Full Moon Fever

Sublime Reflections

Orhan Pamuk: My First Passport

What does it mean to belong to a country?

By Orhan Pamuk, The New Yorker, April 16, 2007. Translated, from the Turkish, by Maureen Freely.

In 1959, when I was seve years old, my father wen missing under mysteriou circumstances; several week later, we received word that h was in Paris, living in a chea hotel in Montparnasse. He wa filling up the notebooks that h would later give to me, and fro time to time, from the Caf Dome, he’d spot Jean-Pau Sartre passing in the street. A first, my grandmother sent hi money from Istanbul. M grandfather had made a fortun in railroads. Under m grandmother’s tearful gaze, m father and my uncles hadn’t ye managed to squander their entir inheritance—not all of th apartments had been sold. But, twenty-five years after her husband’s death, my grandmother decided that the mone was running out and she stopped subsidizing her bohemian son in Paris.

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This was how my father joined the long line of penniless and miserable Turkish intellectuals who had been walking the streets of Paris for a century already. Like my grandfather and my uncles, he was an engineer with a good head for mathematics. When his money was gone, he answered an ad in the newspaper for a job at I.B.M.; once hired, he was dispatched to the company office in Geneva. In those days, computers were still operated with perforated cards, and the general public knew little about them. My father became one of Europe’s first Turkish guest workers. My mother soon joined him, leaving my older brother and me in our grandmother’s plush and crowded home. We were to follow our mother to Geneva after school had closed for the summer, which meant that we needed to get passports.

I remember having to pose for a very long time while the old photographer fiddled, under a black cloth, with a three-legged contraption with bellows. To cast light onto the chemical plate, he had to open the lens for a split second, which he did with an elegant flick of his hand, but, before he did this, he would look at us and say, “Yeeeees,” and it was because I found this photographer truly ridiculous that my first passport picture shows me biting my cheeks. The passport notes that my hair, which had probably been combed for the first time that year in preparation for the photograph, was chestnut brown. I must have flipped through the passport too quickly back then to notice that someone had got my eye color wrong; it was only when I opened it thirty years later that I picked up on the mistake. What this taught me was that, contrary to what I’d believed, a passport is not a document that tells us who we are but a document that shows what other people think of us.

As we flew into Geneva, our new passports in the pockets of our new jackets, my brother and I were overcome wit terror. The plane banked as it came in for a landing, and to us this country called Switzerland seemed to be place where everything, even the clouds, was on a steep incline that stretched to infinity. Then the plane finished it turn and straightened itself out. My brother and I still laugh when we remember our relief on realizing that this ne country was, like Istanbul, built on level earth.

The streets in Switzerland were cleaner and emptier than those at home. There was more variety in the shopwindows, and there were more cars. The beggars didn’t beg empty-handed, as in Istanbul; instead, they’d stand under your window playing the accordion. Before we threw money to our local beggar, my mother would wrap it in paper.

Our apartment—a five-minute walk from the bridges over the Rhone River, at the point where it emerged from Lake Geneva—had been rented furnished.This was how I came to associate living in another country with sitting at tables where others had sat before, using glasses and plates that other people had drunk from and dined on, and sleeping in beds that had grown old after years of cradling other sleeping people. Another country was a country that belonged to other people. We had to accept the fact that the things we were using would never belong to us, and that this country, this other land, would never belong to us, either.

My mother, who had studied at a French school in Istanbul, sat us down at the empty dining-room table every morning that summer and tried to teach us French. Only when we were enrolled in a state primary school did we discover that we had learned nothing. My parents hoped that we would learn French simply by listening to the teacher day in and day out, but we didn’t. When recess began, my brother and I would wander among the crowds of playing children until we found each other and could hold hands. This foreign land was an endless garden full of happy children. My brother and I watched that garden with longing, from a distance.

Although my brother couldn’t speak French, he was top in his class at counting backward by threes. The only thing I was good at in this school where I couldn’t understand the language was silence. Just as you might struggle to wake up from a dream in which no one speaks, I fought not to go to school. As it did later, in other cities and other schools, my tendency to turn inward protected me from life’s difficulties, but it also deprived me of life’s riches. One day, my parents took my brother out of school, too. Putting our passports in our hands, they sent us away from Geneva, back to our grandmother in Istanbul.

I never used that passport again. Although it bore the words “Member of the Council of Europe,” it was a reminder o my first failed European adventure, and such was the vehemence of my decision to turn inward that it would b another twenty-four years before I left Turkey again. When I was young, I always gazed with admiration and envy a those who acquired passports and travelled to Europe and beyond, but, despite the opportunities that were presented t me, I remained fearfully certain that it was my lot to sit in a corner in Istanbul and give myself over to the books that hoped would one day make my name and complete me as a person. In those days, I believed that one could understan Europe best through its greatest books

In the end, it was my books that prompted me to apply for a second passport. After years spent alone in a room, I had managed to turn myself into an author. Now I was invited to go on tour in Germany, where many Turks had found political asylum; it was thought that those Turks would enjoy hearing me read from my books, which had yet to be translated into German. Although I applied for a passport with happy excitement at the idea of getting to know Turkish readers in Germany, it was during that trip that I came to associate my passport with the sort of “identity crisis” that has afflicted so many others in the years since then—that is, the question of how much we belong to the country of our first passport and how much we belong to the “other countries” that it allows us to enter.

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October 23, 2007 - Posted by | Orhan Pamuk

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