Today's Stories: Cihangir
Özge Baykan Calafato

05 April 2023

Inspired by the exhibition Istanbuls TodayToday's Stories series continues with Özge Baykan Calafato's story "Cihangir"!

This series gathers short stories written by authors encouraged by the photographs in the exhibition. 

Deniz was excited to finally find a real estate agent who could cater to her needs and desires – an apartment in Cihangir, not too small, with natural gas, not too dark, with natural light, not too unsafe, not too moldy – and not too expensive. Well, considering. And an agent who did not judge her too much, did not question whether or not she could afford to rent an old Istanbul apartment like this in the heart of Cihangir. 

The apartment was on one of the side streets off in the triangle of Akarsu Yokuşu, Sıraselviler Caddesi and Cihangir Caddesi, somewhere at the intersection of some of the neighborhood’s culinary landmarks: Savoy Patisserie, Elvan Patisserie, Asmalı Kahve under the Firuzağa Mosque. Kahvedan, Kahve6, 5. Kat, Susam Café, Cuppa, Leyla. Wait, do they still exist?

Yes, it had been a while. With spaces, signs and people disappearing, who would retain her memory now? Whose memory did she retain? Who remembered the city the way she remembered it, remembers it. What did the city remember – of her?

 

Danger of Death, Keep Out! said the sign on the fuse box on the right side, as they entered the four-storey building. The off-white paint on the wall was flaking off, the walls were cracking, the entrance was strangely decorated with fake looking roses, perhaps to welcome or simply disorient the newcomers from the danger of death they should beware of. Earthquake, violence, traffic accident, gas leak, flood, fire, theft, leakage current, purse-snatching, murder, pollution, terror attack, tear gas, disease, earthquake, beating, stabbing, rubble, hate crime, drowning, suicide, heart attack, heartbreak. 

All that Istanbul can do to you. All that Istanbul can do for you.

Death in a city. Death of a city.   

They - there were other visitors interested in the house - walked up to the flat with the real estate agent, who Deniz didn’t fully trust. She had no choice but to play along. A very heavy moldy odor overwhelmed her as they entered. Barely any sunshine could penetrate through the small windows that were heavily chained, meant to protect the house against any potential break-ins. It was late March, and it was very cold inside and outside, the way Istanbul likes to surprise. Neighborhood cats were meowing at the back -loud- as the neighbor downstairs replenished their daily bread. Granted it was the mating season.  

As the group stepped inside, the real estate agent guided them through the three tiny rooms, praising all he could find to praise regarding the apartment. Look how central it is to everything; the owners are super nice; no, they won’t increase the rent because it is not about money and trust is the most important thing to them; yes, the building is earthquake-proof; it is well insulated; the neighbors are respectful, they just feed the cats, do you like cats; very rarely does the neighbor upstairs have a “guest” -you see what I mean-, but it is really very rare. The kitchen was recently renovated, no, there are no “weird” creatures inside, it is very clean, indeed.

The moldy smell was already giving Deniz a headache, but she did like the high ceilings, which the real estate had clearly forgotten to praise – what a missed opportunity. The kitchen was tiny, it could barely fit one person. As the group stayed in the living room, she decided to sneak out to inspect the bedroom before the others. A double bed could barely fit in, maybe some shelves could be placed on top, but maybe she couldn’t survive the earthquake then. The flat was on the ground floor. A lot of rubble to stay under.

Roaming around the bedroom, the wardrobe on the corner caught her eye. Free storage space is nice. She opened it to inspect further. It was like something led her to open it, as if she almost knew something would be waiting for her, she was drawn to it. A small wooden chest was lying on the ground, it seemed locked. It felt strangely invisible, easy to miss, somehow. Deniz lifted the chest, it was not heavy, but there was something inside. As she lifted the chest, something fell. It was a key. She paused, hesitated, negotiated the ethics of it all, but she was curious, pulled into this now. The group was almost done with the seeming wonders of the living room as narrated by the real estate agent. Any of the visitors could wander off and come over to find her any second.

She opened the chest -since, of course, the key was going to work- quietly apologizing to her conscience. A pile of family photographs, black and white, well, sepia, dusty, since the chest did not seem to have been touched for some time -how come-. The chest did not seem to have any order, it was hard to establish a logic to it immediately, with faces and places converging, and with too many connections to form.

