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January 28, 2013, Monday

The donkey library (2)

Really, you never know what you're going to find hidden behind a suburban doorway. Last week I reported on a trip to İstanbul's Maltepe district in search of a statue of a man who brought a mobile library to Cappadocia. Then a mere three days later that same man's grandson was pushing open a door on the ground-floor of a small apartment block in Ürgüp and ushering me into a room that turned out to contain a private museum in his memory.

Of course the street name was a complete giveaway. “Mustafa Güzelgöz Sokağı,” it read, as a second public memorial to a man who had worked for many years as a public servant in İstanbul before coming up with a way to improve the lives of the people back home in his native Cappadocia.

This is one of those truly heart-warming stories that make you proud to be human. There on the wall were the photographs, the articles, the citations for awards that told a story of a life well lived. There too was a map of Cappadocia, but with little pictures of open books marking the various stops along the roads rather than the more familiar images of the churches, mosques, and scenic viewpoints of tourism.

Born in 1921, Güzelgöz was one of those people for whom “retirement” is merely a chance to embark on a new venture. First he turned his hand to improving Ürgüp's existing Tahsin Ağa Library before realizing the limitations of that for villagers with no easy means to reach it. That's when he remembered the donkeys.

“Actually, the donkeys wouldn't have been so special then,” his grandson, Hakan Güzelgöz, pointed out to me as I waxed lyrical over black-and-white images of animals standing patiently with panniers full of books on their backs. “Because of course everything -- fruit, vegetables, everything -- arrived by donkey then.”

But even if that was certainly true it still wasn't hard to imagine how exciting it must have been for villagers in places as remote as Karlık, Karain and Taşkınpaşa to hear those particular donkeys clip-clopping into town bringing news from the outside world in the days before television that are now almost inconceivable to us.

Just imagine. Back in the 1950s the donkey library network was circulating some 1,500 books a week to 40 villages (including Göreme, then Avcılar). But that wasn't the extent of Mustafa Güzelgöz's imagination. Realizing that women were unlikely to visit libraries at a time when their place was firmly in the home he also managed to source sewing machines to be placed in some of them, reasoning that if the women came to learn to use them for work reasons they would be exposed to the books at the same time. Accordingly, one of the most fascinating photographs shows women from Şahinefendi inspecting some shiny new Singer sewing machines.

The story of the Eşekli Kütüphaneci (Donkey Librarian) was so delightful that it even inspired a novel by Fakir Baykurt whose picture also hangs on the wall. Leaving that house my one disappointment was to learn that Mustafa Güzelgöz only died as recently as 2005. I could have had the privilege of meeting him then, but, alas, failed to do so. Like everyone else, I have to be grateful to YouTube for immortalizing him.

Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.

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