Mevlut and Rayiha
Elopement Is a Tricky Business
THIS IS the story of the life and daydreams of Mevlut Karataş, a seller of boza and yogurt. Born in 1957 on the western edge of Asia, in a poor village overlooking a hazy lake in Central Anatolia, he came to Istanbul at the age of twelve, living there, in the capital of the world, for the rest of his life. When he was twenty-five, he returned to the province of his birth, where he eloped with a village girl, a rather strange affair that determined the rest of his days: returning with her to Istanbul, he got married and had two daughters; he took a number of jobs without pause, selling his yogurt, ice cream, and rice in the street and waiting tables. But every evening, without fail, he would wander the streets of Istanbul, selling boza and dreaming strange dreams.
Our hero Mevlut was tall, of strong yet delicate build, and good-looking. He had a boyish face, light brown hair, and alert, clever eyes, a combination that roused many a tender feeling among women. This boyishness, which Mevlut carried well into his forties, and its effect on women were two of his essential features, and it will be worth my reminding readers of them now and again to help to explain some aspects of the story. As for Mevlut’s optimism and goodwill—which some would call naïveté—of these, there will be no need for reminding, as they will be clear to see throughout. Had my readers actually met Mevlut, as I have, they would agree with the women who found him boyishly handsome and know that I am not exaggerating for effect. In fact, let me take this opportunity to point out that there are no exaggerations anywhere in this book, which is based entirely on a true story; I will narrate some strange events that have come and gone and limit my part to ordering them in such a fashion as to allow my readers to follow and understand them more easily.
So I will start in the middle, from the day in June 1982 when Mevlut eloped with a girl from the village of Gümüşdere (linked to the Beyşehir district of Konya and neighboring his own village). It was at the wedding of his uncle’s eldest son, Korkut, celebrated in Mecidiyeköy, Istanbul, in 1978, that Mevlut had first caught sight of the girl who would later agree to run away with him. He could scarcely believe that this girl, then only thirteen—a child still—could possibly reciprocate his feelings. She was the little sister of his cousin Korkut’s wife, and she had never even seen Istanbul before that day. Afterward, Mevlut would write her love letters for three years. The girl never replied, but Korkut’s younger brother Süleyman, who delivered Mevlut’s letters, gave Mevlut hope and encouraged him to persevere.
Now, Süleyman was helping his cousin Mevlut again, this time to take the girl away. Driving his Ford van, Süleyman returned with Mevlut to the village of his childhood. The two cousins had hatched a plan to run away with the girl without being detected. According to the plan, Süleyman would wait in the van at a spot about an hour away from Gümüşdere. Everyone would assume the two lovebirds had gone off to Beyşehir, but Süleyman would drive them north over the mountains and drop them off at the Akşehir train station.
Mevlut had gone over the plan many times in his head and twice made secret reconnaissance expeditions to crucial locations like the cold fountain, the narrow creek, the wooded hill, and the back garden of the girl’s home. Half an hour before the appointed time, he stopped off at the village cemetery, which was on the way. He turned toward the tombstones and prayed to God for everything to go smoothly. He was loath to admit it, but he didn’t quite trust Süleyman. What if his cousin failed to bring the van to the appointed spot near the fountain? Mevlut tried not to think about it too much; no good could come of these fears now.
He was wearing the dress trousers and blue shirt he’d bought from a shop in Beyoğlu when he was back in middle school and selling yogurt with his father. His shoes were from the state-owned Sümerbank factory; he’d bought them before doing his military service.
At nightfall, Mevlut approached the crumbling wall around the white house of Crooked-Necked Abdurrahman, the girl’s father. The window at the back was dark. Mevlut was ten minutes early and anxious to get going. He thought of the old days when people trying to elope got entangled in blood feuds and wound up shot, or when, running away in the dead of night, they lost their way and ended up getting caught. He thought of how embarrassing it was for the boys when girls changed their minds and decided not to run away after all, and he stood up with some trepidation. He told himself that God would protect him.
