Les Arts Turcs
The difference between traveling and tourism

As he offers you a seat, a tea, a warm and friendly welcome, Nurdoğan Şengüler turns his gaze from the walls of his studio to the dome of Hagia Sophia, to the Sea of Marmara.

Light pours into the room, dances across the walls and reveals a large-framed picture of Hagia Sophia under the snow.

Şengüler talks about a child walking hand in hand with his father to the Yenikapı Mevlevihanesi (dervish lodge), listening to the women's prayers at the nearby Merkez Efendi Camii (mosque) -- a curious, talkative child whose gaze has wrinkled over the years but whose eyes sparkle with the same intensity.

Şengüler speaks about himself, his love for his country, his culture and his art gallery, Les Arts Turcs. A meeting point and a state of mind is how he describes the place. The room is lined with shelves; the shelves are loaded with books, crafts, clothes, jewelry and CDs. Şengüler stands up and heads to the stereo system. The room suddenly fills with the relaxing sound of Sufi music.

"Les Arts Turcs was founded some 10 yeas ago by a collection of painters, photographers, artists, singers, journalists, professional guides and entrepreneurs," Şengüler says, sipping his tea and weighing his words. "We welcome travelers from across the globe. We speak, we sit and we explore routes of communication between cultures that rarely communicate." Şengüler's CD collection is a testimony of that state of mind. Armenian music meets Gypsy music, Jewish music and folk music from the four corners of Turkey.

"The fact is that there are gaps -- artistic and cultural gaps -- that need to be filled, and Turkish culture deserves that kind of effort," says Şengüler, who envisions his gallery as an international cultural center. "We help foreigners from America, France, India, Korea … appreciate ancient and modern Turkey. We have friends from every hemisphere -- artists, adventurers, intellectuals -- and greet them all with the same eagerness that they show to discover this land and its people."

At the service of travelers

Şengüler laments about those tourist groups who get out of their buses, head into the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and out again with the feeling that they know İstanbul and understand the locals. "Here we welcome travelers, people who strive to get in touch with local people and culture, to share meals and talks with Turks whenever they can. That is also the difference between Les Arts Turcs and industrial tourism."

Les Arts Turcs gathers some 40 permanent members and hundreds of supporters -- local and international artists, journalists, writers, painters, photographers, professional guides and others. What started as a private art gallery now offers an introduction to the whirling dervish ceremony and the Sufi community in Turkey as well as courses in painting, henna, paper-marbling and calligraphy (along with a permanent exhibition of paintings, statuettes and art at the Sultanahmet address). Les Arts Turcs recently opened a second gallery and a travel agency near the Topkapı Palace and prides itself on appearing in many travel guides.

"Look around! Art and history are everywhere," exclaims Şengüler, his gaze now overlooking the streets of Sultanahmet, which vibrate three stories below his gallery. "İstanbul is a small door between the West and the East and people often start from there to discover the side they don't know. I advise those travelers to read a lot beforehand, to watch documentaries and movies from or about Turks. … But it is hard to make a living from culture."

A rebel with a cause

Şengüler says he welcomes and offers tea to two groups of people. The first are travelers who heard about Les Arts Turcs and visit the gallery -- occasionally buying some objects on display -- and then return home. "The second are intellectuals who conduct specific research on Turkey. For example, the French magazine Elle was looking for female whirling dervishes and we helped them find some. My passion is to put people in touch. When I started, some people told me I was crazy. As it turned out, I was not. The phone keeps ringing here."

Şengüler, who says he feels like a rebel with a cause, masters five languages and has been working in the tourist industry since a young age. Turkey sees itself as European, he agrees, but Turks are increasingly protective of their own identity. "I speak foreign languages, I travel a lot. But I have an identity and I love my country, my city. CNN Türk, Sky Türk, Kola Türk, … I am obviously not the only one who strives to affirm the Turkish identity."

Then why did he give his art gallery a French name? "To attract Westerners, especially Americans who feel a strong complex vis-à-vis French culture," Şengüler smiles, assuring us that his strategy has worked hundreds of times. "We are currently preparing for 2010, when Turkey will be the culture capital of Europe. Our plan is to invite foreigners who have been writing about İstanbul -- a movie, a book, a documentary … -- and ask them to write again about Turkey. Those people can be instrumental in raising knowledge and awareness about Turkey abroad."

But as much as he appreciates foreigners making the effort to learn about Turkish culture, Şengüler warns against certain trends that have little to do with the original message. "The Internet, an extraordinary revolution, brings more and more people across borders -- physically or mentally. Since Sept. 11, we have received many inquiries from Westerners, particularly Americans, about Sufism and [Muhammed Jelaluddin] Rumi. Sufism has become the Buddhism of the 1990s, a way of achieving inner peace. I don't really welcome a trend that considers Sufism as a therapy or simple meditation."

While he looks, thoughtful, through the window of his studio, Şengüler is probably imagining a new "strategy," as he puts it, for İstanbul and for Turkey: new ideas for collaboration, new projects to propose, new contacts to create. He may be thinking about his current research on the hippies, his partnership with painter Ayşe Türemiş or with American illustrator Trici Venola. Or maybe he just hopes that the dozens of tourists, whom he is now observing as they get out of their bus, will stop by his gallery and drink some tea with him.


How to get there 

Les Arts Turcs is located in the Sultanahmet district, in front of the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque. The gallery is open every day from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Address: Alemdar Mah., İncili Çavuş Sok., No: 37, Kat: 3

Tel.: (212) 527 68 59 or (212) 511 2296