The International Writers Magazine
: Talking in Tongues

Talking in Tongues
Dmetri Kakmi

My aim was to live in Istanbul as a native. To begin with, I rented an apartment in the shadow of the Galata Tower. Then I enrolled in a Turkish language school in Taksim. Every morning I caught the tram the length of Istiklal Caddesi.

Then walked down the hill to school, munching a simit. At the bottom of the steep hill, the Bosphorus swaggered out to the Aegean. It was what is commonly known as an extraordinary situation for someone who has lived most of his life in Australia.

For me, Turkey is not simply a holiday destination. It’s the country where I was born and where I spent the first ten years of my life. I come back regularly to replenish myself. Up to the age of ten, I was fluent in Greek and Turkish, then my parents migrated to Australia and everything changed. As I slowly learned to speak English, my two native tongues dried up in my mouth.

When people ask me why this happened, I adopt a high-handed manner ‘English is a jealous mistress,’ I say, ‘She does not take kindly to sharing vocal cords with other languages.’ The truth was that I deliberately let go of my first two languages. This was partly due to teenage apathy, and partly because in 1970s Australia it was not acceptable to be a foreigner. To fit in you had to shed your old skin and let English announce its might through your mouth. I played along until the urge to reconnect with Turkish became too strong to resist. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Greek.

To begin with I enrolled in Turkish language classes in Melbourne. It helped, but very little. It’s difficult for a language to get a hold of your vocal cords if you only practice it for three hours once a week. To really immerse myself, I began listening to Turkish music, new and old. It helped immeasurably, except that when I spoke I sounded like a demented pop star or a soap actor.

Inspired by a Tarkan lyric, I’d suddenly announce to unsuspecting Turkish friends that tonight I wanted my little lamb to come to me. I’m burning up, I’d say. Soon after, I’d listen to Zeki Müren and tell the room that I left my red headscarf by the fountain and now I am crying in the rain. One minute I would be Ebru Gündes and the next Sezen Aksu. People didn’t know what to expect and, not surprisingly, they started dreading the moment when I’d open my mouth. ‘What’s the mad Greek going to say now?’ they’d ask themselves. Thankfully, they were too polite to say anything discouraging.

The crunch finally came when I became fixated on Ibrahim Tatlises’s ‘arabesque’ songs. I was so enamored that I flung his lyrics into a conversation whenever I could. Enough was enough. I was now beginning to frighten people. A friend took me aside and recommended I learn the language formally. ‘You are getting seriously scary,’ he said. ‘I mean, Ibrahim Tatlises…Ugh!’ He visibly shuddered. His wife leapt to Ibrahim’s defense, but the message was loud and clear.

So here I am in Istanbul. Any minute now, I tell myself, the gates will open and the language will come flooding back. Time will evaporate and I will live the life that was meant for me. Fat chance.

At lunch on my third day I walked into the börek shop situated conveniently on the corner of my street.

In near perfect Turkish I asked for a piece of spinach börek and an ayran. The boy behind the counter said something in hurried tones. I stared at him blankly. He repeated himself. When I still didn’t understand, he gesticulated wildly. Ah, he was asking me how much I want. In half English, half Turkish, I told him to give me a generous piece.

‘Paket?’ he said. I looked at him bewildered. The word sounded vaguely familiar. In this context, however, it made no sense. He repeated himself. His older brother joined us, repeating this mysterious word ‘paket’. Hungry customers lined up behind me, hurrying me up with their eyes. Finally, one of the brothers pointed at the börek and then at an aluminum container sitting on the counter. Now I got it!

‘Yes, yes,’ I said in what had by now become a Tenglish combo. ‘Take away. I mean take out. I mean, evet, paket. Lütfen.’ I was sweating from my exertions. This was embarrassing, and I was announcing myself as a klutzy foreigner to one and all.

Next came the moment I had been dreading: The exchange of money for goods. I’d mastered numbers in my head, but unless people spoke very slowly, as if they are in a nargile dream, I had no idea what they said. The young boy let go a string of unintelligible words. We looked at each other. To save time and further embarrassment, I shoved a handful of money at him, hoping for the best. He smiled, took out a pen and on a piece of paper wrote the numeral three. He took what he needed from my palm and put my purchases in a plastic bag. I left the shop. When I looked back, everyone was standing at the plate glass window, staring at me. I waved and smiled. They waved and grinned back. It was on their faces. They were thinking: ‘There goes the fool of Galatasaray.’

Thanks to our teacher’s tireless efforts, each time I visited the börek shop my Turkish had visibly improved and my exchanges with the owners were on more relaxed terms. I could even sit at trendy Kafe Ara and order a meal without feeling the urge to faint with nerves when I asked for the bill. My Turkish friends applauded my efforts and treated me to delicious dinners.

Including myself, there were ten students in the class. Numbering four, the Germans predominated. There were two Koreans, one doll-like Japanese girl, a French guy and a Palestinian woman. The reasons for doing the course were as diverse as the people taking part. I was the only one who could pronounce Turkish properly, or read and write with any proficiency. We were all ignorant of the basics of grammar.

As the days and weeks passed, everyone began to get their heads around the tangle of grammatical rules. Except for me, I remained totally at sea with the suffixes and tenses. After almost quitting, I realized that first I had to unlearn bad habits picked up as a child on my island village before I could begin to learn Turkish as an adult.

At the end of the second week the teacher approached me with a short composition I had written in Turkish. ‘This is very good,’ she said. ‘But I am, how to say, embarrassment. I do not something understand. What mean you this?’ She pointed at a sentence that seemed perfectly legible to me. She was an unflappable, composed young woman.

‘Oh, that,’ I said. ‘I was trying to say that sometimes in class I am bored. But generally it is fun and interesting.’

She smiled. ‘This is not what you written,’ she said. ‘In Turkish there are words that sound similar but they mean very different things. You must be very careful which words to use and when to put the dot on the "I", and when not to put the dot on the "I". The Turkish way to say ‘I am bored’ is ‘sìkìlìm’. This is not what you have written.’

‘Yes, it is,’ said I, pointing.

‘No, it isn’t,’ countered Miss Know It All. ‘Look carefully. You put the dot on the "I".’ She lowered her voice. ‘What you have written means "I am f***ed".’

We stared mortified into each other’s eyes. ‘Does that mean you are going to fail me?’ I asked. The Germans burst into raucous laughter. The Japanese girl giggled shyly.

Our very cool teacher sauntered back to the front of the class. ‘No, of course not,’ she said, pivoting elegantly on one heel. ‘But you must be all very careful.’

It seems that behind the good intentions, learning a language is a minefield from which it is difficult to beat a hasty retreat, unless an airplane is handy. On my last day in Istanbul, I was speaking with my friend Ebru. I was doing my best to speak as much as possible in Turkish, and not succeeding very well. Searching for the right word, I kept sprinkling my sentences with the ubiquitous Australian search engine ‘Um…’

‘Dimitri,’ said Ebru, ‘have you been saying this word very much in Istanbul?’

‘I guess so,’ I said.

She looked horrified. Do you know what it mean?’ she asked. I hid behind blissful ignorance.

‘In Turkish,’ she said, ‘it is spelled different. But you say it the same way. It means something not nice and you mustn’t say it again.’ Here she defined the meaning of the Turkish ‘Um’. After that I was immensely relieved that Emirates flight 242 was soon departing for distant shores, where words don’t suddenly turn on you.

© Dmetri Kakmi - December 9th 2005

Demtri born on Bozcaada, Turkey. He is an essayist and critic. He works as senior editor for Penguin Books Australia.

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