Some of the photos were small prints, passport size, some bigger, postcard size; among them individual portraits, family portraits, weddings, engagements, graduations, in the studio, at home, outdoors, at the beach, in the woods, a group at a picnic with a gramophone, a group at a vineyard eating grapes, laughter at a birthday party, men peeling potatoes during military service, school girls performing at Sports Day celebrations, a boy at a circumcision ceremony, looking confused, as if to not want to be there.   

Suddenly, Deniz was jolted out of her reverie. She turned around to see the real estate agent standing next to her. So close she could smell his heavy breath.

"What are you doing?"

The others had also entered the room by then.

Deniz was frozen. A mixture of fear and embarrassment, her heart pounding.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I was looking around and just saw the chest, that’s all.”

“I will take it,” the agent said, hastily grabbing the chest. He put it under his right arm, turning his back to Deniz, and continued his speech on the glamor of this hidden gem in town, what a bargain it was, look at these gorgeous high ceilings - there it was, praising the high ceilings, finally!-.

Deniz lingered, though, stubbornly. She pretended to pay attention to the group as they were looking up at the white papier-mâché ceiling, but gently redirected her gaze to the agent, who was still holding the chest tightly. Their eyes met. Both resent each other. Deniz was also resentful of being caught. She had lost access to the chest and the photographs forever. What a stupid move.

She then decided to make a last attempt, maybe, she thought, it would help break the ice, and somehow soften the tension, eventually helping her to regain access to the chest.

“Do you know who the chest belongs to? To the previous renters, perhaps?”

The agent had decided to completely ignore her by then, counting the minutes to get out. He had also stopped pretending to be enthusiastic about the flat. He was done. He announced to the group in the room that “our tour is over. Here’s my business card, I will be in the office later today. I would urge you to decide quickly given the high demand and the state of the market.”

He turned to Deniz, pointing the way out. 

As they went out, climbing down the stairs at the entrance of the building, Deniz noticed the sign again: Danger of Death, Keep Out!

The agent was the last one to leave, with the chest under his arm. The chest would be taken to the office with him, but she knew she had lost her chance to track it down.

“The house has already been rented, I'm afraid,” he told her on the way out. “Don’t bother coming to the office.” 

Deniz remained silent. She slowed down and waited for him to fully disappear around the street corner.

Once she was sure that no one was looking, she took out of her pocket a pile of family photographs: a group at a picnic with a gramophone, a group at a vineyard eating grapes, people having fun at a birthday party, soldiers peeling potatoes, and a confused boy in a circumcision outfit. And finally, a studio portrait of a couple smiling to the camera, radiant in love, holding each other tight. On the reverse, an inscription that reads: Istanbul, 1923, Maria & Raif.

 

 

Özge Baykan Calafato studied Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. She continued part of her undergraduate education in Japan. She completed her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Westminster, London, and her PhD research on self-representations in vernacular photographs in the early Turkish Republic at the University of Amsterdam. She is currently a lecturer at the Department of Literary and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. Her academic interests lie at the intersection of photography, archive, memory and cultural identity. Since 1999, she has contributed to various magazines including the Geniş Açı Photography Magazine as a writer, translator and editor. From 2014 to 2020, she worked as the Assistant Director of the Akkasah Center for Photography at New York University Abu Dhabi. Her stories have been published in various magazines including Hayalet Gemi, Eşik Cini and Notos. She is the author of two novels, Konuşmayan Adam (altKitap, 2000; Notos, 2007) and Tutkunlar - Kült Kitap (Notos, 2012); two volumes of short stories including Su Eleştirmenleri (altKitap, 2013) and Çekilir Dert Değil (altKitap, 2014), and a book of essays, Women of Jazz (altKitap, 2011). Her latest book Making the Modern Turkish Citizen: Vernacular Photography in the Early Republican Era (I.B. Tauris, 2022) examines the self-representations of the urban middle classes in vernacular photography in Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s. Baykan Calafato is a member of the editorial board of the e-book publisher altKitap.

Photograph:
Ci Demi
From the series Signs That Everything Is Going Wrong, 2016-2022

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