of the parties isn’t present, that party forfeits the ruling; although such hearings can be rescheduled, after time, the no-show party is out of luck. What Jessica did, then, was fool Mafia Husband into thinking she would be unable to attend a series of court dates. First, she convinced him she had to be in Greece for a school-related conference (going so far as to find colleagues who had fridge magnets and chocolate from their own travels to Greece that they didn’t mind handing over in the name of a fine deception; she gifted these travel mementos to him once she “got back from her trip”). Another time, she told him her grandmother in the States was ill and that she would have to be in the U.S. on their next court date. So possessive was he that he insisted she call him from the States and give him updates on her family, her daughter, her trip.
This proved particularly tricky, seeing as Jessica never actually went anywhere. She stayed right there in Istanbul the whole time, which meant that she had to time her “calls from the States” around the daily Calls to Prayer. If they were chatting, and she realized it was nearly time for the prayer to sound, she would hurriedly cut the conversation short–before he realized she was in the same city as he.
The upshot of her ruse was this: because he was convinced that she was out of the country, Mafia Husband didn’t bother attending the court dates. Jessica–cagily–did. In this fashion, she won the sought-after divorce.
Before the divorce, while still in the process of making herself harder to detect and follow, Jessica also sold her vehicle and bought a new car.
A man named Kerem sold her the car.
After she bought the car, there were a few insurance issues Kerem had to follow up on.
For Jessica, that was as good as a proposal.
Oh, all right. It was more complicated than that. While there had been an immediate chemistry between her and Kerem on the car lot–vroom vroom–the circumstances of their subsequent dating were, indeed, complex (When better to strike up a new relationship than while eluding an angry mafia husband?Jessica’s ability to subvert downbeat drama with a diverting overlay of romance is akin to the band on the Titanic striking up “Nearer My Got to Thee” while that maudlin Kate Winslet floated by on a huge mahogany door).
The complication came when, shortly after the car lot romantics started seeing each other, Kerem’s father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In the face of his illness, the family froze. They heard the doctors talk but didn’t ask questions; they knew something terrible was happening but couldn’t figure out how to react to it. Into this familial paralysis stepped Kerem’s new girlfriend, the goal-setting, plan-making, information-gathering energetic classroom teacher /administrator. After sitting in on one family meeting during which Dad’s diagnosis was discussed, after watching the entire bewildered family shuffle out to the car, blowing their noses into hankies, Jessica lingered behind. Catching the doctor in the hallway, she started asking questions. “So,” she began, “with this diagnosis, what exactly is his prognosis? What will his course of treatment be? What can the family do to participate in this process?”
When the family recognized her ability to be proactive in a medical setting, Jessica’s role in caring for Dad quickly grew. The tradition in Turkey is for a family member to stay in a patient’s hospital room for the duration of the treatment; there is a special bed/chair in the room just for this individual. In the family hierarchy, Kerem was the natural choice to stay with his father and help with Dad’s personal care. Too broken up to imagine assisting his father in this way—and perhaps, in post-game analysis, unable to face stressful situations with grit–Kerem turned to Jessica and said, “I can’t do it. I can’t. Will you?” Pathologically unable to shirk a duty or shrug off a request, Jessica gladly stepped in, thusly beginning months as Dad’s primary family caretaker.
By the time Dad passed away, she had become a vertebra in the backbone of the family, and the only logical next step was for her to marry Kerem. If they’d been through life and death together, marriage seemed the best affirmation of that intensity.
Things started out well, with a honeymoon in Cappadocia and the simultaneous conception of their son. Adding to the heightened feeling of that first year, as well, was an expensive car crash (a metaphorical sign that Their Vehicle of Love required a fair bit of tinkering under the hood), which resulted in a money-making idea: Jessica’s appearance—for 18 nights—on the Turkish equivalent of television’s “Deal or No Deal?” During most of the episodes, she was a player in the background, waiting for her name to be called, carrying out the requisite mundane chat with the host, but once she moved into the role of Active Contestant, she strategized well, ultimately walking away from the show with 71,000 Turkish Lira (roughly 48,000 U.S. dollars—this, in a country where the average yearly income is $12,000).
This money literally changed their lives. It fell from the floodlights just when Kerem had been laid off from his job selling cars, just when the administration at Jessica’s school had changed for the worse. With that money, they could do something big.
They decided to move to Cappadocia, the land of fairy chimneys and side-slanting light. It seemed the perfect place to slow down, start over, raise their family.
Easily, Jessica snared a teaching job at a private school in one of Cappadocia’s larger cities. Although she would only earn 20% of her Istanbul salary, it seemed doable. Together, she and Kerem would also open a car rental agency; while Jessica lobbied for them to put half of her game-show winnings into savings, Kerem argued that if he was kept on a leash, financially, they’d never be able to see what he could have achieved. He needed all the money so that he could do it right.
