Voices of Turkey: Street of the Cauldron Makers Turkish novelist Elif Shafak and producer Sandy Tolan set out to capture the voices of Turkey and its cultural attitude on one street: Kazanci Yokushu, the "Street of the Cauldron Makers."
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Voices of Turkey: Street of the Cauldron Makers

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Voices of Turkey: Street of the Cauldron Makers

Voices of Turkey: Street of the Cauldron Makers

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Turkey emerged in the 1920s as a new nation, fundamentally different from the old Ottoman Empire. Modern Turkey would be secular and Western. Its people would look forward, rarely back. But today, Turkey's past looms over its future. This month, Turkey and the European Union began talks to determine whether that nation belongs in the European Union. A variety of factors will be discussed, including Turkey's history of human rights abuses, and ethnic resentments against Kurds, Cypriots and Armenians date back to the Ottoman era. Memories long buried are cropping up again.

Excavating Turkey's past is a central theme in the work of novelist Elif Shafak. In this next story, part of the documentary series Worlds of Difference, the author explores her nation's past on a sad, hilly street in Istanbul, where she once lived and wrote. It's called "The Street of the Cauldron Makers."

(Soundbite of people's voices, traffic)

Ms. ELIF SHAFAK (Novelist): At the first glance, there's nothing extraordinary about the place, just another narrow, winding street in Istanbul--only this one sharply slopes down to the Bosphorus, which divides Europe from Asia. From where I can stand, I can see that band of water in the distance, a shimmering silver.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SHAFAK: At the top of the street, nearly hidden behind a green iron fence stands an ageless tomb. It is the tomb of the saint who protects the street against all evil. Yet given the street's history, I tend to think this is a saint that has been sleeping on the job.

Unidentified Person: (Shouting in foreign language)

Ms. SHAFAK: Or perhaps he isn't sleeping. After all, his tombstone is written in the Ottoman script, long ago banished by the engineers of the modern Turkish state in favor of the Western alphabet.

(Soundbite of people's voices)

Ms. SHAFAK: Perhaps the patron saint has simply been trying to convey a message from the past, but in a script the new generations can no longer understand. Our conversation with the past has been broken, but our history, our stories lie here in the layers just beneath our feet. As a storyteller, it is my job to collect them.

(Soundbite of door being opened)

Ms. SHAFAK: (Foreign language spoken)

MEHMET (Grocer): (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SHAFAK: (Foreign language spoken)

Right across from the saint stands a small grocery. The owner of the place is a slim, balding man in his 60s.

MEHMET: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SHAFAK: Mehmet is here every day from early morning till dusk. After dark, his son takes the shift.

MEHMET: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SHAFAK: You can find almost everything here, from pomegranates to laundry detergents, from candy bars to alcohol, which some conservative grocers refuse to sell.

MEHMET: (Through Translator) This grocery is open 24 hours. I don't sell much in the day, but at night I sell more; bread during the day, beer at night.

(Soundbite of a clink, cat meowing)

MEHMET: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SHAFAK: Other than the usual customers--Muslims and non-Muslims alike--the grocer also serves the Russian and Moldavian working girls living in a grimy hotel up the street.

MEHMET: (Through Translator) I dread to see a child or adult, someone who doesn't have enough money to pay for something. I feel bad and I usually don't ask. Someone says, `I'm hungry,' I give bread, and my children and my kids get angry at me.

(Soundbite of cat meowing)

MEHMET: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SHAFAK: He even cares for the street's army of cats, some incredibly majestic...

(Soundbite of cat meowing)

Ms. SHAFAK: ...some so miserable.

(Soundbite of cat meowing, rain, creaking sound)

Ms. SHAFAK: The grocer and I, we look outside to a cascading rain. Water gushes down in a river toward the Bosphorus. Sometimes I think of my old street as a boat traveling through time, a street boat expelling its passengers every few years, only to take on new ones who have no memory of the past. The water streams as if to remind us of how easily things can be washed away on Kazanci. But it's not only rainwater that has been pushed down the steep street throughout its history.

