Descended from Asia Minor Greeks, born in America, I live in Europe now. Specifically, in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. The Foreign Service is split into two parts, the diplomatic corps and the cultural staff. The ambassador and his aides conduct foreign policy from the newly opened, extensively barricaded embassy on Neustädtische Kirchstrasse. Our department (in charge of readings, lectures, and concerts) operates out of the colorful concrete box of Amerika Haus.
This morning I took the train to work as usual. The U-Bahn carried me gently west from Kleistpark to Berliner Strasse and then, after a switch, northward toward Zoologischer Garten. Stations of the former West Berlin passed one after another. Most were last remodeled in the seventies and have the colors of suburban kitchens from my childhood: avocado, cinnamon, sunflower yellow. At Spichernstrasse the train halted to conduct an exchange of bodies. Out on the platform a street musician played a teary Slavic melody on an accordion. Wing tips gleaming, my hair still damp, I was flipping through theFrankfurter Allgemeine when she rolled her unthinkable bicycle in.
You used to be able to tell a person’s nationality by the face. Immigration ended that. Next you discerned nationality via the footwear. Globalization ended that. Those Finnish seal puppies, those German flounders—you don’t see them much anymore. Only Nikes, on Basque, on Dutch, on Siberian feet.
The bicyclist was Asian, at least genetically. Her black hair was cut in a shag. She was wearing a short olive green windbreaker, flared black ski pants, and a pair of maroon Campers resembling bowling shoes. The basket of her bike contained a camera bag.
I had a hunch she was American. It was the retro bike. Chrome and turquoise, it had fenders as wide as a Chevrolet’s, tires as thick as a wheelbarrow’s, and appeared to weigh at least a hundred pounds. An expatriate’s whim, that bike. I was about to use it as a pretext for starting a conversation when the train stopped again. The bicyclist looked up. Her hair fell away from her beautiful, hooded face and, for a moment, our eyes met. The placidity of her countenance along with the smoothness of her skin made her face appear like a mask, with living, human eyes behind it. These eyes now darted away from mine as she grasped the handlebars of her bike and pushed her great two-wheeler off the train and toward the elevators. The U-Bahn resumed, but I was no longer reading. I sat in my seat, in a state of voluptuous agitation, of agitated voluptuousness, until my stop. Then I staggered out.
Unbuttoning my suit jacket, I took a cigar from the inner pocket of my coat. From a still smaller pocket I took out my cigar cutter and matches. Though it wasn’t after dinner, I lit the cigar—a Davidoff Grand Cru No. 3—and stood smoking, trying to calm myself. The cigars, the double-breasted suits—they’re a little too much. I’m well aware of that. But I need them. They make me feel better. After what I’ve been through, some overcompensation is to be expected. In my bespoke suit, my checked shirt, I smoked my medium-fat cigar until the fire in my blood subsided.
Something you should understand: I’m not androgynous in the least. 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome allows for normal biosynthesis and peripheral action of testosterone, in utero, neonatally, and at puberty. In other words, I operate in society as a man. I use the men’s room. Never the urinals, always the stalls. In the men’s locker room at my gym I even shower, albeit discreetly. I possess all the secondary sex characteristics of a normal man except one: my inability to synthesize dihydrotestosterone has made me immune to baldness. I’ve lived more than half my life as a male, and by now everything comes naturally. When Calliope surfaces, she does so like a childhood speech impediment. Suddenly there she is again, doing a hair flip, or checking her nails. It’s a little like being possessed. Callie rises up inside me, wearing my skin like a loose robe. She sticks her little hands into the baggy sleeves of my arms. She inserts her chimp’s feet through the trousers of my legs. On the sidewalk I’ll feel her girlish walk take over, and the movement brings back a kind of emotion, a desolate and gossipy sympathy for the girls I see coming home from school. This continues for a few more steps. Calliope’s hair tickles the back of my throat. I feel her press tentatively on my chest—that old nervous habit of hers—to see if anything is happening there. The sick fluid of adolescent despair that runs through her veins overflows again into mine. But then, just as suddenly, she is leaving, shrinking and melting away inside me, and when I turn to see my reflection in a window there’s this: a forty-one-year-old man with longish, wavy hair, a thin mustache, and a goatee. A kind of modern Musketeer.
But that’s enough about me for now. I have to pick up where explosions interrupted me yesterday. After all, neither Cal nor Calliope could have come into existence without what happened next.
“I told you!” Desdemona cried at the top of her lungs. “I told you all this good luck would be bad! This is how they liberate us? Only the Greeks could be so stupid!”
By the morning after the waltz, you see, Desdemona’s forebodings had been borne out. TheMegale Idea had come to an end. The Turks had captured Afyon. The Greek Army, beaten, was fleeing toward the sea. In retreat, it was setting fire to everything in its path. Desdemona and Lefty, in dawn’s light, stood on the mountainside and surveyed the devastation. Black smoke rose for miles across the valley. Every village, every field, every tree was aflame.
“We can’t stay here,” Lefty said. “The Turks will want revenge.”
“Since when did they need a reason?”
“We’ll go to America. We can live with Sourmelina.”
“It won’t be nice in America,” Desdemona insisted, shaking her head. “You shouldn’t believe Lina’s letters. She exaggerates.”
“As long as we’re together we’ll be okay.”
He looked at her, in the way of the night before, and Desdemona blushed. He tried to put his arm around her, but she stopped him. “Look.”
