Mahir Oztas

Mahir Oztas

Mahir Oztas was borne in İstanbul, Turkey in 1951. He is a poet, fiction writer and essayist. Oztas has been publishing numerous poems, short stories, and novels for more than thirty-five years. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in İstanbul, Department of Architecture. He has worked as an architect in Saudi Arabia, and traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa. He was a visiting writer in 2004 at the International Writing Program of The University of Iowa.

His first book was Unutulmak Tozlari (Dust of Forgottenness, 1983), a collection of poems. Followed by Ay Gozetleme Komitesi (Committee for Moon Watching, 1987) was awarded the Sait Faik Short Story Prize in 1988. He was also awarded the Yunus Nadi Prize twice: Korku Oyunu (Game of Fear, 1989) in the category of short stories in 1990, and Soguma (Cooling Off, 1995) in the category of novel in 1996. His other books include, short story Ruh Ikizini Arar (Soul looks for its Twin, 1997) novel Bir Arzuyu Beslemek (Feeding a Desire, 2002.) His latest novel Koparildigimiz Topraklar (The Lands We Hailed From) was published in 2009. His latest book is an essay about the famous square of İstanbul. Taksim: Bir Şenliği Yaşamak (Taksim: Living a Fiesta, 2010).

Mahir Oztas was a visiting writer in 2010, Writers from the Mediterranean, at the International Writers Workshop of the Honk Kong Baptist University. He is currently engaged in full-time writing and is known as one of the most significant representatives of modern Turkish literature.


Feeding a Desire

Extracts from the novel Bir Arzuyu Beslemek (Feeding a Desire)

