Ara Jan, Goodbye…

‘Tarla Bashi’ by Ara Güler

Beirut. October 18, 2018. Thursday.

Mgrdich Ara Derderian, known as Ara Güler passed away today at the age of 90.

The story of my meeting the giant photographer took place many years ago, in Aleppo when I was a budding youngster fully in love with photography, a passion too big to be understood at that small age. I was learning how to use the Zenith camera, a gift from my godfather who had purchased it in Soviet Armenia during a recent trip.

It was a rainy autumn day in Aleppo. I had been given a copy of a magazine published in Venice, Italy by the Mekhitarist congregation. I was seated on the edge of the sofa situated by the large window that looked on the very narrow cobblestone street of our house (now bombed and non-existent due to the current war in Syria) in “Bab Al Nasr – Gate of Victory” district of the old city. Leafing through the colorful pages of the “Hay Endanik” (“Armenian Family”) magazine I came upon an article about a photographer in Istanbul named Ara Güler. One of Ara’s photographs attached to the article was a black and white image of a cobblestone street in Istanbul that looked like the street out of my window. The image was sharp in contrast; the blacks were charcoal and the whites were shiny silver. Later I would learn that this was a mastered art that only few photographers could reach while they printed their photographs in a dark room lit by a small red lamp. The image has stayed with me ever since.

Decades later, I was in Istanbul to shoot my film “I Left My Shoes in Istanbul.” I wanted to make sure that Ara Güler, the photographer now known as “the Eye of Istanbul,” would be in the film. I was lucky; few of the people helping in the production knew him personally. They said he was still spunky and that they would secure an appointment to film him. They warned, however, that he may not show up, that he may not talk, that he may leave in the middle of the filming, and that he was moody.

Seven years and seven days ago, this is what I had written in the diary I kept during the filming:

Istanbul. Asmali Mecid. October 11, 2011. Tuesday.

“… We had to rush. We had an appointment with Ara Güler in his Ara Café on Istiklal Ave. and we had to be there on time, he is known to be temperamental and independent minded, he could change his mind and leave if we are not there on time. The assistant producer, N. Gurbuz had called and said that she had arrived at the café with the tripod she secured from filmmaker Mr. H. Karabey, making me happy to have a tripod at last.

The assistant camera person Deniz Şengenç, the main actor of the film Sako Arian and I arrived to the café ahead of time. We had hardly greeted each other when I was surprised at the coincidence to see a colleague from Dubai named Haldun Z., holding a beautiful newborn baby in his arms. He was leaving as I had just arrived. I told him that I was making a film and I was in the café to do an interview with Ara Güler, he said ‘Let me introduce you to the manager of the café. He is my nephew.’ He called a tall, bearded man named Yaşar. The meeting was short and quick. Haldun departed giving me his phone number in Istanbul in case I needed anything. Yaşar turned out to be an art director for television and film productions, but he has also rented out the café from Ara Güler who arrived within minutes after Haldun’s farewell. Through his café, Ara had created a meeting space.  

The man arrived on time and went hovering like a butterfly over each table greeting customers making sure they were satisfied. He asked the café staff where were the people who would be meeting him and they politely pointed at us. I shook his hand and introduced myself, N. Gurbuz and Deniz and the main actor and thanked him to accept being filmed. He was a bit rough. He seemed to be an edgy old man with low tolerance and hurried yet somehow warm and charming. ‘Did you have coffee? Let’s grab a table,’ he said. What an alert and energetic man he is at the age of 83. It seemed that we had known each other for a long time although we had just greeted each other for the first time a moment ago.  

While sipping coffee, I began telling him how I had known him since I was a little boy in Aleppo. After a few sentences, he stopped me in his Turkish-inflicted Armenian ‘Պօշ բաներ են, ինչ կուզէզկոր, աշխատինք պիտի նէ, ժամանակ մի կորսունցուներ – meaningless stuff, what do you want, if we are going to work, don’t waste time.’ It was as if I was meeting my father.

I explained the film is about a Lebanese-Armenian character who is a poet and visiting Istanbul for the first time as the grandchild of Armenians who left Istanbul on the eve of the Armenian Genocide a century ago, and that he would be talking with Sako Arian; the man personifying the character of the Lebanese Armenian poet.

‘Առաջին անգամ նէ կուգակոր – It is his first visit,’ yes, I said, does he speak Turkish? What will I talk about? He inquired and I said he should talk in Armenian and talk about Istanbul, his Istanbul! “Հա աղեկ, եանի ֆոդոկրաֆներուս մասին չիպիտ բան մը ըսսեմ, ինտոր նկարերեմ, օվուն նկարերեմ ֆլան ֆսդխան, մինակ պոլիսի մասին պիտի խոսինք, ասիկա լավ բան մըն է, քէզի ասանկ ըսսեմ, նոյն հարցումներեն զզուէցա ճանմ, կերդան կուգան նոյն բաները կը բնտրենկոր – Oh good, you mean I will not talk about my photos, say nothing about them, how I photographed, who I photographed etc. etc. Just talk about Istanbul, this is something good, let me tell you this way. I am tired of the same question, they come and go with the same interest”.  

