Portrait of a Turkish Family

Irfan Orga


Portrait of a Turkish Family

Irfan Orga


Irfan Orga was born into a prosperous family in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. His mother was a beauty, married at thirteen, who lived in the seclusion of the harem as befitted Turkish women of her class. His grandmother was an eccentric autocrat, determined at all costs to maintain her traditional habits. But the First World War changed everything. Death and financial disaster reigned; the Sultan was overthrown and Turkey became a republic. The family was forced to adapt to an unimaginably impoverished life. In 1942 Orga arrived in London, and seven years later he wrote this extraordinary story of his family’s survival.

‘This has to be one of the most remarkable and enjoyable of all modern memoirs’ - Caroline Moorhead
‘This book is a little masterpiece’ - Robert Fox, Daily Telegraph
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Portrait of a Turkish Family
ISBN: 978-0907871-82-8
Format: 336pp demi pb
Place: Turkey

Author Biography

Irfan Orga's official birthday was March 1st 1908, though even he did not know the actual date, once suggesting that it could be as late as 1909. He came to England in 1942 on a three year posting from the Turkish air force. While there he became romantically involved with a young Norman-Irish woman, Margaret Veronyca. Living with a foreign woman was a crime in Turkey at the time, and Orga was stripped of his rank, forced out of the air force and, eventually, forced out of the country, leaving for England in 1947 (he was convicted in absentia in 1949).

After Veronyca's divorce had been finalised in 1948, they married. While his wife began working her way up the hierarchy of publishing, Orga pursued several menial jobs. He also began writing, and published books on many areas of Turkish life; cookery, history, children's books and a controversial biography of Ataturk as well as the autobiographical story of his family (Portrait of a Turkish Family, 1950) and a work on the Yuruk nomads of the High Taurus mountains (The Caravan Moves On, 1958). Irfan Orga died in 1970.

Extract from Chapter One

I was born in Istanbul, on the 31st of October 1908. I was the eldest son of my parents, my mother being fifteen at the time of my birth and my father twenty. Our house was behind the Blue Mosque, looking over the Sea of Marmora. It stood at the corner of a small cul-de-sac with only a low stone wall between it and the sea. It was a quiet, green place and a very little Mosque stood near it, and amongst my earliest recollections is the soft, unceasing sound of the Marmora and the singing of the birds in the gardens. Our house was a big wooden house, painted white with green shutters and trellised balconies front and rear. It belonged to my grandfather and my grandmother and we lived there with them.

 Looking back, it seems to me that the whole of early childhood is linked with the sound of the sea and with the voices of my parents and grandparents as they sat eating breakfast on the terrace overlooking the gardens. Still can I feel the content of childhood’s awakening in the low, sunny room filled with the reflected white light from the sea; still hear faintly the domestic sounds from the kitchen and the high-pitched, smothered laughter of our black cook. I would creep out of bed, absurd in my old-fashioned nightshirt, and lean my head against the protective iron bars on the windows and call down to the family group below me. This calling was the signal for my father to toss aside his napkin and shout up to me that he was coming. I would hastily scuttle back to my bed, laughing a bit with anticipation for I had already learned that I was an important member of the household, and each day for me began with the throwing aside of my father’s breakfast napkin, his running footsteps on the stairs then his repeated tossing of me into the air, to the accompaniment of my excited, terrified screams. But it was a terror I could not resist and my day would not have properly begun if my father had omitted this thrilling game. Attracted by my laughter Inci would appear, her black eyes rolling in her small dark face and her mouth screwed up with laughter. Inci was my nursemaid, coal black and only thirteen years old yet she had full charge of me.

 She was the daughter of Feride, the upstairs maid, and had been born in Istanbul whilst her father was a servant in the palace of the Sultan. After the death of her father, my grandmother had taken her and her mother to our house and after my birth Inci had been given to me. I loved her very much and could not have imagined life without her. She was always good-humoured and used to make me shout with laughter when she rolled her eyes at me or pulled funny faces. Even when I was more than usually fractious, screaming at her or stamping my feet with temper, she would remain good-humoured, merely administering a good, sharp slap where it hurt most then leave me to kick out my tantrums alone.