The dogs barked. The window lit up for a moment and then went dark again. Mevlut’s heart began to race. He walked toward the house. He heard a rustling among the trees, and then the girl calling out to him in a whisper:
It was a voice full of love, the voice of someone who had read the letters he’d sent during his military service, a trusting voice. Mevlut remembered those letters now, hundreds of them, each written with genuine love and desire; he remembered how he had devoted his entire being to winning over that beautiful girl, and the scenes of happiness he’d conjured in his mind. Now, at last, he’d managed to get the girl. He couldn’t see much, but in that magical night, he drew like a sleepwalker toward the sound of her voice.
They found each other in the darkness. They held hands without even thinking about it and began to run. But they hadn’t gone ten steps when the dogs started barking again, and, startled, Mevlut lost his bearings. He tried to find his way on instinct, but his head was a muddle. In the night, the trees were like walls of concrete looming in and out of view; they dodged them all as in a dream.
When they reached the end of the footpath, Mevlut made for the hill ahead, as planned. At one point, the narrow, winding path through the rocks and up the hill was so steep that it seemed to reach all the way to the clouded pitch-black sky. They walked hand in hand for about half an hour, climbing without rest until they reached the peak. There, they could see the lights of Gümüşdere and, farther back, the village of Cennetpınar, where Mevlut had been born and raised. Mevlut had taken a circuitous path away from Gümüşdere, partly to avoid leading any pursuers back to his own village, and partly on instinct, in order to thwart any treacherous scheme of Süleyman’s.
The dogs kept barking as if possessed. Mevlut realized that he was, by now, a stranger to his village, that none of the dogs recognized him anymore. Presently, he heard the sound of a gunshot coming from the direction of Gümüşdere. They checked themselves and continued to walk at the same pace, but when the dogs, who’d gone quiet for a moment, started barking again, they broke into a run down the hill. The leaves and branches scraped their faces, and nettles stuck to their clothes. Mevlut couldn’t see anything in the darkness and feared that they might trip and fall over a rock at any moment, but nothing of the sort happened. He was afraid of the dogs, but he knew that God was looking out for him and Rayiha and that they would have a very happy life in Istanbul.
They reached the road to Akşehir, out of breath. Mevlut was sure they were on time. All that remained now was for Süleyman to turn up with the van, and then nobody could take Rayiha away from him. Mevlut had begun every letter invoking this girl’s lovely face and her unforgettable eyes, inscribing her beautiful name, Rayiha, with lavish care and desperate abandon at the head of each missive. Now he was so happy at the thought of those feelings that he couldn’t help but quicken his step.
In that darkness, he could scarcely see the face of the girl he was eloping with. He thought he might at least take hold of her and kiss her, but Rayiha gently rebuffed his attempts with the bundle she was carrying. Mevlut liked that. He decided that it would be better not to touch the person he was to spend the rest of his life with until they were married.
Hand in hand, they crossed the little bridge over the river Sarp. Rayiha’s hand in his was light and delicate as a bird. A cool breeze carried the scent of thyme and bay leaves over the murmuring water.
The night sky lit up with a purple hue; then came the sound of thunder. Mevlut worried about getting caught in the rain before the long train ride ahead, but he did not speed up his pace.
Ten minutes later, they saw the taillights of Süleyman’s van beside the gurgling fountain. Mevlut felt himself drowning in happiness. He felt bad for having doubted Süleyman. It had started raining, and they broke into a joyful run, but they were both exhausted, and the lights of the van were farther away than either of them had judged. By the time they reached the van, they were soaked through.
Rayiha took her bundle and sat in the back of the van, engulfed in darkness. Mevlut and Süleyman had planned it that way, in case word got out that Rayiha had run away and the gendarmes started searching vehicles on the roads. It was also to make sure that Rayiha wouldn’t recognize Süleyman.
Once they were seated up front, Mevlut turned to his accomplice and said, “Süleyman, as long as I live, I will be grateful for this, for your friendship and loyalty!” He couldn’t stop himself from embracing his cousin with all his strength.
When Süleyman failed to reciprocate his enthusiasm, Mevlut blamed himself: he must have broken Süleyman’s heart with his suspicions.
“You have to swear you won’t tell anyone that I helped you,” said Süleyman.
“She hasn’t closed the back door properly,” said Süleyman. Mevlut got out and walked toward the back in the darkness. As he was shutting the door on the girl, there was a flash of lightning, and for a moment, the sky, the mountains, the rocks, the trees—everything around him—lit up like a distant memory. For the first time, Mevlut got a proper look at the face of the woman he was to spend a lifetime with.
