Over at the Harper’s blog, you can read the piece that grew out of the time I spent last summer in the oldest urban gardens in Istanbul, which are being destroyed to make way for developers. I was there watching Jonathan Solari and Courtney Nelson of New Brooklyn Theatre produce their adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which drew attention to the plight of these historic gardens that have remained the livelihood of small Turkish farmers for centuries. Because the story of how they adapted this 1904 Russian play for a Turkish market garden couldn’t fit in my Harper’s piece, I’m posting it here. Thanks to Courtney and Jonathan for letting me watch them work; I’m very grateful. Thanks also to Yaprak Ünver and Almira Seda Ince for helping me communicate better with Ahmet Öztürk, who is at the heart of this story.
Ahmet Öztürk, as Firs, lights candles on set (Photo, Kristina Williamson)
Last August in Istanbul’s old city, it was opening night of a new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. A slight, gray-haired man stooped to light candles in the many wooden crates that had been lined up and stacked on the dusty ground to form the outlines of a stage. It was tough going. Repeatedly, the man cupped one hand around a candle and brought the lighter to it. Repeatedly, the first flicker of a flame was snuffed out by the same wind that stiffly rippled the deep red Turkish flag overhead. Shadows were gathering, and the last strains of the call to prayer were dwindling. Only a handful of what must have been more than fifty candles had been lit. The smattering of an audience, seated on bright plastic stools or cross-legged on mats, glanced over at the man from time to time, uncertain what to make of him. Patiently, the man approached other clusters of candles, shielding each new flame with the curve of his hand, waiting to see if it would hold, bringing the lighter again to the wick when the wind rose up. Standing at the very back of the audience, where the bare earth shaded into mulberry and fig trees, was a young American theater director named Jonathan Solari. He watched the candles flare and flicker out.
Six weeks before, Jonathan had never heard of Ahmet Öztürk, the gray-haired farmer who was now lighting and relighting the candles on a small plot of his market garden that had become the stage for New Brooklyn Theatre’s production of The Cherry Orchard. But earlier in the year, some Turkish acquaintances of Jonathan’s had asked him to stage a site-specific production that would draw attention to the plight of Istanbul’s oldest market gardens. These Ottoman-era market gardens, what the Turkish call bostans, are threatened in much the same way as the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s play. Ultimately, an ax fells the cherry orchard to make way for summer homes; when Jonathan arrived at the bostans last July, bulldozers had already razed half of them, and construction plans for a recreational area had been announced. Luxury villas were also rumored to be in the works.
The Cherry Orchard, though, is not a play that offers easy answers. Chekhov’s 1904 comedy of manners is the story of a family’s loss of its land and history: In the waning years of czarist Russia, the estate of a debt-ridden aristocratic family is to be auctioned off—yet the family is too mired in the past to save it. Instead, the land eventually goes to a former serf, now a wealthy merchant, who has no intention of preserving the orchard. Both Ranevskaya, the spendthrift matriarch, and Lopakhin, the self-made businessman, are as frustrating as they are sympathetic. It is impossible to take the side of either one.
In this respect, the play was in keeping with the mission of New Brooklyn Theater. Founded in 2012 by a literature professor, Jeff Strabone, and his former student, Jonathan, the theater company stages provocative plays that are followed by talk-backs, which are meant to be something like a community forum. When I first spoke with Jonathan, on a bus from Atatürk Airport to Taksim Square, this attitude was very present in his mind. “We can’t show that we’ve taken a side,” he said to me. He seemed almost apologetic as he said it, knowing what he did about the development threatening the bostans. But his point was clear enough: you can’t start a productive conversation with a bullhorn.
Instead, Jonathan and his frequent collaborator, Courtney Nelson, arrived in Istanbul with a copy of Vişne Baçesi, as Chekhov’s play is called in Turkish. It was a respected translation, and the bilingual friend who had first urged Jonathan to take on the project had typed the corresponding English words above the Turkish text. However, Jonathan knew they couldn’t perform the play in its entirety. A full performance of The Cherry Orchard can last up to three hours; their performance in the bostans, he knew, would need to be shorter and more focused. As was the case with other site-specific productions he’d done, the idea was to engage an audience who may not normally go to the theater and, ideally, to compel them to look at the site with new eyes.
