About the time I rejected French citizenship because it was granted in a name I no longer used, I found myself married and with children, and living in Istanbul. I found it impossible to master Turkish, though I tried schools, private lessons, home study courses. So, when the authorities wanted to document me, I always had a translator nearby, a small, round-headed, gentle man named Selahattin.
Obtaining documentation in Turkey depended upon providing documentation from the United States and France. The French experience had made me suspicious of how the next batch of bureaucrats might behave, so I carefully marked out the wrong name on my French documents so that they would match my US papers. This was done with no great skill: an artist's knife to scrape away a word, a bit of nail polish remover on a cotton bud to carefully lift ink, or just a large slab of White-Out or Tip-Ex over the offending name. When I handed them over to Mr. Selahattin to take down to the bureau, he raised his eyebrows but made no comment.
Mr. Selahattin returned with forms, and sat at the dining table to help me complete them. His feet did not reach the floor. On each form I was asked to complete, I gave my father's surname as Smith. I gave my own name as simply Morddel, and explained, making a big fuss about it, that I did not use my married name. I made such a fuss about that that it seemed to detract his and everyone else's attention from the rest of the documentation. When Mr. Selahattin brought my residency and work permit papers, all of my documents showed not only my name but the full (or so they thought) names of both parents.
For the identity card, I had to go to the local police bureau with Mr. Selahattin to be fingerprinted. This card differed from the French version which had name, address and photo, but no mention of any relatives. The Turkish version had not only my parents' names, my photo and my address. It also had my thumb print. It seems that the photo and the thumb print are all that the Turkish police, with whom I was later to have such extensive and unwelcome communication, ever really use.
Fully documented, I set out to explore one of the stranger cities on the planet. Constantinople is old. It reeks of age, the age of intense human activity in the same place for centuries that had not yet been entirely swept away by modernity. It was one of the few places one could still feel, in the 18th century romantic sense, that one was walking among forgotten ruins. I read John Julius Norwich and dragged my babies all over the city.
We lived in a magnificent apartment in part of a converted country house in the suburb of Ortaköy. The views over the Bosphorus were wide and beautiful. The home was elegant, the neighbours refined (or so I thought), and the security guards at the upper and lower gates of the hillside estate were friendly. As with so many such places, the beauty did not hide the local infrastructure's difficulties. There could be water shortages or it could stop all together for as a long as a week, especially in the summer. The electricity for the area also could fail for days at a time. The air pollution, especially from the burning of lignite for heating in the winter, was terrifyingly thick.
Throughout its three incarnations, -- as Byzantion, Constantinople, and Istanbul -- the city has been not a hub for a country or a civilisation, but a true crossing of roads. It feels to be more of a giant stopping place for caravans, a city of inns, a place to change from the clothing and the thinking of the West to that of the East and back again. Everyone seems to be passing through and those that are not make their livings off of those that are. Natives of the city speak more languages than in any other city I know; they shift fluidly and with an elegant politesse in style, bearing and speech to suit their interlocutor. It was there, at a private social gathering in a home, that I first heard the greeting that so charmed this village bumpkin from the California Sierras: "What language shall we speak?" with all of those from Istanbul able to converse in any of the European or Central Asian languages.
I was there when Saddam still ruled Iraq and when the Soviet Union had just wilted. Refugees arrived in the city daily, in masses. They walked from Iraq and Iran, they arrived by boat, train, plane, cars, anything that would transport them. There were no camps in Istanbul. The migrants and refugees filled the city, living illegally in certain, somehow known, neighbourhoods. Keeping to the city's nature, none hoped to stay, all hoped to move on to one of the Promised Lands: Germany, England, France, Canada, Australia, the United States. The key was to be recognised by the local representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a legitimate refugee, for only with that approval would one of the dreamed-of countries accept a refugee as a legal immigrant.
While the refugees went to countless appointments and interviews at the UNHCR offices, they struggled to find shelter, clothing and food. Those who could learn Turkish quickly had an easier time finding work, albeit illegal, while those who could not hid in dark rooms. Those who obtained UNHCR refugee status took their papers to the offices of receiving countries with hope and joy, happily leaving to start new lives in whichever would accept them. Those whom the UNHCR did not recognise were in a terrible limbo. They could not stay, they could not return, and they could not go. They had no legal status and no hope.
One of the things the hopeless did was to try to forge passports and other documents. Thinking to thwart the French bureaucrat who had given me nationality in the wrong name, I decided a forged French passport in the right name would be a clever thing to own, and I began to seek a forger. This was something with which Mr. Selahattin could not be of help.
©2011 Anne Morddel