The Ottomans were a cosmopolitan empire. At their height they encompassed numerous lands and peoples, from Eastern Europe, through Anatolia to the Middle East and North Africa. After their collapse, an ultra-nationalist Turkish Republic, now mainly in Anatolia and a sliver of Europe, painted all its citizens with a Turkish brush, denying the existence of ethnic diversity within the new country that had replaced the defunct empire.
Albania was a far away land for those of us who grew up Istanbul in the 1960s. In actual reality it was only a short flight from Istanbul, closer than Rome or Paris. But it was ruled by a severely repressive Stalinist regime and it was closed to the outside world. It may as well have been in the moon.
There were Albanians left in Istanbul from Ottoman times. The only one I knew was a crusty, cranky old guy named Ethem Efendi. He was the long standing kapıcı (doorman), of the English High School for Boys. I wasn’t entirely certain about all his job duties. He lived in the school building and he probably served as a custodian. When school was in session he guarded the door. He noted all late arrivals and chastised them. He prevented kids from sneaking out while classes were in session.
During lunch and recess he monitored the yard from his perch at the main gate and intervened, as best as his old body allowed, in any inappropriate behavior. There was plenty
We all considered him a grouchy, cantankerous old man, and we tried to stay out of his way. We knew that he had served the school for decades and as such, Ethem Efendi was a holdover from the glory days of EHS, when the school was a shining beacon of the great British Empire.
Decades later, as an adult, I discovered from other EHS alums that Ethem Efendi was no common kapıcı, a job often performed by illiterate Anatolian peasants. He was a one man institution at EHS, having served there since 1919. He was erudite and spoke four languages, Turkish, Russian, Greek and Bosnian. He added an element of elegance to what was then an elite school. His loyalty to the school was legendary.
In one often told anecdote, he was present during a fire in 1922 that devastated the dorms, when EHS was still a boarding school. There he encountered thieves who took advantage of the disaster and made off with some cooking ware from the school’s kitchen. As the story goes, he chased them all the way to Teşvikiye, a nearby neighborhood, apprehended them, and handed them to the police, in the process also retrieving the stolen kitchen items.
Prior to World War I, while a youth, Ethem Efendi had been employed by Ibrahim Hilmi Paşa, an Ottoman ambassador, as a comptroller. At the end of the war, fearful that the Paşa would be assigned elsewhere, he sought new work. This displeased his boss who accused him of being ungrateful to his nation. Panicked, he sought refuge in EHS, where was accepted as an employee. He did not leave until his retirement in 1971.
By then times had changed and the British had abandoned the school, letting it fall into hardship. The new kids, my contemporaries, were irascible, impolite and disrespectful compared to those of years past. Ethem Efendi was a tired old man that few of us cared about. His time had long come to pass and he was long overdue for retirement.
It happened while we were still an all-boys school. The memory of his retirement ceremony is indelibly marked in my memory. At the time I was probably around 13 or 14 years old. We all assembled in the school gym, the entire school body neatly lined class by class in military formation, with our two headmasters, Turkish and English, on stage. They announced the retirement of Ethem Efendi. He was returning to his native Albania.
Ethem Efendi was not a regular fixture of bi-weekly assemblies in the gym, where we sang the National Anthem Monday mornings and Friday afternoons and listened to sermons from our headmasters. On this occasion he entered the gym and waded slowly through the middle of the assembly, his body hunched down. When he eventually reached the stage, he received a salutary handshake from the duo of headmasters.
We all applauded vigorously, our applause genuine, for we were all glad to see him go.
Ethem Efendi was visibly moved by the ceremony and applause. As he descended the stage and trudged back out, tears appeared in his eyes, running through crusty wrinkles in his face. As he approached the exit, he surprised us with an unexpected proclamation. In a loud voice, sobbing, he screamed, “If I ever offended anyone, please accept my apologies.” He repeated this a few times, before faltering through the exit.
It was at that moment that I realized how much this man cherished us, rich, spoiled offsprings of affluent Istanbul that he had served for a lifetime. I understood his sadness at having to depart to his homeland and await death in solitude. His voice seared into my ears.
I was a young and immature, but I understood what it meant to be exiled, first away from your homeland and then, after so many decades of bonding with a student body, back to home. A two-way exile!
I felt for this old man at that moment like I had never done before.
His apology was surprising. To be sure he had indeed offended just about every student in some way or other. However, in our patriarchal Turkish culture that demanded respect to all elders, we had no right to demand any apology from Ethem Efendi, nor we did expect any.
In retrospect I realize that his apology reflected the deep chasm between him, a servant from a foreign land conquered by the Ottomans, and us, the best and brightest of the vibrant new Republic, its upper crust to be.
But it was not Ethem Efendi’s apology that made a deep impression on me. It was his emotion, his grief, expressed in the only outcry that he ever uttered, akin to a primal scream. This he did publicly and with no restraint, breaking down years of decorum.
Decades later as a doctor I had occasion to treat several school custodians who faced disability retirement from their jobs. They displayed similar emotions about their fates. It turns out that the job molds men into paternal devotion towards their student body. It is not the day to day tasks that these servers cherish but rather, the ceaseless interaction with countless kids over many years. This peculiar bond is tough to break, and when it happens, it evokes the same grief as the death of a loved one.
When I saw the tears of a fifty-something American school custodian with a bad back, after I announced to him that he could no longer work, Ethem Efendi suddenly emerged from the haze of my childhood memories. I could no longer make out his face, but his cries were still in my ears, loud and clear.