“Protest.” The earnest girl stood on the steps outside Neslihan’s front door. She had leaflets, a clipboard and a script. “Look what the government is doing to your beautiful neighbourhood.”
Beautiful. Neslihan picked out this word. She lived on the steep slope below the Sülemaniye Mosque. Her house was tall, wooden and precarious. Her street was narrow and potholed. Her neighbours’ houses were in even worse condition than hers. She nodded politely. It would be a pity to interrupt such passion.
“The government wants to change forever the essential character of this area.”
Essential character. It didn’t have one. Above her loomed the stone wall protecting the trees of Istanbul University’s faculty of Botany. Below were the metalworking shops that gave out a continuous banging during the day.
“They want to demolish all the lovely old houses and replace them with fake replicas. The new Metro is just an excuse for them to knock down the buildings without seeking permission.”
This was true. The area to the north was just about empty of people by now. They had been moved out to new houses in new suburbs in places that Neslihan had never heard of. The empty houses were falling down. They were occupied only by eskici, the people who collected rubbish and sorted it out to sell. A few places were restored and made beautiful. Islands of mansions stood out in what looked like a war zone.
“I’ll show you a map. The Metro will go right through here.” The girl pointed to a well-used piece of paper. “Here’s your house.” Her finger traced a red line. “The new line to Aksaray passes right through here. Your house will have to be knocked down to make way.”
Neslihan had thought this too. Turgut and Gülfem down the hill had already been told. Their houses were going soon. They had been offered money or new flats in Alibeytepe or somewhere else in the parts of Istanbul that were so far away that they weren’t Istanbul. She had seen the men in suits, walking from her neighbours’ houses to the Mercedes Benz cars that would hardly fit into the streets. She had thought that it was better not to know. Then something made her ask. They consulted their little computers. They turned to each other. They shook their heads and smiled. They were like men who had spent all day needing not to smile.
“Do you want to lose the place where you have always lived, where it is your right to live?”
Neslihan could see the girl’s point. She was sorry for her neighbours. She would be sorry to lose them. It wasn’t right to make them go away. But there was nothing that anyone could do about it.
“We have to protest. We’re organising a flash mob in a pop-up venue.”
Neslihan had no idea what the girl was saying. She seemed nice. She reminded her of her own daughter. Melis was someone in the art world now. Neslihan didn’t know what that meant either.
“Anyway, my name’s Duygu.” The girl was holding a leaflet out. “We’ll be in touch soon. We don’t want to give out the details now because the authorities will find out.”
Duygu looked lovely when she spoke that way. She was passionate. She believed in her role in something important. Neslihan could not remember ever having felt like that. She wanted to protect Duygu’s fragile self-belief.
“Of course, dear. I’ll do what you want. You enjoy yourself.”
Duygu clattered down the steps and made her way to the next house.
Neslihan made herself a cup of tea and sat down. She liked her house. It had once been beautiful. When she and Nuri bought it, they had had dreams of living in the real Istanbul, of inhabiting the world photographed by Ara Güler and remembered in the rose tones of what was becoming known as Istalgia.
Nuri started making money and they moved out to Levent. Neslihan moved back when the new house and the flashy cars were repossessed. When Nuri’s mistress had showed up, crying about being evicted. Nuri had done that begging act on his knees. Neslihan had viewed him as if he were a cheap soap opera. He had escaped somewhere overseas, trying to hold on to whatever that accountant had not managed to take. Because of his financial debacle, Neslihan was not allowed to leave Turkey. This did not bother her at all. Their old family lawyer had drawn up his documents well. Neslihan could keep the house.
What she couldn’t do was maintain it properly. It was better than the rest of the houses in the area. Melis’s well-dressed boyfriend Hakan would ask for a tour of the house every time he came around. A few days later, some tradesmen would turn up to do some minor repairs. The place needed painting now but there was no chance of that.
Neslihan thought of the red line of the Metro cutting through her neighbourhood. She was struck with a desire to see her view. She put her tea down and walked to the staircase. Three floors and an attic. The attic had two triangular windows. One faced the stone wall of the Botanical Garden. From the other, she could see a cascade of roofs falling down to the Golden Horn. She couldn’t quite see the water but she liked being able to see Galata Tower.
The view had changed over the years. New skyscrapers were always going up. There seemed to be three or four that hadn’t been there last time she checked. She could see the tall buildings around Sishane, mostly expensive hotels. The new railway line was coming her way from there.
The doorbell rang. Neslihan put the teapot back on the double boiler. Her tea could wait.
It was that girl again, Duygu. She was just as excited and alive as before.
“Good morning…” Duygu checked her clipboard. “Neslihan Hanim. I’ve come to give you an update on our action against the government.”
“Good.” Neslihan was pleased to see the girl again. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Oh, no.” said the girl. “I need to get round to all the houses on this list before…” She looked at her watch. “Yes, please. My feet are really hurting.”
“Come on.” Neslihan led the way to her living room. She was normally embarrassed about this relic of the days when she and Nuri had been pretending to live in the time of Süleyman the Lawgiver. There was a big Van kilim on the squeaky parquetry. Neslihan indicated a divan next to a round, copper table. “Sit down there, Duygu. The tea’s ready.”
