This short story, chosen for the shortlist of the 2021 ArabLit Story Prize, ran in the Spring 2022 MIRRORS issue of ArabLit Quarterly, which you can find in print via GumRoad and Amazon (US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, the UAE, Japan, Italy, Spain, Australia, and elsewhere); digitally on GumRoad or Exact Editions; or at select bookshops.
By Karima Ahdad
Translated by Katherine Van de Vate
His bald spot gleaming in the overhead light, the airport border official raised his head and scrutinized the traveler in front of him. With a sneer, he handed him back his dark red passport.
“Welcome, Ahmet Yilmaz Bey!”
Ahmet felt his face flush. He picked up his passport and stalked off through the crowds in Atatürk Airport, jerking his suitcase violently behind him. It was the first time he’d been embarrassed by his Turkish name, the one he’d chosen when he turned 30, after living in Turkey for six years.
“Ahmet Yilmaz!” How often had he swelled with pride when he said those words. When people asked him his name, he replied “Ahmet Yilmaz!” in a loud voice, articulating it slowly and clearly, almost boastfully. Everyone should hear it and know he was now Turkish in his own right.
Why does a person want to become something other than what he really is, he asked himself, as he contemplated his reflection in the glass doors of the airport. Today, for the first time, he felt like there was a pressure cooker instead of a brain inside his skull. What about his curly hair, his dark complexion, and his North African features? He hadn’t given them a second thought in his rush to acquire Turkish citizenship and change his name from Ahmad al-Mansuri to Ahmet Yilmaz.
He got into a taxi and headed towards his home in Üsküdar, musing that some things in life can’t be changed, like the past, or one’s memories. A person can change the way he thinks, his car, or where he lives. He can alter his nose, his hair color, even his name. A person can change anything and everything about himself except his past. And for him, Ahmad al-Mansuri, it was that he’d been born in Morocco, not Turkey.
“What country are you from?” asked the taxi driver with a smile, squinting at him in the rear-view mirror.
Ahmad gazed through the window at the road and pretended he hadn’t heard. Why did people continue to look down on him? Why did they still treat him like a foreigner? Why did they call him “yabancı”—foreigner—every time he took a taxi to the immigration office or even just to the supermarket? Why did his landlord treat him like he was an outsider who knew nothing about Turkey, and always tried to cheat him?
His Turkish was excellent; he spoke the language fluently. He was certainly not the first person to get Turkish citizenship and change his name. His Palestinian friend Mustafa Abu Khadra had changed his name to Mustafa Özdemir. His colleague, the Syrian refugee Muhammad al-Khabbaz, had become Mehmet Demir. And ever since Ahmad’s wife had come from Morocco to join him four years ago, she too had longed for the day when she could take a Turkish name. He knew many people who hoped to become Turkish. Anyway, what was wrong with changing your name to a Turkish one?
“Names are only names; most of the time they don’t mean anything,” he consoled himself as he stared through the taxi window at the road, as dark and desolate as his mood. A thought suddenly hit him like a splash of cold water on his head: “So if that’s the case, why do we try to change our names?”
When Ahmad first came to Turkey to study communications, the so-called “Turkish dream” had conquered the hearts of Moroccans, displacing their dreams of America and Europe. Romantic Turkish soap operas, long turquoise abayas and embroidered headscarves of every color, beautiful fair-skinned girls, their veils draped gracefully, the poetry of the great Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi and Shams Tabrizi, a huge array of Turkish food at cheap prices. Pictures of Ottoman palaces and mosques, the TV drama “Resurrection Ertuğrul,” and the Facebook pages of President Erdoğan’s many admirers. Ahmad was enchanted by it all, and captivated by the Turkish president’s proud demeanor, his confident stride, and the fiery cadences of his speeches defending the world’s Muslims.
He couldn’t bear to wait any longer. Kissing his mother’s lined palm and his fiancee Fatima’s forehead, he promised his wife-to-be that he would soon bring her to join him in the most beautiful city in the world. A dusty brown suitcase in tow, he caught a plane to Istanbul, his heart full of anticipation and his mind filled with beguiling images. He used his university studies to establish himself in his new country, renting a room in a small apartment with a tall, blond, athletic Turk. He could not understand why this blue-eyed young man looked at him with disapproval whenever Ahmad talked about the glories of the Turkish nation and its president. When Ahmad came home from his university classes, he would find his housemate sprawled not on his own bed, but on Ahmad’s, or wearing his clothes, or even using his bath towel and razor. Ahmad could not open his mouth or say a word of protest against the situation. Instead, he channeled his rage into his ambition to obtain Turkish citizenship.
