Illustration: Oksana Badrak
The winter of 2010 was hard on my heart. There was a man I could have really fallen for—I was on the brink of loving him madly, out of all measure. Once, thinking of the fact that I was due to be with him in a few days' time, I took a stick of solid perfume and wrote his name along my left arm, watching the pale strokes melt as I formed them, the large letters crossing the visible vein in my wrist. As for his opinion of me, he didn't mind my company, but he wouldn't go out of his way to seek it; one night in London he said he'd like to see me whenever I next found myself in town. I lived in Prague. I might not have taken it quite so hard if it hadn't been for the three other non-romances I'd already had that year. I'd felt less for those, but four hollow affairs in a row were too many.

I gave up on the year, made a note to myself to reset on January 1, and just after Christmas turned my attention to a trip I'd been planning since the summer, when I won a UK prize for young writers. The award was instituted by the late Somerset Maugham and given with the stipulation that the prize money be spent on foreign travel. From a friend I learned that Angela Carter used her 1969 windfall to free herself from an unhappy marriage and move to Japan, where she became a radical feminist and fell in lust with a local man. From a Web site I learned that Kingsley Amis reluctantly used his 1955 award on a trip to Portugal, then wrote a novel about the indignities of traveling abroad called I Like It Here.

I chose Istanbul, out of a desire to know something of a city one of my favorite writers, Agatha Christie, passed through many times. When I booked my ticket, I was wholly unaware that heartbreak would be my travel companion.

By the time I arrived, my senses were in deep hibernation and preferred not to be disturbed. I was so sad that I felt a lean in my center of gravity as I walked—my progress over the paved stones was unsteady, as if there were water in my ear canal. I dropped off my bags at a bed-and-breakfast and made for the Pera Palace Hotel in Beyoglu, where Christie is said to have written part of Murder on the Orient Express.

The surroundings were sumptuous, but there was a sinister smallness, too, as if the grand hotel had shrunk over time and soon nothing would be left but a shriveled, gold-coated claw. I took afternoon tea in a curved Turkish glass and ignored the cakes and sandwiches, which seemed to be purely decorative. I'd brought Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage with me and became better acquainted with the protagonist, who in his boyhood believed in hell more than heaven because it seemed to him that anguish could last longer than life, and happiness most likely could not.

I remembered the first time I heard the adhan, the call to prayer, in the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo, which I'd visited in 2004 after reading that Malcolm X had prayed there once. I sat cross-legged on the richly patterned carpet, and this sound came ringing through the white pillars that encircled all of us in the main body of the mosque, a sound of such longing and such clarity that, at 19 years old, I thought it came from inside myself somehow. In Istanbul, muezzins recited the adhan five times a day from hundreds of minarets in the sky, their messages to the faithful flowing over the rooftops and pooling around transfixed foreigners like me.

Looking out across Istanbul from the Galata Bridge, I saw its history, with part of the city situated in Europe and the other part in Asia. I watched the Bosphorus flow between the continents. On both sides, stoic fishermen bait and sling hooks for hours throughout the day. Women in burqas take tea with bareheaded girls in jeans. Headscarves match up with minidresses and colorful tights. I observed all this as if through a screen. When people spoke to me I felt surprised and slightly reproachful, as if I'd been watching a black-and-white thriller and one of the characters suddenly turned to me for advice.

Next: Finding comfort in a faraway place
helen oyeyemi portrait
Photo: Saneesh Sukumarak
Later that night, in a darkened room above a quiet street, musicians in white robes played the baglama and the oud, and dervishes whirled and cast shadows on the brilliantly lit squares beneath their feet. The nakedness of their ecstasy was so shocking, I couldn't look at the Sufis' faces. Instead, I watched their hands, which began at waist level, then slowly, slowly rose as their arms were pulled up above their heads, as if unfurling, extending toward divine love that returned in waves and soaked them to the core. They made me feel, for the first time, that I might never find the kind of love I need. But the presence of those joyful dancers made it impossible to do the sensible thing and give up hope.

The next day, December 31, I visited Topkapi Palace, home to generations of Ottoman sultans. The palace is a fantasy of wealth and power—you walk around it and The Thousand and One Nights comes chillingly to life. Topkapi is a place of tall trees, hidden windows, and luxurious prisons—living quarters for eunuchs and slave girls kidnapped from all over the world. I saw its beauty, but the nature of that beauty was entirely cruel. Shameless city, beckoning my imagination with its ancient intrigues and rococo seaside mosques. I was wary of a seduction that would lead nowhere.

Hours later, at Hagia Sophia, I stared up at the weathered mosaics depicting Christ and his mother alongside the names of Allah and Muhammad, among others, written in green and gold, and it came to me that I was standing in one of the wonders of the world. I couldn't even manage a smile. That night I lay on my stomach in bed, stuck on a single sentence of Maugham's novel: "Sometimes he felt so lonely that he could not read...." At midnight, as the year turned, I thought I heard fireworks, and went to the window to find that it was celebratory gunfire. Youths with rifles, laughing.

In the morning I ate a filling meal, almost for novelty purposes. The other mornings I'd sat in that breakfast room at the top of the house and looked down on Istanbul's streets and scaffolding as I ate plain yogurt and drank hot water. When you're unhappy and trying to conceal it, eating or drinking anything with any flavor constitutes a risk—there's no telling what might make you cry. But I was flying west to the archaeological site of Ephesus later that morning, to wander amid the rubble of the goddess Artemis's ruined city, and I thought I'd better have some sweetness first. There was some jam in a dish on the table, and I poured a spoonful of it over my yogurt. I thought it was strawberry jam, but it wasn't. Rose petals hung suspended in the thickness of the syrup, some soft, some crisp with crystallized sugar, and the taste...the wistful, earthy bloom of it on my tongue. It made me think of Narnia, the fragrant pull of the Turkish Delight that Edmund betrayed his siblings to taste.

Later that day at Ephesus, I saw the most innocent-looking Judas trees growing around the broken shell of the Library of Celsus, and olive trees hanging their branches over the roofs of doorless stone houses, and realized there was a change in the way I was seeing. A subtle change that needed nursing, but it was there, and it was real. I'd just had flowers for breakfast, so I put the effect down to that.

Next: Discovering a rose's power
On my return to Istanbul, I began to investigate the many uses of the rose. At the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü I bought rose clay soap, attar of roses, dried rosebuds for tea, and more rose petal jam, all made from the pink damask roses from Isparta that Turkey is so rightly proud of. The clear oil distilled from the petals of those mountain roses is said to be worth its weight in gold. In the days that followed, I was reminded why roses have been exchanged by lovers for so many hundreds of years. I went out into the city wearing invisible dots of rose oil—one on each wrist, and another in the notch at the center of my collarbone. At night I brought the scent of rose clay soap into bed with me, warm, but slightly dark, a whispered reminder of thorns.

The fragrance of roses is vertical—over the course of a day it gets deeper and richer until, quite suddenly, you've reached the final layer, and it's gone. Little by little, there in my Istanbul bed of roses, my emotions fell back into their natural order. I slept calmly, without dreams.

However awful the storm of my disappointment, it's a response that belongs to me. It's my heart, after all. My territory, my kingdom. And since I'm the only one with the authority to surrender it, I can also take it back. The retraction is painful, of course, but it comes in handy when yearning for the wrong someone. Break the heart and its borders close, accepting no visitors until the worst is over.

And at the low points before you're ready to recover, when you feel something in you so wild, something like a sob you could never have enough breath to let out, when sleep does nothing for you and music actively makes things worse, I recommend accepting the friendship of roses: They promise the fulfillment of desire but don't have an air of laughter about them the way other flowers do. The rose commands (that's why it's sometimes called the sultan of flowers). It is solemn and insistent and will make its promise until you answer that you'll wait faithfully for what you want.

There's a couplet of Rumi's that struck me years ago, though I didn't quite grasp its imperative tone at the time. Now I think he might have written it like that because this is just how it happens:

"With friends, say only mystery.

Near roses, sing."

Helen Oyeyemi's latest book is the novel Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead).

More on Knowing Yourself and Keeping Relationships Healthy


Next Story