Silifke. Photo by James Tressler.

In the Taurus mountains above the southern Turkish town of Silifke, a man has been in living in a cave for the past fifteen years.

The caveman, Zekai Firat, in his early sixties, is officially registered as living in a nursing home. He told municipal officials who went to check on him that he much prefers the cave. He likes it. If he stayed in the nursing home, “it would drastically shorten my life,” he told reporters from The Hurriyet Daily News who travelled there to interview him and take pictures this past week.

Apparently “Brother Zekai,” as the locals call him, makes his living selling plants, garlic, beets and asparagus in a nearby field. After the authorities saw that the old man was doing OK (they reportedly checked out the living conditions in the cave for health and safety reasons), they left him alone, promising help if he needed it. Can you believe that? In a lot of other countries, the old man probably would have been sent back to the nursing home, or even arrested.

“It’s not where you live, but how you live that is important,” Brother Zekai told reporters who came to visit him. “I can’t live anywhere else. I have to be alone. Life is beautiful when you are near nature.”

This story grabbed my interest, I suppose, because at the moment I was reading it , I was feeling a bit of Thoreau’s quiet desperation. I guess we all have, to varying degrees. You read of some people in Michigan toting rifles and storming the Capitol building, or fat middle-aged women in New York getting in shoving matches with service staff at Red Lobster because of a reported three-hour wait (Would I devote three hours of my preciously short life to waiting outside Red Lobster, or any other chain restaurant, reader? Well, no, but to each his own).

So this desperation, quiet or not so much, has different degrees, different thresholds, sure: we all remember our bits “Walden.” Some of us may have even gone so far, at one point or another in our lives, to consider practical applications, such as growing beans and living in some Kazinsky-style shack in the nearest woods. Maybe some of us even tried it, and lasted a whole two days, before running headlong back to the blessed evils of our civilization – screw the beans, Henry David, I needs me some steak and a wee pint of ale.


While I was reading of Brother Zekai, and wondering at this marvelous cave of his high above Silifke (my wife’s sister lives there with her husband and our nephew, we have been there many times), my head was getting ready to explode, to put it delicately. I’ll tell you why.

First of all, like everyone I am really sick of being at home all the time (going on three months). I miss my morning routine of taking the ferry across the Bosphorus to the university. I miss cafes, drinks with friends in Kadikoy and Besiktas. I miss walking with my wife (and son now) to the nearby seaside neighborhood of Kuzguncuk , where we used to have the occasional Sunday breakfast.

But everyone feels that way. On top of that general malaise, there were more specific things. Chiefly, the smell of shit. A sewer pipe next door has been leaking for the better part of a week. My wife’s sense of smell being much keener than mine, she has been subtly at the neighbors (whenever we see them, rare glimpes on the back porch) to go in on a joint venture and get the damn pipe fixed. With her considerable powers of persuasion (trust me, I know), she finally managed to get the neighbors to agree that it needed fixed for the benefit of all.

The workers came and had a look earlier in the week. The job was estimated at about 1,500 Turkish liras. With today’s Exchange rate (the lira is down 7 to 1 against the dollar, with the coronavirus hitting the economy here as well), that only comes out to a little over 200 bucks US. But we are not paying in dollars, and in Istanbul 1,500 liras is not cheap.

Anyway, my wife Ozge persuaded all of our nearby neighbors to chip in, so the cost was evenly split. That was fine, but then the workers decided to show up on Thursday at noon, precisely when my online lessons with the university students were set to start. We had a quiz scheduled, then a grammar lesson on reported speech.

I always set up my laptop on the balcony overlooking the garden because it has the best Internet reception, with the slide door to the rest of the apartment closed so that I can conduct the lessons in relative quiet. But as the crew got to work on the pipe, the smell of the shit flooded the entire apartment.

Ozge opened the slide doors. “We have to get rid of this smell!” she insisted. “It’s not healthy for Leo (our infant son). You’ll just have to apologize to the students if there is any noise. Sorry!” Actually, a new apartment building is being constructed nearby, so I could hear them quite distinctly.

