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The Gaze

Elif Shafak
Querido, Amsterdam, 2006
translation: Brendan Freeley

originally appeared as:
Mahrem
2000, publisher: Metis Yayinlari, Istanbul



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the ledge - flash version*

*
English

THE GAZE — ELIF SHAFAK

At this point I’d found a job teaching half days at one of the newly opened nursery schools. It didn’t pay much, but the conditions were good. What I had to do was sing with the children, paint with them, make up stories, and kneed coloured clay with them from morning till noon. At one thirty we had our lunch break. Our cook prepared different meals each day according to the weekly plan given to him by the parents’ association. But it seemed to me as if we ate köfte and potatoes every day. Sometimes the köfte were made of meat, sometimes of chicken, sometimes of fish, sometimes of cracked wheat and sometimes of soya. The potatoes were always the same. And we always drank glass after glass of milk. The children snickered openly at the way I drank my milk. Every day we had a different kind of pudding that passed for desert. When lunch was over the little ones would take their afternoon nap. Then after I’d gone back and cleaned up my classroom, I’d turn my post over to someone else. The director of the nursery was always calling me in and telling me that the parents wanted me to work full-time. According to him the parents loved me. The parents wanted it to be me they saw when they came to pick up their children in the evening.
1.

 
THE GAZE — ELIF SHAFAK


Anyway I wasn’t any better than any of the other teachers. I was just much much fatter. My appearance gave the parents confidence. While I was in charge, they were less worried about their children falling and hurting themselves, or being rough with each other, or playing with sharp instruments. Like an enormous balloon filled with dreams that had the taste and consistency of strawberry pudding, I softened all movement around me. When I was there, modelling knives were a little less sharp, the corners of the desks a little less pointed, the pushing and shoving less harsh, even the slides in the playground were less slippery. When I was around, the children were secure. Perhaps I was even cut out for this kind of work.
But I had such a hard time going to the nursery in the morning. Indeed, I didn’t want to do anything that involved leaving the SHADOWPLAY (Hayalifener) Apartments. As soon as the front door opened I was seized by the desire to go back home. I didn’t like the outside.
Outside was the land of appearances. The children at the nursery were competing with one another to remind me how fat I was. When I got home my hair smelled of the letters F-A-T-T-Y the way someone’s hair smells in the evening when they’ve been around people puffing on cigarettes all day.
2.

 
THE GAZE — ELIF SHAFAK

Indeed the first thing I did when I got home was to wash my hair. The letters would wash off me and swirl away down the drain. But no matter how much I shampooed my hair, some of them wouldn’t come out. They’d stick to me like burs. Then, B-C would come help me: he’d pick out the F’s, the A’s, the T’s, the Y ’s.
So one day I decided to dye my hair. It was clear I couldn’t get rid of the letters F-A-T-T-Y. But with the right hair colour I could make them invisible; like a sweater that doesn’t show stains.
ak (love): A widow in the arms of her lover, ‘This thing called love should be forbidden,’ she muttered to herself, ‘and what is forbidden should be kept from prying eyes.’
However, the young man wanted everyone to see him make love to the widow. He had to prove to others that he was growing up. For this reason he always kept the window open. But no one ever passed down that street.
Then one day as the young man was wandering around the house, he managed to open a door that was always kept locked, and that he’d never once touched before. ‘My God!’ he shouted. ‘Is that why you’ve locked everyone into this room? Did you do this so no one would see us?’ As he stood waiting for an answer, the widow locked the door on the callow young man and left.
3.

 
THE GAZE — ELIF SHAFAK


The widow met a caterpillar on the road. ‘Will you be my secret love?’ she asked him. ‘Why keep it a secret?’ asked the caterpillar. ‘If someone’s in love with me I want everyone to see her love. Then I’ll be thought less ugly.’ For a while, the widow watched the caterpillar gnaw on the leaves. Then she locked the whole wide world on the ugly caterpillar.
She came across the cosmos and asked it the same question. The aged cosmos answered, ‘If someone’s in love with me I want everyone to see her love. Then I’ll be thought younger.’ The widow shrugged her shoulders. In any event she had a huge ring of keys in her pocket. She locked the aged cosmos in on itself.
In order to continue on her way she had to step off and fall into the void. As she fell she took a new key out of her pocket, but there was no lock in sight. ‘Are you an idiot? What would a lock be doing drifting through the void? There’s nothing here but nothingness,’ grumbled the void. The widow looked at the void with great admiration. ‘In that case please let me stay with you. You’re the one I’ve been seeking.’
‘That’s completely out of the question,’ said the void. ‘If you stay with me, you’ll fill my void, and then I’ll no longer exist.
4.

 
THE GAZE — ELIF SHAFAK


‘Go on back now,’ said the void in a sweet voice, as if wishing to ask forgiveness for having been rude. ‘Go back and open all the doors. Let them out. You need them.’
The widow did as the void asked, and opened all the doors she’d locked. When they saw that their captivity had come to an end the prisoners rushed out pushing and shoving; as they ran around dazed by their freedom, some of them were injured. The widow was surprised and angry. ‘As if things were any better now?’ she was heard to have said. She locked herself in her house in order not to have to witness any more of this tumult. And after this she forbade herself love.
The colour catalogue they thrust into my hands at the hairdresser’s was wonderful. There were curls of all colours, but I was more enchanted by the names than by the colours. For instance the caption for a copper coloured curl was ‘Farewell to the Train at Sunset:’, for a loud reddish tone ‘Also known as Seduction’’, for an ash coloured curl, ‘What the Fireplace Knows’, for a yellow curl, ‘Natural Blond’, for a dark, chestnut coloured curl, ‘Roasting Chestnuts in the Evening’. I stroked the curls again and again with my index finger. If it were up to me, I’d give each of the coloured curls names that had to do with food.
5.

 
THE GAZE — ELIF SHAFAK

Since I was little, colours have always evoked food for me. As I thought, I looked carefully at my index finger. My cuticles were torn and chewed away, and in horror I hid my finger so no one would see it.
After hesitating for some time, I decided on a curl with silver glitter in it. It was called ‘Coal-cellar Black.’
‘It will suit you very well,’ said the hairdresser. ‘It will make your face look thinner.’
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t return his smiles. I looked at him in the wide mirror in front of where I was sitting. He grew uncomfortable and avoided my eyes. I hate those who think fat people are stupid.
6.


     
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