Whatever has ever happened before this moment is irrelevant.
Orhan Pamuk walked into the stage and the excitement of hearing him reading from his new book took over my breathing system, inside my veins, my stomach, my eyes, and I felt enchanted by his tall silhouette and the shine in his silver hair. I couldn’t decide which one of his little gestures were the most charming; his subtle smile as he glanced at the audience, or his obvious difficulty in pronouncing some words? At the end, I was particularly captivated by his inquisitive eyes, as if he could still look at the world with amazement.
I was sitting right in front of him, trying to hide my restlessness, trying to focus on what he was reading, wondering if I should have laughed out loud like some of the other voices in the crowd. I envied those women who could sound so confident, so carefree, and noisy, only enjoying his text, not being on the verge of having a heart attack like me.
Then it was time for his conversation with “the moderator”. (Don’t you dislike this term as much as I do? So let’s call him TM.) After the first question was asked, OP began talking, mostly like a conversation with himself. But TM didn’t give up. His fidgety hands and back and forth glances at his notes were the signs of his efforts to open up a dialogue, and driving it toward a certain zone in his mind.
OP talked about love and how the women in Turkey smiled (even chuckled) at him after his latest novel, The Museum of Innocence was first out - a love story with too many scenes about virginity or sex -but he wondered why, au contrary, the men appeared distant and uncomfortable. He added that this work has been compared to a modern Leili and Majnoon, but he said that no one should simplify it and the reader should know that his novel is also about so many other things.
Then Pamuk changed the subject and said how nervous he was about the real museum opening in Turkey and he revealed his own obsession with small museums and their intimacy and his fascination with objects (as a trigger to evoke a hidden memory). We learned that he had actually gathered – like Kemal his protagonist - all kinds of insignificant objects to create his own personal museum, but no one should expect this place to be like Louvre or Metropolitan.
As he was talking about Istanbul and going on describing people and places of his youth, I kept thinking that he should be somehow obsessed with his own memories. But don’t all his books have this same theme in common? This deep nostalgia about a black and white Istanbul 50’s and 60’s. “I see the tourists going to Istanbul and coming back complaining to me that the city has nothing to do with your melancholic descriptions,” he said. “But I have to say that while Istanbul has become westernized compared to the Istanbul of my books, all those western cities have become even more westernized.” And the hall exploded with laughter.
OP looked pleased and TM uncomfortable, checking his watch.
His last remark was about the notion of exile. He said that since he’s been teaching at Columbia, he hears all the academia talking about Diaspora, expanding it to the size of the whole world. “But as much as the statistics says, there are only 3% of people living in Diaspora. The rest of people still live in their homes. So nobody should be surprised that I’m writing for this majority. I am this kind of person. I like to stay in the same city, to live in the same house, to sit in the same room, gazing at the same view,” he said. Again, everyone laughed.
When it was time for asking questions, I managed to get in line from my seat going over knees, legs and purses, but there were a few already waiting behind the microphones, even more motivated than me. They asked him about Politics, Islam, the suicidal girls with scarf, even psychology. When I was only short of two people standing between me and my question, TM announced that the time was almost up and the next two questions would be the last ones of the night. OP looked at both sides of the hall, counting the people standing in line and said that he’d be willing to answer all the questions, but they should be brief. And the next two were really brief. Yet, as my turn came up and when I reached the microphone, TM rubbed his hands, saying, “OK, Thank you Mr. Pamuk for your time! Now, there would be a book signing session in the hallway,” and got up.
OP turned toward me, shrugged and raised his arms in the air, like saying that he didn’t approve of what had just happened. At that moment, I was pretty mad and disappointed. I could feel the gush of fear at the back of my mind, teasing me, telling me that I was going to fail again. After all, this week had been pretty hectic, with too many rejections.
Like everyone else, I rushed outside. The panic took ahold of me as I realized that I wasn’t fast enough. The book signing queue for OP seemed overcrowded, and endless. I hated myself feeling little at the sight of so many elderly - way faster than myself- already standing in line.
I got to the end of line and took all my OP books out, plus my Pamuk story. Betty (my friend and another devoted OP fan) joined me. As we were talking, someone tapped on my shoulder. I looked back. It was a Japanese girl I didn’t know.
“I know you,” she said. “You couldn’t ask your question. What was it?” Another woman next to her leaned forward. “So unfortunate that the time was up and TM had to cut you,” she said.
I was humbled that everyone had sympathized with my pain.
Of course, as we stepped forward, I talked generously and in length about my passion for literature and for Pamuk and gave away my question. Everyone around us agreed that it was such a great question and they expressed their interest to listen to OP’s answer.
The line moved slowly, but I wished it could have moved slower, so the joy of anticipation could have lasted longer.