Down below, the smoke had thinned momentarily. They could see the roads now, clogged with refugees: a river of carts, wagons, water buffalo, mules, and people hurrying out of the city.
“Where can we get a boat? In Constantinople?”
“We’ll go to Smyrna,” said Lefty. “Everyone says Smyrna’s the safest way.” Desdemona was quiet for a moment, trying to fathom this new reality. Voices rumbled in the other houses as people cursed the Greeks, the Turks, and started packing. Suddenly, with resolve: “I’ll bring my silkworm box. And some eggs. So we can make money.”
Lefty took hold of her elbow and shook her arm playfully. “They don’t farm silk in America.”
“They wear clothes, don’t they? Or do they go around naked? If they wear clothes, they need silk. And they can buy it from me.”
“Okay, whatever you want. Just hurry.”
Eleutherios and Desdemona Stephanides left Bithynios on August 31, 1922. They left on foot, carrying two suitcases packed with clothes, toiletries, Desdemona’s dream book and worry beads, and two of Lefty’s texts of Ancient Greek. Under her arm Desdemona also carried her silkworm box containing a few hundred silkworm eggs wrapped in a white cloth. The scraps of paper in Lefty’s pockets now recorded not gambling debts but forwarding addresses in Athens or Astoria. Over a single week, the hundred or so remaining citizens of Bithynios packed their belongings and set out for mainland Greece, most en route to America. (A diaspora which should have prevented my existence, but didn’t.)
Before leaving, Desdemona walked out into the yard and crossed herself in the Orthodox fashion, leading with the thumb. She said her goodbyes: to the powdery, rotting smell of the cocoonery and to the mulberry trees lined along the wall, to the steps she’d never have to climb again and to this feeling of living above the world, too. She went inside the cocoonery to look at her silkworms for the last time. They had all stopped spinning. She reached up, plucked a cocoon from a mulberry twig, and put it in her tunic pocket.
On September 6, 1922, General Hajienestis, Commander in Chief of the Greek forces in Asia Minor, awoke with the impression that his legs were made of glass. Afraid to get out of bed, he sent the barber away, forgoing his morning shave. In the afternoon he declined to go ashore to enjoy his usual lemon ice on the Smyrna waterfront. Instead he lay on his back, still and alert, ordering his aides—who came and went with dispatches from the front—not to slam the door or stomp their feet. This was one of the commander’s more lucid, productive days. When the Turkish Army had attacked Afyon two weeks earlier, Hajienestis had believed that he was dead and that the ripples of light reflecting on his cabin walls were the pyrotechnics of heaven.
At two o’clock, his second-in-command tiptoed into the general’s cabin to speak in a whisper: “Sir, I am awaiting your orders for a counterattack, sir.”
“Do you hear how they squeak?”
“My legs. My thin, vitreous legs.”
“Sir, I am aware the general is having trouble with his legs, but I submit, with all due respect, sir”—a little louder than a whisper now—“this is not a time to concentrate on such matters.”
“You think this is some kind of joke, don’t you, lieutenant? But if your legs were made of glass, you’d understand. I can’t go into shore. That’s exactly what Kemal is banking on! To have me stand up and shatter my legs to pieces.”
“These are the latest reports, General.” His second-in-command held a sheet of paper over Hajienestis’ face. “ ‘The Turkish cavalry has been sighted one hundred miles east of Smyrna,’ ” he read. “ ‘The refugee population is now 180,000.’ That’s an increase of 30,000 people since yesterday.”
“I didn’t know death would be like this, lieutenant. I feel close to you. I’m gone. I’ve taken that trip to Hades, yet I can still see you. Listen to me. Death is not the end. This is what I’ve discovered. We remain, we persist. The dead see that I’m one of them. They’re all around me. You can’t see them, but they’re here. Mothers with children, old women—everyone’s here. Tell the cook to bring me my lunch.”
Outside, the famous harbor was full of ships. Merchant vessels were tied up to a long quay alongside barges and wooden caiques. Farther out, the Allied warships lay at anchor. The sight of them, for the Greek and Armenian citizens of Smyrna (and the thousands and thousands of Greek refugees), was reassuring, and whenever a rumor circulated—yesterday an Armenian newspaper had claimed that the Allies, eager to make amends for their support of the Greek invasion, were planning to hand the city over to the victorious Turks—the citizens looked out at the French destroyers and British battleships, still on hand to protect European commercial interests in Smyrna, and their fears were calmed.
