In which unforgiving god’s cynical universe am I and how did I possibly end up here? These two questions are lurking around somewhere in an enervated brain that I sadly need to admit to be my own. I open my eyes and behind a filter of repugnant eye mucus a sad reality shines upon me. Step by step and against all odds I succeed to understand the gravity of this havoc. I am in a six dollar hostel bed and besides the dirty boots and smoky clothes I lay here newly awakened with an ugly helmet of unexplored headache that seems to grow bigger by every second. A spasm from my drained body flows out to my right hand where I loosely hold a passport and an airline ticket, both with my name on it. Now I remember; I am I, this is Istanbul and my homebound flight is leaving Turkish soil in about ten minutes.
Like a mad man I jump out of the bed and I try to flee the twelve berths of glorified locker-room of sweat. My aim is twofold as I desperately need both communication and air. One out of two I get when my wi-fi signal finally awakens in a small hallway outside the rancid communal toilets. The space is cramped and I almost vomit over two young American girls who are Skyping with their parents back in Iowa, Wichita or wherever the hell you may trace these wicked lifeforms. If this imminent embarrassment would have been the consequence of my own severe hangover or just my general aversion towards their blasé reflections of this magical thing that we call being alive I will leave unsaid as it luckily never happened but I’ll tell you this; as I nauseatingly try to hold down last night I neither enjoy myself, this place or the company I am with. In a hair-raising delirium, I do what every pitiful man does when he find himself without a compass in this tortuous world. I reach out to female strength and comfort. I call my fiancee. As she answers my desperate call I realise that she is probably the last one who wants to know that I have no idea where I have been the last night. In panic, I turn to improv and refer my missed flight to technical problems such as my alarm have died out. She responds with a despairing sigh which I can only interpret as that she knows that I am lying or just thinks I am a dim-witted imbecile. “Just get home to your son as soon as you can” she says bitterly before hanging up the phone. This is where nausea turns to self-hatred.
I need to understand what happened. Both the short and the long perspective. Last night vs my life. How did I loose grip and how did that innocent boy that was happily born in the upbeat eighties turn into this blind wreckage of gluttony and corruption? I guess the latter question demands another day to be answered. Or at least professional counselling. In the state I am in as I twenty minutes later sits shuddering on a stone bench down by the Bosphorus I am definitely only capable of solving the most recent of mysteries; the ambivalent horrors of the last twenty-four hours. Because some contours of yesterday I do know about. I know about the Raki. I know about the game-plan. I had flown in from Athens on the late Sunday afternoon, with a fifteen hours of transit in this Eurasian metropole. With me I had brought an itinerary of four promising Istanbul bars that I wanted to try out before getting a couple of hours of dirt cheap sleep, just enough to head home to my family safe and sound.
A stupid smile of pride lifts me up when I think of this megalomanic plan of mine, only to disappear when a wave of cold sweat besieges me. It is as if me and the stone bench I am sitting on share the same temperature. I shiver as the November breeze passes me by and I promise what I and so many more have assured ourselves before; I will never drink again. Ever. And regarding all those bars that I have committed myself to? Baby, I’m out. I have had enough. Last night I retired. Pub Avni was my last.
Because I feel nothing but empty. I am everything but gold. Right now I just want to rebook my ticket, get home and start all over. A new path. Maybe I’ll join a book club. Or the Christian Democratic Party. I may even join the army. But with this bullshit I’m done. I need only to return to the source to ensure myself that I am finally thinking straight. A sad parade of everything that’s foul with our society this photographic documentation of mine. I swipe through the photos on my phone. Pub Avni - the revelation of reality as grim. Just look at the lonely business man in the bar as he downs two sips of raki by every one of the thirty almonds he throws in his mouth while there is probably an affluent but forgotten family out there that is still waiting for him to come home for supper after all these years of nightly absence. And what about the big table of mistresses that are uncomfortably laughing away their youths at the sad jokes of their unfaithful company of Turkcell sultans? How can they stupidly enough not understand that these men will never leave their wives and that they never had the intention to do so as they are all pathetic victims of the tenacious structures of patriarchal culture that surpass both ourselves and this two thousand year old city of myths? It is indeed a disturbed place, this ever-present world of ours. And from a truthful angle like this it is hard not to despair. I look at Celal bey as he stares into my camera. This local legend of a bartender was the main reason for me visiting this place as I had read about his unruffled and courteous approach while behind the bar. But in the carved-out state I now find myself in, I can’t feel anything but anxiety for his behalf. Mustn't this old man look back on the more than fifty years of night-owling hard work that he has given away from himself and realise that it is all just a soon-to-be parenthesis in a big macrocosmos of nothing? Just like my own poisonous existence in the middle of all this. Roaming obscure bars and befriending any stranger of my fascination while surreptitiously documenting their intriguing personas for a purpose I cannot even explain? In the end of the day, I am the saddest clown of us all.
