Tarlabaşı III: Kyra Smaro, the Kurdish taxi-driver and Orhan Pamuk

11 Aug

See: Tarlabaşı I and Tarlabaşı II

Hagioi Konstantinos and Helene in Tarlabaşı

Kyra Smaro was born in Tarlabaşı and grew up there.  When she was a teenager, they moved to Tatavla, (in one of those military re-grouping manoeuvres minority communities in the City have done every now and then when their numbers have grown scarce in a certain mahalla), and that’s where she’s lived ever since and as far as I know; but like a real Cockney, she was raised in the sound of Hagio Konstantino’s bells. 

She was a consummate, almost clichéd, Politissa in every way: from her funky, old-fashioned name (“Smaragdo” – “Emerald”), to her learnedness, playfulness, awareness of the world, quick, ironic humour — down to what a great cook she was.  She was a Greek school-teacher, constantly being shuffled across the city from school to school as they closed for lack of students, every reappointment taking longer and longer as the Turkish Ministry of Education engaged in deliberate bureaucratic foot-dragging with people like her.  “But can I get angry?” she’d say.  “How can I get angry when I know we do the same to them in Thrace?  Tell me, with what face can I get angry?”  “Mmmm…bu kadar…” she’d end every long treatise with.  “Auta.”  It always amazed me how clear-eyed and fair most of these people were – like Kyra Smaro, like my father, like my godfather – who had actually lived with the “other,” compared to the nationalist, Athenian tsoglania and their decontextualized animosity, who are always enraged on the part of people like her.  She could do without them and would say so.  Like one of my heroes, the brave Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, whose repeated message to the Armenian diaspora with their Genocide obsession was essentially to fuck off.  We live here.  We live with them.  You don’t know shit except the frisson you get from your hatred.  This is for us and them to figure out.  Not you.

Hrant Dink: a hero and true martyr — ’cause the word gets a little too much trite over-use these days.

But it would have been ridiculous to suggest she felt no bitterness at all.  One particular form of it, that I heard from almost every Polite in a myriad different versions, was not just the pain of your community shrinking around you so much, or your city becoming unrecognizable around you, but of you becoming unrecognizable to your city.  Armenians and Jews chose a path to greater assimilation after the twenties; they usually spoke Turkish without an accent.  But a Greek of Kyra Smaro’s generation (she must’ve been in her fifties in the nineteen-nineties), still spoke Turkish with an accent, an accent Turkish İstanbullus recognized, and to which they would toss a greeting or a word of Greek when she was shopping or at the manave’s or at the butchers.  But as the century wore on, those İstanbullus disappeared as surely as the Greeks did.

She was in a cab once, and a young Kurdish driver, who, she remembers, couldn’t have been much more than twenty and who not only didn’t recognize her accent but probably didn’t even know that there used to be any Greeks in İstanbul, politely asked her: “Ma’am, where are you from?”  And she snapped – she even felt bad afterwards: “Where am I from?  I’m from here!  Where are you from?!”  I’m sure the poor kid was left mystified.

A Turkish, leftist friend of mine from back in the nineties, of most solid bourgeois background (like most leftists), didn’t think, tellingly, that that story was funny.  She thought Kyra Smaro’s attitude was racist and patronizing.  She didn’t understand that maybe there was a certain poignance or hurt in Kyra Smaro’s story and that just because she was a comfortable (tamam…diyelim ki comfortable…) civil servant from Kurtuluş, it didn’t mean she was any less the Republic’s victim than a poor Kurdish kid was.  She couldn’t sense that Kyra Smaro’s parapono — which like queja in Spanish or klage in German, means both “complaint” and “lament” — was of a different order of emotion than that of her Teşvikiye, headscarf-phobic aunties bitching about “too many Anatolians in the city” and “the smell of kebab everywhere.”  But like I said, this was the nineties already, when there wasn’t much Left left in anybody’s Left except for the self-righteousness, and humour has never been a very abundant resource in Turkey anyway.  Some White Turk guilt in action there too, overcompensating by defending the country boy she would generally have nothing to do with in real life.

Orhan Pamuk might’ve understood Smaro better.  He does us two great honours in his last two books, auto-biographical semi-fictions which I think are his greatest works, far more readable than the Eco-Rushdie-ish historical magic realism he used to work in.  One is in Istanbul: Memories and the City, where he dedicates a whole chapter to the 1955 riots.  He didn’t have to do that.  The book was a beautiful and coherent piece of literary and personal history without that chapter.  In fact, the ’55 chapter sticks out in an almost jarring way.  Thank you.

A photo of Orhan Pamuk (below) from a website called: Pictures of Muslims Wearing Things (?) with a caption that reads: “This is Orhan Pamuk. He likes to wear little pink chairs that are too small for his greatness.”

The other is just one clause in The Museum of Innocence.  He’s describing the neighborhood of his beloved, Füsun, in C-town — Çukurcuma, down the hill, I think, behind Galatasaray and the Greek Consulate.  He calls it a mahalla of artisans, Kurdish migrants and “the last few Greek families that didn’t have the heart to leave.”

How did he know that and where did he sense it from?  His own passion for the City clearly…  But this was a feeling you got from almost every Greek left in Istanbul that I was sure you had to know them to feel.  “When Gianne finishes high school…”  “When we sell the apartment in Feriköy…”  “When Theia Helene, God bless her, passes on; we can’t leave her alone in Balıklı…” With every family, and every individual even, artificial deadlines would be set and then passed and then new ones set.  People, you felt, just “didn’t have the heart to leave.”

That’s a sign of respect and recognition, and a look into one’s self from another, which you don’t easily ignore or forget.  Thank you, Mr. Pamuk.

Mmmmmm…bu kadar.

But here’s a photo of Çukurcuma, below (which looks much more up-scale these days)  All these C-town ‘hoods must’ve started looking the same to you guys by now, sorry… :)

And Pamuk as a child from a Turkish edition of Istanbul.

                                                                                                                                                                             Kai to vaporaki.  With I think Hagia Sophia in the background  (click)

See: Tarlabaşı I and Tarlabaşı II

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

2 Responses to “Tarlabaşı III: Kyra Smaro, the Kurdish taxi-driver and Orhan Pamuk”


  1. A reader writes: “Wonderful work on your blog” – Tarlabaşı series | Jadde-ye-Kabir - October 8, 2019

    […] Hey, Niko – I stumbled on your blogposts about Tarlambasi, Beyoglu (Tarlabaşı I, Tarlabaşı II: Elif Batuman, Beşiktaş, Kuzguncuk and “diversity”, Tarlabaşı III: Kyra Smaro, the Kurdish taxi-driver and Orhan Pamuk […]

  2. “Constantinople’s Greeks, the deportations of 1964…” p.s. | Jadde-ye-Kabir - September 7, 2020

    […] an old post of mine: “Tarlabaşı III: Kyra Smaro, the Kurdish taxi-driver and Orhan Pamuk“ I write about a Kyra Smaro I knew in […]

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