Greetings from Yunus
“In Istanbul female students are taking to the streets for their right to wear head-scarves. They are protesting for themselves to be oppressed once more,” professor Isebrecht had said, and he ought to know. His wife was Turkish, and of the highest circles. She had ministers and generals among her brothers-in-law, her cousins, her uncles. They would not stand for their country to fall back into the hands of Anatolian illiterates. “What their mothers and grandmothers have fought for and are sometimes still fighting for, these girls want to simply discard. Now, while for the first time a woman holds the office of prime minister, they are demanding a return to irrationality and gender-apartheid. We can only hope that the government, and if need be even the military, will oppose this decisively. Sometimes you have to force people to do what is good for them.”
Wolfgang Janssen had nodded his head while imagining bearded fathers and grandfathers under their knitted hats, their woollen caps, the yobs with their silver chains and vests, as they grabbed their beautiful daughters and sisters by their hair, snapped their heads to their necks, locked them into back-rooms and starved them, until they wrapped their free heads with all the wild thoughts into a piece of black polyacrylic fabric.
The other day he had boarded an airplane to Istanbul, in a foul mood, resigned to his fate, without any inkling of what he was to do there. He was claiming his main prize: eight days in a four-star-hotel in the old city. His kebab-shop, to mark its ten-year-anniversary, had held a lottery to thank its regular customers. He had filled in the trading stamp and put it into a box next to the counter.
Now he had been meandering through the city for four days, confused, restless, looking at mosques, facades, domes, minarets, courtyards, well houses. He tried to figure out whether it was the buildings, that made all his certainties crumble, his criteria evaporate, and whether nevertheless some of this might be of use to him, when he would one day plan a house and realize his own vision of contemporary architecture.
“Not all they built there is wrong”, professor Isebrecht had said. “If you blind out the décor, the ornaments and the whole kitsch of the 18th and 19th centuries, you will find some quite interesting architectural substance. Then again - let's not fool ourselves: Compared to the Hagia Sophia, the most important sacral building of late antiquity, all of it is a weak rehash.”
Professor Isebrecht's name had been synonymous with radically modern architecture for thirty years. He had never hidden his sympathies for Le Corbusier's vision of tearing down the old Paris and erecting it anew as a giant parkland full of skyscrapers. For him, that project meant “the completion of Enlightenment by the means of architecture.” Until one week ago, Wolfgang Janssen had been his most fervent acolyte, had branded the mannerisms of the post modern era as the late revenge of Albert Speer. “Ornament is Crime” had been written above his desk.
And now, within a matter of minutes and without any rational cause, all the convictions he had worked to build over the last couple of years were slipping away from him. He doubted he would ever build anything. Maybe he wouldn't even be able to finish his studies. He had no clue what he would do once he got back to Berlin.
First thing in the morning he had gone to Hagia Sophia, to make his own picture of the original before concerning himself with the copies. It was less than a ten-minute-walk from his hotel. Erdal Özmen had booked a nice room in the best location so that no-one would be able to say he had simply shipped off his prize winner to a remote doss-house.
As soon as he stepped onto the street, he was oddly nervous. When he first gazed upon Hagia Sophia, he almost wanted to turn back. He felt thin-skinned and had to force himself to enter. From the interior of the building he was hit with an almost physical repulsion. As if the whole thing had not been built for humans, not even for the glory of any god, but stood there solely for its very own sake. In theory - apart from the mosaics and inscribed tablets - that made it a nearly perfect example of Wolfgang Janssen's ideal of an absolute architecture. He looked at narthices, galleries, loges and time and time again at the nave and grew progressively weaker. Trepidation had taken a hold of him, as if secret forces had been, by means of occult measurements and numerological manipulation, built into intangible inter-spaces. Wolfgang Janssen shook his head about himself, brought to his mind that there were rational reasons for his reaction: after-effects of the flight, the change in climate, neurotic reflexes, that, under the special strain of venturing outside of Europe for the first time, were pushing towards the surface. He persevered for one-and-a-half hours. Eventually he was stunned, as if someone had drugged him or given him a blow to the head. He could hardly keep astir, staggered to the gate, infinitely drained, and stumbled outside.
