How heroes, humor and Hermes keep you going

With shootings in Kabul, Nice and Vienna, the lockdowns and an increase in the number of COVID-19 fatalities as well as the earthquake that has killed hundreds in Turkey and Greece, it has been a grim fortnight. Here is a list of small pleasures that readers may need.

“When the dog bites/When the bee stings/When I'm feeling sad/I simply remember my favorite things/And then I don't feel so bad,” cooed Julie Andrews a long time ago. She then went on citing life’s little pleasures from apple strudels to brown paper packages. In “The Sound of Music,” an all-time favorite musical based on a real story, the heroine, Maria, had plenty to feel unhappy about: several unruly kids to take care of, an employer without a sense of humor, no job security, the prospects of going back to a convent if left without a job and, the worst, looming Nazism at the doors of Austria. (Please catch up on this song’s COVID-19 version, too!)

I remembered Maria and “The Sound of Music” as I tidied up my house after the 7.0 magnate Izmir earthquake, which had claimed more than 110 lives as I wrote these lines. Two IKEA shelves had collapsed, and DVDs lay on the floor. Fortunately, our apartment building was safe, which is more than what you could say for many of the buildings in Bayrakli, known as the Manhattan of Izmir.

With attacks in Kabul, Nice and Vienna, the post-truth elections in the United States, the pandemic lockdowns and a rising number of deaths and, of course, the earthquake that has killed  more than a hundred people in Izmir. So here is my list of things that kept me going - of heroes, humor and Hermes!

Ayda Gezgin, the three-year-old child that was saved from the rubble of the collapsed Rizabey building - when hopes were rapidly on the survivors of the Izmir earthquake. Just as deeply moving was the Do-It-Yourself social solidarity when civil society and locals rushed in to lend a hand to the municipality to provide tents, food, milk, blankets to the people on the streets. The rescue teams from all over the country, such as the rescuer from the southeastern town of Tunceli and the firefighter from Istanbul municipality, worked through sleepless nights. The optimist in me would like to believe that the Izmir earthquake would speed up the fight against unsafe buildings, hasten efforts to take down risky dwellings and get a grip on irresponsible construction. Experience, sadly, points to the contrary. 

Beykoz, joined hands, memories and Buse Yıldırım: Just when Turkey and France were doing anything but extending hands, French-Swiss artist Saype painted two giant hands in three places of Istanbul, one of which was Beykoz Çayırı, or Beykoz meadows. The choice is historically astute. When Empress Eugenie of France, the wife of Napoleon III and the object of desire of Sultan Abdulaziz, paid a visit to Istanbul in 1869 on her way to Suez, the sultan erected an elegant pavilion for her use at Beykoz. Neither the pavilion – nor Eugenie’s stay  – lasted long. Popular history says Abdulaziz’s dominant mother asked the empress not to overstay her welcome and sent her packing.

Not too far away from the hands, factory-turned-culture complex Beykoz Kundura both works on the oral history and archives of the district and offers carefully-curated films and plays to Istanbul art aficionados. The factory, first used for leather, then shoes, dates from the early 19th century. In its heyday in the 1950’s, the shoes factory held regular film screenings for its workers, who lived in the huge complex. Today, the factory’s “Boiler Room” has been restored for the Kundura Cinema projects, currently screening classics amid tight Covid-19 measures. Buse Yıldırım, Managing Artistic Director at Beykoz Kundura, has studied documentary filmmaking at Ecole Supérieure d’Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris and returned to Turkey for Beykoz. When I asked her in a past interview why she returned when so many of young Turks want to leave the country, she simply replied, “I wanted to work and love in my own language.” 

Hermes bags: The joke of the week was the storm in a Hermes bag when an Ankara journalist wrote the obvious: that the First Lady Emine Erdoğan’s French designer bags were fakes. Having taken an endless stream of foreign guests - including civil servants of copyrights-conscious EU countries - to the Aladdin’s cave of fake goods in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, I never doubted that they were. I will save my adventures and faith in fakes for another column, but I still cannot decide what is the most ironic: that a populist president’s wife carries expensive bags whose price in Turkish liras would get you an apartment, thanks to the policies of her son-in-law; that these are fakes as those counterfeit products constitute a felony, that the main opposition leader would deign to ask the First Lady to burn her Hermes bag to boycott French goods, or that it is considered lèse-majesté to mock the First Lady’s bags and her son.

Galleries, virtual museums: One good thing about Covid-19 lockdowns was that it put a great number of museums, festivals and galleries online. Since I stroll in the galleries for a living, I know that some of them are quite as inapproachable as Hermes boutiques - thanks to snooty owners who smell as soon as you arrive whether you are a buyer. While the plight of artists during the pandemic is tragic, collaborations between small galleries for joint events, Mamut Art Project’s online presence which introduced young artists directly to the public and the Instagram talks of Sanatatak - and the offhandedly candid Aysegül Sonmez - has been inspiring.

Thinking alike: Seriously, is there a manual for leaders who’d hung to their gold-guilted chairs with the skin of their teeth? When you read all the cracks online comparing Turkey and the United States, you would think so. It seems so uniform: cast doubt on the votes in the areas where you are not strong, appoint your own people in the critical posts in the judiciary to weigh in your favor, prolong the process until people grow weary and accuse the other side of stealing votes when you know full well that they are too moral and too disorganized to do anything of the sort. I am still waiting for a balcony speech from the United States.

September 10, 2021 Turkey's small festivals