After Katrina

After Katrina


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I immediately ordered baklava with tea and bottled water.  In Turkey,

when you order baklava, you don’t just get one piece as a single serving;

you get five wonderfully syrupy squares.



After Katrina

By Mackie Blanton

Chapter 2

Earthquakes and Baklava


Well, now I’ve had it all.  A few days ago, I experienced my first earthquake while sitting here at my office desk!  And on a morning when I had forgotten both my wallet and passport back in my apartment!  Who would have been able to identify the corpse?!

I have been here in Izmir, Turkey, for about six weeks now, and will be here for a year, as a Fulbright Lecturer in the Faculty of Letters of Ege Universitesi.  On a recent Monday afternoon, shortly after my class in Contemporary British Fiction ended at noon, I was sitting at my desk when suddenly I felt the slightest tremor invade my space and move upwards through my office and through me as if I were virtually a part of my office itself. The invasive presence strengthened in my corner of the building, and I assume throughout the building itself, and began to rattle, it seemed, the very campus itself.  Who knows how fast the mind really hypothesizes at a moment like this one; but at first I thought a heavy loader was rumbling too fast past the building and therefore shaking its very foundation.  But as the rattling intensified, I had the horrible thought that No, this can’t be happening to me!  I held on to my desk, as I imagined I might have seen done in movies, and in a few eternal seconds the rattling stopped just as suddenly as it had started.

This was to be my very first earthquake, all the way across the world, in the land of the daughters and sons of Ottoman conquerors! Out in the hall, I saw my colleagues standing as stiff as mannequins but beginning to relax.

“Mackie Bey, are you all right?  Are you okay?” Aysun  Hanim, my Chair, asked.

“Is that what I think it was?” I inquired, faking American Southern-style nonchalance.

“An earthquake, you mean?” she suggested knowingly.


“Have you never experienced an earthquake before?”

After a concerned pause: “No.”

“Oh, Mackie Bey, I am so sorry!  I do apologize!  I suppose that this is the sort of thing we should have spoken about through emails a year ago, but I never wanted to discourage you!  You know what I mean?” she pled inquiringly, staring up at me from downcast eyes.

“Yes, Aysun, I do understand, believe me.  In New Orleans, our universities also never brought up the subject of hurricane season to visiting parents during orientation weeks?  Why worry them unnecessarily, we also figured?”

“Yes, all right then, I see you understand.”

An hour later, the intrusive visitor rattled and shook the building of the Faculty of Letters once again.  This time, I was standing in the computer room discussing and comparing earthquakes and hurricanes with Lirik Konak, a colleague.  Frightened, she embraced the wall; well, braced herself against it, but the initial involuntary action looked more like an embrace to me.  I couldn’t help noticing this sensuous aspect in the female form at such a moment of fear and panic.  I obviously missed my wife. I clutched at a table, a few feet behind her so that she couldn’t see that all emotion had drained from my face.  I felt that I needed to hide this fact from her.  But I was simply lost; I did not know how to be in and with this moment, or with another person at this moment.  Then the trembling of the building ceased.

Telephones began to ring in various offices up and down the hall.  Calls were coming in from deans and vice rectors that classes needed to be canceled immediately and that the campus should be evacuated.  We wished each other to be safe (“Gecmis Olsun!”) and began to go our own individual way.  Several were concerned about me, the American and new colleague and friend, and I had to console and assure them that this was nothing new to me, that it really seemed no different from getting the hell out of the way of an oncoming hurricane.  Of course, they did not take the time to point out to me that one never knew from where and at where an earthquake – in an instant – would rattle or shake the land or split or erupt it.

So the campus suddenly closed on this Monday, as did all schools.  On my way back to my apartment by foot, I saw that the streets were filled with parents rushing to school yards to rescue their kids.  Teenage boys, presumably old enough to look after themselves, joked and teased one another, some pretending that the ground was swaying and opening up beneath their feet.  The girls vogued and twirled and squealed and giggled. Younger kids were crying as they fidgeted and waited at the school fence for a parent.  Panicky motorists leaned on their horns from every direction, and out of the window to argue one another to speed up and get out of the way. Someone had to pull two men apart who had jumped from their cars and begun to fight.  Nerves were on edge everywhere. 

I made it to my apartment, where I unburdened myself of my satchel and laptop and took the elevator back down to the ground floor and out once again onto the street. I took an academic journal from my study to read because I had decided to stroll over to Cinar (The Oak Tree), my new favorite coffeehouse.  Among people milling about aimlessly or rushing past one another with purposeful, determined, pinched faces, I sauntered my way through Grand Park just opposite my apartment building, toward its main entrance opening on to where Cinar was.  This was going to be my way of dealing with earthquakes, I thought.  I won’t panic against the worrying newness of all of this, I told myself.  I would just quietly find a table near a window where sunlight would be streaming through dusky off-white curtains and I would read, and concentrate intently on what I was reading, an essay on the center of Western Marxism of the 1930s, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. 

I immediately ordered baklava with tea and bottled water.  In Turkey, when you order baklava, you don’t just get one piece as a single serving; you get five wonderfully syrupy squares.  I soon learned, weeks before earthquake time, to savor and to devour them all, slowly, especially while pouring over tracts of intellectual history and literary theory.  There I sat, until dinner time.  Later, I went off to a restaurant for an evening meal and returned afterwards for more of Cinar’s baklava, even though I had promised myself weeks before that I would have the pleasure of this great dessert only once a week, on Sundays.  But here I was, on the Monday of my first earthquake ever, having a single serving of five perfectly inviting pieces twice, as my way of contending with earthquakes and consoling myself!