The first minutes thereafter were blurred scraps: blinding light, sky, asphalt and plaster, pigeons. For a time he was weirdly alone in the middle of the immense city, in spite of its twelve million inhabitants, passers-by, traders, groups of Japanese, Americans, Russians. He felt sick, but not like from an infection, more like he had felt sick as a child, when he had been spinning around himself for too long. He blundered into the wide park landscape of the sultan and dropped into the grass. Abstract images were overlapping everything that was occurring around him. A jelly-like mass enveloped him, within it an imaginary ladder that led into faded grey. He felt himself get up, take his first steps. Something that resembled his joints, muscles, sinews, moved him along. He observed himself from above, like a stranger - a dismal figure, folded into itself - while at the same time his back, arms and legs were lying in the grass like they were made of lead. The rustling of the blades was roaring in his ears, steps of ants, bugs, cicadae, but at the same time from somewhere the ridiculous hope grew, that very soon something would happen to transform everything. He became aware someone was watching him - and had been the whole time. That explained the unrest he had felt ever since leaving the hotel. He looked around, could not make out anybody and yet still felt the strange eyes on him.
The sky was blindingly white, the disk of the sun was blurred behind mist and smog. In the distance a muezzin called out. A second one joined in, then another one. They were closing in quickly, blaring from all directions over rattling loudspeakers.
He stood up, brushed dust and grass from his clothes, reached for the city-map in his pocket - and left it there. He would let himself be swept through the city, without purpose, without aim. If he got lost, he could always take a taxi back to the hotel. The trepidation remained. He took a deep breath. A foul mix of exhaust fumes, overflowing trash, rotting seaweed clogged his airways. The air was ripe with bacteria: cholera, typhus, rabies. He felt them from his nose to the tips of his lungs. He could see malignant micro-organisms within fleas, lice, ticks on fat rats, starving cats, semi-feral dogs, hoping for their host to lunge at him, to bite on to his calf, his thigh, so that they could skip over to him, the creature of the next higher order.
He walked with hunched shoulders, tried to look confident, but knew he looked silly. The people in the streets, in the markets, in front of shops and restaurants scared him, disgusted him with their mixture of obtrusiveness and servility: tattered men, wily youths assailed him without restraint or shame. He could not take a single step without being besieged, accosted, touched: “Hello”, “Bon Jour”, “Dobryj Dan”. In every language they tried to sell him carpets, handbags, leather-jackets, tried to drag him into some store under the pretence of an invitation for tea. “Oriental hospitality - it is an insult if you don't come.” No matter, whether he shook his head, said, snarled, shouted “no”, “nein” or “hayir.” Now at least they knew he was German. They walked beside him, gestured, put their hand on his arm, had themselves worked in Germany or had a brother with Mercedes, VW, Audi. “I'll give you special price, one German to another,” until the invisible grid square ended, that some ruler of the streets had assigned them. He stumbled into a group of musicians with brass instruments and drums who were making a deafening clamour. They grinned at him toothlessly and urged him to take their photograph. But as soon as he had looked through his camera, the earth spit out a whole clan, twenty figures surrounded him, shoved him, threatened, wielded clubs, let their slobbering mutts jump up at him with bared teeth. “200,000 Lira,” “Film or money,” they reached for his Contax. He could barely even fumble the cash from his pocket, handed them a random bill. “Nonono!” they cried, “More money!” “One hundred thousand!” More bills were snatched from his fingers, he screamed: “Stop it! Enough!” And then they were gone as suddenly as they had appeared. The next moment, a police car passed by.
He crossed a main road, reached a narrow alleyway that sloped upwards slightly, put his purse in his front pocket and held on to it. For no apparent reason, there were no hagglers here. The stores sold spices, nuts, fruit, pastries. Mini-vans and small mopeds were honking as they wormed their way through people and stalls. From a butchery, the dead eyes of a calf were regarding him. His sweat was pouring, under his armpits yellowish stains were forming. He reached an elongated square. Men were sitting at wobbly tables, drinking tea and throwing dice. Children were being scolded by their mothers, laughing at them. He walked on, turned onto the next street, stopped suddenly and stood there as if frozen: behind high walls, between trees and lamp-posts there towered an immense building. Domes like a clear thought stretched up towards the sky in the glistening light, perfectly rhythmic, framed by four minarets. The holy city on the hill, grey, sharply delineated, an irrevocable proof of architecture. His heart was racing, he felt hot and cold at the same time, was trembling as if in shock. Behind barred openings he saw paradisial gardens. A sprawling acacia cast its shadow out onto the street. He searched for an entrance, paused, wondered whether he, a Christian, was even allowed to set foot on the premises? What penalty would he have to face if not? He was afraid and yet felt an irresistible urge to enter. -
Again he felt the gaze - this time not to scare him away, rather like a force of attraction. -
Finally he reached a gate. No temple guards to be seen, not even police. He scanned all sides, saw no-one chasing him and stepped inside. A gardener was pruning bushes, his assistant stood beside him, leaning on a rake. Apart from them there were no people. After a while, two young, bearded men with white, knit hats approached. Their voices grew louder, brisk gestures cut the air, but they passed him without paying any notice. He entered a monumental gateway that had golden Arabic letters on a black background inscribed above it, stepped into a yard that was covered in white marble. In the middle, there was a small, rectangular house that reminded him of a tomb, a sarcophagus that had water taps protruding from it on all sides. Even here: nobody, not worshippers nor tourists.