Jonathan Solari, at right, in the bostans. (Photo, Courtney Nelson)
Jonathan is a bright-eyed man with an easy grin. He never gives the impression of expecting too much—“starting a conversation” is about as much as he’ll own up to as the goal for any given production. But at age twenty-eight, he’d already attracted a lot of attention. New Brooklyn Theater had been invited to the Yedikule bostans based in part on Jonathan’s recent, provocative staging of The Death of Bessie Smith, an Edward Albee one-act in which a black woman bleeds to death outside the doors of a whites-only hospital in 1930s Memphis. Jonathan staged it in a hospital slated for closure in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where black and Latino residents were already facing a healthcare shortage. The production and its post-show talk-backs drew a lot of media attention to the problem. It seemed to help. Today, the hospital remains open. It was clear that those invested in saving the bostans had high hopes for the production that Jonathan would direct in Istanbul.
The necessity of adapting The Cherry Orchard, then, raised a number of intriguing questions. What was essential to the play? What was its core? And which of its elements were essential to telling the story of the historic bostans? So far, Jonathan and Courtney hadn’t tinkered with the script at all. They didn’t know enough, Jonathan said. What they wanted was to hear more from the people who knew the bostans.
Plots of Ahmet Öztürk’s bostan in between the Yedikule walls (Photo, Erich Strom)
Nowadays the Marmaray, Istanbul’s newest commuter rail line, will deposit you just across a busy highway from the neighborhood of Yedikule. From the elevated platform, above the car dealerships and the buses and taxis that wait just outside the station, it’s possible to spot some craggy outcroppings against a sky that, on a hot summer’s day, seems smudged with heat. These are the westernmost gates and towers of the fifth-century city walls. These parallel fortifications of brick and stone protected Constantinople from siege up until 1453—when the Ottomans attacked with cannon fusillade. The conquering Ottomans added three towers to the four existing Byzantine ones to form the fortress that gives this neighborhood its name: Yedikule means “Seven Towers.” Yet for Istanbulites, “Yedikule” is also synonymous with the special variety of romaine lettuce grown in these bostans. In a nineteenth-century political cartoon, the neighborhood is represented not by its seven towers but by a head of its famous lettuce.
“İstanbul’un bazı metâ’yı” (Some of the wares of Istanbul). An 1847 cartoon from the Turkish satirical journal HAYAL. Yedikule, the head of lettuce, is #6. (Courtesy of the Ottoman History Podcast.)
Situated as it is, above an underground river, the land on either side of the Yedikule stretch of walls has always been used for growing crops. An edict in the fifth-century Theodosian Code—a collection of Roman laws published on the authority of the Byzantine emperor—granted farmers space to store produce and agricultural tools inside the towers of the land walls. And the Geoponika, a tenth-century compendium of Byzantine agricultural practices, provides a record of planting cycles and produce that resemble those of the market gardens today. This remarkable continuity is due in large part to the masters of vegetable production themselves, who have passed on their skills and knowledge over generations and waves of migration. In the early Ottoman era, those masters were Greeks and Armenians, who gradually passed their knowledge on to Bulgarian farmers, who were in turn followed by Albanians and eventually by migrants from Cide, a Black Sea region of Turkey, whose descendents tend the few remaining gardens today. Bostancı, the word for these men, is not the Turkish for “farmer” or “gardener;” it is unique to those who tend the bostans.
From Book VII of the tenth-century Geoponika. (Trans. Andrew Dalby, 2011)
A bostan is an in-between space. Unlike a farm, a market garden is part of the urban landscape itself: necessarily close to the market, it is tucked in between homes and businesses and—in the case of Yedikule—land walls and fortress towers. And a market garden produces far more than a typical garden: on an average of 8,000 square meters, or just over two acres, most of them grow up to 30 tons of crops each year. Up to the 1970s, Istanbul was sustained by the vegetables grown within its bostans.
Jonathan and Courtney needed a guide to the Yedikule bostans—someone who could navigate not only the interlocking plots of purslane and parsley, purple basil and mint, but also the gap between bostancı and outsider. That was Aleks Sopov. Aleks’ sun-browned face and mop of dark hair were a regular sight among the leafy plots and crates of just-picked vegetables. The bostancıs greeted him affably, and he chatted with them in fluent Turkish, and occasionally Albanian, addressing the men with the honorific Bey: Ahmet Bey, Mustafa Bey, Cemil Bey. With Courtney and Jonathan, he spoke in slightly accented English, pointing out the eighteenth-century stone wells that drop twenty feet to the river underground, explaining the grid-like precision of the irrigation system that Bulgarian bostancıs brought to the gardens in the seventeenth century, and making the introductions between the bostancıs and the two Americans.
