Memories From Istanbul, Part 2

by Robert Rubyan

Dad’s male role model, Nene’s brother, helped raise him. Dad told me about herding goats as a boy. Later, he studied at the English Brummana School near Beirut, Lebanon, and earned his college degree from the American University of Beirut. While attending college he played on the Soccer team, and was an intern at a Sir Leonard Woolley dig in northern Syria. This experience fostered a fondness for archaeology & ancient Mediterranean antiquities, which he passed on to me.

My mother Arsha-Louise (transliteration of Dawn in Armenian), was born in Bitlis, Musa Dagh, Syria. She grew up in this remote mountain valley. When she was eight years old, her father Gabriel Shemmassian moved the family to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where he handmade silver inlaid shotguns which he marketed to the affluent elite Amharic class.

She was presented to Emperor Haile Selassie at court. He was the owner of one of Grandpa Gabe’s firearms. She became fluent in Ethiopian, and many years later, when the ambassador was visiting Detroit, the U.S. State Department tapped her for tour guide. The Ethiopian adventure ended when Mussolini invaded. The Italians threw Grandpa in jail. Grandma fled back to Syria with the kids, where he joined them after his release the following year.

Ruby my sister was a 3 year old in Istanbul. She told me later, in the US that she had no memory of Lebanon or Turkey before the tramp steamer that took us to the “Promised Land i.e. the USA”.

“Always remember, my son, this place was the greatest Christian church in the world ”whispered my father as I stood under the astounding dome of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

I glanced up at the slowly revolving disks above with calligraphic excerpts from the Koran. In the background the voice of the tour guide droned to his group … The dome, pierced around with windows which admitted sun beams whose visibility was enhanced by myriad dust motes that came from crumbling plaster falling off the Christian mosaics on the walls. These complex forms in 2 & 3D were barely comprehensible to my child’s eye. The colossal space, double the volume of Grand Central in NYC made me feel microscopic. The many competing visuals excited my hyperactive perception.

We lived in an ancient stone dwelling that had a barrel vault, across which hordes of mice ran during the night. Mom & Nene emptied countless bodies every morning from ubiquitous mousetraps. I teased little Ruby that “the mice were going to eat you” when she was sleeping. Outside, the street, paved with stone was flanked with open sewers. Across the street was a large building, a perfume factory.

One night, Mom was ill, a rare occurrence (we usually enjoyed robust good health). I couldn’t sleep because I was worried so I watched her. Near her bed was a window that looked out towards the perfume manufactory. As I was looking out at its dark silhouette across the street a flame sprang up in the interior, this was quickly  followed by an explosion that demolished the building, before my marveling eyes. Everyone woke up and watched the flames burn. In the morning the open sewers smelled like perfume & floated bottles and stoppers.

One day Dad asked me if I was ready to see the Whirling Dervishes. I enthusiastically agreed. We went to the Galata Museum-an antique building with an interior courtyard. On the second floor was a balcony with an alabaster railing with floral carving motifs. I looked down at the Dervishes through the spaces. Along one wall the the seated musicians played their tweedling accompaniment to wailing Turkish song with drummed beats. They whirled counter clockwise in a circle around the leader in the center. They wore white robes to their ankles, belted in black, these flared into disks as they twirled.  Their white jackets & tall rusty brown fez-like hats with domed tops completed their uniforms. I wondered how they could keep from getting dizzy & falling down. Also thought the color scheme of their outfits would be improved if they wore the traditional dark red black tasseled fez. Remember noting that white, black, dark red as a future favorite color scheme.

While we lived in Istanbul, we also took the ferry across to Asia. We toured the massive Theodosian Walls. I got to go fishing for the first time ( & successfully) in the Bosphorus. However our return to Turkey came to an end.

One day we were walking together down the street, with a Turkish plainclothes following a few steps behind. Nene was, as usual, afraid, nervously taking looks over he shoulder at our government spy. All of a sudden, I ran out of patience with the authorities whose reps followed us everywhere. Before my parents could intervene, I turned and walked back to the detective & confronted him. “Why are you always following us? ”’ I said with emphasis in my Armenian accented Turkish. It scares Nene…is it because we’re Armenians?”

The agent looked at me in momentary shock, comic book like. Then he began to laugh & patted me on the head. “Your son is a lion cub. Watch him carefully, he might get into trouble…” he smiled as he spoke to Dad. When we got home I realized all the adults were upset.

A few weeks later, we were expelled from Turkey & returned to Beirut. Father attained the Presidency of Haigazian College…