“Writing Is Spirit”: A Synchronous Meeting with Calligrapher Ömer Basdag
Meeting Ömer Basdag was yet another fabulous example of the synchronicity I experience whenever I go to Istanbul. People there have two expressions for serendipitous happenings: zuhurat and tefafuk. Both are old Ottoman words. The first means unexpected, unimagined, and often-fortuitous–some might add it holds a cosmic, if not divine, quality–while tefafuk translates as “nothing is coincidence.”
In the morning before meeting Ömer, I had visited a miniaturist I know in the Sultanahmet district hoping I could commission her to stylize a symbol of sorts, a physics equation, into something more beautiful than the Times New Roman rendition of <x|y>. Perhaps it was our language barrier coupled with my strange request that had her biting her lip, shaking her head and rifling through a container of brushes and pens, gesturing that she didn’t have the correct kind of tool. Commission or no commission, I understood she didn’t want anything to do with it.
Later that afternoon, I was passing by a shop along the tramline on Divanyolu Caddesi near the Çemberlitas tram station when the sheen of a metallic drum caught my eye. Stopping to admire it, the shopkeeper came outside. “I would be happy to personalize one for you, I am a calligrapher.”
Calligrapher? Did he say calligrapher?
He didn’t miss a beat before he was seated behind his desk with one of several calligraphy pens in hand. In no time he had scripted the most beautiful rendition of <x|y> I could ever have envisioned—one with arabesques, swirls, and dots that physicists worldwide would envy.
We agreed to meet to talk about his craft. Two weeks later, Ömer stayed on after his shift at his shop to meet with me and my friends Elsie and her husband Lutfu Alan, who translated for me. Two hours on we were brimming over with stories about how Ömer learned his craft and the challenges of developing his business Hat Yazi (Calligraphy Writing), now located in a coveted space smack in the middle of the tourist district, facing the tramline. In other words, prime real estate. “The whole world comes to this corner of Çimberlitas,” he said.
He and his brother Muhammet started the business about twenty years ago and their youngest brother Zafar joined them more recently. The three divided the day into thirds from about nine in the morning until eleven at night, seven days a week. Each took turns adorning the various items in their shop with calligraphy, anything from key chains to plates and traditional marbled paper, which the Turks call ebru. As far as I could tell, each of the brothers could write as exquisitely as the other. Like most forms of art, calligraphy requires continuous practice, writing by hand for hours each day.
Ömer said, “In middle school my brother Muhammet and I dreamed about learning to draw. Cartoons captivated us. My father told us to go out and find someone who could teach us.” Eventually they came across a man called Sinan Sinangil, a master calligrapher whose works hang in museums, government buildings, and private collections. “When we saw his work, we forgot all about drawing cartoons. We wanted to learn to write like him.” So they asked Sinan to teach them.
“Go away,” was the calligrapher’s response.
Ömer and his brother went back the next day and asked again.
“Go away. Everyone wants something from me.”
Sinan Sinangil’s response only served to increase the brothers’ obsession with the idea of learning calligraphy. Every day after school they watched the eccentric man—who always wore a checkered Panamanian-style hat and a shawl—as he drew his calligraphy. They observed him through his workshop window, out on the street, or sometimes inside Sinan’s studio for as long as the master would permit them to stay. Soon they realized that every paper on which the master calligrapher wrote for his customers was a sheet of stationery endorsing the Beşiktaş football team. If he ran out of it, Sinan would write “Beşiktaş” on whatever kind of paper he was writing on. No matter who asked for the commission, a diplomat or street cleaner, Sinan included the team’s logo. And if ever a game was on the television, Sinan tuned in while he worked.
“So after a couple of weeks of pursuing Sinan, he finally looked up from his work at my brother and me instead of shooing us away with the wave of his hand. ‘What’s your favorite football team?’ he asked. ‘Beşiktaş!’ we said.” Sinan told Ömer that he looked just like one of the star players and sent them home with homework. “It was the first and last time anyone ever thought I resembled a football player.”
Ömer and his brother did their homework and brought it back to Sinan’s studio but the calligrapher never answered the door. “We could hear him inside listening to music or having a conversation with others.” A few days later they found Sinan on the street by chance and showed the man their homework. “This is no good. Why did you not bring it to me last week?” Sinan said. They explained there was always a sign on his door saying Back in ten minutes.
“Did I not tell you the secret knock? Three times rapidly, then two more.”
Ömer and Muhammet used the secret knock for the next four years. “One day, someone had gotten fed up with that sign on his door and they wrote across it: ‘Which ten minutes will you be back, Sinan?’”
