The Turkish Art of Love
The charming, 85-year-old Istanbul poet and painter Habib Gerez buries his Turkish-Jewish heritage in a country where Jewish artists are not accepted
A charming narcissist by birth, and poet and painter by trade, Habib Gerez enjoys the company of young women almost as much as the stroke of a brush or pen. He is fluent in six languages, including French, which used to be requisite knowledge for educated Jews in Turkey; Ladino, a form of Judeo-Spanish; and most recently, Russian, to cater to one or two of his “girlfriends prolongées,” as lawyer and Jewish Museum of Turkey curator Naim Avigdor Güleryüz describes his old friend’s attractive younger partners in serial monogamy. When asked how he learned so many languages, Gerez casually responded in French, “Autodictat.”
Gerez lives in a roomy multilevel home, which also serves as an office and warehouse for 4,000 as-yet-unsold paintings at a coveted address near the Galata tower in Istanbul. He owns four cars—though, at 85, he no longer drives them—and vacations in Italy and France in his leisure time. Despite what would appear to be a life of luxury, Gerez insists that he is not wealthy, but just average. Yet the average elderly Istanbullu probably wouldn’t be found lounging in his living room on a weekday afternoon in a crisp linen shirt and patterned cravat, surrounded by walls bearing relics of his own creation, being served tea by a Hungarian “fiancée” several decades his junior.
Yusef Habib Gerez was born on June 14, 1926, to a middle-class family in the picturesque neighborhood of Ortaköy, along the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait. His mother was a homemaker, and his father worked in textiles. He has an older brother, Heskia Habib, who now resides in Holland with his family.
From as far back as he can remember, Gerez had an artist’s instinct, but he never had formal art training. He took a stab at law school in the 1950s but dropped out after one year. “When we sat down to study, he would be writing poems,” Güleryüz remembered.
Gerez is magically engaging, overwhelmingly eccentric, and surprisingly likable; he brings his younger self alive as a third character in conversation—a reference to a version of himself that seems to be disjointed from the current. Pulling out a book about himself from under his desk, shaking it up and down to demonstrate its heft, and noting the $120 price sticker, Gerez pointed to a picture of himself during his 1955 stint in the Turkish army.
He is also cunningly selective in terms of what he chooses to reveal about his past—and his Jewish identity is among the parts of his biography that he masks. For several years, he served as the private secretary to the chief rabbi of Turkey. While his father and brother actively practiced Judaism as Gerez was growing up, he and his mother did not. Gerez does not identify with the faith, describing himself as an atheist. “I am God, you are God. For me, hell is here, paradise is here.”
Entrenched in an odd state of apathy for a Jew raised in a Muslim state, Gerez denies any particular solidarity to the state of Israel. “Everybody is the same,” he repeated. “I believe that borders and languages and religions are invented by man.”
His bold egalitarian statements provide little explanation for the large painting bearing the Star of David and other Jewish symbols occupying a wall in his bedroom. “This symbolizes a nation that raised from blood and dirt—Israel,” he explained, pointing to blended hints of red and brown in the center of the painting. He proudly adds that he is listed in the Encyclopedia Judaica, volumes of which sit in a vitrine downstairs.
Yet he neglects to mention that he had worked for two Turkish-Jewish newspapers, Haftanın Sesi, of which he was a co-founder in 1956, and later, Şalom, for which he wrote poems as recently as 1997. Fellow former Şalom writer Yakup Almelek says that the bulk of Gerez’s monetary success actually came from his handsome salary at Şalom, and not from selling paintings, which is not Istanbul’s most lucrative industry.
Another old pal, Beki Louisa Bahar, 84, a Jewish poet and playwright in Istanbul, sheds light on this seemingly paradoxical aspect of Gerez’s self-appointed identity. “Don’t believe it,” she resolutely assured me. “Writers want to be Turkish writers, national writers. They don’t want to be Jewish writers. [Turkey] is not a country where, even if he is very successful, a Jewish writer is accepted. All our writers want to prove that they are Turkish. For a Jew to say he is not a Jew is to defend himself.”
Despite her gripes with the way Gerez categorizes himself, Bahar has only positive sentiments about her friend of decades, who was also a dear comrade to her late husband. She describes Gerez as charming and very polite, and says that his Casanova-esque tendencies date back to his handsome youth. She also testifies to Gerez’s generosity. When she sent him an invitation to her son’s wedding, he made a painting using the invitation as a canvas and brought it to her as a gift.
Every year, he extends her an invitation to his birthday party, which is usually a lavish occasion with a crowd of like talents reading poetry aloud. “He is an intellectual,” declared Güleryüz.
From love and politics to family and nature, Gerez’s poems and paintings cover a wide range of all the good and bad that life has to offer. He has published dozens of Turkish poetry books that have been translated into several romance languages, and has even volunteered to translate Ladino poems into Turkish, despite not writing in Ladino himself. He paints in oil and acrylic and does not discriminate between people and landscapes. He is not inspired by one particular thing, but rather, by most everything. His smallest paintings cost about $3,000, and prices skyrocket from there.
Who shells out the money for his paintings? Gerez is frank on this matter. “The nouveau riche, and people who want to make money after I die,” he said. “When I die, the price of my paintings will double.”
The artist’s website, HabibGerez.com, boasts a list of dozens of awards he has received, starting as far back as 1974. Gerez, who enjoys bragging about his achievements while somehow establishing a humble, endearing foundation, has a display case in his home flooded with ribbons, medals, and trophies.
Gerez’s buddies, much like his persona, comprise a colorful spectrum. Those who know him well say he associates with all kinds of people, irrespective of religion or profession, and he is kind and generous to his fellow writers, artists, and über-intellectuals. “There is a saying in French,” said Almelek, who has known Gerez for 50 years. “You tell me who your friends are, I’ll tell you who you are.”
Though his health is eroding, Gerez shows few signs of slowing down. He plans to eventually turn his home into a museum to display his works. He still paints and writes regularly. As for why he has never tied the knot, Gerez is vague. “I don’t believe in marriage. Marriage is to make a signature.” Bahar, who is friendly with Gerez’s relatives in Israel, a source for her gossip, said, “He never talks about this. When he was young, there was a Jewish Turkish man married, I think, to a French woman. He was in love with her. After that big love, he could not love anyone.”
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