It was his first time within the grounds of a mosque. Now he definitely felt like he was doing something entirely forbidden, worse than theft. He felt his pulse in his temples, his throat was swelling shut. Any moment a zealot, a warden could arrive, demand for him to leave the compound immediately, attack him. He tried to look like he belonged here as a matter of course, switched between strolling and walking swiftly, approached the actual entrance, dived into the darkness, was almost blind for a moment. To his left, on a chair, sat an old man with thick, horn-rimmed glasses and a grey, chequered suit. He wore a grey beard, on his head some sort of turban, and nodded to him. Along the walls there were deep shelves with individual compartments that held shoes. Wolfgang Janssen remembered: In a mosque, you had to take off your shoes. He felt angered, wanted to berate the man: Head-scarves were required, but shoes should be prohibited! The old man regarded him with an odd combination of indifference and attention. Smoothly polished prayer beads on a chain were sliding through his fingers. He didn't seem the least bit puzzled, why Wolfgang Janssen would take so long to get rid of his simple, brown shoes whose laces would, as soon as he pulled them, untie without any difficulty. He wondered, whether his socks had holes in them. He didn't know, stepped on his heels from behind, tugged his feet out, asked himself whether among the shelves, there were some with a lower possibility of his shoes being stolen, decided for a spot right next to the old man, whom he expected to forbid him from taking another step. In fact, the old man muttered something incomprehensible which sounded neither dangerous nor angry, and began to giggle.
The room that Wolfgang Janssen entered was inconceivably high and wide. There was scattered light, bordering on the crepuscular. Things and people lost their contours, in spite of the chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling on long steel ropes, low enough for a tall person to almost hit their head. No altar, nowhere to sit. The floor was covered with large, dark red carpets. To the front, on the right, there was some kind of raised platform, opposite to it some wooden stairs with geometrical reliefs. Four hefty pillars were carrying the mighty dome. A feeling of instability, as if the ground beneath him was constantly shifting. This wasn't a tourist attraction like the Hagia Sophia, this was a cult site. The god that owned this house had to be a powerful god. He was caught with surprise and shock: he had actually managed to invade the temple of the foreign god Allah. Without a doubt he had no right to be here. In Egypt and Algeria people were killed for far smaller offences. He alternated between excitement and panic. Further up, around some nook, a group of men were sitting on the floor. Some were holding books in their laps and reading, some were staring off into emptiness. One was afflicted with some sort of mental illness, moving his lips and swaying back and forth ceaselessly. Another man entered, looking for a space. He stood there, collecting himself. He put both hands to his ears, as if to listen to a distant voice. After a while he bowed down, remained in this position for a moment, got back up, fell to his knees, prostrated himself fully, pressed his forehead to the ground and remained in this pose of complete submission for at least twenty seconds - like the slave of a slave. Wolfgang Janssen felt anger rise up again, paired with revulsion. No-one with the least bit of self-respect could debase himself like a worm before the idea of a being whose very reality was more than questionable. The attitude of a man who had emerged from his self-imposed immaturity was to walk with his head held high. - Again, he felt the touch of the gaze, more distinct and unequivocal than before. - He thought of Kara Ben Nemsi in Through the Desert, who, as an infidel looking for the leader of a band of robbers, had entered the Holy City of Mecca and been discovered. He heard the cry “A giaur, a giaur! Catch him, you protectors of the shrine!” as it had chimed from his tape recorder when he was a child, followed by a wild chaos of voices, gun-shots, hoof-beats. Kara Ben Nemsi's life hadn't been worth a piastre, but he had been preserved by a kind fate. His hosts, true-hearted Bedouins, had provided him with the fastest camel of the Arabian Desert, and he narrowly escaped to safety. Had he been captured by the Mussulmans, they would have stoned him to death on the spot, cut his throat, skinned him alive. There was no breed of human more dangerous, cruel or unpredictable. And they had their dark god Allah, who owned this house. Wolfgang Janssen staggered, wanted to sit, did not dare to. Each moment now, he could be exposed. Probably, since entering, he had broken etiquette half a dozen times. Who ever saw him could tell right away that he was no