Mr. Okay, your family has lived in Istanbul for three generations. You came into the world in a house on a road that led from Salmatomruk to the Golden Horn. Your childhood was spent in a very colorful neighborhood around Edirnekapı that, with its Albanian, Greek, Jewish, Armenian and Cretan residents, reflected the multinational makeup of the empire… Because your father was a police officer you spent two years of your childhood in Ankara. But without a doubt, your personality was shaped by the historical and natural texture, the population structure, and even the Ottoman character of Istanbul of the 1930s and 40s. You spent your high school and college years in Vefa, Fındıklı and Beyazıt. I am not asking you to share your entire life story with me, but can we talk about Istanbul? Şehzadebaşı for example. What are your thoughts?
When you say Şehzadebaşı ,still to many people Direklerarası comes to mind. In the book, Istanbul Ortasında, the one you republished and modified with notes, Malik Aksel says that Direklerarası lost its former reputation at the beginning of the last century and that dating from the Second Meşrutiyet a major change began here, especially following the Russian Revolution. He claims that because of the garbage left by the Vrangel army, like in almost all of Istanbul, the atmosphere of Şehzadebaşı was ruined. During the Armistice Period, the soldiers of the forces of occupation brought about greater degeneration in Şehzadebaşı. The elderly people, who knew the old Şehzadebaşı and who were alive until the 1950s, desperately tried to bring the old Şehzadebaşı back. Indeed, neither Hacı Reşid’s coffeehouse which had been home to Muallim Naci and Ahmet Rasim, nor Fevziye Cafe, which had been frequented by the generation of authors that came after them, survived. Fevziye Cafe was located at the corner of Fevziye Street across from İbrahim Paşa Mosque . When I was growing up the Çinili Bakery and Yeni Sinema (the new cinema) were at that place. At that time, there was a cafe in an ostentatious, six-story building known as Letafet Apartments. Because the Darüttalim-i Musiki Cemiyeti (Turkish music society) gave concerts here, the cafe took the name Darüttalim. It was a spacious and chic cafe with large mirrors on the walls, velvet-covered tables, armchairs and a couple of billiards tables. Of course, the practice and the musiki didn’t last.
Mr. Okay, other than these coffeehouses, cafes and teahouses, what other ones do you recall?
As I said, the legendary Hacı Reşid Teahouse and the Fevziye Cafe, which hold a place in the memory of many writers, are already things of the past… I must have known Mustafa Efendi’s coffeehouse; I heard a lot of stories that took place there, but unfortunately I cannot remember anything about that coffeehouse. I know Yavru’s Teahouse, but I was not a regular customer.
Oh that coffeehouse, the one mentioned in the book Kahveler Kitabı by Salah Birsel.
Salah Birsel quotes a great deal of incorrect information without giving any sources. He says that Yavru achieved fame by singing folksongs. Not once did I hear anything like a folksong from him. In fact, I never learned who Yavru Mehmet was or where he was from. His teahouse was on the left after passing Şehzadebaşı and İbrahim Paşa Mosques on the way to Vezneciler from Saraçhane. It was between the single-story small shops (ten-twelve meters square). Its facade was almost three meters wide, with more than two-thirds of it a shop window and the other third a glass door. One could see the whole teahouse from behind that door. On the signboard, which hung from the ceiling, was written Yavru’s Teahouse. Seats were located behind the signboard. Going to coffeehouses was not a habit I had, and I did not have the courage to go inside Yavru’s Teahouse. This was mainly because the customers of the teahouse were always elderly and prestigious people. As I heard, when outsiders tried to go inside the teahouse, the customers and staff politely said that Yavru’s Teahouse was not a kahvehane (coffeehouse) and asked them to leave. I do not know how Yavru Mehmet managed with his scarcity of customers. Some said he was a police officer, but if this was true, I do not know whom he was trying to catch. Maybe it was the so-called communist of that era, Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı. I only could see his customers behind the smoke and fogged shop window. I did know some of Yavru’s customers, and I asked them many questions about the others. I saw Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı and Reşad Ekrem Koçu the most, almost every time I passed in front of the teahouse. Reşad Ekrem was not one of my teachers, but I knew him from Vefa High School. He always had stubble, was a bit aggressive, grim-faced and had long frizzy hair. Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı’s long hair and beard started to grow white at that time. Mükrimin Halil was also a regular. I had a chance to get to know him better later, but back then I thought he had a large, pear-shaped head. Also, he was always ready to smile. I saw Muhittin Erev, whom I knew from Vefa High School, less often. He was the astro-mathematics teacher who made us copy the second part of Ziya Pasha’s Terci-i Bend, a work about the universe and the stars, into the first pages of our notebooks. I rarely saw my Persian language teacher, the poet Divrikli Tahir Nadi, or Ali Nihat Tarlan. I also saw my Arabic teacher, Celalettin Ökten, there a few times. From their gestures I could easily understand that they were arguing, and trying to lecture all of the other customers, but their voices never reached outside the teahouse. I could understand from their body language what was going on. The teacher Celal normally was not a coffeehouse/teahouse regular; probably he expected to have some intellectual or scientific conversation with his colleagues and friends when he went there. In fact, we heard that once he and Ahmet Gölpınarlı had a discussion about Muawiya and Ali, and at some point the conversation got very unpleasant. After that day, Celal Ökten never went to Yavru’s again.
