Introducing Filiz who will never, ever whistle at night

I would like to introduce you to Filiz, not her name, but one she would have liked to be called. Her grandparents came to Ayvalik from the Greek island of Lesvos, during one of the population exchanges between the two countries. Here in Ayvalik, her great grandfather worked in an olive oil factory, but in Greece, he owned a taverna, which was good as apparently he liked his drink.

Like everyone else who had to flee their homes on short notice, there was little time to collect one’s belongings, never mind the concern that anything valuable might be confiscated en route or upon arrival to the Turkish land. Filiz’s grandmother was seven years old at the time, and as children were not checked, she wore all the family gold under her scarf and sweater. The family lived on the money from the sale of that gold for a number of years.

Filiz was born in 1970; her parents divorced when she was four and she never saw her mother again. Her father didn’t want either of his daughters to go to school, but as his father paid for their uniforms and other incidentals in the so-called ‘free education’ system, she was able to study until she was 14. Her grandmother had broken her arm and someone had to cook, do the laundry and cleaning, so Filiz and her sister quit school and became keepers of the house where they all lived.

Though the men made the major decisions, it is the grandmother Filiz refers to the most. Or, rather, it is the grandmother’s superstitions that come up the most often. ‘No chewing gum at night as that’s like chewing the meat of death when it’s dark.’ ‘You can’t whistle at night because that’s an invitation to the fairies and genies.’ ‘Don’t ever throw water off the balcony at night, as that’s when the fairies and genies children are playing, and if you douse them with water, you may have to deal with the wrath of their parents later.’ And this one, which she blushingly mentioned and refused to elaborate, beyond saying it caused her a good amount of frustration, ‘Newlyweds can’t bathe alone for the first 40 days after their wedding.’

She married at 24 to a man 3 years older than herself: they are both from th same neighborhood and had been eyeing each other for a while. Her son was born nearly a year later, and she accepts that she may be over productive yet asks what does one expect from a woman who never knew her own mother. About her marriage,  ‘I’ll never forget this: I had been married for 1, maybe 2 months. I went to meet some friends for tea. On the way home, I heard the evening call to prayer and started to panic as I was afraid of the wrath I would meet upon opening the front door. My husband opened the door and asked me where I was, saying he was worried about me. He had set the table and heated up the dinner. I was still used to my father’s temper and expected my husband to treat me the same. Marrying my husband was – and still is – like winning the national lottery of men.’

She heard about cop(m)adam from a friend, who at first encouraged her, then insisted she come to the workshop. At first she didn’t tell her husband, as even though he is wonderful and lets her do what she wants, he did not want her to work. Filiz was pretty comfortable in the workshop from the beginning, though and would come several times a week and stay for several hours, working on her bags there, talking and laughing with the other women there.

One day I mentioned that she was speaking pretty loudly, and even she will accept that her voice can be very loud. At that time, the workshop was pretty crowded and sometimes the noise level was just too much for me to deal with.  She took tremendous offense to this remark and sulked for several weeks. I heard from one of our full-time ladies that she was thinking to quit. Even though I have learned so much from people here about the importance of saving face, and criticizing as gently as possible so as to not cause offense, well, sometimes my not-so-tactful words come out. Her reaction seemed rather extreme, but clearly I had touched a nerve and she no longer was comfortable in my presence. Several times I apologized and once I even took her aside to try and make amends. She denied anything was wrong, but her behavior demonstrated otherwise. Eventually though there was a turn-around, and she became her former self: warm, happy, making jokes, spreading positive energy. Apparently, she had some friends who were trying to talk her out of coming to our workshop, saying it was a waste of time and then my insult made her feel that they were right. My apologies made her think about the larger picture though, along with her acknowledgment that she really enjoyed working with us. As we say in Turkish, she ‘came back to herself,’ and we let by-gones be by-gones.

Filiz is now my right-hand lady, the one understands me more than the other women, the one who can think beyond the traditional framework, the one I turn to first with new ideas so that she can explain them to the other women in a way they will really understand. She is one of the first people who come to mind when I ask myself what I am doing, why have I set this up, am I really doing anything that makes a damn bit of difference. Under different circumstances, she would have been one of the finest teachers anyone could want to learn from. Unwittingly, she has become one of my teachers, one of the people I continue to learn so much about life and people from.

Another day, another individual in the life of the garbage ladies.