In the Dungeon of the Zabita

Until recently the big squares of Istanbul, at Beyazit between the university and the mosque, the streets around the old Spice Market, and the seafront promenade along the Golden Horn were alive with street sellers peddling their wares, ranging from imitation brand-name designer clothes and perfumes, to potted plants, copied cvds and toys from China, all laid out on plastic tarpaulins which could be bundled up in a jiffy for a quick exit if necessary. Others sold grilled fish from wooden pushcarts or stuffed mussels from collapsible stands. The air was alive with vendors crying their wares, and tourists and Turks alike would browse and buy cheap amid the colorful bustle.

Nowadays the squares are bare and quiet, and any seller one may come across in the side-streets keeps his hawking low and his eyes peeled. The dreaded Zabita may be about.

The Turkish government, in part of a package of corporate-sector reforms to prepare the country for European Union membership, has seized on international economists’ prescriptions to prosecute tax cheats as an excuse to go after the street sellers. Uniformed security guards of the Municipality, the Zabita, looking very much like police in their cargo pants and navy jackets, are clearing squares and confiscating goods from peddlers, making it very hard for the enterprising poor to think of another way of earning a living than basic begging.

I particularly sympathise with these people, for since last year, in order to pay the rent, having lost my university teaching job, almost broke, I’ve been telling fortunes with runestones in the streets of Istanbul. All my equipment fits in a black artist’s portfolio case which I unzip at a suitable location. The grey clay runes are glued inside in a circle, along with a pointer and a file in Turkish explaining the meaning of each runic symbol. On either side the display little prop-up signs advertise ‘RUN FAL’ (Rune Forcast) and my minimum price, 1 Turkish lira, approximately a dollar.

During my year on the streets I’ve had my dealings with the Zabita. Many a day you might not see them, but then suddenly a van or a small strutting group will appear. Often they’ve passed without seeming to notice me sitting there on my little fishing stool, but whenever they’ve told me to move on I’ve moved, and not returned to that place, each time losing good locations with lots of punters for less busy but safer zones. My most recent pitch has been on the low wall of an abandoned building-in-progress in a one-way street not far from my rented flat. Three cafes advertise tarot and coffee-ground readings in the area, so naturally there’s more than one curious passersby who stops to investigate how runes work. It’s not a bad spot and I make enough there in a couple of hours to pay for the day’s wine and groceries. Or I used to, that is.

Because of bad weather and other commitments I hadn’t been out runing for a while, but having free time last Sunday afternoon I decided to go to the same place and try to make some money. Before leaving I dug into another pouch of runes I’d made, to predict the outcome of my afternoon. The painted symbol on the pebble I pulled out was ‘THORN’. “Sudden stroke of good luck,” I interpreted. “Or sign of luck running out.”

I set up my display on the walltop and sat down next to it. I’d brought an old American paperback along, the novel ‘Metropolis’ by Thea Von Harbou, originally published in 1927, the moral of which is: “The mediator between brain and muscle must be the Heart.” While waiting for my first customer I started to read.

“And far beneath in man-made caverns below, the monster machines of Moloch: the incredible, inhuman Geyser Machine, the Heart Machine that must be forever tended by the Human Clocks, the subterranean sub-humans, the helpless workers of the mole-world who slave their hopeless lives away, serfs for the surface people, blind puppets to the will of the Master of Metropolis.”

Obliquely I noticed that the traffic on the road had slowed to a standstill, and the vehicle nearest me was a white van with dark markings. Four impassive-faced Zabitas got out and walked over to me. One asked what I was doing. “Telling fortunes”, I replied.

“Yasak! (Forbidden!)” he barked, and told me to pack everything up. I did so quickly, saying I’d just be on my way, but another Zabita grabbed the case, walked over to the van and chucked it in the back. I complained that the runes were very precious to me and I didn’t want them to be taken. I was stonily informed that they could be collected the next day from the Zabita Depot for Confiscated Goods.