Mr. Okay, if you do not mind, I would like to talk about Direklerarası a little bit more. Direklerarası was named after some columns; the name means between the columns. Can you remember the columns themselves?
No, there were no columns there when I was a child during the 1940s. Now, even the “between” part no longer exists. At that time, the street was a lot narrower. After the 1950s the left side of the street, where the Ibrahim Paşa and Şehzadebaşı mosques are situated, remained the same, but the right side was widened almost as much as another street. When the street was narrower and calmer, when there were not many cars or buses, there were trams from between Edirne and Bahçekapı, Fatih, and Harbiye and Beşiktaş and Fatih. I guess Direklerarası started to become a place of amusement at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The teahouses, like Hacı Reşid’s, which continued to serve authors and poets, and the cafes, like Darüttalim and Fevziye, where musiki was always performed, were located on both sides of this street. In addition to these, of course there were places where the most vulgar cabaret songs were performed. During the 1940s most of those places began to shut down and were replaced by cinemas. On the right side of the road, there were the Milli, Ferah and Hilal cinemas. They were the oldest ones of all the newly opened cinemas. Ferah could also be considered to be a theater, as there were occasionally theater performances there. I remember that once I went to Ferah and watched a show performed by a group of foreign trapeze artists. I also remember the vaudeville, operetta, and musical posters at the Ertuğrul Sadi Tek Theater. At the end of the street stood the enormous Turan Theater. It remains in my memory as a cheap and gaudy theater with armchairs, a second-floor balcony and loges. At the Turan Theater, I watched Naşid a couple of times. With her original makeup and clothes, she made the audience laugh hysterically. The show itself lasted for a long time; it also included illusion shows, cantos and parts from Turkish musicals. I recall that atthe Turan Theater I watched many comedies including Sefiller, and listened to a concert by Hafız Burhan in 1941 or 1942. A couple of years later, the Turan Theater also became a cinema. At that time, they played double features. In Şehzadebaşı, they had triple features, especially on weekends there would be a huge crowd. Soldiers and students would buy a small bag of pumpkin seeds and go into the cinema, sitting through the session, which had neither a beginning nor an end. They watched cowboy, action and comedy films with an incredible enthusiasm. After a while, a cinema was opened right across from the Şehzade Mosque and right next to the Çinili Bakery. This new cinema showed better films and over time its audience profile became different than the others. During those years, only Şehzadebaşı and Beyoğlu had that many cinemas. Orhan Veli wrote, “Istanbul’s center is cinema.” I believe that line, written by an Anatolian young man, referred to Şehzadebaşı. It is the center of Istanbul, is it not?
I believe you are talking about the column that gave its name to Malik Aksel’s book.
Yes, according to an old belief, behind the outer walls (which faced towards the main street) of the outer court of Şehzadebaşı Mosque, there was a marble column. This column pointed toward the center of Istanbul. I do not know when this belief came into being for the first time, or for whom the point indicated by the column was the center of Istanbul. I think it was a belief that continued from the Byzantine Empire. Firstly, the road that started from Edirnekapısı - passing through Fevzi Pasha, Beyazıt, Divanyolu, Sultanahmet, and the Hippodrome- and ended at Ahırkapı, the city walls of the Marmara, was the most important road of the Byzantine Empire, maybe its only main street.
Protocol Road. Mese Street.
It was also the Ottoman State’s protocol road. Starting from Edirnekapı, this road was a royal road, a güzergah-ı hümayun, for centuries. Its right side was curved towards the Marmara, and the left side was curved towards the Golden Horn. I think it’s necessary to make clear that today’s historical peninsula contains all of the Rumeli parts of Istanbul, but at that time it only represented the area between the Golden Horn and Marmara. That is, the border of the old Istanbul, nefs-i İstanbul, was on the north shore of the Golden Horn.
I guess, at one time, just like Süleymaniye, Şehzadebaşı was a place where the elite class lived. I believe there were many glorious mansions.
I was a student at Vefa High School between 1947 and 1950, so I can easily remember Şehzadebaşı and most of the buildings there. Firstly, it was obvious that Şahzadebaşı was one of the most exclusive districts of Istanbul. Towards Süleymaniye, one could see both luxurious and modest mansions, one or two-story houses. This clearly showed that at this time people did not care about economic class distinctions. Everyone, the upper classes, the bourgeoisie, and the lower classes lived together peacefully. Those houses symbolized all socio-economic realities. The Kirazlı Mescit neighborhood -actually, Kirazlı Mescit is a narrow street that goes down to the Süleymaniye Mosque. The Kirazlı (cherry) masjid, which gave its name to the street, still remains. However, I do not know if there are still cherries there. Twenty-five to thirty years ago this field was handed over to Istanbul University in order to protect the architectural unity of the district. However, no renovation was carried out; rather, the parking lot mafia set on fire most of the old and gorgeous mansions.