The Mediterranean had left marks on my life, marks that could not be very easily ignored. As for Bora, he had met Burcu much later than me in a town in southern Turkey and had fallen in love at first sight. Bora had not told anybody, but during that month, which they had spent together, they had made love like crazy. Even much later Bora was still unable to face the truth, but one has to admit that Burcu was provocatively attractive and when she had set her sight on someone, could be extremely seductive. Anyway, I think it was much later that Bora fell under her spell, much later than that day when we had so much fun on the boat excursion to the inlets in the vicinity of where we were staying. At one point, Burcu and I left the boat and from Karaincir went to Akyarlar. The shadows had already grown very long when we finally came back much later and saw that Bora was repairing an unexpected breakdown in the engine of the boat. Bora gave us a look, the meaning of which I failed that day to comprehend. There was no reason for him to be angry, because he managed to finish the repairs only much later. Anyway, more time had passed than we realized and we were very tired, so as we went past a rocky promontory and suddenly saw an imposing full moon over the Bodrum fort, we understood that it must have been very late. I saw Burcu envelope Bora like a dark shadow. That surprise, at the very moment in the night when I had grown somewhat despondent, was a scene both mysterious and one that hurt me very much. I thought that I had missed my chance for action once again, or maybe I didn’t think of anything in particular. I don’t know, but when we reached the jetty, Bora held her by the waist and helped her to disembark. This intimacy was rather strange and made me think, even if I didn’t understand everything, that something important was afoot. At least that is what I think now, but my intuitions have never been very correct. The really important developments, from my point of view, occurred when the others had gone back to Istanbul while Burcu and I stayed behind. That night everything appeared normal. The three of us sat under an open shed on the shore drinking wine. Bora rolled a cigarette while he recounted some old memories. Later, just before dawn, it must have been towards four AM, Bora, with an expression of weariness, sat on a stone–which may have even been a royal sarcophagus–in the archaeological ruins nearby. So much time has gone by, but I still have a vivid image of him, visibly tired and looking up towards the starry night sky, with a preoccupied and at the same time inscrutable expression on his face. In the afternoon we sailed away, this time towards the Greek isles. The shrill siren of our boat had at first been barely audible, but then, joined by little spurts of steam, it emitted a sorrowful cry. A short while later we were already far away, sprawled on the spacious deck of the boat, watching our surroundings transform and become the sea. Bora was pensive. I presume he must have been preoccupied with the thought of what to do with this young and rather strong woman and this train of thought had drained him of his energies. What had transpired between him and Burcu the night before must have seemed as incredible to him as a dream you see and then forget. I watched them for a long time. I was suddenly overtaken by doubts about the color of Burcu’s eyes, which was rather strange as I have never really cared for such details. I had been under the impression that they were the color of unripe almonds, or in other words green, but now that the sun was shining on her smooth skin, the moment she slowly took off her sunglasses, I saw the flickering reflection of the Mediterranean sun in her shiny eyes. That day her eyes had become hazel. Yes, I came to the conclusion that they definitely were hazel, hazel but dark, the color of a foggy sky. I had the impression that she was a girl who liked to behave and look natural. She didn’t use lipstick, even when we went out dancing in the evenings. It didn’t escape my attention that at times Bora also could not stop himself from looking surreptitiously and shyly at those attractive and full lips, which had become more definite under the afternoon sun. We saw that the blue surrounding us was getting lighter, bathed as it was in the sun, and that the white clouds over us were speedily flying away, while the increasing speed of the boat was taking us farther and farther away from the world made of the earth and white houses that were so familiar to us. Towards evening we reached an island, the name of which I don’t remember. We were dizzy with wine and the effect of the burning sun. We all jumped onto the wooden dock, full of enthusiasm. We found a few rooms, not too clean, in a small hotel near where we had tied our boat. We were too tired to worry about small details like cleanliness, especially considering that the dinner we had in the hotel’s restaurant by the sea was delicious. At one point during the night a warm sea breeze slightly stirred the candles in their colored glass containers, which had been placed on our round table. We were all taken slightly aback, almost as if an unseen presence had blown on our faces; God knows why, maybe it was the topics of our conversation or maybe the magic