“You remembered my name,” said the girl. “Nobody else does.”
“Of course I did.” Neslihan moved into the kitchen and raised her voice. “You remind me of my daughter. She’s the same age as you. Neslihan realised as she said this that she was wrong. Melis was years older. It was just that she remembered her as the age just before she left home. “Maybe a little older.”
“I love the way you’ve done this room,” said Duygu. “It totally suits the house. You must feel really strongly about having to leave and going somewhere soulless.”
“Yes,” said Neslihan vaguely. She put two glasses of tea onto the copper table. “I’ll just get some kurabiye.” She went back into the kitchen. Are all the houses on this street going to be knocked down?”
“I think so…” Neslihan put a plate of pastries on the table. Duygu was searching the room for something. Sugar. It must be sugar. Since she had lived alone, Neslihan had found that she didn’t need sugar any more.
“I’ll just get that, dear.” The dear seemed so natural, the same as it had when Melis had been younger. Neslihan put the sugar and a spoon down beside Duygu’s tea. “How many houses do you have to go to today?”
“I don’t know.” Duygu held up her clipboard. There was a computer printout of an aerial photo. Each house was marked with a dot and a number. “Hundreds of them.”
“And it’s important that you do them all.”
“Yes. We need everyone involved. If we don’t have solidarity, we won’t be able to show the government how strongly the entire community feels.”
“Do you think it will make a difference?” asked Neslihan gently.
“Yes.” Duygu’s eyes were wide. “Look at the Gezi Park protests. I was down south in Olympus when they were happening but everyone in the country knew about them. The government cracked down but international pressure made them leave it alone. They don’t dare build their shopping centre now.”
Neslihan nodded but said nothing. Most of the people she knew had no sympathy for the protesters. It wasn’t right for people to shout rude things at the Prime Minister.
“They say this is a democracy but it’s only the power of the people that will ever make this government act democratically.”
Democracy. Had Turkey ever been a democracy? When Neslihan was growing up, the illusion of democracy was only protected by the threat of a military coup if anything out of the ordinary happened.
“Yes,” said Neslihan. “Put your feet up on the divan. Please be comfortable.”
There were rumbling sounds at night now. They probably happened all the time but Neslihan only noticed them when she was in bed. It must be that Metro line tunnelling underneath her. She thought she felt the ground shaking but it was probably her imagination.
The sounds she heard in the daytime were of houses being knocked over. Big, yellow machines swaggered up her street in the morning. After a day of crashing noises, they would return in the evening like conquerors. People stopped talking and watched them pass. Some of the boys threw stones.
One day, Neslihan opened her front door to find a big sheet of metal in front of Remzi Bey’s house on the other side of the street. She recalled Remzi Bey saying that he would be moving out to Bahcelievler. When Neslihan returned with her bread and copy of Hürriyet, the yellow machines had begun their work.
Neslihan opened the curtains in her bedroom and moved her chair to the window. This was real entertainment. It was amazing how easily Remzi Bey’s house came apart. It had always looked like nothing more than a loosely attached collection of planks. The yellow machines just pushed them apart and let them clatter onto the ground.
Neslihan made herself some more tea and returned to her viewing. The front of the house was off. The place where Remzi Bey once carried out the events of his life was now like a doll’s house. All the rooms were exposed. She hadn’t known how horrible the wallpaper in the bedroom had been. The doorbell rang.
It was Duygu, the girl who believed in her cause. “Neslihan Hanim, It’s awful! They’re destroying that wonderful house. It must have been your view for a lifetime. It’s as if they’re smashing up all your memories.”
“Yes.” She hadn’t lived there all that long. She and Nuri had bought it twenty years ago but she had only moved back recently. She decided not to tell Duygu this. “I can’t believe it.”
“I’ve come to tell you what we’re organising,” said the girl. “If you’re too upset, I can come back later.”
“No.” Neslihan could see the yellow machines changing position for a new assault. The front door did not provide the best viewing angle. “Do you want to see how they demolish the houses? It’s very interesting.”
“Interesting?” Duygu frowned and turned to the wreckage across the street. “I suppose it is.”
“I have a very good view from one of the upstairs rooms,” said Neslihan. “I’ve just made some tea.”
“Really?” Duygu smiled. “That would be lovely. The hills around here are very tiring.”
The window was exactly the right size for two wicker armchairs with a coffee table between them. Neslihan put two glasses of tea on the table. Both women leaned forward to see what the yellow machines would do next.
One machine extended an arm high in the air. The top of the arm began to approach the upper level of Remzi Bey’s house. It made contact and pushed. The house began to tremble.
Neslihan gasped. A whole new view appeared. She could see the entire shore across the water. It was all there: Galata Tower, the new skyscrapers, the big hotels, all laid out before her. She tried to take it all in.
Neslihan was aware of a movement on her arm. It was Duygu shaking her. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s all gone.”
No it wasn’t. It had all arrived. Neslihan stared at her new world. It stretched out into a future untrammelled by Remzi Bey and his hideous house.