At least there are mansions that were restored and saved. …
The important thing was protecting the unity of the neighborhood. What was I saying… On the other side of Şehzadebaşı, I mean in Laleli, there were also three- and four-story mansions with enormous gardens. Nowadays, the concept of the extended family no longer exists. Each floor was owned by different people. Most of the mansions were entrusted to an odabaşı, a type of director who found suitable renters for the floors and rooms. As you know, the first part of the book Matmazel Norilya’nın Koltuğu, by Peyami Safa, takes place in one of these enormous mansions. Across from the Şehzade Mosque there were some one-story shops such as a photographer’s shop owned by the father of my classmate İzzet Tanju, the Çinili Bakery, where we would eat our lunch, Ahmet Aktan’s kiosk (we were regulars for the newspapers and magazines they sold) with its ice cold water, Mehmet Efendi’s place, which we visited when we had money (we ate meatballs and bean salads for fifty kuruş).
Do you remember Istanbul’s first apartment building , Letafet Apartments?
Of course! Towards Vezneciler, it was the most glorious building after the Turan Theater. The Darüttalim Cafe, which we just talked about, was located on the ground floor of Letafet Apartments. The other buildings were also single-storied, small shops owned by craftsmen and local artisans. There were also some of these small, temporary shops in front of the Murat Paşa Elementary School and people who did not know that there was a school behind the shops weren’t able to pick it out. On the right side as you pass the school, the Zeynep Hanım Mansion appears now in my mind’s eye as a dream-like palace. It was not “something that looks like a palace,” it was actually a palace. Once upon a time, Sultan Abdülaziz and his high officials had an iftar (meal to break the fast during Ramadan) in the Zeynep Hanım Mansion. I can barely remember the mansion because a fire destroyed it in the winter of 1942. Up until that time, the top floor was used as the dorm for the Yüksek Muallim Mektebi (Higher School for Teachers). The other floors were for the Faculty of Science and Literature. I do not know who gave the orders -maybe the president of the Republic, İsmet İnönü, maybe the minister of education, Hasan Ali Yücel- but after the fire, new buildings were constructed. They were not more beautiful than the old ones, but they were huge. The other newly constructed two- or three-story buildings had to be demolished because of the construction; the construction took more than ten years to finish.
Mr. Okay, you said that there was a fire in the Zeynep Hanım Mansion. Could you tell me about it a bit more? How did it happen?
Sure; I witnessed a couple of large fires. The first one was the one which burned down Zeynep Hanım Mansion. As I said, my house was located towards the Golden Horn, at the end of the Salmatomruk Hill, around Balat. Istanbul is known as “the city of seven hills.” We were living on the side of one of those hills. From our house, I could see another one of those seven hills, and I knew all of the mosques by name (my grandmother taught me): Yazıcı, Mehmet Ağa, Draman, Nişanca, Meydancık, Hamami Muhittin, etc. One night we looked out the window and saw that an extraordinary redness had filled the sky. Behind the Draman Mosque, nearly the entire sky was covered. We looked at the fire through our binoculars. All the pieces of the mansion, in particular wooden ones, were flying in different directions. It was in February or March of 1942.
The fire took place on the night of February 28 (the morning of March 1), Mr. Okay. I know it because I mentioned it in one of my books. I guess you were eleven years old at that time.
Yes, I was eleven, a fourth-grader at that time. I remember being swept up in a terrible fear from the agitated and worried talk of the household members. I shook like a leaf. What if the fire reached our house? But the burning building was actually far from us. My father, remembering the Adile Palace Fire, thought that this fire might be somewhere close to Adile Palace. Indeed, the redness that we saw from our house was in that direction. Of course, at that time we did not know where the fire was. The poor radio stations could not announce that kind of news. Also, during those years, no one –not even the richest families– owned a telephone. As I said before, my father was a police officer; he immediately dressed and went to a police station near our house. When he came back, he gave us the bad news: Zeynep Hanım Mansion was burning. It was a mansion that used to stand where today’s Letters and Science Faculties are located, and when I was a child it truly appeared to me as big and splendid as a dream palace . There were a couple more mansions near Zeynep Hanim Mansion, but I do not know if they burned down too. But the redness of the sky continued almost until morning. A couple of days later, we passed by the debris of my dear palace in its state of ruin. After that, for years, we watched the condemnation of other houses in the vicinity and the construction in their place of the big concrete buildings for the Science and Literature Faculties.
Did you witness any other fires?
I also remember Fener Fire, the last one of those huge Istanbul fires. That fire destroyed hundreds of wooden houses. I do not remember the exact date, but the Fener Fire might have happened before the Zeynep Hanım Mansion Fire. As far as I know, it began at the Fener Patriarchate, which was close to our neighborhood. From our windows, we saw that the sky was burning, but this time, the flames headed towards the east. It continued for a couple of days. That time, it was not just flames, but also there were sounds and smells. This was an incredibly aggressive fire, and it destroyed the entire neighborhood, which was situated between Fener and Çarşamba. People always said that arsonists intentionally started those fires. That Fener Fire is still a sad and unforgettable memory for our family. My mother’s uncle was the muezzin of Abdi Subaşı Mosque, located above the Fener Patriarchate. During the Fener Fire, the iron gate of the mosque crashed on him, and that unfortunately killed him instantly. Reşad Ekrem Bey mentions this incident in a chapter of his book, İstanbul Ansiklopedisi.
I will look at that chapter, sir, and add it as an annotation.
Thank you. He was a poor man who lived alone. Neighbors claimed that while the mosque was burning he managed to get out of the mosque, but then he went back inside. Some people said that he went back inside in order to save his cats that lived inside the muezzin room. Others claimed that he tried to rescue some old and valuable Qur’ans. After the fire there was a burning smell in our neighborhood for weeks. If you want I can tell you a third fire incident.
