Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Last Ottoman

Every Tuesday afternoon, when I take my bath in Cağaloğlu Hamami, Mustafa Ozkan appears fatter than I remember him from the week before. How my masseur manages to develop that corpulence despite his strenuous profession – all day long he pummels and presses and twists and kneels and steps up and down on his customers, in all that heat in the sauna room – puzzles many bathers. “It’s the baklavas.” Mustafa will say, with a carefree smile. Yet fattening Mustafa more than the sweet pastry is the melancholic abandon that has bound him since the day Seifka Pamuk left Istanbul. It was twelve years, three months and four days ago that the auburn-haired girl from Aksaray of central Anatonia flew out from Ataturk airport, made a connection in New York City, and arrived in Pittsburgh to study the soulless magic of chemistry. Feeling that some flesh inside his chest was torn away, Mustafa has been eating ferociously to fill in the void. Seifka has sent three letters. The first one came within a month of her arrival in Pittsburgh. Page after page, she complained of the tasteless food in American diners and the drab city street lined by houses of uniform fabrication, painted in colors one indistinguishable from another. She wrote nostalgically of how she went to the same and only Turkish restaurant near her school three days in a row, even though its döner kebab was too dry. That she missed the sight of the sea, and the hours that she spent with Mustafa on the Galata Bridge fishing for sardines, as the sun cast its fading rays over the waters of the Golden Horn. She mentioned the imminent dreadful qualification exams in three weeks. Four weeks later, Mustafa received the second letter. Seifka had passed the exams but was now occupied with laboratory research. The third letter followed shortly, telling him that she had met a music student from Mexico. There has been no more Seifka in Mustafa’s life.

I lie face down, my chest on the marble slate heated by the steam circulating in the octagonal room. Mustafa takes off his T-shirt, revealing his hairy chest and pear-shaped belly. He puts his hands on my back. “It’s tense here.” he says, as always, and starts to rub along my spine. Mustafa has very strong hands, which is why I choose him for my massages. He presses his fingers deep into my flesh, and I can sense his almost sadistic pleasure of inflicting the transient pain on another man. After the pressing comes the pummeling, and then the twisting backward of my arms as far as they will go without dislocation. In the culminating act, Mustafa steps onto my back with both his feet and walks from my waist to just below my neck and then down again. Soon we are both covered in sweat, Mustafa’s sweat. I feel a little disgust, but soon enough soap comes in and dissolves it.

Mustafa steps out of the room – it’s tea time – leaving me wash off the soap myself. The afternoon sun pours in through the star-shaped windows in the domed ceiling, and, when shining on my skin, it elicits a different sensation of warmth than the moist steam. I turn the faucets fully open, and wait until water has filled the marble basin. I reach in and touch the bottom, just as I touched it when the bath first opened its doors in 1741. I let my fingers register how the stone has become polished by two hundred and sixty six years of running water. Sultan’s subjects, rich and poor, have cleansed themselves under this same roof. Now it caters to the city’s well-heeled residents and Western tourists. The place has otherwise changed little, like me.

The place where a man truly belongs is where he wishes to die. My city is Istanbul – I have peregrinated the world but have always come back to the banks of Marmara – yet I cannot die, not since my fateful encounter with Shabalba when the crushing snow cut off the pursuing Russian cavalry but also stranded me for a week in the high Urals. I will live my endless days of ennui, in this city of solitude and melancholy.

I take a stroll through the Grand Bazaar. In the northwest quarter of the labyrinthine complex of shops, I drop in No. 49 to buy a pouch of oleander that I place next to my pillow at night. Bahar, fifteen-years in age, with a smile that can sweeten earl tea and long eyelashes that pierce like Cupid’s arrows, persuade me to buy a pack of rosehip tea and get the oleander for free. Turning away to greet her next customer, she never notices the resigned sadness in my eyes, the shaking of my hand at the touch of her fingertips when she gives back my change, or the tremor in my voice as I say good-bye. How she resembles her grandmother, Yelda Seyh, the courtesan whose chamber I frequented after returning from the bloodbath on the shores of Cyprus. Yelda, the Red-Leafed Oleander – at that time the most beautiful belly dancer between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea – exorcised my nightmares of raped little girls and mutilated human bodies with her ecstatic cries in orgasm. But how do I make Bahar believe that her mother is the fruit of my loins? In a few years she will look to be my older sister.

I walk by cafés where people are smoking hookah and playing backgammon. I walk by restaurants where American tourists applaud Dervish dancers. I don’t stop. I pass by a small mosque in disrepair adjoined by a dilapidated wooden house, in front of which a wrinkle-faced woman is hanging her washed clothes. In an ice cream stand, a man in white robe is performing the traditional trick of serving Turkish ice cream: his swift wrist keeps the ice cream at the tip of a long rod tantalizingly close to yet always out of reach of his customer's grasp. The onlooking Chinese backpackers laugh in amusement, but I walk on. Oh, the simple delight of seeing something for the first time! Now, I am cursed with a jaded memory, like a film that has been exposed so many times that on it only blank remains.

I spend the rest of my evening sitting on the north wall of Istanbul University, a stone’s throw from the great Süleymaniye Mosque. At sunset, as the sky turns purple and the cruise ships on the Bosporus light up, the speakers on the minarets sing Koran. As the tunes from mosques near and far reach my ears, they interweave with each other like a counterpoint of Bach. On the narrow street below, an old Muslim is selling watermelons and cherries from his wheelbarrow. Waiting for customers that never come, he sits there and eats sunflower seeds. Mechanically he cracks each seed, pops the kernel into his mouth, and throws away the shell. There is a pile of shells by him. He has not sold anything. But he is not worried. Neither am I. I sit there watching him. I have eternity to do nothing.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Mechanism of Na+/H+ antiporting

Desalination of E. Coli. in Homeric hymn

Heed, the readers of Science,
Secret ways of the antiporter.
This family of membrane proteins,
Trading one sodium inside cell, with
Two protons outside,
So all life is alive, in acid and brine.
Its structure recently unveiled,
Using extraction from E. Coli.;
Yet its method of act,
Hitherto uncomprehended.
This method we tell, by a host of
Molecular simulations;
By thinking and rethinking of
Clues already seen in labs:

Three membranous aspartates,
Protonating and deprotonating,
Move the protein in action.
Asp a hundred sixty four,
Deprotonating and protonating,
Binds and releases sodium ions;
Asp a hundred sixty three,
Protonating and deprotonating,
Opens the gate to peri- and cyto- plasm.
Asp a hundred and thirty three,
Be the pKa high, be its charge negative,
Keeps the antiporting in flux.
To ascertain our theory,
We return to the bench,
Modifying the protein by
Happily the outcome,
With our predictions agreed.