Dr. Nishan Philobosian had set off for the harbor that afternoon seeking just such reassurance. He kissed his wife, Toukhie, and his daughters, Rose and Anita, goodbye; he slapped his sons, Karekin and Stepan, on the back, pointing at the chessboard and saying with mock gravity, “Don’t move those pieces.” He locked the front door behind him, testing it with his shoulder, and started down Suyane Street, past the closed shops and shuttered windows of the Armenian Quarter. He stopped outside Berberian’s bakery, wondering whether Charles Berberian had taken his family out of the city or whether they were hiding upstairs like the Philobosians. For five days now they’d been under self-imprisonment, Dr. Philobosian and his sons playing endless games of chess, Rose and Anita looking at a copy ofPhotoplay he’d picked up for them on a recent visit to the American suburb of Paradise, Toukhie cooking day and night because eating was the only thing that relieved the anxiety. The bakery door showed only a sign that said open soon and a portrait—which made Philobosian wince—of Kemal, the Turkish leader resolute in astrakhan cap and fur collar, his blue eyes piercing beneath the crossed sabers of his eyebrows. Dr. Philobosian turned away from the face and moved on, rehearsing all the arguments against putting up Kemal’s portrait like that. For one thing—as he’d been telling his wife all week—the European powers would never let the Turks enter the city. Second, if they did, the presence of the warships in the harbor would restrain the Turks from looting. Even during the massacres of 1915 the Armenians of Smyrna had been safe. And finally—for his own family, at least—there was the letter he was on his way to retrieve from his office. So reasoning, he continued down the hill, reaching the European Quarter. Here the houses grew more prosperous. On either side of the street rose two-story villas with flowering balconies and high, armored walls. Dr. Philobosian had never been invited into these villas socially, but he often made house calls to attend the Levantine girls living inside; girls of eighteen or nineteen who awaited him in the “water palaces” of the courtyards, lying languidly on daybeds amid a profusion of fruit trees; girls whose desperate need to find European husbands gave them a scandalous amount of freedom, cause itself for Smyrna’s reputation as being exceptionally kind to military officers, and responsible for the fever blushes the girls betrayed on the mornings of Dr. Philobosian’s visits, as well as for the nature of their complaints, which ran from the ankle twisted on the dance floor to more intimate scrapes higher up. All of which the girls showed no modesty about, throwing open silk peignoirs to say, “It’s all red, Doctor. Do something. I have to be at theCasin by eleven.” These girls all gone now, taken out of the city by their parents after the first fighting weeks ago, off in Paris and London—where the Season was beginning—the houses quiet as Dr. Philobosian passed by, the crisis receding from his mind at the thought of all those loosened robes. But then he turned the corner, reaching the quay, and the emergency came back to him.
From one end of the harbor to the other, Greek soldiers, exhausted, cadaverous, unclean, limped toward the embarkation point at Chesme, southwest of the city, awaiting evacuation. Their tattered uniforms were black with soot from the villages they’d burned in retreat. Only a week before, the waterfront’s elegant open-air cafés had been filled with naval officers and diplomats; now the quay was a holding pen. The first refugees had come with carpets and armchairs, radios, Victrolas, lampstands, dressers, spreading them out before the harbor, under the open sky. The more recent arrivals turned up with only a sack or a suitcase. Amid this confusion, porters darted everywhere, loading boats with tobacco, figs, frankincense, silk, and mohair. The warehouses were being emptied before the Turks arrived.
Dr. Philobosian spotted a refugee picking through chicken bones and potato peels in a heap of garbage. It was a young man in a well-tailored but dirty suit. Even from a distance, Dr. Philobosian’s medical eye noticed the cut on the young man’s hand and the pallor of malnutrition. But when the refugee looked up, the doctor saw only a blank for a face; he was indistinguishable from any of the refugees swarming the quay. Nevertheless, staring into this blankness, the doctor called, “Are you sick?”
“I haven’t eaten for three days,” said the young man.
The doctor sighed. “Come with me.”
He led the refugee down back streets to his office. He ushered him inside and brought gauze, antiseptic, and tape from a medical cabinet, and examined the hand.
The wound was on the man’s thumb, where the nail was missing.
“How did this happen?”
“First the Greeks invaded,” the refugee said. “Then the Turks invaded back. My hand got in the way.”
Dr. Philobosian said nothing as he cleaned the wound. “I’ll have to pay you with a check, Doctor,” the refugee said. “I hope you don’t mind. I don’t have a lot of money on me at the moment.”
Dr. Philobosian reached into his pocket. “I have a little. Go on. Take it.”
The refugee hesitated only a moment. “Thank you, Doctor. I’ll repay you as soon as I get to the United States. Please give me your address.”
“Be careful what you drink,” Dr. Philobosian ignored the request. “Boil water, if you can. God willing, some ships may come soon.”
The refugee nodded. “You’re Armenian, Doctor?”
“And you’re not leaving?”
“Smyrna is my home.”
“Good luck, then. And God bless you.”
“You too.” And with that Dr. Philobosian led him out. He watched the refugee walk off. It’s hopeless, he thought. He’ll be dead in a week. If not typhus, something else. But it wasn’t his concern. Reaching inside a typewriter, he extracted a thick wad of money from beneath the ribbon. He rummaged through drawers until he found, inside his medical diploma, a faded typewritten letter: “This letter is to certify that Nishan Philobosian, M.D., did, on April 3, 1919, treat Mustafa Kemal Pasha for diverticulitis. Dr. Philobosian is respectfully recommended by Kemal Pasha to the esteem, confidence, and protection of all persons to whom he may present this letter.” The bearer of this letter now folded it and tucked it into his pocket.
By then the refugee was buying bread at a bakery on the quay. Where now, as he turns away, hiding the warm loaf under his grimy suit, the sunlight off the water brightens his face and his identity fills itself in: the aquiline nose, the hawk-like expression, the softness appearing in the brown eyes.
For the first time since reaching Smyrna, Lefty Stephanides was smiling. On his previous forays he’d brought back only a single rotten peach and six olives, which he’d encouraged Desdemona to swallow, pits and all, to fill herself up. Now, carrying the sesame-seededchureki , he squeezed back into the crowd. He skirted the edges of open-air living rooms (where families sat listening to silent radios) and stepped over bodies he hoped were sleeping. He was feeling encouraged by another development, too. Just that morning word had spread that Greece was sending a fleet of ships to evacuate refugees. Lefty looked out at the Aegean. Having lived on a mountain for twenty years, he’d never seen the sea before. Somewhere over the water was America and their cousin Sourmelina. He smelled the sea air, the warm bread, the antiseptic from his bandaged thumb, and then he saw her—Desdemona, sitting on the suitcase where he’d left her—and felt even happier.