Of course, Mr. Okay, please go ahead.
After many years, I guess it was 1947 or 1948, one afternoon, everybody panicked and ran to their windows. There had been the sound of an incredible explosion. Just after that sound, we saw thick smoke to the northwest. It started to cover all of the sky just like a huge, dark cloud. It was something dull gray, dark blue, thick, and horrifyingly, it kept growing. We heard the news immediately. A mushroom factory had exploded on the opposite side of the Golden Horn, near Silahtarağa, Hasköy. Five firemen died during that fire. In those years, democracy was slowly starting to be practiced, so the press was free. From the next day, the incident was related with some political commentary. The brother of Enver Pasha, Nuri Kıllıgil Pasha, owned the factory. In addition to processing mushrooms, the factory was also producing guns and bullets. At that time, Israel was a newly established country. People claimed that the factory, which had burned down, was dispatching guns and bullets to Israel. Those secrets still retain their mysteries. However, they also are mostly forgotten.
Who knows what these fires and earthquakes took away from Istanbul over the centuries. Because makeshift buildings were erected where burned and demolished mansions, villas and seaside residences once stood, Istanbul became run down over the last two hundred years. You spent your childhood years in this ramshackle Istanbul; could you please talk a little about those days?
You used the word köhne (ramshackle) very well in that sentence. Today, the youth no longer know this world; in the beautiful and wealthy Turkish we had in our childhood, as for most notions, there were many synonyms for the word ‘old’; each synonym had its own place. For example kadim not only means old, but something that is still continuing. Again, sabık and esbak, which mean old, were used to describe previous official authorities. Köhne means old, worn out, functionless; it has a negative meaning. Tevfik Fikret curses Istanbul in his poem Sis and calls Istanbul, Köhne Bizans. As you know, Fikret refers to the last century of the Ottoman State, which was brought down by the tricks, in a word, the political schemes of the Byzantines; this is what he means when he uses the phrase Köhne Bizans. Yes, I mentioned the slums with a personal nostalgia many times when relating my childhood stories. They were parts of Istanbul that were worn out over the centuries, and beyond a doubt, in need of change, innovation. Fires, earthquakes, consecutive wars, and the economic situation that never improved ruined those neighborhoods; it was the same back then. It is not just a psychological illusion that made me and people like me think that these neighborhoods were friendly places and that we considered everything that is lost as something beautiful. Even in a mess like that, the existence of the hills, valleys, meadows, vineyards, even the flowing stream which was a complement to the city’s picturesque setting, the fountain that was present almost in every street, small mosques, cemeteries surrounded by walls, and maybe the samples of the most important civil architecture, gave the peace of a horizon which led to history and nature. The main point was that the historical and natural fabric was not protected. Istanbul has been the capital city of many different civilizations and it protects a number of different cultures. This is not cosmopolitanism; there was a natural harmony, if you ask me. The city demonstrated its personality with this harmony. When the Ottoman State conquered Istanbul, as a nation that experienced the state and the city, the orders of Islam were implemented. This was about people from different nations and religions and they did not barbarize Istanbul’s history, but added a new personality. After a century Istanbul slowly became something Turkish, but the monuments of Köhne Bizans still existed. If the intention was to ruin history, what could be easier than demolishing the city walls of the capital of the state, a capital that reaches as far as Hungary and Austria, and use the remnants? There are more examples like Hagia Sophia and Chora Mosque’s mosaics being covered with plaster instead of being torn down.
Fires of Istanbul are my field of interest, Mr. Okay. It’s my understanding that a burned-down area that couldn’t be developed was used as a vegetable garden.
That could be. Some parts of the largest vegetable gardens were the water cisterns of the Byzantine era. I know two of them that were in my childhood neighborhood very well. One of them was in Edirnekapı, where the Vefa Stadium is now. It was known as Çukur Bostan by the people. Because it had previously been full of water, the naturally collected fertile soil made it a green place planted with vegetables and trees. I recall a gardener’s hut and a water wheel, which was turned by a donkey to pull the water. Çukur Bostan was destroyed after the 1940s and converted into a stadium. The second water cistern was in the Çarşamba district, near Sultan Selim Mosque, in a place also known as Çukur Bostan. Even though there were cultivated lands and people who raised chickens, it was in a pretty neighborhood with small mosques, neat, dead-end streets and single-story houses. After quite some time, I went there again and saw that the shanty towns had been converted into multi-storied, ugly, concrete houses. In recent years, the municipal authority has demolished these buildings and modified the buildings into practical fitness centers. You arrive to both Çukur Bostans from the stairs of the inner walls of the cistern or from a dirt road that was formed over time. I discovered the third Çukur Bostan, that is, the Byzantine cistern, a bit later. When I was studying in Çapa Higher Teacher Education School, while I was wandering around, I realized that the big hollow areas seemed like green lands and cultivated vegetable gardens that I had earlier seen; this was similar to the Byzantine cisterns I remembered from earlier occasions. This district was known as Altımermer. One time I saw that the vegetable gardens had been cleared out and the land was used as a market place I believe you can’t find another example in the world of how the Ottomans used all three cisterns in the middle of such a large and historical city to bring Istanbul’s picturesque corners into a state of order.
