9. Kemal Bey

In the mid-1980s a large swarm of the antique dealers of Istanbul suddenly abandoned their traditional hive in the Grand Bazaar and its adjacent quarter, and reassembled in a modern multi-storey block in Mecidiyekoy, which at first sight had all the charm of a municipal car-park. The reason for this mass migration was entirely economic. Traffic in the old city had become so bad that no one could spare the time it took to navigate its narrow, cobbled, shop-infested streets, while Mecidiyekoy was in the heart of the booming new business district, and a thoroughfare for the new wealth of Istanbul.

It struck me on my first visit there that the overall effect of dinginess was enhanced by the fact that all the shops there looked identical, they were all full of the same stuff. In Europe and elsewhere shops tend to specialise, and as soon as you enter it becomes clear what that speciality is, whether sculpture, or furniture or paintings, even though it is mixed with other things. Here the only differentiation was the quality of the same things that each shop held, and it was this that took time to sort out. And worth spending time to do so, because for all its unprepossessing dinginess, the reconfigured bazaar at Mecidiyekoy was the heart of an intricate web which spread out across the entire city, and far beyond. There were a few people, those who dealt in the important stuff, who kept away and operated by necessity in the shadows, but in general it was rare for any transaction to remain undetected by this web.

I first caught sight of Kemal Bey bent in close perusal of a panel of calligraphy at the back of a shop on one of the upper floors. When the shop-keeper introduced us and he shuffled forward to shake hands, his perfect resemblance to a small, tame bear was only spoiled by the absence of pointed ears. His greeting was old-fashioned and effusive, ‘the full Turkish’, while his small, bright eyes avoided looking at me directly, as if too close an examination at this early stage of our acquaintance might appear rude. We sat, and over many cups of tea I listened to him talk about the city, which he knew more deeply than anyone else alive. Since I knew we would meet again before returning to London, I looked for a present for him, and found a sample of writing by a 17th-century calligrapher, whom I knew from our conversation he greatly admired. It was an easy trick, because ever since Attaturk changed written Turkish from Arabic to Latin script, few Turks can read the signatures of calligraphers, or even distinguish between the hand of a common scribe and a great master. Kemal Bey was delighted with his present, and as I hoped, it sealed our relationship. Thereafter, whenever I arrived in the city, he would turn up wherever I was staying, and make a date for a trip around town.

Our outings were varied and idiosyncratic; unnoticed architectural fragments of great beauty from every layer of Constantinople’s long history; a pastry shop with a 16th-century recipe, and a fish restaurant where they understood on a daily basis what to draw from the fast, cold currents of the Bosphorus; museum store-rooms full of treasures that would never be shown; the tekkes of the Mevlevi and Bektashi dervishes, abandoned since Ataturk closed them down in 1925; crumbling grand mansions inhabited by tramps; small drinking establishments where the Ashiks still sang; more raffish watering-holes where gypsy girls swivelled their hips to hypnotic rhythms. Kemal Bey liked the girls, and they loved him.

One day he took me to an old mansion near the Fatih Mosque, somewhat sagging under the weight of its age. The young man who opened the door was obviously expecting us and led us up to the main reception room on the first floor, furnished in the Austro-Hungarian manner so beloved of the Ataturk era. Instead of pointing out whatever he had brought me to see, Kemal Bey shuffled around the room with his hands behind his back telling his beads, occasionally whistling the refrain of some song he knew. Looking around I realised I must be there to find something, but the décor was horrible, and the paintings and peeling panels of calligraphy that adorned the walls were even worse. He was clearly in no hurry, and I stood in the middle of the room wondering how to resolve this conundrum. Looking up at a certain point for want of anywhere else to look, I saw above me hooked onto a beam a pair of small rock crystal polyhedrons. With the aid of a chair I unhooked them and showed them to Kemal Bey, asking him what they were. He beamed at me as if to say I had found what I was there for, took me downstairs and made me give a pitiful sum to the youth who had let us in, and we set off for the next destination. It was only later, when we had somebody to translate, that I learned that these rock crystals were hooked into the robes of the Whirling Dervishes, and served to attract, accumulate and distribute Baraka, the mysterious energy manipulated by dervishes.