Lefty couldn’t pinpoint the moment he’d begun to have thoughts about his sister. At first he’d just been curious to see what a real woman’s breasts looked like. It didn’t matter that they were his sister’s. He tried toforget that they were his sister’s. Behind the hangingkelimi that separated their beds, he saw Desdemona’s silhouette as she undressed. It was just a body; it could have been anyone’s, or Lefty liked to pretend so. “What are you doing over there?” Desdemona asked, undressing. “Why are you so quiet?”
“What are you reading?”
“Oh, sure. You never read the Bible.”
Soon he’d found himself picturing his sister after the lights went out. She’d invaded his fantasies, but Lefty resisted. He went down to the city instead, in search of naked women he wasn’t related to.
But since the night of their waltz, he’d stopped resisting. Because of the messages of Desdemona’s fingers, because their parents were dead and their village destroyed, because no one in Smyrna knew who they were, and because of the way Desdemona looked right now, sitting on a suitcase.
And Desdemona? What did she feel? Fear foremost, and worry, punctuated by unprecedented explosions of joy. She had never rested her head in a man’s lap before while riding in an oxcart. She’d never slept like spoons, encircled by a man’s arms; she’d never experienced a man getting hard against her spine while trying to talk as though nothing were happening. “Only fifty more miles,” Lefty had said one night on the arduous journey to Smyrna. “Maybe we’ll be lucky tomorrow and get a ride. And when we get to Smyrna, we’ll get a boat to Athens”—his voice tight, funny-sounding, a few tones higher than normal—“and from Athens we’ll get a boat to America. Sound good? Okay. I think that’s good.”
What am I doing? Desdemona thought. He’s my brother! She looked at the other refugees on the quay, expecting to see them shaking their fingers, saying, “Shame on you!” But they only showed her lifeless faces, empty eyes. Nobody knew. Nobody cared. Then she heard her brother’s excited voice, as he lowered the bread before her face. “Behold. Manna from heaven.”
Desdemona glanced up at him. Her mouth filled with saliva as Lefty broke thechureki in two. But her face remained sad. “I don’t see any boats coming,” she said.
“They’re coming. Don’t worry. Eat.” Lefty sat down on the suitcase beside her. Their shoulders touched. Desdemona moved away.
“What’s the matter?”
“Every time I sit down you move away.” He looked at Desdemona, puzzled, but then his expression softened and he put his arm around her. She stiffened.
“Okay, have it your way.” He stood up again.
“Where are you going?”
“To find more food.”
“Don’t go,” Desdemona pleaded. “I’m sorry. I don’t like sitting here all alone.”
But Lefty had stormed off. He left the quay and wandered the city streets, muttering to himself. He was angry with Desdemona for rebuffing him and he was angry at himself for being angry at her, because he knew she was right. But he didn’t stay angry long. It wasn’t in his nature. He was tired, half-starved, he had a sore throat, a wounded hand, but for all that Lefty was still twenty years old, on his first real trip away from home, and alert to the newness of things. When you got away from the quay you could almost forget that there was a crisis on. Back here there were fancy shops and high-toned bars, still operating. He came down the Rue de France and found himself at the Sporting Club. Despite the emergency, two foreign consuls were playing tennis on the grass courts out back. In fading light they moved back and forth, swatting the ball while a dark-skinned boy in a white jacket held a tray of gin and tonics courtside. Lefty kept walking. He came to a square with a fountain and washed his face. A breeze came up, bringing the smell of jasmine all the way in from Bournabat. And while Lefty stops to breathe it in, I’d like to take this opportunity to resuscitate—for purely elegiac reasons and only for a paragraph—that city which disappeared, once and for all, in 1922.
Smyrna endures today in a few rebetika songs and a stanza fromThe Waste Land :
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocketful of currants
C.i.f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.
Everything you need to know about Smyrna is contained in that. The merchant is rich, and so was Smyrna. His proposal was seductive, and so was Smyrna, the most cosmopolitan city in the Near East. Among its reputed founders were, first, the Amazons (which goes nicely with my theme), and second, Tantalus himself. Homer was born there, and Aristotle Onassis. In Smyrna, East and West, opera andpolitakia , violin andzourna , piano anddaouli blended as tastefully as did the rose petals and honey in the local pastries.
Lefty started walking again and soon came to the SmyrnaCasin . Potted palms flanked a grand entrance, but the doors stood wide open. He stepped inside. No one stopped him. There was no one around. He followed a red carpet to the second floor and into the gaming room. The craps table was unoccupied. Nobody was at the roulette wheel. In the far corner, however, a group of men were playing cards. They glanced up at Lefty but then returned to their game, ignoring his dirty clothes. That was when he realized that the gamblers weren’t regular club members; they were refugees like him. Each had wandered through the open door in hopes of winning money to buy passage out of Smyrna. Lefty approached the table. A card player asked, “You in?”