Istanbul was once a vegetable garden. There are many street and neighborhood names that include the word bostan (vegetable garden).
As you know, the word bostan came into our language from Persian and it means flower garden. However, in Istanbul, bostan meant vegetable garden. Formerly, there were plenty of cultivated vegetable gardens that existed within city walls. It is hard to believe that until the 1950s the district which we know as Vatan Avenue was called Yeni Bahçe (new garden), and the Bayrampaşa stream flowed between the planted fields. There was an area that we called a bostan, surrounded by the balconies and back windows of the houses, but this was no longer planted. The kids of the neighborhood played football here. In Kesmekaya Avenue nearby, there was an area that was named bostan; this was also used as a football field. The house that was formerly occupied by my father, my uncles, and in my childhood by my grandmother, had a view of a vegetable field; this is why I know these places. We used the construction adjacent to Kesmekaya’s vegetable garden as a playground. It was covered by strong vault and was rather large, but with no inner sections. This place was called a granary and it was rumored that it was the former granary of Byzantines. Later on I learned that the palace of Buğdan Bey was located there. And of course, Buğdan became Buğday in colloquial language. This area disappeared during the shanty town settlement phase.
As far as I know, there were plenty of orchards and vegetable gardens outside the city walls.
Many. The ridges of Mecidiyeköy, Levent, and Ortaköy were full of mulberry groves, clove tree orchards and strawberry fields. The arable land began from behind a cordon along the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus. The fact that many district names have the suffix köy (village) demonstrates this. Outside the city walls of Edirnekapı and Topkapı, there were many gardens as well. I mean Eyüp, Otakçılar, Bayrampaşa, Maltepe, Çırpıcı, Yedikule, Langa meadows supplied fruits and vegetables to Istanbul and its environs. Famous for its broad beans and its lettuce fields irrigated with buckets drawn by horses at a water wheel, Bayrampaşa was a Sunday excursion place. Many new streets that no longer have a garden, sunless windows that see no blossom, were named after flowers. I noticed that new streets are no longer named bostan. Bostan is very common in old street names. People who are interested in this can use an Istanbul guide and count the names of old streets and neighborhoods that have bostan in them.
Mr. Okay, all these vegetable gardens and city walls inevitably remind me of your former calligraphy partner, Halim Özyazıcı. The late Mr. Özyazıcı had a vineyard outside the city walls. Have you ever seen that vineyard?
Yes, I’ve seen it. Outside of Topkapı, in Çırpıcı, in the neighborhood known as Tepebağ, there was a pretty, two-storied house and a vineyard that covered a wide area. I do not know what is located there today. You would remember, the late Ibnülemin, in his Son Hattatlar (Last Calligraphers), tells us with a reproachful tone that the master had given Ibnülemin a bucket of grapes that the master had grown. I ate many of those grapes, especially the sweet white grapes. When I saw Ibnülemin working with the vine stocks with his knife and trowel, I was surprised, and felt the pain of his short-fingered, rough hands. Like him, suspended from his teaching duty after the alphabet reform, Halim Efendi was prohibited from executing his art; the last favor of the government was to order Latin typefaces for the Maarif Press. He was a professional calligrapher in the Gothic as well as the Latin alphabet. The artist found himself unemployed and could not even look after himself and his family in his thirties; somehow it occurred to him to find some property outside the city walls and start growing grapes; the hands which used to hold a pencil started to use a trowel. He himself told us that this vineyard neighbored Midhat Pasha’s farm. While we were going through a relatively democratic phase after 1945, Halim Hoca’s horizon was slightly broadened. In return for a trifling salary, he started to teach in the Academy of Fine Arts and to demonstrate his art on the doors and domes of new mosques.
How did you happen to practice calligraphy with Halim Hoca?
On the recommendation of Sahaf Raif Efendi, in the fall of 1950. When he learned that I was studying literature, the bookseller Raif Yelkenci, who was the sheikh of Sahaflar Çarşısı back then, said, “I should send you to Halim Efendi; in your spare time you could learn how to do calligraphy.” The Faculty of Letters was located in one of the Çifte Saraylar buildings in Fındıklı. The Academy of Fine Arts where Halim Efendi was a teacher was located in the other building of Çifte Saraylar. I continued to practice my calligraphy lessons during the breaks. Raif Bey recommended me to the teacher by writing a couple of sentences on a card. I found him, gave him the card and explained the situation. He was barely five feet tall, had hardly any neck, and swung his arms left and right while walking; no one would have guessed that he was an artist at first glance. He read the card that Raif Bey wrote and said, “Do not give it another thought! If it is the word of Raif Bey, how can I reject you?” I cringed with embarrassment and rattled off a couple of “Estağfırullah’s”and I said, “I will trouble you to be among your students.” I can never forget that he said, “What trouble? It is an honor!” While he was teaching his students, my eyes were unintentionally focused on his hands. I was shocked when these thick, stubby fingers with huge nails on a rough and calloused hand dipped the reed pen into a tiny glass box used as inkwell, drew lines on the paper with a perfect smoothness and determination not to make any mistakes or to hesitate. The next week, I purchased a notebook, inkwell, ink, a couple of reed pens, and raw silk from the shop of Hulusi Efendi, which sold calligraphy items in Sahaflar, and I started practicing.
As far as I know, Hulusi Efendi is the father of Sahaf (second-hand book seller) Ekrem Karadeniz, who wrote Türk Musikisinin Nazariye ve Esasları.