The logic of this argument set up a marital dynamic wherein Jessica could be “selfish” and insist on restricting her husband’s dream, or she could be “supportive” and give him everything, if that’s what his success required.
What Jessica might have learned, had she and Kerem dated longer, had they experienced a courtship that was about discovery of each other rather than rescue of his family, was that Kerem wasn’t financially savvy, nor—despite his traits of being honest and hardworking—was he cut out to be his own boss. These realities ran smack into the inbred dysfunction of Goreme village, and Kerem flailed as he learned who would take advantage of him and who he could count as an ally. Unfortunately, his wife’s advice and feedback on his decisions felt like more of an attack, and at some point, Jessica realized Kerem couldn’t perceive her as an ally unless she was cheering his every move, unquestioned. At that point, “our business” became “Kerem’s business.”
…except when he found himself financially hamstrung, having been taken too many times by the duplicity of native Cappadocians, overwhelmed by the logistics of money-in/money-out, and handling a fleet of cars powered by little more than an attitude of It Will Work Out So Long As I Don’t Stop to Think About It. Half a year into the new business, having burned through the game-show winnings, he begged Jessica to avail herself of the low-interest loan offered by the bank to teachers. Once again, he looked to her for rescue. This she did, completely conflicted between her personal reluctance to accrue debt and her heart’s insistence that she be a supportive spouse. She took out a personal loan and handed over another 10,000 Turkish lira to Kerem’s business.
The consequence of this desire to boost her husband’s chances was a sticky dynamic wherein Kerem struggled to come up with the monthly loan payment, Jessica spent several weeks each month pushing him to find the money, and gradually it dawned on Jessica that sacrificing her own financial soundness and sense of peace for the sake of her marriage was untenable. If her romantic history had taught her anything, it was that the impulse to help, to save, to rescue had a limited shelf life when not reciprocated.Every time Kerem told Jessica he couldn’t quite find the money to pay back her debt—yet always scratching it together at the last minute—the fine print on the expiration date became clearer.
Her marriage was starting to feel like spoiled goods. The financial stress served to highlight Kerem’s continual absence from the family and his inability to treat her with care and thought. However, rather than act precipitously, Jessica put herself on a six-month plan, during which she would bide her time, see if Kerem could right himself financially and start showing up for their relationship. At the base of it, though, Jessica had switched to a mode of self-preservation; at the base of it, Jessica felt the kind of disillusion that renders a marriage terminal.
As fights began to break out more frequently and Kerem began to come home later and later each night, his schedule completely unpredictable, Jessica made a plan for how to save herself. With all the game-show money gone, an extra 10,000TL loan to her name, and her dramatically-reduced salary carrying the entire family, she decided that, if her Plan B were called into action, she would need to move back to Istanbul to regain financial empowerment. Cutting and running with the kids was unacceptable to her, for she remained empathetic to how unjust it would be to leave Kerem behind, choking in the dust of Cappadocia, when the move there had upheaved his life as much as hers. Hence, throughout the next school year, she would start highlighting how much better life had been in Istanbul, pointing out the increased career opportunities and proximity to his family. Additionally, she had an unprecedented conversation of confidence with Kerem’s mother and sister, laying out the bones of the problems and asking them to aid Kerem’s transition back to the West Coast and some new career in any way they could.
Pretty much, she would return Kerem from whence he came and, once he was settled in to a steady life, she would wish him well, hopefully establishing an amiable enough climate that shared custody would not be a problem.
In the meantime, as she began positioning herself to carry out her long-term plan, Jessica had no desire for her home to feel hostile; she wanted a haven, a place where something like harmony—no matter how illusory—allowed for more peaceful co-existence. One night, after another evening of a late-night return home, behavior accompanied by abrupt responses and anger, Jessica angled for a détente: Kerem’s every word had become defensive, his exasperation with her presence palpable, but Jessica defused their standard dynamic by noting quietly, “It seems, at some point along the way, we forgot how to be friends. Could we try to put our grievances on pause and just remember what it was like to be friends?”
That moment of diplomacy worked beautifully; it stopped the thrust and parry they’d become accustomed to and, because the proposal had no pretense of being a cure-all, it freed them to do just one thing: soften their edges.
However, despite her predilection for marrying Turkish men, Jessica is no fool. She just wanted to cool things off so that she could more realistically gauge the marriage’s potential for survival. What she knew absolutely was this: she worked full time, was always the parent on duty with the kids, dealt 100% with household matters, and financed all the bills; in contrast, Kerem worked long hours—hours that made it impossible for him to be present in family life—yet had never contributed a kurush to their coffers. Jessica had told Kerem he had six months, in terms of her dwindling patience, to start pitching in some money. She did not tell him he had six months, in terms of her dwindling patience, before her more-complicated Plan B, the one involving relocation and divorce, would be activated.