He would remember the utter strangeness of that moment for the rest of his life.
Once they had started moving, Süleyman took a towel out of the glove compartment and handed it to Mevlut: “Dry yourself.” Mevlut sniffed at the towel to make sure it wasn’t dirty and then passed it to the girl in the back of the van.
A while later, Süleyman said to him “You’re still wet, and there aren’t any other towels.”
The rain peppered the roof, the windshield wipers wailed, but Mevlut knew they were crossing into a place of endless silence. The forest, dimly lit by the van’s pale orange headlights, was thick with darkness. Mevlut had heard how wolves, jackals, and bears met with the spirits of the underworld after midnight; many times at night, on the streets of Istanbul, he had come face-to-face with the shadows of mythical creatures and demons. This was the darkness in which horn-tailed devils, big-footed giants, and horned Cyclopes roamed, looking for all the hopeless sinners and those who had lost their way, whom they would catch and take down to the underworld.
“Cat got your tongue?” Süleyman joked.
Mevlut recognized that the strange silence he was entering would stay with him for years to come.
As he tried to work out how he had fallen into this trap life had set for him, he kept thinking, It’s because the dogs barked and I got lost in the dark, and even though he knew his reasoning made no sense, he held fast to it, because at least it was of some comfort.
“Is something the matter?” said Süleyman.
As the van slowed down to take the turns in the narrow, muddy road, and the headlights lit up the rocks, the ghostly trees, the indistinct shadows, and all the mysterious things around them, Mevlut beheld these wonders with the look of a man who knows he will never forget them for as long as he lives. They followed the tiny road, sometimes snaking up a hill, then back down again, stealing through the darkness of a village sunk in the mud. They would be met by barking dogs every time they crossed a village, only to be plunged once again into a silence so deep that Mevlut wasn’t sure whether the strangeness was in his mind or in the world. In the darkness, he saw the shadows of mythical birds. He saw words written in incomprehensible scripts, and the ruins of the demon armies that had traversed these remote lands hundreds of years ago. He saw the shadows of people who had been turned to stone for their sins.
“No regrets, right?” said Süleyman. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I doubt anyone is following us. I’m sure they all knew the girl was going to run away, except maybe her crooked-necked father, and he’ll be easy to deal with. You’ll see, they’ll all come around in a month or two, and then before the summer’s over, you two can come back to get everyone’s blessing. Just don’t tell anyone I helped you.”
As they turned a sharp corner on a steep incline, the van’s back tires got stuck in the mud. For a moment, Mevlut imagined that it could all be over, that Rayiha would go back to her village and he would go back to his home in Istanbul, without any further trouble.
But then the van started moving again.
An hour later, one or two lonely buildings and the narrow lanes of the town of Akşehir appeared in the headlights. The train station was on the outskirts, at the other side of town.
“Whatever happens, don’t get separated,” said Süleyman as he dropped them off at Akşehir railway station. He glanced back at the girl waiting with her bundle in the darkness. “I shouldn’t get out, I don’t want her to recognize me. I’ve got a hand in this, too, now. You must make Rayiha happy, Mevlut, got it? She’s your wife now; the die is cast. You should lie low for a while when you get to Istanbul.”
Mevlut and Rayiha watched as Süleyman drove away until they could no longer see the van’s red taillights. They walked into the old train station building without holding hands.
Inside the brightly lit train station, gleaming under fluorescent lights, Mevlut looked once again at the face of the girl he had run away with, a closer look this time, enough to confirm what he had glimpsed but not quite believed while shutting the back door of the van; he looked away.
This was not the girl he had seen at the wedding of his uncle’s elder son Korkut in Istanbul. This was her older sister. They had shown him the pretty sister at the wedding, and then given him the ugly sister instead. Mevlut realized he’d been tricked. He was ashamed and couldn’t even look at the girl whose name may well not have been Rayiha.
Who had played this trick on him, and how? Walking toward the ticket counter at the train station, he heard the distant echoes of his own footsteps as if they belonged to someone else. For the rest of his life, old train stations would always remind Mevlut of these moments.
Copyright © 2015 by Orhan Pamuk. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.