He didn’t understand the rules. He’d never played poker before, only backgammon, and for the first half hour he lost again and again. Eventually, though, Lefty began to understand the difference between five-card draw and seven-card stud, and gradually the balance of payments around the table began to shift. “Three of these,” Lefty said, showing three aces, and the men started to grumble. They watched his dealing more closely, mistaking his clumsiness for a cardsharp’s sleight of hand. Lefty began to enjoy himself, and after winning a big pot cried, “Ouzo all around!” But when nothing happened, he looked up and saw again how truly deserted theCasin was, and the sight brought home to him the high stakes they were playing for. Life. They were playing for their lives, and now, as he examined his fellow gamblers, and saw perspiration beading their brows and smelled their sour breath, Lefty Stephanides, showing far more restraint than he would four decades later when he played the Detroit numbers, stood up and said, “I’m folding.”
They nearly killed him. Lefty’s pockets bulged with winnings, and the men insisted he couldn’t leave without giving them a chance to win some of it back. He bent over to scratch his leg, insisting, “I can go out any time I want.” One of the men grabbed him by his soiled lapels, and Lefty added, “And I don’t want to yet.” He sat down, scratching his other leg, and thereafter started losing again and again. When all his money was gone, Lefty got up and said with disgusted anger, “Can I leave now?” The men said sure, leave, laughing as they dealt the next hand. Lefty walked stiffly, dejectedly, out of theCasin . In the entrance, between the potted palms, he bent down to collect the money he’d stashed in his ripe-smelling socks.
Back at the quay, he sought out Desdemona. “Look what I found,” he said, flashing his money. “Somebody must have dropped it. Now we can get a ship.”
Desdemona screamed and hugged him. She kissed him right on the lips. Then she pulled back, blushing, and turned to the water. “Listen,” she said, “those British are playing music again.”
She was referring to the service band on theIron Duke. Every night, as officers dined, the band began playing on the ship’s deck. Strains of Vivaldi and Brahms floated out over the water. Over brandy, Major Arthur Maxwell of His Majesty’s Marines and his subordinates passed around binoculars to observe the situation ashore.
“Jolly crowded, what?”
“Looks like Victoria Station on Christmas Eve, sir.”
“Look at those poor wretches. Left to fend for themselves. When word gets out about the Greek commissioner’s leaving, it’s going to be pandemonium.”
“Will we be evacuating refugees, sir?”
“Our orders are to protect British property and citizens.”
“But, surely, sir, if the Turks arrive and there’s a massacre . . .”
“There’s nothing we can do about it, Phillips. I’ve spent years in the Near East. The one lesson I’ve learned is that there is nothing you can do with these people. Nothing at all! The Turks are the best of the lot. The Armenian I liken to the Jew. Deficient moral and intellectual character. As for the Greeks, well, look at them. They’ve burned down the whole country and now they swarm in here crying for help. Nice cigar, what?”
“Awfully good, sir.”
“Smyrna tobacco. Finest in the world. Brings a tear to my eyes, Phillips, the thought of all that tobacco lying in those warehouses out there.”
“Perhaps we could send a detail to save the tobacco, sir.”
“Do I detect a note of sarcasm, Phillips?”
“Faintly, sir, faintly.”
“Good Lord, Phillips, I’m not heartless. I wish we could help these people. But we can’t. It’s not our war.”
“Are you certain of that, sir?”
“What do you mean?”
“We might have supported the Greek forces. Seeing as we sent them in.”
“They were dying to be sent in! Venizelos and his bunch. I don’t think you fathom the complexity of the situation. We have interests here in Turkey. We must proceed with the utmost care. We cannot let ourselves get caught up in these Byzantine struggles.”
“I see, sir. More cognac, sir?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“It’s a beautiful city, though, isn’t it?”
“Quite. You are aware of what Strabo said of Smyrna, are you not? He called Smyrna the finest city in Asia. That was back in the time of Augustus. It’s lasted that long. Take a good look, Phillips. Take a good long look.”
By September 7, 1922, every Greek in Smyrna, including Lefty Stephanides, is wearing a fez in order to pass as a Turk. The last Greek soldiers are being evacuated at Chesme. The Turkish Army is only thirty miles away—and no ships arrive from Athens to evacuate the refugees.
Lefty, newly moneyed and befezzed, makes his way through the maroon-capped crowd at the quay. He crosses tram tracks and heads uphill. He finds a steamship office. Inside, a clerk is bending over passenger lists. Lefty takes out his winnings and says, “Two seats to Athens!”
The head remains down. “Deck or cabin?”
“Fifteen hundred drachmas.”
“No, not cabin,” Lefty says, “deck will be fine.”
“That is deck.”
“Fifteen hundred? I don’t have fifteen hundred. It was five hundred yesterday.”
“That was yesterday.”
On September 8, 1922, General Hajienestis, in his cabin, sits up in bed, rubs first his right leg and then his left, raps his knuckles against them, and stands up. He goes above deck, walking with great dignity, much as he will later proceed to his death in Athens when he is executed for losing the war.
On the quay, the Greek civil governor, Aristedes Sterghiades, boards a launch to take him out of the city. The crowd hoots and jeers, shaking fists. General Hajienestis takes the scene in calmly. The crowd obscures the waterfront, his favorite café. All he can see is the marquee of the movie theater at which, ten days earlier, he’d been to seeLe Tango de la Mort. Briefly—and possibly this is another hallucination—he smells the fresh jasmine of Bournabat. He breathes this in. The launch reaches the ship and Sterghiades, ashen-faced, climbs aboard.
And then General Hajienestis gives his only military order of the past few weeks: “Up anchors. Reverse engines. Full steam ahead.”
On shore, Lefty and Desdemona watched the Greek fleet leaving. The crowd surged toward the water, raised its four hundred thousand hands, and shouted. And then it fell silent. Not one mouth uttered a sound as the realization came home that their own country had deserted them, that Smyrna now had no government, that there was nothing between them and the advancing Turks.