 With the arrival of Inci each morning my father would stand me on my feet, telling me to be a good boy, pat Inci’s crinkly hair then leave us. Inci and I would stare at each other solemnly for a moment or two then she would start to make her funny faces and waggle her flat hips and the pair of us would burst into laughter and I would run to her, flinging my arms about her. She would begin to dress me, and washing was one long battle. Firmly would she grasp me under one arm and hold me over the shallow china basin, lathering my face and neck with soap—most of which used to get in my eyes. And all the while I kicked the air, struggling futilely to get free. The combing of my hair was the next torture to be endured. I had thick curls which were my mother’s pride and joy, Inci’s too when they were arranged, but the arranging of them was torn with my cries of temper and distress and Inci’s commands to keep still and let her finish. My hair finally arranged to her satisfaction, we would glare at each other, my scalp still smarting from the tugging of the comb and my eyes still red-rimmed from soap. It was a daily battle and as much a part of existence as the sound of the sea or my father’s kiss, and in five minutes it was all forgotten and I would go dancing down the stairs ahead of Inci to see my mother and my grandparents. My mother’s kiss set the seal of perfection on the day. All the things which preceded it—my waking to a light-filled room, my father’s tossing me into the air, my battle with Inci—were only the sweet high prelude to my mother’s kiss. The kiss that was cool and light and held the perfume of roses in it.

 She was very beautiful. Hair that was black and shining and coiled into smooth curls on top of her head. A face that was pale and oval with a small, uptilted, humorous mouth and great melancholy eyes that lightened like jewels when she smiled. She was always very slender and liked to dress in pastel colours, soft shimmering silks that smelt of lavender water or eau-de-Cologne, and she wore long gold necklaces, twisted two or three times around her throat. She was a gentle, silent person, her hands delicate and useless-looking and weighted down with the number of flashing rings that she invariably wore. She did the most lovely embroidery and petit-point and she would take each ring off very carefully before she started, dropping them with a little chink into a small satin-lined box kept solely for that reason. She was very elegant and might have been a noted beauty had she been born in Europe. But because she was a Turkish lady and had to wear a veil to cover her face whenever she went out, she was unknown save to the members of her family. She married my father at the age of thirteen, having been promised to him at the age of three. She rarely went out and never alone but spent most of her time on the terrace or sitting under a fig-tree in the garden, much as the women of her family had done for generations before her. She appeared perfectly happy, content to be solely an ornament in her husband’s home. My grandparents were a devoted couple and spoiled me very much, perhaps because I was the eldest grandchild. They seemed very old to me, although looking back to the time of which I write, Spring of 1914, my grandmother must have been only in the early forties since she too had married very young. But to the eyes of a child a bit over five, she seemed incredibly old.

 It is strange now to sit here and look back to the past and see them so clearly before me, the people who made me and moulded me and are, in part, responsible for whatever I am to-day. The people who are now dead and forgotten by all who knew them, forgotten by me too until I started to look backwards to my far-off childhood. I did not know I was capable of remembering so much, but now that I have started the subconscious yields its secrets and the memories come crowding thick from the buried years. I cannot describe my grandfather, yet I remember dimly the tall old man who used to give me sweetmeats and fruit fresh from the garden, with the dew still on it. He used to take me for walks whilst Inci attended to my small brother or helped Feride with the upstairs work. It was the custom after breakfast for my grandfather to go to a coffee-house and smoke the nargile, or hookah-pipe, and after my fifth birthday I used to be taken with him. He would sit in front of an open window in the coffee-house, leaving me to play in the gardens, ever under his watchful eye. But sometimes he would engage in earnest conversation with his friends and his eye become not quite so observant, and then I used to play with the dirt, making mud-castles for myself, a lost rapt little boy, absorbed with the wet feel of the mud running through my fingers. I would be oblivious to the stones cutting into my knees but presently a sharp slap on the arm would recall me to the present. I would let the remaining mud trickle dreamily through my fingers then look up to find my grandfather staring down at me with eyes that pretended to be fierce. All the way home he would make me walk a little behind him, like a puppy with its tail between its legs, crestfallen and very conscious of the old man’s displeasure. Upon arrival at home I would be delivered into the hands of Inci, who would take a severe look at the dirt on my person and on my clothes then whisk me off to be washed in time for luncheon.

 One day I remember playing in the coffee-house gardens and had wandered over to the large, ornamental pool in the centre, intent upon playing ‘boats’—a game that was as thrilling to me then as it is to-day to my small son at the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. My game however was not played with boats but with various piece of sticks. On this particular day, in my absorption, I leaned too far over and in I fell with a terrible splash—in up to the neck and icy cold. My clothes held me down and I thought I was going to drown. My piercing screams brought my grandfather and a couple of waiters running at the double and I was unceremoniously fished out, blue in the face and coughing up what seemed to be gallons of water. And oh! the safety of my grandfather’s arms. I was taken into the coffee-house, stripped of all my clothes and wrapped in a blanket, whilst a messenger was despatched to my home for dry clothing. Hot milk was forced through my chattering teeth and my grandfather, looking white and shaken, scolded me without ceasing. I was finally taken home in dry clothes, still trembling with fear and cold and my grandfather refusing to speak to me. After that episode I was left to kick my heels at home for days on end. My grandfather’s morning kiss became fraught with ice and he would pay no attention to me when I timidly enquired after his health. He would stalk off to the coffee-house, leaving me on the terrace with my mother and my grandmother.

