“God decides what work you’ll do. He writes it into your heart. Not to sound vulgar, but when your mother gives birth to you, your fate is decided. What was I saying? Right, when you’re born. Hey Selma, is the tea ready yet?”
That’s what Selma’s father was saying. He played the darbuka for a living. Well, he had in the past. People called him Recep the Kite because when he played, his fingers fluttered across the head of the drum like a kite snapping in the wind.
“Things weren’t always like this. People don’t ask me to play anymore, all because I lost a finger. A finger! What’s the big deal? If a kite loses its tail, it can still fly right? And it’s not like I asked for it to happen. It was an accident. I was chopping some wood and... Well, I know it’s not my place to question God’s ways, but I wish I’d lost a toe instead. I could do without a toe. I mean, I’m not in the army, right? What’s a toe to me? Still, I’m thankful I only lost one finger and I have nine more. But playing the darbuka isn’t just about the fingers. I started off by playing the bendir. When you hit the drum, you’ve got to do it like this.”
Recep the Kite cupped his right hand, tucking what remained of his index finger into his palm, and swung it through the air as if hitting the head of a drum.
When Tahir showed up that day, Recep had thought, “I can only pray that he’s here to ask me to help out with a show.” Tahir caught on to where Recep the Kite was going with the conversation and tried to steer it away. “Spot on,” Tahir said, “It’s all about the rhythm. You know our darbuka player, Aladdin. We call him Magic Fingers. His fingers really are magic, the way he rolls them across the drum.”
Recep the Kite’s mood soured. “Yeah,” he said. “The kid’s not bad.” But he wasn’t about to let on that upstart Aladdin was any competition for him: “His heart isn’t in the music though. When I was young, they’d say to me, ‘Hey Kite, go get your bendir. That’s all you’ll need.’ And what would I do? I’d bring my castanets, darbuka, tambourine... Everything I had, because you never know what you might need. I played them all. Rhythm! That’s what it’s about. Not a soul on this planet could ever say that I lost the beat of a song. If you don’t believe me, go ask the greats: Kibariye, Ayhan Aşan, and Adnan Şenses, though he’s in his grave. They’ll tell you I was the best. Don’t get me wrong, but not everyone can play for such legends. You’ve got to give them the right beat so they can sing along. You know,” he said, opening his eyes like a newborn baby, “not to sound vulgar, but when your mother gives birth to you, that’s it, your fate is sealed. God decides right then what you’re going to do in life. He writes it into your heart.”
That’s what the Kite was saying. Whenever he was going to say something like, “When a mother gives birth,” he’d always start off with: “Not to sound vulgar, but...” Especially if his wife or daughter were around and there was a man in their midst, even if he was a neighbour or someone they knew. That’s because the word “birth” conjured up in his mind’s eye a crotch-shot image of a woman having a baby. It was the same when he said the word “huge,” because he’d suddenly imagine a massive penis. So he’d first say, “Not to sound vulgar, but...”
“Recep, do you have ten lira? I’m going to call over the butcher.” That was Selma’s mother talking.
“Woman, enough already. It’s always money with you.” That was Selma’s father talking.
“Tahir, would you like some more tea?” That was Selma talking.
Tahir looked at Recep: “So, let me tell you why I’m here. One of the girls who danced with our group quit on us.”
Selma knew the story. Out of jealousy, her mother had said to her father, “Recep, if you play for that belly dancer one more time, I swear you’ll never set foot in this house ever again.”
“So, Kite,” Tahir said, “I was thinking, what if Selma came and danced?”
“Well, Tahir, I’m not so sure about that. You know that we don’t send her out to dance much anymore.”
“It’s a clean gig. A business dinner for a pharmaceutical company at a hotel. You know everyone in our group: Magic Fingers Aladdin, İrfan the Bloodsucker, Rıza the Stovepipe, me. Emel will be dancing, and Selma will too. Of course, that is, if you let her come. Rıza will drive us there and bring us back in his car, real swish. Couldn’t be a sweeter deal.”
“How much are they paying?”
“Six hundred. Works out to a hundred apiece.”
“That’s not much, if you ask me.”
“Look Kite, I’m the soloist and I’m going to get the same as Selma. And she’ll get her tips too. It’s all bread on the table. So what do you say?”
Recep glanced at Selma as if to say, “What do you think?” She shrugged indifferently. She knew the racket about tips. At the end of the night, she’d have to lay out the tips that the customers had tucked into her bra and waistband so they could be shared out with the band. That is, except for the bills she managed to hide deeper in her bra. Those were her personal share of the profits.
“So, what do you say, Kite?”
“It’s up to her. She can go if she wants.”
“Alright then. Selma, we’ll pick you up at three o’clock.”