Looking down into one of the bostans’ eighteenth-century stone wells, which drops twenty feet to a river underground. (Photo, Erich Strom)
Aleks himself is Macedonian and a doctoral student at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies; Jonathan’s Turkish acquaintances in the same department had connected the two. He had spent the past seven summers in the bostans, coming to know the Ottoman agricultural practices still used there today as he researched his dissertation on the subject. He has learned from the bostancıs, planting alongside them and hoeing earth to form the channels of an irrigation grid. But Aleks was important to Jonathan and Courtney not just because of his knowledge of the market gardens. It was Aleks who introduced them to Ahmet Bey.
A bostancı in Ahmet Öztürk’s bostan prepares plots for planting in July of 2014 (Photo, Erich Strom)
Ahmet Öztürk—or Ahmet Bey, as we learned to call him—is a small, wiry man in his early fifties. His family, hailing from the Black Sea region of Turkey, has farmed this land for three generations (“super-bostancı,” was how he described his father to me). The family’s gently terraced market garden unfolds over 3,050 square meters, producing more than 20 tons of vegetables and fruit every year, including black cabbage, parsley, purslane, arugula, tomatoes, and gourds, shaded here and there by fig and mulberry trees. Ahmet Bey remembers when the passing of a car outside the gardens was a rare event. Now there is a continuous stream of traffic on the narrow road that winds past his bostan and through the Yedikule Gate just a few meters ahead. The nearby industrial district of Kazlıçeşme began expanding in the early twentieth century, but while this growth has largely halted, Ahmet Bey’s bostan first came under threat in 2006, when Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) declared the Yedikule gardens a “renewal zone” and slated them for redevelopment. The first bostans were bulldozed in September of that year to make room for the construction of residential buildings, which were completed four years later.
Just beyond the sun-bleached, craggy span of land wall bordering Ahmet Bey‘s garden, one could see the barren expanse of dirt and rubble that were all that remained of a neighboring bostan. In July of 2013, bulldozers had again been sent in by the local municipality. In handheld videos of the destruction, it’s heart-wrenching to watch farmers and garden workers—mostly women in headscarves and long skirts—cry out against the machines that are heaping shovelfuls of dirt over the lush green of the bostan. Later, as the bulldozing has visibly progressed, the women bend silently to salvage what remaining plants they can, the rumble of the machines the only sound.
Bulldozers in the bostans, July 2013. (Via webtv.radikal.com.tr)
Ahmet Bey’s bostan remains for now. It is one of the two remaining bostans in Yedikule, where fifteen of them clustered along the walls as recently as 1998. While Ahmet has not yet received an eviction notice, three years ago the municipality increased his rent fivefold. When I spoke to him last summer, he estimated he was $200,000 in arrears..
Further demolition and construction were halted last summer after the discovery of fraud in the bid for a contractor—a common enough practice in the current administration, which is very cozy with the construction industry. For over a year, the razed land remained empty: rubbish heaps accumulated, and small groups of children played in the wreckage. There was speculation that the leaders of the local municipality were waiting to resume construction after the series of local and national elections that were held in the spring and summer of 2014. What was clear, though, was that the bulldozers would return. The municipality had not retracted its plans.
Razed land on the side of the walls opposite from Ahmet Öztürk’s bostan in July 0f 2014 (Photo, Courtney Nelson)
However, a small, vocal group formed in reaction to the first round of bulldozing. Aleks was among the members of the Initiative for the Preservation of the Yedikule Market Gardens, which includes architects, archeologists, historians, journalists, and students. After an initial demonstration last summer, the members of the group turned to educating the community about the bostans. Their Historical School of Yedikule Market Gardens has brought various scholars, artists, and bostancıs to give lectures or presentations, typically in Ahmet Bey’s garden. In the fall of 2014, the group began a weekly play school for children that aimed to familiarize them with the bostans and, at the same time, involve their parents. There have also been several attempts to educate the local government. Aleks located a document from 1773 that states the holdings of the bostans at that time, detailing their owners, employees, borders, and infrastructure. Alongside other historians, he presented it to the municipality to demonstrate the value of the bostans as a living historical site. The group also submitted an application to the Council for the Preservation of Cultural Properties on behalf of the eighteenth-century wells and water pools so crucial to the gardens—but nothing came of it. The council often acts with political interest, one of the Initiative members told me. The group’s goal, members told me over email, was to steer the municipality toward a design approach that preserves the bostans while allowing for some kind of public access that helps to regenerate the neighborhood. “We are refraining from producing a plan,” one of the members explained to me, “as the planning and design of this park should involve the neighborhood, the gardeners and concerned citizens like us.” This production of The Cherry Orchard, tucked in beside the black cabbage and the fig trees, was meant to draw more people into that discussion.
