The Magic of Forty-two – Konya and Keyrings, Carpets, Christmas and Yellow Canaries

I worked at a boarding school in New Zealand years ago, and one of my more cynical teaching colleagues told me, one day, when I was complaining about the difficulty of gaining access to some room, I forget exactly where . . .  ‘Locks are to keep the teachers out,’ he said. It’s a variation on the theme: ‘Keys are for honest people’.
Well, I guess, at least by that definition, I am an honest person, because I always seem to have bunches of them. The drawers in my desk are full of keys whose purpose I have long since forgotten but am afraid to throw out because I am sure that, a week after I do, I will remember what crucial lock they would have opened.
These days I try to be more systematic, and as an aid to memory, I am attracted to gizmos that will allow me, at a glance, to identify the purpose of a particular bunch of keys. One of the things I love about the Turkish language is that it has a word for these things. ‘Anahtar’is Turkish for ‘key’ and ‘anahtarlık’ is one of those decorative thingos to which you attach a bunch of keys, allowing you to immediately understand that they are yours, and that they open the doors at your workplace, or home, the car, or whatever. ‘Keyring’ doesn’t really do justice to the concept, does it?
Incidentally, the Turkish language is full of these marvellous words, which you don’t really appreciate the lack of until you return to English and find that you just can’t say what you wanted to say any more. ‘Kaçıncı?’ is another one. It means ‘How manyth?’ As in ‘JFK, ABD’nin kaçıncı cumhurbaşkanıydı?’ ‘JFK was the how manyth president of the USA?’In case you were wondering, he was the 35th, which for some reason, Americans seem to find important. A residual hankering after dynastic imperial grandeur perhaps.
As usual, I am digressing. What I wanted to tell you was that, as a result of moving to rental accommodation in consequence of our house being in line for demolition for the purposes of urban renewal, I acquired another bunch of keys. Scanning the display of key whatsits in our local locksmith’s, I was attracted to a bronze doodah in the shape of the numeral ‘42’. What could I do? I had to buy it – and of course I intend to tell you why.
Pretty much everyone knows that a cult developed around the number 42 after it featured in a memorable episode in Douglas Adams’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Adams, along with Spike Milligan, was, of course, one of the two great geniuses of the 20th century. In this particular episode, a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built ‘Deep Thought’, the second greatest computer in the universe of time and space. They then tasked it with producing the ultimate ANSWER, to Life, the Universe and Everything. Well, it was a tricky question, requiring a good deal of deep thought, but the mega-computer finally came up with the answer (after 7.5 million years of calculation) which was . . . forty-two.
Another thing I love about living in Turkey is that my shoe size, which for the previous 30 years I had thought was 8, in fact turned out to be 42 – a much more emotionally satisfying number, at least for a male of the species. ‘42 also happens to be the year in the 19th century when two ships, the ‘Jane Gifford’ and the ‘Duchess of Argyle’, arrived under sail in the embryonic British colony of Auckland, New Zealand, disgorging immigrants from the old country, among whom were George and Eliza Scott, my paternal great-great-great grandparents.
All very interesting, you say, but what about that key doohickey? What do Turks care about your shoe size, ancestry, even Douglas Adams, great as he was? And you are absolutely right – they don’t give a dingo’s kidney. Something that is very important to them, however, is the fact that their country is divided into 81 administrative districts, known as ‘İl’. For a long time the list was alphabetical, beginning with Adana as number 1 and progressing to Zonguldak at number 67. Sad to say, the best-devised human systems are prone to decay, and there are now a further fourteen ils, no’s 68 to 81, upsetting the satisfying logic of the original list.
An important aspect of this system is that the number plates of cars in Turkey all begin with the digits of the il in which they were registered. Residents of other cities can immediately recognize and resent a driver from Istanbul by his or her distinctive ‘34’ number plate. Another beauty of the system is that it allows Istanbul drivers to immediately identify an out-of-towner and add an extra personal touch to their abuse of his (or her) driving incompetence. 
But getting back to my key whatchamacallit, ‘42’ is in fact the il number of Konya, an Anatolian city located exactly where it should be, right there between 41 Kocaeli and 43 Kütahya. Which reminds be of another episode from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide’ featuring an extra-terrestrial being known as Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged – but I refuse to be diverted!