Selma’s mother poked her head out of the kitchen:
“Recep, do you have ten lira? I’m going to call over the butcher.”
“Woman, I said enough! It’s always money with you.”
As Tahir was getting up to leave, Recep the Kite said, “What’s the rush? The wife’s about to throw together something to eat.”
“I’d better get going. I have to check in on Magic Fingers to make sure he’s fit to play tomorrow. You know, he’s getting hitched next week. His wife-to-be isn’t going to let him drink after they—well, not to sound vulgar, but—spend their first night together. So he’s been drinking night and day. We call him Magic Fingers Aladdin, right? Well, these days he’s been flying around on his magic carpet a bit too much.”
The next day, as the Rhythmic Romani Orchestra was waiting in the hotel lobby with Selma and Emel, a bellboy approached and said, “You can go down to the spa now.”
The musicians looked at each other in confusion.
Tahir explained, “It’s like a sauna. But with massage.”
His eyes lighting up, Magic Fingers said, “Massage? Ha! They treat us like kings in this place! Tahir, good on you!”
The bellboy led them down two flights of stairs and opened the door to the spa room. “It’s empty for now. The manager said you can use it as a changing room.”
Steam billowed into their faces as they walked inside.
“Wait, we’re supposed to change in here?”
As he started unbuttoning his shirt, Stovepipe Rıza—who got that nickname because he smoked like a chimney—said, “I can’t stay in here. I’ve got asthma!”
“Tahir, you said there’d be massage... This is more like a boiler room!”
Tahir went out. When he came back, he saw that Rıza was taking a deep pull on his inhaler. Tahir said, “There’s no one around except some Asian girls. Filipino maybe, or Korean. I guess they work here, but they can’t understand a thing I say.”
Rıza’s face was covered in red blotches. He said, “I can’t stay in here another minute.”
And then he collapsed in a heap.
Selma and Emel put on their belly dance outfits in the hotel restroom. As they were walking down the hallway with shawls thrown over their shoulders, the head waiter saw them. Scowling, he walked up to them and said, “The restrooms on this floor are off-limits to you.”
Selma merely nodded when he went on to say they weren’t allowed to walk around the hotel or eat at the hotel’s restaurant either. As she stormed off with Emel in tow, Selma said, “As if the guests here crap golden eggs! Why can’t we use the same bathroom as them? In one night I make more in tips than that shithead of a waiter could ever dream of making, even if he worked his fingers to the bone. All I have to do is shake my ass!”
Emel added, “And we get all the applause. The customers even put their clips of us online! No one gives a shit about the waiters.”
After the spa room crisis, the Rhythmic Romani Orchestra was relocated to one of the hotel’s meeting rooms. Selma and Emel walked in. The members of the band were all wearing sequined shirts, bow ties and cotton trousers. Now somewhat recovered, Stovepipe Rıza was leaning back in a chair with his feet propped on the table.
Selma laughed. “So Stovepipe, are you the CEO of this place now or what?”
In the meantime, Magic fingers was shouting into his phone, the veins bulging in his neck: “Now look, we already sent out the invitations! Hello? Hello?” He tossed his phone onto the table, muttering, “As if you’d even seen a Swarovski phone case before I came along! I get you one and now you think you can hang up on me?”
“Hey Magic, what’s going on?”
“It’s my fiancée’s mother. She broke off the engagement.”
“I had it all set up. A band from Kumkapı was going to play at the wedding. Now the mother-in-law is saying they can only play along with musicians from Sulukule, especially the clarinet player. I mean, really, is that any reason to call off a wedding?”
İrfan the Bloodsucker, who was the band’s clarinetist, frowned. “So it’s all my fault that they broke it off? Magic, I’m sorry but that mother-in-law of yours doesn’t know a damn thing about music.”
“That’s not even the point. Only the bride can call off a wedding, right? So she calls me and says that her mom’s breaking it off. What the fuck, why the hell did I buy her a damn Swarovski phone case? Just so she could hang up on me?” He lit a cigarette. “And I redid the house and everything.”
“We told you not to spend so much money.”
“Back in my village in Babaeski, if a guy gets married, it doesn’t matter if he lives in a shack—he’ll do what it takes to fix it up right. I mean, what do you expect? In a place like Istanbul, am I going to have my bride piss in a thirty-year-old crapper? Seriously, who would do a thing like that?” Taking a long drag on his cigarette, he went on: “Tahir, tell one of the waiters to bring us a bottle of rakı.”
“You think these guys are going to give us a bottle?”
Selma cut in. “They haven’t eaten brought us anything to eat yet.”
Magic Fingers said, “There’s no way I’m going to be able play today without knocking back a few glasses first. This is their problem, not mine. I’ve had it with this place, I’m out of here!”
