Magazine article The New Yorker

MY FIRST PASSPORT; Personal History

Magazine article The New Yorker

MY FIRST PASSPORT; Personal History

Article excerpt

In 1959, when I was seven years old, my father went missing under mysterious circumstances; several weeks later, we received word that he was in Paris, living in a cheap hotel in Montparnasse. He was filling up the notebooks that he would later give to me, and from time to time, from the Cafe Dome, he'd spot Jean-Paul Sartre passing in the street. At first, my grandmother sent him money from Istanbul. My grandfather had made a fortune in railroads. Under my grandmother's tearful gaze, my father and my uncles hadn't yet managed to squander their entire inheritance--not all of the apartments had been sold. But, twenty-five years after her husband's death, my grandmother decided that the money was running out and she stopped subsidizing her bohemian son in Paris.

This was how my father joined the long line of penniless and miserable Turkish intellectuals who had been walking the streets of Paris for a century already. Like my grandfather and my uncles, he was an engineer with a good head for mathematics. When his money was gone, he answered an ad in the newspaper for a job at I.B.M.; once hired, he was dispatched to the company office in Geneva. In those days, computers were still operated with perforated cards, and the general public knew little about them. My father became one of Europe's first Turkish guest workers. My mother soon joined him, leaving my older brother and me in our grandmother's plush and crowded home. We were to follow our mother to Geneva after school had closed for the summer, which meant that we needed to get passports.

I remember having to pose for a very long time while the old photographer fiddled, under a black cloth, with a three-legged contraption with bellows. To cast light onto the chemical plate, he had to open the lens for a split second, which he did with an elegant flick of his hand, but, before he did this, he would look at us and say, "Yeeeees," and it was because I found this photographer truly ridiculous that my first passport picture shows me biting my cheeks. The passport notes that my hair, which had probably been combed for the first time that year in preparation for the photograph, was chestnut brown. I must have flipped through the passport too quickly back then to notice that someone had got my eye color wrong; it was only when I opened it thirty years later that I picked up on the mistake. What this taught me was that, contrary to what I'd believed, a passport is not a document that tells us who we are but a document that shows what other people think of us.

As we flew into Geneva, our new passports in the pockets of our new jackets, my brother and I were overcome with terror. The plane banked as it came in for a landing, and to us this country called Switzerland seemed to be a place where everything, even the clouds, was on a steep incline that stretched to infinity. Then the plane finished its turn and straightened itself out. My brother and I still laugh when we remember our relief on realizing that this new country was, like Istanbul, built on level earth.

The streets in Switzerland were cleaner and emptier than those at home. There was more variety in the shopwindows, and there were more cars. The beggars didn't beg empty-handed, as in Istanbul; instead, they'd stand under your window playing the accordion. Before we threw money to our local beggar, my mother would wrap it in paper.

Our apartment--a five-minute walk from the bridges over the Rhone River, at the point where it emerged from Lake Geneva--had been rented furnished. …

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