[Published in The Rooftop Busker: New Writing Scotland 33]
You choose your storyteller like you choose a lover. I picked Hayalci as my teacher because he has a face you would cross mountains and seas to find. When he is calm, his brown eyes are flecked with honey, full of gentleness and love. The listeners see a father in him. And yet, I can envisage with certainty, my storyteller is a fierce lover too. Once he becomes curious, his gaze is filled with passion, and violence, and a wish to divine mysteries. I am trying to learn the depths and the heights of his imagination; I want to chart him like a landscape.
The coffeehouse in which I live has been on the same spot since 1555, snug between the church of Aya Pantelemion and the big oak tree. The scribes before me have placed the coffeehouse books in a rose wood chest with three visible locks, and one that is invisible. I sew sachets of lavender against the moths and worms, round my neck I hide the four keys that unfasten the books, and every evening I listen to the storyteller in hopes of a new tale.
The first scribe in this coffeehouse had the initial book and the clear pages. From the records I see he listened to the story of ‘Black Mustafa the Hero.’ I can picture him before my eyes: he sits at the back of the room and notes down every word the storyteller utters. As he writes he smokes a çubuk; he inhales deep and the smoke does not leave him till the story halts. He laughs with the audience, and he cries. Because he has filled our first book centuries ago, his words are the norm and the truth. We only note down derivations and irregularities: how storyteller Yusuf embellished the ending of ‘Keloğlan,’ how Yakup got rid of the prince in ‘The Bird of Sorrow,’ how Kız Ismail narrated ‘The Imp of the Well’ from back to front the night Sultan Abdülaziz died. I have arrived very late; this coffeehouse has a memory of three hundred years and more. The stories in it are tattered.
There are two things I do each night, once all the customers have left. The first is that I unlock the leather book to make side notes, derkenar, on a story already written down. I need to be picky with what I choose to write, need to remember all the coffeehouse books prior to mine so that I don’t repeat the scribes who came before me. This is hard work and requires discipline, double checking, and submission to the slow torment of my profession. Sometimes I add a word, sometimes only a comma. My fastidiousness is why Ioannis Efendi trusts the keys of the rose wood chest to me.
The second thing I do every night, and which is forbidden, is that I am slowly writing a book no one else knows about. I fill it with the tales that make up my storyteller’s life.
The book of Hayalci is made of cardboard and yellow, crisp parchment – that is all I could afford. Its pages fall apart because my hands are not expert at stitching. I made it when Ioannis Efendi lay asleep, and I light a candle to write in it only when he begins to snore. One day the pages under my fingertips will guide me to tell my own tales, in this very coffeehouse, and it is out of the same book that I will make a map of Hayalci’s thoughts.
The days in the coffeehouse start slow but finish late. Customers begin to trickle in around noon and from then on until night time there is constant backgammon, and chess, and money exchanging hands under the table, and the homeless dozing off in the warmth of the braziers, and the rich traders, and the poor porters and in short anyone who can afford a cup of coffee comes in here. But only those who stay until dark enter it to sustain their souls. They come to open their kısmet. Because Allah is the best storyteller, and Hayalci the second best.
It was the twelfth of Zilhicce – a night of rain, a night of confusion – when a heavy man entered the premises and unsettled our sheltered rhythms. The sash around his fez was red indicating he was Christian, the coat he wore was European but old and missing a few buttons. The stranger had a worn face with deep wrinkles like knife slashes. When he entered the coffeehouse the empty seats filled up. The regulars knew, from the way he walked in to the coffeehouse, that they would not like this man.
The first person he talked to was Hayalci. He took my storyteller by the arm. A commanding calm imbued his unusual request. My teller nodded, and the stranger stepped on to the table where the chair was placed – the throne of the storyteller – and took Hayalci’s place.
“Ey ahali,” he began, “I know you are here to listen to the storyteller but you will listen to me tonight,” his voice was crackling and low. “If you don’t like what I tell after the first break, I will not return to your coffeehouse.” The man in the red sash waited for possible opposition, and when none was voiced he adjusted the velvet cushion for comfort. Someone in the back must have known him. The customers whispered from ear to ear, and that is how I learned the new teller’s name was Hagop.
“The story is long and might take a couple of nights to tell. If you like it we may be together for a while. I promise not to tell you anything that is not true; reason enough for you to stay and listen, if you ask me. I know for a fact, most tales told on this table are either made up or complete lies.
There are many ways I can tell you of my life. One is through the theatre; I used to own one. Lately I have a habit of sitting alone wherever I go: coffeehouse, hamam, whorehouse, graveyard… but it wasn’t always like that. It may not look like it now, but I used to have money – a lot of it – and then there was a time I didn’t have any at all.
I can also start with Kasturya. Some of you know the neighbourhood, but none of you can imagine the violence in its cobblestoned streets. The madhouses underneath its churches, the secret night-time burials, the fear of the khabadayi.
Or I can start from the middle of a love story. I am 38 years old and handsome, so they used to tell me. I lie in bed, remembering my past as if it had been centuries in the making: my childhood as stalker, my adulthood as rope walker, and everything in between which I have kept secret until now. I know Nora is watching me through the mirror. As I drift off, the heat of her gaze is on my skin, on the tips of my fingers, and I wonder if I can make her love me again.”
Hagop paused. He looked at the men listening to him, took a long minute, stared even into my eyes. I felt uncomfortable, both from his gaze and from his way of telling. Neither was proper. I wanted to inform him it was not tasteful to start from the midst of a story; we are taught not to cut a tale open with a knife.
One must start slow and caressing, like you would start with a woman. A run and a riddle takes the audience away from the real world, it warms them up for the listening, nurtures them curious. Still the biggest mistake Hagop made that first night was not his rush, but his indecision.
The storyteller must know, before he starts the telling, why and where and how the tale will begin and how and why and where it will end. He can only change details during the narration, subtract a day or two, add a minor character, a few side stories. He can hide some small truth, or reveal a random secret, perhaps postpone revelations. But if a teller has many ways to tell a story, he has not understood its meaning. The first thing a scribe learns from his storyteller is that a good tale chooses how it wants to be told. Accordingly, my expectations of the man with the missing buttons were low, and yet I listened.
That first night, the audience and I listened to Hagop for more than three coffee breaks. Even the stingy customers paid him bahşiş so that he continue. I think he lured us in with that one sentence. Most of the stories told on this table were indeed made up, or a bunch of lies. That was our age-old tradition. And there was something arousing, as well as terrible, about the possibility of a true story. Something arousing and terrible about a man who would only tell the truth.
And so our unwinding began on the night we met Hagop. It was a stormy darkness in the month of Zilhicce – a night of rain, a night of confusion – and the first time I had the clear pages. The first occasion in my life where I got to write down a story that had never been told before.