Chapter One: The Attraction


Chapter One

The Attraction

Dr. Kilisli Rifat, I was told, always wanted a daughter. He had two sons instead, my father Faruk and my uncle Galip. He allegedly said if he ever had a daughter, he would name her Nükhet. He died in 1936, long before I was born. My father, years later, remembered his father’s wish. Well, actually my mother wanted to call me “Leyla”, but there was a sickly Leyla living in the same apartment building, which dissuaded her. So in the end, my father prevailed and I was named Nükhet.  As I was growing up, I felt this inexplicable connection to my grandfather, as if I was the daughter he had wanted.

One day as I was sitting at my computer in my office preparing for class, an email with the subject line ‘Dr. Kilisli Rifat Kardam’ flashed across my screen. Opening it, I saw that someone by the name of Bülent Karadağ was asking if I was related to Dr. Kilisli Rifat Kardam. A medical doctor himself, Dr. Bülent Karadağ was searching for information about Dr. Kilisli Rifat’s life and works and explained that his mother was the granddaughter of one of Dr. Kilisli Rifat’s half brothers. After corresponding a few more times, Bülent and I decided to meet in Gaziantep, a bustling city in southeast Turkey, where his parents live. I suggested that we also visit nearby Kilis, Rifat’s hometown. I had never been to Kilis, nor had I heard much about it from my parents. In fact, thinking back now, I sensed a sort of aversion, a distinct lack of interest in Kilis or in the relatives from Kilis on their part.

Bülent’s e-mail was one of those fateful messages that I look back on and say yes, that is when it all started. I began to wonder. Was there anyone in the family still alive who had met Dr. Rifat and could tell me something about him? While I waited for the trip to my grandfather’s hometown, I located Dr. Rifat’s nephew, Uluer, who lived in Istanbul now in his eighties. Uluer was the son of Rifat’s brother, Dr. Mehmet Emin Bilgen. He had met Dr. Rifat as a young boy. My cousin Ahmet and I went to visit Uluer at his apartment on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. I was filled with expectation but was disappointed when I found out that Uluer could barely remember him.

My cousin Ahmet and I sat on his couch in his living room, going over family albums with a glass of Turkish tea warming our hands. Uluer turned a page and pointed to a black and white picture of a grave site and said: This is your grandfather’s grave. It was made of marble, a large rectangular stone with another smaller rectangular stone built on top of it, at the edge of which sat a marble pyramid. Facing the pyramid on one side of this structure was a small marble cube. I had never seen a grave like this! Muslim graves are usually filled with soil in the middle where flowers may be planted. But this grave site was made of marble, giving the impression of a special tomb. Uluer pulled this photo out of his album and gave it to me.

EDIRNEKAPI CEMETERY

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An early photo of Dr. Kilisli Rifat Kardam Grave Site. Courtesy of Uluer Bilgen

This faded photo must have been taken  soon after Rifat’s death since the grave looked quite new.  I took it with me to the Edirnekapı Cemetery, a huge old cemetery in Istanbul. I had read in my father’s memoir that he was buried there. (Faruk Kardam, unpublished memoir, 1986). Our family didn’t have a habit of visiting relatives’ graves, and I had no idea how to locate his grave in this vast cemetery. Luckily an official looking man walked by. I approached him with the picture in my hand. Normally, he would have to look up Rifat’s name in a registry and this might take some time. But he took a quick look at the photo in my hand and said: Oh yes, I know where this grave site is because there is none other like it. Let me take you there.

After a short stroll, we were at a family size grave site. Indeed, there in front of me was the grave that looked exactly like the one in the picture except that the iron fence around it was missing, and the marble had taken a darker tone over the years. Weeds had grown all around it. Islamic tombstones always have an inscription that says Ruhuna Fatiha (asking visitors to recite the first sura of the Qur’an for the soul of the deceased). Instead, in art deco letters, one face of the pyramid announced his name and years of his birth and death (1877-1936).

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The captions on the face of the pyramid. Photo by author.

