The Non-people – Let’s say that they are dead

I wrote this back in 2003. I wasn’t writing a blog in those days, so it didn’t get much circulation. I’m posting it now in response to three items that crossed my screen this morning:

  • A reply to my post about Turkey’s human rights record – expressing deep sadness and frustration at the writer’s powerlessness in the face of US aggression and lies;
  • A clip my sister sent me with a Scottish woman singing/reciting a beautiful song/poem about Donald Trump;
  • Another reply from a woman who lost a child to the injustices of the US health system.

“It doesn’t snow that often in Istanbul, so it’s a novelty, especially for an ex-pat Aucklander. I love looking out of the window at the flying flakes, the trees with their branches laden and bent, the lawn white, and the Bosphorus beyond looking infinite, the Asian shore lost in mist.

When I got up this morning, the world was white, and the house was cold. My heating hadn’t come on. I had to go downstairs and bleed some air out of the heat pump. Now I’m comfortable behind double-glazed windows, radiators warming every room, enjoying the framed pictures on every wall, unreal, like old greeting cards of northern winters celebrating a southern Christmas.

I had to go out. My weekend morning routine is a leisurely breakfast with plenty of freshly brewed coffee, and it’s not complete without a warm-from-the-oven baguette from the bakery in Sarıyer, and a local paper. It’s ok though – once you don overcoat, scarf, gloves, woollen beanie, boots . . . snow adds a new dimension to the short walk to the village. Wish I’d got up earlier, though. It’s less picturesque after a few hours of traffic have churned the virginal white to brown slush.

No sign of my local charities today. There’s an old chap with a set of scales who bases himself all day on the esplanade near the supermarket. Too proud to simply beg, he accepts offerings from passers-by in return for reading their weight with doubtful accuracy. I always make a show of putting down my shopping bags, and getting him to read the kilos, in return for which I slip him one Turkish Lira. He shakes my hand and thanks me effusively. But I haven’t seen him for a few weeks. Wonder where he goes in winter?

Outside the bakery sits a woman in late middle-age. She makes little nest for herself with flattened cardboard cartons. On a good day, she may score a wooden fruit box from the grocer across the road. “Allah razi olsun,” she says, in return for my greeting and my lira; “God bless you.” But she wasn’t there today either. Too cold, I suppose.

So I got home, with my loaf and my ‘Milliyet’. The house felt marvellously warm as the radiators began to do their job. I fiddled around in the kitchen preparing a plate of olives, cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, scrambled egg . . . a glass of fresh orange juice (with coffee to follow), then settled down with newspaper spread out on the table.

Arab childI’d noticed, as soon as I took it from the newsagent that this morning’s paper looked different. Half of the front page was filled with the photograph of a doe-eyed Arab girl, about five years old, hair covered with a black embroidered headscarf, but her face open and innocent. “Ölü çocukların sessiz çığlıkları” read the restrained headline – little more than a caption, in fact: “The silent cries of the dead children.” It’s the title of a brief poem printed beside the photo:

‘Shall it be said of them that they are dead

Their hearts have long since stopped

Shall it be said of them that they are dead

The pupils of their eyes show no sign of life

Then let’s say they are dead

Like mighty ships at anchor

In great harbours

No sign of life in the pupils of their eyes

Shall it be said of them that they are dead?’

‘When the photograph of this little girl arrived at the reporters’ department of ‘Milliyet’ yesterday afternoon we were in a meeting.

It was taken in Baghdad yesterday during Friday prayers by Reuters correspondent Shuayib Salem . . .

The little girl’s name was not attached. Maybe it’s Ayshe, Fatma perhaps, or Emine . . . No one knows her name; in my opinion, no one wants to know.

Because, for the movers and shakers sitting in warm rooms in the great capitals of the world, whose names we read in newspapers, whose faces we see on television, it’s necessary that she should have no name, no identity. It’s necessary that she should remain a statistic . . .

In that way, it’s easier to accept the suffering . . .’

That was the front page. I don’t usually read every word – my Turkish is still a bit slow. I brewed my coffee and savoured the taste and the aroma as I flipped through the rest of the paper: movie reviews, apartments to rent, cartoons, football . . . On page 16, news that eighty thousand Turkish troops will be going to Iraq[1], along with fifty thousand from the US; three hundred US aircraft will be based on Turkish soil.

And it occurred to me that I don’t know the name of the old chap with the scales; nor the woman outside the bakery in her cardboard nest – the man and woman who weren’t there. For sure it’s easier that way.”

_____________________________________________

[1] In the end, those Turkish troops weren’t sent.

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