Shoes line the walls of the Grand Bazaar. Yellow shoes. Blue shoes. Black shoes. Red shoes. Muriel Hicks stares at more shoes than she has ever seen in her life. But she needs to find pistachios.
Muriel has rehearsed the Turkish words to ask for the directions she needs. And she has rehearsed possible answers—right, left, straight ahead. But those answers bear no resemblance to the rapid fire stream of words that she gets when she recites her memorized phrase. If she even finds where nuts are sold, will she find pistachios? Can Aylin make baklava with any other kind of nut? Muriel is from Sullivan, Maine. She can bake blueberry pie, but baklava is beyond her.
“If Kemal Atatürk supports the Japanese proposal,” a voice floats from around the corner. In French. Muriel has studied French. She moves toward the voice.
“S’il vous plaît,” Muriel begins. And realizes that she does not know French for “pistachios.”
Larry Fisher, Muriel’s colleague at the Friends’ Cafe, has a degree in Ottoman Studies from Haverford College. He speaks several of the languages of Istanbul. Muriel has no obvious skills to bring. But she has a leading, tested in discernment with others in her Quaker meeting, to build a small, friendly place where the representatives to the League of Nations can meet quietly, away from the formal meetings and speeches.
If Kemal Atatürk, savior of the Ottoman Empire and victor in the Great War, wants to found a League of Nations, Muriel Hicks wants to do her small part for peace and diplomacy. Pistachios.
Left to right: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, George Edwin Taylor, Leon Trotsky.
Back at the cafe, the kitchen smells of lemon and cinnamon, as Aylin cooks halvah. The cooking of the syrup reminds Muriel of her mother’s horehound candy, the old family recipe for treating a cough. Muriel hasn’t the knack for timing the syrup, but she helps by mixing the cinnamon and tahini.
That task done, Muriel steps out to the cafe to lay out the backgammon boards. Zeynep, the most mischievous of the cafe’s cats, observes Muriel laying out the backgammon pieces.
“Careful, Miss Knock Things Down,” says Muriel.
“A cat cafe,” says a man’s voice, “would make an excellent business in Tokyo.”
Muriel turns and sees that, at the table to her left, Larry has company.
“Muriel, meet Asahi,” says Larry.
Muriel makes a little bow, hoping she has picked the right Japanese greeting.
“I love your President,” says Asahi.
The United States is a small player, at the League of Nations, compared with the Ottoman Empire, or its fellow victor, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But everyone has an opinion on George Edwin Taylor, America’s first Black President. Asahi’s opinion, Muriel suspects, is that President Taylor may support the Japanese proposal. If Trotsky supports the Japanese proposal, if the United States does, if victorious Kemal Atatürk supports it, perhaps British and French reservations can be overcome.
Or perhaps not. All eyes on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Will the League succeed, or will it falter at the beginning, as Japan, or some other country, walks?
The resolution is out of Muriel’s control. But the colorful rugs and pillows, and the backgammon boards where delegates on a break can relax and, perhaps, let down their guard: those she can manage.
One more thing Muriel can manage. She may not be able to make baklava, but she was the best in her one-room school in penmanship. Once Asahi has left, and Larry and Muriel are alone, Muriel gets out the cards, and begins to write invitations to select delegates, for a small gathering. One, two, three. As she is on the fifth invitation, Zeynep jumps. The ink spills all over the table, spoiling the invitations. Naughty cat!
Take a deep breath. Mop up the ink. Pull out more cards. Start again.
A few days later, the delegates arrive. Pierre, Vladimir, Asahi, Mustafa. Muriel circulates with platters of manti and dolmas, hands out small cups of Turkish coffee. Zeynep, an extrovert among cats, wanders among the guests, soliciting chin scratches.
And, at first, the gathering flows just as Muriel had hoped. She sees active backgammon games, hears laughter. Good. People seeing each other as people, Muriel thinks, can only help.
But as Muriel returns to the kitchen for the drinks, she can hear that things are starting to go south. She hears raised voices, and “that damned resolution!” Why did she ever think she had a leading? Somehow she has only made things worse.
Muriel runs back into the room with the tray of glasses of ayran. What she expects to do, she doesn’t know. Something.
What she does do is this: She trips as Zeynep runs across her path. She falls hard on the floor, tray and glasses falling with her and shattering. Zeynep, too terrified even to lap up the spilled ayran, yowls and tears out the door.
Never mind the broken glass and her bleeding hands. Muriel needs to retrieve Zeynep and make sure she is OK. She runs out of the cafe. Up in a tree, Zeynep clings to a branch, her fur puffed up, her ears back.
Then Muriel hears the voices, a chorus of different languages, most of which Muriel does not speak. But she knows what they are saying.
“Here, kitty, kitty.”
Someone fetches a scrap of lamb. Someone speaks to Zeynep in a soothing voice. For the next hour, everyone in the cafe is consumed with one task, getting the cat out of the tree. When Zeynep finally descends and takes her morsel, there are smiles all around.
And that is how a cat saved the League of Nations.