The Cherry Orchard, however, has its own complicated history in Turkey. As it happens, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the war hero who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, also believed theater to be a powerful means of communicating ideas to the public at large. He founded the State Theatre and Opera with the understanding that performances of state-approved works could promote the modern, Western attitudes he strove to instill in his nascent republic. Chekhov’s plays, it turns out, made the list of state-approved works. And, when you consider, say, The Cherry Orchard, or Ivanov, or Three Sisters, it’s not hard to see why. Chekhov’s plays chronicle the decline of the landed gentry—circumstances that resonated with the newly established Turkish Republic as it struggled to emerge from the shadow of the Ottoman sultanate. A Turkish director with a Westernizing agenda could certainly nudge these plays into an affirmation of the country’s rising bourgeoisie. Productions that present Lopakhin, the clever and industrious businessman, as the story’s unequivocal hero are still common in Turkey. It’s a simplified interpretation of the play that, in fact, seems quite neatly aligned with President Erdoğan’s zeal for commercial land development even at the cost of his country’s rich architectural and natural history. Erdoğan, who grew up in an Istanbul neighborhood that has the distinction of being the lowest valued property on the Turkish Monopoly board, and who, last August parlayed his full twelve years as prime minister into his present role as the country’s first elected president, can surely compete with Lopahkin when it comes to bootstrapping.
A scene from Act 3 of The Cherry Orchard’s first run, in 1904, at the Moscow Art Theatre. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)
Understandably, then, Yaprak Ünver, an actress and friend of Aleks’, was puzzled when she learned of the plan to stage The Cherry Orchard in the troubled gardens. “I had been taught to read the message of the play as ‘okay, it’s time to get with the times and get to work,’” she explained to Jonathan and Courtney. Where, she wanted to know, were the bostancıs in this story? Yaprak was home for the summer after her first year of study at New York’s Stella Adler Studio. Not long after Jonathan and Courtney had made their first visit to the bostans, the three of them met again on a sweltering late afternoon. The café where they sat was not far from Taksim Square, where massive demonstrations had broken out in the summer of 2013 in response to the Erdoğan administration’s plans to level nearby Gezi Park and build an Ottoman-themed shopping mall.
Over hot coffee and glasses of cold water (iced coffee being hard to come by), Yaprak and the two directors began to talk about the play, the bostans, and the disconcerting pace of commercial development in Turkey. She nodded in the direction of construction that had recently begun on the controversial third bridge to span the Bosphorus, allowing drivers another route between the European and Asian sides of the city. “Things are changing constantly here,” Yaprak said. She has a calm, focused way of speaking that tends to hold people’s attention. After talking a bit more with Courtney and Jonathan that afternoon, she had begun to nod thoughtfully at the strands of The Cherry Orchard they were tugging at: The family that has failed to properly look after the estate. The businessman who has failed to recognize the value of preserving it. Courtney thought the audience could be made to recognize themselves in the family that has taken the land for granted. “The family’s inaction should be a call to action,” she said. A minor character, the aged family servant, was especially interesting to Jonathan and Courtney. Firs, as he is called, has become inseparable from the estate, having served there longer than any of the others have been alive. His enduring connection to the land made them think of the bostancıs. Throughout the play, he hovers in the background. Jonathan and Courtney wanted to draw him out.
