THE PROPHETS WORE LINEN
With Lale Müldür in Istanbul
Allow us to introduce the sensational Lale Müldür, who is seated on her couch in the Istanbul neighborhood of Cihangir smoking one of her beloved Marlboro menthols. The walls of the apartment are covered in paintings and photographs, except a bare spot of white directly facing her. There are many portraits of Lale, who is one of the greatest living Turkish poets, by artist friends of hers. Her shelves are stacked with works by Borges, Mallarmé and Catullus, books on religion, philosophy and the French theorists, titles like The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age and Le soleil d’Allah sur l’occident. There are several photographs of Nico below the bookshelf, and two Albrecht Dürer prints hanging above her head. In the corner of the room there is a small writing desk at the window overlooking the sparkling, streaming waters of the Bosporus, with the minarets of the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque across the Golden Horn. Today the view is somewhat interrupted by an enormous cruiseship that is parked in the port below. As she talks—her sentences constantly interrupted by gusts of laughter—seagulls come to land on her windowsill and peer into the room. Lale picks up a volume of her poetry called Water Music, and begins to read the first poem, “Barocco,” slowly but naturally in her warm, striated voice:
“She finally undresses for the species of ferocious seabirds. She drops her wedding ring into the water. — This is me, just before my divorce. — She leaves the singular pearl of winter in some other house… / Bending / refracted in the water / she sinks to the bottom. / Turning her seaweed eyes, she looks to Uranus.”
It’s about freeing herself, she says, opening herself to new, strange experiences. Uranus represents the unknown, unexpected, and “extraterrestrial.”
In the course of the long afternoon, as lipstick-stained cigarette butts pile up in the pewter ashtray in front of her and we drain cups of tea and Turkish wine, she tells her story:
My father was Hungarian and my mother was Jewish. I suppose from Thessaloniki. Very frequently, my mother used to offer thanks to water, and she would say bismillah arrahman irrahim, but that’s all she said. She wouldn’t reveal her true religion to us.
I grew up in Istanbul, in Teşvikiye. It was very different then. In those years you felt really part of a cosmopolitan world. There were so many different kinds of people in Istanbul then. We used to go down to the cafes around Arnavutköy. The owners were all Greeks or Armenians and we’d hang out together. They left later and it was very sad. Without knowing my own origins I liked the Jews very much and I really wanted to learn everything they do.
My next book of poetry will be about Jesus Christ. It’s called Mother Odes—I started it when she died. So it’s about the death of my mother but then it goes on to talk about Jesus, and my spectral family [laughter].
I don’t read poetry, actually. I only read my favorites—Rimbaud, Rilke, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Of the Turks, I read Mevlana, Ece Ayhan, Sheikh Galip, and Ahmet Aşim and Yahya Kemal. I read everything else but poetry. Religion—that’s my business.
The religious men in Turkey talk all the time about Muhammad and the Koran. They can do perfect analytical work on those subjects, but no synthetic work [laughter]. There’s nobody who reads stuff like I do, and then goes home and thinks about it a little bit. I’m fed up with talking to myself for so many long years.
My first book was…expressionist. That’s the most I can say. Then with my second book I became religious. Something happened to me. I was pregnant, and I had to kill the child. I was feeling very bad, for years. I was aware of the child’s existence for only one week. And during that week I took him to various parks. It was tragic to take him to such places when I knew he was going to die. I didn’t know anything about Turkey at that time. I was scared. But while I would take him around sometimes I would feel a terrible pain, right here [indicates her lower abdomen]. It hurt too much, but there was also a kind of orgasmic quality to it. And I said to the child ‘I’m gonna miss this feeling.’ And then three months after they took him, I felt it again, and I realized there was something strange about that child.
While I was pregnant—before I knew I was pregnant—I had a vivid vision. It’s the most vivid vision I ever had. The man I was going out with was reading a book near me, and I said “Something strange is happening to me”…I talked to him throughout the vision. At first I saw V shapes in front of me, green or orange…I was flying, by standing on the V. And I was enjoying myself flying. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed myself that much in any other part of my story. It was a lovely feeling. And I wasn’t making any great effort to fly but I was flying. According to my friend I was there in the room, but I was flying in my mind—if you will—and suddenly…I saw Jesus and his twin…very beautiful, a very beautiful guy. I didn’t understand the twin for many years, until a friend of mine told me that according to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus does have a twin! But Jesus didn’t smile at me, he just looked at me very distantly…And then I saw Muhammad. He had black hair to his shoulders and white skin, a beautiful man still, but not as beautiful as Jesus Christ [another burst of laughter]. He talked to me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He gave me an empty flowerpot, and he was smiling at me, so I felt better.…So it was Muhammad that made me happy, obviously. And then suddenly I came down….And I said ‘Why? Why am I here again?’ [laughter] ‘I was so happy up there,’ I said. And then I asked my friend how much time had passed and he said it was only ten minutes. ‘But it was hours,’ I said. ‘For hours I was there.’
The next day I started to study—and learned quickly—the Muslim prayers. And I really read the Koran over and over again. I didn’t go to the mosque but I said my prayers at home, in my bedroom. The direction of Mecca is there [points out the window].