And here he was, finally, Turkish.
But he derived no pleasure from gazing at the Bosphorus. He didn’t enjoy eating milk pudding with pistachios or Adana kebab. He didn’t appreciate Turkish music or believe that blue beads protected one from the evil eye. Whenever he watched the Turkish flag flutter in the breeze or sipped Turkish tea, he only felt an aching nostalgia for a glass of Moroccan tea suffused with fragrant mint leaves. He suppressed that desire; maybe one day he would be able to see the world through Turkish eyes.
Exhausted from his convoluted thoughts, Ahmad reached home, where his wife Fatima had supper waiting. But before he could sit down, Fatima told him she’d just heard from the landlord that he wanted them to move out. Ahmad did not say a word. He looked at his plate of Iskender kebab with uncharacteristic distaste, then directed his glance towards a side table on which sat a heavy copper bust of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent. He had bought it from a shop by the Galata Tower during his first year in Istanbul. How long ago the intoxicating joy of those days seemed! It was as if reality were determined to dash a man’s hopes. Yet he had not given up on his dream for a moment, nor had he lost his respect for the president of this great nation.
Fatima turned on the television and began talking animatedly about the Hagia Sophia Museum, which had recently been converted back into a mosque. The sound of the television and Fatima’s chatter jumbled together in Ahmad’s head. Though he wasn’t actually in a good mood, he laughed uproariously during supper as he entertained his wife with a joke about a goose that had unsuccessfully tried to fly. When the goose gave up and tried to walk again, she had forgotten how, and was obliged to spend the remainder of her days neither flying nor walking.
“Once you get your Turkish citizenship, what do you want to be called?” he asked Fatima, his tone now serious and his face downcast.
“Amina!” Fatima replied enthusiastically as she poured him a glass of Turkish tea.
“But that’s an Arab name!” Ahmed said in astonishment.
“I know, but it’s also the name of the Turkish President’s wife,” Fatima said with undiminished enthusiasm. She sat down across from him and gazed dreamily into the distance, her round face lit by the room’s weak yellow light. “She’s wonderful! I want to be like her one day.”
Regarding her with an absent smile, Ahmad did not respond. He switched on his phone and scrolled through Facebook posts as he drank his tea. Lost in her reverie, Fatima sat motionless, absentmindedly holding her tulip-shaped glass.
Coming across a Facebook post that he liked, Ahmad read it out: “The first call to prayer in the Hagia Sophia after its conversion back into a mosque. We hope Sultan Erdoğan will now liberate the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem the same way he’s given Hagia Sophia back to the Muslims.”
Fatima said: “We need to find somewhere else to live. We only have a month.”
Ahmad felt the blood rush to his head. Their landlord was an irascible, ultra-nationalist Turk. When they met to sign the rental contract, he looked Ahmad over from head to toe with a mistrustful gaze, as he chewed gum with a heavy smell of mint. He had grudgingly agreed to rent him the apartment on the grounds that Ahmet was an Arab. In actual fact, neither Ahmad nor his wife was Arab. They both came from a Moroccan city where almost everyone’s first language was Amazigh. But there was no way to make this clueless Turk understand this. For him, there were only three kinds or classes of people in the world: Europeans, who had the highest status; Turks, who ranked slightly lower; and at the bottom, Arabs, the last people on earth to deserve respect or appreciation.
“So why do the Arabs flee their countries and infest the rest of the world, like fleas?” he once overheard a Turkish colleague ask. That colleague was like his landlord, not in how he looked, but in how he hated Arabs and felt superior to them.
But all of that had happened before Ahmad received his Turkish passport. Why would his landlord throw him out now, when he was a full citizen? He’d given up his real name, his identity, and his ties to his homeland so he could enjoy the same treatment as others in this country.
Now his landlord was saying he’d changed his mind and didn’t want to rent to Arabs any more. His decision terrified Fatima—Ahmad could see the fear in her eyes—but she wasn’t resentful. She was still attached to Turkey and to her dream of acquiring citizenship. Her only remaining link to Morocco was to its food, like couscous and lamb tajine with prunes.
Ahmad slammed his glass down and exclaimed: “I’m not leaving this place no matter what! He’ll have to throw me out!”
