The Foreign Cinema

Lauren Alwan

One day in those first months after her mother’s death, Cenem resolved to finally see Los Angeles. She’d spent the afternoon at one of the cheap matinees, seeing Casablanca yet again, and after, went directly to the used bookstore off Taksim Square in search of a copy of Baedecker’s California. The shop on Istiklal Street was known as much for its sizable collection of travel literature as its front window, which for decades had been filled with a welter of jackknifed, yellowing books. Inside, the air was heavy with mildew and the toasted scent of wood pulp. Surfaces were cluttered with stray memoranda and windblown sheets of newspaper. On
hearing her request, the owner, Osman was his name, led her to the furthermost shelves, where he located a well-used copy wedged between volumes of a treatise on North American geology. “Ah, California,” he said, admiring the frontispiece of mountains and orange trees. “Such a distant, intriguing locale.” When he inquired
of her interest, Cenem told him she had a sister there, her eldest, whom she had not seen in decades. “An admirable aim,” he observed, passing her the book. “Two sisters, apart all those years. A journey of time more than distance it would seem.”

He was a bearish, melancholy man with thinning hair and an air of weary resignation that, in hindsight, had a certain appeal. She had done little in life but care for her parents, in the same house in the Beyoglu district where she was born. But in that first year alone, Cenem had done what was formerly impossible: indulge her weakness for Hollywood film. Where once she’d had to rush to a matinee and home again, she now spent long afternoons at the sinemasi, with nothing to keep her from staying through the second and third shows if she wished. From her movie-going, she knew Los Angeles well, its wide boulevards and winding roads, the mountains and hard light. She had in fact grown so familiar with its features she could spot them in the settings across various films, recognizing prominent landmarks, a certain slant of the mountains and the distinctive sunlight and crisp shadows. The fact had been a painful one, that her sister lived in Los Angeles while circumstances allowed Cenem to know it only on screen, but there was nothing now to prevent her from going, though she’d yet to work out how to pay for the ticket.

It was then, as the sale was transacted, that Osman mentioned a post he sought to fill, a qualified person who could put the shop in order. “The sort of person,” he said, casting her a weary smile, “not put off by disarray.”

She recalled glancing behind her. Along one wall, high shelves ran floor to ceiling where books had been forced into every available space. Spines and edges ran upright and edgewise, loosened book jackets slipped from their covers. In crates and boxes along the aisle, contents waited to be inventoried, priced, and shelved. In the end, Cenem stayed three years, at the age of fifty gaining her first experience of employment, and in Osman, the affair she had never anticipated.

It was a fluke, an accident of design, like the turns of chance in the Hollywood films she loved. How many times since had she looked up from a stack of inventory and wondered at the improbable direction her life had taken, an artless person such as herself employed at a well-regarded, if disorderly Istiklal Street shop. At no time in her life had she been accorded such recognition, such authority.

“Ah, Cenem,” Osman had said one afternoon. “If you go to California, you must promise to come back quickly. What’s to become of the shop if you don’t?”


When finally she arrived in Los Angeles, it was October, 1970, and as she sat down to lunch in her sister’s house, she thought of that day in Osman’s shop. The correspondence between her sister and herself had been scattered at best, and Cenem had been careful to avoid any mention of Osman. Here was the central news of her life, but it was an affair after all, and there seemed no way to legitimately speak of it.

The journey was a long one, three days and as many connections. Ylsikoy, Frankfurt, New York. In Istanbul, it was currently nine p.m.—Cenem found it disorienting to keep her watch on Istanbul time, but Osman had suggested she do so for the first three days, until she acclimated to the change. In Los Angeles, it was now midday, just after eleven, though the fact was difficult to glean in the half-lit room. Overhead, the cut glass arms of a chandelier held a dozen tiny flame-like bulbs; the French windows were sheathed in heavy drapes and venetian blinds. Her sister’s house, with its ranging, unpeopled rooms was nothing like Cenem imagined. No doors were open to the tepid air, no windows let in the rampant California light. In their place were cavernous spaces and corners that stood shadowed and inexplicable.