of that enchanting night. It was as if all the lights surrounding us had suddenly been turned off leaving us only with the flickering stars in the dark sky. Once my eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, I was able to see even the red light of a faraway boat. Then the light turned green, for some mysterious reason the boat had turned back. In the meantime the skipper of our boat told us that the following morning we would have to leave just after sunrise, for many reasons, none of which I remember. After having briefly shown our annoyance at this, we went to bed. I realize now that most of the memories of that summer are about long nights, which we spent in conversation. That is the way we spent all those days, flitting from an island to the other, in a joyous and intense, carnival-like atmosphere. It was clear that the beaches had been abandoned until the next season, because they were all deserted. As our boat sailed on, the small waves created in its wake washed onto the rocks surrounding the isles. Further up the isles, the strong light of the sun played gaily between the needles of the pine trees, which notwithstanding their thick trunks had almost disappeared behind a thick mist that had a cloud like consistency, while their unmistakable fresh smell literally whet our appetites. As I look back at those days, it seems to me that they were all like this, an endless stream of songs sung all together, merry laughter and squeals of delight. The sun’s reflection played in the golden jars of honey full of pistachios, in the bottles of pure olive oil, in the bottles of home-made raki or in the glasses full of wine, which were continuously being drunk to the health and well being of someone. The smell of grilled fish or of aniseed mixed with the smell of thyme or with the salty tang of the sea, according to the direction of the wind. Actually those last days in Bodrum, which coincided with the last days of autumn, were much more tedious than they now seem. I can’t really pinpoint the real reason for this. Maybe it was because we were about to part or just because by then we could not stand each other. God knows. The last evening we met at the bar. It was a mild evening, even if late in the season. That year autumn had held on much longer than usual. We spent the night drinking and dancing till sunrise. At one point we drank to our next meeting, promising that it would happen as soon as possible. In this, at least Bora was sincere and enthusiastic, but all the others had become prey to a strange melancholy; we were all apprehensive about what was waiting for us. The following day, for lack of anything better to do, we drifted aimlessly along the seashore watching the stormy sea. In the afternoon we wandered along the streets of the hamlet, which being completely deserted increased our melancholy and the impression that we would never see that place again. The blinding light of the sun shone on the parasols with their contrasting colours, while the waves were crashing onto the wooden pier and onto the jetty. As I look back, I realize that that small group never again came together in any of the following summers. It is really true that even if we do not appreciate their value at the time, some things are destined never to be repeated again. Before going to the bus terminal, we stopped at a coffee shop, which we all enjoyed during the summer, and had our last drinks in almost complete silence. Somehow, just coming to the bus terminal to utter those standard words of endearment and longing and waiting for the time when the bus would leave so we could say our last farewells had given us a certain peace of mind. As usual Serhan avoided looking us in the eyes to hide the fact that he was moved. As for Bora, he knew that at least for a short while he had to act strong for he was to be separated temporarily from Burcu, who that same night had to go to Marmaris, for some business related to the boat she worked for. As the bus left, I was overcome with an indescribable sadness, but Burcu had looked rather indifferent. After Burcu’s departure I walked back to my hotel, taking care to use the longest possible route so that I would have the possibility of being left alone with my thoughts. Once I was back at the hotel, the darkness of my room seemed unbearable, so I immediately went out on its small balcony. It was as if everything that surrounded me had changed, that everything was there temporarily, on loan from a different world. I sat drinking wine, with the hope of lessening the load of this oppressive situation, while watching the sun set on the town that had grown even more eerily silent. It is so easy to criticize and analyze others, but what can I say about myself? I have always had the opportunity of doing whatever I wished. I really can’t complain on that score, but unfortunately, almost knowingly, I have squandered most of these opportunities. In part that is what I wanted, seeing them melt away in front of my eyes. This was always due to my blasted apathy and spiritual inertia. Time has gone by and I have come to the conclusion that it was this indifference and lack of spiritual energy that ruined me. I knew that it was not absolutely necessary for me to analyze and describe this confounded world, all this confusion.