There were so many puzzles. I was looking at the grave of a man who, by all accounts, was much loved and respected during his lifetime. I had heard from my father that hundreds of people attended his funeral, carrying his coffin on their shoulders. But the grave site looked totally forlorn, covered with brush, the marble darkened and dirty. I sat there on the marble stool next to his grave for what seemed like a long time, alternately laughing and crying. My grandfather had allowed me to find him!  I thought to myself whoever had built this grave was very nice to provide a stool for visitors to sit and commune with his soul. I felt a little dizzy and spent and called my cousin Ahmet, reporting that I had located our grandfather’s grave. I recited the Fatiha even though the inscription on the pyramid did not request it. One of the caretakers hung around, watching me. He asked: Why don’t you come over to my office and have some tea? Now that is a quite common and wonderful occurrence in Turkey. Everywhere you go, you are invited to have tea. So in a few minutes, I found myself sitting in the caretakers’ office with several men, having tea in tulip shaped glasses. I loved hearing that clinking noise as the little spoon I stirred the sugar with hit the glass. I told the men that I wanted to make sure the grave was cleaned up and the overgrown bushes removed.  I also wanted to make sure that this family grave site still belonged to the family as I wanted to be buried there when the time came.

BABAANNE

One of the men pulled a big black book from a shelf in order to look up Dr. Rifat’s record. He started turning the pages. Raising his eyebrows in surprise, he claimed: You have another person buried here!  What? I said: But there is no sign, no tombstone, nothing! Who is it? He announced the name of the person who was buried there: Fatma Nazire Kardam. My mouth fell open! My beloved grandmother! Dr. Rifat’s wife! And she doesn’t even have a grave with a tombstone to her name? How can that be? I felt myself returning to my childhood. There is babaanne in front of my eyes: slightly bent, her face framed with, soft, white hair with her watchful brown eyes. She used to live with her older sister close to our house. My parents would drop me off at her apartment many evenings, a natural babysitter, as they went out to dinner or to play bridge with friends.

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Nazire, my ‘babaanne’ in her fifties. Source: Family Archives.

Babaanne in my memory was this small, frail and sweet woman who took care of me. By that time, she was in her late eighties. Yet, I could sense her internal strength. She seemed to have a sort of indescribable power. I remember that she was very comfortable with who she was. I could picture her small kitchen with dark tiles as she prepared breakfast for me. I can still smell the toast she prepared, or rather the burnt slices of bread toasted on top of her oven. The toast was always accompanied with feta cheese, sliced tomatoes, and olives – how I loved this breakfast. Even today, I love the smell of slightly burnt toast. It is my favorite nostalgic breakfast.

I found myself sitting in that small office, barely hearing what the caretakers were saying as memories of my babaanne washed over me, still unbelieving, in a daze. How can that be? How can that be? She is lying there, with no name, no date of birth or death, no ruhuna fatiha (prayer to her soul)!

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Tombstone for my grandmother. Photo by author

I kept thinking, this is heresy, a shocking display of lack of interest, a duty unfinished – how could her two children, my uncle and my father do this to her? My grandmother doesn’t deserve this kind of neglect from her sons! Finally, I turned to the man with the big black book: Can you please find me someone who can at least make a marble inscription for her, with dates of her birth and death right next to her husband? I want her soul to be in peace. A week later, there was a new tombstone, next to my grandfather’s grave, with my grandmother’s name, Fatma Nazire Kardam, date of birth and death (1885-1979) and ‘Ruhuna Fatiha’ inscribed on it.