On the lace-covered table, a half-dozen delicatessen cartons stood in a line, a spoon placed in each. Neither Sofia nor Cenem had much appetite and the egg salad and sliced chicken remained largely untouched. In the adjacent room, just beyond a Moorish arch, there was a small study in which a television was on. The set was visible from where they sat. It was a far newer model than her own and apparently less temperamental, and Cenem was impressed by its gleaming dials. The sound and picture were clear, without the tiresome skipping and snow, but the sporadic laughter and music made her uneasy, as though offering company more animated and interesting than she could ever be.

Sofia sat across the table, and Cenem found her greatly changed, nothing like the photographs she’d been sending overseas. A widow now nearly fifteen years, she had become an oddly formidable version of their mother, with the same reticent manner and smoke-colored hair. Her children were scattered across the state, in towns Cenem knew from her Baedecker’s, places that enchanted with the romance of their Spanish names—Escondido, Santa Clara, San Ramon. Cenem, for her part, had become the kind of woman seen everywhere on the streets of Beyoglu—fastidious, of indeterminate middle age, carrying her pocketbook and string shopping bag and movie magazines.

“You wouldn’t know Beyoglu, it’s so changed.”

“And you sold the house?”

“Impossible. The market is terrible.”

Sofia shrugged. “One person can’t live alone in a big house.”

Indeed, Cenem thought, glancing to the living room. She reached to the carton of egg salad to right a fallen spoon and caught sight of her fingernails, badly bitten in the course of the journey. The habit was one carried over from childhood, unbroken despite a lifetime of attempts. In the days before leaving, she’d planned to give her nails a coat of clear polish, a trick that deterred the biting, but willfully kept her fingernails bare, knowing the missing polish would bring an opportunity she’d later regret.

In Istanbul, it was the hour when the shop closed its doors, when Cenem pulled the curtains in the front windows and Osman counted the till. Most nights after closing they’d go for coffee at a café, The Cigneta. They always left the shop together as Cenem long ago ceased to care what might be said about an unmarried woman and her employer.

At this hour, The Cigneta would be crowded with people, with students from the university and couples taking in the city and the night air. Osman generally preferred a table near the front where he could drink espresso and read his trade papers while she took in the view. From there, the buildings had an illuminated glow and colored spotlights beneath turned the plane trees improbable colors of pink and yellow.

“Coffee,” Sofia was saying. “Should we have some?” She rose unsteadily from her chair, but Cenem stopped her.

“Don’t get up. I’ll make it.” After decades in which Cenem’s abilities, modest as they were, went unknown by her sister, she felt a need to demonstrate something as simple as making coffee.

Sofia glanced back at the television. On the screen, a woman admonished her husband with a feather duster, causing laughter to rise from an unseen audience. “It’s no trouble?”

“No trouble,” Cenem said, taking note of the American phrase. Besides, the task would help occupy her mind. By ten o’clock, Osman would be at The Cigneta. Despite her absence, likely his day at the shop was not at all difficult. Recently, he hired a replacement, a woman named Amalia. Cenem was the one to train her, to explain how the stock was sorted and the inventory shelved. Until now, she’d told herself Amalia would not be standing by as Osman locked the door, but now that she was in California, the facts were more difficult to ignore.


“So you’ll go then?” Osman said, not looking up from the column in his paper.

They were at The Cigneta. It was spring, ten-thirty. The evening was mild, and at the tables outside there was not a spare seat to be had. The sidewalk was too small to hold the crowd, and walkers spilled onto the cobbled pavers—merchants like themselves who’d closed up shop, academics from the university, and gray-haired somnambulists hoping the fervor of the street would eventually coax sleep.

At mention of the trip, a frisson shot through Cenem—equal amounts of eagerness and dread at seeing both Los Angeles and her sister. Planning the journey had been a complicated undertaking requiring numerous visits to the travel agency, a detailed itinerary, the careful allocation of funds and itemized lists of her duties at the shop.

