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I am writing this for you, Mary Ann. The others are faceless, so it helps, when I look into this screen, to imagine you as my first reader. Let me begin, then, by addressing the points you raised in your last message. You asked if I was certain of this woman’s innocence. My answer is an unqualified yes. She is a committed pacifist and has been all her life. If that bulky jacket did indeed conceal explosives, you can be sure it was someone else who put them there. Either that or the picture you sent me has been digitally enhanced.
You also asked if I could give you some idea of my whereabouts. I regret to say that (for now, at least) I am unable to do so. Nor would it be wise, at this point, to tell you why. But I am happy to tell you about passports. As my records will show (and please do feel free to check these for yourself) I am a US citizen by birth, though I do also have an Irish passport. I have never been a citizen of Turkey, nor do I plan to become one. But in some sense it will always be my home.
In answer to your final question and I will go into some detail here, as I cannot expect you or your colleagues to accept me at face value unless I explain who I am, how I came to be that person, and the circuitous route by which I wandered into this murky intrigue I was eight years old when my family moved to Istanbul. This was in 1960, which means (among other things) that we made the trip across the Atlantic in a prop plane. Crossing Europe, we were low enough to see the cars on the roads. But and I expect the same was true for Jeannie Wakefield ten years later I was not at all frightened. My thoughts were on our golden destination, which I knew, and assumed to know intimately, from an old issue of the National Geographic. All summer long, I’d been gazing into its lush and perfectly composed illustrations, imagining myself inside them.
There are no words to describe my first impression of the real thing. It hit me like a hand, ripping the pictures out of my head and tearing them to shreds. I can recall a thousand swirling details of that first drive in from the airport, but I have no sense of the whole. There was the yellow haze rising from the Sea of Marmara but not the sea itself; the flock of tankers and fishing boats but not the horizon on which they sat; the red and crumbling fragments of the old city walls but no history to explain them. I could barely breathe from the stench of burning flesh I could not yet trace to the tanning factories, the injured violins that I could not yet accept as music, the belching chaos of jeeps, trucks, horses and carts, and Chevrolets. Tiny gypsies weaved amongst us with flowers no one wanted, and crooked old men with sofas strapped to their backs. Pressed against the sky was a forest of minarets and domes. The Golden Horn, which wasn’t golden. The Bosphorus, so blue it stung my eyes.
The city thinned as we crawled along the European shore, winding our way from bay to promontory, and promontory to bay, through narrow streets that opened without warning into coastal roads, coming so close to Asia at some points that we could see the windows of the houses and at other times veering so far back into Europe that we could see no windows whatsoever, but I had no idea where we were by then, no idea at all. Until that day, I had never seen a landscape that wasn’t planned or protected, or a street that wasn’t zoned.
After an hour that seemed like a day, our bus turned up a steep and narrow cobblestone lane. We crawled up past a cemetery in which the tombstones wore turbans. Skirting a dark and crenellated tower, we climbed higher still, to pass through a stone gate covered with ivy. Beyond was a cool green hush and a leafy campus that consoled me because it looked so much like the one we’d left behind in Boston. There was a path. I followed it around a corner. I stepped out onto a terrace, and there it was: my golden destination. My picture from the National Geographic. The castle on its wooded hillside; the Bosphorus with its endless parade of tankers, ferries and fishing boats. Lining its Asian shore, the villas and palaces that seemed close enough to touch, and behind them, the brown rolling hills that must, I thought, stretch as far as China.
The terrace on which I was standing belonged to Robert College, where my father was to teach physics. Founded by American Protestants in the 19th century to educate the city’s Westernising elites, it would later be nationalised and renamed. When we arrived in 1960, it was still a private university, run by a board based in New York. Most of its faculty came from the US, and most, like my father, came on three-year contracts.
But by 1963, my parents had fallen in love with the city and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving. Imagine looking out of the window in the morning, they said, and not seeing the Bosphorus. So my father signed another contract, and then another. They managed to hang on until 1970, the year I turned eighteen.
Robert College was no longer a peaceful or secluded place by then the political turmoil sweeping across Turkey had swept us up, too. The only sensible thing was to move back to Boston. This was where they were, Mary Ann, when your sister and I were classmates. She may remember the beautiful home they made for themselves there. But they never stopped pining for the Bosphorus. (And all that it implied.) So in the mid-80s, when Turkey seemed to be returning to its former peaceful self, they moved back to Istanbul. They’ve been here ever since. Their house is only a few hundred yards from the one where I grew up.
Had things worked out differently, I might have settled here, too. And this is my connection to the story you’ve asked me to tell you. I am sure I never spoke of it with your sister, because at the time we knew each other, I spoke of it to no one. There was a boy, you see. And it was serious, very serious.
By the time I left Istanbul, in June 1970, we were engaged. But we kept it secret. Because he suspected his parents were reading his mail, we did not even mention it in our letters. As soon as I got to Boston, I found myself a waitressing job, working long hours all summer and neglecting my studies that autumn until I’d saved enough money to buy us two weeks together in a country where no one knew us. In mid-December, I went to Paris to meet him. But he never turned up. For three days, I sat in our room at the Hotel des Grandes Ecoles, waiting for the message that never came.
His letter was waiting for me when I got back to Boston. He’d met someone else someone, he said, who was quite like me ‘except that she’s more innocent.’ I wrote him back. A three-word postcard: ‘ROT IN HELL.’ Early the next summer, I opened an envelope with no return address to find a garish clipping from a Turkish newspaper to see that my wish had been granted.
The only way I could fend off the wordless horror that swept over me at that moment and continued to sweep over me, for years to come, every time I put my head on a pillow was to sever all connections with the place from which it came. But I was, I now see, only buying myself time. The twists and turns of life have brought me back, and now here I am, strangled by my own principles, forced, through wicked circumstance, to defend my usurper.