The Pasha and the Gypsy — Part IV

Originally posted by Gordon206 on 07/08/07

By the year 1935, the newly-surnamed Kemal Atatürk was cruising at the height of his political power.  At age 54, his most daring moves were behind him, and the reforms that he had instituted were taking hold. Now, as President, he left the day-to-day running of the government to others, especially his Prime Minister, Ismet Inönü. This freed time for less pressing concerns, like looking after his Model Farm on the outskirts of Ankara, conferring with linguists on new Turkish words, or pursuing such oddball ideas as the Sun Language Theory, which posited that all human languages had derived from Turkish-a theory that, to his credit, he later abandoned. He had also acquired a vacation home in Istanbul, as well as a yacht.

At times, he began to complain of boredom. There was still plenty for him to do, of course. Decisions had to be made, affairs, both foreign and domestic, to be monitored. The fate of the Syrian province of Alexandretta, then under French mandate, was a special concern. In the remote mountains of the East, then as now, there were rebellious Kurds who did not like their forcible conversion into Turks. Just because he left the daily tasks of government to such as Ismet Inönü does not mean that he abdicated responsibility.  Still, life for Atatürk must have paled when compared to the battles of preceding decades. His most recent biographer, Andrew Mango, cites Atatürk’s words as reported by his private secretary, Hasan Riza:

I’m bored to tears.  I am usually alone during the day.  Everybody is at work, but my work hardly occupies an hour.  Then I have the choice of sleeping, if I can, reading or writing something or other.  If I want to take the air for a break, I must go by car.  And then, it’s back to prison, where I play billiards by myself as I wait for dinner.  Dinner doesn’t bring variety.  No matter where it is, it’s roughly the same people, the same faces, the same talk.  I’ve had enough, boy.

But no matter how life may have palled, Kemal Pasha seemed to find ways of bouncing back. His restless mind would discover new interests, new people, new ideas to challenge it. Those around him expected this.  They tended to look past the moods and complaints and see the same amazing person with all the astounding energy, even if he wasn’t always there. And in his social life, to be sure, he never slacked off.  Rarely did he go to bed before 3:00 A.M.; nor did he rise before noon.

Kemal Atatürk seems not to have known what it was to spend a peaceful night at home alone. The symphony, opera, and ballet-all state-sponsored with his encouragement-offered a bit of diversion.  And if there wasn’t some function to attend, then he created one simply by going out.  (Sir Percy Loraine: “He didn’t frequent societies; he made them.”) In the Ankara of the 1930s, “going out” meant limited options. There was the cabaret in the Ankara Palas hotel, just opposite the old Parliament building in Ulus, near the Old City.  But mostly there was Karpiç’s Restaurant.

If there was a real center to upper-crust Ankara life during those years, this had to be the place.  Ivan Karpiç was a Russian immigrant who had opened his restaurant near Ulus Square, just around the corner from the Ankara Palas Hotel and the Parliament.  Through the Second World War and into the 1950s, his place remained a fixture of Ankara life.  During the war, when Turkey remained neutral, Hitler’s diplomats, as well as the diplomats of other Axis powers, would dine at Karpiç’s, literally within spitting distance of their British, Russian, and American counterparts.  In the Hachette Blue Guide to Turkey, published in 1960, the Karpiç Lokantasi (“orchestra in the evening; tel. 12-236”) still shows up plainly on the fold-out map of Ankara, the only restaurant to be so-honored.  In Istanbul Intrigues, his study of espionage in wartime Turkey, Barry Rubin describes it thus:

Legend had it that Ivan Karpiç began his restaurant at Atatürk’s request so that the republic’s founder could have somewhere to dine.  Atatürk even held cabinet meetings there.  The décor was simple; one journalist compared it to a “Kansas railroad station lunchroom.”  Yet Karpiç’s colorful clientele made it a magical place?Karpiç’s assistant, Serge, darkly handsome like a film star, actually ran the place.  But the bald, round-headed Karpiç, with his thick accent and white coat, provided the atmosphere.  He personally scooped caviar in generous dollops from a big dish, supervised the preparation of the food, proudly oversaw his shish-kebab specialty, presented flowers to the ladies, and watched to ensure that everyone was happy with everything.

So when Zsa Zsa tells us that Burhan one day announced, “We’ll take Leman and Yakup to Karpiç’s,” this makes perfect sense.  It is simply unthinkable that they would have eaten anywhere else.

