Last Train to Istanbul

By: Ayse Kulin

ANKARA 1941



Even though, when leaving that morning, Macit had warned Sabiha that he would be late coming home, his good manners made him uneasy when he realized it was already past eight o’clock. He excused himself from the meeting room, went to his office, and dialed home on the black telephone with its noisy dial.

“We’re having a meeting again this evening. Please don’t wait for me for dinner,” he said.

“Not again,” said his wife exasperatedly. “For nearly three weeks, we haven’t been able to have dinner together. Really, darling, hasn’t anyone there got a wife or children waiting at home?”

“For God’s sake, what are you going on about? The Bulgarian army is on our doorstep and you are talking about dinner!”

“How typical of women!” he said, putting the phone down.

His wife was just like his mother. The running of the house, the children’s eating and bedtime, the whole family gathering around for dinner—these things were top priority for organized housewives. Atatürk’s attempt to turn them into women of the world was in vain, Macit thought. Obviously, our women are only good at being mothers or housewives. And he was even beginning to have second thoughts about that. Hadn’t Sabiha abandoned her motherly duties and left their daughter’s upbringing to a nanny? Deep down, Macit was certainly beginning to find his wife’s behavior odd.

At first he was angry, thinking maybe her distant attitude was a silent protest against his endless meetings that lasted into the early hours. What right did she have to get angry about his long hours? After all, was he responsible for the war? Was he to blame for these late nights? What if Turkey actually found itself fighting in the war? If that were to happen, which woman in their circle would even catch a glimpse of her husband’s face?

But Macit knew in his heart Sabiha’s attitude wasn’t due to selfishness alone. She seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown. For some time this young woman who liked going on picnics, watching horse races when the weather was fine, and playing cards on rainy days didn’t seem to enjoy anything anymore. He often found his wife in bed, fast asleep, when he got home. If, when he got into bed, he put his arms around her, she would turn away. On the rare occasion they managed to go to bed at the same time, she always had an excuse to go to sleep immediately. It was obvious that she had a problem, but she had chosen the wrong time to have a nervous breakdown. How on earth could he find the time to care for her when he was inundated with work? Even if his meetings finished after midnight, Macit would still have to be back at the ministry by seven the next morning.

They were living in very unsettled times. Turkey had found herself between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there was Britain, who had only her own interests at heart, insisting that Turkey should be her ally; on the other, there was Germany’s threatening attitude. As if that weren’t enough, Russia extended an iron hand in a velvet glove to Turkey. Their interest in Kars, Ardahan, the Bosphorus, and the Dardanelles hung over them like the sword of Damocles. If Turkey chose the losing side, Russia would make her pay dearly where the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles were concerned. This nightmare had been ongoing for two years.

The First World War had taught President Inönü the cost of choosing the wrong side, and he had learned his lesson well. There was nothing he wouldn’t give to know which side would be victorious this time, but no fortune-teller could possibly predict the outcome. It was up to the foreign ministry and general staff to make this prediction. Every possible contingency had been discussed, considered, and recorded during those endless meetings that dragged on into the night.

Macit was proud to be a member of the general staff. At the same time, ever since the Italians had attacked Greece, the ring of fire had been tightening, and government employees and their families were getting nervous.

The capital, Ankara, was preparing for a hot summer again. In Turkey the winters were extremely cold and snowy, and the summers were unbearably hot. It was already obvious that the approaching summer months would be hotter than hell.

About a week before, the German ambassador, Franz von Papen, had brought a personal message from Hitler to the prime minister, and the officials had waited with bated breath for the meeting to end. Macit guessed correctly the contents of Hitler’s message: on the surface the letter was full of good wishes and intentions. It offered Turkey every kind of armament and help strengthening control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, and it promised not to put German soldiers on Turkish soil. However, if read between the lines, the letter implied that now was the time for Turkey to make up her mind, and if she didn’t side with Germany she would have to suffer the consequences when the war was over and decisions were made about her waterways.

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