Fatima stepped back fearfully. Leaning on the chair opposite him, she muttered:
“There are lots of houses nicer than this one in Üsküdar and other parts of Istanbul. We can find somewhere else.” She fell silent for a moment, then said with a forced laugh: “Don’t you remember the proverb: ‘Moving house brings peace of mind?’”
All Fatima’s efforts to calm her husband down ended in failure. The landlord came the following day to try and reach a solution. Fatima prepared tea and welcomed him like a king, an artificial smile fixed on her face as she set out the glasses on the sitting room table. When she was dealing with a Moroccan, she held her head high, but when she met a Turk, she would lower it deferentially. Even her back would suddenly develop an astonishing curve, as if it carried an invisible, heavy stone. Ahmad was mystified by his wife’s astonishing ability to change her personality so quickly, and often asked himself if he behaved the same way in the presence of Turks.
He watched her angrily as she disappeared into the kitchen. But he was actually angry at himself and at the world. She was only a mirror reflecting him and all his shortcomings—his weakness, his servility, and his sense of alienation. She was the prism through which he viewed everything.
No longer able to suppress his fury, Ahmad turned toward the landlord. The pressure cooker inside his head had begun to whistle, and he felt as if he was about to lose his mind.
Placing a cigarette between his narrow blue lips, the landlord said arrogantly: “I’ve come to resolve this disagreement peacefully. I’ll give you two months to find a new place.”
His offer only enraged Ahmad further. He replied defiantly: “I’m not leaving this apartment until the end of the contract!”
Lighting his cigarette, the landlord replied nonchalantly: “I can’t wait five more months. Two months is enough for you to find another place.”
Ahmad hated smokers. He began coughing, not from the smoke but from the anger mounting inside him. “You have no reason to throw us out illegally!” he shouted.
The landlord interrupted him with a grimace: “There’s a perfectly good reason, and I don’t have to explain myself. I no longer want to rent my flat to Arabs.”
Ahmad objected vociferously: “I am not an Arab! I’m a Turkish citizen now, the same as you!”
“Citizenship doesn’t make you a Turk,” said the landlord. “Only blood and birth can make you Turkish, nothing else.”
Thrusting his agitated face into the landlord’s, Ahmad declared: “I’m not leaving! Let’s see what you can do about that!”
Unperturbed, the landlord replied: “You have no idea what I can do.”
Fatima hurried back from the kitchen. In an effort to calm things down, she said with a smile: “Mr. Sirdar, I hope you’ll go easy on us. My husband is rather short-tempered, as you see. He even acts like this with me. I hope you’ll be good enough to extend our notice period. You know how hard it is to find an affordable apartment in Istanbul these days. We need more time to—”
“Get back in the kitchen!” Ahmad cut her off in Moroccan Arabic. “I’ll sort things out with this prejudiced idiot!”
Sirdar stood up and stubbed out his cigarette in his tea glass. As he turned to leave, Fatima looked into her husband’s eyes with irrational fear. Her hands shaking, she said in a quavering voice:
“Please forgive us, Mr. Sirdar! We promise we’ll move out as quickly as possible.”
The pressure cooker inside Ahmad’s skull rose to a shriek. He was overcome by dizziness, unable to move or speak. Sirdar walked to the door without a backward glance. Collecting himself, Ahmad got to his feet. Flashing Fatima a look of furious contempt, he reached over to his right and grabbed the bust of Sultan Süleiman from the table. As the door closed behind Sirdar, Ahmad smashed the statue over his wife’s head. With a wail, Fatima fell to the floor, awash in her own blood.
Karima Ahdad is a Moroccan writer, journalist, and author from the city of El Hoceima who worked until May 2021 as a digital content editor for TRT Arabi in Turkey. Her first novel, Cactus Girls, was published in 2018 and won the 2019 Mohamed Zefzaf prize. Her 2014 short story collection The Last Hemorrhage of the Dream was awarded the prize for best young author from the Moroccan Writers’ Union. Ahdad has just completed a novel about Arabs living in Turkey. She speaks Arabic, French, English, and Amazigh.
Katherine Van de Vate translates modern Arabic literature into English. She previously worked as an Arabic curator at the British Library and as a US diplomat, serving tours in Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, the UK, and Syria. Her translations have been published in ArabLit Quarterly, Words without Borders, and Asymptote.