We stroll along the palm lined promenade to go to the workshop of a man who is a brand name himself; a man whose name is synonymous with Bodrum...a youthful looking man of 68 meets us behind his work bench. There are a pile of card board cut outs of measurements of feet and leather cutouts and semi finished leather sandals…all waiting to be carefully created into world famous Ali Güven sandals and forwarded to individuals’ address. Following our warm greeting and impatient questions, we are bombarded with the often sad yet just as interesting and joyful story of creating leather sandals; a dying art represented by two heroes who are struggling to keep this labor intensive hand craft alive. What we hear could deeply embarrass those people who are bohemian in attitude, sensitive or insensitive, carefree in their outlook. At least I get my share of the sense of guilt.
As soon as we enter this leather smelling sandal making workshop in Barlar Sokagi, where hundreds of famous or non-famous alike have entered before us in order to get their feet measured for hand crafted sandals, we get the first screen shot of a love story on the smiling faces of artisans of a dying art and the art itself. Ali Güven, we learn, has made non-perspirant sandals (consisting of a naturally treated leather sole secured to the ankles by strips of leather) for many famous people, amongst whom were the nephew of Moroccon King, Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger and his family, Bette Midler, A chief consultant to Ronald Reagan, Sezen Aksu, Semra Ozal, Aysegul Aldinc, Zeki Muren, Ugur Yucel, Ahmet Ertegun, Cagla Sikel and many more since 1966.
After having an operation a couple of years ago, the master of Bodrum sandals says he had to leave a lot of work unfinished out of necessity but recently returned to continue as before, only to find himself immersed in yet many more measurements of feet and more orders. His first encounter with shoe making started at Mustafa Usta’s workshop when he was in grade four. He started to work as trainee shoe maker the same year and has been practicing since than.
He went on to talk about his journey “In those days tourists were scarce and there were only a few workshops of various trades. One of them was shoe making. Following the compulsory military service, I opened my own workshop”. Carrying out his work with a great passion since 1966, the master of sandal making suggests that the reason behind his success lies in the originality and non perspirant nature of the naturally treated leather he uses and adds “When tanning and actually making the sandals, no machinery or chemicals are used whatsoever. I have customers who have been wearing my creations since 1966. I have made only classic sandals until the 70’ies but the copy cats challenged me to use my imagination and creativity more. I have been inspired by the antique statues in order to create different models. If you are creative, there is an infinite number of designs to be created using leather. I believe this is a god given talent. I feel as if there is a machine in my head and I see and feel through this machine. And I create different models”
He doesn’t forget to mention his wife Suat Yurtalan’s, an art school educated person, contributions to his craft. He seems bitter about the constantly declining numbers of tanners and tanning workshops. Apparently a lot of leather tanners made a lot of money as a result of the orders he used to get but nowadays there is only Mehmet Usta, who is in Muğla and is still in leather tanning industry. It looks like Mehmet usta is going to give up as a result of old age. “If Mehmet Usta gives up, I may also give up because there will be no tanneries left to deal with” Güven suggests... “If you saw how the leather is treated, you will certainly think that I don’t charge people nearly enough for the sandals. But Money is not an issue for me. If it was, I would have gone to Italy, Paris- for example Donna Karen offered me work- where I was asked to go. I wanted to contribute to my own country first, because I have a lot of customers” he says and adds that he was persuaded by the governor to stay in Bodrum.
Ali Güven feels grateful for the workshop space provided by the council. One of the things he wants to see happen is a museum for his sandals to be exhibited. He complains of lack of interest by young people to learn the craft and feels that it would be rather difficult for him to teach anyway... Despite the fact that some TV channels from Ukraine and Japan as well as Turkey had conducted lengthy interviews with him regarding his life and his craft of sandal making, he is worried that this craft will die out one day. There is also a couple of other things he is a bit angry with. He is angry but he laughs as he talks about them. ”As is known, the famous fashion designer Cemil Ipekci has gone into construction business and he calls his developments “Sandal Homes”! And he uses my name without my permission…A friend of mine from Istanbul came here and said that he had seen my pictures on billboards in Istanbul. My name was used in the brochures and invitations of an art exhibition. The exhibition was called “Deep Bodrum”, a photography exhibition by Sıtkı Kösemen. It is a shame and it is sad that I wasn’t consulted at all. They should have at least let me know of what they were going to do.” He comments and continues “My craft is a labor intensive activity. Heavy labor really. I don’t have any helpers. Tens of people are waiting their turn to have their sandals finished. I send the sandals to the owners when I complete them. Usually, I take the orders in summer time and send the sandals in winter time.”
