The Collector: An Interview with Mithat Esmer

Senem Aytaç

Mithat Esmer, 2011, Photo Senem Aytac

Pelin Esmer’s first narrative feature, 10 to 11, films Mithat Esmer, her uncle, who has been collecting everything—newspapers, watches, milk bottles, pencil sharpeners—, literally everything, since the 1950s. He lives on the fourth floor of the Emniyet Apartment Building in Istanbul, in an apartment stacked from floor to ceiling with his collections, and has been tirelessly scouring the streets of the city to complete their coherence. His collection is not only a fantastic everyday archive of Istanbul, it is the city itself. The Emniyet Building is old; its residents want to knock it down and build a more “modern” and solid structure. Moving out of the building—even temporarily—means the end of Mithat’s obsessive collecting. His only ally is Ali, the building’s superintendent, who moved from the countryside to Istanbul looking for a better way of life. They both stand steadfastly against its demolition. Gradually, Ali becomes the custodian of the completion of Mithat’s collections and thus the chronicle of Istanbul. Unbeknownst to both of them, the two men’s destinies are suddenly changed. Released in 2010, the film received several awards and critical acclaim across the world.

Trailer for the film:


Can I ask you to briefly introduce yourself...?

My name is Mithat Esmer. I was born in Antakya, in southern Turkey, in 1926. I received my education in the United States. I was trained as an electronic engineer at Stanford University. I don’t have much more to say about myself...

When did you come back to Turkey?

In 1950. My first job was at Ankara Radio. There was no television in Turkey back then. I did not work there by choice; it was compulsory, the government had sent me to the United States to earn my diploma and I was beholden to them. After working at the radio station, I taught. I was an associate professor at the Middle East Technical University.

When did your passion for collecting things start?

You are asking me to travel a very long journey in time. In order to answer you, I have to remember when I was three years old. That is when I actually began collecting. My father would for instance buy several kilos of tomatoes for my mother to juice and store. I would pick the nice tomatoes, the ones that were round, and then steal them. That was my first experience as a collector. I would put the beautiful tomatoes I stole inside a cupboard and hide them. I would forget them and my mother would find them days later, all rotten, and she would raise hell!

When I was five, I began to collect Qurans, because I began learning the Quran when I was four years old, and eventually started collecting them. Maybe some are still in my collection. Shortly thereafter this collecting business got out of control and I began to collect everything.

Before you went to the United States, you had a collection here in Turkey, didn't you?

Yes, there was, but it was different; it was random. It didn’t have a theme.

So after you returned you finally had a place of your own where you kept your collection?

Yes, that’s absolutely true. I came back from the U.S. with seventeen pieces of luggage. The customs officer raised his eyebrows stunned when he saw my luggage. I told him that they all contained books I used during my studies.

And what was really inside this luggage?

Books, really. For my collection. Many other things as well, but now I can no longer recall. My memory is fading.

[Pelin Esmer interrupts] I opened those suitcases for the film so I remember, do you want me to recall? [She laughs] I’ll never forget what I found, there was bottled Evian water for instance, a pink bottle. Matches, bonnets, loads and loads of things...

So, how do you select objects for your collection? In Pelin’s documentary about you, you mention that you even collect fishbones?

I am not happy with myself about this habit. There are no limits to my collecting, I collect everything. There is one prohibition, I never collect organic things because they decay.

What about fishbones?

They are dry, so they don’t go bad. You can’t keep the flesh of the fish but you can keep the bones.

Still, don’t you think you should set boundaries for yourself at a certain point? How do you keep yourself from collecting everything?

It tears my heart apart not to collect. I also do not collect big objects. Cars, for instance, or refrigerators. I would have loved to collect those too. If I were a millionaire, I definitely would have, but with my salary it was impossible.

Film stills from 10 to 11 (2010) directed by Pelin Esmer

Film stills from 10 to 11 (2010) directed by Pelin Esmer

Film stills from 10 to 11 (2010) directed by Pelin Esmer

How can you collect everything? For instance do you collect salt and pepper shakers? [the nearest objects on the table]

Of course. I have a broad array of shakers. For instance, I have approximately 160 watches. Wall clocks, wristwatches, alarm clocks, all different sorts...

How do you keep the watches for instance, do you have a system?

I wait until they stop working and I set them aside. I take notes during that time, for instance, I write “in six months the watch had a delay of one minute”. This is very important. I also list its properties, if it has seconds, if the numbers are in Roman or Latin alphabet, if it is mechanical or digital... In the old days, watches used to vary a lot but the trade seems to have fallen into disgrace, and nowadays, all watches are digital. Everything is on chips. There’s no pleasure in collecting them, I must confess.

You have a number of newspapers and magazines. Do you have a system for archiving them?

I buy two copies. I cut out the important clippings from one newspaper and preserve the other, untouched. But my household complained a lot because the newspapers were occupying so much space. I agreed, so I had to reduce their numbers. Life was becoming really hard in the house. Recently, I donated my newspaper archive to Mimar Sinan University. I’ve also donated my book collection to Bahçeşehir University.

You’re very much interested in archeology and history and yet you don’t collect things that have a historical virtue such as antiques.

Film stills from 10 to 11 (2010) directed by Pelin Esmer

Film stills from 10 to 11 (2010) directed by Pelin Esmer

If they have a unique feature and if I can afford the price, I also buy antiques. But very rarely. I collect everyday objects. I am not concerned with old objects. If an object’s make, its technical or mechanical structure has a special virtue, then I keep it.

Is there a particular object you’ve wanted to collect, but haven’t been able to?

A lot! So many that it breaks my heart to think of them. For instance, I’ve always hesitated about collecting objects that might break. Glasses for example. This glass is so beautiful (he holds the glass on the table) but you can’t collect it, because it can break so easily. It is hard to store glass, but I would have loved to collect glasses. Also I’ve always wanted to collect toys.

Are there objects in your collection that you favor more than others?

No, I can’t make such distinctions. If I started to favor some objects over others, then I would have to keep them apart to protect them from everyone or hide them so they don’t get damaged. I can’t do that.

So, collecting in itself is what is important for you, not the objects specifically...

Definitely! For that reason, the price of each object is not important. I have objects that are worth 10 liras and others that are worth 1 000 liras. It doesn’t matter to me; they all have the same value.

How is the act collecting satisfying? What does it fullfill?

This is an interesting question. It certainly satisfies me, but what kind of satisfaction? I don’t know. I can’t find the answer. I never think about it, and never ask myself why. It is something instinctual. As I told you, I was three years old when I collected tomatoes. There is no reason behind it.

Thanks to Pelin Esmer for her help and contribution.

Mithat Esmer, 2011, Photo Senem Aytac