Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Strange Week to be a Stranger in a Strange Land

Yesterday, my nephew watched his daughter being born. I watched him being born some 26 years ago. I can still remember how purple-blue his face looked, and the time that has passed baffles. I don’t feel any different than that 13 year old kid waiting for his sister to go into labor at the hospital. And yet here I am, a generation later, approaching 40. My new niece's name is Savannah.

(Delal's dad wanted to know what 'Savannah' meant--he picked his kids' names with that in mind at a time when giving the names themselves was illegal--they're Kurdish words--but I told him I think they chose it for the sound and we took turns guessing, as we walked down the rainy Kadıköy street--I told him it was an old Southern city, he told me it was an African flatland) 

My mom says that when Jeremy held Savannah, he cried. ‘She’s so little! What if I break her?’ (Delal's dad smiled at this--me,too)  I couldn’t be there. We talked on the phone—I could hear the electricity in his voice.

Last week in Japan, of course, there was the earthquake and the tsunami. The footage was nauseating. On CNN and the BBC and Al Jazeera I watched videos of people running for the lives as a wave carrying houses races up the hill to swallow them—and they fall and disappear. Radiation is pouring over Tokyo. My friends are there, just waiting to see if it turns deadly or not--but keeping chipper as always.  'We are genki!' Megumi assured me.  Kuniko apologized for worrying us. Kuniko's husband already has cancer—for years now, and doesn't need the radiation's help.  He could die within six months according to the doctors. And I can’t be there.

And things are happening here.

The night that my grand-niece was born, I went with Delal to her uncle’s house for dinner. We talked about the wedding—our wedding. We found a hall nearby, and Delal is fishing around for family approval.

Her aunt made a dish that they called qatmer for ease of translation. (There’s a dish called katmer in Turkish cuisine, too, but it’s different). We gathered around a huge flat pan of bread that had been hollowed out and filled with lamb, onions, and currants. It was delicious. I told them about my grandniece, and they were pleased. ‘Gözün Aydın’—‘May your eyes be bright’ basically, a way of congratulating someone on good news. We watched a quiz show after dinner and her uncle kept switching to the news where more images of the tsunami and nuclear power plant played over and over again. I had been excited about Savannah and glowing as I talked and now I went on just as excitedly about what was happening in Japan. There’s something cold about the way they report it—the English websites seem pleased to cover such an excessive disaster. What a professional coup!  It’s not just about having a selling point—it’s a pride in being on the front line of something so horrific. It sells for more than money, it sells for fame, prestige, honor. With this you can buy silences at dinner tables for the rest of your life—you were there when the tsunami hit? Holy shit!

This week has been a flood of good and bad news—my friend’s cancer, the earthquake, Savannah. I can’t quite fit my head around it. I don’t like being so far away from everyone. I am a traveler in some sense, always looking over that next hill wondering what is there, but so many foreigners here seem to so easily cut off their pasts, not everyone of course, but many. I, on the other hand, feel like I am in several pieces distributed around the globe.

Welcome Savannah, you are much loved. And as for Japan, you are much loved too, and I pray for you.

Savannah by the way, was originally a name used for the river in Savannah Georgia and probably comes from a word for the Shawnee nation who lived there for a spell, OR as Delal's dad suggested, it may come from the Spanish word sabana (which gave us savanna) to refer to the African like plains of the deep South--if so, the Spanish took it from the word zabano in the language of the Taino Indians of the Caribbean. So by any accounts it is native.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff,

I enjoy reading your blog. My Wife and I are taking a trip to Istanbul this May and I was wondering if I could run a few questions by you. To get the stranger in a strange land perspective. I'm 30 and a hopefully soon a published Children's book illustrator from Illinois. Please email me if you can if you have a minute at jupteeples@gmail.com

Sorry about commenting in this way but I could not find your email anywhere.

Thanks, Jeremy