In my library on Turkey, I have a lovely little brightly coloured pamphlet style book filled with the kind of garish photos I used to see on postcards when I first travelled in Turkey in 1990. This book dates from about a decade before that, and features crafts the author deems to be dying out due to progress. It includes water sellers, tailors, quilt makers, and water pipe makers. Despite the man’s dire predictions, when I moved into my lovely apartment in a quiet leafy street on the Asian side of Istanbul in 2010, mine and all the surrounding streets were abuzz with the sounds of traders and craftsmen working from small shops at the base of most of the buildings. The regular rhythms emanating from their doorways were punctuated by the sporadic cries of passing watermelon sellers, simit vendors and boza men.
Add to this the sounds of my neighbours. Not the other apartment owners but the characters who inhabit the bowels of the buildings. Most visible are the kapıcı, the men who live rent free in exchange for various duties, such as cleaning, paying bills and running errands. Most of the new buildings won’t include an extra apartment for them. While this will mean an end to the sometimes invasive gossip grapevine, it will also result in less security for home owners as the ever present kapıcı see and know everything. They also come in handy during an emergency and can help if you need a plumber, electrician or any of the other tradesmen who can be found working under the old apartment blocks.
Our kapıcı Kamil is a simple man but very moody, unlike the every friendly Selim, a short solid man always wearing one of two nearly identical striped polo shirts, who delivers my water. You can’t drink the water in Istanbul, and the most economical way to buy it is in nineteen litre bottles. I’m still curious as to the volume, I mean why not twenty litres, but I’m yet to ask. His shop is under our living room and it’s my practice to lean out the window and call down to him. When his door is shut I know he’s probably sleeping, so I’ll ask a passerby to knock until he wakes. If this fails I have to ring him. These conversations are always short but ridiculously formal. I identify myself and ask Selim how he is. After he tells me he is fine, he asks after me and I tell him I am well. Only then can I ask him to bring up a new bottle of water. Often I tell a necessary Turkish pink lie and say it’s urgent, otherwise he’s prone to first sit down for a glass of tea and a cigarette, in the company of the neighbourhood kapıcı. He gets so carried away in their company that he sometimes forgets about my order entirely. Hence the need for subterfuge. Unlike most Turks who aspire to a university degree for their children, Selim’s oldest son will go to vocational college and learn a trade. In his Dad’s opinion he’s more likely to get a job and start earning sooner than if he goes to university and I think he’s right.
Next door to the waterman is Süleyman the tailor. An upright, white haired man from the Black Sea, he makes men’s and women’s clothes, mainly trousers, and contracts out for blouses. His little shop is chaotic with fabric, cottons and patterns and people constantly stream in and out with repairs and orders. He’s a friendly soul but his accent is so thick I have trouble understanding him. Even harder is when his older brother comes in to work in his place. He looks almost identical to Süleyman, but it’s only when I’ve adjusted to the gloom and noted his more kempt hair and slight tan that I realise he’s the imitation. Five times a day Süleyman’s shop appears to be empty but he’ll be upstairs on the minute mezzanine level, performing his namaz, his prayers. Except for Fridays when he closes just before lunch so he can go to the local mosque and listen to the all important midday sermon.
These are only a few of the people busily making a living at the base of apartment buildings across Istanbul and I fear that in the years to come they will disappear entirely. Back when I first moved in to my apartment, it was seagulls disturbed by the first call to prayer that woke me. Now it is the sound of trucks, hammers and drills, as my neighbourhood undergoes urban renewal. Sadly it seems the predictions made by the author of “Interesting Turkish Trades” are about to come true, as the old style apartment blocks with their small, poorly designed ground floor shops are being replaced by shiny new skyscrapers offering retail rental space far beyond the budget of the local traders and craftsmen of Istanbul. I too have recently had to sign the contract which will see my beautiful apartment, with its real wood honey gold parquet floored living room floor and polished marble corridor knocked down and replaced by something less than wonderful.
Just as wandering lahmacun sellers no longer roam the waterfronts of the city…
I believe one day the dreamy heavy satin quilts handmade with elaborate and personal designs of circles and waves and meanders of thread sewn across the surface, will be completely replaced by commercially produced lightweight alternatives, but hopefully not for a long time.
As for the leech dealers, the last time I saw one was when I lived in Kayseri from 2002 until 2004. I can’t say for sure if the trade of dealing leeches has died out because they’re not something I look for, but I suspect like many of the crafts mentioned in this book, they too are becoming a thing of the past.
If you want to learn more about the everyday extraordinary of life in modern Istanbul, have a look at my book, Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City.