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From left to right: Nazire, Faruk, Galip and Dr. Rifat circa late 1920s. Source: Family Archives

That very night I had a dream. A black and white family picture of my grandparents and their two sons appeared, probably from the late 1920s, like the one above. Everybody looked pretty serious, no smiles. I am told that the technology of photography then prohibited a smile, because one had to hold the smile for quite long, and by the end, the smiles probably turned into grimaces, or something quite unnatural. The picture in my dream grew larger and larger, became life size, about the size of a large door. All of a sudden, babaanne stood up and started to walk out of the picture towards me, her arms wide open! Just then I woke up in a daze, shivering, astounded, and still feeling her presence with me. She is thanking me for finally having a tombstone to her name, I thought. She has come from ‘barzakh’ and wants to have a dialogue. According to Sufi thought, people who die find themselves in a place called ‘barzakh’ – an intermediate stage between the separation of the soul from the body and Judgement Day, and from there, they may communicate with people who are living.

Strange that even though she and my parents used to live on the same street, babaanne seldom visited our home as I was growing up. Once in a few months, my dad would bring her over for a Sunday lunch with the family. We would usually have fresh fish cooked in the oven with a sauce of tomatoes, peppers and onions, fresh bread, and a mixed green salad. He would take her back to her apartment after lunch. I could tell, even though I was quite young, that my beloved grandmother was somewhat segregated from the family and there was no love lost between her and my mother. In the meantime, as I was growing up, my grandmother’s house would become a haven for me. I would stay there over weekends when I was a boarder at the American College for Girls in Istanbul (now called Robert College).

Babaanne never asked any unwanted questions, always welcomed me with open arms just like in that dream even as I lived through my phase of ‘sex, drugs and rock’n roll’ coming home from discotheques in the early hours of the morning. I would unlock the apartment door as softly as I could and tiptoe to my room. A few minutes later, babateyze, my grandmother’s sister would get up and start her nightly round of wandering up and down the corridor, turning the lights on and off. I would feel scared and weird watching this performance, not knowing what was going on. When my mother got Alzheimers and started doing the same things, I understood better. As I got more and more self-absorbed in my teenage years, I began to see babaanne’s house as just a place to come back to when I needed food or sleep. Once in a while, she would tell me a story from the past, but did I pay any attention? No. I just remember bits and pieces of what she recounted:

“Nükhet, did you know that my father Galip was an Ottoman Pasha (general) and Governor? When I was growing up, we traveled in luxurious horse carriages. We dressed beautifully and we had many servants. But then our family was sent to exile on orders of Sultan Abdulhamid, and we suffered greatly. No one would marry me, an exiled Pasha’s daughter, for fear that they, too, might be blacklisted. I was twenty-three years old and this was considered past the marriageable age. That’s when your grandfather Rifat came along and asked for my hand. He was not afraid. He worked for an international organization, the International Quarantine Service, which provided a sort of immunity. We got married and I was blessed with the happiest of marriages. “

I was no longer living in Turkey when babaanne died after a short illness on December 30, 1979. My father said that even on the day she died, babaanne was instructing him to pay the electricity bill for her apartment before it was overdue.

A VISIT TO KILIS

My grandfather’s grave site had opened a pandora’s box. I now needed to go back to the beginning and visit Kilis where Rifat was born.  Bülent and I had agreed to meet in Gaziantep, a bustling city in southeast Turkey, where his parents lived and to drive to Kilis from there. I persuaded my cousin Ahmet to accompany me. He and I walked into Bülent’s parents’ apartment feeling a little awkward, but it took just a few minutes before all of us felt comfortable as if we already knew each other. There is a saying in Turkey: blood attracts. Bülent’s parents had moved from Kilis to Gaziantep. Many people from Kilis apparently chose to migrate to this big, commercial city in search of new opportunities. Kilisli people (people from Kilis) are allegedly a bit envious of  ‘Anteplis‘ (people from Gaziantep) and their economic success. The factories, the malls and the wealth speak for themselves. Yet, they secretly think that the Anteplis have no culture and no interest in education; all they are interested in is making money. The Anteplis, on the other hand, are said to find Kilislis unbearably lazy.