“Yes. In October, I think.”

Osman folded his newspaper, squeezed a rind of lemon into the espresso. The oils hung in the air, a biting and decisive cloud that pricked her nose. He sipped his coffee as he always did, fingers delicately gripping the handle. Setting down the cup, he took notice, perhaps for the first time since they’d arrived, of the scene before him on the street.

“I venture she’d hardly recognize the place. If she were to see it again.”

“She still calls it Constantinople.”

“It’s hardly that.”

Cenem agreed. The first-born sister marries and the youngest doesn’t, one leaves for the States and the other stays behind. If the story wasn’t Cenem’s, she’d be gripped by the premise and would want to know more.

Ahead, through the low branches of the trees, she could make out the marquee of The Bijou Vert. Osman did not care for films. He disliked the proximity of so many others in the dark and saw no point in devoting time to events which were purely fictional. But he alone understood her love of Hollywood film, and the refuge she took in the foreign cinema. There were newer, better theaters in Beyoglu, but Cenem preferred this one, in walking distance of home. The seats were lumpy, but the screen was even and the projectionist capable.

“There was some strain, some incident in the past. Her marriage, wasn’t it?”

“With my mother and father, yes.”

“Some young man, I recall.”

“He was in my father’s regiment. The lieutenant.” That was what they’d called him, never by his name.

“I’d forgotten that.” Osman fit the cup carefully into its saucer. “A shame when those things happen.”

She was surprised he mentioned it at all. Talk of anyone’s marriage usually made Osman squeamish. Any discussion had to be tempered so that it failed to suggest the state of matrimony that he’d so far managed to evade.

“She wanted to choose for herself,” Cenem ventured.

“A matter of luck isn’t it, the times we’re born in? Poor girl. You can’t know how people feel.”

Cenem thought the shock was greatest for her mother and father. As her mother told the story, Sofia claimed she could not live without the young lieutenant, and despite the marriage that had been arranged years in advance, the threat turned out to be literal when Sofia drank iodine, hoping to end her life rather than marry. There was panic, a doctor called, bread and milk administered.

Eight days later, the wedding went forward, the blisters in Sofia’s stomach having sufficiently healed, and the young lieutenant dispatched to an administrative post in Ankara.

Across the green, the doors to the theater opened and the moviegoers emerged. Cenem knew well that disorientation, moving from the blackness of the theater to the noise and light of the street. She knew too the sadness that came with returning to the world and the facts beyond the gilded doors. Long after, the frames ran fervently in her brain, replaying the surprise or sadness of the ending.


Their lunch concluded, Cenem left Sofia to her television, intent on making coffee for her sister in the unfamiliar kitchen. She surveyed the generous cupboards, the wide counters set with decorative canisters, an electric percolator, a wooden bowl of oranges and lemons. The kitchen in the Beyoglu house was a nook by comparison, but it had pleased her to make coffee there each morning: the clatter of the beans in the dutch oven, the rasp of the hand grinder, and the grounds that fell into the little drawer.

She opened one cupboard then another, looking for a man in a salwar kameez. He was everywhere in the American airports, a man in white on a blue can striding forward as he tipped a cup to his lips. She had so far found no trace of him, but in a drawer, she discovered a pair of silver teaspoons and in another, a set of tea towels, pale blue bordered in damask. The linen was the sort her mother would admire, and holding the tea towel, Cenem saw again the way she’d fingered the weave to ascertain its thread count.

Having abandoned the search for coffee, Cenem had set a pot to boil for tea when she noticed a small jar beside the bowl of fruit. She loosened the lid, pinched the dark powder between her fingers. Placing a bit on her tongue, the particles dissolved to a charred- tasting liquor. At the door, she held the jar forward. “Is this coffee?”

“Of course.” Sofia’s tone suggested Cenem should know, but it would be another ten years before instant coffee was sold in the stores at home.

