More Strategic Than Sentimental


Eartha Kitt, Guest Appearance on What’s My Line?, 1959

From The Paris Review:

One month into their marriage, my parents leave Turkey for good. It’s my mom’s first time on a plane. They fly from Ankara to Brisbane, an Australian city where they don’t know anyone. The trip takes two days. Their tickets are one way, paid for in cash. The year is 1975, and Australia has recently rescinded its White Australia policy. My parents are among the first nonwhite immigrants allowed into the country.

British Airways tells them they can bring up to forty kilograms’ worth of things. When they pack, my parents are more strategic than sentimental. They pack clothes, bedding, albums—but only a few, because photo albums are strangely heavy, and the other kind, the kind on vinyl, too fragile to make the trip.

The first record my parents purchase in Australia has a picture of a black woman on the cover: just her face, a hint of cleavage, painted lips but no smile. Her hair is pulled back, coiled against the nape of her neck, and she’s looking away from the camera, wistful. I am five, maybe six years old, and I enjoy staring at that album cover. I believe the wistful woman is Turkish. She sings in Turkish. She sings this one song,“Üsküdar’a Gider İken” or, as the track is listed incorrectly on the front, “Uska Dara.” It’s an old Turkish/Macedonian folk song.

At the time, I don’t wonder why Eartha Kitt, who was born into extreme poverty on a plantation in South Carolina, is singing about sailing up and down the Bosphorus with her male secretary. I just know that those nights on which my parents, tipsy off cheap Australian red, dance to her voice in our apartment are the best kind.

“The Surprising Story of Eartha Kitt in Istanbul”, Hilal Isler, The Paris Review