Without a Word
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.Without her you would not have set out.She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.—"Ithaka," C.P Cavafy
He—let us call him Odysseus—begins his journey around the mountains of the Hindu Kush, known to the Ancient Greeks as the Paropamisadae. He cannot point to his village on a map but knows it, as surely as Greek Odysseus has rocky Ithaca etched deeply in his mind. The sight of his home never leaves him; he never reveals the sight. To authorities, he says he is from Afghanistan. He understands that for them, such classifications are important.
Like Odysseus, polytropos, he is resourceful, making his way steadily past obstacles. He travels across the continent, then pauses his journey in my hometown, Istanbul, where he learns Turkish from a man who gives him small jobs. During the one year he lives in Istanbul, he learns the language with its many twists and turns of phrase and speaks it with delight, like setting sail on a windy day.
He lists the names of Istanbul's neighborhoods to me as if revealing treasures.
"I went to Beşiktaş, to Kadıköy, to Taksim," he says. "I saw everything on both shores of the city."
He tells me about the suburb where he lived, one I have never been to. It's closer to Bulgaria, I think, than to the city center. His odd jobs would take him to the coast of the Bosphorus lined with Ottoman mansions, and to the financial district with its frightening high rises. When we meet each other in Paris, he asks me why I moved away from my home. Istanbul is the world's most beautiful city, he says; Paris is nothing in comparison.
"All they have is that thing. What do they call it?" His small, coarse hands outline the triangular shape of the Eiffel Tower.
After Istanbul, he travels through Europe and reaches France. Once again, there are no maps to trace his route, only the memory of a long and dark passage. But Odysseus, polytlemon, is much enduring. For seven months, he lives in a park outside Paris. He doesn't know the name of this place. He waves his hand in the air to tell me it's out there, somewhere. It's the same gesture he makes when I ask him how he found out about the organization which will help him apply for asylum. [End Page 129]
And Odysseus is tactful, politic. He does not wish to offend or renounce hospitality. During our first meeting, I translate the resources available to him for obtaining restaurant tickets. He tells me he does not need them; he will figure out a way to buy food with his small allowance.
"You understand," he says. "You and I can't eat these foods."
For him, we belong to the same group—Muslims, foreigners—but he asks me immediately afterwards not to translate his words that may offend the strangers in the room.
On this same meeting, he is asked whether he has ever worked and he says, yes, all his life.
"What kind of work?" the social worker asks him.
He says that work is work.
"What a strange question," he says to me. Again with a sign of his hand, he tells me not to translate.
Then he lists the work for his slow-witted audience—chopping wood, sweeping, fetching water, carrying boxes. Everything that work consists of.
He is given brochure upon brochure and he takes them without a glance at their content. He folds the papers in half and puts them inside his jacket. For the entire time that I know him, he will never take off his jacket, ready to leave at a moment's notice.
I am a volunteer at the organization and have been asked to translate for him, in the absence of Pashto translators. I also offer to teach him some French.
When the meeting is over he asks for my phone number and from then on he calls me several times a week. Sometimes I think he just wants to hear a language he can understand and remember Istanbul which he loves so much.
He has a habit of saying, when I pick up the phone, "Yes, Ayşegül, what is it?"
One day he calls me panicked from the elevator in his dormitory to say that he is stuck.
"Come here quickly," he says. I tell him it will take me more than an hour to get there.
"I'll die by then," he says. I call his building supervisor and when he is out, he calls me to say not to worry, he is safe.
Sometimes he calls to ask for small favors—to find him intensive French classes, or a cricket team he can join. He asks me to accompany him to the municipality and to the doctor. I tell him he must learn to get around on his own and he says that he will never manage.
Just like Greek Odysseus, our hero is illiterate.
On our third or fourth meeting I propose to teach him the Turkish alphabet. I begin by telling him that every letter makes a sound. The way every animal makes a sound, I add, and he laughs shyly. I demonstrate the sounds for him, twisting and opening my mouth with exaggeration, and he looks a bit embarrassed at the sight of a grown-up making such noises in a classroom. Still, he repeats the sounds after me and forgets them by the following week, opening his mouth to produce a cacophony of noise when I point at a letter. He finds it arbitrary that all the sounds of the earth are represented in the twenty-nine symbols I write on the board.