Yes, exactly. He passed away; his son looked after the store. Ekrem Bey was blind. Anyway, a room was allocated for calligraphy lessons; this could not compare with the wide and spacious classrooms that were assigned for architecture, art, sculpture, or other western art classes. A small primary school between the two buildings in Çifte Saraylar, one of the classic Ottoman stone buildings --Islamic miniature painting, ornamentation, binding, calligraphy, and such art classes were taught to us on different days of the week in the upstairs classrooms of this stone building. We finally started the courses. First, Halim Hoca grabbed the reed pens that I brought. He picked several of them. Then, he listened to the noise they made as one by one they hit the surface of the wooden table from the height a hand span. In the meantime, he was telling me the essence of the work he had done. Halim Hoca was trying to find out the optimum quality of the reed that ripened in the sun from the sound it made when it hit the table. After the test was done, it was time to sharpen the pen. He watched me hold the pen carefully and he sharpened the pen with great skill. While doing that he said, “I can both sharpen pens and use vineyard knives with these hands.” After the sharpening was done, we started writing. He asked me to bring two notebooks. In one only he would write, and the other I would fill with my inexperienced scratchings. He got his own notebook. Even though he was sitting at the table, he was not writing on the table. Getting his left leg under him, he drew something, without paying close attention to the notebook he had put on his raised knee. We started the lesson with the naskh calligraphy, creating a magnificent basmala. The ink was prepared and brought to its proper consistency with Arabic gum, which helped the pen to slide easily over one-third of the paper as he wrote the letter sin. After the pen had made the tail of the letter mim, he went back and made the dots and haraka with short movements. The second line began with the word naskh, the dots were put above and below, the haraka and wasls were made. On the third and fourth lines wereall the letters of the Arabic alphabet up to nun. And under all of these letters my teacher had drawn lines as special reminders to himself that meant “practice.” Above the calligraphy he wrote, “To Orhan Okay, November 2, 1950,” and under the calligraphy he signed it, Muallimühu el-fakir el-hac Mustafa Halim (Mustafa Halim, the poor pilgrim teacher).
How long did you study with Halim Hoca?
Off and on for two and a half years. The last exercise he gave me was a sentence from Ali about learning how to write. In the meantime, our faculty was moved to Beyazıt. Time passed and some things went wrong, and I did not get my ijazat (diploma); I did not even have sufficient knowledge about calligraphy, I just enjoyed it. The close relationship with the teacher continued. You know, he died in a car accident in 1954.
If only you could have continued and gotten your ijazat.
Fate . . .
Mr. Okay, the breadth of your fields of interest impresses me. Years ago in an article, you mentioned that you took lessons from Tahir al-Mawlawi in Süleymaniye Mosque.
Yes, I was a freshmen or a sophomore. I heard from a close friend of mine who studied Eastern science in the faculty of literature that Tahir Olgun was going to lecture about Masnawi in the Süleymaniye Mosque. I knew his name from Behçet Yazar’s Edebiyatçılarımız ve Türk Edebiyatı book. As you know, it was written as a questionnaire. I continued the Masnawi lessons which I started with passion and curiosity, without any obstacles. I learned back then that these lessons were actually intended as a foundation many years before. Even at the Fatih Mosque, there was a tradition of reading Masnawi. Tahir al-Mawlawi gave Masnawi lectures on Saturdays, after the afternoon prayers, on a rather low pedestal; he sat at one of the four pillars, near the shrine on the eastern side of Süleymaniye Mosque. As I remember, around thirty to fifty people were in the audience. He spoke in a smooth, rather low and crackly voice. He shared memories and read several couplets of his or the poems of other authors. We never felt bored. Later on, I realized that the beginnings and endings of the lessons were actually planned. I can hear them in my mind as if he were speaking them today. After the basmala, he read Rabbi’şrahlî sadri, and then from the Masnawi:
Tu megû mârâ bedân şeh bâr nîst
Bâ kerîman kârhâ düşvâr nîst
He introduced the subject saying, “In the previous lesson, we were on this couplet.” Tahir Olgun was humble, like many of the old scholars. When he described his work as “humble,” it was the first time I heard someone describe themselves that way and I was puzzled. While he gave examples from his poems he began by saying, “In a humble couplet of mine I said… ” In a story he told, he mentioned someone whom he did not approve of as “an ignominious oaf.”
It is surprising that a lesson like that was permitted at that time.
The late 1940’s. The multi-party phase had begun and the atmosphere was milder. However, certainly, even as a show, Masnawi rituals were not carried out. In those lessons, I felt that Mawlawiya was still alive. Some of the students who came to the Masnawi classes were passionate and came to learn something or like me, out of pleasure. However, there were some Mawlawis among them. After a while I could distinguish them. While they kneeled and sat down in front of the pedestal, they kissed the floor with an uncertain move. Some of them had huge Masnawi works; they followed the lectures from couplets. After a while, the composer Sadettin Kaynak started to follow. I think he was the main imam at the Sultanahmet Mosque. The Masnawi courses, maybe because of the text, ended with a couplet, “İn ne necmest ü ne remlest ü ne hâb/Vahy-i Hak, vallahü a’lem bi’s-savab.” With this traditional saying, which means that despite having great knowledge, a person should still be wary of making errors, “Bu ne müneccimliktir, ne faldır ne de rüya. Allah’tan ilhamdır, doğrusunu Allah bilir.” (This is neither astrology, nor fortune telling, nor a dream. It is inspiration from Allah; Allah knows the truth) If Sadettin Kaynak was there, Tahir Olgun, after reading these verses, would turn and say, “Could you please be so kind as to recite an aşr-ı şerif?” Sadettin Kaynak, with his quite large body, would cross his legs and straighten up after this request; he would recite a small part.