Firs is the only surviving link to the orchard’s once vital past. Significantly, none of the other characters have much luck understanding him; he is always muttering about a time they don’t recognize. When Lopakhin first suggests to Ranevskaya that she chop down the old cherry orchard and build summer cottages on the land, Firs murmurs something about the dried cherries and preserves that were, in the old days, prepared on the estate. “They were tender, juicy, sweet, tasty,” he says, half to himself. But it turns out the recipe has been lost. When Ranevskaya asks him about it, Firs replies, “It’s forgot. Nobody remembers.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the bostans is what the bostancıs remember. The crops they plant and the soil they grow them in are a living iteration of Byzantine agriculture. And they, in their everyday methods of planting and irrigating, recall the Ottoman bostancıs of hundreds of years ago. Aleks had read plenty about the intricate irrigation grids that compose a bostan, but it wasn’t until he worked alongside the bostancıs that he learned how to form one of the interlocking squares himself. “This,” he said, his foot nudging a narrow berm of soil along the side of a shallow water channel, “is much harder to make than it looks.”
Water flows through irrigation channels in Ahmet Öztürk’s bostan. July, 2014. (Photo, Erich Strom)
On their first walk through the remaining bostans, Jonathan and Courtney had spotted the unplanted plot of land where they could imagine staging the play. At the time, Ahmet Bey was cultivating beds of thick-leaved purslane on either side of it. Not long after their meeting with Yaprak, Aleks went with them to ask Ahmet Bey if they could use the fallow plot. As Aleks explained the logistics of the staging to Ahmet one evening, the bostancı squinted in concentration, nodding as Aleks gestured at the land they stood on, his face gradually lightening into a grin. He nodded at Jonathan and Courtney. A week later, Ahmet Bey helped them stake out the perimeter of their stage.
Aleks (l) explains to Ahmet Öztürk (r) Jonathan and Courtney’s idea to use a plot of his bostan as their stage. (Photo, Erich Strom)
Although Courtney first considered the possibility of a stage that was itself a garden plot grown up green and leafy, the destruction surrounding Ahmet Bey’s bostan was hard to ignore. When the bulldozers had come the summer before, an older bostancı’s house was leveled along with his bostan. Tired of the fight, he left his land to a younger bostancı. The day that Aleks led Jonathan and Courtney through the barren grounds, the man and his son were pushing a wheelbarrow full of rubble. They were trying to rebuild the house, Aleks said. It was an image that returned to Courtney when she thought about designing the show. In the rubbish heaps of the ruined bostans, she found her set: the warped and muddied sides of cabinetry, cracked tabletops without their legs, battered plywood and pallets. Courtney pieced them all together to form a motley stage framed by stacks and rows of the lightweight wooden crates the bostancıs use for transporting crops to market. From the stage, two walkways of uneven planks led to two pairs of faded wooden doors in various states of disrepair. These marked the actors’ entrances and exits.
The main entrance to the stage. (Photo, Kristina Williamson)
Gradually, the process of adapting Chekhov’s play brought the bostans into focus for Jonathan and Courtney. In whittling down the play from twelve characters to six and a performance time of forty-five minutes, in refining the language, in learning it once Yaprak had translated it into Turkish, and in watching a Turkish cast begin to alter that language as they spoke it, Jonathan and Courtney had to think hard about what they wanted the words to reflect. They decided that their adaptation should contain no specific references to place or time, so that the story might have unfolded decades ago or now, in Istanbul or Brooklyn. But inevitably, the language and the site illuminated each other. “We are going irresistibly toward a bright star burning there in the distance!” the idealistic student, Trofimov, cries out. In Ahmet Bey’s bostan, where the white star of the Turkish flag rippled above, the words took on an uneasy resonance. And, as the play nears its end, Lopakhin at last reclines all alone in the estate he’s just purchased and is about to tear down. “It’s as if I’ve never seen before what kind of walls this house has,” he muses. Behind this production’s Lopakhin was the inescapable fact of the Theodosian land walls, which were there when the first gardens were planted.
“We are going irresistibly toward a bright star burning there in the distance!” the idealistic student, Trofimov (Canberk Doğalı) cries out. (Kristina Williamson)
In Chekhov’s play, Firs is a similar presence. Jonathan and Courtney saw the character as a way to bring out the bostancıs in the story, to show how a person can contain a crucial history and still be disregarded. Their only problem was that, six days away from opening night, they had no actor to play Firs. Finding enthusiastic actors in Istanbul to play the younger characters had not been too difficult: they had a high-energy Lopahkin, a histrionic Ranevskaya, an apple-cheeked Anya, a hipster Trofimov, and Yaprak as Ranevskaya’s nun-like foster daughter, Varya. But finding an actor who could convincingly play the estate’s eighty-seven-year-old manservant proved trickier. That was when they decided to ask Ahmet Bey if he would take on the role. Ahmet Bey’s response, as Yaprak told him about his character, was to laugh. “He wants to know,” Yaprak said to Jonathan, “how you’re going to make him look old.”
