Misery: The Artist’s Inspiration

I really wanted to be an artist, but it wasn’t to be.


When I was in high school, I was selected to play the lead role in a theatrical play. But shortly after the rehearsals began, the director came and told me he wanted to give me a “more important” character role; devoid of any other option, I accepted.


Not long thereafter, the director came back and said: “You’re wasting your talents in being an actor. If you become the director’s assistant, it’ll really add something to the piece.” Again devoid of any other option, I accepted, “adding something” to the piece by printing the invitations and painting the décor…


I thought I’d try my hand at poetry. I wrote one poem that took some inspiration from a Shakespearean sonnet – and even borrowed a few pompous words from the English bard – before proceeding to read it to the girl whom I had my eagle eye on. At the time, she was into the new hippy trend. All she said when she listened to me was “you’re really funny.” I got the message.


I gave myself over to novels, choosing to pen something about a refugee’s adventurous journey. I had my asylum-seeking youth surreptitiously board a freighter bound for New York and began to tell the story. After a while, I had a look and realized that I had passed page 50 and the boat hadn’t even weighed anchor! At this rate, my book was going to give the Russian classics a run for their money. That, however, would be a disservice to them – if truth be told, I had started to get bored, so I left it there. I had my youth disembark the boat and sent him back to his family (for some reason, it had never occurred to me to send my protagonist off to New York together with his family).


Writers typically graduate from the short story to the novel; I, however, did the exact opposite. My first short story was titled “The hair in my shaver is truly unhappy.” If you ask me, it was an experiment worthy of Sartre, but my literature teacher wasn’t quite of the same opinion. “My son, why don’t you try shaving with a razor?” he asked; after that, I gave that up too. But by then, school had finished, so there was no time left to write.


Apparently, then, there might have been two reasons why I failed to become an artist:

 1) I didn’t have the talent.


2) I hadn’t experienced enough misery!


After considering the matter, I decided that it was a case of number two for me. An artist’s inspiration is misery. After all, isn’t it melancholy, pain and misery that have driven the vast majority of artists – the novelists we read, the composers we listen to and the painters we follow – to create their works? Ultimately, I determined that I hadn’t succeeded in becoming an artist because, thanks be to God, I didn’t have those kinds of problems.


One of the branches of art in which misery is most prevalent is undoubtedly music. And in music, few genres are so marked by misery as rebetiko. In the 1920s, the Greeks of Anatolia and the Turks of Greece were subjected to a mutual population exchange. People were uprooted from their homes, places of work and soil before being packed off to an unknown world. Naturally, they expressed their pain in song, and close to 100 years later, they’re still singing these songs, because pain doesn’t fade easily…


Rebetiko music is frequently played in the meyhanes of Athens and Istanbul, although the style of music in many of these tavernas has been watered down, becoming a bit touristy. That’s why it’s not easy to find authentic rebetiko. Athens’ Klimataria Tavern is one of the rare meyhanes where you can still find rebetiko in its rawest and purest form. There are just three drinks on the menu: wine, rakı and ouzo. None of them are produced by any brands – they’re all home-made. “A true meyhane doesn’t serve the drink of any brand,” they’ll tell you if you happen to ask. The rakı, however, is not the rakı you know – it has no aniseed. As for the ouzo, when you add water, it only turns white with difficulty (I couldn’t even get around to trying the wine). They were serving everything in orange-colored aluminum glasses.


The portions of food, meanwhile, are big, but if you’re going to ask about them, let me just tell you this: You didn’t come here to eat, you came here to hear real rebetiko.


The music starts toward 11 with a five-person group, all of whom both play and sing. The woman in the middle happens to have the most moving voice. While performing, they occasionally take sips from small glasses of straight rakı to wet their palate and wet their lips. Is it possible to have rakı straight? Not really, but it’s probably not really possible to hit the stage and dig into meze at the same time. That’s why they make do with just a cigarette – one of them even rolled their own as the music continued. The smoking continues, as they light one where the other finishes. Whenever they take a drag on a cigarette while singing, they miss the note – but there’s nothing to worry about. Their music is of spectacular melancholy and beauty. They take everyone in the house back and forth to other worlds.


After starters of mashed broad beans, as well as crushed and fried eggplant, you can continue with some of His Majesty’s Favorite (Hünkar Beğendi) and eggplant with minced meat (karnıyarık) featuring cumin and béchamel sauce – not because any of it is really good, but because you’re not going to make it through the whole night just drinking alcohol!


But music is food for the soul, so feed yourself with the strains of rebetiko for an evening. You certainly won’t regret it…