Were the lessons always held in Süleymaniye?
They were always in Süleymaniye for the first year. As I was studying at Vefa High School, it was easy for me to follow the lessons after my last class on Saturdays. Back at that time, schools and government offices functioned part time on Saturdays. At this time, Tahir Olgun was getting older and sick. He had a snuff addiction. He would exchange snuff in a special ceremony with the elderly people like him who came to the lesson. Accompanied by mutual expressions of gratitude, he would place his thumb and forefinger in the decorated snuff boxes, inhale the snuff and then a little later blow his nose in a handkerchief made from thick striped material. I could not understand the satisfaction they found, but this ceremony, this preparation and the special boxes, as well as the names of the snuff types all appealed to me. Probably it was not a good addiction, but the harm it gave to the environment cannot be compared to cigarettes. At the end of the first year, in the late autumn, Süleymaniye became colder. The mosque, which was large, poorly lit and faced the Bosphorus to the north, could not get warm. There was not a large congregation, so we would get quite cold. One day Tahir Bey said, “This sacred mosque is too cold. I notified the mufti’s office. We will heed what our prophet said and continue lessons in a warmer mosque in Laleli.” Then, the lessons were moved to the Laleli Mosque. It was in the opposite direction, but still close enough to my high school so that I could arrive in time. His Mesnevi Dersleri was the product of these lessons. After a while, the lesson contents were published as booklets. In the late 1950s Tahir Olgun’s health got worse. I think he was suffering from kidney problems. Lectures became rare and he was unable to continue. He was hospitalized in Haseki Hospital. We buried Tahir Olgun on a sunny June day in 1951. The bookseller Muzaffer Özak recited the allahuakhbar with his deep voice and the congregation followed his lead. Tahir al-Mawlawi was buried in the Merkezefendi Cemetery.
May God rest his soul. Mr. Okay, we were proceeding from Şehzadebaşı to Beyazıt Square. The Zeynep Hanım Mansion fire diverted us to different topics. If you wish, we can continue from where this mansion stood.
Now, the road broadens with a curve towards the left in Vezneciler, forming a small town square. There were single-story shops there. I remember the Moda barber and the Moda photographer’s shop. In or near a watch repair shop, my first bookbinder, Fethi Demir, worked. Fethi Demir, the man who produced beautiful napkins and leather book covers, glanced at the books that were brought to him for binding and gave some ideas. He continued to work in a shop that he opened behind the library of the university. He tried to enter into the printing business by buying a pedal machine. Between the stores in Vezneciler, there was Camcı Ali, a small mosque. I remember Hacı Muzaffer Özak working here as a muezzin, and when the imam was not there, he would read the khutba in this small historical mosque; it was demolished like many other such buildings during the road works after 1955. Going down from there, the ramp, which the tram could hardly climb, began. This road was reduced by five to six meters during the pedestrianization project of Turgut Cansever, and the underpass, which is still being used, was created. On the left side, there was a small mansion located in front of the old military healthcare building, a new pharmaceutical faculty, which belonged to the father of Fatin Rüştü, Zorlu Rüştü Pasha. Because of the construction of the city hall, Istiklal High School, one of the privileged high schools of Istanbul, which was owned and run by Agah Sırrı Levend, held classes in this little mansion. On the right side, there were one-story shops near Hasan Paşa Madrasa that were later relocated by the Türkiyat Institution. One of the stores belonged to the famous musical instrument producer, Şamlı Iskender Kutmani. If I am not mistaken, Zeynelabidin Cümbüş, the person who invented the cümbüş (a banjo-like instrument that was based on the Turkish ud) and placed it among Turkish musical instruments, had a store that operated between these stores. The stationer Haşim Bey’s store was located immediately next to them, on the corner. Haşim Bey was a large man with a hunched back. But despite his posture, he was a companionable man. One day I asked for high-quality parchment paper. He counted out a couple of sheets and took them from the shelf; he told me that they cost sixty kuruş. I saw a pile of papers which looked similar. He said, “These are the same, but these cost two kuruş!” When I asked why, he told me that he had just purchased this paper, and that was the price; he would start to sell them right after the old ones had been sold. Haşim Bey was among the tradespeople who were honest and content. The street near Haşim Bey’s store was Beyazıt Külhanı Street, which opened on the Laleli road. At the entrance of this street were three- or four-story buildings that had been newly constructed. Hasan Ferit Cansever -my mother’s and grandmother’s doctor- had a clinic and probably his home in one of those buildings. I recall coming there when I was little. The father of the architect Turgut Cansever, Ferit Cansever, manufactured a pink, tasty medicine from seaweed that relieved indigestion and was called Vilegar. He prescribed this medicine to many of his patients.
Mr. Okay, everyone who talks about their memories of Beyazıt and its environs mention Armenian Nişan, or Nişanyan Efendi’s bookshop. If I am not mistaken, you also refer to it in one of your articles.