There’s a saying in Islam: “He who dies without a sheikh, his sheikh is Satan.” So I went to various sheikhs to choose one. At first I couldn’t find one. Then I said in an interview that there weren’t any mystical leaders left in Turkey. And a man heard and got angry with me. He found me because of that. He’s of the Naqshabandi, and they say the Naqshabandi are the only real order left. But I hadn’t met them until he contacted me. After I’d known him for a short time he came with all this set-up to initiate me, and I accepted. Then during the process of becoming a student, there’s a dreaming session. And I dreamt of a man—very good looking, too—and wearing something like a turban, big like this [holds her hands wide around her head]. Afterward I asked the man to show me the pictures of the Naqshabandi sheikhs. He showed me two pictures: the present sheikh and the one before him. And it was him, the one before. And I thought ‘It must be true, what I chose, because I saw him.’
They protect me from all types of troubles. I do many things that are not considered good in Turkey and nothing happens to me. I think it’s because of them. For some time I was very happy like that. Until it dawned on me—this was quite a bit later—that as an intellectual, I couldn’t be Muslim. Take a good example—They bring a woman who has cheated on her husband in front of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ doesn’t say anything to her but says to the people who have gathered round the woman—‘That person among you who has never sinned, throw the first stone.’ So nobody could do it. Muhammad on the other hand is…[extends her palms like a market scale]. Everything is 230 grams or 30 grams, 250 beets or something… I was fed up with that.
I don’t deny the Koran and I don’t deny Muhammad either…Still, I wonder if they’ll accept my next book, the order, because I’m going to talk about my relations with Jesus. They love Jesus, but they don’t want me to change religions! [laughs]
But I’m going to talk to about my relations with Jesus, and his appearances here. Not only have I seen him here but some 15 other people have seen him [laughs]. And I believe them, because I say ‘Look at Jesus’ left eye and tell me what he does when I talk to him.’ And they say he’s moving his eyes up and down. And that’s correct.
He comes from the highest part of the wall. He walks. He comes like this [makes a slow creeping motion]…like a ghost…That’s why I say I have a spectral family [laughter].
I saw Jesus a few times—I don’t remember how many times. Several years ago I had a brain hemorrhage, and the most important visit was after I came out of the hospital. I came to the house and I said ‘So I can’t see you again, can I?’ But he came and I talked to him the whole night, and in the morning he left. But he left his image on the wall [indicates the place on the wall across from her, uncovered by paintings].
The funny thing about the image is that he was wearing a white linen garment of mine, which I hadn’t worn in a long time. I was shocked; I said ‘How did you remember I had such a thing?’ And then I remembered: All prophets wear linen.
I was very happy like that for a while, but I didn’t tell anyone about it. I’d had so much of being called crazy, that I didn’t want to be called even crazier [laughter]. Then he left! And I was very sad. But one day—it’s very strange luck, let’s say, because it was a prostitute who saw him again. That’s the really funny part [laughter]. She was terribly intelligent, that woman—I found out she was a prostitute later. But she was here and she said [whispering] ‘Look he’s coming!’ And she was right—I looked and I saw that he’d come again!
For a time I lived happily with him, and one day Jesus asked me whether I wanted a child. I said I can’t have children anymore [laughter]. But he said don’t worry we’ll have one. And one day I had a real ache, in this bit [again indicates her lower abdomen]. It was aching too much. On the table in the other room is a fishbowl into which I’d put pine needles. And on top of those pine needles I saw the baby. Inside something like a womb. And I said: ‘That must be my child.’ I looked at her and saw her, and she suddenly grew up, and I saw her on the walls, on that piece of glass, inside—like what Muhammad gave me—inside the flowerpot. And in that way we had seven children and three grandchildren.
They can immediately become very small if they want. That’s the strange part. And their favorite pastime now is marrying between themselves. Then they have children together, and all really beautiful! [laughs] When I go out I say ‘Come on, let’s go out,’ and they come, without being seen by anyone. Once in a taxi—this I remember very well—I saw a bright blue light on the dashboard, and it was them. Or I see their figures, or I see them on top of trees.
But they want new clothes all the time! And they don’t want just anything. They want top brands, designers! They’re going to make me go broke! I bring them clothes and they won’t wear them. They say Jesus will come a year from now, and they’ll come too, and then they’ll wear them.
I’m holding in my hand a copy of Lale’s only novel, called Bizansiyya—a combination of two older names for Istanbul: Bizans and Konstantiniyye. Loose in structure, the book moves from scenes of the 1990s Istanbul counterculture to lists of recipes for traditional medicines in the Spice Bazaar, from stories of vampires haunting the gentrified cafes of Cihangir to discourses on Nietzsche and Hegel, all bathed in lyrical ruminations on the lost cities and vanished gods that still lurk within the current megalopolis. Opening the book at random, my eyes land on a line, which I read to her: “Will the messiah appear in Istanbul?”
She says: “I wrote that some 17 years ago. Before any of this. Maybe that what you’re holding is another Gnostic bible.”
And her raucous laughter erupts again, shaking the Orthodox icons and wilted flowers, silver pitchers and inlayed end tables, the potted plants outside the window, the concrete walls of the neighboring buildings, the distant minarets, until the enormous cruiseship suddenly upends like a plastic toy and sinks right down to the dark bottom of the Bosporus.
To watch Lale reading from her poetry at Duke University, click here.
To read translations of some of her work, click here and here.
Her new book will be published in Turkish by Yapi Kredi in September.