 I used to play in the garden under an apple-tree. It was my apple-tree and my retreat when the burdens of the world became too much. When I grew tired of being alone I would wander back to the house in search of Inci. Hacer, the cook, would perhaps softly call me into the kitchen, giving me lokum to eat then ‘shooing’ me off quickly lest my grandmother discover me there. Hacer, like Inci, was my friend. She was enormously, grotesquely fat and when she laughed her whole body rippled and her eyes were lost in rolls of flesh. She had been with my grandmother for many years and was intensely jealous of Feride, whom she suspected of receiving more favours than herself. She used to make secretly for me little pastas with funny faces or give me cloves to eat, forbidden luxury, and sometimes when I knew my grandmother to be safely out of the way I would steal in to Hacer and she would give me cakes. If she were in an especially good humour she would dance for me and sing quaint old Turkish songs which made the heart shiver with melancholy. Her dancing was a joy for me. Her gigantic old stomach performed lewd posturings, her unconfined breasts shook merrily and her backside did a little dance all on its own. Attracted by my shouts of laughter, Inci would come in search of me to pull me sharply by the ear out of the kitchen or, worse still, my grandmother would hear me and come in like the silent wind, her face a stony threat, and poor Hacer’s demented breasts would give a final, horrified leap into the air, her performance coming to an abrupt end.

 My mother was most likely to be found in the salon, that is if she were not sitting out in the garden or paying calls with my grandmother. But my grandmother only occasionally liked to ride behind the cream-coloured horses in the phaeton, and as my mother was not permitted to go driving alone, she consequently rarely left home. If this arrangement bored her she gave no sign. She displayed no temper, being invariably tranquil. If I were to wander into the salon to find her sitting there, she would lay down her embroidery, pat the seat beside her and invite me to tell her what I had been doing with myself. More often than not I would refuse the invitation, feeling constrained in the face of such perfect tranquillity and preferring the more robust ordinariness of Inci. But Inci in the mornings was usually helping Feride, or doing something for Mehmet, my baby brother, and the upper regions of the house were also forbidden territory for me. Bored and lonely I would seek the garden again, climbing the little apple-tree to watch the passing boats on the Marmora. Many long childish hours I dreamed away in that tree, listening to the soft crying of the seagulls and only being recalled to the present by Inci’s voice ordering me to come into the house.

 One morning my father awakened me early and after tossing me two or three times into the air, told me that my grandfather wanted to see me in his room. I rushed to him, peering cautiously through the door and saw him sitting up in his bed, his eyes twinkling under the white nightcap pulled low over his forehead. He looked comical and called to me to come in. I leaped into his bed joyfully for I had smarted under his displeasure and was wildly happy to be here in this great, adventurous bed again. That bed which was so exciting to explore and held such possibilities of terror for a small boy who ventured too far beneath the clothes, delving deeper and deeper into the blackness whilst a grandfather pretended to be a fierce old lion, emitting the most awful roars. When my screams became too hysterical, he would pull back all the clothes and I would creep back to normality again, my heart still pounding with terror. He would instruct me to ring for Feride and when she appeared would ask for my breakfast to be served with his. The morning of which I write was no exception to the general rule. We played and romped and growled fearfully at each other, and when I was taken away to be dressed, my grandfather called after me that I could accompany him to the coffee-house later on. Then I really knew that we were friends again.

 Yet we did not go to the coffee-house after all, for he suddenly changed his mind as we were setting out. And it is perhaps this one thing that makes that day, with all its events, still remarkably clear in the memory. For we walked that day by the Marmora, the first and last time I ever walked and talked with my grandfather, for never before had I been any farther with him than the local coffee-house. We walked that day like old comrades, that brilliant young day. Nowadays whenever I walk beside the Marmora on just such a soft young day, I am again a child of five skipping along beside the lost figure of the kindly old man. And that morning, for all his talk, he seemed to lean more heavily on his stick and presently he sat down on a rock, saying he was tired. He told me I could play with the sands, provided I did not go too near the sea. I started to hunt for shells, and whenever I found a particularly nice one I would shout to him, telling him of my find. But once when I shouted he did not reply and when I turned to look at him he was gesturing to me with his hands. I ran to him feeling, as children instinctively feel and with that little extra sense of perception that is in them, that something had gone wrong with the morning. Yet equally instinctively refusing to recognise the perception, so that even though I ran to him I was rebelliously shouting that I wanted to play, I wanted to play. …

 He said: ‘Grandfather is not well, my darling. Let us go home quickly.’