(Soundbite of rain, clinking sounds)

MEHMET: (Through Translator) On the 6th of September, there was a nationalist uprising, 1955.

Ms. SHAFAK: Fifty years ago, this street was populated by Turks, Jews, Armenians and Greeks. In 1955, throngs of Turkish nationalists gathered here, chanting slogans and anthems before they razed to the ground virtually every store operated by ethnic minorities. There was so much shattered glass all around that the whole neighborhood glittered like a mirror in the sun. On that day, some among the mob dragged out the newly introduced, pasty white, rounded refrigerators and rolled them one by one all the way down our street, cheering with the fall and crash of each machine.

MEHMET: (Through Translator) There were wheels of cheese. They rolled it down the street because the grocer was Greek, they took his cheese and rolled it down a street. Of all Turkey's neighbors, the Greeks are my favorite. Yes, I am sad. We are sad because we were so fond of them. Also as a grocer I was very fond of them. They were good customers. They know quality. The Greeks, they like artichokes a lot.

(Soundbite of store activity)

MEHMET: (Through Translator) Half of our customers were Greeks and Armenians. They were afraid to stay here. They left Turkey.

(Soundbite of door being opened, traffic, rain, man singing)

Ms. SHAFAK: Once in a while in my dreams I see refrigerators spinning down our street, only those make no noise, do not tumble. Instead, they float light as a feather along the searing river of rainfall.

(Soundbite of rain)

NICK (Jeweler): OK, this is classified ...(unintelligible). If you like this, I can put the glue here. I mean, whichever you like.

Ms. SHAFAK: In another part of Istanbul, inside the Grand Bazaar, this is Nick, an Armenian jeweler whose family was pushed off the Street of Cauldron Makers. He grew up hearing all about the events of 1955.

NICK: Those days was very terrible. Lots of shops are actually broken, you know?

Ms. SHAFAK: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

NICK: And people were coming by hundreds by hundreds, you know? And they were just like animal. They were crazy. They were breaking everywhere.

Ms. SHAFAK: He goes to America very often, as he has relatives and business partners in California. He sells basterma, a kind of spicy pastrami so dear to both Turks and Armenians. I ask him, despite all this that happened, why hasn't he wanted leave Turkey? Why hasn't he settled in America or elsewhere?

NICK: All my latest children's boyfriends are there, and each time I go somewheres they keep asking me when I'm going to move. And I think I'll never move this township. Sometimes they--when they hear my name, they say, `Oh, we are Armenians. When did you come?' I say, `We were here before you come. We are here since 3,000 years.'

Ms. SHAFAK: The ethnic minorities weren't the only ones our street boat disgorged. During the 1970s, this street of cauldron makers became notorious for its cluster of seamy residents, Istanbul's underbelly of drug dealers, pimps and transvestites, prostitutes. They used to live here, all of them, in the flats where later we would live. This used to be their street; now only a few remain and remember.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SHAFAK: Madame Trukianna(ph) lives in a dingy basement room with bare walls and meager furnishings. Six other transvestites, much younger, sit on their haunches and listen to her respectfully. Trukianna has been living on this street for more than 30 years. She knows its story. She blames the transvestites themselves for their expulsion from the streets.

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Madame TRUKIANNA (Transvestite): (Through Translator) We should behave well, I told them. We shouldn't lose these houses. But they didn't behave well. They kept on showing their bodies in the windows, so they were kicked out of those houses.

Ms. SHAFAK: Istanbul police broke down doors and forced them out. Those who resisted were beaten with hoses.

Madame TRUKIANNA: (Through Translator) They were kicked out of those houses into the street. On the streets, they had to hitchhike. They began to do prostitution on the roadsides.

