- A Tale of two Cities
This July of 1942, the people of Istanbul were saying, was one of the hottest in living memory. Around Sultan Ahmet Square, where the Blue Mosque and the Byzantine monuments faced each other in historical debate, the traditional çayhanes had appropriated every patch of shade. The patrons of these teahouses blamed the heat on Seytan: the land was fragrant with the verses and compositions of the young bards, and the Archdemon, jealous of the Turk’s ability to turn all matter into poetry or music, was venting his resentment. The narghile smokers, mostly pious men revered as guardians of the faith, disagreed: such temperatures occurred only when sainted imams lamented the profanation of Koranic law, and, under this heathen administration called a “republic,” they had much to lament, not least the growing number of women who were securing employment—as well as equal status with men—in all walks of life. But down the hill, along the seaside meyhanes, where the solemn imbibing of raki engendered enlightenment far superior to that of tea or opium, the elders, veterans of the First World War, offered a more cogent reason. Pointing at the dried blood from Europe’s latest battlefields settling as dust on this city, which Allah had created as a pleasure garden for every race and creed, they affirmed that man, that worshipper of desolation, was once again broiling the atmosphere with guns.
We believed the drinkers. Well, we either had just reached our teens or, like Bilal, were at the threshold and knew, with the wisdom of that age, that old soldiers, particularly those who open their tongues to alcohol, never lie. Besides, Bilal—actually, his mother, Esther—had kept us apprised, with firsthand information, of the spillage of blood. In Greece, where she had been born, Death was reaping a bumper harvest. Letters from Fortuna, Esther’s sister in Salonika, chronicled the atrocities. Though these accounts often verged on hysteria and sounded unbelievable—and tended to be dismissed, even by some Jews, as exaggerated—they were corroborated, in prosaic detail, by the family’s lawyer. When, about fifteen years ago, Esther had left Greece to get married in Turkey, this gentleman, Sotirios Kasapoglou by name, had promised to report regularly on her family’s situation.
It was in the wake of this lawyer’s latest missive that Bilal, Naim, and Yunus approached me. You may have ascertained, from my references to Esther’s concern for her relatives, that Bilal—and, indeed, Naim and Yusuf—were Jewish, and you may be intrigued by their Muslim names. There is a simple explanation: Atatürk, determined to [End Page 146] distance the new republic from the iniquities of the Ottoman Empire, had sought to instill in the people pride in their Turkishness. Consequently, by law, all minorities were obliged to give their children a Turkish name, in addition to an ethnic one. Thus Benjamin had acquired Bilal; Nehemiah, Naim; and Yonatan, Yunus.
I remember the exact date of their visit: Monday, 27 July 1942. I was, with my parents, in sleepy Florya, a resort some thirty miles west of Istanbul, on the European coast of the Sea of Marmara, where, during the summer months, the British embassy maintained a spacious villa for its staff. We had just heard that the RAF had bombed Hamburg, and somehow this news had raised the morale of the diplomatic corps much more than the month’s significantly greater achievements, like holding the line at El Alamein and bombing the U-boat yards in Danzig. Suddenly, the whole British legation felt convinced that we would win the war, and my father, Duncan Stevenson, had seen fit to offer me my first dram of uisge beatha, the water of life. Though I had already perfected the art of downing leftover drinks, these had mainly been sherry, so my first taste of whiskey proved a revelation—which may well be the real reason I remember the date.
My father must have come up to Istanbul for an “appearance.” His outfit, the British-American Co-ordination Committee, set up to entice Turkey, then still neutral, to join the Allies by providing...