A Relaxing Place of All Time
©1999 Guy Petzall

Over an archway amid the many stone storefronts which line a busy commercial avenue in Istanbul's old city, an innocuous sign reads CORLULU ALIPASA MEDRESESI above the smaller text TRADITIONAL MYSTIC WATERPIPE AND TEA GARDEN. "Just the thing," I muse, "a refuge from the day." I navigate through the crowded afternoon pedestrian traffic and walk under the sign, down a short stone passage, and into another world altogether. Beyond the second arch, space opens before me, a wide outdoor patio, with a gazebo in its center. Gnarled, twisting trees with wide leaves break through the hexagonal tiled floor and together with the grape vines which cling to every vertical surface, provide a dappling shield against the hot Turkish sun. I stand still, gazing. Along each wall stretch banquette couches covered in old worn carpets, cloth that at some point might have been colorful but which now barely attracts the eye, faded with years of continuous use. Decor, it seems, has long ceased to be -- if indeed it ever was -- a consideration here; here the focus is on an atmosphere born of utility and peace. This deference to function evidences itself in the rest of the furnishings, a scattered collection of low marble tables with simple welded iron bases, and a few dozen stackable white plastic chairs. I like what I see. Perhaps thirty people occupy all this space, leaving plenty of room for population growth. Choosing a carpeted seat against a limestone wall, I sit down and breathe a sigh of relaxation.

Soon enough an attendant in a blue smock approaches, his eyebrows lifted into a question mark. "Nargile, cai," I tell him. He nods, and thirty seconds later my requests are fulfilled, in the form of a large glass pipe and a small glass cup, set respectively on the floor and the table in front of me.

Even the waterpipes here don't bow to useless ornamentation. A clear glass base, wide at the bottom, sweeps upward to embrace the brass neck, like a flower stem wedged into a vase and crowned at its top with a circular metal place which collars the large clay bowl, a cylinder 1.5" across and high, and heaped tight with gooey apple tobacco. The whole contraption rises nearly two feet from the floor, and from its neck sprouts a long leather hose with a metal mouthpiece at its tip. I plunk a single sugarcube into the fluted tea glass, and watch it dissolve.

Moments later the fireman appears, making his rounds with a long-handles pan full of wood coals and a pair of metal tongs. Without even glancing at me he places two glowing rocks onto the waiting tobacco in my nargile, and is gone, wending his way through the chairs in search of other pipes to tend.

And then I am alone, and quiet. People come here to socialize, it is true, they sit in groups with their pipes and cups, talking, laughing, discussing important or trivial things; but here is also a feeling of calm, of passing time and a spa-like disengagement from the rigors of outside life. Fully half of those sitting in this garden sit alone, young and old men alike contemplating the bubbles they pull through the water, through the long leather hoses of their nargile, through their mouths, deep into their lungs, and then release. A deep breath. I grip the carpeted handle of my own nargile, place its brass end to my lips, and do the same. It's so smooth and sweetly apple-flavored I'd never guess it's tobacco. I take another deep pull. And release. And then I take another.

At a nearby table occupied by two smartly dressed young couples a cellphone rings. But even this digital chirping, so often seen as an intrusion that it is sometimes regulated against, doesn't feel unwelcome in this 300 year old sanctuary. Because -- and this is the magic of Istanbul -- the modern here is simply a continuation of this ancient city's history. Everywhere on the streets, in the bazaars, through the winding cobbled walkways, people continue to live and to update their lives, updating the life of the culture and never bowing to a crippling reverence for the old. The city is just that: a city, not a monument, not a relic. It is alive, and - and only and - it's old. There's no reason to check your cellphone at the door. I take a sip of tea.