Throughout that afternoon and evening, I marveled at the fact that I didn’t run upstairs, pack my bags, and book the next flight out, to Budapest or Praha, or to Paris – or New York, and then home to New Orleans.  One should never stick around faced with impending disaster.  But I now know that we learn from childhood never to imagine that the hurricane or the earthquake will insinuate itself in our path.  This is our parents’ carefully crafted imprint. 

As a very young man, I often wondered why more enslaved Africans never attempted to escape slavery or why so many native Indian tribes simply seemed to have surrendered their fates to European settlers or why seemingly the majority of European Jews did not think to abandon their shtetls at the least inkling of emerging, centuries-old, murderous anti-Semitism.  But here I now sat over baklava several years later, in Izmir, Turkey, among persistent earthquakes, even as I remained a fresh refugee of sorts from Katrina’s Louisiana hits.  Why didn’t I just leave, abandon this new experience?  Escape back to the US, just in time for the next new hurricane?  I don’t understand these things yet.  Perhaps such introspective questioning suggests an element of the solipsist in me.  On the other hand, such questions may be the only way to normalize the incomprehensible.  Perhaps there are no authentic responses to such questions.  I just don’t know.  I must work them out one day – over baklava, but not during earthquakes and hurricanes.

I think it must have something to do with the way we human beings narrativize peril into legends over time.  For instance, they now tell me here that Izmir undergoes underground tremors constantly.  Some 150 tremors were reported for that Monday morning; 500 by nightfall.  Whatever the exact number, four were felt across the Izmir and its townships on Monday and two were bigger than had been felt in years: 5.7 and 6.9, though the US registered this last one as a 9.0.  In my office on this Monday of the first earthquake of my life, I could feel the quake move through me and take over my body as if I were just another extension of the room I was in, as if I were a column or a chair or bookcase.  I still have dizzying phantom imaginings that I can feel one starting up again, especially when I am in a tall building.  Or perhaps what I was feeling was one of the actual many tremors of the Anatolian Fault.  That Monday, the areas near the Izmir township of Cesme received the harder tremors and on Tuesday I heard that some Greek islands were damaged in part.  I am wondering whether these were Lesbos and Xios, which are just across from Cesme.  I was in Cesme two weekends before and could see these islands from there across the Aegean.

I now understand from Onder Bey, my department Chair’s husband, who told me, the newcomer, with gleeful mischief in his voice, that Izmir has minor tremors in the hundreds almost daily, year round.  I could see the devilishness in his face, even though he was citing facts to the newcomer.  He was initiating me into becoming comfortable with a new panic in life.  Onder Uluyisci, the impish anarchist and benevolent iconoclast of the department (perhaps of the Faculty even), continued to explain that the people and experts of Izmir believe that these daily tremors are good for Izmir and its townships because daily and frequent minor horizontal grinding of tectonic plates along the fault line somehow reduced the risk of major vertical upheavals. So Izmiris, as all Turks must, live with the narrative of real or phantom sensations of rumblings going on below us daily.  I, too, now believe that I can sense them from one moment to the next.  And so we stay put. Becoming an amateur expert on earthquakes just as Gulf Coast Southerners become an expert on hurricanes, I recently read online that only a week ago California had 300 tremors in one day and no one sensed them.

I am learning the quake dance as I call it – embrace the nearest wall or column or piece of furniture at the first rumblings but head for the nearest exit as quickly as you can.  We had two more days of reports of The Big One about to rip its away across Greece and Turkey.  Asleep at 1:00AM on one of those days, I was shaken awake by one of those quakes.  I lay there in the dark, not quite knowing what to do just yet at every moment that I was still alive, imagining fissures creasing streets, alleys, and the lawns of Grand Park.  When my building ceased rattling, I dressed and went to Grand Park and sat among all the young and old couples there who had packed their valuables in 30-inch rolling suitcases, just in case they, alive, would have no home to return to.

It all seems to be over now, for this year.  So perhaps earthquakes have a season of sorts after all.  I will re-reform myself regarding sweets and go back to having baklava only on Sundays.

I learned from my greengrocer later that some people had died from fright that Monday of our first discernible quakes this year and on the following days that we had more noticeable quakes; or they had perished from accidents while rushing out of imagined harm’s way; or even from jumping from a fifth floor window, hoping to save oneself. Most people slept out in their cars for three to four nights straight, fearing to be indoors where the ceiling of their apartment might cave in on them.  They say it’s better to live in a two-story apartment building, on the second floor. That way, you won’t have far to fall and you are not on the bottom.  In my new apartment building, said to be constructed to be earthquake proof (I hope), I live on the 7th floor.

 Chapter I  (Neighbors and Invaders) Chapter 2 ( Earthquakes and Baklava)  Chapter 3   (The Lens in Plato’s Eye)  Malcolm’s Landing

posted 16 March 2006


Your request encouraged me and I promptly forgot the promise, although I started the ms. Here it is –  the first three musings only – a ms in progress. The first chapter is the poem you already have, somewhat revised; the second chapter (“Earthquakes and Baklavah”) and the third chapter (“The Lens in Plato’s Eye”) are “completed”; the fourth chapter (“Harun”) I just started. A work in progress. I suggest you drop “Harun”. I suggest you retake the opening poem since it’s slightly revised.

Notice my little electric stove top in the background and copper cezve, both of which I bought in the Kemeralti district of Izmir, and a recently released book (edited by Talia Levine Bar-Yoseph) for which I wrote the “Foreword”? — –Mackie

MACKIE JOSEPH-VENET BLANTON, Ph.D.            /            FULBRIGHT SENIOR LECTURER                   /                EDEBIYAT FAKULTESI


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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

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Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


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update 16 November 2008 




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