As Lopakhin (Ferit Çelik) surveys the walls of the estate, Firs (Ahmet Öztürk) lurks in the background, as always. (Photo, Kristina Williamson)
Rehearsals took place on the now dusty plot of earth—unplanted and unwatered over the course of the production, its increasing dryness was a testament to the efficiency of those irrigation grids. The cast and crew would sweat each day in the intense sun and go home each evening lightly dusted in grit. Rehearsal began each afternoon whenever a critical mass of the cast could assemble; it ended after the sky had darkened and the heat of the day had cooled into a breeze that made people shiver and pull on sweatshirts. Friends of Ahmet Bey would often pull up stools and sit, watching the rehearsals as the sun went down. Sometimes a neighbor or Ahmet Bey’s wife would call from a lower level of the bostan, and Ahmet Bey would either shoo them away or hold up one finger to the rest of the cast and hurry out to see what was wanted of him. One close friend of Ahmet Bey’s, a heavy, graying man named Cemil, came every evening, steadily observing the young actors and director. As Jonathan and Courtney worked to build the set in the oppressive heat, Cemil Bey and another friend of Ahmet Bey’s would bring them figs from the nearby trees, telling them to pause and eat. Cemil Bey came to be a familiar presence in the makeshift theater. Occasional amusement flickered in his eyes, but mainly his face remained impassive, and watchful.
Having Ahmet Bey physically there, on stage, meant that certain lines fell away. But Chekhov, too, had reshaped some of the Cherry Orchard characters to better suit the actors at the Moscow Arts Theater in 1904. As the actors rehearsed in Ahmet Bey’s bostan, some lines that had been given to Firs in the adaptation now seemed wrong and were cut. Others fell away out of necessity: there were very few days until opening night, and Ahmet Bey simply wasn’t able be there for all the hours of rehearsal. Jonathan knew, though, that the old servant’s continual presence on stage was key. Firs, it was thus decided, would busy himself lighting and relighting the candles that glowed all along the stage. The idea had a mythic quality to it— this silent figure who keeps the fires burning. But it was also appropriately prosaic: an old man, going about his work as the rest of the world ignores him. I had thought something similar when we first arrived at the bostans, hidden away as they were between a busy road and avenue.
The lines of Firs that did remain came to seem essential. There is a moment early on in the play when Ranevskaya has just returned to the estate after five years away. In the Yedikule adaptation, Firs interrupts her reverie to tell her who among the household staff has died during her absence. “Nyanya died,” he says at first, abruptly. Then, “Anastasya died.” Jonathan had cut the entire exchange in the first few days of rehearsal, in an effort to make Ahmet Bey’s role more manageable. But Ahmet Bey came to him and, via Yaprak, told him that he would like those lines to remain. His insistence on those lines made sense to me: He had worked all his life on this bostan among many other people, those who farmed alongside him, those who came to pick, those who cooked meals for the workers. Over the decades, he had seen many of them pass away, including his father. Further back were the waves of migrants who came to farm the bostans over the nearly 400 years of the Ottoman Empire and into the new republic, each group passing down or adding their skills to the others, each group passing away.
Firs (Ahmet Öztürk) interrupts Ranevskaya (Özgecan Ayhan) to tell her who among the household staff has died during her absence. Lopakin (Ferit Çelik) looks on. (Photo, Kristina Williamson)
The day after opening night, a strange thing happened. On that second night’s performance of Vişne Baçesi, what had been booked as a full house was instead full of empty seats. By the time the call to prayer sounded, which Jonathan had come to regard as the five-minute call, less than half the seats had been filled. What had happened, he realized, was that the Initiative had reserved the majority of the seats that evening—and then left them empty.