Where’s that?” I asked, but the door with its dark-glass window slammed shut and the van started off. I ran and jumped in front of it, holding out my arms beseechingly. The van stopped and ejected some Zabitas, who approached menacingly.

I told them they were robbing me, and demanded the address to where my stuff was being taken, at least. One scribbled it down on a piece of paper and said the place opened at 10 am. I said I had no money for a ransom, and would they not simply give me the runes back and forget about it? They remounted disdainfully and drove off with my livelihood.

After questioning a licensed street-vendor selling antique coins on a corner, I learned the whereabouts of the Zabita Depot. It is situated in the Building of the Municipality, not far from the Crossing of the Six Roads.

I’m not a big fan of the Municipality and the changes they’ve wrought in the area where I’ve lived over the past few years. They cut down trees and pulled up bushes and shrubs along a nearby seafront walk I used to like, laying down Astroturf and a grey cement road over the former beaten track through the wild flowers. They pulled down a row of shops selling flowers and plants and pets by the sea and replaced it with a tarmac taxi rank. They banned the colorful gypsy flea market at Frog Stream on Sundays, where you used to be able to find the most interesting bargains as you wandered among the stalls of fascinating junk. They got rid of the big wheeled metal canisters in the streets for chucking your rubbish in and replaced them with domed green plastic igloo like contraptions that close up after you dump, making it very difficult for the poor recycling men who tour the streets with their handcarts collecting plastic, glass and paper, to get at the contents. The Municipality Building was not a good place for my runes to languish. I resolved to go and rescue them on the morrow.

Before setting off on my quest at half eleven next day, I dug into the rune pouch on the door handle and drew one out. ‘THORN’ again! As I made my way to the Building, umbrella raised against an icy drizzle from a leaden sky, down the hill from the life-size brass sculpture of the bull that stands on the traffic island in the middle of the Crossing of the Six Roads, I pondered the deeper meanings of the rune and the motto that went with it ­ “Alone am I
to ward against danger
but never do I falter”.

The key words of ‘THORN’ are Challenge, Protection, Destruction and Defense. It symbolizes thickets and thorny hedges that enclose and protect shrines and secret places, a bramble maze through which only those who have the secret knowledge will make it to the center unscathed by the thorns.

As I approached the tall turreted modern building of slate grey stone and glass on its island midst the traffic, with its surrounding wrought-iron fence of speartipped bars, I was reminded of the enchanted castle in Sleeping Beauty. ‘THORN’ can represent a sharp ‘spindle’ too, with poison in its prick to put people under its spell. To enter the Building without succumbing to its power I must be bold and alert to hidden danger. It would be a test to overcome any fear of authority and inner weakness I might have. Did I possess the secret power which would enable me to enter the Maze of Municipality and emerge with runes unscathed?

I came to a gateway with a traffic obstacle-bar lowered across it. Seeing no guard in the sentry box I squeezed past, and dazzled by the green lawn after the grey drabness of pavement and road, I climbed the marble steps to the mirrored sliding entrance of the building, marvelling at the majesty. The doors slid open as I closed my umbrella, and I was in a hall with a red carpet leading to another mirrored double-door which glided apart at my approach. My invasion of the citadel seemed almost too easy.

I found myself in a large reception area with carpeted floors, framed paintings on the walls and a wide polished wooden staircase wending upwards. Two men in high-collared uniforms approached and asked what I wanted.

“Zabita,” I said. “Open Sesame,” I thought.

But the password did not allow me further access. The men told me I was in the wrong part of the building. I should go back out again and turn left. I’d find the entrance I wanted there. As I was leaving I noticed a sign on the wall ­ ‘Managers Only’.

Outside in the cold again, around the corner I came upon the entrance for the ordinary folk, and there were quite a number of them coming in and going out. They exited and entered a glass revolving-door which led to a lobby where one’s identity card was traded for a plastic disc, which, when pressed against an electronic patch gave further access through shiny silver turnstyles to the main marble-floored hall beyond. The blue-eyed, blonde-haired uniformed girl in the glass booth who took my passport was astonishingly beautiful. No Sleeping Beauty could have been fairer than she, yet there she was alive and awake, slaving for the Municipality. “Bewitched,” I told myself.

