Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Crazy Ali of Turkey: “The Village Poet,” by Marcelline Burns

Marcelline (Marcy) Burns is an author-friend I made through her response to "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" and continued penpal correspondence with both my father and myself. She is one of my role models I use when answering the question, "What kind of old woman do I want to be?" This was a question posed to me in the 1990s by a close West African friend and I find it has much resonance for me. I visited Marcy in Oxnard on my latest trip to Southern California. We shared a good meal, even better conversations, and a walk on the beach near her home. Clearly, she's a globe-trotting mama---er, grandmama. ---JGR

crazy-ali-with-grammophone.jpg
Ali with grammophone (Photo by Marcelline Burns)

Outside a small shop, we stopped when we saw a speaker for an ancient record player. Somehow it had survived many years in remarkably good shape, and we amused ourselves by wondering aloud whether Buster Brown and his dog Tighe might be nearby. We were ready to move along when the shopkeeper emerged and spoke to us in English.
---Marcelline Burns' "The Village Poet"

It is a small village of no particular note. Perhaps we were told the name, but it is now forgotten. The year was 2007, and the month was September. We were traveling through southeastern Turkey, a driver, a guide and 19 American tourists in a large coach. Our cameras had been idle on this afternoon, and we had drifted off into silence and into our private thoughts as we traveled in a dusty, rocky landscape.

Now and then there were small ancient stone houses, brown weeds crowning their flat rooftops. The neatly stacked piles near the houses---what on earth were they? “Dung”, we were told. “The dung is fuel to heat their houses and cook their food.”

There were no trees, nothing green, but lively goats led flocks of sheep and somewhere in the distance a shepherd followed. We murmured one to the other, “What do the sheep eat? Or drink…and the shepherd…where does he live?” We were looking with the eyes of urban America. We of an abundant lifestyle were puzzled by this barren place.

The bus lumbered slowly along a single lane. When the dirt road ended at a cluster of small buildings, the driver slowed and stopped the bus, and the guide said, “Time to stretch. Walk around. The villagers are friendly.”

The nice lady from Milwaukee asked, “Anything special here?” On another day in a distant city she had purchased two large, beautiful, costly Kulim carpets. She frowned just a little when the guide said, “No, just a village.” There would be no shopping on this stop.

When I stepped down from the bus, a small boy blocked my way. All in a breath, he said, “My name is Muhammed. I am nine years old. What’s your name?” His dark hair was neatly combed, his clothes were clean, and his eyes were mischievous in the way of little boys. He spoke clearly with barely a trace of an accent.

When I answered his question and asked him how he had learned English, his smile grew bigger, but he stared at me without a trace of recognition. He was pleased to have my attention, but he understood none of my words. He had spoken all the English he knew, and he couldn’t tell me how he had learned those few words.

We meandered along the one street. It was equal to two city blocks in length, maybe a little more, and at the end there was a boulder as big as a house in American suburbia. It was far bigger than any structure in the village. We marveled at its size, and admired one of the many handsome cats that lolled about everywhere. We nodded and smiled at a few men who squatted around a game, and then we began to retrace our steps to the bus.

Outside a small shop, we stopped when we saw a speaker for an ancient record player. Somehow it had survived many years in remarkably good shape, and we amused ourselves by wondering aloud whether Buster Brown and his dog Tighe might be nearby. We were ready to move along when the shopkeeper emerged and spoke to us in English. Excuses quickly formed on our lips as he invited us to enter his shop. Of course, he wanted to lure the tourists inside where he might make a sale. How wrong we were! He introduced himself as “Crazy Ali”, and he wasn’t thinking about selling something to us. He wanted to share.

I asked, “Who gave you that name?” to which he responded with obvious pride, “I gave it to myself more than a quarter century ago. I am Crazy Ali, the poet.” In my mind, I scoffed, “A poet! In this poor and remote place?” Exactly, and what Ali wanted to share was his poetry. Three American women had wandered near his shop, and he wanted us to come inside his shop. Politely, he begged our permission to recite one of his poems. I shall be forever grateful that we entered and that we listened.

On that day, Crazy Ali was a handsome man with kind eyes and lines that bespoke many years of joys and sorrows. His recitation was memorable, intensely and beautifully spoken. As we stood amid ancient wares in his dim shop, he recited these lines in a rich, emotion-laden voice.

DO YOU KNOW?

Do you understand how large the world is?

Do you know what things are inside?

People, people, people

What they have done, what they will do…

They haven’t loved each other,

They said your color is different, your shape is different,

They said your religion is different, your rituals are different,

They fought and fought.

Do you know what’s going to happen?

The world is so large, how can I know?

Millions, millions of people,

But small minds can think bigger thoughts.

I see a small village,

Cats with dogs, chickens with foxes,

They live together.

How can people learn to do the same?

The world is large inside your mind,

The small village is there,

Whatever is in your mind, if you wish it

Even the sun will rise there.

The experience was unexpectedly, profoundly moving, and when he finished the four of stood for a long moment in a kind of reverential silence. Finally, I quietly said, “Ali, the world needs more men like you.” He nodded and then rather timidly showed us a thick ring binder. “Four hundred poems. I wrote all of them.”

It was past time for us to return to the bus. As we made our way out of the shop, Ali quickly took a postcard from a display, wrote on it, and placed it in my hand. I reached for coins to pay him, but he stopped my hand. There was a harsh edge to his voice when he said, “No! You gave me pleasure. Don’t spoil it.” Chastened, I bid him goodbye, and we walked away. Back on the bus, I looked at what he had written on the postcard. His words were an expression of gratitude for the moments of friendship.