When I saw Jonathan after that evening’s performance, I asked him what was going on. Aleks, he said, had called for the play to be canceled. Jonathan continued talking for a few moments before I interrupted him. “Wait,” I said. “Aleks?” Aleks?” Yes, Aleks. He had followed a Twitter accusation down the internet rabbit hole and concluded that New Brooklyn Theatre, in its negotiations to secure a theater in Bed-Stuy, was guilty of gentrification. He and the Initiative for the Preservation of the Yedikule Market Gardens had emailed the actors that afternoon to inform them. According to the Initiative, the theater company stood for the very thing that was threatening the market gardens. The Initiative refused to be a tool of such hypocrisy. Acknowledging the difficult position in which this placed many people, the group nonetheless invited the actors to join them in deciding what action to take. With love and in solidarity, the email was signed.
And yet, the Initiative’s boycott of that night’s performance had not turned out to be such a bad thing. The people who came to the performance had been drawn largely from the surrounding neighborhood, attracted by the large Vişne Bahçesi banner hung just outside the garden, near a stand selling the new crop of figs. As the cast and crew gathered for a talk-back after the performance, Yaprak doing her best to negotiate the proceedings in both Turkish and English, the people in the audience began to ask questions. “What is happening in the bostans?” one woman wanted to know. Another woman, who had come with her husband and two children, said she liked the idea of the recreational park the municipality had planned; there was nowhere nearby for her kids to play. Was there room for the bostans and a park? Others discussed what the development project would do to property values. Yet they were, over all, concerned about the loss of the market gardens that defined their neighborhood. Toward the end of the discussion, one man stood up and said there weren’t enough Vişne Bahçesi posters up around the neighborhood. He offered to take a stack and post them.
Ahmet Öztürk (left) gestures from the fig stand in front of his bostan as Jonathan Solari and Courtney Nelson unfurl the banner for the evening’s performance. (Photo, Kristina Williamson)
Two days later, a Saturday, Yaprak got a call from Ahmet Bey’s watchful friend, Cemil Bey. Aleks and another member of the Initiative were at the bostan. They were trying to persuade Ahmet Bey that New Brooklyn Theatre was a problem. Cemil Bey suggested that Yaprak tell Jonathan and Courtney to come. When the three of them got to the shelter inside the bostan, two more members of the Initiative had arrived. Cemil Bey was waiting with Ahmet Bey. There was about an hour and a half of passive aggressive arguing before people began to shout, Yaprak told me. The Initiative had learned of New Brooklyn Theatre’s collaboration with developers in Bed-Stuy. The developers were planning an apartment complex that would have demolished a historic theater, but Jonathan and the company’s chair had convinced them to give the theater space to New Brooklyn. Condos would go up, but the theater would stay. According to Yaprak, Jonathan and Courtney tried to explain the situation, but the Initiative members had already made up their minds.
“What do you want from us?” Jonathan finally asked. “We want you to cancel the play,” was the reply. By then the meeting, such as it was, had gone on long enough that audience members had begun to wander in through the plywood and chicken wire gate. What time did the show start?, they wanted to know. Jonathan turned to the members of the Initiative. “Do we have a show tonight?” he asked. They were silent.
But it wasn’t their decision to make. It was Ahmet Bey’s bostan. Courtney told me that she hated how it seemed as if Ahmet Bey had been asked to pick a side. In the end, though, he did not quite. He had known Aleks longer, he explained to Courtney and Jonathan. He trusted Aleks. On the other hand, he was committed to the play. And Cemil Bey, who had been watching all those afternoons, was firm in his opinion: the play should go on. So it did.
Ahmet Öztürk’s friend Cemil. (Photo, Kristina Williamson)
As the weeks went on, audiences grew. People who had never seen the bostans were coming and asking questions. People were adding their names to a list of bostans supporters. Reporters and photographers were coming to the performances. Different guests joined the talk-back every night: a member of parliament, a historian, an architect; one night, a retired bostancı named Riza took part. At least four national papers ran stories. CNN Türk came to film the play and interview Jonathan and Yaprak. And there was the group of local kids who came to watch the play every night for a week. They trickled in along with the regular audience, hung out during the talk-back, and helped clean up afterward, stacking the stools and removing the many candles from the crates so they wouldn’t melt in the heat of the sun. It turned out they had never seen a play before, the told Yaprak. They wanted to see how things got worked out in the next episode. By the last week of the run, the stools and carpets were filled with all sorts of people: people from the neighborhood, people who just liked theater, people who had heard about the trouble in the bostans. Yaprak told me that she was ultimately glad that fewer and fewer organized activists came to the performances; it meant that there were more and more locals, more people who wanted to know what was happening in their city. “They were more open and less cynical,” she said. More open, as it was, to having a conversation.
