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Life’s Good, Brother

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It was on the fifth visit I saw Nazim high on the wall, a portrait only for wandering eyes. His Life’s Good, Brother arcs nebulous degrees of biography over decades of haunting loss, exile, and imprisonment. In English it reads as a staccato never grating, teasing coalesce as time flies.

Detention and imprisonment based on beliefs and affiliations dominate each character in the book. The narrator’s visit to the USSR, to fall in love with many ideas and one woman, follows him for the rest of his days.

“We started moving again. Groups on side streets waited to join the march. “Our bakers!” Kerim exclaimed. On the side street, with their zipkas, caps, and flags both with and without the star and crescent, are our Black Sea men. “1 May” was written in Turkish on their banners. Russia had countless local cooperatives of Laz bakers, but their central cooperative is new. And the Chinese are in the business of laundry and ironing. But both our workers and the Chinese keep their own citizenship. They vote in the Soviet elections and can be elected, join the syndicates, or become members of the Bolshevik Party. me, for example, a Turkish national, if I stand for election, I can be voted to the presidency of the Supreme Soviet. My God, how beautiful! So many parts of the world exist in one immense country! Here you’re not asked your religion, country, or nationality. No. Instead, you’re asked: “Do you live by exploiting others? Have you been a priest or a hodja? Have you worked for the police, the bourgeois gendarmes?” And if you answer, “No,” you’re okay, and you become a part of this great country, as if you were born here. what a beautiful, think, Anushka, how beautiful! To fall in step with people whose language you don’t know, whose customs and traditions you don’t know, and not feel like an alien. Feeling like an alien must be very sad, Anushka; I don’t know, I’ve never lived through it, but an Albanian gardener who worked at my grandfather’s seaside house had lived in Istanbul for who knows how many years. “Istanbul is beautiful,” he’d say, “God bless its owners. But I’m afraid I’ll die here, from from home.”

Maybe exile is just a matter of degree.

My friend called excitedly seventeen times today. He has a job interview tomorrow, 11:00 a.m.

He has worked at a coffee shop for three years, experiencing many of the problems Syrians in Turkey face. He often gets shorted (they pay him 250 when he is owed 300), his paydays are consistently pushed back, and Turkish coworkers doing the same job (and/or with less experience) get paid more than him. He never gets raises.

“What can I do my friend?” he asks ad nauseum.

He’s got this down on his luck shtick honed to the point I began excoriating him to be more positive because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Though surely this is in part because of the small selection of English available to him. Like many Syrians here he suffers by comparing his situation to what he had in mind for himself, what he had before, what others have now.

When he phoned to say he couldn’t open the cafe in the morning because of the interview the manager told him either to reschedule it for the afternoon or to effectively quit his job. This is far from the first time he’s been strong armed — “They have no mercy. They want me to work as an animal.” — the capricious and arbitrary powers granted by the informal employer and the guest worker. During Ramadan this summer he was the only staff member fasting yet the hardest worked.

We went to the barbershop for the better part of two hours after that. He got his already clean cut sharpened and his beard lightened. The barber there, a young smiler from Aleppo, frets over every hair on your head. So said sharpening took twenty minutes while a full cut lasted an hour. Total price for the latter: $3.90 USD.

It helped. His mood buoyed, we stopped by the cafe and he handed in his keys — he won’t open tomorrow. If he gets the job he will almost quadruple his monthly take home pay — certain friends won’t suffer anymore bellyaching — and he’ll have a path for advancement.

We mellowed with çay towards midnight, a small live performance on. I saw Nazim’s picture while my friend unwittingly paraphrased the title to explain his mood with an optimist’s sigh.

“When you are bad man bad things happen to you and when you are a good man good things happen.”

I don’t believe it but tonight he did.

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