Kilis on Google Maps
Click Image to explore the region around Kilis on Google Maps


In Gaziantep we met another relative, Ahmet Münir Bilgen. His name was also Ahmet, like my cousin. We called him Ahmet Bey as he was older (Bey denotes respect). Ahmet bey was passionate about the family history. He had constructed an extensive family tree and was eager to share it with us. We sat around a large oval table at his home, enjoying tea and sweets. Ahmet bey laid out a large paper with our family tree on it and began to explain: Our family originally comes from Central Asia, the Bozoklar Arm of the Oğuz tribe. They traveled straight to Konya (in Central Anatolia). From there, our arm of the family traveled to Kilis and settled there.

Ahmet bey was clearly very proud of our ancestry because history books tell Turks that they originated from Central Asia, complete with heroic tales of victory of how they crossed the Asian steppes into Anatolia. I leaned over to examine the detailed family tree. He continued:

Our family was called the Chelebis  (Çelebi in Turkish) until the surname law went into effect in 1936. As you probably know, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi’s (Rumi, the Sufi master and poet who lived in the thirteenth century) family was called Chelebi as well. I am quite certain that our family comes from the same ancestry as Rumi. Look, one arm of our family led by Hüseyin Chelebi left Konya and came to Kilis and settled here. Our family line must go back to him. And look here, here is Mevlana’s family tree chart, and there is a Hüseyin Chelebi and that branch of the family ends right there. This must be the same Hüseyin Chelebi, our ancestor, who left Konya and moved to Kilis!

Mevlana Family Tree 1
Mevlana Family Tree (1 of 2)

Courtesy of http://mevlana.net/family_tree-1.html

Mevlana Family Tree 2
Mevlana Family Tree (showing Hüseyin Çelebi) (2 of 2)

Courtesy of http://mevlana.net/family_tree-1.html

Huseyin Celebi in Celebi Kardam Bilgen family tree
Courtesy of Ahmet Münir Bilgen

Explore the full family tree 

My cousin Ahmet and I glanced at each other. We were not sure what to say. Ahmet ventured politely that this was quite unlikely: The dates don’t really fit, and we know that Chelebi is a very popular and common name given to educated people. Ahmet bey insisted. He was adamant that we were descendants of Rumi. He looked a little disappointed about our less than eager response and said that it is perhaps time to show us something very special, but first we must promise that we wouldn’t ask to have it. Ahmet and I were perplexed but agreed. He went to his bedroom and brought back a small book. It looked like handwritten prayer book with colorful designs round each page in Arabic script. He announced that this book belonged to Rifat. I took it in my hands, and a tremor ran through my body like an electric current. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. Did my grandfather hold  this book in his own hands? I was clutching it and did not want to let go. A few minutes later I was back to reality as I heard Ahmet bey speak: My mother passed this book to me. I keep it under my pillow, and I read it and pray each night. I am afraid I cannot give it to you because it is very precious to me.

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A sample page from Rifat’s Personal Prayerbook. Courtesy of Ahmet Münir Bilgen.

The next day, we drove to Kilis. Rifat left Kilis when he was about seventeen years old. To my knowledge he never returned, even though he proudly called himself ‘Kilisli’ (from Kilis) all his life. Kilis, during Rifat’s youth, was a center of learning and within easy distance from Damascus and Haleppo, all part of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, in the nineteenth century, Kilis was part of the Ottoman ‘vilayet’ (province) of Haleppo. Students from far away came to study in Kilis at its centers of higher learning. There were twenty medreses  (madrasahs) clearly pointing to the strength of education and spiritual life in Kilis. Medreses included Sufi lodges and lodging quarters. The story goes that you could sit with a tradesman, a person who makes pots or pans or repairs horse carriages and discuss Plato or Aristotle.

I perceived a sense of mystery to Kilis as we drove around – its olive trees, vineyards, its Sufi shrines, its beautiful mosques, the exquisite Mevlevihane (A Sufi lodge following Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi’s teachings). The narrow streets, the beautiful stone buildings all spoke of a magnificent past. I could imagine the shaikhs receiving their students who respectfully kissed their teachers’ hands. View photos of old Kilis Rifat’s father, Haci Ahmet Efendi, was a well-respected and wealthy tradesman, mostly trading in leather, traveling back and forth between Kilis and Haleppo, Hama and Damascus. When the borders of the Republic of Turkey were drawn in the early 1920s after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kilis lost its magnificence. Haleppo, Hama and Damascus were incorporated into Syria, first a French colony, then an independent nation-state and now in the throes of civil war.

