It is said that dry air induces critical thinking, its nature being that of clarity. The drought-prone heart of Anatolia, where the capital Ankara rises from the hills, is as much a university town as it is the center of Turkey’s national government. Unlike Istanbul, Ankara benefits from a metropolitanism that one could say is moving away from a more or less decentralized sense of cultural identity. Although largely dependent on the car, many of its interior streets are very passable on foot, sloping steeply to overlook the vast urban skyline built around mystifying Greco-Roman ruins.
In a quiet residential area between the localities called Güvenevler and Ayrancı in Çankaya district, near a Russian community in the vicinity of their embassy, there is a strange untitled second-hand bookstore. Along the frame of the building, the word “sahaf” designates his domain as that of a literary antiquarian. It shares a wide pedestrianized street with other independent, trendy, pro-youth businesses, including a clothing store called Kumbara and a cafe-bakery, Un, which means flour.
The sahaf, along sleepy tree-lined Alaçam Street, is run by an eccentric man with quite a few feline friends. He is busy opening the door to his shop where piles of old books are sometimes sorted into a variety of categories that merge into each other, as multilingual and multicultural as the city beyond its pages. As is tradition among Sahafs across Turkey, the interior moves with a spectacular array of hanging objects, bedbug inventions that, by their age and obscurity, have become endearing.
Without a word, the bookseller organizes a late breakfast for the half-dozen cats that inhabit the house of his old books. When not feasting, they hide behind corners, waiting to extend a claw-free paw of curiosity to strangers, guests, readers and collectors for a bookish adventure in a retrospective discovery. Mainly in Turkish, the sahaf carries a delightful portrayal of books in English, with touches of Russian, French and Greek. It is a microcosm of the intellectual sphere of Ankara.
And as Ankara is quite unique compared to Istanbul, although in a world of its own relativity, the firmness of its perspective, having housed the republican spirit of social modernism, there is an overall sensitivity to its regional acuity, which, like a small town within a big city, enthusiastically invites others while maintaining its distinctiveness. If Ankara were a book, it would be an encyclopedia of stories, with editorial commentary on the historical diversity of their narrative denser than the stories themselves, or neoclassical political meditation.
If these books could speak
It is observed among locals, that people who live in Ankara become introspective and generally tend to read more. Landlocked, with a relatively limited cultural sector, a book is an open window that opens wide from the concrete interiors of the city. And its perspectives are endless, transformative, aligned with the interpretive powers of the mind, which, like experience or time, are constantly changing. A book, however, is not a fixed point, but could be compared to a moon which itself orbits a planet, which revolves around a sun, with all the celestial bodies.
It is for these reasons that the Sahaf stock in Ankara is particularly important. Along the quiet, domestic buzz of Alaçam Street, adventurous writers like Amin Maalouf quench the thirst of the homebody with a compulsive desire to wander the world in all its wealth of tales spun through the threads of history. In a single row, Balthasar’s Odyssey and Maalouf’s The First Century After Beatrice draw wandering spirits for a stroll through 17th-century Europe to Ottoman lands or to a dystopian male-dominated future, respectively.
The untitled sahaf of Ankara, as passers-by might call him, has a special relationship with his garden. Books, like the plants that hang from its ceiling and grow in the floor of its entryway, take time to be appreciated. The front wall façade is glass, allowing natural light to enter, also illuminating the cats who sit, vividly, atop its high stacks. And there’s a sunny disposition to the venue, even though the bookseller himself is gentle, and sits in a corner, almost invisible, walled up on three sides by oversized books on display in every way possible.
The seemingly haphazard assemblage of titles creates fortuitous coincidences of parallel meanings, in which dissonances of logical continuity call an avid reader to question, and consider just how meaningful such disparate literary endeavors might be, be it by a course of linear or cyclical reason. For example, at the Untitled Sahaf in Ankara, a reader might stop and wonder what Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Iris Murdoch have in common with a modern translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”.
In fact, Murdoch’s 25th novel was titled “The Green Knight,” in which the satirical writer adapted the medieval poem into a story of sibling rivalry. At the sahaf d’Ankara, her sixth novel, “An unofficial rose” stares at her wandering, thin, worn eyes, emblematic of the author’s creative critique of romantic love throughout her career. Among other possible analyzes, Graham Greene’s name coincides with that of “The Green Knight”, but more so, Greene, Murdoch and Waugh represent the peaks of British canon literature tied with Sir Gawain.
At a foreign distance
To a reader abroad, the presence of books in an incomprehensible language appears like the night sky to naive eyes, at a loss for the known constellations and stars, but revealing narrow frames of memories and hearsay. This is the case of Turkish books in a sahaf to a unilingual English speaker, especially living in Turkey, and who, exposed to the work of its authors in translation and its editorial landscape, can only wonder, how these books are read and understood in their original language.
There are at least two untitled Mario Levi novels in the Ankara sahaf, one of which is often seen on the warped and overcrowded shelves of second-hand bookstores across Turkey, namely “Istanbul was a fairy tale”, an 800-page multigenerational family epic of a novel apparently common in Turkish, but incredibly rare in English. There are different ways of thinking about how books might end up in a sahaf. Were they orphans of careless owners or, perhaps more optimistic, transmitted by the quite public institution of the sahaf?