The Last Sultan

The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun

by Robert Greenfield

1 December 2011


The Sad, Haunting Oriental Music of Istanbul


In “the clean quiet serenity of the capital city of Bern, with many green gardens, parks, churches, clocks, and chimes,” Ahmet’s first real childhood memory of himself was as a two-and-a-half-year-old boy playing in the immense gardens of the Turkish legation. Befitting his status as the Turkish ambassador to “this bland beautiful sterile country,” Mehmet Munir and his family were now able to live in a manner that would not have been possible in their still impoverished and chaotic homeland.

Their large house at 18 Kalcheggweg was staffed by several servants the family had brought with them from Turkey. A young Swiss governess who spoke French took care of Ahmet, who was soon communicating with his brother and sister in “a mixture of Turkish and French with a sprinkling of the French-German patois that we picked up on the street and in kindergarten.”

Charged with more responsibility than ever before, Ahmet’s father was always busy working. In addition to his diplomatic duties in Bern, he made regular visits to Geneva, where in two years’ time he became the Turkish observer to the League of Nations while also traveling to Paris to meet with other Turkish diplomats and statesmen. Unlike his wife, he had little difficulty adjusting to their new life.

During the early years of their marriage, Ahmet’s mother had been able to avail herself of the loving support of both her own and her husband’s extended families. She had also spent a good deal of time traveling back and forth from Istanbul to Ankara by train and horse-drawn carriage, a journey that in 1921 had taken eight days. In Bern, where her primary job was to run a household where she was addressed in Turkish by those who served her as “Hanimefendi” or “Madame,” the fissures in her prearranged marriage grew wider.

A short, stout woman with a broad face and straight brown hair she tinted auburn, Ahmet’s mother felt isolated in this strange new culture and sought solace in music. Over and over on the family’s hand-wound phonograph, she would play her favorite Turkish records until “the sad haunting Oriental music of Istanbul” brought tears to her eyes. In Ahmet’s words, “When she could no longer hold back her sobs, she would retire to her room so as not to upset the children. I could not tell whether it was because of her homesickness or her unhappiness with my father or her missing some unknown lover of the past, or whether it was just the music that evoked in her this deep melancholy.”

The scene around the family dinner table when all the guests were Turkish was far happier. Once the meal was over, Ahmet’s mother would sing and play the piano or the oud and people would dance. Although Ahmet’s father “would never participate in these carryings-on,” he would “regale all those present with funny anecdotes about the anomalies between the Near Eastern and Western cultures and some of the ridiculous situations that resulted.”

Still too young to go to school, Ahmet and Selma spent their days being looked after by “nurses, governesses, and maids.” Foremost among them was Madame Yenge (yenge being the Turkish word for aunt) whom Ahmet’s sister would later describe as “a beloved distant relative who was like a doting grandmother to us.” One day as she was walking with Ahmet, who was then four years old, “a miserable-looking beggar” approached them. Yenge was about to walk away when Ahmet grabbed her hand, “started crying furiously, and refused to budge until she had given him a few pennies.”

In later years, Yenge would tell this story with tears in her eyes to show how compassionate Ahmet had been as a young boy. However, he could also be quite headstrong and, in his sister’s words, “perhaps a bit spoiled.” After Yenge had left Ahmet alone for a few minutes to fetch something from the top floor of the house, he began to scream, “Why didn’t you take me with you?” When Yenge came back to get him, Ahmet refused to go with her. Insisting she should have taken him with her in the first place, he continued crying while repeating she had “wronged him.”

During this period, Ahmet’s only real companion was eight-year-old Nesuhi. “He was like a hero to my sister and me,” Ahmet wrote. “At seven or eight, he seemed to be a big grown-up man who had much more in common with the adults than with us.” In a photograph from this period, Ahmet sits on his brother’s knee peering at the camera with a shy, inquisitive look on his face. Enacting the role he would play for many years in Ahmet’s life, a broadly smiling Nesuhi has both his arms wrapped protectively around his younger brother.

In the afternoon, the brothers often played soccer together on the large lawn behind their house. Some days, the two sons of the Swiss president, who were roughly the same age, would come to join them. Placing two caps at each end of the field to serve as goal markers, they would pretend Turkey was playing Switzerland in a match that “was always a bloody battle.”

The most significant moment of Ahmet’s life in Bern occurred when his father brought home a motion picture projector. Ahmet would later remember watching silent films starring Charlie Chaplin.

No matter how many times Ahmet’s father showed these films, his children never wanted them to stop. As a special treat, Ahmet and his sister would occasionally be taken to the cinema, which they adored.

In 1931, Mehmet Munir was posted to Paris as ambassador. His family moved with him into a house at 33 rue de Villejust in the 18th Arrondissement, the bohemian district of Montmartre. Soon after moving to Paris, Ahmet’s mother began looking for a new governess to care for her two younger children. Ahmet and Selma were sitting on the floor of their playroom when their mother entered with the woman she was considering for the job.

As Ahmet’s mother talked to her, Ahmet leaned over to his sister and whispered in her ear, “I don’t like this woman. See what I’m going to do.” Taking the scissors he and Selma had been using to cut up pictures, Ahmet crawled over to the woman and began cutting her skirt. She screamed, “I can’t take care of savages like these!” Ahmet’s mother, who had to pay for the skirt, was horrified and punished her son.

A very imaginative child, Ahmet also invented elaborate fantasy games to play with his sister. Using a broomstick as a mast, he would pretend the sofa was a small boat in which they were sailing around the world and being tossed about by huge waves only to be marooned on an island where they were then attacked by natives.

Along with his brother, Nesuhi, who attended the upper school, Ahmet was sent to the exclusive Petit Lycée Janson de Sailly on the rue de la Pompe in the 16th Arrondissement, where the poet and critic Stephan Mallarmé, the actor Jean Gabin, and the filmmaker Jean Renoir had been before them. Always a far better student than his older brother, Ahmet regularly achieved perfect scores in French and calculus and began studying English. Now listening to records by Josephine Baker, the Mills Brothers, Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, and Louis Armstrong, Ahmet would travel with his mother each year to Deauville for the Concours d’Elegance, where the most fashionable cars of the day were on display.

In 1931 at the age of eight, Ahmet was taken back to Turkey by his mother so he could be circumcised in accordance with Islamic law. While the family was living in Switzerland and France, Ahmet would sometimes say how beautiful his physical surroundings were only to be told by others in the household, “It’s nothing. Turkey is so much more beautiful.” He soon came to believe the land of his birth was “an incredible, wonderful paradise.”

As Ahmet walked with his mother from the central railway station in Istanbul down a street full of holes with lights that did not work, he turned to her and said, “Mother, what happened here? Did a bomb fall? I mean, it’s so dirty.” As Ahmet would later say, “And then I noticed all the people walking around without shoes on. Instead of shoes, they had pieces of cloth that were tied together with strings and I said, ‘How could you talk—why did everybody lie to me about how fantastic this country is?’ It took me a few weeks to look beyond the poverty and to see an inner beauty which exists in a country.”

At his own request in 1932, Mehmet Munir was transferred to England, where he assumed his new post as the Turkish ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. In London, he and his wife were presented to the king and queen. Although Ahmet did not accompany them, Nesuhi did take him to see a duke who changed the course of both their lives.

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