Meditations on Istanbul: The Calligrapher

It seemed to us that we had sat there for a really long time, or at least that was how it was later described to those who were not fortunate enough to be there. We had sat there watching him for more than an hour, which was a long time by tourist standards, but I imagine him to have been sitting in the same chair for the past fifty, maybe sixty years. He must never have been young; he had aged overnight one day at the age of seven, the first time he held a sharpened reed in hand and dipped it into the liquid-less bottle of infinite ink.

(I inferred this quite wildly from the interview in a Japanese travel magazine that he had offered to the Asians in the group in the hope that they would be fluent, and therefore impressed. I threw my pitiful knowledge of Japanese along with my quite-pitiful-for-someone-who’s-Chinese knowledge of Mandarin into the translation of the calligrapher’s myth.)

We had walked in on him in the midst of lunch; the presence of tomatoes and cucumbers and bread embarrassed him, just as our intrusion into his world had embarrassed us. The length of the shop’s area was exaggerated by the narrowness of its width, which, at its widest, could only accommodate his desk and chairs on either side. The rest of the shop tapered off into an alley of sorts that appear in my mind now as entirely made out of stacks of paper, except for the space in which his assistant stood contemplating a scroll of traced curves.

His table was neat in a haphazard sort of way. More sheets of paper, symbols of our interruption, found themselves at the borders. On his left was a forest – his tools grew from open-top cubes like leafless, branchless, barkless trees topped with purposeful black marks, arranged in what seemed to be no particular order (and yet he knew exactly where to look for the exact tree for the exact width of each stroke). I wondered if he used them all, if they were expensive, if he carved them himself, if any were damaged but not yet discarded. The trees seemed a part of a more ancient world, and we were amused to find that he also had a plastic French curve in his arsenal.

Though he had already done one demonstration for us, he was more than willing to write my name in a language more complex than I would never know. He pondered my name with his mouth, pronouncing it in two different ways, essentially asking me to choose between two different combinations of strokes that I could not possibly envision and would never be able to read anyway. We watched as he dragged first a pencil across the paper very slowly, and then followed with trails of ink that would conceal the pencil marks in their hypnotic wake. Unlike its East Asian counterpart, the ink did not find its place with an intense, individualistic fluidity, but rather with a meditative, almost mathematical deliberation.

I was the customer, but I felt indebted rather than entitled, and slightly ashamed that I was taking so many photos. We all thought he had a “great face” – whatever that means to whoever has ever witnessed one – it was later pointed out to me that most old people have “great faces” just by virtue of having more lines. Nevertheless, it was more than that. There was something about him that was at once wise and impish, with his beard emerging from beneath cheeks that were tinged with rose, and fragile frames perching atop a nose bridge that one would have to cross to get from eye to eye. Everyone was drawn to it, so everyone drew it (though he only liked one of the drawings, and made that sentiment clear).

A few minutes before we were about to leave, while we were still mesmerized by the basic act of him rolling up the papyrus, fitting it in a tube, and wrapping said tube, a young woman walked in. She appeared to be his student, and I was surprised. Perhaps his trade had never been an exclusively masculine one, but perhaps he had agreed to her request after much sincere pleading on her part, a plausible plot for a movie that could be an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film.

On our way out, he reminded us to find him on Facebook – the man who had been sitting there for the past fifty, maybe sixty years.

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