No.8 January 2001

Ahmet Bey’s Place 

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This month I want write about a group of men who stay by the sea in Rumeli Hisarı.  Now, this business of guys hanging out by the sea has a long tradition, and the group I’m referring to is not just a bunch of idlers.  They are part of the same tradition to which the writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık (the family name was chosen in the early days of the new republic and means ‘burned coat’) belonged.  Sait Faik was a man who, when he wasn’t writing about the disenfranchised, spent his time with the fishermen on Burgaz Island.  In the same way, from time to time one of them rises up and does things that are culturally spectacular or simply notorious.  For example, one of our own is writing his second book.  Another (who fits the category of being simply notorious) has actually been the subject of a movie, Tabut’ta Röveşata.  It seems that he is occasionally seized by the desire to steal a car, ride around in it for a while, and then clean it up and return it to where he found it.  He once helped us by running a telephone wire from where the phone company left it to the living room so we could move the telephone there.      

The group in question spends much of their time gathering in a series of small shacks that have been erected right on the shoreline, below sidewalk level.  There are four of these; each presided over by one person who has more or less assumed the responsibilities involved.  What responsibilities am I referring to?  Well, there is the matter of upkeep – for example, sometimes outsiders break windows, just for the hell of it.  Then, there is continual embellishment – shelves are added, eating utensils and glasses and plates and cooking utensils assembled.  Some even have miniscule planting areas, with bushes and flowers.  One has a tomato vine.  What I find remarkable about this group is that most of its members have been connected with each other for more than 30 years.   On account of circumstances (my partner knows them, likes them, and sometimes likes to just go and sit, drink, eat, and talk) I’ve had occasion to spend many hours with them these past few years.  None of them are "educated" or "sophisticated" or "rich" -- but they've taught me a lot about Turkey, albeit unwittingly, and have thus given me an insight into what Turkey is really about.

One of them has a small fishing boat and spends most days (and nights) sitting on that boat entertaining friends who hail from other, decidedly non-maritime parts of Istanbul.  He has a house (and a wife and children, too) but he’s usually on the boat.  This man isn’t what you would call a success, at least by normal standards, that is.  There are really hard financial times when the boat needs to be fixed, or had an accident and needs repairs, or . . . it’s difficult for me to keep all the details straight.  The interesting thing is that the boat (or one just like it) always reappears.  The other interesting thing is the man himself.  He’s a fisherman, one of a dying breed who ekes out a living from the sea.  He remembers a time when there were more than 124 different kinds of fish thriving in the Bosphorus and lives with the memory of that whenever he goes fishing for the few varieties that have survived the assault of garbage and poison that is our glorious legacy to the Bosphorus.  (See how developed we’ve become?  Oh, yes.  We’re developed, all right.)  According to him, we can now find only eight varieties.  I asked him to write down their names, and I’m looking at the list now:  levrek, eşkina or işkine, zargana, mazak, çaça balığı, ilarya, isparı, and hamsi. 

When I first appeared on this scene I was greeted with alternate suspicion, hostility, and self-conscious courtesy.  For one thing, women usually never go there.  I only went there because my partner went there and we wanted to be together.  Yavaş, yavaş, all that gradually disappeared.  Even though at first my Turkish was non-existent (it’s much better now), they always tried to understand what I was saying, and eventually came to understand that I was not slumming, I was not just another American capitalist pig, I was not an undercover agent for the CIA, and I was not just a piece of you-know-what.  I was a real person.  And over time I came to understand that their “I’m a Turkish man who knows everything” was only a front.

Let me share a few anecdotes to give you a sense of what I’ve experienced. 

