I walked through Sirkeci’s deserted bus and tram parking lots beneath a dark sky pierced by a riot of stars. The evening was quiet except for the giggle of invisible currents sucking aquatic secrets from the Golden Horn and spewing them into the Bosphorous. The wind pressed on me from the south, a lodos wind, the Ottoman wind that drives men mad. I wondered if that was what was wrong with me. I was in a dark, sober mood. It was mid-June, 1968, and I was on my way to Yener’s for advice.
Between me and the distant shore of Karaköya score of lanterns bobbed in unruly profusion. Turkish fishermen were at their nightly work, luring bluefish into their grasp from handmade boats. The fishermen balanced expertly on the dancing chop, taut lines ripping saltblood furrows in their hands. In the glow beneath their lanterns a thousand barbs patterned the water, a gauntlet for the fish to evade or else be devoured by the city. The gulls, too, were awake, and the fast, heavy shearwaters. I pictured them hurtling blind among the boats, delirious with fish-craze, solid beaks agape, sometimes mistaking the pale eye of a man for the gleam of scales.
I turned inland and headed up the hill through Hocapaşa toward Sultanahmet. I walked beneath the street lamps from light-pool to light-pool with my eyes trained straight ahead until I was safely past the Sirkeci police station on the far side of the street. The policemen sat there day and night in rough woolen uniforms, staring out at the world with unfeigned menace.
On my left, a flight of fireflies pulsed with sickly light in Gülhane Park, and I imagined ropes of them festooned above café tables where wealthy people with small appetites sipped raki and picked at their food. The road’s gradient steepened as I made my way through Cağaloğlu, and I paused once to admire the burnished instruments on display in the window of the saz-maker’s shop.
Yener’s restaurant was tucked away in a corner between Incirlicavuş and Şeftali streets, not far from the infamous Pudding Shop. Some traveling vagabond had hand-lettered a psychedelic sign with the words "Welcome To Yener’s" emblazoned upon it. It was a hole-in-the-wall affair, with three-and-a-half tables inside, and a cramped kitchen area squeezed in behind them. A cauldron of white bean soup simmered eternally on one of the gas burners.
There was something of a party going on as I walked in, and my somber mood evaporated. The owner, Sitki Oruç, was performing a Turkish folk dance to Anatolian music blaring from the big white radio radio cradled in his arms. He was spurred into frenzied gymnastic efforts by a cheering international group of long-haired freaks and acid heads. His gyrations and fancy footwork were somewhat hampered by the need to keep the radio’s power cord plugged into the wall, but he made a valiant effort. He was in mid-pirouette when he noticed my arrival. Sitki was like an uncle to me, and he was the wisest person I knew. He was a diminutive, wiry man with a passing resemblance to the late Salvador Dali. A fulsome brace of mutton-chop whiskers sprouted proudly from either side of his sweating face. A pair of blackened eyes, purple actually, regarded me curiously. Most of his clientele knew him as Yener, after the name of his restaurant. Interestingly, ‘yener’ in Turkish means ‘edible’, or ‘winner’, both of which applied to my mentor’s chosen path in life. His food was cheap and plentiful, and his heart was huge. ‘Oruç’, his surname on the other hand, means ‘fasting’, as one does from sunrise to sundown during Ramadan. So he was destined to exist as a bundle of contradictions, and that contradiction was one of many that he mastered.
The song ended, Sitki spun to a wobbly stop, and the attendant hippies gave him a hearty round of applause, then returned to their tables and their beers.
“What happened to your eyes, abi?” I asked.
He chuckled and waved his arm at his tiny restaurant. “Polis. Sad men. They think I sell hashish. So they beat me.” He shrugged. “So I drink raki and dance with my radio.”
“I am thinking of hitch-hiking to Afghanistan,” I said. “Should I go?”
His eyes twinkled. “Of course you should. Can you find a reason not to? Of course you can. Do you have a reason to go? Of course you do.” He moved to the back and stirred his pot of white bean soup. “Maybe a dish of kuru fasulya before you leave?”
He placed a thick notebook in front of me, one of many in his restaurant that had been filled with the hopes, dreams, and drug-fueled scrawls of myriad young westerners on the road east.
“Write it here. Everyone writes it here.”
Postscript. Yener's famous books...a half-dozen two-inch thick tomes of once blank paper filled from cover to cover with freewheeling, psychedelic felt-pen art, sketches, portraits, poems, pronouncements of enduring love, the illegible scribbles of acid-tripping waifs, offers of lifts east and west, queries about hotels and drugs and border crossings, anti-war graffiti, plans to meet in faraway places, cartoon drawings (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were a favourite). I've been on the hunt for them forever. Professor Jim Johnson, who taught at Robert College and knew Sitki in those days, had some interest in them I heard, but everywhere I've looked comes to a dead end. I wrote in them several times, silly young person things like: 'If it wasn't for flashbacks I'd have no memory at all' and a take on one of Spiro Agnew's speeches 'Eschew obfuscation, but do not eswallow it' and 'Time is just nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once'...my God, I wish I had them here now. Above is the only photo I've found online of a few pages in one of his books. Yener's notebooks would be a bigger find than...well, almost cooler than The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test from that era.
Lawrence Morgan was born in Miami, raised in Istanbul, and left home at the age of 15 to explore the world and have adventures. He currently resides in Scotland. His other writing includes Meal, Combat, Individual, Bottle Rockets, One, Two, Three, Hike, The River Guide Myth along with his two pieces for Memoirist, Island Fever and Herat, 1968
Lawrence Morgan was awarded the Memoirist biannual prize.