"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Turkish Diplomat And The Linguist – Scheherazade In Washington

Rainier Thompson met Dilara Yilmaz at a reception for the Turkish Foreign Secretary who had come to Washington as a gesture of friendship and appreciation for the American Administration’s solidarity with Turkey’s commitment to eliminating Islamic extremism. Dilara had been appointed by President Erdogan as special envoy for cultural affairs and her job was to promote Turkish language, culture, and history to a largely uninitiated American public which at best could only think of Turkish coffee, Terrible Turks, and Midnight Express.  Her job was made much more difficult because of world politics, and the on-again, off-again relationship between her country and the United States.  She took this particular moment of current history – this apertura as the Italians called this surprising opening of a window of opportunity – to show off the best of Turkey.

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Rainey Thompson was a Senior Fellow at a Washington think tank which specialized in Middle Eastern affairs.  His particular corner focused on Iran and Turkey, two countries which shared little except Islam; and since there had not been an Iranian embassy in Washington since 1979, the date of the Iranian Revolution, the hostage crisis, and Jimmy Carter’s failed military excursion, Rainey spent most of his time on Turkey and at the Turkish Embassy.

As a matter of personal, linguistic interest – Rainey had mastered seven languages – he was challenged by what he called ‘the particular perversity’ of Turkish, a language without gender, an agglutinative grammar which dragged single words out across the page, adding endings which clarified tense, purpose, direction, and ownership; and a curious interest in uncertainty, whether or not a perception had to do with actual observation or reported veracity.  Either there was no more food on the table when the arrived, or there wasn’t, Rainey concluded, and no grammatical, metaphysical pirouette would change the fact.  Why, he had asked Dilara over toast and roasted tripe,  was there a special tense to register surprise, or why was conclusiveness so important.  An unusual come-on unless one was a member of the Washington cognoscenti, the intellectual social elite that watered at Embassy parties and State Department after-hours get-togethers where immediate intellectual connection was expected.

“An interesting question”, replied Dilara and invited Rainey to an upcoming colloquy on ‘The Altaic-Uralic Linguistic Diaspora’, a discussion on the unique linguistic family of which Turkish was central, and the geo-political spread of Turkish proto-culture.

Par for the course in Washington circles – off-the-cuff invitations to discussions of abstruse ideas – but with the sexual undertones that were equally familiar.  ‘Couplings’ among this international, literate, and sophisticated crowd was one of the perks of the job.  Neither Rainey nor Dilara had entered their professions for uniquely serious reasons.  While Dilara did indeed believe that the millennia-old Turkish culture, the Ottoman Empire, and the renascent nationalism of modern Turkey were worth presenting to a very insular American public, she had always had her eyes out for romance.  America, after all, was the country of Gone with the Wind and an irrepressible romanticism impossible in Turkey.  The whole idea of making a love story out of a brutal civil war was unconscionable to her, but still irresistibly attractive.  Americans, she knew were inveterate dreamers, idealists, and Utopians and therein lay their appeal.  Why not encourage a Rhett Butler-Scarlett O’Hara pas-de-deux? Why not fall in love with a tall, dark, and handsome American?

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So if linguistics and pan-Turkic culture was the way into romance, so be it? And Rainier was, if not Clark Gable, then a reasonable facsimile; and besides he came with an impressive family pedigree (Philadelphia Main Line, Charleston cavaliers, and Boston Brahmins) and an academic record to match (Harvard, Harvard, and Harvard).

Rainier, still single after many years on the circuit , was still not tempted by stasis.  He was having too much fun.  He had traded so successfully on his pedigree, background, looks, and wit that he saw no reason to demur let alone withdraw from such adventures.  Yet Dilara was of another persuasion.  Her Middle Eastern beauty, her conservative allegiance to the Ottomans and the glory of Turkish empire, and last but not least her mastery of the most difficult and complex language ever devised by God himself, were irresistible.

In short, it was a love affair made in heaven.

Of course there were the practical details to work out – not simply keeping the liaison quiet-ish (no affair in Washington was ever quiet, but good taste required diplomatic courtesy at least) – but sorting out cultural differences.  Their affair was constantly interrupted by family – hers, of course, since all Turks seem to travel with an extended family retinue who never seem to leave – and her niggling responsibility.  When the Ambassador called, there was no deferment, although, given her lesser portfolio, such requisitions were never substantively important.  His Excellency, Mehmet Bey Baltaci, appointed by Erdogan himself and scion of an important Izmiri family of some wealth wanted attention, particularly female, and Dilara was the most desirable.  So between the importuning Ambassador and Dilara’s ubiquitous family, there were few interludes.

Yet there was the sexual import.  In the romantic, idealistic, fanciful imagination of Rainey, making love to Dilara was like making love to Turkey.  Thursdays it was Istanbul, Tuesdays to Mardin, Wednesdays to the entire Black Sea, Fridays to the warm, blue Mediterranean waters of Kas, and Sundays to the entire Turkish empire from the Bosporus to Kazakhstan.  No matter that she was of a Circassian mother and a Greek father, raised in Bulgaria, and educated in Rize.  She was Turkish, Turkey, and the Orient.

Mark Antony, one of the ruling Roman triumvirate, potentate and guarantor of Alexandria and the East, had been seduced and compromised by Cleopatra, a Ptolemy, an Egyptian goddess whom no one could resist.  By the time she met Antony she had already bedded Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great.  He could not, in Shakespeare’s words, resist ‘the sybaritic East’, a land of luxury, sensuousness, beauty, charm, and infinite romantic difference.  No matter that he was used by Cleopatra, manipulated for her own ends, and doomed to an ignominious death.  He loved Cleopatra until his dying day.

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And so it was with Rainier Thompson, taken in more because of sweet Dilara’s meaning than of her beautiful body and intrigue.   He was as snookered as was Antony by Cleopatra and, after she had left him for another, he never regretted an instant.  What pedestrian American lover could have ever bedded the Queen of Sheba?

There are hundreds of thousands of pedestrian loves concluded every day – loves without romance, love, or art. ‘Saçma’, bullshit, said Rainey, and went on to court his operatic lover as he had those before her.

Rainey’s search for a Lawrentian love – epiphanic and transforming -  almost came about in his love affair with Berthe, a youngish Danish woman whom he met in Rawalpindi.  Language was not an issue, nor cultural oddities.  They met on an equal social, professional, cultural, and linguistic plane.  It was because of this surprising confluence that Rainey became complacent.  He had ticked off so many prerequisites that he had missed the point entirely.  While the affair was for him a romantic adventure, for her it was only an interlude.  Ah, the Europeans with their wonderful sexual ease and indifferent worldlines.  He had sorted out culture but had missed out on personal intimacy. With Dilara, all would be different.  Culture – difference – would not be idealized but factored; and that her unique Middle Eastern-generated but totally female allure would be ‘it’.

Despite many reverses Rainey, a tireless, undaunted romantic, continued his search for a perfect romantic love long after Dilara; and yet the older he got, and the more consigned to and settled in his very predictable, traditional marriage, the less he thought that he would ever find it.  There were simply too many variables, too many unintended consequences, and too many unforeseen happenings.   Pregnancy, penury, and visas always seemed to get in the way.  What was the point? As one drew closer to the end of one’s life and farther from its beginnings, wasn’t it time to either retire to Florida or to a retreat in an Alpine Carthusian monastery? Settling in Bodrun, Mardin, and Cappadoccia with the likes of Dilara seemed more and more remote the older Rainey got; but that was the irony of life– to have seen the best of all possible worlds and having to settle  for less, much less.

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