I book a new flight but since an eleven hour transit in Kiev (a scenario the old me would have cherished like the banker with his vault) is not an option I need to wait to the next morning to head home north. Thus I spend the day by aimlessly wandering around Istanbul for hours, just trying to collect the shattered pieces of a yesterday me. It is a weird experience because as much I have romanticised this city the many times I have been here before, today the prejudiced filter of orientalist fascination is nowhere to be found. From the open seaside of Moda to the narrow streets of Besiktas nothing really seem to impress and even as I put my teeth in one of the sins I have praised most in my life - the liver kebab at Durumzade - left is only a feeling of guilt and filth. I continue walking and eventually I stand in front of a barbershop. In an irrational impulse I enter the salon and I ask the astonished non-english speaking barber to cut off my hair.
They are both tired, the two faces I see in the dirty mirror in front of me. My own carriage I know about but I am interested in his. Fifty something, must be. Looks a bit like an Ottoman version of John Candy as he stands there working on my sideburns in his thin shirt which is of course hanging over a white wife-beater and a fake golden necklace. I am a bit disappointed on myself as I watch him bulldoze my hair. Perhaps entering this parlour wasn't one of my best schemes after all? Still, there is something about him. Meticulously, he has been plowing these unruly pseudo-jewish curls of mine for at least half an hour now and he shows no determination of bringing it to an end. He got a lot of pride, I give him that. A bit like Celal bey actually, the senior barman at Pub Avni. He moves with a natural authority that signals warmth instead of frost and he owns the room without having to claim any type of territory, a rarity among animals and men.
Also, he got skills. Even though I will probably leave this crime scene with a hairstyle reminiscent of a new-mown football pitch, it is obvious that this barber knows his instruments and that he could perform his trade even in his sleep. Bit by bit, by observing his techniques I am being thrown back to last night’s debauchery and how I was sitting at the long bar counter eyeing the brilliant Celal bey in action while slowly fading into the soothing grip of raki intoxication. Surprisingly, a warm feeling of gusto and vigour streams all over me as I observe my hair fall off. It is all coming back to me now. Celal bey’s diligent care of me the customer, almost like a medic in battle healing the wounded for a last second of breath. It was as if he had made a sacred vow of never leaving anyone behind. Not for a moment did he forsake my glass of numbing spirits without the companionship of humble goodies that he secretly stored behind the bar. Such Anatolian delights as the freshest of winter melons paired with rustic farmer cheese or just the simple case of acidic cucumbers pickled in house. One after the other they just landed in front of me without any unnecessary queries or flattery of excess. Purely natural - this co-existence of ours and as the great conductor he appeared to be it was just plain obvious; pour one of those bad boys again.
Back at the salon I shake Ottoman John Candy’s hand and give him my approval. I know that I look even more stupid than I usually do but I do not mind because I realise what I have won. Rejuvenation and the return of life. For every fallen hair I have gained a plate of appetite and lost a gallon of sin. I am reborn and all I want to do is to get back to what’s mine. I rush out on the street and I fall in love all over. Everywhere is beauty. Everywhere is art. It’s within the impressive Hagia Sofia just as it is within every praised work at the Louvre. It’s within the sentimental tones of Pub Avni’s exquisite troubadour that can make any testosterone-fueled posse of middle-aged men burst into capitulating tears. It’s within both me and you. And of course I am going back. I’m going back tonight. I am so fucking ready to just pulverise it all, to just do the whole thing one more time. If not at Pub Avni then somewhere else. This is my trade. This is my art. This is my unexplainable purpose in this godsend life. And I better do it well. Just like Celal bey and Ottoman John Candy. Just like the troubadour with his guitar and perhaps even like those self-lying cheaters and gold diggers I saw occupying this 70s retro bar. Because we are all creators of some sort. We are all artists to reveal reality as grim.
Pub Avni, Ergenekon Mahallesi, Cumhuriyet Cd. 243/A, 34373 Şişli/İstanbul, Turkey.