By Ezgi Üstündağ
Sibel had spent the last couple minutes being polite to a white male twenty-something who thought, “do you eat turkey in Turkey?” was both funny and original, so the sight of an approaching white male fifty-something inspired little enthusiasm. His eyes had met Sibel’s as soon as he exited the Thailand booth and turned down the festival’s main corridor. Clad in a bright red NC State Wolfpack shirt, the anxiety framing his mouth seemed unaware of the singular focus in his eyes.
This is what Sibel had signed up for, she reminded herself, when she agreed to staff the booth on behalf of the Turkish-American Club of North Carolina: ignorant questions from the non-Turks and passive-aggressive critiques from her compatriots. The script rarely deviated. She had an idea of whom she’d locked eyes with—North Carolina born and raised, remembered Raleigh before it got so crowded, had never been to Turkey, would never go to Turkey, wanted to ask a question about the dangers of traveling to Turkey. She did her best not to judge, but her shift had started thirteen hours ago and leaning on generalizations conserved precious energy.
Unblinking, he stopped in front of Sibel, his toes facing hers, his broad shoulders completely concealing her small frame from passersby. “How you doing today, miss?” he asked.
Sibel nodded. “I’m fine, sir. And you?” She hated the way her talking-to-an-older-man voice mixed with her accent. It sounded nothing like her. That’s what she missed most about home—how she’d always sounded like herself.
“Oh, I’m not too bad. Just wandering around.”
This was the point in the exchange where most visitors revealed themselves: Turk; hyphenated Turk; non-Turk married to a Turk; two non-Turkish Americans who had visited and/or taught English in Turkey; Christians who wanted to know about St. Paul, Mother Mary, or the Ephesians; non-Turks who haven’t been to Turkey but want to demonstrate their knowledge of current events; and non-Turks who haven’t been to Turkey, are not exactly sure where Turkey is, but (goddammit!) they came to the Global Festival to learn.
Wolfpack was taking his time, but Sibel’s feet hurt, and she planned to sit down as soon as she sent this latest visitor on his way. “Have you been to Turkey?”
He smiled shyly. “No, no, never been. Never been.” He didn’t say he wanted to go. A group of high school girls, lollipop sticks poking out of most of their mouths, peered around Wolfpack’s torso. If nothing else, his stalling kept them out of the booth.
“Well, you should go sometime. Istanbul is the most beautiful city in the world.”
“That where you’re from?” he asked.
She nodded and felt some of the anxiety that had ballooned up between them escape. She could brag about Istanbul to anyone, even Wolfpack. The salty Bosphorus air filled her nostrils whenever she thought of her hilly, overcrowded, gleaming, crumbling, unforgiving, sprawling hometown—she hated that English confined her to that word. Istanbul wasn’t a town; it was a memleket, a homeland, in and of itself. Wolfpack saw that his question had taken Sibel somewhere else and gave her a moment.
“Yes, yes. Born and raised. Came to North Carolina for graduate school. Stayed.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, searching. “My old man was stationed in Turkey. Adana, I think?”
There it was—the connection. “İncirlik!” Sibel said. “A very big air base, yes.”
That was the one, he said. He couldn’t remember the name. “I was never any good with foreign names.” He stiffened. “Not foreign. Words that aren’t English.”
Her late grandfather’s crisp uniform, hanging in the back of the wardrobe in her parents’ bedroom, came to mind. “When was your father at İncirlik? Was he in the air force?”
Wolfpack laughed. “He sure as hell wasn’t in the air force! That’s about all we were allowed to know.” He grew quiet and redirected his gaze at the flags hanging from the rafters of the convention center.
Sibel couldn’t tell whether he wanted to say more or change subjects, so she offered a comment that could segue into either. “My grandfather was in the military.” Wolfpack’s eyes hadn’t come down from the ceiling; he wouldn’t be moving on.
“He didn’t tell no one,” he continued. “Not a single person in our family.” His father had been stationed in Adana for most of the fifties and a good chunk of the sixties. What he did was anyone’s guess. İncirlik was a launching pad for recon missions throughout the Cold War, not to mention home to nuclear weapons, so Wolfpack’s comments were less shocking to his present audience than to an American one.
Re-assuming her talking-to-an-older-man lilt, Sibel said, “Well, I’m sure he did important work.”
He laughed again. “Important, sure, to him.” He looked straight at Sibel. “You know, he died this year? Didn’t tell me or my sisters nothing about his work.” She thought about revisiting the soldier in her family, the dede she barely knew before he passed away, but said nothing.
“I’m sorry, miss. I’ve talked your ear off.” It was a lovely booth, he said, though he hadn’t looked at the carpet or objects adorning the walls for more than a few seconds. He scanned the convention center corridor, searching. A couple mumbled compliments later, he was gone. The convention center’s other costumes and fabric were quick to absorb the bright red tee.
Sibel waited a few minutes before removing her purse from the chair in the corner of the booth. She told herself she was leaving to get a cup of something—hell, it was already dinnertime. Red was everywhere, queueing in front of every food stand and dessert table, asking questions of every nationality present, but none of it was Wolfpack’s. She returned to her post half an hour later, steaming styrofoam cup in hand, ready to respond to the bespectacled young couple with a smile and “oh, that’s great” when they announced their intention to visit Turkey someday.