On foreignness, fear, and steel — and how the author experienced exile in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To my father, Ergün Coşar (1934 – 2020)
I arrived in Pittsburgh on a cold January evening, after a long sunny drive (my favorite when I am on the road). As I drove to my residence on Sampsonia Way, it was difficult to sense what was around me in the darkness of the city streets. Yet, I could feel the steel undergirding the bridges over which I passed. In the morning, when I returned the rental car and took a bus back to the house I could see more clearly: steel in downtown, steel on the streets, on the bridges, and sidewalks. The steel had, so far, reminded me of my foreignness.
As I lived through my residency with City of Asylum, the looming presence of steel helped me to connect the mixed, at times contradictory emotions, thoughts and realities of life in this century. The steel used to build bridges is the same steel used to build solitary towers and domineering walls. The steel that once empowered workers to organize and create communities is the same steel that has cratered economies and left the cities in blight — at once connecting and dividing. These powerful ambiguities push me to tell stories. Stories of being away, stories of losing, stories of joy, stories of being on the road. Stories help us at times when the facts are so crystal clear that it is hard to believe their reality. Stories give hope when each and every human experience is immediate. Stories re-tell our experiences, freeing them from solitude — reminding us that we are not saints or devils, just living beings.
As I arrived in Pittsburgh at the onset of the pandemic amidst so many contradictions and unrealities, the stories that emerged from my journeys through the city’s steel-laden infrastructure helped to keep my feet on the ground, to hold onto the micro experiences of everyday life, to expect the most and the least from my state of being on this earth. My days in the City of Bridges were plain and complicated, clear and blurry, calm and sad — as life itself. To make sense of life through those early-pandemic experiences, I tell my story through two spirits — Hayat (life) and Hülya (dream) — who embody multiple women breathing, eating, writing, walking across different lands and times. With their help, the following narrative was crafted in Pittsburgh, PA, USA in the months of November and December 2020.
MOTION — HAYAT
I am a Mediterranean woman, one of those who are grown into the sea. I had the privilege to get to know swimming at an age I cannot remember. My parents used to tell stories of how I was once scared of water — by the sea and in the tub, and how I turned out to be fond of it the moment I started to swim on my own. The word sea for me has meant Mediterranean: salty as much as a sea could be, warm, swimmable in mid-January, capricious with August winds, peaceful with September sighs, joyful in the Spring.
I have been away from the Mediterranean for more than two decades. It is not that I have not visited the region that breathes by the Mediterranean coasts. It is that I have been away living as a Mediterraneanian. The love of the land is around, the smell of sea is on my left side, the joy of streets is just around the corner. I walk with them. And I am not there, yet. I am not here, either.
STASIS – HÜLYA AND HAYAT
Two old friends meet on WhatsApp.
Now, we are in absolutely equal conditions, says Hülya. Hayat does not get it, at first. Hayat is wary of talking online; she is wary of living mostly online. Hülya is wary of being locked at home. Hülya, guessing from the look on the face of her friend for 30 years, explains, I mean we are the same, in this pandemic. Look, I cannot go out without fear. I can’t do the things that I regularly do. I am in that place where you stepped into your visiting her-story.
Is it possible, sighs Hayat, is it possible to equalize, to balance at any and every lockdown, and lockup? Is it possible to treat any and every sense of despair the same? They nod, both no and yes. It is not the time to get into such discussion as it does not end, cure, heal, resolve our sadness.
They continue talking about the past into the present. Hülya asks Hayat about her new visiting spot in Pittsburgh. Hayat smiles ironically: well, life here is life at home — a place where I call home for about one and a half years. That is why we are not equals; that is why we cannot be equal in experiences with freedom and restrictions.
Hülya nods yes.
But for sure between January and March I could at least take some bus tours. So I let bus 54 that takes me from the City of Asylum in the North to the Pitt campus on the South. I take mostly the D version of 54. I do so to see the poorest places, for I’ve learned, in this country riches do not need to live by the bus stops. I see lots of steel between the North and the South, between the East and the North, and from the South to the North. I see steel as I pass by long closed down factories, retailers, gas stations. I see steel as I cross over one of the bridges that connect the people on each side of the river. I see steel in the sun, under the rain, when snowing.
