My Hidden Lives // Prose

121. about names in exile

a name

my grandfather and me, Banjaluka 1992

 (this is an old text I wrote back in 2008 that I’m still quite fond of, despite its over-board sentimentality – I don’t know, I guess it still speaks to me in a way and I really wanted to share it with all you lovely people because I rarely write about my roots and well, this seemed like as good a time as any to share this bit as well)


Sometimes, I wonder if the war was only a bad dream of a two years old child, if all of this is really just that – a very long nightmare transpiring during an afternoon nap. The naive thought that this city may be my city after all crosses my mind then, and although it doesn’t seem that way now, maybe there is another city floating in midair between the asphalt blocks, a place where I live – another me, in a city made of air. I am there with my family, my mother always a lady, my father a happy man, all of my grandparents in that cozy big dining room, sipping coffee and talking merrily about their youth with no trace of the nostalgia or resentment which shapes the lines on their faces now.

Somewhere, in this big flat in the center of that parallel town, there is a girl with a face a lot like mine, thought her hair and clothes are very different. She does not smoke, or drink, or roll her eyes at strange gestures and words she does not understand, Turkish expressions which have long been out of date. She is not a big city girl, but was raised so that she could become one if ever she wanted to, she is confident and secure, rejuvenated every time she steps out on the vast balcony and breathes in the riverside air, gently passing her eyes over the elms and the willows out on the bank. The air is so familiar in her lungs and better, it lulls her into quiet contemplation about belonging and home, and she knows, knows, that this is the place where she was born and raised, where she will find a man to love her. A man that she can also love. A man who will never see her as a girl with no name or reputation: never disrespect, or belittle her ancestry. He will love her for who she is and for who they were. This girl on the balcony is sweet, careless in the best sense, sad at times but always with an easiness to smile, never dim or brooding. She breathes the air, the river bathes her skin as a cool and fresh reminder that this in deed is the place where she will die.

I, on the other hand, have no idea where I will die. I know where I was born, but only through paper and folk tales, I was raised here and there, I have no religion or a point of view common to a group or a nation. I live in the world while living nowhere at all. My feelings are transitory, like my life has been, and no husband will ever take my father’s hand and respect what it stands for. The men of the world will look at my name with a scorn born from knowing I am not one of them, and this is all my name will ever stand for – loneliness, exile, guilt. I will be a blind passenger in time and they will, all of them, take me in so as to say they, too, have been known to give shelter to strays. None of them will take me for a wife. Their blood cannot be polluted with water, for they will ignorantly think I have no blood. They will think me empty, and maybe they will be right.

The girl on the balcony catches a whiff of smoke in her nostrils and it makes her frown. She doesn’t think about the future, or the present – certainly not the past. She sees her life as a whirlwind of the three, complete, whole. She wonders, then, if things could have been any different, if her life could ever not have been the way it is now. But when people think about these things, they usually wonder about better – they never dwell on the possibility that it could have been worse. She shakes her head at the thought, laughing quietly to herself at the foolishness which consumes her sometimes, in her carefree world. It is as if she had to balance all the happiness with a few odd moments of contemplation. She never thinks of me, stuck in the black universe created to counter the purity of her white. I think about her all the time. After all, when people think about the choices and circumstances that have shaped their lives, they think of ways in which they could have been better, and she is the better me.

If I saw her on the street, if it were possible, I would probably scoff at the mere halo which surrounds her, the ease, the silent benevolence, the lack of tangible worry in her life. I would find her shallow. She wouldn’t give me a second thought, or maybe – if she did – she would feel pity. We could never be friends, her and me. We could never sit down and drink a cup – a fildžan – of black Turkish coffee and laugh at the same things, smile at one another, have an envy-free conversation. She would find me bitter and I would hate her for the promise of that stolen future, the knowledge of where she is and where she will stay. The I that could have been would not understand my broken heart, my doomed love affairs, the discovery of inequality and the unconventional ways of dealing with one’s own inadequacies. I longed to start again from that place in which she was born, that world she was born into – the little child of two we both were, on the same planet, before our lives took their turns for the best or the worst.

There is a street I never go to anymore. When you cross the river and go straight, a one minute walk from the central town park, in the middle, there is a big flat with a vast balcony. I can only ever be a stranger in this street and lose myself between its might-have-been’s. I can only ever be a stranger in this town, sitting by the river and taking it in with an awe that says I have no idea where it starts or where it ends. Let us leave these places for the long deceased, let them live their happy, ghostly lives and pretend they are real. Somewhere on this earth, I have to believe that there exists a street and a balcony I will once be able to call my own. A river I can look at and know its flow from spring down to the sea. A white universe in the black, a bit of familiar ground in the midst of all the darkness. A name I will make for myself.



3 thoughts on “121. about names in exile

  1. ‘But when people think about these things, they usually wonder about better – they never dwell on the possibility that it could have been worse.’ – Yes.

    For personal reasons rather than the political ones you hint at here, I have a not dissimilar disjuncture in my life which has often made me wonder about the self I left behind, the self that never went on to exist, except in imagination. And like you, I have often imagined meeting him, this silver spoon version of me, and how we might or might not get on; whether we would even recognise each other at first.

    • There’s a quote I like on this subject – “Sometimes you imagine that everything could have been different for you, that if only you had gone right one day when you chose to go left, you would be living a life you could never have anticipated. But at other times you think there was no other way forward—that you were always bound to end up exactly where you have.” (Kevin Brockmeier)
      I guess living and not going insane basically consists of balancing these two, in a way that you realize it could’ve been different (because otherwise, you can succumb to fatalism and I don’t like thinking my life is completely out of my control), but also accept that you made the choices that have got you here, the you you are, and that there’s little you can really change about that now. I think I’m beginning to think that, perhaps, this is the best version of me, faults and all, or at least it’s the one I like most out of all the ones I can imagine. An acquired taste, so to say, I’ve lived with myself for a while now. Don’t know if you feel the same?

      • Well, there are the things which happen to us, in childhood, and then there are the choices we make as adults. On that score, as well as your quote, there’s the Robert Frost poem too – ‘The road not taken’.

        But yes, we necessarily acquire a taste for ourselves, if not everything that our lives come to entail, because otherwise an unhappiness can grow and become too much to bear. That said, although we are inevitably who we are, I reckon it’s important to carry on evolving, to retain a plasticity, to avoid feeling stuck. We need to be able to make changes when there is or seems to be a pressing need to make them. Otherwise it’s stasis, and life’s too short for that.

You think, therefore you are.

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