Ms. SHAFAK: Many began doing business on the highways, only to make the inside pages of Turkish newspapers when killed in hit-and-run accidents.

Madame TRUKIANNA: (Coughs, foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of traffic)

Ms. SHAFAK: During the years to follow, our street boat took on yet another group of passengers. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a large number of jobless people, especially women, found their way to Kazanci from Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldavia. Some were transients; others came to stay, working as dancers in glitzy nightclubs.

(Soundbite of people's voices)

Ms. SHAFAK: The flow of women from the ex-Soviet Union coincided with the flow of students from central and north Africa, and this went hand in hand with migration from the little towns in the province of Anatolia, coming to the big city for better jobs and living standards.

(Soundbite of traffic, people's voices)

Ms. SHAFAK: I now stand at the end of Kazanci, near the bottom of the street and its second grocery store. Here there are no beer cans, nor raki, the Turkish brandy. This is Gusun(ph), the conservative grocer. She's from Anatolia, too.

GUSUN (Grocer): (Through Translator) I don't get out and encounter other people much. The ones I do see, the ones I talk to are fine. There is no problem with them, thanks be to God. Since I don't go anywhere else, I don't know. I just go from here to home each day.

Ms. SHAFAK: The differences between ethnic, religious or sexual minorities have been sharply drawn throughout the history of the street of cauldron makers. And yet, there came a time when such differences entirely lost their meaning: the night of the earthquake in the summer of 1999.

GUSUN: (Through Translator) That night, God forbid it should happen again. We were sleeping. We mostly woken up with the noise and the shaking. There is a bright red thing like a flame, like fire.

Ms. SHAFAK: Only on that night, only when they were survivors in the shared misfortune, did the conservative grocer on Kazanci offer a cigarette to an aging transvestite and an old Greek neighbor, and they all smoked their cigarettes together. Even so, the very next day, the ground had settled again and old boundaries were quickly redrawn.

GUSUN: (Through Translator) Because you can't get along with everyone, some people have lost themselves. We can't be close to whoever we meet. Allah will not come to that. That's the way it is.

Ms. SHAFAK: Yaniburday(ph): That's the way it is.

(Foreign language spoken)

GUSUN: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. SHAFAK: Thus they and their stories came and went: the Armenians, the Greeks, the transvestites, the Africans, the Russian working girls. All these people seemed to have but one thing in common: All have been fleeting passengers of the street of cauldron makers. And then in the late 1990s, artists, musicians, bohemians, activists, feminists boarded our street boat, carrying a new set of stories. I came here around the same time.

(Soundbite of people's voices)

Ms. SHAFAK: I'm inside a coffeehouse on Kazanci.

(Soundbite of dice)

Ms. SHAFAK: At one table, I notice a hippie-like woman playing dominoes alongside Kurdish revolutionaries and the pizza boy. These new groups are open-minded, critical, and they have the will to co-exist in a way their grandfathers didn't.

(Soundbite of dice)

Ms. SHAFAK: They only know Kazanci as it is today. Their eyes are fixed on the future.

(Soundbite of laughter, people's voices, music)

Ms. SHAFAK: Outside again, in the sudden silence that envelopes the street, I breathe in the smell that follows a torrent of rain.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Ms. SHAFAK: I wrote a novel here on Kazanci. On the fringes of the book is an old woman who secretly collects the artifacts that the other residents are so eager to discard.

(Soundbite of metallic clanking)

Ms. SHAFAK: Sometimes I liken my writing to walking in a pile of rubble. Atop the pile I stop and listen for the sounds of breathing amid the stones. Perhaps this is what the saint at the top of the street was trying to tell us: Look to the stories beneath your feet.

(Soundbite of traffic)

SIMON: Elif Shafak's piece is part of the Worlds of Difference, a documentary series on global cultural change. It was co-produced by Sandy Tolan and Melissa Robbins. Worlds of Difference is a project of Homelands Productions. For more information, you can visit our Web site at npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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