One of the reasons it is difficult for those of us from the ‘New World’ to understand what goes on in the ‘Old’ is that it is just so damn old! Konya itself is believed to have been inhabited since at least 3000 BCE, although excavations at a nearby site known as Catal Höyük have revealed a Neolithic proto-city dating back to 7,500 BCE. Konya (or Iconium) was incorporated into the Hittite Empire around 1500 BCE, and subsequently taken over successively by Phrygians, Cimmerians and Persians before Alexander the Great came hurtling through on his mission of world domination in 333 BCE. Kings of Pergamum ruled Iconium during the Hellenistic period until it passed into the hands of the Roman Empire in 133 BCE. It gets a mention in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 14, where Paul and Barnabas are said to have stirred up some trouble among the locals with their preaching. A certain Tertius of Iconium was, they say, the original scribe who recorded Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for posterity. After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the city came under repeated attack by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th – 9th centuries and was razed on more than one occasion.
Seljuk Turks began seizing control of Anatolia after defeating the Byzantine Graeco-Roman army at Manzikert in 1071 CE. The resulting Seljuk Empire or Sultanate ruled much of Anatolia as far as the Mediterranean Sea and almost to the Aegean. Around 1100 CE the Sultan Kılıçarslan established his capital at Konya. Defeating him and his Islamic Empire was one of the main objects of the First Crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1096 – although, perhaps ironically, it was the Mongols under Genghis Khan who finally put an end to the Seljuks.
One of Konya’s contributions to Western civilization was a particularly fine type of hand-woven carpet, of which the 13th century explorer Marco Polo is reputed to have said they were the most beautiful in the world. Certainly they were much sought after by the wealthiest European families, and featured in the art of several painters, most notably Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).
Konya is also the place where the iconic Turkish folk philosopher, Nasrettin Hodja breathed his last, and where Ahmet Davutoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the current government, his first. These days, however, the city is probably most renowned as the last resting place of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, founder of the Mevlana sect of Islam. Rumi, as he is known in the West, was a 13th century Sufi mystic whose followers are sometimes called Whirling Dervishes, and who was, according to Wikipedia, ‘the most popular poet in America in 2007’. As everywhere in Turkey, when you visit Konya, there are special mealsthat should be eaten: okra soup and etli ekmek, for example – the latter a kind of elongated pizza featuring the meat of local lamb.
Well, enough of Konya. Though you might wonder whether it acquired the number 42 purely because of its place in an alphabetical sequence, or if there were mystical mathematical forces at work. For sure there’s something going on with that ‘42’ business. Experts in number theory tell me that it is, in fact, a primary pseudo-perfect number, which may be significant, given that such numbers apparently satisfy the Egyptian fraction equation, whatever that may be. We in New Zealand remember 1642 as the year a Dutch mariner by the name of Abel Janszoon Tasman got himself lost in the South Pacific Ocean and stumbled upon our South Island in the false impression that it was part of South America. Apparently the local Maoris killed and ate a few of his sailors, which perhaps deterred his countrymen from returning – that and the fact that they would have been unlikely to find it by following his directions.
A century earlier, in 1542, our Scottish ancestors crowned a new queen, Mary I, who, I gather, was only six days old at the time, which may have been a bad move in view of how things subsequently turned out for Bonnie Scotland. 1742 was the birth year of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, sometimes referred to as ‘The Uncrowned King of Scotland’. In spite (or possibly because) of his opposition to the abolition of slavery, Dundas gained some popularity in the land of his birth, helping to establish the New Town of Edinburgh and commemorated by a 46 metre neo-classical column in the main square. According to his Wikipedia entry, Dundas was the last person to be impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money – though it seems he was acquitted, whether from innocence, good luck or a good lawyer is not made clear.