“Crazy Ali, I often think of you, a good man in a small village in Turkey.”

Copyright 2008 by Marcelline Burns

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15 Responses »

  1. Thank you for making it possible for others to read Ali's poem. I wish that he could know that it has been published. I believe he would be greatly pleased to know his poem has been shared more widely than with just the three of us who met him in his village.. Unfortunately, I know of no way to contact him. Mail sent to him months ago has been neither returned nor acknowledged, and I now doubt that he ever received it.

  2. You've shown why travel is so important: We can find ourselves as we'd appear if we lived in other cultures.

    Thank you for this example of our oneness, and another take on "wherever we go, there we are."

  3. Crazy Ali's address:
    50650 Ortahisar - Ürgüp - Turkey.
    He was born in 1947 en has written about 400 poems (all in English).
    Impressive is his hand wave before he starts reciting his poem.
    He has no computer and even doesn't want one.
    The villagers consider him being a (harmless) lunatic.

  4. Hi There !

    I just returned from this place just a week back... and memories of this person and the unique experience he gave us still afresh in my mind. The best was we had a 4 hr trek with this guy at NIGHT ! through the valleys of Urgup...where he took us to a church inside one of those caves.......... marvelous...the best part of the trip it was.....

  5. I met him tooo! 😀

    He took us on a "walk" at midnight! It was amaaaazing! I'm gonna blog about it in a bit.

  6. Hello,

    Ali knows that his poem is on internet. About one month ago I have talk to him in his small vilage. It's an amazing man.

  7. Yes, I know Crazy Ali well. Having lived in Ankara for nearly three years, I made 28 visits to Kapadokya. I made a few midnight walks with Ali, and to his "white church" cave on family property near Urgup. I will not forget his poetry readings in the church while I sat with fresh oranges and grapefruit, and wine we had brought for our trek. 40 candles placed throughout the church which made it quite light inside. Then, finally extinguishing the candles and packing them away, we made our climb up to the valley view point where his taksi driver friend picked us up for the ride back to his shop.

    Many of my friends and colleagues still talk of Crazy Ali, his kind, sincere heart and gentle ways! I look forward to the opportunity to go visit him again!

  8. Dear Rick,

    Thanks for your delightful and poetic remembrances of Crazy Ali. I'll forward you comment to Marcy Burns who wrote this post. She'll be happy to hear your story.

    Janet

  9. Where can I find the postry of Crazy Ali; I'd like to have its in English and Turkish too.
    I knew him and his words, his poestry and his generosity touched my heart.
    Thanks to inform me,

  10. je rentre de Turquie....notre guide nous a fait découvrir le village de Crazy Ali
    après quelques pas dans l'unique rue, un charmant Monsieur nous invite, avec un français hésitant, à entrer dans sa boutique
    et là, surprise...il ne cherche pas à nous vendre des babioles pour touristes mais nous montre ses poêmes traduits en français
    il voit notre intérêt, nous échangeons des sourires ....mieux que des mots parfois !!!
    et je repars avec une carte postale dédicacée d'un message d'amitié
    .....au retour , je fais des recherches sur le Net pour compléter ce séjour culturel et je trouve cette page sur mon nouvel ami
    il y a des moments magiques dans la vie, profitons en

  11. I met Crazy Ali in his shop in october 2012. I was in a hurry, the bus waited for me outside. I travelled with a group of tourists from Norway. And the bus parked there by coincidence. But I saw his book of poems. And he gave me a postcard with nice greeting. Now afterwards I really have understood what an amazing man I have met. Is his poems really to read on Internet? I would very much like to know where I can find it.

  12. Tor,

    This is exciting! I'll put you in touch with Marci Burns, the author of this post.

    Janet

  13. Amazing to find out Crazy Ali is indeed as famous as he said to me he is. I met him beginning of May 2013, whilst also touring Cappedocia with a group (of Dutch tourists). Hardly anyone stepped into his shop. Ali told me he is a poet and let me read some, I was touched by them and think they were very good. When I asked him how come he speaks English so well he told me he used lived in the Netherlands. He showed me a book which had poems of several authors and there was one of him in there as well. He wrote me a kind greeting on a postcard and told me it would make me a lot of money if I were to sell it at auction eventually. I doubt that but I showed my card to my fellow travellers and they liked the short friendship message is had written on it.. I had been so lucky to go into that shop. A pity he did not hand out his poems, I asked for a copy but it appears he did pretend not to hear me.

  14. I met this wonderful man last week, he encouraged ,me to photograph my favourite poem which I did, when I offered money he returned it to me. Are his poems on the internet anywhere. I think we were the only ones from our bus to meet him. My life is richer for the experience!!

  15. Dilluns , 10 de març, a primera hora de la tarda, i després d'un matí plujós que va fer que rellisquéssim per les pendents de les esglésies rupestres, on varem poder admirar l'art del romànic del nostre Pirineu , vem aturar -nos per fer un descans en un poble poc significat. Per comprar unes postals un home va preguntar d'on erem. Catalans!, responguerem. Va obrir un cartipàs i la sorpresa va ésser que ens va fer llegir un poema d'amor en CATALÀ. Ens va dir que era poeta, en anglès (nosaltres no el sabem) i varem entendre de seguida que haviem establert una amistat sincera per sempre més, malgrat els 4000 km que ens separen. Mai l'oblidarem i el posarem d'exemple sempre que podem.

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