The “Ottoman slap”—a technique developed in the Ottoman army, where punching was considered bad form—is known as Osmanli tokat (or, more grammatically, Osmanli tokadi), and if you enter this term in YouTube you will see hundreds of videos of Turkish people getting slapped in the face, mostly by other Turkish people, although also, in one case, by a monkey.
Finally, as Pushkin, a Russian, was ambiguously positioned between the “Orient” and the seventeenth-century Anglo-French tradition of travelogue, so was I ambiguously positioned between Turkey and the exasperating twentieth-century discourse of “shoestring travel”: the quest for an idyll where, for three U.S. dollars, Mustafa would serve you a home-cooked meal and tell you about his hair collection. The worst part of this discourse was its specious left-wing rhetoric, as if it were a form of “sticking it to the man” to reject a chain motel in favor of a cold-water pension completely filled with owls.
I hadn’t believed my uncle, partly because he was crazy—hadn’t he spent his later years in a gardening shed in New Jersey, writing a book about string theory and spiders?— and partly because, in my experience, Turkish people thought that every language was close to our Turkish language. Many times I had been told that Hungarian was related to Turkish, that the Hungarians and Turks descended from the same Altaic peoples, that Attila the Hun was Turkish, and so on. When I went to Hungary, however, I discovered that Hungarians do not share these beliefs at all. “Of course we have some Turkish words in our language,” they would say. “For example, handcuffs. But that’s because you occupied our country for four hundred years.”
Like most people, she was more interested in communicating her own thoughts and feelings than in helping to keep alight the flame of the Eastern Turkic languages.
the Chinese encyclopedia has different words for animals drawn with a fine camel’s-hair brush and animals who have just broken a flower vase, which dramatizes the impossibility of devising any objective system of classifying knowledge. By contrast, whatever it was that you learned about Uzbeks when you studied their language, it was something long and difficult to fathom. What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying? I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem to bode well for my summer vacation.
In retrospect, however, the beating of Trediakovsky acquired a tragic and prophetic cast. To quote the twentieth-century poet Khodasevich: “On that ‘masquerade’ night, when Volynsky beat Trediakovsky, began the history of Russian literature . . . the history of the destruction of Russian writers.” The Russian state has always oppressed its writers: Tsar Nikolai I was Pushkin’s personal censor. In 1940 Stalin, notwithstanding his busy schedule, signed Babel’s death sentence with his own hand.
I want the Gosplan to sweat in debate, assigning me goals a year ahead, and for Stalin to deliver his Politburo reports about the production of verse as he would about pig iron and the smelting of steel. “. . . in the Union of Republics the understanding of verse now tops the prewar norm . . .”
Saints alone are free from the tyranny of human desires, which follow a precise timetable. From birth to age five, Dilorom told me, we desire affection and petting. From age five to puberty, we desire candy and sweets. From puberty to age twenty-five, we desire sex. Until age forty-five, our desires turn toward children. After age sixty, we desire quietude and remembrance. It is only from age forty-five to sixty that we desire fruits of the intellect. “In intellectual terms, age forty-five to sixty is the cream on the milk.” Dilorom looked down at her hands on the table, smiling faintly. “Soon I will be forty-five,” she said, raising her eyes. “I’m hoping to finish writing my book.”
As the Brazilian soccer team defeated the team of my ancestral homeland 1–0, as people in the streets of Samarkand shouted, “Ronaldo! Ronaldinho!” I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory. The Uzbek language truly was related to both Turkish and Russian, by either genetic origin or secondary contact . . . but that didn’t make it a reconciliation between the two. When you studied Uzbek, you weren’t learning a history or a story; all you were learning was a collection of words. And the larger implication was that no geographic location, no foreign language, no preexisting entity at all would ever reconcile “who” you were with “what” you were, or where you came from with what you liked.