The original Tweety Bird, 1942
And what of more recent times? Well, the following have nothing to do with Scotland, Konya or Douglas Adams, but I can tell you, for instance, that, in 1942, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Trinidadwas severely damaged by a salvo of its own torpedoes and soon after scuttled by her own crew. 1942 was also the year when Bing Crosby recorded ‘White Christmas’, that schmaltzy Irving Berlin song said to be the biggest-selling single of all time. ‘Der Bingo’, as he is referred to in the Andrews Sisters’ song ‘Rum and Coca Cola’, nudged out the Pope and the favourite baseball player of the day in 1948 to top the poll for ‘most admired man alive’ – one assumes the poll was conducted in the USA. His own family seem to have been less admiring – eldest son Gary having published a book in which he portrayed his father as ‘cruel, cold, remote and both physically and psychologically abusive.’ The Wikipedia entry reports that two of Bingo’s other sons committed suicide.
To end on a happier note, 1942 saw the first appearance of Tweety Pie, the yellow canary bird featured in Warner Bros Looney Toons cartoons. Tweety (or Sweety), another icon of US culture, is indelibly etched in the childhood memories of generations of kids with his most famous line, ‘I tawt I taw a puddy tat!’

So there you have it . . . Do numbers have a special significance or life of their own? Undoubtedly many people believe they do. Most of us, if pressed, will admit to having a number we consider to be personally ‘lucky’. Results of a poll published the other day in The Guardian announced that seven is the world’s favourite number. Well, seven is a factor of 42, but I’m sticking with the larger multiple. It seems to me to encapsulate much of the true meaning of life – if we only knew what the question was!

Nasrettin Hodja on the Turkish Economy

We’ve had quite a procession of big name visitors to Istanbul recently, from Jennifer Lopez (who apparently was so taken with the city that she purchased an apartment) to Dr Dieter Zetsche, the Chairman of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes cars. Well, we’ll return to ‘Jenny from the Block’ and Dr Dieter later, but first I want to direct your attention to the words of another VIP, IMF Director for Turkey, Mark White Lewis, speaking at the Active Academy 10th International Finance Summit. Mr Lewis had clearly done his homework on Turkish culture, and illustrated his laudatory comments on the local economy with a tale from the Nasrettin Hodja canon.
Nasrettin Hodja
Probably you know that Nasrettin Hodja was a 13th century Sufi teacher much-loved in Turkish culture for his down-to-earth populist philosophy. Many tales are told in which the Hodja presents an unusual angle on an everyday situation. Mr Lewis’s chosen tale refers to a funeral where one of the pall-bearers asks Nasrettin Hodja where the best place is to support the coffin as it is carried – at the front, the back, the left or the right. Doesn’t much matter, replies the Hodja, as long as you’re not inside it.
I haven’t read the full text of the IMF man’s speech, so I can’t confirm whether he actually said what our newspaper’s headline announced – that the global economy is dead. Nevertheless, it was clear enough that, in his opinion, there is a global economy coffin, and many countries are (God rest their souls) inside it. The point Mr Lewis was making was, that Turkey is one of twenty countries in Nasreddin Hodja’s recommended location, i.e. outside the coffin.
Now I’m not sure what Jennifer Lopez’s credentials are as a commentator on economic matters, so I’m going to leave her aside in the mean time, and return to the Mercedes Benz man. Dr Zetsche didn’t, as far as I am aware, recount any tales of Sufi wise men. However, he did express positive feelings about Turkey’s economy, and he too, had clearly done some research on how to strike a harmonious chord with the locals. The generously moustachioed German doctor (who, according to Wikipedia, was actually born in Istanbul), quipped that his abundant facial hair did not mark the limits of his ties to Turkey. Any positive reference to the founder of the Republic by a foreigner is received by most Turks with great appreciation – and Dr Zetsche noted that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the first customer of the newly opened Mercedes franchise in Turkey. He also had nice things to say about Turkish coffee, and the scenic beauties of the country’s beaches – before going on to suggest that his company is very keen to make further investment in the local economy.
