Ten years ago, when I moved to Turkey after spending most of my life in France and the US, I was moved to see how alive gift culture was in this country. For me to explain what I saw then, I like to use the following story:
“There once was a water bearer who every day to earn a living carried water from the distant river into the town where he lived. To do so, he owned two ceramic pots, which he hung at both ends of a pole he balanced over his shoulders . While one of the pots was bright red, smooth and perfectly waterproof, the other was old, discolored and a bit cracked, in fact it dripped water on the way. Each day the pot became a little more porous, and dripped a little more, till came a time it was only able to retain half of its content by the time they’d reach the town. This caused the pot great shame, and so finally, unable to contain its embarrassment, the pot addressed the water bearer: “Master, please break me! throw me! dispose of me! I can’t stand this misery any longer, I’m unable to hold water, and every day my imperfections cause you to work twice as hard, you can replace me and get a more efficient pot, this way you’ll earn more working less…please put of out of this misery”.
“Oh replied the water bearer, is that what you think of yourself? Then please, let me show you something on the way back from the river tomorrow.”
And the next day, after filling both pots, and hanging one on the right and the cracked one on the left side of his pole as he always did, the water bearer pointed to the right side of the path and asked: “tell me, what you see”, the pot replied “I see dirt, I see stones, and dust” hearing this the water bearer pointed to the left side of the road and asked: “what do you see on that side?” “Oh there I see grass, weeds and wild flowers” “Yes, replied the water bearer, this is the beauty you have created by dripping a bit of your water by the side of the path everyday, you quenched the thirst of the soil, you gave birth to the sleeping seeds, and nourished the blooms, and every week, from this side of the path, I pick a few flowers, bring them to my wife to let her know this beauty reminds me of the beauty she brings to my life…and that’s why there is so much laughter in my house. Yes cracked pot, you may not be efficient, but by randomly sharing your water with the soil you feed this land we all live on”.
Of course, when I moved to Turkey there were not water bearers, but to my European eyes, there were many “cracked pots”, people were dripping time and money all the time, not trying to retain it, freely dripping away and feeding their environment and society. When one would get on the bus without a bus card there was always someone willing to punch their own cards refusing to take money in exchange for the service, time was spent for emergencies and illnesses, but also to celebrate, chat, know each other, weave connections, be there for each other, together. Street corners had plastic chairs where neighbors would come eat sunflower seeds and drink tea, and when someone needed blood donations for an operation I would witness within neighborhoods the workings of a well oiled support system which could organically orchestrate what hierarchal systems can only dream to achieve efficiently.
Coming from a culture that measured and split the hours, minutes and seconds always trying to squeeze in as much as possible, seeing if an extra yoga class could not be squeezed after work and before a meeting, the utter generosity with which people offered their time and resources was a pleasant if at times challenging cultural shock.
This culture of “cracked pots” where accounting was loose enough to allow random acts of generosity and scheduling was made to be dropped as soon as a need was expressed, was a school of behavior, which at times made me stretch my limits by presenting me with a mirror where I saw how conservative I’d been trained to be with the time and money I leaked out to society. I understood that the gift required flexibility, being willing to devote time to the activity of neighboring, which ran contrary to any time efficiency and reliability of commitment that I was used to.
Connections were key, but any connection worked, no matter how distant, one just needed to know about the connection, a man who owned a shop in the building where worked the son of another man who served tea at the university where my friend’s mother taught once helped me, because we were “connected”, I then understood that while in the west the idea that we are all connected by 6 degree of separation is just a quaint little concept, in the east, it was the principle on which the society functioned and exchanged gifts. Not a this-for-that exchange, but a constant offering knowing that each gift made the wide network stronger and more abundant.
Some roles were key, the tea man (çaycı) or the green grocer (bakal), for example, were catalysts of connections and neighboring, they’d know of everyone’s needs, roles and gifts and could always put us in touch with just the neighbor we needed from the wider community, which in a crowded city meant knowing and orchestrating an insane amount of information and details about the life of everyone. When my cat needed an operation and after visiting a few clinics to realize that I could not afford what they asked for, it was my green grocer who got me in touch with a elderly man who lived a few streets away and worked part time as a janitor in a veterinarian clinic, and seeing how we were neighbors, his boss agreed to conduct the operation for the amount I could offer.
If I wrote all this in the past tense, it’s because over the last decade I’ve seen the cracked pots whetherproof themselves. Reacting to modern calls for productivity, pushed by the capitalist economic boom and the busy-ness opportunities it offers, the cracked pots are being sealed in Turkey. Slowly and in subtle ways. Time and money, stopped dripping as freely as they used to, creating a parched land, not watered the way it used to be, wild flowers of hope have dried. The change was so slow that we did not notice it. Maybe one of the first thing I noticed was that people started accepting the money offered when they punched their bus cards for a stranger, and then it became more difficult to even find someone willing to punch their cards for you, creating a long embarrassed silence when someone asks.
Overall the changes created by the increased productivity on the traditional gift system were so subtle that if I listed the many small shifts that I noticed, they would all seem petty, isolated incidents.
But it added up to a change that could be felt by all, at least in the air of the big cities.
The more time was measured, split, managed and organized, they more it disappeared, the entire city of Istanbul started looking between the cushions of the couch to find some loose time that might have slipped there by accident. The more carefully it was allotted the more scarce time became. People could no longer find a minute to help their neighbors fix their sink, or to talk to the bakal or even to go to the bakal, they went to time efficient supermarkets where no one wasted their time telling them about some stranger’s cat.
And then…Gezi happened!
We all went to parks, walked in the streets, drank tea breathed in some tear gas and debated together, everything else was put on hold.
When people ask me what Gezi was, I say that to me it was the neighbors of a big city who all gathered in a park, and broke their pots and poured the water contents on the trees.
For a few weeks, time came back to the city!
All the scheduled events were put on hold to create time, space and financial resources to feed, protect even recreate neighborhoods in the city.
Yoga classes were taken to the parks, meetings were made to discuss what was happening in the moment not what had been set on the agenda. The world kept turning, we found that when our neighborhood were being watered (here read showered!) with extra time, resources and love, we all had enough, in fact we had so much that we could jump off the hamster wheel and sit in a chair on the corner of the street with our neighbors.
We had enough to give, we emptied our closets of unused objects and shared them in parks, when we shopped for food we bought twice as much so as to feed the neighborhood and in the end of the month we found we’d received so much that we had spent less.
Beyond what it did to the allocation of time and resources, it created a shift in the air, once again we were walking in a sacred garden, and in each person we met on the street we saw a sacred gardener. Getting in and out of the subway people were more considerate, bumping into each other on the street would lead to smiles and heartfelt apologies, smiles spread from one face to another, we recognized each other in the faceless crowds we saw millions of neighbors, cracked pots watering the sacred community and making it greener with each “wasted” unaccounted drop.