The discovery brought others. Hidden in a cabinet, she found a pair of porcelain cups with stylish straight lines and rims edged in gold. Cenem lifted the cup and tested the edge with her lip, its electric smoothness. She found a tray and carefully set a tea towel on it, then the cups and spoons.

Cenem entered the dining room with the tray, and was surprised to hear the sound of men’s voices. The music and laughter had been replaced by Casablanca, and a moment passes before it registers that the film exists beyond the cloistered world of The Bijou Vert. Sofia took note of her sister’s surprised expression.

“You don’t mind? The other was silly.”

She doesn’t mind, she told her. Except Cenem had never seen the film on a television. Miniaturized on the small screen, the lamplit shadows and potted palms she knew well, even Strasser’s genteel threats that go unheeded by Rick, make for an effect that is strange and unsettling.

“I don’t like war movies,” Sofia said.

“It is not about war.” Cenem poured tea for her sister and passed the cup.

“But all those soldiers.” Sofia tipped in the sugar and stirred, not taking her eyes from the screen. “Is this Egypt?”

“Morocco.”

Victor Laszlo had entered the café with Ilsa at his side. Cenem loved this moment, the way Curtiz was careful to note how Laszlo’s entrance registered on the faces of the Resistance contact, then Renault, then Strasser. When Laszlo stepped away to meet the contact, the camera lingered on Ilsa, on the discomfort she felt at learning Rick was nearby and at any moment might appear.

Sofia turned to Cenem. “Why is she unhappy?”

Cenem was inclined to say all the characters in Casablanca, the good ones at least, were melancholy and only the corrupt were untroubled. “She still loves Rick.”

“Her husband?”

“No. In the white jacket.”

“She married one and loves the other?”

“No—” Cenem paused to think out the sentence in English. “She meets Rick in Paris, believing her husband is dead.”

“Well,” Sofia said, regarding her coffee. “She can’t have both.”

At that moment, the film was interrupted by an advertisement and Cenem was stunned to see the picture in color. To the sound of carefree music, a child with ruddy cheeks dipped a spoon into a dish of bright soup. Never before had Cenem seen a color television and the effect was outstanding, far better than any of the descriptions Osman had read aloud from the newspaper.

“I can’t bear the ads,” Sofia said. “Could you turn it down?”

Cenem obliged and stepped forward to adjust the dial. Nearby, a row of photographs stood on a lace runner, pictures of relations Cenem had never met, posed together at a restaurant, the beach, a snowy hilltop. The unfamiliar faces clearly bore the family resemblance, particulars that before this she’d not taken into consideration—these unknown relations in California had the same heads of chestnut hair, the familiar tendency for the solemn gaze. Coming by taxi from the airport, she’d had a similar feeling on first seeing Los Angeles, a place both familiar and strange. “The place may be nothing like one sees in the picture show,” Osman had advised. The city was bleached and graceless, a low-slung terrain of highways and speeding cars, and in the distance the San Gabriel Mountains stood desolate and hard-edged, the ridges sharpened by harsh morning light.

On the television, the film resumed and the scene continued in silence. The plot had reached a crucial moment. Ilsa sat beside Sam, asking for Rick and then the song, but Sam was reluctant on both counts. Ilsa, however, was persuasive, a feature of her beauty but also her sadness, both of which were heightened by the absence of sound. As Sam played, the camera tightened on Bergman’s face. For a long moment there was no action, only Ilsa’s distant expression. Until Rick charged from his office and discovered she was the reason for the song.

“Is that him?” Sofia said. “The one from Paris?”

“Yes.”

The café had closed for the night and Rick sat in the dark, tormented by the encounter with Ilsa. “It’s difficult to see a man suffer,” Sofia said.

Cenem agreed. Rick’s pain never failed to affect her, a despair made visible with each sweep of the strobe. Many times she’d had to remind herself that Bogart was in character and once the cameras stopped, the lights went on and he was himself again.