In an oblique way, Zsa Zsa’s memory of Karpiç’s confirms the impression of a “Kansas railroad station.”  She remembers a huge square room with pillars, a gigantic Turkish flag above the entrance, and Atatürk’s portrait everywhere else.  One can almost hear the click of scurrying heels on the terrazzo, the announcement of what train is leaving from which track.  Their table sat to one side of the dance floor; next to that the orchestra (Hungarian musicians, says Rubin) was playing.  Zsa Zsa was looking at her menu when music and conversation suddenly stopped.  The restaurant fell silent, the double doors at the entrance flew open, and amid a flurry of evening gowns and tuxedos, one man came into focus.

About the color of his eyes, there is disagreement.  In most accounts, they are a shade of blue.  King Edward VIII, without noting the color, said they were the coldest, most penetrating eyes he had ever seen.  Sir Percy Loraine remembered them as a “penetrating ice-blue.”  In 1990, Zsa Zsa remembered them as green.  In her first account, however, she looked up from her menu and saw a “slim man with gray eyes the color of steel.”  He wore black tie, and accompanying him were three or four other men, similarly attired, along with women in evening gowns.  A squad of uniformed police had preceded him, and these now formed a cordon as the gray eyes entered and stood gazing at the room.  By now everyone was standing, and Zsa Zsa quickly followed.

“Atatürk,” Burhan whispered in her ear.

Zsa Zsa stared.  Atatürk, remote, immobile, and aloof, withdrew a cigarette and tapped it on a gold case as he surveyed the room.  Their eyes met, and the rest, she says, was inevitable.  That, at least, is what Zsa Zsa says in her 1990 memoir, the book where she “tells all.”  The 1960 book with Gerold Frank delivers less kismet but more detail and is, therefore, a lot more interesting.  In that book Atatürk doesn’t make eye contact at all when he enters.  But she continues to stare.  The room, she says, remained quiet, at attention, as the great man was seated, and until he sat down no one else, women included, would do so.  The resemblance to royalty could not have been more complete.

Yakup Kadri stood on Zsa Zsa’s left.  He leaned over and asked “teasingly” what she thought of their “Grey Wolf”-another of Atatürk’s nicknames, and the title of a negative biography (1932) by H.C. Armstrong.  This bantering about the great man was certainly in character.  Yakup Kadri knew the man well.  He dined with him often, and, though not an intimate friend, by that point he had certainly moved beyond idolatry.

Zsa Zsa turned again to stare at Atatürk, who was only some thirty feet away.  Desperately, Leman whispered to her not to stare, not to call attention to herself.  Yakup Kadri grinned and continued to tease.  His wife was right, he told Zsa Zsa: Atatürk may try to “adopt” her.

By that time in her Turkish residence, Zsa Zsa certainly knew all the stories about Atatürk: he was the greatest soldier, the greatest lover, the indefatigable playboy, the great reformer, the savior of the nation.  She knew about his adopted daughters, his mistresses, and his capacity for strong drink.  She didn’t know which stories to believe or disregard.  Some, however, her own husband had told her, and Burhan was not the kind of man to pass along lies.  Now she could only look on, a comely young woman melting before a dominant older man.

Inevitably, however, as Zsa Zsa glanced at the President’s table their eyes did meet.  Zsa Zsa blushed and looked away, but it was too late.  Soon an aide arrived, inviting Burhan Belge, Yakup Kadri, and their ladies to join Atatürk at his table.  There was, of course, no way of turning down this invitation.  As Zsa Zsa describes it, all of them knew what was up.  Leman, Burhan’s older sister, looked terrified.  Her brother, she must have assumed, was about to be cuckolded by the President of the Republic.  Yakup Kadri the novelist could barely contain his laughter.  He knew Atatürk, and he knew that his brother-in-law had married a knock-out.  One can almost see him twirling his mustache, gleefully contemplating the entry that this incident would make in his writer’s notebook.  As for Burhan, Zsa Zsa reports that his face had darkened like a thundercloud.

At the Gazi’s table, Burhan seated himself and his wife as far from Atatürk as possible.  Still, she became the immediate focus of conversation.  Atatürk asked if she had ever tasted raki.

“No, Pasha Effendi,” she answered.

This got a big laugh from the rest of the table, but Zsa Zsa did not know why.  She had in fact confused two titles of address.  Mustafa Kemal had certainly been a pasha, a general, but he was never an effendi.  This was a label generally reserved for menials.  [Ali Pasha, for example, was the famous ruler of Ioannina, in northern Greece.  But if a man named Ali owned a restaurant, he would be called Ali Bey.  And if another Ali worked at that restaurant sweeping the floors, he would be called Ali Effendi.]