Hülya says, as the pandemic locks us down, as my fear pushes me in, I barely go out. It is only for groceries. I get things done as quickly as possible. At least, there, people wear masks, keep at a distance. Here, in this country, it seems, nobody cares for the other, for themselves.
Hayat takes a minute to nod. She is never sure about comparisons. Through all her academics, comparative studies is the most unreliable field of inquiry. She can relate things, people, times, places; she can relate Monterey Street with Palo Alto, Brighton Road to Penn Ave., just as she can do so between the Carnegie Library on Federal Street and that warm Post Office on its other side. Yes, she registered at the library in the second week of her stay in Pittsburgh — she called it ‘my neighborhood library’ — as if she had a neighborhood … then the pandemic surfaced. It permeated all through everyday lives.
As Hayat talks about relating the Mexican War streets to each other Hülya considers it as the irony of her dear friend’s life — a pro-peace feminist staying by the war streets, alongside Victorian buildings, shaky pavements, dirty ground, Whites and Blacks around. Blacks, poor and looking mostly frustrated, sounding impatient; Whites, few in number, mostly friendly, but somewhat expressionless, that many do not give a hint of their looks and sounds. Or perhaps, hesitates Hayat, I am losing sight of people, myself, too. Not good for someone who values observing the people, the things, the buildings, and the way they get themselves together and apart.
So, continues Hülya, you are still into relating things with places as I am into getting the most out of the pleasures of traveling. As soon as the ban on inter-city travel was lifted, I ran out of İstanbul. I drive to remote places all around the country, mostly coastal sites. Don’t look at me like that. What else can I do, what else should I do?
You might stay at the place where you feel safe, Hayat almost whispers.
Hülya, moves on regardless: you know I am more for the Aegean. I have been camping through the Aegean coast; staying away from crowds; biking on two- to three-day-long stops. It is all the more beautiful nowadays, especially when you avoid the crowds. Hayat takes this as the existential irony in Hülya’s life — she is an accomplished construction engineer. She moves on to the memory of her last drive along the Mediterranean coast to head from the heartland of the country to the only house that she could call home. Strangely, it is that house where she slept the least in her life. Strangely, again it is the only house where she never slept alone until as late as her 50s.
And now here, in Pittsburgh, comes another house where she does not sleep alone. The house is beautiful, cosy, adorned by poems in Chinese. It is full of memories aiming at a century long rememberance. Opening to the Sampsonia Way this house evades war, though it cannot escape from it. Its front greets the sun in late mornings, sending it to the shores of the backyard. She says: Backyard is beautiful, embracing a rich variety of birds who sing all through the mornings for the bread and wheat, which they can see from the tree on which they patiently wait. It hosts the playground for the squirrel family — three siblings; Ali, Avni, Veli, I call them. At nights it offers a safe space to the racoon family — the mother protects her family by hiding them, so I only know her. Hüsnüye, I name her. There are certainly many more neighbors in the backyard, who refrain from socializing with me. I do not tend to name them. I just whisper hello.
Hülya and Hayat now grow wary. Their connection over WhatsApp is one of the longest dialogues that they have had since a decade or so. Content, that both know this, and not needing to give an outer voice they smile and move on to end it. It is always tiring to talk on phone, on internet, on camera. It has been all the more so for Hayat because she has been spending half of the day, literally around ten hours every day looking at the screen — lecturing, discussing, meeting, writing, reading, conversing, grading. Hülya has never been a wifi communicator, but she is glad that they could meet and talk for a while. They hang up. Hülya goes to her good night sleep, eight hours ahead of Hayat.
Hayat steps out, heading to the third bridge to cross on foot.
VISITING — HAYAT
Now I am crossing the Andy Warhol Bridge; my favorite in this city of bridges. I have no intention to step on each and every one of some 446 bridges. I enjoy walking downtown once in a while, certainly with the fear of not being able to escape some unmasked person pulling close to me.
Andy Warhol Museum welcomes me just a couple of blocks before the bridge starts. I have no idea how it flows in non-pandemic days, but in these days it is quiet, lonely, letting you walk as slowly as possible. My second favorite is the Roberto Clemente bridge; I like to stop a bit by the north entrance and try to hear the voices from the field. Walking on the bridges helps me to relate — the North to the South, downtown to the War Streets, colonial aspirations to the color of Northern poverty, the two shores of the Allegheny River, the choppers that spoil the livelihood of the daytime and silence of the night to the train whistles that blow through my sleep, to relate to the city, which welcomes me as a visitor. As the pandemic deepens steadily in the last days of 2020, as I hope for my turn in vaccination, I delay crossing the third sister, Rachel Carson for the days when humans come to terms with this pandemic of our times.