* * *

I met Burcu in a strange way, on a beach at Olimpos, a place connected to my early youth. Actually I think that I saw her a couple of times in Istanbul at a cafe frequented by young people, but I had never talked to her before our meeting at Olimpos. That summer I had gone to Olimpos with Ceren and we went to the same small beach each evening. It was one of these evenings that the fact of having seen each other previously led us to greet each other warmly. The beach I am talking about was known as the beach with the archaeological site. Those staying at one of the wooden houses in Olimpos would first cut across the archaeological site, using their flashlights to pick out the way, and then would reach this small beach through which a small stream passed before reaching the sea. This was the meeting place of couples who loved to dance, of lovers. Every night innumerable couples just sat on the beach drinking and waiting for the sun to rise. It was on such an evening that Ceren and I had just swam in the sea and then walked along the stream that went up to the archaeological site until we had found a small restaurant where we ate. By the time we had finished our dinner we were very tired, but seeing the many fires that had been lit as soon as the sun had dipped behind the hills, we regained some of our energy and decided to go dancing. By the time we arrived there, a great number of people decked out in multicolored summer clothing were dancing around the fires under all sorts of pale lights. As usual Ceren had managed to surprise me. Her eyes were alight with a passionate glimmer; she swayed lightly, her slim body covered by a jet-black dress. Just as I was embracing Ceren, I suddenly spotted Burcu in that anonymous crowd. She was dancing, her face towards us. Not having met her yet I did not know her name. There was something strange in her expression. I had thought that I could easily interpret the state of mind of a woman dressed for the evening and dancing, but I also knew that frequently my observations could be wrong, because events had a way of developing in surprising ways. I still am of that opinion. Anyway we met officially the night when we went up the mountain, to a place called Yanartas, a place where there are perpetually burning natural fires. That first night, while I was dancing with Ceren, I was not certain if Burcu was looking at us or at the fire. The following night Ceren and I climbed up to Yanarta? with a big crowd. Young people singing and playing the guitar had assembled around a fire. Much later, that great crowd had finally dispersed and almost everybody else had gone down from the mountain in small groups; Ceren and I were among only a handful of people who had stayed on drinking wine. Just as we finally rose with the intention of going back, and just before leaving the light around the fires, a sudden shadow appeared out of the darkness. It was Burcu, who said she didn’t have a flashlight and wondered if she could go down the mountain with us. My observations of the night before were absolutely correct, but tonight she looked very different. Seeing that she would be hiking she had dressed in sports clothes: a body-hugging black t-shirt that showed the shape of her small breasts and a tight pair of jeans, just as revealing as her t-shirt. So it was that the three of us went down the narrow trail, guided by a single torch. We helped each other during the descent and inevitably our bodies touched from time to time. I felt her legs tremble like those of a small and scared gazelle. At one point I had to hold her hand to prevent her from sliding down the mountain. Once down we rejoined the crowd and walked with them towards the spot where the stream joined the sea. Burcu walked just in front of me with quick steps. When we finally reached the beach just in front of the archaeological site, she was in no hurry to sit down. It seemed to me as if she purposefully put off sitting so as to find an occasion to sit near me. We found a dark nook near one of the rocks, a place that had a rather frightening appeal in the moonlight, and sat down. There were many other such small groups all along the beach. I sat silently between Burcu and Ceren. I don’t know how long we sat there doing nothing but listening to the sound of the waves and smoking grass. Slowly Burcu got up, walked towards a reed marsh near the stream and without even thinking of concealing herself, nor feeling any apparent embarrassment, calmly took off her t-shirt and trousers and stood there in her plain black bikini. I can’t deny that this simple but decisive act was very attractive in itself and had impressed almost all of us. With her short hair she looked a bit like a young boy. The fact that she was whistling added to that impression. As she started running daintily towards the sea, under the moonlight, she once more became a passionate woman. Her body had something about it that could almost be called transparent; it was as if all her tissues reflected the moonlight. It seemed as if, no matter how long I watched her, I could never have enough of her. Her remarkable body had the enchanting, fragile and at the same time modest qualities of the semi-adolescent girls portrayed by Balthus. It was that night, as Burcu was swimming alone in this small far away inlet along the Mediterranean that I suddenly realized that I had discovered a new person within her. While she swam alone, Ceren, all the others and I watched her with a mixture of longing and apprehension. It was as if my body were engulfed in flames. The call of the sea was irresistible and made me feel as if I were all alone in that beach. I also ended up removing my clothes and going into the sea. I caught up with her some short distance from the shore. It was exactly like the previous evening when we were dancing around the fire, far enough so that we could not touch each other, but in a complete harmony as far as our swaying was concerned. I felt both the salty essence and coolness of the black waters at the same time and the waves were as if caressing our swaying bodies with affectionate care. Even though there was a full moon I could not see her face clearly, but could sense that she was smiling at me. It was as if we were accomplices in some secret pleasure. Repeating over and over again the same sin and resulting pleasure. Finally we both swam back towards the shore, our movements in coordination with those of the other. We reached the shore at almost the same moment and stood on the sand, our bodies dripping. It was that night that I swam with her that I first got to know her and later my impressions of her did not change. As early as the first time that she went to southern Turkey to look for a job Burcu had understood that she had to do something to protect herself from the merciless world she was in if she was to survive. It was as a result of this that she had had to create a masculine outer shell in which to preserve and hide her fragile inner world. What was worse she had also had to hide this from the people in her immediate vicinity. In those days, the roles deemed suitable for women were much more restricted than in our times and it was very difficult to overstep those boundaries.

Mahir Oztas

© Translation by Nancy Ozturk

Photo by Tom Langdon
Published with the permission of Mahir Oztas