 And I gathered my shells mutinously but with a very little icy thread of fear touching my heart.

 It is odd how intuitive are children and animals. To-day if any danger threatened I doubt if I would have the clear warning I had as a child. Sophistry and the years have combined to stifle, to overlay that quick animal sense and I believe I could actually walk into danger without so much as a flicker of the heart. But that day I felt it surrounding my grandfather like an aura.

 I held his hand tightly, my heart almost suffocating me with the premonition I had. Half-way home we met the Imam from the little Mosque and he came up to us, looking concerned, and spoke softly to my grandfather. I felt a great, overwhelming relief that some other human was here to share my fear. The Imam took my grandfather’s arm and slowly, painfully slowly, we ascended the last long hill that led to home.

 Once at the house I was delivered to Inci, who was in the garden with Mehmet. Mehmet was eighteen months old at that time, just starting to walk. He was supposed to be delicate and I resented him, for whenever I wanted to shout and run, I was inevitably hushed by Inci or my mother and warned that he was sleeping. It seemed to me that he never did anything else but sleep and I despaired of the day ever coming when he would be considered big enough for me to play with. But I also sometimes loved him and liked to stroke his soft cheek and feel the down on his head. Now and then he would call me to him, curling his fingers over my hand and chattering. The day we brought my grandfather home I was unable to respond to the laughter in his eyes for I was consumed with uneasiness and curiosity. Inci’s dark eyes were big with question and she asked what it was that had happened on the walk.

 We stayed out in the hot garden all through the morning, and when we went into the dining-room for luncheon, my mother looked odd and lonely seated alone at the great table. We children and Inci used to eat at a smaller table in a little recess, and all through that meal I was conscious of my mother as she toyed with her food and poured many glasses of water for herself from a crystal carafe. In the middle of luncheon Feride came hurriedly in, announcing that the doctor had arrived, and without any ceremony, and leaving her meal half touched, my mother left the room. Inci called to Feride and asked what was the matter, but Feride, with a quick, warning look at me, said she did not know.

 During the afternoon my father was sent for and I remember his thin worried face as he passed me, without being aware of me, where I stood in the hall.

 Inci took us to the playroom for it was too hot to play any more in the garden. I vaguely recall playing with bricks, with Mehmet crawling over a large mat on the floor and Inci sitting in a rocker by the window, a pile of mending by her side. We were all listless with the heat. After a little while my father came for me and, picking me up in his arms, said:

 ‘Grandfather is very ill but he wants to see you. Will you be a good, brave man and come with me?’

 I nodded dumbly and we left the room together, the tall young man and the solemn little boy who was once again overcome by the events of the morning.

 In my grandfather’s room it was twilight. The windows stood open but the cool green shutters had been fastened against the glare of the afternoon sun.

 My mother was seated on one side of the bed, holding a silver pitcher which I knew to be filled with water from the grave of Mahomet. I knew also that this precious water was only to be used in times of extreme emergency. My grandfather had once made the pilgrimage to Mecca and had brought this water back with him and afterwards he was always known by the title of Haci, signifying he had been to Mecca.

 My grandmother stood by one of the windows, her eyes straining through the little spaces in the shutters. The fierce white glare from the gardens must have hurt her eyes yet she seemed oblivious to it. She stood perfectly still, like a statue, and the tears poured unchecked down her cheeks. It was a shock to see my usually composed grandmother crying so unrestrainedly and it tightened the feeling of fright that already half-paralysed my heart.

 A doctor was washing his hands in a corner, quietly, quietly, making scarcely any sound.

 As we came in my mother put down the silver jug on a side table and took me from my father. He went to the other side of the bed and took up the Koran, beginning to read aloud from it in his soft, musical Arabic. I stood looking at my grandfather, awed by the unaccustomed sight of so much solemnity surrounding him. He moved his fingers and my mother lifted me up to him, saying, ‘Father, this is Irfan.’

 He laid his heavy, old hand on my head as though giving me his blessing, then his fingers moved feebly through my curls and down, down, slowly down over my face. I kissed his hand and ached with unshed tears. He tried to say something and the doctor came quickly over, motioning to me with his head, and my mother took me out. She told me to go back to Inci then left me and returned to my grandfather’s room, the door closing gently behind her. I started to cry suddenly, there on the quiet landing, and still I remember, as if it were yesterday, how a big fat wood-pigeon flew past the window, coo-cooing in his soft throaty voice.

 It is still the best-remembered sound from that day.