Since Zsa Zsa had never tasted raki, which is very much like ouzo or Pernod, Atatürk (“with a hand that trembled slightly”) poured a glass and sent it to her.  Zsa Zsa, after a fit of coughing, managed to get it down.  Atatürk next asked if she smoked.  Again, to repeated laughter, she told the “Pasha Effendi” that she did not.  Promptly the Pasha sent down one of his own, “a thin, flat cigarette rimmed in gold, with `K.A.’ embossed in tiny crimson letters.”  Zsa Zsa puffed, tried to inhale, then coughed.  Atatürk, she says, seemed to be enjoying himself.

In this, it is the detail that convinces: the hand that trembles slightly; the initials on Kemal Atatürk’s custom-made cigarettes.  And there is another telling detail as waiters arrive to serve the food, and the members of the party begin to eat.  For according to Zsa Zsa, Atatürk only watched.  He ate nothing.  But his glass of raki was continually refilled.

At length Atatürk asked one of the other ladies present if she danced the waltz.  The lady in question demurred.  Atatürk then asked Zsa Zsa.  Of course she knew the waltz: she was from Budapest.  Kemal Pasha rose, a bit unsteadily, and the entire room rose with him.  And so, before the entire company, Fred and Zsa Zsa took a turn.

Fred and Ginger it was not.  She was terrified; he was full of raki.  The pasha danced heavily, she says, and held her strongly in his grip.  They conversed.  Atatürk explained to her the absurdity of “Pasha Effendi.”  He asked how she liked Turkey.  Of course, she adored it.  Zsa Zsa, feeling more confident, began to regret the simple black dress she had worn and wished she had worn something with a plunging neckline.  She essayed a look at the Gazi’s eyes.  Gray or blue-or green, as she described them in 1990?  All the above, it seems.  “The pupils,” she says, “were so light blue as to be almost colorless; it was like looking at a blind man and yet one whose eyes pierced you through.”

Back at the table, Atatürk, proposing a toast, announced that Hungary and Turkey would henceforth be sister states.  Their languages were similar; their people had similar histories.  At last he sat down heavily, and those at the table continued with their meal in silence.  That was when Atatürk announced that he was leaving, and that he would drive Madame Belge home.

One does not envy Burhan Belge at this moment.  One does not envy anyone at the table.  Indeed, given the tensions involved, it’s a wonder that any of Karpiç’s food got eaten that night.  Burhan, however, showed what he was made of.

“If you please, Excellency,” he said, “I should prefer to do that.”

Ignoring him, Atatürk went on: Burhan could take home whichever of the other ladies he wished.

Burhan repeated: he would take his own wife home.

What? Atatürk asked.  You don’t want one of these lovely ladies?

This time Burhan didn’t reply, and this time Atatürk laughed.  Burhan had passed the test.
“This is a man,” he said with approval. And with that, after appropriate bows, the President’s party left the restaurant.

Atatürk’s behavior wrought predictable reactions: Burhan and his sister were angry; Yakup Kadri was amused; Zsa Zsa was excited.  She was sixteen years old, and she had danced with one of the great men of the age.  “I think he approves of you,” Yakup Kadri said.  In the space of a few minutes, her life had exploded like a star.

In the following weeks, little changed in Zsa Zsa’s routine.  Fatushka the white Arabian remained the center of her existence.  Sometimes she would ride her almost to the grounds of the Presidential Palace on Çankaya Hill, and there she would hope that Atatürk would emerge so that she could say hello.  On Wednesdays she met with the Prime Minister’s mother, an ancient lady who invited the wives of government officials to take tea with her on that day.  There she chatted in broken Turkish with the old woman, a fiercely traditional female who refused to take off her veil just because Atatürk told her to.  At other times she had tea with the Loraines, who told her stories of their life in Cairo.

But Zsa Zsa became homesick, and who can blame her?  Her best friends-her family-lived a thousand miles away.  They could only communicate through letters, and the letters from Budapest, though welcome and full of news, only reminded her of the lush, vibrant world she had abandoned.  In Ankara she had no one to confide in.  Burhan was more a guardian uncle than a friend.  She had spent two years in a Swiss finishing school followed by three months’ work in an operetta; she spoke four languages and was learning a fifth; she had gone to a man she didn’t love and talked him into marrying her.  And now?  More and more, Zsa Zsa felt like a castaway, self-marooned in an ocean of dust.

One day she rode past the Circassians’ antique shop in old Angora.  Numad, she says, was seated by the front door in the sunshine, and he called out a greeting.  Her Excellency must come in, he said, for he had something to show her.  In his office, after he had sent a boy for coffee, Numad took out a tiny object wrapped in tissue wrapper.  He handed a magnifying glass to Zsa Zsa.

