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Brown-Eyed Men and their Sons

From our Literary Column “Isthmus”

Over lunch, in a canteen in the Cihangir neighbourhood of European Istanbul, Baba and I argued. We regularly argued. It seemed natural to argue with Baba; our relationship had floated down large oceans of unfinished arguments, and when we spoke, the tide seemed to pull us towards those unfinished waters. Here, we argued about my decision not to pursue law school, despite my pursing a political science undergraduate degree. The restaurant’s television was on. It showed pictures of flash floods in the eastern part of the state. Even there, a Turkish flag flew brightly over the brown water, dark red in the pouring rain. When we had ordered at the back of store, Baba had forgotten the word for the dish he wanted, years of living in Los Angeles taking a toll on his mother tongue. “I don’t even consider myself Turkish anymore,” he had once told me many years ago. But he disputes this claim when I tell others about it. This is another ocean we are unable to swim in together. The past is not linear for either of us, our history neither the friend nor truth that either of us are able to hold the other accountable to.

Summer nights were slow in Istanbul, like a boy walking to school. Guided by a blue river and cement roads, darkness seemed to tread its feet until it reached the city, its citizens not noticing the sun vanishing above them, the stars beaconing them to continue to dance and sing as their ancestors had taught them.

I sat with Baba in the blue lights of an Istanbul bar. The August air stuck to my skin. The moon seemed to radiate a heat, familiar to one I felt in hala’s – aunt’s – living room, sitting on her couches overlooking a busy but organized Baghdad street. Her apartment sat across from the Bosphorus Strait and far from the Beyğolu neighbourhood we stood in.

Love was not something I welcomed. Neither was loneliness. Worried I would be unable to properly communicate on my own, Baba accompanied me to a bar I found on Yelp. I wanted to do something a Turkish person my age would do. I did not have friends here, nor did I know anyone younger than 35 years old. The summers spent in this country seemed layered with a repeating trajectory: a journey to a desolate place with my sister and Baba, culminating at ancient monuments, and flying past possible friendships and the opportunity to learn Turkish. Baba, on his iPhone playing a word puzzle generator next to me at the bar, not out of desire but necessity, reminded me I was not a Turkish 20 year old. I tried to pretend I was on vacation, to let go and to meet new people, but the streets of Istanbul reminded me that I had mourned the hope of belonging to Turkey.

Sherwin Sullivan Tjia

In the bar, two women in tight red dresses danced together under the air conditioning unit. Men in floral button ups and white chinos passed on my right. One was telling an elaborate joke, the other two laughing. A woman in a white blouse looked in our direction. Her eyeshadow was dark. I wondered if she was looking at Baba.

We faced the stacked liquor cabinet, watching tall silhouettes, mostly men, place their orders. A man in a black shirt approached us when we sat, presenting himself as the waiter. He spoke in English.

I wondered what gave me away; I was reminded that this part of Istanbul was not mine either. I looked to Baba who ordered in Turkish. When the man turned to me, I blushed. I did not know what to order. I wanted to be part of this space, but even ordering from the menu made me feel foreign.

“What’s can you recommendation?” I said, in English, incorrectly. I wondered how stupid I looked, a western Turkish boy not knowing how to properly speak English, not knowing at all how to speak Turkish.

“The Russian muse is very good,” he said.

“Can I get a vodka coke, actually?” I said. I wanted to impress the waiter. If I knew what I wanted to order, maybe he would believe I belonged in this bar.

“I don’t have it because I don’t have soda,” the waiter said, “I can do something like this.” He pointed to the menu open to my left. “Barbounay. I really like it,” he winked at me, a trick Turkish merchants use to charm clients. I wondered if he was flirting with me. I had never had a Turkish man love me. I had never kissed a brown-eyed boy. I wondered if he could be mine.

“Okay,” I said. My face was red like the Turkish flags I had seen driving into the city. Baba was on his phone; he seemed to have lost interest in the conversation. I wondered if he was embarrassed of his son. The air seemed heavy. I was disappointed in myself.

Sherwin Sullivan Tjia

A cat licked itself on a couch at the corner of the bar. Popcorn was brought to the table. Green lights lined the bar’s surface. A man with a short haircut swayed his arms to the music, wrapping himself around his friend who laughed, clapping her hands. The bar was open, crowded with smokers. Many were young, sporting the same Adidas shoes I had on. One man had tattoos across both his shins.

Men were grouped together. They wore shorts, attire I had been told was not club appropriate in North America. They wore bags, backpacks. They wore white tank tops, and long-sleeved shirts. The rules I knew were broken here. I wondered whether if I stepped away from Baba, stood alone in this space, I would feel comfortable in this city whose citizens looked like me.

Sitting across from Baba, I remembered the night I came out to my parents. Baba had stood in the corner of his master bedroom and cried. “Those were not tears of shame,” my mother explained, many years later. “He just did not know how to protect you.”

“What the fuck are you doing?” Baba said. He was smiling, “What ya thinking about, Booboo?”

“I don’t know.” I said, returning his smile.

We rarely spoke. Three years ago, I had moved to Montreal to study at McGill University. I found it difficult to speak to him on the phone. The honeymoon period that consisted of asking how our individual days were going was short and accompanied by questions neither of us wanted to answer, and memories neither of us wanted to revisit.

