The Salvation of Şirince

The Salvation of Şirince

It was around 20 years ago that I first went to Şirince to visit Sevan. I was met by an old Greek village, charming but a little unkempt. Many of its buildings were on the verge of collapse, and new buildings had been put up shoddily. Although it still hadn’t lost its charm, the original village was gradually being destroyed. It was clear that within a few years it would resemble your run-of-the-mill Anatolian village.

On the track-like road where Sevan’s house stood was a dilapidated two-storey Greek house. It was still standing but its roof was sagging, its windows broken, its door stolen. It had obviously been abandoned. After that first visit I went to see Sevan regularly, once every three to four months or so. Every time I had to pass in front of that dilapidated house.

You know those time-lapse films where photos are taken of a flower at regular intervals and then spliced together to make a film… It starts out as a bud, and then it opens, grows and blooms in its full colourful glory. But then it starts to wither, sheds its petals, hangs its head and, finally, inevitably, disappears. An entire life crammed into one minute. The dilapidated house that I saw every three or four months disappeared in front of my eyes, just like in one of those time-lapse films. First of all part of the roof fell in, then the window frames disappeared, then the rest of the roof collapsed and the house was left to the mercy of the elements, then one day the stones from one of the walls were no longer there, and in the end the house itself disappeared just like that flower. That beautiful Greek house is no more. Does it exist in any records? I don’t know. Now goats and donkeys graze where the house once stood. That’s something at least!

Sevan’s garden overlooked Şirince. At dinner, or any time the two of us took a break from work at the same time, we would look out at Şirince from that garden. Sevan would tell me about the good, the bad and the ugly of Şirince. There was, however, one particular monstrosity that made it hard to swallow our food. On the slope of Şirince the construction of a three-storey block of concrete raised its head in full majesty. Not at all in keeping with the traditional two-storey houses of Şirince, it was one of those ugly buildings that our country has in the hundreds of thousands, buildings that we are used to seeing every day. Words can’t describe how ugly it was. Construction had been halted and it stood at the top of Şirince like a freak of nature. One day Sevan said, “Let’s buy it and make something of it. That’s the only way we’ll get rid of the eyesore.” I agreed. I agreed but neither of us had a penny to our name.

Every time I came to Şirince we talked about that building. Once Sevan said, “Now let’s say we bought the building and did something with it… We’ll face all kinds of trouble; investigations, statements, trials, fines. They’ll make our lives a living hell.” A few years passed, and Sevan somehow managed to find the money to buy the building. We visited it together. He told me his plans for it. How could he make something of it without demolishing the structure? In the evening, when we looked at it from the garden of his house he said, “No, that plan won’t work; it won’t look good from a distance. We have to find another solution.”

After dinner we came up with three or four solutions at once. But when we visited the building the following morning we realised our plans didn’t meet the reality. One thing was needed from a distance, another from close up…

I returned to Istanbul. A few days later Sevan came too. He told me about his latest plan. He had spent a few hours each day in the building and had come up with dozens of plans. “But this latest plan is amazing,” he would start by saying. By evening that plan would be scrapped. Three months or so passed. Then he put his final plan into practice.

The result was a masterpiece, the work of a true magician! Today that building is the centrepiece of the Nişanyan Houses, and it looks as though it has stood there for a hundred years, as though once upon a time it were the mansion of the lord of Şirince. It wins the admiration of everyone who sees it, Turkish and foreign alike. It became the most beautiful building in Şirince. Tourists wander around taking photos.

And of course, just as he had foreseen, they made his life a living hell.

Sevan would spend a lot of time beating his brains out on the subject of beauty. During the construction of the Mathematics Village, I picked this habit up from him and started doing the same. Our discussions, always about the meaning of beauty, soon became mutual brain-beating sessions. One day, we decided that beauty had to have a limit; extremely beautiful wasn’t actually all that beautiful. Another time we realised that beauty had to be invisible! Then a doubt would start to gnaw away inside us: perhaps beauty was hidden in surprise. Perhaps everything had to be so ordinary that graceful details sprinkled around here and there would reveal a beauty whose origin was unclear.

What I’m trying to say is that behind the beauty in the things that Sevan created lies a great deal of time devoted to profound contemplation.

Sevan saved Şirince from destruction. Not only did he save it, he also brought new value to Şirince. Sevan is the reason that people today have heard of a place called Şirince. In short, no Sevan, no Şirince!

Sevan did one other thing that none of us did, that none of us were able do: He publicly, openly, blatantly went up against the despotic state to which we all, including government ministers, take objection. Şirince was declared a protected area approximately 30 years earlier, but no conservation development plan was established. So if the son of a villager was getting married, the family couldn’t build an extension on their house. The roof is leaking? You can’t fix it. The house gets too much sun? Well, what can you do? The stable has fallen down? Tough luck! For 30 years it was forbidden to even hammer in a nail in the village. But would this stop the people of Şirince? Not a chance, they’re Turks remember, nothing could stop them. The villagers did what they needed to do; after all they had to live there. What law could stop life going on? But then there was Nuri, the village roofer. Poor Nuri, dear, hardworking Nuri, who laid and repaired everybody’s roofs, couldn’t repair his own roof out of respect for the law. Or rather out of fear. He asked for permission from the authorities, but in ten years his permission was never granted. We asked ministers and councillors for their help, they made phone calls and gave their orders in front of us. All for nothing! It made not the slightest bit of difference. One night Nuri illegally repaired his own roof.

Sevan is a man of integrity. He has full intellectual integrity. He accepts responsibility for his actions. He doesn’t do things behind closed doors. He restored the old Greek houses openly. He raised them from their ruins. He turned ugly buildings into masterpieces. He built the Mathematics Village; a thing of great beauty was born. He created the Theatre Madrasa; ditto. And he also made a village for himself, for touristic purposes. Its name is İlyastepe, and it is one of the wonders of the world. It is so beautiful that it brings a tear to your eye, a breath-taking beauty. It would have been fine if he’d left it at that, but to top it all he erected a tower to challenge the state: the Hodri Meydan Tower, or the Tower of I Dare You.

Sevan is an uncontrollable intellectual. He is intelligent, knowledgeable, frank, brave, talented and honest. He is like a mischievous child. You may not like his ideas – I myself don’t like most of them – but you cannot deny that he is one of the most interesting people that our country has raised, sorry scrap that, who has grown up in our country.

Today Sevan is in prison with a total sentence of over 15 years. As far as I know there isn’t a single other person incarcerated under this same article of law in the whole of Turkey, a country whose prisons are bursting at the seams!

What was Sevan’s crime? What could he have done to deserve 15 years imprisonment? Nothing! Sevan has committed no crime. Sevan is not guilty. We are guilty but he is innocent. We are guilty because we didn’t or couldn’t do what Sevan did, because we didn’t have the strength for it. We are guilty because we couldn’t prevent the ugliness in which we live, because we couldn’t stand up against the absurd laws, because we are obedient citizens, because we couldn’t put a stop to the wrongs, the evil and the ugliness, and above all because we were accomplices to the tyranny with our silence, with our cowardice, with our feebleness. Sevan is innocent. And not only is innocent, he did what needed to be done. The failing lies not with Sevan but with us.

He can serve his time with a clean conscience. But what about those of us on the outside; how will we escape our conscience?


Ali Nesin