Yes, you are absolutely right. If you do not go into Külhan Street but continue to Beyazıt Square, you can see Nişan Efendi’s shop. All of the university teachers and students regularly visited there. The bookshop sold both new books and second-hand ones. I remember this place. It was during some time in my first semester as a philosophy student. We were in the Fındıklı building of the faculty. Sometimes, I went to Mehmet Kaplan’s room and talked to him, particularly because he was the husband of Behice Hanım, my high school literature teacher. Because I was a philosophy student, he always suggested that I read Plato’s Dialogues. I did not have enough money to buy it, so every time he talked about it, I felt ashamed. At that time, the books that were published by the university were given to the professors. Mr. Kaplan understood my situation and gave me a couple of books, including ones on law, economics, etc. He told me to take them to Nişan Efendi, adding that Nişan Efendi bought books at a slightly discounted price. I did what he asked me to do. Giving him my teacher’s greetings, I was able to sell the books to the Armenian bookseller at a discounted price. Thus, I was able to purchase the Dialogues.
After the bookstore, if one continued on that street, the electric company building would appear. After this was the Beyazıt Nahiye Müdürlüğü ve Başkomiserliği (Beyazıt district management and police station). At some point, my father was chief inspector there. Sadi Yaver Ataman, the famous compiler of folk songs, was also a district manager at that particular time. He worked with my father. These buildings were destroyed when Beyazıt Square was renovated.
So, we just arrived in Beyazıt Square.
Exactly. Of course, Beyazıt Square was a square at that time too. In the middle there was a large decorative pool. It was surrounded by Küllük, Beyazıt Mosque, the huge gate of Istanbul University, and the Beyazit Madrasa. Before the City Hall Library was built, the madrasa could not be seen because of the little shops that were located in front of it. Here was the meeting point of trams that came from Yedikule, Topkapı, and Edirnekapı. They all went to Divanyolu. In addition to these, the Maçka-Beyazıt and Kurtuluş-Beyazıt trams would turn to Divanyolu after passing through Küllük, Beyazıt Mosque, and the main gate of the university; that is, by passing bythe large decorative pool, with their rattling sounds and squeaks. For many years, Republic Day parades were conducted in Beyazıt Square.
Mr. Okay, if you wish, let’s tour around the square like the trams.
Sure! We are coming down from the Nahiye Müdürlüğü (regional directorate). On the right side of the sidewalk were single-storied coffeehouses and shops, the ones I just mentioned. I did not know that there was an elementary school there, because it was located behind those small coffeehouses and stores. On the left side was the stop for the Edirnekapı trams. Now, we are on the road which comes from Aksaray. Today, this particular road is much wider. In front of Marmara and Beyaz Saray was a city block; here there was another street and many shops. I mean, the Marmara Cinema, one of the most elegant cinemas of that time, was located behind those buildings. On the main street, there was a cheap but reputable restaurant, Aş-İş. Also, a barbershop where all of the nationalists were regular customers. Barber Rıza served all of us and the assistants at the university, including Muharrem Ergin and Faruk Timurtaş. He was Albanian, but he also was a nationalist. While he was shaving us, we would have conversations about nationalism. Marmara was newly opened and Beyaz Saray did not even exist. There were trams that went to Aksaray and Topkapı. Now, we are heading towards the left of the square. On the right was Küllük with its summer building and winter building. Next, Emir Mahir Restaurant, Beyazıt Mosque and the Sahaflar (secondhand book sellers). In front of Küllük, the tram stop, which came from Eminönü, Maçka, Beşiktaş, just over there, there was a huge Işbankası moneybox and a clock on the top of a pole. That pole was a meeting point for everybody. People always said, “Let’s meet in Beyazıt, at the pole.” Just next to that huge pole, parallel to the university wall, was the Bakırcılar Çarşısı (coppersmith’s bazaar). If you continued without turning you would see the Ibnülemin Mansion. The Dentist’s Academy was located at the corner of Bakırcılar Street. Again, if you continued to walk to the left, you would first see the small building of the university- now this is the Profesörler Evi (Residence for Professors)- and then its ostentatious gate. Inside the main gate, on the right side was the university post office. On the right was a small place that sold university publications. At the top of the main gate was a huge signboard. On the signboard was T.C. (initials of the Turkish Republic) and just under this in fancy capital letters was written Istanbul University. I think the year was 1948 or something like that. One day, we saw that the huge gate was covered with scaffolding. The marble nameplates had been removed. Behind the nameplates Quranic verses in Arabic letters had been hidden. From that time on, instead of the nameplates we could see those verses. This was a huge surprise for all of us. Elderly people said that behind the T.C. inscription the sultan’s signature, the Tughra, was hidden; but the T. C. remained, so I do not know if this is true.
Lastly, I want to say a couple of things about the clocks that were located on either side of the main gate. On the dials of the clocks the signature M. Şem’i was written. This belonged to the famous clockmaker of that era, Mustafa Şem’i Pek. You could see his clock and watch shop as you were going to the Grand Bazaar from Beyazıt. He made most of the clocks that were located in the Istanbul squares. People said that the two clocks on either side of the main gate of Istanbul University never showed the same time of the day; but of course it was a joke. They both worked very well.
Thank you very much for your time!