`I have sinned a lot with women and drinking'

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IT IS the classic image of traditional Turkish life. Moustachioed men sit in fezzes and baggy trousers, drawing on their nargiles (water- pipes). But today there are only a handful of nargile cafes in Istanbul. And Senol Imamoglu, the manager of the Sinan Pasha cafe is far from a traditional Turk. He is a dynamic young businessman, typical of the class now reaping the rewards of Turkey's economic success.

Mr Imamoglu is tall and clean-shaven, dressed in black trousers and white shirt, a yellow-and-red striped tie, knotted loosely around an open collar. Like everyone else, he is perspiring in an August hot even by Istanbul's standards. He drinks regularly and boasts of his exploits with women. He rarely goes to the mosque to pray.

The Sinan Pasha cafe is in the city's old quarter, within the sound of the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque. With its old stone vaults and Turkish carpets, the cafe looks as if it has been serving nargiles for hundreds of years. In fact, it opened less than 10 years ago.

"When we arrived here, the place was just a ruined graveyard," says Mr Imamoglu. "There was rubbish everywhere. We wanted to find a use suiting the age of the building, that wouldn't ruin it."

The nargile was introduced to the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, and became hugely popular. It was invented in India, and travelled to Istanbul via Iran. Today nargiles are smoked all over the Middle East, but in Turkey their popularity has waned. The Sinan Pasha cafe relies on income from tourists enticed by the image of the exotic east.

Some Turks are regular customers at the cafe, many of them young. Mr Imamoglu thinks they find the cafe's setting trendy.

It is in an old Ottoman cemetery, and the open courtyard is next to a disused religious school. Customers can smoke a nargile, eat, or just drink sweet black Turkish tea. The complex belongs to the Balkan Turk Culture and Solidarity Association, a charity that supports Bulgarian ethnic Turks who fled here to escape Bulgarian discrimination in the Eighties.

Mr Imamoglu was born in Turkey. When Communism collapsed in Bulgaria in 1989, like many Turks he saw his chance. Property was cheap in Bulgaria, and he opened a restaurant in Sofia. When the association was given the Sinan Pasha complex by the Turkish government, it invited him back to Turkey to manage the cafe.

Mr Imamoglu arrives for work at 9.30am, after a two-hour bus ride through Istanbul's chaotic traffic. Like many locals, he lives on the Asian side of the city and commutes across the Bosphorous to work, joining the rush- hour queues at one of the suspension bridges. The cafe doesn't open until 11am. For now, Mr Imamoglu supervises the cleaning. With customers he is always genial, but with his staff he is stern and distant.

He has a long day. In summer the cafe doesn't close until 3am and, while most of the staff work 12-hour shifts, the manager is on duty all day.

An Italian couple arrive, attracted by the brightly lit sign advertising "mystic water pipes". Mr Imamoglu shows them to a table. The cafe's best customers are Italians and Spaniards. Few British come, and those who do are usually students staying in Istanbul.

The couple order nargiles. The decorated pipes are prepared in a separate room, then brought to the table. An atesci, a waiter whose job is to keep the pipes alight, brings a pan of hot charcoal and places some on the sticky tobacco. A nargile costs pounds 1, and can last more than two hours if the charcoal is replaced regularly.

Mr Imamoglu has a quiet day and in the evening takes a couple of hours off for a game of football with his friends. Football is an obsession in Turkey.

But today the manager's side loses. He returns to the cafe and lights up a nargile. "Whenever something depressing happens I smoke. It calms me down. I know the football's a small thing, but it matters to us."

The pipe is smoked while sitting down. It is necessary to draw deep to drag the smoke through the water that filters it and up the long tube to the mouthpiece.

The smoke is very mild, and flavoured with fruit. Mr Imamoglu puffs out huge clouds of apple-scented smoke.

A German tourist beckons Mr Imamoglu over. He wants to know if his pipe contains hashish. "He's probably been drinking whisky and his head is spinning. He thinks it's the pipe," says Mr Imamoglu, laughing. "We never put hashish in them."

Wednesday is Mr Imam-oglu's one day off for the week. He can choose which day. "My day off is always reserved for taking girls out," he claims. This week, he is taking a Spanish tourist to Buyukada, one of the Prince's Islands in the Sea of Marmara, a favourite day trip for Istanbul residents. They go to a seafood restaurant and drink raki, the Turkish version of Pernod. At 28, Mr Imamoglu is still single. "I'll get married when I'm 30. In Turkey, we have to get our military service out of the way. Then it takes years to set ourselves up financially." He makes about pounds 180 a month.

Friday comes and at noon the czan, the call to prayer, echoes over the city. Whenever it starts, the music in the cafe is switched off. Because it's the Muslim Sabbath, three waiters ask for permission to go to the mosque. Only today are they allowed time off work for prayer. Mr Imamoglu tells them to pray for him.

"Sometimes when I look at all the graves here, I worry about where I will go when I die. I have sinned a lot. We are Muslims, we're not supposed to drink and womanise. But it gives me great comfort that all these dead sultans are in great tranquillity, while we're worrying here. We all die in the end: there is nothing to worry about."

Justin Huggler