I was no sooner through the silver turnstyle than out again, informed by a guard that the Zabita depot I searched for was not in this part of the building. The girl behind the glass returned my passport. While she instructed me where to go (“Turn left outside and go down under the ground.”), another young blonde who had just arrived on duty, equally as beautiful, almost a clone, stared at me with piercing blue eyes. Sending distress signals? But damsels were not on the agenda. My mission was to recover the runes.

I revolved out into the cold drizzle again, turned left and followed the path around the building. A flight of steps suddenly appeared and I descended into an underground car park, dark, bleak and empty. I walked through it and up to the grey daylight on the other side, beginning to feel confused.

I asked a man in a sentry box where the Zabita depot might be, and he pointed directly behind me. A steep flight of yellow-painted steps led down under the ground. At the bottom a man in overalls was sweeping up dried leaves with a witch’s broom, and another with a big black bin-bag stuffed with multicolored socks on his back was coming out. This was the place.

I walked down the steps and found myself in a dark vestibule in front of a big metal double door with a smaller single one next to it. No-one answered when I knocked at the single, so I tried the double, and the metal boomed. Half of it clanked open and a grey-haired man looked out and asked what I wanted. I told him the Zabita had siezed something of mine the previous day and I was here to redeem it. What did it look like? It was a black case with some stones in.

“The Fal?”

He knew what I was talking about. I expressed relief. But before I could retrieve it, he announced in a serious voice, I must report to the Amir, who wanted to see me. He pointed upwards.

I climbed the steps again, followed the path round the building and in through the glass revolving doors. I was amazed to see that the blue-eyed blonde in the glass cabinet had been replaced by a short pale girl with black hair, until I noticed the floor-directory was no longer on the wall. I realised that I was on the other side of the building.

Through silver turnstyles I emerged into the sanctum and asked a uniformed guard the way to the Zabita Amir’s Office. He pointed to a long grey corridor lined with shut doors. I walked along it and found one open, with a middle-aged woman watering potted plants inside. She looked up and I asked where I might find the Amir.

“The Manager?” she said. What’s it about?”

“Fortune-telling,” I said.

She asked what kind. I told her Runes. She told me to wait and went out. The framed painting of a single giant sun-flower dominated one wall in the room. It shone bright yellow glorious against a blue sky, almost swaggering on its strong and erect healthy green stalk with white bristles. Almost thorns, they seemed. The woman came and told me to follow her.

We stopped outside a door a bit further up the corridor and she rapped. A deep voice told me to enter.

The Amir was comfortably seated behind his tidy polished desk, immaculately groomed with his black hair and moustache, dark suit, silk tie, gold cufflinks and rings. He offered me a seat. The wall opposite his desk was dominated by a huge chart divided into oblongs and sections. The unsmiling portraits of Zabita goons stared out by the hundreds from little squares.

Was I in the den of Thea Von Harbou’s Master of Metropolis? “A man forged of ten-point steel, cold as the surface of Pluto ­ and as distant. A ruler as ruthless and imperious as ancient Caesar.”

“It’s forbidden to tell fortunes in the streets of Istanbul,” he said.

“I didn’t know that,” I half-lied.

“Why don’t you do it in a cafe?” he suggested. “You’d make more Money that way too.”

“I might just think about that!” I said.

“There’s a cafe in town, “My Fortune”, which might be interested in having you. What do you do? Palmistry? Tarot?”

I told him ‘Runes’, and he asked me to explain.

“Well, the stones are in a circle,” I explained. “First you think of a question you want to ask, then you choose a symbol and touch it with the wand. Then you think of a number between ten and thirty”

I could see he was interested. He picked up the phone and said something. A grey haired servant appeared at the door. The Zabita manager told him to take me to the depot to collect the runes and bring me back immediately. I was sure he wanted a forecast. I followed the man out.

