Thursday, 20 January 2011

requiem for a neighborhood

Requiem for a Neighborhood

Asmalimescit was my “hood.’ The one place on earth where I felt I belonged.  For the first time in my life I had a neighborhood, an area, a scene where I knew everybody and everybody knew me.  And just like me, everyone was mad.  But in a good way, (for the most part).  Mad, as in crazy.  Mad as in inspired with manic energy and given to bursts of spontaneous creativity and rants of far-flung ideologies.

It was a neighborhood of writers and painters and sculptors, film-makers and actors.  The hang-out for the disenfranchised, manic marauders and world-weary.  The meeting place of the blessed alcoholic geniuses, the cosmic-brained and the acutely sensitive.  They found this place and clung together in a cocoon of frenzied aliveness, flights of philosophy, table-pounding diatribes, while I danced on the sidewalks and washed my hair in the downpour of August rains. 

And it was all good.   

Asmalimescit was a neighborhood where no two chairs matched at the one or two cafes in the area.  Where everything was second-hand.  Where people shared what little they had.  Where you could order your tea or meal and pay the next day when you had money.  A place where whoever had a pack of cigarettes, left them on the table for anyone else to smoke.    

Yusef was always there.  His shock of silver-gray hair standing out from his head like a lion’s mane.  Stroking his kink of silver-gray beard and launching into parodies of foreign languages: hunched over, hands twisting and writhing like an old Ottoman Fagan, issuing phlegm-throated approximations of Arabic.  Or raising his arms and voice and yelling to the heavens: “Mama Mia!  Mama Mia!” as soon as he saw me.  Leaping to his feet, hugging me, swirling me around, dancing about on the cobblestone’s like a possessed Sufi fool spouting fake Italian.

Peyote Hasan.  The number 1 coolest dude that ever was, ever will be, roaming the dirty gray streets of Taksim.  With his wrap-around dark sunglasses, his stoop-shouldered slouch, and loping gate.  He was Mr.  Cool.  Mr. Number 1 Hipster. No one even a close second.  And we called his outside table at Ella Café his “office.”  He called me “Baby,” he called every female “Baby,” and it came as natural to his tongue as saliva at your first bite.  His longer than normal skinny arms spread out, flailing this way and that accentuating his story.  “Did I ever tell you how I lost the fuckin sheep?  Yeah, back when I was just a little kid in Iran and they sent me out to watch the sheep.  And I don’t know, I musta fell asleep or something and I woke up and the sheep were gone.  I mean, can you dig it, baby?  I lost the whole fuckin herd of sheep.” He’d sit, his legs crossed, one dangling over the other sucking down cans of Efes beer and laughing laughing laughing.  Bigger than life.  Cooler than cool.  Actor.  Entrepreneur.  Irreverent, irascible, and irrepressible.  Now nothing more than skin stretched over bones.  No food, only beer poured down this throat.  Office closed.

The street painter Erdem, his studio a table outside Badehane Bar.  In all weather, painting his abstract renderings of Istanbul’s old buildings.  Reading tarot cards and laughing his pursed-lip laugh.  Fighting a loosing battle with diabetes.

Musicians leaning against the flaking orange-painted bathtub on the corner of Sofyali and Jurnal Sokak, wailing on their saxes.  Singers joining in the chorus of well-known Turkish song, their voices carrying up to my third-floor window.  The straggly tree in the bathtub fighting for its life.

And what is Asmalimescit now?  One big nightclub.  A bar-to-bar, disco-bass-pounding scene where the wannabees hang to see the other wannabees and be seen by the other wannabees in all the glitzy shi shi slick metal-topped bars with their back lit liquor shelves and huge gas jet heaters warming up the outdoors as Istanbul’s elite sit outside on a winter’s night, smoking their cigarettes and sipping their over-priced mohitos.

And Asmalimescit’s legends?  Where are they now?  Angel-faced Derya with the calliope laugh growing fatter and darker, skulking the back streets dressed all in black.  Smileless.  Her sister, Seckin, squatting on her haunches on Istiklal, her back leaning against a graying building,  Her hair gray kink, pointy nose and chin like a storybook witch.  She brandishes her stick and frightens passersby.  The black sea has summoned them home and reclaimed them.  Giresun’s rains washing clean their sins.

And Kebire, the Queen of Asmalimescit.  My roommate and best friend.  With her shiny earrings and sparkly strands of beads, her shrieks of wild laughter, her unlimited generosity, her huge energy bringing together people and music and events. Where is she now?  Fifty years old and a babysitter in Berlin.

And the others?

I watch their hunched backs recede as they slink down dawn’s backstreets, their shadows  gobbled up by evening’s neon promises.  


  1. Seems like that's always what happens - the artists create a wonderful scene, then the wealthy find it and take over. The artists are forced to move on.

  2. Oh Diane! That was my neighbourhood too for quite a while (I lived midway down Kumbaraci Yokusu, near the church) and often when coming back from Vodafone at night after work I'd go to Montreal and have a beer and some fried veggies with yogurt and write... And Badehane! My flatmate and I went there. It was the first time I met you, though I don't know if you remember it. You were living in Morocco at the time, just back for a break. We shared a table by chance and you were dancing to the gypsy music. I recognized you immediately half a year later when you walked into my office as a teacher!

    Am glad you wrote this but sad to hear what has happened. I miss the Istanbul I left.

    PS this is MaryAnne. Your comment engine won't let me sign in with my regular blog ID ( but instead has chosen my old now-disused short-lived Turkish blog from that era when I lived in that neighbourhood- how odd!

  3. Diane, what a grand piece. Your
    writing is so good it smacks of
    a non-fiction novel; something to
    enchant we continental bound types
    who may never see your Istanbul,
    yesterday's or today's. In the meantime,
    following your Turkish Tales is great
    fun; prose is pregnant with poetics.