So there she sat in her life, this amazing, generous, gracious friend with whom my family spent every major holiday in our year away from home, a woman whose mixed-up childhood (which merits a post unto itself) had primed her for an adulthood focused on two things: finding True Love and helping people in need. And that—in case you were searching for the recipe–is how a cock-eyed American marries three Turkish men before the age of 35.
It’s also how that same cock-eyed American finds herself engaged in a process of self- examination stemming from brutal honesty: “Okay, so if I become a woman who has been divorced three times, and I’m the common denominator in each of those failed marriages, then what is it I’m doing that doesn’t work? If my approach to each marriage has been devoting myself unflaggingly to doing everything right, then somehow what I perceive as ‘right’ is actually something that’s very wrong. What is my part in all this?”
Smack dashingly in the middle of this self-analysis came the day when my phone rang in the Internet café. Her voice was muffled, hard to hear. “Hey, honey, are you feeling sick or something? You sound congested.”
“No,” Jessica said, starting to sob. “I’ve just been really surprised today, and I can’t stop crying. Can you talk? I am just so bewildered. I just didn’t see it coming. I feel like it’s all broken, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Earlier that day, one of the few weekdays during the school year that she had off, she had been at home, cleaning, when Kerem had called, agitated, nearly breathless.
“I have to pay the bank 3,000TL by 5:30 tonight. I have a credit card debt that they’re calling in, and it’s 3,000TL, and they want it by 5:30.”
Having extracted herself from his business affairs some time before as she attempted to preserve the peace, Jessica hadn’t known about this credit card or this debt. She was sideswiped. Devastated.
To her credit, her childhood and previous relationships had served as a kind of boot camp in Methodical Reaction When the Rug Is Yanked. Thus, when Kerem blubbered, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t have the money. Can you go to the bank and take out another teacher’s loan for me?”, Jessica’s response was immediate. Whereas mere hours before she’d still been hosting herself in a game of “Done, or Not Done?” with regards to her marriage, she knew which suitcase to pick in this round: the one with a big NO stenciled on the side.
Relatively compassionately, though, Jessica tempered her NO with—unsurprisingly—a Plan B. “Come home. Let’s see what we have that you can sell.”
Shortly thereafter, Kerem—former professional football player cum car salesman cum private business owner, husband on his second marriage, father to a toddler—showed up at their house, the rent on which Jessica paid every month, and helped his wife remove all the jewelry from her body, including her wedding ring. Then they went through her jewelry box. Although utterly devastated, Jessica’s attitude was, “He’s taking back the jewelry he gave to me, for our wedding, anniversaries, special occasions. He bought it for me in the first place. He can have it back.”
Added to the pile of jewelry was one item of Kerem’s: a tesbih (string of prayer beads) made of gold.
She gave all she had. He gave what little he had. It still wasn’t enough.
(On a literal financial level, he raised enough that day to pacify the bank and get them to set up a payment plan for him)
The situation could only have been more painfully fraught with symbolism had the scene been shot by Ingmar Bergman in black and white with a hand-held camera on a misty island with a beach full of dead seals during the autumnal equinox.
Indeed, Kerem gathered up the pile of treasures and, gushing with gratitude, assured Jessica she was the best wife ever, that he’d never loved her more. Naturally, the fact that these sentiments were issued as he rushed out the door to the Turkish equivalent of a pawn shop diminished their impact.
For Kerem, that occasion of coming together as a couple reanimated his commitment.
For Jessica, not so much. In fact, she was so disconcerted by the knockback of the morning’s events that, for once, she was bereft of the energetic wherewithal that usually fired her gut.
She was flattened. She was tangled. She was invested. She was done. She was there for him, and she was gone.
We wove our girlfriend hearts together over the phone lines and had a good cry.
Not at all healed but feeling a new kind of clarity, Jessica decided to stick to her original Plan B, the basis of which was to give Kerem until September to turn things around, and if things hadn’t changed significantly, she would proceed, over the course of the next year, to position herself for a “family move” back to Istanbul. After that, they could part fairly.
Within a month of selling her jewelry, Kerem was talking about becoming a partner in a Cappadocian hotel. When pressed, he couldn’t really spell out how his investment in the partnership would yield him a monthly income.
Within a month of her jewelry being sold, Jessica had taken the kids to visit family in Istanbul. During that visit, she not only laid some groundwork with Kerem’s female relations for possible future developments,
she also passed a jewelry shop and spotted a ring that caught her eye. Damned if she wasn’t tired of looking at her bare ring finger a hundred times a day, so
she went in
and bought herself a new ring,
one that makes her smile whenever she looks at it
because she knows she gave it to herself—a kind of personal convenant
…which is, ultimately, the best possible marriage she could ever make.