One afternoon, we spend a long time on the letter "f " and I ask him over and over to sound it out. Then we revise other letters and by the time we return to "f ", he has already forgotten its sound. When I think he has finally learned it, I ask him to tell me a word that contains "f ".
"Every word contains it," he says.
I ask him whether he hears "fff " when I say my name, "Ayşegül." [End Page 130]
He says he can hear every sound inside it. If this surprises me at first, I realize it is similar to someone, untrained in music, who won't be able to distinguish a C from an F when listening to a melody.
The historian Kevin Robb remarks on the difficulty of breaking apart the sounds of speech:
What must be stressed is that the act which created the alphabet is an idea, an act of intellect which, so far as signs for the independent consonants are concerned, is also an act of abstraction from anything an ear can hear or a voice say.
The Homeric world is fluid, channeled to the body through a flow of sights and sounds. In his uneasy link to the outside world, to the language he cannot understand constantly streaming into him, Odysseus complains week after week of a constant humming in his right ear, of blurry vision, of headaches.
In the social worker's office, I translate multiple pages of questions so he can join a waiting list to see a therapist. Odysseus does not want to specify anything beyond the discomforts of his body, though he has told me on the phone, offhandedly, that he will find himself in the middle of the city and not remember how he got there. He also says, one day when he is unable to contain his temper, that certain thoughts in his mind scare him.
Midway through the questionnaire, he tells me that he is tired and would like to leave.
"Can you find me a doctor who can help me sleep?"
The social worker asks him what he thinks about that prevents him from sleeping. Odysseus says there is so much in his head, all tangled up, that he couldn't begin to articulate it. She asks if he is afraid of his dreams.
"Of course," he says.
One afternoon, as we are practicing a simple French conversation (whose sounds he can imitate perfectly even if he doesn't know where one word ends and another begins) I ask him,
"If 'Je m'appelle', means 'I am called', and 'Je vais' means 'I go', then what is the French word for 'I'?"
He looks puzzled. I repeat the question, further stressing the Je.
"I am Odysseus," he says.
"Yes, that's your name. But what's the French word for 'I'?"
He puts his hand on his chest.
"I am Odysseus," he says, "and you are Ayşegül."
Discussing the shift in consciousness in the ancient world from orality to literacy, Eric Havelock writes that the invention of the alphabet as a visual form of communication was responsible for our current notions of selfhood. "As language became separated visually from the person who uttered it, so also the person, the source of the language, came into sharper focus and the concept of selfhood was born."
At the dawn of literacy, lyric poetry is filled with the word I. Unlike the oral, epic form, always looking out at the world, lyric poems are introspective. They break apart the unified world of sounds word by word, letter by separate letter. [End Page 131]
During our meetings with the legal aid, Odysseus is asked to tell his story from start to finish. He says that he left his village because life there was very hard. When he is asked about details, he says that he cannot remember.
"What about the war?" she asks him.
"What about it? There was always a war."
Memoria, for the Greeks, is the mother of the Muses. But a fuller translation of the word is "remembrance" and signifies the exercise of memory as an activity. For the oral storyteller, story is told by action. Odysseus tells us that he never fought in the war and therefore has nothing to tell. He is not a subject in his own epic.
Again and again, he is asked to tell his story. He is never guided with specific questions, for fear that they might be leading.
"What else can I tell you?" he says, after he has repeated his few vague anecdotes. Sometimes, he takes out the folded, crumbling piece of paper from his pocket that is proof of his identity. Born in Afghanistan, aged twenty-three. He can paint no pictures of hardship, tell no heartbreaking tales the way Greek Odysseus does, entertaining the Phaeacians at the feast.
I tell him that he should begin by describing the village, the faces of his brothers, his mother. He waves his hand in the air, his gesture denoting all things out there in the world. I've learned that this sign is both a way to preserve, by not giving away, and to leave behind, by keeping invisible. Perhaps, for Odysseus, preserving and leaving mean the same thing.
