NO 19 JUNE 2002

 Hidden Treasures


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Karen-Claire Voss   No. 19 June 2002

It is probably (I say ‘probably’ because I am not absolutely sure) not only inevitable but also good that Turkey is pushing to become a full-member of the European Union, although I realize that discussion about whether or not the country should pursue this route is currently underway at the highest level.  However, my readers must realize by now that I am not very interested in politics.  If I stopped now to talk about politics, I imagine that I would begin by loudly lamenting the current state of the 21st century in general, not only here, and go on to tell you all the reasons why I heartily loathe this world-wide marriage of technology and globalization, but I can’t try to write about everything.  This column is about Istanbul and Turkey and my topic here is cultural.  I want to ask if you have ever stopped to consider how many time-honored professions are being lost in the drive to become all “modern” and Europeanized?  There are quite a few, and this month I’d like to tell you about some of them.  I would also like to share what forty minutes of paging through a big Turkish-English dictionary revealed.  You may ask yourself “Why on earth is she delving into all these arcane things?  What for?”  The answer is simple.  I do it for the sheer delight I find in it.  I love to discover something hidden and spread it out on the table, as it were, and hold it up to the light, so other people can see it, too. 

Recently, my partner conceived a very special project for which he needs to find a tabelâcı.  “What’s that?” I asked.  He said it was someone who knew how to paint or draw letters very well.  Not a hattat (a calligraphist), simply a sign painter.  He told me of a quite famous actor we both know who, when very young, was “the best.”  He described how he would prop his hand at just the right angle using a ball to support it and then draw absolutely beautiful letters.  This was a big surprise to me and I confess I had a bit of trouble reconciling the image of the man I know with this other one who drew letters.  In my still too straightforward, pragmatic, American fashion, I suggested our simply asking the actor to do it, but this, I was informed, would be “çok ayıp.”  Well, OK, tamam, but that still left us with the problem of finding somebody.  Now, clearly, one cannot go looking in the Yellow Pages for a tabelâcı, even if we had a Yellow Pages here, which we don’t, but after making some inquiries, we found out that there was a highly skilled tabelâcı, an Armenian, who reputedly shows up at a little store in Karaköy about once every ten days.  There are four more days to go before we check back.  I’ll keep you posted.

A kakmacı is someone who made repoussé work, that fabulous ornamental inlay or overlay you find on some old pieces, often worked in mother of pearl or shell. Throughout the Ottoman period, exquisite furniture, trays, trunks and boxes were finished by these kakmacılar. 

A muvakkit was the timekeeper and was responsible for making sure all of the public clocks were set properly—-no more of those, surely—and the muvakkithane was the clock room, usually located at the palace.  A mücellid was a bookbinder, the mücellidhane the bindery itself.  In the hamam the person who washes you, massages you, shampoos you, is a tellâk, if male, and a natır, if female, but almost no one uses those words now.  The kırbacı was a maker of water skins, but of course, with plastic bottles, we certainly have no more use for water skins.  A niginsay was the person who engraved the seals that were used on letters and official documents and on the precious stones of rings.  It would have been a niginsay who engraved the stone in the signet ring worn by the sultan.   

There were also purveyors of delicious drinks.  There was the bozacı, who sold boza, a beverage made of fermented millet. In days gone by there was even a special place devoted to the making of this drink called a “bozahane.”  We actually still have a bozacı who plies his trade in the hills of Kuruçeşme, and on some cold winter nights, you can hear him calling out “Boza, boza.”  Another traditional drink is salep, which is made from the root of the Orchis Mascula or Early Purple Orchid that flourishes in the countryside of Turkey, as well as that of many other western European countries.   You can still order salep in certain cafés and on the ferries in winter.  In the old days, the person who sold it was a salepçi.

I saved my favorite occupation for last.  Each Ramazan beautiful candle lights were strung between the minarets of the mosques to form pictures or words.  These lights were called mahya, a word that comes from the Persian, and the person who fashioned them was a mahayacı.  To the best of my knowledge the possibility of doing this again, even if someone wanted to, no longer exists because the last mahayacı must have died years ago.  Twenty, twenty-five years ago would have been about the last time you could see this in Istanbul.  Now there is no one left who knows the craft.  