(And did I mention how in summer the streets of Smyrna were lined with baskets of rose petals? And how everyone in the city could speak French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, English, and Dutch? And did I tell you about the famous figs, brought in by camel caravan and dumped onto the ground, huge piles of pulpy fruit lying in the dirt, with dirty women steeping them in salt water and children squatting to defecate behind the clusters? Did I mention how the reek of the fig women mixed with pleasanter smells of almond trees, mimosa, laurel, and peach, and how everybody wore masks on Mardi Gras and had elaborate dinners on the decks of frigates? I want to mention these things because they all happened in that city that was no place exactly, that was part of no country because it was all countries, and because now if you go there you’ll see modern high-rises, amnesiac boulevards, teeming sweatshops, a NATO headquarters, and a sign that says Izmir . . .)
Five cars, bedecked with olive branches, burst the city gates. Cavalry gallop fender to fender. The cars roar past the covered bazaar, through cheering throngs in the Turkish Quarter where every streetlamp, door, and window streams red cloth. By Ottoman law, Turks must occupy a city’s highest ground, so the convoy is high above the city now, heading down. Soon the five cars pass through the deserted sections where houses have been abandoned or where families hide. Anita Philobosian peeks out to see the beautiful, leaf-covered vehicles approaching, the sight so arresting she starts to unfasten the shutters before her mother pulls her away . . . and there are other faces pressed to slats, Armenian, Bulgarian, and Greek eyes peeking out of hideaways and attics to get a look at the conqueror and divine his intentions; but the cars move too fast, and the sun on the cavalry’s raised sabers blinds the eyes, and then the cars are gone, reaching the quay, where horses charge into the crowd and refugees scream and scatter.
In the backseat of the last car sits Mustafa Kemal. He is lean from battle. His blue eyes flash. He hasn’t had a drink in over two weeks. (The “diverticulitis” Dr. Philobosian had treated the pasha for was just a cover-up. Kemal, champion of Westernization and the secular Turkish state, would remain true to those principles to the end, dying at fifty-seven of cirrhosis of the liver.)
And as he passes he turns and looks into the crowd, as a young woman stands up from a suitcase. Blue eyes pierce brown. Two seconds. Not even two. Then Kemal looks away; the convoy is gone.
And now it is all a matter of wind. 1A.M. , Wednesday, September 13, 1922. Lefty and Desdemona have been in the city seven nights now. The smell of jasmine has turned to kerosene. Around the Armenian Quarter barricades have been erected. Turkish troops block the exits from the quay. But the wind remains blowing in the wrong direction. Around midnight, however, it shifts. It begins blowing southwesterly, that is, away from the Turkish heights and toward the harbor.
In the blackness, torches gather. Three Turkish soldiers stand in a tailor shop. Their torches illuminate bolts of cloth and suits on hangers. Then, as the light grows, the tailor himself becomes visible. He is sitting at his sewing machine, right shoe still on the foot treadle. The light grows brighter still to reveal his face, the gaping eye sockets, the beard torn out in bloody patches.
All over the Armenian Quarter fires bloom. Like a million fireflies, sparks fly across the dark city, inseminating every place they land with a germ of fire. At his house on Suyane Street, Dr. Philobosian hangs a wet carpet over the balcony, then hurries back inside the dark house and closes the shutters. But the blaze penetrates the room, lighting it up in stripes: Toukhie’s panicked eyes; Anita’s forehead, wrapped with a silver ribbon like Clara Bow’s inPhotoplay ; Rose’s bare neck; Stepan’s and Karekin’s dark, downcast heads.
By firelight Dr. Philobosian reads for the fifth time that night “ ‘. . . is respectfully recommended . . . to the esteem, confidence, and protection . . .’ You hear that? ‘Protection . . .’ ”
Across the street Mrs. Bidzikian sings the climactic three notes of the “Queen of the Night” aria fromThe Magic Flute. The music sounds so strange amid the other noises—of doors crashing in, people screaming, girls crying out—that they all look up. Mrs. Bidzikian repeats the B flat, D, and F two more times, as though practicing the aria, and then her voice hits a note none of them has ever heard before, and they realize that Mrs. Bidzikian hasn’t been singing an aria at all.
“Rose, get my bag.”
“Nishan, no,” his wife objects. “If they see you come out, they’ll know we’re hiding.”
“No one will see.”
The flames first registered to Desdemona as lights on the ships’ hulls. Orange brushstrokes flickered above the waterline of the U.S.S.Litchfield and the French steamerPierre Loti. Then the water brightened, as though a school of phosphorescent fish had entered the harbor.
Lefty’s head rested on her shoulder. She checked to see if he was asleep. “Lefty. Lefty?” When he didn’t respond, she kissed the top of his head. Then the sirens went off.
