Header overlay

Dreaming of the Bosphorus

Share this

My father Irfan Orga (1908–70) first set foot in England in July 1942, as a staff captain commanding Turkish Air Force pilots completing their training with the RAF. The posting changed his life. In London, challenging the Turkish law of the day forbidding members of the armed forces or diplomatic service from cohabiting with foreign nationals, he took up with a young, irregularly beautiful Norman-Irish lapsed Catholic, Margaret, then married to someone else. She assumed his surname in 1944, seven months before I was born.

Leaving his desk at the Turkish Embassy, Father returned to Turkey after the war, resigning his commission in January 1946. But his ‘crime’ rumbled on. Appalled by the possibility of imprisonment, friends in high places and his brother-in-law, one of Atatürk’s security chiefs before the war, urged him to leave the country. Given just a one-month visa, he flew to Northolt on 23 December 1947, my mother (and I) following on the 27th. Within a fortnight they were married, 48 hours after her divorce came through, and on 23 February 1948 the Home Office granted him indefinite leave to stay and work in Britain. Nineteen months later a Turkish court found him guilty in absentia and placed a fine on his head roughly equivalent to £145,000 today. His appeal against his conviction was unsuccessful and he never went back to Turkey, spending his last days in Kipling country near Tunbridge Wells, victim eventually of depression, loss of self-esteem and a weakened heart.

Initially called On the Shore of the Bosphorus and longer than the version we’re familiar with today, Portrait of a Turkish Family, completed in west London by the summer of 1949, was the first and arguably the finest of my father’s nine published books. An autobiography of tears and goodbyes, dedicated to my mother, it reached fruition on a Hermes portable typewriter in a small fourth-floor Bayswater tenement room lit by a naked 40-watt bul

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

My father Irfan Orga (1908–70) first set foot in England in July 1942, as a staff captain commanding Turkish Air Force pilots completing their training with the RAF. The posting changed his life. In London, challenging the Turkish law of the day forbidding members of the armed forces or diplomatic service from cohabiting with foreign nationals, he took up with a young, irregularly beautiful Norman-Irish lapsed Catholic, Margaret, then married to someone else. She assumed his surname in 1944, seven months before I was born.

