- Published 20050805
- ISBN: 9780733314537
- Extent: 268 pp
- Paperback (234 x 153mm)
AUSTRALIAN ACCOUNTS OF Gallipoli concentrate on the fighting there and the effects on civilian life back home. The Turkish side of the military conflict has received scant attention, life behind the lines none at all. Documentaries on Gallipoli do not refer to the resounding Turkish victory, but point up the tragedy of the bungled Allied defeat. There have been some accounts in English about the state of defeated nations, such as Germany and Austria, so perhaps interest in Turkey was inhibited because Turkey is regarded as non-Western.
A memoir, unremarked upon in Australia, now re-published in a new edition, fills this gap. Portrait of a Turkish Family (Eland, London, 2003), by Irfan Orga, vividly recounts the struggle for survival of a Turkish war widow during and after the Gallipoli campaign.
At the age of 26, Irfan Orga’s father, Huseyin, was one of the first Turkish conscripts. When seeking news of him, Irfan’s mother was fobbed off by the War Office and, after hearing of the death of his brother on the Eastern front, she went to inquire at the camp of a unit recently returned from the Dardanelles. Here she learned that on the long march to Gallipoli her husband had injured his feet and they had become infected. Huseyin had been left to die at the roadside or in hospital if he were picked up by cart. It was not clear which had happened but he died without reaching the front.
Suddenly her world collapsed. She never really recovered from the shock, and personal upheavals caused by the war, though she was to battle on for years. Her elder son, the narrator, Irfan, was also irrecoverably wounded, his vulnerability heightened by a burden of responsibility, as the eldest child, he felt for her and his siblings – a younger brother, Mehmet, and a sister, Badia, born later.
His mother was less able to cope than some Western women would have been. Married at the age of 13 (she had been promised to her husband at three), she led a sheltered and privileged life in Constantinople, living with her in-laws, waited on by servants. (A black nursemaid cared for Irfan). Hers was the secluded life of a Turkish lady. She rarely left home and was not permitted to be driven out alone. The, “obstinate wayward, indomitable” grandmother, Huseyin’s mother, ruled the house. By contrast with Irfan’s mother, the grandmother was confident, even pushy, proud of cutting a figure on periodic outings to the hammam(Turkish baths) where she took her grandson, and made a picnic of it before an admiring female crowd.
Before she learned of Huseyin’s death, Irfan’s mother had suffered warning shocks, like earthquake tremors, about life ahead. The first was parting from her husband. Each suppressed their feelings: “His face was secretive, closed, and alien, a soldier’s face … she too had that alien, shut-away look [as she] stared, dry-eyed.”
Capturing the intuitions he had as a child, and the sensations in which they were rooted, Irfan later wrote of “a latent streak of hardness” that was to become “her main characteristic” – hardness on herself, a hardening of resolve. His mother alienated herself from her surroundings, even to an extent from her family – certainly from Irfan, bonded though they were – nursing her silent grief. When the Turkish soldiers left their homes to go to the front, a band played a “song of unbelievable sadness and everyone sang”:
Oh, wounded ones I am coming to take your place and my heart is crying because I am leaving my beloved ones. The mountains and the stones cry with me …
Civilians remaining behind were wounded too, if not physically, coping as best they could, sometimes alone, like Irfan Orga’s family.
ANOTHER BLOW FELL when fire destroyed their home during the war – not unusual in a city of wooden buildings. All their money, kept at home, went with it. The five members of the family narrowly escaped. This second upheaval, plunging Irfan’s mother further into an unknown world, was the worst, Irfan considered: “… many people in the world face poverty, if not with contentment at least with resignation. She was unable to do this, yet unable to escape. The sight of her burning house was a far greater shock than my father going to war, the loss of her possessions the worst blow.” His mother now flew into uncharacteristic sudden rages, “all the more alarming because of her usual chilling quietness … her silence became a fearful thing”.
Nevertheless, she battled to build a new life in a new house. Irfan recalls with hindsight: “[when she found a new home] her vitality was boundless … to Mehmet and me her courage was terrific and we still think so today. Even as children we were aware of her courage. We could forgive the lapses into depression and bad temper, the seeming ruthlessness when she banished her children.”
But Irfan was wounded. He was the most affected by his mother’s changed manner, her withdrawal into herself that seemed a withdrawal of love: “Her eyes looked past us to some torment we could not see but could perhaps dimly comprehend.”
THE WAR WAS not going well for Turkey. Neighbours were facing not simply hard times but near starvation. The war widow’s pension was so pitifully small that his mother once, in a flash of spirit, gave the 50 kurus to her children to buy sultanas, for once “viciously” turning her anger on a complacent official. She was protected from police intervention by sympathetic widows who kept them at a distance.
Soon she was driven to go to work as a machinist in squalid, live-in conditions in an army clothing depot, leaving her mother-in-law, with whom she clashed, to look after her children. She could visit them only infrequently. When starvation threatened them she took the two boys to a charity boarding school, steeling herself to face yet another collapse of her world. Irfan felt abandoned. Her undemonstrative parting was a heartbreak he never forgot.
Life at the school, run by a German matron, was spartan and heartless. Irfan was anxious on being separated from his younger brother who was sent to the kindergarten, “a small silent boy of three and a half who did not know what to make of his topsy-turvy world”. Worse still, when the junior children were later segregated into ethnic groups of Kurds, Armenians and Turks, Mehmet was forced to go with the Armenians until his distraught brother managed to shout: “Mon frère”.
