Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi (1609-1640)

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

My grandfather told me the story about Jean Roland and the balloon, and I told it to Yesim Regenzeit, the daughter of my grandparents’ next-door neighbors. (I must have been a little bit in love with her already.) But Mrs. Regenzeit, her mother, heard what I was saying and sprang to the defense of her people.

“The first, no! The first man to fly was a Turk! His name was Hezarfen, there is an airport in Istanbul named after him. He flew two hundred years before your relative, who was, you said, a thief?”

“I never heard of Hiz…” I mumbled, vexed.

“Of course you have never heard of him. They do not teach you anything about the Turks! I have asked them at the Mountaintop Consolidated Public School, will they teach Turkish history, will they teach Turkish culture, Turkish literature, anything, they say, it is not relevant. What do they mean, it is not relevant! How, I want to know, can they teach you the Greeks, and not the Turks!”

I had no answer. I didn’t know what the Turks had done. I didn’t even go to the Mountaintop Consolidated School.

Years later, I would learn—from Yesim—that Mrs. Regenzeit had lectured many others of her friends in the same way. Yesim was always embarrassed by it. But she understood it also—she knew, as I didn’t, that the Thebans mostly didn’t like the Regenzeits, and that they showed their dislike in ways little and big, so that Mrs. Regenzeit rarely knew when she was being insulted, and when, as in this case, she was merely on the outside of an American story—when no one was thinking about her at all.

“Anyway, Jean was hungry,” I said. “And it was just a goat.”

“Just a goat!” Mrs. Regenzeit laughed. “That is like saying, it was just a car! It was just fifty dollars!” (Her son, Kerem, hadn’t started to steal things yet.) Then she relented: “Although, everyone is hungry sometimes. Are you hungry? You, Yesim, find him the lentils, they are in the icebox.”

I found this Turkish aviator again by accident in the summer of 1997, when I was researching my dissertation. He was born Ahmet Çelebi, and given the epithet “Hezarfen” (lit. “a thousand sciences”) in recognition of his many achievements. Some time between 1630 and 1632, Hezarfen glided with artificial wings from the top of Galata Tower in Istanbul and managed to fly over the Bosphorus, landing successfully on the Dogancilar Square in Üsküdar. He was not the first winged person to leap off a tower and live—that honor probably belongs to a ninth-century English monk—but he did travel considerably farther than anyone had before him, farther, in fact, than anyone would travel in the air, until Jean Roland set foot in the balloon.

I can’t say that I was happy to learn about Hezarfen: he reminded me of how I had been embarrassed by Mrs. Regenzeit. Look, I wanted to say, Hezarfen wasn’t the first! There was an English monk, in the ninth century! I was sitting in the UC Berkeley library, staring angrily into the near distance, clenching and unclenching my hand, frightening away the undergraduates, probably, although on the other hand so many adults came to the Berkeley library to pursue old grudges that the undergraduates were probably used to it.

There was nothing I could do, and no one I could tell. It was an old fight: the Rowlands versus the Regenzeits; the Christians versus the infidels. One of the oldest fights around, actually. And one which was about to begin again—although I didn’t know it yet.

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