When Greek Odysseus arrives in Ithaca after many years, he is known to his nanny and to Penelope through intimate marks and stories invisible to the outside world. But his survival in a foreign world also depends on his invisibility. Odysseus, after all, escapes from the Cyclops by telling him that he is No-One.
"I don't know what more to say," he says, at the end of each fruitless meeting.
I suggest that perhaps he has forgotten the faces and places that make up his past, like Ithaca shrouded in mist by Athena.
"Ayşegül, how can someone ever forget their own mother's face?"
A month after we have begun our classes, he is denied asylum for lack of detail in his account. The organization will contest the decision and apply again.
At the legal aid's office, the forms are piled on a table. We tell him he must try and remember the whole story, so that his application is more convincing the second time around.
"All right," he says, frustrated, "but first of all, are you going to send all those papers or not?"
"Otherwise," he says, and this time he is shouting, "I don't know why I'm wasting my time here."
I wonder if for Odysseus the written word has any connection to the spoken. The endless labyrinth of symbols on the page cannot represent the tangled thoughts in his head, preventing sleep.
One day, I tell him we will learn to write the Turkish word for market—pazar.
"What does pazar mean?" I ask him.
"Everyone know what it means," Odysseus says. "What kind of question is that?"
All right, I say, and write it letter by letter on the board. Then, I enunciate each of the letters. "Ppp, aaa, zzz, aaa, rrr."
He repeats the sounds after me.
"Now read it," I say. [End Page 132]
"I just did."
"Read it by joining the letters. Read the word."
He sits still for a moment, full of concentration, then produces a sound like an explosion. "RRPZZZPRRR!"
I interpret this, too, as a sign of his disbelief in the written word, that the pazar he conjures so swiftly with his tongue is hiding beneath the signs scratched on the board.
It occurs to me to ask whether he knows what a word is.
"Sure," he says, "like a sentence. You call it a word, I call it a sentence."
Anne Carson observes that
oral traditions may have no concept of 'word' as a fixed and bounded vocable, or may employ a flexible concept. Homer's word for 'word' (epos) includes the meanings 'speech,' 'tale,' 'song,' 'line of verse' or 'epic poetry as a whole.'
Another time, I ask him if there is a word he would like to write.
He lists several Turkish names of girls. "Selin, Pınar, Aslı."
So I show him on the board how their names are written.
He takes out a piece of paper from his pocket, a notice calling him to the police department, and hands it to me to write down the words again.
"When they see this," he asks, "will they know that it is their name?"
We want him to tell a story the way stories are written, with a beginning, middle, and end. We ask him to tell about the moments of change in his life, to divide fluid time into separate periods, just like the symphony of sounds he hears, which I tell him are made up of tiny letters.
"Tell us the story of when you were little," I say. "What were your days like? Where would the villagers gather in the evenings? What would they talk about?"
With the introduction of writing, poetry draws attention to distinct periods, cycles, and routines. For Sappho, writing is a way to travel in time, to give form to longing.
Often, when she goes wandering she remembersher kind Attis, and now perhapsher subtle heart is consumed with potent yearning.Always her thoughts turn, longing to come where wealso think of her as her songrises over the sea that spreads between us.
Odysseus sits silent at my suggestions.
"For example," I tell him, "imagine that you woke up one morning in the village. Now tell us about your day."
Outside, it is snowing. He stares at the street with clouded eyes. (The classicist Snell defines δερκεσκετο as a wistful expression, a gleam of the eyes noticed by someone else; the look Odysseus sends to his home-land across the seas.) [End Page 133]
Then, he turns to look at me.
"I woke up and everyone was dead. What story do you want me to tell?"
I am told that I should no longer translate at the meetings. The organization will find a Pashto translator. Our classes shouldn't be affected by the re-application process, which may become unpleasant. I feel embarrassed by the importance they give to these classes, when all I've managed after months is to teach Odysseus some syllables, and a few words he recognizes by sight.