Tahir gently pushed him back into his chair. “Just hang on, I’ll get this sorted out.”
Ten minutes later, Tahir returned carrying a black plastic bag. He pulled out a bottle of rakı which was wrapped in newspaper.
“How the hell did you manage that? Those penny-pinchers are even making us pay for the damn water we drink.” That was Selma.
“I got it from a shop around the corner. We’ll cut the cost from the tips.”
“In that case, pour me and Emel a double each, since we’re the ones who make the tips in the first place.”
As Tahir was taking out some plastic cups, the door of the meeting room swung open. Quickly he tucked the bottle of rakı under a darbuka case. A waiter came in, carrying a plastic bag. He said, “Here’s some food. The manager said you’re not supposed to go into the restaurant, so eat here.”
As the waiter set the bag on the table, Tahir sneered “Well, well. Send our thanks to Mr. Manager.”
The waiter left. Stovepipe Rıza opened the bag.
“I’m never coming back to this place again! What the hell is this? Cheese sandwiches?”
Tahir said, “Look at it this way. They were kind enough to bring us some cheese to eat with our rakı. What else could you ask for?”
After spreading out the newspaper on the table, Tahir opened the sandwiches one by one, taking out the cheese and green peppers. Then he filled each cup halfway with rakı and then topped them all off with water. Raising his cup, he said, “Here’s to Magic Fingers Aladdin!”
The tables in the dining hall were full and the waiters had started serving the guests. The band finished its first song, and as they started playing the next one, Tahir grabbed the microphone and said, “The Rhythmic Romani Orchestra would like to welcome you all here tonight. And now, let’s hear it for our neighbourhood’s most beautiful women!”
Magic Fingers Aladdin started playing a slow Romani beat, his fingers flickering across the head of the darbuka: Rom-ka-roka-tatata-dom-ka-rom-rom-roka-tatatata-dom-ta. Then the rest of the band joined in, instrument by instrument, and Selma and Emel entered from opposite sides of the dining hall, stepping to the beat of the music. A roar of applause... When Selma danced, she never gave the impression that she was dancing for the sake of tips. It was more like she was doing the audience a favor by being there. Each step was premeditated, decisive, as if she was driving a hard bargain that she knew she’d win. Her dancing was not the kind to inspire the people in the audience to stagger to their feet and try to show off how well they thought they could dance. Just like her father never missed a beat, Selma responded to every snap of the drum with a swish of her hips and her body quivered with each roll on the darbuka.
Once they reached the center of the stage, Selma and Emel started dancing side by side. Holding to a steady, unhurried rhythm, they danced with such subtle poise that none of the women in the audience could have kept up with their steps no matter how hard they tried. Then they began making their way between the tables, exchanging glances with whoever seemed to have the deepest pockets and spending more time dancing in front of them than the others. The big shots would pull out a twenty and tuck it the waistband of their skirts or slip a fifty-note into their bras, all depending on how much they felt they needed to impress the others sitting at their tables.
Selma was getting thirsty. She knew she wasn’t allowed to talk to the waiters when she was dancing, so she picked out a woman who was clapping loudly along with the music and led her onstage. When that woman started dancing, others got up the courage to join her. Now that they were dancing too, the men had no choice but to turn their attention from Selma and Emel to their wives on the dance floor, and the waiters were distracted as well. That’s when Selma sidled up to a waiter and said, “Let me have some water.”
“I can’t,” he said. “It’s against the rules. If I do, they’ll make me pay for it.”
“Just for some water? Look, I’ll pay.”
“You don’t have a tab, so I’ll have to cover it. Five lira. That’s more than I make in an hour.”
Tahir said into the microphone, “Let’s hear a round of applause for the prettiest girls of the night!”
Selma started dancing next to a group of people seated near the stage. When the big shot of the table tucked a hundred lira note into her bra, she leaned down in front of him, rolling her shoulders to the rhythm of the music. Glancing at the waiter, she picked up a full glass of water from the table. As the waiter started angrily picking his through the crowd towards her, Selma placed the glass of water on top of her head. The waiter stopped. She continued dancing with the glass balanced on her head, taking small steps left and right, keeping her head perfectly still as she swung her hips and shook her shoulders in time with the rat-tat-tat of the drums. The guests who were dancing stopped to watch her, waiting to see if the glass would fall. When Magic Fingers Aladdin glided into a long roll on his darbuka, Selma followed his lead, sending a tremor running down from her shoulders to her breasts and belly and hips and then back up again, all without spilling a drop from the glass. Everyone in the dining hall broke into applause. Staring the waiter in the eye, Selma took hold of the glass of water, and after holding it out in salutation to the audience, she drank it down in one gulp.