Muslim. Now all it took was someone to resolve to put an end to the unbelievers' continuing profanation of the sacred, to decide it was time to make an example, to raise an inflammatory speech on the debauchness of all westerners. Then they would come swarming from all directions, yelling, snorting with rage, all scruples dropped. And him in his socks. Even if he managed to escape to the open air, on the mirror-smooth marble of the courtyard at the latest he would slip, fall, and then they would be upon him. A fanatical mob out of control would kick his face in, smash his teeth, break all his bones. He saw the blood from his shattered skull, his cut arteries, gushing onto the bright white stone, saw his body twitching, all these images as he stood there, aimlessly looking to and fro, to finally see the one whose gaze had haunted him all day without him having the slightest clue why and what for. Again two men came in, went to the left, took up prayer positions and prostrated themselves. And while he waited for his contempt to rise, a boundless force grabbed him by the neck from behind, shook him, smashed his brains to the inside of his skull; an iron grip by warm hands. He was entirely helpless. Something or someone wanted to force him down, onto his knees, press his forehead into the dust before the infinite, the hidden, the absent-present one, before the master of this house, the god to whom everything in existence was subject. Wolfgang Janssen felt his opposition was breaking, had been broken. He wanted to yield, to give in, to surrender unconditionally. He was tremendously insignificant, almost nothing, just so much, to be barely distinguishable from nothing. And the only fitting response to his condition was to fling himself to the ground. His mouth, his tongue, were twitching randomly. Maybe he himself was mumbling incomprehensibly now, slurring incoherent words. He was drifting out of control, thrown off track by the centrifugal force from the swirls of the lettering and tendril patterns. He had to writhe out of it, get to stable ground, hold on to a thought that was clear and irrefutable. He repeated to himself, softly, slowly, with perfect articulation: “Modern man. Stands for himself. Stands up for himself. Stands up straight for himself.” He felt being torn apart: one part wanting to drop down, head first, and one that kept him upright. “The self-determined individual. I am the self-determined individual.” His spine wanted to break in two, while the horizontal forces were tearing him in half lengthwise. Among the group of men, one was getting up now, the mad one, approaching him, heading directly for him. His eyes were dark like outer space, without the moon, without stars. Wolfgang Janssen faltered. If he fell into it, he would be obliterated by the Black Hole at the bottom of the universe. The next moment, he felt a sharp rush of air brushing him, heard a bodiless voice say: “With all my force, I was clutching an ox,/ strangling him, throwing him to the ground, letting go./ The owner hastened to and cried:/ “The neck, that you broke, was that of my goose.””
He stood there, wide open, completely defenceless, looked up at the boundless vault, where images and forms without number were gyrating: planets, angels, ghosts. Breaches were opening up from worlds within worlds behind worlds. Towards the centre the surge of lines, strands, filaments grew tighter and tighter. They signified omnipotence, the knowledge of the order of things, the innermost secret of existence. Endless moments later, the man returned, and the voice said: “I turned into a pillar of salt, I could not move./ I did not know what to do./ Then another peddler came along and cried: “Why did you scratch out my eyes?””
A blow of clenched air hit him, he rotated like a spindle that had broken away from its wheel, darted through the room towards the innermost inside of the vault, came dangerously close to the round flat of light-flooded green with its net of golden letters. Interwoven geometries rushed outwards, entangled with pen-lines, brushstrokes, enveloping him, wrapping around his heart tighter and tighter. “I met a tortoise on my wanderings” a voice said, “a blind-worm accompanied me. / 'Might I ask where you are bound?' / “We are hoping to reach Kayseri”.” At that moment, he was pushed out as if by storm gusts, saw carpets, lamps, the old man with the shoes, still giggling, the marble courtyard, arcades, the tomb, the fountain where now a middle-aged man was washing his feet. Wolfgang Janssen tripped, faltered, painfully caught his footing, found himself back on the square among children playing soccer, pointing their fingers at him, caught the gaze of a young mother between pity and suspicion, felt ashamed without knowing why. Everything was different, but what did that mean, and what was he to do in Kayseri?
(c) Christoph Peters & Luchterhand Literaturverlag 2017, Translation: Tim Gösl