The last message I had from Etem hoca was just a few days before he passed away. I had a night layover in Istanbul on my way to Odessa for two months and I asked if he wanted to join some friends for dinner, so naturally I invited Etem, as I had not been back to the city I called home for two years in over a year. He wrote to say he regretted he could not make it that he was leaving early that same morning for Bulgaria with his brother. It was in Bulgaria, I came to learn just a few nights ago from a classmate and fellow student in his Elementary Turkish I class so many years ago, that he had a heart attack and died in his brother’s arms.
He was so young, 60, and with so much life and so much still to give. I write this with tears streaming down my face and it’s been more than a day now since I heard this really excruciatingly painful news. It is unbearable to think there will be no more lunches or dinners, no more Fenerbahçe matches, no more three hour anecdotes about Turkey from his student days in Istanbul in the late 1960s and early 1970s around the time of Turkey’s coup d’état and decent into political chaos.
I should have realized something was seriously, seriously wrong when he did not answer either of the two messages I sent after he died, one about the Islamic State or Daesh’s heavily revisionist account of Ottoman history for its own propaganda purposes and the other about the news of a lecture by a professor from the University of Latvia happening at Yale. This was usual fodder for our correspondence and he usually answered very fast, within minutes or hours, sometimes it felt like before I even hit send. More than once I would get a reply that he was just about to send me the same article or story or had already done so. The only thing that provides some comfort is that it sounds as if he went very fast and was not in pain for very long. With Etem there was no half-living or doing anything without one’s heart, soul and full belly laugh – and he had a very full belly like Buddha – in the mix.
What is there to say about Etem that others who perhaps knew him less well than I did as we were extremely close have not already said and perhaps more elegantly than I can or ever could, perhaps because they have more composure to say such wonderful things? One current student wrote in The Yale Herald that “he believed that buying a lottery ticket was like buying yourself imagination for a week… when faced with an impossible question in class, our default answer was, ‘Etem çok yakisikli,’ or ‘Etem is very handsome.’” Why didn’t we think of that? I suppose this is what he meant when he said some classes were better than others; this class sounds brilliant, a group with which he very much would have enjoyed spending what turns out was his final semester of teaching. This brings me some measure of great comfort.
Formally, I was not enrolled in any class Etem taught since 2007, when while at Columbia Journalism School, I enrolled in his Elementary Turkish I course. His presence on campus for me had been the major draw. I hated so much of the pompous grandeur, the resting on laurels attitudes, the forced into retirement early with buyout professors at journalism school who didn’t realize how lucky they even were to belong to a generation where buyouts, a fat check at the end of a long and illustrious career on staff somewhere, were even possible. I was disillusioned by “drills,” where you are taught to write formulaic news stories on a breaking news deadline. But to echo the sentiments of the classmate Tess who told me Etem passed away, “I always enjoyed seeing Etem.”
Like many of Etem’s students, being formally enrolled in his classes was not the education one was receiving, it was the invitation to the bigger lessons in life, the Fenerbahçe matches and Efes drinking at Ali Baba on 34th Street on Sunday afternoons, where I often joined him and the other Turks and students of all ages, often times bringing my friends to meet my friend, the illustrious, fat, funny, wonderful Turkish professor. At the end of the matches and a full afternoon of drinking, he would always wipe his brow and proclaim, “We worked so hard!” I maintain to this day you either had to have no soul or a stick very far up your ass not to like him. He was clever enough to persuade even detractors to his camp, but I could never persuade him to quit the thing that probably helped contribute more than anything to his too short of time among us mortals, namely the cigarettes.
I recall very well the first and only time I ever tried to smoke with him a whole one of these unfiltered cigarettes he loved on an unseasonably warm day at Sarah Lawrence College, where we first met my sophomore year when I was a student of his Ottoman History course. The college has an interesting system where you get to interview or speak with the professors in one-on-one meetings before you enroll in their courses. Our first meeting lasted over an hour and I recall walking out to a cheery, “Hosçakal!” As if I had walked out of a çayhane somewhere on the Mediterranean coast and spent the afternoon playing backgammon and drinking tea, although none had been served.