Two years later, when his mother found Irfan sick and underfed, she, though ill, moved him home. It “held no promise of heaven … rather a strange and alien place with my grandmother still serving the eternal vegetable soup”.
To add to the family misfortunes Mehmet, now 5, became gravely ill with malnutrition in the Bebek hospital. His mother was shocked at his condition. The staff said he would die if he were taken home but he seemed to her to be dying anyway. Again she had to summon her strength and rely on her intuition to defy medical advice. Fortunately, Mehmet responded to home care.
Towards the end of the war, Constantinople was briefly but terrifyingly bombed; a local bazaar took a misdirected hit. Then, in 1918, the war was suddenly over: “But for us who were left it mattered very little. We had lost everything; but then there were many families like us.”
Irfan turned 10. His mother, who lost her job when the men came back, was 25. Constantinople became an occupied city of allied soldiers – English, French and Italian. One of the few comic episodes in the memoir describes Irfan’s handsome mother being followed home by a French man, only to be chased away by sympathetic neighbours brandishing sticks and brooms.
At this time she showed an outward rebelliousness. She refused to wear her veil, just as years before when they moved house after the fire she insisted on the removal of the traditional kafe (window lattice protecting women’s privacy) to let in the air and light. This protest marked her off from her mother-in-law who was scandalised by this and her failure to find consolation in Islam: “too impatient to accept the Muslim teaching of fatalism”. These aspects of her life foreshadowed the modernisation of Turkey.
Though her social rebellion did not go deep, her life and that of her sons radically changed. She found a new career in embroidery design at which she had always excelled. Her mother-in-law helped out with the sewing. And in 1919, through contacts, she placed her two sons in the Turkish Military School for officers, an institution which was promoted by the rise of post-war republican and national feeling and fostered by Ataturk, who was also a product of the school. Irfan boasted he would be a general. Mehmet said: “I shall be a doctor, and then I can help the wounded soldiers to get better.” (And indeed, he became a doctor in the navy.) Irfan reported to the school on May 15, 1919, the day Ataturk set out for Samsun on his way to found the new republic at Ankara, a turning point in Turkish history and the beginning of the modern, secular state of Turkey.
IN 1931, AFTER 12 years’ training, finished off at Harbiye College, Irfan returned proudly to a home he had not seen much of during his training. His mother seemed contented but he detected danger signs: “Her eyes slid away disconcertingly from the person she was talking to.” She may not have kept her sanity, he thinks, without his grandmother, “so essentially sane that her mere presence was a sort of ledge for my mother to rest upon … I was unaware of the dark menace the future held”.
His mother went to live with Irfan on his postings within Turkey. Once, when she was terrified that he might have been killed in a crash, he “glimpsed her incipient madness”. Irfan lived with the fear that she might lose her grip on reality. Mehmet, on the other hand, was able to detach himself from his mother. Irfan also quarrelled with his sister about the caring for his mother in her illness. He felt isolated. Just as his mother had retreated, Irfan, perhaps reacting against a burden of responsibility, also unwittingly retreated. His grandmother burst out once, not unkindly: “You have no heart …You have done everything that was left in your nature to do.” She nevertheless reassured him that he had been forced to care for his mother: “If you shut the family out perhaps the fault was our own.”
His mother tried living alone but her health deteriorated rapidly. After turning violently against her mother-in-law, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Irfan, now an air force lieutenant, went to see her but her complete retreat broke his heart. He cried for himself and for her, both as she was now and as the beautiful, inexperienced girl of his early memory. He did not visit her again. She did not live long. She died aged 47, in May 1940; early in another world war, but one in which Turkey was not involved. And it is from her tombstone, a little outside the city she loved, that her given name, not used in this family memoir, is restored: Sevkiye Orga 1893-1940.
AN AFTERWORD, WRITTEN by Irfan’s son, Atesh, surveys Irfan’s subsequent unhappy life in exile in England. Arriving there in 1942, he trained young Turkish officers in collaboration with the RAF and the Turkish Embassy, but his career did not prosper. His affair with a married woman, whom he was to marry several years later, put him at odds with strict military codes of behaviour. After a brief return to Turkey he was forced to resign.
The marriage was not happy. Atesh describes his English mother, Margaret, as “a highly strung, nervy, lapsed Catholic, who was to eventually smoke and drink and hate herself to death”. Like Irfan’s mother, if in a different way, she must have been deeply unhappy. But she managed to survive severe physical and mental illness. Her unfaithfulness wounded Irfan, though they stayed together as a family. To make life more difficult, he could not find a job as a civilian in England and, after a battle with poverty, Margaret became the breadwinner. As a successful editor, she further wounded his pride. In the late 1950s, however, Irfan won some recognition by writing several books – travel, cooking, an unflattering biography of Ataturk and Portrait of a Turkish Family. Irfan’s writing was a collaboration with his wife. His English was not fluent: “She was the stylistic and linguistic force, the mentality sometimes, the persona often, behind all his works.”
Atesh writes lovingly and admiringly of his father, especially the nurturing companionship they shared when he was a child, but his kind, talented father was lonely, depressed and even delusional in his fears of the future. Irfan ended life as an exile and recluse in the Sussex countryside. He died at 62, feeling he had nothing to live for. His ashes were buried at his English retreat, far away from Istanbul, as Constantinople became – the city he and his mother both loved. He was a more distanced casualty of Gallipoli than his parents.
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