Turning to the words, I note that what I am going to present here about language is only scratching the surface.  Do you realize there are words for things in this rich tongue that simply do not exist in others?  This last question, by the way, is directed as much to Turkish readers as to foreigners.  Many Turkish people won’t know some of the words below, and most don’t bother to use the language properly anyway.  Personally, I envy native Turkish speakers because they are in a position to undertake to learn to use the language as it should be used.  For myself, I can only fantasize what it would be like to be able to express myself in truly beautiful Turkish.

Yearning for something seems to be a leit motiv in Turkish culture (1) and accordingly, there are any number of words one can use to express it.  There is ‘hasret,’ which means simply ‘yearning’ (2) and ‘telhif’―’a lamenting, regretting (anything neglected, missed or lost).’ There is ‘özlem,’ ‘yearning,’ longing’, and also used as a technical term in philosophy to mean an ‘ardent desire’ for something (or for someone).  Then we have ‘arzu,’  ‘longing,’ again, but with an interesting archaic verb form:  arzuçek, meaning ‘to long.’ 

Did you know there is actually a word meaning the recital of a poem using two or three languages at the same time?  It’s ‘telmi.’’  Telmi also means “causing to shine and glitter” and a “coloring; a varying; a diversifying.”  A mahçe is the “small, gilded crescent on the top of a flagpole, minaret, or dome” and someone who is “mahçehre” is someone with  “a face as fair as the moon.”  Like hunting?  In days gone by, you would have visited the okçu, the maker and seller of arrows.  Now we all know that an ocakbaşı is the place to go when we’re hungry for grilled meat and vegetables, but are you aware that the ocakbaşı used to be the cook in the Sultan’s kitchen?  Finally, in case your relatives could not be counted on to do justice to your passing at the gravesite, a nevhager was a hired mourner.  (3)

Sometimes it takes someone from outside a situation or a place to help someone from inside see it a new light.  I’ve already said, what I’ve presented here is only scratching the surface.  There is much more to discover about the Turkish language.  After Atatürk’s radical language reform, there was a concerted effort to develop the language.  I don’t know all the details but one thing I do know is that over the years those efforts lessened.  It seems to me that since we are contemplating even closer ties with Europe than we now enjoy, it is time to pay close attention to the language once again lest it be lost in the same way so many other precious things connected with the culture here have been lost. 

Throughout these columns, I have repeated the same idea repeatedly:  Yes, Turkey has its problems.  Yes, life here can be very difficult.  No, living here will never be anything like living inside a Hollywood film.  But so what?  For one thing, there isn’t any place on this earth that is like living inside a Hollywood film.  For another, life here in Turkey can be incredibly rich, rich in ways that are not possible somewhere else.  How many times have I written that Turkey really is a hidden treasure?  And this reminds me of a story. 

Apropos of fantasies about leaving and going to the United States (or Canada or Australia or western Europe, doesn’t matter), there was once a poor man who had a dream that if he traveled to a far-away place he would be able to discover a buried treasure.  He set out the next day and when he arrived at his destination started to make some inquiries.  One of the first people he questioned about the treasure told him that strangely enough, he too had had a dream about a buried treasure the very night before.  The man proceeded to describe the place where it could be found in detail.  The wanderer was stunned, for he recognized that the place the man was describing was behind the stove in his very own kitchen.  He set out again for home, and when he arrived went directly to the kitchen, pulled the stove away from the wall, and started digging.  He found the treasure.  It had been in his own place in this world all along. 

            Hmm.  Seems to me there’s a moral for all of us here.


1.  See Column 10, March 2001, where I write about ‘hasret.’ 

2.  See, for example, Ahmet Arif’s  collection of poetry, Hasretinden Prangalar Eskttim  (Istanbul: Cem Yayınevı, 1998).

3.  I invite readers to email me with more words.  I will be forever in your debt if you do.  These days, you see, I am seriously contemplating taking Turkish lessons, at long last, and have the ambition to try to get to the point where I can speak the language well, if not beautifully.  As things are now, while I generally manage to get my ideas across, I string together what I know in ways that are sometimes hysterically funny since I’ve almost no sense of the grammar.  I figure that once I learn the grammatical rules, I will be able to do a whole lot provided I have a huge vocabulary.

*  *  *

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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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