On that unseasonably warm day, he moved our class, a motley group consisting of less than 10 of us, including one student from California who never wore shoes even when there was snow on the ground and twins from Bosnia, only one of whom was formally enrolled in the class, to a picnic bench behind some of the student houses overlooking the woods. By the end of the cigarette, I was twitching I was so cold as it had activated my rare East European circulation disorder known as Reynaud’s, which constricts the blood vessels terribly. “Girl, what’s the matter with you?” He asked and gave me his jacket. Once Etem was without his jacket, we didn’t last much longer outsider. “Damn, it’s cold,” he said and we went back to our classroom.
The other unusual thing about Sarah Lawrence is the conference system, where you work with your professor to create an independent project, a written paper usually of about 30-45 pages each semester, meeting with the professor again one-on-one every other week to measure progress, discuss sources and directions the research has taken. I don’t remember what I wrote about for these conference papers for the majority of my classes, but I remember very well what I wrote for Etem hoca.
The first semester I focused on the qadi courts of the 15th and 16th century in pre and early Ottoman Aleppo. It was the sort of research Etem loved, it involved archival sources, translations in fact of judgments ruled on all manner of quotidian nonsense, the day to day bullshit as he would put it, that makes up life. Of course we learned about Süleyman the Magnificent and Selim the Terrible and all the rest through the end of the empire at the hands of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. It is also telling that he stopped his course at 1914 and began it in around 1300 with the Seljuks. In his view, I am certain the empire never ended fully, it waned, contorted, took on new life and may have died in a formal sense but it still breathed in the imagination of the people (behold contemporary Turkish soap operas for its most obvious current manifestation) and the leaders (behold, Erdogan’s 1,000 room ‘White Palace’).
So I hope there is a little bit of this life of Etem in each of his students, myself included. There is now a little bit of the Ottoman Empire and much less Turkish and Azerbaijani language and perhaps much more culture than I would like after a combined three years in these countries in me. But this is not Etem’s failure, this is mine, in part because we could never shut up and stop talking long enough for me to deal with the invariably slower pace and frustrations of communicating in Turkish. I can say with full certainty I never would have received a National Geographic Young Explorer Grant to travel the route of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline or a Fulbright Grant to photograph the complicated role and lives of women in Azerbaijan without Etem hoca’s recommendation.
One picture from my time along the BTC pipeline route excited him greatly and he demanded, “Make it big, very, very big,” as he wanted a copy for his office. It was taken at an AK Party political rally in Erzurum, the conservative city in Turkey’s northeast where the AK Party has traditionally been very strong, during the referendum in 2010 for constitutional changes. Erdogan was pushing for an “Evet!” or “Yes!” vote to the changes he had proposed. White caps with this slogan were distributed to everyone, including the press, and I saved mine for Etem and gave it to him the same day I traveled to New Haven for the first time to watch Fenerbahçe play and give him the picture he requested from this referendum rally.
As Erdogan boarded a bus emblazoned with this slogan to depart the rally, ringed by security services and with a sniper positioned on the roof, he began to throw thick, bound copies of campaign literature from the open door of the bus. I bent down to photograph the full scene just as Erdogan launched one of the books, which ended up hitting me squarely in the head just before I was crushed by the security encircled around him. But I did get the shot, the book in mid-air just before it hit me, included in the frame. Etem hoca said he would be ahead of the curve as far as having a picture of the then Basbakan (Prime Minister), now President in his office. If family, colleagues, friends and his other fellow students know me at all it is probably for this picture.
Even more though than his word on the merits of my work, was his respect for it and for me. He brought me to Yale a few years ago for a lecture, my first ever artist talk and I was nervous. By then he had switched to filtered cigarettes and I even unusually had a few before the talk, as nervous as I was. And yet even more than his esteem and the grants, I know in my heart of hearts I never would have turned to these topics and places if not for Etem’s influence on my life starting from the time I was 20, and even though I am 31 now and he has passed away, I hope he never truly leaves me.