There are plenty of scary things in my life. I am not one of those exceptional people who have little sense of fear. As a child, the first fear I named was darkness. When I understood that it was because I could not see in the dark, it was not the fear that I eliminated. I only pacified the fear of the unfolding of stasis and motion. Accompanied to it was the fear of vampires — they turned out to be fictitious characters eventually. But the fear stayed. Years later, a woman journalist asked me whether I was afraid of being subject to the rage of the state. Those were the times of state violence extending from the eastern, Kurdish majority parts to the hinterland and the western parts of the country. It was a simple and not necessarily insignificant question. Is it possible not to be annoyed risking to face such rage? However, this is not a matter of fearing. What matters is doing whatever you have been doing regardless of fear. It is a matter of being in place, on time, and sensing that you claim the land.
My relation to fear brings in visiting as a constitutive element of my everyday existence. Fearing the pandemic comes in multiple faces: fear of death, fear of losing my loved ones, fear of harming other people, and the fear of being stuck to timeless and spaceless uncertainty. Visiting helps in facing them all at once, one after another on a land that is supposed to be foreign where you are supposed to be a foreigner. Fear and strangeness are frustrating, overwhelming, weakening, no matter what and when. Visiting is refreshing, manageable, playful, even joyful — joy as in life itself; visiting is, perhaps, living in and of itself. Visiting brings in everyday experiences, it brings in joyful understanding vis-à-vis the all-too-serious manly understandings for universal settlements. Visiting talks to her-stories, and manly search for universal settlements aspire for hi-s-tory, alas in the singular!
Pandemic fear, as I name it, does not let me play the visiting card. It is difficult to act, move, relate to the outside with bodily fragilities. It is not as the fear when one faces the evil, knowing that there are the good guys and the bad guys, and you can keep on to your stance against the bad, relying on the good. It is much more simple: in this we are all fragile; we are all good and bad at the same time. Thus, I do not like to know that I could not and cannot participate in the BLM protests that shake the country starting with early Summer. I do not like to know that long-distance driving is a far prospect, now. I do not like to know once more that now there is one more reason to extend my stay-away from the land, from the Mediterranean. I do not like to know once more that pandemic is and will be taking many all at once. I do not like to see once more that life is about withering away.
I am a woman from the Mediterranean. People ask me what I miss most in my home country. As I think the most loved ones of my life I expect Mediterranean to be the first in my list, perhaps, followed by my writing desk, and then by the Ankara simit as my beloved snack. I turn to myself for an answer, I miss myself on my land — me dreaming of a Mediterranean life soon to come, me planning to write that piece for a certain journal, me participating in a protest, me eating Ankara simit in a peaceful and normally boring Ankara afternoon, sharing fortunes over a cup of coffee. I miss myself who claims the life on the land regardless of fear.
About the Series: This essay is part of our ongoing series exploring isolation, exile, and “The Everyday Pandemic.” Throughout this series it is our hope to capture the daily toll of life through the pandemic from the perspective of writers and artists who are familiar with the experience of isolation or exile. With this in mind we’ve collected stories, poems, nonfiction essays, and digital art from writers and artists from all walks of life and from all around the globe.
This essay was supported by the “Marking this Moment: Pittsburgh Artists in 2020” project and funded by the Heinz Endowments.
Simten Coşar is a peace academic in love with the Mediterranean. She is a former Scholar-at-Risk and a Visiting Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and has published on politics in Turkey, intellectual history, feminist politics, and feminist theory in Turkish and in English. Today, from her home in Turkey, she conducts research on feminist encounters in the neoliberal academia and is the founding editor of Feminist Asylum — a feminist critical journal, forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Library Systems. In the English-speaking and reading world, she has co-edited two collections of scholarly essays: Universities in the Neoliberal Era: Academic Cultures and Critical Perspectives and Silent Violence: Neoliberalism, Islamist Politics and the AKP Years in Turkey. She translated major texts in social sciences from English to Turkish, and from Turkish to English. Her most recent translation is Handan Çağlayan’s seminal work, Women in the Kurdish Movement: Mothers, Comrades, Goddess.