Before going viral on social media, speaking at a TEDX talk and squiring around the famous Anthony Bourdain for his show No Reservations, İhsan Aknur was just declaring himself “The Best Taxi Driver.” In September of 1999, Pelin Esmer caught up with him and, it turns out, İhsan really is pretty great.
By Pelin Esmer
When İhsan Aknur was in high school, he envied the now vintage cars his older brother drove as a dolmuş driver, especially the Chevrolets used before the blue or yellow minibuses now seen bustling about the city. His father, however, had different expectations for his son. He wanted him to finish school and “be a man” as all Turkish fathers hope. But İhsan said to himself, “If my brother can do it, why can’t I?” and became a taxi driver of a different kind. He studied English and became bilingual. Every day during that year, he practiced what he learned in class with the tourists in Sultanahmet Square while waiting for his turn in the taxi queue. He would ask them the time, the date, where they come from and so on; now, seventeen years later, he speaks fluent English and can imitate different accents perfectly.
İhsan has been working as a taxi driver in Sultanahmet, and naturally, he’s heard many stories from tourist guides and read several travel books. That’s why he decided Istanbul was in desperate need of “the best taxi driver;” someone who could guide the tourists to a really good time by giving them the opportunity to see and explore parts of Istanbul never mentioned in the guide books.
“The best taxi driver” neither wants to be a professional guide nor own his own tourism agency; he does not want to change his title. He prefers to astonish the tourists as “a Turkish taxi driver who speaks several languages and who can talk about many different subjects including politics, economics, and social issues.”
İhsan Aknur has a fantastic sense of humor. As soon as you’ve jumped into his cab, he finds something to talk about and immediately, you’re drawn to him like a magnet. He’s interesting and he’s got lots of stories to tell. Once you are in, he’ll pull out what looks like a volume of an encyclopaedia from under the seat. There are in fact, a total of ten, fifteen hardcover books resting in his car. He has acquired these throughout the years. The books are categorised according to the countries, regions or languages. One of them has only the writings of the Americans, the other one only the Mediterraneans, another one consists only of the Scandinavians.
Each volume is an incredible archive of photographs, diaries, impressions, greetings and memories of thousands of tourists he has driven around and guided for the past seventeen years. There is a long diary of an American professor, a Christmas picture of a big family, a big thank you from a German truck driver, and a love letter from a Finnish girl. There are also impressions about Turkish men (“they’re incredibly sensitive and kind” as some say), confessions of stereotypes about Turkish people, the usual appreciation of the “Turkish hospitality,” and more.
He refers to these books in which everyone writes in their own language as his hobby. In fact, they are a collection of books which trace seventeen years of a man’s life. They also reflect how the perceptions of people from different countries evolved over the years. Finally, if he sees confused tourists looking at maps, this typical conversation starts:
“Where are you from?”
“Oh really? Can I please ask you a favor?”
Naturally, the tourists are a little surprised. They hesitate and nod their head up and down – universally accepted as a “yes.” He runs to his car and grabs volume Holland. He opens a page written by Marion, for example. There are many pictures of Marion and İhsan side by side. They look like they’re having a wonderful time. “I once met a person from Amsterdam. Can you please translate this page to me?” he says.
The tourists read, translate and in the meantime learn about the wonderful experience that Dutchman has with the taxi driver. They get a little bit confused remembering all the warnings about the carpet sellers, free guidance, etc.
“I am not a carpet or a leather seller. I am ‘the best taxi driver,’ he adds. “If you want, I can give you a tour of Istanbul with my car. I have a specific route. We start from Süleymaniye Mosque, and then visit the Kariye Museum, explore the historical sites in Eyüp, have a cup of coffee in Pierre Loti and then drive to the Asian side of the Bosphorus and visit Beylerbeyi, a small fishing village, and Çamlıca. This is my tour and my price is such and such.” This is his spiel and it usually works. To İhsan, this means that he’s made his money for the day, but more importantly, it means that he’ll probably have new pages, new experiences added to his collections.
After completing his tour, and if İhsan’s new found friends are happy, he takes them to some Turkish pub (birahane) in Üsküdar or Yedikule where generally only the locals drink. He sometimes makes little changes in his tour, adapting it to different cultures.
For example, “the Dutch like to spend money but at the same time they like anything that is free. If I am with Finnish tourists, I stop every hour for a beer break. The Italians like a good lunch, so we dress up and find a nice place to dine,” he explains.
There’s no limit to his tours. They can be daily, weekly, or for as long as one likes. For this reason, he keeps a couple of scarfs and long skirts for his customers in case they visit mosques or some conservative parts of Turkey.
Does he enjoy what he does for a living? “I cannot think of a better job for me,” he replies. So what is next? There are two answers to that. The first is sitting in the courtyard of the Eyüp Mosque as an old man. The second answer is to move to his house in Saroz in Çanakkale near Gallipoli. There, he plans to go fishing daily and write his autobiography. He envisions it as a story with different sections including “an exciting life, a conservative family, fun, joke, good husband, bad husband and good father.”
He wants to end the story like “a hero in the Western movies, coming back to his hometown where everything has changed and he is still striving for ‘the next.’”