The British diplomat, Mark Sykes in his travelogue describes how he met a Mevlevi Shaikh in Kilis in the 1890s. (Skyes, Dar-Ul -Islam Journey Through Asiatic Provinces) As he is walking around the ‘çarşı(bazaar), he runs into a Mevlevi Shaikh. The shaikh startles the author by saying ‘Selamun Aleykum’. When the shaikh finds out that Sykes knows a few words of Arabic, he takes him to his lodge (Tekye) and shows him the area where they perform the semah. He is very polite and graceful. There are twenty-one dervishes in the lodge. According to Sykes, these ‘proud fanatics’ serve pilav (a rice dish) and soup to the poor. Skyes further writes:

“Its (Kilis) bazaars are large and the minarets of the mosques are slender and well built, capped with stone peaks instead of the usual tin ones. The great mosque should on no account be missed…Kilis is one of the most polyglot towns in Turkey; the Arab forms a considerable portion of the population, while Kurdish, Turkish and Armenian are freely spoken; consequently every other man is in some lingual difficulty with his neighbour, and the bazaars are a perfect babel. The new road (passing outside of Kilis and going to Iskenderun, the nearest city on the Mediterrennean) is having a good effect, as the khans (where travelers stayed) are full of traffic and fresh ones are being constructed. Carriages and covered carts jingle through the town with a cheerful and prosperous sound.” (Sykes, 1904, pp. 58-59)

I am curious to explore what happened to the multicultural population of Kilis. I am told that many beautiful buildings in the city were built by Armenian architects. Driving around town, it is obvious that some of them are in dire need of restoration. I ask a few of today’s Kilis inhabitants whether they know how many non-Muslims currently live here. One person responds rather defensively: That’s a strange question. Why do you want to know? Another says: Kilis has been a very tolerant, multicultural town, where Armenians, Jews, Turks lived together peacefully for many years, but Armenians and Jews have left; there are very few non-Muslims remaning, if any. Of course, you never know for sure, who believes what inside. There are probably some atheists in Kilis too. Another Kilisli proclaims: There are no non-Muslims left in Kilis. Some lived here in the past, but they looked down on Kilis and moved to big cities. And it is a good thing that they did! The people who live in Kilis now are proud to be Turks. Their stories are about how they fought valiantly to push back the French forces who occupied Kilis, assisting Mustafa Kemal, the national hero who fought against the occupying forces and established the Republic of Turkey.

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Ahmet and I at the steps of an old church which now houses Kilis Association Office. Photo: source unknown

It is a warm, sunny spring day. We are in Muhlis Salihoğlu’s Office located in a beautiful old building. We are told that this building was part of a church, and priests used to reside here. Muhlis bey is the director of the Kilis Cultural Association Office. Earlier, we drove through the narrow Kilis streets in Muhlis Bey’s old Mercedes for a tour of the town. I notice more motorcycles on streets than cars, narrow alleyways and beautiful old buildings, some restored, some decrepid. We are now sitting at his office, drinking tea and taking pictures. He is proudly introducing us to some prominent people as the grandchildren of one of its luminaries, Dr. Kilisli Rifat. We are offered gifts – CDs of Kilis music, books on Kilis history, Kilis cooking, and copies of the Kilis magazine that he publishes. The next issue of this magazine will feature an article on our visit.

