By Alexandra Ivanoff This is the street-side mise en scène: Little girls with dancing eyes and curly dark pigtails who squeal with delight at me every time I come out of my building. "Aleksandra! Rouge! Rouge!" They want to know if I have some lipstick for them in my purse. Dapper old men in shalvar and occasionally a fez; the young man who works at the pide salonu (bakery) next door who takes the toddlers in his arms every day and kisses them until they shriek; the store owner across the street who is always delighted that I dropped by to pick up my regular three bottles of fresh milk; the quintet of fleshy grandmas, each of whose is head wrapped in a white laced-edged scarf, moving down the street in a flotilla; proud young Kurdish studs whose smoldering eyes are framed by sculptured cheekbones and eyebrows like knives. The old nut vendor who wears the same brown jacket every day, all year, regardless of the temperature, displays small dusty bags of munchies (I suspect were packaged years ago) in a wheelbarrow.
Once a week on the cross-street, a young shepherd leads a flock of dirty white sheep, with one black one in the midst. Around 8:00 p.m., gracing the doorway of an old church rectory, an assembly of travesti gathers for their nightly clientele culls; their collective theatre is a surprisingly silent and expertly lit scene from the plays of Brecht and Wedekind, and only an occasional baritone voice among them belies their gender. "Otur! Çay? (Sit! Tea?)" The eskici (used furniture salesman) asks me to sit in one of the several easy chairs or the couple of sofas, all upholstered with the gaudiest imaginable fabrics, arrayed casually in front of several buildings in a row. Everyone hangs out there all day and on into the evenings, often watching an old television propped up on a three-legged table, including people exhausted from schlepping huge bags of vegetables from the market and backgammon buddies. Children jump on every surface that bounces back.
It's a perfect sound score for a film. Sticking my head out the window, here is the track: the bleating of a goat, the crowing of a rooster, the crooning of the imam in incomprehensible Arabic, the singing of the tomato man, and the ringing of the church bells to remind me the area was once the domain of Greeks and Armenians. All this mixed with the ever-present "An-neh!" around twenty times a day from some child dwelling in a temporary perplexity. In the summer, I get free open-air concerts: wedding bands in the streets. The reedy screech of zurnas and sipsis, the twang of bağlamas, and the intoxicating 9/8 rhythms pounded out on drum skins make me an invisible invitee to a local marriage as it's announced to the heavens.
"Ah, yes, you live in Naples," laughed a lady I once met on the train when I told her where I was living. "It's the land of laundry." Sure enough, almost every morning the blankets, rugs, clothing and curtains get reeled out on the clotheslines connected from each building's facade to the opposite side. Looking down the street from the intersection of Tarlabasi Caddesi, one can see a multi-colored zigzag aerial landscape of hanging fabrics swinging in the breeze. Looking out my back window onto my downstairs neighbor's garden, I see sheep's wool hanging like stalactites on the clotheslines and in mountainous piles on a red carpet � the center of which provides a lucky cat the most luxurious naptime accommodation.
My apartment there was initially a dingy tenement (I've since done extensive renovation), the worst feature being disintegrating windows. So I worked a deal with my landlord to replace all seven of them. It was a day-long project last summer. During the process, various neighbors would drop by, meet me, offer their opinions, and enjoy frequent tea breaks with lively chatter about everything and everybody. My landlord personally helped me tear out a hideous window frame in the kitchen and clean up a filthy chandelier, testing each bulb as we replaced them with new bright ones. As we neared completion, the downstairs neighbors brought up a huge tray of bread, cheese, olives, tomatoes, and a samovar of tea.
Once I bought a large sofa from an eskici. As the men took it out of the delivery truck, they tried to figure out which position to get it into the narrow front door. Five other men, including one old man in a turban, from the neighborhood joined them for the project. Each vociferously asserted their opinions and collectively took off the door to widen the entryway. Alas, it was not to be. The sofa was just too big for the tiny doorway. Having exhausted all possibilities, the five men dispersed, throwing up their hands in despair. My problems were theirs too.
One evening, I locked myself out of my apartment. I came to the hardware store on the main corner and explained my plight to the owner, from whom I've bought many supplies over the last year. My dilemma instantly became a mini-cause célébre, as all the other nearby owners (the bakery, the bakkal, the water man, the fruit vendor) contributed their validation of my cause to the locksmith they had summoned—long after his working hours. "This yabanci's OK, she's our customer. Give her a good price."
Coming home late at night, I am greeted by the clusters of gypsy ladies on their respective stoops, often with babies in their laps, chatting and eating. "Iyi akşamlar (good evening)," I smile at them. "Sağol (thanks)," they reply. My unwitting protection committees are doing their job.
People who live in prettier parts of Istanbul warn me about the dangers of my neighborhood. I give them a blank stare. The community theatre of Sakız Ağıcı is my script for living.