The audience leans forward during a post-show talk-back. (Photo, Kristina Williamson)
When Ahmet Bey first learned that his character, Firs, is left alone, old and infirm, by the other characters on the soon-to-be demolished estate, he wanted to know what his character was supposed to do then. “I don’t know,” Jonathan said to him. “That’s what we figure out together.” In the original play, Firs lies down in the old house, presumably to die, as an ax striking a tree is heard far off in the orchard. It’s a powerful last image, the final link to the orchard’s past being cut down with it. But Jonathan was waiting to block the final scene. He needed to see how things worked themselves out in rehearsal.
One evening, Ahmet Bey came to Jonathan with something; the back page of his copy of the Vişne Baçesi script was filled with his handwriting. As he explained, via Yaprak, it was his short account of what was happening to the land he had grown up on. The other day, Jonathan had asked Ahmet Bey to come up with some lines to mutter as he tended to the candles throughout the performance. “If one could speak the language of those cherries, of those figs,” Ahmet Bey had written. “What they have seen. But these people have no respect for nature. No respect for trees. They want to cut them all down. We dug this well with our own hands so that the water would flow out. But they do not respect this labor either.” Jonathan was astounded. He was so taken with the lines Ahmet Bey had written that he decided he wanted Firs to speak them at the very end of the play. They would incorporate them into Firs’ final monologue.
And so, on that first night of the play in August, Lopahkin exited the stage, snuffing out the last of the candles that Firs had managed to light. The old servant watched silently. Then he sat himself down on a bench fashioned of wooden crates. The glow from the candles was gone; the artificial glare of a few city lamps was all that lit the stage that had been cobbled together from the abandoned things in a ruined bostan. Now the audience strained to hear Ahmet Bey’s quiet voice on the darkened stage. The rumble of cars continued just outside the bostan. Ahmet Bey looked out at the crowd as he spoke, his hands clasped in his lap. “If you ask me,” came Firs’ final line, “they are all good people, but they don’t know much.”
“If one could speak the language of those cherries, of those figs.” Ahmet Öztürk, as Firs, recites the lines that he wrote. (Photo, Kristina Williamson)
It is hard to know just what it would take to save the remaining Yedikule market gardens. On September 1st, Today’s Zaman reported that the destruction of one large bostan, begun in July 2013, would continue. The district was rezoned for commercial use, and construction began in October of 2014 on what would be a recreation area, an apartment complex, private healthcare and education facilities, and an underground parking lot. However, in late November, work was again halted, this time by the mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbaş. The plan, according to the Turkish press, is currently being reassessed by Istanbul’s municipality assembly.
The Cherry Orchard having finished its three-week run, Ahmet Bey began the early fall planting where the stage once was. He was planting a rare plot of marul, the special variety of romaine lettuce that, for centuries, the Yedikule bostans have been famous for. Those who know the lettuce will draw two fingers from the corners of their mouth to mimic its succulence. These days, however, very little marul is grown in the Yedikule bostans. The lettuce heads are tall and broad; they require the kind of space that is hard to come by in the diminished bostans.
Elsewhere in Istanbul, construction continued on the third bridge over the Bosphorus, on a new waterway that will run parallel to the strait, and on the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Airport—billed as the world’s largest. But these are just the headliners among the always-growing number of construction projects that have become synonymous with the Erdoğan administration. No one could accuse the administration of being mired in the past: it was construction that fueled Turkey’s remarkable economic growth during Erdoğan’s eleven years as prime minister. And as Erdoğan settles into the role of president, the trend shows no sign of ending. Yet as historic neighborhoods, forests, and farmland are cleared to make room for the global Istanbul that Erdoğan has said he envisions, it’s hard not to wonder whether there is room in Turkey’s future for its past. Here is Lopakhin, snuffing out the last of the candles. Is there any way to stop him?
The stage of The Cherry Orchard, or Vişne Bahçesi, in Ahmet Öztürk’s bostan, in the neighborhood of Yedikule, in the Fatih municipality, in the city of Istanbul. (Photo, Kristina Williamson)
* Thanks to Erich Strom and Amanda Culp for helping me shape this story. Kristina Williamson, Erich, and Courtney Nelson provided the pictures.