All the wishes don’t come true, but some do.
And the great moment I was waiting (as if I had waited for it all my life) arrived. I was finally right there, in front of the greatest writer of our time, the man whose books have changed my life forever.
He seemed triumphant, behind a wall made of serenity.
As soon as he saw me, his face lit up. “I’m sorry you couldn’t ask your question,” he said with a genuine smile. “It was TM who didn’t let me.” Then he stared at my copy of The Black Book (a totally worn out copy that I’ve read so many times) and frowned teasingly, “What have you done to my book?” he asked, but watching my reaction, laughed. “Actually, it’s good.”
I knelt down to be at the same level as his eyes. My injured knee hurt like hell, but it was a sweet hell. I didn’t care. “I’m your biggest fan,” I said. “I’m also a writer and I’ve written something just for you,” pushing my story forward on the table. He looked at the title. “Wow,” he said and grabbed my pages hurriedly. I wanted to cry of happiness. Even Orhan pamuk couldn’t resist to his curiosity to find out more about a title such as Becoming Orhan Pamuk!
After he signed every book we had carried, Betty and I said goodbye and walked toward the exit. But we saw the Japanese girl running toward us. “Please come,” she said.
I was surprised by the urgency in her request.
“Please hurry,” she said. “There’s a Turkish TV crew outside. They’re looking for someone who has read Pamuk. But so far they haven’t found anyone in the audience. So I told them about you. I’m sure you can answer to all their questions.”
I sighed, and thought I shouldn’t miss this opportunity of talking about my all time favorite subject: Orhan Pamuk!
So I agreed and walked toward the big sculpture by the fountain to find the Turkish crew guy who was gentle and polite. “Am I the only one here who has read Pamuk?” I asked, and he nodded. I was the only one who was brave enough talking about it, I was told. While waiting, we talked about OP and his works. I asked him why the Turks didn’t like him as much as the rest of the world. He was a bit shy. But finally he opened up. “He’s an orientalist.” Of course, we kept discussing over the meaning of an orientalist, until my turn came up.
The other crew member suggested that we should move to the other side of the yard, where Orhan Pamuk (still signing the books) could be visible in the background. The interviewer – a gorgeous girl – asked me about my reasons of being an OP fan, and I just felt totally comfortable answering this question and the rest of the questions that followed. I think the interview lasted about 6-7 minutes, more or less. I’m not sure.
After thanking the Turkish crew, I turned to take a last glimpse of my favorite author, and realized that there was no more book signing line, but Pamuk was still there, taking pictures with fans. I couldn’t help it, but I had to run inside the building, asking him to take a picture with me too.
You can’t understand my joy when he accepted. My only problem? I had no camera. But my dear friend, Betty, came to my rescue with her iPhone. I moved next to him, my shoulder almost touching his. As we were posing for the camera and while Betty was trying to figure out how her phone works, I whispered to him: “Did you know that the Turkish TV just interviewed me?” He glanced quickly at me, looking surprised. “Why you? What were you talking about?” he asked. “YOU,” I replied, pointing at the people around us. “Out there, there was nobody else who could talk about you,” I said.
OP raised his eyebrows. “Why didn’t they ask ME?” he asked.
I knew he was frustrated, willing to talk more about himself, about his life and his marvelous novels, describing a new image of Istanbul that no one has ever imagined, taking everyone with him to the depth of Bosphorus, or talking about the necessity of writing novels, even answering my question and all the questions that nobody has asked him yet. “I’m sure they’d be coming for you too,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
At this point, we froze and Betty took a blurry picture from us.
We left, while he was walking to the Turkish crew man, prepared to stand in front of the camera where a blinding light was going to shine over him.
My knee didn’t hurt anymore.
On the way back, after I dropped Betty home, I kept thinking that I should send a lovely thank you note to TM, because if it wasn’t for his cutting my question, OP wouldn’t have noticed or remembered me, he wouldn’t have been nicer to me, he wouldn’t have accepted to read my story, the Japanese girl wouldn’t have recognized me or talked to me, the Turkish crew wouldn’t have interviewed me and I wouldn’t have been in the same program with my favorite writer, I wouldn’t have taken that blurry picture, and I wouldn’t have had that absurd conversation.
Oh TM! I’ll always be grateful to you, even if OP would probably never send me a message telling me to keep up the good job, or telling that I might have to give up on my dreams because everyone isn’t made for his kind of eternity, or even if he tells me anything. Nothing. Just a letter from him, so I can start my own private museum; my museum of innocence.
How can I thank you enough, dear TM? How could I ever?
As soon as I got home, I dropped on the nearest chair, took out my copy of The Museum of Innocence with excitement and opened it to the first page, and read the first sentence, “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.”
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