As Sofia watched the film, she twisted a heavy ring on one finger, until finally she removed it and set it on the lace-covered table. Cenem picked up the ring, set with a square onyx stone and a tiny diamond lodged at the junction of two diagonal cuts. Never could she wear such a ring. It would draw attention to her hands, and attention of any kind was too much, as though asking for her flaws to be spotlit.

“You like it?”

“So unusual.”

“It was my husband’s. Try it on if you like.”

Of course, Cenem thinks. A man’s ring. She slips it on.

Sofia reached forward and gripped Cenem’s hand. “Your fingernails! They are terrible.”

In the flight’s last hour, Cenem’s fingers were subject to particularly brutal treatment and now looked like bones that had been picked clean. The nails were bitten down to reveal the epidermis beneath. The cutaneous skin was blunt, meaty-looking. The biting was done as she studied the sky out the window and the parings she tore off were white as the clouds outside.

“Terrible.” Sofia made a disparaging sound and let Cenem’s hand fall. “How long have you done this?”

“Always.”

“A terrible habit.”

Cenem could not disagree. Her nails were a disappointment, and the biting yet another instance of her misplaced energies. “Why the cinema?” Osman would ask, a question Cenem couldn’t answer. Yet she could imagine some future time in which she would cease the biting and perhaps begin her life, but exactly how and when that would happen, she couldn’t say.

On the television, Rick’s anguish in the café dissolved, and the scene opened in Paris, a soundless backstory where the light was even and shadows nonexistent.

“I was in Paris too. On my honeymoon,” Sofia said.

“That was a terrible time. I suppose you were too young to remember.”

“Remember?”

“In Constantinople, at the end. I was unhappy.”

At hearing the city’s old name, Cenem felt as though no time had passed, that the reforms of decades before never took place. She and her sister could have been back in the old house, in the time of her girlhood, perched on overstuffed chairs in the dim salon, drinking tea with distant relations.

“What,” Sofia asked, “do you remember?”

“That you loved one person and married another.”

“It was not so simple.”

Cenem returned Sofia’s ring to the table. The small diamond, the black stone—its strong design provoked a memory of her brother-in-law. She recalled him as a soft-spoken person in a tweed suit towering above the crowd on the train platform. As the families said goodbye, he helped Sofia onto the train, simultaneously pulling the Homburg from his head and helping her up the steps. If there was simplicity in love at all, Cenem thought, it seemed to reside only with one party, never both.

On the television, the Paris backstory had ended. Soon, Victor Lazlo would meet with Signor Ferrari, hoping to secure the letters of transit, and Rick would encounter Ilsa at a lace-seller’s stall. She’d tell him they have no future, that Victor is her husband, and was, during their time in Paris. And though Ilsa appeared resolute, Cenem had always seen the admission as the start of Ilsa’s unraveling.

“Sofia, I must tell you.”

Sofia turned to Cenem disinterestedly. “Tell me what?”

Cenem described that first visit to Osman’s shop and his offer of a position. She described, as best she could, the sorting and tagging and shelving, and the unlikely companionship she found with Osman.

“And?” Sofia asked.

“And? And nothing.”

“So you are not married?”

No, Cenem told her. The affair was over, its end confirmed that last day at the shop. She’d spent the day with Amalia, going over her duties a final time. “You needn’t worry,” Osman said. “She’ll be fine.” After closing, as Osman locked the door, the two women stood by and Amalia regarded Cenem in a wide-eyed manner, with a child’s astonishment, as though having miraculously escaped a scolding. As Cenem and Osman left for the streetcar stop, Amalia hurried away in the opposite direction up Istiklal Street, the tiny heels of her shoes clicking on the pavement. There had been new hires before, and Osman had always had opinions, but that night on the streetcar, he’d said nothing.

Sofia took the ring from the table and slipped it back on her finger. “Perhaps you’re better off.”

