The Grinning Turk
But he is alive, sir. Well, alive in a manner of speaking.

Surely it is a common experience of travellers that they may visit some attraction, be it a castle, cathedral, an old battlefield, and only on reading about its history afterwards that they realised how fascinating the place was, and that they wished they'd known about it before their visit. I learnt this truth in time to put it to good use, and as much as time allowed I would read about places before I went there. But I found that the idea also applied to people. I encountered Fouat Guney and his macaque Crimpi at the Ottoman East Indies Hotel before I knew his story, and by the time I knew his story, I was in another country, on some train or another.

When I checked into the hotel I noticed a sharp, nasty smell of some chemical or disinfectant, mixed with another strong odour of cheap fragrance, no doubt intended to mask the first smell. I could see from the light coming through the doors that the air was dancing with midges. I saw Guney sitting in the middle of the lobby in a large shining red leather club armchair, wearing evening dress of an obviously expensive cut, and a green velvet smoking cap. His eyes were almost closed (I couldn't tell what he was looking at), and he had a broad smirk on his face, as if he was fondly recalling some shocking act of lechery. He looked to be about sixty years old, completely bald, as thin as a starving man, with a strangely sallow, almost jaundiced complexion. His hands sat neatly on his knees and his feet sat neatly on the ground. He wore patent leather shoes that showed no creases caused by use, and there was no sign of an ash-tray or glass near him. His macaque sat unfettered on the back of the armchair, looking around, alert, but quite happy, squeaking and chattering, and uninterested in leaving his perch. The little thing wore a bow-tie the same colour as his master's cap, a crimson waistcoat, and the hair on its head was pomaded. It was a whimsical sight, but soon forgotten, until successive transits through the lobby made it apparent that the man had not moved an inch in three days. I was tempted to go over and feel for a pulse - as it turned out it was just as well I didn't. But instead I ventured to say to the clerk at reception,

"I say, is that fellow with the monkey alright? He doesn't seem to have moved since I arrived."

The chap glanced at Guney, then gave me an idiotic grin, his head wobbling slightly.

"Ha! Oh, yes, is Mister Guney, do not worry sir. He is the owner of the hotel. I tell you he is very happy! But please don't get too close, sir, or Crimpi may have your eyes out. It wouldn't be the first time. HA HA HA!"

Such was my entire experience with the owner of the Ottoman East Indies Hotel.

I only stayed in the hotel for a day or two longer. My stay in Istanbul lasted two weeks, and then it was time to see other places. But the name of Fouat Guney turned up again, in the form of a conversation struck up with a fellow passenger, on a grubby train somewhere in Syria. He was a Turk in need of a bath, who boasted that he was descended from the Seljuqs. He had asked me a few cursory details about my travels, and when I mentioned the Ottoman East Indies Hotel, he chuckled and began to tell me about the owner.

"Oh, Fouat Guney, you know he is one of the richest men in Istanbul. It has been so for a long time. You may not think it to look at him, but once he was also one of the fattest! HA HA HA! Now don't you think he looks as if he has given himself to the taxidermist! But he is alive, sir. Well, alive in a manner of speaking. He made his money in spices from the East Indies, a trade as old as sea-faring. Guney specialised in the more exotic spices from strange, hidden parts of the islands, and controlled the market for forty years. But his story became one of conjecture and rumour. Some say that he grew unhappy with his huge bulk, and turned to those merchants for help in reducing his weight. They applied a procedure of drilling with a long steel needle deep into his brain, and ingestion of selected plant preparations. This did indeed have an effect - he lost his fat, and also his hair... but it did more than that. It infused him with a sense of peace, happiness, a sustained feeling of euphoria, without the horrid effects one has come to expect from opium or cocaine. Guney subjected himself to the procedure more and more often - an expensive habit, but he had the money to pay for it. Each time he insisted that he be left alone, and he remained there, to the point of death by thirst and starvation. Then the procedure was stopped, despite his protests. After some years he decided that he wanted the operation to be applied permanently. He arranged for his affairs to be run by others, then the needle was broken off in his brain - his staff give him the spices, and the barest minimum of food and drink to keep him alive, in a state of unchanging bliss. They see to all of his needs, like he is a big baby. And the whole thing is run by the monkey! HA HA HA! Oooh I should not laugh, sir, because it is the truth. That nasty little monkey, it is the devil - nobody knows where it came from. Perhaps those East Indian merchants trained it, gave it to Guney and washed their hands clean of him. It seems to read Guney's mind, almost as if his soul has fled his body and instead resides in that little pest. It tells the staff by its obscene gestures and grimaces what Guney needs, when it is time for him to take his spices, time to feed, or time to... well I'm sure you understand me. How it knows is a mystery. They say that the hotel has struggled with a bed-bug infestation since Crimpi came to stay. I don't doubt it! And I am sure they will have told you that the monkey has been known to attack guests who come too close to Guney. They do not lie, I assure you - Not very long ago, the wife of a Russian consul was badly disfigured by its joyful embrace! HA HA HA! Oooh I should not laugh. How the present state of affairs has been allowed to continue is a mystery. But it would seem that Fouat Guney is no longer willing or able to do anything about it. And as long as they are paid well and can avoid the monkey, those who work there don't care either. Perhaps they think it adds a bit of colour to the hotel. It certainly does that! HA HA HA!"

"But has he no wife, or family? Why do they let this go on?"

"Well I only know what I hear."

"But what sort of an existence is that?" I exclaimed. "Sitting there, being alive and breathing? What about adventure, learning, helping others, self respect, overcoming adversity? What about love?"

"HA HA HA! Ah, you English. Well, I don't know. The rich people of the world think differently to us. Perhaps he had already done everything he ever wanted to do. Or perhaps he was trying to escape a secret sorrow. But I suppose whatever we do in life, if we climb mountains, or visit new countries, or bake a cake, in the end don't we do it all to make ourselves happy? Fouat Guney is happy. All the time!"

Some years later I read the obituary of Fouat Guney in The Times. It was unhelpfully vague as to how he died, and gave no clue as to what became of the monkey.

October, 2015

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