One of Ömer’s and his brother’s chores entailed cleaning up the shop that nevertheless was always untidy. Ömer liked sorting the papers because he could study his mentor’s work and even the work of Sinan’s mentor Emin Baran. Sinan and Emin were the only two men in Turkey who, at that time, could create calligraphy from both the Arabic script and the new Turkish script (which uses the Latin alphabet) in both composite and non-composite writing. Composite script resembles an image whereas non-composite script separates words on a line. Use of the new Turkish script became law around 1929 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk began Westernizing the country.
While there might be over one hundred teachers today who will teach calligraphy in Istanbul, Ömer and Muhammet learned from the most learned. When Ömer was sixteen, Sinan sent them on their way. “I think he realized we were studying their papers a little too closely as we were sorting.” Perhaps Sinan worried about competition from the students he trained so well?
In 1997 the first Ramadan fairs were sponsored by the Eminönü Municipality at the Hippodrome, the large cobblestone promenade and gardens beside the Blue Mosque. Ömer and Muhammet showed the authorities their calligraphy and asked for a permit to set up a stand. As Omer and his brother hauled their kitchen table and chair out of their house, his father said to them, “Who is going to pay you boys for calligraphy? No one will come.” Their mother, on the other hand, draped a tablecloth over Ömer’s shoulder to help spruce up their booth.
It was cold and snowing the day they set up, but within minutes of the official opening, people lined up at their stand. “We charged two to five lira a piece. Customers mostly just wanted their names written.” When the brothers returned home the first night with their pants and jacket pockets stuffed with more money than they ever could have imagined, their father said, “Tell me the truth, where did you get this money!” Ömer said his parents raised seven children on a civil servant’s salary. The money they made by the end of the fair was inconceivable to them.
Ömer and his brother followed up by attending the Ramadan fairs in Adana, Ankara, and Izmir, deciding it was time to set up a shop of their own. They’d heard that the watch repairman near the Sultanahmet tram stop was ready to give up renting his space in the old hamam. “It was a two foot by two foot enclave in the fire exit stair well of the bathhouse. Every time we stood up, we hit our heads on the undersides of the steps.” Both Ömer and his brother are easily six foot tall.
During that time they were invited by a consortium of organizations—Turkish Airlines, Orion Tourism, Istanbul Municipality, and Doğan Holding—to travel abroad with other Turkish artists across North Africa and Europe. “They knew we drew crowds to the Turkish section.” They realized they had to develop frames for their work as most people asked for them. “We had simple aluminum frames back then.” Their current ones are mostly made of wood, either streamlined with smooth finishes or a more formal style with filigree.
After six years at the hamam, Ömer and his brother moved their shop around the corner from their current shop in Çemberlitas. They stayed there five years and moved into the present location at Divanyolu Caddesi No. 82 three years ago.
Soon after that Ömer was invited to Italy with the Tourism Board. They made his reservation for one day, the duration of the event in Rome. He asked them to extend his return flight for another five days so he could see the city. “I noticed all the artists along the street beside the Colosseum. So I brought a sample of my calligraphy to the mayor’s office and asked for a permit. The tourists kept me busy for 15 more days.”
Ömer said his experience in Italy convinced him that calligraphy touches something universal in people the world round. His stories convinced me, too. And they deepened the remorse I feel over the fact that schools in my country will stop teaching cursive writing, which in my view, is a prerequisite for developing other fine motor and artistic skills. I asked Ömer what he thought about all this.
“We have a saying here: ‘What people say will fly away, but what people write will not.’”
Ömer shared one last story to emphasize the power of handwriting. Turkish artists were invited to an arts festival in France and Ömer’s visa was declined. Rather than reapplying online or typing an official document, he sat down with his calligraphy pens. “I wrote a letter to the French Consul General here in Istanbul explaining that I’d always admired French artists and how I thought the French were deeply appreciative of the arts and how I wanted to share my work with them.” Ömer hand-delivered his message with gorgeous lettering on the envelope to a clerk at the consulate in Istanbul and took a seat in the crowded waiting room. Not long after, the Consul General himself came into the room and asked who wrote the letter. “He apologized and told me France would be honored to give me a visa.”
After Ömer finished his story a customer placed a pair of Converse sneakers on his desk, asking, would he please write his daughter’s name on them. “Why not?” Ömer said, grinning, sliding the flat-edge tip of his felt pen across the rubber toe guard on one shoe, then the other.
Turning to my friends and me, he said, “People have been etching and writing by hand since the beginning of humanity. If we lose handwriting, we lose a part of our humanness. Yardum Ruhyu Vardu, ‘Writing is spirit.’”
Once a month, PEN publishes blog posts by members of the Children’s/Young Adult Book Authors Committee. The Committee supports authors whose books have been challenged, sponsors school visits in New Orleans and NYC, plans public programs, and administers PEN’s children’s and YA awards.