The first time Amalia came to the shop, she’d been a customer, as Cenem once had. With one hand clasping the lapels of her green coat, she’d made her way inside, the heels of her shoes striking the planks in a solemn cadence. She’d been seeking a culinary history of Paris, a gift for her father. The book was not in stock, but Osman promised to locate a copy through his contacts in the trade. Over time, Amalia’s appearances became more frequent. Sometimes she wore a flower pinned to her dress, or arrived clutching that morning’s edition of the Milliyet, the progressive paper, and soon, Osman was reading it at The Cigneta along with his trade papers.

Sofia nodded to the television. “Would you mind turning up the sound?” Cenem stepped forward and adjusted the dial.

The scene was a bright desert street. Laszlo and Ilsa had entered the marketplace, tourists dressed in tropical clothing who navigated their surroundings assuredly, eyes averted from merchants who barked prices. Cenem loved this scene, the tension of character and place, the depth of the shadows against the bleached stone walls. As the couple moved past the stalls, the camera tightened on Victor, on his clear eyes that fielded the scene with impassive resolve.

Sofia pointed to the screen. “She will stay with that one.”

“Why him?” As many times as Cenem had seen the film, a part of her always believed Ilsa would leave Victor Lazlo for Rick.

“What else can she do? Decisions are made. Sometimes you are not the one to make them.”

Yes, Cenem thought. Except sometimes you were. On the morning she boarded the cab to Ylsikoy, Osman carried her bags to the car. He’d leaned against the window, resting on one thick arm. “It doesn’t unnerve you, to travel so far?” No, she’d told him. But in fact, the prospect of leaving made her so jumpy she could hardly feel the seat beneath her. He’d nodded then, and handing the driver the fare, told him to drive to Ylsikoy.

“I’ll clear the dishes,” Cenem said.

“But you’ll miss what happens.”

Cenem reminded her sister she knew the story well. She returned the tea articles to the tray, and was about to enter to the kitchen when she stopped, struck by something in the scene. Tray still in hand, she moved closer to the television. Ilsa and Rick stood beneath the twigged canopies of a stall, its shadows marking their elegant clothes. Something there was familiar. In the light of the marketplace, the intensity of sun and shadow.

“What is it?”

She couldn’t say. At the moment, it was only a hunch, but that cast of light on the buildings was something she’d seen before. She studied the play of heat and light on stone, the depth of the shadows. The geometry was beautiful, tessellated, all angles and mitered corners.

“I don’t think this is Morocco.”

“Then it’s Cairo,” Sofia said. “I was there once. It looks the same.”

“No.” Cenem was certain beyond question, it was only the name she lacked.

“Something I should know? Something that happens?”

Not something that happened, something that just was. Then she recognized what she saw. The light of the marketplace, she realized, was the light of Los Angeles, the same as she’d seen earlier that day coming from the airport. She knew it as one might the face of a star, or the plot of a film. The scene in the marketplace was not filmed in Morocco, or even Cairo, but on a backlot in Burbank not far from her sister’s house, with the same sun overhead and the same austere light and shadow. How obvious it seemed to her now, when all those years she’d willingly accepted to believe otherwise.

“Whatever it is,” Sofia said, “don’t tell me. I don’t want to know what happens.”

No, Cenem says, she wouldn’t ruin what’s to come. Still ahead was Rick’s decision, thinking for both of them. It would come on the foggy air strip, in the urgency of their departure, in Ilsa’s confusion and stunned resignation. Cenem could still recall first seeing the end, at The Bijou Vert, surrounded by rapt faces, like hers upturned to the screen.

The moment had stayed with her for days, the end she had not seen coming. And in the weeks that followed, she became fixed on what might have happened next, the part the film never showed. After the plane took off, when Ilsa finally left Casablanca, what went through her mind? From the air, the town below would have looked small and insignificant, nothing more than a way station. The confusion of that time and place was now behind her, a few meager lights on the other side of a cold window. What, she wondered, would happen once the last points disappeared and became no more than a sheet of black?