After our stop at the Kilis Cultural Association Office, I ask to see the house that Dr. Rifat grew up in. We see it from the street but are not able to go in. Bülent’s father, Ihsan Bey, recounts how he used to play, in its courtyard when he was a kid. It was made of stone, he says as we stroll together, and it was several stories high and it seemed huge to him then. I am reminded of a biography of Dr. Rifat written by his brother, Mehmet Emin, describing Rifat’s boyhood:

“Rifat in his childhood and youth was quite a naughty boy who liked to play jokes on people. He was funny and had a happy disposition. While some complained about his practical jokes, he was much loved and even respected. He behaved in a compassionate, caring way towards his parents and other members of his family. He possessed a high level of intelligence and deep knowledge. He was already composing beautiful poems and writing interpretations and commentaries of the works of Islamic luminaries that spurred admiration mixed with amazement in his teachers.” (Mehmet Emin Bilgen, “Dr. Kilisli Rifat Kardam’s Biography”, unpublished document)

RIFAT PREPARES TO LEAVE KİLİS

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A view of the house (from the street) Rifat grew up in. Photo by author.

As we walk around town, I am transported to Rifat’s time. There he is, ‘Kara’ (Black) Rifat as he was called then because of his darker skin, looking about fifteen years old. He is walking to the medrese with several thick books under his arm. It will be a long session, but he is excited. He loves and respects his teachers Keçikzade Abdurrahman Efendi and Bedrizade Haki Efendi, well known Sufi shaikhs. He has already learned Arabic well enough to memorize the entire Qur’an. He is taking lessons in Arabic, Persian, Public Speaking, French, Logic, Literature, Hadith (Prophet Muhammed’s sayings) and Poetry. He has a close friend, Mehmet, whose father, Abdullah Sermest Efendi is a Nakshibendi Shaikh. Together, Mehmet and Rifat study with Elbistanli Ahmed Hamdi Efendi, who is authorized to teach by Mehmet’s father. At night Rifat continues to study by the light of the gas lamp, tirelessly, sometimes till the morning. He always has a book in hand, always reading, even at the dinner table. Here is his mother chiding him again: Rifat, eat your dinner, put that book down, now!!

If she makes me put down my book one more time, I am going to think of a way to get back at her, at all of them, Rifat thinks. How about a practical joke? It is Ramadan. Every evening at ‘iftar time’ (meal that breaks the fast), there is a ‘top’ (cannon) to alert people. Rifat makes a plan: I am going disconnect this cannon so it won’t go off!  And yes, the time to break the fast comes but there is no cannon and everyone is still waiting and starving. His parents turn to Rifat who has a gleam in his eyes: It is you again, isn’t it? It is one of your practical jokes again! We have had it! What will the neighbors say? Yet, they also can’t stop from smiling. His mother loves him so much that she doesn’t have the heart to punish him.

Rifat’s father, Haci Ahmet Efendi, conducts trade in Damascus and Hallepo and travels frequently to those cities. One day he brings a ‘kuma’ (a second wife) from Hama, a city now in Syria. This new wife is fair and beautiful while Rifat’s mother, Fatma, has curly hair and is rather plain looking. From then on, Fatma’s life is troubled, as the new wife takes over the household, as well as the affections of Haci Ahmet Efendi. Rifat and his siblings are now treated like stepchildren in their own house. A few months later, Rifat witnesses the new wife called, Hamali, (from Hama) having a fit and throwing a ‘mangal‘ (small barbeque) at his mother’s face, barely missing her! He is furious and grows progressively angry about his predicament. His father is frequently away at business trips to Damascus and Haleppo and life with a mother and a stepmother in the same household is getting more and more difficult. He starts to dream: I am going to work hard and leave this town as soon as possible. Some day I will go far away perhaps to Istanbul inshallah and become a successful doctor and make my own living. I will not let my mother, my brother and sister languish and suffer here either. I will send for them to come and live with me.