This was a very short conversation, we had hardly finished our coffee, he was so enthusiastic and cheerful and hurried us to start filming. And the filming went on and on, he would not stop talking, he was jovial and generous, blunt and humorous. He told a plenty. He talked about Istanbul with the passion of a teenager falling in love for the first time. His unmatched love of his city had infected generations. At the end of almost an hour of filming, Deniz was so happy and overwhelmed, we posed for a photograph to immortalize this moment. Deniz Spoke with Ara in Turkish I don’t know about what, but at the end they were hugging each other.    

When we wrapped the filming, he gave me his book “I Am Listening to you Istanbul” as a gift, he signed it and wrote his mobile number, he gave another one of his books to Deniz. Then he suggested that I go up to the fourth floor of his building next door and look at what used to be his studio and be free to film as I wished. Four floors of going up, each floor stuffed with his photographic legacy, large blown up black and white prints, Picasso, Miller, Dustin Hoffman, Alfred Hitchcock, Maria Callas, Dali, Sophia Loren and so many famed personalities as well as humble unnamed fishermen, peasants, factory workers, deprived children and ordinary folks from Istanbul and other parts of the world. On the top floor the walls were over crowded with photographs, flyers of his past exhibitions, awards, stacks of boxes on top of each other holding his journey in a career of decades in prints and negatives. When done with filming the fourth floor, we went down to say thank you and goodbye to him.

I hugged him, kissed his both cheeks and promised to meet him again soon. Yet deep down I was sad and happy at once, happy for having met him and sad that I may not see him again, it is the sort of a moment in life when you sense that it may not be repeated. I must confess, I was enormously touched by his humbleness, openness, and immediacy, I could have stayed much longer but we had to rush to the next location of filming, the Shishli Armenian cemetery. “Hurry up, the light falling on the white tombstones will be beautiful but it will not last for long,” he said as parted.

Beirut. October 20, 2018. Saturday.

My friend Ammar is in Istanbul. He is attending the funeral service of Ara Güler and sent me photographs from the procession. The coffin draped in a Turkish flag is on a podium in front of a large screen where Ara’s black and white photographs are being projected. Thousands of mourners stopping by his coffin to pay their last respects to the man who made them love their own city. The funeral services will take place in the Holy Trinity Church nearby before resting him in an everlasting peace in the earth of Shishli Armenian cemetery.  

Ara, who for decades, watched the world through the viewfinder and clicked for images thousands of times to immortalize humanity has shut his eyes and covered the lens of his cameras for good. Ara Güler’s images will live on. He will live through the people whose lives he touched. He lives on through my experience of meeting him first by his photograph I saw in Aleppo and then in 2011 meeting him in person. He lives in the film I made as a colorful old man tired of receiving compliments, tired of being loved and respected, tired of hearing his name being called. He lives through the hug he gave to Deniz. The man who became known as the ‘Eye of Istanbul” said farewell for good to his black and white Istanbul.

Beirut. October 22, 2018. Monday.

At the library of Haigazian University in Beirut, I was able to find the “Hay Endanik” magazine with the help of librarian Vera Gosdanian. After 49 years I was holding the same magazine in my hands, and there it was, the article about Ara and the black and white photograph of the cobblestone street in Tarla Bashi that was once an Armenian and Greek neighborhood. The image that had made an everlasting impression on me, a gratitude I could not fully express to him. He avoided knowing the aftermath of his work; he just wanted to photograph freely discounting everything else.

The cover of the magazine is dated Sept./Oct. 1969. I read the article again and reached the end of it with the author’s name. I had no idea it was written by a young bishop then named Father Levon Zekian; now the Archbishop of Armenian Catholics in Turkey, whom I met many years later and kept in communication, and whom I interviewed on December 1, 2009 in Venice for my film “Milk, Carnation and a Godly Song” about the poet Daniel Varoujan.

Dear Ara, you are now the eye on the other side without a camera. For you have said that the camera is not what makes the image. The photograph is made by a person who can see through with his soul and his spirit, and so, there you go, your journey may be a blessed one as your presence among us has blessed us with you humor, temperament, relentless energy, dedication, passion and above all with your gift to show us what others could not see.

And yes, cobblestones do appear in many of my films.

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Nigol Bezjian

Nigol Bezjian is a producer, director, and a graduate of UCLA film school and School of Visual Arts. His work has been based in Beirut, Lebanon for the past several years. His most recent film is "Broken Kisses, Postponed Kisses."
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