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Jeffers tells us that he began writing these stories in 1994, and through “…fitful intervals…” gave them a “…final burnish in Spring 2011.” Most authors have similar experiences; there is always that work that nags completion, a final burnishing, regardless of how many years it has begged attention, unfinished, but, nevertheless—in the author’s mind, soul—worthy of an end, a pat on the rump that sends it off into the world to stand on its own, revealed, shamelessly exposed to the readers’ scrutiny. I thank Jeffers for sticking with this one through all those years.
This is superb storytelling, shared with a vague presence—not identified as Adam until the last entry—that eloquently and informatively describes the protagonist’s, Ziya’s, travails as a Muslim, growing up in Turkey in a fairly well-to-do family, and destined to fulfill his parent’s plan that he eventually go to Harvard, to America where his mother was educated (a physician). But America looms, for Ziya, as not the promised land but, rather—through his sense of history and experience—perhaps a land too recklessly taken for granted by Americans themselves.
Ziya shares with Adam a telling juxtaposition between his sense of himself and his and his country’s history, and that of America and Americans:
“Imagine this, though: imagine Vietnam was not a hot little country halfway ‘round the world but an island just off your coast—in the Gulf of Mexico, say, near Florida. Not even as far as Cuba. Nor are your allies there corrupt little yellow gooks fighting an ideological and economic war against their own people, but our own people, English-speaking Americans… Ah! the metaphor becomes unwieldy, breaks down. These things cannot occur in America. All your wars happen far away—on TV; and you, my good friend (this phrase he said in Turkish; iyi arkadasim), you do not own a televison and could scarcely comprehend my impatience with you, only three years ago, because it would not make sense in your head that my county shares a border with Iraq.
“I saw none of this on TV and so I remember it.
“—Am I speaking to you? Personally? This with an odd, diffident smile. No, no. You are my friend, my good friend, America, I fear is not.”
Ziya, again a Muslim (blue-eyed, like his mother who was “…of the line of Osman. …[a] hapless Ottoman…sultan… The sons of Osman never condescended to impregnate women of their own nation: all their concubines were foreign slaves—pale-skinned, paled-eyed…”), who, even at Harvard shaves his underarm hair and pubes, and still engages in the ablutions necessary prior to the rite of praying to Mekke, provides a fascinating insight into what I found to be a cursory, even dismissive regret or shame or momentary afterthought about engaging in sex with men. Ziya appears quite ambivalent about any Muslim prohibitions, or teachings, or admonitions with regard to homosexuality. Indeed, it appears Ziya’s upbringing in Turkey gave him a sense of that country’s, that empire’s acceptance of men-on-men, or more precisely, men-on-boy relationships.
Another quote: “My uncle cannot countenance my refusal to marry and breed but he would not be especially perturbed to know I enjoy fucking other males. That I prefer full-grown men, muscular and hairy, to lissome boys would be puzzling but within the realm of possibility. Men like to fuck, he would say—need to fuck, are made to fuck. Unlike a western man, he’s not disgusted by the simple idea of sex between males. What a man fucks is not so crucial as that he fuck, and I use the word what rather than whom deliberately. What my uncle would not comprehend is that I also enjoy being fucked—and enjoy oral sex, given and received, mutual masturbation, endless necking and foreplay—that orgasm (my own) is nice but not the only goal and pleasant to postpone, that my partner’s orgasm can please me no end. But here I am sounding like an American homosexual—a gay man.
“The notion of sexual reciprocity would not occur to thegeneral run of Turkish men—the idea, you see, is ludicrous. As rule, Turkish men are lousy lays.
“…if women are not available but a boy or ibne is: what the man fucks is immaterial, that he fuck imperative. The pederast, moreover, is a pervert.”
Ziya, in his youth, raped by his uncle, and further used (willingly) by encounters with other men, discovers notions of man-on-man sex refined by a chance meeting with an old school chum, ĺhsan, who has become—his hair bleached, his clothing seductive to provide the illusion of youth—an ibne, working for a pimp. ĺhsan teaches Ziya that man-on-man sex need not be peremptory, incidental only to just getting your rocks off. He teaches Ziya that sex is so much more than friction.
Ziya, throughout his storytelling to Adam, struggles with Western notions of religion. He was “…perversely amused…” by “The bravado of those [Western religionists] who attempted to represent God Himself…revolted [him].” His first view of Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam, saw him laughing aloud: “Santa Claus in a nightgown!” Indeed, he reveals that, “The first thing I discovered myself to be, at Harvard, was a Muslim.” Then again, his first roommate, an Arab from Kuwait disgusted him. “Turks and Arabs seldom [got] along.” He enjoyed encountering fellow Turks at a mosque in Boston, but became uneasy with encounters “…in the basement meeting room the campus Islamic Society, frequented by fierce-eyed men whose piety made me flinch and women, defiant rather that demure, wearing chic, updated form of yaşmak.” More grating for Ziya, perhaps, was the American notion that all Muslims were Islamic fundamentalists, and all Arabs to boot. “They were not to be argued with, these Americans[,]” who believed, incorrectly, that Turkey and Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania were Arab states where Islamic fundamentalism festered hot and heavy.
Ziya’s observations—from the viewpoint of a confirmed Muslim—of the American psyche, the American way of life are sardonic, so revealing, so intensely insightful. Staying overnight at a friend of his mother’s home, the teenage son stands from the dining table, “…yawned alarmingly and lifted his fists overhead, punching at the ceiling. The t-shirt rode up his concave belly, above blue jeans that were slung deliberately low, making of his high-riding boxer shorts a part of speech, a conjunction.”
“Americans,” Ziya later observes, “men and women both, were always showing themselves off, as if by reflex. Seduction seemed to be the great public pastime, although I couldn’t see that it had any object behind it, was meant to carry through. Appearing desirable was effect and cause both, a closed system.”
I find myself wanting to share so much more of this sublimely eloquent work. I’ve probably shared too much. I want, I suppose, for you, the reader to love this book as much as I did; the storytelling is as engaging as anything I’ve read in a very, very long time. And, too, I hope you (like me) will find the introspection urged by Ziya’s storytelling not so much as an explication of the ugly American, but rather a worthy reflection on who and what we, Americans, have become. Alex Jeffers, through a decade and half, has spun gold here.
Thank you, Alex.
Reviewed by George Seaton