“Why don’t you go talk to someone,” he said, moving his head towards the different crowds of people outside.

My mind drifted on the bar’s floor, imagining two blue shadows towering over the other dancers who waded in the ebb and flow of the music. Speaking to someone loudly into their ear over the crowd, our bodies close. But I remembered how hard it was to stand with confidence. The feeling of being able to see what you need but being required to sit with what you have.

“No. It would be too weird,” I said, “Besides, I have you here.”

“Oh, I can leave, sweetie,” he said, “if you want, I can go.”

“I’m just here to spend time with you,” I said.

“Okay Booboo,” he responded. He returned to his phone, scrolling through unopened apps. “Do you want to get out of here? Maybe get something to eat?” He had taken a picture earlier of the cat in the bar and held his phone close to his face to look at it.

Baba had always joked that he had grown up on the streets of Turkey.

“I had a rougher childhood than you, Pasadena Boy,” he would remind me, whenever we got into an argument over race or ethnicity, “I grew up on the streets of Ankara. You are so spoiled, one day you will understand when you have children of your own.”


Sherwin Sullivan Tjia

Like two positive magnets, we repelled each other, unable to find a common ground when it came to discussing Near Eastern and Queer culture in North America. We spent nights over a wood dining room table with my mother, his now ex-wife, arguing over the ongoing Palestine and Israel BDS movement. In the two-seater black Porsche car he bought in his attempt at a midlife crisis when I was in fifth grade, on the 5 South Freeway, we listened to a local radio show calling in an Iranian woman activist to discuss women’s rights in the country. I called the interview a fetishization of Near Eastern identity and closed my eyes when the woman being interviewed referred to her father calling her breasts “orbs of sin.” I said that it played into the demonization of the region. Baba called the interview an accurate representation of the daily life for women who live in the Middle East. “It’s really like that, it’s a very hard life, sweetie,” he said. In the commercial breaks of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, now part of his newly established bachelor life, we argued over the extent to which Turkish culture and heritage was destroyed by Atatürk’s modernization of the state in 1923.

Baba never understood my anger towards America, and I could not understand his compliance with it. I spent my days in university learning about orientalism, driving down roads of colonialism and racism, reaching for an ancestor whose face I wore but whose history I was not taught. Baba had come here 20 years ago, thankful for the pizza delivery boy job he was able to get with his civil engineering degree from Middle East Technical University.

“You’ve never lived there,” Baba would say, “Why do you even get worked up about these things? Just be grateful for what you have.”

I understood that no brown-eyed man could understand his brown-eyed boy’s tears.

After leaving the bar, we crossed the street, Istiklal Cadesi, and went down the alley that stood behind what Baba pointed out to be his niece, Ipek’s, alma mater, Galatasary Lisee. We went into Sahara Bar, its door ordained with turquoise and white marble stones that mirrored the Islamic Art I had seen in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. I walked past a chestnut stand. A man in a blue shirt and large stomach ran tongs over the open flame, roasting chestnuts whose skins were black. The smoke drifted near my face. We wove through crowds, flowing past bars that rang Turkish folklore music loudly, like church bells calling in a crowd for morning mass. Women and men danced around the live music or speakers, snapping their fingers, pulling their arms through the wind.

The next bar was quiet. We sat across from each other and talked about how rapidly Istanbul was changing.

“I didn’t even recognize the boat terminal in Karaköy,” I said.

“Yeah, Booboo,” he said, “that’s what happens when you don’t visit for a long time.”

When I didn’t respond, he said, “things change.”

The bar looked over the rooftops of smaller Ottoman-style buildings. I saw a heron on the rooftop of the table parallel to the one we sat at. I remembered, looking over the Marmara Sea that Baba called a small bay, that only seagulls stood on Istanbul’s apartment buildings.

Outside, the usual open terraces ran across Istiklal Cadesi, sprouted in rows that reminded me of the olive trees I had seen, driving from Atatürk airport when we arrived. A food vendor was open, watermelons and figs sprouting from the baskets that lay in front of his store.

Sherwin Sullivan Tjia

We stepped out of the second bar after finishing a small drink.

In a 24 hour manti shop, Baba ordered Raki, Turkish liquor. Babanne, Baba’s mother, had taught my sister how to make manti many years ago. I tried to learn on my own later but felt awkward. Memories like these were hard for men like me, who preferred the knowledge that only women were privy to, in a culture and identity I was not at home with.

The manti arrived in deep bleached dishes; Baba ordered his with garlic, and shook paprika over his yoghurt dish.

“Only old people order manti with garlic,” Baba said.

The night ferry crossed the Istanbul waters, drawing long breaths into the city’s atmosphere. The Istanbul sky seemed blue, the dark of the night swimming in the skyline’s yellow-lit skin. The pointed rooftops of the mosques pierced the star-studded skies.

The waitress asked me if I wanted more Coke Zero. I shook my head no, worried about my pronunciation of the one word, “hayir”– no. Baba did not look up when I said nothing to the waitress. He drank his water, the ice in his glass shaking lightly.

The seagulls were loud above us. Smoke drifted to our table from a woman in an orange summer dress, a red handbag hanging from the top of her chair. Her hair was black, darker than the cover of the notebook she wrote in. She seemed to watch us, writing in her journal the subtle nuances of two men learning to tread water together. I wondered if she too wanted to belong to Istanbul as badly as I did.