She sees not one fire but many. There are twenty orange dots on the hill above. And they have an unnatural persistence, these fires. As soon as the fire department puts out one blaze, another erupts somewhere else. They start in hay carts and trash bins; they follow kerosene trails down the center of streets; they turn corners; they enter bashed-in doorways. One fire penetrates Berberian’s bakery, making quick work of the bread racks and pastry carts. It burns through to the living quarters and climbs the front staircase where, halfway up, it meets Charles Berberian himself, who tries to smother it with a blanket. But the fire dodges him and races up into the house. From there it sweeps across an Oriental rug, marches out to the back porch, leaps nimbly up onto a laundry line, and tightrope-walks across to the house behind. It climbs in the window and pauses, as if shocked by its good fortune: because everything in this house is just made to burn, too—the damask sofa with its long fringe, the mahogany end tables and chintz lampshades. The heat pulls down wallpaper in sheets; and this is happening not only in this apartment but in ten or fifteen others, then twenty or twenty-five, each house setting fire to its neighbor until entire blocks are burning. The smell of things burning that aren’t meant to burn wafts across the city: shoe polish, rat poison, toothpaste, piano strings, hernia trusses, baby cribs, Indian clubs. And hair and skin. By this time, hair and skin. On the quay, Lefty and Desdemona stand up along with everyone else, with people too stunned to react, or still half-asleep, or sick with typhus and cholera, or exhausted beyond caring. And then, suddenly, all the fires on the hillside form one great wall of fire stretching across the city and—it’s inevitable now—start moving down toward them.
(And now I remember something else: my father, Milton Stephanides, in robe and slippers, bending over to light a fire on Christmas morning. Only once a year did the need to dispose of a mountain of wrapping paper and cardboard packaging overrule Desdemona’s objections to using our fireplace. “Ma,” Milton would warn her, “I’m going to burn up some of this garbage now.” To which Desdemona would cry,“Mana!” and grab her cane. At the hearth, my father would pull a long match from the hexagonal box. But Desdemona would already be moving away, heading for the safety of the kitchen, where the oven was electric. “Youryia yia doesn’t like fires,” my father would tell us. And, lighting the match, he would hold it to paper covered with elves and Santas as flames leapt up, and we ignorant, American children went crazy throwing paper, boxes, and ribbons into the blaze.)
Dr. Philobosian stepped out into the street, looked both ways, and ran straight across through the door opposite. He climbed to the landing, where he could see the top of Mrs. Bidzikian’s head from behind as she sat in the living room. He ran to her, telling her not to worry, it was Dr. Philobosian from across the street. Mrs. Bidzikian seemed to nod, but her head didn’t come back up. Dr. Philobosian knelt beside her. Touching her neck, he felt a weak pulse. Gently he pulled her out of the chair and laid her on the floor. As he did so, he heard footsteps on the stairway. He hurried across the room and hid behind the drapes just as the soldiers stormed in.
For fifteen minutes, they ransacked the apartment, taking whatever the first band had left. They dumped out drawers and slit open sofas and clothing, looking for jewelry or money hidden inside. After they were gone, Dr. Philobosian waited a full five minutes before stepping out from behind the drapes. Mrs. Bidzikian’s pulse had stopped. He spread his handkerchief over her face and made the sign of the cross over her body. Then he picked up his doctor’s bag and hurried down the stairs again.
The heat precedes the fire. Figs heaped along the quay, not loaded in time, begin to bake, bubbling and oozing juice. The sweetness mixes with the smell of smoke. Desdemona and Lefty stand as close to the water as possible, along with everyone else. There is no escape. Turkish soldiers remain at the barricades. People pray, raise their arms, pleading to ships in the harbor. Searchlights sweep across the water, lighting up people swimming, drowning.
“We’re going to die, Lefty.”
“No we’re not. We’re going to get out of here.” But Lefty doesn’t believe this. As he looks up at the flames, he is certain, too, that they are going to die. And this certainty inspires him to say something he would never have said otherwise, something he would never even have thought. “We’re going to get out of here. And then you’re going to marry me.”
“We should never have left. We should have stayed in Bithynios.”
As the fire approaches, the doors of the French consulate open. A marine garrison forms two lines stretching across the quay to the harbor. The Tricolor descends. From the consulate’s doors people emerge, men in cream-colored suits and women in straw hats, walking arm in arm to a waiting launch. Over the Marines’ crossed rifles, Lefty sees fresh powder on the women’s faces, lit cigars in the men’s mouths. One woman holds a small poodle under her arm. Another woman trips, breaking her heel, and is consoled by her husband. After the launch has motored away, an official turns to the crowd.
“French citizens only will be evacuated. We will begin processing visas immediately.”
When they hear knocking, they jump. Stepan goes to the window and looks down. “It must be Father.”
“Go. Let him in! Quick!” Toukhie says.
Karekin vaults down the stairs two at a time. At the door he stops, collects himself, and quietly unbolts the door. At first, when he pulls it open, he sees nothing. Then there’s a soft hiss, followed by a ripping noise. The noise sounds as though it has nothing to do with him until suddenly a shirt button pops off and clatters against the door. Karekin looks down as all at once his mouth fills with a warm fluid. He feels himself being lifted off his feet, the sensation bringing back to him childhood memories of being whisked into the air by his father, and he says, “Dad, my button,” before he is lifted high enough to make out the steel bayonet puncturing his sternum. The fire’s reflection leads along the gun barrel, over the sight and hammer, to the soldier’s ecstatic face.
The fire bore down on the crowd at the quay. The roof of the American consulate caught. Flames climbed the movie theater, scorching the marquee. The crowd inched back from the heat. But Lefty, sensing his opportunity, was undeterred.
“Nobody will know,” he said. “Who’s to know? There’s nobody left but us.”
“It’s not right.”
Roofs crashed, people screamed, as Lefty put his lips to his sister’s ear. “You promised you’d find me a nice Greek girl. Well. You’re it.”