He stopped and unlocked a door. We went in and down a steep flight of stairs. A sign on the wall at the bottom said ‘DUNGEON FLOOR’. Another man was on the other side of an iron-barred gate. After we’d passed through, he locked it behind us. The walls of a long dark corridor were lined with old files and dossiers from floor to ceiling. The men walked silently in front of me towards another gate with bars. Was this a trick? Had I fallen into a trap? Would I ever see the light of day again?

The dungeoner suddenly reached out and pinched my escort on his upper arm playfully as they walked.

“Gerroff!” he laughed.

The Guardian of the Zabita Depot of Confiscated Goods was waiting behind the second gate, and he escorted us into his domain. The first thing I noticed in the jumble on the floor was a youg lemon tree with leaves and three ripe fruit on it, its roots in a black binbag,. Just one of the spoils of the Zabita.

I gaped at all the other nicked stuff, masses of it, an Aladdin’s Cave. Tiers of shelves stretched into the distance along the walls and down the middle, mostly laden with stuffed black bin bags, but things spilling out and exposed as well, books, stuffed toys, musical instruments, carpets, brass objects, a glass chandelier, an old typewriter. As the guardian took my rune case off a shelf behind his desk, I noticed an accordian with a mother-of-pearl inlay on the keyboard, just like the one an old man used to play in the streets around my place, while his wife collected Money in a cap. I suddenly realized I hadn’t seen them in a long time

As I signed my name in the column of a thick ledger to show that I’d collected my confiscated possessions, I noticed mostly blank spaces on the pages, signifying that very few people came to reclaim their confiscated goods. This could be due to a variety of reasons. Like me, they may not have known the address, fear of an exorbitant fine to pay, or just a sense of hopelesness that the whim of the Zabita can whisk away one’s livelihood in the wink of an eye.

With the rescued runes, I and my escort left the depot and made our way back down the dungeon passage, barred doors clicking locked behind us, and up the stairs again to the Passageway of Management. There was no answer to a knock at the Amir’s door, so my escort tried the handle. It was locked.

“He must have gone to lunch,” said the puzzled servant.

“Oh well, maybe some other time,” I said nonchantly, secretly triumphant that the Head of the Zabitas, the Master of the Metropolis, had probably chickened out and fled the pure power of the freed runes, and the answer they would give to his question, would be too overwhelming for him. He had had them captured and placed in his dungeon, but I, with the strength of ‘THORN’, had liberated them! We had come through!

The silver turnstyle refused to move when I pressed the plastic pass against it. I tried another. A red light flashed but the bar wouldn’t move. A guard approached. Had I spoken of liberty too soon? I was still in the building, under their control!

The guard pointed to some silver turnstyles on the other side of the hall. That was the side I had come in. My pass card would only allow access to that side. This was the side of the beautiful blondes.

I crossed through a turnstyle on the allocated side, collected my passport, and took a deep lungful of cold air as I emerged from the spinning glass doors. Freedom! Mission accomplished! The runes were mine once more!

As I turned out of the gate I noticed a young man coming along the street dressed all in white. White anorack, white jeans, white socks and plimsolls. Here comes the White Knight to waken the Sleeping Beauty, I thought. He’s going to be disappointed to find her awake and working for the government.

When he got nearer I saw that he wasn’t as young as I’d imagined, maybe in his thirties, He looked rather jaded, dark rings under bloodshot deadpan eyes, a dark stubble on his chin, his jelled-back hair shining dully. He flicked away a cigaretted butt and yawned widely as he slouched through the gate toward the Building without his milk-white charger. The Sleeping Beauty was going to be a bit disappointed by her Prince as well.

“They don’t write fairy-stories like they used to any more,” mused I with a shrug as I raised my umbrella against the frosty drizzle, and strolled off home with the runes.

MICHAEL DICKINSON, whose artwork graces the covers of Dime’s Worth of Difference, Serpents in the Garden and Grand Theft Pentagon, lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website or at:





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