Another yardstick of Turkey’s burgeoning economic growth is the art scene. Friends in America recently sent me the link to an article on Apparently ‘the Tate Modern’s curator of international art, Jessica Morgan, had just been there [Istanbul]. The article goes on to report that ‘the market for Turkish art has soared, both within and without the country. The inaugural sale of Turkish modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s London in March 2009 was a bright spot in an otherwise tanking global market, with 50 of the 71 lots selling, nearly all within or above estimate. The total climbed from £1,307,400 ($1.8 million) to £2,436,850 ($3.8 million) in 2010. By the following spring, Phillips de Pury & Company was in on the action with a selling exhibition of contemporary Turkish art at the Saatchi Gallery in London. New York galleries like Paul Kasmin and Lehmann Maupin were testing the waters of the Istanbul market. Judging by the number of special fair sections and exhibitions devoted to the country’s artists this year and next, interest in Turkey appears to have reached a fever pitch.’
In a similar vein, our local paper reported that a gentleman by the name of Regis Krampf, said to be of some repute in New York art circles, has recently relocated to Istanbul. He was quoted as saying he simply couldn’t stay in New York with the Turkish market developing as it is!
Still, we’re talking about the top end of the market here, I guess – those who can afford to buy Dr Zetsche’s company’s products, and whose disposable income can comfortably accommodate the purchase of contemporary works of art. It doesn’t necessarily reflect how things are going at less ethereal levels of the economy.
Another news item that caught my eye over the weekend announced that Turkey’s neighbour Greece, with whom relations are not always the most cordial, is planning to channel some of the bail-out funds received from the EU into restoring a few of its neglected mosques, with a view to attracting more Turkish tourists. As one who has been critical in the past of Greece’s attitude towards preserving uncomfortable relics of its pre-independence history, I can only applaud this turnaround, even if it took a disastrous financial crisis to effect it. In fact my wife and I benefited last summer from this more relaxed approach to visitors from Turkey, making a day visit to the Greek island of Kalymnos with a fast ferry-load of Turkish day-trippers.
And it seems it is not just Greece looking to free up access for Turkish visitors. The UK Immigration Minister, Mark Harper,  paid a visit to Istanbul and Ankara earlier this month, fairly bubbling with enthusiasm at the prospect of doubling trade between the two countries by 2015. London City bankers are, apparently, casting favourable eyes upon investment opportunities in Turkey, and the British Government is looking to streamline visa applications and approvals for Turkish businessmen, and who knows, perhaps others. Again, having visited the UK with my Turkish wife, and having seen the hoops she was required to jump through to obtain a short-term visitor’s visa, I can say it’s not before time.
OK, I know not all of you get as excited about economic matters as I do, so, as promised, I’m going back to Jennifer Lynn Muniz (née Lopez), according to Wikipedia, one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. JLo performed a string of concerts here recently and, as noted above, decided to buy a luxury apartment so that she has somewhere nice to stay when fulfilling her wish to ‘spend more time in Istanbul.’ Nothing wrong with that. I can fully understand JLo’s captivation with the city, being myself the owner of a (somewhat less-than-luxury) apartment here.
Still, it’s not that long ago that Ms Lopez held a different view about Turkey. On July 20 2010, she was booked (for a $3 million fee) to perform at the opening of a new hotel in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Less than two weeks before the event, Ms Lopez cancelled her appearance. Her official website carried the following explanation: “Jennifer Lopez would never knowingly support any state, country, institution or regime that was associated with any form of human rights abuse. After a full review of the relevant circumstances in Cyprus, it was the decision of her advisors to withdraw from the appearance. This was a team decision that reflects our sensitivity to the political realities of the region.”
Well, anyone’s entitled to change their mind, of course – or maybe Jennifer decided that she had punished Turkey enough. But all these reports of the rich and famous falling over each other to benefit from the booming Turkish economy reminded me of another taleof that perceptive Sufi sage. Nasrettin Hodja was invited to a feast, and being an unpretentious sort, he strolled along in his everyday Sufi garb. Apparently the hosts were unimpressed and ignored him. Suitably chastened, the hodja went back home and changed into his best outfit, complete with a plush fur robe. On his return, he was welcomed with open arms and given pride of place at the head of the table. As each choice dish was served, the hodja took his cloak by the collar, saying, ‘Eat, my fur cloak, eat!’His neighbour at the table asked, ‘What’s this, my hodja. Can a fur robe eat?’ To which the hodja replied, ‘What can I do? The host is offering these rich morsels to my fur cloak. I’m warning it now in case it gets angry with me later for eating all the food myself.’