Time has passed and Rifat is now seventeen years old, and Kilis has become too confining for his dreams. He asks his father permission to leave Kilis for further education. He wants to become a medical doctor. But his father is not at all interested in letting him go. Rifat and his father together frequent Bedrizade Haki Efendi’s classes to listen to him speak on Sufism. Haci Ahmet Efendi loves these classes and has great respect for Haki Efendi. Rifat thinks that perhaps Haki Efendi can convince his father. Haki Efendi has a large build and is fair; he is soft spoken and seems to have a luminosity about him. This particular afternoon, Haci Ahmet Efendi comes in and kisses Haki Efendi’s hand. They sit side by side on the kilim and sip their tea silently for a while. Finally the Hoca (teacher) speaks: I have heard that Rifat wants to leave Kilis. It would be the best thing for him, and don’t forget to give your blessings. I have seen a dream in which he is flying as free as a bird in the sky, flying higher and higher. This is a good omen.  Ahmet Efendi responds:

Hocam (my teacher), this son of mine is gifted and I know that he wants to leave Kilis to complete his education. He might go away regardless of whether I give my blessing or not. He is already taking French lessons and hiding it from me, all in preparation for Istanbul. Once he goes there, who knows what will happen? The Sultan is ignoring the ulema and building Western schools. He is catering to foreigners and bringing teachers from Europe to instruct Muslim students. What will happen to my Rifat there? Will he become a stranger to me? Furthermore, he will never be fully accepted over there, a boy from the ‘tashra’ (periphery).  

Haki efendi listens silently, nods: Don’t blame yourself, my friend. But Rifat will go whether you give your blessings or not. That night I imagine that Haci Ahmet beckons to his son to sit down next to him:

Rifat, my son, I would rather keep you by my side here in Kilis. But I understand that you have made up your mind. The only thing I can do now is to give you my blessings. I have decided to do just that, and let you go. But I want you to promise me something, that you will never ever forget where you came from, always honor Kilis, and remember your family.

Rifat’s eyes are filled with tears and says yes, he will keep this promise. A few minutes later, he is running madly over across the street to his best friend, Mehmet’s house. They have been conspiring to leave Kilis together. He breathlessly shares his news. Mehmet is sad that his own attempts to leave Kilis have been twarthed by his mother. He informs Rifat that his mother has decided that his son should get married. A girl has been selected for him and he is now practically engaged. There is little he can do.

Did Rifat’s father really give him his blessings? There is a second version to the same story. According to this version, Rifat felt that he no longer had a father who could guide him, protect him and show him affection. His father had turned himself over to his new wife who was ruling over the household. There was no place in this household for Rifat, or for his mother and his siblings anymore. Rifat had to save himself first and then his mother and siblings. He went to an uncle and asked his help but was refused. Then he went to another uncle who agreed to assist him financially and help him leave Kilis. A third version is provided in my father’s memoir. Rifat’s avid desire to learn the French language was unacceptable to his father. But finally, he was convinced to let him go as he realized that Rifat was not going to give up. Thus, he sent Rifat to Aleppo to board a train to Iskenderun, a port on the Mediterrenean. Rifat was accompanied with a friend, a namesake called Deli Rifat (Crazy Rifat). As Rifat was about to get on the train, Deli Rifat spotted a wallet on the ground and grabbed it. Opening it, he saw that there were quite a few banknotes in it. He gave this money to his friend and kept the empty wallet himself as a souvenir.

Whatever events actually transpired, Rifat, in the end, boarded the ship ‘Kayser’ in Iskenderun that was to take him to Istanbul. It was 1894. He sailed for several months to an unknown future, to the center of the world as far as he was concerned. Later that night he would write the following verse in his little notebook: (Kilisli Dr. Rifat Kardam [Kara Rifat], Published Biography, date and source unknown)

Azarin Iptidasiydi sali gasside

Bindik vapuru Kaysere, gittik Istanbul’a

(I boarded the “Kayser” ship [in Iskenderun], on the way to Istanbul

At the beginning of March on a Tuesday noon)

(c) Nükhet Kardam 2015

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References and Credits

Bilgen Mehmet Emin, BIography of Dr. Kilisli Rifat Kardam, (in Turkish), unpublished manuscript.

Family Tree, credit to Ahmet Münir Bilgen

Skyes, Dar-Ul -Islam Journey Through Asiatic Provinces

Photos of old Kilis

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