Across from me sits a man in his 70's wearing a gray suit and a brocade black cap. He sips contentedly at his tea, and at his pipe, making no attempt to speak to anyone, happy to sit, to ponder, to watch. It would be easy to assume that he is contemplating his life, seeking meaning in the bubbles, in the passing-on of this traditional place to the next generation of future old men; but something in his way of being tells me otherwise. He is simply sitting, enjoying, passing his time in the present tense, his keen eyes focusing on the people around him. Including me, watching him. We exchange slight smiles followed by simultaneous pulls from our pipes. Bubbles. Inhale. Release. The cloud of smoke clears. And we each look away, at the activity of the room.

There is a mellow buzz to this place. The babble of several simultaneous conversations. The low rattle of bubbling water. The constant circulation of the middle-aged men in their blue smocks, delivering new fire, delivering new tea, delivering new nargile, clearing away the empty glasses and pipes. And there is also the continuous clinking of spoon on glass, glass on china, china on marble. "Cai, cai, cai," I hear to my right. He has a tray full of glasses, a stack of saucers, a pile of spoons and sugar cubes, chanting as he walks. "Cai, cai, cai." I nod as he passes. Glass on saucer, cubes and spoon alongside, clink, clink, slap, it hits the table, and he walks on. Prometheus makes his rounds, replacing my shrinking coals with new ones. And he walks on. I sip, and sip. And sit.

Through my passing time in Corlulu -- for a single nargile can last an hour or more -- people leave, and more arrive. It is close to 6 pm now, and the after-work crowd has begun to assemble. In ties with briefcases. In pairs, in groups, alone. There are perhaps fifty people now, but still the energy is subdued in its upbeat fashion. A phone rings, someone turns the crackling pages of a newspaper. I catch the word "DEPREM" - earthquake - in a headline before the leaf is folded over. Another man only smokes, puffing continually and slowly in short bursts, eyes looking nowhere, casting off the stresses of his day. "Cai, cai, cai." The man doesn't look up, but only puffs and puffs. I puff as well for a while, and watch the exhaled smoke, like the energy of thought, drift up into the canopy of leaves.

For awhile I too get lost in my thoughts, a natural response to the atmosphere of quiet bustle, of tea and tobacco, relaxing stimulant. My mind, free of constraint and of the overwhelming color-splatter of the afternoon's wandering through the city's interlocking bazaars, leads me meanderingly, through histories and how they are made, the myriad lives and stories accumulated in a single place and then lost to the recordless eons, the people sitting at family dinner tables, watching marketstalls, playing backgammon, the private and the public, bubbles of life, pulled through the water of time, inhaled by societies and released into the gentle breezes, there to fade into the broad clockless sky. It all begins with birth, or fire. Istanbul is a thriving place, full of age and youth, generating and generated by wave upon wave of interminably turbulent politics and empires. And it continues, a testament to the perseverance of energy itself. As more people come and go and drain their glasses and suck their smoke I wonder about their various lives and lifestyles, where they bought their shoes and how they chose them, what they have in common with the friends who share their nargile, passing the hose between them like a baton in a relay. This present tense is the real history, the catalytic grist of everyday that enables the past, that promises the future. Do these people realize the value of their anonymous place in time? Time which is ignorant of identity and calendars, empires and relationships?

"Cai, cai, cai." This call, immediately followed by the howling, winding, mournful, hopeful, beautiful call to prayer from a minaret just visible in the near distance over the colonnade to my right, pulls my thoughts back into the room. I nod: clink, clink, slap. I raise the hose to my lips and inhale, as time flows effortlessly on, seconds, minutes, an hour, and onward. I sit, and drink, and watch.

The coals have sunk deep into the bowl now. I exhale one last lungful of sweet apple smoke, pause, and taking an equally deep breath of pure air unfiltered by any device, I exhale that as well.

Rising, I wend my way through the chairs and tables, pay the man in the blue smock near the archway, and exit, only glancing back once at the sign above the door. Traditional mystic waterpipe indeed. And with my evening and my life ahead of me, reenter the bustling noisy world of the busy commercial avenue in Istanbul's old city.