Zsa Zsa, daughter of the diamond store, lover of jewels and glitter, was entranced.  It was a miniature of a human hand, fashioned in gold.  According to Numad, it would bring good luck to whoever possessed it.  The Hand of Fatima, he called it-modeled on the hand of the prophet’s youngest daughter, she who married Ali, the fourth Caliph, and was mother to Hussein, founding martyr of the Shi’a sect.

But Zsa Zsa was also skeptical.  It could not, she thought, be the Afghan Ambassador again, for his taste in jewelry wasn’t that good.  So who was it this time?

Numad dropped the tiny object into her hand.  Out of his mouth came the same line as before.  It was hers because she was so pretty.  Zsa Zsa began to object, but this time Numad seemed more serious.  It would bring her good luck, he said.  She should not refuse.  Somebody wanted her to have it because “beauty with good fortune is a blessing, but beauty without good fortune is a curse.”

And so this time it wasn’t as easy.  This time a tiny, beautifully fashioned object had been offered to her, not a gaudy bracelet crusted with gems.  (Eventually, Zsa Zsa says, she found out that it came from the Topkapi Museum.)  It’s mine? she asked: I can take it with me?  Not quite, Numad said.  From the same drawer he produced a key.  She could have the Hand of Fatima and the luck that went with it, but first she had to use this key, which opened the door of a house in the Old City.  He promised her that it was not what she thought; she would not be compromised.  But he could tell her nothing else.

Zsa Zsa has guts, as George Sanders noted, but she is no fool.  Already in Vienna she had turned down the chance to become the kept woman of Willi Schmidt-Gentner, a man she adored, and instead became the proper wife of Burhan Belge.  And still she had managed to keep her virginity.  This piece, the Hand of Fatima, absolutely enchanted her.  And the key?  Human curiosity was beginning to make inroads.

However, “This is ridiculous,” she told Numad at last.  He could take back his magic totem.

The Circassian begged Zsa Zsa to think it over. “Excellency,” he said, “you cannot let this pass.” He was quite serious.  But she walked out anyway.

Zsa Zsa didn’t sleeep much that night, and for the next week she lived in a fever of speculation and curiosity.  Who was doing this?  What was going on?  Was it all a practical joke?  Perhaps the ever-mischievous Yakup Kadri had arranged it.  But he was out of the country.  And Burhan was the last person to do something like that.  Several times she rode past Numad’s shop and stopped in to see the Hand.  By the end of week, mad with curiosity, she went back to the shop for a final time:

All right, I thought.  I’ll find out.  I said to Numad, “Where is the key?”  He produced a small key.  On a slip of paper he wrote the address in the heart of the old city.  “At four o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” he said.  “Do not be late.”

In both of her memoirs, despite the fabrications, fantasies, and contradictions, Zsa Zsa tells the same basic story of the Hand of Fatima, the key, and the house in the Old City.  Of course, it’s quite possible to believe that she has made it all up, that these are the fantasies of a glamour queen who wants to embellish her legend and sell books.  But this time it sounds like the truth.  There is George Sanders’ assessment of her character: guileless, spontaneous, willing to take a chance.  There are the details that ring true: the look of the Old City; Atatürk’s drinking habits. But above all, there is one indelible image, that of the gorgeous blonde Hungarian, charming and a bit spoiled, bored and adrift, riding alone on a white horse through a dusty Anatolian town. Say what you will about romantic fantasies, the cold fact is that in the sparse, brown Ankara of the 1930s, Zsa Zsa would have been impossible to ignore. And in that city there was one man who ignored nothing.

Anyone who has traversed the upper streets of Old Ankara remembers the way they dip and twist as they negotiate the contours of the hill; the way the cobblestones, polished and broken by the centuries, seem to shift beneath the feet. This time Zsa Zsa, sans Fatushka, had to walk the gauntlet alone.

Zsa Zsa tells of her impressions from that day: the fresh carcass of a sheeep hanging in a butcher shop; the dim cave-like shops; the street cries; the merchants lounging in front, calling out for the favor of her patronage. For any woman, let alone a sixteen-year-old girl, such a walk cannot have been easy.  As a society, Turkey is relentlessly male, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the streets of its older neighborhoods, where merchants, houses, and life lie together in jumbled knots.

Eventually she found a street so narrrow it was virtually an alley, and a slender wooden door cut into a high wall.  Numad’s key meshed with the lock, and the door swung open.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: