Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chapter 1: Apricots and Plums (3/7)

Why does Allah allow such evil? Left on their own, without the restraining hand of their creator, humans transmogrify into vicious primates run amok in a godless world. Like others who have hazarded this rocky path, vexed by both the perversity and tenuousness of life, unable to find sanctuary in the mundane, Mustafa knew that the inexorable search for answers to these perennial questions was as much endemic to the human condition as fruitless in its results. He had mulled over the words of Al-Ghazali often enough:
Now this is a vast and deep sea with wide shores and tossed by billows. In extent it is comparable to the sea of God’s unity. Whole groups of the inept drown in it without realizing that it an arcane matter which only the knowing comprehend. Behind this sea is the mystery of predestination where the many wander in perplexity and which those who have been illuminated are forbidden to divulge.
One might say that the good doctor’s interior life, like the Bosphorus, flows in complicated cross-currents between two worlds. We do well not to forget this dual allegiance; otherwise, in trying to account for the seeming contradictions in Mustafa’s life, we, like many seafarers in those narrow straits, unmindful of the twists and turns, run aground on either shore.

“My heart is in Anatolia, my intellect is in Rumelia,” he once told an inquiring student in a rare moment of candor. Like most educated Turks especially since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, both Asia and Europe contributed to his Weltanschauung, making him a walking riddle. He was an old-school Kemalist advocating women’s headscarves at the university.  He fancied himself a supporter of the rights of persecuted minorities throughout the world, yet he ardently opposed a Kurdish state.  A scientist to the core, he clutched prayer beads in quiet moments and times of adversity.  A supporter of the Justice and Development Party, he was nonetheless severely critical of his country’s membership in the European Union.  He was a dogmatist asserting an agnostic belief in an inscrutable universe and a skeptic tiring of his skepticism—as all skeptics do.  His education in Istanbul and Germany left its indelible stamp on his consciousness, but his early upbringing in central Anatolia had already rooted him in his syncretic Islamic faith.

Only after the young Mustafa relinquished the orthodox Sunni creed of his forefathers would his spiritual journey begin. Later in life he realized the irony of his fate: the more he tried to distance himself from the cruelty he had witnessed since his youth, the more he faced head-on the handiwork of hate’s worst practitioners. Surely there must be some kind of heavenly recompense for the heinous crimes he has investigated, the Day of Judgment promised in Holy Writ.

So Mustafa could never accept the idea of a godless world, nor could he ever retreat into fideism. The disconcerting prospect of having no divine hand directing the apparent moral chaos on display around him accounts for the former. Rumi, his guide in life eight centuries removed, cautions him against the latter: Trust in Allah, but tie the camel’s leg.

Instead, Mustafa took refuge from the somber thoughts that confronted him, and a family past that haunted him, in an indefatigable commitment to forensic science. Perhaps the exhumation of those contorted, forlorn souls caught in their final moments of desperation would somehow speak to him through their silent remains and help unravel the enigma. Perhaps he would someday find meaning and purpose in the bestial instincts of man. In quieter moments of contemplation, this search into the perverse and sadistic, he now recognized, had been a circuitous quest for God, the divine, in a universe devoid of divine providence. But his queries had only increased hundredfold over the years and he was still swimming in Al-Ghazali’s sea.

Ahmet, an Anatolian customs official and committed Republican during the halcyon 1940s, needed little reason to name his son after Mustafa Kemal, the father of modern Turkey; but the boy’s birth on November 10—five years to the day after Atatürk’s death—and the “blue” eyes he inherited from his mother’s side gave an air of providence and destiny, not to mention playful and sometimes not-so-playful teasing from schoolmates for his “evil eye.” Mustafa grew up on a farm the family had acquired after the First World War, but Ahmet, like his father before him, having sought his whole life to break out of his peasant origins, used his position and income to provide his sons with a university education. Mustafa would do the same for his own boys, Cenap and Orhan.

Mustafa recalled his father’s constant refrain when it came to the topic of his future: “No sons of Khan shall sully their arms with the earth nor splinter their hands at the plow!” He would sometimes think about the irony of these words, given his chosen profession. “Khan,” as Turks called Gökberk Effendi after the war, was Mustafa’s grandfather and had served under the dashing, vainglorious and foolhardy Enver Pasha in the miserable eastern campaign against the Russians before he was left for dead on the snow-covered battlefield of Sarikamiş. His military service brought him a degree of position, wealth and respect. As a child Mustafa knew only a cold and cruel old man, and the latter could perceive a commingling of revulsion and respect in the boy’s Atatürk eyes whenever Mustafa kissed his cheeks.

The bookish son of the son of Khan went to Robert College secondary school where he honed his English, then to Istanbul University, with the intention of studying history and literature, but he compromised with his father, who wanted him to become a doctor, and settled upon anthropology. Finally, a scholarship sent him to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Magdeburg, Germany, which proved to be the beginning of a distinguished career. At first he gained recognition as an investigator in a number of high-profile murder cases in Germany, most of them involving serial killers; but his work with the International Criminal Court would garner world-wide acclaim in the realm of forensic anthropology.

“We have considered the coroner reports submitted by both the defense and prosecution,” continued the chief judge. Mustafa snapped back from the ethereal, momentarily, to the prosaic present. The security guards hadn’t taken their eyes off the three men throughout the legal proceedings. The vein in Drago’s left temple started to twitch, drawing Mustafa’s attention back to the problem of appearances and the reality behind them, as if it were possible for him to have strayed from this distinction for long.

He wondered whether fear of long-term incarceration finally seeped in and breached the man’s insouciant exterior.  Mustafa pulled out his glasses from his vest pocket to get a better read on the defendant. Similarly, one of the defense lawyers, a large man with a goatee, looked visibly perturbed throughout the reading of the sentence. Mustafa contrasted his facial contortions with the judge’s obligatory and perhaps hasty prefatory remark about professionalism in the courtroom.

Relatively handsome and still muscular at forty-six, Krajiŝnik was not about to destroy his image on camera with a tear or a scowl. His glamorous wife, many mistresses and Belgrade fan base found him appealing precisely because he came across as a stalwart if brutish patriot supposedly committed to Serbian ascendency in the world. He enjoyed neither the post-war popularity nor entrepreneurial success of his former commander, Drago, but he lived in the spotlight of Serbian nationalism in less respectable venues: muscle magazines and even a couple of porn films.

Hearing testimony about his molestation and exploitation of pubescent girls day in and day out, Lukić had exhibited during the Trial Chamber months earlier what others might misconstrue as a modicum of shame for his wicked deeds; but Mustafa had never seen or sensed legitimate remorse in an offender, and he made no exceptions now. Of the depraved threesome, Lukić was evidently reading the writing on the wall, for he was becoming more visibly agitated.The guards continued to stare at the defendants. Would they storm the bench, swinging fists and cursing? Mustafa straightened himself up, crossed his arms, and slightly tilted his head with this fleeting thought in his head.

As she reached for her purse under the chair, a middle-aged woman sitting next to Mustafa whispered: “Gum?” He bent his head in her direction and, once he understood what she was saying, gave her a look. “Do you want some gum?” she repeated, though she knew his answer even before she asked the first time. Mustafa gave her a harder look and she rolled her eyes.

Dr. Lynnette Anderson was the chief pathologist in the investigation and had worked with Mustafa for almost two decades in a number of missions, some under the auspices of the U.N. and others for human rights NGOs directly. When Aida identified the clothing of her brother and uncle, it was Dr. Anderson who interviewed her and later conducted the DNA tests to confirm the identity of the human remains. A framed photo in her office shows her, her now-deceased husband Frank, Mustafa and other field investigators standing at the base of the ancient Buddhist statues of Bamiyan a few years before the Taliban blew them to smithereens. Only Mustafa is looking off camera.

She had started out as an archeologist, her doctoral work focusing on a Hittite site in southern Anatolia, before she turned to forensic cases and worked alongside her husband to assist Dr. Özerkan in investigations of mass grave sites, mostly in Afghanistan and now the Balkans. Tenure with UC Santa Barbara gave her some flexibility to go on such missions. She imbibed his passion and commitment. Did she know that something deeper drove him than mere professionalism or even personal fulfillment?

The mission had been tough for both of them. Mosquitoes feasted on them for breakfast, lunch and dinner; they lacked proper equipment and a reliable generator; the team suffered from a clash of personalities; investigators in The Hague constantly pulled archeologists and autopsy assistants from the site for other investigations. By the end, Mustafa had had enough of herding cats and wrestling with the proverbially incompetent U.N. bureaucracy.

To make matters worse, the team, and especially the locals they had hired for the exhumation, became persona non grata in the eyes of the Serb residents, some of whom “greeted” their convoy on the first day with rocks and glass bottles. Hooligans also managed to sabotage the backhoe and set work back for days. A Pakistani battalion provided mediocre security at best for the team and the site. Finally, Mustafa the Turk, as the locals saw him, became a liability in this ethnically cleansed Serbian village.

Republika Srpska leaders in Banja Luka had eventually threatened to kick out the investigators until Belgrade, whose cooperation with the international community brought economic and political concessions from the EU, stepped in to chastise its intractable, irredentist brethren. By this time Mustafa, as it turns out, had found incriminating evidence that solidified the prosecutors’ case against the Demons.

The judge had not yet come to this piece of the puzzle in the verdict. “Mr. Lukić, according to Witness B, whose location behind the said cistern has been substantiated, ordered the victims to walk into the tree line, though there is no evidence he ordered the men to dig their own graves. Forty-three males, twelve of whom were under the age of fifteen, were shot execution style. Either the defendants or subordinates under their direction bludgeoned two or three of the victims to death on the edge of or inside the makeshift pit, though the forensic evidence is inconclusive on this latter form of execution.”

The matter of his apricots settled and the problem of evil unresolved, Mustafa imagined himself at a Roman tribunal two millennia ago, the presiding judge’s Italian inflection and his Tuscan features giving license to Mustafa’s imagination. Mustafa had a self-inflicted habit of widening the singular moment into an episode in an epic story, but the mundane always had some way of invading Mustafa’s pensive moments.

“I swear they have a Starbucks back there.” Dr. Anderson arched her neck back to a door at the back of the gallery. The women in headscarves sitting behind her looked at her expressionless. She was speaking in her quiet voice, that is to say, what she, not Mustafa, considered her quiet voice. Her way of dealing with anxiety, Mustafa gathered long ago, was to treat a situation with witty remarks or to make trite observations. She was right about the coffee. Everyone in the public viewing gallery nosed the caffeinated aroma emanating from a cup carried by a man making his way across a hallway behind them.

“How’s the action?” he jested in his Belgian accent upon entering the pressroom. Correspondents with AP, Reuters, BBC, and Deutsche Welle were watching the appellate ruling on a CCTV screen. They were sipping coffee beverages, telling each other war stories, and scribbling in their notebooks. The three condemned men, responsible for the torture and deaths of unarmed civilians, look on with blank stares, seemingly oblivious to the chief judge’s wagging finger.

“We got the calm, cool, and collected Dragoljub today,” observed one reporter. “No fireworks since the hearing make Drago a rather dull devil.”

“Yeah, he’s a good boy, but all things must come to an end. No more hotel empire and high life for him, I’m afraid,” said another reporter. “Maybe in ten years they can resume their criminal activities if they lay low in prison.”

“I’ve heard of cynicism, my friend, but you take the cake,” spoke up a fourth reporter, adding sweetener to his coffee. “Ten years, you say? Unless this sentence is not overturned—and it doesn’t sound like it will be—their thirty-two years are set in stone.”

“O ye of little faith. Ten years, I say, regardless of this sentence. You’re still waiting for your induction into the Cynics Club, I can see. Some deal will be made between Serbia and the EU—quid pro quo.”

“International law doesn’t work that way.”

“Of course not.”

“Sarcastic bastard.”

“If you mean realistguilty as charged.”

“We’re almost done with this nonsense,” responded the Belgian journalist. “Everyone knows the outcome, but let’s hope for some magic at the end, something to write about. Maybe there’ll be interesting reactions in Belgrade. To the Serbs!” He mockingly raised his steaming Styrofoam cup.

“So are we hooking up at the Royal Chamber tonight or what?” asked a journalist between gulping and typing.

“Gotta flight early. We’ll see. Topless?” The journalist laughed through his nose, self-cognizant of his own naughtiness.

“It’s not Amsterdam, but it’ll do.”

“You guys are incorrigible,” the one female reporter in the room felt obligated to say.

“What? I go there strictly for the drinks…”

“Yeah, right!”

And the ambience and backdrop too, I admit. There’s no harm in looking! My wife and I used to go all the time. It’s fun.”

Used to. That says enough.”