I have said very little about my ten-year plus friendship with Etem, but I should. I can say that I know there are others in his life he know he has disappointed and times when he has disappointed himself, he talked about it, but I can only say as a great friend of mine, he never disappointed me. The last time I saw him, I was thinking yesterday, had to have been over a year ago, just before I left Istanbul. I really cannot believe that it had been more than a year since I last saw Etem as this never happened before, not even when I was a student in Poland in college and returned from my college year abroad to Ali Baba on Sunday with a bottle of Jan Sobieski vodka for him. Sobieski of course was the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania who led the victorious attack against the Ottoman Turks at the Siege of Vienna and pushed the Ottoman Empire back, reversing its expansionist course and marking its first major defeat. He laughed one of his great full belly laughs and summoned a waitress for shot glasses and called all the men gathered for the Fenerbahçe match, all of whom were quite old on this day, some wearing those caps that made it seem like they had been plucked directly from an Anatolian village. When he explained the bottle, its origins, that I was his student and Sobieski was responsible for the beginning of the end of the empire, he then raised his glass to Sobieski. After he drank, “Bastard doesn’t know it, but he helped make us free. Well, free as we care and claim to be.” One of the old men muttered something about Allah and looked away. It was classic Etem on his home turf, holding court among Turks and being mildly but not uncomfortably outrageous.
The last time I saw and ate with him, because there is no seeing Etem without food, was at Haci Abdullah restaurant in Istanbul near Taksim Square just off Istiklal, one of his favorite spots that serves some of the most delicious Ottoman style food. When my father called just after I heard the news of Etem’s untimely passing (truth is, there would never be a good time to lose a great friend like Etem), he remembered we had gone there as well to Haci Abdullah on my first trip to Turkey that we took together my senior year of college on Etem hoca’s urging. I don’t remember what I ate that day we shared our last meal together, but I am certain Etem hoca had something dripping with yogurt sauce, presumably full fat, because he was never one to skimp. The things I loved about him, like his idea of exercise consisted of lifting the Efes bottle or glass from the table to his lips to drink, I am now angry about because I know it is these habits that took him from us too early. In any case, after lunch, we retired to the roof of the Büyük Londra hotel, a short walk away, with its really splendid views of Galata and the Golden Horn, for “exercise”.
I know this is perhaps as long winded as Etem hoca often was, but there is really too much about Etem hoca, who was tall and wide both physically and in my life, that will be missed. I only heard a few days ago and still break down in tears at the thought that there will be no more meals and “exercise” with Etem hoca. There were times in these ten years when I could not turn to family but I could turn to Etem. Anyone who knows me has certainly heard of my friend, my Turkish professor and heard stories about him and many have met him. He was the sort of friend I could imagine at my wedding and other important moments as he had been and like my talk at Yale, was even in part or wholly responsible for a few. He was a really great friend and someone I now cannot imagine not having. I miss him dearly.
My hope is to see him one last time on my way home from Odessa, to visit his final resting place in his hometown of Zeytinli. He is the first person I have lost as an adult who I was truly close to. I still cannot believe that this is where I must go to visit him, not Ali Baba or his new spot closer to Yale, Saray in West Haven. I imagined I would see the town of his birth with him, but I suppose even now this is where it must be because that is how it is. Etem was always able to accept things as they were and the natural disappointments of life, and I suppose I too must. Losing Etem hoca was nothing I ever imagined because as I said, this was my friend who never disappointed.
Güle güle, Etem hoca!
—Where to eat like a great Turk, the greatest, Etem hoca, because there are no memories of Etem without food and drink:
Ali Baba, New York City
212 E. 34th St.
Saray, West Haven, Connecticut
770 Campbell Ave.
Haci Abdullah, Istanbul
Aga Camii Atıf Yılmaz Str. (Old Sakız Ağacı Str.) No: 9/A
Büyük Londra Hotel rooftop bar, Istanbul
Meşrutiyet Cd. No:53