Alev Lytle Croutier is the most widely published woman novelist of Turkish origin. Her work has been translated into twenty-six languages.
Alev was born in Izmir, Turkey. She came to the US to attend College (Oberlin), became a filmmaker and wrote screenplays for The Awakening, adapted from Kate Chopin’s novel, and “Tell Me a Riddle” based on Tillie Olsen’s novella for which she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (the first ever for a screenplay.) She followed a career in publishing, founded the Mercury House publishing company and worked as its executive editor for a decade.
She is the author of the non-fiction international bestseller, Harem: The World Behind the Veil, Taking the Waters, and the novels The Palace of Tears, Seven Houses, The Third Woman, and Leyla: The Black Tulip, a novel for young readers. In her work, she combines the Eastern tradition of storytelling with her Western literary education, searching the point where East meets the West. All her novels are about strangers in strange lands, separation, and reunion.
Sometimes the senses are inseparable. I’m not sure whether I’m floating in the Mediterranean or in the amniotic fluid. They have the same salty buoyancy that renders easy transition between the two worlds. My first cry, my lungs open, and I feel the slapping of my feet–of the waves. The window looks out to the Sea, and before I can focus my eyes I see the blue–a greenish, glassy blue like no other. The smell of decaying plankton and history fills my lungs.
When I can crawl and climb up to the windowsill, the constant lapping of the waves against the stilts that hold the old house, the constant gliding of all sorts of ships–hypnotic. Through the fog Anthony and Cleopatra pass, floating on a golden barge, lost in horrid ecstasy. She takes a bath in the nearby hot springs (in which I’ll also bathe some years later). It returns me to that moment, sitting by the window of our house in Izmir (Smyrna) and counting ships while my mother reads The Odyssey in Greek. She tells me about the sea monsters: Scylla and Charybdis, Cyclops, and Circe.
This is also where Homer was born. And Virgin Mary died–and the Classics were born. How can one separate one’s personality from geography? The sea of great narratives, battles, and drama. No sea like the Mediterranean—the internal fringe of the world. It’s the sex. It’s the womb. The amniotic fluid of civilization. It’s the saltiest of all seas—the secret to its flavor. My grandfather used to say that only Mediterranean fish tastes good because of the content of salt in their flesh.
The first water I swallowed, so utterly saline that my vocal chords stuck and my voice trapped. The first water I swam was in a small coastal village called Çeshmé. And I jumped off the pier when I saw the others jumping but didn’t yet know how to hold my breath.
I think I floated freely until fear arrived—maybe it was a distant scream. My lungs were filled with this saltwater. I learned drowning in the Mediterranean and the pain of resuscitation.
Birth of Venus. Birth of love.
Mediterranean is the most intelligent of all the seas. Mare Nostrum, the name the Romans gave to the Mediterranean because they controlled all the countries bordering it. Almost a truth as its only natural opening is Gibraltar. In Turkish, it is Akdeniz. The White Sea.
My mother tells me the story of the forbidden love of a King with his daughter and how she was turned into a myrrh tree and from his split trunk was born a boy named Adonis, the most beautiful boy in the world. So beautiful that Venus, the goddess of beauty herself had fallen in love with him.
There was a tree with a split trunk in our garden in Smyrna and I named it the Adonis tree. Its branches and leaves became alive and touched me.
After we left the house, the tenants cut it because it had a split trunk. They wanted a tree without imperfections.
My maternal grandmother’s family had come to Smyrna from Venice in the early 19th century and became Levantines or European Turks. All her life my grandmother talked with a strong Greek accent that embarrassed my mother yet amused me.
Greek was the language that the Levantines chose. But at the end of World War I, this would come back on them when so many Levantines having nothing to do with Greece were deported there. Among them were two of my grandmothers’ two younger sisters; they had known no other home than Turkey and they knew no one in Morea. Italians who became Turks, who became Greeks, who knows what else.
Just before the war, my grandmother married a Turk who went off to fight the Allies–her brothers, his brother in-laws gave their lives on the opposite side. Cain and Abel’s spirits haunted them. The birds were freed with no wings.
Our ancestors had settled here when they discovered the same arid Mediterranean climate, conducive to growing olives. They also found figs and grapes and sardines and eggplant and tomatoes and thyme and lavender. Feta cheese.
The Mediterraneans don’t concoct those things with books and recipes. The cooking is in our blood memories. The kitchens were packaged into a commodity called “The Mediterranean cuisine.” Almost everyone in the world knows how to make Pasta con pomodoro, get dolmas at the corner market, and drink pastis, ouzo, and raki at their local bar. Club Med consumed Mediterranean itself into the mass culture.
Among the endangered species, it faces imminent extinction.
The notion of linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea had first materialized during the Pharaonic age, around 2000 BC. Necho II actually began constructing a canal in 600 BC but it had been abandoned. As the Eastern Mediterranean reeled before the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim rule ended in Iberia, the visionaries looked beyond Gibraltar for alternative routes to the riches of the East.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte sailed to Egypt on a flagship called “The Orient.” At the risk of his life, he searched for the ruins of this old canal with only two guides accompanying him. During the expedition, he lost one guide and two horses. The Egyptians described later how each man had carried a loaf of bread spiked on his bayonet and a leather bag of water round his neck and walked as if in a trance through a ghostly mist.
Bonaparte was ecstatic when he discovered the remains of the ancient canal near Suez. But his engineers were not as enthusiastic since they believed that the level of the Red Sea waters were much higher than the Mediterranean.
Even in exile, Bonaparte copied extracts on the ancient canal, and he wrote, “the piercing of the Isthmus” as a note to himself. “That is the key.”
The piercing of the isthmus was an immensely more significant act than we might realize–commercial motives overwhelming the spiritual ones.
1.5 million Egyptian workers participated in its excavation for ten years, of whom 125,000 lost their lives.
It was the end of geography, as we know it, eliminating not only the four-thousand-mile trip around Africa but also a great nautical tradition that had been part of humanity for nearly five thousand years.
Although France had started the project, the ultimate inheritors would be the British–a country remote from the sentiments of the Mediterranean. It no longer belonged to us.
It was also the end of pride in a place. The end of personal geography.
I return to my Mediterranean, my own adolescence. The beach where I swam daily, where frolicked with friends, and the family house along the waterfront are bulldozed to accommodate a high-speed freeway—the work of another mercenary mayor, who wanted to create a scenic route. In fact, all the houses along those waters gone. Like the Suez, we’ve replaced memory with efficiency.
Still the Mediterranean sense exists like a secret society. The people who inhabited the semi arid shores are united in a common worldview—as the name suggests, they perceive themselves as living at the center of the world. No matter how they live in eternal conflict with their neighbors, The Mediterraneans still bond beyond national and religious lines. They have natural affinity for one another because they belong to a special tribe, descendents of the first visionary peoples, the children spawned in the cradle of civilization.
Text in this post: © Alev Lytle Croutier
Published with the permission of Alev Lytle Croutier