On one side a man jumped into the water, trying to drown himself; on the other, a woman was giving birth, as her husband shielded her with his coat.“Kaymaste! Kaymaste!” people shouted. “We’re burning! We’re burning!” Desdemona pointed, at the fire, at everything. “It’s too late, Lefty. It doesn’t matter now.”
“But if we lived? You’d marry me then?”
A nod. That was all. And Lefty was gone, running toward the flames.
On a black screen, a binocular-shaped template of vision sweeps back and forth, taking in the distant refugees. They scream without sound. They hold out their arms, beseeching.
“They’re going to cook the poor wretches alive.”
“Permission to retrieve a swimmer, sir.”
“Negative, Phillips. Once we take one aboard we’ll have to take them all.”
“It’s a girl, sir.”
“Looks to be about ten or eleven.”
Major Arthur Maxwell lowers his binoculars. A triangular knot of muscle tenses in his jaw and disappears.
“Have a look at her, sir.”
“We mustn’t be swayed by emotions here, Phillips. There are greater things at stake.”
“Have a look at her, sir.”
The wings of Major Maxwell’s nose flare as he looks at Captain Phillips. Then, slapping one hand against his thigh, he moves to the side of the ship.
The searchlight sweeps across the water, lighting up its own circle of vision. The water looks odd under the beam, a colorless broth littered with a variety of objects: a bright orange; a man’s fedora with a brim of excrement; bits of paper like torn letters. And then, amid this inert matter, she appears, holding on to the ship’s line, a girl in a pink dress the water darkens to red, hair plastered to her small skull. Her eyes make no appeal, staring up. Her sharp feet kick every so often, like fins.
Rifle fire from shore hits the water around her. She pays no attention.
“Turn off the searchlight.”
The light goes off and the firing stops. Major Maxwell looks at his watch. “It is now 2115 hours. I am going to my cabin, Phillips. I will stay there until 0700 hours. Should a refugee be taken aboard during that period, it would not come to my attention. Is that understood?”
It didn’t occur to Dr. Philobosian that the twisted body he stepped over in the street belonged to his younger son. He noticed only that his front door was open. In the foyer, he stopped to listen. There was only silence. Slowly, still holding his doctor’s bag, he climbed the stairs. All the lamps were on now. The living room was bright. Toukhie was sitting on the sofa, waiting for him. Her head had fallen backward as though in hilarity, the angle opening the wound so that a section of windpipe gleamed. Stepan sat slumped at the dining table, his right hand, which held the letter of protection, nailed down with a steak knife. Dr. Philobosian took a step and slipped, then noticed a trail of blood leading down the hallway. He followed the trail into the master bedroom, where he found his two daughters. They were both naked, lying on their backs. Three of their four breasts had been cut off. Rose’s hand reached out toward her sister as though to adjust the silver ribbon across her forehead.
The line was long and moved slowly. Lefty had time to go over his vocabulary. He reviewed his grammar, taking quick peeks at the phrase book. He studied “Lesson 1: Greetings,” and by the time he reached the official at the table, he was ready.
“Place of birth?”
The official looked up. “Passport.”
“Everything was destroyed in the fire! I lost all my papers!” Lefty puckered his lips and expelled air, as he’d seen Frenchmen do. “Look at what I’m wearing. I lost all my good suits.”
The official smiled wryly and stamped the papers. “Pass.”
“I have my wife with me.”
“I suppose she was born in Paris, too.”
“That’s right. Same as mine.”
When he returned with the visas, Desdemona wasn’t alone. A man sat beside her on the suitcase. “He tried to throw himself in the water. I caught him just in time.” Dazed, bloody, a shining bandage wrapping one hand, the man kept repeating, “They couldn’t read. They were illiterate!” Lefty checked to see where the man was bleeding but couldn’t find a wound. He unwrapped the man’s bandage, a silver ribbon, and tossed it away. “They couldn’t read my letter,” the man said, looking at Lefty, who recognized his face.
“You again?” the French official said.
“My cousin,” said Lefty, in execrable French. The man stamped a visa and handed it to him.
A motor launch took them out to the ship. Lefty kept hold of Dr. Philobosian, who was still threatening to drown himself. Desdemona opened her silkworm box and unwrapped the white cloth to check on her eggs. In the hideous water, bodies floated past. Some were alive, calling out. A searchlight revealed a boy halfway up the anchor chain of a battleship. Sailors dumped oil on him and he slipped back into the water.
On the deck of theJean Bart , the three new French citizens looked back at the burning city, ablaze from end to end. The fire would continue for the next three days, the flames visible for fifty miles. At sea, sailors would mistake the rising smoke for a gigantic mountain range. In the country they were heading for, America, the burning of Smyrna made the front pages for a day or two, before being bumped off by the Hall-Mills murder case (the body of Hall, a Protestant minister, had been found with that of Miss Mills, an attractive choir member) and the opening of the World Series. Admiral Mark Bristol of the U.S. Navy, concerned about damage to American-Turkish relations, cabled a press release in which he stated that “it is impossible to estimate the number of deaths due to killings, fire, and execution, but the total probably does not exceed 2,000.” The American consul, George Horton, had a larger estimate. Of the 400,000 Ottoman Christians in Smyrna before the fire, 190,000 were unaccounted for by October 1. Horton halved that number and estimated the dead at 100,000.
The anchors surged up out of the water. The deck rumbled underfoot as the destroyer’s engines were thrown into reverse. Desdemona and Lefty watched Asia Minor recede.
As they passed theIron Duke , the British military service band started into a waltz.