I am told that in the next few meetings some sensitive subjects will come up, like Odysseus's identity card which has turned out to be fake, or the fact that he does not speak a word of Dari, when he says he has lived in Afghanistan most of his life. He has no knowledge of local elections, of foreign aid in his region, of the Taliban. When I hear these gaps in his identity, I remember an afternoon when I told Odysseus that I was a writer. Odysseus said that his mother, too, loved to tell stories.
"What were they about?" I asked.
"About the Taliban coming to get us."
Of course, I don't mention this, because there is nothing to mention, no story worth telling. Just as Odysseus has told us all along.
And if an oral culture requires a listener, a community who agrees on a shared meaning to generate its stories, Odysseus no longer has this either. What he remembers, therefore, are not stories but dreams. In his dreams, he tells me, he sees his mother.
One day I arrive at the organization to find him arguing with one of the employees. When he sees me he asks me to translate that he is being falsely accused. He is in trouble for smoking in his room, yet again. His roommates have complained about him.
"I quit smoking weeks ago," he says. "Whoever accused me is not a real man."
He keeps asking for the name of the roommate who told on him, so that he can deal with him on his own.
On my way to the organization that afternoon, I had seen Odysseus with a group of men underneath the bridge at La Chapelle station, selling electronics arranged on the pavement. The same bridge where, a few months before, police had cleared hundreds of refugees.
It made me happy to see that Odysseus had friends and that he might be earning some pocket money besides his tight allowance. They were all joking, laughing, and smoking, including Odysseus. I walked past without saying hello, in case our acquaintance should embarrass him in front of his friends.
In the classroom, I talk to him about lying.
"I didn't lie," he says. "Can't a man smoke from time to time?"
I tell him he can do whatever he wants, but to do one thing and say another is a lie. I add that if there is anything he hasn't been honest about, anything at all, he can always correct his statement and he will not get in trouble.
The verdict among the organization's employees is that he is not from Afghanistan, after all, but probably from Pakistan. If that's the case, then I'm not sure what the truth can fix for Odysseus, but I tell him anyway [End Page 134] that it is always better to tell the truth. He listens to my lecture without a word. For Odysseus, there is the reality, the tangled, blurry world he experiences moment by moment, and there are the words with which we cloak it.
His cheeks are flushed. He sits with his hands deep in his jacket pockets.
"Are you going to teach me anything?" he asks.
I am irritable the entire class, impatient about everything he has forgotten yet again. I ask why he hasn't done his homework, which was to revise the words from last week. He says he has revised them, he can swear on it.
"That's not the truth either," I tell him pedantically. "If you had revised them you would be able to read the words now."
I write a list of syllabic combinations—ba, bo, bu, ma, mo mu, ta, to, tu—and tell him only to come to class the following week if he can read them all, without hesitation.
Next week, he does not show up for class. I wait for an hour, then go home.
He does not show up the following week either. His phone is turned off. I think that he has probably not done his assignment and does not want to face me. I am annoyed at him for making me come all the way across the city for nothing.
A month later, I receive messages from the organization asking whether I have any news of Odysseus who has missed his meetings. I tell them he has not come to class either and that perhaps he is frustrated at constantly being told off.
That might be the case, they say. But a more likely reason is that he has figured out that the organization doesn't believe his account. Some of his friends have mentioned that Odysseus speaks Hindi. Perhaps it was the same friends who advised him to say he was from Afghanistan so he could seek asylum.
His Ithaca shrivels to rock, becomes insignificant, a mere illusion. A lie. It is no wonder he did not want to show us the sight of his home, so dear to him.
And yet, what defines Odysseus has never been his home but his journey. It is the journey that makes Odysseus a hero.
A few months later, I hear from another volunteer that Odysseus is no longer associated with the center. An employee is sent to clear his belongings from the room, most of which he left behind before he disappeared, without a word.
Some of his friends remember him saying that he wanted to go to England. That is all.
There has always been confusion surrounding Odysseus's identity, and the route his voyage will take. He leaves as silently as words put on paper. Again and again he continues his journey, despite fatigue, despite danger, despite the seductive voices of sirens and of Calypso.
But if you only knew, down deep, what painsare fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore,you'd stay right here…
But Odysseus knows that words are not to be trusted, that he should push his way forward through the hostile seas. [End Page 135]