One afternoon, after we’d all been sitting for a couple of hours, eating white cheese, bread, hamsi and drinking rakı, the conversation turned to politics.  (When the guys aren’t talking about sports or the economy, they talk about politics.  All three topics are interlaced with references to wives, girlfriends and sexuality in general.)  In the midst of it, at what seemed an appropriate point, I timidly ventured to say that we had a problem here in Turkey about our government officials, some of whom seem more intent on lining their own pockets and looking good to the “first world” than on serving the people.  That was greeted with a barrage of comments about how this wasn’t just a Turkish problem, but one that plagued the U.S. too.  I responded by saying yes, that was true, but that it seemed the problem was more prevalent here.  I added that I didn’t much care about the U.S. because I live here and besides, Turkey is important.  Then I shut up and just listened.  Well, yes.  Everybody agreed with that last.  Turkey is important.  This was followed by about twenty minutes of talk about how “capitalist imperialist” countries like the U.S. always put Turkey down.  Then, to my surprise, the conversation veered back to the topic of corrupt government officials in Turkey and for the next hour and a half I heard the same men who’d vehemently told me that such things were not limited to Turkey but were in fact “universal” complain about this and that Turkish politician who had sold out the people.  They related details.  It soon became clear that they were outraged and felt betrayed.  They really believe in this Cumhürriyet, you see.  For them, it isn’t merely a show.  The Republic is real, and in their view, every person in public life has an enormous responsibility to live up to.          

Another day, two of these guys were driving past the park where I live and honked the horn.  I was out walking the dog and didn’t even look up.  I had no idea who was honking at me, I didn’t have my glasses on, and I always ignore stuff like that.  Anyway, next thing I know one of them was standing right beside me.  He’d actually parked the car, gotten out and walked over to me.  He didn’t want anything, only to say hello.  We exchanged pleasantries.  Then, he said goodbye, walked back to the car, got in, and drove away.  He and his friend both waved as they went off.  This same man helped me move out of where I was living into my new place four years ago.  And when we go to visit his place, he always makes sure to spread a clean newspaper on the table, and give me the best utensils and plates, and the best morsels of fish.  He worries that I’m too cold if I’ve sat there for a long time.  It’s hard to explain, but it all seems really important. 

Another time, a man who always exemplifies a sartorial elegance that appears rather stunningly out of step with this environment arrived, sat down, and started a conversation with my partner and me about a mirror we were thinking of buying.  It seems he has a store that does picture framing and sells mirrors.  It turned out that we could get a really good price from him.  Etc.  It went like that for a while and then the conversation turned to other subjects.  As I recall, everybody was getting excited about some topic or other.  I said something (I don’t remember what now) and the man turned to me and said “Karencım.”  Everybody roared with laughter.  We all laughed ‘till our sides split because the endearment suggested a certain intimacy that was obviously untoward.  The other guys started to tease him unmercifully.  My partner played on it, too, feigning jealous outrage.  I got into it, and started to feign hauteur.  It was really fun because it was probably the first time I’d managed to get a joke across with my broken Turkish.  This was three or four years ago, but ever since, I have only to say the word  “Aynacım” (a play on my bad Turkish (it must be ‘camci’ – one can’t say ‘aynacı’), his being a seller of mirrors, and my canım (‘my beloved’)) to set everybody off in gales of laughter.  He’s gotten into it too, because sometimes when he comes now he’ll greet me elaborately, saying “Nasılsınız, Karencım?”  The others sometimes call me that too.

Last, I won’t soon forget a summer afternoon spent at the big table my partner’s friend made for us in the garden of his old fashioned house.  Nestled in the hills of Rumeli Hisarı, the place is by no means grand, just very old, very clean, and very, very cared for.  It has sheltered an entire family for decades, and did the same for us that day.  The wooden table was covered with a white cloth.  The wife made repeated trips out to the garden from the kitchen and soon it was laden with different kinds of mezze, meat, rakı, cheese, and fruit.  I remember the bird song and seeing the vegetable garden.  I’ll always remember the way the old man presided over his table.  He was incredibly warm and gracious.  He was obviously so happy to have us at his table, and so proud (in a good way, not an egotistical way) to share the bounty with us.  It was the same thing that has happened innumerable times at the table by one of the shacks.  The table is really important, you see. When you raised your glass (in old, old Turkey) and said ‘şerefe’ you were drinking to the honor of the table.  Breaking bread together really means something, you see.  Bereket is that.  It is an old Turkish word, meaning abundance, generosity.  The word may be old –one disgruntled reader wrote and, among other things, told me no one uses it anymore, but I respectfully beg to differ, sir:  this circle not only knows this word, they use it in normal conversation; more importantly, they embody it!  In any case, the phenomenon of sharing food and drink and one’s self is timeless, and has everything to do with being human.  These men know what this old-fashioned word means and they’ve helped teach me what it means.  It’s been a privilege to learn and I’m honored that they share their table with me ... 

No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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