No 25 DECEMBER  2002

Çok Ayıp:  A Tale of (Bureaucratic) Woe

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ISTANBUL? YES, ISTANBUL

Karen-Claire Voss No. 25 December 2002

Çok ayıp!  You know, Turkish people are lucky.  From time to time in these columns, I have remarked on this or another aspect of the language and I have been particularly struck by the capacity it has for allowing the expression of nuance.  Çok ayıp is a great example of one of those perfect Turkish phrases.  A literal English translation of çok ayıp is ‘a big shame,’ and once upon a time, an English speaking person could say “Shame on you,” and it would be enough to make the person it was said to shrivel up and feel absolutely terrible about whatever it was he or she had done.  Unfortunately, it seems, the phrase ‘Shame on you’ lost its efficacy.  I am very old now, but I seem to remember that it still packed punch, at least in some circles, during the mid 50’s . . ..

This is not the case with çok ayıp.  These words still possess what Alfred North Whitehead refers to as “causal efficacy,” meaning simply that they are very, very powerful.  Well, enough of linguistic considerations.  This month’s column is not about language, but about a still-unfolding-even-as-I-write-this situation.  The situation concerns a café that is owned by someone very dear to me, a man who has perhaps the largest spirit of anyone I have ever encountered.  

In order for you to understand, a little background is in order.  For years, I think you could say that this person was struggling with something like a Hamlet complex.  From time to time, he would try to do something—trained in the conservatory, he acted and was so good at it that he won an award, but he left it.  Once, he had occasion to organize a series of Henry the VIIth nights at a club in Bodrum and they were a tremendous hit.  I seem to remember that as part of this he set small, lighted candles afloat in the sea, just where it lapped the shore, and placed several dining tables there for romantic dinners.  In any case, he didn’t pursue this.  He had a business selling hardware in Karaköy and that was successful too, until there was some unpleasantness with his dishonest business partner.  Oh, yes.  There was also a bar in Arnavutköy that probably would have been terrific had it not been for the small, but significant fact that he and his partner(s) chose to open it during Ramazan.  Not good.

Anyhow, for all the years I have known him we would occasionally talk about how it would be a really good thing for him to do something, something.  Yes, he would agree.  A person should make something in this life. 

Well, this May, he took the plunge at last.  This man with the soul of a poet decided to open up a café that served coffee, tea, cold drinks, and simple food.  His plan was to find the best and the freshest eggs, cheese, kaymak, whatever, and to serve it to his guests (which is how he thinks of his customers) with genuine grace and care.  The location of the café is perhaps its biggest asset, because all the tables afford a magnificent view of the Bosphorus.  So, the location was not a problem.  The big problem was that there was not a lot of what is called ‘capital,’ and so in early May we began going around looking for what was needed, and whenever possible, bargaining with people to let us have what was needed by paying for it by taksit (i.e. in installments).  There were a series of adventures:  finding an authentic gypsy cart for decoration, finding just the right person to do the wrought iron fencing, locating the best usta to do the carpentry work, the best man to make the refrigerator, and just the right place in Tatikale to get all the tableware and cooking things, etc.  An accurate account of the things we did, looked for and found, and that we agonized and triumphed over, would go on for pages. 

Through the summer, the place blossomed like a lovingly planted garden.  There was no plastic anywhere to be seen.  No ugly plastic awnings or umbrellas emblazoned with some multi-national brand name soft drink.  None of that.  No.  Everything was real:  copper, brass, antique, wood . . . and everything was absolutely beautiful.  Once people discovered the place, they would return again and again.  One famous singer, a woman who sings Turkish music as it should be sung, came one day for the first time and stayed for seven hours!  Everybody loved this café.  People seemed to recognize that something very special was going on, that there was a quality of care and even joy there that was out of the ordinary.  And my friend was so proud!

We had great hopes for the future.  Then, as my friend sought to finalize all the different permissions that are needed for an establishment like this, he began to encounter problems.  One by one, though, he solved them.  Permissions were either obtained or promised, and it seemed that the bureaucratic aspect would be worked out.  I remember that the health inspectors were especially impressed with the cleanliness of the place.  It seems right that they were.  I mean, my friend has even taught his workers to wash cucumbers before peeling them, and nobody does that!  However, there was one more, hitherto unknown office to be dealt with, some office—I don’t know what its Turkish name is—that is responsible for protecting the environment along the Bosphorus. 

Now, those of us who live in Istanbul know that notwithstanding this office, a number of exceedingly ugly structures have nevertheless managed to be erected along the shores of this sublimely beautiful body of water.  (How this happened is a subject begging to be speculated on, but not here.) I can assure you that this café is not one of them.  Just the other evening, for example, it was raining and cold and there were no customers, but I sat there warming myself by a coal fire that had been built on sand inside a large half barrel.  As I looked around I noticed every detail, right down to the gleaming copper and glass containers for beans and olives and things piled high inside that gypsy wagon, the small wooden bookcase filled with books to read, all of that days newspapers arranged, and the two front windows of the tiny shop (the tables and chairs are outside on a terrace) filled to the brim with beautiful antique things and books signed by their Turkish authors—“Yes,” I thought to myself, “this thing that began as a dream has taken form. This man has created a place not only with his hands, his nails, and his back, but also with his eyes and his heart and his soul, his tears and his joy and his love.  And anyone who comes and sits down can feel that. It looks like a poem,” I thought to myself.

Now, for the çok ayıp part.  Actually, the çok, çok ayıp part.  It seems that this office wants to declare this poem of a café an eyesore and have it be closed!  Now, why on earth would they say this?  What on earth could be the motivation?

For ten years now I have tried to do whatever I can to create things here, things that are beautiful, meaningful, life affirming.  And that is how I can recognize that this is precisely what this man has done, and why I admire him for doing it. To harass him, which is what is happening, is indeed çok ayıp. What we have to do instead is say “Bravo” to him for refusing to contribute to the ugliness of this world and applaud him for creating something beautiful.

Well, we’ll see.  He always tells me, “Time is important.  Patience is important.”  I will let you know how it all turns out.   

 

 

 

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