First Chapter: A Mother-of-Pearl Inlay Chest

By the time he was seventeen, Ali  had endured four painful deaths. First, his namesake and great-uncle Fikret, followed by his great uncle Javalı Celal (Celal of Java), and his grandfather Sedat. He was too young to remember when his grandmother Sevda died, but he had in fact become close to her through their home full of memories, photos and various objects beckoning at every corner. Ali met those sad, black eyes among the photos lining the hallway every morning as he started his day.

His grandmother Sevda’s story, which started on the Island of Java in 1921 and ended in Istanbul in 1994, had always been of interest to him. People leading different lives in different countries was fascinating; meeting unexpectedly in different times and places, embarking together on a journey, establishing a common language in a geographically strange land, cultures being integrated and surviving in new individuals removed all kinds of borders. That is what Süheyla, the mother of his grandmother Sevda, had done. She crossed borders in pursuit of love, turned her life upside down, and embraced a life and culture that she had not known at all. During the early 1920s, on the Island of Java in Batavia1 (then a dominion of the Netherlands), she had in a way emigrated from one occupied city to another.  It seemed that living in Istanbul under British occupation was far more difficult for her than living in Java. There, Ali’s grandmother Sevda was born in 1921, and she and her family returned to their homeland after the Republic was founded in 1923. His great uncle Javalı Celal was born in Istanbul in 1925.

Ever since his childhood Ali observed how his family traveled all over the world without minding any differences in religion, language, and culture, and how they became enriched by overcoming their inner boundaries while stepping over borders. He wanted to understand them, and tried to experience life as they lived it. This is what it meant to be a global citizen. While remembering the life of his great uncle Javalı Celal, all the way from Maçka Palas to Gülbağ (from one of the finest and historical building of Istanbul to a suburb) he thought, “Wherever you are, you should be able to put down roots while preserving your values, be able to face the mistakes and virtues in your life without denial, and be boundless in love and tolerance.”

When she returned from Java to Istanbul with her two children - great uncle Javalı Celal and grandmother Sevda -, Süheyla Hanım ( Mrs.Süheyla) settled at Maçka Palas where they would live for years. Grandmother Sevda had graduated from the Notre Dame de Sion French girls’ school and the Medical School, married Sedat Ceyhan, MD, and left Maçka Palas. Süheyla Hanım and Javalı Celal Bey lived together as mother and son until Süheyla Hanım’s death, after when Javalı Celal Bey stayed on by himself until the flat was sold. Stern, authoritarian, and a man of principles with a rich soul and bright intelligence, Javalı Celal Bey had graduated from both Galatasaray High School and the Engineering School ahead of his contemporaries. After a bright career in engineering, he followed his ideals as he had always done and embraced the sea, which he loved so much. He spent a considerable part of his life on his boat, and never turned his back on the sea until his death. While some traveled the world and returned to their small rooms, he always lived in his small room and traveled to different worlds. Javalı Celal Bey’s life ended at Gülbağ years after his older sister Sevda had died, which made Ali mourn as if a whole era had now passed and been buried.

“A whole life, so many memories, so much experience is lost with the person leaving this world,” thought Ali. Perhaps that is why, after a death in his family, disposing of the deceased’s belongings took so much time, and homes could not be vacated. Every item was handled with care as if it were alive, and its having witnessed an era or having accompanied its owner for years was sufficient for it to be kept and cherished. A silver candelabra, coins, ebony dressers, çeşm-i bülbül glass, various candy dishes, fruit bowls, liqueur sets, and paintings by Hoca Ali Rıza, Füreyya, and Bedri Rahmi were carefully put aside, and it took time to bid goodbye to whatever broken bits and pieces were left behind. Letters, photos and all documents from the past were compiled and brought home. Nothing was done in haste; everything was handled deliberately and carefully. There was great hospitality at home. A space was miraculously created for all items, and no new arrival was left out. Old furniture consoled the family as if the pieces preserved the spirit of their owner.  It was as if lost memories came to life through coffee sipped from cups that were heirlooms, while listening to arias. As the years passed every corner became a museum of memories; was  Ali’s own room any different?  When he first visited Paris at the age of seven, his family had eagerly taken him to the toy department at Lafayette, hoping to see his joy and excitement. However, he was much more interested in the little souvenir shop across the hotel. There, shiny stones of all colors, and pebbles and sand from various seas in little bottles beckoned him. He thought of them all the time, and in the end, they took their place on display in a prominent place in his room. Later, these objects came to accompany the items passed down from his relatives. Ali thought of all these while sitting in the rocking chair of his great uncle Javalı Celal.

Javalı Celal had paid the price for his free spirited nature by never marrying. He loved children and treated his sister Sevda’s sons as his own. One day, while getting lost among his great uncle’s century-old belongings with his father, Ali noticed a wooden chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl beside the Indonesian ebony dresser. He gingerly lifted its dusty lid. Who knew how many homes it had been in, how many stories it knew, and how many lives it had affected. What did it witness: what laughter, tears, what disappointments, suffering, what wars and peace... So much had taken place in the presence of this chest, which was at least a century old. There were many yellowed monochrome photos inside. A photo of the Villa Sewda in Indonesia, named after his grandmother Sevda, for example. He noticed two Ottoman passports among the photographs. These passports, which looked nothing like the ones today, were in Ottoman, German, and French. Their pages bore the stamps of the Ottoman Empire and notes written with fountain pens. He immediately recognized one: It was the passport of Süheyla Hanım, his grandmother Sevda’s mother. What about the other? He turned the pages of the passport. Issued by: The Ottoman Empire – Constantinople, October 1917. Place and Date of Birth: Constantinople, 1863. Places Visited: Berlin – Hamburg – Stuttgart, and on one page, a stamp: Balkanzug, 9 April 1918. 

Name                         : Mehmet Celal Bey
Height                        : Medium
Face                          : Oval
Skin                           : Fair
Hair                            : Auburn
Eyes                          : Light Brown
Mustache                   : Grayish
Special Features         : Eyeglasses
Father’s Name            : Hassan Attif Bey
Job                            : Former Governor of Konya

Who was in fact this bureaucrat who had lived five generations ago and witnessed the downfall of the Ottoman Empire?  He had undertaken critical appointments at a time when one decision would have an impact on many, a period full of dangers like a minefield, foggy and unclear, when right and wrong were sometimes indiscernible. Ali wanted to better know this ancestor, who had been a governor at a time of turmoil before the Republic.

He asked his father many questions; however, he noticed that his father did not share his enthusiasm. When he gave casual answers without going into details, Ali could not contain himself:

- "I found a lot of photos and newspaper articles. He is a person who witnessed a very significant era. He also served at important state appointments until the Republic was founded. He has been Governor at critical places like Erzurum, Halep, Konya, and Adana. Can you please tell me about his stories and his experiences during his career?"

- "It's a very sensitive subject, so I'm thinking about where to start and how to tell these to you."

- "You just tell me what you know and what you've heard."

When he was much younger than Ali, his father had wanted to know about this serious looking man, whose photos and hand-written notes in Ottoman he had seen at his mother Süheyla Hanım’s house at Maçka, and had asked family elders for information and documents about him. Succumbing to Ali’s insistent questions and curiosity, his father started to tell the story he had learned years earlier:

- "The year is 1863: Mehmet Celal Bey is in a mansion at Kızıltoprak, Istanbul..."

1- Present Indonesia.