Suat Yurtalan, whom Ali Güven suggested helps her create new models, is also in love with the craft. Suat has met 46 year old Ali when she was 21 and there were 4-5 sandal makers in Bodrum. She took some sandal models to show him and it was then they fell in love “he was one of those romantics you could only see in a fishing village. His fame in sandal making and handsome looks turned him into a phenomenon”. Suat admits that the world known music organizer Ahmet Ertegün had a great contribution in exposing Ali Guven’s craft to the world at large. “Ahmet Ertegün introduced Ali to many famous people. I have an archive of these people’s feet measurements. Ali Güven is rich in heart but his bank account is empty. He was never a person running after money. Yes, he did earn a lot of Money but was always generous to people around him. I think he is poorer than many around him. How rich can a craftsman become?” Suat says and underlines the fact that Ali Güven is not rich as many people thinks. Her answer to criticisms that his completion of the orders take too long is “Ali Güven Works by himself and is a perfectionist. He wants everything to be just right” and adds “it is this perfectionism and attention to hygiene standards which make him a world known craftsmen. He recently received a long letter from USA, praising his work. I can say I have never seen such a politely written letter before. He received an award from Muğla City because of his contributions to tourism within the last 25 years. Ministry of Culture couldn’t have achieved such publicity even if they spent millions of dollars. I believe Ali Güven should be appointed as state artist. Why shouldn’t he receive state wages? What is the criterion? How many of our state artists are known as much in the world as Ali is?
Also involved in hand crafts in their own workshop together with Asya, their beautiful daughter, Suat points out the difficulties the craftsmen face “The leather used is special. Guven obtains material from Milas. Prior to Mehmet usta, we used to get stock from Hasan Dereli in Muğla. When Dereli’s tannery was closed, I remember he was here crying. Apparently the tannery was closed because of the alleged pollution it had caused. Looks like Mehmet usta too is going to close his tannery. There is nothing they can do to survive”, stressing how difficult the craft of sandal making really is.
We find the only tanner left in Muğla in Milas Kırcağız Village, also known as Labranda junction.… When we arrived in Milas, whomever we asked where the tanning workshop was we were directed to the same area. However, when we finally found the address, there was no tanner or tannery within the vicinity. We found out that this area was called “Old Tanning district” and there were many tanners there in the past.
72 year old Mr. Mehmet Kayrakçı and his son Durmuş Bey warmly greeted us. The old master of leather has 2 children and 4 grand children. He says he has been in the leather tanning business since the age of 12 and he adds “This is a god given talent and usually the father passes his knowledge to son. When I was a child there were 8 workers in this tannery. Now there is only me. This land where our work shop is built doesn’t belong to us. The owner is about to sell the land and I don’t know what to do. I wasn’t making a lot of money but I am grateful to god. The cheap Chinese goods have affected our craft too, like everybody else’s business.” As he and his son talks, I can truly feel the difficulties the job entails. The tanning process is a rather lengthy one they say and they only have a couple of customers! A nice anecdote they tell me is about a Doctor from Izmir. Apparently this person visited their tannery one day and told them that what they do is not called “leather treating” but in literature their job is called “Tanning”. That was the first time they had heard the expression. “We are not infact leather treaters but we are tanners” they say proudly. When they obtain untreated hides from the butchers or wholesalers, they place them in clear water for a couple of days. Following that the hides are placed in lime and the liquidated lime is changed everyday. This goes on about 15 days and then the wool is pulled out. Following that the hides are put to rest for about ten days and then the excess meat pieces are scraped. This is done with a special knife. The hides are then washed with clear water in order to wash off the lime. The next phase is called “fermenting” (to place the hides in agricultural fertilizer or animal dung) The fermented hide is once again washed in clean water. The washed hide is then put through a “shaving” process on logs. The lime is completely removed and the process of baking starts. Throughout the baking process only vegetables such as ground oak tree seeds are used. The hides are baked in hot water mixed with ground seeds in 4 phases and left to settle. The first phase takes about a week to ten days to complete. The inner sides are shaved again and re-baked. Then the baked hide is washed in clear water and preparation phase starts. Correction is the last stage of preparing the leather and this is the most difficult stage.
The correction phase is called “ Aşkın” . The hide is applied vegetable oil and dried (it is easier to apply vegetable oil to soften up the skin) In the second phase, the oiled and dried skins are re-oiled and dried again. The third phase is the polishing phase. Polishing takes a relatively long time as well. The surface of the leather is evened out by using a Dolinata (special knife) and is polished by using a piece of “Vaketa” (cow-hide leather piece). Scraping of the leather takes ages (thinning) and the whole process takes about 3-4 months). Mehmet Usta and his son Durmuş Bey starts work at 7.30 am and work late at night. Mehmet Usta underlines the fact that in the tanning process no chemicals are used. When we tell them that the tannery doesn’t infact smell so bad as is claimed he says “ this place is only smelly when we do the fermenting but we are used to that smell” and he continues with a joke “ A tanner accidentally walks into a perfume shop and immediately faints. Of course the shop keeper gets worried and a fuss is created. A man walking by recognizes the tanner and says ” This is a tanner, he is not used to sweet scents, he will be all right if we take him in to a tannery”. When we ask Durmuş bey, the son, whether he will continue doing his fathers job, he answers with a bitter smile “If the conditions are ok I will. But this place will be sold. So I don’t know what I will do”
Nowadays Mehmet Usta has only two customers; Ali Guven and İbrahim Gönen and they all need each other. Mehmet Ustas hands are a witness to and definition of this craft. As a result of the hard conditions, his hands have become arthritic. When I ask him of the disfiguration he says “In winter time I constantly use hot water and cold water at the same time, that’s why I have this disease”. I kiss these hands, the hands of a wise old tanner, infact the last tanner in Muğla and say goodbye…
(Translation published in BMagazine)