The Stone Women
enforced absence; Yusuf Pasha’s exile; Iskander
Pasha suffers a stroke
Myths always overpower truth in family histories. Ten days ago, I asked my father why, almost two hundred years ago, our great forebear, Yusuf Pasha, had been disgraced and sent into exile by the Sultan in Istanbul. My son, Orhan, on whose behalf I made this request, was sitting next to me shyly, stealing an occasional look at his grandfather, whom he had never seen before.
When one first arrives here after a long absence, through the winding roads and the green hills, the mixture of scents becomes overpowering and it becomes difficult not to think of Yusuf Pasha. This was the palace of his exile and its fragile, undying beauty never fails to overwhelm me. As children we often travelled from Istanbul in the dust-stifling heat of the summer sun, but long before we actually felt the cooling breeze on our skins, the sight of the sea had already lifted our spirits. We knew the journey would soon be over.
It was Yusuf Pasha who instructed the architect to find a remote space, but not too distant from Istanbul. He wanted the house built on the edge of solitude, but within reach of his friends. The location of the building had to mirror the punishment inflicted on him. It was both very close and far removed from the site of his triumphs in the old city. That was the only concession he made to the conditions imposed on him by the Sultan.
The structure of the house is palatial. Some compromises had been made, but the house was essentially an act of defiance. It was Yusuf Pasha’s message to the Sultan: I may have been banished from the capital of the Empire, but the style in which I live will never change. And when his friends arrived to stay here, the noise and laughter were heard in the palace at Istanbul.
An army of apricot, walnut and almond trees was planted to guard his exile and shield the house from the storms that mark the advent of winter. Every summer, for as long as I can remember, we had played in their shade; played and laughed and cursed and made each other cry as children often do when they are alone. The garden at the back of the house was a haven, its tranquility emphasised whenever the sea in the background became stormy. We would come here to unwind and inhale the intoxicating early morning breeze after our first night in the house. The unendurable tedium of the Istanbul summer was replaced by the magic of Yusuf Pasha’s palace. The first time I came here I was not yet three, and yet I remember that day very clearly. It was raining and I became very upset because the rain was wetting the sea.
And there were other memories. Passionate memories. Anguished memories. The torment and pleasure of stolen moments during late-night trysts. The scents of the grass in the orange grove at night, which relaxed the heart. It was here that I first kissed Orhan’s father, “that ugly, skinny Dmitri, Greek school inspector from Konya” as my mother had called him, with a stern and inflexible expression that hardened her eyes. That he was a Greek was bad enough, but his job as an inspector of rural schools made it all so much worse. It was the combination that really upset her. She would not have minded at all if Dmitri had belonged to one of the Phanariot families of old Constantinople. How could her only daughter bring such disgrace to the house of Iskander Pasha?
This attitude was uncharacteristic of her. She was never bothered by family trees. It was simply that she had another suitor in mind. She had wanted me to marry her uncle Sifrah’s oldest son. I had been promised to my cousin soon after my birth. And this most gentle and even-tempered of women had exploded with rage and frustration at the news that I wanted to marry a nobody.
It was my married half-sister, Zeynep, who told her that the cousin for whom she had intended me was not interested in women at all, not even as engines for procreation. Zeynep began to embroider tales. Her language became infected by the wantonness she was describing and my mother felt her elaborate descriptions were unsuitable for my unmarried ears. She painted my poor cousin in such dark and lecherous colours that I was asked to leave the room.
© Tariq Ali