Leaving his desk at the Turkish Embassy, Father returned to Turkey after the war, resigning his commission in January 1946. But his ‘crime’ rumbled on. Appalled by the possibility of imprisonment, friends in high places and his brother-in-law, one of Atatürk’s security chiefs before the war, urged him to leave the country. Given just a one-month visa, he flew to Northolt on 23 December 1947, my mother (and I) following on the 27th. Within a fortnight they were married, 48 hours after her divorce came through, and on 23 February 1948 the Home Office granted him indefinite leave to stay and work in Britain. Nineteen months later a Turkish court found him guilty in absentia and placed a fine on his head roughly equivalent to £145,000 today. His appeal against his conviction was unsuccessful and he never went back to Turkey, spending his last days in Kipling country near Tunbridge Wells, victim eventually of depression, loss of self-esteem and a weakened heart. Initially called On the Shore of the Bosphorus and longer than the version we’re familiar with today, Portrait of a Turkish Family, completed in west London by the summer of 1949, was the first and arguably the finest of my father’s nine published books. An autobiography of tears and goodbyes, dedicated to my mother, it reached fruition on a Hermes portable typewriter in a small fourth-floor Bayswater tenement room lit by a naked 40-watt bulb and permeated by the aroma of cheap cigarettes, stale perfume, and Mediterranean beans simmering away slowly somewhere in the basement. My mother was ill with pulmonary tuberculosis, necessitating spells in hospital. During the day, using twigs, I’d play ‘boats’ in Kensington Gardens. At night, lulled by the click-clack carriage-return of Mother’s typing, I’d go to sleep in a corner with my rag-dolls. I remember gas lamps, yellow-grey smog, sleeting rain, dusty summer streets, the pulverized, rusting skeletons of houses with rooms blown apart, coal smoke on the wind, food rationing, steamed-up December windows sealed with newspaper, flour and water. Since Father had no paid employment money was scarce, visits to the pawnbroker were a way of life, and food parcels from Turkey a necessity. Five, ten years after the war, Bayswater was the haunt of émigrés and refugees, prostitutes and fugitives. A place scented by the smells of the East, presided over by the late Edwardian extravagance that was Whiteley’s department store. Eventually we moved to the Notting Hill end of Pembridge Square (detached pastel-washed Victoriana, full of old campaigners come home to pasture). Most of my father’s later books were written there. The Round Pond, Peter Pan, the Albert Memorial – the stage of my childhood never changed. It brought stability and continuity to my life, a happy counterpoint to the rigour of daily lessons with my father (I never went to school). My acquaintances and friends came principally from two private Catholic institutions on opposite sides of the park – the girls from Our Lady of Sion (my mother’s old convent), the boys from St Philip’s (‘Dick Tibbits’s place’). We enjoyed each other’s company, but no one for a moment knew the realities of our household. The Orga family kept its life, troubles and triumphs to itself, Father firmly instilling his grandmother’s dictum that you should ‘never let anyone know when you are desperate. Put your best clothes on and pride on your face and you can get anything in this world – otherwise you will get nothing but kicks.’ Planned and sketched by my father (writing first in Ottoman Arabic script, then Turkish Latin, then rough English), tidied up and poeticized by my mother on her better days (his story, her stylistic and linguistic brilliance), Portrait of a Turkish Family was published by Victor Gollancz in August 1950, Macmillan of New York issuing an Americanized version three months later. Bridging the period from the sunset of the Ottoman Empire to the dawn of the Turkish Republic, from the last sultans to Atatürk, the book tells of a socially well-connected Istanbul family, carpet merchants, who survive war, occupation and disaster but lose everything except their dignity and will to fight another day. The early chapters introduce us to pre-war domestic life within the shadow and call to prayer of the Blue Mosque. ‘Amongst my earliest recollections is the soft, unceasing sound of the Marmara and the singing of the birds in the gardens. Our house was a big wooden house, painted white with green shutters and trellised balconies front and rear. It belonged to my grandfather and my grandmother and we lived there with them.’ Where the men of the family originated from isn’t clear. But at the end of 1914, Turkey having sided with the Kaiser, they marched off to battle – to Gallipoli and the Syrian desert – and never returned. Their demise left my father’s Albanian mother, 13 at the time of his birth, and his Macedonian grandmother to salvage an existence. In a book layered with cameos of a world in meltdown, of a city of wood going up in flames, it is these two women who leap most immediately off the page. The grandmother, the black-clothed, henna-haired ‘autocrat at the hamam’, doesn’t want life or tradition to change. She sits behind latticed windows reading the Koran; she helps herself to Turkish Delight and rose sherbet; she ‘screams’ orders and ‘roars’ instructions; ‘obstinate, wayward, indomitable,’ she quarrels, interferes and criticizes. And remarries. Contrastingly, my father’s mother, Sevkiye, comes over as a gentler soul, a pragmatist who faces up to the present, doesn’t take a new husband, and, at 45, ends her life losing her mind in a mental asylum. She’s ‘slim and haughty with the flaring wing of nose and the delicate eyebrows that seemed painted on’. Scratching a living, she does needlework and embroiders silk with vivid strands of back-lit colour, each design a one-off. She haggles with market-traders and speaks in halting French with her foreign clientele. As the ‘bread-winner’ of the family, fighting for three children in a hostile climate, she looks ahead with quiet resolve. She argues for change – and finally rebels. One day in 1918 she throws away her veil, leaving ‘her lovely face naked to the world’. To the dismay of the neighbourhood, whose boys stone and jeer her; and the consternation of her mother-in-law, who frets that she’ll be seen as a ‘tango’ or prostitute, ‘a fast woman’. Come 1916,
Food was running short in the whole country. At the [charity] school [in Kadiköy across the water] we had now begun to leave the dining-room hungry after meals, and no more butter appeared on the tables. We went to sleep hungry, awoke hungry and went through the day hungry.
Two years on Irfan and his sick little brother Mehmet returned home – but not joyously. ‘Bitterness brooded because one had left this meanness for another kind of meanness and one had returned no better off . . . why had [our mother] . . . banished two small boys to a German-influenced school, killing all trust and love, then trying to win it back when it was too late?’ In May 1919, coincident with the Turkish War of Independence, Irfan, not yet 11, entered Kuleli, the military high school on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus founded by Abdülmecid I in 1845. The move, orchestrated by Sevkiye, determined his destiny. Palatial Kuleli and its twin turrets, backed by hills and woods, has always been one of the iconic sights of the Bosphorus shoreline, whether in the heat of a turquoise summer day or floodlit at night, a beacon for passing ships. Its presence pervades the second half of the Portrait. The Portrait proved such a hit that a second edition had to berushed through in days. That halcyon summer of 1950 no bookshop in London was without a copy. English luminaries – John Betjeman; Harold Nicolson, a seasoned Turcophile; Peter Quennell, editor of the Cornhill Magazine – all were quick to praise, and did so generously. The strength of the narrative lay in its independence, its novelty (mid-twentieth century Western society knew little then about Turkey or Turkish life), and the fact that it stood outside the literary mainstream and had no axe to grind. It read like a novel; painted exotic scenes with the sharpness of a Bartlett engraving or a photograph by Istanbul’s chronicler Ara Güler; and unfolded universally experienced feelings of love, deprivation, tragedy, parting and growing up. Sixty years on, many reprints and translations later, a new generation of readers has taken the book to its heart, while in Turkey it has become required reading. Television serialization beckons. Portrait of a Turkish Family ends in 1942, in ‘the raw chill winter of Anatolia’, with my father leaving Ankara, England-bound. ‘When I think of you who are gone,’ the book finished originally,

long-dead dreams rise up again to catch me by the throat this last evening . . . All the graceful life you represented comes back in full measure to haunt this jaundiced eye, to torture this foolish heart for the things that might have been had Time stood still . . . ‘Good-bye,’ we shout. ‘Good-bye . . .’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 37 © Ates Orga 2013


About the contributor

Ates Orga is a writer and classical recording producer. His books include biographies of Beethoven and Chopin as well as a recent personal anthology of poems, Istanbul, in Eland’s Poetry of Place series.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.