The Ottomans were a cosmopolitan empire. At their height they stretched through Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East and North Africa. In the aftermath of World War I, when the empire collapsed, it was replaced by a new Turkish Republic situated solely in Asia Minor and a sliver of Europe in Thrace. It was an ultra-nationalist republic that painted all its citizens with a Turkish brush, denying the existence of any ethnic diversity.
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 that 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. He lived in the school building and at times also served as a custodian. But his main job was to guard the gates when school was in session. He took note of all late comers 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 were plenty
We considered him a grouchy, cantankerous old ma, and tried to stay out of his way. We knew that he had served the school for decades. As such, Ethem Efendi was a holdover from the glory days of EHS, when the school was a shining Turkish 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, in 1922, when EHS was still a boarding school, he was present during a fire that devastated the dorms. Amid the crisis he encountered thieves who were making off with some cookware from the school’s kitchen. As the story goes, he chased them all the way to Teşvikiye, apprehended them, and handed them to the police, in the process retrieving the stolen items.
Prior to World War I, during his youth, Ethem Efendi had been employed as a comptroller by Ibrahim Hilmi Paşa, an Ottoman ambassador. At the end of the war, fearful that the Paşa would be assigned to a far away post he sought new work. This displeased his boss who accused him of being ungrateful to his nation. Frightened, he sought refuge in EHS, where was accepted as an employee. He stayed there until 1971, when he retired.
By then times had changed and the British had stopped subsidizing the school, letting it fall into financial hardship. The dorms were gone and Ethem Efendi had been relegated to the role of a mere kapıcı . The new students, 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. He was well beyond his heyday, long overdue for retirement.
It happened while we were still an all-boys school. The memory of his retirement ceremony is indelibly etched in my memory. At the time I was around 14 years old. We all assembled in the school’s gym, the entire school body neatly lined class by class in military formation. Our two headmasters, Turkish and English, stood on stage and 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 laboriously 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 him vigorously, our applause genuine, for we were glad to see him go.
Ethem Efendi was visibly moved by the ceremonious adulation. As he descended the stage and trudged back out, tears appeared in his eyes, running through crusty wrinkles in his face. We were all still at attention, in our neatly formed lines, facing the stage. Except for those lining the middle aisle, no one could see the diminutive old man walk out.But we could all hear him.
Just before exiting the gym, Ethem Efendi he surprised us with an unexpected proclamation. “If I ever offended anyone, please accept my apologies,” he said, his hoarse voice straining to be heard. He then began sobbing and repeated his plea before stumbling through the exit.
It was at that moment that I realized how much this man cherished us, the spoiled offsprings of affluent Istanbul that he had served for a lifetime. I understood his sorrow at departing what amounted to his main home and be exiled to a land of his birth, a foreign land he no longer knew, to await death.
His shrill cries were seared into my ears that day. Despite my youth and immaturity, I somehow understood the impact of the exile he faced, away from the new country that had become his home and from the student body to whom he had dedicated his life. At that moment, I felt for this old man like I had never done before.
His apology surprised me. To be sure he had indeed offended just about every student in some way or other. However, in our patriarchal Turkish culture that demanded unconditional respect for all elders, we had no right to an 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 the emotion, the grief with which he expressed in the only outcry that he ever uttered. This he did publicly and with no restraint, breaking 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 fate. 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 endless interaction with countless kids over many years. This unique bond is tough to break, and if that happens, the emotions evoked are the same as the death of a loved one.
When I saw tears running through the cheeks of a fifty-something American school custodian with a bad back, to whom I had just told 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 cry still rang in my ears, loud and clear.