Meanwhile, she was getting Leo dressed and packed into the kangaroo kit. Her plan was to go upstairs to the street and take Leo for a walk until the workers finished the pipe, whenever that was.

I felt that familiar irritation rising that we both have been feeling more often than we used to. Sensing it, my wife said: “I know you have your lessons. But what can we do? We have to get rid of the smell. And look at me! I have to find a way to keep Leo occupied. He’s getting heavy, you know.”

I know he is. She’s right, of course. What can we do? What can anybody do? Tolerance and forebearance have become almost like talismans these days, living every day almost every minute in the same space.

The lesson started, and went fairly smoothly. In the middle of my presentation of reported speech, the workers outside, with the timing of diabolical merchants of doom, began hammering. The hammering was like a dull needle being inserted into my temple, but other than that not too bad. The hammering only persisted for about ten minutes. What’s the current death toll of the virus worldwide? Desperately, I mentally grasped for a figure to keep the hammering in perspective.

And the thing was, only three students showed up for the lesson. The rest had taken the quiz, then presumably returned to their busy quarantine schedule of watching Netflix and feeling bored about their lives.

By the end of the lesson, the smell of shit was still pretty strong. My wife’s mother, who has been stuck with us (bless her!) since December, was engaged in various chores, talking with the workers and trying to get rid of the smell all at the same time. My wife returned with Leo and took him out to the garden.

I needed a cigarette badly, so I decided to join them. At the door, out of laziness, I donned a pair of my wife’s slippers. They were purple and rather ladylike, and very small for my feet, but what the hell? I taught the lessons in my plaid pajamas, so who’s keeping style points these days?

“Are you wearing my shoes?” my wife said, scrutinizing me as I entered the garden, lighting my cigarette. “You’re going to stretch them out!”

“Just for a few minutes.”

“Can you take him for a while?” She handed me Leo. “Keep him on this side of the garden, there is still that smell.”

I could tell she was tired, her face was worn. Apparently the workers had finished. One of them came out to the garden in search of a lighter for his cigarette. I offered him mine. He looked down at the purple slippers I was wearing, but didn’t say anything.

After he left, I sat with Leo for awhile. Leo seemed to be enjoying the light spring air, his eyes roaming up to the greenness of the trees, the grey-black flick of the crows passing, the gnarly cats lurking in the bushes. I thought about the quarantine, the lockdowns. And the smell of shit, and how it forced us to retreat to the garden.

“Does our world keep getting smaller and smaller, my boy?” I asked Leo. “We can’t go outside. We can’t go inside. Just this small patch of garden.”

Leo sucked on his pudgy fingers, as if lost in thought. Presently, he gurgled something known only to him.

“Maybe we should get a tent,” I said, to which he replied, with infinite wisdom, “A-ghoo.”


By dinnertime, things had finally settled back down. The shit smell had mostly disappeared, drifting off in the late afternoon sunlight. We kept the doors of the balcony open anyway, to massage the air and filter the apartment’s inner recesses.

“What a hectic day!” my wife said, as we surveyed the now quiet garden. Her mother was busy preparing dinner. “Non-stop since 7:30 this morning!”

It had been very busy, but now we felt that tired relief that comes after unpleasant tasks are finally ticked off the list. The weekend was coming, but the whole country would be on a four-day lockdown. Fortunately, we had stocked up with groceries the day before, so we didn’t need to go and stand in long queues outside the supermarket, or engage in sporty fistfights or healthy bitchslapping contests over milk and toilet paper.

I found myself thinking of Brother Zekai in his cave, somewhere outside Silifke, alone with his love of solitude and nature. Good for him. But then I thought of our little apartment. It’s so small, with only the balcony offering a view of the outside world. It’s like our own little cave. Even with the limitations, irritations, smells, I much prefer our cave – mine, my wife’s and Leo’s – to his.

But to each his or her own. Maybe that’s something this whole long wretched season has reminded us: it’s a small world, and we have to live together, breathe the same air. Sorry, Thoreau, but desperation, quiet or not, is perhaps interesting to dwell upon while living alone in some remote forest, but in these times, it is a luxury most of us can ill afford.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul.