By Heidi Trautmann
The City of Jasmine, they called it in the old days, when there were still parks and gardens for the public, hidden gardens. The City of Jasmine, because in early summer the blossoms were picked by the youths to sell to lovers; or they were picked by the lovers themselves from bushes overhanging the garden walls. In many poems, you can smell the jasmine blossoms or the early blossoms from citrus trees, and so describes Mehmet Levent in his poem “Lefkoşa”:
……….It is in this city
that we give necklaces
of jasmine blossoms
to our girlfriends
that are sold
by poor children….
you cannot leave this city
for another country, brother,
you can’t go, my brother……
There are many poems on Lefkoşa, but none expresses the longing for the place so well as this three page poem does for me. When you miss the very moment of the opening of a jasmine bud, it is a lost moment in your life, said Emin Çizenel in one of his conceptual exhibitions.
Lefkoşa is a city of artists and poets. It is in its streets that their inspiration comes, inhaled with the air. As the poet M. Kansu told me: It is my morning ritual, my mind fresh and open; I walk the streets with the sun painting spots on the pavement; there is a single shoe and I wonder why only one and an image forms; or a torn letter, perhaps a love letter full of tears … Images… There are artists like Cevdet Çağdaş, painter and art teacher, now 84 years old. He has much to relate about the city where he has lived and worked for so many years. In his water colours and pastel paintings, we can still discover the old atmosphere. Memories are depicted by many more artists, happy ones of jasmine summer days and sad ones of the years of troubles. Not to forget the photographers who still roam the city with their cameras always at the ready to rediscover its charms, its streets, its people. You want to meet them, these poets, painters, caricaturists, journalists, actors? Then go to the Büyük Han in the mornings; there they sit, meeting and talking or just brooding over a new verse, sipping their coffee. It is a peaceful place with artists and artisans sitting around and working in front of their workshops; sometimes music is played on Saturday mornings in the courtyard or you may find the Karagöz Theatre with Mehmet Ertuğ in action. It is thanks to him that this old shadow theatre is still alive, he who collected the old puppets, along with the old stories of so many a puppeteer. He is tired, he told me; he is still looking out for somebody he can teach, to whom he can hand over the theatre.
We usually enter the old city by the Kyrenia Gate and slowly stroll along the streets – not just the main street leading to the old Saray Hotel with the obelisk in front – no; we zigzag through the side streets, where there are still typical old houses with all kinds of small workshops, places of history and events. Ah, opposite the law courts, there on the fourth floor in a more modern building, there is a sign indicating that here was once the first university of Cyprus founded by Dr. Servet Dedeçay – who, at 84, still daily climbs the steps to her office where she writes one of her many books on Cyprus – a remarkable woman. One place that draws me like a magnet is the Işik Bookstore into which not so long ago a Molotov cocktail was thrown by political extremists. They had such treasures on their shelves which were destroyed or badly damaged in the ensuing fire.
There, next to a tailor’s shop is a frame maker and fine photographer, Veli Kaymaklılı, where many of our artists have their frames made; in his big old workshop where time has left its mark on the walls, Veli loves to discover beauty in decay. The beauty of a flower timidly growing out of a pile of garbage, is more evident, isn’t it, he asked.
From there, it is not far to the Arabahmet Area with more or less still complete rows of typical Ottoman houses with wooden balconies in small streets through which I often walk when I visit the Studio Café “Cadi Kazani – “The Witches’ Cauldron” of the artist Nilgün Güney and her son Ateş Kozal, a musician. They have a most attractive courtyard, so typical of the houses in this area, with a huge royal palm hovering over the yard walls. On the first floor is her studio where she teaches art.
Along these small angular streets are some more art studios and as I go visiting, I pass old inhabitants sitting in front of their open doors, making use of the shade …those beautiful wooden doors. A child plays contently with some pebbles. Here there are no cars. The sun makes bizarre shadows on the old street cobbles. I melt into the melancholy beauty of the streets; I take my time and inhale the very special odour of this several hundred-year-old place.
The old pastahane on the corner, where I often used to see people sitting in the shade of a tree, neighbours who regularly came to chat, is no more; the old baker must have died. He had had diabetes his wife had told me, after baking and selling bread for over sixty years. Opposite the Armenian restaurant where I love going because of its green lush garden, Osman Keten has his art studio, a place where the artists meet and discuss future events, a place where you can feel the special Lefkoşa atmosphere like a breeze full of scents, Lefkoşa scents. The Franco-Cypriot-Turkish Association has its seat in the same street, another beautiful freshly-restored Ottoman house where on many evenings the centuries old Franco-Cypriot links are remembered and celebrated. I tend to get carried away in this area and I must not miss another favourite place of mine, which is the ceramic art studio of Ayhatun Ateşin just around the Derviş Paşa House. She is a fluorescent woman, sometimes with blue hair, sometimes green. It is a place worth visiting, especially now that she has renovated the court yard.
On my way back towards the Selemiye Mosque/St.Sofia Cathedral I pass through the bazaar-like street where you can still find haberdashers with all you may need for your needlework.
And there is a small café where I get freshly made börek to take away. Don’t forget to pass through the market place to inhale your portion of fresh vegetables and fruit, brought in daily by farmers. The centre of the old city is the area around the Mosque with its witnesses of the Middle Ages, where I love to sit and have my coffee. When you close your eyes, you can see the inhabitants of that time in their costumes, the echo of knights on horse back cantering along through the stone paved alleys. What you hear today are the echoes of children playing ball. There are treasures to discover in every corner, all open to the public. But take your time and sit for a while before you go to discover the area.
The walk where I have taken you is only through half the old city, as it is divided by the “green line” cut into two halves by walls and wire. Today you can walk to the other side via the Lokmaçı crossing; and it is most worthwhile to discover the other half, touched by the same melancholy.
In the evenings, the north part of the old city is very quiet and you can hear the wind whisper in the dark alleys, occasionally cats melting into the shadows, playing with an empty tin. In the evening hours, you will find the young people outside the walls where there are coffee houses one next to the other, where they meet and chat the whole night long.
I wonder if they still give necklaces of jasmine as a present of love to their girlfriends. But where are the children selling them?